Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Trigger Warning: These Poems are About Something

I probably have only myself to blame. When meeting other writers, particularly other poets, I've sometimes asked them what they write about, what their subject is. I'm interested from my own point of view, partly because the "traditional" subjects of poetry - love, elegy, nature - don't particularly interest me, or at least not all the time.

Up until the early 2000s, a certain mode had taken hold of British poetry, I think its fair to say, which you could probably describe as What Heaney Sees from His Window. The anecdotal, or the moment lived; the thing in view. Its not just in Heaney of course, but this sense of poetry that is personal experience, or if not experience, personally observed,  is the default mode. It is, to use well known examples, in the onion which Carol Ann Duffy writes about, even as she uses it as metaphor, or in the tire that Simon Armitage storifies, even as he adds the metaphysical. Where the imaginative or surreal came into poetry it was in a nicely protestant form, through story, fairytale, myth. I'm not saying poets didn't crave something else to write about, after all Heaney himself found a bit of a new lease of life with "Beowulf" a model that again has been picked up by poets wanting a big subject.

There was, as the anthology "Emergency Kit" (ed. by Kit Wright and Jo Shapcott) had identified in the 1990s, another "mode" of writing that was more elliptical, more strange. If you go into visual arts, we've long ago dumped the merely representational or the obviously viewed, yet British and even Irish poetry of the mainstream seemingly viewed such things suspiciously. Yet the flowering of poetry since the millennium and partly documented in books like Nathan Hamilton's "Dear World" shows a refreshing willingness to stretch beyond anecdote and personal experience, as valid as those modes can sometimes be. Our new nature poets are notably stranger in their approach than earlier ones, our anecdotalists, seem to have stepped through the rabbit hole, love poems are as diverse as love in the modern pluralistic world can be, even our elegies reflect the tragedies of contemporary life rather than merely age passing, and the way that we say these things has changed, is changing.

Yet, looking at a few recent poetic exchanges I'm a little worried that something else is beginning to overtake poetry on the inside track. There has been a recent tendency to reportage as poetry. At its worst, this has been the appropriation of found materials and dumping them in an inappropriate place conceptually, at its best this has been a certain documentary poetry. I'm not adverse to this. One of my favourite books of the last few years was C.D. Wright's "One Big Self" about prisoners, which took their own testimony and made poems of it (accompanied initially by photographs.) At a time when social media has pretty much become a platform for different self interest groups, we are seeing an over-policing of content that on the one hand identifies that poems can be about something, but on the other, insists that poems are EXACTLY about something. It strikes me that we use metaphor for a reason; that it has power beyond the events it describes.Yet at the same time, poetry's desire for a bit of a moment in the sun, means that art on its own is not a "story", instead work that gets noticed has to be "about" something.

Yet for me, without going into the language specifics of the L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poets or a non commital "arts for arts sake" view, the work that I like best in all kinds of way is not, has never been, simply paraphraseable as prose. Wherefore Stevens' "Emperor of Ice Cream?" in this, and why do we love it so? And of course, the distinction is never that simple. Isn't it strange that the so-called conceptual poets, whose work we would expect to find hard to understand, are sometimes drawn to interpretable gestures? Or that a work of documentary, like "One Big Self", Dan O'Brien's "War Reporter" or Claudia Rankine's "Citizen", shortlisted for this years Forward Prize, can be a complex collage of forms?

When we look for a subject for a work - or the subject finds us - its usually somehow about connection. Why is that certain obscure points in history excite me when others don't? It's something to do with our artistic interpretation of the world. Perhaps more so in fiction, than poetry, where "making things up" used to be the whole point, this sense of "reality hunger" means that we sometimes look for the crutch of real life events as this makes the story less removed from our world. Yet the reason we talk about "Big Brother" is because of Orwell's imagination, not because of his reportage.

There has been a trend since the millennium for theatre that is based on real life events - even taking as source material policy reports or official documentation. This approach might be mirrored in Ken Goldsmith's appropriations for instance. This "documentary art" feeds our "reality hunger" in David Shields' words, and is ultimately interpretable. I've long been interested in the possibilies of written art that isn't paraphraseable, after all we have to hear a piece of music, experience a sculpture, see a painting to understand it. Even narrative forms, such as film, which are meticulously built, scene by scene have to be watched again (as I found the other day, watching the 40-year old "JAWS" again) and can change meaning. It seems one of the key elements of successful art, that it cannot be just described but should be experienced.

I wonder if our 24-hour news cycle, the inevitable desire to have "newsworthy" art - whether a Craig Raine poem, or prize-listed book - means that the genuine strangeness of the imagination becomes secondary. In the age of the superhero movie you'd think demand would lead to a whole new raft of superhero creations, yet instead Marvel raid Stan Lee's back catalogue for yet another revamp or reboot; even modern icons like Harry Potter are creations with a cultural backstory rather than genuine originals; our desire to dress up our children for World Book Day seems a betrayal of the imagination I had as a child (reading the book made me part of the interactive adventure, not wearing the clothes that the character wore on the cover), whilst adults "cosplaying" have replaced old mummers play archetypes with new ones from popular fictions.

So I get how we need to share in our myths, even commercialised ones (who wants to go to the fancy dress and be asked what you've come as?) but the literal application of the imagination is a second or third time removed from the actual art itself. Literalism sometimes seems as if its the unexpected yet inevitable next step after post-modernism has become exhausted: no, I'm not being ironic, I really do like ABBA/Lord of the Rings etc. etc. By all means be about something, but you don't have to be exactly about something -we have Wikipedia for that!

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

I wish I had time to give this the response it deserves.

Yes, our non-realism tends to play safe, packaged as myth, dream, or forgetting to take the meds. Though there's Liz Berry.
Emotional material (maybe poems that are about something too) is best understated (Rebecca Goss). Though there's the Bobby Parker/Melissa Lee-Houghton trend.

When I read the 2011 Best British Poetry I thought that there were few experimental pieces (no LangPo, no minimalism, though the final poem's a mash-up), and little narrative. Elliptical had become the new mainstream. Even the more mainstream poets were represented by their more artistically engaged pieces, free from the distractions of unemployment fears, computer games, car accidents, mobile contracts, sleeze, comedy, and aging parents. Love and death feature less than stylistic bursts of short sentences and machine-gun imperatives. But what is the equivalent of the beginner Formalist's love/dove clumsiness? I don't think our shit-detectors have kept up with workshop-stoked stylistic fashion changes (which sometimes look like make-overs to me).

See also http://bodyliterature.com/2014/01/17/friday-pick-generationalism-in-british-poetry/