Tag Archives: stanley fish

Poetry and the academy (again)

In the early days of this blog I allowed myself the occasional extended rant about the damage that something called the academy does to something we call poetry. The general thrust of this centred around an academic elite having more and more complex discussions with itself and thus locking most ‘serious’ poetry up in a box that excludes the rest of us.

I’d like to be able to report that I’ve mellowed and now appreciate that complex poetry requires complex analysis and that this must be expressed in precise terms which many may consider to be obscure. Unfortunately, recent exposure to academic work continues to confirm the original view although in a slightly modified form.

I read a lot of history and spend many a happy hour arguing in my head with views and perspectives that I don’t agree with. I’d like to be able to read about poets and poetry that interests me, especially work produced between 1580 and 1670 (ish) although I wouldn’t be adverse to reading outside these parameters. The problem is that I can’t finish the vast majority of those that I’ve tried. I start off with the best of intentions but soon get weary and decide not to proceed any further. This weariness is usually due to:

  • the points being made don’t seem to be well-founded;
  • an ideological agenda is being pursued which requires the author to shoehorn the work into a box that doesn’t fit;
  • academic eagerness leading to an ‘over-egging’ of the pudding;
  • increasingly convoluted arguments to make a very small point;
  • an emphasis on the wrong things;

There are some critics that I read with enormous pleasure even though I disagree with almost everything they say, I read and re-read Stanley Fish on anything and I do the same with Jacques Derrida on Paul Celan. I also read Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne on anything but my primary motivation stems from my interest in their poetry.

I do appreciate that there are academic trends and that these develop over time, I also understand that academia is competitive but it does seem that academic success is more likely if authors produce work that questions the prevailing status quo (and is well written).

I do not want to single out particular books but I have started about ten that have been published in the last five years. I’ve been attracted by the subject matter and the thesis that’s set out in the introduction and have started with more than a degree of enthusiasm because all of these books promise to do what I think ought to be done.

The over-egging of the pudding is particularly tiresome, it does seem that there is a tendency to develop entire theories on the flimsiest evidence. Some historians also fall into this particular trap but there is a growing trend which emphasises the things that we don’t actually know rather than those which we can only guess about. I’m not inherently against speculation but I am of the view that authors should make it clear when speculation is taking place.

I have tried to be reasonably broad in my reading, I’ve engaged with works about individual poets, about groups of poets, works with a political bent and those with a theological/philosophical angle and none of these have lived up to the promises set out in the introduction. Some of this can be very dispiriting, I’ve been taken through many pages of context and supporting evidence only to arrive at a ‘point’ that is so small as to be meaningless. I’ve been through pages of ideologically right-on posturing to arrive at a ‘point’ that is laughably wrong (as in factually incorrect).

We now come to specialisms and context. I am familiar with the history of this particular period and am therefore reasonably aware when authors provide only partial or inaccurate context. There may however be many readers who ‘only’ have a background in literature and would often struggle to make a judgement about the context that is provided. I’m not suggesting that this is deliberate but too often sweeping generalisations are made in order to prove a (usually speculative) theory. The other side of the coin is represented by J H Prynne who spends many pages in his ‘Love III’ commentary emphasising just how complex and obscure certain theological debates were in the 1620s.

we now come to over-complication which is usually due to putting forward a hypothesis on very, very thin evidence but can also stem from being overly-enamoured with theory. The love of theory is (to say the least) unfortunate because it can often deter the hapless reader (me) who ‘just’ wants to know a bit more about the poems. I could go on for a very long time about how the work of Edmund Spenser has been hijacked and fought over by various theoretical perspectives to such an extent that the poetry has been largely forgotten, looking at recent academic work would lead the neutral observer to conclude that Spenser only ever wrote about Ireland and that this was done in order to promote and strengthen a profoundly dodgy (technical term) imperial project. Needless to say a few critics have attempted to buck this trend but they do tend to get swamped by this kind of errant nonsense.

I’m not in any way adverse to theory but do nevertheless feel that theoretical concerns should be used to inform our understanding of the work and not the other way round. Literary theorists also suffer in the main from a very simplistic view of how things work/worked in the real world. There seems to be a number of straight lines that go from society to any particular poem, so we have a burgeoning economy or a flourishing legal profession or religious controversy having a direct and discernible influence on the way that poems are put together. I shouldn’t really need to point out that life is inherently messy and doesn’t always follow the lines that we draw for it. The refusal of some literary critics (from a variety of theoretical perspectives) to understand and accommodate this unfortunate fact is especially frustrating.

It’s also interesting to note that historians tend to do better on poets than literary critics do on history. Roy Foster has produced the definitive work on Yeats and Edward Thompson’s book on Blake and the Muggletoniansis an absolute delight.

In conclusion, with a few honourable exceptions, the academy continues to produce work about poetry that is incredibly introspective and usually inaccurate. This does enormous disservice to the work and to the interested but non-academic reader.

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George Herbert and the Day Job

Two Mollys on Blue - Sarah Small

I’m reading Herbert’s instruction manual for parish priests, ‘Priest to the Temple’ and I feel a bit let down by my own judgement because it’s causing me to reconsider the poetry. I’m going to try quite hard to keep what follows out of the lit crit rigmarole but this may not be easy.

Let’s start with the reasonably obvious, George Herbert was a god poet and his god poems are some of the best we have. They achieve this quality in a number of ways but one of the main attractions is the use of the sudden interjection to express direct and intense emotion.

Although a fully paid-up, non-Dawkins atheist I am attracted to god poems because the best of them are better than anything else (Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy) and because they manage to do many things at once and because god and god-related material has been such an important part of our culture. I’m also fascinated by the religious debates that swirled around the first 150 years of Anglicanism.

This doesn’t apply to all god poets, I really can’t stand either Southwell or Hopkins (and I have tried) and John Donne is currently underwhelming me for all kinds of reasons but I remain a devoted fan of John Milton, Henry Vaughan and R S Thomas.

Last month I wrote about the relationship between Herbert’s poetry and scripture in which I glibly dismissed the view of Stanley Fish that Herbert is catechizing with his poetry. This may have been a mistake. Before explaining why it might be a mistake I need to point out that I haven’t read ‘The Living Temple’ and can only make a reasonably informed guess at the general thrust of the Fish position.

The first thing that struck me on reading ‘The Priest to the Temple’ is the stridency of tone and the absence of nuance. I also have to observe that I would probably given up the ministry if I’d read this as an apprentice vicar in about 1635. There is also a lot of practical stuff about how to inspire rural parishioners and how to deal with overly ardent female members of the congregation but there’s also a (for me) surprising emphasis on liturgy as performance (on the part of the priest) rather than an expression of faith.

There’s also the biographical difficulty referred to by Helen Wilcox which is the fact that Herbert was a member of the nobility and the role of a rural priest isn’t by any means a normal career path for men of his standing- he had previously been appointed as Orator of Cambridge University and elected as member of Parliament for Montgomery. I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why he embarked on a much more ordinary life but do need to point out that there was a huge social and cultural gap between Herbert and the vast majority of his parishioners.

I’d like to start with the last stanza of ‘Grace’:</p?

O come! for thou dost know the way.
Or if to me thou wilt not move,
Remove me, where I need not say. Drop from above.

The Rowan Williams / Helen Wilcox line would be that ‘Grace’ is a straightish expression of fairly orthodox thought and that these last four lines are a spontaneous interjection from the poet as a personal expression of the conflicted soul. The Stanley Fish position is (probably) that the personal and exclamatory tone is a deliberate attempt solely to amplify / intensify the faith of Herbert’s readers.

Having read Prynne on ‘Love III’ and Wilcox’ introduction to the ‘English Poems’ I have been firmly on the side of spontaneity and heartfeltness in the manner of what Simon Jarvis describes as a poetic ‘blurt’. I’m now wavering between the two because of this:

THE Country Parfon when he is to read divine services, composeth himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands and eyes, and using all other gestures, which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he doth, First, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himfelf alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation; whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly Altar to be bathed, and waihed in the Sacred Laver of Chrift’s blood. Secondly, as this
is the true reason of his inward fear, so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himfelf, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to reverence,
which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behaviour in the very act of praying.Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and flow ; yet not fo flow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.

So Herbert appears to be saying that priests should not be afraid to express their personal fervour as this will encourage the same in their flock but he’s also saying that the words shouldn’t flow but have a ‘grave liveliness’ so as to move the congregation to reverence.

Taking aside the wonderful nature of ‘grave liveliness’ as a phrase, I’d like to point out that there is a middle way to read these poems. The first thing that needs to be recognized is that they are intended to catechize but that Herbert’s view is that sincere personal expressions of faith are the most effective way to do this and he therefore has the best of both worlds.

The other modification that needs to be made relates to the nature of the ‘blurt’ because I think that the above demonstrates that the apparently can’t help myself spontaneity is in fact a conceit or device to increase fervour in the reader. I’d also suggest that the apparent inner conflict that Williams so admires is (probably) a device to mirror the doubts that each member of the congregation will have. Skilled demagogues, of course, have been doing this for centuries.

I set great store by honesty in poetry and shy away from anything that ‘feels’ contrived or manipulative. This should therefore give me a bit of a problem but it doesn’t because it hasn’t led me to question the nature of Herbert’s faith and the ‘interjection’ as technique rather than blurt seems entirely reasonable.

I must also mention that I love manuals of this sort and Herbert’s is an absolute delight- and gives a much clearer insight into the cares of the times than most of the religio/political tracts and pamphlets so beloved of historians.

Reitha Pattison and the superbly obscure

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but I’ve been thinking about instead, which is usually, for me, a mistake. Really dedicated readers of this blog will know that Michael Peverell responded to an earlier post on Pattison’s ‘Some Fables’ by pointing out that the last line of Fable XIV is a “misquote of Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum (or rather, a sixteenth-century translation presumably)” and that he knows this “from Google referring me to Pattison’s own leisurely ramble around Prynne’s “Corn burned by Syrius”.”

For the eternally curious (and the Prynne completists) the ramble is in the ‘Prynne’ issue of Glossator but Michael prodded me into thinking about the nature of what we refer to as ‘obscure’ and the effect of its use or deployment in poetry.

I know that I’m treading over some well-worn ground but I want to try and redeem myself by recounting my own change in view on the obscure. Many moons ago I had come to the view that the use of obscure references had the effect of intimidating or otherwise deterring the reader and smacked of laziness, as if the poet couldn’t be bothered to use his own words to express himself.

I’m still of the view that this is a sensible and defensible position to hold and that it has the benefit of appearing to be more ‘inclusive’ and democratic. As well as reading poems containing obscurities, I’ve had two significant encounters (in the Paul Celan sense) with critics that have caused me to further develop the above view. The first is George Steiner’s discussion of Celan’s use of “metastasen” and his speculation that it might also refer to Metastasio, the 18th century librettist and poet.

The second was with Stanley Fish’ examination of ‘Lycidas’ and his view that we will never know what the ‘two-handed engine at the door’ refers to and that over 400 years of critical debate on this matter has been a complete waste of time.

When I started this blog in 2009 one of the first pieces was an attempt to distinguish between the ‘difficult’ and the ‘wilfully obscure’ and to condemn the latter. This is the only piece that I have since removed. I think I did this because it was a view that I no longer held and that it might give first-time readers the wrong idea about what Bebrowed is ‘about’. This isn’t the same as wanting to preserve some consistency, I don’t have a problem with changing my mind and writing from fluctuating perspectives but this post was so at odds with the other 200 or so that I felt that it had to go.

I’m not suggesting that I’m an avid fan of the superbly obscure but that its presence doesn’t seem as significant. The reason for this is bound up with my changed relationship with meaning and authorial intention and my much more relaxed view about elitism.

Dealing with elitism first, it has been very, very tempting from time to time to throw out the over-educated, bourgeois, southern and therefore effete as describing words at the sight of a German or Greek phrase/or a reference to Hegel, Adorno or ‘contradiction’. I have succumbed to this temptation when these occur but also with other obscurities that seem to cross over into the deliberate in-crowd snobbery. Having this kind of rant makes me feel morally cleansed but it’s an easy gibe and one that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. For example, in this post I have qualified the use of the word ‘encounter’ to indicate that I intend it to have the same meaning that Paul Celan gave it in the ‘Meridian Address’. I am, of course, aware that many people haven’t heard of Paul Celan and those that have may be unaware of what he intended by ‘encounter’. I recognise also that this kind of reference without any further qualification can be seen as both obscure and elitist. My defence is:

  • that I didn’t want to spend time of eleborating on a point that is incidental to what I’m trying to say;
  • that it is a mark of these dark and difficult times that the populace at large is neither aware nor concerned about what Celan meant by ‘encounter’ and that this lack of knowledge really isn’t my problem;
  • what I’m saying makes sense without the qualification, it’s just that the reference makes it more precise;
  • typing “Celan encounter” into Google will provide the required context and may perhaps point readers to the whole text (and the notes).

Obscurity occurs in two ways- the obvious way is when a word, name or phrase is used that is obviously obscure and the second way is when the reference is not flagged up as a reference or as a quotation, Prynne is particularly guilty of this.

Being largely self-taught and not having access to decent libraries, my ability to track down references would be very limited were it not for the world wide web so before about 2000 the charge that obscurity acts as a barrier to those of us who live in rural areas would have had some weight but this is no longer the case. Geoffrey Hill usually flags up his obscurities and sometimes clarifies them for us so he’s forgiven for Bradwardine, Gabriel Marcel and most of the rest. Neil Pattison and I had an exchange a while ago about his allusion to a Steven Malkmus lyric which I thought was too obscure and which he defended as ‘private’. This again was redeemed because the reader is told that the reference relates to a Malkmus song.

Here’s a quiz- who knows that ‘Consilience’ is the name of a book by E O Wilson? Who knows that it says that there is a commonality running through all science that is on its way to revealing the secrets of everything? Hill’s poem 26 in the ‘Clavics’ collection begins with “Unity of knowledge – consilience –” and goes on to gently demolish the Dawkins/Wilson position but you wouldn’t know this if you didn’t know the book. ‘Consilience’ is one of the three or four science books I’ve read in the last twenty years but I’m betting that very very few of Hill’s readers would have grasped the main thrust of his argument. It is true that the poem works (and works well) without this knowledge but it is so much more effective with it.

Prynne does unattributed obscurity too often to be counted and I’m intrigued by the inclusion of the Reference Cues at the end of ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ even if some of these are no use at all to those of us who don’t have the science, although I demand some points for making progress with ‘pore geometry’. I’m guessing that Prynne’s answer to the charge of deliberate and excluding obscurity is that he doesn’t feel that achieving complete understanding is essential to a successful reading of his work. I waver on this one because obscurities that aren’t flagged (‘rap her to bank’, poem 7 in the ‘Pearls that Were’ sequence etc.) are on the way to becoming open poems, a charge that Prynne denies.

To attempt a summary- Reitha Pattison’s obscurity isn’t problematic because the use of quotation marks indicates very clearly that she’s quoting and that the source is easily identified whereas Geoffrey Hill’s use of italics for the first line of Poem 26 is helpful but not helpful enough- most readers will be left with the misleading OED definition.

J H Prynne is guilty of the charge of wilful obscurity but in his case it doesn’t seem to matter because we’re not looking for conventional meaning or understanding. Unless of course he now wants us to become familiar with pore geometry, quantum physics, and the nature of monumental space in the Neolithic…

Incidentally, Reitha’s fifteenth fable contains a not very clearly flagged reference to the Georgian national epic but you might not know that, the only reason I did is because my son works in Tbilisi and he’d bought me a copy.