Monday, October 28, 2013

'Poetry" by David Constantine. Defending Poetry yet again.

Poetry, by David Constantine,  OUP, 2013.

I read this book cheering from the sidelines. Constantine writes eloquently, he advances a coherent argument, as a translator and poet his examples are taken from a different range than usual (Brecht and Holderein play a significant part ) and the book rises to a triumphant eloquent end:

That is why the defense of poetry entails the larger campaign for a humane habitat in which it may flourish to its heart’s content, abundantly saying the human and not Just as  an answering back against the inhumane, but also-why not?-in celebration of a society we are glad and proud of.  Is that too much to ask? Too much or not enough. We want more than mere survival , we want our due, our redress, lives fit to be looked at, and poetry will help, poetry at the heart of social life. We don’t want poetry to be read by a dwindling few but by an increasing many. We want it commonplace, companionable, always there to be turned to, in our ordinary lives, customary and working wonders, 9p139)

Applause applause, the crowd goes wild, rises to its feet, and the sound of isolated clapping in an almost empty theatre echoes disconcertingly.

There are generic problems which all books like this one face. The first is simple and devastating. Who is reading it? I suspect, even resent the use of the first person plural, it’s an insidious positioning technique, but who is this “we”?

“A large part of my endeavor will consist in trying to persuade any who need persuading that poetry springs from and belongs in the heart of society and that it does good there.”(p3)

I suspect that the only people who read books like this are people like me who want to believe them, and  students whose professors or teachers want to believe them. The people who don’t believe that poetry is important, are hardly going to shell out for a book like this, let alone read it. Or be impressed by the arguments.

The second obvious generic problem is that the Defense of Poetry,  from Sidney to now, implies that poetry can only be justified if it has an external political or linguistic effect that is measurable in the world beyond the poem.  If only we all read Poetry, the argument has gone on drearily for over four hundred years, the world would be a better place and language would be so much better. 

Such claims, from Sir Philip Sidney's to the present day, are either wishful thinking, unsubstantiated either by external evidence or understandings of how language or culture actually work, or built from very specific cases where context was so important, argued into a generality.  Constantine tends towards the latter: a specific type of poem will have a specific type of effect on a specific type of reader which will produce a political reaction.   It’s the last improbable step that will justify  ‘Poetry’.

And finally, Poetry. Never the sum of all poems, but an abstraction, which becomes the active subject in the sentence, (in the quote above it has intentions and a heart).  As someone said, you have to pretend the butterfly is an elephant, except everyone outside the seminar room can see it’s a butterfly.

So it’s been interesting to read this defense while reading four new single author collections of poems. One is “Award Winning”. Two are “poetry society recommendations”. All are published by well-regarded publishers. All four are written by writers who teach in University Creative Writing 

Do they live up to Constantine’s claims, or Eliot’s, or Pound’s, or Dan Gioia, or Sidney’s or Shelley’s? No, they are poems, Not POETRY.

And like a great deal of modern poetry, whether it’s Avant-Garde, or Mainstream: Look at me say the poets, look at me,  I’ve written a poem. Tick the boxes that prove this is a poem: it swims as a block of text in a white space, I handle rhyme with care, I look at the world aslant, I pretend to have had poetic thoughts about mundane things.  I use enough Syntactic variation to ensure you notice, and of course the occasional unusual verb.

One out of four goes in for heavy duty typographical play: this signals that these poems are “innovative” or “experimental”.

Four books of poems, bought, read and then reread with attention over a two week period, and not one poem sticks in my head. Not one offered me anything more in return for my money and attention than the spectacle of a writer proving they can write something that is recognizable as a poem.  On page after page.

If I go to a concert I assume the singer can hold a note, sing in tune, get through a song. I take it for granted that the singer knows what a song is and can sing one. I expect more than this simple demonstration.

The gulf between the claims for Poetry and poems which are published is so vast that it’s unbridgeable.
And perhaps the reason why so few people read poetry, or care about it, is that it offers the reader so little in return for money and attention.  The majority of modern published poetry is not “Difficult”. It’s just not worth reading.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Strong Song Tows Us by Richard Burton (part two)

In “A Strong Song Tows Us” Richard Burton attempts to account for Basil Bunting’s ‘disappearance’.  “Mention Bunting to a literate, educated young person these days and you will be met by polite incomprehension. It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s and 1970s he was arguably the world’s most celebrated living poet.”(p7)

Burton investigates the disappearance. He lists as reasons: regionalism (Bunting is ‘a northern poet’) religion (Bunting is a ‘Quaker Poet’) voice (I don’t understand this one), his association with Pound, difficulty, difficulty of getting short bits of long poems in anthologies, but finally plumps for “auto-regionalisation” as the main cause. (p17)

I think he’s wrong. This is not a criticism of his book. I think it’s a misunderstanding of the way poetry works in the modern world.  Quality of poem as poem is not the issue. The shrinking of poetry from the public domain into academic institutions means that what gets read at school and taught at university, sets up a perverse kind of brand loyalty and what is read at school has more to do with what schools have to do, than with any kind of poetics. If no one ever published another poem, schools could continue blithely teaching their compulsory version of poetry because it have never borne much relationship to how poems operate outside.

 Burton demonstrates this when, discussing ‘war poetry’.  He writes:

“We now think of the poetry of the first world war as overwhelmingly critical of political and military leaders’ strategy and tactics, articulating a sense of the hopelessness of valour in the teeth of insuperable horror, but that is largely because the poetry that has survived (because it is the best) was written by poets-Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves- who subscribed to the view that it was the futility and horror that needed to be in a  perverse sense celebrated. If fact of the 2,225 poets who published during the years of the war hardly any expressed the views that have for generations of students defined it’s poetry.” (61)

It’s the bit in brackets that betrays him:  ('because it is the best'.) 

Is it? On what grounds?

In terms of getting a reaction from students, if your class doesn’t respond to ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ you might want to join hands and contact the living: does that make it a great poem? Schools use Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath not because they are great poets,  but because their poems get a reaction and can be discussion starters for ‘Meaningful issues”.  After all, isn’t great literature supposed to be about important stuff? 

The problem is that discussing poetry, as poetry, requires both knowledge and a high level of verbal sophistication. Burton has this, as he demonstrates reading Bunting. He is able to explain why Villon is worthy of our attention, not because of its content, but because of its rich verbal texture.

But how many people in a class room can do that?  How many have ever heard of Yeats’ objections to Owen’s poetry and could navigate that criticism? or Geoffrey Hill's "the poetry had better not be in the pity". How many have actually asked themselves if their choice of poets is about the quality of the poetry, or because in one way or another, they still are “Sandwich board men [and women] of the revolution", in the case of “War Poets” representing values we’d like to think we’d have in that situation. 

Poems get chosen partly because of the syllabus requirement, but partly because of the values they espouse. Are those four poets Burton names really ‘the best’?  Are there really no good pro war poems written by one of the 2,221 other poets?

Bunting is not appearing any time soon on a school curriculum. Imagine the essays they’d make you write, at seventeen. Briggflatts is a great poem: discuss. Imagine trying to explain what “the greatest British Modernist’ might mean in terms of taking a class through I am agog for foam, or Briggflatts, or Villon. I don’t think there are many people who could do that. And I don't think many people would see the exercise as worthwhile. Once you've proven how good it is, what do you do next? Analyse the discourse of nationhood or masculinity it it?

For a poet to live in the academy he or she has to be useable.  And Bunting for all his brilliance, is resolutely not useable. It's one of the reasons he's brilliant.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A strong song tows us: the Life of Basil Bunting by Richard Burton (part one)

A strong song tows us: the Life of Basil Bunting (2013) by Richard Burton.Infinite press ltd.

This is a fine book. The narrating voice is enthusiastic, friendly, critical, knowledgeable. Don Share’s use of “companionable” on the dust jacket is an inspired description. 

Basil Bunting’s position in the history of twentieth century poetry is decidedly odd.  At the end of his long active life, he could wryly comment on a circle of readers that had been painfully small, but which had consisted of Pound, Zukofksy, Yeats, William Carlos Williams, David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid.  His collected poems in the Blood Axe edition (2000) only runs to 176 pages (the book is bolstered by some ‘uncollected’ pieces to 238 pages but it’s still tiny compared with the collected poems of any of his friends).

Poets from Ed Dorn, Thom Gunn to Alan Ginsberg, to Roy Fisher and Tom Pickard  admired his work. Hugh Kenner not only dedicated his book on British poetry, the Sinking island,  to him, but thought his obscurity a national disgrace. Donald Davie called his history of poetry in Britain from 1960-1988,  Under Briggflatts,  acknowledging that Bunting’s great poem dwarfed its contemporaries. 

By the time he died there were numerous well-informed voices arguing he was one of the greats of the twentieth century and Briggflatts was as good as or equal to The Waste Land,  Four Quartets or any other poem you want to put beside it.

He died in 1985. And then, he disappeared.

Compared to the outpourings of books about someone like Ted Hughes, it’s a fascinating glimpse of how poetry world works. 

In the years since his death the number of book length studies of his work can be counted on one hand (there are two that I know of,  possibly three depending on your definition). The number of books devoted to him might require  both hands to count them,  if you are generous and include slim pamphlets like “Descant on Rawthey's Madrigal” or “Basil Bunting, a Northern Life” in the list, both of which can cost you more pounds or dollars on the second hand book market than they have pages. (This is not an exaggeration. Descant’ does not have fifty pages but it cost me fifty pounds.)

The Faber Collected has been endlessly delayed, new books about Bunting might be advertised by they tend to disappear unpublished.  So for a poet of his stature there is no critical collected or complete poems to set beside his old friends. There is no edition of his letters. The only book length biography,  Kieth Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy (1998) was described to me as “so inaccurate as to be worthless.”

So a full length biography was long overdue and the chances of it being awful or just disappointing were fairly good.  The good news is that Burton’s biography is a long way from awful, in fact it’s very good. It’s readable, and if you knew nothing about Bunting or his work and you ignore Bunting’s own belief that the biography of a poet is an unnecessary distraction from the poems,  this book should have “START HERE” written on it.

Alldritt’s biography is described and dismissed in two crushing one sentence summaries.  The first is worthy of Roy Forster: “That said, Aldritt’s biography is a good story, and it subject would undoubtedly have approved of its sacrifice of accuracy to imaginative narrative”(p6).  Like Forster,  Burton is good at the art of the footnote. The footnote to that sentence adds: “Almost every verifiable assertion in Alldritt’s book , from Thomas’ entry on the Bunting’s birth certificate to the cause of death cited on his death certificate, is wrong.”(Intro, fn 8. P531)

For anyone who hasn’t read Alldritt this isn’t a problem, but if you have, then the book hangs round like an unwanted guest who wants to be involved in the conversation and isn’t  getting the hint he should depart.

Incidentally, if you do want to know the cause of death, you’ll have to read Burton’s footnotes.

The first task of the biographer is to get the facts right and create the scaffolding of a chronology.  With Bunting this is difficult. The outline of the life is fairly straightforward and well known. But the devil is in the detail. There is a lack of evidence: Bunting didn’t keep a diary and liked to burn letters, urging his correspondents to burn his. There is also the problem of Bunting’s ‘diplomatic years’.  Although his RAF record was released in 2010, exactly what he was doing In Persia in the early 1950s might never be known. 

If that isn’t problem enough, what evidence there is often partial, incomplete and contradictory.  The Elizabethans believed ‘lover liar poet” were synonyms, and Bunting was obviously not above embroidering a story. Did D.H. Lawrence really feed him hash cakes? Nor can other witnesses be taken at face value. His first wife’s testimony seems anything but objective which is understandable in human terms but difficult for a biographer. 

Burton deftly works his way through this problem.  He gives contending versions, weighs their merits when he can, has obviously worked hard to track down “objective facts” and sensibly refuses to get bogged down in the impossibility of trying to discover exactly what got Bunting arrested in Paris, or how many countries he was arrested in and what for.

It’s a delicate balancing act, mostly pulled off with a cheerful aplomb. At times it seems to falter: having proved Bunting’s habit of embellishing a story,  Burton seems willing to take everything he wrote from and about Persia as fact.  It’s true his letters suggest the world lost a great book on Persia, but while Burton writes: “You can’t imagine he was making this stuff up.”(302) I’ve bent too many similar stories; so I can.

Scaffolding in place, create the character. And here Burton does a good job, with an awkward, sometimes baffling subject. The book raises questions the evidence won’t answer. Burton quotes Roy Fisher: “..But there was also the inaccessible sense of a demon of delinquency and improvidence –the absences, the goings to ground, the impulsive initiatives, the periods of yielding to circumstance in a curiously-I’m tempted to say suspiciously –passive manner. A sort of anti-matter countering the will to achieve good things, and in some way ministering to it.”(454)

But can never really explain the essential conundrum Fisher outlines: there’s an almost willful self-destructiveness at work. Before and after Persia BB seems to have regularly shot himself in the foot.  It’s almost as if he needed to lash out; at school, at Eliot, at the arts council, at the universities that hired him, at the students he was hired to teach.  But why he did this is remains a mystery. Burton suggests some kind of mental problem, as early as his run in with his headmaster at Leighton park “Bunting’s parents had clearly feared for their son’s sanity for some years” (p51), but it’s dropped though the incident itself is explored with an admirable thoroughness.

Likewise his love affair with Peggy, which Burton describes as one of the great love stories of the century, seems curiously off stage. The only evidence for their youthful passion is in Briggflatts, and while there was a  reunion after the poem’s publication, it slips past us. 

A literary biography has to deal with the work. It  stands or falls on the biographer’s ability to do so on two fronts. The first is the extremely delicate task of trying to relate fictive texts to lived experience and using the texts as biographical evidence. The second is to give the reader some sense of why that work is important.

Burton is very very good on the second one. He provides the evidence for the reception of poems and books.  Unlike Harriet Munroe who returned some of Bunting’s marked  ‘Ret’d too complicated for me”(p133), Burton’s close reading of the poems, particularly Villon is able to demonstrate why the poem is good, and what is most characteristic of Bunting’s poems. As someone who already thinks Villon is excellent, it’s almost comforting to read someone explaining why it is. If you didn’t know the poem, after reading this you’d want to find it and read it. Burton also resists the temptation to write an essay on each poem, though using the structure of Briggflatts to shape the book makes the whole book an essay on Briggflatts.

Using the poetry as biographical evidence is more difficult. Burton is wary, and judicious but his problem can be easily demonstrated.

The evidence for Bunting’s adolescent relationship with Peggy Greenbank is in Briggflatts, and no where else any more. Burton writes:  ”It is a great twentieth century love story and it is commemorated in one of the century’s most influential and moving poems. Indeed it is a love story that is contained almost entirely within the poem”(P33 his italics)  The within suggests something that isn’t explained.  But it’s assumed that what is described happened. 

Later  Tanya Crossey is named three times in two pages (522/3) and it’s not til the third that she is identified in any way, as “Bunting’s young friend”.  This is a minor stylistic tic, but anyone who has read Alldritt will remember meeting her, opening Bunting’s door dressed in her underwear (188). Alldritt gives no source for this story.  Alldritt’s book manages to avoid and simultaneously ghost an evil innuendo.  Burton buries the slur,  but does the burial in a foot note where suddenly the fictive nature of Briggflatts invalidates itself as evidence:

“I have come across no evidence (with the possible exception of Briggflatts itself, although that is a poem) that these girls ever became more than companions. He was intensely attached to some of them but there is no evidence of any of them became either muses of lovers.”(Chapter three, fn 39, Page 567 Italics in the original.)

It’s a fine book. There are a couple things I was surprised to miss: one of my favorite Bunting stories is about his appearance at Tom Pickard’s trial: Alldritt tells it briefly. Pickard tells it dramatically in More Picks than Prizes building to a great exit line. But you can’t have everything.

A reader not particularly interested in Bunting will still find a lot to think about. Bunting’s long life, and his dedication to the craft of poetry, meant that not only was he a part of the modernist revolution, but he lived long enough to see the institutionalizing of poetry: in Arts Council Funding, in the Poetry Society, and in the  development of creative writing programs in universities. That none of these could deal with Bunting, who epitomized everything they were supposed to celebrate, support and stand for, is a damning comment on them, not on Bunting’s awkwardness.

A final point, the book raises the question of why Bunting seems to have disappeared. Burton argues that Bunting’s presentation as a specifically Northern Poet, and as a Quaker poet, have isolated him. I think he’s wrong. The academic process thrives on such distinctions. Critic A writes that Bunting is a Quaker, critic B demolishes A’s argument, but C comes along, supports A by refuting B, developing a new argument which A and D can then attack. And so it goes on. The absence of poetry as good as Briggflatts from the general knowledge of poetry, says so much about how the world of poetry works, how academic treatments at both school and tertiary levels work, and what it says is not complementary to any of them.  

(But I want to come back to that last point later. It's no flaw of the book. Read it.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Revisiting Auden's "In Memory of W.B.Yeats" and not liking the experience..

The Kind of conversation you might dream of having, late at night, four people enthusiastically discussing why Yeats was so very very good. The conversation spinning out to Eliot and then to Auden.  

It’s hard in such a context to defend my intuition, especially when I hold the people who were disagreeing with me in such high regard. It’s harder to insinuate the essential however, and support it from a memory running on empty so late in the evening.

But I don’t like Auden’s poetry. Never have. Perhaps it’s just residual social resentment.  Perhaps he just reminds me of some privileged upper class twit who after his private school trotted off to rooms in Oxbridge where he felt empowered to pronounce on a working class he’d never met.  Admittedly these are dumb reasons for not liking poetry.

But I don’t like his elegy for Yeats. So I came home and reread Yeats’ complete poems, one collection a day, and then reread Auden’s elegy. If it’s great it will sustain scrutiny at the level of word choices.

 It’s the second part that’s hopelessly wrong..

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

You were silly like the rest of us. A glib judgment which hides the grounds of the judgment.  In what way was Yeats silly? The OED gives 6 meanings for Silly:
1 1)   deserving of pity compassion or sympathy (Obs)
2 2)   Weak feeble frail, insignificant , trifling
3 3)   Unlearned , unsophisticated, simple, rustic , ignorant
4 4)   Weak or deficient in Intellect , feeble minded, imbecile
5 5)   Lacking in judgment or common sense, foolish, senseless, empty headed.
6 6)   Stunned, stupefied, dazed as by a blow

So apart from the first one, which is now an obscure dialect usage, which of those terms apply to Yeats?  Unless you are ignorant of the man’s life and writing the answer is NONE.

The same might be asked of the glib poeticizing of the second and third lines: The parish of rich women, physical decay/Yourself. These are offered as things his gift survived. 

What does ’parish’ mean in that context and why ‘rich’ and why were they a threat to Yeats’ gift? 
 Did Lady Gregory jeopardize his poetry, or Maud Gonne, or Olivia Shakespeare?   Did Yeats himself in some strange way jeopardize his gift as the poem states?  Was there a poet who ever worked so hard at being a poet, and who’s collected poems, lined up chronologically, are a testament to his ability to go on getting better at what he did.  Whatever gift Yeats had, he worked hard at perfecting it.

Why Mad Ireland?  How was Ireland any more mad than England or Germany in the same period.

Auden is guilty not only of being glib but of padding his line. Metrically he may be very good but it’s too easy to find an adjective to keep the beat.  Adjectives are the tools of the opinionated.  They simultaneously judge and absolve the poet from giving the grounds of the judgment.  A great poet would have chosen the adjectives carefully. Bunting would have simply left them out.

The same disease is evident in the lines:  “Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still”…
It sounds good, if you feel comfortable with a country being personified as a mad woman…I don’t… but what could it possibly mean in this context. Poetry stops the rain? Or Yeats thought he could improve the weather and was wrong?

 Auden may be metrically brilliant, but if I were as good as he was, I’d write something worth reading.