Thursday, 2 July 2009

Marjorie Perloff @ Warwick

Those of you in the know will be aware that Marjorie Perloff has been delivering the current Wedenfeld Lecture Series at Oxford University. Other commitments and Oxford's hideous city centre road-system put me off attending her talks, but through a stroke of good planning (Jonathan Bate, chiefly) and delivering angels, the University of Warwick's English Department was lucky enough to host Marjorie for a lunchtime visit.

She read from a chapter in her forthcoming book, 'Unoriginal Genius', primarily on the theme of multi-language poetry, then (modernism) and now (but she didn't call it postmodernism - presumably because she agrees with all sensible people, that postmodernism doesn't exist). The discussions centred on Eliot and Pound in relation to Caroline Bergvall and Yuko Tawada.


I'm going start at the end, in the Q&A session. This is where the most intellectual juice happened for me, during the event (though as a whole the talk and discussion afterwards was wonderful). A couple of times Marjorie invoked Eliot's mission statement of "purifying the language of the tribes", which I've found fairly unpalatable for the various atrocity-related interpretations placed upon the notion of finding 'purity' across the 20thC. Not that the phrase, and Eliot, should be thrown out with the bath water, of course.

In any case, what with the oft-noted backlash against Eliot and his grandiloquising, for reasons of perceived elitism, snobbery and prejudice, it seemed logical to ask if there was a new project: to corrupt the language of the tribes. Marjorie's answer completely surprised and delighted me:

That mainstream poetry's mission continues to corrupt the idea of natural speech in poetry. Reading Philip Larkin, for all his poetry's apparent popularity in Britain, is to encounter a language that sounds so detached from everyday speech, "flat" and unnatural, as to be exclusive, discordant and, ultimately, elitist, as to be immediate evidence for the ongoing need for Project Purity (sorry, couldn't help the Fallout 3 reference there). Poetry's counter-culture continues to find itself up against a ring of words fencing out the marginal from an equal footing in artistic expression.

This division exists across various 'types' of poetry - performance, page, etc. Compare Linton Kwesi Johnson & John Hegley. Compare Jennifer L Knox & Maya Angelou. Compare Carol Ann Duffy & Elisabeth Bletsoe. Compare Fiona Sampson & Jen Hadfield. Compare WN Herbert to Don Paterson. There's not necessarily a right answer in each of these, in terms of which poet comes closer to a 'natural' diction, but where local dialect features heavily, it's clear there's a political decision being made to democratise the language.

Marjorie's argument highlighted the ongoing hypocrisy of mainstream poetry and criticism of: just as there is no such thing as a 'neutral accent' (as with the BBC's RP, or the notion of Queen's Engerlish as rate arnd pro/per pronunseeashone), yet again there's been a hoodwinking taking place in poetic diction. The modernists didn't detach language from everyday speech, raising it to an elitist level. the words they chose, the way they used language, was about re-attaching poetry to society, widening the scope of real dialects visible in art (though see the notes below - some of Eliot's usage was problematic in comparison to, e.g. Pound's).

The main conflict between modernism's innovations and traditional poetry was, as with the Romantics, the creeping in of street slang, irregular, everyday rhythms, as compared to 'composing with a metronome.' This is even more visible overseas, e.g. in Greece, where the modernist mission was to overthrow katharevousa or 'high Greek', a language used almost exclusively as officialese, in newspapers, etc. The demotic was shoehorned into art by poets like Seferis (taking cue from Cavafis), and faced far greater backlash from the higher social strata than Eliot & Pound did in the UK. But this was a democratising act, allowing more people greater access to poetry - a poetry that they could associate with, understand more freely - and to poetic language, as new poetry incorporated common dialects, a greater understanding of what poetry could be, into its repertoire.

So the idea of corruption in language, at least for Marjorie, is related directly to the range, pluralism, and democratic representation of a wide, multicultural (not merely in the sense it means today, but in the wider sense of a range of cultural tastes and activities, from jazz to hiphop to opera to football chants) society. Pound's Cantos are far more successful projects at representing a diverse society than that of the elitist Victorian metronome, which could probably incorporate only a single social demographic at a time should it choose to, with its tub-thumping, one that had adjusted its brain patterns to fit the regularity of the language in order to identify the commoner (compare to Marjorie's discussion of shibboleths later on).

Having laid this all out, I'm going to disagree partially, insofar as I feel that corruption is no bad thing, to some extent. A little bit of magic, from a creative perspective (rather than Marjorie's critical perspective) is essential to stepping outside of tradition, finding ways to reconstruct language to meet our capacity for reflective thought about a society that will always change faster than language can. The cycle must include an element of rot, a phase of decomposition, before the new can emerge. (OK, that makes me sound like a hippy. But that's OK too. Simon would only chastise me if I said I wasn't one.)

This reconstruction requires a value system in order to demonstrate longevity (see at the end of the notes, below, Marjorie's response to Nick Lawrence on the idea of the fad of random, or highly disparate associative critical processes). Pluralism in some cases can come across as a highly subjective anti-value system that's put across by a mainstream aesthetic as a cover for an absence of critical standards, or, arguably, quality of the primary text. Witness a recent TS Eliot lecture, for example.


What follows is a series of my journal notes during the lecture, and the Q&A, tempered for readability and interspersed with [my thoughts now]. Snippets in quotation marks were recorded from Marjorie verbatim.

The ideograms of the Western alphabet - Yuko Tawada.

[I was dumb about the ideogrammatic nature of the Western alphabet up to this point. I vaguely remember some story about a C being like the mouth of a carp, but this may be misremembered from a Kipling story.]

Modernist multilanguage is about lending an exoticism to the poetry - even English citations are equally aimed to build the mysterious aura: e.g. why did TSE take the King James Bible version of Biblical quotations, not the Hebrew/Greek? But elsewhere in The Waste Land - Parsifal, etc. - he goes to earlier languages to tell the story, as if he's simply showing off.

Whereas 4Quartets is almost all in English. Why? TSE's collaging was less purposeful - about 'effects/FX', whereas Pound knits, weaves, shows history. Cantos = "proto-hypertextual poem."

Pound uses elements unique to not just the languages, but to the geographical origins & also class status, e.g. quoting var. slang: French argot and regional Spanish phrases; English also.

[I'd always suspected Eliot of being the lesser of two modernists, though Pound is vocally more politicised, more decision-making and, arguably, the sloppier poet and thinker on a number of fronts, this is also the thing that reveals (for me) his humanity. He has opinion, he's a shit, but opinion is what makes us human.

This might be a forgiving, 'I'm of the Mediterranean diaspora too' mentality. But at the same time, I love The Waste Land, Prufrock - Eliot's various 'stadium poems' - for the isolated beauty and/or punch of certain lines. The Cantos, however, exist as full units, full entities of poetry, slabs that can't be broken down into wonderful units. The idea of the Cantos is almost more important to language and literature than the actual content.]

And in Caroline Bergvall - 'Via' --> cento. A sequence of alphabetical opening lines of Dante - first tercet sequenced, English translations. Demonstrates the impossible & inevitable nature of translation. In Bergvall's Fig collection (Salt) and also at her website.

Her nuance of linguistic/multilanguage play is to examine the political borders of xenia - e.g. shibboleths: words used to identify foreigners. E.g. Japanese 'r' and 'l'.

[As the sounds are effectively both an 'l', aurally, this leads to cultural stereotyping of pronunciation: 'flied lice' and so on.]

[CB's poem] 'Parsley' is a response to late night TV racism based on linguistic difference. The poem was presented as an exhibition installation, and also on her website. [The idea is to highlight the difficulty in writing language down as it is said.] An investigation into how we process language.

There's a deliberate push of 'r' and 'l' to trouble the reader/listener. A discrepancy in eye/ear meaning. What does this mean for performed poetry? It's both exclusive - linguistically politicised - and popularising for the locale.

Tawada - Exophony. Turning linguistic otherness to political strength. (Also, words for 'to translate', e.g. in German/Japanese, are metaphors - to cross by boat / to turn over.)

What does this mean for dictionaries? For the lack of education using the phonetic alphabet? Or phonetic language generally?

"The clouds put on trousers when they go to Russia."

The crowds put on Toulousers when they go to Lusher.

There are problems with the invention of zero - a word pushes forward to represent something as a politically nuanced act. What happens when something new occurs? Or something changes? Or the powerful wish to change the understanding of something by reinflecting its meaning?

The length of words relating to status - what about poems only using words longer than 8 letters?

"An elephant cannot be an adjective."

[What about as a verb?]

I elephanted the vodka; it burned my nostrils.

I elephanted through the undergrowth, saplings bursting into matchsticks.

[Philip Larkin]: The nothing that is, or isn't? Recessive (as in genetic) language and ideas? The continuing complexity of relations & inter-relations. Is the fear of Pandemonium still valid?


"The absorption of culture must be linguistic as well as thematic."


"Poetry goes beyond communication."

So dictionaries become tools of communication and will therefore be temporal, ephemeral, in need of updating. I heard students in the changing rooms today describing someone as 'hench' - well-built? Heavily muscular?

[Coming back to actual notes on the 'corrupting the language' question:]

But perhaps - MP: the contemporary mainstream is corrupting language by formulating. Or rap/performance (Douglas Tierney).

Mongrelism - the idea of language as hybrid, falling away from poetry.

Translation also debases - the sense of poetry is what is lost in ~. Some things can't be, are ruined by, or deliver only a sense of the thing: you need to learn the original language. Even simply hearing the original can be powerful, empowering of the text.

The distance between types of English. Donald Davie has said he can't 'hear' William Carlos Williams. MP says she can't 'hear' Philip Larkin - HOORAY! It's just flat.

Canadian - esp. French - English: Erin Mouré, etc. o e i - Scandinavia - also mipoesia (new poetry). These are multilingual, trilingual, but there's no further need (esp. for the English) to really learn a language beyond English.

3 versions of Frank O'Hara's 'Is it Dirty?' on Youtube. "The great resource of the internet." Woohoo.

[The last part of the discussion revolved around the idea of democratic critical assessment of texts, or 'equal valuation' across boundaries, to which Marjorie said something along the lines of (pardon the paraphrase):]

Valuing the text used for an example: what is the value system? Should it be explicit? Fuck zeitgeist and fuck Franco Moretti.

[Yes, that was major shorthand for a much longer and far more intelligent discussion that took place between Nick Lawrence and Marjorie. I.e. there needs to be a value system for all cultural appreciation and it needs to be explicit. Pluralism is all well and good, as long as you can identify reasons for quality across boundaries. There is good and bad writing, however you want to classify that writing into a 'camp', a school, or whatever. If your standards in one area of writing (e.g. traditional British post-war Movement-style poetry) aim to celebrate one factor (e.g. rhythmic regularity alongside flat language and an anally retentive emotional control, with a bit of swearing thrown in), can that sit alongside a love for another area of language (e.g. open field poetics)? Yeah. Probably. But it would need a fair bit of explaining.]

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