Monday, April 18, 2016

Basil Bunting the Complete Poems, The Problems of Annotation 3/3

There’s an alternative tradition

I said there are two clusters of assumptions about annotations; Allusion and Intertextuality, which are in opposition to the third. 

The third is the hardest to discuss: the poem is a made thing sufficient unto itself.

It’s the hardest to discuss because it’s the most vulnerable, the least fashionable and seems to require a series of subsidiary clarifications which lead away from the simplicity of the point:  The meaning of the poem is the poem.   

If there were an historical character called Aneirin he has little to do with the Aneurin in Briggflatts. And if you knew nothing about him, other than what Briggflatts tells you, then you would know enough. Do you need to know that Dominico Scarlatti was so successful that he became so fat he had difficulty reaching his own keyboard? #

If you hang your hat on the idea of Allusion or Intertexuality, you don’t need to think. You can just state that both exist, quote your favorite theorist in support and then not worry about how or if they work in practice, unless your job is to annotate a poem.  Of course the poem is an artifact made of words, and words have connotations and histories. But that doesn’t mean you have to track them down every time you read a poem.

The problem  is that for most people, poetry is something they encounter in schools or, for a smaller group, at university. Poetry is something to be studied, analyzed and explained. You get good marks for showing how clever you are at the expense of the poem.  And that study, regardless of whether it’s critical or theoretical or any combination thereof, is based on an absolutely bizarre model of composition:
The poet has a prose idea, which he or she then wraps up in a poem and sends to the reader whose job it is to unravel the poem to get at the meaning.

Geoffrey Hill, in a lecture on the poetry of the First World War, compared this version of a poem to a tank. The reader’s job is to penetrate the hard outer rhetorical shell and drag out the meaning; the soft squidgy bit cowering inside.

Hill's point was that put like this, it sounds daft. 

Why would Bunting go to the lengths of writing Briggflatts when all he wanted to say was: “One holiday I was at Brigflatts. I stayed with a mason and slept with his daughter. After that things went downhill while I was trying to write poetry but fifty years later I’m ok”?

As Robert Graves pointed out in ‘A Survey of Modernist Poetry’ (1927) this ubiquitous way of reading is based on the assumption that the reader can and must get ‘behind the poem’, to the original prose idea which can somehow be reconstructed by the reader. More recent theoretical approaches assume it is possible not just to get behind the poem to the poet’s original idea but behind even that to the ideology or discourse that shaped the original idea in the first place.

And so people don’t read the poem as a poem, but as a coded postcard from the poet. Teachers ask “what do you think the poet was trying to say?’;‘what does the poem mean?’; ‘can you explain the simile in line five?’; ‘why did the poet use that metaphor?’ The correct answer to “what do you think the poet was trying to say’ is to read the poem back to the teacher. Instead, the poem becomes a puzzle to be solved. 

I think the idea of poem as made thing, sufficient unto itself, meaning itself, is something that has become swamped by the dominance of this academic/critical/scholarly approach.  And the institutionalizing of something called creative writing in the University has only exacerbated the process.  But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

If you want to know ‘what the poem means’, and you think this involves a translation into a prose summary that will ‘explain the poem’, then not only do you need the OED and several fine slang dictionaries but an encyclopedia and you need them all open while you’re reading the footnotes to the poem you’ve probably forgotten you were reading.

But your prose explanation won’t be the poem. And worse it will be reductive and pointless. This is not the famous ‘Heresy of Paraphrase’.  Try describing a song you like to someone who hasn’t heard it, without being able to sing, hum or whistle let alone play the song for them. This is what you're doing to the poem.

A.C. Bradley in his first lecture as Oxford Professor of poetry, back in 1901, trying to unravel the argument about form and content, went so far as to claim:

The subject is not the matter of the poem at all; and its opposite is not the form of the poem, but the whole poem. The subject is one thing; the poem’s matter and form alike, another thing.

So back to Aneirin. Outside the poem there are facts about someone called Aneirin, who may have been a historical character, and some of the verses in Y Gododdin may have been composed by him, though if there was a battle at Catterick or Cattereah it will come as a surprise to some expert medieval historians.  

Inside the poem there is a name, and a cluster of actions and descriptions. The idea that somehow knowing all about the historical character will illuminate the poem is simply wrong. It’s an idea that leads away from the poem down a fascinating rabbit hole but ultimately goes nowhere.

Beyond knowing Aneirin was a poet at a time when poets ‘numbered the dead’, sometime in the past given the reference to bows and battle, the rest is superfluous. The only necessary information is supplied by the poem itself.  Supporting evidence for his significance  is Bunting’s anachronistic ‘before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game’:  one of those 'then is now’ moments in the poem. 

Aneirin represents a role for the poet that wasn’t available to Bunting.

If Bloodaxe wasn’t King of Orkney, it doesn’t matter. It won’t damage Briggflatts. You don’t have to read the Shahnameh to understand section three. Curiosity should drive you to find Davis’ excellent translation and there is much pleasure to be had from reading that story. But I doubt it will add much to your initial reading of the poem.

And the point of all this?

Apart from the excitement of waiting for the new Complete Poems?

Philip Larkin attacked the Modernists for their approach to writing poetry: As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty. . . . To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots, but dodges the writer’s duty to be original. (qtd. Paris Review Philip Larkin, The Art of Poetry no.30)

In an earlier interview (1967) he had been asked about the same quote and he replied:

What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I rather do lay at the door of Pound and Eliot…I think a lot of this ‘myth-kitty’ business has grown out of that…because first of all you have to be terribly educated, you have to read everything to know these things, and secondly you’ve got somehow to work them in to show you are working them in.

Larkin was aware, at least in the Paris Review Interview, where he was pushed to defend his claim: I admit this argument could be pushed to absurd lengths, when a poet could not refer to anything that his readers might not have seen (such as snow, for instance), but he represents an idea which taken one way leads to the blandness of the worst of "Movement Poetry' and the modern poem which seems desperate to imitate a postcard chopped into short lines.  In the other direction it's not far  to the usual claims about elitism, complexity and snobbery and attendant political and ideological criticisms together with the strange rejection of excellence or the pursuit of excellence in art as somehow unacceptable and undemocratic. 

What I think Bunting demonstrates is that it is possible to write intelligent, beautiful poems which will reward repeated rereading, but which do not need scholarly exegesis or annotation.  The idea that his poem's are 'complex' and 'allusive' and the reader is in need of crutches not only creates a straw reader with very limited skills and knowledge, but  detracts from the fact that Briggflatts for all its use of names is ‘its own sole freshly created universe’, as so many of Bunting’s poems are.  And Pound's aren't.

It works, as Bunting said he intended, as a made thing that can stand on its own and provide the reader with the pleasure that comes from reading poetry.  He said what he meant and he meant what he said. 

# I have no idea if this story is true. I've never checked its authenticity but it should be. 

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