Friday, October 02, 2009

Big News about Cambridge Poetry



Look out! The inaugural issue of the Cambridge Literary Review has just been unleashed. It contains (among much more) an essay by Stefan Collini, new poetry by John Kinsella, J.H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland, and John Matthias, as well as a big feature on Cambridge Poetry — a feature marred only by my own contribution, "Public Faces In Private Places: Messianic Privacy in Cambridge Poetry."

"Public Faces" is a much-expanded version of a paper I gave at the Sorbonne last year (the proceedings of the conference will be published this fall by McFarland, and will be well worth a look). I suppose it's really based on the experience of seeing a bunch of the Cambridge poets read at the Elastic Arts Center in Chicago, right around the time Cambpo heavyweights John Wilkinson and Peter Riley were slugging it out in a battle royale about the political value of poetry in the back pages of the Chicago Review.

The essay starts like this:

My title comes from some lines of W.H. Auden’s in The Orators: “Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places.” Often, modern poets have presented their work as a matter of private faces in public places—that is, as the voice of private, authentic individual conscience entering the public sphere. Such a vision of poetry is, no doubt, fraught with its own problems and contradictions, but none of those concern me here. When we look at what has come to be known in some circles as Cambridge School poetry—the experimental poetry of Tom Raworth, John Wilkinson, Jeremy Prynne as well as Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, and Simon Jarvis, to name a few poets of the younger generation—we’re faced with a very different conception of poetry. We find ourselves asking a question something like this: what ought we to make of a school of poetry that has a strong public concern, but no appreciable public presence? In Auden’s terms, it is a poetry of public faces in private places.


The gathering of poetry and critical writing about Cambridge poetry in CLR looks strong. I hope the issue gets some play on this side of the Atlantic. The issue is available for $20, a bit steep sounding, I know, but it's a big brick of a thing, and worth the cash.

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In other news, it seems that the redoubtable Jacob Knabb of ACM took one look at Granta's recent special issue on Chicago, did a spit-take with his Old Style beer, nearly dropped his slice of sausage-stuffed deep-dish pizza, and declared the next ACM "Another Chicago Issue." If you're from the greater Chicago metropolitan area, send some work his way.

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UPDATE OCTOBER 7: Kent Johnson's got some interesting things to say about the Cambridge crowd.

24 comments:

  1. In fact, quite apropos, see my post on "The New British School," going up today or tomorrow, at Digital Emunction.

    Kent

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  2. Keston Sutherland4:45 PM

    It's a lively and interesting article, Robert. I'm very short of free time right now, otherwise I'd try a reply to it. But quickly, on the wing: I really don't see a "very real resentment" of "the kind of reader who reads poetry casually" in the email of mine you quote on p.212, in which, as any reader of your article can see for herself, I explicitly deny that I mean to disparage casual reading, and say only that "for Prynne" it wouldn't amount to "reading" his books just to buy them and flick through them. That's hardly the jeremiad of an agoraphobic high art cabbalist, is it? Neither do I "look back with affection" (p.213) on a time when Prynne's books were "circulated only among the truly devoted", whoever they might think they are. I publish the things and advertise them as widely as I can without a marketing budget, I teach them to students at Sussex, I've even managed to persuade Prynne, sometimes against his own instincts, to give big public readings. You wonder in sceptical tones on p.207 what the politics of Prynne's poem 'L'Extase de M. Poher' could be (hinting that there might be none, really). A good place to start is the title. Who was M. Poher? He was a candidate for the French presidency after De Gaulle stood down. The repetition of the isolated word "no" throughout the poem is a satire against what was called the ""No" Camp" in French politics in 1969-70. A detailed commentary on the politics of the poem is available in the last chapter of my PhD thesis. It's not just a poem about the collision of jargons -- lots of those around, of course -- it's about the ersatz dialectics of post-68 French domestic politics and how the mythologisation of Poher as a figure of principled intransigence actually functioned to disguise the creation of a new political "centre ground" on which sharp and clear distinctions between left and right ideologies could be blurred under the banner of an anti-divisive pragmatism. Prynne's political comment in the poem is not just "formal", it's a specific reckoning of an important moment in French history. Anyhow, back to the books. x

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  3. Thanks for the clarifications, Keston. We do read that post of yours to Keith Tuma's Britpo mailing list a little differently. Much hinges on the interpretation of what a "consumer" as opposed to a "reader" does. Here's a passage where, I think, we come to the interpretive crux:"the great majority of those consumers do take a look inside and maybe get to the end once or even twice." When you say you were referring to readers who merely flip through the book, you take the first part of the phrase as central; when I argue that you see the consumer as someone who reads the text but doesn't make it central to his or her life, I suppose I'm making the second part of the phrase central. I mean, getting to the end of Prynne's Poems once or twice is no mean feat. Anyway, I suppose the best thing we can do is simply to point to the text and leave it to those who care to judge for themselves.

    As for the specific politics of Poher -- it's true I didn't stress the context. I thought about it, read around, and talked with a colleague up on French politics to get a provisional sense of things, but went another direction, and I certainly didn't exhaust the interpretive range of the poem. I suppose I wanted to show the technique in the poem as typical of much of Prynne's work.. Not that your point isn't well-taken, but there seems to me to be a politics of form at work, one we find elsewhere in Prynne's work, and reading the passage the way I did was a way to point toward it, or so I'd hoped. And with regard to the politics of the specific moment, I believe one of my larger points (about the lack of effect of the kind of poetic politics at work, and about how this ought to matter) is still pertinent.

    I imagine we'll disagree a bit: you're quite close to the people and commitments involved, and I'm rather distant from them, and each of these positions imposes it's own kind of limitations.

    All best,

    Bob

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  4. Your essay appears to take a useful approach to a riveting topic.

    The simple and embarrassing question for the stream or "school" you set out to analyze is this : is it any good (as poetry)?

    Embarrassing for both critics & poets, since it seems we no longer have access to "tradition" (as this was understood say in Eliot's & Blackmur's time). In fact the notion of aesthetic judgement itself - as something independent from politics, ideology, cultural trends, etc. - is held to be rather suspect.

    I don't want to suggest that if we had such clear notions (of tradition, judgement), then the answer would be a simple & reductive thumbs up or down. But I do think that without some such preliminaries or axioms, everything ends up to be special pleading among feuding tribes.

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  5. >But I do think that without some such preliminaries or axioms, everything ends up to be special pleading among feuding tribes.


    Henry, ol' chap, you mean Eliot and the New Critics don't count as a tribe?

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  6. Easy to mock what I'm saying, Kent. & I deserve it too, since I was being unfair & provocative about something I haven't read. Certainly Prynne & K. Sutherland et al. have soared far beyond the "middlebrow" & its engagements, into super-refined airstreams of political semaphore, from peak to peak.

    Neither Eliot nor Blackmur were "New Critics" (I didn't mention the NC's, either).

    Let's just say I'm in mourning for an unrefined, unassimilable, unparaphraseable, non-coterie, non-elitist idiom, whose effects have not yet withered beneath grovic shades of suspicion or despair.

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  7. >Neither Eliot nor Blackmur were "New Critics" (I didn't mention the NC's, either).

    Of course, technically speaking.

    But you know what I mean...

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  8. Actually, Kent, I don't know what you mean. If Eliot & Blackmur are not part of the NC "group", how does your remark apply?

    & even if it DID apply - it's possible to imagine a theory of poetry (a poetics) which asserts two things at once : 1) a distinct & personal individuality of style in individual pets; and 2) a shared sense of the universality of literary values - which would render exaggerated groupings & "schools" as irrelevant distractions.

    It's possible to imagine, anyway.

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  9. p.s. I meant "poets", of course, not "pets"... although "pets" might make for a more profound & interesting, as well as hairy, theory..

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  10. Henry,

    As I'm sure you know, Eliot and Blackmur are indeed often spoken of in context of the New Criticism. Both of them had a big influence on NC, even as they had a complicated relationship with the group. That's all I meant by my last comment.

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  11. Keston Sutherland9:27 AM

    Thanks for your reply Bob. I guess I was thinking more about the series of Prynne's pamphlets, not the collected poems, when I made that remark about people flicking through them and even getting to the end. Many of the pamphlets are less than 15 pages or so. But yes, to get to the end of _Poems_ is a an uphill Parnassian stagger, for sure.

    As you note in your essay, the context of my email was a discussion with Chris Emery, the editor of Salt. I was responding, if I remember rightly, and I may not, to a remark he made about readerships that insisted on sales figures as the unarguable bottom line. I was pointing out that lots of people buy books without reading them, or speed-read them without thinking much about them, so that it needn't be especially exciting for a poet to know that a lot of her books had been sold -- not, in any case, so exciting as knowing for sure that even a few people had closely and carefully read them. Do you not feel that way? I mentioned Prynne because Chris or someone else already had. I don't resent people who buy books and don't read them, I do it myself all the time. In fact I love doing it, I'm an addict. I would though contemplate catatonia if I thought that most of the (very few) copies of my books that have been sold had been flicked through and not, you know, obsessed over like Dirty Dancing.

    Your question about the politics of the stuff is absolutely valid. But if you want a more direct and explicit politics than you'll find in Prynne, there are plenty of other places in "Cambridge" (though not actually in Cambridge, you understand) to look for it. Check out Andrea Brady's _Wildfire_ online, or Kevin Nolan's mindblowing _Loving Little Orlick_. That stuff goes much further, I would say, than Peter Riley's piece in _Chicago Review_ did, toward ransacking the pretensions of political poetry, anatomizing its hallucinations of moral and rhetorical power, and questioning, at once passionately and ironically, the basis of research and knowledge on which claims about distant suffering and our relation to it can be made (or avoided).

    Very best, K

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  12. Thanks, Keston. I'm probably not going to get back to writing about Prynne et al for another year or two. I'm working on a big book that treks slowly and ponderously through the social history of poetics from the 18th to the 21st centuries, and it'll probably end with Language Poetry and Cambridge Poetry (both disputed terms, but with us for the duration, I think). I've got a lot of work ahead of me filling in the blanks between Tennyson and Andre Breton right now. But this'll give me some time to not only read the titles you mention, but let them settle into the general conceptual framework.

    Best,

    Bob

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  13. I should also mention that I think this broken leg of mine, for which the immediate occasion was a bicycle accident, was really only a delayed reaction to the uphill Parnassian stagger of reading through Prynne's Poems.

    B.

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  14. Boris Jardine4:24 AM

    Extremely interesting on all fronts. And I'm happy to see that of the few sold, at least one or two copies of the Review are being read/responded to and not merely hurled as weapons or slow-burning in open hearths.

    I might add that a selection from _Tracking Wildfire_ w/notes and images will be appearing in issue #2 (+ Andrea tells me she has a publisher for it, though I can't remember the name top/head). You're right Keston, that sequence (I've not read _Orlick_) rises far above the morass of /discussion/ and just gets on with it, so to speak. Incredible stuff that should/could have many more serious readers.

    — Boris

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  15. Boris Jardine9:30 AM

    Addenda: the publisher of _TW_ will be Krupskaya, and the text is magnificently available here:

    http://www.dispatx.com/show/item.php?item=2062

    Some meantime & marginal thoughts: I really couldn't agree more that a lot of poetry is (and has been for a while I guess) taking on the problem of privacy and politics within its own boundaries. This strikes me as a kind of virtuous circularity, supported by a reflexive vocabulary not available in other genres (letters to journals, say). The easy generosity of the attitude/stance required by this poetry is gloriously at odds with the urgent/cogent realpolitik therein. On t'other hand, the question of readership seems of interest historically/practically, but not perhaps theoretically, hence the boundaries set by the Chicago Review to/fro start to look somewhat limited (& emerge as such in the above-mentioned)...

    — B

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  16. I'm not sure I followed that, Boris, though it seems you have something important to say. I think the bit I don't quite get is the theoretical importance / historical-practical importance distinction. Could run it by me one more time?

    I know, I'm one of the slow kids...

    Best,

    Bob

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  17. Hi Bob
    I just finished reading your essay, in between attempts to get my 15-month-old to read 'Maisy Goes to the Fair' on her own. Now she's in bed, so I have time to talk.

    I was gladdened to read it, and to know that there are (whatever Keston says) indeed readers - and readers gathered, far from Greenwich Meantime, into the nanosphere of the British micropresses. I think it's a very serious engagement with these poetries’ most significant and most problematic contention: that they are committed poetries, with political aspirations beyond the simple plundering of domesticated interiority for its symbolic potential.

    I am certainly aware of the problems with that contention, and the poetries are too. Depending on who we are reading, the poetries deal with those problems in very different ways. I suppose I’d want to hold onto those distinctions, even though I know that in introducing a large, various and sometimes grotesquely self-aware body of works to new readers it is helpful to be able to assert some continuities or shared qualities and aspirations, just so we have a starting line.

    So I’m not going to go into the particularities of what I view as the most important distinctions between the poetries of Prynne, Sutherland, Wilkinson, Jarvis, Riley and myself – to say nothing about James, Milne, Crozier, McDonald, Patterson, Pattison (N) and Pattison (R), Critchley, Mengham, Mendelssohn, Sheerman, and the countless others who we could associate with the CS. I will say that those distinctions make the term ‘Cambridge School’ a pretty coniferous lump for me to swallow. You’ve said here that you recognise its limitations too. Personally, I feel like I’m forever being labelled ‘Cambridge School’, even though I’ve lived in London for nearly twice as long as I was a gownie, and my time in the UK still adds up to far less than half my life. Throughout the time I did spend in Cambridge I felt distinctly female and distinctly American. I guess it was no accident that I ended up writing a chapter of my thesis on the way that 17th century literary coteries preserved the authority of patriarchal poets through agonistic self-definition and fantasies of all-male reproduction. But I didn’t see the resemblance at the time.

    So now I find myself teaching early modern literature at the Univ. of London, and this week we were working on exactly one of those patriarchs, rare old Ben Jonson. We were thinking about the stigma of print, and how Jonson reviled coterie literary styles and sought to dignify professional authorship through the publication of his ridiculously monumental 1616 Works. We discussed his first epigram, ‘To the Reader’, with its behest ‘To read it well—that is, to understand’. I told the students that this plea for understanders, for readers who shared the social, political, moral and aesthetic values, was an attempt to replicate in print the conditions of manuscript circulation – exclusivity, similitude, privilege.

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  18. Sorry for the history lesson. I suppose you can see where I’m going with this. It all seems so familiar: the construction of print as a democratic and politically progressive medium, but one in which private values could not be maintained; disdain for readers who had failed to prove their qualifications (as anyone who disagreed with or disliked the poetry did fail, by definition), etc. I suppose we’re all inclined to think one way or the other. But an enormous amount of scholarship on this period has revealed that manuscript was a form of publication, with political and social influence and efficacy; and like even the most ‘prominent’ of contemporary poetry books, early modern printed editions usually ran to less than a 1000 copies, which would mean that claims for their special effectiveness in disseminating politics or change is probably inflated. The networks of readers established by what might be decried as circulation in ‘private comforting confinement’ did more than challenge early modern politics: these networks completely transfigured European thought and society, and were the engineers of the Renaissance.

    Now, obviously, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. These coteries were privileged elites in stratified societies – much as we academics are now – but they were alot closer to the seats of power than we are. I don’t lay any claims to being the latest Erasmus! But I wanted to use this example as a way of outthinking the rather crude equation between publication in the ‘larger academic and commercial presses’ and the authenticity of a poetry’s claims to political efficacy. Certainly I see a problem with any poetry’s (‘messianic’) claim to change the world, to smash instrumental reason to bits with the hammer of d├ętournement. But it seemed important that you found that claim (to an ‘incidental political potency’) in a critical essay by John Wilkinson – or, more importantly, in a controversy he was having with Peter Riley. I think it would be much harder to find it in any of the poems, which are more likely to be awash with self-criticism for their impotence than boasts about smashing the state.

    I’m perfectly aware that my poetry isn’t going to change the world because it is ‘far from a mass movement’, as I wrote somewhere: it’s not part of the class struggle, energized by direction action or likely to inspire it. I can carry on writing it simply by thinking it will go down in history for future readers as a record of a peculiar dissidence. At times that in itself has seemed like a major accomplishment. At my most optimistic, I hope it encourages its readers – who, as readers seeking out this kind of work, aren’t likely to require encouragement – to think critically about politics, or perhaps to be inspired by such thinking to participate in collective efforts to overcome the tyrannies of capitalism. As a reader myself, I’ve been inspired by poetry to do what else I have done; and I would include, among my political acts, teaching, conversation, and collaboration. I think I share with other Cambridgey-types the belief that teaching this poetry in the universities where many of us are compelled to work is not hopelessly narcissistic self-advertisement, but rather a way of promoting creative, intelligent, belligerent... well, yes, resistance.

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  19. That’s Prynne’s word for it, of course. I’ve always said that I was influenced less by Prynne than by Frank O’Hara – not that you’d know it, I’m sure! I hope that as the large and various body of work which has had some connection to Cambridge in recent years is read and matures, Prynne will become less important as a totemic figure, and more important simply as a poet. I think the differences between his poetry and Keston’s are very substantial. As I’ve already suggested, I don’t really think that the existence of a Cambridge School can be predicated on Prynne’s example. If it did exist, then it existed between the years of the publications of the English Intelligencer and a Various Art. These days there’s a great deal of obscurity around, in Manchester, London, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Totnes. If Barque is the modern home of the CS, then that field stretches also to Paris, Berlin, China, New York and Winnetka. But if it’s all about geography, would we say that Dell Olsen is now Cambridge School, because she lives in the episcopacy? Do Justin Katko and Ryan Dobran know what they’re in for?

    Neither is it correct to claim based on Prynne’s examples that others of that ‘school’ are perversely or principally inclined to refuse invitations. So Prynne refused publication in Poetry Review? Keston and I didn’t. We’ve been on the radio. Keston was the poet-in-residence for the bloody Newbury Spring Arts Festival! – as you can see on a flier headlined ‘Mickey Salberg’s Crystal Ballroom Dance Band to play at the Lambourn Centre’. Sadly, though, no one from Oxford UP or Wesleyan has yet come calling. Given half a chance, one of us would probably take the offer: the new generation is full of media whores.

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  20. So there is some kind of notoriety slowly building up out there, and of course we can blame that on the internet. The digital age has much more powerful powers of distribution at its disposal than the early modern republic of letters – which is another way of saying that even poetry which is micro-published by a fly-by-night outfit like Barque can get halfway around the world. Unfortunately, the finer discriminations are inevitably going to get lost in transit, under this Cambridge School bill of lading – but also, a great deal of really important poetry does too. (I won’t list the examples, but you’ve heard some of them on the Archive of the Now.) On the other hand, maybe ‘Cambridge School’ is a smart branding exercise: it’s contentious enough to generate lots of valuable publicity.

    I don’t mean any of this to sound like an attack. I hope you don’t feel it is. This poetry does need intelligent readers and critics; I’d even go so far as to say that it is written in expectation of them. I’ve seen critics from beyond the Trumpington perimeter stick their heads above the parapet, only to be shouted down by the incredibly entrenched defence forces – and so decide to stop caring. I don’t want you or anyone who reads this to stop caring. I’m grateful to you for paying attention to this work, and to this long letter. And I’m very glad that we can have this debate about how a poetry can be actively and effectively political, a debate to which your essay makes an important contribution.

    all best
    Andrea

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  21. Okay! So I'm, currently deeply committed to watching the second quarter of the Notre Dame-Boston College game on TiVo, but want to take a moment to say thanks for this.

    I do want to address one small point, though: I think I said in the essay (which is all the way across the room right now) that I was interested in examining claims made for the poetry -- so that's why Wilkinson's essay was the source for much of my discussion, rather than poems themselves. Of course some poems do get a look-in, but the essay is really more about what we say about poems, rather than poems themselves.

    Very interested in the chapter of your dissertation on the 17th. Will have to get my hands on a copy.

    Anyway: more later, in the week ahead.

    Best,

    Bob

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  22. Okay! I finally found some time to write a proper response, or as close to a proper response as I can give this week. It's over here:

    http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/2009/10/letter-to-andrea-brady.html

    Best,

    Bob

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  23. Anonymous7:30 AM

    dear mr archambeau,
    a greek literature magazine is interested to publish some translations that i ve made and concern jagaziewski, transtromer,
    svenbro but they need your approval to proceed in the publishing
    i ve translated them by your wonderfull poetic magazine samizdat

    yours sincerely,

    arelis


    my email in the case that you want to communicate with me is the following

    eleftheriosarelis8@gmail.com

    eleftheriosarelis@gmail.com

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  24. Dear Arelis,

    I sent an email to the address you provided.

    Best,

    Bob

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