Friday, December 12, 2014

The Last issue of The SHOp


The last issue. It's an honour to be in it. The editors, John and Hilary Wakeman, have been accepting pieces of mine for a while, when no one else seemed interested. This either means they had bad taste or were exceptionally perceptive. I prefer to believe the latter.

Poets often grumble about editors. But without editors there is no publication. So my thanks to John and Hilary and my best wishes for their retirement. It really was a marvellous publication.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Geoffrey Hill, Wilfred Owen, Pity and Great War poetry as indoctrination

Thankfully that “rancorous old sod”, his words, not mine, is at it again performing measured acts of literary criticism in a public arena. For which we should all give thanks.

There have been discussions on this blog about the poetry of the Great War. I am deeply suspicious of the reasons for its popularity in schools and constantly bemused by some of the uses to which it is put. So it’s interesting to hear Hill’s take on the subject. His lecture should be compulsory listening for every English teacher about to launch into that unit on “Great War Poetry”.

These notes from the lecture of 2nd December.


(I apologize for any typing errors. I have not attempted a full summary, merely picked out some of the bits that interest me. Towards the end of the Lecture, Hill discusses Isaac Rosenberg, comparing his poetry and ways of thinking through and in poetry to Owen’s. I have not included this as it would seem at a tangent without its complete context. There is an argument running through the lecture about the social and political consequences of the cult of Wilfrid Owen and fraternal pity which I will not ruin by summary.
Unless otherwise noted what follows is as near as I can get to quotations. )

On the use of this poetry in schools and Universities:

At the root of school and university indoctrination in the rhetoric of Great War poetry there resides a dangerous sentimental fallacy: A belief that the work of Sassoon and Owen…That their work represents the central common and indisputable truth of the Great War of 1914-1918 in which treatment, significant items of testamentary personal witness are taken as if they were total objective evidence and finality of historical fact.  In reality such a conclusion is not rationally possible.
…..
On Wilfred Owen and Pity

There is a fair amount of sardonic anger in the poems and letters of Wilfrid Owen….he is as a maker of beautiful enduring entities out of words who was highly intelligent…

But that preface, that preface. That preface has a hell of a lot to answer for. I wish that it had not been written, or that having been written it had been lost.
Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. (Owen)

Where art is concerned one should never trust the sincere. These three short sentences amount to an intellectual and emotional self-betrayal, on Owens’s part, and a betrayal of all that should be strong and enduring in English poetry, British poetry, in whatever century, certainly in the 20th and certainly in the first years of the 21st.  

If you seriously profess poetry, as Owen most certainly did, the poetry can never be in the pity, the pity can only be truly registered in the poetry. Those twenty- three fatal words have achieved the unhappy role of appearing to issue a peremptory countermand against everything that is intelligent in English poetry and in critical discussion of poetry written in English for the past half century. That is to say since the first performance of the War Requiem [in Coventry Cathedral in 1962] released to the public the useful notion of vicarious mourning as the most innocuous response to wide spread public malpractice. 

(His reading of two of Owen’s poems (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ then makes his point about Owen as poet, and makes clear what he is objecting to. He prefaces these readings):

You must not imagine that in criticizing these poets that I am in some way feeling superior to them. I say it is the normal condition of writing at any kind of demanding pitch that you are not going to be able to do it a hundred percent of the time and the recognition of this is not in any way a diminution of one’s profound admiration of their achievement.

(And finally as a throw away line, almost…)

One of the greatest perplexities we face, as readers and critics of poetry, of whatever period, is that what we bring to the discussion is inevitably a mingle mangle of technical detail…where it is possible though to a limited extent to be precise…to be precise….. but we embroil it all with smatterings of sociology,  history and personal experience. Personal experience, the application of this latter contribution is usually ?evil? and is therefore to be regretted that personal taste is all that most people are prepared to bring into the arena of literary critical debate; “Well I like it, I think it’s good, it reminds me of…”



Monday, December 1, 2014

'Modernism from the Margins' Louis MacNeice and Modernism.

Louis MacNeice seems to be suffering, or enduring or benefitting from a re appraisal. But some of the re appraising seems dubious.

"Modernism from the Margins: the 1930s poetry of Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas" by Chris Wigginton. According to the blurb on Goodreads;

"This book is an important contribution to contemporary discussions of both of these writers, and of the general issues of modernism, postmodernism, literary identity, and cultural identity it raises".

Well, maybe.

But while I'm sure someone somewhere is excited by all those things, I wonder what happened to scholarship.

Reacting to other critics, especially Edna Longley and Peter MacDonald who according to Wigginton argue for MacNeice's "rejection of Modernism",  Wigginton extracts some quotes from MacNeice's critical writings to argue the opposite. The key is the verb 'extracts'.


He [MacNeice] observes Eliotically that:

'Pound takes the whole of history as stock for his soup and cuts backwards and forwards from one country or one century to another, adding plenty of the smell of cooking and the voice of the type writer to make it clear that all these elements combine for him in a living and contemporary whole.'

MacNeice's ventriloquizing of Eliot in order to endorse Pound is revealing of his complex, ambivalent critical attitude to Modernist aestheticism, and the critical work should not therefore be taken simply to endorse a recession of Modernist practise in his poetry of the 1930s. (p13)

Taken out of context, simply as words on the page, in what way does the quote endorse Pound? or his method? For someone as careful as MacNeice, that "for him' surely qualifies the statement.

But what's bothering me here is that there is some very selective cutting at work.

The paragraph Wigginton quotes is from a chapter in 'Modern Poetry' called 'Obscurity' and begins:

'The extreme example of this method is Ezra Pound's Cantos'.

[The 'Method" is the bringing together of apparently unrelated elements to make a whole: Eliot's 'cooking and Spinoza' which MacNeice has just quoted.]

The passage Wigginton quotes continues immediately: 'I doubt if they will so combine for many of his [Pound's] readers. In a poem on so large a scale the method palls and Pound's bits of history and culture are so diverse and so particular as to fail to arouse many echoes' "Modern Poetry (p.163-164).

I don't see this an endorsement. It sounds like failure. The discussion of Pound in this section ends:

'For the Eliot-Pound method allows of the bodily transference into a poem not only of tags from other poetry or prose but of bits of public records, washing-bills, statistics. Sometimes as in The Waste Land, such ingredients blend successfully, fused together by an intense lyrical theme, but on the whole I consider this method to be vicious. The poem tends to remain heterogeneous and therefore bad'.(p164-165)

So th method is "vicious" and leads to "bad" poems.

Cherry picking quotes is something everyone does: MacNeice was always happily ambivalent about most things, and I think Wigginton might be right to argue that he didn't "reject modernism", but selecting the bit that proves your preferred version of the world when it's embedded in text which flatly contradicts your preferred version doesn't seem like good critical practice.

In the rush to be political and theoretical, something got lost. And yet Wigginton is right, I think, to say that MacNeice's attitude toward an undefined Modernism was ambivalent. In his critical writings, on Yeats and in "Modern Poetry" MacNeice allowed his ambivalence to stay open, so that statements are always being questioned and reviewed from a different perspective. This openness to contradictions and willingness to explore more than one side of the argument  is a lesson most critics don't seem to have learnt.

Monday, October 27, 2014

T.S. Eliot Louis MacNeice and the jellyfish school of poetry

Louis MacNeice in ‘The Poetry of W.B.Yeats’.
         Eliot…had maintained that the poet must adapt himself to his world; if his world is difficult and complex, his poetry must be difficult and complex…Poets like Auden and Spender abandoned this feminine conception of poetry and returned to the old arrogant principle-which was Yeats’s too-that it is the poet’s job to make sense of the world, to simplify it, to put shape on it. The fact that these younger poets proposed to stylize their world in accordance with communist doctrine or psycho-analytical [sic] theory (both things repugnant to Yeats) is comparatively irrelevant. Whatever their system was, they stood with Yeats for system against chaos, for a positive art against a passive impressionism. Where Eliot had seen misery, frustration and ruins, they saw heroic struggle-or, sometimes, heroic defeat-and they saw ruins rebuilding. (p.191)

The identification of passivity as feminine dates this unpleasantly, but I think the point is a good one. Eliot’s ‘passive impressionism’ is the jellyfish approach to poetry. 

This time of year, if the wind holds from the northeast, the high tide line is marked by stranded blue jellyfish…they drift along, and when the wind goes the wrong way they get stranded and die.

Perhaps this might have made some sense in the aftermath of the First world war, though it's interesting that Eliot didn't serve, and writers like David Jones and Robert Graves, who did, in their very different ways, went looking for pattern. But I don’t understand why it’s still such a popular attitude a hundred years later. There’s a dominant thread in modern poetry which tries to make impersonating a wind blown jellyfish some sort of exemplary activity and looks down its nose at anything which reaches for pattern and purpose:

Oh woe is me, didn’t some dead guru say words are arbitrary acoustic signs, there is no transcendental signifier, life doesn’t make sense, the subject is liable to be scattered, the individual is battered from all sides…it’s as though all the jellyfish drifting inevitably towards the beach were theorizing and conceptualizing their own indolence so that they could feel superior about being stranded.

MacNeice argues here and elsewhere for art in general and poetry specifically as an act of making which is inherently positive. This explains his initially strange statement that a poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life, and it lies behind the magnificent:

Self-assertion more often than not is vulgar, but a live and vulgar dog who keeps on barking is better than a dead lion, however dignified. (SP p. 48)


There is nothing dignified about a stranded Jellyfish.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Ageing English teacher reflects:


The Ageing English Teacher Reflects:

When I started as a student
Close reading was the rage
And we didn’t study context
Just “the words upon the page”.
With a technical vocabulary
(I admit its learning hurt)
We debated what the poem
Or the poet might be worth.

Now the field has changed forever
Since the ideologues moved in
And leaving out the context
Has become a mortal sin.
We don’t debate the poem
Or discuss its qualities
We just look down our noses
At its ideology.

The Marxist and the Feminist
The Freudian and Queer
With hyphenated post- brigades
Bringing up the rear
Dead French men playing guru
In a prose that still appalls
While the poet and the poem
Are forgotten by them all.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Was Ezra Pound a Great Poet. A. David Moody's Ezra Pound, Poet vol 2 #3


This really is the last post about this book. Review to follow.

Was Ezra Pound a Great Poet?

Moody’s new book assumes the answer is yes.  While tracking the failure of Pound’s political agenda and his increasing lack of understanding of the world he was living in, Moody holds to the belief that Pound was a Great Poet. 

Someone reading this book with little knowledge of Pound, his poetry, or the history or its reception, could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Cantos are relatively straight forward and criticism of them is either self-interested, misguided, or evidence of a lack of intelligence. Above all, their highly contested value is slid over and avoided

The last is the strangest of all. There is a literature of dissenting voices, some of which would deny any value to Pound and his poems. Reading Moody you’d be forgiven for thinking that there has been very little discussion of either.  When he does acknowledge the dissent, the way he deals with criticisms of his hero’s poetry is deeply unsettling and seems to question the validity of the case he doesn’t make but takes for granted.

At one end of the spectrum there is the outright denial of any value. An extreme version can be found in Robert Graves’ comments in “These Be your God’s Oh Israel”.
( Mr. Graves on the Cantos here )

But I wouldn’t expect Moody to deal with this kind of criticism. It can’t be argued with, so there’s no point.  

On the other hand, simply deciding that Pound is great and dismissing all criticism as simply reflecting an inadequate appreciation of Pound’s greatness, or inadequate intelligence seems equally useless.  Unless a work can be considered, unless the flaws can be admitted, and weighed against its strengths, and those strengths explained then a claim of greatness has no more value than Graves’ gleeful trashing. 

There are measured criticisms of the Cantos by people who admired them. But Moody dismisses these as well and his dismissal becomes unconvincing and ultimately inconsistent.  

Two examples will suffice.

Having dismissed Eliot’s criticisms in After Strange Gods (see previous post)  by labeling them infamous and curious he goes on to note that Eliot, discussing Pound in 1928, wrote, “‘I am seldom interested in what he is saying,” he wrote in his best putting down manner, ‘but only in the way he says it’. Eliot knew perfectly well that this form/content dichotomy was untenable; that form, to be at all interesting, had to the form of something of interest…”

This may seem a small point, but it’s the little details in this book which make me doubt the bigger picture. Firstly, in this quotation, Eliot doesn’t use the word form, he says “the way he says it”. This is much more, for Eliot and Pound, than “form”.  I’ve already suggested Moody’s potted history of the epic is suspect. He must know, being an expert on Eliot as well as Pound, that the two of them have been justifiably accused of fetishizing poetic technique as part of what has been described as the “professionalizing of poetry”.  For Eliot, praising “how” over “what” is to recognize art, which is what the real poet works hard to master. Pound had praised Joyce’s poetry by singling out Joyce’s control of rhythm and metre: there was no content to praise.

The distinction, for poetry, between style and content, between How and What, is not untenable and famous and not so famous poets have held to it. Many defences of the Cantos rely on it so they can dismiss What  (banal, tedious, repetitious and repulsive) to focus on How.

Moody's  tendency to dismiss criticism can also be seen later, discussing the Chinese Cantos.  These have to be a test of critical honesty,  as there is very little to love in them.  In what appears to be  a balanced paragraph,  Moody offers two examples of praise and two of criticism. He summarises 2 objections (p283): Randall Jarrell called them “almost unreadable” and  “monotonous didacticism”, Donald Davie wrote, “there is no alternative to writing off this whole section of Pound’s Poem as pathological and sterile.”  (both quoted By Moody p283).

Yet the criticisms are framed in such a way as to make them seem like minority objections.  The paragraph starts: “This fairly elementary lesson in the fundamental principle of Western Democracy has been well taken by some but by no means all” 283. [There's no pause to consider that if this is a fairly fundamental lesson,  why does it need to be expressed in such a turgid manner.]

Moody simply chooses two representatives for the case against, Jarrell, Davie, and then dismisses them by going aslant to deal with their objections. Having castigated Eliot earlier for distinguishing between style and content, Moody defends Pound against Davie by writing: “Part of Davie’s problem was that he could not follow Pound’s method of making music of history”. (To believe the Chinese Cantos are melodious requires a redefinition of Musical). 

Moody dismisses Jarrell by writing: “unreadable’ is of course a common way of saying “I  can’t read them”.  But this wasn't a pimply adolescent undergraduate who had been brought up on a diet of Ted Hughes and War poets and who thought Paradise Lost is written in a foreign language.  The full sentence which Moody doesn't quote from, reads ’ Mr. Pound is obviously one of the most talented poets of our time: yet these Cantos are almost unreadable”. 

There is a great deal more in Jarrell’s article: He wrote: ”The versification of these cantos is interesting: there is none. The prose is an extremely eccentric, slangy, illogical, sentence fragment note-taking sort of prose-but prose; the constant quotations from letters or documents or diaries are no different form the verse that frames them. The technical skill that went into some of the earlier Cantos has almost disappeared.” 

Like the rest of his article, this levels criticisms at the poem that anyone who wants to make the argument that this is great Poetry should be dealing with. But Moody simply dismisses or avoids and some of the tactics are disturbing.  

Earlier,  Moody dismisses both Yeats and Eliot’s reservations with the words….’The true revolutionary finds confirmation of his project in the resistance it provokes.” (P93) This is horribly circular and the statement implies a judgment that is actually devoid of discrimination. ‘Resistance’ to the project says nothing about the value of the project. “Revolutionary” is no longer a neutral noun: it has become a term of unqualified approval,  though how one distinguishes between the revolutionary and the true revolutionary is another question that goes begging.   

It is obvious that I could provoke resistance by agitating in a revolutionary manner for any number of horrible or pointless ideas. Resistance would not validate them or me. ”Only those who have vital interest in changing the existing social and intellectual order are likely to respond positively to a radically new way of thinking.” (op cit) We are always, with Pound and his followers, heading towards this: only the elect will understand.

Linked to this is the other move that became a characteristic of twentieth century critical discourse.

Once there was an observation: X is a genius, and few people can understand him.

This was inverted and became a characteristic of 20th century literary thinking:  

Few people understand X therefore he must be a genius.

Obscurity became a positive value and a host of famous writers rode the gravy train to guru status on the back of it.  At the same time “innovation” and “originality” slipped from neutral terms to positive ones. The key critical question became ‘Has it been done before?’ and the wannabes queued up to applaud when the answer was No.


There has been a shortage of dissenting voices asking, “Was it worth doing?”

Whether you want to privilege How or What, or it you think that greatness is perhaps excelling at both, the question the Cantos raise, is the one Pound asked indirectly of Joyce's work in progress:

15th November 1926: 
'I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clapp [sic] can possible be worth all the circumambeint periperhization’.