Tag Archives: trails

Defining literary poetry and its (contested) place

Last week I referred to Neal Pattison describing the English Intelligencer as having an ‘underdeveloped salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity’ which seems the sort of thing an editor would say- especially if we read ‘salience’ as a typo for ‘sapience’. I was going to do something big and bold about the nature of the contest(s) but then I realised that I don’t actually know what a ‘literary’ poem is.

‘Literary’ could refer to poems that aspire to the status of literature but this merely shifts the problem. It could also mean poems that use recognised and established forms or perhaps poems with ‘serious’ themes but then we get into deciding what is serious and what isn’t. Then there’s the attention divide by which (following Keston Sutherland) the difference between those poems that can be grasped or understood on a first reading and those that require additional attention. A further troubling thought occurs to me- could the literary poem have the same status as the literary novel? This is troubling that particular label is now a marketing device rather than having anything much to do with content.

Then there is the individual poet, are Prynne and Hill literary poets and, if so, why? Can the same be said of Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery or Kenneth Goldsmith?

The final and equally troubling doubt that occurs to me is that the literary poem may be the one that includes;

  • foreign words and phrases;
  • references to obscure figures;
  • references and allusions that aren’t ‘signalled’ as such;
  • unusual syntax
  • words that the OED consider to be obscure and/or archaic;
  • words where a secondary and much less well-known meaning is intended;
  • what J H Prnne has described as ‘radical ambiguity.

Are these the characteristics that I’m looking for? Can it be the case that literary actually simply means difficult?

Then there’s the possibility that literary poetry is that which gets reviewed in the three main lit comics, in which case words like ‘dismal’ and ‘vanishingly mediocre’ spring to mind.

Given that I am blessed with impeccable readerly taste, there is the argument that literary refers to the stuff that I like although this doesn’t stand up because Eliot clearly intended ‘The Four Quartets’ to qualify as literature and it does seem to be viewed in this way by the majority even though I really don’t like it. It could be argued that the literary is a fickle beast and that it moves about as tastes and academic trends change. This may be so but I am prepared to bet a fair amount of cash on the chances of Becket and Celan being consistently though of in this way for the next couple of centuries.

<before thinking about contemporary poets, it is probably as well to see if the OED offers any kind of help:

  • of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature. Also in early use: relating to letters or learning;
  • of or relating to the letters of the alphabet, or (occas.) another set of letters or symbols used as an alphabet;
  • that is communicated or conducted by correspondence by letter; epistolary;
  • of a person or group: engaged in the writing or critical appreciation of works of literature; having a thorough knowledge of literature; spec. engaged in literature as a profession;
  • of language: having characteristics associated with works of literature or other formal writing; refined, elegant;
  • appearing in literature or books; fictional;
  • Of the visual arts, music, etc.: concerned with depicting or representing a story or other literary work; that refers or relates to a text; that creates a complex or finely crafted narrative like that of a work of literature.

Incidentally, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus provides ‘staffly’ and ‘bookish’ as alternatives and I’m becoming fond of both. Leaving out the ‘literature’ tautologies, it is possible to tease out a few revealing adjectives- refined, elegant, thoroughly knowledgeable, complex and finely crafted. The astute amongst you will note that there is nothing here about being aesthetically pleasing or deeply meaningful, indeed it could be argued that the literary poem is far more about form than content and that (by these standards) Elizabeth Bishop is the literary poet par excellence.

British poets that write in a late modernist vein have an odd relationship with the literary because (in my head) the one defining characteristic is seriousness or gravitas and some of the finest pieces of this kind of poetry gets its strength from its lack of refinement and inelegance. Most of it does fit with complex and knowledgeable but there are strong late modernist poems that aren’t finely crafted.

The conceptualists present a different kind of challenge, Kenneth Goldsmith’s verbatim transcripts of traffic and weather reports and sports commentary don’t in themselves meet any of the above criteria, indeed part of their ‘point’ is there immense banality but Goldsmith and others would argue that the idea (concept) can be judged in those terms even though this view is still considered heretical in some circles because it is ‘about’ neither form nor content in the traditional sense.

The final point of these ruminations relates to groups, are the ‘Movement’ poets, the ‘Beats’ and members of the Cambridge School literary simply because these groupings have achieved a certain academic recognition? Does this kind of recognition or label now constitute the literary?

Thinking about the younger generation of British poets, the work of Timothy Thornton strikes me as the one that best meets the above criteria, that ‘Jocund Day’ and ‘Trails’ may also embody the lyricism that the literary also entails for me. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Liron seems to be intent on destroying the literary in a very complex and thoughtful way, as is Jonty Tiplady.

J H Prynne’s vow to collide head-on with the unwitty circus that was and is the literary establishment would require us to look at his work as anti-literary but it is too complex, refined and knowledgeable for that. Geoffrey Hill is more clearly writing in a literary manner and yet makes use of weak jokes and imitations of stand-up comedians in his finest work. John Ashbery’ work is refined and elegant, sounds complex and knowledgeable and is loved by the literary comics- the only problem is that most of it is emptily meaningless and the poems that aren’t are the ones that attack the idea of meaning.

With regard to David Jones, ‘In Parenthesis’ can be said to be more literary than ‘The Anathemata’ because it has a better elegance/complexity balance but ‘The Anathemata’ is the better poem.

A final thought, Neil Pattison writes literary poetry that meets all of these criteria whilst managing to remain firmly in the late modernist (Cambridge faction) vein.

This may not have been a very productive line of inquiry but it has narrowed the ground for thinking in the near future about whether this material actually has any kind of ‘role’ or place in cultural modernity and whether reading ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ does move us forward as Neil claims.


Timothy Thornton’s ‘Trails’

(This has been edited in response to Chris Goode’s comments below)

There are two versions of ‘Trails’ currently available from the Deterritorial Support Group site and they are very different so readers should download both. Earlier this year I wrote about Jocund Day with enthusiasm and admiration and these newer poems give me the opportunity to expand on that and consider Timothy’s work in further depth. Before getting on to the poems, I need to mention that I am one of the 560 people who follow Timothy on Twitter. This is relevant to what follows.

Both these poems are political and oneof them relate to the demonstrations about this regime’s ‘austerity’ schemes. I have a reasonably negative view of political poems and I’m more than a little cynical about ‘kettling’ poems and I think I need to explain these prejudices in greater depth. Being against the austerity measures devised by the particularly dismal government is an easy position to take and (consequently) being against a the tactics used by the primary instruments of class oppression is more than a little naive because the police will always be used to contain any political initiative that dares to take to the streets. So, I don’t find anti government and/or anti police polemic in poetry very interesting or useful and I have yet to be convinced that poetry is an appropriate way of doing politics. The first version of ‘Trails is also a response to the Stokes Croft ‘riots’ in Bristol earlier this year which is a much more nuanced event and one which may well require a poetic response.

Stokes Croft was about Tesco’s intention to move a store into an area where it wasn’t wanted or needed and also about squatting as a legitimate lifestyle. It is relatively easy to paint both these issues as being about economics and the priority given to profit but Stokes Croft is also (primarily) about place which is n excellent subject for grown up poetry.

The following facts may be helpful in reading version 1:
1. Alain de Botton is a figure of fun and derision whose name is frequently played around with on Timothy’s Twitter posts. In ‘real’ life he is a writer without much talent and a fully paid up member of the Great British chatterati even though he is Swiss.
2. Nigel Pargetter was a character in ‘The Archers’, a long running BBC radio soap, he was killed off earlier this year, the photographs at the end of the poem are of Graham Seed who played Pargetter. Timothy has been known to comment on ‘The Archers’ on Twitter.
3. Timothy is also a Dr Who fan.
4. Wikipedia has this to say about Cordyceps- “When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, the mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruiting body (ascocarp) may be cylindrical, branched, or of complex shape. The ascocarp bears many small, flask-shaped perithecia contain the asci. These in turn contain the thread-like ascospores, which usually break into fragments and are presumably infective. Some Cordyceps species are able to affect the behavior of their insect host: Cordyceps unilateralis causes ants to climb a plant and attach there before they die. This ensures the parasite’s environment is at an optimal temperature and humidity and maximal distribution of the spores from the fruiting body that sprouts out of the dead insect is achieved. Marks have been found on fossilised leaves which suggest this ability to modify the host’s behaviour evolved more than 48 million years ago.”
5. Professor Brian Cox is the UK’s current face of science and all things cosmic, his personal hero is Carl Sagan whose style he seeks to emulate.

So, ‘Trails 1’ may be a political poem but it’s also using political strife to say wider things about national identity and about sexual desire. It’s also a very honest poem, by which I think I mean that there is nothing here simply for effect and that the ‘stance’ adopted is utterly genuine. The lyricism which was prominent in ‘Jocund Day’ seems to have acquired a greater degree of intensity and the tone has become more urgent.

I think the following passage illustrates this and also epitomises the almost joyous rebellion that fills the poem:

the city broke “suspended neath the sky near snapped and brilliant-blue”
between as something resembling a shifting transparency showing a crude Windows 95 "fire" screensaver over-
laid on a like transparency this time a torpedo heartily fucking an aqueduct from an angle of thirty point five
degrees itself overlaid on a rope of fucked hearts slung from the John Cabot Tower tearing a spine down
to Stokes Croft every time on the tarmac thudding these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect
a low hum and look up: NATURE DOCUMENTARIES the Cordyceps fungus which entered their brain on a feeder wrong
they ascend
the Pylons spinnerets orgasming quite beyond orgasm: hold with the breeze: pause: webs: for a half

hang and at
last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that's a thing) itself blinks
over and up into what
really could only be called a Big Boss Level, which always happens: we know this: to Winning
a tidy corollary:
having ascended the Pylons in bodily pure anaphora our deployables link arms like in that

I hope this demonstrates what I see as Thornton’s lyrical strength and the radical intelligence of his work. I’m particularly impressed by ‘a rope of fucked hearts’, ‘these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect’ and ‘last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that’s a thing) itself blinks’, all of which suggest a major talent currently evolving before our very eyes. The two ‘Trail’ poems are more confident and ‘free’ than the remarkable ‘Jocund Day’. I’d also like to point out that it takes a lot of guts and skill to insert ‘(that’s a thing)’ and bring it off with aplomb.

There’s also in the first part of the above a very skilled piece of verbal camera work that, without us being fully aware, takes us through a site of struggle, the use of ‘heartily’ in this particular context opens up a whole realm of thoughts and ideas- as in eagerly or hungrily or enthusiastically or as in of the heart or as in some pastiche of Edwardian adventure stories for boys. I have to admit that I’m a great fan of words used in surprising and/or idiosyncratic ways and this (like Francesca Lisette’s use of ‘flounce’) is brilliantly evocative.

I do however have one very minor quibble, neither ‘corollary’ nor ‘anaphora’ feel quite right, almost as if they’re visiting from another poem. Both seem to run counter to what precedes them in tone and register but that’s probably because I have a fairly fixed idea of what that tone is aiming for. And I’m probably wrong.

I have on a couple occasions expressed the view that poems should end well and the final stanza of ‘Trails I’ ends brilliantly because of how it manages to turn oppressive authority into something that can be used against itself and at the same time manages to be funny. The reason why endings are important is that attentive readers need to know that the poem has actually ended and the line of thought has come to a conclusion. Some ‘innovative’ poems fail to do this and readers are left either hanging in the air or feeling let down. These five lines act as both a reprise for the main themes and the last line delivers a quite startling full stop.

We now come to the delight that is the second ‘Trails’ poem which is both very humane and deeply honest. Anyone who follows Thornton’s posts on Twitter (which is an unfolding work of art) will instantly recognise the beleaguered figure trying to defend his fish and chips in the park. As a new found devotee of repetition, I’m fascinated by the use of ‘capitalism is an actual thing, I have seen it’ which feels like a Jarvis / Sutherland style swing at us deluded relativists but it is incredibly effective. For those unaware of the details of British politics, Michael Gove is our current Secretary of State for education who used to be a journalist and is the walking embodiment of ‘the chinless wonder’. With regard to the use of block capitals, this is an essential part of the Thornton project, yesterday’s tweets contained- “FOX!!! FOX IN THE GARDEN” and “EAT THE BASIL”. In years to come, when he has gained the recognition that he richly deserves, academics will take delight in arguing over the relevance and ‘meaning’ of these stylistic variations. For the time being, ‘Trails 2’ makes me smile. A lot.

Good poetry often kicks off a chain of thoughts that end up in odd but satisfying places. So, I’ve been pondering whether or not capitalism can be described as a thing and (if it can) what might this thing resemble. I’ve glided effortlessly over the first part of this but I have come up with the following-

1. A smooth glistening machine that sits in the corner of the world. And hums.
2. A vampire creature that can only be killed in a very complex and time-consuming way.
3. A heretical set of beliefs that are now referred to as ‘common sense’
4. An unfortunate paradox which can only exist/thrive in the gap between first world obesity and the 900 million that don’t have enough to eat.
5. Five dogs with tongues in the park.
6. A wet Thursday afternoon on the way to Seaton Carew (by public transport).

It’s at this point that I return to the first part of the question which is probably quite entertainingly complex so long as we’re careful to avoid anything that might be even vaguely Marxian…