Saturday, January 25, 2014

An Irish Man in Coventry

This poem, by John Hewitt,  should be better known, so as it's today of all days, I'd like to post it here.  For an Irishman in Coventry, and his English wife. My Apologies to anyone if it infringes copyright. 

An Irishman in Coventry
A full year since, I took this eager city,
the tolerance that laced its blatant roar,
its famous steeples and its web of girders,
as image of the state hope argued for,
and scarcely flung a bitter thought behind me
on all that flaws the glory and the grace
which ribbons through the sick, guilt-clotted legend
of my creed-haunted, godforsaken race.
My rhetoric swung round from steel’s high promise
to the precision of the well-gauged tool,
tracing the logic in the vast glass headlands,
the clockwork horse, the comprehensive school.
Then, sudden, by occasion’s chance concerted,
in enclave of my nation, but apart,
the jigging dances and the lilting fiddle
stirred the old rage and pity in my heart.
The faces and the voices blurring round me,
the strong hands long familiar with the spade,
the whiskey-tinctured breath, the pious buttons,
called up a people endlessly betrayed
by our own weakness, by the wrongs we suffered
in that long twilight over bog and glen,
by force, by famine and by glittering fables
which gave us martyrs when we needed men,
by faith which had no charity to offer,
by poisoned memory, and by ready wit,
with poverty corroded into malice,
to hit and run and howl when it is hit.
This is our fate: eight hundred years’ disaster,
crazily tangled as the Book of Kells;
the dream’s distortion and the land’s division,
the midnight raiders and the prison cells.
Yet like Lir’s children, banished to the waters,
our hearts still listen for the landward bells.               
– John Hewitt

In my head it's grouped for some reason with Paul Brady's "Nothing But the Same Old Story", which he would never have endorsed: 
and "The Island",  which I think he might.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Defences of Poetry; Part Eight Eliot and the End

In The Social Function of Poetry Eliot tried to negotiate the contradictions. There is an obvious tension in the essay between what he tries to claim for poetry and what his intelligence tells him is the way the world works. Part of this tension may be created by the context of this talk.

He began with a note of caution that could easily have  served as an epitaph for every attempt to discuss either “the function of poetry” or “the role of the poet”:

When we speak of the ‘function’ of anything we are likely to be thinking of what that thing ought to do rather than what it does do or has done. That is an important distinction because I do not intend to talk about what I think poetry ought to do. People who tell us what poetry ought to do, especially if they are poets themselves,  usually have in mind  the particular kind of poetry they would like to write. (SFP p3)

But his history is no better than Pound’s or Shelley’s (this surprised me):

A superior language can seldom be exterminated except by the extermination of the people who speak it. When one language supersedes another it is usually because that language has advantages that commend it, and which offer not merely a difference but a wider and more refined range, not only for thinking and feeling, than the more primitive language”(SFP, 8)

Linguistically, Eliot’s statement date him as badly as Shelley’s do.  “There are, however, several widely held misconceptions about Language…The most important of these is the idea that there are such things as primitive languages-languages with a  simple grammar, a few sounds, and a vocabulary of only a few hundred words, whose speakers have to compensate for their language’s deficiencies through gestures”  (Crystal 2006).
Eliot ironically echoes those scholars who once dismissed English as a language incapable of precision.
He also seems to be willfully ignoring the historical fact that “advantages’ were often political rather than linguistic. Old English did not disappear because Anglo-Norman had a wider and more refined range, but because the English Aristocracy was all but eradicated in three battles in 1066 and from the end of the 11th Century to the middle of the 14th Century French was the privileged language,  the kings of England did not speak English, and anyone who wanted to deal with either the law or the administration had to learn French or Latin. Irish and Welsh almost disappeared as native languages not because they were inadequate but because the people in  power banned them and refused to communicate in those languages.

Eliot does try to address the obvious contraction: how does original poetry, making demands on its small but elite readership, affect the health of the culture? His answer is confused ( I find it very difficult to write that about T.S.Eliot). It could only work in a “homogenous culture” where the elite readership of the best modern poetry are in fact the cultural elite, the people who matter. Others will want to follow their example, so  there will be an inevitable trickle down effect which will eventually spread the influence of poetry throughout society. Gioia states the same argument.  Both writers ignore the fact that modern culture is not homogenous (even the England of Eliot in the 1940s wasn’t).  Neither reading nor writing poetry in English has guaranteed  membership of a cultural elite, apart from the self appointed ones we’ve been studying. Sidney belonged to a cultural elite who others copied because he was born into the aristocracy and connected to some of the wealthiest families in the country.  His birth guaranteed his social status: his status validated his poems. Not the other way round. Sir Ernest Gower’s 'Plain words"  and I A Richard’s “Practical Criticism” in their own ways underline the limitations  of the linguistic skills of the “cultural elite”.

Eliot, like Pound, and Shelley, and Gioia and other s after him, confused cause and symptom and fell victim to his own muddled metaphor. (I find that really hard to write about the first two as well) Language is not an organic plant that flowers if fertilised with great poetry and withers if forced to survive on a diet of ..whichever poet you think is not great.  Even if it were possible to define what is good and bad poetry against an objective standard, and avoid the inherent moralizing,  it is difficult to believe any culture died because of bad poetry or any language disappeared for Eliot’s reasons.  

A language disappears because the people who speak it die out, and according to modern linguists,  of the world’s 6,000 or so languages  perhaps half will die out in the present century (Crystal 2008 p 336). The disappearance of cultured literary productions may be one symptom of a society more concerned with survival. As Stead also observed, it is impossible to imagine how poetry improves the health of a nation.   If Eliot and Pound were right, then given their strictures about the state of English poetry,  England should have lost the First world war.

Anyone trying to make this argument is guilty of confusing symptoms with causes and in Rosemary Waldrop’s words acting “ as if there existed nothing but society on the one hand and  writing on the other” (Bernstein 1990). Eliot acknowledges this and then ignores the implications, presumably because they would invalidate the claims he is making.   Waldrop succinctly points out the obvious objection: The two decades before Hitler came to power were a period of incredible literary flowering, upheaval, exploration in Germany. All the dadaists and expressionists had been questioning, challenging, exploring changing the language, limbering up its joints. So the German language should have been in very good condition, yet the Nazis had no trouble putting it to work for their purposes, perverting it to where what was said was light years from what was meant. So while language thinks for us, there is no guarantee that it will be in a direction we like. (In Bertstein p47)

This destructive wander through the Defences was one way of stripping away the accumulated waffle to see what, if anything is left. I think there’s a great deal, but it doesn’t rely on silly claims for what an abstraction called ‘Poetry’ obviously doesn’t or can’t do now, and never has done in the past. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Defences of Poetry part seven: Pound, Eliot, Gioia part one.

In the twentieth century, writers continued to make claims for poetry and poets, and despite their often hard-headed approach to the writing of poems and their critical evaluations of individual poems and poets, they maintained the circulation of the claims already discussed, stating as fact what was little more than wishful thinking. Not only did they continue to attract a modernised version of Peacock’s  criticism, they seemed unable to see that the simple opposition between “the world” and  “poetry’ was painfully inadequate.  Their history was often little better than Shelley’s, and their understanding of how languages work surprisingly naïve. 

Claims for the social function of poetry ignored the complex nature of any historical movement  although Eliot had it both ways, saying that the problem was very complex and then making statements that ignored that complexity.  Many of their claims relied on a belief in the existence of an absolute unchanging, a-historical definition of “good poetry” which allow the critic, at a distance, to declare what is good or bad.   

So Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were the leading figures in a rebellion against the stifling mediocrity of the field (in Bordieu’s sense) of poetry that they entered at the beginning of the 20th century. In their different ways,  they would define the dominant poetic of the twentieth century.  

What both wrote about the craft of writing poetry remains as challenging, provocative and useful today as it was when they wrote it.  Yet both were inclined to make claims for an idealised art which carry echoes of Sidney and Shelley at their most romantic. Pound’s ABC of Reading is a willfully cantankerous book which I would recommend to anyone interested in reading and writing poetry,  but it contains statements Shelley would have found very acceptable.

By insisting that poetry is an art which requires “sharp study and long toil”, which should be subjected to clear and intelligent scrutiny, both Pound and Eliot established the basis for a poetry that could be a serious art and not just the effusions of the nursery or the well meaning amateur.  By insisting on the poem as the thing in itself, not the pack horse for a bad philosophy or a slogan for a political meeting, they cleared a way past the popular insistence on judging  a poet by “what he says” or “as a thinker”, past a poetry of reassurance,  to a poetics where the arrangement of vowels and consonants were the poet’s primary task

But if the poet’s job is the arrangement of vowels and consonants, if the first and only duty is to the art, how to avoid the damaging association of the derided slogan: “art for art’s sake”.  The Gordian knot solution would have been to say the writing of poems is sufficient end in itself: does the musician have to justify his music? There are times when both Pound and Eliot come close to this:  Pound  wrote in ‘The Serious Artist’ 

Now art never asks anybody to do anything, or to think anything or to be anything. It exists as the trees exist, you can admire, you can sit in the shade, you can pick bananas, you can cut firewood, you can do what you jolly well please.

The logic of this is to accept that the poet, as poet, has no social function other than the writing of poems and if that gives readers pleasure and critics something to write about that is an added bonus: a position held and espoused by Robert Graves and, towards the end of his life, by Basil Bunting.

Eliot acknowledges, amongst poetry’s ‘obvious functions’  the first is the ability to produce the kind of pleasure only poetry can produce. But neither Eliot nor Pound was willing to accept the Gordian knot solution. Both wanted to show that poetry was vital to the health and functioning of society.


Well having seen it in Sidney and Shelley the move should now be familiar. Elevate ‘Poetry’, and you elevate the Poet. Hammering away on your type writer, unable to make a living from your poems, known only to four or five people, you can make believe you are Superman, able to shape the course of history without moving from the typewriter.

And most of the time, in democratic countries,  Power doesn’t care about Poetry,  so the poet, like any street corner nutcase who thinks she’s the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, can make any claim she  likes as long as she doesn't break the law.

When those with real power do notice the poet, the reality of the poet’s insignificance becomes painfully obvious.  But I’ve written about that before:

Pound could make blunt statements about an idealised poet and poetry which echo the claims and methodology of all those writers on poetry stretching back to Sidney:

Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say they keep it accurate , keep it clear. It doesn’t matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm….(Pound 1934 p 32)

Eliot would make an almost identical claim[2]:

We may say that the duty of the poet, as poet,  is only indirectly to his people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.(SFP 9)

Exactly how writing poetry extends and improves language is never explained. It is a familiar claim, a commonplace of the blurbs which adorn modern poetry books, and is a good example of how the limited field that is poetry can re circulate what appears, to someone outside it, to be nonsense. 

Stephen Pinker uses a quote from W.H.Auden to characterize what he calls “The Jeremiahs”:

‘As a poet there is only one political duty and that is to defend one’s language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. It is being corrupted. When it is corrupted , people lose faith in what they hear, and that leads to violence.’
The linguist Dwight Bollinger, gently urging this man to get a grip, had to point out that “the same number of muggers would leap out of the dark if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written” (Pinker 1994 385).

Yet both Eliot and Pound could ignore history to make broader claims for Poetry.

If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays (Pound 1934, page 32)

But most people do not realize that this is not enough; that unless they go on producing great authors, and especially great poets, their language will deteriorate, their culture will deteriorate and perhaps become absorbed in a stronger one. (SFP 10)    

I've made fun of this before because it's such a daft statement:
Pound-Eliot and the untold true story of 1066

Shelley, had made a similar claim though left it to the reader to decide what was cause and what was effect. Historically such a claim will not stand scrutiny but Dana Gioia quoted Pound’s claim above about the relationship of language to culture as though it were fact and proof that poetry “matters”.  He tried to qualify it: Poetry is not the entire solution to keeping the nation’s language clean and honest…without explaining what “clean and honest” could mean in this context,  but then fell back into the typical organic metaphors for language and some very dubious logic: but one Is hard pressed to imagine a country’s citizens improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry (Gioia 1992)
And so it goes. Eliot and Pound Continued next time

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Defences of Poetry part six: consequences B, some modern examples

Does any of this really matter? Who cares what some disappointed aristocrat wrote to soothe his sense of career failure or some towering egotist wrote to massage his own enormous sense of self-importance while living the high life in Italy?

Yes it does matter. We should care. To quote Pierre Bourdieu:

In an artistic field which has reached an advanced stage of its history, there is no place for naïf’s: more precisely, the history is immanent in the functioning of the field, and to meet the object demands it implies, as a producer but also as a consumer, one has to possess the whole history of the field.

There is far too much historical amnesia in the current discourse about poetry

Or to put it another way, the whole house of cards that constitutes the field of modern poetry: the way we talk about poetry, its obligatory use in schools when the majority of any population, including the people teaching it, don’t read it for pleasure, the way it is treated in University writing programs, the claims made by governing bodies, the fact we have governing bodies,  attitudes towards publication and reception,  rests on these works, and the way they have been recirculated in a sealed acoustic where the phrase “where is your evidence?” has been treated as a sign of unbearable naivety by those guilty of a much more fundamental naivety.

So before going on to Pound and Eliot 

1) The modern world; some scattered observations

In what follows I want to briefly look at some contemporary examples.  This is not meant to be exhaustive, just an illustration,  and space does not allow a detailed analysis of each example.  I’ve already mentioned a couple of posts back about the 2013 “A Poet, Cheating for money?” scandal, the bizarre things  and in previous posts about the way we talk about Poetry in the way we talk about no other art.

Examples can be easily found in any contemporary discussion or use of poetry but Paul Dawson’s Creative Writing and the New Humanities(2005),  and Terry Eagelton’s How to Read a Poem (2007)  will serve as one example.   Both take for granted Sidney’s argument about the power of Poetry. 

According to Dawson the purpose of modern creative writing courses should be to turn out “literary Intellectuals” who will be “oppositional critics”. Oppositional criticism being:  textual or cultural critique of received opinions, with the ultimate aim of affecting social change , or at least an alteration of public opinion , beyond the refinements of disciplinary knowledge (p.201).  This is an extension and variation  on the romantic ideal of the outsider artist, given its most famous poetic expression in Shelley’s Defence. The claims for Poetry as an active participant in contemporary political processes, able to affect the community at large, flounder when one tries to see how this could operate outside the seminar room or find an example.

Analysing the ideology of poems written in the past, Terry Eagleton’s preferred method (Eagleton 2007), or discussing the ideology of poems written in the work shop (Dawson)  assumes poetry has inherent power over the reader which apprentice poets need to learn to use in appropriate ways (for which read, ways approved by the resident lecturer) (Dawson) and readers need to learn how to resist (but only what and in ways approved by the resident lecturer) (Eagleton).

This is based on the equally traditional belief that poetry “delights and instructs”, an idea that goes back in English to Sidney but beyond him to Horace. Such an approach reduces poetry to a carrier of ideological viruses  and poems to content,  just as the reviewers of the late nineteenth century judged a poet for “what he [sic] said”.  

However, at no stage can either Dawson or Eagleton, or anyone else, show how studying poetry this way prepares the student to do anything other than study poetry in this way. When put blandly: Poetry is the art of using words charged to their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders  lose the skill to shape, appreciate and understand the power of language will become slaves to those who retain it-be they politicians, preachers, copywriters or news casters  (Gioia 1992) can seem  baffling in its casual arrogance.  

Who are these self-appointed “intellectual leaders”. Gioia’s title Can Poetry Matter  is a Koan like encapsulation of the problem. It assumes “Poetry” means the same thing to everyone, and that it can and should “matter” to everyone, in the same way for the same reasons.

Even when the writer seems to be distancing herself from previous claims, she can be  trapped into recycling them. In an article published in the English Guardian in 2006 Adrienne Rich began by quoting Shelley’s famous statement and then qualified what she was discussing.

I hope never to idealise poetry - it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.

But by the end of the article, which is only 995 words long,  she has forgotten this and is writing about “Poetry’ as if it were all the things she has just claimed it is not:

Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented (Rich 2006).

My final brief example is from outside academic discussions. In the 21st Century, despite its miniscule share of the book market, (last year Britons apparently spent more on Pringles Chips than poetry books) despite the invisibility of poets for the majority of the population, Poetry rather than poets or poems, still has a privileged cultural position. 

In 2009 the British based poetry publisher Salt was in financial difficulties. Faced with impending bankruptcy it launched an appeal called “Save Our Salt”. [1]   Salt claimed that unless X number of books were sold in a limited time, it would be finished.  Word spread around the blogosphere, news outlets picked up the story, Salt sold its required number of books and the crisis was temporarily averted. 

At the time it seemed like a small but interesting example of the strange position poetry occupies in modern culture. It was difficult to imagine General Motors Holden for example,  during one of its regular financial crisis, appealing to the American consumer in a similar manner.  “We are going broke because you don’t want our product. Please buy the product you don’t want so we can continue to make the make the product you don’t want.”

In 2010, faced inevitably with the same problem, Salt relaunched their campaign with the following statement from Griff Rhys-Jones on the website:

Support the good work here. Don’t let Salt fall. If the recession is going to take things down, let it be motor manufacturers, let it be bad banks, let it be chains of fast food restaurants. We can lose a few of them, but we do not have enough small independent and daring publishers like Salt. I think I can be a little more forthright than Chris and say ‘Just six books’. Buy dozens why don’t? It’s a great list. And apparently you will help the economy in many subtle ways too complicated for studious folk like us.[2]

For many British communities the devastating social, economic and cultural effects of the closure of major industrial operations like ‘Motor Manufacturers’   are too familiar.  Why these might be lesser than the disappearance of  a small poetry publisher raises questions, not just about the values of “studious folks like us”,  but about their attitudes to poetry.  Referring to an idealised Poetry,  Jones cannot explain how poetry will help the economy in many subtle ways. Nor can he help but reveal the clubby sense that “bookish folk like us” feel they are rather superior to the masses who rely on motor manufacturers and fast food restaurants.

So this tracking of the defences is not “history” in the sense of something past and finished: whether or not Poets were prophets in the early stages of an unspecified culture is of academic interest in the derogatory sense of that term. Barbers were, until recently, surgeons,  but nobody goes to one today for open heart surgery.  This is a history, in Bourdieu’s terms which is immanent in the functioning of the field.  How individual writers or teachers situate themselves depends to a large extent on which versions of Poetry and Poet their craft is based on.  To use another Bourdieu quote;
This is why…it is so important if one is to have a bit of freedom from the constraints of the field, to attempt to explore the limits of the theoretical box in which one is imprisoned.
And so onwards to Pound and Eliot.