Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Simon Turner - Multiple Things

Philip Larkin: Britain's greatest postwar writer. Apparently.

There is a very interesting article in the current issue of Pomegranate, in which Emily Tesh lays into the notion that the sole function of any young poet is the finding of one's voice. Tesh's chief complaint, aside from the argument that the critical focus on voice is an example of lazy reading, is that sticking to one voice fails to reflect the multiplicity of the world as it is currently lived by the majority of people. She writes:

"If I had to describe what life in the twenty-first century is like to a passing time-traveler, I’d call it multiple. Different media are everywhere, blaring a hundred thousand different messages that reach our ears as a dizzy mess of thoughts and fashions and brands. The world wants us to know that iPod and iTunes are meant to be together like attractive models making out, that McDonalds eaters everywhere are lovin’ it, that you should just do it, that property prices are rising or falling again, that all right-thinking people hate the Iraq war and George Bush, that all right-thinking people hate immigrants and gays, that Elton John went to a party last night and that people are starving in Africa, that shares in X company rose point three percent the other day and that this is the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah and that that was My Chemical Romance with Teenagers and that COMING SOON from New Line studios and that A-levels are being devalued and that A-levels are just fine and that you should look both ways before crossing the road..."

Work written according to the precepts of voice within this epoch is automatically a failure, precisely because it is an exception to the rule of modernity. If novels, movies, and kid's cartoons can keep up with the pace of technological and communicative change, why not poetry? It's a sound argument, and one which - perhaps accidentally - manages to restate some central issues in the ongoing clash of civilizations between the mainstream and the alternative poetry scenes. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ron Silliman made much the same argument in a post on his own blog back in 2003 (March 14 to be exact):

"Imagine the life experiences of a person relatively unfamiliar with poetry coming to a reading in the United States the year 2003. This person lives in a society in which the Talking Heads had a hit record singing the zaum poetry of Hugo Ball in 1977. The most surreal songs of Bob Dylan were released – and not on any indy label – some 36 years ago. Eminem crams in more social observation into any given quatrain than some Pulitzer poets have managed in their entire careers. Ditto songwriters like Townes Van Zandt or Dave Carter, to pick on a completely different musical genre, or groups like Public Enemy & NWA. And Van Zandt & Carter are both dead, and those rap groups already consigned to the remainder bins of history. Or consider, for that matter, Prince, another golden oldie who managed a career without the benefit of a word for a name for several years. The most popular motion picture of the past two years had substantial portions of dialog spoken (with subtitles) in Elvish. To pick another medium altogether, television, the audience coming to this reading will have had everything from the close attention to the spoken that is Buffy, to the narrative ambiguities – including the backwards speaking dwarf – of Twin Peaks to the multiple layers of Max Headroom, all in the range of recent references as they gather to hear somebody read a poem. This is in 2003, 172 years after the first of Aloysius Bertrand’s prose poems. Over a century after Rimbaud & Lautréamont. Forty-seven years after Allen Ginsberg published Howl, a book so obscure that it made him a millionaire. All of the above, up to & including the Vampire Slayer, require at least as much sophistication in communication skills on the part of their various audiences as the poem submitted by Noah Eli Gordon. And when we consider the number & kinds of discourses that occur simultaneously on a single screen of CNN’s Headline News channel – let alone consider the signage visible at any instant as we walk or drive down any commercial street in America – we see that it is the surface of the univocal poem [...] that is the deviant experience. Whether or not we approve or disapprove is entirely another matter – but the one-dimensional surface profoundly is the exception to our experience of language, not the rule."

Sorry to offload so much text from other sites, but both Tesh and Silliman put their case so much better than I might have been able to in rehashing it. In essence, both writers are expressing a sense of boredom with the well-made poem, with neat conclusions and easily definable surfaces; both are pressing the case for 'multivocality' as the default experience of language in the everyday and, by extension, as the ideal mode in which to produce poetry. One would have thought that this was old hat, considering that modernism exploded onto the scene some time ago, and has been thoroughly declawed over the decades ever since. But this is not the case, and in a critical environment where Erica Wagner can declare Philip Larkin to be England's most important postwar writer and not be laughed all the way to the moon, these debates between ease and difficulty are all the more pressing [1]. If one expects these arguments from Silliman - he has, after all, got his finger on the pulse of modern poetry in a way that many of us simply don't have the knowledge for, and besides, his aesthetic affiliations are certainly of the multivocal stripe - it is heartening to hear them emanating in nascent form from a young poet-critic. Find a copy of Zukofsky's A as soon as possible, Emily: it'll knock the univocalists clean out your ears.

[1] Jorie Graham, at a recent reading at Warwick University, noted the essential problem in the use of the term 'difficult' to desribe poetry, as it tended to put people off, and open up the critical field for popularisers like Billy Collins to fill the gap, and decalre simplicity 'in', at the expense of more complicated writers. (Neil Astley's is effectively fulfilling Collins's role in a British context.) Graham favoured 'complexity', as it is much less of a loaded term: 'difficulty' when applied to artistic productions is only ever two dainty semantic steps away from 'elitism', and no one likes elitism, do they? So, following Graham, 'difficulty' is hereby banned from Gists and Piths for good, unless the context calls for it - for example, 'I have difficulty reading Ian McEwan, because his books are awful', is acceptable; 'J H Prynne is a difficult poet' is not.


Andrew Bailey said...

Hello the editors:

Ron Padgett also says it well.


dan said...

Hi Simon,

Most of all I'd like to thank you for an interesting post and for the Pomegranate plug. But I would like to make a distinction.

Emily's essay looks - to me at least - more like a defence of a poet trying out different styles, from poem to poem. Silliman's point is more about the individual poem. Clearly there is a similarity here; but - without wanting to speak for Emily - the point of that piece for me is not that a poem should be like The Waste Land; rather that it can be if it wants, but the next piece might be like Carol Ann Duffy, and the one after that like Tony Harrison, and so on. There's a difference between the monotonous collection and the univocal poem.

While I'm here... Could you elaborate on your dismissal of Larkin? There might be more deserving candidates for the title, but it's interesting you put it so strongly.


The Editors said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the comment: always good to know that someone's reading. As for the plug, no problem: I accept payment in the form of unmarked, non-sequential bills in a plain brown paper envelope. You can mail it to my tailor.

Aaanyway, I will now attempt to deal with your concerns with the post in as succinct a way as possible. Firstly, yes, there is a distinction to be made between the univocal poem and the univocal poet, but I would also add that there is a correlation between the two, at least at some level: that univocal poets are more likely to produce univocal poems, and argue in favour of 'voice' as a defining marker in the development of the young poet. Production of multivocal poems, on the other hand, is more often than not liable to be an indication of the poet's multivocal leanings in general, not just within the space of the poem itself. The poem, in short, can be seen as a micricosm of the poet's ouvre considered in totality. This is a general rule, of course, and there exceptions, but I've found it fits in most cases.

As for Larkin, my concerns with him are less to do with his quality as a poet, and more to do with the critical framework of aesthetic conservatism, of which he is the primary beneficiary in the poetry world. My feeling is that he is only considered 'great' on such a regular basis because the critics who laud him are reading him in isolation - or rather, they are skewing the critical field so that more interesting work (Raworth, Prynne, Fisher [both A and R], the three Rileys [Denise, John, Peter], etc) is rejected before it is even considered: hence, my problem with the word 'difficulty', which seems designed to put people off before they've even scanned the cover of a poetry collection. I think more broadly that I dislike canon formation, though, and the creation of a list of 'great' writers is a means towards re-inscribing the existing canon. I've no time for that kind of project, really.

I could go on, but this comment is very very long. If you would like any clarifications, I'm happy to offer them in subsequent comments. All the best,

Simon Turner, Gists and Piths

Emily Hasler said...

I thought I found my voice once, but then a few minutes later it wasn't mine anymore...

That's how I feel about it anyway.


Jane Holland said...

I have trouble - gosh, almost used the word 'difficulty' there - with people who expect a poet's voice to remain the same over a single collection and several years of work, because I suffer - or should that be 'enjoy? - the same poetic restlessness attributed above to Emily Tesh by Dan.

When you're a young or new poet though, which Emily is, being various is perfectly normal. We try on new voices each time to see which are the best fit with our temperaments and ideals. So she may find herself slipping into a familiar or right-feeling 'voice' more regularly as she writes more and more. For me, of course, those salad days are gone. Just dried beans left now. And still the variousness remains.

As for your remarks on modernism and 'surely we've covered all this before' angle, you should perhaps see my recent posts on Raw Light about Peter Barry's great book from Salt, 'Poetry Wars'.

The book is about the British Poetry Revival of the 1970s, and its failure to hold the hard-won vantage-point of the Poetry Society, a failure which meant the twin strains of modernism and today's conservative mainstream became far less integrated than they might have been otherwise.

Basically, after a terrible tussle for power at the Po Soc in the mid 1970s, the avant-garde retreated (mainly back to Cambridge) and huffishly boycotted the Society en masse. A boycott which still stands in some quarters, I believe, with bitter rivalries still not forgotten.

That's one reason why today's mainstream has remained so staunchly conservative and anti-experimental; because the 'radicals', as they're known in the book, decided not to play the game anymore, and their earlier influence over the conservatives - which had a chance to really take hold in the 70s - gradually dwindled to the fringes instead.

Potted history there for those who didn't know it. Some hilarious extracts from the book are currently available on my blog.

The Editors said...

Jane, yes, I have been following your dispatches from the poetry wars at Raw Light. Maybe you'd want to write a longer article-review for Gists and Piths? We can't pay, but we care a lot ;)

And I'm with you on this matter of voice, which probably emanates from a restlessness as well. I have the attention span of a child, basically, and it has a bearing on the music I listen to (I never quite got the '3 minute punk single' ideal, if I'm honest), the books I read (Raymond Carver beats Norman Mailer every time, though that's not just a question of length), and the way I write. I've noticed too that many of the poets I love have this tendency to shift massively in style from one collection to the next, or from one poem to the next: you can flip through, say, Roy Fisher's or Ted Hughes's collecteds, and find entirely different poets depending on where your bookmark happens to fall, and for me that's a wonderful thing. A poetic ideal that doesn't allow for such variousness isn't worth knowing.

The Editors said...

Sorry, that should be 'never quite got *over* the 3 minute punk single ideal'. Never comment before breakfast, pop-pickers...