Showing posts sorted by relevance for query prynne. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query prynne. Sort by date Show all posts

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-garde

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Saturday, 21 March 2009

I came across an interesting interview with Seamus Heaney (a recent recipient of the David Cohen prize for literature, being awarded £40,000) by Dennis O'Driscoll (‘Beyond All This Fiddle’ ) where Heaney says about the avant-garde:

‘It’s an old-fashioned term by now. In literature, nobody can cause bother any more. John Ashbery was a kind of avant-garde poet certainly and now he’s become a mainstream voice. The work of the “Language Poets” and of the alternative poetries in Britain—associated with people in Cambridge University like J. H. Prynne—is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be; however, these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence. There’s a phrase I heard as a criticism of W. H. Auden and I like the sound of it: somebody said that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent. I’m not sure the criticism applies to Auden, but the gist of it is generally worth considering. Even in T. S. Eliot, the big, normal world comes flowing around you. Robert Lowell went head-on at the times—there was no more literary poet around, but at the same time he was like a great cement mixer: he just shovelled the world in and it delivered. Now that’s what I yearn for—the cement mixer rather than the chopstick.’

Several things about this statement need to be addressed, so I will go through it step-by-step to do so. When Heaney says that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned, what does this really say regarding the term’s significance in relation to his own poetic ideals? Indeed, many critics have accused Heaney’s poetic, itself, as being distinctly old fashioned, a sort of neo-Georgian retrogressive “poetic” utterance. It is as if Heaney recognises the accuracy of this criticism, and in an effort to deflect its force feels the need to reflect it back at his detractors. That he is sensitive on this point is suggested by his saying (as if an afterthought) that ‘in literature, nobody can cause bother any more’. This is a curious thing for a man of letters to say in the absence of a defensive posture. What does he mean by “bother”, anyway? Is he referring to poetic innovation as being troublesome, or simply referring to personal “bother” caused by negative views of his poetry by observant critics? Whatever the case, to say that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned is beside the point, as Heaney, practised in casuistry and dissembling, knows all too well.

His citing of Ashbery as a belated mainstream voice also makes little sense outside of Ashbery being published in the UK by Carcanet. Certainly, he can’t be referring to Ashbery’s poetic which has yet to receive unreserved approbation by mainstream criticism, at least in Britain. Regardless of the truth of the matter, even if Ashbery was now part of the mainstream this does not demonstrate the emasculation of avant-garde concerns, which is the stated thrust of Heaney’s argument. Interestingly, if Ashbery is a mainstream voice this would imply that he and Heaney are both writing poetry. To re-position Ashbery within the boundaries of mainstream verse, all Heaney seems to be doing is to flatter his own poetic practice by association.

When he says of the alternative poetries in Britain that it ‘is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be’, who are the “some” he is referring to? No doubt, the main body of the mainstream, but I think, also, Heaney himself. His acknowledgment of Prynne, here, seems to be little more than an attempt to distance himself momentarily from the “some” he alludes to. If it were not this, then his saying that, ‘these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence’ recoups the generosity he grants Prynne. It seems not to have occurred to Heaney that any “cult” status these poets have acquired was, perhaps, the consequence of being marginalised by the mainstream. It is certainly not true that they shun “general engagement”, if he suggests by that term an aspiration for their work to be read and for it to communicate with a significant readership. In this respect, there is very little dissimilarity between mainstream and avant-garde poets.

Heaney’s appropriation of the criticism he sees as inappropriate regarding Auden (‘that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent’) and conferring it upon the avant-garde, implies that major talent can only be an outpouring of an unadventurous character. If the history of art tells us anything, it is that this is categorically not the case. That Heaney uses Eliot, of all poets, to argue his point is another instance of his use of misdirection and redefinition, similar instances of which can be seen littered throughout his The Redress of Poetry. Whilst it is certainly true that Eliot was a conservative figure in both temperament and ideology, and that his later work was not as effervescent as that of his major period, Heaney’s suggestion that Eliot’s poetry evinces the ‘normal world’ is only accurate regarding content, the treatment of phenomena in Eliot, however, is seldom “normal” and usually problematical.

An expanded version of this blog has been commissioned by Jacket magazine and can be found here:

Responses to it, both positive and negative, can be found on the right of the page.


Sean O'Brien and Seamus Heaney Redefining the Mainstream

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 15 January 2006

In Sean O' Brien's piece (‘Rilke and the Contemporary Reader’) in Poetry Review (issue 95-3) he rightly acknowledges that much contemporary poetry in Britain is 'indulgently anecdotal'. He sees this anecdotalism as traceable to Philip Larkin (for older exponents) and Frank O'Hara (for younger ones). He says that these influences,

'trade on an attachment to authenticity which is felt to outbid both technical reach and thematic scale. Both serve a misconceived 'democratic' notion of poetry as entertainment, in which equality (a notion misplaced in this context) emerges not in diversity but as sameness'.

This seems strange coming from a poet whose career could be said to have embraced and championed realist tendencies in poetry. Indeed, he seems to have won every mainstream poetry prize going (including the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham award, the E.M. Forster Award, and the Forward Prize). And Poetry Review (with typical hyperbole) describes him as 'the poet-editor-critic of his generation'. Peter Forbes in issue 91-1 of that publication reasserts O’Brien’s mainstream credentials:

'The members of this group of mainstream-poets-who-are-currently-making-the-running (they need a handy name but we'll come to that later) have been winning the prizes in the last few years: Carol Ann Duffy (virtually everything); Sean O'Brien (Forward), Don Paterson (Eliot and Forward First), Michael Donaghy (Forward), John Burnside (Whitbread), Jamie McKendrick (Forward), Jo Shapcott (Forward), Ruth Padel (National Poetry Competition), Ian Duhig (National Poetry Competition), Paul Farley (Forward First Collection). Prizes may not sell many extra copies of books but they play an important role in the consolidation of poetic reputations'.

Peter Porter in his review for Poetry Review (issue 91-1) of O’Brien’s Downriver includes O’Brien with, among others, Don Paterson, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage as poets who 'bring back intellectualism and populism to British Poetry'. Porter sees these poets as 'delivering us' from 'the hermetically sealed Old Experimenters in J. H. Prynne's Cambridge'. Of these "saviours" of British poetry, Porter says that they 'cared enormously about versification' and that their material was 'sharply observed' and (echoes of the anecdotal?) 'wittily presented'.

Porter notes that O’Brien 'writes with the ease and assurance of a poet so at home with the real world'. This need/desire for realism is further expressed in O’Brien’s entry under the academic staff biographies list of Sheffield Hallam University:

'His poetry often combines demotic and more literary language and is strongly aware of its northern location - a poem such as 'Cousin Coat' creates an angry presence of historical injustice, closed mines and cenotaphs, by enhancing the rhythms and rhymes of ordinary speech. This means that when a more extravagant word is used, it feels necessary'.

Thus, we see realism (as geographical location and linguistic functionality) emphasised and esteemed. For Porter, such realism is preferable to what he sees as O’Brien’s former less-functional language, which 'sometimes tended to be strangled Laocoon-wise by their ramifications, their lineation and syntax tangling like roots in a pot'.

David Wheatley, in his Guardian (October 5, 2002) review of the mainstream poet John Fuller’s Now and for a Time, notes that O’Brien, in The Deregulated Muse, sees Fuller as a postmodernist poet. This is a designation which, says Wheatley, 'must have left readers of Jeremy Prynne and the Conductors of Chaos poets scratching their heads in disbelief'.

Given all this, I fail to understand why, in recent years, mainstream poets such as O’Brien have been willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Could it be that they sense the Hand’s "imminent" demise, and are preparing for the time when they will have to jump ship and adequately explain themselves to their new crew in terms of a redefinition of their poetic lineage?

Something of this can be glimpsed with Seamus Heaney in his The Redress of Poetry where he appears to want his cake and eat it. He says:

'Poetry cannot afford to lose its […], joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world'.

His empiricism is unavoidably evident in this statement. However his about-face on the nature of poetic language is puzzling. Could this turnaround perhaps indicate that Heaney realizes that his poetic modus operandi is beginning to lose currency in the more progressive circles of academic poetic discourse, and that to fully safeguard his posthumous poetic reputation he has to enable future critics of his work to capably defend his reputation against charges that he is a merely descriptive poet?

Yet, his continual wariness of the linguistic and formal properties of a poem is still very much evident. This can be seen in his cautious praise (also in The Redress of Poetry) of the descriptive poet Edward Thomas:

'Thomas came through with a poem in a single, unfumbled movement, one with all the confidence of a necessary thing, one in which again at last the fantasy and extravagance of the imagery and diction did not dissipate themselves or his or his theme'.

Here, Heaney can be seen elevating poetic content over poetic language. This would seem to bring in to question his sincerity in saying that poetry cannot afford to lose its 'joy in being a process of language'.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A Survey of How Poetry Can Be Read and Written

I’ve just come across a feature I'm included in by Peter Philpott for his site Modern Poetry. It’s a survey of various ideas held or rehearsed by poets and academics about the reception and production of poetry. I'm included regarding various articles I’ve written that advocate reception theory as a useful tool for appreciating poetry. Others included are:

Matthew Caley, Will Rowe, Ian Davidson, Johan de Wit, J. H. Prynne, Joe Kennedy, Harriet Tarlo, Philip Terry, Lawrence Upton, Brian Kim Stefans, Sheila E. Murphy, Tim Love, Andrew Duncan, Willian Watkin, Peter Riley, Reginald Shepherd, Marianne Morris, Ira Lightman, Robin Purves, Sam Ladkin, Christopher Funkhouser and N. Katherine Hayles.

It can be found here:

My thanks to Peter Philpot for his generosity in including me in this line-up.