Thursday, June 11, 2009

Entering the conversation

Over at the Scoop Review of Books, James King has taken issue with my review of David Lyndon Brown's Skin Hunger:

[Scott's] review is so longwinded I had to have a cup of tea and a wee nap before I came to the end. I’m sorry if my comments come across as hostlie, but frankly I’m sick to death of academics writing deep and meaningless reviews that turn people away from poetry for fear they might not get it. Skin Hunger is too good a book to be turned away from.

I think James takes an interesting stance when he characterises reviewing as a form of journalism, and complains that lengthy or over-'academic' reviews of poetry books can 'turn people away from poetry for fear that they may not get it'.

James seems to see the involved and passionate discussions that can arise around poetry - discussions that can find venues in the introductions to books, in book reviews, in forums like this one, and even (horror of horrors) in academic seminar rooms - as impediments to the actual experience of poetry.

James is implicitly suggesting that there is a radical separation between the sort of experience that a poem gives us and a sort of experience that we have when we engage in intellectual debate. He seems to be suggesting that a poem communicates directly, bypassing the parts of our brain that we engage when we talk about, say, politics, or philosophy, or history. It is wrong, James seems to be saying, for us to read too much in to a poem, by interpreting and discussing it in terms of ideas and events which it does not directly respond to or describe. We should 'get' a poem, not think about it. Literary criticism should be no more than a species of journalism, supplying simple facts about the production and publication of texts.

I have some sympathy with James' stance. I think that academic discourse, in particular, can all too often disfigure the work of poets, by converting their images into ugly pieces of jargon, and turning their insights into 'concepts' to be moved about in irrelevant arguments.

Even outside the academy, there is a tendency to regard poems as more or less elaborate puzzles disguising some sort of 'message' which it is the reader's task to discover and ponder. Once the message has been extracted, the poem - the images, the turns of phrase, the shapes of the lines and the sounds they make - can be cast aside, like the rind of a fruit. I've been involved in several arguments with political activists who believe that the purpose of poetry, and of art in general, is to serve 'the people' by broadcasting didactic arguments to as large an audience as possible. There is no ontological difference, as far as these self-appointed commissars of culture are concerned, between a poem and a poster.

Although I sympathise with some of his points, I think James throws the baby out with the bathwater by implying that the experience of poetry owes nothing to the intellectual discourse surrounding poetry. David Lyndon Brown's Skin Hunger was launched on the same night as Ted Jenner's Writers in Residence, a book for which I wrote an introduction. On the surface, at least, Ted and David are very different writers: where David's poems are laconic and concrete, Ted's are long, self-conscious, and filled with very deliberate allusions to the classical world as well as twenty-first century geopolitics.

Titus asked me to say a few words about Ted's book, and I delivered a boozy, rather rambling talk filled with names like Heraclitus, Rimbaud, Hitler, and Ezra Pound. At one point, a fan of David's interrupted me to ask me when I was going to talk about Ted's poetry, or better still David's poetry. I could see his point.

All I could say, in my defence, was that I didn't know how to talk about Ted without talking about the other people I'd mentioned, and about the traditions in which Ted is immersed. As I see them, Ted's poems are part of a conversation - a frequently frustrated, sometimes angry dialogue, but a conversation nonetheless - with European history and culture: a dialogue about the relation between the ideal and the real, the relation of the individual to the collective, the meaning of democracy and human rights, and the place of the arts in society. We cannot really read Ted's work without entering into this discussion.

David Lyndon Brown might seem like a very different writer, but I think that his poems are also part of a conversation, or a set of conversations, and that it is the critic's job to describe and enter into these converations.

Let's examine 'Law and Order', one of the poems I mentioned in my review of David's book:

Don’t be deceived by the roses in that prim vase.
The nuzzling buds, the sluttish petals unfurling –
anther, stamen, pistil erect,
twitching for a fuck.

Outside in the hot dark, the sap simmers.
The grass shoots up green blades.
Pods burst.
The oleander thrashes at the glass.
Tendrils reach and grasp.

In the Serengeti a predator is tearing something apart.

The formal features of 'Law and Order' - its unrhymed free verse lines of carefully varied lengths, for instance - might not seem remarkable today, but one hundred and twenty years ago they would have made the piece unpublishable. For even the most forward-thinking English-language literary editors of the late nineteenth century, 'Law and Order's lack of a 'regular' rhythm and its wildly varying line lengths would mean that it could not even be considered a poem, let alone a 'successful' poem.

Only after a heroic struggle in the early twentieth century by modernist poets and - perhaps just as importantly - modernist literary critics, did the style which David uses win acceptance. Even today, nearly ninety years after TS Eliot published The Wasteland, there are many people who do not believe that a 'real' poem can be unmetered, or even unrhymed. The style of 'Law and Order' is not something that is 'natural' to David, something that we can 'get' without any knowledge of literary history. When David uses the style, and when we appreciate it, we are affirming a certain definition of poetry, and rejecting another one.

Without falling into the trap of making the poem into a mere vehicle for the delivery of a message, let's examine the argument which 'Law and Order' insinuates. David begins the poem by looking at the roses sitting inside in a 'prim' vase. Humans love to domesticate the rose, either in gardens or in flowerpots or in vases. The flower has often been used to symbolise beauty and refinement, but David rejects these connotations, and the dichotomy between the 'nice' and 'brutish' parts of nature which they both rely upon and reinforce. In a series of images that bring sex together with violence, David suggests a continuity between the apparently-innocent rose in the vase, the wild vegetation outside his window, and the violent predators of the faraway African plains.

Whether or not we find 'Law and Order' convincing, we cannot help reading it in the light of other texts. Blake's famous poem 'Tyger, Tyger burning bright', for instance, raises the question of the character of the natural world, and of the guilt or innocence of a God responsible for the ferocity of this world:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Blake left his questions unanswered, but others have not been so reticent. In his long sequence of poems Birds, Beasts and Flowers, DH Lawrence recognised and celebrated the ferocity of which the natural world is capable. Deeply distressed by the First World War, Lawrence was attempting to turn away from the human world, and find refuge in the innocent chaos of nature. For Lawrence, the violence of nature was not comprable to the violence of humans, because it was not the product of reason and malice. In his poem 'Snake', Lawrence reinterprets a creature that has often been made into a symbol of evil:

...he seemed to me like a king,
Like a king in exile, crowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again...

A quarter century later, the great Welsh writer Alun Lewis found in the forested mountains along the border between India and Burma an escape from a human world whcih seemed to have gone mad:

But we who dream beside this jungle pool
prefer the instinctive rightness of the poised
pied kingfisher deep darting for a fish
To all the banal rectitude of states,
The dew-bright diamonds on a viper's back
To the slow poison of a meaning lost
And the vituperations of the just.

Lawrence and Lewis offer variations on one of many possible responses to the problem that Blake's poem posed. Geoffrey Hill, who is often considered Britain's leading living poet, offers a very different vision of the ferocity of nature in his eary poem 'Genesis', where a mysterious, remote God deliberately introduces violence into the world in order to charge it with meaning:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
to ravage and redeem the world.
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

David Lyndon Brown's poem can be read as an uncompromising rejection of the gap which Blake perceived between the Lamb and the Tyger. Is it reconcilable with the vision of nature as a refuge from human life that Lawrence and Lewis seem to share? And could David ever endorse Hill's essentially Christian argument that violence and suffering are a necessary part of the universe, or does he recoil from the violence he perceives around him?

I am not suggesting that we need to have read Hill, Lewis and Lawrence, nor even Blake, to appreciate 'Law and Order'. Nor am I suggesting that some of the writers are simply 'correct' and others 'wrong' in their responses to the theme they share. I am offering poems like 'Snake' and 'Genesis' as examples of a complex and long-running conversation in which poets have faced up to a seemingly fundamental feature of human life - the isolation we feel from the natural world and the threat which that world seems to pose to us. David Lyndon Brown's poem acquires its meaning and value within that conversation. Reading and responding to David is not a matter of 'getting' the hermetic meaning of a single human, but of entering into a conversation which involves many writers, living and dead.


Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I've jsut jumped into the conversation, hopefully not causing any trouble in doing so.

I sympathize, having just experienced the same thing regarding an exhibition review over on Artbash:

I'm a tad nervous regrading the Jenner review now, but time will tell, as it always does.... at least it's shorter.

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