No 8 - Autumn 2005
Parataxis and Constellations
Review of David Miller
David Miller: The Waters of Marah. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005. 113 pp. ISBN 0 907562 66 3, £8.95 pb.
David Miller: Spiritual Letters. Hastings: Reality Street, 2004. 58 pp. ISBN 1 874400 27 X, £6.50 pb.
These two books are both encompassed by the term prose poetry (Miller's Collected Poems were published in 1997); and the sense of being a hybrid, of straddling different forms that the term prose poetry suggests, hovers over these writings. They partake equally of the poem and of the novel, which casts the reader into a certain uneasiness since the trend of the modern prose poem (think for instance of Stephen Berg) is to locate its language in poetry, accentuating the differences with narrative prose. This is understandable in a world in which prose is everywhere, but it is also limiting. It takes a strong writer to insist on the prose element in prose poetry. Miller succeeds by enjambing the stylistic signs of prose (direct speech, a narrator, even devices of plot) with parts that are poetry (sometimes lineated as such, more often as images and lines that simply by their referential and unhurried quality are poetry).
Thus, reading these books felt like crossing unfamiliar territory. Wanting a comparison, I reached for Max Jacob's The Dice Cup. Jacob was perhaps the first modernist writer to see the full (not just lyrical) potential of the prose poem. His pieces (somewhat in reaction to Baudelaire and Rimbaud) are mostly short proto-surrealist narratives in which dreamlike events are recounted and often made to hinge on a play on words or slippage of meaning. The pieces are still great fun to read and in the 1916 edition of this work Jacob wrote a fine preface, which contains this summation:
We must distinguish between the style of a work and its situation. The
style or will creates, that's to say separates. Situation distances, that's to
say stimulates artistic emotion in us. We recognise that a work has
style by the feeling it gives us of being enclosed; we recognise that it is
situated by the little shock we get from it, or else by the margin
surrounding it, and by the special atmosphere in which it thrives.
(Max Jacob, The Dice Cup, trans. Christopher Pilling and David Kennedy.
London: Atlas, 2000).
Jacob suggests that his pieces in The Dice Cup do both, and the same can be said of Miller's prose poems.
The Waters of Marah starts with “South London Mix”, a piece first published in 1973 (the title then would have sounded less like a compilation CD). In this early work Miller sets out something that sounds like a credo:
The task is not even to get a sense of mystery into commonplace
things again. I think the job is to reassert the value … of ordinary
things. And in doing so, to find the place where tangible and
intangible meet, and concrete and abstract do likewise … Someone
once said that a certain line in a poem of mine …was very beautiful.
The line was: Birds flew over the river. (The Waters of Marah, p. 15).
A bird flying over the river (think of Blake's world of sensory apprehension) is something of a meeting of the concrete with the abstract. The places where these things meet are in the world of forms and structures; Miller's work explores these borderlands by constantly recrossing literary forms.
When discussing an experimental writer such as Miller, it is important to place that writer in relation to the explosive moment of modernism. Modernism was a moment in history, a short revolution. In a weak sense, every experimental writer after the 1920s was postmodern in that the meaning of modernism was to 'make it new'; to imitate or write in the style of a previous generation was to be that oxymoronic creature, a writer in the 'modernist tradition'. It was not until the 1960s that a generation was able to throw off the shackles of their forebears and do something new again. Note how artistic revolutions follow social revolutions; the French Revolution produced Romanticism, the period of the Russian Revolution produced modernism, and the social upheavals of the 1960s produced a new kind of writing. But there was a problem; the revolutions of the 1960s had not been successful. One thinks of Adorno's famous sentence that the moment of philosophy's chance to change the world had passed, hence it was condemned to relive it. It, like modernist poetry, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. (Adorno, Negative Dialectics [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973], p. 3).
A few poets from the 1960s/70s produced something genuinely provocative and new (Prynne, Ian Hamilton Finlay). Both these writers are resistant to imitation because they could produce in their work a genuine shift from modernism itself, by pursuing a certain tendency to its end. Most writers in the infirmament of innovative poetry are condemned to be weakly understood as being in a tradition of modernism, thus open to the criticism that they are using tropes and cliches of style. This is not to say that strong, profound, or upsetting writing that does nothing that Stein or Eluard or Khlebnikov did not do cannot be written. It can, and one of the pleasures of reading widely is discovering these works. But each writer has to think through the way the blunted tools of modernism should be used again, and this will often involve making a new toolkit.
One of these tools is parataxis, the lack of grammatical joints between clauses. For many years paratactic works have been seen as a symbol of alienation, a code to a disjointed state of mind and hence to a broken society, the shoring up of fragments. Later generations built on Eliot's insight to make increasingly broken connections, forcing the reader to do more and more interpretative work. Strangely though, society is not more broken or alienated now than it was in Eliot's postwar time of disillusion and polarity. Instead, an inflation occurred in which parataxis became a rhetorical currency used with increasing hysteria precisely as society did not collapse. Often, disjunction and its difficulty of interpretation became a screen, a veil. Parataxis pursued as a formal device became indistinguishable from the non-sequitur, the unconstructed notebook, the blind. I am not arguing against such techniques. But it is often forgotten that they are techniques, tropes, items of rhetoric.
In fact, the connection between parataxis and alienation is historical and inessential. As a term, parataxis goes back to Ancient Greek, and the effect (often uncannily similar to modernist poetry) can be seen in writers such as Pindar, using a tool of rhetoric in poems of celebration. The effect is one of mystery and elation. It is time to reevaluate parataxis as a potential item in the palette of any writer. Writers such as Miller remind us that it can be an interesting technique, not a tic or cliché of attitude.
In this formal respect Miller comes from an interesting angle. As we have seen, he is not afraid of prose. His unit of composition is the prose paragraph; he usually structures his pieces as a montage of paragraphs (and is in this sense closer to an avant-garde of fiction than poetry). Often, they are fragments from a novel, with conversations between fictional characters. The shorter pieces consist of constellations of only a few paragraphs. It is worth quoting “The Image” in full:
A painter once spoke of how he had tried many times to make an
image of the human scream, cry of terror, pain, horror. – And I have
always wished, he said, to paint, also, the human smile. It was a wish
that remained apart from any known attempt; let alone realization.
I imagine you standing on worn steps of stone, with your thin, child's
legs; your eager smile; and gaze that gives back the ineluctable. And
the image is terrible to love's eyes – all ruin is spelt to these eyes; each
moment, the ruin faced.
Streetlamps at the margins, through the central field of obscurity you
would move, into the dark. In my room, a lamp's thrust of
illumination deforms the outlines of its globe. I scrape or rub at the
image before me, bringing grey, silver or white from blackness.
(The Waters of Marah, p. 40)
There is still a work of interpretation for the reader here, but the effect is not (in formal terms anyway) one of alienation. The reader can choose any of several possible interpretations of this poem; it does not matter which, it is clear that an image of the human face is central. The smile can be terrible, and cannot be represented in art. This constellation of three paragraphs dissolves the anxiety of interpretation because they can be held in the mind at the same time and produce a kind of sublime. In much modern poetry any aesthetic response is mediated – spoilt, some would say – by anxieties over interpretation. By lessening the 'noise' of parataxis to a few transitions, the whole thing can be held in the head in a fragile yet valid moment of insight. This seems to be a rare achievement. I can think of no other writer who does this.
Another poem in the book that I like very much is called “Moments”. It also is made of three prose paragraphs divided with indented full stops. The whole thing should be read, but it ends:
Perhaps it's the very moment when the child raises her head, with its
shock of auburn hair, to look up at the sky; a look that's immediately
cancelled by the sun's too-intense brightness. Or perhaps it's another
selection of time, not an afternoon's blue, but a dawn completely red,
orange. Cry out in the midst of it. (The Waters of Marah, p. 60)
That cry must be one of aesthetic recognition. The cry of the sublime, which in the Kantian sense was one of terror, the romantic root of beauty.
Miller's more recent poetry is seen in Spiritual Letters. These again are short prose paragraphs, this time not montaged together, but often inside the paragraphs or sentences showing a dreamlike slippage into different registers and realities. On page 15 we read: “It was my belief that I had a novel to write; I found myself with a handful of fragments.” (p. 15) If this is self-referential it is too deprecating. If he is an “architect of shards” (p. 22) he continues to build constructions that are much more than Eliot's shoring up.
It is interesting that Miller should choose the epistolary form for his latest collection. Among all the possible prose forms in modern fiction, only the letter allows for periods of reflection and lyricism not bound by considerations of plot or theme, thus potentially uniting it with poetry. This is an interesting development from his pieces in The Waters of Marah. The pieces are apparently self-contained, without an addressee, often containing dream-like sequences or reflections. Max Jacob comes to mind more strongly reading these. Unlike Jacob though, the pieces are linked in ways that are not obvious, as the stars in a constellation form a picture:
Recognition fails. A dream apart from the allure of confusion. A figure
of stars seen waking through a glass wall. (Spiritual Letters, p. 17)
For me, Miller's strength as a poet is in his decisiveness in poetic form. He has sharpened parataxis, a tool blunted by its long connection to one particular register in poetry, and he has achieved what sounds like a paradox; poems clearly relating to the modernist current, yet concerned with construction, understanding, and meaning.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The