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"