What follows are three encounters with poetry blather, related to Hannah Sullivan’s award winning Three poems. It is not about Sullivan’s book, but about the way people write about poetry.
I read a lot of poetry books, but sometimes, reading an award winning, highly acclaimed modern collection, I can’t see why the poet or the poems have earned their accolades.
I assume the fault is mine. I go online and look for reviews to try and discover what I’m missing. Often this involves wading through the sludge of poetry blather in search of an enlightenment which is rarely forthcoming.
I had this experience reading Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems.
Sullivan’s book seems to come out of Faber Central. The kind of book the poetry society choses for its book of the month, I could see that it was well-written, but I couldn’t see what made it stand out so much that it won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018.
I went looking for enlightenment and have been reminded that people who should know better write a lot of nonsense about poetry. If poetry is at least the art of using words carefully, why is that people who write about it don’t seem to able to do the same.
Surely professional academics, reviewers or critics should be able to explain why they think a book is good without resorting to waffle.
So here are three encounters with Poetry Blather.
1) The Dust jacket.
‘In Three Poems, readers will experience Sullivan’s work with the same exhilaration as they might the great modernizing poems of Eliot and Pound, but with the unique perspective of a brilliant new female voice.’
If that is a considered judgement it should sustain considered judgement?
I suppose the Eliot Pound reference is mandatory given this is Faber and the book won a prize with T.S.E’s name on it but it’s an unfair comparison to lumber any poet with. Those two really did break the moulds.
The exhilaration of reading Pound and Eliot is well attested. People recorded their initial excitement in their memoires and autobiographies. You can track the reception in books like T.S.Eliot: the Critical Heritage.
Readers and critics were (and still are) split between those who recognized something new was happening and welcomed it; those who responded with genuine, intelligent dissent and those who resorted to mockery and dismissal. There were those who thought Prufrock was a joke, the Wasteland incomprehensible, and if we’re honest, the verdict is still out on the Cantos.
But the split was part of that exhilaration, it was genuine and these poets (and others) were creating work that was different in form, diction, syntax and content to the poetry that was being written and read at the time. Even today the Waste Land and some of the Cantos remain exhilarating and strange.
There are poems and poets who can still produce that kind of startled, initially baffled response. Make up our own list, mine, at random, would include Deep Step Come Shining, Slinger, The Monkey’s Mask, Tooting Idyll, For all we know, The Battlefield where the Moon says I Love You, the work of Maurice Scully….all works that left the main stream and take their readers somewhere different.
But nobody who reads any reasonable amount of poetry is going to be startled or surprised by anything in Three Poems.
And then what does/could ‘unique perspective of a brilliant new female voice’ mean. I can imagine some poets I’ve read being described as having a ‘distinctive voice’, but what’s that adjective doing before ‘voice’.
Unlike ‘masculine’, ‘female/feminine’ is invariably a positive term in literary discourse. It usually means the critic has made a mental list of qualities she or he approves and then labelled them as feminine. Rocks are masculine, water’s feminine.
Leaving content out of the conversation, because the idea that the writer thinks there is a specific, appropriate, exclusive ‘female’ content is too ugly to contemplate; what, in the 21st century, would identify writing as ‘a female voice’?
Theoretically and practically gender can now be seen as a cultural construct and a performative which goes beyond the simplest of male/female binaries. ‘Female’ is not a stable universal description outside of biology.
I’m fairly sure that the linguists have buried the idea that there is anything more than culturally contingent learnt differences between men and women’s speech. The theorists went searching for ecriture feminine and ended up in a dead end.
I also thought we’d had a century of writers trying to earn the right to write how they wanted, about what they wanted, not from within some restrictive box labelled ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
So, in what way is this poem written in a ‘female voice’. Is the blurb writer claiming, implicitly, that they can identify an author’s gender by syntax and diction alone?
And my god, given what’s been written over the past century or so, what would be a ‘unique perspective’ on lived experience?
So the dust jacket didn’t help.
In the next installment, considering what the judges said.