No 23 - Summer 2002
Subduing the reader
Laurie Smith on fascist and fanciful poetry
In January this year, Robert Potts, the new joint editor of Poetry Review, delivered a stinging attack in The Guardian on the judges of the T S Eliot Poetry Prize, arguing that in three of the four past years the prize had been awarded to the wrong person. The most recent mistake was particularly unjust: the prize had gone to Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband rather than Geoffery Hill's Speech! Speech!
Interestingly Potts is clear and detailed about Carson's weaknesses - the tricking out of trite subject matter with academic references and offbeat Keats quotations, the lack of rhythm, the overall prosiness which he sees reflected in Carson's reading style - "a near-monotone, as if Lilith in Frasier were using Stephen Hawking's voice-synthesiser". On the other hand, he treats Hill's excellence as self-evident - "one of the few truly major English poets since 1945", "a writer whose poetic career has been exemplary", "each [volume] has advanced and amplified a sophisticated engagement with large questions of history, philosophy, theology and aesthetics" - then uses the rest of his article to complain about those who find Hill's range of learning difficult.
Extraordinarily Potts cannot see that Carson and Hill share a common aim which is achieved by a common method. It is to interweave their material with such a frequency of cultural reference that the reader loses confidence in her ability to understand, therefore to judge, what she is reading. Faced with a plethora of references to 'high' culture which she feels she ought to know but does not, the reader feels increasingly ignorant and unworthy. She is forced to accept the poem on the poet's terms or not at all; her critical faculty is subdued.
Admittedly there are significant differences between Carson and Hill. Carson has a conventional mind and, in a show of being accessible, provides notes to some of her references. As in her previous books, her aim is by modernist techniques to distract attention from her inability to write beautifully or resonantly. Hill is capable of fine writing, but explains nothing; for example, Speech! Speech! contains numerous quotations in the main European languages, none of them translated or glossed. Hill's aim is that of Pound of the Cantos, his acknowledged master - to expound a view of culture in which the past is held up as admirable and the present dismissed as worthless. It is a view that brooks no argument, no discussion, and is, in the sense that Pound respectfully used the word, fascist.
The fact that Potts cannot intelligibly compare Carson and Hill suggests a weakness in critical theory which leaves him vulnerable when faced with something more ambitious than a collection of short lyrics. Without a grasp of first principles, the critic is likely to be swayed by fashion, the opinion of others; in Potts' case, apparently to admire Geoffery Hill because he has been admired by others for many years. The rest of this article attempts to sketch the theory necessary to distinguish between two extremes of the long poem represented by Carson and Hill.
A necessary first point is to answer Potts' view that Eliot's Waste Land , with its dense mosaic of allusions, established a century-long taste for allusive poems including Hill's. In fact, dense literary allusion appears only in a few poems written when Eliot was under the influence of Pound: the quatrain poems of Poems 1920, The Waste Land (and Gerontion which was originally to preface it) which Pound edited into its present form, and the poems that eventually became Ash Wednesday. Literary reference does not appear significantly in Prufrock and Other Observations, the Ariel Poems, the choruses from The Rock, Four Quartets nor, of course, in Eliot's dramatic verse.
The dense use of allusion is atypical of Eliot's work and was written under the influence of Pound for whom it was increasingly essential for political reasons. It seems likely that, if Eliot had never met Pound, he would have used literary reference as lightly as in his pre- and post- Pound poems, as sparingly as Yeats or the other undisputed master of twentieth century poetry, Wallace Stevens.
In his first and finest essay on the imagination, The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words, Stevens considers the image of the horseman in five contexts: Plato's winged horses and their charioteer, Verrochio's statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, Don Quixote on his nag, the statue of Andrew Jackson in the square facing the White House, and a modern painting of a merry-go-round called Wooden Horses. Startlingly, Stevens says that only one of these, the statue of Andrew Jackson, lacks imagination: "We are concerned then with an object occupying a position as remarkable as any that can be found in the United States in which there is not the slightest trace of the imagination". Stevens speculates nervously and opaquely on what this indicates about the American imagination (he was writing in 1942) and describes the statue, following Coleridge, as a work of fancy, not imagination.
In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge struggles to distinguish between the imagination ('the modifying or transforming power') and the fancy ('the aggregating power'). Wordsworth opposed the distinction and Coleridge was easily distracted into psychological arguments which we now see as worthless. He was clear what imagination could achieve, as in the great peroration in Chapter XIV ('a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order', etc), but he never quite manages to define the fancy. However, almost in passing, he illustrates the distinction, taking two moments when a character in a poetic drama loses their sanity. The first is Belvidera in Otway's Venice Preserv'd:
Say not a word of this to my old father,
Murmuring streams, soft shades and springing flowers,
Lutes, laurels, seas of milk and ships of amber.
The second is King Lear:
What, have his daughters brought him to this pass?
The first is fanciful - it uses random association because that is what mad people are supposed to do, but the use is mechanical, aggregative. The second is imaginative - Shakespeare renders the onset of insanity as the moment when Lear cannot see Poor Tom's suffering as separate from his own.
With this in mind, it is easy to see that The Beauty of the Husband is a work of fancy, of aggregation. It consists of 29 'tangos', presumably for the word's associations with strong rhythm and eroticism, though the poem has neither. Each tango is prefaced by a quotation from a lesser work by Keats and several of the section heads refer to Keats - the association is no doubt with doomed romanticism, the pursuit of the Beauty in the book's title at the expense of Truth. Most of the section heads are lengthy,
unpunctuated and portentous: XXI. DO YOU EVER DREAM POOR COURT-BANKRUPT OUTWITTED AND LOST OF TERRIBLE LITTLE HOLES ALL OVER EVERYTHING WHAT DO THOSE DREAMS MEAN? The sections themselves recount a story of love and deception laced with numerous classical and other cultural references.
The placing side-by-side of disparate elements is a well-established modernist technique intended to liberate the reader/viewer from preconceptions. Carson procedures are so mechanical that no liberation occurs. As in her previous books, her intentions are transparent: to convince the reader that an important literary experience is on offer and to distract attention from the poverty of her writing. Until recently Carson was a professor of Classics and it is possible that many years of translating accurately from Latin and Greek has damaged her ability to write imaginatively. As an example, take the moment when she at last broaches Beauty is Truth:
To say Beauty is Truth and stop.
Rather than to eat it.
Rather than to want to eat it. This was my pure early thought.
I overlooked one thing.
That the beautiful when I encountered it would turn out to be
prior - inside my own heart,
Not out there with purposiveness, with temples, with God.
Inside. He was already me.
Condition of me.
As if Kutuzov had found himself charging across the battlefield
This is a fair example; nothing in the book is much different. The language is flat, nervous, stilted - 'Rather than to eat it', for example, not the more natural 'Rather than eat it' - without any awareness of the potentialities of language (musicality, imagery, word play) to which poets respond. Like a dull academic, Carson depends on reference to lift her work - from Keats to War and Peace via temples and God. She may be lamenting the difficulty of rendering romantic experience into modern poetry, or of experiencing romantic love, but from her flat scurrying lines one would never know it. The Beauty of the Husband shows the fancy at full stretch seeking to disguise its lack of imagination.
Geoffery Hill, on the other hand, is capable of imagination. He can write poetry of great austere beauty and this appears occasionally in Speech! Speech!, usually as description of a bleak landscape which
may be a vision of old age or death. But the poetry is submerged in reams of evasive near-rant. The book consists of 120 twelve-line stanzas - the number is taken from De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom - but there is no sense of progression or closure; one feels that Hill could easily have written twice or ten times as many. The book opens with epigraphs in Latin and German, untranslated, and contains dozens of quotations and references in the main languages of Europe, also untranslated. A line from The Tempest recurs, translated into German. There are also dozens of literary and other cultural references, none glossed.
There are puns and word plays ('no offence / to her intended - or to her intended', 'doom-mood, nihilism's palindrome', 'Seek modem-demo, memos to dawn-broker', 'rode proud on our arousal- carrousel') and sudden descents into the demotic ("Skelton Laureate was a right rapper', 'Body language my eye', 'Shove off, there's a love'), but the overall aim and effect of the poem is complaint - complaint that neither culture nor England nor language is what it was. However, Hill does not want to be seen merely as an old man fixed on the past, so he covers a vast amount of ground swiftly, landing glancing blows and passing on. The death of Princess Diana, about which Hill is extremely sentimental, is alluded to most directly in stanzas 36, 71 and 114, the last referring to her funeral - 'CORINTHIANS will be read / by a man in too-tight shoes' (Blair) and 'Evangelical high prelates caught / spitting out plum stones' (Carey) - showing that political satire isn't one of Hill's strengths.
Hill's power and obliqueness can be demonstrated by a stanza taken almost at random:
TAKE TWO : the Northampton MADONNA AND CHILD:
an offering up of deep surfaces; chalk
sleepers from the underground | risen to this.
(Moore also became a figure.) Her bulk
and posture, load-bearing rt hip-bone,
inward, understood, projected, wrought.
The child's face, though, prim, sweetened, incurious.
Absent here even the unfocused selving
close to vacuity - Stanley Spencer's fixation -
crazed-neighbourly | which is a truth of England
alongside manifest others,
an energy altogether | of our kind.
The reader needs to know that this refers to Epstein's Madonna and Child in St Matthew's Church, Northampton, and that Epstein, like Moore, was a war artist who sketched sleepers in the London underground. The 5th to 7th lines are a fine precise description of the statue, but the last five lines are about an absence ('Absent here even the unfocused selving / close to vacuity') which becomes a presence ('a truth of England... an energy altogether | of our kind'). This celebrates near vacuity as a particularly English strength. The idea that near mindlessness is a strength is fascist, stemming from awareness that ignorant people are more malleable, and this stanza, with the rhetorical boom of its last three lines, exposes the preoccupation that informs the whole of Speech! Speech! It is that 'high' culture should be accessible only to a small educated elite (kept especially small in this case by oblique references and a lack of notes), leaving the majority in vacuous ignorance, strong because obedient. 'ACCESSIBLE traded as DEMOCRATIC', snorts Hill at stanza 118, 'he answers / as he answers most things these days | easily'.
Hill's preoccupations are the same as those of the Pound of the Cantos. There is the same appeal to the culture of the past as infinitely better than the present, the same wide range of learning displayed for a few like-minded readers, the same belief that what interests the poet is all that matters, the same contempt for accessibility. It was necessary to pretend that Pound's fascist broadcasts were an aberration in order to save his life, but the views expressed in them match those expressed in his poetry and, more explicitly, his criticism. The transcripts of his broadcasts have a jocular demotic quality recognisably similar to his literary essays. Pound prided himself on his direct speaking, whether demolishing Georgian poets or inveighing against the Jews. It is when one turns from Pound, in the 1920s, lashing out against "the damned and despised litterati" and reads someone like Primo Levi on the brutalising effect of Nazism on the German language that one realises the potentially brutalising effect of Pound's approach to criticism. He is probably the only poet whose life was saved by his poetry and whose treason was foreshadowed by his literary essays.
Both Pound and Hill show what happens when poetry loses touch with the need to speak to the individual. A poem that addresses a person, rather than a culture, a class or other abstraction, can never be fascist, as the poems of Eliot and Yeats, despite their authors' reactionary tendencies, almost always show. In their work there is the humility of self-exposure: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins' is a confession, as is 'the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart'. For Pound and Hill, the fragments are ammunition and the heart is unmentionable.
One can dismiss Speech! Speech! as the last gasp of Pound's influence, but in every generation there are poets who try to tell us that the present is worthless compared to the past, though they rarely have the talent of Pound or Hill. A current example is the American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg who is much admired by the New Republican Right and, surprisingly, by Bloodaxe Books. We need always to be alert to writers who claim that good poetry must be difficult, accessible only to the educated few, and see this claim for what it is - fascist.
Robert Potts believes that Speech! Speech! should have won the T S Eliot Prize. This time the judges were wiser than him, although they still gave the prize to the wrong poet.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The