Friday, 17 August 2012

'lyric urgency' vs. 'stratified histories of place' (Skoulding)

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.


The Editors said...


I'll come back to this piece when I've had a little more coffee, but I just wanted to put your mind at rest regarding your self-diagnosed gaps in the history of poetics: isn't that how all poets ultimately construct their poetics, their sense of their place in history? Look at Eliot, for example: he manages to construct a viable, even radical poetics by making a remarkable leap over the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, founding his own writing and critical analysis equally on Elizabethan drama, and French symbolism (Laforgue, Baudelaire, etc) [Pound does something similar with Medieval France / Italy and Browning]. It's a poetics, that is, which revels in its partisanship, its deliberately 'vast gaps' in history. That's how poetry moves on, really, through creative mis-readings.

Oh, BTW, I watched Surviving Life last night, and it's as demented and maddening as I had hoped. More soon.

Simon @ Gists and Piths

The Editors said...


In addition, I wondered if you could expand upon, or give some examples, of what you mean by 'leftist' and 'rightist' poetry? Without some kind of concrete illustrations, it seems rather arbitrary that you would associate 'leftism' with freedom and anti-authoritarianism, and 'rightism' with elitism and closure (is closure neccesarily 'elitist', by the way? The Cantos is a far more 'elitst' work than, say, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, but the former is infinitely more open in its structures and ideas than the latter), as if authoritarianism were somehow at odds with the DNA of the left? The only 'leftist' work that sprang to my mind was something along the lines of Adrian Mitchell or Harold Pinter, which is absolutely authoritarian in its attempt to lead its readers towards particular conclusions: there's no openness or play here at all, just bludgeoning propoganda. All of which is not to say that your analysis is wrong, I just wonder if you're bandying terms around without really getting to grips with their implications.

Simon @ G&P

The Editors said...

Hi Simon,

I guess I'm separating out different versions of history. The simplistic view, that equates liberalism with leftist politics, has taken hold more since 1979, given the lack of left-leaning politics in the UK. It's a simplification which I intended to imply can be thrown out by a closer look at specific poetry and poetics.

That's why I opened the discussion up at the end - I'm particularly interested in reading suggestions. As far as bandying around terms - yes, that's the point. The trigger for the piece was trying to liberalise the ideas I had, by not imposing.

Wordsworth is an interesting case, with a fairly rigid conservatism complicated by an attempt to give voice to disempowered 'rustics'. So his poetry is more interesting to me, in my advancing years, than that of Keats, who was inspirational, but didn't lead me to question the politics of what he presented.

Ditto Clare, who I'm coming to realise approached his subjects with a troubling didacticism. He took up the mantle of 'working class poet' a little too readily and his early work is structurally very conformist, implying a right-leaning poetics. He's been celebrated by socialist critics (Williams, etc.) in a way that seems to me to uphold his life above the statements he makes, which, OK, have a degree of Gandhi-esque defensiveness, a resistance to agribusiness at the expense of the 'people of the land', but still enforces a rightness of hierarchy.

See, this needs a lot more space and time than I can be bothered to take. That's what it is, really - laziness. Your point about Wendy Cope, for example: the poetry's structure works at odds with the more playful (perhaps liberal?) content of the poems. I like your metaphor about DNA vs. (what exactly?) flesh. It leads me into thinking about how popular work often lets more interesting light into its subtext through what was not intentional or controlled.

George @ G&P

oliver dixon said...

Hi George and Simon,
Fascinating line of argument and as you say one which opens out a great many questions about the underlying politics of poetic process and curricularisation.
I agree with Simon that we need to be pretty circumspect when characterising texts as leftist/rightist; for example, equating disjunctive 'open' form with radicalism and metrical 'closed' form with conservatism, as people like Ron Silliman consistently do when discussing 'Post-Avant' and 'Quietist' schools of his own invention.
Just to pick up on your thoughts about Keats, however. It could equally be argued that in spite of his youth Keats was a highly self-reflexive poet with a more developed sense of "the concepts feeding his poems" (as evinced by the sophisticated self-dialogue about poetry and language in the Letters)than perhaps any other English poet. A lot of his poems are either about poetry (eg Sonnet on the Sonnet or "When I have fears that I may cease to be") or as in the Odes, complex meditations on how formal coherence and temporal flux interrelate.
And although he uses prosody which is conventional for its time (like all the other Romantics with the exception of Blake), Keats' politics were avowedly leftist. Andrew Motion's biog (far better than any poetry he's ever written) shows how his poetry subtly intersects with the social reality of its time, as well as reminding us that Keats' ambition before he fell ill with tuberculosis was to become a Hazlitt-like radical journalist.
If you ever take Tom Paulin seriously (which I rarely do) he argues that the whole of 'To Autumn' is an encrypted lambasting against the Peterloo massacre - pretty silly idea but there might be an iota of truth in it ( another interpretation of that poem is as a Clare-like lament for the commonland around Winchester appropriated by private owners...)
Sorry I'm rambling now but you get my drift.
All the best,

The Editors said...

Hi Oliver, apologies for slow reply, been away and mostly unplugged.

Increasingly I'm drawn to the question of the y-axis of the political compass: liberal vs. authoritarian. Only an idiot, for example, would reject a [right- or left-wing] capitalist-produced solution to energy resource shortages which can unhitch from the fossil fuel wagon, on the grounds that they are in political disagreement with the source of a solution (if you believe in the need for a solution, or the possibility of, yadda yadda [endless modulation, &c.]).

So, my bad for over-simplifying, but it was a kind of thinking out loud. You're right about the nuance in Keats and I like the Paulin point - I once argued that Dickinson's 'Snake' ( was about getting stoned - and who knows what she really got up to in that room all by herself all day? Teenagers will be teenagers...

At the same time (pronounced loudly, like a portly fellow) you could say that the traditional execution of a form like the sonnet, when done according to the strictures of past, recognised forms, is conservative (small c), rather than things like the Reality Street Book of Sonnets, which is experimental (small 'e'?).

The distinction between these approaches is a y-axis distinction from a narrow perspective only - that liberalism permits more room for experimentation and individual expression, when centre/periphery is examined. Less centralised control. Authoritarianism may attempt to enforce a radical social dynamic through structural violence, etc. but perhaps there's something to be said for the centre-periphery split?

Somewhere out of this a more useful comment might emerge about the idea of 'edges', or 'edgelands'. I've not read the Farley/Roberts book yet, but Jonathan Skinner is very interesting on the topic.

Also, this came to me recently, you might find it interesting:


George @ G&P