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.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

"The Council of Heresy" by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman, 2009)

He writes that "The increase of information and distinctions has given rise to the balkanisation of the scene, bemoaned by Eric Homberger in 1977 in 'Art of the Real'. 22 years later, John Matthias … was saying something very similar. … It is balkanisation which leads us towards the overall shape of the period … which forces individual poets to mutate and differentiate ... Over decades, this differentiation necessarily implies incomprehensibility to the naive reader", p.16

He'd like to encourage mutual understanding. He feels he's well placed to do so. Between the "wild-eyed radicals" and the "repetitive conservatives" is a "zone of Normality centring on [the author]" (backcover). I know how he feels. He would like the "critics willing to ignore traditional boundaries" to re-evaluate poets and "end up with a set of common valuations, ones we could all share", p.111. In that spirit he states that "[Thwaite's] poetry is much better than Mottram's", p.111.

He looks in some detail at 13 poets. On p.114 he quotes a section from Tom Raworth's "Eternal Sections", offering a phantom text that the section might have been based on. Raworth's "forced to act/ ostensibly independent thought/ can never admit its disposal/ into a senseless gadget/ paid symbolic tribute/ by an appraising look/ forms of decadence/ exclude schematic parables" becomes "Turned to account, academic philosophy can never admit that it functions as an intellectual toy, on which the elite practice their discrimination; the critical process is in decay; commentary on politics is silenced". Duncan suggests that

  • "The gap between the poem and the phantomatic prose text is one between non-finitude and finitude" (on p.117 he explains this - "Raworth's poetry contains almost no finite statements, tied to time, to a place, to specific individuals and their conflicts")
  • "By eliminating the detail which forms the perceptual horizon of those playing games, attention is drawn away from the winners and towards the rules of the game and its nature as a game"
  • "By refusing to make logical statements, Raworth draws attention to the distinctions of category embodied in language, which it cannot make statements about"
  • "By failing to define who is speaking, he prevents us from writing off what is being said as particularist and native to a certain point on the social spectrum"

On p.115 he writes "In a sense, [Eternal Sections] can only be read by someone with a prior knowledge of British social structure, as a set of rules for dealing with situations and for classifying or recognising situations, and as a stock of narratives accounting for the system and its history, and describing the kinds of person in the system". On p.122 he produces an imitation of Raworth's "Eternal Sections" which looks too easily similar to its model.

Poets, like people, come in many varieties

  • "People who are undistracted by analytical overlay may be superior at mimesis to people who do have such distractions ... Its role in art is controversial - a role fundamental and yet also primitive, resistant to conscious direction", p.25
  • "There is perhaps a character-revealing divide between those who instantly abandon these procedures when they are exposed, and those who simply admire them", p.46

In this book the avant-garde as a grouping receive more attention than the mainstream

  • "One of the themes of this chapter is the links of the modern avant-garde to Hellenistic and Imperial cults, of roughly 300 BC to 300 AD", p.200
  • "Can we really separate the scorn, irritation, tribal pride, officiousness, and self-congratulation with which the devotees of the avant-garde treat anything which is not avant-garde enough from social hostility in general?" (backcover)
  • "I think being intelligent and being bored are related conditions. It does explain why avant-gardistes can be poorly socialised and yet all seem to share the same values", p.55
  • "Moves which lose you points in the avant-garde game include identification, expressivity, realism, imagination, appropriation, astheticisation, generalisation, pastoral", p.50

The focus is on British poetry

  • "English poetry must appear to foreigners, if they possess literary culture, as one where people have forgotten how to express their feelings; where the linguistic arena is so fraught with mutual hostility that everyone is scared to speak subjectively; and every verbal gesture is a displacement activity", p.329
  • "Britain did not know an avant-garde because the vital currents which produced it in a few European countries flowed, on this island, into visionary and personal Protestantism which felt no need to secularise itself", p.249

As usual with this author, several miscellaneous comments attracted my attention

  • "Is truth what we realise after the philosophers have spoken, or what was there before anybody began to fabricate and distort it?", p.120
  • "A poet can be a prime witness of what they want but they are not a privileged witness to issues belonging to a shared realm: for example, whether they are original, whether they are obscure, who they are similar to", p.8
  • "The exploitation of narcissism has been one of the great technological breakthroughs of Western art in the last two centuries. Weighty arguments have also found this development starting with the Mannerist era, from around 1520", p.51
  • "As we expect of lyric poets, her late work is of little interest", p.75
  • "I find it embarrassing that the best British poetry of the period 1995-2005 has been written by two poets, Christopher Logue and Geoffrey Hill, who made their debuts in the early 1950s", p.92
  • "it was hard for young poets to break through in the 50s, and the carnival of 60s culture drowned out the rather quiet signals that conservative poets were making", p.110
  • "The modern poet is in effect building a musical instrument in order to find out what it sounds like. ... One can produce shapes either by copying them from the world, or by implementing formulae", p.164
  • "most of the methods of poetry may have as their goal the removal of functional thought patterns and the lowering of resistance to suggestion and association", p.214
  • "Because of this double surface where a body is simultaneously an object and a message communicating inner states and intentions, handling of objects gives away a lot about what a writer feels about his or her body, and about other people's bodies", p.245

At the end he classifies some poets. In the "Conservative post-modern" list is James Fenton, Glyn Maxwell, Andrew Motion and Paul Muldoon. Iain Sinclair and Ted Hughes are Neo-gothic. Edmin Muir is Neo-Platonist, Roy Fisher is in "The Epistemological Line". Amongst "Some acceptable mainstream books, 1960-2006" are "Carrying My Wife" (Moniza Alvi), "1829" (Alison Brackenbury), "Swimming in the Flood" (John Burnside), "The Bradford Count" (Ian Duhig), "Sky Nails" ( James McKendrick), "The Hollow Hill" (Kathleen Raine), and "Poems 1942-67" (Alan Ross).

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