Saturday, 28 April 2012

Moving Backwards into the Future

George Ttoouli desurrects a few gripes about Poetry Prizes ...

The Elitism Mechanism

[To begin with, back story. Those of you overly familiar with the phrase 'Backward Prize(s)' please skip down to 'The Allen Carr Poetry Method'.]

The Editors have long been aware of mutterings across the blogosphere about the closed circle of prize-givings and self-congratulatoriness that takes place every so often around a number of institutions, including the Forward Prize, the TS Eliot Prize and various connected institutions. Equally, the Editors have mostly considered this discontent an unwelcome distraction from the real business of what exciting poetry is truly up to.

However, three particular articles, one by Ken Edwards and another by Rob MacKenzie, caught our eye in recent times, insufficiently to warrant an outburst, but another, the ink still steaming in the late April sun, by the eminent Peter Riley, has raised our level of irk sufficiently to trigger some public thoughts. (Well, for me at least, if not for Simon. Simon gets bothered by things like finding a fork mixed in with the knives in the cutlery drawer, or yellow JCBs parked too near to the kerb, or any number of disorderly arrangements of furniture.)

MacKenzie's post is a fairly innocent shortlist promoter, the kind which the Forward Prizes' promotional company no doubt list up in their annual reports. These kinds of posts are reaching for some kind of claim to zeitgeist, perhaps, wanting to appear to have their fingers on the poetry pulse, so strike me as somewhat self-serving in an unhelpful direction, but RM does at least point to the idea of the Backward Prize(s) as being a popular nickname, which is arguably a nice way of presenting a gripe.

This 'Backwardsness' is, I think, based on a reference to looking backward in an Aura Ding article about the lack of women on the shortlist, specifically for the Best Collection. The article's criticism comes from somewhere I consider within the Prize's clique (consider the authors of the Poems of the Week, the gender balance there, etc.), and its focus on gender issues strikes me as a guarded approach which aims to avoid commenting on the quality of the poetry, the familiarity of the names, or their recurrence on award lists, sidestepping instead into gender statistics. So the approach is static, a superficial skim off the top of the structures that allow for these kinds of hierarchies, although the historical analysis, while slight, supports the accusation of sexism. It's a start, but the obvious response is: What exactly does a balanced list of six poets look like? How would poets on a shortlist feel if they knew they'd only been picked because they were ethnically in a minority, or a woman, or otherwise? While the issue of gender imbalance is a serious one, given its recurrence over 20 years, it doesn't get to the root of the problem, the mechanisms behind the prizes, the publishers who feature regularly and the fact that sexism is one of a series of problems thrown up by the mechanisms. Motion's astute rebuttal, that the other categories are more balanced, offers a palliative towards thinking that the 'best' poets are merely coincidentally male, which turns the article into a form of apology for the shortlist's shortcomings.

If not the Danigaru article, RM may have referenced Ken Edwards' post, which more solidly critiques the problem of prize cabals from a personal / small publisher's perspective. The premise in Ken's response to the backwardsness is a fairly common complaint: a general elitism in eligibility, exclusion of small presses or new poets, or poets not already familiar to the public eye. The inclusion of D Nurkse and G Hill problematises a generalised criticism of the poetics, so KE points towards the type of publishers and repeat appearances of poets on the lists. He leaves out the London-centric nature of the publishers listed, which includes CB Editions and Enitharmon, but both of these presses are small and alternative in their respective ways, so a discussion of a homogenised poetics is difficult. Serial-winners becomes the main argument for KE, an uncontestable criticism of these prizes, that they often endorse the already endorsed.

When poets complain, I can just about hear the bitter taint in their tone, that they're not part of the cool club themselves. When publishers complain, it's a little more serious - they're not asking to be part of an elite, they're asking for the removal of elites; the chance to punch with equal weight in prizes, and also in the limited marketing channels, distribution channels, retail shelves and so on. A fair and free market means a fair and free market. Complaints about cliquery and mutual backslapping is one thing; complaints about a stitched up market is another: livelihood, competition, is regulated from the top, from those already 'up'. Of course, some publishers have no more aspiration than to launch themselves into that closed circle, while some poets would happily cover the ivory tower in petrol and strike a non-safety match off their own stubble (or boots, or a wall - notice the gender balance here) to burn it down. Generalisation is unhelpful, as it too easily points towards a self-serving attitude by those who speak up.

But someone must speak up if the system is to be reformed. KE's appraisal is a reasonable, grumbling beginning. There's a helpful explanation of his decisions about cost- and time-saving as a limited-budget publisher, and acknowledgment of opening himself up to accusations of self-marginalisation by not participating, which I find interesting. By not submitting at all to these kinds of things, he will never give himself the chance to move up in the world - at least according to the mechanism's criteria of quality. But if the mechanisms automatically discount his poetry list, why should he endorse it by participating?

Peter Riley's piece is of a different category. He takes up the issue of poetics squarely and firmly, and entertainingly, without committing to a particular stance. The ending is decidedly devious, leaving the lingering sense of having witnessed John Burnside compared to a slab of prize beef, alongside a serious call for transparency in prize-judging processes. The cattlemarket comparison is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, a left-socialist satirisation of how bad things actually are already, at that end of the market, for people who believe in culture and poetry as an essential component of society.

PR's call for transparency is of course an impossibility, open to all the rule-bending silliness of New Labour's accountability strategy. The impact of targets on schools and hospitals translates, in practice, to a string of stories about 'reactive subversion', a range of methods for 'hitting the target and missing the point'. My own experience of this, from academia, is in how creative writing departtments produce a range of 'marking criteria' for the grading of poetry, which amounts to a lot of intelligently phrased nonsense. The point of the criteria is to satisfy some kind of false notion of measuring the unmeasurable, justifying a growing commercial edifice in bureaucratic terms, pandered to by well-meaning staff so as to preserve the positive outcomes of creative writing in institutions. Nothing actually changes in practice, nothing becomes more transparent, but the motions are gone through because of an ideological belief in the subject's value.

A public outcry of the type PR calls for might well lead to a document purporting transparency in the judging of poetry prizes, but ultimately will be a redundant statement, as PR knows. Of all the things wrong with backwards prizes, the self-fulfilling quality mechanism employed by prize managers, with their narrow sense of contemporary poetry ("oh, he's won/been shortlisted for the prize before, so he must be good enough to be on it again", etc.), will still reign supreme, but in a less contestable fashion. Yes, the institution is flawed, and yes, PR's attack on the unequal distribution of wealth that emerges from the mechanism, is a valid standpoint - but only if you accept that the mechanism is a valid one for the rest of the poetry world.

If you accept PR's suggestion that only a dozen poets sustain themselves off the mechanism, then you can also accept that there are literally thousands of poets 'grubbing by', or taking up institutional posts, relying on other subsidiary income streams, yet still making their art. And this is since time immemorial, right? Patronage of a different kind, an older kind, has always supported an elect over the masses.

'The Allen Carr Poetry Method'

The thing I find most frustrating in all this complaining about prizes is the lack of substitution. The important part in having something denied is not to think obsessively about that thing being held out of reach, but where to spend the energy you're wasting on wanting that thing that isn't in your power to reach. The thousands of poets excluded from the elite mechanism of the largest poetry prizes in the country need to focus on firming up their presence in the public mind.

What I mean is: forget the prizes. Leave the self-congratulators, the poetry-bankers' internal circling of bonuses, to the mainstream - by which I mean a longstanding tradition that has ridden out the elimination of competition to climb to the top of a pile, rather than any kind of false accusation of homogenised poetics - let it get on with itself. Posterity will sort out the wheat and chaff however it likes. Sustainability and education are the main problems facing marginalised poets these days.

It's the difference between quitting smoking and taking up something better than smoking with the time freed up by not smoking and it's easier to get by with a bit of help from your friends. What I'm thinking is, instead of mourning one's chances of jumping on and off the bandwagon of capitalist meritocracy manifesting in the shape of the poetry competition, we should completely turn our backs on it. Collectively, give it no attention. The whole idea of prize-giving, as someone once said to me, is anathema to the idea of a gift-driven community, to the spirit that underpins and sustains the majority of poetry and poets. Yes, it's getting a bit ideological now, but bear with me.

If, hypothetically, a group of poets decided to set up a series of prizes only for poetry and poets who hadn't won, or been shortlisted, for any backwards prizes, once the bickering over eligibility was out of the way, all you'd have would be another chimera. By mimicking the structures of the existing mechanism, you position yourself in competition with it. Comparison would be the result: not only in terms of alternatives, but also in terms of equivalence in the new clique created.

The principle of poetry as gift, running counter to the idea of poetry as commodity (to paraphrase Michael Schmidt, "Do not speak of poetry's market; by all means speak of its audience"), points towards the damage caused by competition within this framework. Should one of your number actually break through, into the elite mechanisms, they damage the community they leave behind, even without holding that intention in mind. At the risk of sounding like a Robert Tressell narrator, I'd suggest elite mechanisms seek to destroy those smaller communities which threaten them most, even as they bolster and reinforce their boundary walls.

What we need is a substitute, or substitutes - wholehearted activity to help convey the gifts of the more wonderful poets than those listed by the elite mechanism. "What ideas have you got, George?!" I hear you cry. Many already exist:

4. Ubuweb

NB. The latter is subscription only, but that is just one of the essential models we need to promote and make acceptable as a response to the mechanism. The subscription model is insufficient on its own for most magazines and small presses in the UK right now, despite being an essential methodology for poetry's survival. Like all renewable energy strategies, a range of options must be deployed. New patronage models are needed, something akin to Kickstarter, or whatever else, where the Arts Council and philanthropy are failing to support culture sufficiently.

Alongside these eclectic sources, a range of educational and other databases exist, from Creative Writing institutions, poets working in schools, to Silliman's blog and any number of internet-based magazines, blogs and similar experiments. You know more than me, probably. There are literally thousands of micro-projects beyond these, like G & P, which are disparate, disconnected, plural, sure, but fragmentary. Also, there are already several organising nexuses, hubs, but they are blindsided from greater visibility in areas that count.

So a few things, are missing, things which the mainstream (as defined above) relies upon. This is by no means comprehensive - in fact, it's supposed to be provocative:

1. The Archive of the Now needs a database of educational materials targeting key stages representing a broad range of contemporary poetry, in the spirit of what the Poetry Archive already has to reach out to younger/newer readers. (Greater communication between those databases ought to be a given.)

2. Key texts opening up reading approaches without being top-down or antiquarian about its canonist selectivity (an anti-52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, anyone?)

3. A thorough linking/portalling of articles and materials through dedicated websites to open up access to the more experimental end of the poetics spectrum. Greater critical crossover is needed to convey analysis of 'difficult' art and techniques to wider audiences.

4. Digitisation of back catalogues of important resources and journals, open public access - from the English Intelligencer, to Blast, to any number of small press publications (something like this exists, I found a link, possibly through Openned, to an amazing site which was scanning anything they could get their hands on. Anyone remember what I'm talking about? I've lost track of it since a computer upgrade.)

5. An agency, similar to the PBS, to provide solid portalling and circulation to remind people what's out there, but with a broader remit. If you haven't encountered Modern Poetry, go and encounter it. It needs greater visibility, so needs consistent linking and bridging into wider territorities. It could do with a little more design and functionality, perhaps, but the low-budget necessity of individuals like Peter Philpott, or Ken Edwards or any number of other active poetry producers and promoters, still produces brilliance on levels beyond monkeyshining.

Above all, I feel there's a breach between the backwards prizes' reach and the distance covered by the rest of the poetry world, which needs bridging by some kind of agency. Behind the scenes of the mechanism lie lobbying groups who talk to curriculum setters, to government educational arms, to a whole range of powerful controllers of what can and can't be read in certain contexts.

The aim should not be to provide access to the mechanisms that endorse the elite, but to reach the audiences, especially new audiences, that might enjoy the wider richness. This sounds a bit like the Poetry Society, which used to have a more diverse output some decades back, and though the mission statement still stands, actions speak louder right now. More importantly, the state dependence of these kinds of institutions means an increasing PFI pressure, reduction in subsidy. I don't have all the answers, I don't pretend to, but the one assertion I feel should stand is this:

a successful substitution should not make use of the existing systems used by elite mechanisms; to be at its most successful, it needs to operate for readers, audiences, not money.

And finally, if any of this article sounds a tad too paranoid at times, pointing to a psychotic elite android mechanism intent on taking over the state, well, that's just part of my marketing pitch for when G&P launches its own Poetry Awards. But more seriously, I'm open to hearing alternatives, new or better ideas about what needs to be circulated more, or needs to be put in place.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Savage Joys

Last week, there was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime reading at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, featuring Anselm Hollo, Gunnar Harding, Tom Raworth and Andrei Codrescu, and very enjoyable it was too. Not a sing-song delivery in sight. Bliss. Although the Editors were in attendance, and had been planning on putting up a report on the event in question, SJ Fowler, who was presenting the evening, has done a very good job of doing just that at 3AM Magazine so we don't have to. He's even included video and everything. Well worth a look if you didn't make it down.

Friday, 20 April 2012

"Maybe it was your fault?" A response to Mark Goodwin's break up with O.S.

George Ttoouli, relationship counsellor extraordinaire, responds to Mark Goodwin's recent public break up...

Dear Mark,

One thing you have to appreciate, first of all, is that Ordrey was your childhood sweetheart. Relationships rooted in immature, irrational and distant emotions, often depend greatly upon your ability to sustain a fading memory and to keep alive in the present those emotions, without letting them lapse into nostalgia.

Nostalgia, as famous English-Chinese social critic, Wei Monand il-Iams, wrote in her book, Peasants are Great (농민이 기가막히, Red Reform People Press, Somerset: 1972) is often used as a coping mechanism when an individual suffers a change of current situation that is hard to take. This experience can rewrite those childhood memories, making those older crags seem so much sharper, the ink better defined, and can suck the life out of those dot matrix crags in front of you, like you've accidentally spooned dust into your travel thermos, instead of sugar.

Think hard, Mark. Has anything happened recently between you and Ordrey to make those dot-matrixed crags seem a little bit duller than they really are? Slip and bang your head up on the Beacons, maybe?

Or did you encounter some passing Dutch people, asking directions and when Ordrey stepped forward to help, maybe she flicked her corners a a few too many times in the breeze, let them play along her contours just a little bit too long? Jealousy, caused by change, is one of the biggest problems a modern couple can face, you know. Ordrey's looking forwards, Mark, to the future; think about that image you've recalled, of the mountain paths, shrouded in mist and darkness. Change is everywhere, always happening. It's only natural that Ordrey might change too.

Think about it: dot matrix printers were normal back then, everyone was using them! She stood out from the crowd, went for a high quality traditional print job. Nowadays, dot matrix makes you unique, original - of course she'd use one! Ordrey's managed to change her spots, and you should be proud of that. Maybe it's you that needs to change, just a little, to meet her halfway on that windy peak called compromise (SK148511 / E:414527 N:351800).

What about a little bit of lamination, instead of those scrunchy old slide-in file pockets you keep her in during the treks? Treat yourselves! It's never to late to start making new memories, new shared experiences that you can both look back at fondly.

Best of luck,


P.S. If it doesn't work out for you after all, try getting it out of your system here.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Simon Turner - Resurrecting the Hyphen: Notes on Simon Armitage's The Not Dead

In the absence of either a PhD supervisor, or a head of department breathing down my neck for a REF contribution, my research tends to be somewhat intermittent, and, whenever I do slip on my velvet-lined critical gloves, rather scattershot in approach. Hence, at the moment I’m taking a butterfly approach to the whole war literature biz, and am currently working my way through The Drowned and the Saved, The Last Enemy, The Aerodrome, and if anyone has a decent copy of Enid Bagnold’s Diary Without Dates that isn’t a plasticky print-on-demand number and wants to sell it for a couple of bob, I’d be most appreciative. Most of my attention, though, has been drawn to the matter of civilian war poetry [1], an attention most closely focussed at the moment upon Harold Pinter’s War, Tony Harrison’s Gulf War poems, and, the work I’m going to be briefly looking at now, Simon Armitage’s The Not Dead. The Not Dead is the most interesting of the triumvirate, for a number of reasons: first, it’s been written about far less, if at all, so I’ve a reduced chance of going over the same old ground; secondly, the collaborative nature of the project (more on this in a moment) asks interesting questions about authority and witness and the role of the poet; finally, Armitage, in a preface to the poems, theorises (albeit fleetingly) the aesthetics and ethics of war poetry from a civilian perspective in a way which neither Harrison or Pinter have / did. As a result, it’s the preface, and not the poems, that I’m going to focus on here.

The Not Dead is, after a fashion, the ‘book of the film’, though obviously of a different cast to those cheap cash-ins that cluster round the latest summer blockbuster like crows round a desiccated sheep. The documentary from which the poems are drawn was a collaboration between Armitage and the film-maker Brian Hill, originally broadcast in 2007 as part of Channel 4’s coverage of Remembrance Day. Armitage’s contribution was to compose poems based on interviews with a number of ex-soldiers involved in various conflicts – including Kosovo and Iraq – which were then read by the interviewees direct to camera. Already some interesting questions are raised here: one of the problems that beset so many ‘war poems’ written by civilians is a sense of moral entitlement – that simply through the good luck of being poets, they have the right to any topic under the sun, regardless of the extent of their authority (or lack of it) on the subject. The role of witness is vital to war poetry, underpinning not only its compositional processes, but the critical framework in which it is read. The civilian poet as much as the non-versifying civilian is constrained by this fact, is in truth 'witness' only to the mediations of conflict within print journalism, television news, and first-hand accounts from those serving on the front line in whatever capacity, in whatever form. Vitally, the role of witness is denied the civilian poet, so other strategies of engagement with the raw and difficult material of conflict are required of them. Armitage’s strategy is collaboration: to re-contextualise the words of the war-traumatised subjects of Hill’s documentary as poetry. The poems themselves are not Armitage’s finest, but that is to miss the point: they are a mediation of private memory in a public space, and as such they are functional objects, dependent for their full resonance and meaning upon the moment of performance in a broadcast setting.

What’s of greater moment is the fact that Armitage felt compelled to this act of collaboration in the first place, rather than falling back on the tired, clichéd anger of a Pinter or an Adrian Mitchell.  The clue, I think, is to be found in the preface to the Pomona booklet which appeared a short while after the original broadcast. Here, Armitage makes a number of tentative but fascinating comments on contemporary war literature which are of genuine value, not only as a means of reading Armitage’s own responses to conflict, but also when reading more generally in the civilian literature of war. Armitage begins by noting the importance we’ve collectively assigned to war poetry (and by war poetry, what’s really meant is First World War poetry, but that’s by the by). ‘Put crudely,’ writes Armitage, ‘poetry at its best says something about the human condition, often in relation to death, and the poets of WWI were serious writers operating at the very limit of human experience, sending back first-hand literary reports.’ There’s a hell of a lot going on in this sentence, so I’m going to – God help me – unpack it a little. First, there’s the word ‘serious’ which conflates a moral with an aesthetic judgement: we can’t be so vulgar as to suggest that some war poets are more talented than others, so their seriousness is emphasised over and above any questions of competence or technique. Fair enough, I guess. Second, take note of the word ‘literary’, as that’s going to recur. Finally, reading war poetry purely as a species of documentary record is one way of going about things, but it’s not especially helpful, and it feels like another way of evading or postponing a more engaged critical judgment with the work itself.

Armitage goes on to discuss the quantitative decline in war poetry in contemporary culture, noting Brian Turner (‘the American soldier with a creative writing MA’) as an exception to the rule. Bizarrely, Armitage manages to praise and damn Turner’s work simultaneously: although Turner’s work is said ‘to go far beyond the hobbyist poetry that most people write at some time in their lives’, by the very act of invoking the poetry-as-therapy school, Armitage unwittingly brackets the poems in Here, Bullet within it, even as he’s trying to distinguish the two. The subtext here is that, without the benefit of a creative writing MA, war poetry from the front-line is impossible, and will only ever aspire to the unrestrained ‘cry from the heart’ that Plath was so wary of. It certainly won’t ever be ‘literary’, precisely because all the ‘literary poets’ are staying at home. They might well be writing war poems unintentionally, because, as poetry is at least a matter of context as well as of content, ‘the permanent backdrop of our current military situation makes almost every poem a war poem.’ Of course, there are different varieties of war poem, and even though Armitage avoids an overt critique, one suspects that he views the poems of Owen and Sassoon as far more valuable and vital than the ‘literary’ works of contemporary writers who smuggle combat into their work through allusion or quotation alone. Thus the binaries are erected: ‘literary’ / ‘therapeutic’ poetry; ‘context’ / ‘content’; ‘poet’ / ‘soldier’. Somehow, the hyphen that would bridge the last two of these terms has been severed, for whatever reasons (mostly as a result of the absence of mass conscription and a vastly altered geo-political context that renders the kind of global conflicts that produced so many Owens and Sassoons and Douglases and Jarrells a thing of the past). The act of collaboration between ‘literary’ poet and ‘non-literary’ veteran is a means, really, of reconstructing that historically erased hyphen between ‘soldier’ and ‘poet’. There are, of course, limitations to this process – one might read, for example, the borrowing of the authority of the witness by the poet, and the subsequent granting of literary authority by the poet upon the witness as troubling and potentially patronising exchange – but it does suggest that Armitage has thought for longer about the ethics and aesthetics of war poetry from a civilian perspective than many of his contemporaries. Moreover, the poems and preface of The Not Dead offer both practical and theoretical models for poets and critics to build upon. They’re imperfect models, certainly, but they offer far firmer ground than Pinter's ‘American Football’.


[1] Note, civilian as opposed to non-combatant. I’m going to more closely theorise this question as and when it arises, but in basis terms, I’m classifying a civilian writer as one who is absented from the frontline of the war zone. The non-combatant, meanwhile, is a non-military figure who has explicitly travelled to the warzone to engage in an act of witness and engagement distinct from actual fighting – good examples of poets in this category might include John Balaban, James Fenton, and W H Auden, whilst frontline journalism and memoirs by journalist fit the bill in relation to prose: Robert Capa, Michael Herr, Don McCullin, Tim Page, and, again, James Fenton, have all written excellent accounts of their war-time experiences, and there’s a very good article by Geoff Dyer, originally published the Grauniad and reprinted in a revised form in his recent essay collection Working the Room, which suggests something of a renaissance in the long journalistic form.)

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Guerilla Tactic: the 24project

Just got wind of an experiment in magazining that looks interesting:


Submissions window open until midnight GMT today...

Dear friends:

The 24 project is a pop-up arts journal/social media experiment. For 24 hours (00:00 14 April GMT – 00:00 15 April GMT) we will be posting poems, short fiction, pictures, recordings, videos… anything you make and send us.
I am a student on the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, and this project is exploring the possibilities offered by social media for creative collaboration in an (obviously) limited amount of time. Can we make an amazing journal in 24 hours? You decide…
- David

Submit your work, a brief bio and any links (e.g. to your blog) to


This journal will be deleted after seven days. We will not retain any copies of your work.
If necessary, we can remove anything as soon as the 24 hours is up – just mention in the email

I might have something interesting to say about the ephemerality of it, etc. etc. when I don't have so much PhD stuff to do.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Rupert Loydell - An Essay Poem

Answering Back
for Harvey Hix

It's the time of year when my first years
read Robert Sheppard's 'The Education of Desire'
and I challenge them to think about
writing their poems differently.
They also get given Charles Bernstein
on how to read difficult poems
and a host of quotes from other authors
each articulating why and how they write.

This kind of thing has to complement
every writing workshop. How can we write
if we don't think about how we can write?
The students don't know, now we've moved on
to B.S. Johnson, Samuel Beckett and Ann Quin,
that Bernstein and Sheppard will be back
when we come to talk about poetics;
in fact Robert's visiting us to give a talk.

At our institution with and and
are more than simply words between English
and Creative Writing. To us, and means one
sits alongside the other, whereas with
means they're entwined. Literature and theory
coil around creativity, poems, stories, plays.
To management upstairs they are both ways
to sell our courses, offer options to the kids.

The same managers are never sure
if books of poems tick the research box.
Shouldn't we be writing essays about our work
or be out there giving academic talks?
Elsewhere, the battle's won, and when
I look out for examples I can use
I find Harvey Hix and Mark Amerika
working in relevant but different ways.

Hix uses quotes and persuasive argument
in poems that answer back to other poems
(he reminds us that Bernstein does this too),
whilst Amerika remixes his own and others' texts
to dialogue with and critique themselves,
sometimes just through juxtaposition,
sometimes through collage and appropriation;
old work to make new. Hix makes new work

to discuss the old, sonnets to discuss the sonnet.
But isn't all good criticism creative anyway?
Isn't good theory creative writing too?
Rob Pope cleverly and clearly argues that
writing to and writing through, rewriting,
are all forms of creative engagement
we must regard as critical thought and deed.
'We learn by observation and immersion':

the personal transformation Hix worries about,
the 'something more' that happens when sparks
turn into fire, when process and procedures
give birth to writing at its best, might happen
anyway. Let's take that out of the equation,
it can't be our concern. All we can do is help
each other think about how and why we might
take words and arrange them for ourselves.

Each must do that on their own, with the weight
of the past behind them, the invisible future
ahead. There is everything still to play for
and pedagogy cannot help us win. We need
writers who are passionate, will experiment
and play with language, understand the links
between painting, word and sound, how
'the body [is] a language and it talk[s] to itself',

which is how Paige Ackerson-Kiely would put it
if she wrote in the present tense. The isolated body,
the self others can never know, rewrites the world
only for itself. The mode, the process, the stance,
the means and object of individual learning
are all bound up in this. We can never move
beyond, can never know why writers write,
can only and relentlessly pursue lines of inquiry.

Works Cited

My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer, Paige Ackerson-Kiely
remixthebook, mark amerika
'The Difficult Poem', Charles Bernstein
Lines of Inquiry, H.L. Hix
Textual Intervention, Rob Pope
'The Education of Desire', Robert Sheppard

Rupert Loydell's latest collections are Wildlife (Shearsman, 2011) and The Fantasy Kid (Salt, 2010), his poems for children.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Simon Turner - On Josipovici and Welton

Okay, so I admit it: I was drawn to Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?, at least in part, by virtue of the controversy surrounding its initial publication in hardback. You must remember the headlines? ‘Notable Critic and Novelist Calls Out Some of the Most Feted Names in Contemporary Literature as the Mealy-Mouthed Also Rans They Truly Are, Whose Work is Only Upheld by a Timid And Critically Conservative Broadsheet Reviewing Culture That’s Afraid of Any and All Forms of Experimentation, and Prefer Quasi-Intellectual Pap to the Hard Dynamics of the Modernist Novel or the Narrative Honesty and Joy of Genre Fiction’. Or something similar. Basically, Josipovici had the temerity to call it as he saw it, and as he saw it, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes were not all they were cracked up to be; that their predominance on the contemporary literary scene spoke volumes about the aesthetically insular character of post-war British letters; and that there was a world of exciting experimentation just waiting to be discovered if only people were prepared to dig a little in the Modernist archives. As usual, the press took a little titbit – what amounted to a single paragraph in one chapter of a densely-argued two hundred page critical work – and blew it out of all proportion: literature’s only news if someone’s nose has been bloodied in the process, as we all know. When I first opened the book – I picked up the paperback copy a few days ago – I made a paltry show of reading it in a linear fashion, but my curiosity was piqued and I jumped ahead to the offending passage that got the broadsheets so worked up. Turns out that Josipovici’s polemic was nowhere near as fiery as I’d been led to expect, that in fact all he was saying was that he’d initially enjoyed the early novels of Amis and Barnes and their contemporaries, but felt their work had ossified into a series of stylistic tics and pitfalls, cynical gestures indicative of a closing of the English mind, that refused to see the full possibilities inherent in the language and form of the novel as it’s been passed down to us in the wake of Modernism and its children. He actually says much the same thing about Alain Robbe-Grillet a couple of chapters beforehand – the early work’s good, but after that abstraction takes hold and the novels lose their dynamism and tension, leaving the reader effectively sitting at the edge of a conversation in a language he has no knowledge of, and in the outcome of which he has no stake – but no-one got in a stink over that because no-one (aside from Josipovici and, I’m assuming, some other academics) really reads Robbe-Grillet any more, and the headlines are concomitantly less compelling. Besides anything else, Josipovici – I’m going to start calling him ‘Jo’ if that’s okay with you, my putative reader – is far tougher on Irene Nemirovsky and the critical raptures that broadsheet critics worked themselves up into over Suite Francaise, but, again, it’s a less attention grabbing moment because Jo’s critique of Nemirovsky is couched in some close reading that a lazy journalist might actually have to wade through if he was going to pull a juicy story from the critical wreckage. But that’s never going to happen.

Did I enjoy it? Yes and no. On the one hand, I love Jo’s style: it’s punchy and fluid and dense and inviting all at once, quite at odds with what one usually expects of critical material that’s been put out by a university press (I’ve read so many bad pieces of academic writing over the years that part of me – the cynical part – thinks that at base academia might be a vast and elaborate, almost Byzantine system designed to suck the last trembling globules of joy out of the very subjects it purports to celebrate and study; but then the non-cynical part of my brain kicks in and explains, in calm and measured tones, that that’s utter hooey, and that in spite of three years undergraduate and five years postgraduate study, I’ve entered something closely resembling adulthood with my capacity for literary joy and enthusiasm almost completely intact), which strength is also the book’s primary weakness. Joey Boy doesn’t slow down, really, unless he’s picking apart the nuances of a specific text – he’s especially good on Wordsworth, whom he rescues from the twin hells of critical over-praise and over-dismissal, placing his work squarely in the proto-Modernist camp, which is a bold and interesting move: Coleridge might have been a more obvious choice, which is why Jo’s so much fun to read – so that there’s a tendency for sweeping generalisations to go unglossed, or for bold pronouncements to remain unsupported by corroborating evidence (yes, Gabe, genres do make an appeal to the authority of tradition, which is all well and good when a genre’s established, but what about at the point of its birth? What tradition was Wilkie Collins appealing to when he was writing The Moonstone, or HG Wells when he started work on The Invisible Man? [1]), whilst secondary critical material that Jo’s enthusiastic about can’t be introduced without some kind of adjectival modifier signalling how great he thinks x’s essay on y’s late paintings is. Something of the breathlessness of the over-eager undergrad enters into Jo’s debate at these points, but it’s a small quibble, really. It’s more than made up for by the insights and arguments he puts forward elsewhere: I particular liked the notion that Modernism is really the sound of art ‘coming into consciousness’ of its own limitations. I’ve not heard it put better, frankly, and such a formulation rescues Modernism, as Jo sets out to do, from being read too rigidly as an aesthetic or historical moment. Modernism, Jo seems to be saying, will always be with us in some way, and has been with us for much longer than we might readily be able to admit or understand.

One of the most eye-catching pronouncements in Josipovici’s whistle-stop tour of Modernism and its meanings is the argument that Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear deserve a place in a history of poetic Modernism that’s at least the equal to the position afforded Mallarme and Baudelaire. It’s eye-catching not because I disagree – far from it: I’d go further and say that Lear and Carroll are of greater import than their French counterparts – but because I’ve not seen the argument made anywhere else (though I’m pretty sure the Surrealists thought that Lear was a more important poet than Tennyson, and the Oulipo have reserved an honoured place for Carroll in their roll-call of 'anticipatory plagiarists'). I suspect that Matthew Welton would agree with Josipovici’s judgement, too. I’ve been reading his new Eggbox pamphlet, Waffles, and looking back over his previous collections from Carcanet, and I’ve come to the following, wilfully hyperbolic conclusion: Welton is the single most enjoyable, exciting poet working in and with English today. There, I said it, and I’m not going to try to unsay it, either, if such a thing’s possible. Why is he so exciting? Because he recognises that form and content are vitally interrelated, that one’s decisions about language and rhythm and music not only help to create the framework of your content, they are, at some deep level I don’t quite have the capacity to put into words, that very same content. Likewise, content is form: what you want to say necessarily leads you to say it in a certain way, and not another way. Welton’s so exciting because he understands this instinctively, and understands that a dense textural surface to the poem doesn’t necessarily have to be stumbling block to the reader. Hence my suspicion that the heritage of nonsense and children’s verse is central to his project. There’s a lot of Dr Seuss in here, a lot of Edward Gorey, I’m sure; Lear and Carroll, too, no doubt. Welton’s innovation, however, is to read this tradition through Modernism and its own inheritances: the dense thicket of constantly mutating language that Welton creates in Waffles certainly recalls the ludic linguistic lunacy of The Hunting of the Snark, but it’s just as likely to recall Gertrude Stein or the musically allusive textual surfaces of early R F Langley. That’s before I get onto the various lessons he’s learnt from the Oulipo and conceptual writing and mimimalist musical composition, which gives Welton’s work its sense of scale. Waffles comprises, apparently, the first three portions of a twelve part sequence (eagle-eyed readers might note that the poems in Waffles are twelve lines long, with each line containing twelve syllables strung along an insistent iambic rhythm, a rhythm that I suspect will be maintained flawlessly across all twelve sections), which, for me, is just thrilling. No-one else is really making that kind of obsessive long-term investment in form – possibly for the best, some might suggest – which is why I look to Welton’s work not just for enjoyment but for inspiration too. It’s not a question of slavishly copying his method – influence is never only that, obviously, and we tend to disguise or bury the influence of those works that have had the most profound effect upon our own writing practices; and besides anything else, I don’t have the attention span to try what Welton does, even for a minute – but drawing from the work the capacity to push myself into new territories, to try new forms and ideas, and not to worry if they don’t work out. Just keep pushing the boundaries, buddy, and eventually you’ll make it through to Texas. Compositionally speaking.


[1] Remember that Wells’ fiction was classified as ‘scientific romance’ in its early days precisely because there was no such thing as ‘science fiction’: his publishers and reviewers had to appeal to the parameters of an existing genre in the absence of an existing ‘tradition’ that might lend authority to Wells’ strange new mode of writing.