16 minutes reading time (3229 words)

Poets Talking to Themselves

poets_talking_cover Photo by Arthur Osipyan/Unsplash
Two men talk intently, a large graffiti face watching, unnoticed

by Ian Gregson

Geoffrey Hill should be mourned not just because he was a major poet but because his death is a reminder of the shocking decline in cultural authority which poetry has suffered in recent decades. That in his old age Hill was regarded as a relic of a previous era is evident from the way that the poetry world failed to bestow on him any of its increasingly meaningless awards. In Hill's last years there was an increasing dissonance between his exalted conception of poetry and the marginalised status which the culture was assigning to it.

In an interview published in December 2013, Hill said that he felt "angry and helpless" in the face of Tom Paulin's detection, in the line, in Mercian Hymns, about "the Tiber foaming out much blood", of "a Powelite strain in Hill's conservatism". Asked by his interviewer Sameer Rahim why he had alluded to Enoch Powell's speech if he felt no affinity with him, Hill replied: "It's a public utterance which by being made public is available for expressive use…I used it as an available piece of rhetoric in the structuring of a rhetorical pattern."

Hill's premises are modernist intertextuality and depth: he is expecting his readers to weigh the Virgilian origins of the reference to blood in the Tiber, while simultaneously understanding its relevance to the Anglo-Saxon setting of Mercian Hymns: after that, but only as a quite minor side effect, they will be able accurately to assess the appropriateness of its use by a contemporary politician. The problem arises, not from any racism on Hill's part, but from a serious misjudgment of the relative strengths of the two kinds of discourse — breaking news, and the literary — which collide in his poem. Hill gives priority to the literary over the political, and assumes that the structuring of a rhetorical pattern can hold sway over the racist associations of Enoch Powell's intervention in the debate about immigration. He takes it for granted that poetry is powerful enough to transform a notorious public utterance by strategically insinuating it into its own discourse — that even an utterance that aroused violent hatred can have its charge channeled differently by being deployed in a text whose traditions understand what the poet originally meant.

Hill's defense of Mercian Hymns was always dubious, but it reads as far less convincing in his 2013 interview than it did when John Haffenden interviewed him in 1981. Thirty-five years ago, Hill was more preoccupied with his ambivalent attachment to King Offa, but the crucial shift that has occurred is not inside literary interpretation but in the cultural shrivelling that poetry has suffered in the intervening period, and which Hill's Parnassian hauteur, his obstinate faith in an unbroken tradition, his obliviously modernist denial of the postmodern demotic, refuses to acknowledge. In 2016 it is simply astonishing that anyone could argue that a mere poem has the power to absorb the rancorous energy of Enoch Powell's pronouncements, then to translate their imagery back into poetic discourse in order to use it for its own rhetorical ends. For this reason, Geoffrey Hill's arguments are very helpful in measuring the distance that has been travelled since his formative period as a poet in the 1950s, when poets occupied a much more central role in the culture, and when there were readers who could be expected to understand a wide range of literary references, a readership that was 'deeply versed'.

August Kleinzahler, in the LRB of July 2nd last year, referred to a shift in sensibility which took place during John Berryman's lifetime, in "so restless a century", which meant that "even rhyme and metre seem to have become foreign to the general poetry reader's ear." The problem has increased with the internet, which, like television, is overwhelmingly visual rather than verbal: the 21st century sensibility is shaped by imagery delivered at great speed. This is all the opposite of poetry which is made to seem, by contrast, ponderously slow, over-elaborately and atavistically verbal, and snobbishly inaccessible. The transformation which has taken place is made more starkly evident by contrasting Geoffrey Hill's outlook with that of the founder of Bloodaxe Books, Neil Astley, who refers to an Arts Council report called Rhyme and Reason:

Modern poetry has a negative image with the general public. People think it's irrelevant and incomprehensible - they joke about daffodils - so they don't bother with it, not even readers of literary fiction and people interested in other arts which use language, such as theatre and film. Not even people who read Shakespeare and the classics: one of the most surprising findings of that Arts Council report was that only 5% of the poetry books sold in British bookshops over a two-year period were by living contemporary poets.

Astley's response was the trilogy of anthologies starting with Staying Alive, which were evangelising attempts to convert a wider public to poetry reading by giving them "an international gathering of poems with emotional power, intellectual edge and playful wit". The project was treated superciliously in many quarters — as Astley says, "The poetry snobs thought Staying Alive was a dumbing down of poetry and claimed that it was patronising to readers." Michael Schmidt, in an editorial in PN Review, is the most eloquent of the detractors of Astley's project, lamenting the loss, as he sees it, of the ability of poetry to encompass both a sense of the past and the cultural complexity of the present, reducing the modern world to "a single place in which we all equally belong, regardless of geography, history, tribe, language or dialect." Schmidt's discomfort is understandable, because Astley's populism can appear out of its context to be simplistic, but the Bloodaxe project needs to be understood in the perspective of the catastrophic decline in cultural importance which poetry has suffered in recent decades. You could now be as talented and self-destructive as Dylan Thomas, or you could fight a corrosive but symptomatic gender battle like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, but go unnoticed.

Astley should be given huge credit for the relentless battle he has fought in the losing cause of poetry, and for being so unusual in taking on the consequences of its decline and attempting to address them. Although his anthologies appear, in their publicity, to dumb down, they do in fact contain a huge number of intellectually challenging poems which impressively represent the achievement of contemporary poetry. His unusualness becomes all the more evident when recent publications are examined.

Fiona Sampson's Beyond the Lyric makes a case for poetry "as a fundamentally communitarian, connected and responsive form", and claims that "poets and their readers form a mutually respectful community". The rapidly falling sales of poetry books, however, make this sound quaintly old-fashioned, and the suspicion that poetry has very few assiduous readers who are not also practitioners is confirmed by Sampson's obsession with the hothouse politics of the interactions between poets. The poetry world more and more resembles an isolated community with its own bureaucracy and government, its own peculiar dialect, and its own set of inbred obsessions. Beyond the Lyric is so much the product of this occlusion, and so concerned with "the importance of poetry kinship" that large stretches of it can be of no interest to a reader who is not an insider. It is a tribute to Peter Porter, for example, that he helped talented poets so different from each other, and from himself, as Sean O'Brien, Gwyneth Lewis and Ian Duhig, but repeatedly to list these poets together, as Sampson does, is to imply that what she calls "stables" are of more compelling interest than the content of poems. Sampson says that theory has "shown how texts are decoded by their contexts", but the only context which her book extensively describes is the set of alliances which structure the poetry village.

Dennis O'Driscoll attacked "Insider Trading" in what he satirised as "Poetry Futures", and Neil Astley complains about the same phenomenon when he quotes a report commissioned by the Poetry Book Society which concluded: "The role of poets in creating 'taste' and apportioning 'value' creates a distorted picture of the importance of poetry and of the importance of particular poets, particularly for an uninformed general readership or the retail sector." Astley glosses this with some asperity: "what this means is: we, the boys in the club, decide which poets and what kind of poetry you lot should read, and since we do most of the reviewing and the publishing, we'll make sure that those poets and those books are the ones that get into the bookshops, and we'll ignore or castigate the rest."

This endogamous culture is celebrated by Sampson as she affectionately charts the progress of poets from workshops — run by poets who become their editors — where they meet other poets who review them and award them prizes, and who sometimes go on to start workshops of their own. Her approbation is almost as relentless, and as implausible, as TV advertising, but it is alienating even for aspiring poets because it evokes a poetry world structured by central casting rather than by talent. And cracks briefly appear, as when, evoking Mimi Khalvati's unusualness, she contrasts her with "a narrowed poetic economy where a few models do wide service". That remark is softpedalled as the middle clause in a sentence which is characteristically laudatory, and there is a similarly parenthetical moment when Sampson refers to how "the patronage system that can arise all too easily in a writing workshop culture" can lead to stylistic "caution". These moments are brief but they contradict the rest of Beyond Lyric, and ignore the extent to which the book is one more manifestation of the habit of insiders like Sampson to police narrowness and caution.

Jeremy Paxman caused howls of rage amongst poets when, after judging the Forward prize, he complained that "poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance" because "poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole." The caution and narrowness which Sampson points out, however, confirm Paxman's point, and her refusal directly to address the damage that they cause endorses his complaint about conniving because it demonstrates that powerful figures in the poetry world are happy to bolster the status quo even when they recognize its failures. Sampson gives the impression that there are a hundred living British poets who are worthy and competent, though none of them are outstanding — but her celebration of the default quality of contemporary poetry is also damaging because it ignores the fact that it is its exceptional moments which can be used to argue most effectively against Paxman. Sampson refers perfunctorily to Jo Shapcott's "Phrase Book" as an example of the use of "framing, alienating devices" and therefore conveys no sense that this is one of the greatest postwar poems, distinguished for its convincing treatment of a major political event (the first Gulf War) through its invention of a marvelously expressive idiom that combines references to the contrasting languages of phrase books, love poems and jet-fighter technology. Sampson's lack of interest in this achievement is consonant with her apolitical approach, confirmed also when she breaches her characteristic register to label political poets such as Keston Sutherland as "angry not-so-young men".

The generally positive reception of John Redmond's Poetry and Privacy suggests that a majority in the poetry world are in sympathy with Sampson's apolitical outlook. Sampson's contexts are only briefly cultural or social, and are overwhelmingly about poets in relation to each other, and Redmond is explicit that these are the relationships which actually matter to poets, and that critics have produced far too many social and political readings. He is "keen to show the distorting magnetism of publicly-oriented interpretations" and sets out "to look at how publicly-oriented readings of particular poems might profitably be replaced by privately-oriented ones." So he opposes the view of Derek Mahon as an "historical poet" with "stronger terms" which he sees "as a kind of planetary system with the word 'privacy', at its centre, orbited by satellite terms like 'thought', 'consciousness', 'solitude', 'contemplation', and 'dream' ". Similarly, Seamus Heaney is characterized by a "misunderstood inwardness", and Robert Minhinnick sings "not 'the song of the earth' but a song of myself." However, the fallacy that undermines Redmond's thesis is flagrant in the example from Geoffrey Hill which I quoted at the start. Hill was one of the most important contemporary writers, but his attempted rhetorical strategy of privatizing a public utterance failed because the powerful charge which it retained from its political context would not allow its assimilation into a private meaning. The extent to which the cultural clout of poetry has plummeted is measured by the disproportionately toxic impact of Hill's brief brush with the topical and the public: the refusal of the Enoch Powell associations to be translated into a private poetic language is so marked that it has cast a distortive shadow over the career of a major poet. Redmond's dwelling on privacy requires him to ignore the unavoidably public nature of the language and imagery which poets constantly draw upon, and shipwrecks poetry in a fogbound Innisfree.

In his "Introduction", Redmond makes a "disclaimer: I will not be attempting to maintain anything but a commonsense distinction between 'public' and 'private'," and this tactic permits him to deploy his eponymous term to bolster the unexamined assumptions of the poetry world. Gramsci pointed out how "common sense" is used by the ruling class to make their ideology appear natural and universal, and Redmond's refusal to define privacy is of a piece with his reactionary project and its insistence on the individual rather than the social. He scoffs throughout at history, and refuses to acknowledge that privacy is historically relative, which is especially astonishing given that privacy has recently become such a contested issue because its nature has been transformed by the internet. The crudeness of his approach to privacy contrasts with that of Jonathan Franzen who, in his essay "Imperial Bedroom" complains about the current obsession with its invasion, and how "Whatever you're trying to sell, whether it's luxury real estate or Esperanto lessons, it helps to have the smiling word 'private' on your side." Franzen goes on to point out that in a small town in America in 1890, people lived "under conditions of near-panoptical surveillance", whereas now privacy is "the essence of modern American architecture, landscape, transportation, communication, and mainstream political philosophy", and that the key current problem is the invasion of the public sphere by the private, so that, for example, "TV is an enormous, ramified extension of the billion living rooms and bedrooms in which it's consumed."

Such nuance and intelligence exposes the narrowness of Redmond's invoking of his eponymous theme, and similar damage is inflicted on his philosophical approach when its superficial reliance on his hero Richard Rorty is contrasted with Zizek's knowledge of the political ramifications of privacy. Early in his First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Zizek is scathing about the values Redmond most cherishes, indicting "the richness of the inner life" as narcissistic and "fundamentally fake" and insisting that "the truth lies rather outside, in what we do". Later, Zizek's enlisting of Kant is a reminder of how much philosophical history is related, directly or indirectly, to Redmond's major theme, and which is missing from his book. Zizek contrasts Rorty's depiction of the private domain as "the space of our idiosyncrasies where creativity and wild imagination rule and moral considerations are (almost) suspended", with Kant's championing of the public sphere as the "dimension of emancipatory universality outside the confines of one's social identity, of one's position within the order of (social) being — precisely the dimension so crucially missing in Rorty."

Poetry and Privacy, in effect, wants poetic culture thoroughly to adopt the values of neoliberal society, but why would that attract readers who can see those values so vividly expressed in mainstream TV and cinema? It is hard, when faced with the diminishment that Redmond represents, not to feel nostalgia for the ruined grandeur of Geoffrey Hill's vision. To be common sense about privacy is to assent without question to assumptions about it whose origins are in the Romantic period, and Redmond's favourite terms (consciousness, solitude, dream) all have that provenance.

Poetry and Privacy, like Beyond Lyric, is addressed to fellow poets, and its insistence on privacy is a warning to non-poets to keep out, and an invitation to fellow poets to feel comfortable about speaking in their village accent. Redmond seems poet-friendly, but all the poets he discusses are sadly reduced by his approach; his book, like Sampson's, is damaging in the face of falling sales of poetry books, and critiques of the Paxman sort. Redmond praises David Jones and W.S.Graham for their modesty, and insists that "Poets and literary critics might be taken more seriously if they had made smaller claims for what they do." But why would potential readers, when they could read Roberto Bolano or Ali Smith, or watch an HBO box set, be attracted to a form that boasted about how little it was saying? If this resembles the "stylistic caution" diagnosed by Sampson, that is because it has the same origins in the privativeness of workshop culture where the worst sins are to be grandiloquent, or, even worse "didactic".

Ruth Padel's Silent Letters of the Alphabet is an extensive vindication of the orthodoxies promoted in workshops: she is focused upon showing as so opposed to telling that it wants to erase it altogether and foreground silence, which leads to her emphasis on metaphor and image, which allow "a poem to leave unsaid what it is really saying". This is an important lesson for beginners in poetry, but its extension as a general message is misplaced in a British context where the explicit discussion of ideas is resisted in a way that has never restricted American poets. Padel wrecks her argument from the start by quoting, on her second page, the late C.K.Williams whose most conspicuous feature was the long lines which allowed him to develop discursive and narrative explicitness. "Tar", the poem which Padel discusses, is a refreshingly direct ecological statement about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, and includes a line about "the president in his absurd protective booties, looking absolutely unafraid, the fool."

Padel's book is a transcript of lectures originally given at Newcastle university to audiences from the city, and her first sentence quotes a newspaper editor saying "I hate poets…They never say what they mean," so the need for poets to explain themselves is clearly being acknowledged. But Padel's choice of "Tar", which noisily insults the president, as her first example of "silence", indicates that she does not recognize that Williams's poem is generically different from those British poems in which diagesis is banned. This dramatically illustrates her blithe misunderstanding of how esoteric the idiom of contemporary British poetry is, and her blitheness is the product of the same insider sensibility that is evident in the books by Fiona Sampson and John Redmond. Clearly large-scale cultural changes have been at work which are profoundly antipathetic to poetry, but the habituated purblindness of movers and shakers in the poetry village is contributing corrosively to the problem with a persistent self-destructiveness.

The pleasure of a Writing Competition

Comments 2

Guest - JP Nash on Tuesday, 20 November 2018 18:47

I have written poetry and songs for years, but rarely buy poetry books or submit to magazines. I have an Eng. Lit. & Lang. Degree and a Ph. D., which I mention purely as credentials.
To be brief and therefore sweeping, I think Paxman is right -- as with the other arts, the bulk of modern verse lacks classical aesthetic qualities. This seems to apply whatever the poet's background. There are examples of vitality and originality, but few works of durable appeal. I think the current cultural situation is that the Internet has unleashed a deluge of talent but there is an absence of recognised standards -- as in art, for many exponents craft is no longer essential.

I have written poetry and songs for years, but rarely buy poetry books or submit to magazines. I have an Eng. Lit. & Lang. Degree and a Ph. D., which I mention purely as credentials. To be brief and therefore sweeping, I think Paxman is right -- as with the other arts, the bulk of modern verse lacks classical aesthetic qualities. This seems to apply whatever the poet's background. There are examples of vitality and originality, but few works of durable appeal. I think the current cultural situation is that the Internet has unleashed a deluge of talent but there is an absence of recognised standards -- as in art, for many exponents craft is no longer essential.
Guest - Jean Harrison on Wednesday, 21 November 2018 11:18

I think there's a place for political poetry on Facebook. If it received comments that should count as publication and show that poetry can make cogent comments on the world today.

I think there's a place for political poetry on Facebook. If it received comments that should count as publication and show that poetry can make cogent comments on the world today.
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Saturday, 15 December 2018