Thursday, November 21, 2019

The nonsense people write about poetry. Hannah Sullivan's 'Three poems' and The T.S.Eliot prize. 2/3

 Looking for enlightenment, I went to the T.S.Eliot Prize website to read what was written there. 

‘Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is an astonishing debut, challenging the parameters of what poetry can do.’
The first part is undeniable. As a first collection Three Poems is impressive. 

But the second part is everything that is wrong with poetry blather. It sounds like an intelligent judgement has been made and offered as praise. In reality, beyond the fact the words have denotations, it’s meaningless. 
But firstly, that assumption that ‘challenging the parameters’ is automatically a GOOD THING. This is the twentieth century’s critical legacy; the idea that answering yes to ‘has this been done before’ somehow removes the obligation of asking ‘was it worth doing’?   

The assumption that it is A GOOD THING ignores the fact that there are fine poets who spent/d their careers getting better at writing poems without dabbling in ‘experimentation’. There are great poets, Yeats and Larkin as two well-known examples, who never pushed a ‘poetic boundary’ in their life. There are others who were so committed to pushing the boundaries they produced work that no one could make head nor tail of. 
Hold on to that thought.
In statements like this ‘poetry’ usually means one of two things; the sum total of all the poems written and published, or ‘the poetry I read and approve’. The first usage is rarer than rocking horse droppings, the second ubiquitous in critical discourse. 
Therefore, if I were being generous, I could translate the phrase ‘challenging the parameters of what poetry can do’ to mean, ‘this is not quite what I usually read but it’s close enough for me to recognise it and different enough to surprise me’.  But since I don’t know what the critic reads, the statement has no public value. 
If I wasn’t being charitable I’d say the phrase has no public value as a critical statement at all unless it takes ‘poetry’ to mean ‘the sum total of everything written’. In this case, it obviously does not. 
What are these ‘parameters of poetry’ and what can’t ‘poetry do’. 
Eliot, this is the T.S. Eliot Prize remember, wrote the historical sense was ‘nearly indispensible to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year’. He could have written 'poet or critic'. 
No one can read everything that’s been written in English, but critical amnesia underwrites so much of poetry blather. The desire to reach for the complimentary phrase obviously takes preference over any attempt at accuracy. 
For readers taking their curiosity for a walk amongst what’s been published since the 1900s, it becomes obvious that the range of what has been published is astonishing. It also becomes obvious that ‘poetry’ is not a thing with definable ‘parameters’. 
In terms of form we’ve gone through everything from the most rigorously formal to the least. We’ve had the New Formalism and LANGUAGE poetry, we’ve had the minimalism of the Imagists and the sprawl of the Beats. We’ve had non-narrative narratives and anti-lyrical lyrics. We’ve had poetry of clarity and poetry where the syntax does a passible imitation of a contortionist eating its own trouser seat. We’ve had the modernists preaching the egoless poem and the self-centred exhibitionism of the insta poet. We’ve had the erudite and the deliberately ignorant. We’ve had theology and pornography, politics and philosophy. We’ve had everything up to and including Goldsmith’s ‘Traffic’. It's what makes 'poetry' such a fascinating, inexhaustible field.  
Any safe definition of ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’ has been repeatedly challenged. Even Faber weren’t sure if ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anaethamata’ belonged in their poetry list; the Cantos incorporate dull prose, Williams incorporates bits of correspondence in Paterson. The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Goldsmith transcribed the traffic reports from his radio and no less a critic than Marjorie Perloff was willing to take him seriously.   
The truth is that ‘poetry’ is simply whatever gets published as poetry, and not just by Faber. 
So given that range, in the 21st century how can ‘poetry’ have ‘parameters’ that can be 'challenged'? Given that range, what hasn’t already been done? And given that range, what is there in Three Poems, that hasn’t been tried before? 
I don’t think the answer to that last question, ‘nothing’, detracts in any way from the book. 
Onwards to part three, the officially endorsed description.   

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