Thursday, 11 January 2007

Irony Will

If it so often seems in the "poetry world" (by which I mean the English one, primarily, but also the French somewhat) that what divides is the Atlantic, or versions of "linguistic innovation", or politics - my experience, with poets, critics, editors, publishers, and those rare, elusive everyday readers we hear so much about, instead suggests the fault line in early 21st century is Irony.

Simply put, there are two types of poets in the world - those fundamentalists who are roughly humourless and have the face of the farmer in American Gothic and think words are for sincere barter, about as subtle as a ton of pig - and those gay, Nivenesque souls who employ irony in their work, as not just a method, but an esprit. I am thinking, really, of the difference between a great many poets whose poems are about even more than an authentic disclosure of experience - and those who enjoy a little aesthetic distance, even artifice, in their writing. I am thinking of the wonderful New York School Poet, Kenward Elmslie, who wrote poems like "Girl Machine" and "History of France" - insouciant poetry that couldn't care less what you thought about it (dear reader) and yet always makes you feel part of the circus act (a circus where Shirley Temple might get eaten by lions).

Nor is this a "postmodern" versus "mainstream" shoving match, either. The great American avant-gardist (and Amazing Absorbing Man) Charles Bernstein is hilarious, ironic (in the sense the poem is never mistaken for being a bus ticket that can get you from A to B, whether that be Heaven or Hell) and eclectic in Benjaminian fashion; but some experimental poets can sound very sombre and pretentious, indeed, and would never ever think it right to include the name of a movie star in one of their poems. And yes, some mainsteam poets, like Simon Armitage, are ironic as hell, and often very funny, rarely acting in their poems like they are laying down a direct line to Stalin or the Pope or Wordsworth. Meanwhile, others act like every word not only counts, but plays the fiddle, dances, and transports you to the garden of Eden, for five cents, return.

I confess to being frustrated when some readers don't "get" my poetry. The reason they don't get it, is because they do get it, and they don't want what they're getting, just like some people don't want gay people in their churches or hotels. The truth is, sadly, many readers of poetry want ONLY some things from a poem and one of the things they ONLY want is that ahhhh feeling, like when you see a rainbow, or feel a lovely breeze on your face. I write poems about rainbows, because that is part of life, having an ahhhh every once in a while. But there's a lot of pleasure in being an Elmslie, or a Denby too - formal, serious, artful and clever, yes - but never less than witty, never not open to the full delights of the tongue, which cannot always be governed, and must sometimes be joyously diverted by cheek.

In short, the poetry world isn't ultimately divided along lingustic, class, national, ethnic, theoretical, or even philosophical lines, but whether we think poems always have to be po-faced or not.

(On the other hand, it sometimes is lovely to just be sincere, earnest and straightforward, and say something you believe in, eh?)
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