Hesitation, Naming, Poetry

This from one of these staged “conversations”, this time between Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Fiona Sampson, on the topic of “Language Under Stress” [audio here].  Sampson is trying to make vague point about hesitation as a “mark of authenticity” when Williams cuts in:

“Hesitation” is a word that means quite a lot to me. It… it has particular resonance in the thought of Simone Weil […] she talks about the hesitation that we ought to feel in the presence of… of a human other. Whenever we meet someone else we… we hesitate, we don’t assume we understand them… we… we have enclosed them… captured them. And I think that hesitation in language is one of the ways that we show that… kind of drawing back, that humility, in plain English, before what’s there… and a humility that’s also expectant, because you are looking to… deliver more… as I say more than what’s… what’s apparently there.


Naming is… is a sort of necessary evil, isn’t it? It’s a… or a  felix culpa… I mean it’s a happy fault. You’ve got to do it, and when you’ve done it, the first thing ought to think is, “Now what’s wrong with that?” Just as I think with… with any poem, there’s a level at which you say, “I’ve got to do it,” and the first thing you ought to think when you’ve got it down on the page is, “So what’s wrong with that?”

I think there’s an awful lot to be said about hesitation in poetry, not all of it positive. I’ve tried to reproduce as accurately as possible Williams’s own hesitations when speaking, which verge (as all British hesitations always seem to) on affectation. Similarly and to a greater degree, my sense is that much of contemporary poetry performance affects a sort of humility via halting or hesitant reading or recitation. I’ve always been of two minds about this, often wishing the poet would just get over his or her feigned polite embarrassment and belt the thing out, as Dylan Thomas did, and Robin Robertson does. I mean, you’re up at a dais, after all. People have come here to hear you. Let’s dispense with the fiction that we all, too, dislike it [Moore’s original poem can hesitate because it resolves to push ahead as well as think twice and then think again; the revised version, in refusing to think twice (more than once), gives up hesitation and revision for epigrammatic concision].

But of course what I’m talking about in performance is the self-conscious and self-serving adoption of hesitation as style, hesitation as a social cover for exuberant self-expression, and not an example of Williams’s ethically laden hesitation, his “drawing back” of language, or “drawing back” in language, in the face of an other. But I don’t know that what Williams is describing is really a feature of modern English poetry at all, outside the small group of poets who implicate themselves directly in this question. These would include Dickinson, Hopkins, Eliot, and most overtly Hill (in other languages Mandelstam, Rilke, Celan certainly, and then … Blanchot?), and surely a handful of others whom I haven’t read, or haven’t read sufficiently (I guess Oppen is among these). But even this short list is troubled, since part of Hill’s critique of the late Eliot is a reduction of pitch in his poetry to a kind of stylistic corollary of Anglican spiritual bromides.

What our poets seem to be doing more than anything is naming, giving words to feelings (sometimes to ideas, or to experiences), and not often asking “what’s wrong with that?” The “intolerable wrestle | With words and meanings” is very often not a struggle at all, and if intolerable for some, it isn’t so for the poet. Perhaps the two ways in which Williams’s repeated phrase, “so, what’s wrong with that?” can be taken is representative of the matter.

I think there is an important analogy to be made here to contemporary criticism and theory.

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