Tuesday, 21 March 2000

From "Don't Start Me Talking"

[…] Isn’t it a fact that over the past decade innovative poetry, particularly the Language strains, has become largely institutionalised? I am talking about in the States of course, but by extension doesn’t that increasingly include us Brits? And wasn’t this something that Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth, in their own very different ways, warned us against a long time ago now?

LOPEZ: Of course theory is all about power, though sometimes you might forget it as you peer at the seamless and seemingly endless streams of self-aggrandising jargon arranged in flawless chiastic sentences that emptily echo the cadences of Derrida redoing Heidegger. What? If you nod off at a conference you can catch the same phrases coming back at the end of the paper, quote marks acted out with curling fingers held aloft. What does it mean to say that poetic practice is mediated by academic institutions? That Bob Perelman has to work to bring up a family and pay his kids’ college fees? That Lyn Hejinian was finally recognised as someone we could learn from and was offered a steady job? That no-one could be better than Susan Howe to teach you Emily Dickinson? That they all somehow manage to keep writing wonderful poetry? Or is it that I might ask my students to read those poets rather than some others who are in my view less challenging and interesting? Thus my choice and the imposition of that choice on students from my position of power is self-interested? Is that it? I’d like to know just what Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood said or wrote to warn us. They are both excellent poets who have themselves been supported for considerable periods by academic institutions: earning reading fees and teaching fees, being graduates in English (Lee form London University) and Translation (Tom from Essex University); both of them have been writers in residence and teachers in academic institutions. I see them and hear their poetry performed when I book them to read in an academic institution or when a colleague books them in another. I’d like to have them both supported by the state and have them come to meet students and inspire them. They both have a lot to give. Where will their poetry go unless into University libraries and archives? Why worry? It is important for the theory of the avant-garde that there is a state of permanent opposition. But you would not want Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols to be still making demos? There is a very strong anti-intellectual prejudice in English society that is bound up with old-fashioned class loyalties, deference, and proper suspicion of leisured gents in universities. It’s not like that any more. Larkin, Amis senior and their cronies had this resentment in spades. It’s a reactionary position, a kind of nostalgic Tory romaticicsm, as if we could take to the open road with only our banjos and songs. Remember Donovan? I bet he’s a Tory in his Surrey mansion.

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