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.


difficulty in poetry

These are some thoughts in response to the current discussions in blogspace about ‘difficulty’ in poetry.

If you’re interested in creating a larger readership for poetry, difficulty is relative. In Don Paterson’s recent TS Eliot lecture, he fulminates about ‘postmoderns’ and various quotes from the lecture have been used to champion more accessible poetry. But if the missing consituency for poetry is represented by my mother (who doesn’t read poetry but does read novels and biographies) – well, she didn’t find the Paterson poems I showed her immediately accessible, any more than Josh Corey’s mother felt she understood his poetry. I think my mother’s hesitation was mainly because she doesn’t read poetry, so she didn’t feel confident in piecing together the meaning. But my point is, even a poem like The Thread, a rhyming, metrical poem on a conventional subject, requires a different kind of reading to a novel. A regular reader of poetry may fill in the gaps and see what the poem is saying relatively easily – but it’s not as straightforward as it might appear. So if your ambition is to seduce that constituency – readers who don’t read poetry – into buying contemporary poetry, perhaps Billy Collins (or someone equivalent) is what you need. At least he is identifiably writing literary poetry, unlike some high-profile ‘poets’, like Stepanek, Bukowski and Felix Dennis.

Another thought: one reason that people on either side of this debate talk across each other is a difference in the way they mean ‘difficulty’. If Mike Snider uses the term ‘difficult’, he perhaps means ‘wilfully unrewarding’ or even ‘unlikeable’. When Josh Corey uses it, he perhaps means ‘intellectually challenging’. To say you write poetry which is intellectually challenging is a boast; to say you write poetry which is wilfully unrewarding is not. There must be a better term to argue around than ‘difficulty’. I don’t have a suggestion.

I do have sympathy with Chris Lott’s point – basically, that he doesn’t find the so-called ‘difficult’ and ‘complex’ poems are actually complex or difficult – they just look like a mess. That reaction might mean you’re just missing something, but not always. In Matthew Caley’s recent Magma article on the ‘avant garde’ (their scare quotes), he describes an event he organised:

“During a recent stint as Poet-in-Residence at The Poetry Society Cafe I curated an exhibition