Tag Archives: harriet

Is poetry dead and did Vanessa Place kill it or is it merely on the brink?

Here’s a confession, since Harriet started sending me traffic I’ve been paying far more attention than normal to poetry debates in North America. Two things have caught my eye recently, the first being ‘Poetry on the Brink’ by Marjorie Perloff in the Boston Review and the second being ‘Poetry is Dead, I killed it’ by Vanessa Place on Harriet.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed position on these matters is reasonably straightforward:

  • Vanessa Place can do no wrong and is always strategically correct;
  • poetry is far too poetic for its own good;
  • conceptual poetry is not the answer to the poetry problem;
  • whatever she might say, Vanessa Place is not a conceptualist;
  • creative writing cannot and should not be taught;

I regret to say that the first of these may be up for revision but I think I need to turn to the Perloff piece which is very grown up and thought through and has far too many words. I’d also like to make the rather obvious point that you don’t (ever) do long headers in very big fonts in a different colour. “We have witnessed a return to the short lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material” is too long, too complex and dull for this kind of eager treatment.

Perloff’s survey of the nature of this particular brink is written from the perspective of a custodian rather than a user and makes some pertinent observations, the main one being that quality does not increase in lock step with quantity. There is a debate to be had about the ‘market’ for creative writing courses and how this functions just as there is a need for custodians to know what it is they want but Perloff manages to avoid this with her extended list of platitudes. A glance at the response thread gives a clearer demonstration of what might be wrong than the article itself.

Perloff also manages to lump Place, Goldsmith and Bergvall into the same very short and dismissive paragraph. This is the sort of error that makes me quite cross. I’ve said before that I do want to be Caroline Bergvall so I might be a bit biased but anybody who has bothered to read any of the work of these three will know that they don’t ‘fit’ together, they are doing different things in completely different ways and their relationship to the ‘C’ word is really rather complex.

Having waded my way through all of the words that Perloff has put together, I’m not clear as to what poetry might be on the brink of nor what we ought to do about this apparently quite bad thing. She does try to make something of Pound’s ‘make it new’ but omits to mention that the new was/is nothing without the irascible.

Vanessa Place’s piece is thankfully much shorter and has a proper header and says this:

But if we can agree that we may function critically not from the conceit of extramural critique, which is essentially a postmodern argument, but rather from a relational perspective, which is the more conceptualist approach, we can avoid the temptation to fall into the sweet satisfactions of self—including a sorrowful self that has seen it all before. The best minds of my generation are servile, but it is service with a purpose. We take it and dish it out and leave its rumination to other minds. For, as Marjorie Perloff argues, the genius of conceptualism is in the plating.

Which is obviously correct and needs stating and restating but is only one variation on the ‘c’ word repertoire. For readers of Harriet however this could probably have done with a bit more flesh on the bone:

Wherein I slap my name on whatever comes to mind and call it poetry and yet it is poetry, and, too, as Drucker rightly notes, if I return it to its usual habitus (the appellate court, the news station), its “poetic elements lose their defining identity quickly enough.” Thus my readymade is also a reverse readymade, and critique proves not so much a matter of contemporary segregation but of an intellectual encounter which may be properly rigorous and properly ahistorical because Kant’s a prioris no longer apply.

This is an accurate precis of what the Place Project might be about but you do need to know at least some of the work and (I imagine) most would need some evidence for the irrelevance of those a prioris. I may be wrong but it seems to me that Harriet might be read by more than those that have already got the ‘c’ message and that this faux defiance might not be the best way to fight the fight- and it is a fight that needs to be fought.

Now we come to the caveats, the text doesn’t live up to its header, which is almost as bad as Perloff’s abuse of headers- if you’re going to maintain your deserved reputation as the scariest woman in literature then you’d better come up with something more witheringly vicious than this. Let’s be clear, Vanessa Place scares me and I’m not easily scared and this was a missed opportunity to scare and convert a lot more people.

The second quibble is a bit more serious, I’m of the view that endings are quite important and that they tend to leave an impression. Place’s final paragraph tries to do far too many things and the last two sentences are just inept because it doesn’t say anything at all and the ‘boring’ conceit isn’t good enough. So, I feel a little bit let down that the only person on the planet who seems to have a handle on this stuff seems to have blown her place in the sun, at least on this particular occasion.

Whilst poetry eschatology is always a fun game to play, it’s never more than a game. Poetry goes through all kinds of phases and transmutations but (whatever the crisis) it doesn’t die, it might not be what we want or what we feel that we deserve but it doesn’t die nor does it get anywhere near a brink….


On Amy De’Ath, Anne Boyer, artlessness and ‘failure’.

Earlier this week I wrote something about Amy De’Ath which was then quoted at length by the Harriet blog on the Poetry Foundation site which has done wonders for this week’s traffic but also posed a question about artlessness and a possible connection to the ‘aesthetics of failure. Being a diligent sort of blogger, I followed the link through to the Jennifer Moore article on Jacket2 and read it.

This was going to be a considered and point by point riposte of Moore’s argument but I’ve decided that I don’t actually understand it as in I don’t follow the logic of what she’s saying. I’ve now decided to point out that there isn’t any connection between the artlessness that I referred to and whatever Moore might mean.

I do need to have a quick moan about Jacket2 which seems determined to dig its own complacent and deeply uninteresting rut. I haven’t looked at it since December because it was making me increasingly cross without having any material of interest. I experience this as a loss because the original Jacket did keep my attention even though I disagreed with most of it.

The other observation that I need to make is the amount of unthought out writing that there seems to be around at the moment, I don’t want to single Moore out because she does seem to be part of this trend towards vagueness which is less than helpful. This is in sharp contrast to the Cambridge school of over-written obfuscation which stands in stark contrast to the recent critical writings of one J H Prynne. I’m not trying to sing my own praises, bebrowed is filled with idle speculation and poorly thought through gestures but I do try to be clear as to where these might come from.

I do need to confess to an interest in failure and especially the stuttering faction within that broad front / trend / school / aesthetic. It can be argued that all poems expect to fail and that they carry this expectation with them as they make their way. It can also be argued that this has always been the case and is unlikely to change in the future. The variable comes in when this essential aspect is given emphasis be practitioners and critics. The last time that this occurred was in the late fifties in the writing and thinking of Becket, Blanchot and Celan all of whom have been massively influential ever since.

This historically recurring aesthetic is irrefutable and informs some of the finest work of the last twenty years (late Prynne, Hill’s ‘The Triumph of Love’, Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ etc) and has nothing to do with what Moore seems to be writing about which sounds like a kind of disenchantment with all things New York.

Moore also mentions something called the New Sincerity which is very easy for cynics like me to write off as yet another argument against the teaching of (sigh) creative writing. However, I realise that I’ve spent most of the last two years arguing strongly for a poetics that is based on honesty which I now realise isn’t a million miles from the s word. As with failure, I don’t think there’s anything new about poetic sentiment and sincerity but it is useful to run this benchmark over some of our most hallowed poets (Larkin, Lowell) if only to notice the obvious deficit in this department.

I’ve given some further thought as to what the artlessness in De’Ath’s work might be about. The ever-prescient Jonty Tiplady has described her work as ‘fading in and out of technique’ which captures most of what’s going on but there’s also an elegant / considered kind of shrug in the direction of the artful which is really quite special. I suppose that the UK’s equivalent of the Language school might be all things Cambridge or the more hardcore aspects of the late modernist vein – an analogy about place in the cultural landscape rather than manner of expression. I don’t detect any kind of grappling with the exhaustion of these two trends in this material althought this might be evident amongst other younger poets.

I’d now like to contrast Moore’s essay with Lauren Levin’s remarkable review of work by Anne Boyer and Stephanie Young in Lana Turner. I don’t have access to Young’s work but I have downloaded Boyer’s ‘My Common Heart’ which is the kind of engaged, intelligent and deeply human work that we should all celebrate. Levin talks about this stuff in the context of the Occupy movement which continues to unfold around us and communicates in a direct and atheoretical way how this material might usefully inform our politics. Whilst I don’t share some of Boyer’s politics, I do think that her work begins to sketch out how poetry and the poetic might function within this new kind of politics.

I can see the point of Occupy much more clearly than the recent UK protests at student fees, I like the fact that Occupy refuses to play the accepted political game, has one tactic (“bring tent”) and doesn’t try and promote a particular remedy. I also like the fact that the forces of reaction don’t know how best to react- the City of London is currently attempting to evict the UK group on the very tenuous grounds that you can’t erect a tent in an urban/public area whilst some American cities appear to be sticking with the old fashioned brutality approach.

To return to ‘My Common Heart’, this is much more direct than the stuff that I normally read but it is accomplished / technically efficient, contains a fair amount of repetition and says some very perceptive things about the nature of the crowd and crowding and how the practice of poetry might be related / connected to the practice of protest- a connection that many poets overlook in their eagerness to be ‘correct’.

Levin ends her review with failing but a different kind of failing, one that knows and accepts failure but continues nevertheless. As we should (must).