From the Heroic Life of Bohemia
The Celtic Twiglet: Against Robert Crawford's Scotland
In his collection of essays, Identifying Poets, Robert Crawford claims to use Bakhtin to examine "the way 20th Century poets construct for themselves an identity which allows them to identify with or to be identified with a particular territory"(1) and how they "come to be taken as spokespeople for these territories".(2) A skim through the contents page of his first book of poems, A Scottish Assembly, throws up titles like "The Saltcoats Structuralists", "Scotland in the 1890s", "Inner Glasgow", "Cambuslang", "Dunoon", "Iona", "Scotland", "Scotland", "A Scottish Assembly", "Edinburgh" and so on, an orgy of naming which at least suggests, before I have examined a single poem in detail, that Crawford's own poetic project is an attempt to "construct for [himself] an identity which allows [him] to identify with or to be identified with a particular territory"(3), a strategy which ought to result in him being "taken as spokes[person]"(4) for the territory called Scotland, if the argument in Identifying Poets is to believed. The following essay reads Crawford's poem "Scotland" in an attempt to isolate the points where its rhetoric and syntax go hand-in-hand with a mystificatory and unreflective politics of place.
Glebe of water, country of thighs and watermelons
In seeded red slices, bitten by a firthline edged
With colonies of skypointing gannets,
You run like fresh paint under August rain.(5)
"Glebe of water...": glebe, n. 1. Brit. land granted to a clergyman as part of his benefice. 2. Poetic. land, esp. when regarded as the source of growing things. [C14: from Latin glaeba]6
The first sense of "glebe" prepares us for the authoritative public voice, its opening phrase sounding down from the pulpit of the poem like a "Dearly beloved"; the kind of voice which has to sound more convincing the more absolute nonsense it's talking; a form of address which assumes familiarity with a subject, used to address someone or something the speaker thinks he knows. According to the dictionary, "glebe", first of all, denotes a property. Crawford, as we shall see, describes Scotland in terms of the second sense, as a state of nature, a description which will, consciously or unconsciously, elide the debatable issues of possession and dispossession which divide a nation, in favour of an impossibly neutral and unitary national topos.
"Glebe of water..."; land of water; not quite a paradox since it is first link in a chain of images connecting the experience of Scotland with the experience of being wet, the kind of unifying strategy by which this kind of poetry is constructed and seeks to justify itself, through the display of patterns of reference meant to be "discovered" and recognised by the reader. The linking of two nouns by of, especially when the construction opens a sentence, comes up again and again in Crawford's poems and bad poetry in general, as if this kind of florid, hollow rhetoric is poetry and, in fact, the poem will proceed to its expected climax by the gradual accumulation of "official" poeticisms. The next attempt at a definition, "country of thighs and watermelons", playfully yokes together two seemingly arbitrarily chosen nouns, their lack of any causal association intended, I assume, to baffle and amuse, the nouns themselves acting as a kind of synecdochal representation of the heterogeneous difference encompassed and accommodated by the social formation. It is important to note that the nouns appear arbitrary. I would argue that "thighs and watermelons" have been chosen, on whatever level, for their apparent innocuousness, as fairly neutral examples which readers "in general" can accept, being emblems of "the human" and "the natural". The choice of "thighs and watermelons" impersonates a celebration of difference but exists to stifle its actuality, to elide difference, most crucially the differences of class, in their avoidance of attributes which would only have meaning for a specific percentage of the intended audience. If the word "glebe" introduces a certain sepulchral sonority at the start of the poem, the line as a whole prepares us for its attempt to speak, like the ministers whose rhetoric it borrows, to and for every member of the congregation.
Line division loosens the link between "In seeded red slices" and the noun it most obviously refers to, and the reader anxious to discern a hint of critical intelligence might see, in the etymologies of the individual words, an opportunity for a reading open to themes involving hierarchical social organization ("seeded"), personal or national debt, the history of the labour movement ("red"), and the division of land into properties ("slices"). A conventional reading of "country of thighs and watermelons/In seeded red slices" might recognise the assumed "aptness" of the metaphors; the eroticizing of the landscape in images of swelling curvaceousness (which, it could be argued, point towards determination of a gender for the speaker (male) and the addressee (female) and lock the poem into the sexist opposition of male:culture/female:nature); and the association between the torn inner flesh of the watermelon at the thin end of the wedge and the Scottish coastline in tatters. The phrase's context, in the sentence and the poem, with the commitment to the unfurling of a normative grammar and syntax, rules the former, explicitly political, reading out, fixing each semantic unit in its designated place and forestalling a polysemously productive interaction with other words and phrases in the poem. I want to illustrate this judgment and demonstrate the disturbing but liberating possibilities of another approach by briefly discussing some features of Peter Manson's "Widows and Orphans,"(7) a poem which could also be said to address issues of habitation, of place, though from an entirely different tradition.
It is important to note that "Widows and Orphans" does not have a discernible dominant, or, if it does, it does not provide a principle of organization for Manson's poem in the same way that Scotland does for "Scotland". Asserting that the poem is "about" something amounts to the application of constraint, narrowing the focus of its semantic diffusions for the purposes of this particular reading. In contrast, my reading of Crawford's poem involves opening it out to readings it would rather prohibit.
The title "Widows and Orphans" introduces themes of loss and deprivation which the opening words, "The walls' burden", orient towards the notion that being enclosed, being surrounded by walls, considered either as psychic or emotional defences or physical divisions of space, means something, is not a neutral fact; there is something walls do which is exacting, oppressive, difficult to bear. "Erato" is the name of the muse of love poetry, and its set of potential relations to the opening theme illustrates the peculiar oscillation of ambiguities produced when a poem does not aim for tight closure and rigid subordination of its constituent elements in a linear development. Eschewing the hypotaxis of a poem like "Scotland", which, for example, will delay the main verb in the first stanza to increase the demand for closure by postponing it temporarily, "Widows and Orphans" opts for a paratactic progression involving the loose accretion of relatively autonomous phrasal units which leaves the text open to associated ideas and latent semantic potentialities. The syntax is ambiguous: is "Erato" considered to be "The walls' burden", love or love poetry written (off) as a cutting-off-from, a private theatre of self-absorption? or is "Erato" the muse invoked or complained to, signalling a need for love as intercession, entailing a move from the private and solitary "burden" of the walls into a communal space? "Erato, appended/as who will speak" necessarily complicates matters. If "The walls' burden" is "Erato", "appended/as who will speak" describes the voice of the muse of love poetry as a supplement attached to something larger or more important. The idea of "voice" in relation to a poem like this is highly problematic in a way that Crawford's speaking subject is not. The "voice" of "Scotland" is the source of expression, situated "outside" and prior to a meaning it wishes to communicate, whereas "Widows and Orphans" would seem to resist any attempt to reclaim every utterance for a single, discernible speaking subject. There is a brief appearance of a thoroughly relativised first person in section three's first line, an address to an other in section one; the italicised fragment in section five, "two knuckle skins gone brown", sounds diaristic, a citation which calls into question the rest of the poem's provenance. Section six's "Colour of body in this" combines the poem's themes of corporeal submergence, in architecture and in discourse, writing a subject which is, in Antony Easthope's words "made up 'in there' among the words"(8). If "The walls' burden" is not "Erato", either could be "appended/as who will speak"; one possibility is that the poem itself points to the need for a speaking subject who is an inhabitant and an appendage, not the hubristic and transcendent authority of Crawford's poem. The final section of "Widows and Orphans" describes preparations for an act of articulation, "cooling/lips evict yeast-breath, the tongue clicks, rising to tap", before it breaks off. Linked with the future tense of "who will speak", this may well suggest that the poem is merely the prelude to a speech-act which never actually occurs, or only takes place after the poem is over.
Returning to our reading of "Scotland" and the lines, "bitten by a firthline edged/With colonies of sky-pointing gannets", we can see that the firm, linear progression imposed by the normative sentence structure forbids associations which could be relevant if they were licensed by a more supportive context. Think, in particular, of "colonies" and the history of British imperialism, or even "gannets" read as a colloquialism addressed to human beings which carries connotations of over-consumption: interpretations which would situate Scotland in the system of historical and global relations which constitutes it. Along this line, the speaker is elevated, from the level of the pulpit, to a much greater height; from the minister who claims some influence in a transcendental realm, to the transcendental God's-eye view itself. I connect this possibility of surveillance and dominance from on high with Crawford's recent Professorship; with his job as lecturer, tutor, marker, examiner; his role as critic for a range of journals including the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books; his previous co-editorship, until recently, of the international poetry magazine Verse, and current position as editor of the journal, Scotlands; and his work as reader for the publishers Polygon, one of the few places which publish first collections by youngish Scottish poets. He is the author of a book called Identifying Poets, and much of his critical work actually involves identifying poets; that is, he is blessed with the power to decide who is visibly a poet and who is not. I also connect the aerial view with the urgent push towards unification, in the syllogistic movement to complete the meaning of the text at the level of its first order, and the ideological need to make Scotland conform to "the principle of being and of knowability"(9) as a determinate, unified thing. The speaker has to travel all that way in order not to see, to not see the divisions which make his project obsolete. The fourth line, in its reference to paint running, tacitly acknowledges the importance of having differences flow together into a homogeneous blur. "You run like fresh paint under August rain." strikes me as bathetic after the pompous rhetoric of the first three lines. The final line of the stanza, it reads like the final line of a stanza. This kind of poetry works to accumulate all the supposedly "poetic" attributes before it is finished, ending its stanzas on this type of shopworn cadence, a cadence intended to simulate the idea of emotion or profundity.
It is you I return to, mouth of erotic Carnoustie,
Edinburgh in helio. I pass like an insect
Among shoots of ferns, gloved with pollen, intent
On listing your meadows, your pastoral Ayrshires, your glens
Gridded with light.
In "Scotland", if you are a town or a city, you do not really get described. For Crawford, and too many poets, the rural landscape seems to be a refuge from ideology, which helps to explain why the speaker passes "like an insect" through the foliage. Description is carried out from on high, where distinctions are blurred, and then from a micro-level, the level of individual "shoots of ferns"—(stanza two represents the descent and incarnation of the God's-eye view)—where he can focus on supposedly innocent detail. At intermediate stages in the scale there are the dangers of being confronted by property relations, laws of trespass, evidence of existences divided by economics. So he passes, in a way similar to but not an insect's, full of purpose, embarked on the laborious item-by-item recording of Scotland's grasslands. "Pastoral Ayrshires" reminds us that "every listing amounts to an exclusion"(10); what departs from the idealized rural existence is not relevant to the speaker's governing conception of Scotland. The fact that the proper noun is a plural assumes that Ayrshire stands for a known thing, a generally recognizable quality applicable to other districts, a version of the insensitive labelling procedure which lands "Carnoustie" with the adjective "erotic". The phrase "glens/Gridded with light" uses a technique present in Crawford's most well-known poem, also called "Scotland"(11), a technique which describes some sort of natural process, object or area by importing technical jargon from scientific discourses. In this case "gridded", a topographic or geometric term, has been implemented, extending the insectile labour of charting territories and locating points by having the sun superimpose a network of horizontal and vertical lines over Scotland's narrow mountain valleys. The other "Scotland" borrows the vocabularies of electronics and chemistry to provide metaphors for the Scottish landscape, again seen from above. One precursor for the practice is the MacDiarmid of Stony Limits and Other Poems (12), who builds a synthetic English from a fantastic and sometimes ludicrous log-jam of obscure lexical items mostly culled from the sciences, in poems like "In The Caledonian Forest", "Ephphatha", "Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum", "On A Raised Beach" and "Stony Limits" itself. But MacDiarmid's practice in these poems is somewhat different. The sheer range of the sources he borrows from and the outlandish comparisons he makes (for example, "an aching spargosis of stars", from "In The Caledonian Forest" insists on the resemblance between the night sky and the distension of breasts with milk during pregnancy) resist any tendency to reduce Scotland, as Crawford's metaphors would seem to do, to a technical-scientific object of observation. Crawford's notion of innovation in poetry would seem to be a matter of expanding the vocabulary in order to create new metaphors. All the way through the second "Scotland" metaphors are foregrounded by rhythm and position on the line and this reliance on the one figure of speech to such an extent is one sure sign or symptom of a poetic practice in atrophy. Crawford's metaphors borrow technology's aura of novelty, the experimental sciences' association with the most new, the not-yet-assimilated, and attempt to impersonate pertinence and social utility by applying this gloss to the conservative formal templates, the unexamined assumptions and cadences of a sterile tradition.
A whey of meeting
Showers itself through us, sluiced from defensive umbrellas.
Running its way down raincoat linings, it beads
Soft skin beneath. A downpour takes us
At the height of summer, and when it is finished
Bell heather shines to the roots,
Belly-clouds cover the bings and slate cliffs,
Intimate grasses blur with August rain.
"Whey", a by-product of cheese production, is next link in the chain of wet and vaguely seminal or sexual imagery ("Glebe", "water", "thighs", "seeded", "rain", "erotic Carnoustie", "pollen" etc.) and describes a soused coming-together, a saturation accompanied by a shift from an "I" (the speaking subject) talking to a "you" (the land), to the assumption of the first person plural. It might be argued that the props of raincoat and brolly retrospectively gender the "us" and reduce the stanza to a middle-class epiphany—the exclusions operating in the account of a landscape, operating in the account of a citizenship too.
The rain functions as a natural catalyst, in a kind of baptismal rite of initiation, leading to communion. The experience of rain, as if it could ever be ideologically innocent, is seen as a common denominator for all the social strata as it penetrates the misleading trappings of outward appearance to the absolute and universal truth of the human epidermis. And this is where the poem makes its bid to become a kind of crucible, or melting pot, for the final reconciliation of difference, an ability attributed to poetry by those who mistake its relative marginality for neutrality until it becomes a safe haven where differences can be resolved and transcended.
In the final stanza a transformation occurs as the force of the torrent possesses "us", "takes us/At the height of summer". After the deluge some sort of vaporization or dissolution seems to have cleansed the land of "us", or merged "us" with the land, the voice of Poetry having herded "us" towards the synthesis it demands, the laboured stylistic orgasm which lets us know that Poetry has taken place. Rhetoric and rhythm work together to fake an epiphanic moment, but the image and the "message" in isolation are banal.
Identifying Poets elevates the poem's urge towards unification into a critical principle based upon a conservative misreading of Bakhtin. A critique of this misreading lies beyond the scope of the current essay but there is an obvious parallel in the subject positions offered by "Scotland" and the way Crawford's definitions of dialogism and heteroglossia amount to a sort of linguistic promiscuity, a willingness to open poetry to other vocabularies, "a dialogic imagination [being] one which delights in letting varying currents of language intersect, mix, clash, and separate"(13), definitions which actually define a magpie monologism still compatible with, and, in fact, indissociable from the "absolute point of view, which coincides with the wholeness of a god or a community"(14.) Identifying Poets also and continually subordinates issues of poetic practice to issues of place. For example, his statement that "[the] fluidity of Scotland's linguistic position has encouraged the wealth of linguistic experiment in modern Scottish poetry from Finlay and Graham to Kuppner and MacDiarmid."(15) plays down the indispensable influence on the listed writers of writing from abroad. Finlay's reading has been particularly wide-ranging but one facet of his work shares something of W.S.Graham's trajectory, from Rimbaud to Heraclitus-through-Heidegger; Kuppner's work acknowledges a debt to Ashbery, O'Hara, and the crucial poets of the French 19th century avant-garde: Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Ducasse; and a significant percentage of MacDiarmid's work is innumerable citations from foreign authors. Crawford's assertion is wrong-headed in another way. The competing claims of English, Scots and Gaelic leave an imprint on the work of MacDiarmid, while Graham and Kuppner write in an English which is, to all intents and purposes, untroubled by the alternative presences of Scots and Gaelic. The difference is that MacDiarmid shares Crawford's totalizing drive; both allow themselves the luxury of a god's-eye view of the country, bestriding Scotland like colossi, an absurdly inflated position which is criticized, implicitly or explicitly, in the work of the others. In Devolving English Literature, Crawford remarks that England does not share the "complex linguistic and cultural divisions of a Scotland split for centuries between Gaelic, English and Scots"(16), a lamentable condition which has not stopped it developing networks of publishers and poets committed to linguistic experimentation which have little or no equivalent in Scotland.
By way of contrast, the treatment of the themes of place and space in "Widows and Orphans" would seem to avoid the unfortunate complacencies of Crawford's verse.
Section one has something of the quality of an invocation or preparation for the casting of a spell. "Epitaph's outflow in beeswax,/the twice-reddened wick" produces an idea of exit which connects a text of commemoration for the dead and the candle's sticky secretion, beginning a branching of associations across the poem, between themes of enclosure, fire and death. Section two's "Red brick white washed for what/phantom annex" describes the wall construction for a ghostly extension, no longer extant, to a main building, introducing a sense of invisible presence continued by "Kirlian snapshot", Kirlian photography being a practice which is said to record on photographic film the ghostly aura of field radiation emitted by an object to which an electric charge has been applied. The aura around objects in "Widows and Orphans" would seem to be the traces of the adjunctive, even spectral, intelligence which inhabits the space it inhabits, a deeply implicated and embedded subjectivity whose relationships with objects write the objects as complex assemblages of forces, economic, cognitive, etc. "A whole ghosted clapboard pyramid/is a visual pun on fire" permits a connection between the disembodied spirits, or haunting memories, of the dead, the "clapboard" material used in woodframe construction and the possibility of arson or accidental death by fire. The fire hazards common in jerrybuilt dwellings and the deaths which result provide a social context for the poem's interpretation which Crawford's does not and cannot, and the text's focus on the material construction of territory (a construction by others, in line with a profit motive) allows connections to be made with the values of the market system which produces these materials. Section three's "I suck Artex" concerns the oral attempt at gratification or comfort in an inhuman environment—"Artex" being the plaster wall covering which decorates, humanizes, softens the fact of partition. Section five's opening lines, "Hearth, the place of relations/fanning the boneless to lime", connects and contrasts two meanings of "Hearth", the familial focal point connoting warmth and comfort, and its function as the source from which heat emanates, a heat which in this case can turn a family to fertiliser. The delineation of the meanings of a territory's inhuman or anti-human components in "Widows and Orphans" exposes the ways we sentimentalise or idealise the places in which we live and, when compared with the obtuse and over-familiar gestures of Crawford's "Scotland", provides a wiser, more engrossing, and more moving meditation upon the pathetic fallacy of what we may still have to call "home"
1. Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in Twentieth Century Poetry (Edinburgh University Press, 1993), p.1.
2. ibid., p.14. 3. ibid., p.1. 4. ibid., p.14.
5. Robert Crawford, A Scottish Assembly (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), p.41.
6. Collins' English Dictionary (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1991), p.655.
7. Peter Manson, "Widows and Orphans", Angel Exhaust #13 (Cambridge: Spring 1996), pp.43-45.
8. Antony Easthope, Poetry As Discourse (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p.152.
9. Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p.16.
10. Peter Manson, "Manditorial", Object Permanence #1 (Glasgow: January 1994), p.2.
11. Robert Crawford, A Scottish Assembly, p.42.
12. Hugh MacDiarmid, Complete Poems Volume I (England: Penguin Books, 1985), pp.385-512.
13. Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets, p.114.
14. Julia Kristeva, Desire In Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), p.77.
15. Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets, p.160.
16. Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.13.
"The Celtic Twiglet", (under its original title, "The Scone of Destiny") was written in May 1995 for a graduate seminar in the Department of English Literature, University of Glasgow. It was accepted for publication by the editors of "a new journal of Scottish affairs", CARNYX, in December of the same year, and subsequently withdrawn, May 1998, by the author, in view of the journal's persistent reluctance to exist.
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