Guest Review: Van-Hagen on Infinite Difference
Steve Van-Hagen reviews
ed. by Carrie Etter
The sub-title of Carrie Etter’s anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U. K. Women Poets presumably alludes to the 1998 anthology edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain, Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan Press and University Press of New England, 1998). Two years before this, Maggie O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the U.K. (Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 1996) which, as its title indicates, also contained North-American work, was the last such anthology of women-only poets. Despite O’Sullivan’s anthology, in Caddel and Quartermain’s offering two years later just ten women poets were included, out of a total of fifty five. Despite the received opinion that writers of ‘other’ poetries of both sexes were well represented in Keith Tuma’s important Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) – the anthology became justly famed for its chronological presentation of Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin – only one poet in every four included was female. Will a new anthology in 2010 redress this balance of female to male poets writing ‘other’ poetries in the U.K., raising the profile of the former in relation to their male counterparts? Or will it instead promote the ghettoisation of women poets?
Etter promptly turns to such matters in an efficient, thought-provoking introduction which argues that the anthology “gathers poetries not readily found in the pages of Britain’s broadsheets or larger-circulation literary journals.” (p.9) She addresses both the case for an anthology of ‘other’ poetries and one focussing solely on women poets, suggesting persuasively that “Britain’s tendency to divide poetry into the categories of “Mainstream” and “Experimental” or “Avant Garde” undermines our sense of the rich array of poetries being written” and that “A significant difference between the poetry culture of the United States and that of the United Kingdom is that work regarded as Other to the Mainstream, in the UK, never receives established prizes.” (p.9) On the second question, Etter cites Eva Salzman’s introduction to her recent Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English, in which Salzman “argues convincingly for the continued need for women’s anthologies, by reviewing the surprisingly low proportions of women to men in even the most recent anthologies and by recounting the still dismissive and gendered critical language often used to describe women’s poetry.” (p.10) Etter is aware that her rationale is potentially controversial and, to her credit, gives room to dissenting voices, including Geraldine Monk, who is quoted arguing that the relative low profile of women poets writing ‘other’ poetries in the U.K. may have been attributable simply to their lack of interest in experimental poetries. Similarly, Etter freely acknowledges that in seeking work for the anthology, “Solicitations to the admirable [Maggie] O’Sullivan and Monk, already widely anthologized, were respectfully denied, on account of the focus on women and the desire not to be categorized; a few other requests for work were ignored altogether.” (p.11)
If it may appear a little cheeky to title an anthology Infinite Difference despite the exclusion of half of the population merely by virtue of their sex, Etter’s own explanation of the title is that: “The poetries being written in Britain today might in fact be regarded as being on a spectrum holding infinite points of difference, and this anthology as bringing to a larger audience work on that spectrum that has limited, if not quite ultraviolet, visibility.” (p.9) Despite this big claim, and notwithstanding the absence of those figures who did not wish to be included, the twenty-five anthologised poets span the range of those relatively well known to those considerably less so. While a number of the poets are veterans of some or all of the O’Sullivan, Caddel and Quartermain and Tuma anthologies (e.g. Carlyle Reedy, Wendy Mulford, Claire Crowther, Denise Riley, Catherine Hales and Caroline Bergvall) this is an optimistic, youthful and forward-looking selection. As Etter notes, five of the twenty five have yet to publish a full-length collection while another five have published only one, and the discovery of vibrant new voices is one of the most significant rewards that awaits the reader of this exciting collection.
A statement of poetics of up to a page in length prefaces each selection of poems in the anthology. Some of this material describes or introduces specific poems, and may feel like a wasted opportunity to more experienced readers who prefer not to be imprisoned within a narrow and proprietorial meaning imposed on poems by their writers. Nonetheless, some of the more general material is eloquent and committed, and the chosen format is more than useful for teaching at A level, degree level and taught MA level. A number of statements articulate common and recurring issues in the definition of ‘other’ and / or ‘experimental’ poetries against their more ‘mainstream’ counterparts. Claire Crowther, for instance, argues,
When I write a poem, I use line to uncover and climb over the lack, rather than the fact, of connection within an accepted syntax. I am interested in what we think we are doing as much as what we are doing. My poetry has been called fractured, strange, nonsensical. To me, it’s simply a word-equivalent of an unlined world, as sturdy as I can make it. (p.42)
Catherine Hales turns to questions of function and of meaning:
I think the necessity of poetry is to irritate, to evoke the uncomfortable response. Scraps of language from different places and registers – radio, tv, conversations, lawyer-speak, etc. – coalesce and collide, creating meaning from their juxtaposition, meaning that is not subject to control or definition but ... questions the rules by which we are obliged to live, like grammar, syntax, meaning. Look in vain for (linear) narrative, for anecdote, for epiphanies, for messages, for making-the-world-a-better-place: the world is a mess and language is messy and the world is a language and any attempt to tidy it up with poetry is falsification. (p.63)
Etter herself traverses similar terrain in her poetics, interrogating the inter-relationships between consciousness, meaning and experience, observing that “ ... reading’s goal is not to decode but to inhabit the text on its own terms. I think people could enjoy a much wider range of poetry if they stopped asking “But what does it mean?”, and instead went with the experience the poem offered, in the way many approach abstract art.” (p.122)
The variation within the poems themselves is sufficiently impressive that any brief review will struggle to do justice to it. The poems encompass a wide array of different styles and frames of cultural reference, including Isobel Armstrong’s ‘Desert Collage’ poems, work by Denise Riley inspired by Merleau-Ponty, Frances Presley’s “Learning Letters” (based on a 1950s Dutch primer, Lezen Leren), Anne Blonstein’s work inspired by notarikon and gematria (rabbinical methods used to interpret Hebrew scriptures), work by Elisabeth Bletsoe inspired by botany and ornithology, Carol Watts’ “Hare” (which intertwines the tale of a murdered teenager with the story of a seventh-century woman who saves hares form a hunt), Redell Olsen’s sequence “A New Booke of Copies” (partly inspired by an Elizabethan Writing Book published in 1574), the subcontinent-influenced work of Sascha Akhtar, and Emily Critchley’s “When I say I believe women”, which uses the relationship between ‘main’ text, footnotes and marginalia to interrogate a range of seeming binaries. A number of poems nudge at the vexed boundary between poetry and prose.
While there are fine individual poems included that are outside the following brief categories, a number of themes, motifs and subjects recur in the collection’s poems and poetics. These include questions of the marginal and its relationship to the centre; substances, materials and surfaces; the importance (or otherwise) of observation and experience to poetry and poetics; as one would expect, with language and its slipperiness (such as Riley’s “Rhetorical” and the poems of Blonstein, Bergvall and Presley); and with the relationship between poetry and poetics and other art forms, including dance (see the poetics of Sophie Mayer), music (the poetics of Rachel Lehrman) and the visual arts (such as the poems of Reckin). Landscape and space also recur (as in Mulford’s “I CHINA AM”, Harriet Tarlo’s “Camelia House”, Zoe Skoulding’s cityscape poems, Andrea Brady’s “Cultural Affairs in Boston”, Lehrman’s “Nightscape” and Critchley’s “When I say I believe women” again). For such a forward-looking anthology, poems concerned with recollecting and reconstructing the past feature prominently (including Crowther’s “Books (A Friend I Had)” and “Once Troublesome”, Lucy Sheerman’s “Somewhere My Love” and “Mine”, Brady’s “End of Days” and Sophie Robinson’s “anecdotally yours”). Perhaps appropriately enough given the formal and thematic concern with space, one of the few criticisms one could level is that this is a spare and taut collection, and the poems chosen by some poets are frustratingly few in number.
A number of poems dwell overtly on signs and semiotics, including Hales’ “divination” (p.64) which embodies wider concerns in the anthology in its concentration on signs, the processes of interpretation and the construction of meaning, and on the recreation of past experience:
signs drenched in meaning early
dew and another fine but maybe
later cloud shudders like a headache
lightning it’ll pass where
were we then ah yes the signs
we were seeking the words to tell
One wonders a little how the success of this fine anthology will and should be judged – will the greater success have been achieved if it inspires the publication of more women-only anthologies, or if it puts an end to the need for them, in favour of greater inclusion of women poets in ‘mixed’ male-and-female anthologies? Whichever, on the evidence provided by Infinite Difference, the signs for the future of ‘other’ poetries in the U.K. are surely good.
Steve Van-Hagen is Programme Leader for English Literature at Edge Hill University, Lancashire. He is Hthe editor of James Woodhouse, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Gloucester: The Cyder Press, 2005) and has published articles on Woodhouse, Stephen Duck and washing-day poems of the eighteenth century. He has two books forthcoming from Greenwich Exchange Press, The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift.