This is one of those personal things that I do from time to time in the hope that I might help me reach some kind of a conclusion.
Last week I felt that I was drowning in verse, I was alternating between Matthias, Pound, Jones and Vanessa Place and was becoming more and more enthusiastic about them as I read and re-read. The usual method of exorcising this overwhelm ed sensation is to write about them so I’ve written about Matthias (for another publication) and Place (for arduity). I should also be pleased because I’ve overcome my fear of writing something useful about Pound but Pound has led to Browning’s ‘Sordello’ which is clamouring for my close attention. All of this is slightly compounded by the fact that the latest draft of Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ is sitting on my hard drive and it remains my belief that it’s the most important poem published in the UK since 1971.
I’ve tried hard since Xmas to diversify (unintentional pun) to other things, I’ve read some history, some Merleau-Ponty, some Simon Critchley and some Maurice Blanchot in an effort to broaden my horizons but to no avail, I remain mesmerised by Blanchot’s ‘L’Ecriture du disastre’ but (I then realise) that’s because I’m reading it as a poem.
So, given that I don’t want to become completely manic, a process which involves leaping from book to book without actually reading anything, I thought I’d try and get my brain around my readiness to be dragged into poetry and to become immersed in it.
Before we go and further let me try and define the nature of my obsession with verse. I think about poetry a lot but I also think about politics a lot and certain aspects of the historical past. I don’t however spend large amounts of time attempting to work out the finer points of ideology or historical scholarship, this kind of attention is reserved more or less exclusively for verse. I worry about things like Mandelstam’s influence on Celan, the quality of Geoffrey Hill’s jokes, the reason that I find Prynne’s later work so compelling and why conceptualist verse might be quite good. These thing seem to matter to me more than the crisis currently facing all forms of socialism or whether I Blair Worden has anything worthwhile to say about the 17thy century.
I also console myself with the fact that my obsession isn’t complete, I can still get distracted by the non-poetic. Whilst writing this I’ve just come across something called “Knowledge management and diplomacy: Reflections on the demise of the valedictory despatch in the context of an informational history of the British Diplomatic Service” which I will now have to read.
I also need to interrupt myself in order to point out that I’m not one of those who think that poetry is important in the wider scheme of things, it’s clear to me that it is ‘only poetry’ and one of many interesting ways of describing the world. I do not support the notion that verse may be in a privileged position with regard to Truth. In fact, I’m quite violently opposed to this kind of wishful thinking.
So, if poetry isn’t that important, what is this obsession about? I’ll try to give a couple of examples. Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ refers in part to a reader who nods his head and thinks approvingly “that’s how it is”. Some readers may be looking to verse to provide this function or to provide an analysis that concurs with their own but I’m not one of them. In fact, I seem to get more from poets that are at the opposite end of my spectrum because I enjoy being challenged.
I also consider myself a practitioner in the poetising business so my reading of other stuff is never completely neutral, I’m always on the lookout for devices and conceits that I can steal and modify. But this still doesn’t fully account for my readiness to throw myself into this material.
I’ll try another example, I know that I’m becoming obsessed by both Ezra Pound and by Vanessa Place. I’ve just started to pay them serious attention but already I feel as if I must read everything they’ve ever published, that I must spend hours on Pennsound listening to them read their stuff and that I must write about how good / important / useful they are. In both instances this excessive interest was awakened by specific poems, Canto 9 in the case of Pound and Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’. Reading Canto 9 I realised that I was in the presence of something that was both accomplished and gloriously confident of its own strength in a way that indicates what poetry can and should do. The only problem with becoming obsessed by Pound is the knowledge that there’s a lot of stuff to be obsessed about… I wasn’t initially impressed when reading Place in the last CLR but I was sufficiently interested to find some of her other stuff and to read a couple of interviews. I find ‘Statement of Facts’ to be both effective and deeply disturbing on number of different levels even though all the text is appropriated (or appears to be appropriated) and it’s determinedly conceptual.
As with my other obsessions (Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Celan, Hill, Prynne), there are elements in both Pound and Place that I can and will argue with but I find that I’m looking forward to that argument and perhaps it’s this kind of internal debate that is the ultimate attraction for me. I also get a lot from using this blog to push these arguments a bit further.
Poets that really interest me tend to be those with strongly held views about both poetry and the world. It doesn’t matter that much to me what those views are, I’m much more impressed by the way in which they are expressed in the poetry. So, does this make me typically post-modern with an interest in form over content? Probably and it also ‘explains’ my reluctance to take poetry to seriously.
I am therefore obsessed by stuff that is well-made, forcefully expressed and contains views or analyses that I can take issue with. The obsessive aspect comes from the fact that poetry has a very great deal of ‘depth’ in terms of its history and the forms that it has taken down the centuries and most good stuff that I read does place me further into this complex web that we call the poem.
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