Friday, November 27, 2009

lit ephem (andrew duncan)

I've never yet seen Andrew Duncan's The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (2003) receive any hearty commendation, and reading it (after far too many years) it's easy to see why. Yet it's an essential book, anyone can see that too; but it's also a lashed-together rehashed makeshift which is dreary and ungrateful to read, looks horrible on the shelf, and generally creates far more misery than happiness. In its fans, I mean. (Contrariwise it has doubtless created joy among those too stupid or conservative to be concerned about the issues he addresses, joy at finding in Duncan's tenuous competence a built-in excuse for rejecting the book, its author, and all the sort of writing that the author admires.)

Failure (as its fans probably call it) is radically unsystematic, though it also proposes a mass of systems. Occasionally, it talks about poets; a rather random selection (extracted from reviews of various dates). Favourites like Ted Hughes and Maggie O'Sullivan are neglected; you get a load of stuff about Geoffrey Hill but only up to about thirty years ago - there's just about nothing in the book that shows knowledge of any poetry since the mid-1990s, or whenever Conductors of Chaos came out; Ireland is basically ignored (AD likes Ian Duhig and thinks he's different from Tony Harrison); but there's quite a lot on Wales and Scotland. The Welsh sections, however, say more (i.e. hardly anything) about R.S Thomas (whose poetry Duncan detests) - more, nevetheless, than the flat zero that is all we're told about Peter Finch or Chris Torrance or David Greenslade. Well, you get the idea. If there's a perverse and irritating way of not addressing a topic, then that's where Duncan leads us.

This methodology is evidently intended to be analogous to and justified by the new forms of the poetry that Duncan writes about, i.e. modernity poetry. That is my phrase, and sorry it's an ugly one and I hope it won't catch on. But the idea is that while huge vats of poetry pour down every day, and they are all modern by definition, in AD's view 98% is not written against a horizon of modernity, it is not thinking about that question and it is mostly employing forms that are years or even centuries out of date, mere manacles. But on the other hand modernity-poetry does not equal modernist or post-modernist poetry either (because when these are just period styles, they are no longer engaged with the question of modernity). In fact AD's vision isn't really invested in these familiar categories - he doesn't betray any great excitement over modernism per se (Stein, Zukofsky, Joyce and Bunting are just four names that don't, unless I've missed them, appear in the book); he's not unduly interested in US poetry; he doesn't rate Olson as a poet and he's pretty cool about Ashbery... no, what exploded on him some time back in the 1980s is, or was, contemporary British poetry. He keeps his eye steadily on that original conversion-experience and he rarely finds it helpful to bring in the international -isms. This could be confused with mainstream Little-Britainism but it really isn't, because unlike the mainstreamers he's totally engaged with the questions of what modern poetry is or should be. But he re-thinks it from scratch - or rather, from any source except the kind of literary history you learn at university - and this is refreshing.

However, every so often AD does begin to sound as if he doubts his own premiss and he starts to talk about merely-chronologically-modern poetry as if it must, in fact, be a negotiation with modernity - which you would think would indeed be a necessary consequence of his own sociological thinking. At those times you're aware of a flickering realization that folk poetry or amateur poetry or ignorant poetry might actually signify; but as this contradicts the concept of significance on which the book campaigns, he quickly stifles that realization.

The accent on modernity is one reason why AD is indispensable. He also makes great play (and great display) of intelligence as a vital aspect of poetry and on the social instantiation of intelligence in the act of being easily bored. (Darwin, you remember, wrote That Bloody Voyage On The 'Beagle', God, I Thought It Would Never End.) I think AD's conception of intelligence is too spangly, he writes really about brilliance, i.e. display-behaviour.

And what about Bob Cobbing? Isn't that where any treatment of modern British poetry must begin? (But I guess once you start asking questions like that, then it becomes immediately obvious that AD doesn't provide a treatment of his subject at all.)

NOTES: Real source of AD's critical thinking: NME (Ian Penman, Barney Hoskins, Richard Cook).- infinitely more influential on him than Deleuze or Benjamin. Added to unconfessedly-Leavisite moral judgmentalism. With enormous dose of British-gothic-Baudelairean romanticising of poetry and poets. Tragic/Ironic failure ennobles tales of true poets. Brilliant writers who become suddenly useless overnight (Jeremy Reed - according to AD). All of this is exactly the imaginative world in which the idealistic rock fan lives, c. 1978. Praise of woman writers (fairly often) and non-white writers (less often) are both unpersuasive of deep engagement- imaginatively, this is a white boy's Games Workshop epic combat zone. Tremble at those ugly rows of Larkins!

But it's much easier (copying his own manner) to attack AD's writing in a short space than to do justice to the enormous vistas it opens up on nearly every page. If you don't know his work then spend the next few days studying AD's long-since-quiesced site
(which contains masses of writing that is as good as anything in Failure, maybe better). I have a contextless memory of reading some of Origins of the Underground (2008) online and being totally blown away by it, but this may have been a dream.

Anyway, another reason AD is indispensable is because he assumes that writing poetry that comes into contact with modernity is not easy and not many people do it and when they do manage to do it this state of affairs doesn't usually last very long. At one point he mentions writers who take "soft options" such as scholarship, curatorship of the noble poets of the past, - and translation. I thought of this today while skipping through the current Action, Yes. ( ) And what I thought was, Actually, the only things I'm interested in here are the translations (from Canadian-French and Japanese). It's as if, unless something has been through at least two languages, it doesn't carry enough freight. Because good poetry is, in fact, hard to write? (Well you know I don't agree with AD about that, because it isn't relativist.) - I think because of the shadow-imprint of Failure on my brain I'd just temporarily turned into someone who was bored with bratty thinness and I couldn't be bothered to read beyond that.

Then I thought about language death
( and how good it will be to live in a world where people do understand each other, but poetry addressing modernity needs to mainline to what multi-language accidentally exposed.

AD's translations of German poetry are much more interesting to me than what I've seen of his own poems, proving yet again that translation is indeed a soft option, i.e. it has a much greater chance of encountering a gratified reader.



At 3:31 pm, Blogger Anne said...

That's interesting. I haven't read Failure, for some of the reasons you mention, and have always thought I should (for the same reasons).

You seem to be arguing for the opposite of Frost's glib definition: a poetry that survives translation, or "the fully exposed poem" (to use a phrase from someone beyond AD's pale).

But it's hard to generalise about translation, isn't it? Where the main concern of a lot of modernity poets is to foreground language and disrupt meanings, narrative etc, there is going to be a tension when they translate -which can play out with interesting results.

There is an awful lot of rubbish translation out there, but at least one can be sure that it happened at all because the translator liked the original enouugh to bother.

I don't think translation's an easy way out of anything, except engaging with the ego. It can help to avoid that.

Then I thought about language death... and how good it will be to live in a world where people do understand each other
Would we have poetry at all in such a world?

At 10:24 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Hi Anne,

People always argue about translation and perhaps there is something in the nature of translation which is intrinsically opaque to analysis (it often strikes me this is also true of reproduction) so that the same questions come up again and again and are never put to bed. I do believe that generalizations can always be refuted.

I didn't understand your last sentence but it may have arisen because my own expression was too flippant. I don't see why the likely imminent extinction of some 90% of the world's languages over the coming century will mean that poetry is not composed in the other 600. Even if there were only one language on earth, it wouldn't of course mean that everyone understood each other on the kind of levels where poetry operates. It wouldn't, for example, mean that the generations understood each other! Each would no doubt continue to feel that, metaphorically, the other "talks a different language".

At 10:37 pm, Blogger Anne said...

Ah, there you go: I'm rebutted in an instant! I didn't understand the same thing as you did by "understand". Clearly, even in a monoglot culture the capacity for misunderstanding is enormous, and it is in this ambiguity, imo, that poetry gestates.

For the record, I deplore the extinction of languages and the cultures of which they are an efflorescence. I love the possibilities, nuances and betrayals of translation, which I regard as one of the high arts.


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