Monday, August 25, 2008


Recently, Reginald Shepherd offered a series of views on the relationship between poetry and criticism or criticism and poetry (let’s not place one before the other and upset anyone). His comments, as balanced as ever, were a reply to Doug Powell’s dislike of “pitics” and “croets”, an evolutionary development about as much desired (by him) as genetically modified food. The three posts by Reginald Shepherd caused quite a response; and the level of response was more worrying than the starting point. Sarcasm, arrogance, put-downs, misunderstandings, all of it in away showing why criticism is important: had the respondents been better critics they might have listened to each other better. I was tempted to wade into the murky waters beyond a simple comment, but backed off since I sensed all the usual crocodile prejudices were lurking. I had to be content with silently observing that though Reginald Shepherd applauded the “explosion of online discussions about poetry” many of the so-called explosions on the internet, such as this one, frequently turn into damp squibs.

A number of aspects deeply concerned me in the debate and I think they are worth reflecting on.

1) I do agree with Reginald Shepherd that poetry and criticism stand side-by-side. And I would say unequivocally that they stand equally, sharing the same stature. (That is the bias that I bring to this debate). I am bemused, therefore, that anyone would want to separate the critical faculty from poetical. Of course, this is easily done when a person slips in the word “creativity”.

2) A few months ago I offered criticism to a young novelist. He asked for criticism. He received criticism. He replied with the accusation of “critic” which I realised fell just below the word motherfucker as an insult. This so-called young novelist then berated my criticism on the basis that I was an “academic” who had no knowledge of “creativity”. This is one of the most common responses I find on blogs towards any worthwhile comment bordering on “judgement” (Criticism, kritos, to judge). Creativity is the province of the artist: criticism exists beyond the perfect state in which the artist lives. Critics, consequently, are not creative, their thinking is not of the first-order.

3) This stance was well summed up by Joseph Huchinson (of The Perpetual Bird) in reply to Reginald Shepherd:

‘Criticism is a derivative activity—what I would call "second-order thinking." By that I mean that critics attach themselves to a text or texts like remoras to sharks.’

A metaphor creeps in. Criticism is a remora and poetry is a shark. That isn’t the best example of a poetic metaphor in defence of poetry, not exactly a fine example of “first-order” thinking, but that is probably because this respondent has had to sink to the level of subterranean criticism. The relationship between poetry and criticism is based upon commensalism (though I suspect Joseph Huchinson means parasitic behaviour): poetry feeds criticism, but criticism doesn’t harm poetry. I am not sure that such is true. Criticism can be harmful to poetry. Some of Eliot’s ignorant views on Seventeenth Century English Poetry ought to carry a Parnassus Health Warning. And that opens up another disturbing thread in relation to Reginald Shepherd’s argument. So much of the debate raged around Eliot as a poet and critic. Not very wise. As a poet criticising poets, Eliot was a very bad critic.

4) Michael Robbins, who teaches poetry at Columbia College, entered the debate on the side of Reginald Shepherd, but rather entered the field too vociferously, stating with almost Paterian delight that criticism is equal to poetry. He argued that reading some criticism was as rewarding as reading poetry, which to some was rather like saying that a meal at McDonalds could be as good as a meal at The Ivy. Heresy. Heresy. And heresy again. There is some truth, however, in what Michael Robbins says. There is a lot of bad poetry about (especially on the internet), though of course I shouldn’t say that because that betrays a value judgement. (Critic!) And there is a lot of good criticism. Like Michael Robbins, I would have to admit that I have gained as much pleasure in recent years from reading criticism as I have from reading poetry. This aversion to theory/criticism is an unhealthy state for any culture to be in. It not only restricts the reading experience but also prevents the flow of understanding between what different readers see.

5) Another element that was worth noting in the debate—and one that was largely avoided— related to derivation. Two distinct images of poet and critic were constantly presumed. The poet is the Romantic genius unsullied by secondary materials. Thoughts leap from within, original, as fresh as a mountain stream etc. The critic is the shadow, nothing more than Echo hiding among valleys, forever repeating what has already been said. In actual fact, poets today are anything but this. They live very much within the Imaginary Museum (Donald Davie). A poem can begin anywhere, often in a line from someone else’s poem or reflection on poetry (criticism, Apollo forbid!) A poet takes the poem from where it starts, said Robert Duncan, unashamedly acknowledging the multiple roots of modern poetry and its alchemical act of transmutation. And critics, especially artist-critics, are anything but mimics. Ronan McDonald, in his perceptive book The Death of the Critic acknowledges this beautifully. In the criticism of some critics there is a mastery of prose, image, structure, that equals the language of many modern poets and novelists. This isn’t to go as far as Wilde in The Critic as Artist where art improves on nature, but it is an important correction to the belief that criticism is uncreative, as he puts it, “the eunuch at the harem”.

6) Ronan McDonald’s book is a very useful reflection on the current place of criticism—not that anyone mentions it The Harriet debate. One of the ideas he dismantles is John Carey’s belief (in What Good are the Arts?) that the quality of art is relative. McDonald puts it nicely, arguing that this is a strange position for a critic of Carey’s standing to arrive at. More sharply it could be put like this. Only a critic who had lived among the Dreaming Spires of Oxford could afford to offer such an uninspired view of artistic value. John Carey’s book itself actually offers a perspective on this debate. Carey preserves a quasi-mystical view of poetry (the inspired poem preserving its creative ambiguity) whilst demolishing criticism and value, any whiff of Leavisite narrowness and a great tradition in literature (criticism cannot touch the sources of creativity).

7) Another work from which The Harriet debate might have benefitted would be Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, a superbly written book of criticism that faces the legacy of Structuralism and (negative) Existentialism. In it, Denis Donaghue demonstrates what happens when criticism strays from the power of the voice into silent hermeneutics. How odd that a whole field of criticism written under the guidance of Hermes should forget that the god of interpretation (criticism) was also the god of sound and words (creativity). There is no disjunction inside the mytheme between critic and creator: both are androgynously combined in the god of interpretation and revelation. There is no creative revelation without critical interpretation of events.

8) I admire the view-points of Reginald Shepherd. He is not afraid of theory (unlike too many poets who are uncritical in relation to both themselves and their art). But I would question his conclusion to the debate:

"In this way, it [criticism] is a very valuable tool. "

Or perhaps, re-direct the artisan image by pointing out that Hermes was a consummate user of tools and natural materials—hence the lyre of poetry.

Ronan McDonald concludes his survey of literary criticism by suggesting that criticism has been misplaced. It has become a matter of passing judgement beyond the process of creation. And as it has retired more and more from being evaluative, so it has lost a sense of its own value. It would make sense to connect literary criticism back to the process of creativity so as one interweaves with the other, as Reginald Shepherd claims, not to create an elitist poetry founded on credos and theories, but a deep poetry that as Doug Powell says you can “love”.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Obama, Marechera and the Apes.

A few weeks ago there was an outcry in the US as racist connections were made between Senator Obama and monkeys. The monkey t-shirts made obvious what has long existed in the communal mind. As Henry Louis Gates Jr puts it, Black is seen as simian-like. The monkey/ape (as an image) invariably carries a negative sense in modern culture, but this one-sided image is the product of a one-sided culture— a culture that has strayed from the doubleness of all imagery. It is by no means the whole story.

When Marechera submitted The House of Hunger to his publishers, in 1977, it received one single-minded reading by Esther Kantai:

“The same kind of negative views of human nature permeates through Marechera’s other stories. Take the story “Burning in the Rain”. The main character is a guy who is convinced that he is just like a gorilla…It is clear that the writer does not have a high opinion of the black man. (A Source Book, p182).”

Marechera’s ape=black man equation is, as Kantai correctly points out, very noticeable in the volume of short stories. It is a theme in “Black Skin What Mask,:

“And Christ! when it came to dancing he really made himself look a monkey.” (House of Hunger, p.103).

And runs through a key episode of The House of Hunger, when a Roman Catholic Priest delivers a scathing attack to the novella’s narrator:

“It’s the ape in you, young man, the heart of darkness.”

Repeating Conrad’s phrase, the Priest equates the ape with primitivism, as a symbol of what Africa was before Christ (and the White man) came to redeem it. Yes, it is true that Marechera explicitly links Blackness with Apeness. There is, however, something else implied in the response to the Priest. Insurrection breaks out in the classroom…serious monkeying around. The monkey, here, is a double image, stating the apelike darkness of ignorant youth, suggesting that monkey-mockery is a weapon of the free mind. This theme is heard pointedly in Marechera’s short story from 1981, “Oxford Black Oxford”. Dr Martins-Botha (a name which signifies Botha/apartheid and Dr-Martins/violent and trendy right-wing skinhead shoe wear) attempts a put-down:

“Were you supposed to see your Warden at nine o’ clock?”

To which comes the reply:

“First I’ve heard of it. You see I did not check my mail. Survival instinct, I suppose.”
But the lame joke fell flat on its face. Its monkey face.

(The Black Insider, p.161).

The “monkey face” here has two meanings: by giving a weak response, Dr Martins-Botha has his prejudicial thoughts about class structure and the African simian male affirmed; by failing to monkey around effectively, within language, the narrator falls flat on his own banana skin and does not use the double-sided nature of monkey language to his own advantage.

Outside the commonplace imagery of the Western tradition— a rationalist tradition of single-meanings— the monkey has a very different meaning.

In African tribal art, the monkey connects to the opposite of civilisation. For the Dogon, it represents the anti-rational, that energy which works against civilised values. For the Hemba, it is a marginal figure standing between death and life. The monkey mask guides the passing over into death and provides the humour that restores life. The Chokwe view the monkey as a symbol of wisdom, as a mirror of the human. The Baule carve gbekre or monkey statues which serve as liminal figures between the present and the future, between the world of the here-and-now and the world beyond. The monkey, as Henry Louis Gates Jr establishes in The Signifying Monkey, is a reversal of a “received racist image”; truly, a symbol of the artist “who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language….” (The Signifying Monkey, p.52). The monkey is a prime symbol of doubleness connected to Eshu(neutics) and hermeneutics.

In the hermeneutical tradition, the monkey is viewed as the interpreter. In De Naturae Simia (1624), Fludd cast the monkey in a teaching role, as the artistic intermediary between Anima/Spirit and Microcosm/Nature. This echoes his position in the supposed Hermetical Wisdom of Egypt where the ape accompanied Thoth, the ibis headed god of Wisdom. One of the interesting connections made by Marechera is between the monkey image and religion. They stand in opposition. Bataille adopted a similar position in Erotism, Death and Sensuality, seeing religion as that force which stands between man and the sexual potency of the ape (p.156). Religion is the humanizing element that depletes man of sexual power and leads towards slavery and away from the free and irrational.

The monkey image in “Burning in the Rain” is a complex one. The story opens with a figure and a mirror. The narrator, who likes to “mock” the ridiculous human body, is faced with “The Ape in the Mirror” (p.91). Progressively, the narrator falls under the spell of the ape. He becomes a Black man who experiences cultural blackouts (p.94). His Blackness merges into a psychological blackness. As a result of this, he finds himself covered in soot and in possession of a bag of obscene Christmas cards. The suggestion is that he has come down the chimney with Santa Claus and has become Zwarte Piet, a parody of himself as a Black male blacked-up. In Black Peter, there is also a pun on “peter” as an ancient word for penis. This intimates the nature of his taboo cards. As the possession develops, he next finds himself covered in “whitewash” with a “wig” (p.94). This follows the madness advised by the Priest in The House of Hunger: he has turned himself White and literally “wigged out”, become a frenzied African-European. Finally, he covers his room in excrement and goes ape-shit”(p.95). He covers his universe in excrement and has to biblically uncreate it. (Again, monkey and religion stand opposed). The ape becomes an ominous image, but there is a possible counter-point. At the head of the stream, where the narrator and Margaret are “fused into one” by living power, the unmoving “frost” of the mirror-mind is contrasted with an image of the mind in flux such that opposites meet as “A great breaking spray of it sparkened by rainbows.” (p.93). This image of water and light recalls a sunshower, the South African umshado wezinkawu, the “monkey wedding”.

The monkey/ape in Marechera is an image that encapsulates his writing style: one that refuses to settle and consequently crosses fictional genres like a trickster swinging on tropes.