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The ‘infinitely expandable’ minimalism of Anthony Barnett.

By Peter Riley.

Poems &.
Anthony Barnett

Tears in the Fence in association with Allardyce Book ABP, 2012. 672pp. £48.00

Translations.
Anthony Barnett

As above. 2012. 352pp. £36.00

 

I ONCE WROTE an eight-page essay on a six-line early poem by Anthony Barnett.1 I’m not going to repeat the exercise here, but I shall quote the poem in question:

With You

Loss.
Thank you,
Your absence. For your absence.
Thank you for your absence.
Word.
Of stone.

(p.66. of Poems &, originally in Blood Flow, 1975.)

It is perhaps obvious that this poem is minimal but, if you start thinking about it, infinitely expandable, so that you could have a lot to say. Also that it is both abstract and narrative, that it suggests personal events which are censored out to leave an essential, diagrammatic, sequence of the most telling or resonant terms. But we should also note that the condensation or stripping-down leaves room in the middle of the poem for a triple repetition, so perhaps “minimal” is not quite right. We might perceive (encouraged by the rest of the sequence) that the poet is protesting angrily at being left alone in some way, but we cannot fix that on the poem definitively because all circumstance is denied us, and the central sentence could be straight or ironic, and could be addressed to the poet rather than by him, or it could be “Loss” or “Word” which is thanked for its absence, ironically or not. When I wrote about this poem I talked about the phonetic structure, the formal drama which encloses the central outburst, the quest for emotional neutrality, the proliferation of meaning when words are viewed separately (e.g. “Word” meaning promise or troth), the suggestion of silent words which contribute to the process, and the constant halting, all directed to the paradoxical polarity of the poem – hints at urgently felt address as against the single noun with a full-stop after it which says only that it exists and ends the poem in complete stasis. I might have suggested that the entire course of the poem enacted a basic life pattern, that we begin in loss, go through ambiguous desires, and end with our names carved in stone, or I might not.

Blood Flow, a set of 26 short poems (including one which is absent) was the work which established the unique qualities of Anthony Barnett’s poetry. Not all the poems are as tightly enigmatic as “With You” and the sense unfolding from the sequence becomes fairly clearly a drama of rejection, with or without recompense within the narrative or outside it, though it remains always a reader’s choice whether to settle for the anecdotal, and to do so risks losing the full sense of the verbal sequence. It would be better to say a drama of hurt, sometimes a drama of failure, sometimes a contemplation rather than a drama. There are some 20 more of these sequences or “clusters”, of varying length, all now collected in this elegantly produced and monumental volume,2 almost always with suggestion of the same kind of drama having (probably) taken place, but with developing modes of representation towards the world.

Blood Flow established his poetry because the sequence made sense of the modernistic, fragmented, writing he was already doing. The sense of occulted narrative made it possible for the small poems to echo and reverberate against each other within a conceptual theatre, and to offer the reader paths through the scattered instants. The first poem:

Woman Spoke

Very pure heart
and maybe
because –

I have lost the courage
or the ability

give her … keep that
You
who must be
carefull.

(the You is I)3

(p.49)

Nobody else writes like this, in English anyway. Whenever you quote a Barnett poem there is a temptation to launch immediately into a thorough explication because so many extrapolations are immediately evident. There are a thousand or more poems in this book and the reader has to be left to get on with it. I quoted this introductory poem to show how the last line may be taken as a reader’s guide through the sequence to come, especially useful for With You which occurs 17 pages later, as well as standing for a standard feature of Barnett’s style, the compounding of meaning into its opposite, leaving all the key words open to question (though less so in his later writings). But it’s also worth pointing out that the misspelling of “careful” is deliberate, as is the minimal punctuation, and the majuscule on You. Then leaving the reader to get on with it.  I’m sure the author would agree that it is a kind of game in which you are asked to participate.

The technique is a meticulously careful selection and outgrowth of words and phrases from a situation in his head which doesn’t concern us. (Too many modern poets seem to think that everything about them concerns us considerably and must be expounded in full.) Every detail bears weight. The poem is to some extent conceived as a musical score in which line endings and spacing are integral, so that the text passes to the reader in a controlled order like the events of a piece of music (often, as in both poems quoted, with a crisis or conflict in the middle). But he also knows that language is not simply music but is capable of a quite different act, the access to truth, and it is not at all one of those texts which manipulates language experimentally for the sake of it. The relationships between the details of the poem have to be in some sense “true”. Increasingly through his career in fact, there is worry about the possibility of extending into statement or declared cognizance of the world. So the words are set in their places one by one, always maintaining a tension, a question which must not be answered, about their relationship to experience. Authenticity is aimed at, relying on the fragmented nature of recall, both author’s and reader’s. One more poem from the same set, a calmer and more lyrical one, which resolves itself by image:

The City

I think of you
Kristiania, affectionately,
I must think of you

because
you become a woman

Kristin

and you are no longer
a finished name

in springiness
of a year’s snow
a year’s snow

(p.52; Kristiania is the old name of Oslo. The author lived there at the time of the events.)

So how does the snow at the end resolve what arises in the poem, about affection and incompletion? I can only suggest that it does so when the poem is envisaged as a story or scene, and this is the last, fading, frame, moving out of the poem’s image-field without even a last full-stop to hinder it. So: the passage of time and recurrence (with a hint at Christmas?) and the poem simply stops because there is no more to be done, there is only “a year’s snow” to be remembered, twice. And when is snow ever “springy”? I don’t know. Perhaps in spring when it springs away. But “springy” means restoring itself to its original shape or condition (a hint of healing?). No possibility should be overlooked. “A year’s No” is perfectly possible.

Not that the poet must have intended every multiple nuance you can derive from the text, in fact Barnett prefers the idea of a singular reading revealed primarily to the author, on which the reader eavesdrops. But he does think a great deal about the words in poems and translations, sometimes in terms which are not transferable, associations only knowable to himself. Since he places and separates the words so as to avoid or undermine a singular reading, it is to be expected that senses should proliferate beyond his control, but on the other hand poem and sequence both impose a strong sense of process, so that the reader’s guesses are encouraged to contribute positively. I think this sense of process and thus purpose, open to the reader (as he says, quoting Celan, “Definitely not hermetic”) but not tailored to that unknowable entity, is what distinguishes him from all the post-modernist or etc., poets who deconstruct syntax negatively or randomly. There is a morality involved.

IT HAS BEEN suggested (by Michael Grant) that Barnett turns his back on England. This is undoubtedly true, in fact he says so in the interview, adding that Englishness “defines mediocrity” (“As things have stood”). I’m not concerned with the polemic here (and Barnett’s opinions are usually categorical and, when negative, fierce4). I’m concerned to know the nature of the demand he makes of words, which does seem to be involved in foreignness and sometimes specifically Jewishness. I know that he has a personal pantheon of highly admired writers, whom he repeatedly praises, discusses and quotes, the older of which could have been formative. The poets in that category are linguistically unconventional (the principal figures are Celan, Zanzotto, Ungaretti, Sachs, Jabès, Mandelstam and Vallejo) and clearly the initial momentum was in that direction. In fact looking at the earliest work in Poems &, it is clear to me that he began in experimental poetry and was soon moved by the need to involve the intensity of his own feelings, to shift the experimental textuality into an expressive order.

There could be as many as fifty of these favourite authors, and the only English one I can think of is Charles Doughty (not including Doughty’s poetry), and the only ones who wrote in English Charles Olson and George Oppen (perhaps also Ginsberg). Near the end of Poems & is a collection of 23 commented citations, which must represent a lot of his recent reading, and not one of them wrote in English. He did however valiantly publish the collected poems of four British poets in the 1980s at a time when nobody else would consider them. Jewishness is prominent in his pantheon, and these authors tend to have suffered in their lives. Probably the principal figure involved is Paul Celan. None of this is entirely exclusive, but again the options are categorical; these authors have “moral authority” and by implication those outside the pale might all be accused of “unimaginative lies”.

What is the concept of truth here? It is that it is dependent on imagination, and even though many prose writers are favoured I think it is likely that the high distinction he claims for them concerns a particular language-use which achieves truth-value through meticulous accuracy and a foregrounding of language such that no term is taken for granted, but each has to be re-imagined by the writer, though it is also likely that personal issues are involved in his choices.

IN HIS OWN poetry, as initiated by Blood Flow, the word or word-group is seen or hoped to become imaginative truth by a paradoxical condition which involves both a close focussing on exact semantic value, and an extrapolation which extends the conceptuality and integrates the sequence by invoking other words, but is rigidly controlled by a sense of authenticity which relies on authorial intuition. The mutual isolation of words to extend their significance brings him close to the methods of J.H.Prynne, but Prynne claims a scientific (e.g. etymological) publically verifiable philological process, whereas although he does use etymology Barnett’s method is more in the order of “This made me think of…”. And what it made him think of could be something that would not have occurred to anybody else (though I think he would deny this), so that he has to rely on his own emotive/expressive energy to integrate it into the poem.

To take an example which I find problematic – merely one word from the volume of mostly brilliant translations — he renders Ungaretti’s well known mini-poem Mattina (M’illumino / d’immenso) as “I am blessed with light”. This has always puzzled me. Apart from the complete absence of what is signalled by “immenso” I’m troubled by the intrusion of the implications of “blessed”, of which he says, “…I must insist that there is no latent theology in my use of the word blessed.” (interview). This is justification by intent, and demonstrates that the writing remains primarily authorial, as he has declared that it should. On his advice “blessed” can indeed be read in a purer way, but the translation is sent out into a large world where the word “bless” normally carries a sense of theological endorsement in some way. Not everybody is authorised to bless, and the assumption to do so, as in the current mawkish colloquial use of the single word in English, usually with a prefatory despairing “ah!”, hides a sense which is primarily passive: “May [x] be blessed” (by whatever has the right to). Barnett’s justification is that he almost dreamt it – woke up one bright morning and said the sentence, only realising later that he had translated Ungaretti’s poem.5

Such a process carried into original poetry will surely cause problems, but as I have indicated, there are forces of authentification which can solve the problems before they occur, though his greatest asset will be our willingness to read the poems as transfigured accounts or stories, by which any unexpected intrusion can be taken as circumstantial. But where lies the “moral authority” of the poem?

I don’t know. If I were to use the term myself of my own aspirations I would consider it to lie in the relationship of the text to realities of the perceived world and its contact with realisable principles. I can think of poets to whom it would mean something very different (e.g. the facility to scramble discourse into screaming gabble to the point of impossibility, so as to destroy Capitalism). Barnett as quoted is speaking of Nelly Sachs’ poetry, that it is “not religious poetry”, thereby invoking her Jewishness (a subject he rather strangely invokes when asked about his rejection of Englishness) and I think he is implying poetry’s power to connect to major moral issues through image and word order rather than discursively, and possibly the authority which is gained by having suffered at the hands of the liars. The term is, anyway, sufficient indication of the seriousness with which he approaches his craft.

AFTER BLOOD FLOW, the poems start to settle down.

Snow falls everyday
and does not fall.
It is neither winter
nor summer.
I listen to your every sound.
What I think is all right
And what imperils me.
There, a falling away.
Surely, I am grown nearly,
am answerable.

(p.97)

That’s from Fear and Misadventure (1977), which is much more like a single poem in irregular stanzas then a sequence, though the individual pieces are indexed. Apart from having no titles they all seem to relate to the one scene and bear one mode of address, which is what Barnett’s readers soon come to recognise as the usual story, of rejection. The above poem, which is not entirely typical, is close to a plain account, and openly goes through a series of contradictions until the final lines, with their uncertainty as to what is “falling away”. But we should know by now not to ask that question: there is a falling away and that is what happens next, whether it is the snow, now falling elsewhere, or a wounding disaffection. Whatever it is it is what motivates the final double riposte — I am responsible / I could be answered – and the disturbed syntax and rhythm which introduces it. And as usual, if we wait, there are suggestive echoes elsewhere in the sequence – “How close is this wound, / that I thought would fall” (p.98).

Compared with Blood Flow, Fear & Misadventure is more willing to rest in a mildly broken but evident discourse which does not make stark bids towards abstraction. But wider reaches are hinted at throughout, becoming more prominent when the poems are considered individually. Here and in the longer Mud Settles (1977) the author’s plea, to be taken in from the cold, is delicately modulated to suggest a public condition. In the latter book especially the constant reproving of “You” comes to intimate a mode of public address, and in the poem After (1979) it occasionally comes into the open: “On seven days / God is lies, also Marx, Freud, / and the Saints, smaller saint, who had half-eyes.” But this declaration is still held within the fictive mode: it is integral to a plea, and a personal declaration of loss. It is encompassed by this, and cannot be argued in itself.

By the time of the next full-scale book, Report to the Working Party. Asylum. Otiose.(1979) it is possible to have poems such as

Committed

Flowers are blossoming
Birds are singing
Glass is lying on its side

(p.189)

Which once you have checked that you have not been tricked into reading “Grass” in the last line has only the title to disturb you, and possibly the absence of stops, making each little sentence seem preludial. Unless, that is, you are disturbed by the thought “So what?” which is an unfair question to ask of a poem obviously more interested in pondering than expounding; the question is already built into the text. (The title can only derive from the ensemble of the book, and possibly the line “Suddenly, the police” (p.179).)

Or indeed, a poem such as

Endangered Species

I have almost nothing to say.

(p.185)

which speaks (or doesn’t) for itself.

I THINK THIS book inaugurates one of Barnett’s most fruitful periods. The poems are small, sometimes tiny, concentrated, variously enigmatic, and although the usual story seems to preside, sometimes starkly, there is a richer sense of the condition extending over a long period of time in which percepts deriving from many events, places and conversations are made into small poems, each encapsulating a contradiction or an enigma which is not always obviously related to the encrypted story. Some of them are simple perceptual and verbal notations. It is as if, this time, a large narrative, like a substantial novel, has been splintered into about a hundred pieces. His preference for simple vocabulary comes fully to the front here, sometimes so simple as to displace language entirely – one poem, called “Parting of the Ways”, consists of two tiny drawings, of a spruce tree and a deciduous tree side by side (p.169).

Between the bigger books there are usually smaller items originally published as pamphlets which sometimes show him venturing into different textualities and, indeed experimenting, for in the present gap there are two collaged items, one from Doughty (though for some reason it doesn’t say so, although page numbers of two editions of the Travels are given as titles.) and another from a technical book on forestry. These are perhaps bids to escape from the “story” which seems to hang over his writing. I have to bypass most of these pamphlets, but must note the wide choices now open to him in the contrasting nature of two sequences of 1978-9, Blues That Must not Try to Imitate the Sky and Quiet Facts. Not to exaggerate the difference, but the longer lines of the first are more evidently involved in an argument (or fight) with someone, close to invective at times, interspersed with descriptions (almost) of places, and culminating in a substantial poem. The second is one of his most delightfully tender sets of small poems, without arch concealments (except for one item which is a list of proper nouns), strong in what I like to call his “pastoral of sights and objects.” No.19 reads “Gentle phases of the moon / and tides.” which sweet as it is reverberates over the theme of the confrontation with the female which dominates so much of his writing, including the title of Blood Flow.

The title of his longest book of poems is also his longest title: North North, I Said, No, Wait a Minute, South, Oh, I Don’t Know (148 Political Poems) (1985), which I shall abbreviate. I think that some of the modernist cognoscenti at the time expressed doubts about this book, perhaps fearing that the writing was getting too relaxed, too little encrypted, too open to authorial attitude and opinion. They are short-line poems, mostly somewhat longer than usual, untitled but with the first word always a line to itself and indented, which I find has the effect of an opening hesitation or call to attention, like the held chord that initiates a dance number in many traditions. The writing is very much the mode he has established, rather less condensed and less lyrical, but the main innovation is that it is almost entirely in sentences, thus more explicit, both concerning the “usual story” and concerning the world at large, and with less “floating” terms introducing an incompletion or hiatus. But it is as rich as ever in the reverberation of displaced terms and in declarations necessarily clad in a deliberately “awkward” syntax, making questions out of them at the same time as statements.

I want to concentrate at this point on one stylistic feature which is not common in his writing but indicative. As the writing after Blood Flow became, gradually and with the utmost caution, more normalized or at least more willing to engage the reader recognisably, it also from time to time insisted on its distinctly authorial or even private condition by placing sudden blocks in what is now more like a flow: coinages, multiple puns, broken words, at which the process of assimilation inevitably halts. They are like reminders not to behave as if you’re reading a newspaper. Some are quite simple doublings (“carefull”, “nepotunity”) but others are more formidable. In North North (at p. 350) is this poem:

xLet
Inessentials pass. But
if they are essential
or essentials inessential
give the devil
his jew.

– except that the last word is not “jew” at all because the W is clearly printed as an M upside-down (an effect more easily replicated in letterpress than on a computer). The poem itself, though rather bare, is typical of the talking mode of this book, but the last word stops all speech. Of course the reader’s instinctive defence against this affront is to propose possible meanings which permit the reading to continue: “give me my due”, “send me (the jew) to the devil” though I don’t know what we do with the suggestion of “gem”, and there are other possibilities. Does it help to go to the previous page and find “A // Walk though / the hills where / we is written / with a double / you.” ? Perhaps. But I don’t think this quest to exhaust the word is the whole answer. Somewhere (I can’t find it) he quotes from Anne-Marie Albiach, that a letter is detached from your name and you cease to exist, which shows the strong verbalism, and indeed mysticism (which I vaguely think is connected with Kabbalist practice) among these poets. So rather than a compaction of meanings perhaps we should think of the word as a spell? But my own preference is to see it precisely as a problem-word. The word “jew” is a problem to its bearer, both for obvious historical reasons and intimately as it intrudes on personal immediacies. Barnett is no Zionist, and from time to time has expressed ambivalence and worry about his Jewishness. He relishes but distrusts, I think, a Jewish intellectual inheritance, especially as it becomes enclosive. “I understand why Primo Levi rejected Celan’s complexities. But I understand Celan too.” (p.614). There are intellectuals who disdainfully dismiss Levi as simply “wrong” as against Celan. The racial concept halts Barnett’s discourse at a mutilated word, as he perhaps both does and does not want it to belong there.

There are other halting words (I call them tics) especially in this central period of his work, most of which defeat me, perhaps because my mind doesn’t operate in a way which could easily cope with them. I stare and stare at the line “like a staler.” which ends a poem on p.91 and can only see the comparative adjective. It is a combination of the names Stalin and Hitler, too monstrous to be spoken in the poem. On p.123 “How you are an influ’ / but for the good.” The poem concerns crows and suggests “I altered it” for the sake of truth. Not influx, influence, nor influenza, bring me to this greater truth. In some parts of rural Ireland there is a term “flew-ins” for foreigners who have come to settle there. I’m sure the author will have a quite rational account, which might devolve mainly on particular circumstances. I think that things undisclosed to the reader are not infrequently used to arrive at a wording; he says that the word “estranged” in his poem on Celan (p.51) derived from the surname of Celan’s wife, Giselle Celan-l’Estrange, to take a comparatively transparent example. We also might stumble over a word suddenly in Norwegian, obviously because that’s where it happened and that was the actual word spoken at the time, or not a word at all, as there are occasional non-verbal items in the middle of (or constituting) a poem – a lop-sided cross in two strokes, an east-European diacritic in brackets without a letter to stand on… etc. Unless indicating problems which language as it stands cannot cope with, I think these are reminders, especially in a book like North North which ventures openly at times into the public sphere and indeed declares itself as “political” (which remains something of a mystery to me), of the essentially poetical /authorial texture which must be acknowledged by the reader.

IF I MOVE swiftly over the remainder of Poems &, it is not out of fatigue or impatience, but regard for the patience of my own readers. What happens in summary is that as the “usual story” recedes and fades away, the writing turns increasingly to prose. The last of the sets of small poems is Little Stars and Straw Breasts (1993) where the subsumed “story” seems to be less the anger and incomprehension of rejection, and more a rather melancholy sense of being left alone. As the pages turn and the prose increases it begins to feel like a writing project rather than a poetry project, at times like a commonplace book and at other times a collection of jottings. There is little that you would call prose-poetry and a lot which reads as casual, personal, satirical writing or various forms of self-address, still rich in word-play and with occasional tics. There is even a section of light verse and mockery concerning the town he lives in. But there are also substantial and sustained poems, most of them in Carp and Rubato (1995) but liable to spring up at any time. I am sometimes tempted to wish he would concentrate more on them, bright as much of the prose is.

The work after 2000, especially 17 Poems of Defencelessness and Patricia of the Waters (both 2011) seems to seek to unite the poetical and prosaic strands of his writing. They include some of the plainest of his writing but unpredictably various in its forms of utterance, with sudden darts shooting out into society which can be positively genial – “Everyone should know by now that the English millennium has two ns. It’s taken a while.” It’s good to have writers around who will suddenly come out with things like this. (A quick look at Google suggests that the people who have not yet learned this are mainly in the catering and accommodation trades, and public transport.) But the general tone of the last writings in the book is retrospective and as he says—

Dishonest Poem

My memory is a slut.
I know exactly who I am.
Now that this is a closed book
I am calm.

(p.597)

ANTHONY BARNETT’S IS a very distinct brand of poetry, only tenuously connected to the work of his contemporaries, and to very few of them. To him the works of British and American poets at large, especially those gaining big sales and official endorsement, are simply contemptible – “lies”. They are lies because they are untrue to the nature of written language as a multiple instrument where sense includes silence and every item of meaning carries a load of echoes and exceptions, and they are untrue to their materials in experience and the world. We have to accept that there will be such distinct versions of poetry and that the written experience they offer will have particular validations quite distinct from those of other practitioners. We could also think (aside) that if you consider the subject or focus, rather than the manner, of the poetry, it all concerns contractual human relationships and their failures, as does the vast bulk of sixteenth century British and European lyrical poetry.

The poetry is strongly centred on the self, and this whole enormous volume is in a way a monument to the self that created it. Everything arises from and returns to the self, the self is at the centre of all the action, and the language use is entirely the idiom of that self. It is not subjective: that is what is stripped away from the narrative to leave behind the pure condition of the self’s engagement with language. And that actuality is surely what we learn from it, that difference.

If this seems harsh let me hurriedly add that I would say the same of Paul Celan without hesitation. His work too is a demonstration of language subjected to an intensity of self concern, every term broken open to find out why it did what it did to him. Everything unwinds from a deep sense of a damaged self and is likewise typically brief: smaller and smaller shards of glass in the poet’s fist, clenched in an intensity of justification and helplessness. Barnett has pointed out that Celan had great knowledge of Jewish and German scriptural philology which must have enabled his particularly rich and potentially dignified coinage. Barnett’s story is not of course that of Celan but wounding is at its centre most of the time.

The poetry resists the “big world” into which it is sent out, not only the big world of the poetry business. It views that world as decadent, or an illusion, and seeks to render it as an obedient thing in which the self’s needs can be met – an earthly paradise. It hammers on the door of this place, it sings against the barrier to it. Celan too projected an unreachable verbal paradise as the echo of a mystic tongue. The writing is oppositional, in the guise of a self demanding it’s due, but offers unsullied guarantees of earthly reality and a particular form of elegance in exchange – that is the contract with the reader. It can never be the only way. Explicitly expansive modes of poetry are needed if the art is to maintain a position in modernity, but the absence of exceptions such as Barnett’s would be a very sad loss.

TRANSLATIONS ASSEMBLES TEN books or booklets, and some individual texts. Four of the authors of the longer works are French, the rest Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish and Italian. Only the Japanese acknowledges a co-translator, though numerous people are thanked for their help. The texts are hand-picked to facilitate Barnett’s deployment of his way of writing. Appropriately, the French works were done mostly in the central period of Barnett’s sequences, 1980s-90s; the Japanese, Akutagawa’s A Fool’s Life, in the recent prose-heavy period of his writing. But Des Forêts’ Poems of Samuel Wood, the most recent, shows how well he can cope with a poetical text which does not resemble anything he has ever written.

These are Barnett’s heroes and exemplars, and the translating is done in a spirit of deep admiration in all cases, and with a sense of affinity in language-use. It must be this affinity, or his reliance on it, that applies when he quotes Yves Bonnefoy as saying that you cannot translate the poem, you can only translate the poetry. I don’t suppose he would want to talk about the “spirit” of the poetry rather than the “letter”, but that venerable concept is what it may come down to. It would mean, anyway, that he is free to depart from literal rendering when the poetical substance cannot be reached in that way, but in fact I think he does this very little. (It is difficult to check this because only two of the six French texts are available to me, or anyone in UK who hasn’t already got them, by any means whatsoever. There are some notes at the back but they generally deal with the crimes of other translators rather than explanation of his own versions.) There is mostly no need to worry about it because the results read so well in English. And the characteristic stylistic features of two poets such as Anne-Marie Albiach and Louis-René Des Forêts are clearly there in the English versions. It is not, on the whole, like reading Barnett originals, though his presence is always there. Tarjei Vesaas, Roger Giroux and Alain Delahaye seem to come off particularly well as thoughtful and imaginatively truthful writers, and Andrea Zanzotto gives many opportunities for Barnett’s ingenious and imaginative workings of outlandish usage. It is interesting to have the two translations of Delahaye, who is a lost French poet, active around 1980 in Paris, but who shortly afterwards abandoned the writing of poetry and is now hardly known at all. Judging by the versions here he had a considerable talent. The Des Forêts text, a meditation on death in long periods, is full of close phonetic echoes which are dealt with admirably—

Debarrasser, décrasser les coins et recoins
Clear out, clean out the nooks and crannies…

La façade en feu d’une forteresse qui s’effondre,
The façade on fire of a fortress falling to ruin…

and he evidently understands the principle of swings and roundabouts in translating poetry – that a strong poetical figuring may have to be lost at one point, but another can be added where the original does not demand it. The resulting poetical line in this version, by the way, strikes me as perfectly “British”.

There are not only varying amounts of stylistic similarity between the translations and Barnett’s writing in general, there are also blocks or tics, though very few. These may derive from the originals, and in the case of Anne-Marie Albiach (a word with one letter italicised), it probably does. But in a poem by Roger Giroux “monstrueux” is translated as “terratoid”. It gives him an alliteration, but is nevertheless very risqué. It took me ten minutes to find this word, which is in no standard dictionary and turns out to be a medical term used to identify a particularly nasty form of brain tumour in children. (I was not able to find out how the word was formed; if it starts with the Greek prefix tera- [marvel or monster, used to indicate very high numerical values] then I think it should have only one R.) A monstrous thing certainly, a slayer of children, but my complaint would not lie with the meanings, and he probably has other justifications up his sleeve, but that a common-or-garden word is translated into an extremely rare technical word, so that whatever else is translated, the word’s status in the language isn’t. It is bad of me to make a fuss over one word, but it is so very much a block on transmission. Barnett is anyway a lover of detail; in fact detail sometimes seems to take over everything, so he would probably enjoy the altercation.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

[This article was revised 27 October 2012 to correct editing errors.]

NOTES:

  1. Peter Riley, “‘With You’ by Anthony Barnett: Observations.” Grosseteste Review XII, 1979. Reprinted with differences as: “The Kind of Poem that ‘With You’ Is”, in The Poetry of Anthony Barnett, Allardyce Book 1993. All reference to comment by others on Barnett’s work is to the essays and reviews in this volume, and all quotation of his own remarks is from the 1992 interview by D.S. Marriott in the same book, unless otherwise noted.
  2. There is a selection available:  Miscanthus: selected and new poems, edited by Xavier Kalck. Exeter: Shearsman Books 2005.  256pp £11.95.
  3. All poems quoted hors-texte are complete.
  4. Apart from the interview, Barnett’s opinions can be found in a recent series he calls “Antonyms”, small reflective essays, seven of which are collected in Antonyms & others (2012) and which are contributed regularly to the periodical Tears in the Fence.
  5. J.H.Prynne in discussing Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, in his essay “Mental Ears and Poetic Work(Chicago Review 55:1, 2010) magicks the word “blessing” by etymological scientism into an invocation of blood sacrifice which quite undermines the poem. This is very different from Barnett’s process of intuitively sensing a verbal connection or the absence of one, but like Barnett Prynne is not too concerned about what is evident to the reader. Subconscious events are perhaps indicated in both cases.
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