categorizing poetry

Some of the po-bloggers have been wrangling the avant-garde again. And, more generally, the (un)usefulness of putting poems/poets into categories.

The Silliman avant garde / School of Quietude dichotomy is just annoying. For the loaded (insulting) terminology, but also because the more he and JC explore it, the more it sounds like a division based on personality type rather than poetics.

But leaving aside such intentionally provocative distinctions, all categories – by period, school, technique, or whatever – can distort history as well as helping us understand it. They exaggerate the similarities within a category and disguise those between categories. They also imply that those features which are typical of a category are also the important features.

For example, Modernism was typified in all the arts by, among other things, formal experimentation and a conscious break with old ways of doing things. But the fact that formal experimentation was typical of Modernism doesn’t mean that Modernism has any exclusive claim to it. There’s a tendency to want to take some earlier experimental writer – GM Hopkins, say, or Arthur Hugh Clough, or Melville – and try and claim them as a proto-modernist, as though their experimentation was itself evidence that they were some kind of precursor. But if Clough, why not Sterne? Milton? Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Wyatt?

It would be interesting to know if the established categories would be re-discovered if we started again from scratch. Let’s take Romanticism. It’s an uncontroversial category which is often seen as the most profound cultural shift since the Renaissance. But, as a thought experiment, if you took a clever but ignorant reader – an undergraduate, probably – and gave them lots of poetry from the mid-C17th to the mid 20th, without any notes, criticism or biographical information, just names and dates of poets and the poems they wrote, would they spot Romanticism? Would the pattern emerge from the data clearly without any need for extra context? Would they pick the same date for it happening? Clearly they would identify trends and shifts in fashion, but would they pick up on this radical discontinuity of thinking and aesthetics which we are told happened at the turn of the C18th/19th? Would it be clear to them that Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats formed a group, or would they emphasise a continuity that goes ‘Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Clare, Browning, Tennyson’ and draw a stronger connection from Blake to Shelley? With Byron lumped in with Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, perhaps.

And is the ‘without context’ clause unfair? If so, why? I know it seems unfair to try and understand writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth without access to what they themselves said they were doing, and the people they said influenced them, but if the influence isn’t detectable in the finished poem, perhaps it’s a red herring.

My guess is that Romanticism would be spottable, though the details might come out slightly differently – but it would be an interesting experiment. And I think less important movements and groupings would turn out to be less distinct and more arbitrary than we appreciate.

  • Post Category:Culture

the election campaign

I think the general trend of the polls – a gradual improvement for Labour and the Lib-Dems at the expense of the Tories – has been interesting.

I suspect it’s that people are reacting to a month of seeing both Blair and Howard on TV all the time. There’s just no contest. I know a lot of pundits are saying that Blair is a liability this time, but he still comes across as more sincere, more likeable, and above all more competent than Michael Howard. And the Tory ‘do you trust Blair?’ strategy has backfired, because people have looked at both of them and thought “actually, we may not trust him as much as we used to, but we certainly trust him more than you“.

Blair is just so much more mediatic (as Florentino P

  • Post Category:Other

the difference between reptiles and amphibians

[EDIT: People keep finding this site by Googling ‘the difference between reptiles and amphibians’ This is the basic answer:

Amphibians are frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians.

Reptiles are snakes, tortoises, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, alligators and a few other oddities. Dinosaurs were reptiles.

Reptiles are more fully adapted to life on land than amphibians. The biggest difference is that amphibians typically need to return to the water to breed, because their eggs need to be kept wet. Reptile eggs have a tough outer shell that prevents them from drying up.

Amphibians [with a few minor exceptions] have a larval stage (i.e. tadpoles/polliwogs) when they breathe underwater through gills; when they become adult, they develop lungs and need to come to the air to breathe. Reptiles have lungs from the moment they leave the egg.

As a further adaptation to life on land, reptiles have scales. Amphibians have smooth skins, and many species need a fairly damp environment so they don’t lose too much water through their skin, although some are adapted to much dryer conditions.

Mammals and birds are evolved from reptiles. Reptiles are evolved from amphibians. correction: amphibians and reptiles evolved separately from an early tetrapod ancestor. Amphibians are evolved from fish.

I hope that helps, Google-people. END OF EDIT]

The first in an occasional series of things which are ‘Something Every Educated Person Should Know’.

When I was at university, as someone interested in science but doing a degree in English, I was frequently annoyed by the wilful ignorance of both academics and students on scientific topics. And I mean wilful – they took a coy, self-deprecating pride in not knowing about ‘those kind of things’. I just think there’s no excuse for taking pride in your ignorance about anything, whether it’s the Britney Spears back-catalogue, Slovakian dialling codes or the second law of thermodynamics.

Anyway, that’s when I started fantasising about writing a book called What Every Educated Person Should Know, which would just lay down the minimum that anyone ought to know who thinks of themselves as educated. Most of the things I thought of then were scientific; I can’t believe it doesn’t bother people that their understanding of how the universe works is often three hundred years out of date. But it would also cover literature, art, geography, politics and general knowledge of all kinds (I don’t claim to know everything, btw – a musician’s list of SEEPSKs would certainly catch me out – this is just a venue for my irritability).

So, SEEPSK #1. One of the presenters on Today this morning had to correct himself after a flood of emails about his reference to a salamander as a reptile. I think it was Edward Stourton, educated at Ampleforth and Trinity College Cambridge, and the man doesn’t know a reptile from an amphibian. Aargh!