Monday, May 30, 2011

Blurb wars; Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics'.(part one)

For reasons unknown I own a copy of every book of poems Geoffrey Hill has published since the Penguin collected of 1985. Which I also have.

(Reasons unknown is not a cliché but a good catholic confession of guilt. I own a copy of every studio album and solo live album Bert Jansch has made (over twenty hours worth if my computer is to be believed) and if you have a bottle of Bushmills handy and a few spare hours I will bore you silly by explaining exactly why I admire the man and his music. I’m not sure I could do that with Hill’s poetry and no, for the record, I don’t like 'Mercian Hymns'.)

Still, this is about blurbs.

Clavics, his new book, has six quotes by way of Blurb.

There are quotes from A.N.Wilson, Peter McDonald, Eric Orsmby and Michael Dirda on the inside of the dust jacket and quotes from Peter Levi and William Logan given pride of place on the back. All six tell the reader how great Geoffrey Hill is. Peter McDonald is quoted as saying: ”The most important and original body of poetry since Yeats”. Michael Dirda simply states: ”Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living English poet”.

Not one quote or comment is about the poems in Clavics itself. This has been a characteristic of Hill’s books (at least of the editions I own) since The Orchards of Syon in 2002. Apparently his publishers think it is enough to state that Geoffrey Hill is great and His work important. I’m not denying either.

But of the six quotes on the back of Clavics only one, by Michael Dirda, doesn’t turn up on another book of Hill’s in my possession. The Wilson, McDonald and Ormsby can each be found on three of the last four books. The Logan quote was first used way back in 1998 on The Triumph of Love. The Peter Levi in Canaan in 1996.

Without Title (2006) raised the recycling to a new level. A different quote is attributed to Peter McDonald. Ormsby’s quote appears again. The other quotes are referenced not to individual writers but to publications. One of them had been used before on Hill's previous book and another;”The most important and original body of poetry since Yeats” is actually by Mr. P McDonald who is thus quoted twice on the same book cover.

Now, I would hazard the opinion that those last four books; Clavics, A Treatise of Civil Power, Without Title and Scenes from Comus) reflect a falling off in the power of the poetry found in the magical sequence of four books that began with Canaan and ran through to The Orchards of Syon. It may be indicative that Orchards of Syon is the last book of Hill’s that I have which has a comment from a critic about the poems in the book. (It’s from George Steiner who offers a useful way of thinking about what is not an easy poem to come to terms with.) And I think it’s reflected in the fact that none of the blurbs of these recent books have anything to say about the content of them. They simply keep telling the potential reader these same people think he’s really good and his work is really important.


After The Orchards of Syon did the actual content of the books become irrelevant? Was there nothing new to say about the poems? No one new to say it? Were the pomes somehow beyond scrutiny? Are lines like ”meritocrats are crap meteorites” and “No intercept from zero frisky dawn” clues from a cryptic cross word or lines from “The Greatest Living English Poet” writing in Clavics? Could you even imagine Yeats writing something like that?

Does it matter that Clavics is said to be an “Elegy for the musician William Lawes”? when I deny that anyone given the book without that information could ever work it out? (And I do know who William Lawes was and I even have some of his music…). Does it matter that Clavics is metrically very clever in an obvious way which may well nod towards George Herbert, if it produces lines like the above?

Or can a poet reach a point of eminence where what they write is no longer important because there are enough people ready to find value in whatever they write?


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Never Explain-your reader is as smart as you are

Bunting again. Good advice, although one might observe, perhaps unfairly, that if your small circle of readers are called Louis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, and W.B Yeats and later Hugh Kenner, Daniel Jones and Hugh McDairmid, it would be easier to believe this.

How many critics and editors believe the corollary; that the writer is at least as smart as they are? When Hugh Kenner first encountered Pound's poetry, he knew something worthwhile was happening but his highly developed critical skills didn't allow him to "appreciate" it. He didn't chuck Pound's poems in the bin and dismiss them: he accepted the challenge and revised his critical skills until they allowed him to deal with what was strange and new.

Unless the critic, the reviewer, the reader, are willing to do that, any talk of "originality", is meaningless.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I like that said Offa, sing it again.

The poet as makar. Not as sage or seer, or recorder of the human condition or shaper of texts suitable for the educational system, or cultural analyst or popular entertainer, or even as spy. These, and many other activities are all valid but peripheral.

The poet as someone who makes or composes poems. Poems as constructions , as patterns of words which when heard (or in our culture, predominantly read, but nevertheless finally heard in what might be called ‘the Inner ear’) give us the experience of something we label as poetry. And which other sorts of verbal expression do not.

Gael Turnbull, 'The Poet as Makar' from The Star you Steer By.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The evils of academic writing: AMITAVA KUMAR: DENIS DUTTON IS DEAD

Subtitled “Theory vs. Academic writing”

A blog entry about good and bad writing. It begins by making the usual criticisms of writing from the field of literary criticism. It quotes some good examples of bad writing. But jargon is not the only academic sin. Every discipline has its own vocabulary. The idea that writers operating in say, Narrative theory, writing for their peers, should make immediate sense to casual readers unfamiliar with the discourse and lexicon of the field is baffling. The relevant question is not; “Is the passage difficult to understand?” but “Does it make sense to the intended audience?”

There are I think worse sins. And it’s interesting that in a discussion of good and bad writing so many of these sins are treated with approval.

There’s a good example in this piece. This paragraph is taken from a long quotation so it's not by the writer of the blogg:

Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation. The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined. Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage. They know that any rich attempt to represent the world “out there” participates in those same world processes, and their style reflects that rich reflexivity. Without forgoing their search for external or even objective facts, these writers foreground their own voice and the ways that their words strive to take the curse of inescapable linguistic mediation and make a blessing of it. As Bakhtin so beautifully puts it: Every act of depicting is itself a depiction. What we say speaks us, and we are part of the truths we can formulate.

Where to start? There is so much wrong with this elegant paragraph. “We are part of the truths we can formulate”. Does that mean anything more than we believe what we think is the truth? Does it mean that all “truths” are automatically equally invalid, or suspect?

Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation.

There are three things happening here. A dogmatic value judgment “the best academic writing”, which blandly asserts what then becomes the defining quality of “the best”. The unnecessary personification which denies the human agency of writers, making conscious choices. And finally the casual assertion which avoids any kind of qualification “part of the system under observation”. All systems? With equal consequences?

This was the defining discovery of Quantum physics at the beginning of the twentieth century: measurement and observation affect the behavior of the sub atomic particles being observed and measured and therefore the measurement of a particular photon is unrepeatable Socio-linguistics and European Anthropologists realised much the same: enter the village to observe, interview the speaker, and you will affect their behaviors and speech. But the quantum rule doesn’t apply to macroscopic objects and academic disciplines like the latter two developed strategies to deal with the problem.

It is obviously not true of all systems. There are numerous things one can measure and observe without affecting the thing observed and being measured.

When academics in the field of literature went cherry picking in other disciplines to offset the fear of their own irrelevance and lack of “scientific rigor” they often failed to observe the qualifications, methodologies and contextual limitations of the disciplines they raided. Bad linguistics, bad history and sloppy philosophy suddenly became acceptable parts of literary discourse and the fact the historian, linguist and philosopher might object became irrelevant.

But a poem isn’t changed by the act of reading. Counting the words on the page doesn’t change them. I can read the book and pass it on to another reader and unless I vandalize the page the words remain the same. Being human, I may disagree with another reader over value and meaning, but that doesn’t change the words. Years ago Stanley Fish was claiming that because different critics disagreed about a poem’s meaning and used the same evidence to support their reading: there was something fundamentally flawed with literary criticism. But as his critics pointed out, what he willfully ignored was that readings of the same poem can be compared, because the words on the page don’t change and part of the task of criticism is to establish the criteria by which those different readings can be assessed. (Donald Davie picking Micheal Schmidt for thinking the Bull in Briggflatts is called ‘Rawthey’ is a small but interesting example that answers the question "can you misread a poem?")

The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined.

The beautifully balanced phrase uses the semi colon to conflate two separate issues and elevate the second clause to the status of scientific fact. The first part continues to slur the quantum physics argument to make it sound as though measuring anything is always going to be subjective, unrepeatable and unverifiable. The second clause is demonstrably wrong. What “can be spoken” does not rely on the individual speaker. What the individual speaker is capable of speaking relies on the individual speaker, but “what can be spoken” relies on the limits of a language at any given historical moment operating in a social and cultural context.

This academic characteristic, the habitual use of the fine sounding but empty phrase reaches its height:

Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage.

Which “fact”? The 2 previous separate statements have become one “fact”. And while it’s a fine sounding sentence which the mind and eye glide over, what does the metaphor mean? Is it a good thing if you turn your prison into a beachside cottage? Are you still under house arrest; still limited and peripheral? And why a beachside cottage? Is that the kind of place most people live their daily lives? Or do these unnamed “great academic writers” use language as a comfy refuge on their weekends and holidays?

Exam question 1:

Is language a “prison house”? (Note to student: do not fall into the obvious trap of quoting either Wittengenstein or Benjamin Lee Whorf in your answer). If you could break out of "the prison house of language" where would you escape to?

Depending on how one counts “words” there are anything between a quarter of a million and three quarters of a million words in the OED. This doesn’t include “words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary. ( So the rich dialect and slang vocabularies of your own local world should be added to that number.

Exam question #2
What exactly is it you can’t say with that many words?

If it’s a prison, and I think the metaphor is inappropriate, it’s a bloody huge one.

And so on. There are worse things in the world than bad syntax and an overuse of technical vocabulary.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Blurb Wars revisited: Tom Pickard, 'Tiepin Errors', BB and BS.

I recently read the blurb for a collection of poems which was so tangled in its own imitation of ”critical jargon” that the writer could claim, apparently without irony or humor, that the poet creates metaphors from syntax. I spent so much time wondering how I could create a metaphor without syntax that I forgot everything else about the book.

So it was refreshing to pick up Tom Pickard’s Tiepin Errors, and read this quote on the back. The fact that the quote is attributed to one Basil Bunting means it’s also functioning as an endorsement: “approval and envy” means a great deal coming from who it does.

I’ve just been reading his poems with approval and envy. His ear for rhythm is exceedingly delicate, his syntax strong and terse, and his vocabulary free of any fancy work. He seems to able to select at will the detail which creates a whole scene or action, He has made several unusual forms his own.

This is my ideal blurb. It clearly states why a reader might find the poems of interest as poems. You do need to be tuned into those key terms; rhythm, syntax, vocabulary and why they might be crucial and appreciate the kind of poem it endorses. But read the poems, and it is a fair description. Examples could be given from the collection to support each of those claims.

However, the publisher obviously thought more was necessary and the page slides away from Bunting’s precise compliment into a different register altogether: the register of the anonymous blurb writer:

Tom Pickard’s poems of love, sex, politics and war are searing in their directness and emotional power. His political poetry is unflinchingly honest…

It’s hard to believe that this is targeting the same potential reader. It’s an almost parodic example of a use of language directly opposite to the one the Bunting quote admires or performs.

Leaving aside the problem of distinguishing between love and sex or politics and war, what is ‘searing’ doing in that first sentence? It’s the kind of vapid qualifier you hear on the news or in celebrity interviews….how does a poem sear? What does it sear? If it’s the reader, why would you want to read something that did that to you unless you were a paid up member of the masochists union. Why does ‘Honest’ need an adjective and why “unflinchingly”. How do you tell if a poem flinches or it's honest?

We’re in the world where the nouns go hobbling round in need of crutches because no one is really listening anymore. The kind of person who is solicited by this slush is not used to paying attention to words So why is it on the back of a collection of poetry that demands and rewards attention?

PS; Great title, great tie, and for what it’s worth, Bunting was right about the poems.