Monday, December 10, 2012

The Launch of 'Rough Spun to Close Weave'

The full text of Dr. David McCooey's introduction at the launch.

Book Launch
Liam Guilar: Rough Spun to Close Weave
AAWP Conference: November 2012

One of the misconceptions about poetry is that it is a kind of code. A reader needs to know the code, such thinking goes, in order to extract the meaning from that poem, just like one needs a nut-cracker to extract a nut from its shell. I must admit to wondering if Liam may have been speaking in some kind of special private code, aimed directly at me, in this book. I am an associate supervisor for Liam’s creative PhD thesis which is a thesis made up of a creative component and an exegesis. As such, I wondered if he was telling me something in ‘Ghost Fences’ with this line: ‘This needs no exegesis’. Of course, such a paranoid, narcissistic reading is as wrong-headed as the poetry-as-code idea (which is also often underwritten by paranoia and narcissism).
Any reading of a poem is in itself a kind of exegesis, since the creative play of writing poetry is mirrored in the creative, interpretive act of reading poetry. Two years ago I launched another book, at another AAWP conference: Kevin Brophy’s Patterns of Creativity. In that book we read that ‘Poetry, like evolution, is an improvisational group event. And as with evolution, its nature is change, its basis is in reproduction (imitation), and its method is blind’ (p. 90). No poet can entirely ignore the past. To be utterly original would mean being unintelligible. But one cannot simply repeat the past. The tension between repetition and innovation that we find in evolution is central to poetic discourse, as Kevin suggested.
Kevin’s analogy is especially pertinent with regard to the book I am launching here today. As in Liam’s other books of poetry, Rough Spun to Close Weave is a concentrated and highly original essay on the relationship between the present and the past, on the evolution of poetry. It demonstrates repeatedly that there is no vision without revision. Guilar’s strength lies in his bold appropriations of earlier poetic traditions, in particular the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Indeed, the book opens with an untitled prologue that reminds the reader that ‘These words worked the long day Harold died, / when Norman French swept up the slope of Senlac Hill / and English grammar broke and bled into the dusk’.
As this suggests, Liam continues the great modernist project of apprehending the continuities between the quotidian, history, and myth. As part of this project, Rough Spun to Close Weave matches the everyday with the elemental: lakes, harbours, journeys, wars. A landscape becomes ‘Three bands of colour. Above the endless / empty blueness of the sky, bleached by the sun. Between, the ragged stripe of forest green. / Below, the blue-grey lake’. (‘Ghost Fences 2’).
The continuity between the everyday and the elemental occupies a paradoxical place amid a modernity that Liam shows up alternatively as abysmal, comic, or disturbing. As ‘What I Learnt from Watching Television Archaeology’ illustrates, Liam relies on a wide variety of modes to chart his vision. These include chronicles, modern history, television, fairy tales, ballads, travel writing, and Arthurian romance.
Liam’s poems are profoundly concerned with place: how we imagine it, how we move through it, how it haunts us. This is most apparent in one of the book’s key works, ‘Talking Nothing to the Stone’, a work that meditates on personal memory, history, and myth as those things intersect in a particular place (in this case, Coventry in England). In a poem about the dispersal of people, memories, and stories, Liam notes that ‘It’s only exile if you have no curiosity’.
This is a book that is underwritten by an intense curiosity, and what is a poet if not curious about the world? Liam likes to end his emails with the phrase ‘All good things’. In signing off here, I suggest you read this book: it is full of ‘all good things’.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tom Eliot, Virginia Woolf and the Grizzly Bear Dance

'MacNeice also shared Eliot's love of music hall theatre and the music hall...the side of Eliot that danced The Grizzly Bear with Virginia Woolf (a video that we can only be glad, or immensely sad, will never appear on YouTube).'

However, instructions on how to Dance the Grizz are.
Imagine this is Tom and  Virginia.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Basil Bunting by Julian Stanard.

In which yet another promised book about Bunting goes missing.

The publication date passes, and the book seller refunds my pre order because they can't tell me when the thing might actually come into existence. Might be next week, might be next year...bit like the promised Faber Collected.

What is it with these people? I can buy Ted Hughes' pointless "criticism", and not only his thick volume of letters and his door step collected, but even his correspondence with Keith Sagar.  There's a publishing industry surrounding the man: he hasn't been dead that long and a search on 'Ted hughes biography' on Amazon throws up 54 results.  54! 

I want to know what Peter Makin left out of the Bunting Pound correspondence which he quotes and which I've been using,  and the only way I can do that is to go to America and shift through various collections in various libraries.

Come to think of it, this is not a bad idea if anyone wants to fund it.  I'm a medievalist by training, we are good at sifting in libraries. I volunteer to go to the USA,  search through collections, scan them all and upload them electronically as pdfs and to hell with the publishing industry. (With apologies to Bunting's insistence his letters should be burnt.) 

On a less grumbling note what does it say about the reality of the poetry world if blurbs keep saying "generally regarded as one of the great British poets of the 20th century" and no publisher is willing to publish anything about him?  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Incorrigibly Plural: the reinvention of Louis MacNeice

Incorrigibly Plural: Louise MacNeice and His legacy. Carcanet 2012

"Incorrigibly Plural celebrates the diversity and vitality of Louis MacNeice's writing. Poets and critics illuminate the work of a writer whose achievement and influence is increasingly recognised as central to modern poetry in English" (From the Blurb) 

The reinvention, rediscovery or re evaluation of Louis MacNeice is an ongoing project and for lovers of his poetry fascinating to watch.   Peter MacDonald's beautiful "Collected’ is as much a part of it as this book of essays.  However, attempts to claim centrality and significance for his work run into two problems: the first is simply one of evidence. The second, the inevitable problem caused by multiple, contending and often hostile modern poetics fractured and smeared to all points of the compass. It's difficult to imagine any poet who could be "Central to [all] modern poetry in English".

He wrote one of my favourite poems, the first poem I consciously learnt by heart for no reason than the pleasure of it in about 1975. I’d take him over Auden any day of the week.  But a quick shift through the books on hand provides the following standard readings:

A thirties poet, a school boy poet,  a name tacked onto a list that started “Auden, Spender, Day-Lewis…” as though he wasn’t quite as important or as interesting as the others or wasn’t distinct enough to make it on his own. 

There is no mention of him in Kenner’s “The Sinking island” although the thirties get their own chapter. Nor does he rate a mention in “A Colder Eye: the Modern Irish writers.”  Rosenthal and Gall don’t discuss Autumn Journal but they don’t do  The Great Hunger either.

Typical of most surveys is MacNeice’s  appearances in Michael Alexander’s “A History of English Literature”: a name in a group (without him the MacSpaunday jibe doesn’t work): ”Day-Lewis is remembered for his versions of Vergil. He became Laureate in 1968, and Spender was knighted for services to literature. Isherwood was clever, MacNeice talented, Auden Major.”  Though he does get a whole sentence to himself: “MacNeice wrote an open, journalistic, colloquial verse of his own, notably in Autumn Journal  about 1938-9).” But this sentence leads off a two page section on W.H.Auden. (It’s more than Bunting gets: he doesn’t even rate a mention). 

He is always either qualifying a discussion of Auden or lurking in the background.  Michael Schmidt gives him four pages in The Lives of the Poets  and his summing up seems judicious even if it seems to suggest that he is worth reading for his control of rhythm.  He describes him as “Kavanagh to Auden’s Clarke”.

In the Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry he shares a chapter with Clark, Colum and Kavanagh…which goes to show how hard he is to pigeon hole.  And while Autumn journal gets some praise here it’s the kind of “however” praise that can bury its subject.

The link to Kavanagh, at first so odd, is perhaps not as inappropriate at it seems; both poets’ “Greatest hits” would sit easily with any other poet’s in the twentieth century and both wrote a great deal that strains the reader’s good will. 

Michael Longley’s claim that MacNeice wrote some of the best love poems in English is a hard one to argue with, and I’d add  Autumn Journal is probably one of the few successful long poems of the twentieth century. Granted a different type of long poem, with more in common with The Great Hunger than the Cantos. But endlessly rereading Peter MacDonald’s edition of MacNeice’s Collected Poems there’s a sense that there’s a lot there that doesn’t live up to the highlights.     

 So this new book is interesting firstly for its claim which seems mostly unsubstantiated. That people turn up to a MacNeice centenary doesn’t really prove a great deal and showing that Phillip Larkin was influenced by him is hardly going to win friends and influence people.

Having said that, this is a fine collection of Essays. Old fashioned literary criticism is thankfully not dead and pseudo Derridean syntax not the only game in town:  the writers, having something worth saying about poet or poem, are at pains to covey that insight to the reader in clear prose. Good literary criticism sends you back to what you thought you already knew to look at it again.  Peter MacDonald's essay on "Cradle Song for Eleanor", which leads off the volume, is worth the price of admission.  Edna Longley compares two 'Classicists', MacNeice and Graves and mines the Juxtaposition, while Glyn Maxwell does a fine reading of 'Autumn Journal' and finishes his essay with a succinct explanation of why 'Autumn Sequel fails'. He does it in one sentence. 

Scattered amongst the longer essays are shorter pieces: a short 'memoir' by Dan MacNeice, Derek Mahon describing two meetings with Louis, modern poets writing briefly about what MacNeice means to them.   And an essay by Paul Muldoon.  Anyone who has read 'To Ireland I' will know exactly what to expect. Surrounded by the other essays, the Muldoon’s familiar pyrotechnics look too much like smoke and mirrors. And I would have traded it for a longer essay by Derek Mahon.

So this is a book of good essays, and like fine books of literary essays will reward rereading. I don’t think it matter if MacNeice was “central to Poetry in English” or not.  Like most similar claims it invites too many disagreements and nudges towards being silly.   But this book does him the tribute of taking his work seriously and prizing him out of “Macspaunday”.

 And, given the subject, there’s also humor in the writing and the sense that the poems and their author belonged in the real world, not in the library.  In an essay called: "The ladies will say he looks like a poet; Tom and the selling of Louis', Ann Margaret Daniel traces Eliot's dealings with MacNeice.  She exposes the subtleties of the relationship without needing to overstate anything.  Those of us who have to stop occasionally and remember how many ts Eliot stuck on his surname will feel reassured by the fact that he consistently seems to have misspelled 'MacNeice'. 

Discussing their similarities she writes:

'MacNeice also shared Eliot's love of music hall theatre and the music hall...the side of Eliot that danced The Grizzly Bear with Virginia Woolf (a video that we can only be glad, or immensely sad, will never appear on YouTube).'

Friday, November 2, 2012

Rough Spun to Close Weave: the cover

To be launched at the AAWP Conference in Geelong this November, and available from Ginninderra Press:

( Originally if you searched for Guilar on their website the search engine asked if you were looking for "guilt". The search will now take you to the book.) 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Final Proofs of Rough Spun to Close Weave are done.

In which the Critics In My Head review the final proofs of my New Book:

He [Winnie the Pooh] sang it like that, which is much the best way of singing it, and when he had finished, he waited for Piglet to say that, of all the outdoor hums for Snowy weather he had ever heard, this was the best. And after thinking the matter out carefully, Piglet said:
“Pooh,” he said solemnly, ”It isn’t the toes so much as the ears”.

To which BB replied quoting Briggflatts part two:

“It tastes good, garlic and salt in it,
with the half-sweet white wine of Orvieto
on scanty grass under great trees
where the ramparts cuddle Lucca.

It sounds right, spoken on the ridge
between marine olives and hillside
blue figs, under the breeze fresh
with pollen of Apennine sage.

It feels soft, weed thick in the cave
and the smooth wet riddance of Antonietta’s
bathing suit, mouth ajar for
submarine Amalfitan kisses.

It looks well on the page, but never
well enough. Something is lost
when wind, sun, sea upbraid
justly an unconvinced deserter.”

Pooh began to feel a little more comfortable, because when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and other people look at it

Monday, October 22, 2012

New Book of Poems: Rough Spun To Close Weave

My next collection of poems, called Rough Spun To Close Weave, will be published at the end of November by Ginninderra press and will be available from their website.

More later, when I'm not in proof-reading mode. If google didn't make it so easy,  I'd offer a prize to the first person who could identify the source of the title.  But it does, so I won't.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Bunting's Persia: Bunting's Firdosi and Davis' Ferdowsi

I’ve been comparing Bunting’s Firdosi with Davis’s Ferdowsi.  This is not about ‘accuracy ‘or ‘faithfulness’, just about differences between the two translations . I don’t read Persian.  I like both versions.  Davis’ prose is clear and when he breaks into rhyming couplets he handles them elegantly (Pope and Dryden would be proud.) But Bunting is obviously the focus of this.
The story so far. (see previous posts)
1)   We know that Pound and Bunting disagreed over the results of Bunting’s translations of the ‘Shanemeh’.
2)   It’s hard to know how much influence Pound’s highly contentious attitudes towards translation had on BB.  It is possible to infer that they were significant on the following grounds: Bunting thought Pound’s scandalous Sextus P one of the two great poems of the century.  He was not scandalised by Pound’s “mistakes” but obviously invigorated by them.  His ‘Villon’ contains one magnificent passage that is a translation of,  but in no way a formal equivalence translation, of sections of a Villon poem.  His later translations  of Horace and Hafez are noticeably ‘Poundian’.

3)    My subjective experience of reading the two versions it that while Davis’ reads like a story told about something that happened a long time ago, Bunting’s feels more like an eyewitness account.  Davis’ narrator is a mostly invisible presence whose comments on the action tend to be ‘religious’ or moral: ‘And you who murder Kings, who live in fear/Learn from these criminals whose tale you hear'.   Bunting’s sounds like someone who is retelling what he’s seen and overheard, not a participant but an observer with an opinion, sometimes impatient, sometimes baffled.  The syntax invokes a speaker, and an oral performance: “ No impression on Tur. Not gratified. Did not want peace.” Maybe I’ve just listened to too many recordings of Bunting.
My other experience of reading  is that Bunting’s telling moves more swiftly, sometimes at the expense of clarity. At times Davis’ clearly wins in the clarity stakes:
DD: ‘Feraydun was told of the envoy’s arrival and had the curtain drawn back so the horse could enter.’
BB: “Watchful sentinels told the Great King of his coming/ A dignified Chamberlain bade lift the curtain.” where ‘bade’ seems awkward.

Sometimes Davis’  prose seems preferable. When the brothers start plotting:
DD: ..The two brothers , one from China and the other from the West, met together and mingled poison with their honey, discussing how they should act
BB:  Fate was stripped stark. The brothers started/From Rome and China with honeyed poison/met, discussed policy public and private.
There’s a loss in BB’s “honeyed Poison” compared with “mingled poison with their honey”

4)  Bunting reduces: he uses three broad techniques I’ll call omission, condensation and summary and accept they are very vague terms. So roughly if you have fifty words and cut them to ten, but the ten you’re left with were in the original, you condense.  Summarising is taking that fifty words and saying what’s in them as briefly as you can.
a.     Omissions…Bunting cuts when he can, but he doesn’t alter the sequence of events. As in a medieval English poem like Lawman’s 'Brut',  the messenger is called, the message is given, the messenger rides, is received, delivers his message and we learn how the message is received.  A modern film would simply have the messenger give the message,  in a medieval  text the pattern reveals the characters of those involved. When Faridun receives his son’s abusive message, his treatment of the messenger tells us a great deal about him (to his credit).  Character is revealed by speech and action and by the comparisons such formal patterning allow. One could assume that part of Bunting’s attraction to this story is the way it fits with his own poetics of direct presentation.
b.     Condensation. Not surprisingly Bunting condenses and with the qualification noted above it usually is an improvement. After all this was the man who wrote in ‘I Suggest’: “ 6. Cut out every word you dare. 7. Do it again week later, and again”,  who said that what he most learnt from Pound was “How to chop out the rot”.  In Davis the envoy sees Feraydun’s face: “The envoy saw that Feraydun’s face filled all eyes and hearts; that he was like a cypress in stature, that his visage was like the sun’s, and his hair was like white camphor about a red rose; his lips were all smiles, his gaze was modest and welcoming , kingly words adorned his lips.”  In Bunting, “His glance lit on Faridun’s form and was held/cypress tall, ruddy face, rosy cheek, hair like the vine/smiling , modest, royally gentle voice” .
c.      Summary. This is one of the ways I think he gives his narrator his voice.
BB: Iraj saw them and ran to meet them affectionately/received them in his tent, but their talk/was nothing but Why and Wherefore..
Where the “why and wherefore” both summarises and dismisses the conversation.

5)   Bunting’s version tends towards specific visual images.
DD:  “Let neither wind nor swirling dust delay your journey as you hasten on your way”
BB: “Dont hang an arse/don’t let your own dust overtake you/nor the wind either”. The idea of the rider going so fast that his own dust can’t catch him seems to be an advance on “don’t let dust delay your journey.”

6)   As the above quote shows, Bunting’s diction tends towards what used to be euphemistically called “demotic”, and this is another way he gives his narrator his character.  Word choice suggests Judgement: The bothers are ‘ruffians’, their message is “surly”  as does his syntax: “Tur heard. Made no answer.”

7)   The poem does not show much evidence of his usual emphasis on sound. His letter to Pound (see previous posts) showed he knew this, but for a man who was adamant that poetry was sound there’s not a lot happening here . At times the terse syntax approaches epigram and ghosts a memory of Anglo-Saxon: “Fate was stripped Stark”.  But some of the lines are so flat it’s possible to see why Pound was unimpressed. Bunting had already written ‘Villon’ and ‘I am agog for Foam’. The same man who wrote the latter and ”Remember imbeciles and wits..etc’’ in ‘Villon’ was now writing: ”I am going to write with an aching heart/on the off chance it may bring you home safe and sound/for I have no life but in you”. The absence of his characteristic sound/rhythm architecture is quite dramatic.

8)   And it’s not simply a problem of narrative. Compare this to the first two Cantos of Pound’s,  which are narrative, and which swing and sing.  Whatever the virtues of Bunting’s Ferdowsi, and I obviously think there are many,  I think it’s fair to say that judged by his own standards and previous achievements,  Bunting’s translation doesn’t rise to Pound’s challenge that a translation should work as a modern poem in its own right.  Although that leaves the main question begging…how do you write a narrative poem with Bunting’s poetics?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ezra Pound and Poetic Value #2

One of the gains of “Literary theory” over the past fifty years has been the fact that it’s now easier to talk about the contingency of literary value. This may be no more than the fact that at any given time of place the terms poet and poem can mean radically different things and the qualities that define a poet or a poem as good vary widely and wildly. This doesn’t mean that there is no value: in any given period some people do “it” better than others whatever ‘it’ is and how ever you define ‘better’.
What Ezra Pound’s career seems to prove is that value is so contingent, so little tied into anything objective, that it can be manipulated.
It’s worth pointing out that Pound would probably have disagreed with this. From his writings, the ABC, his essays, he seems to have believed that Poetic Quality was a trans historical standard which could be identified by someone like himself even if the poem was written a thousand years ago in a language he didn’t know very well. And because of this he was able to make whacky statements about the cultural value of poetry and the political and historical importance of the poet.  

Set yourself up as an expert. Define and then proclaim your expertise.  It helps if you are either an expert on the obscure and unknown (In Pound’s case Provencal poetry) or a generalist. If the former, you’re unlikely to have to deal with criticism, and if you do it is likely to be so specialized that no one else will understand it.  If the latter, you will always be vulnerable to the specialist, but you can respond by attacking the specialist where he or she is most vulnerable: his or her lack of wider knowledge.

Make yourself important as a an arbiter of taste and as a discoverer and promoter of new talent …It helps if you have a good track record, and Pound certainly did.

Defend yourself by attacking your critics where they are most vulnerable. So in the case of translation when the specialists say: ‘You don’t understand translation, your Latin is not good’, Pound responds with  “I say you don’t understand poetry.  I am a poet, only a poet really understands poetry and you have misunderstood Propertius”.

Write enough straightforward, good poetry to establish yourself. Then do what you want but create poems that allow for critical discussion. To the uneducated the Cantos are a sprawling mess and mostly very very tedious.  To the scholar they are a site where issues of sexuality, ideology and genre are in play but in play in such a way that’s it’s impossible to come up with a definitive description. This allows for critical disagreement.  The institutional demands of academic scholarship, the need to publish, can be fed by the cantos. And being a “Poundian” could be a badge of the elect. Anyone can fall in love with Yeats’ poems; it takes much more something to love Pound’s.  Create the possibility of a small group of cognoscenti  whose arcane religion (Your poetry) excludes lesser beings.   To the scholar the Cantos question the boundaries of poetry; to the uneducated they contain great tedious swathes of second hand prose.

It takes courage or childish naivety to say the emperor is unclothed, but attack your critics at their most vulnerable point: their fear that you really do know more than they do. Hammer your claim that you know more about poetry than anyone else, and then dare anyone to say you are not a genius. Exploit the lurking fear that the critic doesn’t understand and in condemning you he or she is parading his or her own ignorance.  Exploit this. Don’t dare them to say you are naked, tell them that you are naked and only a genius can understand the nudity you have defined on your own, invented terms.  

And if you do all this you can manipulate poetic value in your own lifetime.


And perhaps only if, you can also produce poetry that people who have nothing to gain from its recognition will accept as great and interesting poetry. Anyone who thinks Pound was a charlatan is forced to confront the fact that writers like Bunting and Eliot thought he was worthy of their critical attention and respect.

And that doesn’t even begin to get at the complexity of the issue.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ezra Pound and Poetic value

Pound fascinates me, probably for the wrong reasons. It’s as if an outsider gate crashed the emperor’s parade, convinced a small but powerful portion of the crowd he was the real emperor, and the fact that he was naked, and knew that he was naked, and knew more about nudity than anyone else and was proud of being naked, was proof of his right to be the emperor and only those who could understood nakedness on his terms would be saved and those that didn’t or couldn't or wouldn't were simply confessing to their own stupidity.

As Author Function the sign “Ezra Pound” is unstable.  For some it equals “Genius” for others “Fraud” for others “Lunatic anti-Semitic fascist” .  But you can read the poems of Yeats or Eliot or Bunting and come to a conclusion about their abilities as a poet from their poems. Their biographies and reputations seem  irrelevant. With Pound, however,  it’s almost as if you have to decide first; genius or fraud and then read the poems in the light of that decision because it seems impossible to do it the other way round.

Which suggests something about the way the literary critical field can work that is so very disturbing it’s easier not to think about it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Uses of Poetry

In her readable (and impressive) 'Graven with images’ Nicola Shulman gives a biography not of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but of his poems.  She points out that his poems have survived their critical dismissal for the simple reason that they were written to be used and still can be used as they were intended.  A Wyatt poem offers the reader the shock of recognition and the possibility of appropriation: the words describe a situation, and offer the reader a vocabulary for it. As she shows, this is probably why the  poems were probably written. To be used. By people other than the poet. 

She writes:

Though it is not approved for serious readers to seek their own experience in literature, self-recognition is what most people want out of love poetry, in Wyatt they find it directly.(p.16)

I suspect for most people outside the academy, this is still the dominant use of all poetry.  I suspect the self-congratulatory myth that serious readers are above this is one of the reasons so much poetry goes unread and so many academic discussions of poetry sound so fatuous. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson. A review of sorts

So I’ve already moaned about the pre-publicity for The Sunlit Zone, by Lisa Jacobson. Three meaningless statements, which have now morphed into the blurb on the back cover and seem to suggest the publisher is not interested in attracting anyone’s attention to this book,  which is a pity.

To sum up the blurb,  The Sunlit  Zone is apparently “A risk taking novel in verse with pure poetry in which romance joins hands with science and takes to the water.”

But “novel in verse” implies a narrative, and the minimum information a prospective buyer might want would be characters, plot and setting.  Imagine putting The Da Vinci Code, The Brothers Karamazov and The Story of O down on the table and saying: “three novels in prose, and that’s all the information you need, so pick one.” 

A first person female narrator relates her autobiography, alternating between Present tense (2050/51) and her past (literally from the act of her conception in 2020 . Ab Ovo in deed).  In doing so she comes to terms with her twin sister’s death, her awkward relationships with her friends and family, the ghostly boyfriend who returns, and after the father’s death and her mother’s art exhibition, finds happiness and,  if not love,  then satisfying sex with the no longer ghostly boyfriend.  Coherence is primarily the fictional narrator’s autobiography. 

It’s set in a faintly dystopian future Australia with many technical widgets and gadgets and cloned whales and other mutant sea creatures.

There’s nothing here that wouldn’t attract the average reader of modern prose. The publishers could have put tongue firmly in cheek and promoted it as Sci-Fi Chick-Lit (although that would have been unfair).  It feels like a softer version of some of the stories Ellison was publishing in the Dangerous Visions series, or Ursula Le Guin’s writing for adults. Or, stripped of the SF trappings and closer to home, like Stephen Herrick’s  ‘A place like this’.

There’s nothing here in the poetry either to alienate a prose reader. No Post Modern Avant-Garde experimental Language games. (This is neither criticism nor praise, just a comment)  The story is told in a series of tightly controlled stanzas, almost all of which are end stopped.  The result is that the text mimics a rhythmically organised speaking voice,  though the formal quality of the stanza shifts the voice away from the impression of a natural speaker which can sometimes be produced in good first person prose. The sections alternate between the now of telling and past phases of the narrator’s life.   

 Although lacking the pace of  The Monkeys’ Mask or the technical virtuosity of ‘Freddy Neptune’,   the rhythmic control  keeps the story moving.  Whether or not it’s “Pure poetry” depends on your definition of that vacuous term.  As Clare Kinney pointed out, narrative poetry has to negotiate two binaries: Narrative/Poetry and Narrative/Lyric. Modern readers (and critics) tend to assume narrative will be in prose.  ‘The Sunlit Zone” doesn’t dissolve the binaries but tends to sit firmly on the narrative side of both of them.  Pace is perhaps won at the cost of the absence of the kind of  image or phrase that might make a reader pause and reread it. Whether that means the book won’t reward rereading is no more an issue than it is with any other narrative.

Is it risk taking? Perhaps it is,  though if it is,  it’s a sad comment on modern poetry.  By narrating them; sex, birth, death, loss, family, develop contexts. The narrative returns the human subject and human concerns to poems in a way lyric poems on these subjects don’t.  It also takes the obvious narrative risk. Just as with any novel, if a reader doesn’t like the characters, or the plot, or the setting, he or she will stop reading.

But this book should attract a much larger readership than it is probably going to. It could escape the narrow confines of Poetry World and find a wider range of readers than the usual buyers of poetry books. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Bunting's Persia: the disagreement with Pound #2

Reading the furor Pound’s early translations caused it’s easy to be pulled up short by the brutality of  the last paragraph in William Gardner Hale’s review of  Homage to Sextus Propertius in Poetry (Chicago):

If Mr. Pound were a professor of Latin , there would be nothing left for him but suicide. I do not counsel this. But I beg him to lay aside the mask of erudition. And If he must deal with Latin,  I suggest he paraphrase some accurate translation. And then employ some respectable student of the language to save him from the blunders which might still be possible.

And to feel that Professor Hale, had not only overstepped the mark but had missed the point and was wrong. As Michael Alexander (1979) wrote of Pound’s (in)famous version of the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer”:

It’s easy to imagine the examiner’s report: ’Grasp of language uncertain; identification of individual words in glossary unreliable; understanding of accidence rudimentary. Grammar poor, syntax worse’. (72)

The critical responses to Homage to Sextus Propertius sound like the examiners had taken over the reviews.  But reading it all I’m left wondering which of the two words in “Pound’s translations ‘ is really the target.

Pound was consistently “guilty” of writing in just as vitriolic a manner.  He had preached the gospel of the professional poet and the professional critic “down the public’s gullet”: 

In a country in love with amateurs, in a country where the incompetent have such beautiful manners and personalities so fragile and charming that one cannot bear to injure their feelings by the introduction of a competent criticism, it is well that one man should have a vision of perfection and that he should be sick to the death and disconsolate  because he cannot attain it.”(1914: The Prose Tradition in Verse.)

 So he could not have been surprised when the professionals responded to his arrogant dismissal of their understanding of the Latin poets and, by pointing out his errors, showed conclusively that in their eyes, he was the amateur.  And a poor one at that. Professor Hale,  author of the superbly titled : “The Cum-constructions: their History and Functions” and  “The Art of Reading Latin-How to Teach it” took Pound to task:

Mr Pound is incredibly ignorant of Latin. He has of course a perfect right to be, but not if he translates from it.  The result of his ignorance is that much of what he makes his author say is unintelligible. I select a few out of about three-score errors…(Hale p52)

What the arguments over his translations remind me is that the history of Poetry is not the record of an inexorable Darwinian progression of poetic forms towards a today which you  somehow assume is the best that has been.  In Pound’s version of literary history, Poetry, with its capital P, is something that can be objectively discussed and analyzed, just as the flatness of the earth could be.  For those who believe this version (like Stead in “The New Poetic” or Kenner in “The Pound Era”) the literary battles of the past were fought by heroic forbears whose victories moved the progression onwards. Just as Galileo fought against ignorance to prove the world turns.  Eliot and Pound waged their war against the stultifying conventions of late 19th century verse and bought poetry kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.   (The metaphors are usually equally physical, martial and heroic.) 

In this version critics like Hale were simply wrong. They stand in for the ultimately ineffectual opponents of a Galileo or a Harvey.

Reading the reviews and articles from the time, however, one is reminded that poems are written by people, and the history of poetry is a history of back stabbing, back scratching, infighting,  an entertaining if grubby record of squabbling for prestige and position. Or as K.K Ruthven put it:
'The Feuds and the factions, the intrigues and the infighting, the machinations of one upmanship, the economic and erotic foundations of reputation mongering, the conspiratorial exclusions, the cult figures and the camp-followers, the groupings and the groupies.'  After detailing the back scratching and log rolling and infighting Ruthven points out that 'The only people short changed by these practices were readers naive enough to believe that criticism is produced by impartial experts". 

Hale's review is in Poetry Chicago. The quote from Michael Alexander is from "The Poetic Achievement of Ezra pound" and K.K Ruthven's is from "Ezra Pound as Literary critic"

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bunting's Persia. The disagreement with Pound #1

The Background

Bunting told the story of how he had become interested in Persian poetry several times, but the version which interests me is the one recorded by Jonathan Williams in  “Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal”.

I found a book-tattered, incomplete-with a news paper cover on it marked “Oriental Tales”. I bought it, in French. It turned out to be the part of an 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 as 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 way. The title page was even missing. There seemed nothing to do but learn Persian and Firdausi, so, I undertook that.  (np)

He records and pays tribute to the oldest pull of narrative, the ability of a story to create in the reader the powerful need to know what happens next. His Persian was soon good enough to allow him to begin to translate  Ferdowsi and he encountered an inevitable problem. The Shahnemeh belongs to a tradition that was just as prevalent in Europe as it had been in Persia. Poetry had been the major vehicle for narrative. But the long narrative poem in English had been struggling against the prose novel since the beginning of the19th century and by the 1930s the “lyricization” of poetry was well underway.

The disagreement:

Bunting would remain convinced for the rest of his life that Ferdowsi was one of the world’s great poets but he wasn’t happy with his translations.  He wrote to Pound in 1934:

Hope to send you a lump of Firdusi before long…as to onomatopoeic accompaniment, which is the marvel of the whole thing, alliterations, internal rhymes, contrapuntal arrangement soft stress against ictus against succession of longs , hopeless task for anybody except Homer translating Fidusi or Firdusi translating Homer. (qtd in Makin p76)

But neither was Pound, for a different reason.
Wot I feel about yr/persi[a]ns is tha[t] shucks wot does it ma[t]ter if some nigger knifed a few others. (qtd in Makin p76. Marks in the original)

Or less offensively:

Bunt’s gone off on Persian, but don’t seem to do anything but Firdusi, who he can’t put into English that is of any interest. More fault of subject matter than of anything else in isolation. (qtd in Makin p.119)

Although much of the translations have only been published in 2012, Peter Makin, the only critic to have written book length studies of both Pound and Bunting, had traced the argument though an exchange of letters.

Bunting to Pound:
            the literature of the past-how long-has all of it been psychological; people talking or thinking about things they didnt [sic] do or would like to do, or why and why not. Even in the Cantos you nearly always prefer to show somebody thinking or writing or telling, and the interest is as much or more in the person as in the deed contemplated.

in the same letter he wrote:

It occurred to me a long time ago that this indirect business had gone about as far as it would go without degenerating . Nobody is going to do it better than you for a hell of a long time, and Zuk can only introduce further complications of method that remove it from a possible reader, step by step, until somebody will rise who will… be totally  unintelligible (BB to EP 4th of January 1936 qtd in Makin p77.  ellipsis in Makin.)

The argument turns on the relative importance in a poem between What (is being said) and How (it is being said). Lyric privileges How: narrative demands What. 

More later.
Reference to the letters are from Peter Makin’s  Bunting: the shaping of his verse Clarendon press, Oxford, 1992.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

blurb wars revisited: The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobsen

Five Islands press; Advance Information: Exciting new poetry

Let us imagine someone, me, who is doing a PhD on narrative poetry, and is therefore interested to learn that FIP are releasing a “Novel in Verse”. Let us imagine him reading the advance information for this book supplied by the publisher ( I’ve added the quotes I'm discussing to the bottom of this post). What does he learn about the book?

It’s a novel in verse, with narrative sweep and drive and it’s true poetry, with some familiar adjectives stuck on the end (Brilliant, poignant, disconcerting magical and irresistible). And the poet has won some prizes.

How does that give me enough information to decide whether or not I want to read it? (I will, but not because of this advertising.)

What this flier doesn’t say about the book is revelatory about the publishing of Poetry. Apparently telling me this is a "novel in verse" is all I need to know to part with my money.

We are not told the content of the narrative, the style of the narrative nor are we told what type of "verse" is being used. Could you sell a novel by advertising it as a “Novel in Prose” and leaving it there? You’d expect at least a one sentence plot summary?
Surely you’d at least assume the potential reader (me) wants to know what this novel is about ? “Romance holds hands with science and takes to the ocean” is the nearest we get. (Visions of underwater sex reinforced by the cover?).

And what kind of “Novel”. A narrative? What kind of narrative? (conventional: The Monkey’s Mask/ different: For all we Know/”experimental”: Deep Step Come Shining) What kind of verse? Chopped prose, Tennyson on Ecstasy, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry…. as formal as Freddy Neptune?

Why is it that the people who are supposed to be selling this book seem to think these questions are irrelevant to a potential buyer?

And what do they offer instead?

Three generic blurb quotes (see below) and a biography of the poet?

A risk-taking work of rare, imaginative power. What could that possibly mean? It might describe Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman or Pound’s Cantos, but we’re getting close to the hundredth anniversary of The Waste Land and there was a risk-taking work of rare, imaginative power. Should I expect something of the class of Deep Step'? The Waste land, Briggflatts, the Anathemata?
What could “risk taking” and “rare imaginative power” possibly mean without some kind of context. And why is "risk taking" admirable? Drug addicts take risks.

As for the narrative drive of the novel with the perfect pitch of true poetry. With no information about the plot or the style of narrative which novel? Ulysses? Murder on the Orient Express? How is "the novel" anymore a meaningful category than "a novel in verse"? What could narrative "drive" or "sweep" mean? War and Peace on Benzedrine?

As for the perfect pitch of true poetry …..answers on a post card please…why is it considered meaningful to use the phrase “true poetry’ on the back of a decent writer's work? it sounds like something one of my grade eights might write about her favourite bit of poetry in Dolly magazine or one of the "comments" posted on

So let us assume that the publisher actually wants people to buy the book. The question then is why do they present it in such a way? It may well be the most exciting thing to be published in Australia since The Monkey hit the stands but how would you know from this information?

The quotations below are the three in question. The rest of the flier simply has a paragraph about the author. And if my grumbling makes you curious go buy the book. (-:

The Sunlit Zone is a moving elegy of love and loss, admirable for its
narrative sweep and the family dynamic that drives it. A risk-taking work of
rare, imaginative power.

The Sunlit Zone combines the narrative drive of the novel with the perfect
pitch of true poetry. A darkly futuristic vision shot through with bolts of
light. Brilliant, poignant, disconcerting.

Adrian Hyland, author of Kinglake 350 and Diamond Dove

This novel in verse, at once magical and irresistible, draws us into a vivid
future. In Lisa Jacobson’s telling, the Australian fascination with salt water
and sea change is made over anew. Romance holds hands with science and
takes to the ocean.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe, author of The Domestic Sublime and By Title