Friday, April 27, 2012

Vain Attempt to map British poetry

Yesterday, I attempted to put down in a map all the different influences/tendencies/movements I'd heard of in British poetry over the last 60 or so years, and came up with this list (in no particular order):

Formalist, fractured narrative, eco-poetry, comic, New York, Lang-Po, linguistically innovative, vispo, concrete, narrative, sound, Movement & Post-movement, the Group, post-modernist, performative, conceptual, issue-based (gay, feminist, black, political), modernist & late modernist, British Poetry Revival, New Gen, nationalist/regional (Scotish, Welsh, North-South etc), free verse, confessional, nature mysticism, metaphysical religious/spiritual, collage, prose poetry, conventional lyric, neo-dada/surrealist, oulipo, urban pastoral, pastoral, radical landscape, landscape, flarf, Cambridge school, avant garde, performance, London school, black mountain/objectivist, Facebook poets, devotional, amateur, card verse.

I've probably missed lots of movements and tendencies, and conflated some together (as in issues-based and regional), and I'd appreciate any additions to the list. I wrote this on a landscape piece of paper, and scattered them across the page. These would be the towns and villages of the map, and different poets would make their own routes through them. My own route would start at devotional (I was a born again Christian trying to convert "the lost") and end up somewhere in the linguistically innovative, via conventional lyric, New Gen and urban pastoral.

Why is it important to do this? Well, I think if you're going to assess a visual poet, you can assess him or her by the same values as you assess a post-Movement poet. They're not going to share very many values in common. Yet they would still both call themselves poets. It's also why there's really no such thing as 'just poetry'.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some Comments On Bad Poetry

Someone said on Facebook recently that "bad poetry is barely poetry."

I wonder what this means.

All poets worth their salt probably write more bad poetry than good poetry. What is really bad stays in notebooks, or gets thrown in the bin, or doesn't survive. But is it still poetry? I confess I don't really know...

But sometimes the definition of 'bad poetry' is more like 'the kind of stuff that I don't connect with'. A poem, say, at the extreme end of experimentalism such as Aram Saroyan's


(that's the whole poem, by the way, not just the title.) How is that a poem? is the question that gets asked, frequently, at great length sometimes.

Yet for others, that definitely is a poem. They also speak at great length about what it means: they talk of the 'flicker' of the word like a lightbulb flickering. The one side thinks the other is mad, or a con, or taking the piss.

'Taking the piss' might of course be a perfectly legitimate reason for writing a poem, good or bad.

Then there is the other end of the "is it really poetry?" debate, where the Patience Strong and the Purple Ronnie poems sit. Are they really poems, or just (contemptuous sneer at the ready) "verse"?

What I think is bad, what you think is bad, are probably two different things. But it's too easy to dismiss something I don't like as "not really poetry." It makes me feel good to dismiss whole swathes of writing into the outer darkness. But if poetry is a field (rhizometric), rather than a single line, then I don't think we can easily dismiss as "barely poetry" whatever section of the poetry world we don't happen to connect with.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Some Gentle Thoughts on Gentility: A Quiet Word

There was an interesting review in the London Review of Books recently about the exhibition, Picasso in England, at Tate Britain. this exhibition pits Picasso against his English imitators, which include Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and others. It's obvious who comes off the best: there are few painters of the 20th Century who come anywhere close to Picasso; but when I went to see it, I didn't think the English painters did all that badly.

The reviewer of the LRB, however, went for the usual argument that the trouble with the English was their gentility. Picasso took risks and was revolutionary and did things that no-one else would dare; while the British 'prettied things up' and made a much more modest modernism that was more acceptable to the patrons and buyers in Britain. Britain as usual is portrayed as being suspicious of Modernism, hanging back and trying to incorporate a more 'traditional' approach.

Well, yes, there is some force in this argument; but it's also somewhat unfair to suppose that British artists were always hampered by their 'gentility'. Ben Nicholson, for instance, was not just influenced by Picasso, but  by the neo-plasticism of Mondrian, the 'folk art' of an old sea-dog and other things. His pictures have a quiet grace about them that insinuates itself into your head. Graham Sutherland's tortured landscapes are not conventionally pretty, and seem as influenced by his Catholicism as by Picasso.

We English people have a habit of doing ourselves down. Self-deprecating humour was probably invented by an Englishman. We also like to think of ourselves as somewhat apart from what is going on elsewhere. Sometimes, our modernist instincts are quieter, less noisy than, say, Cubism or Dada; despite its desperate attempts to be radical, Vorticism seems like a late guest to the party, who's only dressing up in radical chic.

Sometimes European and American modernism can seem a bit shouty: look at how radical I'm being!!! Sometimes we need to shout more, and not be so gentle.

With poetry, I find myself loving the quietness of a poet like Lee Harwood; whereas I've only ever been able to admire Charles Olson's more insistently radical poetry. Again, with Roy Fisher, I find a quietly insistent voice, not an inyerface shouty man on a soapbox, which is how Olson sometimes comes across.

Gentility definitely has its bad side: too many mainstream poems read like 'polite literature', not really saying very much. Not that you could accuse Larkin of gentility; but many of his followers seem like they'd never frighten anyone's horses. Edward Thomas is the very model of a modest voice; which is all very well, and no-one can deny he was a good poet. Not, I think, a great one though; because, like so many mainstream poets, he was afraid to take risks. He rejected Pound because he was too scared of the opinions of others.

So: I do like the gentleness one sometimes finds in English poets, at least some of the time (though there are radical poets like Maggie O'Sullivan and Geraldine Monk for whom that's not a good adjective.) But I dislike the way much mainstream poetry is almost afraid of its own shadow. Explore the shadow of your English reserve, however, and you may just find something deeper than the nicely modest poetry of an Andrew Motion.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Some Notes on Collage

I was reading the first chapter of Ian Davidson's "Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry" yesterday. It made the point that collage is probably the 20th Century's main contribution to avant garde technique. Introduced by the Cubists in the period 1911-13, then taken up by Dadaists, Surrealists, installation artists and all manner of modern artists, it's almost become part of the atmosphere of contemporary visual art.

It's also been a part of modernist poetry and non-mainstream poetry right from the off. From T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Zukovsky and many Dadaist poets, through to the present day poets like Tony Lopez, who use it as a large part of their practice.

For me, it's become almost second nature. I'm either cutting up my own words, or cutting up articles from newspapers, writing down and rearranging overheard conversations, mixing in slogans from shop windows, flarfing (using phrases from webpages) or making use of found material.

The effect of this is to attempt to get away from the chronological, to the poem as a kind of field, in which interesting encounters of sound, meaning and image can be found. It also - hopefully - helps to reader to complete the poem for themselves. The number of possible meanings is increased; but none of the meanings are complete, and all are subject to uncertainty.

Collage is paratactic: it puts things side by side to see how they feel together. It juxtaposes, it disturbs settled orders, it creates coincidences and relationships between things and words that weren't there before. It can shift register sometimes mid-sentence, burst out in all directions, imitate the semiotic overload of contemporary culture, confuse and dazzle.

Finally, here's Tristan Tzara's instructions on writing poetry:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.