Thursday, August 04, 2011

crippled by gentility

There is class war on the internet as everywhere else. And I'm as implicated as everyone else, and (thinking of myself as a player here, because I've now written so many literary pieces) I keep noticing common literary/journalistic expressions that I just would never use, because of personal snobbery and because I want people to see that I've got more class than to write crap like that (which really means that I'm not being told what to write by paymasters, because no-one gives a toss about what I write).


Pure Hustle is a gem of book ... (Jo Shapcott on Kate Potts' debut collection for Bloodaxe.) BTW, since we're taking potshots, the worthy but ancient Bloodaxe website desperately needs a facelift. Can you imagine, you can't even browse the books, there's no samplers? So the only things Kate Potts has got to promote her probably unique gifts are two worthless blurbs, Shapcott's heartwarming "gem of a book.. pure gold..." and Jen Hadfield's woolly stab at a more surreal style ("this assonance-jellied, beetle-drawer of a pamphlet..."). That's really not good enough. Contrast, of course, the Shearsman or Salt websites: you can really discover a whole lot about, say (pause...), Sascha Aurora Akhtar's The Grimoire of Grimalkin.. Hey, I like this book a lot; that wasn't in the script. I thought Salt had stopped publishing my kind of books. Anyway, you see what I mean? That's what a publishing website needs to be. It needs to publish, not just print.

[You can read about Kate Potts' book here, though:]


"This gem of a book" - most appropriately used of debut collections: attempting to suggest a cherished personal discovery that one has hugged to oneself for ages before coyly, earnestly, almost reluctantly, feeling impelled to speak of it among friends.

Of course we do not use expressions like this in the alt-poetry world.  (We pretend that we don't have any friends, while mainstreamers pretend that they don't live in an economy.)  Perhaps we view the gushingness of "this gem of a book" as further evidence that mainstreamers in general don't have any thoughts about poetry worth attending to, while they continue to believe that we don't  really care for poetry at all but just use it to promote our own personal agendas; both very true insights.

The more generalized expression used by both these blurbers: "This A of a B" now appears to survive only in the provincial world of books, long since discarded from more fashionable media spheres (who used to say "this colossus of a performance", "this determined beauty of an anti-single" etc).

More distantly, it makes me think of:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Essentially all these expressions are about asserting (creating) value, i.e. they attempt to propose a heroic scena in which swords are magic and heroes can hold up stone bridges. Used in reviews, this transmutes into a heroic/commercial nexus, i.e. in which you can BUY THE ACTION: bucklers, bridges and all.



Yup. That's it. No, I mean, that's one of the things I would never, ever write: an article entitled "In Defence Of" something. But lots of people do. Try Googling "in defence of" ... well,  anything. Modernism, moral imperialism, moral absolutes, mothers, monarchy, moderate aesthetic formalism, model-based inference in phylogeography, Morgan Tsvangirai, and that's just the MOs.

Gillian Beer in defence of rhyme (Guardian, Jan 13th 2007): "Rhyme is often dismissed as conventional, old-fashioned and childish. Not so, argues Gillian Beer, who believes its potential to persuade and surprise should not be underestimated". That's the subEditor speaking, with his brisk "Not so". The article that follows is often intelligent, not at all original, and eventually sinks under the oppressive discomfort of trying to pretend to be a perky topical must-read: "One difficulty in discussing the effects of rhyme is that these are manifold and diverse," the author laments helplessly.

(Bit of a soft target, you're thinking? I know. The fact is that I've lost contact with the original article that inspired this particular snobbery; I can't even remember if it was about poetry or not.)

So why are people so fond of titling their articles "In Defence of X"? Because it vaguely reminds them of other articles they've read. They think it's a clever quote from something, was it Shelley? (No, it wasn't.) Even if it was a clever quote, I'd despise it because it wasn't a cleverer one. Think of all those other vague appropriations of forgotten quotations: I want to say that entitling your essay "Post-Structuralism and Its Discontents" (Globalization, Simulation, The Euro...), so far from differentiating you, in fact places you on just the same beery level as if you write "The Great British Barbecue" (Pudding, Christmas..).

But the real reason why cool people don't use "In Defence Of..." is this. Consider the scenario: you use it to stand up for something that is, in your opinion, under attack. In other words, you tell the world that you're going to come on a bit reactionary here. Obviously, you're saying it oh-so-knowingly so as to prove that you're not REALLY a reactionary. (Keston Sutherland could possibly get away with that, but absolutely no-one else can.) But it won't work. Your title proves exactly the opposite. It proves you have a taste for sitting among reactionary furniture, so probably you ARE a reactionary, it's just that you're so reactionary that you don't even realize how reactionary you are. Actions speak louder than words. (And it's a safe bet that though you're finding relief in giving vent to some of your reactionary views now, you're still holding back on all the worst ones.)

But, wait a minute, doesn't it make a difference WHAT you're defending? No, not really. Never defend. It's A. defensive behaviour B. A lost cause. C. Suggests the puzzled blinking of an owl in daylight. D. Proves you're in denial.

And by the way, the perhaps exemplary object that you've set out to defend is now, thanks to your own bungling, tainted by association with the reactionary attitudes encoded in the word "defence".

You think I'm joking. Well, take Michael Pollan's big-selling "In Defence of Food". Main assertion, that there's no point taking any nutritional supplements because you cannot reduce food, which is so chemically complex, to a small number of active principles. I can't help noticing that the same argument would seem to condemn all medicine or pharmaceutics; it asserts an obfuscatory integrity of nature and makes experiment or investigation as impious as to question the ways of God. Interesting argument, nonetheless. But hold on! Soon the author is complaining that people don't even sit down together to a family meal these days! And if you want to know what real food is, then it's whatever your grandmother would have recognized! .... The author together with his cherished damsel (defended object: "Food" in this instance) are equally betrayed from within by these mindless DailyMailisms.

There's a more important reason than any of that. Attack and Defence are like Good and Evil, they tend to reduce the complexity of nature to the ancient binary systems, always more or less inaccurate, that humans rightly fall back on in extreme emergencies when action of some sort is paramount and layers of complexity must be stripped from the vision. At all other times, binary is pointlessly wrong.



Now that's nasty, isn't it? Evidently, the word "oft" is a poeticism and has no idiomatic existence today, supposing it ever did. Nevertheless some people love to use it when they're writing. Well, I don't. Oh but surely this is just about personal taste? No, it's about class struggle. But it doesn't necessarily work the way you might assume. In this case, middlebrow huxters write things like "oft-denied" or "oft-imperilled" in order to demonstrate, as they suppose, that they have some culture about them, that they're at ease with public writing. Highbrow huxters would be ashamed to do the same, because their secret conviction is that their writing is sufficiently commended by its own essence to obviate the need for pathetic decoration with such faded blossoms as this.


"I'm reminded of"

People are very funny when writing about other people's poetry books. When it's the kind of poetry that I mostly follow, the uppermost experience is usually puzzlement, and this can be signalled in various ways. If a modern poet is lucky enough to get a review at all, it is usually just a ragbag of "I'm reminded of".

This phrase means that the critic is about to introduce something that, within the critic's personal imagination, has a vague connection with the book under review. At the same time, the phrase signals that the critic realizes that this association, this something, is in all probability purely personal to the critic, and is not at all likely to be known to the poet; and is probably an evanescent impression that oughtn't even to be mentioned, but hey. 

[Something similar to this is when the reviewer confides "I happened to be reading such-and-such last night and ..." ... followed by quotation from tangentially relevant book.]

There seems to be a consensual recognition that a review of a book is not a study of the author's work. It is sufficiently justified, so this consensus runs, by being written by a reader and by honestly recording how it strikes them. But does this mean that the reader's happenstancial experiences are all grist to the mill? Traditionally, I'd say no. In former days the reviewer aimed for typicality, or rather pretended to do so. Now that this is rightly discredited, the modern reviewer is encouraged to confide the random synchronicities of their readerly life, even when only flimsily connected to the book in hand. I think that's how it works.


"There is a sense of"

This timidly risks proffering an interpretation, while ready to snatch it away at the first hint of a frown . 

Perhaps it is meant to evoke the enormously long, calm middle-distance musing that I remember from university tutorials. I hate the way these manners still persist.


"only to"

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, 'Eurydice' suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek myth around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again. .... it is tempting to conclude .... Chillingly, .... etc etc. (Stride review of James Womack by Thomas White.)

Is it fair of me to single out out "only to", surely that's unobjectionable?? 

Well, perhaps it is as regards the quotation I've taken up, but it strikes a disagreeable note in me nevertheless. It's something to do with being knowing, with consciously seeing all round a subject, and with abusing the short and easie way to seeing all round a subject, which is reductiveness. You fancy that in the hierarchy of knowingness, Thomas White sits somewhere above Christopher Reid who himself sits above Ovid who sits above poor naive old Orpheus. White, above all, knew where the story would end almost before it began. Yet to me (doubtless excessively reverential) this hierarchy is upside-down. The commentator should never sit above the subject, you can't see through your own butt.


"who should know better"

This chiding schoolmasterly phrase is inexplicably popular among critics who, I think, would want to reject its implications if they thought them over. Borrowing the enemy's weapons is good in war but bad in criticism, is the way I see it.

8. "serves to"

This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Obviously part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing (as per 6); the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. In Righter's case, this knowingness is probably unintended. She is apt to state that such-and-such a passage "serves to" support her thesis, when it might seem to serve to do other things that are a lot more obvious. (I mean just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? Isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's one of the most obvious things there is, that "make-believe" is something that a young child "gets" without any help whatever?)

The other part of my objection, and I admit this is more speculative, is that this expression encodes a master-and-servant view of the world. I am all right with services as something provided by servers (computers) or by companies. But I'm uncomfortable with people serving and I'm uncomfortable with a view of the world or nature as something whose main function is to serve us. And I extend this to the materials of art. I don't believe that the artist's relationship to her/his materials is one of using them to serve her/him. I see the relationship as more human and more tentative. The artist, as I see it, participates with materials (such as language or vocabulary) that are already imbued with a certain life because of their context within interpretive communities.

9. "Itself".

We live of course in an era where art tends be self-conscious and self-reflexive and self-referring. Somehow this has been seen by many not as lamebrained mannerism but as a revolutionary brilliance that they have been keen to associate with and to mimic. (The truth is, it's nothing but a heat-sink for controlled dispersal of those instinctive revolutionary restlessnesses that one hesitates to employ to any purpose.)

Personally I was bored of it in 1976 and I haven't become much less bored of it since.

Most literary commentators are not Derridas. Their wielding of self-reflexive argument amounts to little more than arriving at the word "itself".

What the hell am I talking about?

...interweaves political intrigue, personal responsibilities and the ways in which the forces of history are played out in the struggles of individual human lives. But its true subject is perhaps the role of narration and the limits of storytelling itself.

(Jacket note to the Edinburgh Edition of Scott's Peveril of the Peak.)

Can you hear the triumphalism in that ending? The author believes that by arriving at the word "itself" they have achieved a climax beyond which no other is necessary or even possible. Like Anselm defining (or rather, manhandling) God into "that than which nothing more Godly can be conceived".

But why does this snake-swallowing-its-tail manoeuvre have (in the eyes of its authors) such incredible prestige? I believe it's to do with the disenfranchisement of the first-year Arts student who suddenly ceases to acquire any further information about the world, while her/his colleagues continue to dully mug up on economics, technology, genetics, chemistry, medicine, civil engineering and political history. Meanwhile the Arts student is left with her /his swift intelligence intact, but without any knowledge. (I know. I was one.) The outcome is that the Arts student becomes addicted to arguments of this form: "If that were true then it would also undercut your statement since this itself would by implicated by what you claim."  It's a form of argument that requires hardly any knowledge about the subject under discussion, and for that very reason (an inner consciousness of comparative ignorance) it seems to the author almost miraculously clever, the first couple of times you bring it off. A lot of people never get over the thrill of it.

10. "It is as if"

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

(Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates (2007))

Ah, fancy! "It is as if" introduces a thought with the concession that it has no basis in fact, substituting for this the rarely-kept promise of a brilliant dash of intellectual play. Obviously I have no sense of humour left. I note that Seneca did commit suicide, and that his slow bloodflow was due to being old, and almost certainly not to reading Plato. I also note that contrasting Rome disparagingly with Greece has a long literary tradition. Why is anyone bothering with this, in 2007? What is this, actually, but bookmaking, that is, very old wine in new bottles?

("Nicely summed up", according to the columnist who requoted it.)

11. "extraordinary"

This is more spoken than written. If you listen to or watch any arts program (I'm basing this mainly on BBC Radio 3), then you'll find that the interview is paved not only with plugs, awards, anniversaries and anecdotes of the famous but with the regular utterance of the word "extraordinary", used to self-complacently gratulate shared moments in the speaker's own life-experience. A generous reading of this interview-mannerism is that it honourably recognizes the distinction of others and encourages the listening art-lovers to see their own art-loving lives in terms of a series of "extraordinary" events shared with art-makers; though one must point out that even this generous reading boils down to an encouragement to spend more money. An ungenerous reading (heaven forbid) would interpret it as working hard to define oneself as within a hagiographised elite, and reporting a certain wonder at finding oneself there. So far from this sense of wonder being disabling, it is actually legitimizing, since it is well-known that members of the elite are A. humble B. born to it.

12. "not dissimilar to"

Another vague pretext for the imminent incorporation of dubiously relevant mental clutter, as per 4 and 10, above.

But really, I'm including this only as an excuse to quote Prynne, writing about the opening lines of Tintern Abbey.

The present visit is made 'again' after this double interval [sc. five summers/winters], part-clement and part-forbidding, and 'again' is a marker word which is itself repeated, so that these linked doublings establish a rhythm not dissimilar to the rhetorical patterns of the renaissance handbooks, or the looping journeys of a tour of visitations. 

 (from the essay "Tintern Abbey, Once Again" in Glossator (Fall, 2009))

The quotation is meant to be a refreshment (plus, don't you think clement and forbidding would be a good pair of concepts to characterize Prynne's poems?).

How much more suggestive is that word "visitations" than (what one more commonly achieves on a tour) "visits" !

Ah, poetry!

But still, "not dissimilar to" remains a burbling reminder of dubious relevance. How have the repetitions  within Wordsworth's text been amplified in Prynne's commentary! - a commentary that very much enjoys overflowing the bounds of its subject. Attentiveness is one thing - but amplification, that's something else, there's a fuzziness in it. In this case the amplification is done by raking in some bits and pieces that the poem doesn't hint at (those very unspecified renaissance handbooks, for example) and by doubling the doublings again and again, not omitting to apply the essential assurance of the word "itself"(9, above).

Well, it's no good getting too hung up over vocabulary. Prynne's essay - it was written in 2001, in fact - is exemplary, its sentences full of depth-charges (four examples: "variations of nature and nurture" in unripe apples, the latency, absence and promise in "murmur"; connection of orchard tufts to youth, and the contemplative threshold of "natural unhoused wandering and its mimicry by the traveller on tour"). Anyway, that's enough of praise for now.

[This pallid eviscerated UK poetics-related whine is a stub. You can help Mikipedia by expanding it.]



At 2:49 am, Anonymous shahanara said...

Wonderful posting! I like it.

At 3:26 pm, Blogger Vincent Mulder said...

'A gem of a book'. Yes, you can call it a cliché but it needs to be taken in its own context which I guess to be a kind of poetry ghetto with its own standards of correctness: as if to say, this is poetry so one must find a way to praise, somehow.

Is there such a thing in poetry reviewing as 'poetry criticism'? Are there rules for poetry reviewing? Such as "make sure to (1) describe the poems in question (characterise their content & style in some way) (2) assess how well they have succeeded, measured against the poet's assumed intention (3) express a personal view, i.e. an honest expression which answers such questions as 'do I like it?', 'would I spend time reading it if I weren't a reviewer paid otherwise obliged to review it?', would I buy the volume if I had to pay for it, and if so for myself or as a gift for someone I care about?'"

But then, I write this as someone outside the circle of contemporary poetry, who does not know how to value it.

The main point I make is to challenge your confession of snobbery and to be a potential whistle-blower on a wider conspiracy: one of institutionalised hypocrisy. Please tell me if my misgivings are misplaced.

At 10:30 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Yes, but the institution is Humanity, or at any rate Culture! (Too much reading Derrida, I'm afraid...)
I don't think there should be rules for poetry reviewing. it is a thankless job that few will do; it generates no sales so is of no interest to publishers; and unless you are an academic with a CV it has no benefits for the reviewer. The important thing is that poems should be discussed, they should not be just stones dropped into a well. Having said that, I think all my reviews would meet all the rules you mention (2 is the most problematic). And it's important to let the poems themselves speak; the quotations are what really influence me, (e.g. when I read the one on Kate Potts), they're what make me - sometimes - want to see more of that author's work.

At 10:42 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

"In Defence of ..." I immediately think of "In Defence of Sensuality" by John Cowper Powys. It's a book-length essay, probably written for money, like most of his non-fiction, because he could dash it off in his prolix way as an extended dithyramb.

I don't know what he is defending sensuality against: perhaps the Church-of-England uprightness of his clergyman father. His "sensuality" is really what he calls the "ichthyosaurus ego" (which would not have made a good title: it doen't even make a good label within the body of his exposition.

In fact, he is "defending" something that no one but him really knows about - a sort of mystical sensualism that he's invented.

He could equally well have called it "In Praise of Sensuality".

Or perhaps invoke Freud and call it (somewhat vaguely) "In defence of the Id".

In defence of John Cowper Powys, however, he wrote it in 1930.

I don't suppose you don't despise that sentence too?

At 11:07 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

As for "oft-something" I think you do it an injustice. Oft is an archaic poeticism on its own but very much alive in its hyphenated stated.

If I define a cliché is an oft-repeated phrase, it's pretty concise and apt. Nothing to be ashamed of at all.

What would you say as a substitute for "oft-repeated", if what you really wanted to say was "oft-repeated"?

There may be something dodgy about oft-presented and oft-imperilled. I agree with you there. But I suggest it's not the fault of poor oft, but the context you have found it in: perhaps the wrong kind of jocularity at the wrong target.

An "oft-presented PowerPoint presentation" seems fair game, even with the repetition of "present" - because PowerPoint is often nasty in use.

Someone might write an article In Defence of X (X=name of journalist) and his oft-denied hints of phone-hacking, not to mention his reputation, oft-imperilled at his own hand via Facebook & Twitter.

Then people might think that X=Piers Morgan.

Can't see anything wrong with it. Your self-confessed whining refers not to the expressions I think but the scenarios in which they are used, n'est-ce pas? (Pretentious? Moi?)

At 9:05 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Oh no, I meant the whinge to apply only to essay-titling in the present. Perhaps Powys is one of the unremembered sources that lies behind this essay-titling tradition?

At 8:58 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Oft - yes, I agree on consideration. I've probably used it myself. It may be that my animus is about a particular tone. Mortifyingly, it's not unusual for me to discover later that both expression and tone are well exemplified in something I once wrote myself.


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