A second more devoid of thought,
a second more of lungs pulled taut,
a moment more to wait and pause,
and weigh in breath effect and cause,
and laws that tear down stores of sense
that promise recompense no more:
a second to splinter on the fence
and shatter with a shutting door.
A moment poised between the eyes,
the sparkling of fireflies
that hover, hunt in autumn air
the easy prey of false surmise.
Sequester one slipstream of thought;
balance infinity, and nought
bring to mind your wrongs, and right
then take them both, and both ignite.
Among the furling flames askew
imagine you had not been you
imbue the sparks and embers stoke
with scraps of self afloat in smoke
Alight among the heath and harebells:
the nether nowheres where no care dwells.
Awake, awry, dishevelled heart:
sleepwalk, dream-talk in loveless stairwells
where dwell last attempts to express
the remnants failing, fraying, flailing,
and through lamplight and dust impress
upon you echoes wanly ailing,
impaling with chisel and stone
one broken bulk of skin and bone –
failing to speak, to set agleam
the limpid strands of one dust dream.
Synthesising Remnants: A Mini-Essay
“There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before: we must only try to think it again”
I’m typically not very good at planning consistent periods of writing, nor am I much inclined to revisit poems once written. This means that, like a 13-year-old Briony Tallis, the things I do write tend to be written in a brief ‘tempest of composition’, frequently in the space of under an hour. The below poem came about as the consequence of one such tempest in Michaelmas of my second year – which resulted in it being written in a rain-glistened garden just off the Cowley Road under cover of night, with the aid of light through the living-room curtains. That’s not a particularly interesting anecdote, but what seems more interesting are the reasons by which such ‘tempests’ come about.
Influence: one of the reasons why I harbour such admiration for Kanye West is his ability to take samples from other artists and reconfigure them, repurpose them, in a way conducive to his own expression. At the heart of creative genius is an aptitude for synthesis and resynthesis: one of Shakespeare’s greatest gifts was taking already-existing narratives (Danish legend Amleth, Salernitano’s Mariotto and Gianozza, material from the chronicles of Holinshed and Hall, to name but a few) and ‘making it new’, subtly changing the tone, implication, or consequence of existing material. Similarly, one of the most compelling aspects of studying Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was comparing Chaucer’s text to a translation of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, and examining how Chaucer transforms our understanding of Boccaccio’s characters – particularly Pandarus and Criseyde.
In a recent company meeting, I brought up one of Goethe’s maxims – in fact, that with which he begins his Maxims and Reflections: “there is nothing worth thinking but it has already been thought before: we must only try to think it again”. The maxim wasn’t well-received, being interpreted as a rather pessimistic observation – one that suggested the death of original thought.
I disagree. Far from interpreting Goethe’s quotation as an observation about the death of original thought, I believe that any aspiring artists should perceive it as a bipartite call to action: the first clause, leading to one becoming aware of a need to acknowledge one’s intellectual and artistic predecessors if one hopes to say something ‘worth thinking’; the second, an insistent (‘must’) need to ‘think it again’ – to repackage that thought as one’s own (‘we’). Far from signalling the death of creativity and originality, it sets out the conditions by which creativity can occur.
“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.”
Goethe, of course, isn’t really dealing with artistic theory at the start of the Maxims; that his quotation happens to have implications for the creative writer is but a felicitous coincidence. However, I think Goethe and T.S. Eliot – a century and a half later – would have been in general agreement insofar as they both value acknowledgement of one’s predecessors as essential for creative endeavour. Neither see ‘thinking again’ as a mere ‘archaeological reconstruction’, and both would have abhorred ‘blind or timid adherence to its [tradition’s] successes’.
Because his direct theme is artistic endeavour, Eliot goes far further than Goethe in examining how this synthesis should occur, and what its importance is. If Goethe simply establishes two principles that an artist might follow, Eliot specifies who has done the ‘thinking before’, and therefore where one should look when trying to ‘think again’. There are reasons to object to Eliot’s treatise and the implications thereof – the emphasis on the “dead” poets and artists, the reactionary reverence for the canon – but as far as fundamental principles go I am broadly in agreement.
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”
Simply replace the word ‘dead’ with ‘other’ and I believe Eliot is correct. The above sentence is a very useful one for criticism, but it’s just as useful for creation. At the heart of every great writer is a keen appreciation of their relation to their contemporaries and predecessors, and a still keener appreciation of how to use their contemporaries and predecessors to express themselves.
One of Kanye’s most brilliant moments of virtuosity is taking Bon Iver’s Woods – an eerie, subdued evocation of solitude – and foregrounding the refrain (I’m up in the woods | I’m down on my mind | I’m building a still | To slow down time’) against a high-tempo, exhilarating drum beat. In doing so, alienation, loneliness, and rejection are evoked and acknowledged, but in a form that celebrates them, against a background that has turned the melancholy into a piece that is both melancholy and triumphant. It’s not that this synthesis of two contradictory emotions is at all designed to create a hierarchy in which one supersedes the other; both pull against each other, and the result is something less unsettling, but more powerful, than the original.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of studying English Literature as a sometime writer was the irregular but frequent moment of discovery – coming across a snippet of text, a form, or indeed an entire piece, that seemed to either articulate my own thought or feeling perfectly, or act as the basis by which my own thought or feeling might be structured. One of the advantages of Oxford’s intensity – studying so much material in such a short space of time – was encountering multiple moments of this kind across a number of different texts – what William Deresiewicz, in ‘Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite’, calls ‘serendipitous connections’. These connections are conducive to the sort of ‘tempests of composition’ to which McEwan refers: things fall together, and a new centre comes to hold.
These conditions led to Redolent Remnants coming together. As is often the case, I had recently re-read Lolita, and the title of the poem comes from a passage early on in the novel.
“Surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.”.
Humbert Humbert’s theme at this point is memory, and the past: he’s thinking about the death of his mother; the metaphor created seems to evoke memory, despite its disquieting sexual undertones (‘furry warmth, golden midges’). Here, the aspect of most interest to me was the word ‘suspended’. In Lolita, I think Nabokov is recognising the way in which memory – which only ever exists in the form of ‘remnants’ – traps one, keeps one suspended. This perspective on memory is of course particularly apt for Humbert, a character cripplingly trapped in a childhood that can only be accessed via memory and illicit sexuality.
I’d written the poem after feeling similarly trapped, but in the present rather than the past, and in a painfully reticent adolescence rather than a nostalgically romanticised past. The past tense of the novel becomes the present tense of the poem, and the inability to communicate becomes the cause of a shattering of selfhood in the present – what is (hopefully) evoked is the present speaker, rather than the past speaker, in ‘remnants’.
This disintegrating selfhood is the theme of Rupert Brooke’s Dust, in which the speaker and his lost lover ‘crumble in [their] separate nights’. Even the future offers neither rest nor re-integration of those whose sense of coherent personhood has been shattered by lost love:
“Nor ever rest, nor ever lie
Till beyond thinking, out of view
One mote of all the dust that’s I
Shall meet one atom that was you.”
Neither Brooke nor Nabokov are adequate alone; Brooke’s poem offers a futurity discordant with the specific feelings that led to writing the poem, while Nabokov’s sense of being trapped in the pastness of memory wasn’t quite apt either. Here I depart from Eliot’s claim that the “progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” I would argue that it is only by ‘knowing oneself aright’ that a writer can hope to work out how to use the artistic artefacts at their disposal, and personality is present in the snippets and fragments that are collected for synthesis.
This, I think, is evident in the fact that whilst Brooke’s quatrains and rhyme scheme are adopted, alliterative verse plays a far more prominent role. By no means is this ‘mine’ – alliterative verse is part of a poetic tradition stretching from before the Normans had conquered England to Gerald Manley Hopkins – but an affection for the heavily stylised and rigidly formal is necessary for one to put together tight rhyme scheme and stanzaic structure with the often equally-formal constraints alliterative verse places on a writer. These are, of course, matters of personality.
Other remnants are present – ‘heath and harebells’ evokes the conclusion of Wuthering Heights, while ‘loveless stairwells’ was reached, I think, with Prufrock ‘descend[ing] the stair’ in mind. These borrowings and allusions contribute far less than Brooke and Nabokov do, and in fact I would argue that Hopkins remains the biggest influence on anything I write. Nonetheless, I would keenly hope that these ‘verbal’ – rather than formal or thematic – remnants also offer something. In ‘Prufrock’, Eliot’s narrative voice repeatedly states that there ‘will be time‘, clearly evoking Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. (“Had we but world enough and time | This coyness, mistress, were no crime”).
As with all the other writers and artists evoked above, Eliot is transforming the connotations of the snippet: Marvell’s narrator uses the passing of time as the basis for his argument: the need to conduct romantic affairs with urgency, not coyness. In Marvell’s poem, the line seems congruent with the narrator’s personality, implying no gap between intention and action. Conversely, in Eliot’s poem, there is time for everything but action – preparing faces, murdering, creating yellow smoke, and for ‘you’ and ‘me’ as separate entities. Far from being jolted into action by the inexorable passing of time, Eliot’s narrator hand-wrings until ‘human voices wake us, and we drown’ – until, in essence, there is not time. The allusion serves to emphasise the difference between the personalities of the two narrators, and to highlight the gap between Prufrock’s desires and actions.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
In Wuthering Heights, the ‘heath and harebells’ are part of a longer, final scene-setting: one designed to create a sense of calm after the tempest we’ve experienced in the preceding pages. The evocation of benign skies, fluttering moths, and soft winds serve to draw a sense of coherence between the natural environment and the characters that have returned to it: both are at peace, and neither, Lockwood wants us to believe, will be returning. In Redolent Remnants, it seemed more natural that the feeling of peace should be less permanent, that found in sleep rather than death. Sleep might be a place where ‘no care dwells’, but, unlike death, it is a dream-state only, and when awoken from, it is ‘awry, with dishevelled heart’.
Whether such conscious borrowing and allusion really is a good thing may well be a matter of personal preference: I’ve spoken with one or two poets who dislike allusion, and strongly perceive it as inimical to originality. There also may well seem something unusual or distasteful about these sort of reflection on one’s own work, especially for those who prefer to access a piece of work on its own terms, unmediated by authorial observations. That said, I am always curious to understand an individual’s creative impulses, and am especially keen to understand their influences, and why/how certain ones might be used. The written word is a product of personality, and the ways in which one includes other writers and influencers in their work can prove as useful window to personality as the final work itself.
Jack N. Moran