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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ignoble Savages

Hard to disagree much with this from William Logan:

The disparity between what Graham believes she’s doing and what the reader sees on the page is enormous. Perhaps these rambling, doddering, lifeless poems are “crucial,” as she claims; yet it’s as if all their imaginative energy went to “enact the idea of, and sensation of” writing the poem itself. I’m not sure aesthetic choices should be justified in philosophic terms, because it makes matters of taste seem conditioned or inevitable (taste can have philosophical carriage, but perhaps it takes a century or more to discover it). Her language, so slack and unbearable now, doesn’t possess the resources of Williams or Whitman, whose arguments lay in language, not length of line. Graham can chatter in the latest philosopher’s mode but can’t compose a good metaphor.


Readers of Poetry will remember the centrefold-style excitement of the poems that ended up in Sea Change, reclining Odalisque-like on their side, beached and out of proportion to their surroundings, like an Antarctic glacier floating into Tampa Bay.

Adam Kirsch talked about the algebraic quality of Graham’s work in his recent book of essays, and the defiant fill-it-in-for-yourself quality of the earlier poems he was discussing. Graham books, in a Beckett phrase I like, have always come with ‘missing parts included’. In Sea Change though all too many of these have been filled in, in all the wrong ways, and all I find is Heathcote Williams meets the Discovery Channel meets the nearest piece of late Heidegger to hand. Dipping into ‘Embodies’ at random I find: ‘& there is still /innocence, it is starting up somewhere /even now, and the strange swelling of the so-called Milky Way, and the sound of the /wings of the bird as it lifts off /suddenly, & how it is going somewhere precise, & that precision, & how I no longer /can say for that it /knows nothing, flaming, razory...’ I pause on that insistence on ‘precision’. Bird-flight is a very precise thing, but this writing isn’t. So much of Graham’s work operates on a meta-level these days that it has become enough for her to make a gesture in the direction of precision for her writing (she must think) to take on that quality. If the whole thrust of Sea Change is towards an attention to the natural world (‘Absolute unmixed attention is prayer’, as Simone Weil said), its effect on me is of sublimation – a book-length sublimation of its material into a stance, a style, a tic. The natural world has become so much material, in a strange mimetic echo of the despoliation of the earth that she writes about. Display supercedes meditation and understanding. A rare and showy bird is pluming itself, energetically, on behalf of the lesser species that have not made it into camera-shot. This is not to say I think Jorie Graham has become the Harvard wing of Exxon Mobile, but still.

There is a three-part series on BBC at the moment about the remote Hebridean island of St Kilda, and attempting to recreate an episode in which some St Kildans were marooned on the nearby rocky outpost of Boreray for several months the camera crew ran into storms and winched their man off the rock. The historically respectful thing would have been to leave him there, or better again to have sent the camera crew but left the presenter at home, or best of all just not to have made the programme, perhaps. Because how better to honour Hopkins’ words, ‘Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet’, than by getting ourselves out of the picture as much as possible, and preferably altogether. This may be a flippant suggestion, but as a rhetorical impossibility is at least worth a try, or a better try than the vapidities of Sea Change.

These reflections prompted by George Szirtes blogging about the New Writing Worlds 2008 Human: Nature (note Grahamesque colon) conference in UEA. Szirtes worries about the recrudescence of Noble Savage theology he finds in those who would lecture us on the wisdom of indigenous peoples, and the hymners of nature who would overlook its weakness for letting off tsnunamis and earthquakes when the mood takes it. I would agree that there is a mood of neo-Rousseauism afoot, as memorably skewered by Kathleen Jamie in her LRB review of Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places, but think this is less a problem than the common failure to grasp our true predicament: that we are the last indigenous people left, the last tribe to make contact with the folk who still live in the forests of Peru and Papua New Guinea, the most dogged believers on earth in the absolute state of nature in which we live, whether we’re admiring our sensitive response to a Seamus Heaney poem or fuelling up the people-carrier for the school run, the last culture left with no use for or conception of anything beyond ourselves. And what are we going to do about that, eh? That’s what I want to know.

If I want to see rabbits here where I live, I can drive to a dual carriageway roundabout, where a large colony appears to be thriving. That to me is contemporary nature.

On the subject of nature writing, I would also say that if Jorie Graham is a distracting sideshow it’s good to be reminded by an extract from his forthcoming The Last Pool of Darkness in the new Dublin Review that Tim Robinson is, for my money, the best writer on nature writing today, and probably the best prose writer at work in Ireland or Britain too. Always nice to end on a note of hyperbole.

Photo found here.


Background Artist said...

yah owe s/he daithi Nimble: to wit; Graham is a s/he in the M of you and i both, and Logan and all the others who speak of Her, J, s/he who i also stumbled on, but being honest, can only claim i have not read her, or rather, i appreciate
she is good at what she does, it's just that, it is not what we the s/he do.

i very much like J's style of Being J and connecting to the Ohm god/s our vast consonantal stor of sean now, the love of diacritical accuracies and meta-masterplans which do explain, do attack me violently when i first read J and thought, yah, s/he's OK, but not in the league of s/he ho does it better, or we who do it bhard best: to wit -- Hit the right books and vellum shaded in the cone's editorial gyre of adumbrate Concreter Poetry, according to the s/hebrew of bono love and pax, Gra B Jorie G and her work, i measured as being only in need of slight editing; as it really is worth getting at least Pretend excited about, just to outshine s/he who do be J;s Ohm gd/s cutting her stanzas and rann:

If this comes creased and creased again and soiled

as if".."opened..a thousand times

to see if what I'd written here
was right,

it's all because I looked too long for you

to put it in your pocket

the flaws out...

seems ok so far, i may be mistaken but the spoken lines, they run ok, and though there is much in the work of ms G to be getting up a head of blather about, best not: to wit, het gher into our gear, as i have heard her read, i think: to wit, on a cast of Pod, poetry live, static, time caught, and her s/he i know if we met, would not outshine Cliff's, and that is all that counts, others and not i, the thing is

...Jorie and i are Lovers of the sidhe and wish only to make mooin, to have psychic intercourse, with s/he of me and you: to wit, intellectual couplings based on a mutual respect for each other as poetic vassals of Flesh and love and containers of po-mo, Controllers of concrete poetry's direction over the coming yrs, custodians of ancient 1920's lore: to wit; when the F word was still jolly, adolph and eva, unmarried: the scandal of it, our herr Furher father loving only gas and off mansion culls, secular Church of facist tanners under gee UV ray perverting the core of Taste, tone to wit: gulags, bombs, heads off and a billion reasons to nu clear recycling and for BN poetries: golly jolly ogam is the source of it you know, mate/s tied to Wess of S and eces, speaking prophetic things, like, ooh, dunno, i'm telling lies and really do not give a to wit nor woo Graham's words to sit, sue, prosecute, judge and moo back, be rewarded with self bestowing cloak of enobled Tra Da soon Dea south ASn Mhuman greek koin lingua franca mistress coined, B4 you yah too is U2, on the Edge of england, Brython Alban goidelic tongue editing Jorie's work foor sport, self absorbed if we meet i know Live, s/he will be beaten and soundly trashed, silently at first until Joprie refuses to join me in the Quest for a commune at thew back of Guiness, the Stable of song, all the artists soi and very important creative contributors to the planets safety


yr having yr life, leave Graham alone, hit out at the real al capo, the main phone no it is, Ohm omg it is Ogam gids ohm, alba bryhon and pitcs, sure their all woad messrs, BC, this is po-mo

the Arm it Age is all lover:

Drum it out in words
Dan and dna in jack
nad, nothing south M
Bea of three swans U

JQ said...

So strange to see JG, once so intense and inventive, churn out rubbish. Hard to say if it's because the theme has taken over the language or not. Whitman gets more or less boring from the 1870s on, arguably Williams too with *Paterson*. Eliot had the decency to shut up and write unreadable prose and worse plays.