Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Getting It And Not Getting It

Todd Swift's Eyewear review of Seamus Heaney set me to thinking about the question of how different people seem to appreciate different things. http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2010/08/humourless-chain.html There often seems to be a mutual incomprehesion of two different kinds of poetry. In the comment stream, Mark Granier seems to see things in Heaney's poetry that Todd can't see. If I read Heaney, I'd probably feel the same as Todd, I suspect.

Alan Baker puts this difference down to the "increasing sophistication" of the reader of nonmainstream poetries: just as we widen out taste in music to include more difficult pieces as we get older. But I'm unhpapy with this formulation, because it involves a value judgement. It says, nay shouts, "I'm better than you," at the unsophisticated reader of mainstream poetry, who is presumed to be less intelligent, lazy or, even worse, terribly bourgeois and accepting of the comfortable status quo. Instead of being made to think viz a viz language and meaning creation, instead of seeing how meaning is a social product etc etc... they prefer a slice of 'social realism lite', the comforting feeling of being given an insight into the human condition that isn't too different from other very similar insights, an over-described slice of life etc etc...

But then the non-mainstreamer tells us things about language that we already know, doesn't he/she? Don't we all know about the way language is manipulated by adevertising/capitalism/etc etc and isn't it just a bit boring? And why don't they make some concession to ordinary readers, instead of using all these jump-cuts and juxtapositions etc etc?

You can see how the argument goes. I personally can see where this is coming from, and am in definite sympathy with it. But, Janus-like, I can often find myself thinking that yes, there's something in the other point of view too. There are times when I read non-mainstream poetry when I get somewhat tired of being told about language and meaning creation as a social product, etc etc and just want 'a good read.' Maybe not Heaney; I still don't like his little epiphanies about the human condition; but maybe Reznikoff: his social realisms are never 'lite', but his narratives are simple, direct, "unsophisticated." But beautiful: moving, often on the edge of despair but also hopeful. And he never leaves us with any neat insights into the human condition to make us feel good about ourselves; instead you work out your insights for yourself.

In the Starbucks I'm writing this from, there's jazz trumpet coming through the speakers. Jazz is my favourite music; it's "sophisticated." But I also like pop music sometimes. Jazz fans sometims look down at "pop" fans for being "unsophisticated"; not unlike nonmainstreamers looking down their noses at mainstreamers. So I haven't really learnt why one person like Heaney, and finds great depth in him; and another thinks it's nothing that wasn't done in the 19th century. Or another likes JH Prynne while someone else finds him just incomprehensible. In can't just be to do with one person being better than another, can it?

21 comments:

Mark Granier said...

PS
It's Granier, not Grenier.

Alan Baker said...

Whoah! Wait a minute! I never said that any poetry was 'better' than any other; I simply said that some things can only be appreciated once you've tuned in to them. That doesn't necessarily mean that those things are 'better'. My example was classical music, much of which I now like very much, but which seemed like an undifferentiated noise when I first heard it. Indian classical music seems like a noise to me now, but I could no doubt learn to appreciate that if I took the time to. That doesn't mean I think Indian classical music is better than Western Classical music or vice versa.

In fact, I don't think becoming more sophisticated is necessarily a good thing, and indeed (as you say) it can impede one's enjoyment of some art. But I do think that one likely reason why some people 'get' innovative poetry is because they've learned how to. As I said in my comments on Todd Swift's blog, there are plenty of people who would find Seamus Heaney's poetry difficult to grasp, not because they're unintelligent, but because reading poetry - almost any poetry - is something you have to learn how to do.

Steven Waling said...

"think it's something to do with increasing sophistication."

Linking "Increasing sophistication" to "appreciation of the avant garde" does imply that "I'm better/ more tasteful than you", Alan. And the quip about the 19th century does too: "we're more modern than you..."

I do agree that one learns how to do it, however.

And Mark, sorry for getting your name wrong, I shall correct it.

I think there's a rather more subtle point about the 19th century quip, by the way. Heaney mentions lots of modern things in his poetry, but deals with them in much the same way as a 19th century poet would: as markers toward a kind of poetic epiphany, as pieces of "local colour" or as over-description of a scene. I think that's the point Alan was making: it's more to do with approach than with particular objects. A "modernist" would use the same things in a different way.

But I don't think either approach is better or worse than the other; in the end, it comes down to preference. There's often something of the mod vs rocker about these "debates."

Mark Granier said...

Steven, thanks for correcting my name, and especially for removing my injudicious comment. I owe you a drink.

Re. AB's '19th century quip', I didn't imagine that his comment (that most of Heaney's poetry could have been written in the19th century) related only to subject matter, though I thought this worth mentioning, since SH's poetry is strewn with contemporary objects, incidents, technology, etc. Regarding style and technique, if Heaney's work is not modernist, it is certainly modern (a point made in an essay by Tom Duddy in the current Poetry Ireland Review). I believe he has been influenced by various 20th century poets, including Eliot and of course Russian and East European poets such as Milosz. I do not think the lessons of Imagism, for example, are lost on him. As Duddy says: 'It is not too much to claim that Heaney has written for the most part out of the compound of experience and memory described by Rilke, and has consequently produced poems that it is simply wrong to characterise as merely craftmanly or mellifluous' or, as Todd says, 'comfortingly sturdy, and solid'. Such backhanded compliments are just plain lazy.

Steven Waling said...

I think my problem is I can see both points of view with regard to Heaney. I think he may well be going for the Rilke thing - but I can also see where some think he's rather straining after it than actually reaching it.

Anyway - a further thought. I was reading an interview with fellow Manchester writer Richard Barrett on 3AM magazine, and he said that he was baffled by Conductors of Chaos but liked it. Others I can imagine being equally baffled and hating it (I'm in the former camp - I find the whole anthology immensely fruitful even if I don't understand everything.)

If you like something you find baffling, you go and learn about it; if you hate something you find baffling you don't, I guess?

Mark Granier said...

I don't see why binocular vision should be a problem Steven; quite the reverse. I can certainly 'see' other points of view regarding Heaney's poetry; such POV's are rarely difficult to grasp. Of course, understanding them doesn't mean that I feel compelled to agree with them.

I don't mind at all being baffled (and /or buffeted) by poems, and I can go along with them provided they have something that turns me on, such as a compelling rhythm or imagery (The Waste Land is a case in point, or some of The Cantos). I almost always need imagery, which is not something that many offstreamers seem particularly interested in. Oppen's 'there is the word' is one of the few poems I know of that succeeds perfectly with nary an image in sight.

Steven Waling said...

Yo say To-may-to, I say to-mah-to in other words. Or, I'm a mod and you're a rocker (or vice-versa); essentially it comes down to "what turns you on" and "what turns you off."

I don't always need imagery if I've got language play, juxtaposition, swift changes of direction etc...

Alan Baker said...

Steven, I agree with Mark that being able to see both sides is an asset.

I accept that my quip about the 19C says "I'm more modern than you", but it was a little tongue-in-cheek. But the "sophistication" point is one I'm still prepared to debate...

You say you like jazz: isn't that due to your increasing sophistication? I guess you didn't like it when you were 15 years old. You can like jazz and still like pop. But some things are an acquired taste, and to acquire a taste is to become more sophisticated. Surely we can make observations like that without being thought elitist. An appreciation of pop music doesn't need to be acquired, as it's the dominant form in our culture; for the same reason, one could argue, an appreciation of more conventional poetry, such as Heaney's also doesn't need to be acquired; that doesn't mean it's better or worse, just that it's the dominant form.

I think your observation on Richard Barrett being baffled but liking CoC could lead to a more fruitful discussion than the tired mainstream vs innovative debate (which I'm often guilty of pursuing, I'll admit). Being "baffled but curious" seems like a good condition in which to approach poetry. Some people don't like being baffled, some do; maybe it comes down to personality types. JH Prynne's poetry baffles me to this day, but I like some (not all) of it.

I might say that I've had a lot of pleasure from Heaney's poetry in the past, and after this discussion I'll go back and re-read some of it. My impression at the moment is that his best work was written earlier in his career, but he appeared to be consciously striving for Great Poet status in his later work. I agree, Mark, that he's been influenced by various strands of modernism. But an early poem like "Death of a Naturalist" seems like pure Wordsworth to me.

Anyway, thanks to you both for this discussion.

Mark Granier said...

Tomayto!!! :)

Steven Waling said...

Just a comment on the jazz thing. No, I didn't like jazz when I was fifteen; but it doesn't make me more sophisticated than someone who, for instance, is a Northern Soul enthusiast or a fan of real country music. You can't be "baffled but curious" about everything. Most classical music "baffles" me but I don't choose to pursue it much. Maybe I should, but I don't. I've been to the opera about twice in my life, and it wouldn't bother me if I never saw another, though I enjoyed the experience. Does that make me less sophisticated?

Alan Baker said...

I'm beginning to think that maybe I was wrong. Your last post has swayed me somewhat. After all, you need a degree of sophstication to appreciate Heaney's poetry: knowledge of Irish politics, Gaelic mythology, classical literature etc. Maybe it's a bit like your music analogy (jazz, Northern soul, C&W...) in that mainstream poetry is just another genre that some people choose to get into. No more or less sophisticated than any other.

Mark Granier said...

It makes you more sophisticated than me! I've only seen one opera (Taras Bulba) staged in Kilmainham Gaol, which was interesting, but I was nodding off towards the end. Don't know much about classical either, but I love Beethoven's piano sonatas (some of which are quite jazzy) and Erik Satie gives me goosebumps. Armstrong's Mack The Knife and St James Infirmary, Billie's Don't Explain and Ella's scat-singing on How High The Moon are some of my jazz faves, very predictable but there you are. I'm largely ignorant re modern jazz, most of which sounds like a soundtrack in need of a film ( an old friend called jazz 'the spirit of passing' which rings true to me). I liked Weather Report's Birdland though, and the fat, sexual sax in King Crimson's 'Ladies of the Road'.

litrefs said...

Alan Baker: I agree with Mark that being able to see both sides is an asset - a couple of decades ago a bisexual called Dee suggested that he had twice the potential lovers than I did - clearly a superior position to mine. And yet ...

Alan Baker: maybe it comes down to personality types - I'm sure that's a factor. Psychologists have studied that sort of thing. One finding is that people who like abstract art are more gullible in general than those who don't. Also brain scans show that some arts (in particular some types of music) require several brain regions to come into play. Some brains aren't wired up that way - e.g. awareness of both Form and Content may be a task-switching chore for some people.

Re sophistication: reading can be broken down into many skills. There's a skill set for reading text-books and other skill sets for reading poetry. Skill sets overlaps - "awareness of alliteration" for example would be in the skill-set for both mainstream and non-mainstream readers. The skill-set for mainstream poetry readers might contain most of the skills that text-book readers need ("ability to paraphrase", etc) plus a standard set of extras ("awareness of meter", "awareness of end-rhyme"). Maybe some people have a limited, rigid number of skill sets to use whereas other people ("sophisticated readers") can mix'n'match the reading skills (and the modes of understanding). There are disadvantages to this "sophistication" though, so such readers needn't feel guiltily superior.

brooke said...

Love love jazz!!

Brooke


http://www.momentsofelegance.com

Pat said...

Oh Steve, I quite agree. Edwin Morgan was such an inspiration. He had such a BIG mind. I saw him read on three occasions. I will never forget the warmth and humanity he brought to his work - and his irrepressible humour. He was an extraordinary talent.

Aidan Semmens said...

Don't back down, Alan! Good 'innovative'/'avant' poetry is more sophisticated than even good 'mainstream' poetry (of which Heaney is a, perhaps the, prime example). BUT - and I know you'll agree with this because I'm just reiterating a point you've already made - there is no value judgement implicit in the term 'sophisticated'. In fact, simple is often good - sometimes better than, and maybe harder to achieve, than sophisticated. And I'd say that, incidentally, can apply to some jazz and some classical music too.
Personally, I have very little interest in most mainstream poetry, but I certainly don't imagine that makes me better in any way than people who like it. And I likewise refuse to feel inferior to people who 'get' (or claim to get) Jeremy Prynne, whose sophistication (if that's really what it is - sometimes I think he's just playing a big joke on us all) is mostly beyond me.

Steven Waling said...

Aidan - just one small point. I always find it quite interesting that when people talk about "mainstream" poetry disparagingly, they always mention Heaney or Carol Anne Duffy and not, say, Geoffery Hill.

And when they disparage "non-mainstream" poetry they always mention JH Prynne, and not, say, John James or Lee Harwood.

"Sophisticated" is in the eye of the beholder, methinks.

Aidan Semmens said...

Interesting points, Steven.
I did hesitate to cite Prynne for the very reason you suggest - but he is both a) prominent, not to say eminent, and b) impenetrable, at least to me. John James and Lee Harwood are a different kettle of fish entirely - I find their work no harder to penetrate than Heaney's, say, and a great deal more rewarding.
Incidentally, I don't think it was me who first brought Heaney into this discussion. And I should say I have nothing whatever against him or his readers - in fact I some experience of his personal kindness - I could just wish the wider media, and hence the wider public, recognised that poetry isn't just what he writes.
As to sophistication being a subjective judgement - up to a point, maybe. I don't think anyone who considered the matter closely could deny that Roy Fisher, for example, is a more sophisticated writer than Larkin, say.

Alan Baker said...

Thanks Aidan - I'm glad someone acknowledged my point about sophistication not being inherently better than simplicity.

Steven, on your last point, what makes John James 'innovative', and what makes Geoffrey Hill 'mainstream'? (a question for another discussion perhaps...).

Steven Waling said...

I think we will leave the question of what's innovative or mainstream till another day; but I think I was just objecting to the implied value judgement of the word "sophisticated." Perhaps that's my problem: the word conjures up some Noel Coward flanuer talking down his nose about the plebs in the music hall.

I agree with you Aidan about Prynne, on the whole, though individual poems I have enjoyed.

Steven Waling said...

I think we will leave the question of what's innovative or mainstream till another day; but I think I was just objecting to the implied value judgement of the word "sophisticated." Perhaps that's my problem: the word conjures up some Noel Coward flanuer talking down his nose about the plebs in the music hall.

I agree with you Aidan about Prynne, on the whole, though individual poems I have enjoyed.