Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Embracing the Gap

  The belated recognition of Eileen Myles, as celebrated in an interview with Emma Brockes in The Guardian Review last weekend, seems one of those novelistic turnarounds of destiny which sees proponents of outsider-art eventually welcomed into the mainstream and applauded for all the qualities that made them weird and unpalatable twenty or thirty years ago when they were struggling for any kind of look-in. You usually find, moreover, that this volte-face of taste is less an arbitrary lottery-win than the reward for decades of unremunerative hard work, dogged persistence and stubborn self-belief. A veteran of the seminal St Marks Poetry Project and its artistic director in the eighties, Myles's poetry sits somewhere within the third New York School yet equally comes out of the movement of women’s poetry of the 60s and 70s: it foregrounds the voice of personal experience pushing uncomfortably hard against the alienating constraints and sharp edges of urban reality, couched in a slangy demotic candour that feels at once hard-won and throwaway. 

    I returned to Myles’s work in two big anthologies I frequently go back to as source-books for richly atypical writing: Up Late - American Poetry since 1970 (ed. Andrei Codrescu) and PostModern American Poetry - A Norton Anthology (ed. Paul Hoover). Its her O'Haran “personism”, her reluctance to separate lived experience from the experience of writing poems, which still seems so rawly compelling, and perhaps it's this that has endeared her to more recent readers who have misread her work as a set of transparent portals on a complex, unconventional personality: “The process of the poem…is central to an impression I have that life is a rehearsal for the poem, or the final moment of spiritual revelation…As I walked I was recording the details, I was the details, I was the poem”.

     This keys in with something Myles talks about in the interview about embracing the process of writing rather than always striving for crafted products: “it’s like how do you learn to write poems that look easy? Just writing in this wasteful way all day long.” This strikes me as intriguing in the context of Rebecca Watts’ phrase “the rejection of craft” as applied to poets like Hollie McNish (see previous post). Perhaps there can be a positive rejection of craft in the service of a focus on process and revelation which a poet like Myles embodies, as well as plenty of the various other “post-modern” poets in these anthologies, unified only in their repudiation of academic traditionalism.

     I say this as much as anything as a reminder to myself not to make a cult of craft and form as I have often done in the past; not to become bogged down in technical minutiae and endlesssly redrafting old poems rather than ensuring I invest enough of my writing process and myself into each poem to make it resonant, communicative and - indeed - alive. Serendipitously I find the opposite tendency summed up in a brilliantly mordant poem by August Kleinzahler on the adjacent page from Myles in the Norton book:

 “Too daunted to field what he might,
    (He) Takes refuge in a text
     of a text, 
     finding tickle points of nyceness
     there to stay him…

    Backing off from the authentic
     like a jackal from the lion’s scent”.
                                          (A Case in Point)

    I also warmed to Myles' definition of poetry and its physicality on the page which culminates the interview: "The difference between poetry and prose, and why if you're not acculturated to poetry, you might resist it: that page is frightening. Why is it not filled? The two categories of people who don't feel that way are children and prisoners. So many prison poets: they see that gap and experience it differently". Emma Brockes goes on to say, in a beautifully-turned sentence, "The gap, of course, is where we all live, in the space between conventional categories, and it has been the project of Myles's work to celebrate it; the indeterminacy of where one thing ends and another begins."

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