Saturday, April 02, 2016

Loop of Jade and the T.S.Eliot Prize

It is now established knowledge that Sarah Howe’s debut volume Loop of Jade was awarded the 2015 T.S. Eliot prize for poetry. Reviewers initially greeted the win with unqualified adulation; Ben Wikinson, in The Guardian, being the rare reader who side-stepped the hype to perform practical criticism on Howe’s poems and concentrate on her selection of language. (A fair and respectful response given Howe’s commitment to practical criticism and her belief that modern poetry reviews lack quality). Generally, reviewers readily ascribed to the view of Pascale Petite (Chair of the three-strong judging panel) that the volume was “erudite and dense” and came from a “culture [China] which we are not used to seeing in British poetry” and the result would be a sea-change for poets. Loop of Jade’s ground-breaking tone has been attributed to two important themes: Howe’s exploration of her Anglo-Chinese/Sino-British heritage and her enquiries into gender. UK attitudes have viewed Howe’s poetry as “deliberate exoticism” or “Oriental poise” transfigured by language into a realm where new identities could exist: the volume reveals more than just a nostalgic search for roots. The Boston Review uplifted the Chinese element into the higher realm of “identity politics”. As might be expected, the Asian perspective has made even more of Howe’s debt to China. The Hong Kong Review of Books emphasised Howe’s use of “forms and imagery normally associated with Chinese or Japan”. And the Asian Review of Books went as far as to claim that if “Hong Kong literature in English” exists, then it must be Loop of Jade

Unsurprisingly, those who have started to question the largely unqualified praise for Loop of Jade and exaltation of Howe have found themselves facing accusations of racism and chauvinism. Female poets have rallied to the defence of Howe against the male establishment (as exemplified by The Sunday Times, The Times Literary Supplement and Private Eye). There is little value in arguing whether Loop of Jade should have won the T.S. Eliot prize. The point is: it did. And a panel of judges stepped in to provide strong critical judgements within a climate of weak critical standards: Howe’s view of “prize culture” in an interview prior to winning the T.S.Eliot prize. Kate Evans-Bush, of Baroque In Hackney fame, who stepped into counter the old-boy-network in The Guardian, takes the correct line (in her website): the 2015 T.S. Eliot short-list places relevant and difficult poetry before the public. The T.S.Eliot prize has increased the status of Loop of Jade, even brought it to the attention of Asia, yet the prize does not change the poetry. Congratulations to Sarah Howe on achieving the Eliot prize, now set that aside and look at the poetry in Loop of Jade as it is.

There is a strong and interesting handling of identity in Loop of Jade. Howe’s “Tame” has been praised for its attack on China’s one child per family and a male child preferably. Howe has said herself that she wanted to write about gendercide and the line “He called her Mei Ming” (No-name) alludes to a real and tragic case in the film Dying Rooms, but it is more a case of wanting than doing: the poem is a finely written metamorphosis, yet it hardly engages with the deep horror of child-murder. In a similar way, “Crossing from Guangdong” reflects on Howe’s girlhood with memorable images, yet it is diffuse and rarely exhibits the ardent insights that come with feminist poetry.  The wonder of Loop of Jade is in its variety of forms and richness of imagery and it is here that critical thought ought to begin, not with questions outside the poems themselves.

Loop of Jade is an “erudite” volume. It is also very readable. To combine depth with an enjoyable reading experience is an achievement to be valued and recognised. In “Sirens”, Howe begins with a moment of musing, a misreading of Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane”. She moves the poem through Cambridge, into affective literary criticism, into Homer and Horace, into the Renaissance imagery of Alciato (Enblema CXVI), and finally arrives at an epigrammatic image with its moral message for life “on reigning in fancy”. It is done with craft by someone who spans the history of images with passion and skill. The Renaissance flows into a lot of the poetry in Loop of Jade, as does China, and they meet in moments of gentle elucidation: “My heart is bounded by a scallop shell--/this strange pilgrimage to home” hearkens quietly back to Raleigh. The Renaissance enters clearly in “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” and more subtly elsewhere. Howe’s re-telling of Chinese myths in “Loop of Jade” has the quality of Golding’s version of Ovid. The concrete poem “Banderole” (as visually clever as Howe’s “Human Marks”, not in Loop of Jade, a poem about the Renaissance manicule) echoes the shape poems of Herbert. The tradition of hortus conclusus hides behind “The Walled Garden” and the topos of innutrition shapes “Crocodile”. There is a stitched quality to Howe’s poetry, as in the title poem, which draws from text/textile correspondences, a synthesis alchemised in the Renaissance.

Howe re-vitalises traditions intelligently. Loop of Jade is a field of creative images. Is it a re-birth of poetry, though, the renaissance that Petite has claimed? There is an emblem by Alciato (one that Howe will know) that shows the caduceus of Hermes balanced by a left and right horn-of-plenty. “Fortune” records how the cornucopia of life must be moderated by the precise Hermetic wand of language. Art mediates Nature. The emblem also has Confusian echoes: the heart must be ordered by language if the expansive riches of the state are to be ordered. Life is language and language is life. Howe’s embracing of a wide-ranging imagery is both her strength and her weakness. Sometimes the fertile teeming achieves intriguing fusions, as in “Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush”—a poem that mimics Pound’s Cathay very well. Howe has an ability to play with forms and harmonise form and meaning. And yes, she has added something new to British poetry. Sometimes the work becomes over-indulgent, however, even prodigal. Howe, like Ashberry and Graham, both of whom are influences, is curious about surfaces and the stratification of imagery. This leads her into a fascination with visual and auditory images and the tricky/hermetical nature of language. “Crocodile” descends into silent movie slapstick as the waiters slip flat on their backs… like “so many Michael Flatleys”. The prose poetry of Haas becomes a “gush” in which the stream of language meets Riverdance. It works. Less successful are the strained tonalities of “Pythagoras’s Curtain”. The music of the spheres seems to have been unstrung in lines like “cadenza the acousmatic dusk”. Just as there are exact sensual images such as “curlicues/slick on the backs/of thighs”, images with syllabic weighting and shaped by line turns, so there are imagistic blobs like “the sunflower patch/of a forethought” which would have benefitted from self-criticism. Double meanings play across the volume, from allotropes of Chinese in “Having just broken the water pitcher”, to extrovert puns in “Others”, to non-sense in “Start with Weather” and to insubstantial stuff  in “Stray dogs”. Here, Howe’s devotion to word play gets the better of her disastrously. There is illuminating scholarship in Loop of Jade and there are examples of real howlers. A close reading of “Stray dogs” shows the weak points of Loop of Jade.

“Stray dogs” is poem (g) in a series of poems, (a)-(n), which is based on a fictional list by Borges—a list that prefaces Loop of Jade.Howe described the poem, during a lecture at Harvard, as “a sequence of terrible puns… including that Ezra got sent to the [dog] pound”. Supposedly, the poem is about empathy and an enquiry into censorship, yet the crude joke by Howe exposes the poem for what it is. The title is followed by a quotation from The Pisan Cantos. “Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail” (Canto LXXXI). A parallel is drawn between the Borge phrase and Pound in the Disciplinary Training Camp outside Pisa. The suggestion is that Pound is “a beaten dog” whereas the line refers to the Dogs of War in Canto LXXXI. It is not a self-reference by Pound. Perhaps, this is a deliberate misreading, a pun on facts. Mind you, a mistake seems more likely, bearing in mind that Howe told the Harvard audience, with conviction, that Pound’s The Pisan Cantos were “the last cantos that he wrote.” Of course, they were not: they were followed by Rock Drill and Thrones. Suddenly, the erudition behind Loop of Jade becomes suspect. “Stray dogs” opens with an aloof, academic tone: “To think again of Pound”. Howe stands outside events, as a spectator, one who assembles facts and images for synthesis. The poem is built with lacunae, gaps that must be filled in by the reader. These breaks avoid narration and keep both author and reader outside the story. It is a kind of alienation that allows space to think. For such a method to function, however, images must be selected with accuracy. Pound is “bared to the sky”. There is a lack of precision in that phrase. In what sense is he “bared”? The cage in which he was held had a sealed roof. The cage was open to the elements, but not to the sky. Is Pound himself “bared”? Even so, the image does not match reality. Further distance is made in the poem by the word “traitor”. Howe moves herself away by citing Pound’s criminality. The poem moves on by patching together factual details with quotations from Cantos LXXIV and LXXXI. Again, there is a misreading: “Swollen magpie” refers to the bombastic Black and White army of the Allies, not Pound, and a dull piece of Imagism tries to fix the scene: “Wire diamonds shadowed starkly underfoot.” Puns thicken towards the middle of the poem. Pound’s copy of the Analects is “dog-eared”. (Angela Palandri, as a Chinese student with little English, visited Pound in St Elizabeth’s and she makes this exact observation, without the insult, in an essay in Paideuma 3.3 The essay focuses evocatively on bi-cultural identities— Howe territory). Then, “a rifle butt” is “ pounding the door”. And Howe is so busy having fun with the pun on Pound/pounding that she writes without checking facts. The clich├ęd phrase that she has selected, reducing the scene bathetically to pulp fiction, is untrue. There were no rifles. The Italian partisans who arrested Pound for ransom were armed with a Thompson machine gun. A moment of terror is rendered clumsily as inaccurate wild-west comedy. By standing two unrelated images side by side, a logopoetic image/Pull down thy vanity (Canto LXXXI again) and a phanopoetic image/the opening of Canto LXXIV written on toilet paper, Howe links pride with abasement and suggests the punning conclusion of “Stray dogs”. As the poem closes, an anti-semitic line from Pound’s Fifth radio speech, “Those Parentheses”, is quoted. The reader has descended into “Circe’s sty” because Circe changed men into pigs. And Pound saw the Jewish control of money as occult trickery and banking as a sty for swine. The reader has hit the core of the poem, Pound’s unjustifiable hatred of Jewishness. (Something undoubtedly felt at a personal level by Howe because of her “mixed marriage”). But at the heart of this poem, there is nothing. The text does not support the belief that this is a poem about censorship. There is no debate with ethics. All that exists is a pun on canto/”Glorious cant”. That single piece of word-play is insufficient to stand for a debate on where the boundaries of language might be drawn. On being forced from Sant’Ambrogio, Pound took a copy of Legge’s Si Shu with him. In writing about the life of Confucius, not in the Analects (Part I of The Four Books) as cited in Loop of Jade, Legge describes the well-known story of how Confucius was separated from his disciples and resembled a “stray dog”. (This was the term that the Cultural Revolution used to discredit Confucius). It would have been impossible for Pound to be reading the incident in the Analects as imagined by Howe. But then, truthfulness to either Pound or Chinese history does not appear to be the point. The whole of the poem drives towards a conclusion that juxtaposes Pound and Confucius, a conclusion that is the main reason for the poem, another pun in which Pound’s pride and humiliation can be stood ironically against the humility of Pound’s hero, Kung. Together, they make up the “dogs” of Borge’s title. In speaking about the form of “Stray dogs”, Howe has said that the “visual block”, the justifying of the type-face at the right margin, mimes Pound’s “restraint”. But does it? The layout occurs on four occasions in Loop of Jade. Why should it suddenly become a mimetic image of imprisonment in one poem and not in others? There are multiple weaknesses in “Stray dogs”. There is a poor grasp of material. The material is not transformed into an aesthetic experience. It reads like a student writing exercise, though it is one of the later, mature works in Loop of Jade. And most seriously there is a failure of human sensibility. It is a bit of knock-about academic fun on a serious matter for Art: can the life of the poet and the poetry be split into separate worlds? Can there be double standards within censorship so as the poet descends to Hell (St Elizabeth’s in Pound’s case) and the poetry ascends to Paradise (The Bollingen Prize)? Ethical distancing results in a lack of ethical involvement and judgement.

Within Loop of Jade, there is a sense that though Howe achieves real successes and takes many whole-hearted risks, there is rather too much poetic game playing. The volume is strongest where it encompasses the richness of cultural and historical imagery and weakest where it must engage directly with emotion and political contexts.

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