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Extremely Difficult & Occasionally Unpleasant: The Poetry of Samuel Beckett

As Reviewed By: Andrew Goodspeed

There is no key to Samuel Beckett’s poetry. It is a body of work that can be as oblique, resistant, and complex to the scholar as it is to a novice reader. Even his fervent admirers tend to regard it as recondite and baffling. For those unconvinced by Beckett, the poems are easy targets. They contain, in microcosm, precisely those faults his detractors find throughout his oeuvre-squalor for squalor’s sake, indulgence in gloom, endless obscurity, pointless obscurantism, unfollowable erudition, reference to the untraceably personal, and the occasional unexplained diversion towards what seems motiveless degradation of humanity. Yet despite these irritations and stumbling stones, readers return to the poems: they contain some lines of exquisite beauty and they constitute, at times, great writing. The difficulty of Beckett’s poetry is therefore how best to excavate the significance without becoming mired by the obscurity. It can be done, provided that a reader does not allow Beckett’s notoriety for poetic opacity to intimidate.

[private]The reputation of Beckett’s poetry has suffered most acutely by his first major publication, the extended poem Whoroscope. Beckett famously churned this out over one night in Paris, hoping to meet the submission deadline (the next morning) for a contest being held by Nancy Cunard. He won. But the circumstances ofWhoroscope‘s composition-driven by penury, Beckett was writing at speed-make it difficult to know how much this poem implies for his aesthetic, or what it signifies for the totality of his creative lifetime. Yet it is pointless to speculate about his motives; what matters is what the poem offers, and it is precisely this that is deceptive.Whoroscope is sprawling, abrupt, amusing, obscure, disgusting, fantastically referential and, of all things, annotated. It betrays the provocative erudition, intellectualist sneering, and verbal confrontationality that Beckett adopted early (as did several of his contemporaries, such as his friend, the Ulster poet George Reavey). This now-dated avant-garde methodology mars the poem, as it is a style that may irritate or intimidate any but the most unbullyable reader. Whoroscope is also, in the main, bad poetry. Even readers familiar with Beckett’s sources will have tough toil to make anything good of lines such as:

Faulhaber, Beeckman and Peter the Red

come now in the cloudy avalanche or Gassendi’s sun-red crystally cloud

and I’ll pebble you all your hen-and-a-half ones

or I’ll pebble a lens under the quilt in the midst of day.

One imagines that this thought could be expressed with greater clarity. Of course, not everything in Whoroscope is this confused, yet the general tendency of the poem is towards the jarring, the unexplained, the weirdly scholastic. The Beckett ofWhoroscope is something akin to Ezra Pound at his worst-brash, sneering, inaccessible, deeply read, and apparently angry or contemptuous: but of what, or at what, is entirely unclear.

Yet if Whoroscope-multilingual, disjointed, erudite-offers readers precisely what they fear in Beckett’s poetry, one may also observe that it is misrepresentative of Beckett’s verse as a whole. Although it is partially explicable (Lawrence Harvey has admirably traced Beckett’s sources and references for his verse), this explication does not clarify Whoroscope, but merely impresses one with the young Beckett’s reading. To know what Beckett knew about Descartes does not help a reader resolve the poem into any artistic unity. It remains a lurid scholarly phantasmagoria about time and eggs. Knowledge of Beckett, or Descartes, does not help; no door opens. And it is this inaccessibility that makes Whoroscope unrepresentative of Beckett’s poetry as a whole. Even five years later, when he published the collection Echo’s Bones, he was beginning to move away from the inaccessibility that marksWhoroscope.

It is probable that modern readers have lost something of the ability to appreciate how strange and radical Echo’s Bones must have appeared upon publication. Whoroscope, for all its oddity, is very much in the tradition of avant-garde Modernism, particularly in its abrupt juxtapositions, multilingualism, and unacknowledged references. But much that we now recognize and regard as “Beckettian” appears first in Echo’s Bones, sometimes in prototype, but distinctive and engaging: here his speakers pass time “goggling at the tulips” or “lying on O’Connell Bridge,” ponder “my darling’s red sputum,” ask “give us a wipe for the love of Jesus,” bemoan “my ruined feet” and “stump off in a fearful rage,” and seem miserable except when in the local pub, where “the Barfrau makes a big impression with her mighty bottom.” How peculiar this all must have seemed before Beckett became “Beckettian.”

Echo’s Bones contains a poetry of disenchantment and alienation; it does not embrace the society in which its characters amble irritatedly; and it is humorous with the disturbing dismal humor of disappointed lovers and nauseated wanderers. Certainly there are occasional passages in these poems that are as murkily impenetrable as is Whoroscope. Yet the poems in Echo’s Bones retain a literary elasticity that allows some ingress, even for the reader who does not recognize Beckett’s more eccentric references. This openness manifests itself in at least two ways.

One: several of the Echo’s Bones poems are short, concise and, if not resolvable, are at least open to interaction unsupported by annotation. The quatrain poem “Da Tagte Es” illustrates this well:

redeem the surrogate goodbyes

the sheet astream in your hand

who have no more for the land

and the glass unmisted above your eyes

Although this is not precisely clear, and the conflated imagery of death and ship’s departure is somewhat banal, the basic sense of loss, death, and “surrogate goodbye” is accessible to even a swift first reading. The economy of the writing is strict: the impact of this poem is immediate, yet it retains a poetic ambiguity even after repeated perusals. The poem is unlike Whoroscope, where almost any comprehension or enjoyment depends upon knowing the background references to Descartes. In “Da Tagte Es,” the fact that Beckett wrote in response to his father’s death is intriguing, but not essential, knowledge.

Two: the other elastic element that allows ingress is the direct clarity of lines in the longer poems. Although poems such as Enueg I or the three Serenas prove difficult to explain or parse, they contain wonderfully vivid writing that immediately attracts attention. It is verse as experience, not as explanation; it would be difficult to paraphrase these lines (from Serena II), or to make them cohere into a narrative, yet they are intensely alive as poetry:

it is worse than dream

the light randy slut can’t be easy

this clonic earth

all these phantoms shuddering out of focus

it is useless to close the eyes

This remains obscure in totality, yet the sense of hopelessness and suffering it conveys is evident and undeniable. One has little, if any, certainty about how exactly Beckett relates these five ideas, or whether or not they should be discriminated as five separate ideas. But the vivid clarity of each line in itself, when combined with the other lines in unexplained juxtaposition, creates a disruption of narrative that heightens the sense of nightmare, dissociation, and futility suggested by individual lines. The passage becomes an incantation that, as a succession of unlinked images, provides the reader with more an experience than a statement. This concept-of the poem as experience instead of argument-will become more important later in Beckett’s poetry.

But pause here for a moment. Many regard Beckett’s poetry as obscure and ugly, allusive and coarse, and terribly difficult to value as a whole, despite the memorability of individual lines or phrases. And indeed, it would be easy to regard Beckett as offering dense poems crucified by their learning, incomplete entities, poems that provide strange and shattered snapshots of a situation or state of consciousness. Yet it is well worth remembering how few poems by Beckett have created this image of unreadable inaccessibility. There are under twenty poems inWhoroscope and Echo’s Bones combined; this is a substantial proportion of his entire poetic output, as he was not a prolific poet, yet it is unfortunate to allow fewer than a score of early poems to overshadow later, better verse. Of course, Beckett’s prominence has resurrected several difficult early poems that he chose not to include in Echo’s Bones (notably “Hell Crane to Starling” and “Yoke of Liberty”), but these remain the purview of the specialist and have not substantially contributed to Beckett’s the public image.

Beckett’s poetry is commonly assessed by his difficult early poems for a simple reason: he wrote much of his later poetry in French. His biographer James Knowlson comments that “for him, English was overloaded with associations and allusions…it was also easier, Beckett maintained, to write in French ‘without style.’” Although Knowlson refers here to Beckett’s prose, there is no area of his writing in which the temptations and superfluities of puns, allusions, and complexity are as immediately evident as in his poetry. The stylistic mire of his early verse-condescension and inelegance-remains the best example of what Beckett sought to escape in English. The transformation was neither exact nor complete. He did not suddenly switch from baffling English into graceful French. But the general development of his writing and aesthetics led him first into the greater clarity and severity of his shorter English verses, and this impulse drew him into the ever-greater rigor and difficulty imposed by writing in French.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, but most notably after the Second World War, Beckett’s writing attained a new direction, discipline, and developed an elegant severity. In prose this transformation produced, ultimately, the three great “Trilogy” novels, and led later into his important short fictions of the 1950s-1980s. But the transformation also altered Beckett’s poetry. The scorn and pedantry largely vanish, suppressed in favor of a compressed cold clarity:

je voudrais que mon amour meure

qu’il pleuve sur le cimetière

et les ruelles oè je vais

pleurant celle qui crut m’aimer

(Which Beckett translated into English as:)

I would like my love to die

and the rain to be falling on the graveyard

and on me walking the streets

mourning the first and last to love me

These four lines, strange and circular, express more than do the ninety-eight lines ofWhoroscope. Here there is an entire story, moving, strange, and yet unreal, a poem of hypothetical loss more personal, but not less skillfully constructed, than Eliot’s “La Figlia Che Piange.” It is unclear what it means, at least in the sense that one cannot be certain what impelled Beckett to write it. Although the reader knows the identity of neither the narrator nor the love-either could be male or female-comprehension does not depend upon resolving these relationships. It is precisely this compelling ambiguity that makes this poem fascinating: one understands it without knowing precisely what it intends to convey. It is strangely malleable: is it mere gloom as one walks from an argument with one’s lover, or does it express a proto-Dantescan urge to be rid of Beatrice so one can begin writing the Commedia, or is it the morbid expression of a depth of love, or is it merely the selfish longing of one who wants a relationship to end through the convenience of death instead of the inconvenience of argument? In fact, it does not matter. What is relevant, here, is the fact that the poem is, in part and in whole, elegant, direct, and expressive; interpretation depends upon the reader’s inclination, but not upon obscure background knowledge.

One of the most notable elements of Beckett’s later verse is the similarity it bears to his shorter prose pieces, and to the dramatic works of the 1960s and 1970s. A verbal similarity is immediately evident. Consider the first stanza of the 1974 poem “Something There”:

something there

where

out there

out where

outside

what

the head what else

something there somewhere outside

the head

This style of constant questioning and reformulation (often with repetition, and frequently in short broken phrases as though spoken by someone panting or begging) is a central element of Beckett’s later writing. As a style, it reduces to a minimum of statements the major questions that preoccupied Beckett-perception, identity, location, isolation, and expression. This short interchange of formulation and reformulation became the verbal style of much of his late work, irrespective of genre. Compare the stanza above with the following passage from Beckett’s 1980 playRockaby:

so in the end

close of a long day

went back in

in the end went back in

saying to herself

whom else

time she stopped

time she stopped

Here the verbal and rhythmic similarity to “Something There” is instantly apparent, and is reinforced by the breaking of the dramatic lines into short terse phrases, similar to the verse. Yet even where Beckett does not directly present his writing in the broken line format of “Something There,” one still observes immediately the verbal similarity to his verse, as in this passage from the 1983 novel Worstward Ho:

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

This paragraph, although presented as prose, cannot reasonably be read in any manner except that the reader already observed in “Something There” and Rockaby. It is not merely a matter of punctuation and short phrases, but involves the more significant element of thematic break. At each line break in the drama or the verse, and at each full stop in the novel, Beckett propositions, questions, or reformulates his idea. His sentences, even the two word sentences from Worstword Ho, do not so much flow into one another as state an idea made possible by the precedent statement, and each in turn makes possible the idea in the sentence that succeeds it. This is incredibly dense writing-please observe how each sentence here contains one idea, and each idea develops a new line of thought as Beckett approaches the question of motion in space: “A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into.” This extraordinarily condensed precision is the distinguishing figure of Beckett’s later writing, in all three fields of prose, drama, and verse.

The proposition here is not merely that Beckett’s later works all resemble one another. That is simply a symptom of the more significant fact that Beckett’s later writing began eliding genres. All his writing became, in a certain sense, poetic, even as his writing engaged with ever fewer traditional notions of poetic beauty. Beckett was not a writer to effuse about spring air, praise nature, or write lovely phrases to charm pretty girls. His later writings are often terse and repetitious, they frequently express confusion or pain, and they are commonly short observations about heads or eyes or people talking to themselves. Yet, despite the isolation and anguish it frequently describes, Beckett’s writing attains a stark and haunting elegance. He seems to have sought, in his late writing, the maximum possible contraction of form and expression without diminishment of insight or grandeur. It is as good a definition of poetry as any other.

One should also take note-here, alas, necessarily brief-of Beckett’s poetry in French. Some poems he translated into English himself, but many of his French verses remain tantalizing problems for others to attempt. Most notable of the French poems are the Mirlitonnades, a group of small, gnomic verses often of such extreme concision and apparent simplicity that the effective translation of their intellectual content into English requires substantially more words than Beckett used in the original French. This addition somewhat diminishes the peculiar effect of the originals, where much of their force and allure derives from the bizarre felicity with which Beckett retains meaning whilst compressing language.

One might also offer a final word about Beckett as a translator of poetry. His primary translations are, of course, those works of his own that he translated from French to English or from English to French. Yet he also translated several other poets from French into English, with intriguing results. With the general exception of his translations for the Anthology of Mexican Poetry (which Beckett apparently undertook as a source of income at a time of poverty), his translations often sound as much like Beckett as they do of their original author. This blending of voices sometimes works wonders, as in his translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone.” In this Beckett maintains a general textual and spiritual fidelity to Apollinaire whilst also scattering unexpected but effective end rhymes. Beckett’s translations of Chamfort’s maxims are also worthy of note, if only because they best approximate, in English, the extraordinary condensation of expression and meaning one finds in theMirlitonnades. One sample of this complex distillation of expressiveness will have to exemplify the whole. Chamfort’s observation that “Vivre est une maladie dont le sommeil nous soulage toutes les seize heures. C’est un palliatif; la mort est le remède” Beckett translates as:

sleep till death

healeth

come ease

this life disease

Beckett’s poetry will always fill the third place after his fiction and his drama. This is inevitable given the magnitude of his accomplishments in both other fields, a factor which is only increased by the fact that he had an indelible reformulating influence on two separate language literatures (Anglophone and Francophone). The poetry is of interest, in this sense, as the tail end of the avant-garde. His early verse is extremely difficult, and occasionally unpleasant to read; it is unfortunate, however, that this reputation has clouded the significant (if obscure) accomplishment already contained in Echo’s Bones. Yet his verse attains a notable poetic value, particularly after the 1950s, when Beckett’s creative efforts in every field all began to distill into one type of expression in three different artistic fields. It is too easy to dismiss this later poetry as merely the offscourings of the more important prose and drama; in fact, they were all writings of a piece, coherent individually and among works, in which Beckett steadily eroded excess until only the core articulation remained.[/private]

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- who has written 6 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Andrew Goodspeed was born in New York City. He was educated at the Unversities of Michigan, Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin. He is currently a professor of English Literature at the South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia.

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One Response to “Extremely Difficult & Occasionally Unpleasant: The Poetry of Samuel Beckett”

  1. John Walsh says:

    becketts

    poetry review

    thank

    you

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