Tuesday, February 2, 2010
The Atlantic Rift
Reading unfamiliar poetries means de facto accepting a tricky plural: one that denotes the contingency of poetic form, and implies the possibility of thinking about poetry as much as through it. Maybe one reason British readers are often resistant to international writing is that this notion of “thinking about” disturbs a customary empiricism. Our contemporary poetry mores translate a deep-seated empirical tradition into twin concerns: with craft, and with presenting concrete example rather than abstract argument. “Muscularity,” that Leavisite term of endearment, pictures the poem as material: the poem is the concrete particularity of these words, in this order. As Auden said, it “makes nothing happen”; its business is simply to be its own perfect incarnation. No coincidence that Don Paterson, arguably the most brilliantly-influential poet working in Britain today, turns William Carlos Williams’s vision of the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words”—that is, a producer of affect, of something beyond itself—inwards, into “a little machine for remembering itself.”
It’s easy to see how abstraction can be a high road to cliche and un-clarity. Great ideas like love, truth, and justice are emptied of content as they circulate in political and commercial discourse. On the other hand, as the Australian poet-activist John Kinsella suggests in his clearly instrumental poetics, reading poetic complexity might equip us to decode, and challenge, those very discourses. (Nothing new here: Shelley makes a similarly instrumental case, in A Defence of Poetry, for the usefulness of practicing imaginative sympathy.) In a distinction too easily forgotten, abstraction—that gesture of finality with which the concrete realm is lifted away from, or refused—differs from abstract thought, which breathes movement into and within the conceptual realm. Practice (“craft”) does produce the poem. But it’s difficult to work out how we can be sure what’s produced is fit for purpose unless we accept that the poem has a purpose. This struggle to fix the locus of poetic purpose, or meaning—whether it’s internal to the text, or what it would mean to say it could be extra-textual—is central to contemporary British poetry. Encountering the unfamiliar also demonstrates the extent to which reading a poem means thinking in its terms. Sometimes—when the poem feels unappealing in one way or another—this collusion seems more like discipline than consent; but it locates the reader within a poem’s semantic frame, as an element which therefore shifts what a poem can be. The Atlantic Rift does make a difference to what “American poems” can be for a British reader.
-- Fiona Sampson