Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Simon Turner - Come on Guys, Give it a Rest

I was struck recently by a comment in David Jones' collection of prose writings, Epoch and Artist, in which he poured cold water on critical dismissals of abstract art, arguing - persuasively, I think - that abstraction, which Jones takes to be specifically formal in character, i.e. pertaining to questions of compositional balance, tonal characteristics, and so on, is a central component of all visual art, whether abstract or figurative. To reject abstraction out of hand, Jones goes on, is to mis-read, almost wilfully, the direction of modern artistic developments.

The argument in question is taken from a letter Jones wrote to the Listener in 1950, but the views expressed remain pertinent; and whilst the debates surrounding abstract art, and its figurative opposite number, have largely dissipated in recent years, occasionally resurfacing in the form of public spasms over the Young British Artists, or Turner-prize winners whose work involves sheds or animal dung [1], the same argumentative terms have remained a staple, though translated and mutated, within poetry circles. Mainstream commentators have a tendency to occasionally blow off steam about inevitably unnamed 'postmoderns', who are allegedly clogging the universities with dangerous radical ideas, and running 'subversive' literature classes where the entire Western canon is thrown in the rubbish chute in favour of the collected works of JH Prynne (boo, hiss!), which are, of course, treated with an almost god-like reverence [2]. The 'postmoderns' themselves have a tendency to react with quiet dignity, no doubt in private intercut with deep clefts of scorn, though their own polemical reactions to the mainstream are equally visible, in their aesthetic choices rather than their public statements: their places of publication, their shared discourses, their chosen forms and modes of address, all scream 'marginal' from the rooftops.

All this is merely background, however: the crux of the matter is that both ideological camps - and I do truly believe that ideology is at stake here: this is a ruck about the very nature and meaning of poetry in our current socio-economic epoch - seem to be communicating in entirely different languages. In some regards they are, but they share enough of a vocabulary - often revolving around the notion of the aesthetically and ethically correct (sometimes the two are conjoined) - to mean that communication is a possibility, that there might (just might) come a time when the squabbling could be put aside, and everyone could both write and read in an environment where such sectarian politics did not come in to the equation.

One might - more cynically - suggest that such a rapprochement is an impossibility by virtue of the fact that both parties need the mutual antagonism. The mainstreamers can only defend their position - post-Larkin, semi-interesting - if they can persistently raise the spectre of Olson-chewing, Deleuze-spewing barbarians mustering at the gate. The barbarians themselves, meanwhile, might equally be said to thrive upon a narrative in which they are the oppressed and subjugated indigenous populace of some far away land called Experimental Poetry, stomped upon at every turn by the oak-thewed hegemon of the Mainstream Marines. This seems like the most realistic scenario. First of all, both camps are effectively fighting over a ghost - a general poetry readership - which, if it ever existed (and really, there is no evidence to suggest it ever did) no longer does. Moreover, if we take the proliferation of media into account, it becomes impossible to talk about single ideological blocs in some bipartite power struggle. The mainstream is a chimera that we should, frankly, quit whining about all the bloody time: all the energy wasted ranting about the London poetry scene, and how Picador would never publish John James - would John James want to be published by Picador? - would be far better spent writing more and better poems that would blow the mainstream's own rather pedestrian output out of the water. By the same token, the mainstream's bug-bear - a sinister, Prynne-spearheaded cabal of postmodern eggheads lurking in every English department across the country - appears equally illusory: 'postmodernism' cannot be defined in such monolithic terms that it can be used so frequently as an umbrella noun covering a multitude of sins (or virtues, depending on how we read the situation).

The internet, in particular, has unveiled the sheer ridiculousness of the Sharks vs. Jets mentality that seems to dominate certain sectors of the poetry community, revealing as it does a total aesthetic democracy, where any number of styles of writing, from the gentle and Larkinesque to the balls-to-the-wall radicalism of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics or flarf, can find a suitable home. Who edits Poetry Review in any given year is not the be all and end all of our definition of poetry's health; we have to stop using the centre ground as our yardstick. Aside from anything else, the poetry cake that we're all fighting for a share of is too small for such playground politics anyway. Can't we just stop all the fussin' and the feudin'?


[1] The Daily Mail, as in so many things, is particularly idiotic on this score. Every year they run an 'alternative' Turner prize, where they give an award to a purveyor of 'proper' art - their definition, of course - which is invariably a byword for landscape paintings or portraiture in a god-awful tradition of semi-literate realism, which examples invariably display the visual flair and compositional imagination of a beige turd.

[2] The terms that the mainstream bulldogs use are strangely similar to the aggressive insult 'tenured radicals' which was hurled at survivors of the counter culture on American campuses during the various 'culture wars' that rocked our cousins on the other side of the big drink in the 1990s.

1 comment:

Peter Philpott said...

Yep. A pretty accurate description (from my oh so marginalised viewpoint). And yes, it is all a matter now of ancient past history, in a culture where everything is actually shifting massively around us, thanks to the Internet (etc). I don't think it's as simple, though as "Can't we just stop all the fussin' and the feudin'?"

(1)Political reasons, in the broadest sense, why it is better to write from an oppositional, marginalised position, given the target-led, managerially & marketing-dominated culture of the literature industries, let alone social & economic values. (This is Adorno Lite I suspect)

(2) Communities are crucial to poetries, rather than undifferentiated consumerist masses choosing from the postmodernist supermarket of styles. It is good to have colleagues & peers. Groups form, as we are social beings, and also therefore create outgroups ("the other lot").

(3) But, yes, so much is now history (tho, remembering Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it") that mere negativity is futile and isolating, like teenage gang culture.

So I'll put a link to the blog & this posting on my site - it's good stuff!

Peter Philpott