Monday, April 12, 2010

The bastardization of English

Kenneth Goldsmith recently said on Harriet:

"Globalization turns all language into provisional language. The ubiquity of English: now that we all speak it, nobody remembers its use. The collective bastardization of English is our most impressive achievement; we have broken its back with ignorance, accent, slang, jargon, tourism and multitasking. We can make it say anything we want, like a speech dummy."

And yet... though many languages may be the kindred bastards of English, its parent and oldest offspring are quarreling over their real and perceived differences.

Steve Burt, in the pages of the PN Review, recently claimed that "most American poets, alas, are not reading contemporary British poetry." What?! The fact is that it has never, ever been easier for Americans to read work by the UK poets. Books published by Carcanet, Bloodaxe, Faber and Faber, Salt and others are more easily obtainable here than ever before (thanks, in part, to conveniences like The Book Depository and Amazon), and such poets as Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Robin Robertson, and Carol Ann Duffy have large trade publishers here: FSG, Knopf, Norton (let alone good mid-size presses like Graywolf). When the reclusive J.H. Prynne came over to Chicago for readings and talks, it caused considerable excitement; he was lionized by his fans, among which I count myself. I'd add that hardly an issue of Poetry goes by without a poem or review – or at least some mention of – a British poet; and as our circulation ranks as about the highest of any literary magazine in the USA, the claim that poetry doesn’t travel from there to here seems wrong to me.

Now what about the other way around? What do they think of American poetry in the UK? As I recently blogged in a post about the "Atlantic Rift" in contemporary poetry, Fiona Sampson read some recent books by American poets with skepticism and bewilderment. And there's now a Guardian podcast relating to the ostensible break between American and British poets in which some pretty odd ideas about American poets are floated. According to Don Guttenplan, an American editor for The Nation who lives in London and one of the participants in the debate that can be heard on the podcast, Anne-Marie Fyfe, who is also part of the discussion, noted "the fall-out from separate histories, cliques, the post-division era, the supposed continuity of the avant-garde, the very differences of accent, emphasis and daily life etc." She notes dissimilarities too, in the poetry "industry," claiming that American poets are "largely dependent on private subsidy, university tenure, academic reviews; [while] UK poetry [is] still very people-based, democratic, ground-up; resulting American poets now write only for other poets, no concept of a general readership. I exaggerate, of course, but significant differences and significant impact on actual craft."

Frankly, as for what Fyfe thinks, I'm astonished: hardly any US poets get private subsidies or academic jobs (let alone tenured ones); and most litmags here are not connected with academia - those that are have been in dire straits and, like Shenandoah and Tri-Quarterly, are probably an endangered species. And I find it hard to believe that UK poetry is more “people-based, democratic,” etc. than poetry over here - assuming those are real virtues to begin with. And certainly there are proliferating writing programs and cliques in the UK, just as there as here, viz. the ad pages of the LRB and TLS, and the recent blogfeud between Todd Swift and Roddy Lumsden about who’s a British poet.

We have a long way to go if we're going to understand each other, that's for sure. But the good news, it seems to me, is that British and American poets are indeed now really reading and meeting each other; it's only natural to squabble over our differences and similarities (real and imaginary), after a few decades of operating in more or less distinct atmospheres. And so these are tempests, no doubt, in our respective teapots and coffee-makers. I'm happy that things are not so globalized that our writing is or has to be alike. Yet how to explain the rocky oceanic rift that still lies between us?

In 1935 (five years before she published "Stanzas in Meditation" in Poetry magazine), Gertrude Stein delivered lectures before a packed audience at the University of Chicago. She had just returned to the US for the first time since leaving it in 1903 to live abroad. In one of her lectures, "Narration," she said that because American and English literature "completely differ one from the other and they use the same language to tell everything that can be happening it is naturally very naturally not at all the same thing." Daily life in each culture is different, so naturally the narrative of life in each culture is, too:

"And that is what literature does it emphasizes what every one has as the life of the nation which the life of every one in that nation makes it be. That is what literature is as anybody can see if they read the writing as a nation makes it be."

And so -

"Americans and English use the same language but the Americans have not a daily living as any Englishman does and can have. [...] It is going to be very interesting and it is very interesting and it has been very interesting to see how two nations having the same words all the same grammatical construction have come to be telling things that have nothing whatever in common."

Interesting, indeed. And in a stroke of good timing, the University of Chicago Press is bringing Stein's lecture back into print this spring; you can pre-order a copy (introduced by Thornton Wilder!) here.

Kenny says: "we used to renew what was depleted, now we try to resurrect what is gone."

I suppose that for some, the reprinting of old books falls balefully into that last category - and yet there are books that do not perish, and what's contained in them turns out to be an endlessly renewable and useful resource.

See also Hannah Brooks-Motl's recent essay on this subject; click here; and Todd Swift's remarks on the Best American Poetry blog.


Desmond Swords said...

They closed the comments down on that Guardian podcast-blog after one day and one comment.

The internet chat-site culture, one would think, would lead to a cross-pollination of practice and printed performance in the forum of English Letters, but I haven't noticed any, apart from on Able Muse.

I think with these podcasts, Sarah Crown and the guardian vixens feel they have to come across as being expert and au fait with everything in the global English language poetry village. There's an assumptive know-all trait among the educated UK po-biz set generally, in one's opinion (and experience), probably a final trace of imperialism, which translates into many acting like their top souljahs are part of a global elite interconnected web of winning poets, as if the world of poetry boils down to a handful of oxo-ivy leaguers all doing the real jolly gosh, whilst the rest of us are dickheads because we didn't go to the same school or lose our accents on starting university.

Fyffe gave one a titter. What the eff does she know? Some organiser of live poetry in London is all of a sudden intimate with the 10,000 in the AmPo standing army.

Where was she in the summer of love 2009 Harriet?

Where was any of 'em?

No, they are missing the boat, one's fellow brits, because they have neglected to take advantage of the limitless virtual space of the online realm, their heads stuck looking at Heaney and his mob's way of conducting their business in the world of poetry, falling for the doilfeacht - stage magic and slight-of-hand. Imitating your dad and not developing your brí - essence, vigour, significance and inherent/intrensic personal power set by dán, that cannot be won or gained, only developed or allowed to atrope.

In their ciapóg - magically induced confusion and delusion, one's comrades in ditties think because the current ollamhs singing from the highest branch, don't use the net and maintain themselves in mags alone, that that's all they have to do to reach the same branch 20 years from now.

Instead of just spamming in the free realm, where we can develop and hone all our authorial and poetic skill, they're hoping against hope, alas, that it's all just a fad and the new younger kids post me- emo- facebook- internet-literate-texters-since-the-womb-generation, are somehow gonna get older and them-us, the forties mob, are gonna somehow get younger and more talented, if we just remain silently stoic ignoring all this New Thing the squares just aint vibing y'all.


Take no notice, another throw of spontaneous composition, free learning, free to fail, American poetry:


gra agus siochain.


dranatio is the word-verification

dán ratio - poetry ratio

The Druid Dictionary. A freebie, on me.

Don Share said...

Gene Tanta responds:

"in 1944 W.C. Williams in his introduction to The Wedge: “The war is the first and only thing in the world today. The arts generally are not … a diversion … for relief, a turning away. [The arts are] the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.”

While only few paragraphs down in the same text, Williams chastises: “Don’t talk about frustration fathering the arts. The bastardization of words is too widespread for that today.”

So, how do local poets and global citizens live in a world where “war is the first and only thing” and in a world where “the bastardization of words is too widespread” to speak their frustrations?"


To Gene I would dreamily answer, sorta traducing Pavese, that we need more translations, fewer invasions.

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Don,

Great post! I'm very interested in this discussion, and am only half-joking when I say that this notion of "the Atlantic Rift" should be the subject of an AWP panel sometime -- if it hasn't already been. But of course I personally prefer to see how these discussions play out online than in a more rigid academic setting (or "professional" setting). I do think Sampson may be confusing her "inward" and "outward," in a sense -- as Olson (I think rightly) noted, it is only when the writer dives within him/herself (i.e. inward) that the poetry becomes expansive. Otherwise we get a lot of "outward"-emphatic poetry, i.e. "topical" verse that is limited by what can be described. To the extent poetry needs to and does make some space for that which can neither be directly perceived nor comprehensively delineated, I see much of the most interesting American verse (not drawing any distinctions here, only speaking about American verse now) searching inward rather than the opposite.

P.S. I'm sure you already know about this, but I thought I'd send your way a favorite Anglophile link of mine: Verse Palace. It's fairly new, and run by the British poet Frances Leviston, and I've already found a number of the discussions to be extremely interesting -- and to suggest, perhaps, a disconnect between AmPo (whose legions are actually 50,000+ in number, Desmond! Scary, I know) and British poetry, though not of the sort (in my view) any of those referenced above or linked to are describing. So your setting-the-record-straight about AmPo was much appreciated, Don!

Be well,


Seth Abramson said...

Well, I can't claim to have any real expertise on the subject, beyond being an admitted amateur Anglophile, but... does AWP require expertise? ;-) Seriously, though, I do think this is interesting, and could probably be extremely provocative, and I'm definitely headed to AWP next February -- and it'd be wonderful to have some British poets to D.C.! -- so, hey, if you decide you want to do this, Facebook me and we'll chat! Cheers,


Henry Gould said...

G. Stein's remarks seem true, as far as they go... but isn't literary nationalism complicated by the fact that a large number of the modern biggies (including Stein herself, Pound, Eliot...) spent a lot of time alienated & expatriated from their native land & idioms? & there was the whole struggle between those affiliated with the "New America" movement of the 20s (such as Hart Crane) - & others, like Stevens & WC Williams - who saw the Pound & Eliot ascendancy & Euro-philia as somewhat inimical, to say the least... goes back to the 19th-cent. emergence of American, out of "colonial," literature...

I wonder if Stein's comments about the differences between national histories & daily experience were meant as any kind of polemic with Eliot et al...

Henry Gould said...

... but then again there's the history of the transatlantic poetry love-fest (H. James; Eliot & Pound; DH Lawrence; Auden; Geoffrey Hill; many more...). The best INCLUDES the cousins, from both sides. I guess. Or shoves them aside.

But what this has to do with the likes of Ken Goldsmith or Fiona Sampson... beats me. Unless yon Poetry Mag editors are looking for a newsworthy, up-to-the-minute hook on which to sling their poetical hams... O Eclecticism, thou art my Butter'd Bacon...

Henry Gould said...

Don, sorry for the snarkiness of previous comment. Late night w/my friend Jim Beam.

Ms Baroque said...

Very very interesting. Poignantly so for me, as of course I'm on the front line in this one, Don, as you know. But I'm damned if I know what any of it means. I just write what I write.

But, just as the recession employment market wants you to be only one thing, to be pigeonholable, we now have this concomitant obsession with defining one's nationality as an artist, and I apparently fail on that one too!

I'm not in a position to judge any of this, as my own identity is too tangled up in it. I'm told almost daily how American I am (in the UK) and how English-sounding (by Americans); I've long since come to the conclusion that the remark shows more about the preconceptions and receptivity of the speaker than it does about me. In poetry terms it might be interesting to parse out one's influences and take a poll on one's work, is it 'American' or 'British' - but maybe it's neither, like a mule. Or, what's harder, both.

Srsly, though. Anne-Marie's generalisations sounded only like the flip side of what Annie Finch wrote after her trip to the UK last year - where Anne-Marie talks of "people-based" Annie spoke of "general audiences" in the UK, for example. So the good news there is that, if people across the rift are generalising about the national poetries, maybe we're at least generalising in the same ways?

I mean, how do YOU see it? Generally? Or shall we ask you that after your trip? :D

Steven Fama said...

Hi Don,

I know you want to point out what Poetry published in the past, particularly where it reflects something interesting, and I understand that, and the facts are the facts,

but just exactly how much of Stanzas in Meditation was published in Poetry. Yes, this is a challenge question, although I know not the answer. I only know that the poem in the Yale edition goes to Stanza LXXXIII and almost 150 pages and your off-hand comment gives the impression that the whole dang thing went in "your" magazine and I'd be surprised, that's all.

Don Share said...

Some stanzas, not all, were published in the magazine, thusly:

Stanzas in Meditation, Volume 55, February 1940, starting page 229

Stanzas in Meditation, Volume 121, October 1972, starting page 26

By the fall, the entire back run of the magazine will have been digitized and will be made available for consultation via JSTOR.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks; I'd seen those citations to the starting pages -- I'm interested of course in the ending pages, to see how much was published. Will do the research...