Friday, September 26, 2014

Pound, Eliot, After Strange Gods and A. David Moody's 'Ezra Pound Poet Voume II'.

This is not a critique or a review of A. David Moody’s new book, the second volume in his biography of Ezra Pound. I haven’t finished it yet. But there’s something I want to consider.

Moody Wrote:
‘Mr. Pound’s Hell’, Mr. Eliot objected in his notorious and yet very curious put down in After Strange Gods, ‘is a hell for the other people…not for oneself and one’s friends.” One must allow that Pound did not share his friend’s taste for damnation. More to the point, Eliot’s remark is a doubtless deliberate attempt to place Pound’s Hell within his own Christian frame of reference, which Pound had very deliberately exercised. (p82)

Ignore the positioning of ‘curious’ and ‘notorious’. How many of Moody’s readers would know the whole quotation?  After Strange Gods is a hard book to come by.  Moody does not mention the fact that Eliot’s opening comments  include,  ‘Mr. Pound is probably the most important living poet in our language….’

What Eliot wrote or said is at the bottom of this post.  His criticism raises three linked questions:

1) A moral point which shades into art, which you may or may not agree with.

I resent/reject the idea of Original Sin, however, if you secularize the argument it is worth considering: if you remove the idea of moral or spiritual struggle, you are left with the belief that life is as simple as good people doing good stuff and bad people doing bad stuff. It’s not a question of people making choices that are bad or good. A writer who believes in that is going to create characters which lack sophistication. On a moral level, the argument is going to lead inexorably to some ugly places.  The ability to casually ‘Other’ whole groups is evidence of the kind of simplistic thinking which might not inevitably lead to racism and other forms of intolerance,  but is certainly going to be a logical development of a predisposed mind. 

2) There is an artistic point.  

Pound’s hell cantos are tedious, they sound like the lonely child in the play ground, ostracized and getting its own back by sneering at everyone. Artistically they don’t compel because there is no attempt to make the readers feel they could be in hell, because this hell is a place for them. Not us. And it’s not a place where you arrive after a series of choices, so there is no disturbance, just the smug gratification of knowing lady golfers are going to hell. (???) 

3) By implication, there’s a personal one with general implications which links back to art.  

Eliot knew his man.  Pound’s habit of setting himself up as expert and judge, without necessarily questioning his own opinions or actions, without accepting anyone else’s evaluation of his opinions, is also being called into question.  By what right does Pound put these people in Hell? He really did think that by writing the cantos, issued in a small, expensive edition, so that few people could afford them, and written in a way even fewer people could understand, he could rewrite the world.  This is a delusional behavior. No amount of conceptual hocus pocus can change this. The Cantos don’t work. Either as sustained poetry or a political document. Measured against Pound's claims for them, or as a demonstration of the function he claimed for poetry in the modern world: they fail. They did not stop the second world war, they did bring about the Renaissance, and no amount of special pleading is going to change that.

The emperor was naked, but his strategy was to claim to understand nakedity better than anyone else. There was no basis for this. He was the self-appointed, self-elected genius of his own universe. And anyone who dared to say he was naked was going to be buried under a counter blast of faux scholarship, faux criticism and vitriol. Disagree and you end up in hell.

Almost a hundred years later, the trick is wearing thin. And it seems strange that the acolytes are still playing the party line and dismissing criticism on the grounds that the critic just isn’t clever enough to understand what he’s criticising.

In After Strange Gods Eliot wrote or said:

At this point I shall venture to generalize, and suggest that with the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction to-day, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real. It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending on spiritual sanctions, rather in those ‘bewildering minutes’ in which we are all very much alike, that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness, and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an elite to Art, the world will be good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous. This is exactly what we find in the society which Mr. Pound puts in Hell, in his Draft of XXX Cantos. It consists (I may have overlooked one or two species) of politicians, profiteers, financiers, newspaper proprietors, and their hired men, agents provocateurs, Calvin, St Clement of Alexandria, the English, vice-crusaders, liars, the stupid, pedants, preachers, those who do not believe in Social Credit, Bishops, lady golfers, Fabians, conservatives and imperialists: and ‘all those who have set money-lust before the pleasures of the senses’. It is, in its way, an admirable Hell, ‘without dignity, without tragedy’.  At first sight the variety of types –for these are types, and not individuals- may be a little confusing; but I think it becomes a little more intelligible if we see at work three principles, (1) the aesthetic, (2) the humanitarian, (3) the Protestant. And I find one considerable objection to a Hell of this sort: that a Hell altogether without dignity implies a Heaven without dignity also. If you do not distinguish between individual responsibility and circumstances in Hell, between essential Evil and social accidents, then the Heaven (if any) will be equally trivial and accidental. Mr. Pound’s Hell, for all its horrors, is a perfectly confortable one for the modern mind to contemplate, and disturbing to no one’s complacency: it is a Hell for the other people, the people we read about in the newspapers, not for oneself and one’s friends’(After Strange Gods, p.43).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Poet as Makar, Tom Pickard's Hoyoot.

First a quote, not from the book:

The poet as makar[sic]. Not as sage or seer, or recorder of the human condition or shaper of texts suitable for the educational system, or cultural analyst or popular entertainer, or even as spy. These, and many other activities are all valid but peripheral.
 The poet as someone who makes or composes poems. Poems as constructions, as patterns of words which when heard (or in our culture, predominantly read, but nevertheless finally heard in what might be called ‘the Inner ear’) give us the experience of something we label as poetry. And which other sorts of verbal expression do not. (Gael Turnbull, 'The Poet as Makar' )

What might poetry have looked like before the rules made it a pedant’s game to misquote.  One answer is Tom Pickard’s Hoyoot (2014), his collected poems and songs published by Carcanet.

And before going further, not only do Carcanet need to be applauded for publishing this but whoever saw to the back cover got the blurb right.  He or she wisely kept the ringing endorsements from Bunting and Ginsberg that graced the back of Tiepin Eros, Pickard’s selected, and then added comments from Paul Macartney and Annie Lennox. This might look like a grab for a different market, but in reality it’s a testimony to the breadth of the collection.  

What characterizes Pickard’s poems as a reading experience is that you’re never sure what’s going to be on the next page. Most single author collections settle to a recognizable form and subject matter, but Pickard’s don’t.  He is one of the few English poets who can write directly about sex in all its forms and variations without sounding coy or crude or clinical. The political poems rage beside carefully observed pieces that let the wind and the birds into the landscape, and the intricate mess of human relationships is dealt with in all its baffling complexities.

His style is his own, but like any well-developed style evokes its own ghosts.  There’s occasionally a whiff of the Mersey poets, without their self-conscious desperation to be wry.  Most often he writes like a hard core imagist from 1912, except it’s hard to imagine a hardcore imagist with a sense of humor or rage and a willingness to write directly about the world as it is. 
He had the minimalistic style under control from the start.

sitting in firelight
your face in shadow
the little gold glint
of your ring.

At times the ghosts of the high modernists drift in the background, but Pickard writes poems with both feet in the daylight world of jobs and joblessness and messy relationships and blackberry picking, not in a theoretical library or a seminar room. This is not poetry that deliberately references other poetry with a knowing wink.  

Holding this all together is the pared down traditional ballad, with its economy and rhythm, obvious in “The Ballad of Jamie Allan” his ballad opera which closes out the book, but throughout the collection.

These three elements combine to make something that is stripped down and spare, but moving rhythmically and at its best melodically.

Before the fools made poetry a pedant’s game, to misquote, a poet might not need to carry a whole baggage of cultural references and academic expectations; or spend its time worrying about conceptualizing the art: a poet might be an intelligent, eloquent, independent human, full of curiosity with a gift for arranging words into memorable patterns. The makar lives outside the library, reflects on life, and organizes those reflections into patterns of words.  So the poems are angry or tender, bemused, political, personal, a way of responding to and organizing a life.  The skill and knowledge are in the craft and the making, and it would be a horrible mistake to think Pickard is artless.   

The poems are then offered to the reader, with out apology. They offer a space for thinking through and in language, which requires nothing from the reader but an honest openness to the words on the page.

Somewhere in this book each reader, if he or she is honest, is going to find poems he or she finds offensive, or dull or pointless. This is not a euphemism for that old reviewers tic:  the collection is uneven.  I think  this is a good thing. Poetry that is always being polite and clever, soliciting quiet poetry orgasms from those in the know, the kind of poetry you need a library or a degree in poetry to explain, is all very well for writing essays about in a library or for buying for your elderly maiden aunt, but it’s becoming an utterly pointless self-perpetuating exercise.  

Finally one of the many things I have admired about Pickard’s poems since I first encountered them is a strange ambivalence. On the one hand these are often very personal poems. It’s difficult not to read them as personal responses to personal situations. We’re light years away from Eliot’s claim that the aim of art is to escape from personality.

But despite this, the poems are not what Geoffrey Hill recently described as the poetic equivalent of a selfie. The pared down language, the rhythm and the melody seem to be heading towards a hard won anonymity. The non-Pickard poem which reminds me most of Pickard is:

Westron Wynde when wyll thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed agyne.

The words can be used, reused, and passed into memory whether or not the poet's name remains attached to them. I suspect that might be the highest form of art.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Evaluating the poetry of the first world war.

George Summers over at the "Great War Fiction Blog":

Realism is Not Enough

The British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford gave me plenty to think about. One sentence from that has stuck in my mind as a theme I want to develop at some time in the future is from the presentation by Andrew Palmer.
‘Realism is not enough,’ he said.
He was talking about how we evaluate War poetry. Very often this is praised for its realistic and graphic detail. In a standard school exercise, a poem by Wilfred Owen is placed next to some patriotic tub-thumping. Students are expected to praise the Owen for its communication of the hard facts of war. When I was marking AS-level scripts many students produced essays pointing up this contrast, whatever the actual question set in the exam.
Of course, the stress on the pain and horror of the battlefield is an important element of Owen’s work. Dr Palmer’s point, though, is that this is not what makes Owen a great poet. A poem is more than its subject matter.

Read the rest of this here:

Friday, September 12, 2014

The UC poetry prize 2014: David Ades, 'Dazzled' and 15,000 dollars

I about to commit an act of public opionating. Guilty as charged yer Honour.

So the UC International poetry prize has been awarded, and we see what a poem worth 15,000 dollars looks like.

Whatever you think of the winning poem, ‘Dazzled' or the winning poet, David Ades, whichever poem won, the judges were on a hiding to nothing. It’s inevitable the winning poem should be scrutinized and the equally inevitable question asked: why is it worth 15,000 dollars?

The judges had to wade through 1050 entries, one of which was mine. I enter poetry competitions in the same way I pay my five dollars for a stake in the staff lottery ticket.  And it is a lottery, though the chances are numerically better than the national lottery.  In a competition open to all types of poetry and to any subject matter, anyone entering who is capable of achieving a level of literary competence has a chance of winning. As much as winning a ‘poetry comp’ would be good for my bank balance, it would say about as much about the poems I write as winning the lottery. And if I had a CV, or felt the need for one, it would look good to the kind of people who are impressed by these things: who are people I don’t want to impress anyway.

But doesn’t anyone else question those 15,000 dollars?  It seems to me out of all proportion to what a poem can be worth in a culture which basically ignores poetry unless there is a scandal or a lot of money involved. And the two are often related. 

 Just under a hundred years ago The Waste Land won Eliot 2,000. But at least that one poem changed the landscape permanently and is still rattling around demanding and repaying attention a century later. Is anyone seriously suggesting that “Dazzled” is 2014’s answer to ‘The Waste Land’?

How can one poem be worth that much? Using figures from the Australian Bureau of statistics for the average weekly wage for a full time worker in 2014,  it would take an average wage earner ten weeks of full time work to earn this much money. Is somebody seriously suggesting one poem is worth ten weeks of full time work?

Put it another way. In Australia the ABR pays 250 for a poem, the APJ pays 100.  Does anyone believe this one poem is better than 60 poems published in the Australian Book Review or 150 in the APJ?

How many books would I have to sell to earn that much in royalties?  Does anyone in Australia sell enough copies of a poetry book to earn that much in royalties in a year?

And if you think fiddling with the maths is supercilious, it’s not. That’s the only value that is on offer. It's the only reason it makes the papers. 

And I think this trend for “Poetry competitions” with huge cash prizes is invidious and self-defeating. Does it encourage a readership for poetry? No. Poetry becomes visible because someone threw a lot of money at one poem. Does it promote poetry in the wider community? Only in so much as it sends out a message saying “You too can win a great deal of money by writing a poem”.  

The phrase “cultural compensation” is lurking around here asking to be let in. 

In my fantasy acceptance speech, in which the words obscene and cultural compensation were due to feature, I imagined announcing deleting how ever much the ten volume hardback Latham Pepys would cost me second hand, and then donating the rest to the publisher of my books.

Think of what 15,000 dollars would do for a small press in Australia. You could probably set up a journal for 15,000 and give writers space and readers opportunities.

 In terms of what it’s doing for poetry in Australia, it seems a spectacular waste of money.

And I want someone to tell me why ‘Dazzled' is a good poem. That’s a serious question. Not what 
it’s worth in monetary terms, but why it’s worth my time as a reader?

According to the paper: The prize's head judge, British poet and novelist Philip Gross, praised Adès's poem as "irresistible" and "a generous and subtle celebration of the way a poem can infiltrate itself, coming to fruition slowly, among the swarming details of a life observed with appetite". 

A life observed with subtlety? Count the clichés.  It starts with one. ‘A song’ catches the wind “like a sail, billowing”, (it’s  a poem about a poem, not a song about a song,  but never mind.) and then it just keeps going: cold seeps, snow crunches, there are little clouds of breath. The trees are like skeletons, the snow on mausoleums is like a white coverlet, under which they are sleeping, there are fragments of conversations, imaginative leaps, cars slip and skid on ice. No noun or verb can be trusted in public without a package deal of overly familiar adjectives and adverbs. There is nothing detailed about this at all.

The language is floppy and imprecise: “on a page normally reserved for paintings or photographs or other more visual arts”, …it’s a generic walking in somewheresville in the snow selfie. 

End of public opinionating.

Normal service will soon be resumed after I’ve done some more reading about Joseph Campbell. Who could have done with 15,000 dollars.