Friday, August 2, 2013

Caricature your positions a little!

Harlequin: You have been fairly outspoken on the divide between so-called ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ poetry, to the extent that you are sometimes viewed as a kind of figurehead for the former school. One could argue that the point where one ideology shelves into the next is almost impossible to define, and would be identified differently depending on who was asked. Do you believe there is any real use in such distinctions?

Don Paterson: So long as certain factions within the avant-garde continue to identify themselves as not-the-mainstream with self-approving titles like ‘linguistically innovative poetry’ or (my favourite) ‘non-conformist verse’ — the non-avant-garde are obliged to speak up, if only to say ‘it really isn’t that simple’. But no, I don’t think there’s any real distinction; my position has changed there. However I think there is a healthy and perhaps necessary dialectic between ‘experimental’ and ‘broadly successful’ verse — sorry, I kid! I kid because I love — between avant-garde and ‘mainstream’ verse, but it can only exist when people are prepared to caricature their positions a little.

H: You’ve said of the very avant-garde that it risks less. Do you think the criteria by which we recognize ‘good writing’ and ‘bad writing’ is obscured (or perhaps just irrelevant) in this ‘safer’ poetry, or is the risk more to do with emotional gambits … the risk of appearing sentimental?

DP: Not just risking sentimentality — risking looking foolish and uncool and pretentious and ridiculous and clichéd. Personal risk. Having some rough paraphrasable sense, then being broadly understood, and then revealed as having nothing to say. If you aim for clarity, all your worst traits risk being publically revealed. But a ‘mainstream’ poem will also fail because the rules of its game are known, and it’s fallen badly short: it’s lyrically confused (i.e. it doesn’t integrate its music) or it over extends its conceit, or it scans poorly, or it’s about five things instead of one, and so on. Just about the only genuine criticism you still tend to hear from most critics of an avant-garde poem is that it fails to innovate. But innovation is a neutral attribute. It has nothing to do with success. That really isn’t good enough. No rules, no game; no game, no verifiable success; no success, and it’s all great, or it’s all bad, or it’s all mediocre. And there’s no point.

H: The argument often centres on questions of accessibility and of breaking ground. To what extent do you believe it is a poet’s responsibility to leave a door open for his or her readers? Or to extend the form?

DP: I don’t understand this talk of responsibility, really. Poets have a responsibility not to be bad or boring or stupid, like any other artist. But yes — for me, the poem is ideally an unstable sign that has enough polysemy to be made the reader’s own, but not so much that they can make anything of it at all. So there’s some built-in, judicious slippage. Form will extend, morph or adapt when it has to, and I think we don’t need to worry about it. Again, there’s no intrinsic merit in ‘technical innovation’. Most folk who consciously ‘extend the form’ tend to end up ploughing a very lonely furrow, and for a good reason. I believe in a more organic, less self-conscious relationship between form and the language. Forms adapt or innovated themselves through linguistic necessity, either at a personal level or through the cultural evolution of the language.

H: Does a poet have any particular responsibilities?

DP: Not to lie. To themselves first.

-- full interview here, at The Harlequin