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Saturday, 9 June 2007

Freudian slips

Today's Saturday Guardian Review section seems designed to send Eyewear into overdrive.

The Page 3 Boy is Martin Amis, the UK's latest celebrity creative writing professor, quoted as saying (at the Guardian's own Hay festival) "You may have noticed that poetry is dead. The obituary has already been written. It has a ghoulish afterlife in readings and poetry slams ... not many people curl up of an evening with a book of poetry ... reading a poem involves self-examination .... we don't have the time or the inclination." Josephine Hart, poetry impresario and editor, writes the reply, linked to below.

There are so many things to say about this article, I will number my comments.

1. Nothing is more trite or tiresome than yet another trumped up literary debate.

2. The ping-pong story: poetry dead, poetry not dead, poetry dead, poetry not dead - should be shelved for another decade. As Andrew Motion, many people involved in the field of poetry, and I, have explained - last time this same "Poetry is Morris Dancing" balloon was floated - "Poetry" is not dead in the UK. Readings, events, and book publication thrive. Almost a million poetry books are sold in the UK each year. Oxfam's Life Lines poetry CD sold 10,000 copies in the period June 2006-June 2007. That's a lot of "not many people".

3. Martin Amis is, on one point, correct. Reading a poem does involve "self-examination" - though that sounds less pleasant than it might actually be. Actually, all serious (good) art requires some self-reflection on the part of those who receive it. Unconsidered art is not worth having. He is also correct insofar as even intelligent, literate people don't often fully think through their relationship to poetry - they are apoetic (in that they don't have a clearly defined poetics with which to appreciate the poetry they do read).

4. Josephine Hart is, on one point, incorrect. Her defense of poetry involved much reference to the kind of old-fashioned poetry events she herself runs, where famous actors are asked to read poems by famous dead poets, like Yeats. While these events are harmless, they bear about as much relation to a living art as Shakespeare at the Globe theatre does to Off-off-Broadway. They are linked by genre, but not by contemporary relevance. Martin Amis, surely, means by his comments that readers are not seeking out new, original poets of the 21st century, agreeing instead with Stephen Fry's idiotic comment that "modern poetry is arse-dribble" - an observation which was widely publicised last year or so. No, for poetry to be alive, it must be creating new works of value, in today's idiom, using current diction, and connecting with a new audience open to having their taste not simply confirmed, but challenged.

On this note, The Guardian has, itself, failed readers of poetry - and potential readers - by reviewing Annie Freud's new collection, The Best Man That Ever Was - in a manner that undervalues its contemporary verve.

One of the problems with poetry reviews is that they rarely set out their critical apparatus for inspection, and simply steamroll over the book, dispensing verdicts like an Acme Supreme Court Justice. Sarah Crown doesn't do this - she is quite open about her poetics. Crown says, near the end of her review of Freud: "Her facility with language is drowned out by the relentlessly whimsical tone; it is difficult, as a result, to pinpoint the emotional heart of the collection, despite a persistent focus on the characters' feelings. The strength of Freud's poetry exists in the moments when she abandons her ironic pose; should she find the courage to forsake it, her talent would be free to emerge."

This passage suggests that the reviewer has insight into Freud's inner life and intentions, and that the poet somehow lacks "courage". Freud's work is found wanting because of its tone, and its ironic pose. Instead, she is encouraged to locate an "emotional heart" for the writing. This sounds like an openly anti-modernist position. From T.S. Eliot on, ironic poses (or masks) were used to get between the poet's emotions, and the feeling that is meant to be achieved in the reader. Even Larkin was not sentimental enough to want to abandon all whimsy or irony. I actually think sentiment in poetry is undervalued in current British poetry (see current positions on Dylan Thomas), but find it rather ironic that Crown has chosen this moment, and this collection, to emphasize this position.

Ironic because Annie Freud is one of the best hopes that contemporary British poetry has, to reach the Martin Amises of the world - intelligent, worldly, cynical, novel-loving, middle class professionals - with her wit, brilliant linguistic inventiveness and cosmopolitan sophistication.

One can hardly expect every English poet to find their daffodils in their daffodils, and not every poet can or should dispense with wit or whimsy. Instead, poetry collections should be read on their own merits, and with some effort of engagement with the poet's own chosen style, or aesthetic. Freud is clearly a smart, savvy, urban dweller, and her poems are not, like Seamus Heaney's, about to yield their epiphanies (their emotional heart) in relation to a pastoral landscape. We are in danger of asking for just the sort of archaic, poetic diction that alarmed Wordsworth, in 1800, if we ask for Wordsworth now. Poetry moves on. Freud is one of those ways, in which poetry moves on, and stays living.

http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2098471,00.html

http://books.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2098529,00.html
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