There are gems like these everywhere throughout this book. Small, brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed poems, with an unmistakable ear. This last feature is especially worth thinking about, given just how different accents are in the U.K. compared with the United States. The number of, to use Charles Bernstein’s apt phrase, island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four – Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher – whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level.As you might imagine, for some reason this didn’t go over well with Ron’s transatlantic readers, & he received what he rightly calls a “general thrashing” on the UK Poetry (not “UK Poetics” – Freudian slip?) listserv. My own favorite bit of British snark came from one “puthwuth,” proprietor of a blog named georgiasam, who perhaps unfairly named Ron’s outlook “soft racism.”
I wouldn’t go quite so far, I think (after all, Britons like Americans come in all different races), but Ron’s inability to hear the maybe 50-100 British poets over the past century in whom he ought to be interested is indeed rather striking. One useful comment to puthwuth’s post was from Sean Lysaght, who opines that “I think the missing piece of the Yank auditory canal is the ability to hear 'ceremonious words'. American poetry is so tuned to the vernacular that it no longer recognises poetry pitched in a higher key.” I think that this is right on the money, with the proviso that when Ron says “a Yankee auditory canal” he means “this Yankee auditory canal” and when Sean says “the Yankee auditory canal” he means “too many Yankee auditory canals.” (No sense in overgeneralizing – that’s what got RS in trouble in the 1st place.)
For better or worse, Ron’s blog has had a enormous influence on the alt-poetry blogosphere. He’s become the Harold Bloom of the post-avant, and the number of pixels sacrificed arguing over his post-avant/school of quietude distinction is simply evidence of how inescapable his presence is. I for one read his blog every day, simply because I like to know what’s going on from the perspective of a poet whom I admire and a reader who seems to have a lot more time to take in contemporary poetry than I do (after all, he doesn’t have to read the book of Job to teach it tomorrow, or work up Ulysses and Paradise Lost for the coming semester).
The problem with Ron’s deafness to contemporary British poetry is in part a problem with the diction of British poetry, which is apt to be turned to a different angle than that of most American writing – what Lysaght shorthands as “ceremonious words.” It’s also a problem with tradition, with what one might call the “dialect” of tradition. Ron claims he “hears” Brit poets better when they write in short lines (the WCW-LZ-Creeley stock-in-trade), & trots out as example two passages from Charles Tomlinson – one of WCW’s best readers, & an early supporter of LZ.
It’s not just that I could read “Writing on Sand” aloud & derive considerable pleasure from the experience & that I couldn’t read ‘The Moment’ aloud at all (I’d dissolve into giggles), but rather I can’t hear its measure. It feels like so many pots & pans banging about in the kitchen.Moments like this make me sigh. Those “pots & pans” are friggin’ iambic pentameter. (Yes, loose, yes, with some substitutions – but good old IP nonetheless.)
As a message just into my inbox from the estimable Geraldine Monk makes abundantly clear, it’s not that Ron can’t hear contemporary British poets’ music – it’s that his ears have never been sharpened on maybe 400 years of English-language poetry in general.
It's not that I recommend that Ron ought to go back & get a PhD in English – God knows that rarely teaches anyone to appreciate poetry, & Ron already reads contemporary poetry more sharply than 99.9% of the people out there commenting on it – but I'd love to see him doing more of what he did last year, when he dovetailed reading Stephen Greenblatt's (in my opinion dreadful) biography of Shakespeare with a dedicated work-thru of the plays. My RX for RS: tackle the whole of Bunting's list of English poets whose music taught him something (if I recall rightly, Wyatt, Spenser, Wordsworth), or work thru Peter Makin's excellent edition of Bunting on Poetry. Skip the American stuff – you already know Whitman and Zukofsky: figure out what makes Wordsworth & Spenser so amazing, & then (with a goodly dash of Jonson, Herrick, & Marvell) you'll be on your way to "hearing" the English voice.