Sunday, March 02, 2008

I wish I could get here more often, but I've been pretty busy.

The second issue of the prison magazine the men started at Whatton is about to hit the cells. I've got a reading at Salford Uni on Tuesday, and a workshop with the students. Then there's the launches of Parameter, The Ugly Tree and Lamport Court, 3 of Manchester's finest magazines, on Monday Night.

I've also been doing some reading. I can thoroughly recommend a translation of Boris Pasternak's My Sister -Life, which I found in an Oxfam bookshop in West Bridgeford. I'm about to start a book of essays about Lee Harwood, when it comes from Salt. I read their Companion to Geraldine Monk, edited by Scott Thurston, and thoroughly enjoyed that.

I also recently read online a very antagonistic review of the anthology, Other, in Antigonish Review online. It was interesting not for the fact that I probably disagree with it; but in the ways that I agree with it. There are aspects of non-mainstream approaches that are no more realistic than the more mainstream ways. Non-mainstream values such things as a plurality of voices, fragmentation and so on, and will tend at times to over-emphasise that in a writer who isn't really all that fragmented; it emphasises "difficulty" but sometimes exagerates that difficulty.

I think the reviewer was almost entirely wrong in his reading of non-mainstream poets. He would mention something in an Alan Fisher poem that sounded, to him, as if it was just some politically correct mention of a London Tube station. But that's where Alan Fisher lives, and he's always written about that place. He quotes a line of one poem as being "bad", which when placed out of context on a page sounds bad. But it's not unlike those preachers cutting and pasting bits out of the Bible to prove that gay people will go to hell. It's out-of-context, and only serves to show the reviewer's prejudices up.

Do non-mainstream critics do the same? You bet they do. I read an article by Ken Edwards where he compared a short magazine poem from early Mathew Sweeney with a dense, allusive poem by Allen Fisher to illustrate the "superiority" of non-mainstream over mainstream strategies. Well, excuse me, but isn't that unfair? Shouldn't we at least compare similar to similar? What would happen if we take a more straightforward Lee Harwood poem and put it alongside Sweeney? Or a more densely allusive mainstream poem (Geoffery Hill?) next to Allen Fisher? What difference does that make to your point?

In the end, the whole thing comes to see like two cats fighting in a paper bag. Non-mainstream writers have a tendency to over-valorise their outsider status. Clare, Blake and others are invoked as "outsiders" - which in a sense they were; but in another sense, they aren't now.

So maybe I'm fence sitting here. Well, more on this later.


Matt Merritt said...

Good points, all, Steven. I think you really hit the nail on the head in that penultimate paragraph - critics on both sides of the 'divide' tend to pretend that the work of individual writers is a homogenous whole, whereas more often than not it moves into different areas at different times. Harwood's great example.
Another thing that often gets missed, I think, is that you get plenty of poets who are formally fairly traditional, but whose subject matter is non-mainstream, or vice versa.

Steven Waling said...

Not sure what you mean by non-mainstream subject matter. But I take your point.