Monday, November 25, 2019

What does this mean? The nonsense people write about poetry. Hannah Sullivan's 'Three poems' and The T.S.Eliot prize. 3/3

This is the final post of a set of three.
Cards on the table.
I think the highest praise a critic can give a poet is to say: this poem is well made, and then explain in what way it’s well made. In the best criticism the critic or reviewer doesn’t sound like they’d like to write poetry but, having been condemned to prose, is throwing out mellifluous waffle and hoping no one is paying attention. 
I often wonder if anyone is paying attention or if part of the game is to let the eye sweep down the page, coming to rest on the occasional phrase but never lingering long enough to ask ‘yes, but what does this mean’. It sounds good; file it away, then use whenever possible. 
Here, as antidote, is a random extract from page 77 of a book I’m currently reading which I think is excellent criticism: Neil Corcoran’s study of David Jones’ 'The Anathemata'. 'The Anathamata' may or may not be a poem therefore it does push the boundaries of what is a poem. It uses language in a way that challenges the reader and works a complicated set of symbols and allusions to suggest a very complex attitude to time, culture, religion and history. Corcoran has been steadily confronting the baffling awkwardness of the work, and trying to explain its excellence:
‘Assimilating, and developing from, a range of formal models embracing both the medieval intricacies of Langland and the post-symbolist obliquenesses of the The Waste Land, David Jones creates, in the Anathemata, an altogether new and entirely individual sort of poem’. 
Even without the discussion which preceded this, and the explanation which follows, there’s no doubt about what the critic is saying. 
Compare this with:
‘’Three poems’ are a sensual encounter with language. The combination of Sullivan’s disciplined couplets and riot of language create a memorable mediation on living and dying.’
And the problem is obvious.
This quote about ‘Three Poems’ is from the official T.S.Eliot Prize website. A review posted before the judges made their choice. 
It is approved and presented as an ‘unqualified verdict’. 
Instead of approving the conclusion someone should have asked the writer to specify what a ‘sensual encounter with language’ might be? Or to give an example by quoting a passage from the poem. Poetry blather rarely comes with supporting evidence. Make a nice phrase: pass on.
It’s not clear if the poems, the reader or the writer are having the sensual encounter, but it’s difficult to understand what ‘a sensual encounter with language’ might mean, though it does evoke a grubby character with a pornographic novel. All encounters with written language are sensual…they involve at least two of the senses. 
An encounter with sensual language, or an encounter with a language of sensuality?  Leaving aside such waffle, there is, finally, some kind of comment on technique. But it too is problematic. It does no justice to the variety of forms within and across the three poems; not all the pieces are written in couplets. Disciplined couplets evoke Pope and Dryden. But couplets are a formal discipline, so in what way is it a disciplined discipline? 
What is a ‘riot of language’? One of Joyce’s lists? Gertrude Stein? Dylan Thomas piling on the adjectives? 
 A riot suggests something destructive and out of control and Sullivan’s diction and syntax never feels anything but controlled.  
There is no example given of language rioting in a disciplined couplet. 
And so it goes:
The poem ‘Trains a steady gaze on the details of urban existence’. (define 'steady gaze?'). ‘The personal and the public combine in the crucible of Sullivan’s language into a disciplined, structured object of terrible beauty’ 
Language was rioting a few lines earlier. This ‘crucible of Sullivan’s language’ produces an ‘object of terrible beauty’. 
Acknowledging, as one is presumably supposed to, the nod to Yeats, one wonders how this is an example of  ‘Terrible Beauty’.  Comparing the Easter Rising with Sullivan’s domestic is a disturbing failure of proportion. 
I have the feeling that the critic is trying to claim that thinking about life and death and seeing them as interlinked is somehow newsworthy or worthy of praise. But that thought is too ugly to pursue. 
At this point I wanted to give up.  It’s too depressing.
‘Language echoes through time but, like cancer cells, which ‘divide interminably’ the nuclear chain reaction generates itself; life and death are one and the same’.
Sullivan’s final poem does link giving birth to a death, but it doesn’t in anyway suggest ‘they are one and the same.'  
And it would be foolish to suggest they are. Try that line on someone who has been told they have weeks to live. A ruthless killer could give you a choice between life and death.  If they were one and the same, there would be no difference and no choice. 
And so it goes.
There are two other aspects of this blather worth considering. 
You get on crowded public transport. You’re the last one on and you take the only available seat. The passenger beside you suddenly launches into a long description of her memories of New York. She remembers wanting to masturbate, but the batteries in her vibrator, her pink vibrator, were flat. She remembers meeting an ex-boyfriend at a party, and accepting his suggestion, ‘one more for old time’s sake’, she describes their sexual antics in detail, who put what where and what she felt and thought before during and afterwards.
You may have got up and moved away before this, but your presence was a mere excuse. It’s not in any way essential for the performance.
If a poem is simply the poet dumping memories on a complete stranger, then ‘why are you telling me this’ seems like a fair question.  I wasn’t there, I couldn’t substitute for the vibrator, or supply some spare batteries. Graphic sex with little context is one definition of pornography? 
What makes memory into art is craft. Byron’s confession about 100 sexual encounters in one week at Carnival becomes ‘We’ll go no more a roving’.  Wyatt’s memory of a good night in bed becomes ‘They flee from me’.  
Without craft the poem is just a letter to a stranger telling her or him what he or she never asked to know in the first place. Without craft you’re left with content, and 99% of content is not that interesting. Pretending that poems are philosophical tracts has the unfortunate habit of proving they are not. 
Because there is so little discussion of craft, (because it requires the critic to do some work?) the focus on content is often embarrassing. The pink vibrator gets quoted, apparently to prove that ‘Sullivan throws entropy into the system and reminds us that no fairground ride goes on forever’. This leads to the quote ‘You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low….’ 
Later ‘It is hard to say if there is progress in history’ is worthy of quotation because it strikes a ‘note of uncertainty’. 
At some point I was expecting a critical voice to praise Sullivan for her technical ability. Or at least to recognize her technical ability. This is the T.S.Eliot prize winner. Eliot, like Pound, fetishized technique. And got so far away from the egocentric confessional poem he created his own form of personal thumbprint. 
Instead there is, from Dust jacket to website, an apparent need to see ‘Three Poems’ as some kind of response or dialogue with either The Waste land, ‘Pound’nEliot’ or ‘High Modernism’. 
This does Sullivan a vast disservice. Instead of dealing with her poem, she is conscripted into a narrative that allows the reviewer or critic to sound erudite while continuing to say nothing important about her work.
‘The final sequence ‘The Sandpit After Rain’…debunks some of the more portentous aspects of High Modernist poetry.’ 
This is the same critic who wants to believe this poem is a thing of ‘Terrible Beauty’ meditating on life and death.
So portentous can be ‘of momentous or ominous significance’; ‘miraculous amazing, awe inspiring’; or ‘self-important or pompous’.
Which meaning is being used here? I’m going for the third. But then, isn’t describing memories in great detail while assuming a stranger will be interested, an obvious act of self-importance? 
Debunking the portentous aspects of etc is hardly new or news worthy. The habitual dragging of Tom’nEz into the discussion seems to gloss over the fact that we’re three years off the centenary of The Waste Land's publication. Writers have been ‘debunking the more portentous aspects of High Modernist poetry’ since about 1922. 
The poetry of Eliot’nPound can be read as personal responses to a culture that was irrevocably damaged by the first world war. But some of the tropes and techniques of those poets are as dated as the conditions they were responding to. To say instead of ‘I can connect nothing with nothing’ that ‘everything is now connected’ is not radical poetry or engagement with an antiquated set of poetic tropes, but simple observation.  
Sullivan is interesting because she avoids the tired trappings of modernist/post-modernist poetics. She’s interesting because she puts the personal front and centre within the context of a well-written, knowing poetics. 
One of the great millstones around the neck of anyone reading and writing poems today is criticism which says nothing about the poems it pretends to discuss. Having to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ indicates a failure of critical prose. It’s a shame to have to ask it so often.
End of exasperation.

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