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Index: Alan Wall Essays

The poet as essayist.

Alan Wall: ‘When George Oppen wrote ‘Of Being Numerous’ in the 1960s he was a writing a consciously, formally democratic verse. It fragments and recombines. It celebrates the ‘shipwreck of the singular’. The ‘I’ has been fractured. It is no more an isolated entity, a singularity that commands its world.’

A Note on Inscape, Descriptionism and Logical Form.

Alan Wall: ‘They have achieved a significant form that grafts them on to one another, as though they were organically related, or at least symbiotically fused. The space between them ceases to be homogeneous, and becomes shaped instead. Homology signifies a shared origin in function and development. For example, pectoral fins, bird wings, and the forelimbs of mammals – all are homologous, whereas bird wings and insect wings are merely analogous.’

Viduities.

Alan Wall: ‘We are outnumbered by the dead. Should they all return at once, our world would be crowded, perhaps beyond endurance. Bob Hope waits in cryonic suspension, ready for that moment when the medical technology can restore him to the ranks of the living, where he might once more set the table on a roar, as Yorick too had done, before they laid him in the earth, before digging him up again. A prolepsis of archaeology.’

Shakespeare’s dysnarrativia.

Alan Wall: ‘What happens if your dysnarrativia is willed? What kind of language are we looking at if the subject deliberately disconnects from communal usage and expectation, for whatever reason? Hamlet does just this.’

Considering ‘I’, alone.

Alan Wall: ‘The poetic “I” occupies a special space. What Roman Jakobson calls the poetic function permits the written word within the written space to float relatively free of referentiality; to foreground the gestures of its own linguistic play, its fictionality.’

Walter Benjamin and the City.

Alan Wall: ‘Had Le Corbusier been given his way in the early twentieth century, then the Parisian Babel would have been translated entirely into Esperanto; a modern synthetic language of the Enlightenment: modernism rendered as a form of aesthetic hygiene. But the city photographed by Atget survived, for a while anyway. Benjamin obsessed over Atget’s images, which he reckoned had drained away the auratic entirely, and produced something different in its place. ‘

1922, that liminal point.

Alan Wall: ‘he significance of the year 1922 is beyond question. Kevin Jackson in Constellation of Genius calls it Year One of modernism, and Ezra Pound took to dating his letters from the date of completion of Ulysses. This was the end of the Christian era. Yeats had already remarked, after watching Ubu Roi: “After us, the Savage God.” ‘

Looking back in anger.

Alan Wall: ‘Kitaj was obsessed all his life with Cézanne, and Cézanne certainly believed that everything needed in life and art was here, right before us, but we had to learn to see with utter integrity, and that meant ridding ourselves of false visual conventions. It is not the subject-matter of art that makes it lofty, but its method of perception. ‘

Modernist poetics.

Alan Wall: ‘Myth functioned for the modernists as a formal simplification, an avoidance of Brancusi’s ‘confusion of familiarities’. Myth could bring you closer to the present and its horrors and barbarities than the accustomed techniques of naturalism; it was in the widest possible sense, more realistic. The ancient could bring you closer to the realities of the present than the accustomed modes of the immediate past. But such employments were valid only if the ritualistic, the mythic, the legendary, interacted dynamically with the present; only if the past could be made to acknowledge that it only existed at all within the present. The past exists as long as the present carries it forward in time. That is the meaning of the word ‘relevance’ in terms of art. ‘

Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Alan Wall: ‘Although many of the pieces published in these two impressive volumes would be known already to Wittgensteinians, many more would not. Unless you have not only bought anthologies like Rush Rees’s Recollections of Wittgenstein, but also followed such publications as Guy’s Hospital Reports and the Irish Medical Times, or Hermathena, then some of these essays will be new to you. Together they present a composite image of the man which is hugely impressive. Perhaps each century can produce one man like Wittgenstein; certainly not many more. ‘

Irony and ironists.

Alan Wall: ‘What the ironist says is a matter of logic: if this, then that. But since that is not inevitably that, then this is not inevitably this either.’

Hell.

Alan Wall: ‘What terrifies about Satan and the demons is intelligent cunning and damnable determination, not the multi-coloured yawns of the possessed. It is that which makes them uncanny and terrifying, and it is that quality of hellishness which connects them with the goings-on in From Hell. This quality of transcendent and merciless intelligence is what intrigues us about infernal agents. ‘

The poet and the dictionary.

Alan Wall: ‘Geoffrey Hill’s poetic career has been mediated through his engagement with the dictionary. And that dictionary is first and foremost the OED. There is no greater dictionary in the world, and its making constitutes one of the great intellectual events of the twentieth century, though it started life in the nineteenth. There had never been anything like this before. Now the language itself has become the documented labyrinth of its own manifold meanings. Now history can be traced uttering itself thus and thus in one mutating word after another. The thought of a poet writing in English who would not grow excited turning the pages of the OED, or clicking on the electronic version, is so dismal that one wishes such a personage an even smaller readership than modern poets normally manage to acquire.’

Textuality.

Alan Wall: Tyndale ‘was on the side of the humble interpreters of the Bible’s teaching, against those who thought themselves supreme authorities. Hence his famous statement: ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.’ This was addressed to a theological opponent, one said to be learned, whose position in society was somewhat grander than following a plough. We all have the right to midrash; to that questioning of the original scripture, as long as it is driven by a fierce will to get to the truth. Pushed on by the ploughman’s shoulder.’

Essayism and Modernity.

Alan Wall: ‘As for essayism, this word is used largely negatively in the nineteenth century, where it originates. It seems to signify something to do with the cant of current opinion, particularly the urbane prattle of the periodical press. It is to be deprecated. Musil’s retrieval of this abusive word is intended as a redemptive manoeuvre, though essayism was not always regarded with favour by his contemporaries.’