Thursday, 6 August 2009

Counter-attack - Gists and Piths on Duffy's anthology of war poetry

After a recent period of rest and meditation, Gists and Piths returns with its first attempt at a podcast. Early responses have been positive, but people could well have been responding to the wild look in the Editors' eyes whenever we ask for an opinion.

Just to provide some context: George and I were responding to an article which appeared in the Guardian on Saturday 25th of July. Entitled 'Exit Wounds', it took the form of a micro-anthology assembled by Carol Ann Duffy, with new work by luminaries such as Sean O'Brien, Jane Weir, Robert Minhinnick and Paul Muldoon being gathered together under the rubric of 'the new war poetry'. The podcast itself covers in depth the reasons why we felt the need to respond, but in short our primary objections were as follows:

1. An absence of critical depth in Duffy's introductory remarks, in which a blindness to the distinction between combatant and non-combatant poetry was apparent. The list was rather Brit-centric, to put it politely, and none of the poets have any connection whatsoever to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which they are 'responding' to. When we have the work of Brian Turner or Dunya Mikhail to look to, these poems are a total irrelevance.

2. The rather poor quality of most of the poems. The vast majority of these poems seem to fall back on the ready-made language of cliche to get their points across. Compare this with the brute specificity of soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen, Keith Douglas or Bruce Weigl, and their shortcomings become painfully apparent.

3. The sense of cultural authority that seems to cling to this collection, as though this were a definitive poetic approach to modern combat. Even if we restrict the field to non-combatant poetry, anyone who has read recent work by Robert Sheppard (Warrant Error), Chris McCabe (Zeppelins) or Eliot Weinberger (What I Heard About Iraq) will know that this is not true.

We chose the podcast form for its speed, though ironically the editing process has dragged on, meaning that this appears somewhat later than planned. Hopefully, it is not already wildly out of date.

Some other links that might be of interest:

Andrew Motion talking about war poetry (very interesting, considering the issues seriously and intelligently, filling the huge critical gaps that were missing from 'Exit Wounds')

An excellent response from Delirium's Library

Duffy's own poetic response to the death of WW1 veteran Henry Allingham. The poem itself isn't exactly 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' (it's cliche-riddled, and the poetic conceit is Vonnegut via Amis) but it's the fawning, uncritical nature of the accompanying article that really sticks in the craw.

Perdika Press, who have just published Jacqui Rowe's excellent translations of Apollinaire, which are cited in the podcast.


The poem by Chris McCabe in Zeppelins mentioned in the podcast is not called, 'Guantánamo'; in fact we meant to refer to his poem, 'Abu Ghraib'. We may have confused his poem with Jorie Graham's poem, 'Guantánamo', from her collection Sea Change.


Emily Hasler said...

I really enjoyed this guys, thanks. Lots to think about, nicely presented and in a perfectly manageable chunk. Great.

... Ooh, the word verification today is 'anger', interesting.

Roddy said...

I'm glad you took the time to respond to this, but mixed results, I think. True, most of the poems are weak, some of them shockingly so, but it still feels like your motives are factional - 'our heroes and chums are better - and way more out there - than Auntie Cazza's heroes and chums'. Well, maybe. And are you really both non-mainstream, non-conservative yourselves, or is that just wishful thinking?

The poem 'Guantanamo' from Chris McCabe's latest book is singled out as a particularly strong war poem, but there is no such poem. Might you be thinking about the poem 'Abu Ghraib' - a simple slip in conversation becomes an embarrassing cock-up when you are wagging your finger elsewhere. Not even in the right continent, chaps, which hardly suggests you really know the poem!

All that MA workshop stuff about short poems and epiphanies and similes and the rest makes for a very thin stick with which to flog a dying horse - which isn't to say it's wrong - it's just become more of a cliche than the cliches it takes a biff at. And Weinberger is far from free of epiphanies, Turner of similes, Sheppard of brevity.

Also, that stuff about 'cultural authority' in point 3 on the blog - sounds good but doesn't actually mean anything when you reread it - I'm sure you'll agree - who has said these poems are 'a definitive poetic approach to modern combat'?

In the face of that, in what way is Apollinaire a reproach to that? And, lastly, given your clear discomfort with the mainstream, how come are you comfortable in namedropping Brian Turner - does his authenticity as a soldier overcome the mainstream nature of his poems?

Looking forward to your response...

The Editors said...

Hi Roddy,

It's not the mainstream we have a problem with, as we say in the podcast. Nor do we claim to be completely outside of it ourselves, anywhere in the article. Luther didn't claim to be outside of the Catholic Church when he presented his criticisms of it, quite the opposite. This seems more your bugbear than ours.

Our main gripe is that the Guardian article neatly sidestepped any questions of why these particular (primarily tedious, mainstream, British) poets were being asked to write about the war when there were any number of poets from further afield - geographically and aesthetically - who would have done a better job, demonstrated greater diversity of responses and greater skill with technique.

The lacunae in the article - why these poets were chosen and why they are worthy choices for an article of war-themed poetry - make for a shoddy use of reputational putty to cover up mistakes, poor quality poetry, and unrigorous editorial. The article rides on the back of the laureateship and some of the known poets included, which is probably the fault of the Guardian rather than of 'Auntie Cazza'.

So it's not simile we have a problem with, just bad simile that means nothing at all, or worse, has counter-productive meanings that are potentially disrespectful towards the gravity of real life events. Poor technique points to poor decision-making behind the article.

We'd like you to elaborate on what you mean by, "it's just become more of a cliché than the clichés it takes a biff at" when you're talking about our comments on technique. Outside of universities, few people take their time to call up sloppy work for what it is. In the context of a rather fawning reaction to Duffy's war poetry and work as a Laureate, we think it's necessary to do this because we imagine few other people do.

If you think it's a cliché to mourn the absence of a rigorous critical environment then perhaps you think it's better to succumb passively to the ongoing infantilisation of society (to paraphrase JG Ballard)? The question of cultural authority in this instance, is a valid one, whatever you may think: the ability to think and decide for oneself the quality of a particular poem, or article, or political system.

Take for example the mostly bad poetry by soldier poets published in the Sunday Times magazine - Blood Bombs and Bards. It did set out its critical framework and put the poetry in a valid, relative perspective. Brian Turner's inclusion was as a soldier poet, not because he was a better poet than any of the others included.

It's the absence of a critical framework that grates most. We point to poets, like Chris McCabe, Robert Sheppard, Brian Turner, as we try to determine why Duffy presents her poets instead of others. No doubt there's an element of tribalism at play, which is acceptable if one is overt about it. The question of whether Carol Ann Duffy gathering her friends together for this is an entirely different debate and one that I don’t need to have. Most magazines and readings often need to operate in this manner and so be it.

As to Apollinaire's inclusion, Jacqui Rowe's translation is an excellent demonstration of his ability. The line, "how aroma of toasted / skin becomes not disagreeable" is very powerful. Similarly, our discussion of Christopher Logue points to a poet who has positioned himself as a non-combatant war poet of great skill.

Still, the discussion is ongoing and inaccuracies slip through. Thanks for your point about Chris McCabe's poem - you're right and we'll add an erratum - and for taking the time to listen to the podcast and share your reactions.



Carrie Etter said...

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with a serious and continuing issue. I have just one difference to state, and that is with the assumption that non-combatant poetry might be irrelevant in the face of strong combatant poetry. I think it is important for better and better non-combatant poetry to be written, to help, in a current case, the millions whose country is engaged in a war in another land to understand their feelings, navigate the media's coverage, take some personal responsibility, etc. My political poetry is often from the position of someone not directly involved, but well aware of her identity as a citizen, and I hope that such poetry might be of especial value for the many, many others in a similar position.

The Editors said...

Hi Carrie,

Thank you for your comments, and I'm glad you liked the post / podcast. For the record, I completely agree with you about the question of non-combatant poetry, and did not at any stage want to suggest that non-combatant poetry had no value, simply that the poetry collected in 'Exit Wounds' mostly failed to engage seriously (whether poetically or politically) with its subject, as all good war poetry - whether written by those on the front-line, or those at home - must do. There have of course been many excellent, aesthetically and ethically committed non-combatant responses to recent conflicts (some of them mentioned in the post, but I would add Juliana Spahr's 'This Connection of Everyone with Lungs', David Harsent's 'Legion' and, indeed, some of your own work in 'Yet' to the partial list we've suggested above) which really put Duffy's own rather empty commissions to shame. I hope that answers some of your concerns.

All the best,

Simon, Gists and Piths

Nicholas said...

Nice try, but I hope you will never podcast criticism again. I can't interject, as I could in a real conversation, and I can't copy/paste the bits I wish to address, as I could in a blog entry. This stuff belongs on the screen, where I can agree or disagree with you properly.