Sunday, September 19, 2010

Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine [article/magazine]

Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine [article/magazine]

I found this article fascinating because it actually articulated the differences between mainstream and non-mainstream poetry in a non-confrontational way, as a kind of argument between a rational, logical way of thinking that sees poetry as a vehicle for ordering the world; and the alternative, Dionysian way of seeing the beauty in and through the chaos of existence.

I liked the article because he was not denying the sophistication of anyone, or saying that one way is better than another. He may personally have his preferences, as I do, as we all do. But Mozart is not less sophisticated than Stravinsky; or vice versa. If mainstream poetry can sometimes to some people 'run the gamut of emotions from A to A' (as was said of Roger Moore's Bond), non-mainstream poetry can seem sometimes to be just a disorganised mess.

I like both kinds of poetry, but lean strongly towards the latter. I'm currently reading Sean Bonney's Document, and wonderful it is too: by turns angry, tender, chaotic, political, even personal. But there's also a sense that he has something to say and he's going to say it. Mainstream poets will probably write poetry that 'has something to say': that is about a specific experience or set of ideas, and then they will describe them. This book too has something to say: but he disrupts the message, makes it hard to read, muddies the water. He still wants you to understand, however; he just doesn't trust the usual ways of communicating, so he goes round the back, the side, below and above the main point. Which is, of course, that capitalism is a bad thing for everyone, including poetry. And who could disagree with that?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I went to That London at the weekend, and while I was there, photocopied some of the poems of Nicholas Moore. Here's one I find amusing, mysterious, slightly dark and somehow really beautiful, from Recollections of the Gala, his last full selection for many years before he died:

Girl With A Wine Glass

Bright intelligence. The foot moves
Skillfully, the small hand holds
Its dearest possession stiff and straight.
A young girl holds the world, a pencil

In her clean, her correct hands. Time -
That dubious bird with such a cunning eye -
Elects to look upon her with disdain,
As though it were nothing she is holding.

For Time, and it our conception of time,
Not hers, proves that it is no pencil
She holds so stiffly, nor that her
Demeanour, correct as it is, is anything

But a bluff. The foot moves. The eye
falters. There is a tree grows
In a foreign land, marked, named,
Of a rare species, valuable and tall,

And this it is which, in the woody pencil,
Her attitude is symbol to.
She is intelligent, simple. She moves
With a direct, a frank movement, talks

Without reticence, is friendly, charming, gay.
And yet she holds that thing withing her hands,
Remembering Salome, and, as she speaks,
One sees the hands fold round that tender head.

It seems almost criminal that this poet is no longer in print.

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. 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?