Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Once more round "The Wanderer".

Firstly, let’s get rid of the idea of the poem as an autobiography. Yes there is an I.

Oft ic sceolde āna ūhtna gehwylce
mīne ceare cwīþan. Nis nū cwicra nān
þe ic him mōdsefan mīnne durre
sweotule āsecgan.

But the speaker is a fictional construct: the “I” an empty space into which the performer of the poem steps. The Exeter book is a book to read from, placed on a lectern. The reader steps into the role, becomes the anhaga, who thus magically appears in the place where the performance occurs.

Imagine, urges this text, imagine a man in this situation. Speaking to you.

He has lost everything external that gives his life meaning: his kin, the bonds of fealty that tied him to his lord, the social and legal definitions and protection those afforded, the obligations which shaped his behaviour and gave him finite purpose; he has lost his country, he is adrift in a hostile world looking for context. He cannot even expect to land where his language is spoken and he may be given the chance to explain himself before they kill him.

Who is he?

Take away all those external markers of identification, those makers of social identity, and who is he?

And the poem says that you are all in this situation:, you, sitting there listening, safe in your assumption that the I speaking is not the I listening. Who are you?

What do you ground your answer in? A name (with its assumptions of family: x son of A or Y daughter of B?) A relationship? A history? The name of your village, your kingdom, your Lord? The accumulation of experience that passes as your biography? The world? Heroic actions? Acquisitions: fame, possessions, knowledge, the beauty of made things? The language you speak with its colouring of status and education and regional provenance?

Friends, lords, family, companions: they all die, says the poem. One the wolf took off, another the bird bore away, another was buried in a ditch by his kinsmen. It all rots, rusts fades, crumbles: Even the walls stand ruined, and soon it’s all gone.

And when it’s all gone...and then something odd happens. The poem wants to say; you will find meaning and context in god. That is the lesson and this is what it says. If you do not know God then your life is simply an exile lived in a hostile space. Search for him and find him and you will no longer be alone.

But lurking in the background is a different question. Not a “pagan” answer. (This is a Christian poem. Not a pagan poem topped and tailed with Christian sentiment to make it fit for the cloister, but a very obviously Christian poem.)

Ongietan sceal glēaw hæle hū gǣstlic bið,
þonne ealre þisse worulde wela wēste stondeð,
swā nū missenlīce geond þisne middangeard
winde biwāune weallas stondaþ,
hrīme bihrorene, hrȳðge þā ederas.

gǣstlic :a lot depends on how you translate that one word

The first clause could easily be translated :

A wise man knows how ghastly it is when all this world’s wealth stands waste.

Ghastly: in early use: causing terror in modern use: suggestive of the kind of horror evoked by the sight of death of carnage; horrible, frightful, shocking. (OED)

But you could also translate gǣstlic as ghostly, in the sense of “not of the body”. Peter Baker’s suggestion, by extension, is spiritual. But since I’m not doing an academic translation, how about: liberating.
A wise man knows how liberating it is to stand alone in front of the ruins of whatever he thought made him who he was.

The poem rephrases the question, cutting through the post modern waffle about identity as performative, as self as fractured an unknowable, as constructed by nationality or language and culture.

The last human on the planet, utterly alone, would still be an “I”.

So not what roles do you play, not what labels do you wear, but who or what is this irreducible, unique “I” who stands looking at the ruins?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Antidotes to sludge: Geoffrey Hill's Oxford Lectures.

So as antidote to sludge, I recommend Geoffrey Hill’s lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry which are available here:

It says something unpleasant about poetry world that some of the people in it can be so outraged by the fact that the man dares to have opinions that don’t match theirs. In a cultural field where “transgression” and “oppositional criticism” and “subversion” are catch cries of an unreflective orthodoxy, it’s just not acceptable to criticise.

And he has a sense of humor. Which is there in the poems.

His lectures, like his prose criticism, are not easy going. If you’re expecting a single argument driven logically through a series of supporting points, you’re going to be confused. Some years ago, we set out from Laytown to drive to the Hill of Tara. It took me far too long to realize that following the road signs was the least useful way of finding the place. But of all the journeys, that one sticks in my head.

Hill’s critical work reminds me of that journey: words are so untrustworthy they have to be forced and bent: the destination may be visible but the route to it is not always obvious. The work glitters with fascinating insight but the overall direction is not necessarily obvious.

And he has a sense of humor.

Whether you agree with him or not, the world of poems needs people like this who stand their ground and talk with passionate conviction and vast knowledge about poems: about their value, and about the value of approaching them as worthy of deep consideration without marching forth behind some trendy banner daubed with slogans.

There’s something obdurate there to push against. An argument worth sifting and considering. SOmething that might be worth disagreeing with.

This following quote comes from:
Geoffrey Hill's First Lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry
By Jeffrey Wainwright from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

His [Hill’s] message is that contemporary poetry is only ever what it is by virtue of its past and that its history cannot be elbowed aside by the self-important contemporary.

What will students new to the voice of their new professor have learned? First and foremost, aside from any of the arguments advanced, I believe that as Hill read they will have heard poetry's visceral power and in his analyses its immediate intellectual substance. They will have recognized that the 'English studies' they may be engaged upon is no light matter or pastime. Poetry, and by extension literature, has a 'technic' and a history to be absorbed, and through that unfinishable labour its passion and importance can be known and felt.

Friday, January 13, 2012

the evils of academic writing and the instantly forgettable poem Part 3

The Evils of Academic writing.

Smith, H. (2005). The Writing Experiment: Strategies of Innovative Creative Writing. Crows Nest, Australia, Allen and Unwin.

So there is writing, which is not creative (we knew that though we might have worried about what “creative” means) but there is apparently “creative writing” which is not “innovative”. The book never explains “innovative” or "experimental” in terms of “to whom?”: For the individual doing something he or she hasn’t tried before, or the writer trying to do something that genuinely hasn’t been tried before. The fudging of that issue haunts the book.

The “How to write a poem” genre is massive: 1300 plus results on an Amazon search on “how to write a poem” in books alone. I’m not sure where I read it but I think books on “How to write poems” outsell books of poems.

There’s a subgenre of this which "The Writing Experiment” is an example. It window dresses word games with a coating of “literary theory”. They name check Saussure and Lacan and Freud or other randomly chosen names, and they are characterised by their own predictable buzz words:
transgressive, subversive, innovative, experimental, ideological, race, gender sexuality, theory.

I forgot "postmodern".

In these books Knowledge is not a buzz word. Skill, Understanding, Craft, Ability , Talent are not buzz words.

According to this book:

The main special qualities writers must have are perseverance, motivation, the willingness to search for methods which suit them, energy to push themselves out of their own comfort zones and avid reading habits. Failure to produce creative work is often due more to a lack of stamina or insufficient commitment to the process than a paucity of talent.

Which reminds me of the bad old days when I went to school and boys who failed to achieve acceptable results were caned because failure was simply a lack of effort on their part.

Why writing should be almost the only field of activity where you can tell someone, presumably with a straight face, that talent is not an issue is an interesting question. Whatever “IT” is, some people do “IT” better than others.

(Note to self: work at "commitment to the process" if you want to write better…stay up longer…Is a Briggflatts possible if you don’t sleep for six months?).

(Note to self 2: What could creative work mean in that previous quote and would it be "Innovative creative" work?)

Books like this, supposedly about writing, discuss “fundamental issues’ which tend to be defined as sexuality, ideology and ethnicity, roll out names of “literary theorists” and are characterised by an almost complete absence of any historical sense of poetry as a thing people have been producing and discussing, in a form of English accessible to a modern English speaker, for at least five centuries.

Whether this absence of an historical perspective is due to ignorance or is a deliberate strategic manouver to protect the flimsy nature of the writer’s assertions and make what they are promoting seems “innovative” when it isn’t; is a judgment call for the reader to make.

But the implied reader of this book is actually the problem because the implied or model reader is not capable of making that judgment.
On the one hand he or she has to be ignorant enough about poetry to accept:

“..many writers probably do not really know about their writing methods. Many writers probably do not really know how they arrive at their texts and mental events which occur during the creative process may be difficult to remember or describe.”

The vagueness of “many writers” is probably deliberate. Who they are, or why their ignorance is important, is not stated.

However, our model reader obviously doesn’t know about Shelley, or Emerson, or Keats’ letters, or Pound’s writing about poetry, or Eliot’s, or Graves’ or Auden’s or Davie's or Heaney’s or Hill’s or Atwood’s or Boland’s or Susan Howe's ( the list extends and is admittedly a bit random), or anyone of numerous manifestos from Sidney onward, and has not got even a nodding acquaintance with any decent twentieth century poet with a long career, many of whom were/are provocative critics, because if they did have that knowledge and acquaintance, which I would think is essential for anyone who wants to take writing poems seriously, our model reader would stop reading and ask: what about the “many writers” who have spent their lives thinking and arguing and writing about writing?

To be fair, if the target audience of this book are undergraduates on a creative writing program, or high school students, they probably don’t know any of this.

However this same gullibly ignorant reader is later told that:

experimental texts usually work against and beyond familiar literary codes and conventions. To write experimentally is to adopt a subversive and transgressive stance to the literary, and to break up generic and linguistic norms. This formal transgression is significant because it can be a means to rethink cultural mores; to shake up ideas about sexual identity race or class

So given the implied reader’s ignorance of the history of poetry and poetics, how is he or she going to know what “familiar literary codes and conventions’ or “generic and linguistic norms” are? Or be able to know what is or isn’t "Innovative"?

Which brings us back to that crucial question: who is using this “experimental” writing to rethink SI,R,C? Individual readers in the comfort of their own homes?c But if we’re talking about “writing” as a public activity then surely the next question is what ideas of sexual identity, race or class or “linguistic norms” have not been shaken, stirred and decanted over the past five hundred years.
And are books like this, and the approaches to poetry they promote, the reason why so much poetry is instantly forgettable?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The instantly forgettable poem #2

Back in 1975 or 76 I memorized MacNeice’s Cradle song for Eleanor. It was in an anthology of poems we were abusing in class, along with Bagpipe Music and Prayer before Birth, and MacNeice was not one of the poets we were studying. (R.S. Thomas, Sir John Betjeman, and Robert Graves were also in the anthology and they weren’t on the syllabus either. An all boys school, we were DOING “War Poets”. )
Someone should write a thesis on the reasons why English teachers will keep on pushing those "War Poets".

Cradle Song was one of the first poems that cut through the classroom dullness and turned me towards poetry. Far too many years later I have a head full of poems and bits of poems, lines, phrases, images, from Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling to Bunting and William Carlos William, via Old English and God alone knows where else. But Cradle Song, like Kipling’s Three Part Song and Kavanagh’s Kerr’s Ass is special and it's still there.

I am not suggesting that “memorability” is the only test of a good poem. That would be silly. Learning Briggflatts would be a party piece and nothing else, trying to learn the better cantos would just be silly.

I’m not even sure that memorability, in itself, is any sign of excellence. About the same time I learnt Cradle Song I learnt:
I never knew/ until you walked away/ you had the perfect arse/forgive me/ for not falling in love/with your face or your conversation. (I didn’t learn where the line breaks are.)

The old Cadbury Drinking Chocolate ad’ which consisted entirely of:
‘Hot chocolate drinking chocolate, hot chocolate, drinking chocolate”

And a song with the irritating chorus “Coeey chirpy chirpy cheap cheap” and lyrics that began:
Where’s your mama gone
Little Baby now
Where’s your mama gone

And I’m not advancing any claims for any of these as poetry. In fact I would give a fair bit to have two of them surgically removed from my memory. (The Cadbury’s ad can stay.)


What intrigues is how much of the poetry I read and have read is instantly forgettable. It is published which should mean something, politically correct, technically excellent, approved, lauded, prize winning, beblurbed to the heavens, but instantly and utterly forgettable. Sometimes even before I've finished the poem itself.

There are whole collections of poems I have bought, read and remember nothing about.

In one case all I remember is the cover of the book: I don’t even remember its title.

So what is the point of all this instantly forgettable poetry? Why is there so much of it? What purpose does it serve? Why do people write it and publish it? Does anyone read it? Why do I keep buying it?
Answers on a postcard please……

The forgettable poem #1

Is an interesting phenomena.
But first a different, less explicable type of forgetting.

Having spent twelve months reading poetry I have to read, I’ve been having a holiday and reading Louise MacNeice’s “Collected Poems.”

In his introduction to the Faber poets on poets edition Michael Longley claims MacNeice wrote some of the finest love poems in the language. For what it’s worth, I agree with him. I’m not convinced by ‘Mayfly’ (one of Longley’s candidates) , but I’d back him on ‘Cradle song’, ‘Meeting point’ and ‘The introduction’.

MacNeice tends to be forgotten. The Thirties are Auden, Or young Dylan Thomas. “Modernism” is on its way to being an established ism and perhaps a university subject. In “The Sinking Island” Hugh Kenner, blasting the thirties as “A dishonest decade”, is too busy assaulting Auden to even mention MacNeice. In the companion volume, “A Colder Eye: the modern Irish writers’ Austin Clarke gets five or six pages. MacNeice, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even make the footnotes.
Why someone this good is so forgotten is an interesting question.

His poems sing. The line is essentially melodic, whether the poem is a short “lyric” like “The Introduction”, or an extended demonstration of Terza Rima like the second “Autumn Journal”. There’s enough technical virtuosity to keep anyone happy. There’s an obvious intelligence working behind the line so that it’s not just a vacuous melody. The poems move in a reconisable urban landscape where most people live, have friends, jobs, go on holiday, fall in and out of love.

Not a critic’s poet, certainly. But a reader’s poet? Surely?

If you can be this good, and mostly forgotten, what does that say about the field of cultural production that is poetry? How can anyone keep a straight face and argue that quality will win through?