In 2008 Robert Archambeau quoted Keston Sutherland making a distinction between readers and consumers of poetry. Sutherland defines readers as those who engage carefully and closely, “staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation in some way perhaps even needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself, or the component of a definition”.
Keston identifies Prynne’s work as that which requires this sort of attention. Consumers are people who read poetry without engaging with it on this level and it is these who are attracted to ‘mainstream’ poetry because it doesn’t make those kinds of personal demands. Sutherland also points out that poets would prefer to have readers rather than consumers.
I suppose we all would rather see ourselves as readers and as being committed to the wok of interpretation, I think that I’d probably dispute whether or not this work (which may or may not be ‘intimate’) should lead to a clearer self-definition. Whilst it is true that some poets demand and repay close attention, it is also true that there is some great poetry that can be ‘consumed’. Elizabeth Bishop wrote some poems that I find both inspiring and beaautiful but I wouldn’t claim that her work demands the close attention of Hill or Prynne. I don’t think that this implies that Bishop’s work is inferior, it’s just different. I’m also of the view that poetry is a very broad church and critics should pay attention to this rather than manning the various factional baricades. The writing and reading of poetry is too much of a minority activity for it to be divided by the bad tempered snipings of various factions.
Reading Hill and Prynne does cause me to reflect on my own ideas about language and the wider world. I spend more time reading them than I should but I don’t identify with either any more than I do with Milton and Spenser, my other great obsessions. Whilst I get a lot from poetry, my day to day life is more informed by thinkers like Foucault, Lefebvre and Rorty than it is by poets. What I’m trying to say is that there is a danger in some circles of poets and critics taking poetry a little too seriously. A poem is a means of expression but it isn’t the only one and to privilege it over others is to give it more credit than it deserves.
I’m not sure what Sutherland has in mind when he advocates ‘submitting’ to the intimacy involved in the work of interpretation. This would seem to imply a degree of passivity before the text. Working out the nuances of ‘difficult’ work surely requires a more active approach if we, as readers, are to be successful in our work.
With regard to Prynne, Sutherland is right to say that he demands very close attention in that his radical use of language and his breadth or references require a commitment to the belief that the work of interpretation will be worthwhile. Whether this can be described as intimate is another matter. I feel myself to be in a more intimate relationship with Hill and Celan, this may be because I’m more familiar with the work but also because their particular brands of modernism contain a greater degree of personal humanity.
I think I also need to poiint out that I think Sutherland is an excellent poet and critic, one of those few who is prepared to say difficult things with great clarity. I just wish that he hadn’t over-egged this particular pudding.