George Ttoouli on Keats vs. Critchley / mystery vs. expression
A new web project by Sophie Mayer kicks off in September, which you'll have to wait for. More details when it launches, but I was skimming through the draft interviews and was struck by a number of poets who claimed to have started writing because of reading Keats – myself included. This got me thinking about inspiration and background. For many it's the poets we encounter in school, often the familiar, white, male curriculum names like Keats and Wordsworth, which decide if we'll chime or not with the wider world of poetry. And of that familiar library, Keats stands out when you're young and impressionable.
Something Zoe Skoulding says in her editorial to the latest Poetry Wales: “Perhaps there are certain kinds of poems that are more easily written in youth, if lyric urgency is considered the ultimate value of the poem. However, age offers something else... a nuanced identification with the stratified histories of place.” Keats has that lyric urgency in abundance, a young poet who speaks to young poetry readers. He chimes, he captures youthful activity, even while his technical skill remains immature at times (though highly advanced for his age, but noticeable more in poems peripheral to his canonised odes and narratives) and his leaping at emotion is often uncomplicated by experience, still fixated on the passions and disillusionments of coming of age.
This led me briefly into wondering about the problems inherent in poets who aren't culturally rooted in British Romanticism, but are curricularised by a British Council-driven literary mould. My recent tastes stem from immersion in more experimental writing, kickstarted by university library shelves, which were stocked by the staunch, brilliant, alternatively-bespectacled perspective of Peter Larkin. (Names like Geoffrey Hill, John James, JH Prynne; Frances Horovitz, Marianne Moore and Lyn Hejinian, which I read randomly, with no sense of connections, movements, history. The gaps in my grasp of aesthetic grouping, in literary inheritance, are still vast.)
A sidenote emerges from this. The curriculum didn't teach me about poetry that is self-conscious about its processes, its intentions, that states within it an aesthetic manifesto. Take Olson's declaration of 'SPACE' in Call Me Ishmael, or (another recent joy to read) Emily Critchley's broadside on his masculine opening of the field (in the Spring 2012 issue of Poetry Wales), 'Some Curious Thing II': “& the extent to which SPACE is constructed in gendered terms is an interesting question / it is always an interesting question to write back the projection of body or SPACE or / urban creatures, who look suddenly cute snuffling round in the trash”. Critchley's subject is, in part, social organisation and social thought, but primarily you get a sense of the theory of space, of poetics, of a particular brand of feminism. The poem doesn't just enact space in its extravagantly long lines, its almost-prose, but discusses that formal tradition of projectivism and gender in theoretical terms. In other words, it 'nuances' itself with a sense of historical positioning, to return to Skoulding's phrase again, with an exposition of source. It joins the river and doesn't pretend it was born a fully formed Sealife Centre. (I've also started watching dolphin documentary The Cove, which is astonishing, upsetting, and points to the political problems in hiding one's roots/sources.)
Keats goes for the jugular of the emotion, not exposing, perhaps not aware of, the concepts feeding his poem. The narrative and imagery carry the meaning; the source of these things is glossed, not the point of the poetry. But the prosody works within formal, conservative lines to convey very subtle enforcements of content; and the content is patriarchal, lusty, laden with the kind of stock fantasies that frankly, a male poet writing today ought to question. (I know, a gross oversimplification, but up to a point very few British canonised poets methodically counter the pentametric conservative social values that make me think of women in corsets and white men killing natives on a tennis lawn).
By contrast, Critchley and Olson, in these particular pieces I've mentioned, work from a structural challenge to the norms of poetic tradition, using the essay form, prosaic lines, a splattergun of page space (yes, that's a technical term), while also incorporating a discussion of their respective counter-approaches as an additive to traditional ideas of a poem's subject. The world is not seen or represented directly, in either series; instead, the camera's focus is on the interaction between ideas about the world and the point where the physical world meets those ideas. (And while Olson still hasn't shuck off that patriarchal stuff, he at least invites a degree of interrogation of his SPACES and now this discussion sounds like it's heading towards latex gloves and stripsearches...)
And I said to myself, mid-ponder, No, self-reflexivity seems a little too irritating, too much a metastatic contagion, with an emphasis on the 'static'. Yes the focus has moved one place along to promote understanding about human perspective, but there's the danger of total detachment from the world. Or something like that. I think I need to unpick that a little, because it doesn't mean either Olson's or Critchley's poetry leaves me cold – far from it. But that when it's mishandled, this technique of exposing one's own processes, one's thinking, one's skeleton, is at risk of losing its reference in the actual world.
Then, in the spirit of this kind of poetry, I started asking where this particular argument comes from. It's from reading Keats, isn't it? It's from being moulded by the kind of poetry that isn't interested in its own processes, in exposing its mechanical operations – what's the phrase from architecture? structural expression? – but instead progresses by a kind of mystery, or worse, mysticism, in how the language comes by its emotive and intellectual qualities. The one or the other should be decided by the purpose of the poem.
At this point I'm purely speculating, but isn't the 'mysterious' approach, as against the 'expressed' one of transparency vs. snobbery? Is there a conflicting political demonstration in which of these directions you choose to take your own poetry? Even 'leftist' poetry can have within it an authoritarian control, a sense of wanting to cover its traces - a condescension towards the reader. And sometimes right-leaning poetry works towards justifying its content with questions and an exposition of process, while also carrying a kind of elitist closure. Keats seems decidedly mysterious when compared to Wordsworth's deeper interrogations of process and the self's relation to environment, for example.
Again, a simplification, as I think this is one of the discussions that Simon and I consistently return to, although the conversation tends to sit on the tails of particular poets who do or don't fulfil our preferences, without travelling much distance into the wider picture. Perhaps that would be stating the obvious too much? But this also seems to be a criticism we've had of one poet we've encountered recently, [name deleted, we may get to this in full], who has the strength of a massive marketing machine behind them, but little discussion of where their poetics comes from. But for now I'll stop where I am and see if anyone has ideas for ways to take this further - reading, ideas, examples, etc.