There is an infiltration of banality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contemporary poetry anthology–that dumbed down effort to ‘contextualise’ verse which perpetuates the notion that the reader is too stupid to appreciate it on its own merits. In an ideal world, the poetry anthology would be a means of teaching students of literature about the ebb and flow of literary movements, and the way each movement is necessarily a continuation of every previous one. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to locate such an anthology. Certainly, the Peter Forbes edited, Scanning the Century attempts to ground the student in the pseudo-chronological manifestations of modernist and post-modernist poetry, yet the inclusion of part of Brodsky’s ‘History of the Twentieth Century (A Roadshow)’ in the section subheaded 1900-1914 is merely symptomatic of Forbes’ apparently uninformed generalisation.
Forbes’ inclusion of Brodsky in this section is strange enough (the intention to give different perceptions of the historical period notwithstanding) but his suggestion, in the blurb immediately proceeding the selection, that ‘poetry written in English was still largely traditional in technique, exemplified by Kipling and Hardy, but the urban anti-lyricism of Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ marked the beginning of Modernism and the sensibility we now recognise as characteristic of the twentieth century’ seems uneducated. For one thing, starting right off with Brodsky after making the assertion about Eliot is organisationally silly, but for another (and more importantly), ‘Convergence of the Twain’ (the poem Forbes includes to exemplify Hardy’s apparent archaism) is actually deeply critical of the self-satisfied bourgeoisie (those bastions of traditional sentimentality) who were largely the victims of the Titanic disaster. Hardy’s phrase ‘the Immanent Will’, i.e., god or fate, is undeniably satirical. One could argue that Hardy’s language in this poem is subversive in that it evokes staid traditionalism (both poetically and in society) in order to criticise it. It’s distressing to realise that the very people who are supposed to be the arbiters of taste in contemporary poetry, journal editors like Forbes, don’t have a proper grasp of poetic chronology, or an intimate knowledge of the poetry itself.
Forbes also suggests that modernism, in the guise of Robert Frost, ‘brought a new plain vernacular voice to poetry.’ Here is a phrase for undergraduates everywhere to parrot. It’s maddening for a number of reasons. To begin with, Robert Frost, that great American tiller of the soil and patcher of old stone walls, was no more representative of the American people than John Kennedy, whose poet laureate Frost became. Rather, like Kennedy’s, Frost’s voice issued from a mask, albeit for different reasons. In many of his poems Frost attacked the idea of America as a free thinking democracy, but he did it from behind the jovial, neighbourly persona. In other words, Frost’s vernacular was a formal construct.
What Forbes’s readers will come away with is the idea that pre-twentieth century writers (specifically those of the late nineteenth century) wrote in an inaccessible, archaic form, and that this is what modernists like Eliot, Pound, and later Frost were rebelling against. Not so. Poets like Eliot and Pound were rebelling against the over accessibility of writers like Kipling, as well as the sentimentalists whom they felt pandered to the common denominator. I dare anyone to call T.S. Eliot a man of the people. I challenge anyone to speak in the manner of Pound’s Cantos. Furthermore, Robert Frost’s supposed vernacular has more in common with Kipling’s chummy paternalism than it does with the early Eliot’s or Pound’s introversion.
In his introduction, Forbes gets very excited about irony. Irony, according to Forbes, was initiated into English language poetry by T.S. Eliot (?!), following in the wake of Baudelaire; and Forbes suggests that this irony has infiltrated post-modern culture too. When employed successfully though, Eliot’s particular breed of irony, and Baudelaire’s before him, sneered at the big issues in life, like Death and Time. When Eliot was simply being nasty, as in his Sweeney poems, or ‘Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar’, as well as in his unpublished ‘King Bolo’ series, or in prose works like After Strange Gods, the quality isn’t as good. It’s not even a question of racism per se (despite Anthony Julius), it’s a question of a personal immaturity overtaking formal proficiency (with gross results)–something Eliot was to strive to overcome throughout his writing life, and which he eventually did.
One particularly sad aspect of those racist poems and essays is that they represent the poet (Eliot) trying to establish an identification with an increasingly fascist readership. Yet identification is the province of the arts. Those works we consider ‘Great’ tell us something about ourselves we weren’t aware of before–they identify something in us. Great art always surprises us in some way. Mediocre art, on the other hand, strives to engage its audience by means of shallow identifications; and, like Eliot’s racist poems and essays, post-modern literary irony doesn’t seek to surprise us, it seeks to confirm what we supposedly already know. For this reason, it can feel more immediately gratifying, like junk food.
Another aspect of contemporary literary irony, in the vein of Eliot’s lesser works, is that it gives the writer the illusion of power. Many ‘cultural theorists’ consider ironical sneering to be a major facet of post-modern thought. As such, it supposedly signals a writer’s detachment from what is being observed. Does it really though? Isn’t it more likely that this type of detachment is a rhetorical posture designed to elevate the status of the writer because, this line of reasoning seems to suggest, if one is capable of sneering then one must necessarily derive one’s opinions from a position of complete, yet incidental knowledge? If the knowledge is incidental, however, than so is the ironic, or sarcastic put-down. Further, sarcasm, roughly translated from the Greek, means ‘to tear flesh’. The point is the verbal aggression, not the subject of that aggression. So, the subject that generates such detachment can’t really be that important. It follows, then, that if the writer’s verbal aggression is more important than their subject, the writer is more concerned with their own image than they are with their point of argument–hence the often faulty logic displayed in ‘ironic’ editorial writing. Hence, also, the banal themes. When the writer’s choice of subject is subservient to the writer’s image, then the gateway through which banality enters is thrown wide open.
Enter Julie Burchill. Her column is a whining minutia of the mundane. Sometimes she whines about homeowners, sometimes about ugly celebrities; and even when she makes more significant points about society, as when she has a crack at the blinding elitism of figures like Richard Reeves and his work-is-marvellous mentality, or complains about the glorification of male aggression, she destroys the logic of her arguments with solipsistic ranting–with a childish, tantruming tone. The Guardian has attempted to make this a selling point in televised advertisements which feature Burchill’s apparently swollen Gall Bladder. The supposed selling point here, however, is Burchill’s waspish personality, not her ideas, which serves to undermine the tell-it-like-it-is attitude she is herself supposedly vaunting.
Certainly, one of the fundamentals of literary irony is a snideness of tone, a-talking-out-of-the-side-of-the-face-with-one-nostril-permanently-closed-manner, yet in the Great satirists we can perceive something more than a pose. Satirical social commentators like Swift express a very real affection for humanity in their works. Yet much of contemporary ‘irony’, while often bemoaning the state of things, does not express any warmth at all–nor does it implicitly suggest alternative options of behaviour–it simply whinges on and on and on for obviously narcissistic reasons. To that end, while I can’t stand William Safire’s politics, at least his editorial prose have an astringent, bracing effect. He handles irony more effectively than Burchill because he acknowledges his own aggression (if not love of humanity). Nonetheless, I long to read contemporary editorials spurred on by an almost naive, idealistic interest in their subject–writing with all the innocent intensity of a Jaques Rivière, or an I.A. Richards.
At least Martin Amis has made it a project to battle the banal. Indeed, in his recent article on the porn industry in America (‘Sex Lessons’), Amis steers clear of the banally narcissistic approach. While I don’t suggest that Amis was spurred on to write this account out of deep love for the subject (although many letters to the editor angrily suggested otherwise) the article is splendid because, while still chatty and accessible, it is based in an acknowledgement that the actors involved in porn films are human beings with inner lives, and that the tragedy of their line of work is their de-humanisation. In fact, the porn industry is a good analogy: just as porn actors are made into cogs of a really very boring and unimaginative consumerist mass production of plastic sex, the current crop of editorial whinging elevates our minor every day annoyances into bite-sized cultural fixations; and in our laziness, we, the readers, allow these mundanities to dominate our psyches.
This harping on banality is also present in the current trend away from the grey area of issues, towards the black or the white, as Amis has pointed out (‘Battling Banality’). Despite what the academy would like to believe, what popular journalism makes the province of the general public, academia dwells on too. The ongoing debate, for example, about representation versus actual belief: is so-and-so a racist because she represents racism? Is thus-and-such a sexist because his characters treat women as two dimensional beings? This tail chasing analysis is not very far removed from the question, ‘Is Eminem a bad man, or does he merely portray one?’ Yes, art (popular and otherwise) deals with these issues, but any art which exclusively deals with them is two dimensional. Certainly, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reacts against a Western notion of Africa en masse, and is intended as a voice in counter-point to Conrad (whether we agree or disagree with Achebe’s reading of Conrad is not, at present, the issue), but it is also a carefully constructed literary portrait. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse does more than portray the intellectual sterilisation of wives, it seeks to illuminate an individual woman’s consciousness, and in so doing is far more successful social commentary than mere ‘anti-establishment’ raging could ever hope to be. It strikes me, that when we address art in an ‘either or’ manner, we lose out on much richness and pleasure, as well as on a variety of analyses which are so often over-looked in favour of polarisation. Indeed, on a recent News Night, the cast of well known public intellectuals were asked whether they think Helmut Newton’s photographs are sexist. I acknowledge the importance of this issue in public debate, but trotting it out in such an obviously ratings-orientated way acts as a red-herring for the more interesting (and, potentially, debate generating) question, is it art?
So what of the poets? What of the people to whom Umberto Eco, in his recent Kant and the Platypus, suggests we (as a culture) attribute the role of portraying the ‘unknowable’? These days poets portray the knowable in conversational prose. Otherwise, what most published poets have in common is a superficial ability with obvious imagery. Paradoxically, it is innovators like Ezra Pound who we can blame for the notion that modern poetry must only ever depict simple, clear, and concise images (which poetry editors across the country still maintain as law today). Pound put this view across in his Imagist manifesto, and then moved on. Peter Forbes hasn’t.
Recently Forbes wrote in The Guardian, ‘Verse has staged a comeback in recent years–that is the stuff that scans and rhymes, rather than poetry, which can be loaded with significance, symbols, metaphor and the meaning of life but doesn’t have to rhyme and scan.’ I am reminded of Eliot’s ‘Reflections on Vers Libre‘, in which he suggests that there is no such thing as ‘free verse’. In my opinion, in order for poetry to be poetry, it must possess a kinaesthetic quality different from the kinaesthesia of prose. I assert that even free verse should scan in some way (think D.H. Lawrence, think Derek Walcott)–otherwise it’s merely vertical prose. Forbes’s suggestion that we are too hung up on rhyming ‘verse’ (which perpetuates ‘whimsy’ and ‘inconsequentiality’) is tiresome. The implication is that only ponces say ‘verse’, while real men say ‘poetry’. And according to Forbes, Wendy Cope has single-handedly masterminded the move towards ‘light verse’. Since he is not seventeen, and newly awakened to the ‘rhymes are for girls’ school of adolescent thought, Forbes should really be ashamed of himself.
Certainly imagistic and concise poetry can be moving and effective. Consider Charles Olsen, known to many as one of the fathers of post-modern poetry. However, what many people don’t realise is that to carry it off technically is a rather major feat. Every single tiny bit of blank space must be accounted for, otherwise what we are left with is the poetry formula–which results in relatively polished, boring, confined, status quo verse. What makes Derek Walcott so phenomenally different from so many of the living poets, is that he writes with the technical vibrancy and flexibility of the virtuoso, and he is totally unafraid of opulent or seemingly baroque grandeur. Yet Walcott is constantly accused of being an ‘Uncle Tom’. We often forget his ability to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up (which Robert Graves thought was the true litmus test of great poetry) in favour of debating the nature of his ethnic responsibility. Let’s be very clear. Walcott is not being attacked on the basis of what his subject matter does, or does not address, but on the basis of his technical proficiency.
Walcott’s citing of Eliot as a major technical influence (understandably) does not go down well with those people who want Walcott to be a poster child for ‘Black’ poetry. But Walcott has chosen to write in English, and in St. Lucia Patois, on his own back. He has chosen to grapple with Homer on his own back too. What should concern us is not the political ramifications of Walcott’s process of composition, but the meaning of the finished work which he has chosen to send out into the world as separate from himself. (Obviously there is a good argument to be made for the poet taking responsibility for the poem’s message(s), but that is not the province of this essay.) If the work surprises and moves us, then it is effective.
The notion that Walcott’s technical ability is interesting only for what it says about him as a ‘post-colonial’ writer is depressing. While perhaps interesting academically, this issue has the unfortunate effect of totally obscuring the power of the poetry itself in the popular consciousness. Certainly, ‘otherness’ is an issue for Walcott, but narrative ability and imagination, as well as emotional resonance, wit, and humanity are evident also. The reader who only seeks to re-confirm their own world view, whether that world view is liberal or the opposite, is participating in the banal-izing of the role of art in our culture.
In conclusion, I am not arguing for cultural elitism, where literature, particularly poetry, becomes the province of educated cliques, but rather, for a greater effort, on the part of the writers, editors, and the readers. Of course it is easier for us to comfortably swallow minute portrayals of the everyday (i.e. the poeticisation of nose hairs), to cheer when the vernacular of the mundane smiles benignly, or alternatively whines in a manner we can all identify with. But we must all stretch ourselves and confront the territory of deeper meaning, and wider flights of the imagination. If we don’t, we run the risk of never really being moved beyond self-absorption, and that’s terribly dull.
Copyright © Amanda Jeremin Harris 2001
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Amanda Jeremin Harris is a London based poet and regular contributor to The Richmond Review. Contact Amanda Jeremin Harris