Saturday, 12 April 2008

Simon Turner - Writers' Journals and Plain Style

I have not been reading a huge amount of poetry of late, but what has caught my attention, for whatever reason, has been a number of writers' journals. And what has struck me has been the modernity of the style on display in these writings, as opposed to the style of their poetry, which can be seen to become quickly outdated. Though perhaps I don't mean modernity as such, but rather the contemporary nature of the writing. For example, Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, and Edward Thomas's 'A Diary in English Fields and Woods', written close to a century apart, share a great deal more in common than their respective poetries. Why might this be? I think it is at least in part due to the fact that in every era, there is a certain idea of what poetry is, what kind of language it should contain, and every subsequent generation after that era inevitably attempts to overthrow those conventions, only for their own innovations to become dry and academic modes later on. So, the revolutionary poetries of Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc, developed into the high Victorian rhetoric that Eliot and Pound found so objectionable. (In their own quiet ways, less overtly modernist writers like Robert Frost and Edward Thomas were also attempting to shift poetic language away from the dead rhetoric of the Victorian era, though with markedly different results to their disruptive peers.) Later, Larkin and his Movement chums, with their simplicity and approachability, seemed to offer a way out of the complexities and tendencies towards elitism inherent in high modernism. Yet again, however, this reaction birthed its own counter-argument, and Larkin in particular has become something of a bug-bear for the alternative end of the poetry world due to his rejection of foreign poetries, his small minded Englishness, and his closing down of poetic possibilities. He would have been appalled by everything that makes the modern poetry scene so enthralling - from Prynne to performance poetry - and that can only be a good thing.

Anyway, back to my main point - if I had one at all. As I have attempted to show, in my deeply partisan overview above, poetic styles tend to go out of fashion pretty quickly. Journals, on the other hand, last longer, give or take a few aspects of phrasing or vocabulary, precisely because they are not intended for public consumption. Like it or not, every time we set out to write a poem, we are - consciously or otherwise - aware at some level that there is a poetry 'scene', that there are certain expectations for the modern poem (wherever we might stand on the mainstream-alternative axis), that 'thees' and 'thous' and 'myriads' went out with ruffs and top hats. In many ways, this is a good thing - no one wants to read a magazine full of poems who have no idea of the innovations which have occurred in modern poetry in the last hundred years - but it is equally rather restrictive in a number of ways, too. I generally don't get blocked in any serious way, thankfully, but whenever I do, it happens when I've sat down at my desk with the express purpose of writing a poem. The moment that happens, when I put on my poetry hat - and I have one too: a dark green and red tartan beanie - spontaneity flies out the window. The journal, on the other hand, existing as it does outside poetic style and the vicissitudes of the publishing market, allows for far greater freedom. One is less concerned with striving after meaning and perfection, and as such real poetry is often more likely to be found.

There is no doubt more to be said on this topic - I'm aware that I've quoted nothing from the journals I've mentioned - but that will have to wait for a day when I can muster more intellectual energy, I'm afraid. Saturdays aren't built for literary criticism.


Emily said...

Dear Simon,

As the token Romanticist here I feel I ought to encourage you to pursue your thoughts on Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, despite you fear of lack of readership.

The Editors said...

Emily, you're too kind. Have you had any thoughts on the matter of rock-poet pairings? One just leapt to mind as I was typing: John Ashbery and Prince: both prolific, both Protean, both with a penchant for purple. That last bit isn't true in Ashbery's case, though it'd be nice if it were.