Saturday, 28 May 2011

Full of It

  Penned a 'Disgruntled of Ladbroke Grove' type email to the Guardian Review last week to complain about a poetry article by John Fuller last Saturday, which was not only quite remarkably asinine for a poet of his standing but also factually wrong. My 'letter' didn't get published, but the three responses to Fuller that were included covered similar points as I was making (perhaps more lucidly or concisely).
  For what it's worth this is what I wrote:
  'John Fuller's assertion, in his article about "the puzzles of poetry" (Riddles in the sands, 21.5.11) - "No-one really seems to know, for example, why Coleridge calls his lime-tree bower ( ...) a "prison" in his poem This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison " - is itself extremely puzzling.
   Coleridge's prefatory note to the poem explains that "In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking during the whole time of their stay." The poem is perfectly clear in evoking a scenario of its I-narrator being left behind against his will while his friends have gone out walking, making the bower in which he sits a gently ironic, metaphorical "prison".
   But Fuller's whole piece is off the mark: his suggestion that poems can be reduced to crossword-like puzzles that can be "solved" is a deeply misleading over-simplification of how poetry operates. He fails to acknowledge that his crude reading of Wallace Stevens' The Plot Against the Giant' is only one interpretation of many, providing an example of how the symbolic resonances of poetry are marred by having this kind of literalising story superimposed upon them. As Stevens wrote elsewhere: "The poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully."

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Poetry's Not in the Pity

  A fascinating post on First World War poets by Simon Turner on Gists and Piths recently sent me back to John Silkin's Penguin Book of First World Poetry (1979). The lengthy, carefully-weighed introduction is one of the most far-reaching and cogent considerations I know both of the particular issues arising from our reception of poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg and of the broader reverberations of war poetry through history. 
   Silkin's critical prose works with a deeply-pondered, self-qualifying slowness which marks it out as distinctly old-fashioned in many respects, but in a very good way. Its emphasis on words like 'feeling' and 'compassion' may seem to harp back to FR Leavis and DH Lawrence before him, yet reading Silkin you wonder how far what passes for contemporary criticism suffers from a lack of this painstaking moral depth and seriousness, this "delicacy with vigour". His explanation of how important the stressing of one syllable in a line from Keats' To Autumn is to a proper reading of the whole poem is a brilliant example of Empsonian "close reading" and an index of how lax and impressionistic the attention we accord poems has all too often become.
  Like Simon Turner in his piece, Silkin is assiduous in delineating the complex interrelationship between Georgian poetry, the First World War poets and the later, harmful persistence of Georgian models.Turner wisely posits that the continuous inclusion of poets like Owen on exam syllabuses has inculcated many young minds into viewing Georgianism as the default setting of English poetry. Silkin identifies a construction of Englishness emanating from narrowings of the canon of "English lyricism": the worst perpetrator of neo-Georgian revisionism, Philip Larkin, by selecting the simplistically elegiac (and potentially patriotic) 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' for his bloodless 1973 version of the Oxford Book of English Poetry over more nuanced later Owen poems like 'Strange Meeting' , feeds into the particular tradition of sentimentality Silkin so accurately diagnoses:
  "The (southern) English tendency is to elevate compassion into a religiose sentiment, and thus remove it from the earth, making innocuous any inquiry as to the state of the victim and the cause of his suffering that a more earth-bound and singular tenderness might have made. It is at once politically expedient and morally less taxing as a mode." (p.62)
   To me this encapsulates the whole sorry spectacle of Wootton Bassett's endlessly-reiterated, telegenic funeral marches, "politically expedient" indeed in transferring our attention from the context and justification of the conflict in Afganhistan itself to public, ceremonial outpourings of "saccharine pity". It's not so far from here, in fact, to the even more depressing pantomime of the recent Royal Wedding, a cynically-orchestrated display of nationalistic pride in English tradition steeped in cloying sentimentality to form a sop for us poor disgruntled commoners, a feel-good Bank Holiday spree to distract us as our whole social fabric is ripped from under our feet.(Anyone who had the misfortune to read through the Carol Ann Duffy-endorsed collection of poems for the  Wedding in the Saturday Guardian the week before the event was given a dispiriting reminder of how firmly engrained those mawkish and complicit neo-Georgian orthodoxies remain.)
   Over and beyond his Introduction, Silkin's choice of poems in the anthology is excellent and inclusive, giving as much space to Modernist-inclined voices like Rosenberg, Herbert Read, David Jones and Richard Aldington as to the more familiar rhymed verse of the Georgian figures. He also seeks fresh perspectives on the war experience in contextualising the English writers with a generous smattering of European poems in high quality translation, begging the hypothetical question:how come most of our First World War poets were using conservative Georgian styles to confront the violence of conflict, while their German counterparts (like Trakl, Heym, Stramm and Klemm) were writing innovative, forward-looking Expressionist poetry that seemed to embody violence in its very language?
   I've just realised via Amazon that Silkin's collection has in fact been superseded by a more recent Penguin Book of First Word War Poetry edited by George Walter (2006). One suspects that the Silkin book was always too good to become a mainstream anthology or a big seller.