Monday, October 24, 2005

Open Letter to Sean O'Brien (and others)

I read your article on Rilke in the latest Poetry Review, and very excellant it was too. I'll spend some time next week re-familiarising myself with the Picador translation of Stephen Mitchell's. Thanks for that. I liked your poem too.

But you just couldn't resist a quick jibe at the avant garde could you? "These problems are mirrored among the avant garde, where the pleasure principle is tirelessly punished." What does that mean exactly, that all avant garde poets are basically puritanical over-serious disdainers of the pleasures of language and they all look down their noses at people who still find pleasure in rhyme and metre? Or what? Don't the avant garde believe in giving their readers pleasure, only in making their readers' heads hurt?

It was certainly a comment that had little or nothing to do with Rilke. It was tossed off casually, rather as one might say in the middle of a conversation about the driving skills of Ayrton Senna, "of course, women can't drive to save their lives."

There are no doubt huge arguments to be had over whether the range of avant garde techniques and schools that are currently around have anything to offer the world of poetry. But I for one have recently experiencecd great pleasure in reading the poetries of Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, Robert Sheppard, Rupert Loydell, Elaine Randal, I've just discovered Chris MacCabe, then there's John James and Lee Harwood, and the inimitable Tom Raworth. Quite a range of poetries there, and I've just confined myself to British names. I saw a terrific set of readings by people like Micheal Haslam & Vahni Capildeo that was most pleasurable. Difficulty has its own pleasure.

There's plenty of mainstream poetry I like; I'm the ultimate fence-sitter. Mathew Sweeney, for instance, John Hartley Williams. Jean Sprackland for another.

Vague remarks about the avant garde this, or the avant garde that, are not criticism. I'm not even sure these days what exactly constitutes an avant garde: how can poets who've been around for forty years still be considered avant garde (Harwood, Raworth - and Prynne, of course?) It's about time we got some proper criticism in this country, that wasn't about making snide remarks in otherwise useful essays. That's just petty; and is unworthy of the art.

There is a debate to be had about the various poetries in this country, or even across the world, but it would be helpful if people were at least polite with one another.

Anyway, I've got that off my chest. I'll return to Rilke now. "You must change your life." Phew! Gets me every time.

1 comment:

P.F.S. Post said...

You think that's bad...in the States poets wear brass knuckles at all times to be used against their opponents...you've got Ron Silliman (who I admire) on one side railing against the School of Quietude, Charles Bernstein (who I also admire) bemoaning OVC (Official Verse Culture), and on the reverse you get poets like Gerry Stern talking about the "dumbness" of Ezra Pound and editors like Steve Berg publishing the same 10 people for 20 years running...it's practically a steel cage match, and woe betides anyone who tries to sit on the fence..the "pleasure principle" in US letters seems to be mostly derived from trashing the competition...of course, steel cage matches can be very exciting (or aggravating, depending on your politics)...