Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

"Radical Spaces of Poetry" by Ian Davidson (palgrave macmillan, 2010)

This book looks at poems by O'Hara, Prynne, Tony Harrison, Lee Harwood, etc based on an "evidence-based process of close reading" (p.3). The book draws "on a variety of theoretical positions to help read poems that are resistant to giving up an easily digested meaning. It is also empirical, and begins with the material evidence of the poems, worrying away at individual words in detailed analyses of the semantic and syntactical relationships in the work. I try to show that any difficulty is worth the effort, and that poems that try to reflect the complexities of modern and contemporary culture and society are not only sometimes difficult to read, but they often have to be" (p.1). All that sounds fine. Then he writes

  • "My interest in the ways that an emphasis on specific embodied experience in a particular time and place was at least part of a poem's meaning led me towards further consideration of the human body both as social construct and fleshy material, and the ways that a body is always in movement" (p.4)
  • "The spatial nature of Dasein, and Heidegger's interweaving of the ontological and phenomenological, linking 'being' and 'experience' and the notion of what forms the immediate environment in 'being-in-the-world' through its 'everydayness', informs my reading of a number of the poets and underpins my approach in general" (p.5)
  • "it does not adopt a single theoretical approach, but draws on the work of a number of philosophers and cultural theorists in order to develop readings of the poetry" (p.7)

which sounds less promising. As they say, "If you've a hammer in your hand, everything will look like a nail". The poems (even the short ones) discussed aren't printed in the book, which is a shame. As an example of the methods used I'll focus on the Democratic Consensus in Prynne's 'Refuse Collection' chapter. The poem "exercises a responsibility to the multiple possibilities of human presence and experience, and by extension critiques democratic decision-making and consensus. The coincidental and simultaneous relevance of the work to a number of specific contexts that contain within them multiple perspectives becomes the very reason that it might be resistant to a reading that tries to enclose its meaning in 'recognizable' culturally specific human experience, or in transferable closed abstractions of universal meaning" (p.148). I'm ok with that. The poem isn't a 'code' which becomes clear once you've found the key. It illustrates complexity by being irreduceably complex. "It is poetry that unravels itself, often across the space of the page, before tying itself into knots again" (p.149)

The author first announces the ideas he'll draw on in his exegesis:

  • "the body and embodied experience ... Through the embodied and performative act of reading, the poem develops materiality ... Reading (making meaning) becomes a process of moving through the poem and viewing it from different perspectives, rather than a process of interpretation from a single perspective" (p.148). That doesn't to me seem particularly applicable to this poem. And if movement matters, might moving backwards through the poem help?
  • "'public' language and its relationship to a supposed private or personal language ... The poem breaks up the surface of that public language not with private impassioned interjections or appeals to the truth of subjective feeling, but with specialist and technical language, jargon and nicknames" (p.148). To readers like me this is what the poem's "about"
  • "the relationship between a place and its spatial context, between a supposedly familiar local and the strange or exotic global ... The poem is produced and read (or performed) in specific places and times, yet through its place in the language system, and a text that undergoes publication and distribution, is divorced from its place of production; it exists in a global spatial condition" (p.149). A minor issue, and common to all published poems?

As he points out, the title has a number of interpretations. I like his explanation of the private/private conflation - an attack becomes a "heart attack", private suffering becomes a YouTube clip, "home movies hold steady", but I don't see how the poem helps us to realise that "Consensus, in this context, becomes a temporary result of a provisional hegemony" (p.151) or that people who write about such matters risk committing "eye rape", of amplifying the threat that perhaps the torture scenes were planned to evoke. I've seen newspaper articles that address these issues far more effectively.

I'm glad that he describes his experience of reading the poem - "Reading becomes a process of navigation rather than interpretation and the lack of accumulated meaning determines that every reading is a new way through the poem ... the movement from each word to the next becomes a process of standing still for a while and looking all around, and up and down, to see what connections suggest themselves. More intense moments and connections might flash across the poem at various times, and the word 'cap' began to get loaded up as I realised its potential implications, while at other times more extensive relationships will reach outside the poem, dissipating the 'local' experience of reading and making it a global experience" (p.160)

The mentions of "cap" in the c.120 line poem are "this by slap-up/barter of an arm rest cap", "apache rotor capital genital grant a seed trial", "Bite off the/cap with a twist", "take into cap-/tivity" and "a circus/ for venture cap life savings". He says that "through the repetition of the word 'cap' in the poem, it emphasizes the varying notions of 'capture', both as corporeal reality, as symbol of victory and as visual image" (p.154). He then mentions the word "caption", that Iraqis often wear caps, that "Cap" can mean "captain", that "cap" is gangster slang for "killing", that "knee-capping" exists, that a ballistic cartridge has a cap, and that to "cap a story" is to better it. All this seems to be too generous.

There is some close reading, but no thorough explanations (only the easier features are dealt with), nor mention of layout. Here's how the poem starts

To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up
barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in
crawled to many bodies, uncounted.

He says that "led" could be "light-emitting-diode" or "lead"; that the pit could be of a stomach or of prison; "slap-up" could refer to happy slapping video (but also could refer to being put in prison?); "stirrup" could refer to Iraqi prisoners being ridden like donkeys, that "cap" is a request for permission to stop the slap up. There's no single interpretation, but the multiple interpretations often aren't supported by the grammar either. This is perhaps part of what he means by "The poem therefore becomes itself, and can explore the ethical dilemmas of its context without the limiting context of an expressive function" (p.160)

Yes, the book does tell me things about the Prynne poem that I wouldn't have worked out unaided, but it still leaves much unexplained. I still have trouble understanding in what sense a Prynne poem can "fail". I can see more trees, but still no wood.

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