Saturday, November 10, 2012

Most Modern

In 1999 I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek article called "As if Ulysses had never been written". It was primarily about fiction, but asked the question of what legacy modernist fiction had had on the contemporary literary landscape. I (correctly) predicted that me might see, at the time of the millennium, big, baggy, linear novels though owed very little to Joyce, Woolf, Stein et al. I probably wouldn't have asked the same question of poetry, partly because I felt somewhat unqualified to do so, but also because surely the answer was evident: modernism was a foreign plant that had never quite flowered in our tough soil. The existence of "The Movement", our veneration of Larkin, the popularity of Heaney and Hughes, were all evidence enough that the modernist project had stalled on these shores.

That British poetry still fears modernism seems a silliness, but I think it's still there. In his otherwise excellent biography of Edward Thomas, Matthew Hollis (just appointed as Faber poetry editor), ends the book by bigging up the Thomas strand of English poetry. Our poet laureate is quoted on the cover; and the Wikipedia entry for Thomas mentions Ted Hughes' quote that Thomas was "the father of us all." British poetry had its post-modern tribes, but they were thin on the ground (or at least, have been squeezed out of the narrative) compared to their American cousins. Our confessionals, our beats, are either minor figures or tend to be assimilated into a mainstream narrative.

I'll come back to this. In the way that one's reading tends to beget one's reading; I was fascinated by an exemplary article in this month's Poetry by Clive James. He is talking about "memorable lines" and how whereas some poems may cluster them together in a series of unforgettable "hits", other poems may have interminable gaps between the lines that have somehow survived. He speaks of Heaney's luck to be bought up in a landscape that almost guaranteed a musicality to his poetry. My thoughts on that of course, are, perhaps at the heart of my discomfort with the romantic/natural world tendencies of so much British poetry: for surely if we're not "lucky" enough to be born with the beautiful acoustics of a church at hand, then we have to find music elsewhere? It is notable that many of the great American poets of the 20th century haven't necessarily eulogised that country's monumental landscape but something else entirely. We need, I think, to follow on from Ginsberg, and find Whitman in the supermarket.

But this essay played into a conversation I'd been having the night before at the launch of Lindsey Holland's debut collection "Particle Soup." We've had conversations before about where particular poets and poems "fit" - and it seems that there are quite a few writers I know who are not comfortable or particularly interested in the old arguments between the "mainstream" and "avant garde." It's possible after all to like Simon Armitage and Geraldine Monk; and also, I suspect, to question some of the differences and distinctions between different "schools." It can work the other way of course; I'm not particularly interested in Prynne or Heaney. Thinking aloud, as you do after a poetry reading, when you're sat in the pub, I mused on how useful or not these distinctions are to our own practice. I've often been surprised, in conversations with contemporaries, how much of their influence - if that's the word - comes from their peers. Perhaps coming as a bit of an outsider to poetry has its advantages: I puzzle a little at "generations". There are plenty of poems and poets coming to my attention apparently fully-formed; less, I think, in the fifteen or so years I've been taking an interest, where I've seen an obvious development. Part of this is about the proliferation; partly about the very idea of "schools." But also, there is something of influence. I'll be honest, there's been very little I can take as a poet from, say, Armitage. I know I can't do what he does with anything like his skill or effectiveness. Yet, at the same time, his method doesn't actually have a lot of use for the kind of poetry I want to write. Discovering both Les Murray and John Ashbery in the late 90s, I didn't consider them to be opposite ends of anything; but both have been helpful models.

And that's what this comes down to, I think. We all have books that meant something to us; and as time flattens things out, rather than fixing the narrative ("Modernism began in 1912 and ended...blah blah blah") I feel that, in art at least, though its probably equally as true of history, we have to look again at the story, and revisit with our contemporary eyes and ears. Though you might not find much that bears similar characteristics to Eliot or Pound in the 19th century's Empire poets; there are echoes of intent going back further - Eliot saw this in the metaphysicals; Pound in Chinese poetry amongst other forms. James in his article makes the salient point (one that I'd made the night before, actually) that Tennyson was exempted from the general early 20th-century disdain from the late Victorians. And rightly so. His words sing, they have "hits", they do not go "clunk." Of course, fascinating ourselves behind modernism we begin to notice other difficulties. Outside of Eliot and Pound, there is no shortage of "clunking". H.D. and Richard Adlington have their moments; Joyce hardly qualifies as a full-time poet - though he was certainly a modernist - and by the time we get to Auden, we have a voice that is doggedly non-modernist, though is perhaps inconceivable without the example of modernism. Larkin, like Tennyson, survives all movements and "Movements" because he was so good. Thom Gunn always seems an exception to any box you put him into, and though I'm not much of a Hughesian, his influence is large - and, vitally, different.

Which takes us back to the poems - the lines that matter - and whether you'll find these as easily in Bunting or Olson or Prynne as in Billy Collins or Andrew Motion or William Letford. (If there is one fault in the James essay is that he rarely strays into the contemporary minefield: the past is easier to negotiate in this way, but it would be good to know what his thoughts were on, say Sam Riviere's "81 Austerities". The most modern he gets is with his description of Martian poetry as "all climax, no build up" - which seems brilliantly apt, and possibly explains why the first time you read martianism, it's wonderful, but by the time of "History: a Home Movie" there's little left to be excited about.) So how do we negotiate the modernism argument? I guess by sidestepping it. In Holland's poetry, for instance, we rarely linger on a particular image for that long, this is neither imagism or still life, but more a roving camera, "movementism" rather than "The Movement" if you like, and its a quality (it is a quality) that I find in quite a lot of contemporary writing. We live, after all, in an age of alacrity - but whereas the Futurists needed to exalt the fast and modern - our age; a virtual one; has its Larkinesque moments: the English countryside passing by his eyes as he travels south one Whitsun for instance. This is no longer technology as the motor of our times, but us, being to some extent cog-parts of that technology. How we fuse that with our humanity is perhaps a quintessentially poetic questions? Do poets wear glasses, I often wonder? And if they do, why don't the write about them more - the answer is that a poet always has a short- or long-sightedness to deal with however much they profess to 20/20 vision.

So, I look at where we might find that "movementism" in the past, and its there before the age of mechanical reproduction; I guess we can find it in "The Seafarer" or in the narrator-narratee structure of "The Canterbury Tales"; but we also see it, mostly, I think, in those pre-modernist modernists. I'm thinking of Hardy and Hopkins in particular. Their poems are rarely still lives. The ever enervating "The Darkling Thrush" sees the self-conscious (modernist?) narrator move from darkest depression to elation; this could be the romantic euphoria of Wordsworth of course, turning a corner and being hit in the face by the wonders of nature; but in Hardy the narrator hasn't moved, other than through the course of his day (and the course of his moods.) Like reluctant Larkin travelling on a bank holiday, the fin de siecle Hardy is feeling the pains of the age; yet can still be lifted. The still life is never less useful a model, I think - and here we have the beginnings of a sensibility that survives modernism, but certainly pre-dates it - an ability to view the world from different angles. Less the painter fixed on his muse, and more the child on the beach, prefiguring the Instamatic or the digital camera, and taking the kind of shakey camera shots that tell us something about how our minds work. Neither us or the landscape is unchanging. We can re-frame the shot to avoid the pylons if we want, but importantly they are still there. This is the lesson, I think, that contemporaries have extracted from Modernism, but actually, have found it was already there in the proto-modernists such as Hardy and Hopkins and is there again, in the post-war poets. In this viewpoint, modernism becomes a useful touchstone, a project, a movement; post-modernism, a sidetrack, and those post-modern confessionals, beats or New Yorkers, who its easier to put in a vast, slightly awkward box, called the "avant garde", are now clearly in sight again, as part of an ongoing narrative that exists without need for labels.

And going back to Clive James one last time, one wonders if the "line", the "hit", the memorable is what matters for more than the utilitarian view of Heaney and Hughes' "Rattle Bag" to memorise poems by half. As James says, half joking, when someones starts on reciting Milton or whoever, there's rarely any one of us there with the text to check they've got it right. There is, I think, a difference between acting and reading, after all. If there's anything to be said about this somewhat egalitarian view, its that it seems inevitably echoed in recent anthologies of younger poets - where its not clear where their influences come (other from their peer group or the wider world), but they certainly don't seem to have bounced directly down from those just a few years older. There is, after all, no contemporary Auden or Eliot to bounce all questions off. That would require a series of "hits" of Beatles proportions.


Shelley said...

I'm also fascinated by how many of the "memorable" lines rhyme.

And yet in the current day, it's so hard to make rhyme sound unpretentious.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I think the two things go together. The memorable rhymes preclude us now being able to use them fresh, they will always echo with predecessors.