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.        


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. There is of course a difference between nervous, unthinking or careerist imitation of a successful older poet, and poetry that makes a dialogue with older poets through conscious, critical and thoroughgoing study of their work.

Anyhow, Keston Sutherland's recent poetry is nothing like J.H. Prynne. Hasn't been for years. The poem in the anthology is totally unlike any poem Prynne ever wrote.

The Editors said...

Hi 'Anonymous', and thanks for your comment.

You're right that there is a distinction to be made between the
"nervous, unthinking or careerist imitation of a successful older poet, and poetry that makes a dialogue with older poets through conscious, critical and thoroughgoing study of their work", but there's a big gap created in the intro in that Hamilton doesn't really engage with this issue at all. I think the problem arises from a refusal to name specific examples. Are we to read all poets who work in comparatively traditional forms as 'old', or only some? If so, what distinguishes them? (For eg., Mike McKimm, a poet whose work I happen to know and admire, is included in the anthology. The sequence in 'Dear World...' is clearly indebted, though not slavishly so, to Longley and Heaney, but without a clearer set of parameters, there's no sense of what distinguishes McKimm's work from the 'old-young' poets who've been kept from the anthology's borders.

And to clarify my comment on Sutherland: I didn't want to suggest - and I don't think I did - that Sutherland is, or ever was, slavishly copying Prynne (as even a cursory look at 'Ode to TL61P 2' in Dear World... would prove), simply that Prynne's example as a literary predecessor has had a profound and nourishing impact on Sutherland's output, as a means of complicating and critiquing the rather binary positions that Hamilton's adopting in his intro.


S @ G&P

Nathan Hamilton said...

Hello Simon, hello Anonymous. I've said this elsewhere, but the Young Poet and Old Poet stuff is meant to be more of a Comic Dramatisation, as opposed to an argument, as characterised here. But, then again, what does the intention matter!