Tag Archives: innovative poetry

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.


Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.


Mainstream poetry and things indifferent.

Since reading Michael Peverell’s post on the term ‘mainstream’ I’ve been wandering around in a state of queasiness brought on by my own pejorative use of ‘mainstream’ when talking about contemporary poetry. This also reverberates around what Chris Goode describes as my ‘ecumenical’ stance with regard to the various factions within this minority sport.

I have spent some time on these pages bemoaning factionalism and trying to point out that it is possible to like the work of Paul Muldoon, Kenneth Goldsmith, Fleur Adcock, Geoffrey Hill and Jeremy Prynne without being struck down from above. I like to think that I’ve been reasonably consistent in this but I have equated the mainstream with mediocrity and this kind of laziness contributes to the problem.

I think one of the problems with the current state of play is the assumption that to like something automatically implies a contempt for something else. This is not helped by leading practitioners who seem to take some delight in lobbing grenades from their respective ghettoes. There’s also the problem of critics who seem to have made a career out of their dislikes.

None of this is sensible, most of it masks a neurotic lack of confidence in one’s place in the scheme of things and (above all) wastes energies and talents in recurring flurries of slur and counter-slur. As someone who was once paid to look after unruly adolescents, much of this is redolent of Tea Time in the Remand Home.

Things Indifferent.

Whilst feeling a little guilty about my deep contempt for all things Larkin, I cam across the term ‘a theology of reduction’ coined by Alexandra Walsham to describe the various strategies in the 17th century to bring the various religious groupings closer together. This revolved around the notion of adiaphoria which maintains that there are a number of beliefs and practices which lie outside the central principle (things indifferent) and that these should not be the cause of conflict and strife. In 1682 Daniel Whitby published ‘Protestant reconciler, humbly pleading for condescention to dissenting brethren, in things indifferent and unnecessary for the sake of peace, and shewing how unreasonable it is to make such things the necessary conditions of communion’ which stated (among many other things) that the ‘heinousness’ of schism led the various parties to take up positions which led to ” the destruction of so many precious and immortal Souls”. Whilst I’m not making a direct comparison, I think I am arguing that the current obsession with ‘things indifferent and unnecessary’ has got us into this sorry state.

This isn’t to suggest that these animosities should be transformed into a state of complete harmony, we should all be able to express our personal preferences and predilections providing these are about the work and not a knee jerk reaction to a member of a particular camp.

The Mutual Sneer.

I want to avoid the mainstream/Cambridge debate (schism) and suggest a new line of approach. This leads on from Keston Sutherland’s observation that some poetry demands and rewards readerly attention and some can be grasped in entirety on an initial reading. He went on to opine that most poets would prefer attentive readers. There is nothing wrong with this distinction but it should not imply that one is better than the other.

The mutual sneer arises when those advocates of the first type of poem imply that those who undertake ‘drive-by’ readings are lacking in erudition and somewhat shallow whereas advocates of the second type retort with accusations of obscurity and elitism. Both of these critiques manage to miss the point entirely which is that each camp is guilty of producing swathes of material that isn’t any good and of revering poets that don’t deserve to be revered.

The sneer and personal insecurity go and in hand. The poet who is confident of his or her ability is less inclined to take swipes at others whilst those that harbour doubts are ever ready to use attack as the best form of defence. Poets are also politically and strategically inept, the last hundred years are littered with farcical and juvenile ‘initiatives’ which only serve to further alienate those of us can see the point of verse and versifying.

The Mainstream, the Innovative and the Order of Things.

You don’t need to be a fan of Foucault to realise that the current discourse of British poetry is damaged because it is used as a proxy for wider cultural fault lines. Firstly there is the anti-intellectualism that we hear so much about in opposition to poets who are seen to be the products of the academy and therefore not grounded in the real world. This is further compounded by more than a degree of Little Englander nationalism with its ‘natural’ antipathy to all things European which are thought to be inimical to the solid virtues of British common sense.

The conversation about poetry is also encumbered with a problem of terminology – I’m not at all clear how we might define ‘Cambridge’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘post-modern’ and I’m guessing that these terms are bandied about without a great degree of thought and are less than heplful in setting out positions.

I freely confess that I don’t have a remedy to this dismal state of affairs but I do think that those of us who are equally dismayed should begin to think about what a theology of reduction might look like and which ‘things indifferent’ we can set to one side.