Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Crack in the Teacup Opens: The Debate About Prynne and Cambridge Poetry

"The Crack in the Teacup Opens," a review of Intimate Exposure: Essays on the Public-Private Divide in British Poetry Since 1950 has just appeared in the venerable Oxford journal Essays in Criticism.  The reviewer, Yasmine Shamma, says some interesting things about recent discussion of J.H. Prynne, including this:

Archambeau's essay... [asks] 'What ought we to make of a school of poetry that has a strong public concern, but no appreciable public presence?' Robert Potts’s November 2010 article in the Times Literary Supplement addresses a similar question, outlining the ‘obscurity’ of the school, and asking how J. H. Prynne emerges as a ‘poet of our times’. Archambeau takes this obscurity apart, explaining in his ‘Public Faces in Private Places: Messianic Privacy in Cambridge Poetry’ that, as readers of the Cambridge school and, more specifically, Prynne, we ‘ought’ to consider how this school operates as a ‘poetry of public faces in private places’ (borrowing from Auden), and accordingly hold it up to some charges.

"Charges" is a stronger word than I would have used, but a lot of people who read the essay when it appeared in an earlier form would probably agree with Shamma's characterization.  Anyway, if you're interested in seeing the review (which, among other things, gives a good summary of my essay), it is available online, as well as in your local university library's periodical room.


  1. Interesting, Bob. There were 3 or 4 papers on Cambridge and Prynne at MLA.

  2. I say, you got rather a rave review there, old chap!

  3. Thanks Grant. I suppose that Chicago Review issue on him & his has something to do with it -- JHP seems to be getting more play in the US than ever.

  4. @ Henry -- aw, gosh.

  5. Thought I'd go ahead and post this email I'd sent to Bob earlier today, for what it's worth:

    >Of course, aside from or beyond what I said in my last would be that what poets of the "Cambridge School" could be seen as enacting is a kind of ethical refusal, where the choice of a quasi-hermetic "privateness" is taken as fraught and anguished *political* act. The choice being to spectacularize poetry's (and the poet's) own complicity and powerlessness-- the politics of that resonating at a symbolic level, in a manner of speaking, and intended to register less immediately than more-standard political poetries, which tend to be tethered to specific conjunctures. Vallejo's Trilce is maybe an interesting analogy in that regard: a completely private poetry that has been and still is felt (at least in Latin America) as a gesture of authenticity and resistance. It could be argued, actually, that Trilce has had "political" repercussions, if of a different kind, as far-reaching as Neruda's Canto General...

  6. >and intended to register less immediately than more-standard political poetries

    To clarify, if there is anything worth clarifying above: By "less immediately than" I mean something like "more deeply than," or "more totally than."

  7. And... sorry to keep following up, I'm struggling with this stuff like everyone else:

    I mean powerlessness and anguish in that "ideology critique" is felt by a poet like Sutherland, for example (see his essay in Quid 19 issue on "Poetry and Politics"), as always itself ensnared by Ideology, always inside forces it can't shake off (maybe, even, doesn't truly desire to shake off). So ideology critique in the poem is turned to a high-wire act of satire, tuned to satirizing *itself* at different frequencies. A kind of poetics of immolation, which in Sutherland's case, again, seems an apt description of so-far unclassifiable things like "Hot White Andy" and other works.

    We can complain that such poetry isn't "public" enough, but would we wish to not have it?

    Or so I tentatively think and ask...

  8. I'll continue talking to myself on this, I don't mind-- it's a tough topic, this "public/private" thing, so all is offered in tentative, suggestive spirit. Because of length, I'll put this into two comments.

    I was thinking last night that Bob's critique of the "Cambridge School," to extent there is such a thing, might actually much better apply to our shores, specifically to Language poetry and some of its direct outgrowths. After all, what is the public audience for Language poetry and the more textually reflexive practices of much of post-language avant poetry? Safe to say there is virtually none. No news in saying that: U.S. "experimental" poetry is now of, by, and for the academy.

    I doubt the audience of the newer UK poets writing in wake of Prynne is much more diverse (though it should be kept in mind that Prynne himself, remarkable as this statement might seem, has perhaps one of the widest audiences of any poet writing today in *any* mode-- he is a major figure in China, and his books there--translated and not--have sold in the tens of thousands). But here's a question that seems relevant to ask, inasmuch as we know this public/private thing is fluid and sometimes so at high velocities (think of the resistant "utopian" modernist composers Adorno championed not so long back, and how they have moved from somewhat sub-rosa status to being regulars on the symphony program, just for one example, though not that it happens in poetry like it does in music): Which "avant" seems better positioned and poised, in the long current moment, to connect in broader public ways, however modest that connection might be--the U.S. Langpo wing or the UK Cambridge-Prynne wing?

    I'd suggest, speaking generally of the two tendencies and acknowledging the necessary exceptions, that the *latter* does, and hands-down.

    Why so? Well take a look at the work, of course. We all know that avant poetry of the past thirty-plus years in our country comes out of a radical turn to language and the enactments in composition of structuralist/post-structuralist attitudes and atmospheres. This turn to language was so deeply the case that a decidedly grandiose "politics" got wired into it, and the practice of such ultra-theorized writing, at least through the early-90s (no one really advocates the notion anymore) was held to have potentially revolutionary implications. Those who hedged were ridiculed as apologists of "Official Verse," and the like. Well, we know how all that's turned out...

  9. [continuing previous comment]

    Let's grant that the UK side of things is also very difficult in its poetics and certainly not un-theorized in high ways (Marxism is much more at the heart of this poetry than it is, or ever was, in Langpo!), that it currently pretty much appeals to only a very restricted audience, namely a sub-culture of poetry and its criticism, and so on. As I said, if you read a poet like Sutherland, you are reading some very unusual stuff.

    But what makes that "stuff" very different from Language poetry and satellites is this: The new UK poets are not just, or even primarily poets of the head; they are poets of the body and the nerves and the emotions, too. This is what I meant when I said that the poetry of Sutherland (I'm just using him as an example--there's a bigger current in this vein, and Raworth is just as important to it as Prynne) is a poetry of (self) "immolation," where measures of love, despair, pathos, rage, confusion, vision, and desire are at full boil, and the effect is often jaw-dropping and unsettling. It is a political poetry through and through, but it's one that explodes beyond any cold-blooded critical distance where "a mind stands in control of its language." It's a poetry that puts the categories of affect mentioned above on a sort of phenomenological pyre, and the great heat and glare that is made, in the best of the work, can become at once frightening and illuminating. (And it maybe provides a clue why these new-wave UK poets pay keen homage to the Romantics, whereas our own avant poets largely couldn't care less about such anachronistic fogeys, if they read their work at all.)

    Here's another question, making the one above a bit more concrete: When one thinks of the utopian-charged angers, refusals, and hopes that have emerged, for instance, amongst masses of intelligent young people of, say, the UK, and Greece, and France, of late, couldn't one ask: What poetry would stand a better chance of "publicly connecting" with those energies, in whatever modest way, that of the "Cambridge School" or that in genealogical tether to, for instance, PENN? Which poetry, in that regard, should be considered more hermetic and ingrown, more private, as it were?

    To paraphrase a reasonable admonition I heard today from someone, commenting on this topic: When we consider the matter of the public consequences of poetry, actual or potential, that consequentiality shouldn't be measured and demonstrated in the same way that a public rally or earthquake might be. To insist that poetry be calibrated this way risks adopting a pseudo-Olympian position, a way of cornering poetry and looking down on it from the platitudinous security of a vantage in sociology-at-third-hand. We should be careful about doing so.

    So those as some further provisional thoughts.

  10. Hi Kent,

    I don't think I've ever complained about any kind of poetry not being public enough. I've tried to describe how poetry has functioned in some circumstances, and contrasted that with some of the claims made about how it functions.

    I try to enter criticism with as much disinterest as possible -- knowing, of course, that we can only approach that condition by degrees (you know: Glenn Beck's take on the news vs. PBS -- neither is disinterested, but their are degrees of approach to disinterest). What I'm interested in isn't advocacy, really, not lately, at least not consciously -- what I'm aiming at in my imperfect way is understanding of the condition of poetry.

    So: it's not complaint with me. It's an attempt at description.

    I don't think I'll ever be forgiven, in some quarters, for writing about poets without being their booster. I've had people be upset at my chapter on Robert Hass for it's failure to advocate for him. And I've had people be angry at the Prynne piece for plenty of reasons, some of which I suspect have to do with its failure to embrace the most extreme claims on behalf of the poetry and its alleged influence on the public sphere. One of Yvor Winters' fans wrote me a long letter once, saying he couldn't understand why I was writing about Winters, since I clearly wasn't preaching Wintersian dogma. So I'm starting to think attempts at description will often be perceived as complaints, from those with a lot invested in the thing one tries to understand.



  11. Enjoyed your explicatio Cambrensis, Kent. Thanks. & Bob, you're precis of critical principle is one to which I give 100 percent assent.

    Kent... just my usual kind of quibble here, but... I kind of agree with your last-noted admonition. The drama of utopia/righteous anger/civic activism may be all well & good... but wouldn't that drama have to be predicated on a settled commitment to a point of view, an opinion, a vision of What Must Be Done? Whereas poetry... I don't know. Yes, there can be visionary poems of passionate protest & demand, clearly. But I guess I understand "normative" poetry (if there be such a thing) as a kind of REPRESENTATION and provisional WORKING-OUT of dilemmas, rather than a settled call-to-action. In other words, I wonder if there is not a parallel to Bob's "disinterested" stance within poetry itself - the setting-forth of opposing views, so that the reader may weigh them... the submission of passions to understanding...

  12. p.s. after commenting thus i realized this can be construed as the most fuddy-duddy old-timer's bourgeois mandarin view of poetry... Neo-Classical, as opposed to your more Romantic view, Kent.

    The whole thing comes down to : 1) is poetry primarily the EXHALATION of incomprehensible subliminal subconscious passionate automatic irrational surrealist existential immediate rebellious uncontrollable revolutionary expressive romantic FEELING... or... 2) is poetry primarily the poetic aesthetic detached disinterested lamb-like innocent conscious rational measured aware mature tragic all-comprehending all-suffering sacrificial resolute ordered wise classical UNDERSTANDING of experience...

  13. I take your point, Henry.

    For me, though, the interesting questions are less about what poetry is than they are about what it has been (or is) in certain contexts. It functions differently in various times and places, and I've been interested in the whys and hows of this. I suppose that's why I've moved (for now, maybe forever) from writing poems to writing criticism to writing something like literary history.


  14. & I take your point, Bob - & often feel that all I do is endlessly repeat ABCs... on the other hand perhaps there are these constants in poetry & poetic practice - say, these head/heart, classical/romantic antinomies - that recur under different names & different enthusiastic movements through history... & I wonder if Kent's "immolation" theory of the CS - the justification of that practice through a recognition of its political sympathy/empathy (regardless of whether or not the political views being empathized with are sensible or not) - is not, at base, a Romantic notion of what contemporary poetry can & should be...

  15. Bob wrote,

    >For me, though, the interesting questions are less about what poetry is than they are about what it has been (or is) in certain contexts. It functions differently in various times and places

    and I'd offer that in response to what you say, Henry? These contexts don't just shift over time, they exist in the here and now, in rapid oscillation, and individual poets may choose to inhabit them and respond to them variously--with radically different kinds of poems, or even with radically different voices and energies within a single poem! In my view, one is not, and should not be, constrained by this or that large "ontological predisposition," as you seem to imply above.

  16. >These contexts don't just shift over time, they exist in the here and now, in rapid oscillation

    I think I meant to write, more to the point, "they exist and shift in the here and now..."

    Henry, I'd say you're right to sense in this new UK poetry a deeper, animating spirit that has kinship to Romantic impulse and drive. Most often a charged *overdrive*, though, of that impulse, where the conventional Mirrors get melted down by super-heated Lamps!

  17. Funny, i was shuffling the bookshelves tonight, looking for another old magazine (something about Piero della Francesca), & came upon an old worn newsprint copy of SAMIZDAT issue #4 ((Fall/Winter 1999), & lo & behold there was a review of mine of a poetry book by Tod Thilleman ("World of Nothing but Nations") - American poet, publ. of Spuyten Duyvil Press - which comes across almost Cambridge School avant la lettre :

    "...a stance which aims to express (with candor, in truth) a vivid formulation - a mimesis - of actuality. In other words, Thilleman is bold enough to incorporate aspects of the sublime in poetry, a stance utterly at odds with the ultra-sceptical, hermetic, self-referential art pout l'art mentality which dominates America's avant-garde "other" tradition at the present time. This kind of Romanticism must create and prove its own criteria for measuring the real..."

    - but... this was in 1999. Many a middles of the night ago.