Sunday, April 05, 2015
‘His Words Are Not His Words’: Generational Succession in Contemporary British Poetry
Dreaming of peace in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney famously looked forward to a time when ‘hope’ and ‘history’ might rhyme. It would be an enviable problem, as political problems go, if all that stood between Northern Ireland and post-Troubles utopia was a question of poetic technique. Writing in the 1890s, however, W. B. Yeats nicely encapsulated the way in which one’s posterity might depend, for reasons beyond one’s personal control, on matters of poetic form and rhyme. ‘Nor may I less be counted one /With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’, he wrote in ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’. Two lines of iambic tetrameter, the first a pious aspiration, the second a list of three names – Thomas Davis, James Clarence Mangan, Samuel Ferguson – into whose company Yeats has now insinuated himself. There are only so many poets’ names one can squeeze into two short lines, after all, so other aspirants to the canonical ground: be warned. Even today, Yeats’s coding of proleptic literary history into poetic form is imbued with a strong authority. Among the most exciting things to have happened to the Irish nineteenth century in recent times has been the rediscovery of the work of James Henry, a mordantly atheist poet and link in the chain from Swift to Beckett. How might Yeats’s line be rewritten to accommodate him? ‘A member of the poets’ club, though honorary, /With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson and Henry’? But that’s a pentameter. The poem’s ‘write-protect’ labels jealously guard the canonical bounds that Yeats proposes.
Introducing his Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, Yeats gives a majestic lesson in surveying the poetic generations that had come and gone since those salad days in the Cheshire Cheese almost half a century previously, site of his celebrated quip that ‘None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.’ If there was a single dominant trait in Yeats’s character, his biographer Roy Foster has written, it is a sense of how things would look to posterity, and even when recounting anecdotes of his youth, Yeats excels at impressing on the reader that there is only going to be one long-term winner in his tales of contemporaries laid low by drink, drugs, syphilis or failure, and it won’t be Swinburne, Lionel Johnson or Oscar Wilde. Yet Yeats has reserved a peculiar glory for these casualties of rhyme, the 90s poets ‘unreconciled in their metaphysical pain’, to adapt a phrase of Derek Mahon’s. If they have not survived into the ‘filthy modern tide’, as Yeats would call it in ‘The Statues’, it is not because they lacked Yeats’s survival instinct; on the contrary, it is because they were too good for it:
Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten.
It is not that Yeats is directly commending these activities to anyone in 1936, though his Steiner Clinic adventures with monkey glands match anything on that list of eccentricities; rather, he is recruiting his contemporaries into a mythology that will transform the stock-market of literary opinionation into something more like a Dantesque final judgement. Writing of Baudelaire six years before, T. S. Eliot had imagined the French poet walking the streets of Paris convinced of his superiority to statesmen and thieves since, unlike them, he was man enough to be damned. If damnation is what awaits Lionel Johnson & co., it is unexpectedly softened by the chance to play a walk-on part in Yeats’s mythopoeia, as Johnson does in his great elegy ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’. The ‘falling’ in the first line I’m about to quote is a reference to the story, repeated by Ezra Pound, of Johnson’s death in a fall from a bar-stool:
much falling he
Brooded upon sanctity
Till all his Greek and Latin learning seemed
A long blast upon the horn that brought
A little nearer to his thought
A measureless consummation that he dreamed.
In Yeats’s well-appointed mausoleum, the poet’s shortcomings come to seem irrelevant. Lowly though his sphere might be, it harmonizes strangely with Yeats’s lofty love-choir. Like Moses, he glimpses but does not enter the promised land, a promised land which only the most obtuse of readers will have failed to recognise as Yeats’s work and the dead man’s emblematic role therein. In celebrating the dead, we cannot help appropriating them too; and if Yeats does this with Johnson, he is already doing it to a far greater degree with the subject of the poem, Robert Gregory, no friend of the poet’s in life. While artistic appropriation came naturally to Yeats, the vice is not unique to the Irish poet. Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ approaches its subject, Edward King, with such heartbreak that it dematerializes him without a second thought into a classical convention. So strongly in charge is Yeats, in his elegy, that he can end by giving up on his poem without any loss of authority. He had thought of celebrating the dead man’s achievements in greater detail, he tells us, ‘but a thought /of that late death took all my heart for speech.’ The failure of elegy becomes its moment of triumph.
In saying this I am setting up a tension between artifice and authenticity: a tension, as we shall see, with much to tell us on the nature of poetic generations. My elegiac point of entry is hardly accidental though. It is a peculiar vice of the contemporary age to treat elegy as a last bulwark of authentic feeling against the trickeries of the post-modern age (‘Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end /Not past a thing’, as Seamus Heaney begins his poem on first looking into Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters). Can it be coincidence that volumes of elegy have proved so irresistible to prize-giving committees? It would take some audacity for a contemporary poet to assert him or herself with the same authority claimed by Yeats, but looking back from the third vendange of poetic New Generations we now see the cheery blue skies of the first such promotion in 1994 through a greyer elegiac filter. I’m referring to the death of Michael Donaghy, a central part of the first New Gen, and whose death in 2004 prompted a heartbroken downpour of poetic lamentations. Among these are the haunted poems of his New Gen confrère Don Paterson, who has also memorialized Donaghy in the prose commentaries of Smith. Death, whatever else it is, is an artistic opportunity. Our readerly expectations of elegiac sincerity were a prime opportunity for Donaghy, in his time, as a lifelong believer in ludic fakery. ‘An Excuse’ begins with the confessional feint: ‘“My father’s sudden death has shocked us all.” /Even me, and I’ve just made it up.’ Paterson illustrates his essay on confessionalism in Smith with another Donaghy poem ‘Acts of Contrition’. The poem is in three stanzas, of six, six and four lines, and moves from a memory of the confessional box in the poet’s youth to a suicide attempt and a police incident room. In each case, the poem handles without making fully available some moment of personal crisis. ‘I’m working on my confessional tone’, says the young confession-goer, hinting that the element of performance is all; ‘Here’s where I choose between mea culpa /and Why the hell should I tell you?’, says the suicidal poet; and ‘I could be anyone you want me to be’, says the poet under interrogation by the police.
The verb ‘interrogate’ is a favourite of the modern critical idiom: we interrogate poems for what they have to say about race, sex and gender, roughing them up only ever so slightly in the process, before releasing them back into the community. Are we right to hear a small cry of distress behind Donaghy’s boast that he can be anyone we want him to be? It’s less the being of X, Y or Z that is the problem than the element of coerced performance, and which should perhaps qualify our delight in his thespian bravado. While ‘An Excuse’ trades on a dramatic reversal, cancelling the confession it initially proffers, the cancellation as much as the confession is heavily conditioned by a quality of assumed intimacy, the quality of bidding or address that Natalie Pollard has studied as a defining aspect of recent British poetry. As showman, the poet is aware of the high-jinks expected of him, and obliges with the requisite party piece. This does not detract from the essential seriousness, which is to say ludic seriousness, of the exercise. In his commentary on ‘Acts of Contrition’, Paterson lets us in on a little secret, in the form of a youthful suicide attempt by the poet: ‘The black private “joke” here is that Donaghy really is writing confessional poetry, and is double-bluffing [...] He doesn’t, however, consider this an important enough detail to explicitly ‘share’ with us.’ The conversations of elegy, authentic or bogus, are paradigms for the conversations that constitute poetic generations.
Like many beloved national institutions, Michael Donaghy was an import, and if ‘An Excuse’ trades on fake family history, the young Donaghy’s move to Britain was heavily conditioned by the trouble he was having within the American poetry family in the 1980s. It is a story he told often, of the takeover of literary theory, the death of the author (Michael Donaghy was once thrown out of a seminar in Chicago by Paul de Man), and the usurpation of the American lyric line – the line of Bishop, Wilbur and Hecht – by the tuneless spambots of Language poetry. While Donaghy wore a largely benign public persona on other topics, the avant-garde brought him out in ferocious spasms of denunciation. Experimental writing, as Paterson summarizes Donaghy’s objections, is all ‘intertextuality [...] but no text’, ‘funless harm’, a ‘suicide note’, ‘meretricious novelty, endlessly repeated’. Its failure are failures of presence, voice, continuity and succession, and where British poetry was concerned Donaghy (though no academic himself) was fearful of an academic takeover of British poetry too by the people he called the ‘ampersands’, the rich music of the British lyric replaced by Prynnite white noise. Since I mention white noise, though, this topic comes up in the Donaghy poem ‘Disquietude’, which conveniently for my purposes telescopes the themes of voice, silence, paranoia, sex, succession and sterility into twenty lines. The speaker is lying in bed beside his partner, unable to sleep. He conducts an interior monologue, but one in which he explores his distrust of the voice, his own or the human voice in general. ‘Would you know if our phone was tapped?’, he asks, and describes the tell-tale sounds of clicking on the line suggesting someone is listening in. Then the poem takes a sexual turn, as he describes stashing a tape recorder under the couple’s bed ‘when we were younger and hornier’. All the mic picked up, however, was ‘wheezing springs’; ‘It would be like listening to strangers now’, he concedes, in a moment reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, that masterly statement of the tangling and mangling of voice and self in the technologies of their preservation. Distorted and incomprehensible though this static is, it begins to seep into the present-tense of the poem, with its own imperious demands:
Sometimes, when I wake beside you in the night
and the door of sleep slams shut and locks behind me,
I hear it creep up out of silence, a brash hush,
a crowded emptiness, the static of the spheres.
It’s like a tap left on. But it’s my own warm blood,
the flood that’s washing all the names away,
of schoolmates, kings, the principal export of somewhere,
and all the sounds as well – a lullaby, a child’s voice –
my own warm blood that must be blessed.
No recording devices are allowed in this hall.
The lights dim, and onstage they’re coughing,
turning pages, giving the score their indivisible attentions,
getting settled for the next movement,
which features no one and is silent.
In a striking reversal, the agent of disturbance is not just the eternal silence of those infinite spaces that so terrified Pascal, not just something cosmically out there but an anxious enemy within: the poet’s ‘warm blood’. As Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’ showed, bed-based poems have a knack of discovering disquietude in even this most comfortable setting, and in his final stanza Donaghy turns his anxiety back on the concept of voice. I used the phrase ‘write-protect label’ earlier, and here Donaghy employs a quasi-legal injunction in an attempt to reassert vocal control: ‘no recording devices are allowed in this hall’. By way of an aside, I am reminded here of an incident during a poetry reading I attended when the poet mistook a man fiddling with his hearing aid for someone trying to record him, and walked over and asked him to stop. The market for bootlegged poetry readings – or even lectures about poetry – is, I imagine, rather small, but the intimacy of address we enjoy is all part of the aura on these occasions. Speaking of intimacy, Donaghy died before he had a chance to see the 2006 German film The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi agent in the attic is listening in on every moment in the life, including the sex life, of a couple in the apartment below. At one key moment, a conversation is held to test whether the agent is fact there. When the response that would accompany an eavesdropping agent fails to materialize the central character mistakenly decides he is not under surveillance, an assumption with tragic consequences. In ‘Disquietude’, Donaghy casts himself as both dissident and Stasi agent. The intimacies of the private, i.e. lyric voice are subject to hostile surveillance from the forces of white noise, whose transcription of these precious intimacies is a form of bureaucratic gibberish. Yet this is a poem of intense paranoia too, recognising that if there is no actual Stasi agent (or Cambridge poet) in the attic, the speaker is more than capable of performing this function for himself. He struggles to reassert control over his voice, but such is his failure to recognise himself in his own words anymore (shades of Beckett’s Krapp again) that only silence remains.
As chance would have it, Donaghy has another poem on John Cage in an anechoic chamber in Harvard University, in which he hoped to experience complete silence. Like the pursuit of absolute zero on the temperature scale, absolute silence proves elusive, as with the removal of extraneous noise the composer is left with the thumping sound in his ears of his own heartbeat. The resulting musical piece, 4’33”, reflects this impossibility: in performance it is anything but silent, as the restive audience begins to cough and fumble in its seats. We may scoff at this avant-garde prank, but when we play the recording back the inglorious noise we are listening to is our own. The phrase School of Quietude was coined by Ron Silliman as a pejorative shorthand for the conventional lyric, born of contemplative stillness, but for Michael Donaghy no less than John Cage before him, the silence of the lyric self was a zone of treachery and disquietude. The next movement, or poem we might father on posterity miscarries: it ‘features no one and is silent’. This counter-narrative, in which the natural succession of voice to voice from one generation to the next is replaced by silence, manages to gatecrash one of Donaghy’s warmest poems, ‘Haunts’. The poem is addressed to his son, and begins ‘Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me’, but is an exercise in acousmatic disembodiment, an echo the addressee will recognise years from now much as he might remember his father in the ‘margin of a book you can’t throw out’. The words of the poem seem to travel from father to son, but originate – by way of a Möbius strip-like circuit – with the son. Their source is:
the way that child you were would cry out
waking in the dark, and when you spoke
in no child’s voice but out of radio silence,
the hall clock ticking like a radar blip,
a bottle breaking faintly streets away,
you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.
So who exactly is comforting who? Each is comforting the other simultaneously, on the basis of a reciprocal but ultimately groundless refrain spoken out of that ‘radio silence’.
For such a powerful begetter of New Gen and post-New Gen poetry, Donaghy’s vision of generational succession is curiously bleak, or if not bleak, one in which the voices leading the dialogue of present and past – and future – break out in the strangest places, as though one found oneself poetically apostrophised by a car-park entrance barrier or Tesco self-service checkout. To my earlier opposition of artifice and authenticity I would now like to add a second, that of address and voice-dispersal, the scattering of voice in unexpected ways to unexpected heirs. It is a common misconception, where poetic generations are concerned, that one hands over to the next in the style of relay-racers, their elders’ words of encouragement ringing in their ears as the youngsters speed away. As T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’:
If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged.
Most poets would bridle at the idea of writing out of ‘blind or timid adherence’ to anything, but the ‘handing down’ or handing over present in the word tradition can have other, less comfortable meanings too. Tradition is also ‘the act of delivering into the hands of another’, as in a prisoner swap, and the connecting lines from generation to generation can swerve in unexpected directions. A map of poetic influence rather than of croneydom would look strikingly different from the flow-charts one sometimes encounter in the wake of prize-giving scandals, showing all the who-knows-who connections of the poetry world. [SLIDE] The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky proposed a ‘knight’s move’ theory of literary history, in which decisive steps are taken in an oblique or diagonal form, my variant on which would be the crazy uncle scheme, which I will confess to deriving from the works of Flann O’Brien, an author whose world is strangely lacking in father-son relationships but full of cranky uncles. I could name Flann O’Brien as one such New Gen crazy uncle, in his influence on Ian Duhig’s Celtic-tinged, anarchic wordplay. Others would include Weldon Kees for Simon Armitage and Michael Hofmann, Raymond Roussel for Mark Ford, Emil Cioran for Don Paterson, and McGonagall for W. N. Herbert.
I’m going to interrupt myself right there, before anyone else does it for me, and point to a glaring problem with this theory. As theories of influence go, it is pleasantly lacking in the testosterone-addled tauromachia of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, but even as it dismisses patrilinearity it avuncularly smuggles it straight back in. Let me now propose an alternative mode of influence transmission by way of a poem by Kathleen Jamie, ‘Arraheids’. Where are all the crazy aunts or grandmothers in Shklovskian theory? Answer, in an Edinburgh museum cabinet:
See thon raws o flint arraheids
in oor gret museums o antiquities
awful grand in Embro –
Dae’ye near’n daur wunner at wur histrie?
Weel then, Bewaur!
The museums of Scotland are wrang.
They urnae arraheids
but a show o grannies’ tongues,
the hard tongues o grannies
aa deid an gaun
back to thur peat and burns,
but for thur sherp
chert tongues, that lee
fur generations in the land
like wicked cherms, that lee
aa douce in the glessy cases in the gloom
o oor museums, an
they arenae lettin oan. But if you daur
sorn aboot an fancy
the vanished hunter, the wise deer runnin on;
wheesht... an you’ll hear them,
fur they cannae keep fae muttering
ye arenae here tae wonder,
whae dae ye think ye ur?
Jamie’s poem works to recover the silenced voices of history; and, more than most, the modern Scottish tradition was one in dire need of feminist recalibration. The female voice is first identified with nature, then with the folk tradition – identifications that serve to keep it short of fully-acknowledged personhood. The salty twist to Jamie’s poem is that the disapproving tongue, once we do recover its message, is telling the poet to shut up. The duty to speak not just of, but for the absent is one that stalks the historical imagination, while placing the salvage artist in a difficult position. How to give a voice to the past without first establishing one’s credentials to speak on its behalf? How can we be sure the past is so reciprocally keen to speak to us, and on our terms? Of the 1994 New Generation poets, Mick Imlah, David Dabydeen, and Lavinia Greenlaw have written with sensitive understanding of the past, whether the Scottish nineteenth century, the tragedies of colonial Guyana, or love in the age of Geoffrey Chaucer, but Jamie’s poem highlights the economies of scale to be negotiated before the voice of history and the voice of the lyric ‘I’ can be reconciled, if they can. Jamie has already accommodated the voice of history by writing in Scots, a language whose international credentials she has done much to restore, but the internalized self-censorship of the past, and of its silenced victims, becomes not just the message but the medium of the poem too.
Loss and silencing are the other side of generational canon-formation. The stunning reappearance of Rosemary Tonks’s work, just like that of Lynette Roberts before her, reminds us of what we don’t talk about when we talk about generations, or visible poetic generations at least, and of our duty to think of poetic eras ‘complete with missing parts’, in Beckett’s phrase. The question of gender brings a particular edge to this discussion, as metaphors of patrilinear succession are embedded deeper than we may care to acknowledge in critical language. In an essay on the fate of women poets in the Irish canon, Moynagh Sullivan has pointed to the controlling influence, as she sees it, of metaphors of male lineage. Examining an overview by Patrick Crotty of the post-Revivalist era in Irish poetry, Sullivan alleges a difference between the male and female poets who fall by the wayside in Crotty’s account as minor versifiers. When women poets such as Ethna Carbery or Alice Milligan are found wanting it is because they are ‘predictable propagandists’, fitting all too easily into a predetermined narrative of their essential smallness. When male poets fall short of greatness, and are ruled ‘anaemic’, ‘vatic’, or ‘lifeless’, ‘they still manage to become “memorable” in some way because of a biographical detail, anomalous subject matter, some striking lines, or because they anticipate somebody better.’ While I don’t find, in Crotty’s narrative of literary history, the same overweening male narrative that Sullivan does, this argument highlights the ways in which canonical status can seem a matter of manifest destiny. In the same way that Pip, in Great Expectations – unlike his family – already speaks standard English before becoming the beneficiary of Magwitch’s patronage, different kinds of poet are marked out for different fates. The story of Rosemary Tonks’s disappearance is sensational and compelling, but also bears all the contours of a madwoman in the annexe story, in Edna Longley’s words for the volumes of the Field Day Anthology devoted to women’s writing, commissioned after the realization of the male-heavy flaws of that project in its original form. When F. R. Leavis included Gerard Manley Hopkins (first published in 1918) in New Bearings in English Poetry, he was keener to promote that poet as a contemporary of Pound and Eliot than as any kind of Victorian, but as well as rediscovering Tonks as our contemporary we need to revise our narratives of the 1960s, and descriptions such as Morrison and Motion’s in their Penguin Anthology of Contemporary British Poetry that this was a period of ‘lethargy’, when ‘very little seemed to be happening.’ There are some poets whose first name might as well be ‘the underrated’ – Roy Fisher gets a lot of comic mileage out of this in interviews – but the ‘overlooked’ Rosemary Tonks will only get us so far, versus the Rosemary Tonks whose retrospective significance should be a revisionist account of the 60s and 70s, if only in answer to the voice of Motion/Morrison telling those sceptical of their version of literary history ‘Ye arenae here tae wonder, /whae dae ye think ye ur?’
Tonks the outsider is a healthy reminder of the limits of generational self-awareness, but a further complicating factor, in bringing generations into focus, is their ability to reinvent themselves from within. Like Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie has recently been the subject of an academic essay collection, and also like Paterson her work has been found to divide sharply into early and more recent stages. Only ten years ago, I hazard, a book on Jamie would have stressed the elements of woman and nationhood in her work, themes almost completely eclipsed in Rachel Falconer’s essay collection by ecopoetic responses to Jizzen, The Tree House and The Overhaul, as well as the prose writings of Findings and Sightlines. (Where Paterson is concerned, critics once keen to recruit him, by way of his class politics, as a successor to Tony Harrison or the Douglas Dunn of Barbarians, have promoted him to a more free-floating formalism instead.) It’s no shortcoming for a poet to sustain different or even contradictory styles of reading, and there is no certainty that her ecopoetic incarnation is where Jamie will come to rest. Peter Mackay ends his essay on Jamie on a note of caution: ‘This is not poetry as the song of the earth, or of a revelation of dwelling, but as a stymieing and troubling of communication [...] an art of non-communication, a resistance, a making strange.’
Ecocritics may, for the most part, like their poets to ‘dwell’ securely in prescribed zones of environmental interest, but writers can be difficult to pin down on their own patch. I think again of Yeats, a writer with the somewhat scandalous habit of rewriting extensively the poems of his youth: often, the Yeats poem of the 1880s you find yourself admiring for its maturity beyond the author’s years, turns out on closer inspection to have revised almost beyond recognition by the Yeats of the 1930s. Christopher Ricks, a noted Yeats sceptic, goes so far in his Oxford Book of English Verse as to publish two versions of ‘The Sorrow of Love’ as an implied small protest against this habit. Yeats had a stock answer ready for his sceptics, however: ‘The friends that have it I do wrong /Whenever I remake a song, /Should know what issue is at stake: /It is myself that I remake.’
The remaking of the self involves a certain sloughing off of dead skin, and if we return to Peter Forbes’s introduction to the New Gen issue of Poetry Review in 1994 much is made of the poets’ rejection of what he calls the ‘Oxbridge hegemony’ and the ‘lost empire’ of its systems of patronage, last seen disappearing over the hill with the Motion/Morrison Penguin Book and Ian Hamilton’s Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. While the school sports-day exhibitionism of Craig Raine’s Martian period (‘the dustbins bulge like vol-au-vents’) makes an easy target, the generation in Forbes’s cross-hairs also produced Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac, a book that rejects patrilinear national traditions with a vengeance. Simultaneously a product of, and a sly critique of the Eastern European translation boom of the 1980s, Katerina Brac practises an arch voice-dispersal all the more convincing for leaving the basic coordinates of its heroine’s identity undefined, just as, contemporaneously, E. A. Markham was finding it liberating to exchange the expectations of Montserratian authenticity, for the freedom to personify – persona-fy – the white, Welsh feminist he called ‘Sally Goodman’. Here is Katerina Brac addressing the future, which she finds unreal in comparison to the here and now, even though the present is represented by the classical statues from the past and, as she says, none of this is real anyway:
How ironical now to be wasting our breath on the future!
I smile wryly, but when you ask me what I am smiling at,
I find I do not have the power to explain
a feeling so selfish and anachronistic.
There are the statues with their muscles and dimples.
They look so real, how can I persuade you
that none of this is happening or needs to be believed?
Nevertheless, where the Reidian model is concerned at least, Forbes appears to find an insufficiently disturbed core of selfhood at work. He is at pains to distinguish between the border-crossing postmodernism he finds in Hofmann, Duhig, Alvi, Armitage and Maxwell, and the more traditional poetic monologues of the New Gen’s one old-school Oxonian, Mick Imlah. Reading Michael Donaghy, I suggested that his surprises and practical jokes remained within the confines of poetic voice, understood in oppositional terms to post-lyric ‘white noise’, and introducing himself in that issue of Poetry Review Donaghy quotes – concocts – a hostile review which places the voices of self and other in his work in a co-dependent relationship:
His poems are not confessional, but it helps to think of a Confessional – a little box with a screen separating two parties. Think of that screen as the page. A voice seems to come from behind the screen, but if you read the poems aloud the only voice your hear is your own.’ (Florence Olsen, Haymarket)
We are back to the subject of address. ‘A voice comes to one in the dark’, begins Beckett’s Company, a memoir of childhood much invested in the I/you exchanges of imagination and the narrating self. For Beckett, the personal pronouns tended to come on a sliding scale of habitability. Unable to speak in the first-person, the narrator of Company receives his words addressed to a ‘you’ instead. This underlines the intimacy of the narration, but only if the voice in the dark is in fact directly addressing its hearer. In the absence of any evidence for this, the I/you dynamic loses authority and slips into the inauthentic third person instead. Every attempt to reassure oneself of the self, the self-present self, only has the effect of unpicking it further. Having asked, sceptically, ‘And whose voice asking this?’, the text pushes further, ‘Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his creature or in another. For company.’
On a pessimistic reading, the multiplication of voices may be a coded response to the limits of self-expression, even or especially through the form of persona. What lies beyond self-expression? I’ve alluded to the names absent, for whatever reason, from our generational roll-calls, and in looking now at the work of Denise Riley I come to the subject of innovative or experimental writing, a style whose place in British poetry is very different now from what it was in 1994. The Riley poem I wish to consider is ‘A Part Song’, a poem for a dead son, and as such an example of a genre painfully concerned to get beyond the pained soliloquy recognised by Geoffrey Hill in his ‘September Song’, when he writes ‘(I have made /an elegy for myself it /is true)’. The elegist must confront a failure to recapture the lost other, and the inherently self-directed nature of the genre. The poem is sweaty with our designs on it and, as in Don Paterson’s ‘Postmodern’, to draw an unusual comparison, the realization that it has been us all along, and not the longed-for other, comes as something of a humiliation. Since Donaghy uses the metaphor of the screen, I am reminded of a comically self-referential moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers where the two young protagonists go to the cinema and are intrigued by the image on-screen of a woman bathing. Keen to see more, the audience stand up, the better to peer over the edge, and, frustrated, rush the screen and tear it down. Behind the screen is, would you believe, a woman in a bathtub. Behind the signifier, we still fondly dream, somewhere or other lurks the signified.
There are no bathtubs in Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’, but there is plenty of raw desire to exchange the frustrations of artifice for the authenticity of direct address. Apostrophes to the dead collide numbly with the genre style-sheet: ‘I can’t get sold on reincarnating you /As those bloody “gentle showers of rain” /Or in “fields of ripening grain” – oooh /Anodyne’. Presenting us with these scraps of degraded poetic language in quotation marks, Riley recalls Geoffrey Hill’s verdict on the quotation marks in Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’. It is not that the oven-gloves of punctuation take the rap for the failures of language; rather, they absorb ‘the rapping noise made by those things which the world throws at us in the form of prejudice and opinion.’ Grief is a stubbornly ineloquent experience at the best of times, which is to say the worst of times, and in elegy the authority of the dead channels a voice through the living through which loss can be made good. In Riley’s poem however we encounter a tragic failure of ‘voice recognition’, as the poet assembles her words from echoes, mishearings and more of that white noise:
Outgoing soul, I try to catch
You calling over the distances
Though your voice is echoey,
Maybe tuned out by the noise
Rolling through me – or is it
You orchestrating that now,
Who’d laugh at the thought
Of me being sung in by you
And being kindly dictated to.
It’s not like hearing you live was.
It is what you’re saying in me
Of what is left, gaily affirming.
Here is what becomes of the lyric I/you relationship, confronting and internalizing the opacities of language, in a form that has weighed and found wanting the power of persona to make the dead speak. With her roots in Cambridge poetry, Riley represents a tribe ignored rather than ritually overthrown by Peter Forbes in 1994, but it would be a brave reader who met Riley’s poem with Donaghyesque denunciations of tuneless dissonance. Riley avoids game-playing over questions of sincerity, but repeatedly drives the lyric address up against a realization of its constructedness – ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’, as she writes, echoing Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land, ‘He do the police in different voices’. Another article of faith against innovative writing, twenty years ago, was the assumption of puritan coercion involved, since no one could actually enjoy this kind of thing. I’m sure Riley had more important matters on her mind when writing the following lines, but note how even here she confronts the element of coercion in traditional elegy, where the dead addressee is expected to get in line with our poetic designs on him:
For the point of this address is to prod
And shepherd you back within range
Of my strained ears; extort your reply
By finding any device to hack through
The thickening shades to you, you now
Strangely unresponsive son, who were
Such reliably kind and easy company,
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
– Still no? Then let me rest, my dear
Writing on modernism since the 1960s, Jeremy Noel-Tod, via Hugh Kenner, contrasts the idea that the speaker of a poem can be read ‘like a character in a novel’ with the more sweeping discovery that the name attached to a poem – J. Alfred Prufrock for instance – designates a ‘“possible zone of consciousness”, where the material of the poem “can maintain a vague congruity.”’ Few readers, I imagine, have ever much argued about whether the more rebarbative poems of J. H. Prynne are spoken in that poet’s real voice, whatever that might be, or someone else’s. It is not so much this or that voice versus the question of voice per se. I am unfamiliar with any attempts to push the young Prynne as one of the ‘new voices’ of British poetry in the 1960s, but in one of his most radiant poems from that decade, ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’, he applies an unexpected logic to the question of newness, weighing in on a geological controversy of the day over the dividing line between the Pleistocene and the Holocene. The latter marks the dawn of the human age, and in Prynne’s poem humanity becomes a kind of post-glacial afterthought:
We know where the north
is, the ice is an evening whiteness.
We know this, we are what it leaves:
the Pleistocene is our current sense, and
what in sentiment we are, we
are, the coast, a line or sequence, the
cut back down, to the shore.
‘Il faut être absolument moderne’, Rimbaud wrote in 1873: we must be absolutely modern. Sceptics are prone to wondering what becomes of modernism once it overthrows the old order and becomes the dominant aesthetic, but here is the startling truth of Rimbaud’s rallying-cry mapped onto geological time: the encounter with modernity happens not just coming over the Starnbergsee and stopping for coffee in the Hofgarten, but in the traces of glacial erosion on the landscape of Norfolk and East Yorkshire. Given the belief among some geologists that the conditions of the Pleistocene have lingered longer than previously assumed, ‘the “glacial question” that the poem poses’, according to Jeremy Noel-Tod, ‘is whether we are really as modern as we thought’.
Now is not the moment to relive the clashing continental shelves of Cambridge poetry, the Faber list and the other floating land masses that cooled into the Pangaea of contemporary British poetry half a century ago, but what I suggest we can take from my Prynne example is the degree to which our concepts of the new and of generational voices function within a larger ‘zone of consciousness’. It is not that we need choose deep time over the disposable now, but that the experience of being somewhere between the two throws up interesting perspectives on both. The recent coining of the term ‘bit rot’, to refer to the problems of archiving data whose media platforms have become defunct, was a reminder of the perennial problem of filtration, as the contemporary is decanted into the past. In my Contemporary British Poetry, I used the example of anthologies as a barometer for how this relationship of present and past was holding up. Using three anthologies, Motion and Morrison’s Penguin Book, Kennedy, Morley and Hulse’s New Poetry, and Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade, I found very different expectations of what, numerically, constituted a poetic generation: 20 poets in the first case, 55 in the second, and 85 in the third. In another example, I noticed that the contemporary, which is to say post-1971 section of Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry was longer than the section devoted to the entire eighteenth century, a period not without merit in Irish poetic history. The restriction of the three New Generation promotions to date to a fixed 20 writers heads off accusations of generational inflation at the cost of a certain arbitrariness, as though tying our poetry futures market to a fixed rather than variable rate of interest. For a different model, and one that travels far afield in literary history, compare Paul Keegan’s Penguin Book of English Verse, which arranges its poems by date rather than author. There is no progress in the arts, Hazlitt claimed, but the inter-generational fluctuations recorded by Keegan can be extreme. The 1590s account for 59 pages, while the 1900s, caught between the ebb-tide of Victorianism and first stirrings of Modernism, manage only 6. Marlowe wrote in a generation roughly ten times as fertile as that of Charlotte Mew.
In Canto XIII, Ezra pound looked back fondly to a time when historians ‘left blanks in their writing I mean for things they didn’t know’, and in offering this example from Keegan I am reminded for the second time of Blaise Pascal and his terror at the eternal silence of those infinite spaces. It is part of the voice anxiety I have described today to think of the alternative to our fecund poetic generations as the equivalent of dead air on the radio, that ultimate broadcasting sin. Mention of this reminds me of a story involving the battle of voice and white noise not unlike that going on in Donaghy’s ‘Disquietude’. Gaelic football fans, back in the day, were fond of bringing transistor radios to Croke Park in Dublin to follow the wonderful commentaries of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh on the game unfolding before their eyes. One such game was preceded by a minute’s silence, which took a radio producer by surprise. Fearing the crime of dead air, he put on some music, which then screeched out horribly in a feedback loop, ruining the occasion. The supposedly secondary activity of commentary has an unfortunate habit of catching up with and gate-crashing the main event. Studying the sharp end of the contemporary comes with the thrill of ‘writing to the moment’, in Tom Paulin’s phrase for his preferred style of rapid-response critical engagement, but it can also leave the critic like that radio producer, anxious to keep the mood music going to stave off any awkward longueurs.
I began with Yeats and elegy and would like to return in conclusion to the same genre, in the form of Don Paterson’s ‘Phantom’, his elegy for Michael Donaghy. There is scarcely a better example in contemporary poetry of my pseudocouple of artifice and authenticity than Paterson, and even in the midst of grief for his dead friend the urge for comedic bunking-off is strong. Previously to ‘Phantom’ in Rain, Paterson accommodates Donaghy to a heteronymic identity by addressing him as ‘Miguel’, reflecting Paterson’s dalliance in Spanish poetry and the work of Machado and Vallejo. The first three words of the poem are ‘The night’s surveillance’, prising open the intimate register to wider and more uncomfortable scrutiny. Paterson’s Zen affinities are well-known, and where a conventional elegy might place God or religious consolation, ‘Phantom’ insists on emptiness and silence – perhaps as our ‘Initiator into nothingness’, in Michael O’Neill’s description. Contemplating Zurbarán’s St Francis in Meditation, Paterson proposes to ‘arrest the saint mid-speech’, and snatch the words from his mouth: ‘I would say his words are not his words /I would say the skull is working him.’ This moment of kenosis or emptying-out does not satisfy the poet long, however, and soon he is returning to his ekphrastic image in a desire to render not the light of Zurbarán’s painting but the underlying darkness. When he progresses to the next stage, of channelling Donaghy’s voice, he invokes the ‘I-Am-Not-That-I-Am’, combining Jehovah-like authority with a simultaneous disclaiming of self-identity. The cosmogony that follows inverts the usual relationship of self and non-self as Paterson describes an outer world gazing into the inner in search of the cosmic meaning it fails to find elsewhere, in the poet’s post-Christian vision. Behind the eye lie the self, the soul, a god, and this final principle of meaning is one and the same with death:
And god could not see death within the soul
For god was death. In making death its god
The eye had lost its home in finding it.
We find this everywhere the eye appears.
Were there design, this would have been the flaw.
The allusion to Frost in the final line is unmistakable – the ‘design of darkness to appal’. If this a tragic defeat, it is one the poet has brought on himself, making an idol of a poetic ‘design’ that leads him further and further into himself with only the pseudo-presence of the dead for company.
The poem’s final section pulls back from this brink. The tone lightens as Paterson/Donaghy appears to dismiss the whole elegiac apparatus (‘I can’t keep this bullshit up’). When the dead spoke to Kathleen Jamie, they told her to shut up; now Paterson goes to the next level again and dismisses his revenant:
He went on with his speech, but soon the eye
Had turned on him once more, and I’d no wish
To hear him take that tone with me again.
I closed my mouth and put out its dark light.
I put down Michael’s skull and held my own.
The poet began by identifying authority with the dead, silencing the elegiac object to better to commune with it in the authentic quiet of death. He turns the dead man’s words off at the source – ‘his words are not his words’ – the better to claim their inheritance and channel their voice himself. But at this point the fantasy of succession miscarries. Committing to it involves becoming his own proleptic elegist, Hamlet and Yorick at once. I therefore read the final image as one of exasperated rejection. We subject poetic generations to our narratives of control only at high risk to ourselves, courting death by premature canonical rigor mortis. The crazy-aunt electronica of Georgian musician Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze, hailed earlier in Rain, and all its pumping white noise, may be a more life-giving force than our fantasies of the elegiac music of the spheres. Maybe the Paterson of ‘Phantom’ knows this too. Just like ‘Little Gidding’, the poem opens onto time future only by completing its communion with time and poets past in an act of necessary leave-taking. The true begetters of the poetry to come will be the figures who, like Eliot’s ‘familiar compound ghost’ leave us ‘with a kind of valediction’, freeing us to build their monument tragically, flippantly, joyously: in their shadow but also on our own terms, and on our own.