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├ętournement.” 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,

Bob