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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mute et svelte

Hand-delivered to my door, issue one of the Cambridge Literary Review. Yes, hand-delivered, which I’d wager is more than anyone reading this in Cambridge can boast, but it seems one of that new journal’s editor’s parents live around the corner from me here in Hull. (How unsatisfactory the collective possessive is in English, is it not, may I add parenthetically. I’d like to thank you on all our behalves. The behalves of all of us? Fie on’t!). ‘In one corner of Oxford, I have not been forgiven for coming to Cambridge’, begins Jeremy Noel-Tod’s ‘A History of Difficulty: On Cambridge Poetry’, an essay that has already inspired excited reveries in the TLS and much cyber-debate. Substitute ‘Grimsby’ and ‘Scunthorpe’ for the place-names in that sentence and you will be halfway, at least, to grasping why some people still flinch from Cambridge poetry, the very thought of it, though I seem to remember JNT venturing beyond those city wall to t’North Country a few summers back with no obvious ill effects, even if t’soft lad ’ad t’nerve to compare Philip Larkin to Patience Strong while ’e were ’ere. There is a pathology of Cambridge poetry, undoubtedly, a small glimpse of which can obtained on (CLR contributor) Robert Archambeau’s blog, when having made the unfortunate suggestion that some consciouness-raising-in-the-community might have the effect of getting a Seamus Heaney reader to read a bit of Tom Raworth, which would after all be a good thing, Keston Sutherland pounces faster than a Proletkultist reproving a less ideologically sound comrade at a Comintern meeting on town sanitation to point out that, no it wouldn’t, Heaney being a running dog of international capitalism (‘by this point practically an armrest of the state apparatus’), though Sutherland also rejects the ‘weird vignette of cults, sects, mysteries, conspiracies, messianism, contrived suffering, programmatic self-exclusion, etc’ he found in Kent Johnson’s characterisation of recent British poetry recently over on Digital Emunction (‘If anyone’s obnubilated in incense and ectoplasm it’s people like Fiona Sampson, the editor of the once again wretchedly conservative and dull Poetry Review’). Would there were world and time enough to do justice to these epic struggles of our time but, can you believe it, there aren’t.

Among the other noteworthy things in CLR are an opening poem, ‘Patridges’, by Helen Macdonald, whose Shaler’s Fish, let me repeat myself here, remains one of the best book of British poetry of recent times. I also recently read and can recommend her Reaktion Press book on the falcon, and note from the back of the mag that she lives in Cambridge ‘with her gyrfalcon Mabel’. ‘Partridges’ ends:

You can whisper birds for as many times as you like
but they are mute et svelte, et primaries wet as palms

alulas wet as thumbs, lovers of beets and ground.
How many those walked alfalfa. Toadflax and hairy beeds
weak foci for the dispossessed. If I could plant plover
in the sky. Or shake a westerly with landrails down.
And all its invented ghosts. And for all its clouds.
They run along the lines as tiny soldiers
all wintry & humane.


She also contribute a prose piece, ‘Big Trouble in Little Shelford’.

Peter Riley presents some poems by ‘Ray Crump’, who J.C. at the TLS seems to think was a kind of Fenland Ern Malley, though for non-devotees of this kind of thing ‘How would they tell the difference?’ would seem an obvious follow-up question. From a ‘real’ Cambridge I mean, whatever that might be.

Suffice to say, then, that I found that the Crump poems perfectly readable, nay lucid. (perhaps that’s why he had to leave Cambridge?):

Flint in long
grass. Fracturing, cracks
like the death of a bird. Blood
edge echoes chorus
of the hedge. Stubmling down
a damp lime slope. Roadside
littered with flint stone. Flint
and a black feather.


There’ also John Hall on Douglas Oliver, Christina Macleish on Nigel Wheale and R.F. Langley, and a meaty essay by Stefan Collini, among much more. Subscription details on the website.

I recommend this fascinating new journal.


Mr. Wibble said...

Sure, it may be interesting now, but how long before the edgy young Cambridge Literary Review becomes full of the same old gasbags high-fiving and backslapping and plugging each others books like so many other churnals?

Modern poetry has become irreversibly smug and masturbatory. Mr. Wibble recommends the fumigation of the entire literary establishment, beginning with, of course, Poetry Review.

PITCH press said...

Wibble: This the mutual masturbation of the boarding school, or the loveless wanking of the singleton?
DW: Your Proletkultist metaphor is mischievous & funny. Reading through your links I had cause to reflect that the members (staff / pupils?) of a school tend not to get a choice about whether they are so considered: they are made a school for the convenience of others, of readers and gossips and critics. On the other hand I wouldn't say they don't have in common what they are compelled to defend. From the outside as JC attests the Cambridge stuff can seem like unreadable tosh and undifferentiated to that extent -- to JC unreadability just looks like unreadability. So when eg Andrea Brady defends a body of work that to her looks too varied to classify together she does so from a prior ability to read it (or willingness to read it as readable) that cannot persuade & moreover confirms its uniformity for someone eg JC who out of British commonsensicality or whatever has decided it is all unreadable. One accidentally parallel figure is Geoffrey Hill, & on two counts: he shares Sutherland's utopian politics and contempt of capitalism, though he is a red Tory while Sutherland is simply red, and his politics in contrast derive from religion (esp the belief that original sin is real); second the model of readerly attention sketched in the email Archambeau takes exception to is surprisingly like the ethics of attention you get from Rhetorics of Value & other things (in practice this results in the recurrent impression of Hill's difficulty as something 'brandished'), and it even suggests that Hillian saw that asserts difficulty is a democratic quality against the tyrants that respects the reader far better than mewling accessibility. I think there -is- something about that email that betrays certain presumptions about one's tribe in virtuous opposition to others (glamour girls of Oxford, droids of conspicuous consumption etc), because Sutherland doesn't say why we shouldn't expect the proportion of careful (non-consumer) readers to stay constant in any given set. If this were true Motion would have more such readers than Barque’s entire list but Sutherland implies that the proportion for that list would be higher. Equally likely it could be lower, because their stuff is intrinsically hard to read, likely to thwart and defeat attention (creating wasted time), and trendy among the people who know what Barque is just to have. Nobody stakes her intimacy on, submits to, an opaque accessory. You could argue that -because- it is hard to read those who buy it though few are likely to meet its demands. But then you are talking about a self-selecting mechanism that cannot be populist. So how –would- Sutherland answer the question of why Prynne's poetry has a higher proportion of non-consumer readers than Motion's? I suspect he feels that Prynne is better so commands a better class of reader (to avoid circularity not so defined just because they read Prynne) -- an elite reader. But he wouldn't say that. He wouldn’t even think he believed it. The question is undecided.