Monday, March 30, 2009

Modernism is 100 years old?

Ron Silliman includes a link at the start of his blog to a recent Guardian article. The Silliman link is Modernism is 100 years old” and the Guardian article in question is “Enthusiasts mark centenary of modern poetry” by Mark Brown, arts correspondent. The article is enthusiastic about its related enthusiasts, but is it correct? I am surprised that such an eminent blog with Modernist credentials has not scrutinised the article. I am less surprised that the UK has muddled its history of poetics.

According to the article, on March 25th, 1909, a group of poets met at the Café Tour d’Eiffel, London, and these “fledgling imagists” (small i?) initiated Modernism. The suggestion made by Mark Brown is that this date saw a radical change in poetry, one that changed the “face of poetry for good.”

Hardly. The face of poetry in 1909 was still shrouded in Victorian fog. Yes, in the month of March, Flint, Storer and Hulme met. They were later joined by Pound, in April. But Modernism, as Imagism, hardly began here. The narrative, as told by the Guardian article, suggests a great meeting of minds and a new cosmos. Pound visited the café under the guidance of Florence Farr. She was, as David Moody observes in his biography of Pound, an actress and friend of Yeats. She was also a leading light in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (as was Yeats). A fair amount of murkiness hung over the meetings at the café, an ectoplasm that had little to do with visual Imagism. Reading the article, the usual impression is given that this birth was born from a unity of mind and purpose. Not so. In 1909, Hulme had created a philosophy of the Image: one that talked of an embodied poetics in disembodied terms. Exactly what Imagism is not. Pound, in 1909, was barely beyond The Spirit of Romance, fascinated with music and the image within the ear.

Also misleading is the picture of the Imagists in one café and the Vorticists in another. That would have required a time-machine, something even more radical than The Cantos. Some 5 years divide events in the Café Tour d’Eiffel and the Vienna Café.

Modernism and the Image erupted in 1912-13, in Ripostes, Lustra, and finally, as a living poetic form in Cantos I-III. The poetic tourism related in the Guardian has little to do with fact. The enthusiasts have come to the party too early, but that, I guess, is the nature of enthusiasm.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Answering Back, edited by Carol Ann Duffy.

In some ways, poetry is a reactive art. Bloom’s view (post-Enlightenment poets suffer from a belief that all has been said before and are inevitably bound up in a battle with the past) is probably an over-statement of the case. Yet, poets write in relation to a tradition as they understand it. At its worst, this produces narrow work with rich ideologies and a dogmatic tendency to squash all rivals jealously; and sycophantic work that inhabits the house of some predecessor. At its best, an awareness of the past creates rich work that lives through tension; and brings a re-evaluation of earlier writers and their creative homelands.

Answering Back, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, begins hopefully. It was suggested that the title should be “Answering”: an act of response. Duffy stuck with her title, however, feeling that poetic responses ought to be strong, contain a “glint” of defiance. She was right to stick with her view because it is what makes and unmakes this interesting volume.

There are 46 poets in Answering Back and the poets spoken to include:

A E Housman
Allen Ginsberg
Anna Akhmatova
Ben Jonson
Cesar Pavese
C P Cafavy
Charlotte Mew
Christina Rossetti
D H Lawrence
Dafydd Ap Gwilym
Dylan Thomas
Edna St Vincent Millay
Edward Thomas
Elizabeth Bishop
Emily Dickenson
Eugenio Montale
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Giocomo Leopardi
Jalaluddin Rumi
John Donne
Louis MacNeice
Lucille Clifton
Murial Rukeyser
Patrick Kavanagh
Philip Larkin
Rudyard Kipling
Sextus Propertius
Thomas Hardy
W B Yeats
W H Auden
W S Gilbert
Wallace Stevens
Walt Whitman
Walter de la Mare
William Carlos Williams
Yehuda Amichai

This is an eclectic collection of poets, suggesting that the selecting poets (mainly from the United Kingdom and Ireland) are not an insular “School of Quitetude”. Answering Back has scope. This vision, however, is not so noticeable in the poems chosen and the responses that they create.

Out of the many complex poems of Dylan Thomas, Nina Cassian decides to respond to “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” It is a short, heady piece on how the poetic lover is ignored by readers, which produces a simple, prosaic reflection and a dreadful couplet that Thomas would never have dreamed of: she injects a poem

“like a shot, an intravenous,
in the missing arm of Venus”.

Generally, answering back, in this volume, is a reply to content. It is not an engagement with a poet’s language…and rarely an involvement with the poet’s philosophy. The results are often flat and not as effective as the poems addressed, something that can be seen in Billy Collins' reply to W.H.Auden. A phrase such as "the mind/the freakiest dungeon in the castle" does not catch the implied terror of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts". At times, however, the simple response to content can produce moving surprises, as in the juxtaposition of Ian MacMillan’s “The Green Wheelbarrow” and William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. An objective masterpiece stands alongside a subjective poem full of emotional slither and slide. The effect is identical to that of walking through an art exhibition where disparate paintings have been chosen to suggest points of departure. The weakest examples of answering back come with poets who deal too pointedly with their ancestor, so U.A. Fanthorpe’s ridiculous attack on Walt Whitman:

"You reckless old drop-out, you
Inventor of abbatoirs, factory farms—it’s people like you
Who make beasts afraid. Just look a bit harder. Try thinking."

Answering back is a complex art. It requires a feeling for the whole voice that speaks. It should be a wrestling with an angel. And in that conflict, every muscle should be known, every feather felt, the pulse of blood and metre heard. Disliked or liked, answering a poem back is an intimate art. Enemies have to be known as comprehensively as friends. One of the weakest sections of this volume includes Carol Rumens and her put-down of Philip Larkin:

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you…"

This produces three quatrains of bad verse:

"Not everybody’s
Childhood sucked:
There are some kiddies
Not up-fucked. "

As examples of how to answer back (as an adult rather than a child), Duffy does include two incisive pairs of poems. Imtiaz Dharker has a complex conversation with Rumi. How could a modern poet not be caught by these lines?

your own myth, without complicated explanations.
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you. "

This is transformed into:

"I have strayed into unknown myths,
every shape a threat. "

And Michael Schmidt’s “Pangur Ban” answers “Pangur Ban” with an exploratory well-paced poem that paces thought and those echoes which appear across time:

"Prowl out of now and go down

Into time’s garden… "

Answering Back touches upon the ways in which poems can engage with one another. The results are not as “electrifying” as Duffy claims, yet the whole volume does offer an interesting insight into the poet’s craft. The work is well edited and arranged though there is some confusion in the Biographies with Transtromer listed as a contributer when he is one of the poets replied to. Answering Back raises interesting questions about response. Had it gone deeper it could have entered a resonant, evocative auditorium, one concerned with readership and reflection, criticism and creativity, and the ways in which poems bring forces into equilibrium and act as liberating forms.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Am My Names (T): (Jee Leong Koh)


(For JLK).

Should I worship at the altar
of the smooth pebble:
know sea by its polish:

and tides by life’s theory;
command the double-fish
to swim in one direction?

My name is Tension. I am an artist.

To celebrate his birthday, Jee Leong Koh, served a poetry reading prepared from his forthcoming book, Equal to the Earth. To hear the readings, visit his book blog. If you have only a little time, listen to the first reading and the opening poem, "Hungry Ghosts", the final poem in a sequence bearing that title. If you have more time, take a bottle along and listen to all three readings. You'll soon be drunk on poetry!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blurbing poetry.

In a previous post, I carped about the quality of blurbing, assuming that blurbs aspire to quality. Perhaps, I was unjustly hard, since I have discovered that blurbing these days, in the USA, has not yet absorbed the Obama effect of reasonable speech. Mistakenly, I believed that publishers accepted the recommendations of readers to promote sales. Now, I realise that blurbs are written to bestow the kiss of death. Here are some newly baptised books receiving the last rites:

"Staged as a fiction via the paratextual sleight of its introduction, [this book] chronicles and catalogues transformation as a way of evading and understanding bodies and selves. Readers might register the shuttlings of the book's interlocutors as playful linguistic performances of the animal transformations they devise for each other. "

"In these pages, the electric linguistic experiment meets a new urban, postnatural poetics, one in which poetry is not just a play of signs and seemings but also a prismatic investigation of our contemporary order."

"The recovery of the natural world, so central to her anti-generic, synergistic project, posits nothing less than overwriting the catastrophe of our nature/culture agon."

"[These] poems both court and cuckold subjectivity by unmasking its fundament of sex and hesitancy, the coil of doubt in its certitude."

"The work in this wondrous first major book by has a phenomenal - an excitatory - presence, the presence of action, not thing. This book is a matrix of polytemporal energy, a linguistic carnival, ribald and resounding."

Who needs books of poetry when the blurbs are so creative?

The Art of Reading. Sacrifice.

"The primordial relationship between writer and reader presents a wonderful paradox: in creating the role of the reader, the writer also decrees the writer's death, since in order that a text be finished the writer must withdraw, cease to exist... All writing depends on the generosity of the reader."

Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading, p.179,

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Please, Jericho Brown.

I wish poets and publishers didn’t feel the need to herald new poetry editions with bombastic recommendations. Of course, this is a sign of the Age. The public has to be told which brand of soup to buy: such decisions are presumed too difficult for the mass. But poetry? Does an art aimed at sensitive readers require an approach designed for the (allegedly) anaesthetised? Jericho’s Brown’s Please is announced by three powerful voices. Mark Doty’s recommendation is to the point and “live-wire” is a fitting phrase for the energy in Brown’s poetic lines. Less to the point are Hayes’ indulgent tribute which ends bathetically with “I could never say all I love about this book…” and Claudia Rankine’s mystical pronouncements, which sink into darkness. “Please continually repositions its readers inside the violence of the interruption, the psychic break.” She is knocked-out by the poet's “devastating genius”. (If only she had been hermetically silenced before writing her blurb and not managed to combine two clichés into a hysterical summation). Jericho’s Brown’s Please does not require this very American approach (but I suppose this is what you get when devoted friends write notes of recommendation). Please is thoughtfully put together. It is a finely produced book. It heralds itself beautifully, through skill and modest eloquence. The publishers (Western Michigan University) have assembled a handsome volume: an allusive cover, a resonant photo-page, a clear and attractive text. The author demonstrates a craft that is rich in tone and has clearly devoted time to arranging poems and considering the subtle relationships between parts and the whole.

Please, as a title, is perfect. The word suggests request and demand, prayer and conversation, plea, ease, and finally pleasure. Jericho’s Brown’s poems, by following musical connections, continually work with echoes from the title. Some of the strongest poems in the volume, such as “Lush Life”, “Crickets” and “Lion” are truly aware of pleasure’s shadow and how, like a cut, pain awakens the body into vital sensation.

Jericho, from the Hebrew, draws upon two senses, sight and smell. The city was bright as the moon and fragrant with herbs. The final poem in the volume, “Because My Name Is Jericho,” references the battle between Joshua and Jericho. It is a climax to a book which allows the author to say, with justification, “I am just as much a man/As Joshua”. But it isn’t just the final poem that plays with Jericho. The poetry develops through a sense of otherness, the moon, “Dark Side of the Planet”. The imagery of smell is inseparable from the poet’s sense of existence and survival: “One fist clenched/My brown bag as I sniffed for magnolia and made a deal with the dark.” (“Runaway”, P. p.58); “I smell liquor on your breath/Soon your arms will be too heavy to lift…” (“Your Body Made Heavy with Gin”, P. p.53). Unlike the metaphysical Donne, Jericho Brown doesn’t labour the connection between city and body, but implicit, within Please is the spiritual equation Jericho=city=body, and how the poet refuses to allow his body to fall, like the Biblical city, to blows of physical and mental violence. Please is a modern volume with an original voice. Yet this freshness is enriched by the author’s awareness of the past. “Prayer of the Backhanded” sings along to James Baldwin, linking musical strain to emotional strain. There are moments of jazz, stressed rhythms and falling cadences that echo Langston Hughes. And in the city-body linkage there is the troubled voodoo music of Essex Hemphill, though this is sung in a different key. In “Rights and Permissions”, Hemphill offers a bleak image of existence: his “warm seed” has nowhere to go. In “Family Portrait”, Brown offers a similar vision but within the context of love:

“My breath is also released
As I shiver onto my boyfriend’s back,
Then open my eyes to the faces
Of my children, faintly

Sketched in white swirls
On brown skin…"

(P. p.56).

Please is a volume that requires careful reading. I would have to disagree entirely with Melissa McEwan’s claim that “Some poems have to be read and then reread. But not these poems.” In her desire to free the poems from accusations of “difficulty”, she has done the volume an unintended disservice. Please is a complex musical composition and though some poems, such as “Lunch” and “I Have Just Picked Up a Man” are ironical, single-read poems, most of the poetry requires re-reading. Re-reading doesn’t imply a flaw in a poem: it is what a conscientious reader should wish to do, especially if the poem is pleasing, and (in the case of Please) desire to do! Please is a volume of poetry that bestows pleasure in relation to the time given to it, much like love, much like music. It isn’t a poetry of trumpets that stomps its way around the page…leave that to Joshua…rather a poetry of sentience written by a poet who knows how to modulate language and make the score on the page become music in the reader's mind.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Art of Reading. Implication.

"I only write for those who can read between the lines."

Andre Gide.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (7) Final.

Marechera’s introduction to the Amelia Sonnets (suggested by Flora Veit-Wild) contains this statement:

“Every act of love is a recapitulation of the whole history of human emotion.” (CM, p.167).

At a glance that suggests that love is a repeat (as in music). An individual act rehearses what has gone before. This is what Barthes senses in A Lover’s Discourse. Love is a repeat of certain tropes and a lover is at once bound to an individual series of emotions and a general series of recognitions: “I know that scene of language.” (ALD, p.4). If love binds the lover to the unique, it also binds him or her to a general history of love, factual as well as fictional. This double awareness is non-surprisingly double-edged. It raises the lover to a universal pattern of events (Leda and Zeus, Romeo and Juliet, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Cathy and Heathcliff) but also lowers the lover into a darker realm: many have been here before.

One of the problems with the Amelia Sonnets is that Marechera claims that they are different from the norm. They are “the record of a very tragic love affair”. (p.168). Tragic love affairs, however, are rather the norm…in real life…in virtual life. The tragic is the key of love in the “history of human emotion”. It isn’t the tragic that explains the unusual language of the Amelia Sonnets. In some ways, the matter might be helped if the reader knew something of the actual relationship behind these sonnets. So, Heine’s sonnets are rather self-willed, poetic poetry conjuring a walpurgisnacht that never really existed, except in the mind of Heine. They don’t seem to reflect any concerns of the Beloved or any shared despair. This desire for biography is a modern and rather debatable matter, however, for it isn’t really any part of the sonnet tradition. Little is known of Dante’s Beatrice. Michelangelo’s sonnets to Vittoria Colonna are not based on detailed facts. In fact, that is the point: she is the abstract Love of a gay poet. Abstraction makes her possible. Nothing is known of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”— no age, name, locality, family, social status etc! The one aspect that marks off the Amelia Sonnets from history is their mixed-racial nature…but this is of no interest to Marechera, as he specifies in no uncertain terms.

Ultimately, the Amelia Sonnets, seem to be contradictory. They invert the sonnet tradition. Language is pushed into dark graveyards, yet the ghost that remains isn’t that terrifying.

In Sonnet VII, Amelia, the workings are on show.

Lines 1-2 take a Petrarchan conceit. Love is fire and ice. This is cast as:
“A band of near-molten metal tightens/Around my iceblock head.”
Lines 2-3 pick up a Shakespearean image of Love and Time:
“The clock ticking/Hurls loneliness’ searing arrows.”
The adjective “searing” develops the earlier hot metal image. The traditional burning arrows of Eros brand the poet. Something, then, of a development from the sonnet tradition.
Lines 3-5 compares what remains, “dust”, to radioactivity. A wholly modern image enters the poem.
Lines 5-8 work through an oxymoron:
“the bright/Nightmare of daylight.
Lines 8-10 offer a Homeric image of the Avenger’s Chariot, turning the poet/lover into the victim hauled behind the chariot. The lover becomes the victim of militarism, patriarchy, his own power.
And the closing lines, 10-14, focus on a Love-War:Venus-Mars union (a conceit of much Renaissance poetry) wherein the sexual act is stripped to warfare. The penis becomes a “Gatling" gun, semen turns into “white-hot bullets”. And Amelia, spectral, in “luminous” nightdress, pounds the poet’s “bared chest”. Memory leaves the poet shaking to the “rhythm” of his “sobs”, emasculated, yet more human.

As in Michelangelo, rape and rapture are fused in the poem. Marechera focuses on how the brutal past is inseparable from the tender present. (He brings, as he said, the horror of the townships to the act of making love such that love becomes an attack on war and history). But the poem does not have what Susanne Langer termed “virtual memory”. The Poem, for all its clever ideas, doesn’t really image the darkness of the Nigredo, the Dark Night of the Soul, the alchemical battlefield of Death created by Love. In Sonnet VII, as in the whole sequence, there are moments of brilliance, yet Marechera does not really have the language to destroy the scenes of language (if that is possible) and create an antidote to the tradition of love poetry. Ultimately, the “recapitulation” that he seeks is not musical, but therapeutic, a healing voice: recapitulation as an encounter with the past such that healing takes place.