Friday 12 June 2020

Christopher Norris, "A Partial Truth"

Christopher Norris is Emeritus Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff and a visiting fellow at Birkbeck College, London. In his early career he taught English Literature, then moved to Philosophy via literary theory, and has now moved back in the direction of Creative Writing. He has published widely on the topic of deconstruction and is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, literature, the history of ideas, and music. More recently he has turned to writing poetry in various genres, including – unusually – that of the philosophical verse-essay. His verse-collections to date are The Cardinal’s Dog, For the Tempus-Fugitives, The Matter of Rhyme, A Partial Truth, and Socrates at Verse. At present he is finishing work on two further collections: As Knowing Goes and Other Poems and an extended series of verse reflections on themes from the writing of Jacques Derrida.

Over the past few years Chris has also been active as a left-wing political poet with satires and invectives brought together in two volumes: The Trouble with Monsters and A Folded Lie (with cartoons by Martin Gollan). His political poems appear regularly on the website Culture Matters and his more philosophical pieces in the weekly (now monthly) online magazine The Wednesday. He has lectured and held visiting posts at universities around the world, and his books have been translated into many languages. For the past thirty years Chris has sung with Cor Cochion Caerdydd (The Cardiff Reds Choir), a campaigning socialist street-choir, and has more recently joined The Eclectics, a smaller Swansea-based non-political group. During lockdown he has offered a series of Zoom lectures at various universities in Iraq as well as poetry readings at Aarhus University and elsewhere.

Chris lives in Swansea with his wife Valerie, a novelist and retired Professor of Materials Science at Swansea University. His daughters Clare and Jenny both live in Penarth. 

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A Few Thoughts About My Poetry ...
By Christopher Norris

First off a bit of anecdotage for those who may wonder why an erstwhile literary theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas should now have turned to poetry as his preferred mode of writing, albeit poetry of a character which – at times – will put readers in mind of those earlier preoccupations. At its simplest this was a practical matter and a case of preemptive, in some degree preconscious  psychological strategy. As retirement from full-time university employment loomed ever closer I found myself wondering how best to satisfy on the one hand my need to carry on writing – a more than forty-year habit – and on the other my desire to do something different after all those academic monographs and articles. But this led on to some more germane or at any rate less personal-strategic ideas, among them the thought that certain kinds of verse-form might lend themselves to thinking differently – in a creative-exploratory way – about certain issues thrown up by my previous work.

The resultant project, or series of projects, has occupied the larger part of my time for writing during the past half-decade. All the poems collected in A Partial Truth (2019) and Socrates at Verse (2020) are instances of formal verse. That is, they all have a clearly marked rhyme-scheme along with a metrical structure and a range of other, perhaps less obvious formal features. If there is a general case being made then it is the case for formalism – broadly defined – as an attribute of any verse that genuinely merits the name. Thus ‘free verse’ is a flat contradiction in terms since if it is verse it can’t be ‘free,’ at least in the sense mostly intended by users of the phrase, and if it is free then it can’t be verse. Of course there is such a thing as prose poetry, or poetic prose, just as there is such a thing as verse that never attains the imaginative power or the expressive depth of poetry. A competent versifier might always be denied the title of poet despite their acknowledged technical prowess. But this judgement is one to be made on distinctly qualitative grounds, and one to which my poems will be subject quite aside from issues of form or verse-technique.

I am sometimes asked why so many of them have to do with matters of a philosophical or literary-critical import that very closely mirror my own interests as a one-time academic who spent a working lifetime involved in just those disciplines. The straightforward answer is that one has to have something to write about and that they throw up issues of particular interest to a formalist – like myself – who thinks that poems have distinctive ways of addressing them. Of course there is the just as obvious objection that these are not the sorts of problem that typically engage readers of poetry, or readers in search of poems that communicate across widely shared areas of human experience. I would make three points in response. First, there is currently a large academic and even non-academic readership for debates in the capacious area of ‘theory,’ a readership seemingly capable of perceiving their larger significance. Second, the poems themselves make a regular point of moving out beyond ‘technical’ issues to just such wider concerns. And third, these are issues that are, so to speak, in the public domain, or sufficiently a matter of open debate for their import to come across without access to modes of experience or states of feeling that are ultimately private to the poet in question. If these poems involve certain kinds of specialist interest or out-of-the-way knowledge then it is always the sort of thing that readers can find out – or (thankfully) look up on Google – and not the sort of thing that presupposes privileged or intimate reader-poet acquaintance. 

In other words they are much less obscure or private than a good deal of so-called ‘confessional’ poetry that presses the lyric impulse toward an extreme of self-absorption inimical to effective communication at any but a well-nigh visceral level. What I hope to have managed is a synthesis of musicality and the kind of thinking – or discursive intelligence – that poets and critics at least since Eliot have been anxious to expel from poetry’s domain. That this expulsion had some less than desirable effects on Eliot’s thinking beyond that domain is a point worth noting, as is the cost in lives wrecked or prematurely ended by the confessional cult that disfigured so much mid-to-late C20 verse. Not that formalism offers a guaranteed bulwark against such destructive extremes, as witnessed by the case of a rigorous ultra-formalist like Veronica Forrest-Thomson. But it does combine a check on the lyric tendency toward excessive or damaging self-absorption with the challenge (and incentive) to linguistic creativity posed by the exigences of formal structure.   

Below, you can read two poems: one from the collection A Partial Truth, one from Socrates At Verse.

San Pedro and the Aeroplanes

The cave-shrine of Catholic Saint Hermano Pedro (1626-67) occupies a striking and very beautiful layered-rock site near El Medano, South Tenerife. It is located at the end of the airport runway, directly beneath a main flight-path. The reference to Ezekiel concerns a visionary passage sometimes taken to prefigure the advent of jet aeroplanes. 

Glossing Ezekiel the saint maintains
Two theses contrary to common sense:
Time-travel and a thought of aeroplanes.

His cave and shrine abut the airport fence.
Such to-and-fro his hermit soul disdains,
Yet no affront to God, the switch of tense.

Flight-paths reduplicate the angel-lanes.
San Pedro stoops to count the pilgrim pence.
A turbine drowns his eventide refrains.

On kitschy goods the vapor trails condense
As kerosene anoints the saint's remains
And candles waver in the turbulence.

Still daily rise the heaven-touching strains:
'Sire, they take off downwind, a good league hence;
For decibels, consult the weather-vanes.'

As Pedro tolls for Prime so flights commence.
At Terce, Sext and None he regains
Ezekiel’s wing├ęd vision, God knows whence.

Blessing or curse, still nothing to the pains
They bore whose dark prophetic sapience
Brought thunder fit to shake the martyr’s chains.

Some aerial law of cause and consequence
Must hold, he thinks, if flight’s what God ordains,
Though miracles may hold them in suspense.

Why scorn these gaudy relics? he who feigns
Belief in them may come by such pretense
To credit tales of gods or aeroplanes.

Showings (Wittgenstein): a double sestina 

This inseparableness of everything in the world from language has intrigued modern thinkers, most notably Wittgenstein. If its limits—that is, the precise point at which sense becomes nonsense—could somehow be defined, then speakers would not attempt to express the inexpressible. Therefore, said Wittgenstein, do not put too great a burden upon language.
   - Peter Farb, Word-Play

If a person tells me he has been to the worst places I have no reason to judge him; but if he 
tells me it was his superior wisdom that enabled him to go there, then I know he is a fraud.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Personal Recollections (ed. Rush Rhees)  

The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.
- Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

The world is everything that is the case.
All that's the case is all that we can say.
Some things cannot be said but may be shown.
These are the most important things in life.
A change in them will be a change of world.
Let silence show where saying leads astray.

So many ways we can be led astray!
Delinquent speech is not the only case,
Though certain evils may infect our world
Through word-abuse. Believing we can say
What matters most, in language or in life,
Is Russell's error. This much can be shown.

That's why my faithful few won't have it shown
How moral compass-points can swing astray
Even with such ascetic forms of life
Or utterance as mine. Count it a case
Of things-gone-wrong that nobody could say
Belonged exclusively to word or world.

Russell and Moore: they were my Cambridge world
Back then although, despite some kindness shown,
They failed to grasp how using words to say
Those things unsayable led sense astray.
Their verdict on me: genius, but a case
Of life screwed up by mind and mind by life.

'Just tell them that it's been a wonderful life.'
My dying words, and spoken from a world
So distant, now, from all that is the case
With their world that what's said by them, or shown,
Will likely lead my auditors astray
As much as anything I've had to say.

Yet there's some truth in what the others say,
My critics, who'd regard a tortured life
Like mine as leading and as led astray
Since formed within the solipsistic world
Of my obsessions. That's the sole thing shown,
They’d say, by such a cautionary case.

I keep my life a closed book just in case
Some rogue biographer should have his say
And seek, for no good cause, to have it shown
That there were certain chapters in that life
Kept secret from the academic world
Lest scandal lead my acolytes astray.

Yet could it be some young men went astray
Because I'd cruise the Prater and then case
The gay joints in my craving for a world
As far removed as possible from, say,
The wealth and privilege of my old life,
Or the mixed spite and condescension shown

By Moore and his Apostles? If I've shown
A seamy side, a will to go astray
In quest of what they'll call 'his other life,'
It's not (the vulgar-Freudian view) a case
Of my abject desire that they should say
Harsh things that show me up before the world

For what I am. Rather, I deem that world
Of theirs a world in need of being shown
Such truths as neither they nor I can say
Since, in the saying, sense would go astray
And make me out a monster or a case
For some corrective treatment. It's my life,

Not anything I've written, but my life 
As lived that bears sole witness to the world
Concerning just those matters in the case
Of Ludwig Wittgenstein that should be shown,
Not said, since uttering them sends words astray
And has them mimic what they fail to say.

And yet I ask: why think of 'show' and 'say'
In such bi-polar terms unless your life,
Like mine, has gone unspeakably astray
And left you stranded in an alien world
Where your 'condition' can at most be shown,
Not talked about or stated, just in case.

A modest claim: to say, not save, the world,
Yet still too statement-bound, as life has shown.
What was it went astray with what's the case?

No world exists that logothetes might say
'Here's all we've shown: that words bring worlds to life.'
What if 'the case' just is what goes astray?

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