Thursday, October 29, 2009

Letter to Andrea Brady

Andrea Brady has left a string of comments by way of response to my article “Public Faces in Private Places: Messianic Privacy in Cambridge Poetry.” There’s much of interest in them, including this statement about what it felt like to be in Cambridge in the late 90s, around the Prynne circle:

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.

That says a lot, really. I wish I’d been able to incorporate it into the article! Anyway, Andrea’s comments merit a proper response. In lieu of that, I’ve written this. It probably belongs down in the comments stream of the post announcing the publication of the article, but it’s bulky, so it’s here instead.

Hey Andrea,

Thanks for the long, thoughtful response to the essay. I’ve written about a pretty wide range of poets over the years, and one of the things I like most about poets from the more experimental end of things is that they so often write back after one writes about their work. Most of the more formally conservative people don’t seem to want that sort of back-and-forth, though I did have a great exchange with R.S. Gwynn after I wrote about one of his sonnets a while ago.

Anyway. I understand your wariness about the term “Cambridge Poetry,” even when it comes with a string of disclaimers attached. I mean, it was the same way back when people started talking about Language Poetry — lots of people objected to it, and some felt oppressed by it. I remember Steve Evans talking about this back in the late 90s at a conference in Belgium. Here’s what I noted about it in a post-conference wrap-up report for Jacket:

Steve Evans made some good points afterward about the way poets have reacted to being labeled with the 'L= word' — nobody thinks it is quite right for them, but then again they see some parallels, and in the discourse about avant-garde poetry, one seems to be either a language poet or not to count at all, so poets seem to ultimately accept the label, albeit with reservations.

There were, and are, all sorts of problems with the term “Language Poetry,” which (as your local schoolmarm will tell you) started life as “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry,” referencing the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (I remember Jeff Derkson giving a paper called “Where have all the equals signs gone” around the time people gave up on typing them out). I suppose the two main reasons people stopped typing all those equals signs were 1. It was tedious as all hell, and 2. Whether a poem had been published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or not became incidental: the movement or tendency had become larger than that.

When you write that you’re “forever being labelled ‘Cambridge School’, even though I’ve lived in London for nearly twice as long as I was a gownie,” and when you ask “would we say that Dell Olsen is now Cambridge School, because she lives in the episcopacy,” I suppose you’re objecting to the geographic nature of the term. I get it. But I suppose what’s happened is that geography has become incidental, just as publication in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E became incidental to what was meant by Language Poetry. I use the term because that’s the term that seems to be coming into use.

One might — one should, I suppose — ask whether the term is, in the end, a good thing. I’m inclined to think that, like most words, it both reveals and conceals. Everything you say about differences between individual poets is true, and everything you say about periodization sounds right, too. I mean, I your idea of that the period “between the years of the publications of the English Intelligencer and A Various Art” may constitute a distinct moment — but even making this distinction would probably bring down a rain of bile on your head if you made it loudly enough. Someone would come along and quite rightly insist on the variety of poetic activity in the Cambridge orbit at that time. Still and all, I don’t think all generalization is always bad. If any of us really thought that, we’d be left with nothing to say but proper names, if those. And I do think there are a cluster of techniques, ideas, publication and reading venues, influences, and the like that we can speak of as related phenomena. I, too, don’t think Prynne is the only center of gravity in the constellation (Peter Riley was very keen on making sure I didn’t make that mistake, back when I first started taking an interest in things Cambridge). I suppose one could imagine a series of partially overlapping Venn Diagrams, or a cluster of vectors, many of which converge for a time, but each of which follows its own line of flight away from the moments of convergence. Anyway. I suppose I’m interested, for now, in what the term can reveal; while you seem more concerned with what it conceals.

The other thing I take from your response, beyond the questioning of the term “Cambridge Poetry,” is the question of the political claims made for the poetry, and the relationship between public presence and political ambition. My contention in the article was that the large political claims made for the poetry seemed out of whack with the actual potential effect of the poetry. And some of the claims really have been large.

The claims I cited included one from David Shepard, who described a Prynne poem as an attempt to “recombine a language fragmented into technical jargons,” incorporating the vocabulary of specialized discourses into his poetry and thereby “return[ing] this knowledge to the public sphere from its sequestration in the ivory tower.” This would be a hell of a feat, and hugely politically important. The logistics of it, though, would require a huge effort at outreach, at actually bringing alienating kinds of language into public discourse. Shepherd either didn’t quite mean what he said, or, like a lot of us, he substituted a political wish for a political reality — which would be a kind of sentimentality, really.

Another claim I mentioned came from N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge (whose book Nearly Too Much is, I think, essential stuff for anyone wanting to get started on reading Prynne). According to Reeve and Kerridge, the kind of poetry they discuss can “collide with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture" with the effect of "smashing them into pieces.” Poetry can certainly depict such a smashing. But the gulf between depiction and actuality gets glossed over here. The instruments of power continue on their way, despite the poets’ interventions (I think Bob Perelman’s poem “The Game” is about as good an examination of this situation as I’ve seen — anyway, it’s worth a look, if you haven’t seen it).

John Wilkinson makes some big claims, too — I know you found it a bit objectionable that I wrote more about his claims than about particular poems, but what I was interested in was the gulf between the large claims made for the poems and the actuality of the extent of their presence in the culture. Anyway, he has a high opinion of your work, and of Keston Sutherland’s. So do I, but not for the same reason Wilkinson presents — he says that you and Keston are writing at “a point of historical convergence” where your poetry might exercise “political potency.” Either Wilkinson’s sense of what political potency looks like is very different from mine, or he’s making claims that are quite unlikely to be supported by events.

I’m actually much more inclined to agree with your own sense of the political reach of poetry (or at least the political reach of poetry at this point, and in the first world), when you write that you “see a problem with any poetry’s (‘messianic’) claim to change the world, to smash instrumental reason to bits with the hammer of d√©tournement.” And I’m in sympathy with you when you say you are:

…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 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.

This isn’t the sort of claim I was taking issue with in the article. The type of claim I took issue with was the type that implied that the poetry was smashing the discourses of power, and returning specialist discourses to the public.

The tack I took in the article was to focus on the gulf between these big public claims and the relatively limited reach of the poetry. I found it particularly ironic that so many of these claims centered on Prynne, who really has turned his back on opportunities to have a wider public presence (not that he’s wrong to have done so).

I think you’re right to say that my article implies a “rather crude equation between publication in the larger academic and commercial presses and the authenticity of a poetry’s claims to political efficacy.” Some of this implication comes from the way I framed the article — between the words “public” and “private.” I suppose it’s no excuse to point to the original context of the article, as a paper at a conference on “The Public/Private Divide in British Poetry” at the Sorbonne. Anyway, I’m not at all convinced that publication and readership on the scale reached, and to the constituencies served by, any contemporary Western poetry press would lead to political change on a large scale.

Did you get a chance to know Reginald Shepherd? He died not too long ago, a terrible loss. In addition to being a fine poet, he was a clear-eyed thinker about poetry, and I learned a lot from our correspondence (not least because he’d mastered the Frankfurt school better than I). As a gay black man from the Bronx, he knew a thing or two about the need for political change. Here’s something he wrote about politics and poetry:

Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual. (Identity politics can be a useful organizing tool of social activism, though it can also lend itself to a group solipsism that blinds people to structural, systemic issues.) To blame literature, or culture as a whole, for social, economic, and political woes (or even to see it as central to their perpetuation) is evasive at best, dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as politics, in social commentator Adolph Reed’s trenchant phrase. But such posturing is much easier than doing the hard work of trying to change the world. “Cultural activism” is a poor substitute for real political activity, although we live in an era in which cultural matters are up for debate while fundamental economic and political questions are not, except on the often loud but frequently incoherent and usually ignored fringes.

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

I found that convincing when he wrote it. I find it convincing now.

Thanks, by the way, for adding this, at the end of your comments:

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 really don’t think of anything you’ve said as an attack — and I’ve found the response to the article so far to be generally positive, or to be critical in interesting and enlightening ways. I do wonder if people who have invested themselves in the poetry I discussed see the article as an attack. I don’t think it is, though I suppose it is an attempt to deflate some of the more inflated political claims made on behalf of the poetry. I doubt I’ll stop being interested — I also doubt I’ll ever be convinced by the kinds of claims I discussed, nor do I think it likely that I’ll ever be convinced that, because this kind of poetry is interesting and important, other kinds are not (this isn’t a claim you make at all, but Keston seems to take something of that Manichean view, setting the saved of Cambridge against the evils of the Culture Industry).

All best,



  1. Regarding geography : has anyone noticed that all the regionalistic or non-spatial "schools" of poetry - Language, Cambridge, NY, Black Mountain - are really local colleges of one UNIVERSITY - let us call it "S=C=H=O=O=L"? & that all of these regional colleges share certain things in common, to whit :
    1. a good Library
    2. Professors
    3. Coffee Shops

    4. Spare Time for Chit-Chat
    and - perhaps most importantly, if most elided -
    5. Some Cozy-Admirable-Stately-Prestigious Architectural Gems...

    examples : OxCam medievalism, NY Skyline, Black... Mountains, San Francisco Parks, Bridges, Pacific... ie. a locus amoenus, a cheery cum authoritiative setting

    - all five factors most conducive to that sine qua non of groovy avant-garde style, ie. the Formalism of Educated Chit-Chat (of which Bob's most pleasant, righteous & genial Blog is an excellent exemplar...)

  2. p.s. probably should have included these factors :

    6. some good dope, &/or other enablers of refined artistic exchange
    7. mysterious & charitable funding springs or Grace of God (may be one & the same)

  3. I loved Andrea comments, and I wish, like her, I could find a moment away from the family and business to address it properly. I'd add a few glosses. The first is to do with private manuscript circulation and the prevalent attitudes to publication in the 17th C which as far as I recall was considered rather vulgar. It would be insufficient to consider such remarks outside of the economic condition of the emerging British book trade and social literacy. The State controlled publishing licences, copyright licences, and sold them as monopolies and to a large extent the regulated market (much like that in communist China today) led to highly restrictive practices. It also controlled genres and reception. This was fiercely resisted and indeed pirate editions of classics and contemporary works without licence were frequently contended in the courts. The big change also came when writers began to consider their own trade and to flex their muscles in the emerging publishing industry. Poets rather than being peripheral figures, became important players in this new world and poetry was feature of many London lists. In fact, one could argue that the notion of classics emerged in part as the lucrative reprinting of copyright works under State control within newly emerging markets, the educated middle classes and merchant classes. Though the real explosion in literacy would only come and with the Victorians and Victorian poets were vociferous in their demands for cheap books, no net book agreement and free markets. I think it's hard for a largely institutional poetry to truly imagine itself as a resistance, much as I respect Andrea and her commitment to this, it does seem fanciful. I've argued for some years that the problem with the aims of much of the poetry under discussion is its misunderstanding of how the book trade and readerships actually operate. You can't control readers, or prescribe their means of reading, and it seems an absurd desire to pursue. I can fully understand that in terms of a coterie (and nothing wrong with that) but one would have to separate that as a readership from the rest of literate society.

    The other thing I wonder about, is now we know that these conditions and literary techniques have failed, what do we imagine we would need to innovate to make them more successful? I'm with Bob here and the wonderful Reginald that one has to pursue efficacy above a foppish adherence to some idea of readerly purity.

    But finally, can one really extract poets and poetry from their history as a consumer-orientated genre fuelled by steam presses, trade, legislation et al?

  4. Thinking about this a little more, and about this idea of a privileged readership, perhaps we're seeing a kind of Galtonian emanation, a readerly eugenics emerging, where stupid people aren't allowed access to poetry and the poetry and its politics aren't for the stupid poor, but for the ... well, it's an interesting line of thought. Didn't Peter Porter quip something like it good to get Marxism off the streets and back in the universities where it belongs?

  5. Andrea Brady5:48 PM

    Hi there,

    Bob, thanks for your remarks. Not much time (I should load that as an automatic script in my computer), but I just wanted briefly to respond to Chris's interesting posts. At the risk of going REALLY pedantic, I'd have to say that much of what is ascribed here to 17th century publishing practices is quite wrong, in fact wildly so. It's not really what we're talking about, so I will resist the urge to explain how, unless anyone is really really curious!

    But more broadly, I made the comparison not to 'extract poets and poetry from their history', but to suggest that other arrangements have been historically possible, even dominant; and this seemed perhaps a slightly less tediously predictable way of re-approaching the question than by saying, deeply shadowed by the wide-brimmed theory hat, that we need to 'interrogate' ideas of 'the public' and 'the private'.

    The claim that what is emerging in these debates is a 'readerly eugenics' strikes me as incredibly offensive polemical nonsense. I spoke briefly in my letter to Bob about how important (and political) I think the work of teaching is, among other kinds of political activity: not in developing readers for my work and that of my peers, but in developing readers full stop. I understand, Chris, that this may seem very elitist to you, but my students -- while hardly stupid -- include many who are indeed poor.

    I wonder if Salt, with its society-page parties for rock jewellers and duchesses, has really kept its street cred? Judging from the near peril of your operation over the last year, I'm not so sure that despite the ambivalences (or catholicities) reflected in your list, that your business model allows for much triumphalism, even in the very particular accomplishment of 'understanding of how the book trade and readerships actually operate.'

    all best

  6. I would love to know more about publishing in the 17th century. I've got a general since of things from the late 18th on, but things must have been fascinatingly alien back then. Seriously: has your diss been published?


  7. That wasn't meant to offend, Andrea! More to resonate with those assumptions, not yours, that success has no relationship to readership, or that one readership has more value than another. And that some readerships are undesirable.

    I'm certainly not attacking people on this, especially you. I don't have my book history books here, but I was thinking of the Stationer's Company and Christopher Barker and the 1662 Printing Act and, I suppose, what I'm getting at is that we often consider literature outside of the economic forces which bring it into being, and that the histories can't possibly take into account what was unread in its time and have been left unread since (or destroyed). And that this condition has altered in modern times due to new technologies which enable us to see the unread, and the marginally read. And I'm not intending to purport any form of triumphalism about sales, and Lord knows, I do know about those and they're hard to come by.

    Do you see where I'm coming from? There's an economic context to literature, and in many cases someone chose to take a punt on a writer and that punt sometimes pays off and what we're left with over time is he aggregation of successful punts.

    We need to understand why markets emerge for writers and what economic forces are conducive to them.

    I think stupid people are entitled to poetry, and my point about a eugenics isn't aimed at you but at those who think that general readerships are to be opposed, set aside, or marginalised as "audiences". Wasn't that precisely what Galton was after and which many adhered to in seeking political improvement?

    I ought to add that I'm not suggesting that Dan Brown is the guardian of god letters, it's a debate that Dickens and Tennyson were of course a part of. There is still a multimillion pound poetry business out there and it's important to understand its dynamics. I'm not trying to preach business though, and I'm not thinking of Barque in relation to its standing in the book trade today, more about the explosion of self-publishing. I am however not convinced that the work you do cite can constitute a resistance. And I do think that the innovations — their political premises and intentions — could be said to have now failed, and I don't think it's anything other than pragmatic to ask, what next?

  8. The whole question of the relation of poetry to the market — succeeding or not succeeding there, and on what terms, or spurning it deliberately, and seeking a different criterion of success — is fascinating. I've been working away on a book about the idea of poetry's autonomy from market forces (as well as its autonomy from political and ecclesiastical powers) for a while, trying to trace the idea from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century. So far I've done bits on Shaftesbury, Addison, Schiller, Arnold, and a big bit on Coleridge. Working on Tennyson, where market forces vs. aesthetic autonomy come into fascinating conflict. Also did a bit on Surrealism and Langpo (called "The Aesthetic Anxiety -- its out in a book called Art and Life in Aestheticism), and a chapter on New Criticism and I.A. Richards. I think the Cambridge essay may find its way into the book, but it'll be a few years yet. Need to finish the Tennyson and work something up on Yeats.

    Anyway -- I think it's true that if we want to have any idea what it is we're doing when we write poetry, we need to look at the social, economic, and intellectual history of the art. Otherwise we're sort of flying blind.


  9. Somthing not entirely irrelevant to all interview with Kent Johnson, at The Argotist Online. Topics including innovative poetry and politics, younger UK poets, audiences and forms etc.

  10. Bob, there is something that narks me about this particular discussion on "Cambridge" poetry. You rightly say that Prynne is not the only game in that particular town; but equally, Cambridge poetry itself is NOT an adequate metonym for British innovative poetry, as you seem to imply by your comparison with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/'language" tag. That swiftly became a shorthand in the US for a wide range of poets writing in non-normative ways (it was even applied to me on one occasion!). It doesn't work in quite the same way for Cambridge poetry in a UK context.

    Incidentally, is Tom Raworth a "Cambridge" poet? Well, he lived there for some time - but in his formative years as a poet and small press editor he was in London. I associate him with Lee Harwood (they shared a Penguin Modern Poets volume with John Ashbery, a seminal book for me) - who has lived in Brighton for many years. Now Kent Johnson says Brighton is where the action currently is - but I suspect that's because Keston Sutherland has recently moved there and is organising readings etc, and not because of Lee's presence. You see, it's all very confusing.

    I'm about to publish the Collected Earlier Poems of Bill Griffiths, in the opinion of many a highly important player in the British poetry revival of the early 70s (of which the Cambridge thing was part) - but he would never have been considered "Cambridge", and for that reason is just the kind of poet who is liable to be airbrushed out of the discussion when it is framed in those terms.

  11. Messianic is moving in right derection, it is a gift

  12. Ken, I'm sure Robert Sheppard's Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetics will try to redress the balance. That may be one of its motivating forces.

  13. I would continue to argue the point of convergence. The example I have in mind is Auden. I expect publishing figures for Poems 1930 are obtainable, but I would be surprised if the book was notable for market penetration. But when it comes to cultural saliency that's another matter, and notoriously became an embarrassment to the post-Spanish Civil War Auden. While there are revisionist accounts of 30s English poetry which seek to marginalise Auden, the pervasiveness of his diction and tropes through poetry, fiction and even film of the period is remarkable, and evidently promoted in many artists and writers the sense of simultaneously belonging to a slightly dangerous and obscure sect, and participating in a large historical movement. And the readers and viewers felt themselves to be initiates too. I'm not suggesting that Auden was an effective agent of the Comintern, but he certainly influenced a political-cultural climate. As indeed, at a later time, did Ginsberg.


  14. Sure. But we'd need some way to actually MEASURE the political impact of Auden or Ginsberg, and compare it to other means of influencing politics. Until then we really don't have as much to go on as we should.

    I don't, in the end, think that poetry in contemporary first world situations has a significant impact on the distribution of power. But if you asked me to actually measure this, I'd have as little to go on as you do -- general assertion and anecdotage. I suppose for me the burden of proof is on those who make the claim that poetry is an effective way of doing politics, compared to other ways. And for me politics does have to do with effects in the field of power. Maybe you want to define it all differently.


  15. Keston Sutherland5:42 PM

    Ken --

    Brighton has been attracting notice as a centre of poetry activity for some time now. Kent wasn't the first to remark on it. Even the BBC thought it worth a mention. Neither is it just because I live here that the city is thought to be a centre, though I'm grateful for the idea, which turns me on very violently. Other local (or very recently local) poets include, as you say, Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood, but also Michael Kindellan, Sara Crangle, Daniel Kane, Jennifer Cooke, Jonty Tiplady, Joel Duncan, Anna Ticehurst, Mike Wallace-Hadrill, Gareth Farmer, Alex Pestell, Richard Parker, Francesca Lisette, Alan Hay, Jefferson Toal and Josh Stanley. J.H. Prynne is now an honorary professor at Sussex, too. There are at least three reading series in the city and one on campus, and next year there'll be a major international poetry event at Sussex. Good times! Come along to the next Chlorine reading upstairs at The Hope later this month to hear Rodefer and others, you can meet all these people.

  16. No no, I don't think I have argued that poetry is a good way of doing politics. This is not an argument about instrumentality. The perverse, the determined thing would be to abjure politics in poetry; it would require an iron exercise of will and would fail because the reception of a poem cannot be politically antiseptic. It's hard enough to keep footwear free of politics. To determine that a practice (so general across cultures) whereby human beings seek to articulate their relationship with the world and each other as being anything other than survival and submission and aggression and exploitation and to create a symbolic order in which their most basic activities can be brought into rhythmic relation with their most impossible hopes and imaginings, whether in the blues or in Prometheus Unbound, that this should somehow stave off politics... that seems impossible. It isn't a matter of a judgment that the effort should better be invested in 'practical politics'; to think about the usefulness of poetry in any connection but keeping a few of us in a job – well, we would have to be screwy to be going this stuff as the product of sensible judgement. The shaping power of Shelley's poetry was of such an order that it could only generate a violent friction and reaction in contact with the corrupt political world. This was not through sensible judgment. The health care debate here demonstrates as clear as day that the legislature is bought, lock stock and barrel: doesn't the attempt to make a complicated but habitable whole out of what we inhabit feel sullied and corrupted by that? Can we be assuaged by prettinesses? This isn't prescriptive, indeed it is not, but even lovers of beauty as dauntless as Barbara Guest, to take a recent instance of a great symbolist poet, struggled against the incursions of the political days.

    Well goodnight

  17. Thanks for this, John.

    Before we really get our wires crossed here, I suppose I should say this:

    --I do not think poetry is set apart from politics. I suppose nothing is, really, though there are degrees of engagement.

    and this:

    --I do think you have made arguments for the political efficacy of some experimental poets (I quote some bit not all of these in the Cambridge Literary Review article)

    and this:

    --I think, with all respect, those claims are longer on aspiration than on evidence


    I'm setting this next bit apart with an asterisk because it's a separate deal, one that doesn't address actual claims but hypothetical ones, and so risks muddying the issue. But I'd like to add that if one were to justify one's poetic practice on the grounds of political efficacy alone (again, I don't think this is you, this is a hypothetical extreme case) then one would need either to admit one is probably deluded about the nature of poetry's political power, or one would need to admit another reason for poetry, in addition to politics, since if politics were the main rasion d'etre for poetry, and the political efficacy of poetry was dubious, one would have to pull a George Oppen after Discrete Series and do something else.



  18. John,

    This is interesting, but I have a hard time untangling it:

    "To determine that a practice (so general across cultures) whereby human beings seek to articulate their relationship with the world and each other as being anything other than survival and submission and aggression and exploitation and to create a symbolic order in which their most basic activities can be brought into rhythmic relation with their most impossible hopes and imaginings, whether in the blues or in Prometheus Unbound, that this should somehow stave off politics... that seems impossible."

    I have a general notion of what you are getting at in his sentence, but nothing more than that. Maybe you could break it down for me?

    I mean, the middle bit, before you bring the syntax of that big periodic sentence around and say "that this should somehow stave off politics... that seems impossible" is very interesting. I think you're getting at your notion of poesis and its relation to anti-instrumental aspirations. But I'd like to know more clearly what you have in mind.

    I'd like too understand more clearly where you're coming from. I think it'd actually help me in reading your poetry.



  19. Bob makes some good points, as does John. I think Bob's points, though, are, perhaps, a more accurate measure of the reality, however much one may sympathise with John's. I find the Shepherd quote hard to gainsay, as it conforms to experience.

  20. I found this short piece called "Can poetry be political"

    It's a report on a discussion in 2002 at the Goethe Institut on this topic. It's only short, and is just a summation of the various positions debated, but it may be relevant here.

  21. Keston Sutherland2:24 PM

    What I don't understand, Bob, is why so much effort should be spent in deflating a claim which, as you say, could only ever be made in a "hypothetical extreme case". It simply isn't a claim that anyone I know ever made, or even came near to making. Who in the whole history of poetry ever made it? The most ambitiously political poets who ever lived -- Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Pound, Brecht, to name just a few -- never made that claim, but neither did they think it worthwhile to devote their energies in the discussion of politics and poetry to deflating it. Why would they?

    I come back to my question on the UK list: what is the psychology of our insistence on that specific deflation? Why are you personally so intent on it? Why do you not want to talk about the psychology of it as an instance of highly virtualised scepticism? I press that last question not at all because I think it might get you into any sort of corner (I have no wish to see you in one!), but only because, as I say, I think it's interesting that sceptical discussions of the relationship of politics to poetry are so often limited to dismissing a plainly extravagant idea that no-one credits. I think the unexamined, unchallenged repetition of that dismissal has some significant influence on poetry itself. Do you agree? If you do, what do you think its influence might be?

  22. Keston,

    The article refutes actual claims made by actual people. They are actually quoted.

    I suppose I was right to fear muddying things by introducing the hypothetical case above.

    To be clear:

    -- there are real people (Wilkinson among them, Kerridge and Reeve and others) who claim that there is political efficacy in the poetry I wrote about.

    --the hypothetical I mention above is a claim that poetry is justified ONLY by politics. This claim is not the claim I address in the article, since no one makes it (I mean, neither JW nor K & R nor David Shepherd says the poetry is motivated ONLY by the idea of political efficacy, though they DO claim the poetry HAS political efficacy) (a claim I address in the article you find so objectionable).

    I introduced it thinking it would show there is a position more extreme than the one I refuted.

    Keston -- I think I've explained on the Britpo list WHY I wrote the article, after you asked there if only sadism could motivate someone refuting claims like those I refute. As I said there, I'm interested in why people make claims that seem to have so little support. Looking into this can tell us a great deal about what we think we're doing, and why, when we write poems. I really don't see myself as out to hurt anyone -- of course you said you didn't mean that I was a sadist. I really don't know who you have in mind.

    You also said no one made those claims about the political power of the poetry. I really don't think that's true. I gave quote sources in the article (Wilkinson, Kerridge, Reeve, D. Sheperd, not to be confused with R. Shepherd) I mean, you keep saying "no one credits" the idea that experimental poetry has political power. On the very list where the discussion took place, David Lloyd wondered whether there were more effective means of doing politics than poetry.

    My investigations into poetry and politics aren't limited to this current discussion, you know. I've been working on the question historically, as well as I can, and have done work on many poets from the late 18th century on, so there's no singling out of a particular moment.

    Again -- maybe you see it differently, but I do see people crediting the claim that there is political efficacy in experimental poetry.



  23. Dear Bob

    I've been unable to catch up for the past few days, but I see there have been further responses and a sharpening of tone all round. Let me just go back a step to your questions.

    I think that clarity about where I'm coming from is one thing I would find it difficult to help with. This is not some kind of modernist slipperiness, but fundamental to what my writing struggles with. I don't mean that I'm especially interested in the 'big questions' – I'm almost embarrassingly uninterested in them – but that oscillation between a stupefied unity and an exhilarating and terrified dispersal feels like the condition my writing, o, doesn't 'negotiate' but it seeks and sometimes finds briefly stable intensities within this field of tension.

    Enough of 'me'. What you summarise is fine. Yes, 'longer on aspiration', and accepting no limits on that. This art is impossible, and to justify it absurd. So either you knuckle down to reasonable estimation, in which case the choice of poetry puzzles me, or go with the utmost claims. Incidentally I don't think much of where Oppen went, and if I can advertise, I have an article forthcoming in Critical Inquiry which will explain that.

    Anyway, puzzlement about your reason, sweet and unsweet, in this is where Keston and I converge at the tail of this exchange.

    All the best

  24. I suppose I'm puzzled by why you and Keston are puzzled -- I became interested in an area of poetry and poetics (for what are ultimately selfish reasons: I want to understand why we write poems -- there seemed to be a fascinating and relatively informed/conscious set of explorations and explanations in the poets under consideration, and the focus on the social situatedness of poetry was important). I then thought that some of the claims about the poetry were powerfully felt but not supportable. I wanted to begin looking into that contradiction (I recognize that there are people who don't see it as a contradiction).

    The defensiveness has puzzled me -- a defensiveness that includes questioning the motives of an act of critical inquiry.

    So we puzzle each other. Perhaps that's good.


  25. John,

    Looking back over this, I'm struck by this passage from your last comment:

    "'longer on aspiration', and accepting no limits on that. This art is impossible, and to justify it absurd. So either you knuckle down to reasonable estimation, in which case the choice of poetry puzzles me, or go with the utmost claims. "

    So -- if I understand this correctly, you're saying that that your project in poetry is absurd is unjustifiable, but you're sticking with it anyway?

    I am honestly not trying to do anything right now except to understand you (I mention this because you seem so suspicious of my motives). I mean, it sounds like we're actually in agreement about these matters.

    (And if this is your position, of course it stands to reason you'd "not think much" of Oppen's actions).



  26. Dear Bob

    I think we're the only ones left standing. Anyway, my answer is Yes. I'd better expand on that just a little.

    Like many Brits of my generation I'm haunted by the announcement that There is No Alternative. Thatcher's lesson was rammed home by Blair. And it's repeated here and is being so again under/over Obama, not because he is stupid or malignant but because room for manoeuvre is so restricted within this financial/economic logic, accepted by Chinese as much as Europeans and Indians, and resisted only by dictators careless of their people and by religious fanatics. The best minds of my generation believed they could teleport themselves beyond these bars with Theory's aid. The end of that is to be seen in fatuous slogans on art gallery walls.

    As a perpetrator of what intensities I can contrive (as I perceive them) through poetry, I feel that such intensive devices cannot be justified in reasonable terms. I hope to find places of resistance, but I doubt if even I can join me there. Strange concentrations amidst the routines.

    I love and envy the grace of Frank O'Hara, the sinuousness, the endlessly intelligent negotiation. Some of us can only make traps and structures, having no memory. I know that seeking pertinaciously to be free in this art points to a world of choice which is as fraudulent as all such offers. I think my traps and structures try to be consistent and bounded worlds, somewhat like Bernal Spheres.

    Doesn't that mean my answer is Yes?


  27. Thanks, John. And now, with just you and me standing in the room the morning after the party, I think we can shake hands and head off into the day.

    Thanks for sticking it out and talking it through,