Monday, January 02, 2006


Having recently read an article from the New Yorker about Wordsworth that talked about the poet’s role in shedding light on ‘the human condition’, I found the conclusion in this article from Contemporary Poetry Review particularly interesting. After looking at three new releases, Joan Houlihan concludes that “the lack of an authentic attempt to reach for, and connect to, an emotional center, a universal and human matter … is what’s so dreadfully absent in all these collections”. Personally, I find that a very depressing thought – both reading and writing poetry has always been an exploration of the human state for me – I’m really not interested in writing that exists for little other reason than to be ‘clever’. Of course, the price of thinking that way is that I run the risk of not being open minded enough to recognise something really worthy when I rush over it waving a dismissive hand.

To be honest, I don’t feel sufficiently literate in contemporary poetry to truly engage with this article as much as I would like to but, I understand what Joan is saying in essentials. On the one hand, she seems to be wondering if we’re about to cross a new boundary in writing poetry and, on the other, she seems to be afraid of what that new poetry might look like – rather soulless. From her opening comments, she is also, perhaps, a little afraid that she might be occupying the seat of the fool who fails to see the clear brilliance of the new ‘thing’ when everyone else around her has already been indoctrinated and are worshipping at its temple. I think I know how she feels.


Rob Mackenzie said...

I feel that poets who write according to literary theory are destined to be forgotten once the theory loses its hipness. Theory is useful for analysing poems, sometimes for reading them. It can help a reader to approach a poem from a new perspective.

But for writing poems? I don't think so. The poets discussed in the article are writing according to certain postmodern literary theories and it shows.

And I like most the conclusion of the article:

"Having taken no risk to reach their own depths of feeling, having taken no time to revise and improve their work such that there is a sense of inevitable order, these poets have chosen to disrespect the reader.
The reader should return the lack of respect and refuse them his or her precious time and attention. Maybe if we ignore them, they will go away."

The same doesn't go for "difficult" writers like Geoffrey Hill or John Ashbery. They have to be treated with respect.
But there's an awful lot of fashionable rubbish around that will simply soon be unfashionable and forgotten.

Messalina said...

And I guess the skill lies in being able to tell the difference! Of course, the more one reads, studies, critiques and writes poetry, the more confident one can be about one's judgements (except for paranoia moments, of course). My frustration is that although I love the learning process, I'm also impatient to get to the other side.

John Ashberry is on my long list of poets to explore - but I don't feel ready for him yet.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Over at QED, they are discussing this very article and post-avant work in general, possibly with rather more balanced viewpoints than mine.

The link is at:

Messalina said...

Thanks for that Rob - interesting discussion that has confirmed the great yawning gap in my poetic knowledge ;o)

One comment did have me a little confused - Steve said: "It is only the juxtaposition and placement of words that creates the illusion of meaning." Hmm, yup, I think he's on to something there...

I saw that you'd mentioned this site on PFFA the other day - thank you - another fascinating site to while away even MORE hours!

Cailleach said...

Well, I've read through the article and find myself thinking 'what the hell those poems are on about' and in the immortal words of a PFFA mod, "try to have your writing make sense"

I also remember what a friend used to tell me about how pushing poetry into new places works: you wait years for the rest of the world to catch up to that poetry - somtimes waiting is all you ever do.

I'm thinking of Beckett and Joyce too, and how long it took literature to 'get' what they were at. Yes, I know she caveats her article at the start... but!

Is the point of this article that these are prescriptive books, i.e. written to a recipe, or is it that this is really where poetry is going...?

It would be very difficult for me to 'get' the poems that are quoted from, but that's because I don't know how to read them... Call me old-fashioned, but there's a lot to said for imagery and plain causality in language.

Perhaps in Baus' poetry the comparison may be that of looking through a set of net curtains: they're nice against the window, but they keep out a lot of light on a dull day. Maybe not the best analogy, but this is a difficult subject!

Cailleach said...

It seems that this is a small part of the wider debate of 'what art is for' and 'what constitutes art.'

Two intersting articles have come to light on OU boards, one is a review of Carey's book which has caused a stink, and the other is Jeanette Winterson's rebuttal, which is very good indeed.

Messalina said...

Is 'intended not 2b' kult?

Thanks for the links - will check them out :o)