Monday, January 30, 2006

Teaching avant poetry

Last week I did a class on Free Verse for an Adult Education Class in Bury and introduced them to a poem by Lee Harwood and a poem by Barry MacSweeney. I didn't say at first that these two are regarded in some circles as "avant garde" - neither poem was them at their most difficult, though MacSweeney's was typically mordant. I looked at their use of images, sound and even the visual appearance on the page. Line-ending too -

why does the poet end
the line here

there for instance?

They took to them both without much persuasion. Some prefered Harwood's lightness, others MacSweeney's heaviness but that I suspect had more to do with their respective tastes for light and dark anyway. Nobody had any difficulty with them.

Interesting that. There is this strange idea that the avant garde is "difficult" but when you introduce people to the avant garde without telling them it is, they don't seem to mindat all.
Of course, I didn't show them any JH Prynne or Drew Milne. I didn't show them any Bob Cobbing (though the recent exhibition of his work in Bury went down well, I believe) or face them down with US Language poetry. It was perhaps the more comprehensible end of the avant garde, nevertheless...

I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to widen peoples' perspective, especially if there are parts of the poetry world that most people don't usually have access to. Lee Harwood's Collected is a delight: both experimental and airy, open and free-wheeling. I'm less of a fan of MacSweeney's, though I don't know it well apart from A Book of Demons and Pearl
The avant garde poetry world does tend to be harder to access than the mainstream, I guess - like free jazz improv, it goes on on the sidelines. Some of the protagonists probably like it like that - it gives them a sense of superiority, and feedstheir persecution complex - but getting more readers/listeners to find out about you is no bad thing, in my opinion.


Ron said...

Which poems did you use?

Steven Waling said...

I used "Gorgeous" by Lee Harwood, and a poem by MacSweeney that was part of the Pearl sequence. A late sequence, and neither poem I'd call the most hardline modernist poem.