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As if no one’s listening except us

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Earlier this year the TLS took a couple of digs at Infinite Difference, an anthology of ‘Other’ (i.e. experimental, overtly difficult) poetry by women, edited by Carrie Etter. J.C. made fun of the poems’ apparent incoherence: ‘If you come across one that is prepared to meet shared experience even halfway, you catch yourself thinking you’ve got it.’ Marianne Morris, one of the writers the TLS mocked, retorted on her blog that of course her poems did not make prose sense, since ‘critical language and poetic language are different orders of discourse.’ But she welcomed the harsh spotlight: ‘That my work is quoted in the TLS at all is merely evidence of the ambitious and peculiar task’ of trying ‘to bring poetry that is written against mainstream regulations into the mainstream’.

If you take these sorts of argument on their own terms you may end up either implying that all poems should make prose sense, or else defending all poems that do not (because they oppose a mainstream, break down barriers, and so on). Better, far better, just to read through the anthology, which has become, perhaps thanks to the TLS, one of the top selling titles from the redoubtable Shearsman Books. When I read it I found, along with plenty of duds, Elisabeth Bletsoe, whose prose-and-verse constructions (based on Japanese haibun) take on the beauty of densely sparkling mosaics: a blackbird is said to be ‘Desultory & melodious with more intricate phraseology as the season advances; discarded notes upwardly forming invisible rooms of ancillary miracles in which to inhabit/yet to be built.’

Claire Crowther compares bothersome books to a bothersome friend (both have become too hard to read): ‘Books love dust they wear it like skin my friend/Wouldn’t say I’d betrayed her (she’s alcoholic/She gets up early with glass hands shouts interrupts.’ Andrea Brady gets a kind of social comedy from world systems theory: ‘That kid over there lacks content, and so moves./Happiness is the end of all politics,/where the day worker comes to rest behind a film.’ For such apothegms, the slightly defensive tone and the real incoherence of other contributors’ verse and prose (‘There is a fervency about translating from within the organism and its sensory apparatus a recognition of the truth of life and the intense destructivity of abstracted systems,’ Carlyle Reedy sputters) seems a small price to pay.

If you want new poems to make clear and immediate prose sense, to share more features with Larkin than with Ashbery, you will probably prefer Joining Music with Reason: 34 Poets, British and American, compiled by Christopher Ricks and published by Waywiser Press. During his term as Oxford Professor of Poetry Ricks invited 29 poets to read their work there: 15 attended or teach at Oxford, and the other 14 are American, some linked to Boston University, where Ricks teaches now. (To make 34, Ricks concludes with five Oxonians from the 1950s, including Elizabeth Jennings and the young Geoffrey Hill.)

Joining Music with Reason (the title quotes Samuel Johnson) is a good deal thicker than Etter’s book, and like Etter’s book it holds some duds and some wonderful work by relative unknowns. Unlike Etter’s book – and like many of Waywiser’s other productions – it is overtly traditional: plenty of poems use rhyme and metre, and many make even more explicit links to older traditions, since they are translations, or adaptations, of poems a century or a millenium old. (Such adaptations themselves have a long tradition: Catullus’ Sappho, Wyatt’s Petrarch.) John Talbot, once of Boston University, now of Brigham Young University in Utah, braids classical learning with snarky modernity:

Tityrus, we are getting kicked
Flat on our taxes. We are getting shown
The low road out of Sudbury, thank you three
Car garage and vaulted great room new
Construction in executive neighbourhood
Neighbourless horse property. The rich
Plot hurts where I have stooped to its rough kiss.

Most of Etter’s poets wish to be (as Rimbaud said) absolutely contemporary: they wrench out of shape, or attack, older ways to read. Most of Ricks’s insist instead on continuities: life, like poetic form, has always been odd, beautiful, hard to manage, hard to comprehend, and it ought to be no harder now (they imply) than in Tennyson’s or in Virgil’s time. Etter’s poets seem, at first, disorganised; when they are good readers can find hidden organisation: Ricks’ poets, most of them, use language that is obviously organised; when they are good you can hear what disturbs that organisation, as well as what makes it new. Jane Draycott demonstrates her formal gifts in a sonnet whose rhymes begin gather-river-sweaters-water-ever, but gestures towards the inexplicable in an unrhymed poem called ‘Milestone': ‘Fare thee well our hearts like brooches/hung from the trees. How far can you be?’

Yet some of the best surprises in Ricks’s anthology come from poets who do not much use older forms. Caroline Bird won some fame for poems about teenage life written when she was in her teens; I didn’t much like them then but she has either improved or selected well from her own work. In ‘Grand Finale’ she mocks lust, love, ambition, tradition and herself: ‘What starts in a husky voice must end with an email./I smoke on this dry stone wall and wait for the saxophones.’ Bird ends another poem with a slogan that might, for good or ill, apply to many anthologies: ‘It’s as if no one’s listening except us.’ Mark Halliday records more serious doubts about what poets do these days: ‘Down Here’ records a conversation with an ex-girlfriend, or an ex-wife. ‘Poems are not what I care about,’ she tells him,

because
to me what counts is for people to notice how other people are feeling
and to respond to that right then and for people to give each other
little surprise presents and to phone someone and say ‘How are you doing’
in a real way and to talk to people about what matters to them
outside your own little world of crystal treasures.
That’s what I look for in a person and what happens is,
we do our best and ultimately a few people visit us in the hospital
and then we die.

It seems hard for any poet (avant-garde, traditional, what have you) to mount a defence of poetry after that; and yet Halliday has done it – modestly, paradoxically – and done it well.

Comments on “As if no one’s listening except us”

  1. A.J.P. Crown says:

    You can’t walk in cold on apparent incoherence and expect to be appreciative. The general public (i.e. me) isn’t well informed about contemporary and modern poetry. All modernism is hard to like without knowing any of the background about what’s going on. For some reason, modernism in poetry never gained a broad-based critical audience whereas, starting in (I’d say) the late sixties & early ‘seventies many middle-class people became fairly knowledgeable about modernism in art, architecture, theatre, even literature and music (to some extent). But not poetry; Pound & Eliot are most people’s cut-off point.

    Though it’s far from the esoteric examples you’ve given here, I was just reading part of a poem by Charles Reznikoff, and I found that the Wikipedia article on him tells me things that help me read the poem critically and thereby get much more out of my reading. (This is also relevant to those people here who still think Wikipedia is merely uninformed material for lazy researchers).

    Better, far better, just to read through the anthology
    Okay, but isn’t there a readable book, an instruction manual, that describes the difference between (say) a Symbolist and an Imagist?

  2. alex says:

    I was rude about Burt’s last post, so let me be complimentary about this one – both informative and stimulating.
    I wonder if there’s just a strong divide between ‘difficult’ and ‘transparent’ poetry. Ashbery, O’Hara and other members of the New York School, read to me like they’re actually both.

    • Phil says:

      I was rude about Burt’s last post, so let me be complimentary about this one – both informative and stimulating.

      Amen to both halves of that.

      Ashbery, O’Hara and other members of the New York School, read to me like they’re actually both

      That’s certainly the peculiar appeal of Ashbery – the poem reads perfectly clearly from line to line, but resists interpretation as a whole. Jeremy Prynne does something similar, although his resistance to interpretation is a bit more aggressive. If you extended the line from Ashbery the other way you’d hit Charles Simic. As it goes, I prefer both Simic and Prynne to Ashbery, who always strikes me as a bit tricksy, although not in any way I can put a finger on (which is tricksy in itself) – but he does read very easily.

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