Tuesday 26 February 2013

Simon Turner - Dear World...: An Initial Response (with Question)

Nathan Hamilton has recently published a genuinely interesting anthology of young poets (Dear World & Everyone In It) - there seem to be a lot of these around at the moment, but this is the first to have really gotten me energised.  First things first, as I don't want any of you to think I'm hiding something: possibly against his better judgement, Hamilton saw fit to include a clutch of my own (prose) poems among the bright sparks, and I'm grateful he did.  It's great to be involved in the project.  Second things second: it's an excellent selection, ranging widely across the cont. po. spectrum, distinctly left-field in its tastes, but sufficiently catholic and non-partisan to consider interesting work that falls well outside the experimental fold.
What I'd like to do here, before a more thorough-going review later down the line, is to address a couple of points raised by the anthology's introduction, an alternately captivating and irritating experimental essay by Hamilton, which manages to do quite a lot at once: it's, naturally, an introduction to the themes and arcs suggested by his chosen poets, but it's also a critical account of the contemporary poetry climate, a riposte to previous attempts to map the 'current generation', and a polemical call for a new plurality in both the composition and reception of modern poetry (at least, that's my partial reading of the essay).  That Dear World... has an overtly acknowledged aesthetic agenda which it vigorously (even cantankerously) defends sets it apart from the majority of poetry anthologies, and I suspect that it'll generate quite a bit of internet chatter (some of it pro, some of it anti) over the coming months.  I'm largely in favour - I think - of the thrust of Hamilton's expressionistic argument, but there are a couple of points (or one in particular, I guess) that I'd like to address, which I felt needed some clarification or expansion.

In what I suspect might prove to be one of the more contentious passages in the intro, Hamilton lays out his case for the exclusion of certain poets / poetries form the anthology:

"Just being young and proficient doesn't mean your writing is new and interesting.  Some Young Poets seem to write to appeal to Old Poets, like a creepy family picture where all the kids are dressed in smaller versions of their parents' clothes.  Everybody has a horrible, graveyard smile on their face.  You sense something sinister will happen as soon as the camera is gone.  We'll have less of this sort of thing in The Anthology."

Okay, we're free to agree or disagree with this passage depending on our temperament.  But there are, I think, some unacknowledged assumptions being made regarding poetic lineage, tradition and so on.  These Old Poets (unnamed, as tends to be the case with modern literary polemics: people want to be daring and outrageous, but not to the point of offending anyone in particular) recur throughout the introduction, in slightly mutated guise, as Old Editors, a shadowy cabal whose aesthetic conservatism and patronising 'lip-service' to plurality is doing Young Poets no favours, creating a deeply reactionary centralised literary culture which is in dire need of 'restructuring', and which allows for no space for the experimental work that Hamilton is clearly drawn to.  Again, there's nothing especially contentious here: it's been said before, though Hamilton gives the old war horse a shiny new saddle and a fresh, angular Hoxton haircut.  The argument is problematised by the presence of citations in the text from a number of poets connected, with varying degrees of separation, to the British Poetry Revival (which is to say, an older generation of experimental writers who've had a profound influence on the current crop): Denise Riley, J H Prynne, John Wilkinson, and Tom Raworth are all given approving space in the fractious whirlwind of reference, conjecture and confession that is Hamilton's introduction, as are (moving beyond the British Isles for a moment) Lacan, Derrida, Ashbery and Marjorie Perloff.  But how different is, say, the influence of Prynne's example on the poetry of Keston Sutherland (whose work is very generously represented in Dear World...) to the perceived pernicious influence of the Old Editors on the poets that Hamilton's told us he's excluded?  Sure, he doesn't hold the same cultural centrality as the Edward Thomas-esque 'English Line' that everyone's making such a brouhaha about, but he's still an extremely important figure in avantish writing; he's working within an existing tradition of language-centred writing which itself has a long tradition now (with generative figures like Stein and Zukovsky at its base); he was himself heavily influenced by Dorn and Olson at the outset, etc.

Which is to say, aren't we all working in the shadow of Old Poets (mainstream or not)?  Isn't that how traditions move on, mutate, expand and collapse, how the conversation across the generations gets added to like sedimentary rock?  I worry that the rhetoric of generational overthrow implicit in the figure of the Old Editors serves to elide the far more interesting narrative of influence and engagement with a living modernist tradition, an absent presence both in the introduction and in the anthology proper.        

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Simon Turner - In the Brainyard: Notes for an abandoned review of Joe Brainard's Collected Writings

Waterstone's website tells me that Joe Brainard doesn't exist, or if he does, he's not the author of I Remember.  There is a fellow called Joe Brainyard, on the other hand.  That's such a perfect typo on their part that I refuse to believe it's unintentional.  Brainard's writing, considered in its totality as it now can be, are a kind of brainyard (if we can define something that doesn't really exist), a loose collocation of thoughts and confessions, diaries, sketches, memories, near-prose poems, and whatever else took his fancy.    

Reading Brainard over lunch, I found I couldn't concentrate on the text and the veggie burger I was eating at the same time, so put Brainard down a moment and concentrated on the burger instead, which was excellent: a spongily luxuriant white bun, with a perfect textural combination of give and resistance; sliced tomato, lettuce and fried onion (is there anything better than fried onion?); ketchup, obviously; and the burger itself, excellent because it wasn't trying to be meat, which is the failing of many.  A nice spicy kick to it, too.  Best lunch of the week. 


Bolinas Journal: what a breath of fresh air.  The prose is so clean, so without artifice (or not entirely: there are nods towards the fact that Brainard planned to publish his journal, which raises the question as to how long he knew that would be the case.  How far does knowledge of eventual publication affect the writing?  It's an archetypally post-modern work in that sense; it raises questions about it's status as a made object, its autobiographical authenticity), that it feels like a way forward to a different kind of literature.


Auster's introudction is great - especially the taxonomy of the kinds of memories in I Remember and his reading of the work as a kind of conversation with its readers, a memory machine whose function (at least in part) is to trigger memories in those who read it - but he misses out a word that seems totally relevant to Brainard's output: democracy.  An excellent reading of I Remember in relation to the confessional school of poetry calls attention to the fact that Brainard, unlike Plath, Sexton, Berryman and Lowell, doesn't seem racked by guilt and suicidal despondancy, isn't driven by some inner Freudian myth of origin and self-transendence, or doesn't seem to be.  He's confessing, yes, but he's confessing, mostly, relatively mundane elements of his life - what he's done, who he's friends with, places he's been, chaps he's got a crush on, what he had for breakfast.  It's a million miles away from 'Daddy'.  And that's great, the absence of heaviness.  And that's why it's democratic: it suggests a reading of confessional literature that refuses to exclude readers and writers based on their level of torturedness (horrible word, sorry) - this could, really, be anyone's intimate journal, just as I Remember's individual memories could belong to anyone of that time and space: Brainard's brilliance lies chiefly in the fact that he did it, and did it so well.     


Rain for much of the day, but the sun came through briefly but decisively around six this evening,  Walking home, everything dazzled - glittered, really, where the rain had struck - a haze across events as the water evaporated from the concrete, the air turning quietly smoky, like viewing the world through badly wiped glasses.  Thinking about Hitchcock and his pragmatic camera - I nearly wrote 'line' - which is not to say that there is no artistry involved in his films (obviously wrong, in any case) but that the artistry is subsumed in the artwork's entirety: the camera does just what it needs to at any given point to tell us the story, or to deepen our understanding of a character.  It has a job to do.  Brainard's writing is something like this - it's functional, not showy, at least at the level of the sentence or the prhase.  The atristry, the music, occurs at the level of structure, how Brainard orchestrates (Auster's term) his apparently plain material.  Plus the fact that he's so candid in his methods, in what he reveals, is beguiling, and something of an innovation in itself. 


Most of this review - is it that? - has been scribbled on random pieces of paper I happen to have in the house or at work, whenever a thought comes to me that might be of value to an understanding of Brainard's work.  Impossible to replicate on page or screen, really, though a simulation (illusion) of randomness might do.