Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Graves on Pound

So they were both equally dedicated to the craft of writing poetry, both professionally obsessed with other languages and both equally daffy in their own ways.
I prefer Graves' version of nuts which is a gentler old fashioned kind of lunacy.
There's a story he told about meeting Pound in T.E Lawrence's "rooms" at University. Pound was visiting Lawrence who was an expert on things provencal...
Lawrence; Pound, Graves: Graves Pound. You won't like each other.

This is Mr. Graves on the Cantos
It is an extraordinary paradox that Pound's sprawling, ignorant, indecent, unmelodious, seldom metrical cantos, embellished with esoteric chinese idiographs-for all I know they may have been traced from the nearest tea chest-and with illiterate Greek, Latin, Spanish and Provencal snippets (the Italian and French read all right to me but I may be mistaken) are now compulsory reading in many ancient seats of learning. If ever one comes across a relatively simple Blake-like passage in the cantos, sandwiched between direct quotations from history textbooks and snarling polyglot parenthesis , this is how it sounds. Forgive me but we are all adults here...

Quotes from cantos

even Whitman's barbaric Yawp was hardly as barbaric as that. But remove the layers and layers of cloacinal ranting, snook-cocking, pseudo-professional jargon and double talk from Pound's verse, and what remains? Only Longfellow's plump, soft ill-at-ease grandnephew remains!

Maybe Lawrence was right.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pound's Cantos

There are the alps said Basil B. You can go the long way round to avoid them, or you can sit and wait for them to crumble.
Not me I said, I'll go straight through.
so I did.
1-95 without much pause. five days. The pain killers helped.
With no footnotes or translations or other critical waffle.
and there was much bad history and poor economics and some rancid ideology and vast swathes of boredom and once in a very long while a bit of jaw dropping poetry.
Compare/contrast Pound's editing of The Waste Land, which I have also been mulling over. Available in facsimile. How removing chunks of it turned a good but rather uninteresting poem into a piece that still unsettles with its strangeness.
Pity he lost that crayon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Peter Makin and the art of good criticism

So I looked up Peter Makin, or his work, having been annoyed by the footnotes to Bunting on Poetry.(see Bunting On Wyatt several posts ago) I still don't appreciate Makin's editing of that book, but his book about the shaping of Bunting's verse is fascinating reading.

Here is a fine reader, nagging away at the simple question: how good was this man's poetry. And if it was good could it possibly be great and if it were great how can that be verbalised. Like the illuminations of the gospels he discusses, it's slightly obsessive, and bordering the fringes of a gentle lunacy, but like the illuminator, the final product is clear sighted and impressive.

He begins with the poems; not the theory or the poetics, and reads carefully. And he takes on the objections to his method.

And you begin to realise, if you had been living on the moon had had never stopped to think about it before, how difficult is that question: is this a good poem? How hard it is to answer it. But he performs the fact that it can be answered: not neatly in a five second sound grab or some kind of trendy slogan that could be assimilated into the next best selling "how to write a poem". He swerves, backtracks, takes Bunting to task, stops to marvel, finds faults, but all the while heading, if not inexorably, more like Graves' flying crooked Butterfly, towards an answer.

Observing what he calls “ ‘the seduction scene in Briggflatts’ he states “This scene does without a great deal of what we might expect to find in such a description.”…
Comparing it to a scene from The Rainbow he writes; But the addition of detail would add nothing if the centre, the essence, were poorly conceived. With a mass of denotation-like the venetian painters with all their skill in modelling-a writer may only make clearer his weakness. Bunting’s scene is cut down to a few flat planes. They undress; he runs his fingers though his pubic hair; they talk through the night; she washes him. From these sections, we infer the solidity that is needed”

(Peter Makin (Bunting: the shaping of his verse. 1992 p 225/6))

(I’d have thought that "thatch of my manhood’s home” was hers, not his? but the freedom to dissent here is part of the effect of the style. The fact we might see it differently doesn't detract from the success of the suggestion. It may even be a criteria that measures the skill of it.)

How much detail is too much: how much too little? What is admirably terse; what is too private?

Good criticism illuminates the text it discusses and for the would be writer, forces an encounter with hard practical questions.

And Makin does a good job of showing why so much of the Stanley Fish ("is there a text in this class/How to recognise a poem when you see one") style of approach to poetry, for all its sometimes enjoyable pyrotechnics, is a facile dead end. Both for the reader and the writer.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

To criticize the critic

Not the done thing apparently.

But if I'm going to consider "who is speaking" and the sincerity typos sooner or later I run up against the idea that what is really at stake is the indvidual's response to the poem. And the dangers of taking a subjective reaction and passing it off as an objective, measured response.

So i've been domesticating the argument and thinking about the reviewer who described parts of Lady G as “embarrassingly unconvincing.”

What does that mean? Does it tell the reader of the review about the poem or the critic? And what as writer could I learn from this? How do I make my poem more "convincing".

The story of Lady Godiva’s ride though the city as told by twelfth century latin chroniclers is historically unconvincing because it claims to be truth and there are too many reasons why it couldn’t be.

If you claim to have kayaked the Herbert river from its upper reaches to where it becomes tidal and don’t mention or remember that below the main falls there is a series of falls which must either be paddled at great risk or portaged at some risk, then I will be unconvinced.

In both cases I can measure the claims against an objective knowledge. ANd the claims are undermined by their own inaccuracies.

So our critic is saying he’s met a First century Roman Legionnaire and knows they don’t speak like this? I don't think so.

let us give the critic the benefit of the doubt, a courtesy he doesn't extend in his review: surely he doesn’t think I’m stupid enough to pretend this is what a real Roman legionnaire said in the first century standing on the ramparts of the Lunt?

So given that it’s not a truth statement, and given the fact that this is not a warped attempt at mimesis which can be measured against the real thing, what does it mean to say it’s unconvincing?

our critic apparently find this embarrassing because? The only real evidence is:

“A green hill “does Dumb Insolence” (more schoolboy attitude than war)”

Sitting there at his computer, wouldn’t you think he'd check his own understanding? How long would it take to type “dumb Insolence” definition into Google? If he had, the first thing he’d have read on the search results page, without even bothering to open the link would be:

Dumb insolence is an offence against military discipline in which a subordinate displays an attitude of defiance towards a superior without open disagreement. It is also found in settings such as education in which obedience and deference to a teacher is expected but may be refused by unruly pupils

Had he bothered to check further he would have found out that in the British military, it was a court martial offence and in time of war punishable by firing squad.

Why did he think his understanding of the term was the only one? Or assume that I wouldn't have checked it before using it?

Instead he declares of number 5: in tones that remind me of my English teacher (which is not a compliment) : “it should have been left out of the sequence”.


Did he take the time to consider how this piece fits into the sequence, because after all this is a sequence, not a series of randomly collated bits, with its own architecture: those veterans sipping tea in part two had just come out of the British military and it might have been a part of the vocabulary passed on to the /I/ growing up in the migrant city. His teachers, many of whom were ex-military might have carried that vocabulary into the school grounds and Adrian Mitchell's poem did a lot of the carrying (and mutating: the sullen ten year old says "They don't like it/but they can't do you for it") .

He might have considered what those twelve lines were doing there, what that speaker might be there to represent and how his statement might be seen to qualify or at least challenge, or be qualified or challenged by the hopes of the later migrants who wait for the city to be made familiar in their children’s stories.

But given that he didn't check "dumb Insolence" I have reasons to doubt that he considered any of these things.

I am unconvinced.