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Monday, 12 May 2008

Further, Regarding The Postmodern Poetry Post

Sean Bonney, in comments on the Eyewear post about the ambiguous status of "postmodern" poetry and poetics in Britain, suggests the "divide" between poets cannot be bridged by rainbow coalition, as it were, because genuine, even radical, politics divides those who work in "the mainstream" and those who work in the "late modernist" traditions. This reply, which was rather knee-jerk, instantly glossed over precisely the key point of my post, that, at least in America, a 21st century poetics is being developed which is less divisive, and, indeed, interested in various forms and styles of poetic process, and utterance. Bonney does little but reiterate entrenched, and, frankly, late-20th century grievances - grievances that are, indeed, grounded in historical debates over poetry in the UK.

However, he remains, to my mind, unconvincing - because he has yet to establish how and why he finds a link between Modernist and experimental poetic forms, and the practice of a socialist, or even Marxist politics. As he should know, most of the poets of the modernist moment were right-wing, or fascist; and, on the other hand, poets who were actively, even radically, left-wing, such as Auden, or later, Ginsberg, often wrote poems in either stylish, traditional forms, or rather lucid, discursive ways that were, indeed, often a transparent recording (supposedly) of the interior self (much of Ginsberg's poetry, when not surrealist, emerges from this Williams style, which can be quite empirical, and hardly fragmentary).

Indeed, it is precisely the failure of (some) poet-critics in the UK, to acknowledge the ambiguous, even indeterminate, relationship between poetics and politics (or ideologies), that complicates the ostensible divide that Olsen identifies in her essay. Of course, there is an apprehended divide (Don Paterson and Rod Mengham have very different ideas about poetics); yet, across this divide is a curious bridge: neither "side" resists the idea of the seriousness of poetry. It is simply, they each ground their seriousness in different aspects of the Modernist/ New Critical tradition, and how they select to reread, and often oppose, that (Eliotic/Leavisite) tradition.

On Bonney's point about cocktails - anti-capitalism takes many forms - some Stalinist, others agrarian (and arguably racist), some fascist or aristocratic: Yeats and Pound despised low culture and capitalism as much or more than Bonney, or Prynne ever would. I am sure Peter Porter finds Madonna as trivial and anti-poetic as Drew Milne.

I think there's an interesting aporia here - or at least a knot in the texture of thinking about contemporary British poetics - that can't simply be swept under a carpet of mutual animosity. The question remains: how is it that (most) contemporary British poetry refuses to directly engage with the entertainment products of late capitalism? It is possible, as American postmodern poetry shows (as Ashbery shows) to speak through and of such (frivolous?) discourses, and moments - and not always entirely dismissively. Some Hollywood films - A Night At The Opera, for instance, or Touch of Evil - are glorious, anarchic, and in many ways antecedents for the punk agenda, and late dadaist resurgences, that Bonney(I think rightly) thinks of interest.

In British writing on poetry, there is often a shorthand. One wants to say, for example, Peter Riley is as good or better a poet than Andrew Motion - and instead, broader schools and arguments are set in motion. Not all "mainstream" poetry, for example, is "monolinear" or assumes a transparent link between the speaking I and the poet; indeed, as Tate and Ransom and others infamously noted, the texture of much 20th century poetry is precisly divided due to the ironic and creative tension between its form, and content; and then again, many "traditional" poets employ persona, or the dramatic monologue, often rather brilliantly.

It is true, I think, that when Grigson observed that Heaney was hardly "postmodern" in any meaningful sense (as Olsen states in her essay), this does not then render his work simply uninteresting, or void of complex engagement with language. In fact, even Alvarez objected to Heaney's complex, ornate engagement with language; nor is Heaney's use of myth much less intense than an Ur-modernist such as James Joyce. There is an argument that would say the truer heirs of Modernism are, in fact, Heaney, Tony Harrison and Sean O'Brien (among others), who veer between the demotic and the mythic, much as Pound did.

This is not to "take sides" (I am researching 20th century British poetry, not presiding over a divorce case), but to argue for a constant problematisation of too-easy categorisations, despite underlying class and cultural conflicts that have (yes) gone on for too long, often been supressed by those in power, and which tend to "naturalise" critical positions that are, instead, usually merely lazy empiricism or provincialism (though to what extent the current British avant-garde is truly interested in internationalism or the global remains up for debate; despite the best efforts of Salt and a few other presses and little (often online) magazines to try and represent alternative poetries from "around the world": the British, post-Suez are often fixated on their own trajectories).

Most poetry written in the UK, today, resists easy consumption, by the reader, no matter how stylishly it is packaged. More poetic forms, or styles, I would argue, are resistant to commodification, than might be often assumed, in articles such as those by Olsen. However, finally, I very much appreciate the underlying tendency of Olsen's, and Bonney's comments, insofar as they would argue for a poetry that questions the canon, that is resistant to mere complacency, and that asks questions of language. But this poetry may not always be precisely in the ideological key of extreme anti-capitalism that Bonney seeks, nor may it necessarily be as removed from the world of media and multimedia as he might wish. It might still - or is this evaluative ideal now impossible - be "good" poetry. Or rather, poetry worth taking time to engage with.

I offer these comments in a collegial spirit. I happen to believe (it may be the Canadian in me) that dialogue even across zones of difference can be mutually interesting, and even lead to new work, and developments. I realise that the history of 20th century poetics and poetry has been embedded in a rhetoric of confrontation, violence, and aggression (on the avant-garde as well as "Movement" side of things), which, it may be, was grounded in patriarchal, militaristic, and even hierarchical perspectives that should now be outmoded. We need to locate more ethical forms of communication - even across poetic divides. I see this as an eco-poetic position - all poetic texts are part of the same wider environment, though there may be different eco-systems.
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