Monday, August 15, 2011

"Words Alone: Yeats and His Inheritances" by R.F.Foster.


I think one could fairly describe R.F. Foster's output as prodigious. The amount of reading that must have gone into his two volume biography of Yeats alone is almost frightening to contemplate. He somehow managed not to be buried by the details and he is consistently enjoyable to read. Neither of which can be said for Gordon Bowker's new biography of Joyce.

Two examples from Foster's new book: "Words Alone".

The first nails The Boys Own quality of Dracula while simultaneously taking to task some of the more outrageous readings of the book:

In many ways Dracula reads more like John Buchan on mescaline than anything Irish. Its primary identity is as English (or British) shocker rather than Anglo-Irish meditation-however wittily the count and his earth boxes may be interpreted as a metaphor for declining Irish landlords. 105

We could argue whether Uncle Silas is Le Fanu's "masterpiece". Foster's topic in chapter three, "Lost in the Big House: Anglo-Irishry and the Uses of the Supernatural" predisposes him towards the novel as it is always going to be more useful to his analysis than "In a glass darkly". But I like this:

Thus the Styrian lesbian Vampire Carmilla allegedly turns into an 'autochthonous manifestation of the female nation, reaching out from portraits and ruined castles to fascinate and destroy the expatriate English, confined, as Laura is in the novella by a sterile world of patriarchal rationality where no young men are permitted because no continuation is possible.' Perhaps the connection between nation and narration can be taken a step too far.

The reproof is in the juxtaposition of controlled syntax with what precedes it more than in the diplomatically phrased comment.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Australian National Poetry symposium: Free advice on how to be a poetry evangelist.

How to be a poetry evangelist, or an evangelist for Poetry

General Rules
1) Discuss Poetry, or Contemporary poetry: an idealized abstraction which is never the sum of all the poems ever written. Personify it, use a single verb and talk as though it had needs and desires.
2) Make extravagant claims for “Poets”: idealized characters who are never people who produce poems.
3) In both one and two follow the strategy instigated by Sir Phillip Sidney, and followed by Shelley, Emerson, Eliot, Pound, Gioia, et al: do not discuss specific examples. Do not attempt to support your claims for #1 with reference to actual poems or to #2 with the life/career/reality of any poet.
4) Above all know that millions of people aren’t listening, and anyone who bothers to probably believes whatever you’re going to say before you say it so relax and don’t worry about how daft most of what you say really is.
5) It helps if:
You either don’t know much about the history of poems, or you prefer the repetition of myths. Good myths for Poetry evangelists include:
a) Somewhere in the past Poetry had cultural, moral and political significance. If you are Polish, Russian or Irish this may not be such a myth but for the rest of the English-speaking world it helps if you just pretend it’s true.
b) Somewhere in an ill-defined past everyone read poetry and cared about it. (Be vague. The repetition of this myth even by people who should know better has almost turned it into a fact so it’s unlikely anyone will call you out on it).
c) Poetry is important. Vital. Crucial.
d) Poetry is important because it sustains the health or purity of a language. Without Poetry and Poets a language will decay and we all know what that will lead to!

In General:
1) You should avoid not only history but also linguistics, philosophy most modern literary theories and plain common sense.
2) You should lament the small size of poetry’s modern audience (make reference to 5b above), but as a good Poetry evangelist you should always suggest that that people who don’t read poetry are somehow in need of the salvation only Poetry can bring.
3) Make silly claims for poets. (Take Shelley’s Defense as your model. Study his final paragraph. Read Emerson). But keep main rule number two above in mind at all times. Never stop to consider why craftsmanship in arranging vowels and consonants makes anyone an expert in anything other than arranging vowels and consonants.
4) At some stage you should contribute to the debate about how best to turn kids on to poetry so “we” can save civilization as you know it. This allows you to make disparaging references to schools and over-worked English teachers. Any solution you offer should be as idealized and impractical as possible: this guarantees that trained professional educators will dismiss your suggestions as wildly impractical, which then allows you to denigrate them as “lacking vision” and confirm your feelings of superiority without ever having to take the risk of doing anything practical.
5) Use familiar terms vaguely. Blame “modernism” for Contemporary Poetry’s apparent lack of popularity. Be as rude as you like about academic criticism. Talk glowingly about a “truly popular poetry”.
6) Pretend that Poetry is something everyone should enjoy.
7) Never be embarrassed by either the silliness of your claims or the arrogance they imply.
Above all, keep in mind Peacock’s statement: continue to talk as though poetry is the be all and end all of intellectual life as it was in Homer’s time. Do not stop to consider that Peacock’s full statement frames this as a criticism. (Most editors seem to think Peacock was joking. Read him as if he were being serious. Use him as a good example of how not to be a poetry evangelist.)
And finally, do not, under any circumstance start from a realistic appraisal of the contemporary situation of poems as competing in a cluttered market where so much of what people used to use poems for has been taken over by other, more effective forms.
It’s easier if you stick with wishful thinking, historical amnesia and bad linguistics. Your audience, no matter how small, is sure to applaud.

This advice created after reading:
Sir Phillip Sidney’s 'An Apology for Poetry/The Defence of Poetry', Peacock’s 'Four Ages of poetry', Shelley’s 'Defence of Poetry', Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘The Poet’, Ezra Pound’s 'ABC of Reading', T.S Eliot’s ‘The Social function of Poetry’, Dana Gioia’s ‘Can Poetry Matter’, Les Murray’s 'Blocks and Tackles', Paul Dawson’s 'Creative Writing And The New Humanities' essays in 'The Politics Of Poetic Form' edited by Charles Bernstein and the Australian Poetry web site.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bunting, Persian, and Davis' 'Shahnameh'.

I’m reading Dick Davis’ translation of the Shahnameh. Partly because it is the subject of one of my favorite Bunting stories, partly to find out what impressed him so much about Ferdowsi, the author.

And it rolls. I had meant to dip into it and just read about Iraj and his death, the subject of one of Bunting’s poems. and then leave it for a later time when there weren’t piles of ‘things’ that have to be read.

The pile can wait. I haven’t had this much fun since I first read Malory in Vinaver’s edition of the Winchester Mss.

In “Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal” Bunting relates how he was looking for second hand books along the quay at Genoa where he had previously found the Italian source for his poem “Chomei at Toyama” :

“I found a book-tattered, incomplete-with a newspaper cover on it marked ‘Oriental tales”. I bought it, in French. It turned out to be part of the early 19th century prose translation of Firdausi and it was absolutely fascinating. I got into the middle of the story of the education of Zal and the birth of Rustam-and the story came to an end. It was quite impossible to leave it there, I was desperate to know what happened next. I read it, as far it went, to Pound and to Dorothy Pound, and they were in the same condition. We were yearning to find out, but we could think of no other way. The title page was missing. There seemed to be nothing to do but learn Persian and read Firdausi, so, I undertook that. Pound bought me the three volumes of Vullers and somebody, I forgot who, bought me Steinglass’s dictionary, and I set to work.”

It's British understatement at its best. "There seemed to be nothing to do but learn Persian..." As though it were just a matter of making up one's mind and getting on with it with a minimum of fuss.

There’s a coda to the story. Bunting’s Persian translations didn’t impress Pound, and he doesn’t say if they read the end of the story of Rustam together. But his classical Persian took him to Persia. During the second world war he applied for a posting there:

“I didn’t hear a word of it spoken until I arrived in Persia and was called upon to interpret for a court martial. You can imagine how difficult that was. I hope they put the right man in Jail. Very fortunately it wasn’t one of those case [sic] where it would require shooting or hanging.”