[the following was first given as a paper at the British and Irish Poetry Conference, at the University of Manchester, in 2012 (and, as a result, it’s really quite academic and dry – I promise you I can be more fun than this). An edited version also appeared in Oxford Poetry]
“Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place.” – Charles Baudelaire, Salon of 1859
The contention of this paper will be that the recent Bloodaxe anthology, Dear World & Everyone In It, edited by Nathan Hamilton, advances an idea of progress which represents one pole of a widening rift in contemporary notions of the way poetry might ‘progress’; might ‘move with the times’. These polar conceptions of progress can be usefully classified as, respectively, an idea of progress driven by form, and an idea of progress driven by content. I’ll begin with a couple of points about how I’m using the terms ‘content’ and ‘form’, and how these concepts so understood might lead to conflicting models of progress.
I won’t spend too much time on the task of dividing the features of a poem into formal and substantive; but I do want to insist there’s a better approach towards task than simply defining form as the thing which is absent from ‘free verse’. It should be remembered that the author sticking most rigidly to strictly-defined formal constraints is the least interested in form; she is the least required to think about the relationship between form and content.
Broadly, I’d like to suggest that a feature of a poem is formal to the precise extent that it can be discussed without quoting or paraphrasing the words of the poem. A poem’s use of frequent narrative intrusion, say, can be discussed cogently without making reference to the words which make up that narrative, and hence it is a formal aspect of the poem. We cannot, on the other hand, say much about the reason the poem’s narrator feels the need to intrude without that becoming essentially a paraphrase of the poem: this would, therefore, be an aspect of the work’s content. I will return to the importance of this definition later.
Contemporary ideas of progress in poetry derive from the time in which the debate intensified, in the early twentieth century, around a Modernist aesthetic beginning to produce work which looked – and was, in some sense, defined by being – radically different from the poetry which came before it. Originality as an evaluative principle moved to centre stage, and has remained there or thereabouts ever since. We can trace a kind of genealogy of this criterion back through the generations: Ron Silliman’s current crusade against ‘quietism’ stemming from the welter of mid-century accusations of the ‘derivative’ nature of certain poets; this in turn can be seen to follow from the obsessive classification in the 20s and 30s of poets as ‘major’ or ‘minor’.
If the theorists of Modernism drew attention to the notion of progress, they also provided the basis for understanding that progress in terms of either progress-of-form or progress-of-content. For them, this divide was cashed out in transatlantic terms, form and content influencing American and English models of progress respectively. In The Shaping Spirit, A. Alvarez suggests that while America was forging an entirely new poetics, Britain was busy ‘extending into modern terms what has always been there’. There is progress which is defined by its difference (and indeed indifference) to what came before it; and set against it there is progress which consists in the project of finding new ways of making the old forms of poetry speak for modern times. This latter is what Leavis finds in Yeats when he asserts that his poetry ‘is modern because the tone of voice is that of the time.’
It’s from the criticism of Leavis, Eliot and Alvarez, then, that we inherit the idea that British poetry progresses through its relation to the times, while American poetry changes in response to the poetry that came before it. This idea has persisted through the modern day: we find it in Derek Walcott’s assertion that ‘American creation is anarchic […] it is always against tradition’; we find it in Don DeLillo giving one of his protagonists to describe American art as ‘the do-it-now, the fuck-the-past’, as ‘the gesture that asserts an independence.’
This American, ‘fuck-the-past’ model of progress is what I’m calling ‘progress-of-form’, which holds, more or less, to a post-enlightenment, scientific conception of development: that as a new idea becomes available to humanity, the previous ones can be discarded as outmoded. The American urge to ‘make it new’ suggests a progress of art as causally isolated, each formal development springing only from the previous artistic situation. ‘Progress-of-content’, meanwhile, sees developments in art as supervening upon changes in society: the great artist is defined, as Leavis puts it, as being ‘the conscious point of his age’, so that changes in art are intrinsically linked to the changes of society.
Eliot is a useful figure in offering the qualifications necessary to make these comments more than fatuous national generalisations. He seems to straddle both positions; on the one hand, his iconoclastic poetry seems to define itself in terms of its difference to what came before; on the other, his critical retrieval of Donne and seventeenth century notions of wit insists upon a non-linear model of the progress of poetry. He stands against the idea that new forms of poetry supersede those before them when he writes ‘this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement.’ New poetry is not an improvement on old poetry; it is merely a response to a new situation. The development of Modernist poetry and its attendant formal novelty is finally only explicable through an attention to its content, through the way it struggles to find a way of expressing a view of a fragmented and mentally degraded society. Any formal originality in Eliot and British Modernism is ultimately subservient to an originality of content in the poetry.
I believe this model persists through time until the present. We come, then, to Dear World & Everyone In It. The editorial stance of Hamilton’s introduction, as well as his selection of poetry, tends towards advocating ‘progress-of-form’ as a measure of success in new poetry. The very fact that the introduction is presented as a series of discontinuous fragments is significant: Hamilton, by breaking with the form of traditional critical writing emphasises the project of searching for new forms of expression. Frequent (irrelevant) references to Eddie Izzard exemplify the precept that the new form of expression is to be privileged over coherence or aesthetic continuity.
Central to his argument is the forcefully rhetorical question ‘[w]hy would anyone write poetry which doesn’t question itself or the language it uses?’ There are two assertions implicit in this statement: the first that in the past, poetry has had no interest in questioning itself and its language, so that poetry has advanced out of this stage into a newer, better self-awareness. The second, perhaps more interesting assertion, is that poetry uses its language, rather than consisting in it. I’ll return to this in a moment.
Hamilton’s idea that ‘old poetry’ fails to question its language is a dangerous one. I’d suggest that a traditional approach to poetry endows it with a kind of maximal expressivity, in virtue of which it’s not capable of using or featuring a thing without in some sense being about that thing. All poetry questions language in its demand to be read as operating alternatively to literal, quotidian communication; the language itself suggests the best practice by which it might be approached. The idea that language inherently undermines its own ability to signify is central to the deconstructionist approach which underwrites a great deal contemporary academic criticism, and also a great deal of the poetry in this anthology – over two thirds of the contributors’ notes mention University degrees, and over two thirds of these are PhDs. And yet, the prevalent belief in Dear World seems to be that the onus for breaking apart the ability of language to signify in a traditional way is on the author, and not the reader. That is, if poetry wants to disavow a naïve conception of language as stable and communicative, it needs to explicitly engage with that subject. However, it seems to me that if the Deconstructionists argue that their technique concerns all text, then there’s little need to produce poetry which enacts the processes of deconstructionist criticism. By missing this point, Hamilton risks overvaluing poetry which comes to disregard ‘content’ itself as a naïve and outmoded concept.
This is important. If ‘new’ poetry is most valuably read, as Hamilton implies, not in terms of what its words might signify, but rather in terms of its ‘linguistic dramatisations or ironisations of the tensions between a notional self and the world’, then it’s clear that this interest is, by definition, a formal one. When Hamilton admiringly quotes Marjorie Perloff in saying that ‘context replaces content as textual determinant’, we are drawn back to the replacement of one poetic by another; a poetic for which content is king is swapped for a newer poetry which locates the expressivity of a text solely in its formal features.
This, then, is the attitude implied when Hamilton suggests that poetry uses, rather than is, its language. There is a thing which stands outside of the text, and it is this thing to which we should be paying our attention. This hermeneutic approach is familiar from the – until now, broadly American – movement of Conceptual poetry, championed by Kenneth Goldsmith. His insistence that his books needn’t be read but only considered is reaffirmed by Place and Fitterman, in their book Notes on Conceptualisms: for them, conceptual poetry ‘negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work.’
If we define a formal attribute of a poem as one which can be discussed without reference to the actual words of the text, then this position represents the ultimate ascendancy of form over content; the expressive features of the text are radically distinct from the actual words employed. And it is precisely this critical framework which, by emphasising the criterion of formal originality in the poems of Dear World, Nathan Hamilton drives his readers toward.
But anthologies advance their editorial argument through the poetry they choose to represent as well as within their introductions. There are several poets here engaged in producing texts for which the attempt to make sense in any conventional way is frustrated. That is, we cannot rely on the semantic value of the words which constitute the poem. Instead, the text is expressive only insofar as it represents an exemplar of a theoretical model: for example, the one described by Hamilton in his introduction.
If Jonty Tiplady, for example, has any interest in the words of his prose-poem ‘Eskimo Porn Belt’, it is only so that he might provide readers with something to smirk at whilst they’re enjoying the feeling of being in the presence of novelty, or of mulling over the extroverted gesturing towards the uncoupling of signifier and signified. How else, indeed, to react to writing such as ‘Like old phones rock different in space, switch to manual, the rat, like go back to weekend feather school for free, like go ahead sit on my poem, like watch dog electric support scores a double zero, utah, domino, chew on this, saint legs juice’? We might return here to the idea of progress in British poetry which developed from Alvarez’s sense that formal developments which ‘began as an attempt by a number of original artists to find a medium which would express fully what they had to say’ quickly became ‘a series of techniques, “gimmicks”, for producing certain fashionable effects.’ This seems, sadly, to have remained the case: there are no line breaks in ‘Eskimo Porn Belt’ because their absence marks the poem as the product of the ‘young poets’ Hamilton is championing; if anything, the unbroken text serves only to remind us that we’re safe to ignore the actual words of the poem. This is formal novelty for the sake of formal novelty. The primary suspects in this, along with Tiplady, are Rebecca Cremin, Elizabeth Guthrie, mendoza, Richard Parker and Marcus Slease. But there are many others.
The only way of wringing any aesthetic or artistic satisfaction from the work of these poets is to understand it conceptually; that is, the expressive part of the poem is an idea, of which the text exists as one possible instantiation. The words (the poems’ contents) are arbitrary – a kind of stuffing to fill out a formal idea for a poem – and the feeling is that reading the theory which informed the production of the text would be a more fruitful activity than paying attention to the poems themselves. This, then, is purely formal poetry, and a poetry which is mandated by an oppositional stance towards ‘old poetry’; semantic paucity is justified, for Dear World, by how ‘new’ the work feels. Such selection, taken together with the argument of the introduction, proposes a hermeneutic stance which would leave some very good new poetry sadly semantically impoverished.
It is possible, for example, to read Keston Sutherland’s ‘Ode to TL61P 2’ in terms of Hamilton’s theoretical framework, as a poem merely enacting the difficulties of expressing clearly in language. But here, we can usefully see the formal aspects of the poem as working with its content, rather than undermining it. That is, this is a poem in which the endless unspooling of each thought through winding sentences and recursively branching possible explanations for each statement are creating an attitude towards the flood of information we can be exposed to: each issue hammers out into a thousand others, of personal and political, of economic and sexual natures. ‘Ode to TL61P 2’ is about our ability to form politically cogent responses to the evils of the world, given the ubiquity of data everywhere, simultaneously clarifying and obscuring wordly events. This poem, we feel, can’t have line breaks: it refuses to offer that moment of silence and stillness, that vantage from which the onrush of language may be surveyed, and an objective or stable position might be formed.
If Tiplady and co. represent poetry which turns away from ‘content’ and the ability of language to signify uncomplicatedly, then there are equally many poets here whose work is at risk of being unfairly dismissed as part of the resultant rush towards the stress on formal innovation. Patrick Coyle, Emily Hasler, Oli Hazzard and Chris McCabe are candidates for this position; Sam Riviere also, in particular. It strikes me that Alvarez’s analysis of Yeats as ‘modern because the tone of voice is that of the time’ might just as easily be made of Riviere. But to view new poetry as new in terms of form, rather than content, risks ignoring the historically mandated craft and technique which lingers behind the – perhaps grating – tone of Riviere’s poetry, as well as what the poet has to say.
I do not wish, in summary, to suggest that Dear World is dedicated entirely to the perhaps damaging idea that poetry might be subject to progression powered by formal innovation rather than the need to present new content. The anthology demonstrates an infectious enthusiasm for new poetry and the energy with which it presents new work is important. But it is the very enthusiasm for the new which can lead to an acceptance of methodologies of both reading and writing which fail to distinguish sufficiently between poetry which is new in its quest to uncover ways of talking about the changing world, and poetry which is new in virtue of attempting, with truculence and sterility, to seem different to the stuff it understands as ‘old poetry’.