The Thick … and Thin of it


Narrowness (and Breadth)

There can never be any agreed-upon set of standards or values in the wide-ranging and contested poetics at any particular time. Of course not. Consensus is not even desirable. But narrowness of reading, reviewing and especially judging, is a significant worry. What this indicates, reduced to the worry, is a widespread inability, or unwillingness, or both, in the readiness and capacity to read and assess with any broad sense of justice.

By narrow I mean, firstly, reading positively within a narrow range of styles and, secondly, within a confined range of poets, as personalities, that is, not as stylists. Ostensibly, the first has to do with poetics (agreements within the poetry) and the second with personal/politics (both in the poetry and external to the poetry, not always very different). And in that second case, the context of friendships, allegiances, enemies… But they're all muddled together. (It is always fun to see friends falling out and suddenly hating each other's poetry.)

This emphatic holding of values can look like commitment and many artists do commit themselves to a style so fully they cannot discern works outside of it with much pleasure, certainly they do not value strongly work that differs greatly from their own. Or their own clique. And where they find fault they reinforce their reaction against it. This may be natural, self-affirming, an act of concentrating, intensifying, digging deeper… or it could be mere prejudice…

Wanting breadth, then, is probably an idealistic desire for a more diverse set of reading responses and appreciations of poetry as widely full of character and difference, and this desire obviously relates back to my earlier blog critical of the narrow predictability of judging. Lucidity and accessibility dominate. Certain rhetorics dominate. The same names dominate. This is not true judgement.

Style is a very critical matter for us. I think the judging narrowness is partly explainable by the singular and signature nature of the successful poets' styles. There is a very plain and established 'reality' in each work of Murray, Maiden, Adamson. Their stylistic and subject/ive territory is a security, a tangible, a material factor – which makes judges feel more assured, I suspect, and safer, giving them something solid to read into and think out from. And to value. This added value certainly happens in visual art – and increases ridiculously in the art market. And in poetry – it leads to decisions based on signature, and 'more of the same'. Weak decisions.

While there are many half-way zones in writing and especially in 'experimenting', surety is significant. Going all the way. Charles Bernstein went all the way. His anarchy and weird wit inside poems that refuse to represent anything much beyond the texture and play in language, and so his challenge of take it or leave it. Some poets just half do this and create whimsy, oddity and deferral, successfully … but others make annoyingly wet references, and lame figurative devices, and by doing so they engender a weak discourse with (or of) the original. As reading as well as writing. Not enough energy, anger, wit, radicalism. Gertrude Stein went there first and was uncompromising. Bernstein goes on from Stein. The stone poets. All the way. Ashbery has always been a bit of a darling, wise and wordy, witty and playful and often dissociated – especially early – but usually trackable, fostering in his oeuvre and readers a gentle rather than a furious poetics of disruption. All three are very likeable and especially (for me) Stein – who is just so crazily winning in her directness and unshakeable practice and intelligence, where whimsy becomes fired into a kind of linguistic ceramic and Zen art. From stone to cup.

This is sincerity again, radical though: the deep trust in practice and language to set and shake from its own provocations and possibilities. In Stein's case so many simple words made dramatic by this hardening and revealing – another paradox. The same applies to poets following more traditional lines of writing, except their poetry uses simple words far more immediately, and their forms are closer to ideas within classicism, that form is its own strength and affirmation.

Like any kind of artist, however, there are poets for whom style is a problem of positioning and confidence – by which I mean they are unsure of how fully to invest in any one style. Instead they are restless and their commitment is to flux, and their experimentation is in change and variety. Their works tend not to feature in the winner list. I feel their example makes plain that every kind of innovation can have a rigour and intelligence that keeps it sincere, and which is valued for exactly what it explores, and which is not sidelined by the status quo of signature. Their poems are, testable, as it were, against flashiness and excessive self-signing and self-indulgence, are not merely a repetitive or cloned projection or, worst of all, narcissism (c'est moi!).

What I really dislike is reading narrowly to exclude other poets from significance, to deliberately read against. If conservative poets damn more avant-garde poets that is bigotry made significant in history; for the reverse, when newer poets refuse the tedious and conforming work of these other poets, it is desire for a present/future where their own work will seem groundbreaking. A modernist desire.

When these differences have become politicised within the (reading) poet, or group, there is an unwillingness to read across the difference. Us and them and 'we' don't approve. As usual, though, it depends on who does it. Poets differ hugely in this even when writing things we immediately recognise as 'their' poems. Compare Les Murray's early effortless and inclusive lyrics … up to the early 80s, with his angry polemical Redneck poems, which reveal huge ice-splits, significant differences of value and judgment in the same poet. Reading is comparative, therefore, it reveals how one style differs from another.

OK. This is all obvious. That poets want to exclude other poets. It's like initiation cruelties in boarding school. Names are handed out in secret ceremonies and if you have one everything you do is remarkable (in both senses) but if you weren't there nothing you do is of the slightest consequence. This exclusion includes reading someone early in their career and refusing to re-read them later, even if huge shifts have taken place in their work. Perhaps some other poet we respect has begun to see it …and convinces us to try again. But do we? (And while many people deride conformity they rarely mention the particular conformities of exclusion.)

Each of us has a way into what poetry is about, not its meaning, its three essential elements: sight and sound and sense, as Stein put it; image, music and thinking, as in Zukofsky; or imagery, music and concept… If Alexander Pope was more about thinking and ideas than sound or – especially – imagery, it was his poetic; Wallace Stevens was rare in writing less about ideas than of ideas as a realised music, with startling images integral, which is one of the reasons he is rated so highly (I think); and Stein herself could write long poems (long, dull poems, she said she liked, and liked to think her own Stanzas in Meditation as being) on the basis of sound, essentially, images not at all and ideas – merged right out of sight and teasingly off-stage.

Each of us has this differently as our profile, our style, our poetic. If an image poet reads an ideas poet, what happens? If a poet of structural music, who thinks through poems, encounters an imagist who might seem unmindful of music and even unmindful altogether, then..? Is this even realised as a clash of difference? It is that – difference – not a quality mis-recognition. A figurative painter meets an abstract painter meets a conceptual artist who works with garbage. How much do they have in common when assessing the standard and the presumed quality of each others' work? And to these three elements one has to add a fourth: the materiality of language as a priority. Sans image, sans ideas (in the referentiality of the poem) and sound only as matter, as words are, phrases can be, resistance itself a visceral sensation, a thing.

And so a fifth: referentiality. Language poets from Bernstein on were trying to knock this particular element down, as Stein seemed to do (but didn't, not really). Then the gradual opening up in to more negotiated language ideas of Heijinian and Scalapino, the earlier abstractions and the later gossip of Ashbery and the minimalist abstraction in William Bronk. Anne Carson brings back ideas and stories from mythology and the Ancient Greek, while Jorie Graham thinks aloud in expansive imagistic thinking in long lines that sometimes feel tone deaf.

Few poets write alike, especially if they've developed a 'mature' style (or styles) over years of close intensity. Style is a thing in itself, it is not a person, not therefore a personality. Take Plath for instance, always called confessional, which assumes a person being frank about their mental self, their personality (plus whatever else we include in the personal) and yet her work is very very made, an artifice. The proof is in the endless clones of Plath out there and in most creative writing classes, writing hopelessly derivative and melodramatic failures of me-poems. You can't clone personality, you clone style.

Readers who may or may not have encountered ideas such as Barthes' 'death of the author' and its de-inscribing of authorial identity are happily amazed to keep the author real, and want to see the author, go to a signing, listen to the author at a literary event. (They want personality.) (They want to talk.) Their want is for authority to be off the page, for the work to be true and not 'true'. They imagine, as long as the author is thus, the work is. So, if there's a hoax, a plagiarism, yes, but even a pseudonym, a strongly devised heteronym… such readers feel a transgression, an insincerity which undercuts entirely this assumed pact or contract between themselves and their reading experience. They feel the work less true because it assumes an identity or a ludic sleight of hand which is 'literary', of the artefact, and is not simply and literally (naively) sustained by (genuine) author presence.

But nothing is. It is all artefact. Writing leaves clues, signifiers if you will, firstly of the absent author – the author as absent – and the authorial 'play', the sleights of hand, linguistic traits, etc, and then because of these is implied the construct of an author who isn't real and behind that the shimmer of the author who is. So. Consider the prizes (as mentioned in my last blog) that signify success and the aura of continual success – as judges fall in inescapably to that weakness in themselves and strength in the signifier that reifies authority. And where the poets who don't win awards are conversely lessened and further lessened every next time they don't.

Open-minded reading is the means of establishing the is-ness of style. And its variety. There are its devices, its range of diction, syntax, the use of figurative language or not, and whether the poet uses metaphor to explore and interpret (conceptually) or represent (visually) or as ornament, whether it invents or creates its own linguistic context. Hence style as linguistics. Pound's three, the same three as before: of music, image, logopoeia. Technique, or what I call outer form, leading us to the inner form, the feel of values, observation, humour, knowingness, irony or literalism, judgment… and ethics.

Some poets write brilliant and sustained work and challenging poems without employing these poetic elements as givens, and they deny them deliberately. Metaphoric inventiveness for one poet might look like crude ornamentation to another. In the shadows and wake of WW II the Polish poet Tadeusz Rozevicz stripped his poems of all figures, and then of images, and finally of any rhetorical devices, including length, until the blank statements were all that he kept. For him, this was the only ethical, as against aestheticising – i.e. not manipulative – position a poet could take to be truthful to the world, post-war, post-Holocaust.

How to read the different is a challenge but one we have to reckon through. Which brings me to a final, almost pointless point: the ridiculous situation of back cover blurbs. The prime manipulation. Or marketing, in real-era terms. It was the case, once, that books of poetry carried no blurbs other than the publisher's description. Or had quotes from reviews of previous books. How could a first book have review/blurbs without having been reviewed? So first books had no blurbs. In our celebrity era? Now it is commonplace to find an almost unknown poet's first book carrying three longish, raving blurbs from three major poets. Are they all intimately familiar and huge fans of this … new poet's greatest works? Huh. So, readers and reviewers faced with the difficult issue of reading the work to assess it themselves, have the problem removed, solved in front of them: they need only read the work and find in it the qualities of the blurb. Reading was never so easy… Or they resist it entirely, on the grounds stated above.

The unfortunate and frustrating result of pervasive knee-jerk reading and assessment is to establish and continually re-affirm a status quo. Again and again, judges are simply too weak to read bravely and to risk making unexpected decisions. This 'thickens' decision-making at the expense of many poets whose works are infinitely stronger than their reputations. These poets don't receive the prizes, the sales, the publicity, the grants, the festival appearances and the status they should have earned. It all but erases some poets from the field and it can ruin their chances of a broader career. This is profoundly wrong.