my personal experience of theory

I’m a natural customer for critical theory. But I’m not a fan.

I’m generally reluctant to engage too much with arguments about literary/critical theorising because I haven’t read enough of the key primary texts. But I’m unwilling to bow out of the discussion altogether because there was a time, admittedly only a few months, when I devoted a great deal of time and intellectual energy to engaging with those theories.

In the third year of my undergraduate degree in English Literature, I chose to do a course in critical theory. I went into it with mixed feelings. I was sceptical, because the encounters I’d had with theory during my degree hadn’t impressed me. But I was also quite excited to see what I’d encounter, because I am, by inclination, a theoretical and analytical thinker. I was also already impatient with the woolly thinking implicit in the way that some traditional critics talk about literature.

I remember, for example, a lecture where the lecturer used the idea that the effectiveness of literature derives from its ‘truth’. The point I tried, incoherently, to make at the time, and which I still think is valid, is this: Most literature is not true, in the sense the word is normally used. The events in Bleak House didn’t actually happen. An appeal to ‘artistic truth’ or ‘essential truth’ or, God forbid, ‘poetic truth’ doesn’t help – it’s just verbal gesticulation. No doubt when pressed, the lecturer would have explained that by ‘truth’ he meant something slightly different (plausibility? sincerity?) – but that seems like a very good reason not to use the word ‘truth’ in the first place.

I also agree that appeals to ‘common sense’ are a cop-out. Even if there is some way of approaching literature which is obvious, universal and coherent, people should be willing and able to articulate the ideas behind it, and examine them.

So I went into this course with the hope that it would be my kind of thing. And although, as I said, I haven’t read as much of the key material as I should have to comment properly, I did read quite a lot of the reading material suggested – including three different introductions to theory, S/Z, Saussure, bits of Derrida and so on. Now I appreciate that introductory guides written for undergrads are not the real thing, but I don’t think my blood pressure would have stood it if I’d read too much more. For those few months, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the subject, and the fact that people were teaching this stuff – that it was an influential movement within a subject that I cared about – made me frustrated and angry.

As I hope I’ve made clear, it’s not that I mind theorising. It’s just that so much of the theorising seemed to be badly done. Books would make an argument, demonstrate a weak version of it, and then claim a strong version, or illustrate it with a very narrow, atypical case and claim to have made the general case. Or they’d make elementary errors of logic, like saying ‘history is just a kind of narrative’ and concluding that anything that is true about fiction is also true about history*. The theories were also built upon older theories which are themselves highly dubious. I can respect the importance of Saussure, Freud, and Marx in the history of their subjects, but none of them are exactly cutting edge. Linguists, psychoanalysts and economists have learnt a lot over the past century, but none of it seems to have filtered through to literary theory. And if, like me, you’re not convinced by either Saussure or Freud, Lacan is a non-starter. This narrowness of reference seemed to be a general problem. If for, example, you’re talking about how language and society develop and interact, why wouldn’t you mention the social and communication behaviours of other species?

In the end, I felt that many strands of critical theory have been positively harmful to the study of literature. Take the example of feminist theory. The intersection between gender and literature is obviously fertile ground for study. Any of these things, none of which seem controversial, would be enough to justify a gender-sensitive study of literature: if women and men tend to write differently, or read differently, or if women’s literature tends to be marginalised or approached differently, or if literature can offer insight into gender-roles in different cultures, or just if gender and sexuality is a major part of the human experience. But all those things can be analysed and written about without needing to buy into a radical model of language. The flakier end of feminist literary theory (like the argument that logic should be rejected as a phallogocentric embodiment of the patriarchal nature of society) can only weaken that field of study, both by reducing its credibility and diverting people’s intellectual energy into an unproductive direction.

And not just feminism – there were a lot of valid insights about limitations in traditional practice that were inflated into ludicrous theoretical contructions. You don’t need to make radical theoretical claims to challenge the centrality of the author in traditional criticism, or argue that literary study has not taken enough notice of historical and social conditions, or that critics have been too slow to engage with politics.

Also, theory-driven articles about particular works of literature seemed to me to be generally weakened by the theory, rather than strengthened by it. Often the author seemed more interested in ingenious ways of applying the theory than in coming up with new insights. The conclusions they did reach often seemed no different from those a traditional close reading might achieve – but less coherently expressed. Or radical and exciting sounding – but insupportable.

And I haven’t even mentioned the malign influence on people’s prose style.


*compare – ‘Bill Clinton is just a kind of mammal, and therefore, like mice, his teeth grow continuously and he needs to gnaw hard materials regularly to wear them down’.


Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design

He designed us an appendix
‘cos he knew it would delight us
to have the opportunity
to get appendicitis.


‘American Poetry’

I find it interesting that Americans constantly self-identify themselves as ‘American’.

I’ve been reading Roger Pao’s blog Asian-American Poetry with some interest, but while he explores all the nuances, the root question goes unasked and unanswered – why that category? Why the keenness to put your work into a non-literary category? By which I mean: “I am an Asian-American Poet” is a different kind of statement to “I am a Vorticist”. Or is it? Perhaps it is intended as a statement about the work, rather than, say, an assertion of identity or a marketing opportunity. But what kind of statement? If a customer bought an anthology of Asian-American poetry and found that, although all the poets were Asian-Americans, the work was indistinguishable from that of other Americans, would they be entitled to feel cheated?

Actually, though, the idea of ‘Asian-American Poetry’ doesn’t really surprise me. There are obvious reasons why people would want to identify themselves as Asian-American (it’s a historically marginalised minority with shared interests etc etc), and why an Asian-American Poetry anthology would seem like a good idea. It no more needs special justification than an anthology of woman poets, or Welsh poets, or young poets.

What I find more interesting is the tendency for America to do the same thing. A trivial example – after the success of ‘Pop Idol’ in the UK, it crossed over to America where it became ‘American Idol’. Why? Why would an American program made by an American company and broadcast on an American network need to identify itself as American? What point were they trying to make? Normally, I’d expect a program (or anthology) that identified with a particular social group to be defining itself in relation to the majority, but surely the US isn’t defining itself (to itself) in opposition to the rest of the world.

Similarly, and getting back to poetry for a minute, I have a copy of the New Formalist anthology Rebel Angels (dreadful self-satisfied title, I know). The introduction is basically spent defending metrical poetry against the suggestion that it is ‘un-American’. The subject is set up as an argument between two sides: both seem to believe that American poets have some kind of responsibility to American Poetry, and the only difference is how that responsibility should be discharged.

I would have thought that American Poetry could look after itself. Whatever kinds of poems are written by poets who are from the US will be American Poetry, and the long-term trends will emerge whether anyone tries to influence them or not.

Perhaps it’s the UK (England?) which is unusual in being very reluctant to invoke ‘Britishness’. I suppose we had the YBAs (Young British Artists – Hirst, Emin etc) recently, but I never felt anyone was expecting them to strive to make their art British; and whatever responsibilities they may have had to Art never seemed to include a responsibility to Britishness.

Anyway, I don’t really want to make this into a Brit/American thing, I’m just intrigued by the labels people pick for themselves.


Beowulf as a chiefdom-based society

I’m just reading Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, a book which argues that there is in fact a good theoretical basis (from game-theory) for seeing the development of human societies as directional. I believe the book later goes onto biological systems as well, but I haven’t got to that bit. Anyway, it got me thinking about Beowulf again.

Beowulf, and other A-S poetry, always read as curiously foreign. Obviously, even the date of the manuscript – C11th – *is* a very distant and foreign culture, and if you accept the C8th date for the poem, that pushes it back further. The action of the poem is dateable to around 516 (the death of Hygelac), although assuming much continuity between the events and the writing of the poem, let alone in its surviving copy, seems unwise.

Still, even given the distance between the poem and ourselves, it always seems surprisingly foreign; much more so than Roman literature, and more so, or at least very differently so, than later medieval literature as well. The insight I may or may not have gained from the Wright book is that part of that difference is because of a major shift in the very structure of the society. He traces out a sequence of societal structures, apparently as used by archeologists (from memory): family groups -> Big Man societies (i.e. a village or two loosely organised around a charismatic leader) -> chiefdoms (groups of villages lead by a powerfully authoritarian leader who often claims divine authority) -> states (centralised bureaucracy, well-defined legal structures).

The relevance of all this is that the world of Beowulf seems to fit more into the chiefdoms stage, which was characterised by, for example, one central village growing in authority and size amongst others around it, and tellingly for the Beowulf comparison, the increasingly lavish burial ceremonies surrounding the deaths of chiefs. Wright mentions the megalithic cultures in pre-Roman Britain as an example; obviously, the ship burial and the barrow burial in Beowulf seem like the same thing. Another key feature – both the Big Man cultures and chiefdoms are often characterised by the throwing of great feasts by the leader as a way of both redistributing wealth and establishing their own status, and feasting is obviously a very A-S obsession. The directness of the relationship between the ‘king’ in A-S poetry and his duguth/geoguth, and the gift culture, also feel like part of a rather smaller social unit than what we normally think of as a ‘kingdom’ (although chiefdoms could be quite big – and is it so different from the emphasis on feasting in ME poetry? And the Tudor court?).

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this. I was struck, some years ago, by something (in Guns, Germs and Steel, maybe?) which said that the first thing Papuan tribesmen do when they encounter someone they don’t know is have a long discussion about who their relatives are – because if they can find a relationship to each other, they probably won’t need to fight. That reminded me forcefully of sequence of rather cagey encounters B has – initially with the watchman, then a courtier, then the king (I think) – when he first arrives at Heorot as a stranger. And reading the Haida poetry recently, the image of the big houses with a central firepit and a poet/storyteller/scop telling stories that could last for hours, was also reminiscent of A-S poetry.

I don’t suppose any of this would come as news to an anthropologist, but then such is academic territoriality, everything I read about Beowulf at uni was written by literary critics – or sometimes historians. And what does it matter anyway? Well, it changes the way I visualise the poem, at least. The vocabulary, of kings and earls and thanes, never quite matched to the action, but it’s so seductive that somehow it’s hard to get away from it. To think of Hrothgar as a tribal chief, and Heorot as something closer to a longhouse than a palace, carries a severe risk of going too far in the other direction – they may have had simpler political units, but they weren’t exactly hunter-gatherers. Still, it’s a useful imaginative antidote to all the baggage carried by the word ‘king’.

All of which assumes that the poem is somehow a true reflection of society in Northern Europe in the 6th? 8th? century. And since it was written down in the C11th by a Christian scribe, probably from a copy of a copy, that may be a mistake. How much of what’s in the poem is more modern stuff that’s been imposed? And it’s quite likely that the late Anglo-Saxons had a romanticised view of their forebears anyway. The Morte D’Arthur tells you more about the C15th century, when it was written, than the pre-Roman society where it was nominally set; or perhaps the C15th’s romantic view of an earlier medieval period.

Anyway. Enough.


Orrm’s metre

I’ve just read The Stories of English by David Crystal. Which I’d recommend as an interesting read. He quotes some of a C12th poem called the Ormulum, after its auther, a monk called Orrm. It’s written in alternating unrhymed lines of 8 and 7 syllables – iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with a feminine ending. Or alternatively in long 15 syllable lines with a caesura, depending how you prefer to print it. Which didn’t catch on. Might be worth experimenting with, though. Sort of nearly ballad metre.



Provoked by Mike Snider’s post on the subject.

I’d always been of the ‘pause slightly on the linebreaks’ school of reading, because if you don’t pause on the linebreaks, what are they there for? But I’d never done any public reading of poetry to speak of. When I came to practice for a reading at my brother’s wedding, of a (rhyming, metrical) poem I wrote for the occasion, I was interested to discover that if I *didn’t* read straight over the linebreaks, it was almost impossible to preserve the proper intonation that the sentences would have in normal speech; so I printed a copy of the poem without the enjambed linebreaks to make it easier to ignore them.

BUT I did feel that the fact it was rhyming made a lot of difference; hopefully the rhyme will come through and indicate the line-ends. In unrhymed free verse (or even blank verse), perhaps the linebreak is doing something different. I actually wonder if the dropping of rhyme from English poetry was a more drastic step than the dropping of metre.

In The Sounds of Poetry, Pinsky uses this poem by Ben Jonson to discuss linebreaks:

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be,
That she,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my love behind:
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet
As hath the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

Pinsky says: “[…] For Ben Jonson, writing this brilliant poem early in the 17th century, the opposite is true: the ear is the avenue of the spirit, while the eye is duped by mere seeming. What he means about the ear he demonstrates in sentences that skim and dance across the lines and rhymes, flamenco-style, or like Michael Jordan creating space where there was none.” One thing that’s interesting about the poem, for me, is the fact that you can (nearly) relineate from its peculiar mix of line-lengths into IP:

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be, that she, whom I
adore so much, should so slight me, and cast
my love behind: I’m sure my language to
her was as sweet, and every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet as hath
the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious fears, that fly my thoughts
Between, tell me that she hath seen my hundreds
Of gray hairs, told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

That creates some odd line breaks, but if you read it aloud, the sense of the play between the syntax of the poem and the lineation would, I hope still communicate itself to the listener, because the rhyme acts as a marker. Would it be possible to create the effect so well in an unrhymed poem? One thinks of Shakespearean blank verse. If one was performing Hamlet, and trying to use the natural rhythms of speech, would the linebreaks come across in a passage like this (and would the audience lose much if they don’t)?

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

On the one hand, I think that when actors read poems, they often turn them into dramatic monologues and obliterate the poemness of them – including the lineation. But, as I said earlier, it’s very difficult to read a poem out loud and communicate both the lineation and the syntax – unless it rhymes.

Either way, I think that these discussions tend to talk too much about linebreaks and not enough about lines. They also tend to concentrate too much on local effects – one break at a time – rather than the broader interaction between syntax and line.