Thursday, 18 May 2000

a note on uk poetry (1/66)

Were it possible to list all the illustrious poets who have occupied the station of English Poet Laureate, the list, & its laurels in their glitter, would be endless: from the fabulous Gulielmus Peregrinus, to Geoffrey Chaucer, to proto-rapper John Skelton, to Edmund Spenser, who invented poetry, to no less than William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, John Betjeman, and, yet in the memory of those living, the riddling, and cancer-riddled, Ted Hughes. One thing is missing in this list: women. The Irish are also missing (although Spenser among others is Irish): principled paddy Seamus Heaney famously turned down the job, after Hughes learning of his death offered it to him, which fell into the unprepared but plucky lap of Andrew Motion. How the mighty have fallen. Now, as Motion winds down his career of hits and misses, predominantly, I believe later, of the latter, the politicking, the poetomachia – “a knife-fight in a post-box” – begins. Who will triumph? In Scotland the equivalent post is the makar, currently held by poet and professor, Edwin Morgan.

The battle lines are clear. On one hillside are the hard traditionalists, led by Simon Armitage. Facing them in bright array are the avant garde, choking out bloodthirsty foams to the tuneful rhetoric and “chance procedures” of J. H. Prynne and his followers. Can Prynne or one of his pantheon secure the grandeur against the favourite Armitage? These are titans, their jaws crowns. Some days they eat the bear, some days they fancy a bit of mountain lion.

But in the third valley between, or no-man’s land, there are a few who belong to neither camp. At first glance, they seem short for their height. This is the New Labour of poetry, the unlikely ragtag alliance of the syncretic polemicists, the mercurial controversialists, the pacificists and the pluralists, and all those who care about poems and poets, more than about some thing called “poetry” – they are the nomads, the refugees. From the gently populist postmodernism of Don Paterson and Craig Raine, to the spellbinding and versatile spells of very old and bell-sounding comi-tragedian Geoffrey Hill, to the immensely talented very young who don’t give a **** about poetry and do it anyway, seeing it as a continuation of music or of fun, and tend to operate in groups in a similar but far safer way to what they do on streets and in transport, or even to the ever-pluralist and tolerant wit of Carol-Anne Duffy and her family that support her. Is it audacious to suggest that this, this eclectic band of underdogs and eccentrics, this rough-and-tumble mish-mash, losers to some, to others, heroes, is where our true poetry lies?

The poetry establishment – either one – won’t agree with me. They’re more interested in sharpening their halberds and phantasizing about their epic clash that never happens than in those poets who don’t fit neatly into it. But I’m not interested in characterising the essence of traditionalism or the avant garde for all times sake in this blog post. Armitage and Prynne are both fine poets, as is Motion. Loosely speaking, traditionalists tend to care about craft and communication, to keep them honest in their search for equillibria of rhetoric and expression, whilst the avant-garde tend to use obscurity to force people to think, and only access the mainstream’s sublimities and social criticism in an ironised pisstake fashion. “To the homophobic louse who pulled up beside me and my girlfriend by Tredegar Square and yelled you’d fuck me straight and to your lame pig-faced buddy: I’ve changed my mind!!!!” But these definite battle lines are exactly what I’m criticising: I’m saying they don’t exist any more, because we don’t need them.

For things simply aren’t so simple. There are times when it is better that too-easy categorisations should, depending on the context, either be problematised or not, and there are times when it is less better. “To pigeonhole” is itself pigeonholed these days, so where do you draw the line? Where indeed: commoting the battle line we have decreed, there are defectors, double-agents, envoys, even overseas poets. Whistle and your blood it comes. A certain amount of a blind eye is turned between camps, a kind of crepuscular toing and froing over to lay blinkers by the fire side, and joint together just for a song, before exchanging the regretful glances, and stealing away into the perfidious gloaming. Dayfly configurations of interests construct elaborate coral monuments to themselves and forget to fuck. Knowledge of such twilight nuance is the province of the dead elements of the scrum, apparently. But servile & vein-drawn, no scrum is entirely dead, and so loyalties change, and alliances shift. Yet always the hate and fear. The luck and evil. How come I get the feeling, every time these traditionalists vs. avant garde arguments get trotted out, that I’m in the back of a pub listening to a bunch of earnest Trotskyists argue over the proper interpretation of Lord Marx? Or a member of the Popular Front of Judea, or is that the Judean Popular Front? There are too few reviewers out there willing to admit to their own shortcomings, the gaps in their literary knowledge. I want to buck that particular trend by admitting to an almost total ignorance. I am not saying anything bad about Marx, just that his texts have a strong moreish quality. Context is king. I’m also not criticising Judeans, btw, it was a reference to an old Monty Python sketch!

What gets lost in the politics of poetry is the poetry of politics. And like that sketch, poetry should, in short, and can, be fun for everyone. What am I saying? That poetry’s “just” fun and nothing else? Of course not. That we therefore shouldn’t care about it or argue about it? Of course not. That we shouldn’t try to win with thesaurus and Wikipedia? I of all poets am invested in saying lots of different things and hoping for the best. Of course not? Little point in declaring “off limits” if you don’t have some ribbon to put up so people know! Yea, nature, neutrality and syncrenism are easily made the war toys of particular interests, but so is the injunction against them on behalf of some decreed-benign generative conflict. Am I saying that pailfuls of offensive black bile coming out of someone’s mouth is a sufficient but not necessary indicator of his (or her) offensive black pale life, or that it makes any difference whether or not it’s “poetry”? Of course not. Am I saying that we shouldn’t care passionately about poetry, to the point of actually behaving in a lethal way toward one another?

Well maybe yes.

It’s not fashionable in either camp to downplay the importance of feelings or the dignity of poetry. The traditionalists are given to Wordsworth’s old formula of the poem as “emotion recalled in tranquillity,” i.e. any text with a sharply legitimate relationship to affect. And as for the avant garde, slavish apostles to the diatribes of Iris Watson, many believe the poem is a form of violently enjoyable instinctual emission or flux, pointing to a misty dawn in which society is based on ecstatic equilibrium of expulsions recycled by one’s fellow man as emetics – though who will build the dialysis fairgrounds? Of course, that’s too big a question for me to answer here. But when passion leads to bloodshed? Where’s the fun in that? And without fun, can you have critique? Am I saying that fun and passion are inimical, or that critique is inimical to itself? Of course not. In the end, it is the shifting possibilities of text that allows each of us to make and remake her or her own meaning. And since the poststructuralism evacuated the essential self, we are completely free to reshape our personal meaning whenever it comes into conflict with another which we truly judge using the first shape to be worth recognising. Is this nihilism, relativism? No. But in a funny sort of way, maybe it is the “war” over poetry itself that is where the true poetry lies. And this brings me back to my initial theme. As the queen and her counsels survey this divided landscape, what must they be thinking? To give to any one party would be to doom all to a famous bellum omnium contra omnes. The laureateship cannot be abolished. Unless the huddled “elite” – the Third Way of poetry I spoke of – can find among themselves a strong leader, someone capable of uniting those who wish to rise above faction, of overviewing the entire situation and seeing off assaults from the enemies of fraternity on all sides, there is but one option left. The people themselves must be made poet laureate.

1 comment:

x.- said...

wow, you've like got like some like strong like views like on like poetry

and like stuff, jow.

good for you.