Monday, May 10, 2010

Cambridge Poetry and Political Ambition

Back in the summer of 2008 I spoke at the Sorbonne about the poetry associated with Cambridge and J.H. Prynne, and tried to understand what I took to be some of the more grandiose political claims made on behalf of the poetry (that it "smashes the discourses of power" and the like). The Cambridge Literary Review published a longer version of the Sorbonne talk in their inaugural issue, and that essay's just been published in the U.S. in Emily Taylor Merriman and Adrian Grafe's new book Intimate Exposure: Essays on the Public-Private Divide in British Poetry Since 1950.

The essay kicked up a bit of a stir when it appeared in England. At first I wasn't sure why, since I didn't think it attacked the poetry, just some of the less supportable, more Utopian claims for what poetry could accomplish. But as the scuffle went on and on, I got a better look than I'd had at the conditions that seem to have made so many of the poets associated with Cambridge a bit prone to defensiveness. They really do seem to face a climate of hostility in the larger poetic community, a hostility greater by orders of magnitude than that faced by their American counterparts in experimental poetry.

Since the good people at the Cambridge Literary Review have made the letters section for the second issue available online as a PDF file, I thought I'd take the liberty of posting Andrea Brady's response to what I wrote, and my own fumbling response to her. For the record, I think Andrea Brady makes some very level-headed and sound comments, and knows more about these things than I do. But I don't think I made an equation between "publication in the larger academic and commercial presses and the authenticity of a poetry’s claims to political efficacy." If I did make that equation, I was wrong: I don't think any poetry in England or America, at the moment, has a political impact of any major scale (for reasons larger than any particular poet's efforts — I try to analyze why this is the case in a big article called "The Discursive Situation of Poetry" that will be coming out in an as-yet-untitled book edited by Mary Biddinger next year) (I expect a bunch of people will be angry at that article, since one of its premises is that we can't just will ourselves to be agents of political efficacy, that larger objective conditions have to be right, and that those conditions determine both our consciousness and our field of impact) (but I digress).

Anyway: this isn't to say that poetry can't aim at politics, express political viewpoints, or have the kind of small-scale impact that many other kinds of actions (teaching a history class, writing an article on sociology, attending a rally, talking to your friends, ranting in your blog) can have. I mean, I don't think Andrew Motion changes the political climate appreciably more than does John Wilkinson. Of course poetry helps in its tiny way to change consciousness, just like many other things do. But British Petroleum does what it does with equal disregard for iambs and disjunctions. I think Andrea and I agree, more or less, about this.

The other thing I'd add at this point is a bit of a rejoinder — not so much to Andrea individually as to a bunch of us, including me, in the critico/academic/alt-poetry multiverse. Many of us have at one time or another turned to the idea of poetry, and the teaching of poetry, as acts of political resistance. The rejoinder to this notion of resistance-politics comes in a comment Alain Badieu once made about Gilles Deleuze. For Deleuze, says Badieu, "nothing was interesting unless it was affirmative. Critique, ends, modesties... none of that is as valuable as a single affirmation."


Dear Cambridge Literary Review,

I was gladdened to read Robert Archambeau’s essay in Cambridge Literary Review issue 1. It is an intelligent and serious engagement with the poetries erratically gathered under the name “Cambridge School,” and with their most significant and problematic contention: that they are committed poetries, with political aspirations beyond the simple plundering of domesticated interiority for its symbolic potential. It is also offers, in spite of itself, a kind of reassurance that there are indeed readers for this poetry, readers gathered far from Greenwich Meantime, on the shores of Lake Forest Illinois, into the nanosphere of the British micropresses.

I am certainly aware of the problems with that contention. The poetries are too, and deal with those problems in very different ways. I want to hold onto the distinctions among their strategies and qualities, to the point of questioning the validity of the term “Cambridge School.” But I also know that protesting about the designators is something of a cliché when it comes time to respond to synoptic pieces like Archambeau’s, and 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 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 differences between the poetries of Prynne, Sutherland, Wilkinson, Jarvis, Riley and myself—to say nothing about the countless others who we could associate with “the CS”; I’ll simply say that the term remains a pretty coniferous lump for me to swallow. Personally, I feel like I’m forever being tagged “Cambridge School,” even though I’ve lived in London for twice as long as I was a gownie, and my time in the UK still adds up to far less than half my life. When I did live in Cambridge I felt distinctly female and distinctly American. I’ve always said that I was influenced less by Prynne than by Frank O’Hara; my commitment to a politicized art predates any serious reading of Prynne, and even now I have profound misgivings about the political methods of Prynne’s late poetry. During my five years as a student and one as a worker in Cambridge, I was seriously afflicted by the gentility and ancientness and patriarchy of the place. I guess it was no accident that I ended up writing a chapter of my doctoral thesis on the way that seventeenth-century literary coteries preserved the authority of patriarchal poets through agonistic self-definition and fantasies of all-male reproduction. I didn’t see the resemblance at the time.

So now I find myself teaching early modern literature at Queen Mary University 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 ridicu- lously monumental 1616 Works. We discussed his first epigram, ‘To the Reader’, with its behest “To read it well—that is, to understand.” We recognised that this plea for understanders, for readers who shared social, political, ethical and literary values, was an attempt to replicate in print the conditions of manuscript circulation—exclusivity, similitude, privilege—but that Jonson was trying to use his poetry’s moral and aesthetic authority to create his readers while still prospering from commercial circulation.

Sorry for the history lesson. I suppose you can see where I’m going with this. It suddenly seemed like a familiar predicament: the construction of print as a democratic and politically progressive medium, but one which many authors experienced as subject to internal and external censorship, stylistic constraints and the pressure to dumb-down; the struggle to maintain private values and still recruit a public audience; disdain for readers who had failed to prove their qualifications (as anyone who disagreed with or disliked the poetry did fail, by definition); the need to trade the exclusivity of manuscript for the public authority to be garnered from print. Many of these characteristics are attributed to “private” and “public” forms of circulation in Archambeau’s essay. While his terms are open to question—not least because the limited circulation for all poetry, distributed by micro- or macro-press, by internet or letterpress, is so incredibly small—the comparison with early modern publication systems might help open the discussion up a bit further.

Scholarship on that period understands manuscript to be a form of publication, with political and social influence and efficacy. Like even the most “prominent” (Archambeau’s term) of contemporary poetry books, early modern printed editions usually ran to less than a thousand copies; so it is inaccurate to claim that print quaprint was especially effective in inducing political change. But most importantly, the networks of readers established by what Archambeau might decry 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.

Obviously, there’s been a lot of water under the Bridge of Sighs since then. These coteries were for the most part privileged elites in stratified societies—much as we academics are now—but they were a lot closer to the seats of power than we are. I’m not saying that Prynne is our 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 flatten instrumental reason with the hammer of détournement. But it was telling that Archambeau found that claim (also, to an “incidental political potency”) in critical essays by John Wilkinson – or, more importantly, in a controversy he was having with Peter Riley. 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 direct action or likely to inspire it. I can carry on writing it if I think it will be available to 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 Cambridge types the belief that engaging with 300 or more students every week in debates about literature, politics, rights and forms and language, is a political and ethical activity. When I teach difficult late modernist poetry (including the most recent poetry written by my peers) alongside the tweedy canon, I hope I am not being a hopelessly narcissistic self-advertising git. I consider it my pedagogical duty to those students, to examine with them the full range of alternatives to the regal discourses of jargon and bathos and greed. They can take what they want. I say this not because Archambeau has thrown the typical stink-bomb at the politicized poets who are also ghosts in the universities’ ivory machine, but because lecturers, who spend their working hours immersed in critique and negativity, can be a very masochistic bunch when it comes to describing the politics of their work. I think it’s worth proclaiming publicly that that work is a kind of activism, which promotes creative, intelligent, belligerent… well, yes, resistance.

That’s Prynne’s word for it, of course. 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, the TLS anti-celebrity, and more important simply as a poet. In my view the existence of a Cambridge School should not be predicated on Prynne’s example: not on the example of his poetry, or of his attitudes to its circulation and promotion. If the Cambridge School
did exist, then it existed between the years of the publications of the English Intelligencer and A Various Art. But these days there’s a great deal of obscurity around, in Manchester, London, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Totnes; is all this poetry not “Cambridge School” unless it is branded with the mark of Prynne? If Barque is the modern home of the CS, then
that field stretches also to Paris, Berlin, China, New York and Winnetka. If it’s all about geography, would we say that Dell Olsen is now Cambridge School, because she lives in the episcopacy? Do the most recent Yankee immigrants Justin Katko and Ryan Dobran know what they’re in for?

Neither is it correct to claim based on Prynne’s example that others of that ‘school’ are perversely or morally inclined to refuse invitations. So Prynne demurred when Poetry Review came calling? 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.” We’re not refusing a mass audience or a university press on principle, we’re just waiting to be asked. The new generation is full of fame whores. But Archambeau’s article among others shows that there is some kind of notoriety slowly building up out there; the nasty sniping which Jeremy Noel-Tod among others has rebuffed shows that the poetry is public enough to get up the nose of Craig Raine. 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, thankfully, to our comrades in Illinois. The Archive of the Now, the free digital repository of recordings of contemporary poetry which I run at QMUL, has a fanbase on Facebook that extends to Japan, Finland, Brazil and Idaho. Perhaps inevitably, distinctions such as I’ve been making about collegiate membership are going to get lost in transit. The problem with shipping everything under this Cambridge School bill of lading is that a great deal of really important poetry gets lost too, because we feel we know where the poetry is happening, and from there it’s easy to assume we also know who is making it. 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 to attack Archambeau’s piece, though I recognise I’m quibbling about terms and affiliations, rather than mucking in with the analysis and detailed close reading of the poetry. That work is the most interesting and most valuable, and Archambeau’s essay is an important example of it. To defeat the expectations which come along with the name “Cambridge School,” the deeply various poetry published in the Cambridge Literary Review needs 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 blood-soaked Trumpington perimeter stick their heads above the parapet, only to be shouted down by the defence forces entrenched in their tiny garden plots—and so decide to stop caring. I don’t want Archambeau to stop caring. I’m grateful to him for paying attention to this work, and for contributing to the important debate about how a poetry can be actively and effectively political.

Andrea Brady
Queen Mary University of London

Robert Archambeau responds:

I’m grateful to have such a thoughtful response to my essay, and I certainly understand the wariness about the term “Cambridge Poetry,” even when it comes with a string of disclaimers attached. It was the much the same when people started talking about Language Poetry. When you write that you’re “forever being labeled ‘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 it seems to be the term that is coming into general 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 understand your idea of that the period “between the years of the publications of the English Intelligencer and A Various
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’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 is the question of the political claims made for the poetry, and the relationship between public presence and political ambition. 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. Another claim I mentioned came from N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge. 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. John Wilkinson makes some big claims, too. He says that you and Keston Sutherland 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 détournement.” This isn’t the sort of claim I was taking issue with in the article.

All of this brings to mind some comments made by Reginald Shepherd, a fine poet and critic who died last year. 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. […] 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. […] 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.

Robert Archambeau
Lake Forest College


  1. A "Cambridge" reader (who hasn't lived in Cambridge for many years)3:26 PM

    Congratulations on getting the essay published, Robert. I look forward to reading the longer version.

    We continue to disagree, of course. I don't see what you mean to achieve by mockery of a specimen claim exaggerated out of all proportion (that BP isn't affected by versification: hear the chorus of jaws hitting the floor!). Anyhow, I expect we're both content to keep to our own sides of the argument.

    I thought I could post here an email I sent to the UK Poetry list in March about an occupation at Sussex University in Brighton, where I work. Perhaps it will help us think about what John may have meant by his very modest remark about "incidental political potency" (from which you clipped off what I always thought was the crucial epithet: "incidental"). Anyhow I hope it makes for interesting reading for comrades struggling in the US public university sector. Best wishes!

    [Forgive me for not attaching my name to this post, but I could be sacked for it. I'll need to do it in two runs, the max is 4096 characters.]

    * * *

    Listmembers with surveillance set up on BBC 1 news may have noticed on last night's edition a report on funding crises in UK universities, which included some footage from the strike at Sussex yesterday, a couple of very short interviews with students, etc. That strike felt very much like a success to me, on the day at least; almost everyone I spoke to was supportive and enthusiastic for our action, and I didn't see a single colleague cross the picket. A few students rudely pushed through, every one of them without exception wearing an iPod and at least 8 out of 10 of them in shades (bad objects part exchangeable with the phallus, I expect; foreskins?). Anyhow, the strike came in the context of a week packed full of actions on campus, actions by both unionised staff and the students, and since one of the actions was a poetry reading I thought it might interest the list to hear something about it.

  2. A "Cambridge" reader contd.3:28 PM


    The reading took place on Monday night in A2, the largest lecture theatre at Sussex with a capacity of around 300, I would guess. The
    students had occupied the theatre and converted it into an autonomous centre of learning and discussion. They'd been sleeping there every night on the floor in sleeping bags. Speakers came from far and wide to join the debates, which were very efficiently and imaginatively organised. Every day a list of events would be published and everyone in the university invited to come and listen and join in. Several of the
    leaders of national trades unions came and spoke to us. Alex Callinicos gave a talk on marketisation in higher education. The occupation was partly in response to the exclusion and suspension of six students from Sussex on the grounds that they were ringleaders in the protest movement and had taken part in an earlier occupation (that lasted only a few hours) during which a highly dubious "hostage situation" had arisen (contrived, all the evidence suggests, by the "hostages" themselves) and the riot police had been called on to campus and had pushed people around, intimidated students and arrested two of them. Anyhow the A2occupation was a profoundly inspiring and well organised campaign, conducted in open defiance of the university's high court injunction (which made it illegal for anyone to enter the lecture theatre once the occupation had started), and it no doubt contributed immensely to the
    victory here yesterday when senior management decided to reinstate the six students unconditionally and submit to the university-wide demand for an independent inquiry into the "hostage" charge, the police behaviour and the legal grounds of the injunction.

    In the thick of all that, at risk of being suspended and arrested, over a hundred students piled in to hear some poetry readings. The event was organised by Francesca Lisette and Josh Stanley, both students at Sussex and both on this list. The readers were Josh and Fran, Ed Luker, Matthew Cunningham and myself. The readings all went down very well, with lots of applause and cheering, which is unsurprising, I suppose, given that we were there in solidarity with the occupation and, like everyone else in the room, at risk to our own careers and memberships of the Sussex community. But for all that the mood in the theatre wasn't, I thought, unchallengingly just grateful and benign: people were really listening, picking up on new angles and sparks in the language, their nerves and hearts really exposed to it; but also, their heads screwed on and their tactical ears alert to the front and back of the stuff, the language surface and its scintillations as well the pressures of argument deeper
    down. The comparison is of course hilariously disproportionate, but I couldn't help thinking, as I waited for my turn to read, about Mayakovsky's _How are verses made_, particularly his account of the "social command" and its necessity to the poet, the imperative to recognise a task that needs carrying out and to remake the language until you can do it. It was an interesting question: how would our work work or not, resound or not, be funny or not, when dramatically recontextualised and put to the test of sustaining energies of resistance and lighting up the structures of domination in the bullying jargon we'd been hearing all the time from management? I don't know the answer, of course; I can only say that I really enjoyed the challenge of reading for those people.

  3. A "Cambridge" reader, last bit!3:28 PM


    In homage to them I wrote a short, direct poem on the spot, during (many apologies) Matthew's reading (which sounded really interesting - I'd not heard him before), and read it at the end of my set to cap off the frantic cogs and collage with a bit of decisive agitprop. Here it is. For those not in the game, "VC" is how universities refer to their "vice chancellor", the top manager at the institution.

    In the Spring of its discontent the management gets tough,
    to keep our heads down and our castrated pecker up,
    in the real world where VC stands for venture capital,
    and what the workers think stands for nothing at all,
    liberalism chasing its tail like a foxy pay packet,
    the oceanic feeling a deflated life jacket;
    but we will keep our arms linked and stop these fucking cuts,
    or let life bleed away into its allocated ruts.

    Under the mainstream media barrage telling us all how unforgiveably self-interested it is for low paid British Airways workers to protect themselves and their future colleagues by obliging a small number of consumers to reorganise one of their holidays, it was more than a relief to share this past week with students like Fran and Josh and all the others who
    made Sussex into a frontline in the war against the demolition of the public sector. It was gigantically uplifting and inspiring. I thought it worth noting in this forum that poetry seemed very obviously to have
    "exercised some incidental political influence", to recur to a phrase by John Wilkinson lately dismissed as fantasy by Robert Archambeau. In the years just round the corner there will be plenty of chances to see if we can't put our poetry to that same test with some more extensive preparation.

  4. Hey [name withheld to prevent sacking],

    Thanks -- the American publication was actually slated to come about before the English publication, but the glacial pace of small publishing led to a different outcome.


    While we continue to disagree about a lot of things (like what I claimed, and what the people I tried to refute claimed, and what it is we mean when we talk about politics, etc.) I'm all for the cause you're involved in, and I hope the poems do have some political influence, incidental or otherwise. I hate to see a world-class academic system destroyed by shortsightedness and a misguided version of utilitarianism.



  5. Hmm: I struggle to understand just what's so wrong with "Utopian claims for what poetry could [can] accomplish" - much of the most interesting past poetry is full of Utopian claims. Are those OK now that they are securely 'Literature' & don't need to be taken seriously?

    & just what insupportable claims for poetry are being made? (perhaps sadly, I cannot think of anyone who is claiming that poets can bring down Empire & Capital: unlike Blake or Shelley).

    It all reads like an argument for quiescence & acquiescence; go ahead, write the stuff but relax. Don't take it all so seriously. It's not like it matters.

    Surely, if people (whether poets or not) stop believing that what they do can have effects greater than a conforming (inactive) 'activism', then the end of history etc. narrative is confirmed (weird to imagine Badiou assenting to that)?

    "But at least as suspicious as the immaturity (fanaticism) of the undeveloped utopian function is the widespread and ripe old platitude of the way-of-the-world philistine, of the blinkered empiricist whose world is far from being a stage, in short, the confederacy in which the fat bourgeois and the shallow practicist have always not only rejected outright the anticipatory, but despised it." Ernst Bloch, 'The Principle of Hope'

  6. Boris Jardine8:06 AM


    I'm very interested in this:

    "But as the scuffle went on and on, I got a better look than I'd had at the conditions that seem to have made so many of the poets associated with Cambridge a bit prone to defensiveness. They really do seem to face a climate of hostility in the larger poetic community, a hostility greater by orders of magnitude than that faced by their American counterparts in experimental poetry."

    When I first read it I found myself nodding at the insight -- it's certainly true that there is a bracketing / dismissive tendency, and that in all sorts of ways poetical life here can be oppressive and is doubtless distorted (bookshops, criticism, reading culture etc.). Obviously this is something that deeply concerns me, and about which I thought at great length.

    But then I performed one of those swings that make retaining balance so difficult: are you really saying that the de facto oppositional culture in which the kind of poetry you and I find interesting exists *leads to* a highly theorized and, as you see it, utopian rhetoric, way above its station?

    I suppose my oscillation in reading your statement is based on a feeling that: yes, the fact of a deeply and utterly conservative culture operating on poetry cane generate of great excesses (positive) of style and theory; but, no, the careful theoretical apparatus that has been hard-won (though it is inevitably at times expressed inelegantly), and the committed poetical practice that exists in its own dialogue with conservative forms of thought and the politics of terror and torture -- and ultimately with linguistic complicity -- can not merely be a by-product of cultural struggle.

    Could you say more about what you've come to understand about the relationship between defensiveness, hostility and the more general deployment of theory/writing of poetry?

    (Another way of getting at the problem is to look at, e.g. Prynne's note on _Hot White Andy_ and Robert Potts' review of Barque/Quid/KS in the _Poetry Review_. What's said there seems a valid *interpretation* of the poetry, and yet it reiterates much of what you criticize. I wonder if the problem of bombast is merely folded into the poetry, and explication can't help get caught in the mulch.)


  7. Hi Simon,

    The claims in question are in the original article. If you give it a read, shoot me an email with your comments, and I'll be happy to get back to you.

    As for people giving up thinking they can change the world -- well, I'm not for that, nor did I advocate that in the article. But I am for having a look at what our writing and acting actually do in the world before we claim that it can/has changed it.



  8. Hi Boris,

    Good to hear from you, as always!

    As for your question:

    "are you really saying that the de facto oppositional culture in which the kind of poetry you and I find interesting exists *leads to* a highly theorized and, as you see it, utopian rhetoric, way above its station?"

    I don't think I'm saying anything as interesting as that.

    All I really meant was something like "Oh! no wonder everyone assumes I'm attacking them -- the criticism these guys get from outside their own circles seems to be overwhelmingly written from a position of A. dismissiveness and B. ignorance." So when a piece is published by a guy outside they don't hang with, who tries to generalize, and who doesn't buy some of the stronger claims made for the political effect of the poetry, it isn't any wonder he (that is, me) gets treated with suspicion.

    And I do get a lot of that suspicion, mostly from people who haven't read the article, and seem to ascribe to me views I don't hold. I've always tried to avoid being one of those aloof guys who doesn't respond, but it does get a bit exhausting answering email and comments that begin "I haven't read your article, but..." and proceed to argue against positions I haven't taken. Then again, many of the things I've written get no response more involved than notes along the lines of "saw you article -- congratulations," so it's nice, as always, to have made an impression in one way or another.

    Anyway. As to the hypothesis you present (could this utopian thinking/theorizing be a kind of reaction formation) I don'tknow. I mean, this could be the case -- it's an intriguing. But I really don't think I'm in a position to know. It would take a pretty serious bit of studying to sort that out, and I've committed to a few other projects for the months ahead.

    All best,


  9. Oh -- Boris. Thanks for being cool about letting me republish the letters. I've been wrangling with a lot of people about copyrights and permissions lately, and heard some truly uptight views on a panel I took part in on "industry standards." It's good to see editors who care about discussion first, and business later.


  10. Good post Bob.

    I have never understood the necessity for a political avant-garde poetry. I always thought that such poetry would need to have a widespread readership to make even a splash in the political sphere; and even that would be contingent on such poetry being transparent and easily understood by disinterested readers. This is not something the poetry of Prynne, for instance, can lay claim to.

    If Cambridge Poetry in 2010 is more transparent syntactically (or moving towards it) than Prynne’s poetry, and, therefore, more discernable to a hoped-for wider readership, can we really say it is any longer an avant-garde poetry?

    Not that avant-garde poetry necessarily should be inscrutable, but rather that striving for clarity for the sake of a political message, seems to be slightly perverse in such poetry.

  11. Boris Jardine10:38 AM

    Ok that definitely clarifies things. I think you're right, the ethnographic angle has to be pursued by some kind of Garfinkel subversive.

    As for copyright -- would it peeve the good people at McFarland if I put your essay in its CLR incarnation up on the website? That way people might be able to read it and engage with it directly.

    (I couldn't agree more that some of your claims have been taken completely out of context. For one thing, your essay takes in a considerable historical sweep, and most of the criticisms aimed at it assume it makes only arguments of the necessary/sufficient kind. But, it is after all extremely tempting for those with strong views to want to aim them *at* something; hence you get covered in straw and held aloft. Can't decide if that's flattering or not...)

  12. Andrea may describe (her own) Barque Press as a 'fly-by night outfit' but their production values are far from it. I was impressed, at any rate. And the poetry is more than half-decent too. ;)

  13. Robert - I had read the article before I posted; I'll give it another read, but I didn't skim the first time.

    It shaded, for me, into an exercise in bureaucratic control: get real, stop making these absurd claims, behave like a responsible C21 poetic citizen. Which for me is an odd thing to insist upon? - poets being - historically - not all that restrained in the claims they've made for poetry. A vision of poetic practice as universal modesty topos.

    I do believe that disrupting the monologic conversation of mainstream politics & culture (& recognising politics & culture as continuous & complicit) is something non-compliant art should do (I also, perhaps quaintly, value non-compliant art).

    I quoted Ernst Bloch because I think it's an important point; better the wildly utopian than the resigned & this is how things are. If the suggestion is - that's fine, but leave poetry out of it; if poetry is that incidental: why bother at all?

    Regards, Simon

  14. Let me check and get back to you on that, Boris -- I'd like the essay itself to be out there where people can find it. If they want to disagree, then, at least it'll be with something I've said. In fact, I kind of hope to learn something from what people say, positive or negative.


  15. Thanks, Simon. I suppose where we differ is this: I don't think that it helps much to claim one is being effective when one isn't. (Not everyone does this, of course). For me, this doesn't imply that one should become silent or complacent. I regret that you took that impression away from the essay. I didn't think the implication was there, but you're a bright guy and you thought it was, so -- who knows?

    I also think there are plenty of reasons other than political efficacy to write poems (though this doesn't preclude attempts at such efficacy). And I believe, as I'm sure you do, that there are plenty of things other than poetry that can be politically efficacious.



  16. Oh -- I should add:

    The reason I thought you hadn't seen the article, Simon, was that you said you didn't know "just what insupportable claims for poetry are being made," but these are in the article. Also (and this is my bad) I had you confused with another Simon who's been emailing me.



  17. The main reason I find so much of the critical posturing and positioning within the poetry world so pointless, even irritating, is precisely because I agree with what Badieu said about Deleuze, in the short comment you quoted.

    And most of the poets I actually re-read and keep re-reading expressed some very similar viewpoints. Rilke said poetry is praise, for example.

  18. More up here if you want it: