Sunday, September 29, 2013

Strangeness and Poetry

There's a paradox about most successful poets and successful poetry, in that the yardstick is often one that we can measure accurately, but that the best poets will ignore the yardstick totally. For though the art form is ancient, its future depends (as it always has) on what comes next. That's not to say that at any point in time there isn't a consensus of some sorts; and old forms and old measures refuse to die, but become relegated to a kind of pleasant drawing room at the back of the poetry house. The action is elsewhere; though whether its in the poetry bedroom, where strangeness is held in private, or in the lounge, where all are welcome, depends on the times.

For new poets are asked to be both familiar and strange. Familiarity is what provides a ready-audience, and a sense of the tradition which they are making; whilst strangemess is what the reader often wants. Sometimes that can be a socio-cultural strangeness; so a Linton Kwesi Johnson or Benjamin Zephaniah can spellbind with a new language that reflects their own cultural backgrounds; or a William Letford can be plucked out for his working class subject matter. In informal times, a perfectly formed rhymer like Sophie Hannah, can express a strangeness through formality.

Considering their reputation as outliers, poets are often quite a conventional bunch in one way or another, though its a hard act to offer up a strangeness in life, art and content; one or more of these is likely to be enough. And as few poets have landed directly from planet Zog, there's a likely apprenticeship - often with other more established poets as official or unofficial tutors - that will shape the wilder strangenesses into something more regular. Like Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a tempting world can corrupt even the most innocent; and poetry has its temptations.

And if you've been writing for a while, the only strangeness that you might be looking for is against your own familiarity - its why poets like form, I think, new wine in old bottles, but distinctly drinkable when done with care. Yet its important to keep something of a strangeness; even if its a personal take or two on that. After all, love poems, death poems, nature poems may well still fill quite a bit of the repertoire, and then its how you say it rather than what you are saying that needs to be said newly minted. Often, a new poet's success is based on saying old things in a new way (Alice Oswald's pseudo-documentary nature poetry in "Dart" for instance) or using the old way to say new things (the freshness that Simon Armitage brought with his subject matter of northern lower middle class every day life in "Kid" and "Zoom").

I've noticed that the poetry scene is particularly censorious to those who do not show willingness to join in the club; regardless to the style of their poetry, and therefore's there's rarely a benchmark of agreement amongst the profession. Twas ever thus, I think; though new poets often find older models that work well for them. I'm unfashionably interested in Robert Browning at the moment, previously it was Thom Gunn and before that Robert Lowell.

I've actually expressed surprise when a decent poem has won one of the national poetry prizes - as there have been years when I've thought the winners are appalling. Without a lack of any real benchmark other than our own tastes and reading its inevitable that you don't always read poets that don't appeal, and, paradoxically can overstate the brilliance of ones that you do. This, I think is the real tragedy around contemporary criticism which frequently starts from the point that a particular well-known poet is brilliant without actually making a viable case for either them or their new book. For newer poets opportunities are there, but are to be fought for, and more, I think, through persistence than any innate qualities. Fair enough, for one wants, I think, a hearing, which is the hardest thing to get. Other poets are the best friends you can have in terms of increasing a profile - as they're the ones most likely to recommend you to read or contribute.

There's been a spate of "projects" over the last year or so - some of which I've contributed to - Poems for Pussy Riot; Mark E. Smith night - some which I haven't; which are pleasant indulgences, if nothing much more. As long as I've something to say, then I'll try and come up with something goodd.

But strangeness is an odd thing, so to speak. There are some great "strange" poets - maybe Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop - writers who, however much I read them I'm not sure whether I've assimilated what they are doing. Critics tend to make a fool of themselves with such poets. For the usual tools of criticism - identifying technical facility, for instance, surely fall down when faced with Dickinson's uncompromisingly fully-formed style. There are other poets who are rarely strange, but might have the greater influence. Larkin perhaps, Heaney. I guess that both informed and uninformed readers get what these poets are doing on a first glance, but the poems remain strong enough to stand constant looking.

Most of the poetry world was very sad at Heaney's passing this summer, myself included; unexpected and somewhat sudden despite his age and previous ill health - I think this was a sign of how many people he had touched one way or another; but also of his longevity - for suddenly we're aware that this a life (and poetry repertoire) finally brooked. As someone who's never been particularly attuned to his poetry (though I like his essays, well enough), I haven't really wanted to say much about his passing - but I was surprised by the obituaries how rarely they managed to convince about his work; concentrating on those too well known early poems like "Digging" or giving examples from later on that didn't seem to convince. Heaney it seems, doesn't easily extract. Was Heaney strange when he arrived? Undoubtedly so, though I think, recognisably, comfortably so, and maybe he never strayed that far from that place where he started.

During the last few months the poetry world has been up in arms over various plagiarism cases, well described here on Katy Evans-Bush's blog. It has brought into focus a conversation about the way that poetry - and especially contemporary poetry practice, with its workshops, its courses, its teacher-poet practitioners, its collage and collaboration - actually approaches appropriation. I think my trouble with the plagiarist poets (as well as not understanding why they'd want to "pass off") is that whatever is good or bad about my own work comes from an appreciable wrestling with how "strange" or otherwise my writing might be. I'm not drawn to nature poems, sonnets, obituaries or sestinas, though have written all at various times: and whatever is good about my own work comes from a synthesis of hard-won craft and a personal mythos that doesn't always disassemble into neat poetic forms. And if I have a model for writing that would be it. Taking on other people's forms (sonnets, rhymes etc.) or other people's subject and word-sets simply sits uncomfortably with my finished results. Basically I will always be much better at being Adrian Slatcher than trying to be Simon Armitage or Don Paterson. A poem like "Late Love" from "Playing Solitaire for Money" seems to me immensely strange,  when I try and unpick its meanings and origins, yet its written with a lyricism that tempers that, and on re-reading Browning's "Two in the Campagna" recently, it doesn't seem that far removed from his use of "persona" and personal myth.

I think that anyone who writes poetry with any kind of seriousness has to embrace both their own strangeness and a more balanced approach that grows out of whatever they have read. The Dickinson that hid her poetry away grew, like some strange creature on the Galapagos isles, in a uniquely strange way. I wouldn't be surprised to find that in twenty or thirty years we are talking of similar poets writing today; yet contemporary poetry is broad enough a church that most strangenesses may find a certain place - though whether the distinctions between performance poetry, page poetry, mainstream poetry, experimental poetry, conceptual poetry etc. are in their own way irons to the folds of strangeness is another matter.

Young poets finding their voice may often impress older editors through having an obvious facility, but also a sensibility that is in itself new. Poetry, as one of the oldest art forms, can sometimes seem stuck in endless old battles, yet its tenacity is through its ability to embrace the strange. I imagine that though the generic poets of any age will tend to survive as historical markers, its the stranger ones, the outliers, the oddballs, who will still be read; then as now, now as then.


Tim Love said...

Agreed. "They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to the conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look around for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title" (Wordsworth, "Lyrical Ballads")

I think however that the approach may seem like compromise. Worse still, readers may like what they're familiar with enough to ignore (or excuse) the parts that they don't understand. I think that there's sometimes a case for writing texts that resist normalisation.

Adrian Slatcher said...

"Resist normalisation" - I like that a lot Tim.

Tim Love said...

Marjorie Perloff uses the phrase. In Normalizing John Ashbery she deals with some of the issues that you do - e.g. "Breakthrough narratives, it is true, are always forced to simplify the work of the past from which the new text deviates"