Monday, October 16, 2006

Ron & the Brits

So Ron Silliman turns his attention to the other side of the Atlantic the other day and posts a glowing review of There Are Words, the posthumous collected poems of the Scotsman Gael Turnbull. That’s just fine – I’ve always thought Turnbull a dandy poet, and he was a lovely human being as well (not an inevitable combination by any means); problem was these sentences of Ron’s:
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.

6 comments:

Steven Fama said...

Good points.

Ron not only should read the highlights of the British poetry tradition, but listen to audio recitations as well. It would really help him acclimate.

But I wouldn't hold my breath. Ron's energy and intellectual curiosity is yoked to a truly stubborn stubborness and a self-invested critical perspective that, a few surface concessions notwithstanding, appears to limit how much he can change/adapt certain of his critical conclusions.

I mean, the SofQ thing is so coarse, and Ron himself chips away at the alleged characterization when he states that he likes, for example, certain poems by Robert Haas, at leat one by Bidart, etc. Some day he may have to admit that, as I believe, some of poetry (not sjut the first book either) could be SofQ work of a certain kind.

Coarse too because he asserts that he uses SofQ as an antidote to others naming (and thus attempting, i nhis view, to marginalize) his (and other poets') work, yet it was he and others who embraced the "Language Writing" label. And of coruse many of those writers are now firmly set in academia, a level of acceptance that should give great pause when calling them "post-avant." The Rimbauds of today ain't going to go to either Iowa or Buffalo, natch.

Anyway, most critics are stubborn and self-interested; they're human in other words. And like most people, these traits seem to become more pronounced as the years go by. Post-avant elders, just as the big-name academic elite critics from decades past or today, have their ruts, blind spots, and biases. I know from past comments of yours that you recognize this, and presumably others who read Ron (or anyone) do too. Ron sometimes recognizes his limits too, which is to his credit.

Archambeau said...

Mark,

Your Bloom-Silliman analogy seems dead right: they both seem to think there are just a very few British poets worth reading, and don't shy away from trumpeting this, making universal judgements out of personal shortcomings.

Bob

Michael Peverett said...

Well, "worth reading" is here an unexplained term - a lot of British poets might be worth reading from the point of view of writing a sociological history of British poetry, but very few from the point of view of finding out about car maintenance. For example. This might seem a bit frivolous but there's no doubt in my mind that Bloom and Silliman have different ideas of what reading poetry means and therefore inevitably different ideas of which (and how many) poets they find worth reading.

I consider the post-avant / SoQ distinction a perfectly valid one for alluding to the fact that there are two and only two audiences for US (and British) poetry that are interested in discussing the history and current state of poetry. (In other words, a child enjoying a nursery rhyme is an audience for poetry that I don't convict of being in either camp.) The two disputatious audiences might indeed be better seen as one graded audience, related by a host of intermediaries somewhat like the interbreeding clines that connect species of mouse that are distinct at their extremes. KSM's essay didn't attack the binary distinction, only the validity of the suggestion that post-avant somehow maps on to other descriptions, such as politically activist or aggressively loud. An attack on the distinction itself needs to show that there are other coherent, independent, articulate, critical bodies of poetry-lovers who don't fit well into the existing paradigm. And in my opinion those bodies just don't exist right now.

I can't help thinking that among poetry commentators diversity is to be celebrated. Silliman could never have gained his infectious enthusiasm, his immense range of knowledge of the US experimental scene without his strict diet of never on any account reading Spenser, Keats, foreign-language poetry, novels or science (slightly unfair, I know). But don't you need someone who'll tell you - and will make you feel interested in - exactly how a poet fits into the Spicer circle or Bay Area poetics? I know I do.

What else can I disagree with? Oh Mark - "ceremonial" - cultures do perceptibly differ, even such similar ones as British and US, but I think it's impossible to narrow down those differences to a phrase; people have written whole books about it, and even so the books are full of contentious generalizations about "tendencies" and "for the most part". I suppose I am a British poetry person and it's true that I can find things in, say, Geraldine Monk that I couldn't expect from any transatlantic poet - bits of mainly demotic, insular culture that only we would know about. But I doubt if these aspects of writing are of outstanding significance and if I listed the English-speaking poets (and poetry-readers) I feel closest to I think there'd be more Americans than Brits. And really, the framework of nationality just doesn't seem helpful here. "Ceremonial" continues to suggest to me things in poetry that I usually don't like (except in Irish Byzantium) and they can be found on both sides of the atlantic but I believe you are tacitly dropping from view such US ceremonialists as Whittier, Longfellow, Allan Tate, and Berryman - and I don't blame you - but in that case it's not fair that British poetry should be characterized by Tomlinson! I don't feel an identification with the kind of poem he writes.

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Jehza said...

Been away a while, Mark, but a happy return. I broke the silence and attracted attention in the computer lab when I laughed outloud at "friggin' Iambic Pentameter."

In any case, as a lover of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and English poetry of the last century, I appreciate the examination of what might be amiss in Ron's reading.

I can't really weigh in on the debate, at this point, but I can say with authority: Ron clearly hasn't read any Tom Leonard...

-jeremy

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I think the missing piece of the Yank auditory and this canal has the ability to hear that kind of words. It's a good article but you should add some imagines because everything is visual.