Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Footnote Poets 2a/4 Joseph Campbell and Literary History.

Joseph Campbell 1879-1944

NB: This Joseph Campbell is not the prolific author of books on Mythology. In his youth this Campbell's poetry was published under the Irish form of his name, Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. He told Austin Clarke that he gave this up when he heard a young woman asking for a the poems of Seo-Sam MacCatwail. 

For over a century young people ‘interested in writing’ or ‘wanting to be writers’ have signed up for university literature courses, only to discover it’s like an English speaker travelling to France to study English in French. For anyone who wants to learn how to write poetry, current academic approaches to it are not helpful.

One of the products of an interest in a poet like Campbell is how visible this becomes.  So first I want to use him as an example of something, and then consider some of his poems.

If you go looking for Campbell the poet in the literary histories of the time: The Pound Era, A Colder Eye, you won't find him. Although a quote from a letter stands at the head of Forster’s second volume of Yeats’ life, Campbell has no other appearance, although other sources suggest Yeats tried to get him out of prison in the 1920s. He turns up twice in Moody’s first volume of Pound’s life, but in neither case is his poetry mentioned. He was one of those poets, including Hume, Pound, and H.D who met in London at the Tour Eiffel café, meetings which  lead to the later ‘Imagist’ movement or Non-Movement.  According to Moody, Pound remembered him more for his conversation and Moody remembers him for the fact he recited Pound’s terrible ‘Ballad of the Goodly Frere’ at a public meeting.

Campbell died alone in his cottage in 1944.  Austin Clarke, himself more a sidelined poet than a footnote, edited a collected poems in 1963 arguing a case for Campbell’s poetry in his introduction and claiming he was the first Irish poet to use free verse effectively.  A volume of  ‘The Journal of Irish Literature’ was dedicated to him in 1979 and a biography written in 1988 by Norah Saunders and A.A. Kelly. Helen Carr, in her magnificent The Verse Revolutionaries pulled his early life out of the footnotes and into the main body of her text. But that book is unusual for a lot of reasons.

His presence in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry 1800-2000, written by Justin Quinn, is more characteristic. It’s a fine example of why the academic study of literature is a bad way of trying to learn how to write a poem.

Campbell appears three times in the index:

Tyanan and Carbery, along with other poets such as Lionel Johnson, Joseph Campbell, Padriac Colum, George Russell, James Stephens and F.R. Higgins followed the poetic templates forged by W.B.Yeats (p50).

The world may indeed have been falling apart, but that was all the more reason to assert and maintain the cultural integrity of Ireland. Poets such as F.R. Higgins (1896-1941) and Joseph Campbell (1879-1944) prosecuted exactly this programme (P80).

…this figures MacNeice as a flash in the pan, beside Revivalist poets such as Joseph Campbell and Lyle Donaghy, both subsequently and justly consigned to the oblivion of literary history (p90).

The last first.

 It is the job of Historians to select what is of importance to their narrative and no one can object to them either selecting or voicing judgments. What I always object to is a judgment like this one that never makes the grounds of the judgment available to the reader. Is Cambell 'justly' consigned to the oblivion of literary history because his poetry was mediocre, or because he was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, or because he never played the twinkly eyed mystical Irishman to the English Gallery? Or because he was a white heterosexual male and they are currently out of favour, though in Campbell's case the phrase 'white male privilege' could only be ironic?

Campbell is never quoted in the Cambridge History. However the criteria for inclusion can be seen in the pages that follow his first appearance.

Tyanan and Carbery, along with other poets such as Lionel Johnson, Joseph Campbell, Padriac Colum, George Russell, James Stephens and F.R. Higgins followed the poetic templates forged by W.B.Yeats (p50).

These poets are named, but grouped and set aside. You could dispute the accuracy of the statement but what follows this magisterial summation and implicit dismissal is a full page and a half of discussion of the work of Eva Gore- Booth. 

If Campbell has been ‘justly consigned to the oblivion of literary history’ then the implication is that Eva Gore-Booth’s work deserves our attention. As it becomes obvious that as Poetry it doesn’t, then some other criteria must be driving this history.

Yeats wrote a poem about her, and Quinn reprimands him: ‘Gore-Booth’s political and cultural involvements were much more complex than Yeats admits and his poem is inaccurate in its assessment of her subsequent career'. The criticism, that what seems to most readers to be personal reminiscence fails as objective political/biographical/ historical analysis, should alert the reader to what comes next.

Quinn quotes from three of her poems, which presumably do not deserve to be condemned to the oblivion of literary history. To be fair I’ll include all three quotations in the order they are given.
How a great Queen could cast away her crown,
The tumult of her high victorious pride,
To rest among the scattered fir-cones brown
And watch deep waters through the moonlight glide.
They brought her forth at last when she was old:
The sunlight on her blanchèd hair was shed
Too late to turn its silver into gold.
‘Ah shield me from this brazen glare!“ she said.
For thee Maeve left her kingdom and her throne
And all the gilded wisdom of the wise
And dwelt among the hazel trees alone
So that she might look into Niamh’s eyes.

No sorrow of lost battles anymore
In her enchanted spirit could abide;
Straight she forgot the long and desolate war
And how Fionavar for pity died.

Ah, Niamh, still the starry lamp burns bright
I can see through the darkness of the grave,
How long ago thy soul of starry light
Was very dear to the brave soul of Maeve.

These are competent poems, the kind that were written in vast quantities by intelligent, literate people at the turn of the last century when writing competent poems was an acceptable pastime.  But do these poems rate a place in history except as an example of the kind of competent poems written by intelligent literate people?

I would say no, this is not good poetry worthy of attention at this distance and my reasons for saying so:  it has the usual problems.

An ornate diction strives to be ‘poetic’ with its ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ and phrases like  ‘The tumult of her high victorious pride’.   Needless adjectives pad out the line to meet the metre’s demands:  in the first quote ‘brown’ in the third line, ‘deep’ in the fourth, The straining for rhyme which involves inversions or distortions of the natural word order or the addition of superfluous information all contribute to a lack of precision in the diction: do we need to know the fir cones are brown, or that the waters are deep? 

The poems have a  superficial attraction on a first reading but won’t bear scrutiny.  A phrase like ‘the gilded wisdom of the wise’ in this context seems to be doing very little. As a description of the emotion that lead Maeve to throw it all away and live in the forest gazing into Niamh’s eyes,  (how does she do this when we’re told she’s living alone?), ‘very dear’ is simply inadequate.

Quinn introduces the first extract by claiming that Gore-Booth used mythology to get back to the real world, but there is nothing recognizably real about this.
It’s obvious that Gore-Booth is not being ‘justly consigned to the oblivion of literary history’ because a) she’s female and b) according to Quinn the third extract has something to do with lesbianism and its delicate expression:
‘This does not openly express Lesbian love, but like a lot of gay poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it tactfully gestures towards it…’

Historians write history according to their own versions of what’s important. I think it's important to keep this in mind. If the book is about the poetry written by women during the first quarter of the century, then it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad poetry, it is evidence to make a point. If the purpose is to track the ways in which non-heterosexual passion is covertly expressed in verse, any verse will do. The danger lies in assuming that this academic use of poetry is the only thing that matters. Identity poetics are popular; I don't think they are a good thing.

If academic education is about learning to read like a critic, then learning to read like a writer is a different skill and not often taught.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Footnote Poets. 1/4 Introduction.

Footnote poets.

For most of 2015 I’ve been reading what I think of as ‘footnote poets’. You’ll find their names in the footnotes of biographies of the famous, in passing references, often slighting, in letters, or they appear in a list that makes up the group from which the ‘great poet’ emerged or a list of similar poems from which the ‘great poem’ stands out.

Footnote poets are often the ones who almost made it, who can still be read with some pleasure if you can track down their work. Part of the reason it’s taken so long to put together the notes which follow has been the difficulty of finding their poems.

We all know literary history is not ‘fair’. Sometimes the talented don’t make it and those who do make it seem suspect. Sometimes, talent is nebulous. And often, if you compare contemporary poems, it’s hard to see why, in terms of literary merit, one poet became well known and one didn’t.
On the other hand, reading some footnote poets and asking why they didn’t make it is a way of nagging at the question of what is a good poem. 
What follows is a discussion of four such poets: Joseph Campbell (1879-1944), Richard Aldington (1892-1862), Thomas Carew (1695-1640)  and Lawman  (Dates unknown but writing after 1155), the latter being a special case.

The end result of a year’s reading?

I was hoping to sidestep literary theory and critical orthodoxy  and gain a better understanding of what is a good poem and why some poets become well known and others don’t. But what I discovered was that the variables are so numerous that there is little logic to the process. Except, in most cases, while the footnote poets can be interesting, and provide academics and publishers with the possibility of rediscovering X or challenging the Canon by championing Y, most of the time they deserve their place in the footnotes.

I started with the conviction that writing poetry is the art of controlling and exploiting diction, syntax and line endings. If you’re a formalist you could add rhythm to the list or you could assume that rhythm like sound is the product of the interaction of the first three.  So to write a poem you have to control and exploit diction, syntax and line endings, and learn to control and exploit what Jean Jacques Lecercle calls The Remainder’.

What that doesn’t explain, is why some poets who could obviously do this, are forgotten. The Modernists fetishized ‘technique’ but no matter how good the poet, if the poem has nothing more than a purely formal interest, the poet is doing the equivalent of playing scales on a musical instrument.

The twentieth century’s obsession with “experimental poetry” has produced very little of  value. Most of the 'experiments' are repetitions of things that were tried out over a century ago. Even when the work is genuinely novel, the value of the experiment lies in what can be learnt from it, and can then be applied to the next poem, not  the mess made in the laboratory, which shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone else.  The popularity of ruptured syntax and poems that present as some kind of Sudoku or Rubik’s Cube for the cognoscenti  to unravel leads to the last depressing thought.

If the Field of an art consists of producers and consumers, and the consumers include both the professionals, the critics, editors, professional academics reviewers scholars and historians and the non professional reader, then Poetry is unique in that the audience has shrunk to consist almost of professional users. With poetry, because of its uniquely imbalanced audience, so much depends on what professional users can do with what the poet has produced.  The needs of the critic to do something the non-academic reader cannot do, means that there is a symbiotic relationship between the explicator and the need for something to explain. Some poets remain visible because their work provides endless opportunities for academic studies: Pound has to be a case in point. A poet like Campbell, who  needs no explicator, has very little chance. 
And on that depressing note. Next post, Joseph Campbell 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Beowulf-return to the Shieldlands.....

There’s a story, possibly spurious, that Rolling Stone Magazine once started a review of a Bob Dylan Record with the words ‘What is this shit?’

So to review a previous post: there’s a character called Beowulf, and there were stories about him. There’s a poem called “Beowulf” which is one version of that story. And since Seamus Heaney’s translation there seem to have been a few attempts at filming the poem.  I have no problems with retellings of the poem. 

Beowulf -Return to The Shield lands …..

The title itself rings alarm bells.  Leave "Beowulf" out for a moment and consider “The Shield Lands” at what point of history from the Greeks to the invention of the cannon could you distinguish a country by the presence of shields? Had this been called Big Hairy Bert and the Shield Bearing Sheilas it would be a bit of nonsense. But it’s called Beowulf.  So for the safety of our mental health let us consider the first twelve minutes. 

The first episode opens with an inversion of the film 'Beowulf and Grendel'. Instead of Grendel and his father being chased by Danes, Beowulf  and his father are chased along a beach by lolloping monsters. They kill the father, Little Beowulf kills the monster. Cut to later…portentous voice over: Beowulf is now the Big B.

But he’s riding to Heorot with his trusty sidekick, exchanging yo dude dialogue stolen from a cliche riddled western. And he’s not going to save Hrothgar. Although Beowulf has been previously banished under pain of death he wants to see the old man again…

Heorot is a hoot. It’s surrounded by a fence that wouldn’t keep yer average village idiot at bay but there are evil men with whips, (they must be evil, they have whips and are dressed in black leather courtesy of the local s and m suppliers) ) and there are monsters using some kind of treadmill the film 
makers must have found on the abandoned set of Conan the Barbarian.

Heorot looks like a cross between an Egyptian Mortuary, with Greco/ Roman/Persian Interiors made up as the lair of some evil dark lord for a crap fantasy film. I was expecting either The Rock as Scorpion King or Ayesha to appear. Neither happened. Hrothgar is dead. His wife announces she is now Thane of Heorot. (What’s Lady Macbeth doing in Denmark?)

So after ten minutes the film has announced itself as a terrible mess of generic borrowings. And while Beowulf fights a few armed men who are told to kill him….his trusty side kick is looking for a blacksmith to fix his blade. You can see the double entendres lining up and when we're introduced to the female blacksmith, which carries its own bad pun, they gleefully make their appearance.
At which point I stopped.

There is an obvious desire on the part of modern storytellers to try and create strong female characters.
But in medieval texts, within the boundaries of their cultures, there are already strong female characters. There are strong female characters in the poem 'Beowulf'.

1) Don’t sexualize them. They shouldn’t all conform to film standards of beauty.  And they shouldn’t be there as potential sexual partners/romantic interest for the hero.  You can’t have a strong female character and then treat her like a conventional trophy bride.
2) There’s nothing inherently wrong with a female smith, but you need an actress who has shoulders like an Olympic swimmer and arms that look like they spend all day belting metal with heavy objects.(See previous point.)
3) If you’re going to have strong female characters they can’t stop being strong and start yelling for help when the monsters turn up. Let them save themselves, and let them do it without male muscle.

And most importantly this means you have to reconstruct your model of male heroism.  You have to get rid of the idea of the Hero saving the damsel in distress in return for a quick roll in the hay afterwards. This doesn’t mean your male hero has to be gay, or your female chaste, it just means that the woman can look after herself. And be heroic. And your male hero has to find something else to be heroic about. Like killing monsters as an expression of loyalty, gratitude and service…which is what he does in the original.

Why is it that filmmakers are prepared to outlay money on sets and costumes and special effects but not on a decent script? Beowulf the poem survives as a good story. But no one seems to want to deal with it as a story on its own terms. Wherever this awfulness was first conceived there would have been a university with someone who knew about Anglo-Saxon literature who could have offered some advice.

But even awfulness can be interesting. Why does it have to be called Beowulf?  Either, you tell a story set in a vague dark age about a hero who kills monsters and call him Bert…and then you can do anything you like and rake in every generic cliché. Or you stick reasonably closely to the poem, or you create further adventures for Beowulf.  There’s a substantial gap between the second and third parts of the poem. It would free the  imagination to allow the Big B some new adventures. You could even follow the approach taken by The Thirteenth Warrior and Outlander…

But once the character is called Beowulf, and he’s travelling to Heorot, where he is planning to meet Hrothgar, the film is referencing the Poem.  The question has to be why?

The answer has to be commercial. If the number of lego Beowulfs on Youtube is anything to go by, mostly introduced with the words, I did this as a project for English,  the poem still features on the Curriculum in the United States. (We could pause to consider why you’d encourage someone to make a stop motion lego version of Beowulf as part of an English Project. Some of them are very well made. But wouldn’t the time and patience spent on stop animation be better spent thinking about the poem?) So obviously ‘Big Hairy Bert and the Shield Maiden Sheilas’ is not going to attract all those lego filming students and their teachers.

It could be argued that Big Hairy Bert and the Shield Bearing Sheilas is a silly title for a film, but it’s no sillier than the content of ‘Beowulf-Return to the Shield Lands”.