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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Poetry of Birds (cont.)

John Kinsella has been in touch to take issue with the paper on birds I posted here the other day, which he finds ‘oddly bigoted’. We ‘fundamentally disagree on whether aesthetics matter in themselves (for me, they don’t)’, he writes. I’d like to explore our disagreement a little before circling back to the question of whether or how much ‘aesthetics matter in themselves’. JK further writes (he has given me permission to reproduce his words here):

to play the zeitgeist card re the present concerns for the state of broader ecologies etc seems odd and contradictory to your purpose. such a comment could only come from the comfort zone of flying to a conference, enjoying the fruits of the modern world, and enjoying the good cheer of one’s fellow back-slappers (the gate-keepers and true poetic spirits).

{Quotation ends}

I assume JK is responding here to the passage in my talk when I argued that great issues of our times such as environmental damage and species loss may appear oddly absent from some of the best bird poems being written today. I stand by this comment. What I wished to suggest was that the response to these problems (e.g. to the person at the end of a poetry reading who wants to know what poetry is doing about global warming) will frequently have been implicit in the poet’s response to the fact of the bird’s being there at all, its fragility, fleetingness and mystery, rather than any programmatic statements or plans of action. I sense JK thinks this is a bourgeois cop-out, which leads to his next point about my having flown to that conference in Belfast. I did fly, yes, from Leeds-Bradford to Dublin, and a thrilling forty minutes of eco-vandalism it was for the much-repressed planet-hating alpha male inside me. But there is a serious point here. Much as it would appeal to me to emulate Al Gore and become the second man in history to be awarded a Nobel Prize for globetrotting in the services of powerpoint displays, I am very aware of what happens to good intentions as they harden into institutional discourse (and as someone who has held fellowships and chairs on three continents I am sure JK has pondered deeply the sustainability of his own position too). The institutional discourse in this case being ‘nature writing’, a phrase I bandied about without any great investment in it, and which JK reads as a form of insulated, compromised aestheticism, gathering its trembling bourgeois mysteries to itself:

‘death’, and... god forbid, bloody ‘nature’. so trying to preserve and
protect bird habitats is less poetic than writing about their ‘mystery’?
(come on! now, that’s eco-kitsch) and transience (they are only
‘transient’ to the non-bird, surely)? to me this seems like metaphysics
as opposed to critical discourse. so, on one hand some people interpret a ‘stance’ like mine (singular?) as misanthropic, and on another as ‘humane’ (in the case of your essay)?

{Quotation ends}

Nature writers, he adds in ‘Graphology 300: Against “Nature Writing”’, which he appends to his email, are a ‘bunch of fucking hypocrites’. A few things here. In response to the misanthropic-versus-humane dichotomy, I am reminded of something fairly misanthropic I wrote in a 2008 piece about Australia, prompted by getting to see some extremely rare orange-bellied parrots (there are about 300 of them left and their plight appears to be worsening):

‘I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,’ Robinson Jeffers declared, and while a hawk would make short work of an orange-bellied parrot, the experience of contemplating beasts with such a fragile hold on the future stirred my rage at the epic waste and despoliation that has been the white man’s gift to Australia (23 bird and 27 mammal species extinct since 1788). Here was the darker side of Australian biodiversity, though even this formed a tourist opportunity of sorts, and one I had seized, gladly, which only intensified my feelings of awkwardness. If I could offer the orange-bellied parrot something in return for its humouring my gawping voyeurism, I asked myself, what would it be? Some manner of inter-species trade-off seemed in order. Jonathan Swift described himself as a hypocrite reversed in his loathing of his fellow man (‘principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth’), and while the human race numbers the odd individual in its ranks of whom I am fond (though let’s not get carried away), the loss of a few million of us here and there would surely be a fair swap for the safety of this diminutive seed-eater.

{Quotation ends}

I do not need reminding, in other words, that ‘nature writing’ which skirts around problems of this kind or reduces them to a spectator sport is inadequate, nor do I propose to long-haul these problems out of my consciousness by jetting off to yet another academic conference. (I have been on a total of four long-haul trips in my life, let me add.) Anyway, what I described in my talk was a spectrum of poems about birds, from the poet as naturalist to the poet as shaman, from the poet as platitude-spouting transcendentalist to the poet as fired-up eco-activist. I did not situate myself on this spectrum or argue that position X leads to the best and only bird poems we can write. Much of my paper, I thought, was devoted to worrying about whether I should be drawing direct equivalences between ethical and aesthetic positions, but finding I couldn’t. Does JK draw these equivalences himself? If not, how does he read or what pleasure does he take from bird poems whose worldview he finds at odds with his? Alice Oswald’s poetry seems to me noticeably lacking in overt statements about species loss etc, but does anyone fancy reprimanding her for that or making her rewrite Woods etc.? She’s not a conspicuously political writer: it’s just not the kind of poet she is. What do we do with this fact? Congratulate, accept, deny, reprimand, blame? You tell me.

JK again:

i spend my days looking after bush and bird habitat (see my essay in the autumn issue of poetry review). that doesn’t make for good bird poems, i agree, but it’s more to do with birds than falconry which is about abuse and containment of an animal for human satisfaction. and that’s my issue with your piece - it’s not about birds at all, but human pleasure from the existence of birds. now, that’s using birds for a very larger single-focus issue. humans writing about animal-life of any kind are using animals for their purposes. why shouldn’t one connect that usage to an effort to preserve the lives of those birds with minimal human interference wherever possible? do you know syd barrett’s song ‘birdie hop’? interesting case study in bird poetry...

{Quotation ends}

I didn’t write (‘at all’) about birds but about ‘human pleasure from the existence of birds’. I remember spending a lot of time on this dilemma, about how to represent the non-human, perhaps JK feels, again, in a humming and hawing, dithering bourgeois way. But how do I go about overcoming this species boundary? I’m curious to know. How, artistically, philosophically is it done?

But another serious point, since I’m not finished with this business of ideology yet. The bourgeois critic reads a Marxist, a postcolonialist etc, and detects the whiff of ideology. But the bourgeois, apolitical stance is the single most ideologically constructed and defended position of all. This discovery falls, let me suggest, into the philosophical category of ‘true but trivial’. Edward Thomas and Robert Frost’s constructions of the natural world are underpinned by a bourgeois or anthropocentric ideology and – so what? (This is not in JK’s mail, by the way: I’m extrapolating to a larger argument now about poetry and ideology). What do we do with this fact? Do we read them afresh on the basis of this discovery? Do we blame them for this? Does the ideological nature of pre-postmodern writing void it of interest in our contemporary eco-apocalypse, beside which the merely aesthetic has ceased to matter much, if it ever did? And here’s another serious point: less developed forms of nature writing use birds, appropriate them for human purposes. This is what ideology does. But I cannot see how JK’s argument is not also using birds, for his own purposes. Once again, there is a spectrum here, but I don’t accept that a writer, any writer, can go off the scale altogether into some mystical realm beyond the ‘use’, however you understand that term, of the bird in the bird poem. Helen Macdonald, the most experimental of the poets I discuss, is still ‘using’ her birds as subjects (falconry being the ‘abuse and containment of an animal for human satisfaction’: I wonder how Macdonald would answer this charge?).

At the centre of my argument, I think, is the concept of disagreement, and what we do with it. I mentioned war poetry, for instance, and have written elsewhere about what we do as readers with war poems we enjoy but which contradict our politics, and those that appear to conform to our politics but which are artistically inferior. Why do Harold Pinter’s war poems make me, as a fairly unreconstructed leftist, think there must be something worthwhile after all in starting wars in the Middle East? Because they are an insult to my intelligence and treat me like a moron (I may well be a moron, but object to being treated like one). And when it comes to poems about the natural world, I can cite Ted Hughes and Les Murray as examples of writers whose politics, implicit or overt, I don’t merely disagree with but find repellent – for the mystical monarchism and carnivore/country pursuits chic in Hughes, and the conservative Catholicism in Murray (whose poem ‘The Beneficiaries’ I would nominate as one of the single most pathetic documents in all contemporary writing) – but if I find much to admire, revere in fact in both cases it’s because I find some common ground between us which I can only designate as the aesthetic. Aesthetics matter in themselves, because they allow me to respond humanly, ethically, imaginatively to perspectives I would otherwise violently reject. The question is therefore we as readers and writer can agree to disagree or whether we merely disagree to disagree. I have gone through my life vigorously disagreeing with any and everyone, and greatly enjoying the experience, and there are few things I enjoy more than people disagreeing trenchantly with me. So I’d be very glad to post any response JK wants to make to this out here, front-of-shop, if he fancies, rather than just in the comments stream.


Wibble said...

Two bald men fighting over a (chicken's) comb

puthwuth said...

Bald! I beg your pardon. And let no one say John Kinsella doesn't have a fine head of hair on him too.

JokeBot said...

What language do birds speak?

Pigeon English

ha ha ha!

Anonymous said...

(What a cheap remark, JokeBot.)

It's hard to write about birds without being speciesist. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, and it doesn't mean that our trying will denigrate other interactions with birds. In fact, writing about them is less pernicious than, say, shooting them or interfering with their habitat. Poets write from the comfort zone of being human; I don't think either Oswald or Macdonald is into backslapping. I'd be surprised if birds gave a fig whether or not humans write poems about them. JK's argument is more about (an assumed, anthropocentric) interspecies politics than aesthetics, and if he's not talking about aesthetics, what have you got in common about poetry to discuss?