Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Maintaining the Crumbling House

I came across this rather intriguing comment the other day by Jon Stone, on Todd Smith's Eyewear blog:

In seeming very dismissive of the mere fact of the English postulating on
an English tradition that needs to be maintained,

I wondered about what it might be saying for quite some time, and still don't know what it means. "An English tradition that needs to be maintained" sounds as if something is under threat, or fragile, or vulnerable to dry rot. It makes poetry (for that is "the tradition" of which we speak) sound like one of those old manorial fastnesses that need to be maintained by the National Trust. All very nice and historic, but not exactly relevant to the modern world.

I'm sure it's not the intention of Jon Stone to make English poetry sound like this; it's the kind of thing you say in a blog comments stream, not a considered argument. But it nevertheless does continue the postulation that English poetry (as opposed to American, say, or Australian) is somehow under attack. From whom? And what is this English tradition that is under attack?

Well, it's very rarely the English tradition of radical dissent: the Diggers, the Quakers, the Chartists, the peasant balladeers, the trades unionists, the Blakeans etc. It's usually some notion of what I can only call an Anglican compromise: middle-brow, middle-of-the-road, middling and conservative with a small c. It's certainly not the "extremism" so-called of the experimentalists: open-form, open-ended, frequently messy and unclean. It's certainly one English tradition - and it shouldn't be gainsaid that there are some great examples. Edward Thomas is a great example, and more recently, Nick Laird.

But I don't see how it is under fire. Sure, it's probably having to compete with a more open poetics, it's having to absorb a few more influences. But - rather like the English language itself - surely it can do that without having to "maintain" itself. The great thing about poetry is its ability to both continually renew itself - often in the past through translation and cultural exchange - while staying in contact with its past. And its past ought also to contain a few more of those dissenting voices (like the '40's Apocalyptics, for instance) than it does now.


Rachel Fox said...

This might be like that bit in 'QI' where the lights all flash and I am Alan Davies but... I thought Nick Laird was Irish? How does that work? Would he describe his writing in that way?
ps I'm not trying to be clever...I'm just interested to know why you use him as an example of an 'English tradition'. I apologise if this is a duff question.

Steven Waling said...

In the sense that the "English tradition" is Hardy/Edward Thomas/Larkin, I'd say (personally), that he's more following in that tradition (with of course Famous Seamus in there too, but he too is more in that line) - though maybe it's a bit unfair to call him an an English writer.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for not setting off the sirens (I hope you have watched 'QI' at least once or that is just going to be gibberish). I've only ever been a reader (not a student) of poetry in English so I am allowed to ask the daft questions...If you fancy it I would really like to see your definition of that 'English tradition'. Just interested.

Also my theme of the day is proofreading so I couldn't help noticing when I came back that you may have got your Todds in a twist. I think.