Monday, 13 April 2009

"Goes the Logic" - George Ttoouli on Simon Turner on difficulty in art

Reading Simon's review of Geraldine Monk and Tim Atkins in issue 2 of Horizon, I've had this overwhelming desire to extend his ideas on 'difficulty' in art. (It will become apparent that this article is really about reader empowerment, but I am first writing out my logic-springboard.)

As Simon writes, "more often than not there is a shade of judgement in the use of the term: poetry is difficult when it refuses to give up its secrets in one sitting, when not every page is left justified, when the poem doesn’t round off neatly with a twee and epiphanic observation from the author’s own life."

I'm not entirely satisfied by this. Too often the 'avant' is dismissed by the school of quietude (to borrow Silliman's term, which makes life easier for me, but doesn't mean I'm politically allied to it, though I'd guess neither is he from recent asides - the 'Seth vs. Ron' link) in terms that mimic the easy dismissal of 'experimental writing' by the SoQ: 'difficult' is a shallow term, one that shouldn't be trusted. Why should I then trust a similarly simplistic rebuttal - even if I agree with the idea?

I think the argument warrants a full scale trebuchet behind it. Let's put it into terms that count. Here's one example of difficult: a DJ at an 'alternative' music night (yes, all attempts at definition of genre are bullshit) opens his set with 'Paint it Black' by the Rolling Stones. All present are in agreement that it's a great song; they rock out. His next track is a cover of 'Paint it Black'. So are the next 45 minutes of music. By different bands. Remixes. His own remixes. Versions cut with a dance track. Every version of the song he could find, for nearly an hour. After the fourth or fifth version, the crowd is becoming abusive. Several versions down the line, the dancefloor is clear, questions as to the DJs state of mind, mental health, need of being forcibly removed, are discussed. Two or three of the DJs friends are still laughing. After half an hour of versions, even the DJ's friends are beginning to get tired.

At some point, people might actually tune into the song and think, 'I used to like that song. Why?' At that point, the art kicks in, yes? You know, at that point, you're experiencing a real dialogue with the art. No art without participation, as the Arts Council England might point out, if it wasn't so busy counting heads.

For 'difficulty' then, I'd prefer to advance the notion of 'unexpectation'. I think most of my arguments with 'straighter' readers boil down to matters of expectation. I like poetry that surprises me, because it doesn't operate on the terms I've become accustomed to - it forces me to participate. Just as the crowd at a music night expect a DJ to play a set of tracks - some new, some classic, some that create a certain energy, others that give you time to go to the bar and refuel, and a Spice Girls track at the end of the night to clear the place and let the staff close up - similarly, people are used to reading poetry in a certain way and for a certain kind of meaning.

Take for example, this phrase of Simon's in reviewing Monk: "using the full spread of the page, á l’Olson, as a primary component in the generation of meaning". Ignoring the hilarious, though horrible, bit of frenchaise referencing, do people really expect a poem to use the full spread of the page to generate meaning? Even your 'average, diversely-attuned reader' (or ADA readers) doesn't come to a page of poetry expecting poetry to generate meaning in that way, though well done to Simon for pointing out how well Monk does it. As ADA readers, we do expect to be pushed to reinterpret our personal biases, perhaps, or to hang our preconceptions by the door.

What I'm interested in is trust and empowerment. When a reader comes to a poem, or book of poems, and says 'I want it to do this for me' and then throws the book across the room when it doesn't, the reader has failed, not the poetry. When a reader comes to a poem and says, 'this poem wants me to read it in this way' then the reader is doing well from the off. Pretty good, anyway, in my books.

From there, the reader can say, 'Yeah, I read it in this way and got something from it,' or, 'So I tried to read it on the terms it was asking, but ultimately it didn't leave anything but sand in my mouth'. That's a fair review. I'm trying to draw a distinction here between 'elevating oneself to the level of the poem' and being willing to see what a text wants from me, what kind of demands and rewards it might be offering. From there, any reader, ADA, common, dyslexic or merely a lonely, unadjectivised reader, is entirely justified in burning that book, or giving it to a local charity shop.

Again I say, I'm not arguing for 'right reading' here. Leave that to reprographics people. This is about the right for a reader to trust their instincts. In that regard, I'm certainly not arguing against someone who's read the full gamut of poetries available to them and chosen what they like. I do that a lot myself.

If you so happen to choose a 19th Century Romantic aesthetic over a 1960s Black Mountain aesthetic because you've read both and list one way, not t'other, fine by me. If you look into it and decide the SoQ's for you, or the Avants, fine! (You're an asshole if you choose wrong, but that's OK, I still like you. No, I take that back. Simon tells me I should take that back. Oh, nevermind.) You've done your work. You're (hopefully) open minded enough not to close down all other texts of a type of writing entirely. Sure, don't spend too long on the areas you know you've a history of boredom with, but don't get zealous about it: the differences in artistic experiences validate your personal tastes.

So it's the fear of the unexpected I have a problem with. Sure, too often, 'difficulty' is mistrusted because readers feel they need a PhD in The Phallic Symbolism of the Ampersand in the Poetry of Philip Larkin; or Correlations between the Rise of Reaganism, Thatcherism and the Lyric 'I' in Late Twentieth Century British Poetry; or The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse; or Using Prairie Polyculture Systems to Understand the Long Poems of Elisabeth Bletsoe, etc. (Yes, better rein that in, having too much fun - but any others, please add them to the comments.) I don't like being made to feel stupid by a text either.

If readers can be taught to accept the unexpected, to interpret intention (and suddenly the image of Will Smith in 'Men in Black' shooting an eight year old cardboard cut-out in the head for carrying a textbook on particle physics springs to mind) then they can also be empowered to say what they want about a text's qualities, no matter how average or outside they feel from a system.

My main worry is that readers are deliberately excluded by certain critics and writers on the basis of their 'lack of knowledge'. Readers are made to feel insecure, inexpert, inadequate, insufficiently skilled, when it comes to making certain judgment calls on texts. It worked for the Chicago school in defence of their absurd deregulation of the financial markets (as Naomi Klein has said elsewhere) and it's used time and again by cliques of writers to defend varying degrees of shoddiness, or simply as a lash-out response.

And it damages readers. I feel like I need to start a campaign: "Reader! Do you feel like you've been pissed on by a critic, or a writer, for being too common to get what they were writing about? Well, never fear. It's OK to think a writer is shit, if you put the effort into reading their book and still didn't get it!" But that word 'effort' is loaded. At what point is a reader justified in rejecting a writer's work?

I have my biases and I don't hide them, but I do try to mediate them. Some negative critical arguments are justified, measured. If a reader can put their back into an attack and not simply fling about clichéd appraisals (e.g. 'reads like a cryptic crossword clue', or 'doesn't have any rhyme', or 'why is it all left-justified?'), then I'm wiling to give that reader the right to their expression.

Ultimately, there needs to be room to allow for all kinds of reading and writing: lazy reading, skim reading, automatic writing, validated reading, invalidated writing and the kind of reading habit that is prepared to take a text on its own terms. All of these are subjective assessments and the reader decides when to commit their time and energy, and how, as does the writer.

Writers should take responsibility for the fact that their writing is sometimes skewiff and not blame readers. And readers should be prepared to have their criticisms levelled if they aren't willing to appraise a text to the point they can rustle up a cogent response. (It's a bit late in the day, but I guess I should distinguish between a 'recommendation' - I liked/disliked - and a 'review', which weighs up a text's strengths in some kind of context.)

Difficulty, for me, is less about the quality of a text, more about the attitude and preconceptions a reader brings to, or the relationship the reader establishes with a text. If you can't overcome that barrier between your own version of reality and the reality a poem presents to you, then you're living a pinprick away from reality. Good luck maintaining the illusion, but from where I'm standing, you're missing out.


Emily Hasler said...

Interesting article George, which I will come back to and read when my head hasn't been seen to in the night by an overzealous taxidermist.

However re this:

"If you so happen to choose a 19th Century Romantic aesthetic over a 1960s Black Mountain aesthetic because you've read both and list one way, not t'other, fine by me. If you look into it and decide the SoQ's for you, or the Avants, fine! (You're an asshole if you choose wrong, but that's OK, I still like you. No, I take that back. Simon tells me I should take that back. Oh, nevermind.)"

I hope you're not advocating that people should tie headbands of different colours and fight to the death against each other in these camps (though I can see the merit of this idea), as I am firmly in both camps and neither.

Right, off to use the full-spread of the bed now.
Emily xx

Tom said...

A wise, generous commentary, Mr T.

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

Hi George,

Most poetry isn't difficult, most is boring. Quite often it's boring pretending to be difficult.

My advice to readers if the book is a bit hard going is give up. Give up as fast as possible, dump the book and move on. Read defensively and don't let any writer waste your life.

There are just so many writers, so many books, don't waste a moment on something which isn't working for you. I don't think readers are stupid, or need instructing, or need to make apologies for their habits and predilections. Readers aren't there to come to terms with a text or to explain why their bored shitless by it.

If a writer is boring and experiments with the full force of their intellect they will only be experimentally boring. Giving up on a book does not mean you are shallow or somehow inept or deficient. It's the one area where you can with full confidence blame it on the writer. It's like big cats hunting impala, there's always another one to chase.

We're always told that the study of literature is about the acquisition, assimilation, comprehension of texts. (Some readers wear books like medals as if they were in some armed foreign conflict). I think the main life skill in reading is dismissal.

Think about the finite nature of reading time, the finite nature of life. Only so many books before you open your worm farm. You can't fit them all in. You can't even fit in half. Not a quarter. Not even one six-hundred thousandth. In a effluent of abundance the only thing for sure is that no one really needs to trudge the same path as another reader.

It's here I find sympathy with your thinking. If there's something to encourage in the reader, it's the freedom to make their own way. No medals.

Everyone is entitled to make their own journey to the worm farm. If there's some advice we can give the reader it's not to let anyone else tell them the route. Many routes are unique. All routes should be. The best way to ensure this is to avoid experts. Experts are usually glorified route planners. Grisers. They're counting passenger numbers and tryng to avoid taking the Number 16 through the Grindley Estate.

Readers, do not fear the Grindley Estate!

Similarly, don't struggle on hoping that the No. 143 Bus will eventually end up at your house. In fact the best reading is the reading that leads you away from your home. It's all about outgoing journeys. Any way build your own extended metaphor. Build your own reading life and always be prepared to Dump the Book.

The Editors said...

Great post, George, but please, can you explain the Python cardinals? If the intention was to give me a life-threatening giggling fit, mission accomplished. But otherwise, excellent work. Have a candybar, Egon. You've earned it.


The Editors said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Em - sounds like you've been pickling your brains in alcohol, by the way you phrased that?

No, I don't advocate headbands and fisticuffs (at least, not for reasons poetry-related), but was thinking of Andrew Motion's visit to Warwick Arts Centre some years back, when a certain audience member unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket and proceeded to ask,(paraphrasing) "Do you think a C19th Romantic Aesthetic is a valid way of writing poetry in a C21st postmodern society?"

To which AM replied, "Yes. Yes, for me it is." To which, fair play.

Chris - cheers, some very lucid ideas there. You're on the side of Stephen King who advocates the same in his 'On Writing'.

At the same time, I'm in the position of having to draw up reading lists and secondary reading lists for university courses, where the reading should be guided by what will demonstrate good use of technique, despite often being the kind of writing readers won't enjoy. I end up trying to take the approach Pound does in his 'A B C...', that if you want to build a brick wall, you'd expect to go look at a few walls first, see how they're constructed, find out what the mason says about it, weigh up the pros and cons of various techniques.

A certain part of me feels this process is corrupting on the part of allowing readers their freedom - the process generates self-consciousness and leads to a kind of 'medal-wearing' approach to reading. I guess my article is much a kick against that kind of self-consciousness that's drummed into people from school onwards. It gets in the way of the joy of reading.

Griser - great word. Hadn't seen it for a while. I wonder if there's some equivalent for poetry geeks.

Simon - "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition" - the unexpected arrives, but instead of torture, they bring comfy chairs and soft cushions. As in, to read in a way that surprises you can bring great comfort.

Or as Chris put it, "the best reading is the reading that leads you away from your home".

See, there was a connection, sort of. But mainly I was going for cheap thrills.


Emily Hasler said...

Thanks George.

As for dumping books, I agree you should never feel that you 'have to' finish a book or 'should' read something, but a few of my all time favourites are ones it took a second or third date with the first page to get to know and like.

Now I'm going to find out what griser means. Oh, and I was just under the weather yesterday. I never drink. Except when I do. xx

Jane Holland said...

"Oh no! Not the comfy chair!"

(Or "confiture", as we used to say in French supermarkets, back in the 80s, much to the bemusement of non Python-watching Frenchies.)

Good to see Horizon - erm, I mean Simon Turner - getting plugged here. He certainly deserves to be plugged.


-- "And now for something completely different."