Reading poetry and writing about it

This blog started at the end of March last year primarily as a means to think out loud and because I enjoy writing. I wasn’t that bothered about other people reading it but felt that it would do me good to air my thoughts in a more presentable way than jotting them down in a notebook. I’ve decided that it might be useful (for me) to put together the results of this process particularly with regard to how my thinking has changed over this period.
The first thing to note is that I enjoy writing about poetry and that my encounters with poets that were new to me have been especially rewarding. Before starting this blog I was entrenched in Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Celan and Geoffrey Hill and was reasonably content to spend the rest of my life delving further into their work. I had a view that poetry was somehow important but didn’t want to work out why- I was content with the pleasure that it gave me.
I then decided to pick up my Bloodaxe edition of J H Prynne and try to re-evaluate what he’s trying to do. Early in the blog I’d written about the difference between difficulty and what I described as ‘wilful obscurity’- placing Prynne firmly in the latter camp.
Having read a couple of the poems I decided that I might need some help and was appalled to discover that most of the critical stuff on Prynne was more obscure than the work with the one exception of Keston Sutherland. I also discovered that Prynne is a great admirer of Charles Olson.
Looking back, I can now see that I wouldn’t have pursued this any further were it not for the fact that there was enough in Prynne’s work to keep me interested- his left wing stance, his commitment to collide head on with the unwitty circus, his ability to subvert convention in a consistent manner were sufficient to encourage further exploration.
I bought ‘The Maximus Letters’ and was immediately impressed, I read it twice straight through but couldn’t see any obvious influence on Prynne.
During this time I was reading and re-reading a couple of Prynne poems and became interested in what they were doing to my thought processes, the shifts in time, the use of ordinary speech, the various commands all combined to challenge the way that I thought about poetry. I also spent a lot of time with the OED.
One feature of the poetry scene that I found difficult is the factional in-fighting that goes on between the numerous camps. I didn’t consider this to be productive and decided not to write about those poets that I don’t like.
I then wrote something about an essay on Hill by Tom Day that drew a lengthy response from Day who wasn’t pleased. The exchange became more productive but I did become aware of my tendency to write gratuitous one-liners and resolved to try and be a bit more considered in the blog.
At about this time I was alternating between brief bouts of severe depression and feeling okay (rapid cycling) which I found to be very disturbing and frightening. I found that by reading complex verse I could get some distance from the helter skelter ride that was going on in my head. I’m not saying that I found solace or comfort in reading poetry but that it did enable me to focus more on other things and reduce the level of fear.
I’d had a fairly long-held view that all forms of creative expression should by useful and interesting. This hasn’t changed but I’ve now thrown ‘challenging’ into the mix. I’ve found that I’m not that interested in stuff that simply confirms my view of things and am increasingly drawn to work that presents a different perspective. In short, I find I really enjoy arguing with poetry. I’ve also come to be more aware of technical skill.
I also write poetry and read poems with one eye on what I can make use of. There are some poets whose ideas and methods I can probably play around with but there others whose level of skill is simply beyond my reach – I want to write like Charles Olson and John Matthias but any attempt would be a very poor imitation.
Last December I purchased the most recent Prynne poems and most of Keston Sutherland’s output. I then threw myself into ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ with some gusto and that process continues to this day. What I like about this sequence is its austerity and the fact that it deals with complex issues. I’ve also found the reading process to be quite exhausting so I’m now limiting myself to a few hours per week which is still like having your brain turned inside out.
At the same time I started with Sutherland and was immediately drawn to ‘Stress Position’ which I’ve written about at length. It’s certainly the most inventive work that I’ve read in years and has made/forced me to re-consider my view about political poetry. Until reading Sutherland I was of the view that politics isn’t a fit subject for poetry, that it comes across as preaching and that poets make poor ideologues. I think ‘Stress Position’ has demonstrated that political poetry doesn’t have to be agit-prop and it can be interesting. Whether it makes a blind bit of difference is another question.
I also looked at ‘Preferences’ by Neil Pattison and this is a collection that has stayed by my side along with ‘Streak Willing’ and ‘Stress Position’. As with Prynne I’m still trying to construct the threads but I find Pattison’s voice both unique and compelling.
Early in the year I ‘discovered’ the work of John Matthias and was immediately attracted to his skill and inventiveness. He has a very broad range and has produced a formidable body of excellent work over the past forty years. I wrote about one of his poems and he responded- prodding me gently in the direction of David Jones who has been a complete revelation. Matthias has been very supportive of the Arduity project for which I’m grateful.
In April I sold the business that I was involved in and found myself with more time on my hands. I decided to start Arduity because I felt that there needed to be some non-academic point of access to difficult work and because I hoped to encourage other readers to make their own contributions. I applied for an Arts Council grant which has recently been turned down (on the grounds of financial viability) but that hasn’t stopped me adding more content and trying to build up more of a web presence. The project has also enabled me to think more clearly about how best to share my enthusiasm for difficult material.
I must also mention the work of Kenneth Goldsmith who has almost made me change my mind about conceptualist verse. I recall the astonishment when I opened ‘Traffic’ and it (and his other stuff) continues to make me think although not in the way that he probably intended.
I’ve read a few critics in the last twelve months and have been pleased to discover that some write very well. Sutherland is very good on Prynne, as is Derrida on Celan. Prynne’s ‘Field Notes’ is a remarkable document and I’m still absorbing his recent work on poetry. I’m beginning to get my brain around Hugh Kenner, Maurice Blanchot and having another attempt at Heidegger on poetry.
I’m also a bit conscious of becoming an elitist reader. Most of my poetry reading friends view this tussle with difficulty as overly intellectual and a bit snobbish, as if I’ve entered some esoteric coterie. I try to balance this charge in my head by continuing to read less difficult stuff (Bishop, Stevenson, Muldoon etc.) but it still lingers.
So, I no longer think that Prynne is wilfully obscure, I’m more tolerant of political poetry, I continue to despair about the state of poetry and its perception in the wider world, I’m more appreciative of technical skill and of the power of poetry to change people’s lives. I’m also very grateful to those who’ve made a valuable contribution to this blog.
The other aspect of writing this blog is that I feel a kind of responsibility to the work that I describe. It would be easy to do the undiluted enthusiasm thing but that would be dishonest. However, by expressing reservations (as with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Preferences’) do I put readers off looking at what I consider to be important work?

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4 responses to “Reading poetry and writing about it

  1. In writing about art, I’ve certainly found myself searching for things to say that are not untrue and not unkind (to coin a phrase), when, as you say, to perform “undiluted enthusiasm” would be a lie. The problem is that it takes some literary skill to express reservations without putting the reader off. (For example, I’ve often thought about writing on Isamu Noguchi, one of the most extraordinary figures in 20thC American art. One problem is how to deal with the fact that a lot of his work, an overwhelming oeuvre in many styles and media, is tasteful and proficient but not very exciting.) At any rate, I appreciate your comments here, and don’t have any complaints about what you’ve written before. It’s particularly good to see for a moment how you regard your own view of things as a developing story.

    • Thanks for this Vance. I do struggle with tempering enthusiasm with reservation and I don’t want to deter others- too few people read this material as it is. I try hard to be honest and if something seems inconsistent with the overall quality of a poem then I’ll express that view. There’s also the problem of disagreeing with the poet’s perspective but still finding great merit in the poem (Geoffrey Hill, Prynne spring to mind).
      My view of the world will remain a ‘developing story’ until the day I die, like Cobbett I have no problem with the charge of inconsistency and may even one day get to like Larkin again.

  2. By the way, thanks for the indirect pointer to Paulin on Hill in the LRB. Not, in the first instance, for the piece itself, but for the prolonged and violent correspondence. I’m glad of my subscription.

    • I was going to blog about this little furore but I then decided that it wasn’t entirely wise to draw too much attention to yet another circular debate.

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