William Bibby


A Reinvention of the Modern

Sunday, 17 March 2013 at 13:46

A Reinvention of the Modern

Snow is Falling

Tomas Transtromer

from The Great Enigma

published by New Directions 2006


Translation by Robin Fulton

The funerals keep coming

more and more of them

like the traffic signs

as we approach a city.

Thousands of people gazing

in the land of long shadows.

A bridge builds itself


straight out in space.

Robert Frost spoke about there being only one poem and that all poets contribute to it. Others have spoken of the precursors influence and the ghost of the future in the writers that enlarge the vision glancing back, as it were, to the originals struggle with its intention. Meaning and its unravelling in the poem echoes future poems that will echo those that have been written and so the knots of syncopation between past, present and future tangle themselves into books and then libraries.

The writer overhears him or herself writing and as they overhear, they change, both in the way they think of themselves and the way they see others. This is when poetry and the art of poetry is glorious. What we hear is familiar but unexplainable.

John Stuart Mill remarked that poetry is not heard but overheard. This is the noise of humans. This writing that is manifest as art says one thing but can be heard listening to something else.

Tomas Transtromer here sketches out an apparently simple landscape of an approaching city;populated, urban, crawling with life, teeming and overwhelming. Also very complicated and full of traffic signs; indices and instructions. The crossroads of boundaries, coloured lights, the liminal, the amber.

Snow is falling and this title, so much part of the poem,gives us our imagination. It blankets everything making the landscape empty of distinguishing features. A kind of moral tonelessness. We all know this scene of hushed whiteness, clotted grey snow drifts at the side of the dark tar-macadam road, the sodium lights marching into the distance toward the orange glow. And the snow falling across the beams of light, falling across the headlights, filling space as we approach the city.

Yet suddenly that is all wrong. We are not moving toward the city

like the traffic signs

as we approach a city.

It is utterly ambiguous. Are we just somewhere; a no-mans land? And these funerals, do they bunch up just in the same way as traffic lights begin to occur more frequently as one approaches a city? But we are not approaching a city. We are just witnessing funerals suddenly in a blank devolved place of desertion.


Thousands of people gazing

in the land of long shadows.

Suddenly everything is the same, featureless, one death much like any other. The sodden flower shrines, the plastic bouquets wedged into the fork of tree limbs or nailed to stakes. Populated by the deceased, the signs of road deaths. Traffic signs.

In fact we are inHades. We are in the Now or the future about to become now assembling its bridge slowly / straight out in space.

The comprehension of these astonishing 9 lines allows the individual reader to fill the language with his or her imagination and in that unhurried place to immediately find the confidence to see part of the landscape of oneself, as though one piece hadbeen added to some vast embroidery.

William Butler Yeats tried to forge a new sensibility of the poetic that included his long vigil of the Irish literary uprising and observed that what was required from himself and others was ‘Intensity with Simplicity’

Another way of putting this would be a lyrical rhetoric, at which W.B. Yeats excelled;arguably his most important moment in the 1919 crises poem ‘The Second Coming’ when he says ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,’. Yeats’s rough beast a celebration (as Harold Bloom regards it), rather than a lamentation of his Paganism.

Our present Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has said that she likes to use ‘….simple words, but in a complicated way’. Not exactly the same thing as Yeats pronouncement although clearly influenced by it, she gropes toward an artifice that can be structured for the Now. That it is an injunction rather than an observation about her own writing is the fact that it is a subjective impossibility, only her readers will be able to make that judgement. But it is what we need.

Transtromer seems to me to be able to make a command of this nature. I am aware the Geoffrey Hill has often moved toward similar pronouncements and T.S. Elliot certainly did in his Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.

TomasTranstromer, not alone, but in the poem above, seems to approach what I would call (as an alteration to Yeats) Strangeness with Simplicity; followed swiftly by two more thoughts : All morals are redundant in the attempt to apprehend Reality and Only God and Metaphysics can reach what’s left of a poetic readership.

The Poetic Title

Wednesday, 18 July 2012 at 18:00

The Poetic Title

Titles in poetry, unlike other assemblies, are not meant to accurately describe what follows. The title of women and men in corporate and public life also answers to the question What do you do? all titles are meant to inform: clear a way toward a mutual understanding; introduce a possible new approach of interest in a subject: claim an opening transparency or superiority; put firmly in a box of money, or class, or education. Titles like these seem to me to be filters.

The title Marketing Director, South East Asia really does explain very simply the ability, geographic area and seniority of the woman or man that walks that international stage. It also supplies a slightly suppressed but eagerly signalled state of the corporate body that has employed such a person. Clearly South East Asia since it is a limited, albeit vast region hints at other regions were Marketing Directors might enthrone themselves. The Corporation behind the employees title dances enthusiastically at its global penetration.

Here is another title that leaves nothing to the imagination Regis Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University and yet somehow leaves everything to the imagination since only very few people understand what being The Regis Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University could possibly be like. Once again location is supremely important this time for different reasons. Partly a snobbery of intellectual glitter rather than global reach, but the seniority and description of labour mirrors the Corporate approach.

I suppose the first title was Leader.

Titles like these encourage speculation, swiftly followed by elaboration, for instance: King, Prince, Chamberlain, General…King of the Belgians, Prince of Wales etc. That titles have endured with a vengeance is indisputable: Best Buy: 2 for 1: Holby City: even down to letters alone, BBC, CNN. Perhaps everything written or spoken is a title: Human, Animal, Plant, in which case all conveyance of knowledge can be reduced to a title for that is all we need.

An expression came into use about two decades ago ‘too much information’, used socially to indicate boredom it also exposes a dilemma in our teeming worlds. Once information, of any kind, was priceless, since hardly anything was widely known, now it is commonplace. So what we now find priceless information cannot, any longer, be kept secret. Since huge amounts of interesting information is known all we are left with are concealed lives, atomic physics, cosmology and food recipes. We are drowning in a surfeit of information titled for us so we can digest it all. Our alimentary cultural tract is being developed in such a way that we may be en-titled to consume everything.

If one thinks of titles as frames then they both present or make presentable and simultaneously hold. So a good title will not detract from the body of work it presents but a clever title can also conceal content that has no merit. This is particularly true of poetry. The oblique ‘The Bible’ which tells us nothing about what to expect but rather delivers the idea of an instruction manual or ‘Anna Karenina’ which tells you everything you need to know before you begin but conveys nothing of the content. In this way there is an uncanny relationship between a title and a stills photograph.

The fact that published photographs are almost always titled or captioned is in direct relationship to the medium. Photographs mostly depict a moment, in a particular location, (a located urgency) made in a fraction of a second at a very specific time and containing, mostly, recognizable objects. If the stills photographs of Bergen-Belsen had been presented to the public, as they were in 1945, without any title the effect would have been a frustrating intensity but the photograph would have been more aptly described as a piece of ‘work’. Photography has undermined the word to such an extent that shortly there will only be images accompanied by a title. Baudelaire saw this when he cursed Daguerre and his ‘glass traps’.

Photographs demand information and once this obligation is delivered all photographs become politicised. With poetry this cannot be the case unless deliberately manipulated. With poetry, avoiding descriptive titles can also reveal content. A poem about a Vatican Cardinal who hangs himself in a cool, marbled, colonnaded room, consumed by jealousy and desire, is titled ‘Tranquillity’. Desire has no history. Immediately foregrounded, continually replacing its titanic demands that swell and recede, where tranquillity can make no arrangements; a title of this nature can only suggest finality or resolution. Yet the title gives nothing but once the poem is read and absorbed it makes the point, it declares its own sovereignty; the stanzas stuffed with adjectives and adverbs, fullness, stillness, absorption, silence, meditation. The irony of the title, describing the state, rather than the event has a ponderous lucidity. Unlawful financial procedures, moral turpitude, arcane horrors – all these indices confront the title’s ambiguity.

In another short observation (elsewhere on this blog) of Seamus Heaney’s poem titled ‘Stern’ layer upon layer of motifs and tricks wriggle in our grasp. The title contributes so much to the poem that it is absorbed into it.

In poetry the success of a title is always an inflation for the simple reason that the title avers to the poet not the poem. The title is what the poet thinks, the poem is what the poet feels. In fact the title of a poem is a second ‘poem’ exemplified by some poets who run on the title into the first line of the poem as though the poet has refused to give the title a separate existence.

Titles then become crowns, denoting sanction, a fact that has not been overlooked by the advertising industry.

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