A. The position
“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world."
“Hmmmmm-...much as I enjoy this.......hmmmmm......I can't help wanting something that speaks to me about......hmmmmmm......my life.......all our lives…..hmmm......it's so inaccessible.....so lacking in compassion….I've workshopped mine with the Poetry London crowd.....they loved the one on Granny's rotting toes and Roger's sperm-count....almost dissolved into floods...but thanks for posting...KEEP WRITING!…… please remember us with any more submissions....hmmm.”
“Poets are left-liberal? Of course - compassionate people are.”
(Statements two and three follow from statement one.)
B. Thought experiment
What are your views on the EDL; isn’t it perhaps refreshing to see the English asserting some cultural pride, against an alien ideology?
OK, they may be thuggish. But I’m sure you support/supported Irish nationalism - even if not the actual knee capping and murder (including of children). True, those were terrible, but enough to discredit the cause? Perhaps they were just the “inevitable” reaction of a despised people, made to feel inferior in their own land.
But perhaps your reactions to the EDL are entirely negative. Just a wild guess. Maybe you got very angry at their appearance in Woolwich, shortly after a British soldier was beheaded in public, in an act characteristic of extreme Islam. Perhaps you were actually more angered by the EDL (their “opportunism”) than by the crazed decapitators; and also far more likely to condemn unconditionally the former, as a group, than the latter.
Come to think of it, what’s your take on UKIP? Or immigration? Or on the propensity for some Muslims to abuse non-Muslim girls on an industrial scale (Oxford, Rochdale, Shropshire, etc)?
Stupid to ask. Who could ever predict your views, if you’re someone as independently minded and free thinking as a poet. That’s the great thing. It’s an art-form with such diversity (beloved word) of opinion amongst its practitioners.
Check you own reactions. I’m guessing they’ll be ones of unease, of feeling “offended”. I’m sure you’ll be judging me as suspect, morally inferior. Perhaps even thinking I have to be stopped and any number of crimes tagged to me; in fact, that I have committed “hate crimes”?
Well, don’t worry. Increasingly, this is what defines members of a group which denies its own existence: the left-liberal intelligentsia.
C. Matters of style
What fascinates me is how this groupthink is manifested in style, in poetics. I think this mindset finds its ghastly mood music in the lyrical epiphanic mode - so prevalent, and such a deadweight, on the British poetry scene.
Which is not to say that those on the right can’t produce such poetry, nor that everyone on the left will. And anyway, it’s a simplification (especially post-Blair) to use left/right binaries. But it’s surely not in dispute that the dominant social and cultural position in Britain is left liberal - especially as demonstrated by the BBC, the public sector (in which I work) and the artistic establishment. In these, they are the powerful and controlling establishment - with all the ruthless characteristics of one, especially over public discourse and the terms in which this is conducted. One such mode - admittedly small scale, in terms of public culture - is the lyrical, epiphanic, anecdotal poem.
Of course, the actual public, as judged by opinion polls and mass readership of certain newspapers (the “right wing press”) seem completely at odds with this elite. This dichotomy is in fact a significant motivation for much lyrical epiphanic writing - especially its innate sense of moral and aesthetic superiority over the brutish reader.
For example, the left-liberal repulsion at British Euroscepticism is expressed in terms of saintly internationalism (despite the evident nationalism and conflict the EU is creating) fighting blind jingoism and “little Englanders”. Many left liberals feel no embarrassment in saying a referendum over EU memberships is impossible, since the public are too stupid, bigoted and misled to make a sensible decision. Well, they know best.
Left-liberalism and the lyrical epiphanic mode share an underlying sense of a superior seer, “compassionate” but all knowing. And, luckily, always in poetic mode, with an infinite supply of epiphanies and anecdotes to lighten our way.
Note, this position is not shared by the “old style” left - those with a clear understanding they are engaged in an intellectual struggle and who - whilst convinced of their rightness - see this in intellectual, not moral terms. They clearly also find this mode of poetry grating and limited: examples would be found throughout the non-mainstream or experimental British poetry world. Thankfully, their need to redefine poetic methods prevents them seeing moral superiority as being of any relevance.
D. Some Examples
Poem for a Man with No Sense of Smell
This is simply to inform you:
that the thickest line in the kink of my hand
smells like the feel of an old school desk,
the deep carved names worn sleek with sweat;
that beneath the spray of my expensive scent
my armpits sound a bass note strong
as the boom of a palm on a kettle drum;
that the wet flush of my fear is sharp
as the taste of an iron pipe, midwinter,
on a child’s hot tongue; and that sometimes,
in a breeze, the delicate hairs on the nape
of my neck, just where you might bend
your head, might hesitate and brush your lips,
hold a scent frail and precise as a fleet
of tiny origami ships, just setting out to sea.
(“Notable for her tightly-written lyrics that explore thirtysomething life in the post-feminist era.”)
Note the dishonesty of “simply” in the first verse, allied to the bossy tone. The second verse is awkward (the smell/touch synaesthesia), leading to the full horror of verse three. This is exemplar left-liberal turf - the hint of identity politics, with the hidden snobbishness (“expensive scent”) - asserting some superiority, which is falsely undercut by the body odour reference.
We’re in the territory of public breast feeding in a restaurant, flaunting underarm hair; wanting people to object - so that a lecture can be delivered. Throughout, the poem has hints of imagining sex and physicality to be “daring” and “challenging” - a typically stupid left-liberal obsession.
The verse enjambments are then typical of the easy but apparently smart “tricks” - very much as Duffy does them. They lead to the intensely characteristic, weak and unoriginal closing epiphany - with the image taken from Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat (maybe unintentionally), in a failed attempt to bestow transcendence on the poor mugs reading it.
A poem to compare this with would be Mimi Khalvati’s frightful “Ghazal”, which I haven’t the stomach to copy.
The poem is so perfect for “Women’s Hour” or the Guardian’s women’s section. It pretends to “take risks” whilst knowing full well it will be accepted, unchallenged.
But I’m in risk of being “sexist“. So, here’s a (much better) one:
Watching For Dolphins
In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
One noticed that certain passengers soon rose
From seats in the packed saloon and with serious
Looks and no acknowledgement of a common purpose
Passed forward through the small door into the bows
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose
Every other wish. Even the lovers
Turned their desires on the sea, and a fat man
Hung with equipment to photograph the occasion
Stared like a saint, through sad bi-focals; others,
Hopeless themselves, looked to the children for they
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day
Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Undecided whether a flat calm were favourable
Or a sea the sun and the wind between them raised
To a likeness of dolphins. Were gulls a sign, that fell
Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place
Sat in a silent school? Every face
After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean
Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.
We could not imagine more prayer, and had they then
On the waves, on the climax of our longing come
Smiling, snub-nosed, domed like satyrs, oh
We should have laughed and lifted the children up
Stranger to stranger, pointing how with a leap
They left their element, three or four times, centred
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go
Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
We were among the great tankers, under their chains
In black water. We had not seen the dolphins
But woke, blinking. Eyes cast down
With no admission of disappointment the company
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.
Verse one establishes the poet’s superiority - he’s amongst the elect who rise from their seats (and note the middle class reminder that he takes the Greek island boat regularly). Verse two furthers this, with the (rather horrible) surprise that a “fat man” can have an aesthetic joy in this epiphany, despite “sad” bi-focals.
However, the poem is notable for the Larkin-like disappointment in the epiphany - it’s all ruined, by the horrid old port. It also assumes this is shared - but that the poetic response is a secret (and superior) one. This does raise it above the egotism of Clanchy’s poem, in which she is the epiphany.
That great poet Ken Smith commented brilliantly that English poets are cursed by how to escape the personal lyric. They exhaust their material: themselves. I’d argue this is now worsened by a dominant and unquestioned worldview. The effects are both depressing and devastating. The recent plagiarism scandals in this poetry world are further evidence that it’s producing poems too narrow in tone and outlook, making cut and paste easy.
Chin up though. Check any of the excellent non-mainstream presses (Shearsman, BlazeVox, The Knives, Forks and Spoons, to name three) for some respite from this cloying asphyxiation.
copyright © 2013 Paul Sutton