Notes to
Aria With Small Lights



2      harm cast off my back      You get unarticulated phrases like this suddenly woven into the flow of the text. The writing mind has a developed habit of keeping them in reserve as unfinished negotiations and returning to them in some way or other later on. In this case I can’t say exactly where, I think it is generally dispersed into two vocabulary zones later on. .

5      there were flesh hooks... The imagery of butchery here should not be interiorized or aggressive. I have long observational experience of “peasant” society. The alienation in these opening stanzas is from, inter alia, a wholeness of style which delegates nothing, which doesn’t keep its hands clean.

7      stress forth on the tables of pasture... I don’t see any problem here whatsoever. If disturbed, try thinking “language” (table), “meaning” (pasture), “poetry” (stress) that we say what we can to solve the world in the vocabulary that lies spread before us. “Poetry” as the attempt to do more, to extend the equipment.

9      I don’t think the last phrase should be relegated entirely to a substratum of stanza 10, where it recurs.

10      There really were enormous toads creeping round the village at night, they were nearly a foot long and few people have been willing to believe me. They were images of slow thought, as the fireflies were images of fast appeal. I didn’t allegorise them into this, this is what they were. The toads were not retired solicitors and the fireflies were not punk poets.

11      The wedding funeral is not an invention; I have attended one. You can read “wedding or funeral” if you like, but the real death wedding is a bid to complete in the structured imagination a human promise broken by fate. See “The Funeral” in The Dance at Mociu.

12      I come from a spoilt place... Now, we are not going to be so nave, are we, as to take “I” as Peter Riley tout court and this as thus a statement about Britain, or Stockport, or Cambridge, or Sturton Street? We are better educated than that, aren’t we? Leaving me free to say this about Britain, or Cambridge, in the (poetical) sense I intend.

14      Mother rosebush... This intensely reverberant phrase is from a genre of Transylvanian lament songs, which I can’t expect others to pick up fully (or not until they’ve read Dawn Songs) hence the speed of image transition, which would not be necessary if there were immediate recognition.

15      The lamb led to the slaughter. See Alstonefield part 2. See Biography. It is, as it says, a fear - not a process, nor an event, but a fear.

16      line one. Possible variant here: collaged / college.

      the village grip... I mean, of course, the grip of the surrogate village, the village where villages have all died, such as the walls of privilege.

19      they fell into pride... Who did? Not exactly the “people I knew” of the previous stanza, but people, some people. Or if you like, a lot of people-ness all round me seemed to change from “goodwill” to “pride”, in public representation. Or if you like, the change from “people I knew” to people not knowable. All this is evident.

      after death... In the sense, too, of d’après.

20      It strikes me at this point that readers have been barraged with a constantly displacing figurative discourse for many stanzas. Well so they should be, this is how we know ourselves. Trotting off the current identity tags just gets you cheap poetry at a high price.

20-21      The division of the “protagonist” (we always used to call it a protagonist, which means an actor really, or someone in a boxing rink) into two persons happens at about mid-point of a number of my histories, such as Alstonefield Part V. Here it is more of a reinforcement than a dichotomisation.

21      Christopher Middleton and I had an altercation about this stanza (chosen by him as typical). I was accused of making “false tropes”. It was a perfectly reasonable objection, if somewhat rationalist. How is the earth “loyal”? How is music “had and held”? How can music or anything at all “sit” “across” (or any other preposition) “pain”? My rather feeble answer was that a thought is not prepared in the kitchen beforehand and brought out cooked into figuration to be served on the page (I didn’t put it like that) but that what is realisable is back-referred from the poetical construction, and not entirely my responsibility. The poetry is to create thoughts, including perhaps impossible, or impossibly optimistic thoughts. Such as that the earth in its curvature, might be “loyal” and the music in the way it moves and ennobles sorrow might connect to this. Loyal to what? In that case, to us if we keep the contract. Otherwise, to the entire astral physics, for us to catch up with if we can. Simply, the poetry is placed (not too far) ahead of recognition, instead of trailing behind it. But false tropes quite possibly in that case too.

      Christopher hit the nail on the head here by suggesting that the “overdetermined” sense is “concocted” by the needs of poetical movement and even rhyme, by compositional needs (which I take to be a version of the old academic objection to Dylan Thomas). Of course it is, and this is the risk of this kind of writing, but also the beauty of it when it works, that the musically determined wording (and you always retain plenty of choice) produces, creates, a sense you had not suspected and would not otherwise have been able to reach, maybe creates it for the first time on earth. It may indeed not work, for the reasons Christopher suggests; it is a risk, but give it me any day rather than something like Larkin’s crabbed and unfaultable reduction of everything to the pre-known, demanding ten out of ten for “telling phrases” and maybe “true tropes” (but which I usually find quite irrational and obscure).

      There is a hesitant possible variant: loyal / royal which may have caused even more trouble.

22      double-ganger is an awkward appropriation of doppelgänger, wanting to avoid the suggestion of ghostly (he who walks). A ganger is the person in charge of a gang rather than a member of it.

23      Some may not notice that here the stanza length changes from nine lines to ten lines. I certainly didn’t, until I’d written this and a few more stanzas and couldn’t see any way of changing them back to nine lines. Reasons for maintaining a consistent stanza-lineation in a long poem include concern for the general appearance of the text on the page, that it should look like a proper shaped or considered thing, with an ancestry, rather than the glamours of asymmetry, shouting, floating fragments, nervy stammers, punk jerks, all that kind of stuff. Or just to suggest, that the priority is in the wording, not the projection. Words project themselves without boosting. But also because a certain stanza-length produces certain writing conditions. The 6-line stanza of Sea Watches produced a sense of curtailment, you always seemed to reach the last two lines before you expected to as if it should have been eight lines, so a sense of moving quickly towards the last line, finding the necessary closure without delay, before the tide comes in. The 9-lines of Aria were more spacious, slower, allowed varied repetition, and maybe suitable for a text in which there is really no action; the protagonist arrives at the cemetery in the first stanza and either stays there or arrives again right through the poem until he leaves it at the end. I don’t know what difference the change to 10-line here makes, which is maintained until the last two stanzas. Alstonefield is in 10-liners, which seems related to a decision taken at the outset, that this might be a very long poem, the lungs to be filled completely for each breath, hymnally.

      The phrase with “across” in line 3 might be a recrudescence of the “music across pain” trope of stanza 21. Here it as a line of writing that goes “across organised cruelty” : crosses it (out), or denies it.

28      an old man in Dorset... I thought of Thomas Hardy. (E.g. his “After a Journey”, Satires of Circumstance.)

      “a silver palate” might have been a well understood description of a kind of voice production in song at one time.

29      this old fellow... Hardy or a future me or a villager of Vitiana, where this cemetery was. It can come to any of us.


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