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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry

Across the sea will come Adze-head,
crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head,
his stick bent in the head...

Here’s a song –
stags give tongue
winter snows
summers goes.

High cold blow
sun is low
brief his day
seas give spray...

Had the multitudinous leaves been gold
the autumn forests let fall,
and the waves been silver coins –
still Fionn would have given them all.

Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God’s own shadow in the cup now!
Forget the hour-bell. Mournful matins
Will sounds, Patrick, as well at nightfall...

Monk, back off. Move
away from Niall’s grave.
You heap earth on his head;
I shared his bed.

Long time you’ve piled clods,
monk, on the royal corpse.
Too long already Niall’s lain still,
the pit unfilled...

{Quotations end}

Two quick observations from dipping into Patrick Crotty’s new Penguin Book of Irish Poetry. First, by far the greatest Irish poet remains ‘Anonymous’. And second, the single most important thing about the Irish tradition, let me suggest, and which the practicalities of book-binding alone didn’t stretch to including in this book beyond a few phrases here and there, remains the Irish language, a language in which less than, what, one per cent of contemporary Irish poetry is now conducted. What timely reminders, though, to set beside the PR bollocks of Dublin being designated a UNESCO city of literature or whatever it is the press release today says.

I would hope to have more to say on this book soon.

Learning from Scientology

Scientology is, as everyone knows, a wacko blood-sucking cult, and knowing it full well myself from my rural Scientologist upbringing in Co. Wicklow I didn’t expect to learn anything much of note in John Sweeney’s return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime second stab at a documentary on it last night. One thing stood out, however. It is hilarious and pathetic that you or I can find out more about the teachings of Scientology in five minutes on Google than the deluded saps who give decades of their lives, and shedloads of money, to this wacko cult. The teachings involving, as they do, one ‘Xenu’, dictator of the galactic confederacy, billions of trapped alien souls, something to do with volcanoes and... sorry you’ve lost me. For Scientologists, however, access to this information is heavily defended. Stumbling across it prematurely, we are told, would lead to knowledge overload and brain collapse. So when trying to get out in the open just how wacko Scientologists really are (and since I was talking about South Park in my last post, you’ll remember the brilliant skewering they gave Scientology a few years back), Sweeney asked various celebrity Scientologists about Xenu. They denied it, giggled, professed not to know what he was talking about, and I thought – how marvellous. If only other religions could follows suit. You accost a Christian and ask him about Christ dying for our sins and rising from the dead and he squints at you, and asks what kind of weirdo you are. I mean who’d sign up a religion that believed in that? As a further twist on this, I remember a news story from a few years back about a beauty queen in Lebanon, I believe, who was coming under pressure from disapproving members of her Druze community. The Druze do not hold with exogamy, and very much prefer to keep themselves to themselves. They do not like sharing the tenets of their religion with outsiders. But, best of all, they don’t like sharing them with themselves either. Many devout Druze do not know what it is they believe in. But do so in a spirit of total reverence. Respect!

South Park, Genius Of (Fuck You, Dorphin! Fuck You, Whare!)

How scandalous that Comedy Central have only now got around to releasing series 13 of South Park on DVD, for those of us who don’t have Blu-Ray (or even know what Blu-Ray is). But what a marvellous reminder the episode ‘Whale Whores’ is of the genius, frankly, of this wonderful show. Stan is at an aquarium in Denver swimming with dolphins when a group of angry Japanese arrives, screaming ‘Fuck you, dorphin!’, and harpoon the poor creatures to death. The Japanese embark on a nationwide killing spree, taking in the Miami Dolphins football team while they’re at it, much to Stan’s horror. He gets involved with the reality show Whale Wars, but is unimpressed by their repeated wimping out from any real confrontation with the Japanese. Many ridiculous plot twists later he finds himself asking Emperor Akihito of Japan why it is the Japanese hate whales and dolphins so much. The answer goes back to the bombing of Hiroshima, which the Japanese believe (courtesy of a photograph the Americans were good enough to provide the morning after) that the attack was carried out by dolphins and whales. Stan is about to break the news to the Emperor that the attack was in fact launched by... when he is reminded that the Emperor has pledged to track down and kill everyone responsible. So he gets on the phone to Kyle, who photoshops a picture of the real culprits... a cow and a chicken. The episode ends with the Japanese leaving dolphins and whales in peace and launching a wholesale slaughter of cows and chickens instead. Randy congratulates Stan for making the Japanese ‘normal, like us’.

Tom Sutcliffe wrote in The Independent recently about this selfsame issue. Why don’t the Japanese understand how repellent we find whaling? He invited readers to imagine an Indian group coming to Britain to launch a campaign against the appalling scandal of the killing and eating of cows. What would people think of that? Roughly what the Japanese think of killing whales, I assume. My atrocity, your normality.

There is of course only one solution to this little moral dilemma, and one which South Park respects you, the viewer, way too much to need to spell out. But what a great show.

Friday, September 24, 2010

John Kinsella, 'Graphology 300: Against “Nature Writing”'

I post below, with John Kinsella’s permission, his text ‘Graphology 300: Against “Nature Writing”’, as a way of putting his side of our discussion more clearly on record. Netiquette note: I feel JK shouldn’t have to field questions or comments here, so if anyone did feel like commenting I would suggest getting in touch with him rather than me.

Nature writing equals the new racketeering.
Nature writers make good use of plane travel and restaurants serving up nature.
Nature writing equals recognition as gratification.
Nature writers wear tough boots and mark their trail out hiking. They
need to get back. They drive cars.
Nature writing equals the house in good order for the property owner.
The sub-textual paths past the native garden beds are called ecology.
Nature writers grow at least a little of their own food. Or would if
they could.
Nature writing equals the woods sans Macbeth. Possibly sans witches.
Nature writers get as close as they can to the birds, soaking up their
Nature writing equals a separation in order to get closer — almost
everyone can do it, if they see the light.
Nature writers are those who make the choice to step out of their front doors and breathe in the fresh air, or declare that it’s time to move to where it’s fresher.
Nature writing equals — not — pastoral and needs no bucolics to play out the hierarchies — it lives outside the narrative. It favours local
picnics — best if the animals don’t even know one’s there.
Nature writers who are academics get paid for the conscience —
administratively, at least, it’s called eco-criticism.
Nature writing equals the recognition that poisoned flesh and cellulose
are not good to eat — support your local organic market.
Nature writers have, in the very least, a hidden spirituality.
Nature writing equals market-place economies.
Nature writers know that economy and ecology share the same prefix and have thought long and hard about this.
Nature writing equals quiet time following field excursions to get it
down — preferably, a hut in the forest, a writing retreat. The keeping
of like-minded company, occasionally hearing the birds tweet. Seeing a kangaroo, bear, or antelope, a double treat.
Nature writers get angry with consumerism — don’t giggle.
Nature writing equals space for tokenism but makes good use of natural colouring to bury it.
Nature writers know that via the Indo-European, gwei is to live, with
metathesized variant striking a colourant, an accord with the weather
outside their window, concordance with weather within: birds quiet
without, a blowfly annoying within. Quick, vivid, vitamin, whiskey,
amphibious, microbe, and hygiene all derive from this living, this
high-life we all live, though most are more interested in the suffixed
zero-grade form *gwi-o-. bio-, biota, biotic; aerobe, amphibian,
anabiosis, cenobite, dendrobium, microbe, rhizobium, saprobe, symbiosis, from Greek bios, life (> biot, way of life), according to American Heritage, or Variant form *gwy- (< *gwyo-). 1. azo-; diazo, hylozoism, from Greek zo, life. 2. Suffixed form *gwy-yo-. zodiac, –zoic, zoo-, zoon1, –zoon, from Greek zon, zion, living being, animal; ultimately, though, they prefer nature to say bios or gwei for it declares nation, heritage, identity, it declares a place for the righteous, the knowing, the in touch, the separate. They don’t wish to be part of any club you’re a member of.
Nature writing equals overlays and underlays, carpets the best rooms in pile soothing to the feet. It shows real pleasure is in the walking.
Nature writers know as much proper-naming as they have time to accumulate.
Nature writing equals not being read by those land-clearing, or the
Nature writers want to look wherever something has been set aside.
Nature writing equals targeting cats, not people.
Nature writers can be hunters or animal-rights activists.
Nature writing equals landmarking and wishing on a bird during war.
Nature writers become more animal by eating animals.
Nature writing equals the separation of the grotesque from the healing.
Nature writers are inspired, searching for intactness, and patient. They have time up their sleeves.
Nature writing equals the vicarious, equals verisimilitude, equals
carving out a niche in the schema, in the pleasant picture.
Nature writers aren’t saving Mount Bakewell, don’t take on farmers with shotguns, will make do at a pinch with non-organic produce, are a bunch of fucking hypocrites.
Nature writing is a departmental party trick.

'Get a Real Degree'

Long essay by Elif Batuman on creative writing in the current LRB. I teach a little creative writing, occasionally, but still enough to recognise the truth of much of what she says, even if her focus is chiefly on the States. Among her more salient charges: the kind of writer produced by MFA programmes gives the appearance of having been ‘tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition’; programmes are conducted in ‘a knowledge vacuum’; their culture of worthiness and identity politics replaces the ‘books I would want to read [with] rich, multifaceted explorations whose “amazing audacity” I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk’; they struggle with the inherently ‘elitist and impractical’ nature of literary writing, which ‘doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims’ and appears ‘narcissistic and wasteful’; its identity politics are all-too-close to those of the comic website Stuff White People Like (Being an Expert on YOUR Culture, Being the Only White Person Around, Religions Their Parents Don’t Belong To – you get the idea); they fetishize creativity in an a-historical, post-Romantic way (to Dr Johnson God created and writers produced); they prize good at the expense of great writing (the good is the enemy of the great). She ends:

Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.

{Quotation ends}

Some random questions that occur to me from my own experience of teaching the subject:

How much literature (a teacher of creative writing might ask him or herself) do I teach? A lot/some/none? Is that my job? If not why not?

How comparatively interesting do I find canonical literature and creative writing?

How many books on my reading list are non-contemporary? How many are pre-1900?

Is the reading list for my short story/poetry/whatever module comprehensive/patchy/totally random?

How many students on this creative writing module about the short story/poetry/whatever could write an essay on the short story/poetry/whatever for the ‘straight’ academic module on that subject? How many would want to? How much of a problem is it if the answer to both these questions is ‘few’?

I wonder. What is the best defence or justification of creative writing teaching (if there is one)?

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.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ruth Padel Should Resign

I read and didn’t think very much of this Ruth Padel review the other week, with its rehashing of the reviewee’s CV, and thought this response said more or less all that needed to be said. But now it has taken Private Eye to remind me that Padel is chairing the Forward Prize this year and was reviewing someone (Fiona Sampson) on the shortlist. Surely she should now resign? It doesn’t matter that it’s a positive review. She just shouldn’t have written it. It’s laughable, really.

I couldn’t think of an image to accompany this post, so why not a picture of Santra the yoga-practising bear.

‘As cold and as hard and as temporary as flight’: Birds in Contemporary Poetry

Below the text of a talk I gave the other day at a most enjoyable conference in Belfast.

Praising Samuel Johnson’s poetry in 1930, T.S. Eliot commended it to those who ‘want poetry and not something else, some stay for their own vanity’. I begin with this reminder, as I sense that anyone who reads poetry and poetry criticism today will be familiar with the feeling that much of the time we are offered something else instead, which may overlap with the thing itself but nevertheless falls crucially short. Most contemporary poetry criticism, let me baldly assert, is in fact something else by proxy, whether gender studies, sociology, postcolonial theory or other. But in the same way that you sweat but I perspire, there is the risk of applying this discursive down-grading only to other people’s impure obsessions, we by contrast being above all suspicion; and as someone with an obsession of his own about birds, I am aware of the jealousy that can attach to this passion, to the point where the enthusiast actively resents its dilution at the cost of any other interest whatever. Where the poetry of birds is concerned, do the human and the avian form a Yin and Yang, or two birds’ eggs of a Venn diagram, one of them a potential cuckoo waiting to push the other out of the nest? It can go either way. The last line of Yeats’s ‘Cuchulain Comforted’ (‘They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds’) seems to me a beautiful example of bird trumping human, whereas the second line of Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ (‘Bird thou never wert’) shows the victory of the human hubristic sublime, as fatal to birds as a jet engine. As D. H. Lawrence commented, ‘Who would wish that the skylark were not a bird, but a spirit?’ Perhaps a dollop of poo in his eye might help put him right. But this pro-bird corrective spirit can also be taken too far. As James Fisher wrote of Roger Tory Peterson, his co-author on the 1955 classic Wild America, ‘Roger talks most of the time about birds. When the subject switches, a faraway look comes into his eye. He just waits for a lull and steps in where he left off.’ Accompanying a party of eminent statesmen and others on a bird-watching trip to a UK estuary, Peterson became increasingly agitated as Lord Alanbrooke, chief of the General Staff during the Second World War, held forth on his relations with Winston Churchill, and butted in with the words ‘I guess oystercatchers will eat most any kind of mollusc.’

Let these words serve as my monomaniac alibi, therefore, if the following remarks fall short of the purely literary and I deviate into the best places to watch lapwings on the Humber estuary or some other such merely avian fixation. The serious opening point I am labouring to make here, however, is this: how much of the bird poem belongs to us, how much to the birds? How inevitable are our appropriations and anthropomorphizations of the birds, how right or wrong? Is there an epistemology of ornithopoetics (can I claim that term?), and what might it look like? There has been a rich harvest of nature writing in recent years, and a list of the poets who have written well on birds would include Michael Longley, Peter Reading, Robert Adamson, Paul Muldoon, Kathleen Jamie, Alice Oswald, Helen Macdonald and Jen Hadfield, but even within this group there are many contrasting approaches to the central question at stake: how to represent the inhuman, and how do justice to it across an insuperable species divide. One blunt answer would be to admit we cannot, and that, poetic illusion aside, the world of the bird is closed to us, their worlds of immense delight ‘closed by our senses five’, as Blake suggested. ‘The more we know, the further away they are’, as John Berger has claimed of animals. How do we act on this discovery? Among the best-known instances in modern thought of speech encountering the unknowable are the last words of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.’ As we know, this turned out not to be quite his last word after all, and his 1929 comments on a very different thinker, Heidegger, and the nature of questions to which ‘there is [...] no answer whatsoever’, get close to the artistic predicament I am describing here:

But the inclination, the running up against something, indicates something. St. Augustine knew that already when he said: What, you swine, you want not to talk nonsense! Go ahead and talk nonsense, it does not matter!’

As a broad principle of individuation among my avian poets, therefore, I would like to propose the degree to which they do or not accept this as a basis for their work, or if not exactly accept, then dramatise or trope this state of affairs. The spectrum, I would like to suggest, runs from the poet as naturalist at one end to the would-be shaman at the other. Where writers choose to situate themselves on this scale depends on a volatile compound of aesthetic and ethical choices. To take an arch-naturalist first, bird-watching has played an increasing role in the work of Peter Reading, most notably in his book-length sequence on ecological catastrophe, -273.15. With his misanthropic jeremiads, Reading could never be accused of cleaving unduly to an anthropocentric worldview, and yet his work could hardly be further from the creaturely shamanism of Ted Hughes (who appears to be among Reading’s least favourite poets). His birds are, to a very high degree, humanly mediated, lovingly stalked, identified from field guides, and crossed off the poet’s twitcher list. Taking pains to avoid human meddling with his subjects, he produces poems that, in their guilt-ridden way, choose human abjection over avian release except in the briefest of vignettes, often in a style of pseudo-Chinoiserie or Japanoiserie, its birds as exquisite as porcelain tea-cups or silk kimonos.

A description of short-tailed shearwaters from his 2002 collection Faunal is typical in this regard: the birds return from their ‘pelagic foraging’ to ‘regurgitate their piscine /mulch in the gapes of fledglings’, which sounds to me as though Sir Thomas Browne has tagged along on the holiday too, while a final carpe diem (‘Well, we won’t experience that again in a hurry’) could hardly do more to separate the event from ordinary experience if it handed us the poem on surgical tongs. Although the shearwaters are elusive and distinctive birds, Reading’s epiphany in their presence lends itself uncannily well to recycling for other prize specimens, such as the Steller’s jays, pygmy nuthatches and white-headed woodpeckers of -273.15, in lines that again eschew overmuch description and save their implied emotion for another moment of crepuscular leave-taking, the ‘descent into shadow /of the deep valley ahead – /its dark vermicular flume’. These are deeply humane poems by a naturalist-poet ashamed of the blot he casts on the landscape, but also poems that wilfully condemn themselves to a cycle of guilt and self-cancellation, whether narrative or philosophical. His birds may thus be sadly fitting emblems of the dead end Reading’s work appears to have reached of late. But is he ‘bleedin’ demised’, ‘bereft of life’, or merely, like the Norwegian blue parrot, pining for the fjords? Poets too can become extinct, and it would make a grim kind of sense if eco-apocalypse were the subject that finally tipped Peter Reading over the edge.

At the other end of the scale would be a poet who overwrites the raw data of the natural world with her own human concerns, with minimal pretence of attention to its lived detail first. A representative example here is the blithely Shelleyan-Whitmanesque Mary Oliver, whose ‘Wild Geese’ begins with portentous emoting (‘Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine’) before yanking some passing geese from the sky as character witnesses:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Many of the great bird moments in modern poetry, from the bird’s ‘sleepy cries’ among the ‘deepening shades’ at the end of Yeats’s ‘The Tower’ to the casual flocks of pigeons that end Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, occur in cameos with no apparent context or causal relationship to what has gone before, but the yoking together by force here of the human’s ‘place /in the family of things’ and the passing geese belongs in a different category again. To Randy Malamud, in his Poetic Animals and Animal Souls, Oliver appropriates the natural world the better to vindicate an anthropocentric worldview, articulating an ‘I that speaks for people to people’, and whose unexamined privileges logically conclude in ‘narcissism and speciesist isolationism’. ‘Wild Geese’ seems to me a crassly bad poem, and but one to whose badness the high-handed suborning of the natural world contributes in no small part.

I have already, it would seem, begun to draw lines of equivalence from ethical to aesthetic positions – I disapprove of the way you appropriate this bird, therefore this poem is bad – and wonder if by the same logic Yeats’s tone-deafness now disqualifies his remarks on music or Christopher Reid’s non-Eastern Europeanness devalues Katerina Brac. Surely not. But how is this different? Bird poets differ among themselves in their degrees of engagement with the politics of the environment, not to mention their sense of their own role and agency therein. Peter Reading’s Tory anarchism notes environmental despoliation and species loss, adds its Dad’s Army diagnosis that ‘We’re doomed!’, and leaves it at that. A poet such as John Kinsella by contrast evidently considers his bird poems as of a piece with the post-avant vegan pacifist anarachist activism he professes elsewhere. Here I might draw a comparison, unusual you might think, with war poetry. There is in much contemporary war poetry, bad war poetry, the temptation to reverse-engineer the poem from a pre-existing position – often an entirely admirable position, such as the belief that poetry is on the side of humane values and can help, in a demonstrable way, to stop wars. Where nature writing is concerned, there is a long tradition of eco-kitsch, of which the dolphin- and elephant-hymning ditties of Heathcote Williams are notable examples. But, flighty creatures that they are, birds are poor emblems of static positions, and some of the best bird poetry being written today may appear to bypass great themes of the day such as pollution and habitat and species loss. But, I would argue, there is little to be said on these things that is not already implicit in the sheer fragile mysteriousness of seeing and looking at the bird, the fact of its being there at all. As J.A. Baker writes at the beginning of one of the most remarkable of bird books, The Peregrine, ‘The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.’ Hence perhaps the importance in the work of Michael Longley of the framing of the image and our awareness of its transience. We frequently find Longley waiting for a bird that has yet to arrive, watching it vanish, or when it is there, scrupulously keeping his distance: a rainbow provides ‘Cover for all of the birds that have disappeared’, ‘I would count the swans but it hurts my eyes’, while a departing wheatear mimics ‘my panic, my breathlessness’, to take three random examples.

This question of framing also extends to larger questions of the tradition in which the bird poem situates itself. Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s anthology, The Poetry of Birds, is very much a statement of the English Romantic line, albeit with the emphasis on John Clare’s creaturely aesthetic, to which Lawrence, Hughes and more recently Alice Oswald are so indebted, rather than Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime. Oswald’s work in particular has been much touted in connection with the contemporary nature writing revival, and shows as keen an eye for a bird as did her mentor Ted Hughes. Though informed by a profound knowledge of the natural world, she is less concerned than Peter Reading to treat bird-watching as a shopping trip for exotic species: often she will neglect even to specify what the bird is, as in the beginning of ‘Birdsong for Two Voices’:

A spiral ascending the morning,
climbing by means of a song into the sun,
to be sung reciprocally by two birds at intervals
in the same tree but not quite in time.

A song that assembles the earth
out of nine notes and silence.
out of the unformed gloom before dawn
where every tree is a problem to be solved by birdsong.

For Heidegger, ‘Die Sprache spricht, nicht der Mensch’, it is language that speaks rather than man, and here it is song that Orphically ‘assembles the earth’. The same Heidegger would intone menacingly against the conversion of nature into use-value, seeing in a tree an object of possible exploitation, but if Oswald calls a tree a ‘problem to be solved’ the addition of the words ‘by birdsong’ transports us to a very different realm from that of instrumental reason and commercial logging. Species specificity enters the poem in the third stanza, with a reference to ‘Crex Crex Corcorovado’, ‘crex crex’ being that fetish species for bird poets of these islands, the corncrake. Anaphora is a frequent device in Oswald’s work (as it is in birdsong), underwriting the druid-like spells and incantations towards which her poems frequently build, like so many Devonian pss to the ‘Song of Amergin’. ‘Seabird’s Blessing’ invokes a more Christian register, though a reference to ‘God the featherer’ keeps the Christian God the right side of animism, while ‘Owl’ extrapolates from a bird’s far-off cry to a pantheistic vision of interconnectedness:

last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness

miles away, more than a world beyond this room

and immediately, I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard

It is almost impossible to see as sharp-eyed a bird as an owl without it seeing you first, but Oswald’s supplementary twist of ‘hearing [her] listening heard’ comprehensively inverts the relationship of observer and observed, placing the elusive bird at the centre of things, even from the speaker’s standpoint, indoors and miles away. The polarity of here and there, centre and periphery, is turned inside out like a glove, as the owl comes to fill the landscape. The syntax is difficult to follow here: the following lines connect directly to those quoted above, but is the subject still the ‘I’ that is back in the woods, or the titular owl, or both? The fact that a tree can be ‘improvised’ here suggests such inter-subjective and inter-species boundaries are at best fluid:

under a huge tree improvised by fear

dead brush falling then a star
straight through to God
founded and fixed the wood

then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl’s elsewhere swelled and questioned

twice, like you might lean and strike
two matches in the wind

If Oswald extends the Romantic tradition, there are other traditions too with their own distinctive modes of access to the natural world. Consider an experimental poet such as Helen Macdonald. Do birds sing in iambic pentameter? They certainly don’t sing in the diatonic scale, to judge from the greatest rendering of birdsong in modern music, Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, a fact that should embolden us in our approach to Macdonald’s work. She is a Cambridge poet with all the involutions and complexity that entails, but where the Cambridge poem stereotypically prefers to be, not mean, the objective correlative of her work, in the form of its birds, is always hugely if mysteriously there:

a pallor derived from deception at the window stood
bitten by river air, the roiling heart, a moment of love only

chief among these then and you are calling it in
inspiration like dry skin in its diminution silence

and the sky is as motionless as the heart
its hook to tie it from

Macdonald is a falconer and has written a fine prose book on the falcon, but as anyone who has flown a bird of prey knows, captive-bred birds allow us to get closer to them at the cost of a certain denaturing; an imprinted bird will consider its handler not just a parent but also a sexual partner. The hook in these lines from ‘Noar Hill’ represents both the ties of affection and the bird’s captivity on a leash, a double-bind indeed, and one the poet never claims to resolve. Falconer and falcon commune across the species divide, but subject to these denaturing convergences, the human equivalent being the shamanistic melancholy we find in a great, but yearningly elegiac poem such as Macdonald’s ‘letter to america’. Dialogue across species becomes the basis of self-identification: ‘I am a conversation across oceans’, the poet declares, experiencing ‘uncertainty or surprise //surviving precisely as a desire for redundancy’. The bird’s approach to its handler induces dizziness wrapped in a double negative: ‘as if /it weren’t in fact anything other than the imaginary /front sight of one index pressed to your brow /which held you to a name and its willing execution’. Drawing heavily on scientific terminology, the writing is painstakingly detailed (and if the Romantics’ exaltation of nature depended on the relegation of science, these poems are proof enough that a technical vocabulary has its magical aura too), but Macdonald stops short of claiming outright intimacy with its subject, falling back on reverent guesswork: the hawk ‘rous[es] one’s mind from safety and tameable illness /to beautiful comprehension in the form of a hunch’. A distinctly Cambridge aspect of Macdonald’s style is its sudden ninety-degree syntactic turns away from what we think is coming next, and which in context can be read as imitating the falcon’s feints, banks and plunges: ‘a static click breaking into small worlds /where death has music in a vice-like //I think not’. A book I mentioned earlier, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, ends by rewarding its author’s quest with a moment of pure communion with a drowsy peregrine on a branch, its usual instincts of suspicion and flight suspended, but the last lines of ‘letter to america’ unite author and bird in an epiphany of joint scattering into the air, a conclusion no less powerful for seeming to leave us with nothing but ‘the pure suburban heavens’. Macdonald’s is difficult but powerfully rewarding poetry. I no more understand it, on one level, than I ‘understand’ a falcon, but it would be a radically impoverished vision of poetry that preferred the nature reserve in which most of us live, most of the time, whether as poetry readers or merely as citizens of the earth, to the exhilarating wildness of her closing lines. Here is not merely a bird poem, but poetry as a bird, sleek, effortless, difficult, cruel, unknowable and lovely:

& you were scraping the ice from the leading edge a.m.
printing an image of the mansions of the dead a.m.
looking for a small world in the uninhabitable air
trying to extinguish some deeper desire for fire

with something as cold and as hard and as temporary as flight
& what you were hoping is that the air would recolonise you
recgonise you and welcome you into the sunlight
and all would be forgiven. ink in the thick air would curl

into glyphs of desire & the lightly starred heel
would dip into the sea at dawn as it spills
into a blaze of mute objects
in the pure suburban heavens

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Vileness, Ignominy, Depravity

Sitting in the National Library in Dublin yesterday waiting for some old books to turn up at my desk (ah, table service), I whiled my time away catching up with a most unusual item in the annals of recent Irish memoir: Róisín Ní Mheara’s Cé hí Sin Amuigh? This book appeared in 1992, generated a richly-deserved stink, then disappeared (there is no mention of it anymore on its publisher’s website), to the point where the National Library appears to be the only place a reader in search of it now can go.

For those not in the know, Ní Mheara was Francis Stuart’s travelling companion on his extended boy scout adventure in wartime Berlin. She is mentioned briefly in this connection in David O’Donoghue’s Hitler’s Irish Voices. What she has spent the intervening decades doing I can only guess, though under the slightly elongated soubriquet of Róisín Ní Mheara-Vinard she published a book on Irish saints with Four Courts Press in 1994. On the back of her memoir Ciaran Ó Coigligh refers to her having had a hard life, and it must be/have been (is Ní Mheara still alive? she was born in 1918 and I have seen no evidence of her having died) – it must be/have been, I can well appreciate, a draining effort down the decades to keep her stupidity up at quite the levels shown in her memoir. For the chief interest of this book of hers is its unabashed anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite strikes me as the racist’s racist, the racist who is as personally injured and distraught over an omnipresent but invisible ‘they’ as by the Asians down the road or the Roma living on the roundabout: it is the Jew, always the Jew for the anti-Semite, everywhere the Jew, debasing, despoiling, wrecking all around him, the worm at the heart of every rose. And for those who like their anti-Semitic literature to go straight for the jugular, Cé hí Sin Amuigh? does not disappoint.

Her narrative of the war and the Jews goes something like this. In answer to the question what an Irishwoman would be doing in Germany during the war she writes: how could she not stand with the Germans when Germany, like Ireland, is facing open warfare with its oldest enemy (i.e., respectively, the Jews and England)? And what of the camps? The ghettos were the best and in fact only places to store the Jews until a definitive solution to the Jewish problem could be reached, after the interruption of the war. And did people die in the camps? She has seen photographs of piled-up bodies, but believes that Jews were sometimes so keen to board the trains taking them back East where they belonged that passengers died en route, and fell dead from the trains on the platforms. So Germany mistreated its Jews then? On the contrary, Germany was the only country taking the Jewish problem seriously. It repeatedly attempted to push for the so-called Madagascar solution, which readers of Paul de Man may recall for his own contribution to the literature of anti-Semitism, but perfidious Albion was having none of it. The idea was to send all the Jews to Madagascar, where they could presumably tough it out with the local lemur population for control of the banking sector. But as for those stories we hear about Auschwitz, that is all they are: stories. And so on and on, holoucaust denial on denial.

Hermann Goertz features prominently. Goertz was a theatrically useless German spy who arrived in Ireland during the war wearing his Luftwaffe uniform and First World War medals, and was quickly arrested and interned. While in prison he was sent bogus communications from Germany, to which he would then reply with accounts of his activities in Emergency Ireland. But in reality his deluded ravings were of no interest to anyone much, in the larger scheme of things. He died in 1947 and is buried in the German War Cemetery in Glencree. But in Róisín Ní Mheara at least he has/had a loyal keeper of the Nazi flame.

Not the least ignominious thing about Ní Mheara’s book is that it was state-sponsored, as are all Irish-language publications. Hers is an amusing tale, or amusing-seeming, as though she were a character from Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published novella about obscure Nazi crackpots. Except that she is/was real. And while it gives me pleasure to think her memoir has been all put flushed down the chemical toilet of history, it seems important to hold a specimen of infamy such as Cé hí Sin Amuigh? up to the light once in a while and confront it for the evidence of human vileness and depravity it is. And maybe one worth thinking about the next time anyone who reads this reads Francis Stuart’s Black List Section H.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Tom McCarthy, Remainder

I read a description the other week of a discussion at a books festival (of the marquees + Sunday newspaper sponsorship + Joanna Trollope and Melvyn Bragg kind) at which that tenured half-wit, John Carey, expressed regret that the 2005 Booker Prize went to John Banville rather than purveyor-in-chief to Mondeo man of a ready supply of the most cultural thing you can do with a tenner in an airport departure lounge, Norf London geezer Nick Hornby. Which prompts me by some circuitous route or other to write about Tom McCarthy’s novel – no not the new one, but, slightly behind the times that I am, the one before that, Remainder. I was predisposed to like it, since anything that makes the Careys of this tight little island squeal as though they’re being slipped one up the wazoo (and McCarthy does have this effect on some people) is already pulling in brownie points from me, and like it I did. It’s odd, though, how affinities with the nouveau roman can turn McCarthy’s style, in those same quarters, into a ‘period piece’ or curiosity, while the continuing triumphal dance of the nineteenth-century novel down the cultural highways of merry middle England strikes no one as odd. But enough griping preliminaries. The theme is repetition, and the protagonist a man who would in Wallace Stevens’ words be ‘of repetition (...) most master’. He has suffered major trauma and been rewarded by an insurance payout of eight and a half million pounds. He then decides to spend it on a series of bizarrely detailed, epic even, re-enactments of tableaux vivants, devoting vast amounts of time and money to recreating an apartment block that must have a woman constantly cooking liver, a man repairing his motorbike in the courtyard, an error-prone piano player... He coaches the re-enacters carefully, deriving an Aspergery sense of calm and rightness from the spontaneous (viz. scripted and contrived) actions he is overlaying on some never exactly explained or elaborated memory from before his trauma.

He moves on to other random events that take his fancy, such as being sprayed with goo when he brings his car to the garage for a tyre-change, a scene he then has staged and repeated hundreds of times in a replica garage built specially. But when he latches onto a series of gangland killings we know the stakes will be raised, as they duly are in a re-enacted bank heist the protagonist decides to convert to a real raid by moving the location to an actual bank without telling the ‘actors’. Something goes wrong and a participant is shot, fatally. Rather than snapping out of his trance-like state, our protagonist goes one step further and shoots another re-enacter himself. He has already made provision for disposing of any information ‘leakage’ among his huge cast of helpers, in a scheme that involves an exploding airplane. He himself makes his escape on a second jet, but after (presumably) news reaches the pilot of the other plane’s fate, the protagonist is told they’re turning back, which prompts him to produce a weapon (it is a privately chartered plane so he hasn’t passed through any security). He announces they will do no such thing, but keep on turning instead, looping and banking endlessly in the air. And on this note the novel ends.

Consider the trajectory of the re-enactments. Any suspicion that the novel will lead us back to the moment of buried trauma in the past is abandoned pretty early on. As the protagonist becomes obsessed with the gangland killings, the time lag between event and re-enactment begins to contract until it makes perfect sense for the latter to pull ahead and start setting the pace. But during the bank robbing that goes wrong, the protagonist still refers to what is happening as a ‘re-enactment’. Why? Because, if my plot summary is at risk of sounding like Baudrillard for Tiny Tots, the twist here is not the usual post-modern epiphany that there never was an original event and that all is simulacra, endlessly. If anything, it is the opposite. The protagonist has entered the impossible eternal present of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, 6.4311: ‘Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.’ It is not just that the event repeats itself endlessly, but that it is doing so after, during and before itself; it is its own repetition; it is temporality folded in upon itself; it is a condition of pure and perfect joy; and it is also a condition of complete psychosis.

Affectlessness is a very common nouveau roman theme, if I can speak from my twenty-something year old memory of L’année dernière à Marienbad and all those Alain Robbe-Grillet novels I read, once upon a time. And while I did indeed enjoy Remainder, very much, I regret that its crowning moment should be an apotheosis of affectlessness, as if forms of acting-out that fall short of blowing up planes don’t represent an artistic challenge too or the potential for moments of apocalyptically perfect peace and understanding. That would make an interesting writing exercise for McCarthy, though not one (to judge from the reviews I’ve read) he’s followed in C. But which, nevertheless, I will now go and read.

Has any wag had the bright idea of staging a joint reading for this Tom McCarthy and Cork poet Thomas McCarthy, I wonder? Please do so, someone.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Argan Tree-Climbing Goats of Morocco

My second poo-related story of the day. Argan oil is a Moroccan delicacy, produced from the fruit of a tree that grows exclusively in the region round the desert of that country’s south-west. Before the nut can be pressed for its oil it must be separated from the fruit. This happens by goats climbing argan trees, eating the fruit and pooing out the nuts, which then and only then the farmers harvest. I am working of a cat-themed variant on this here in Hull, but will have to get back to you on the results (installing sloth-friendly latrines is also proving a problem).

Bin-Dipping Sloths

Think of the hell Jerry gave George Costanza in Seinfeld when he found him eating out of a bin. Well, Peruvian sloths have been observed descending from their arboreal perches to climb into ground-level latrines and eat the contents. Story here.