Monday 1 October 2012

Laboratory Poetry

If the world is falling apart and the ice cap melting, if old age means Alzheimers, if politics are a disaster, if there’s too much information and most of it nonsense, should writing reflect this state of affairs, or go against it; make sense, or disrupt it? (‘Should’ is the wrong word; writing can do what it likes; the question is, what excites and illuminates, gets the synapses going.)

Much writing that makes sense isn’t very interesting, often competently but unexcitingly following the formula: Description + Parallel or Memory + Epiphany = Poem.  Much writing that doesn’t make sense is interesting mostly conceptually, and such interest tends not to last if it’s not genuinely innovative.

Of course that’s an exaggeration; this blog is in back-from-holidays, rain-soaked mode.  The thoughts were also prompted by reading a piece in Fortnightly Review by Peter Riley, about an anthology called American Hybrid.  It includes over 70 US poets, among them CD Wright, Dean Young, DA Powell, Harryette Mullen, Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Hass, Susan Howe – which suggests that at least the older, well-known poets are a varied group.

The title appears to come out of a thesis / antithesis / synthesis approach to poetry; nothing wrong with that in principle, though like all frameworks one has to be careful it doesn’t take over.  Anyway, the parallel is traditional (or conventional, Romantic) / innovative (or experimental, modernist) / hybrid. 

Riley’s review is a polemic that extends far beyond the book, which I haven’t read; it’s the review I’m interested in (thanks to Rob Mackenzie who posted the link on Facebook).  One of the things Riley dislikes is reductive labelling of poetry, see above. 

Most interestingly, Riley, a (British) innovator himself, questions innovative elements in the hybrid.  Here are a few extracts from his long, long article.  It’s all worth reading; some of it’s challenging, if one lacks a background in literary theory.  Passages in bold are my emphasis, not his.

Riley comments on the fact that many of the writers have degrees in writing, and teach it. 

If writing poetry becomes a university subject leading ultimately to a doctorate, it must be required to have intellectual status of some kind, which poets have not always necessarily claimed. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of intellectual poetry, but I think that the particular language-based (non-discursive) form the intellectuality takes is the downfall of much of this poetry.

He attacks the anthology’s attitude to language. 

It says that language is self-substantial, that it is its own meaning. Or meaning is immanent and inhering in language, as opposed to Romantic transcendence (horribly British). It speak of the materiality of language, that language is “a social force in itself”. Language is both prior to and subsequent to the poem. Poetry makes “a transformative intervention upon its own medium”. In practice this means that you work with and on language rather than directly with memory and experience or any inherited sense (except very short-term) of poetical formulation. Almost all these poets devote their energies to disturbing or even eradicating language’s communicative function, sometimes violently, with broken syntax and refusal of meaning, so that you are trapped in the poem with no access to the world, and sometimes by creating a plain transmissive discourse which doesn’t make sense (Surrealism, etc.)  almost all these poets remain transfixed within language, and this paralysis is what makes it impossible for most of them to even approach the scope and clamour of poets like Olson or Duncan or Ginsberg. It is all small-scale, meticulous. It all takes places in small corners. A lot of it is introspective in an evasive way.


Disruption and problematisation are terms of praise here, as if we didn’t already have enough of both of them to cope with in the world.


It seems to me that in a given socio-linguistic context there is only one way of making sense and the alternative is senselessness, and I don’t believe that senselessness is going to solve any problem of any kind anywhere in the world. If you can no longer talk about, you are silent. And some of the high jinks, the wrecked language, in this anthology is precisely an abnegation and a silence vis-à-vis the American public world. That entity is precisely not “addressed” and there is a sad sense of helplessness while you watch your country turn rotten and turn aside to indulge yourself in games with words.

I don’t agree with everything he says, by any means (why should I, it’s a polemic) – for a start, I don’t think the criticisms apply to most of the poets I’ve listed above, but then they are among the ones I’ve read and like, or at least am interested by.  I don’t understand what Riley means by “there is only one way of making sense”, etc.  I don’t think that all poetry that disturbs language’s communicative function is hermetically sealed; only that a lot of it is.  And I think that innovative forms have great potential for addressing political issues, because most poetic approaches are drowned out by the multiplicity of media and other discourse.

But I do think he’s on to something.  Especially the connection he makes between the sealed-off, small-corner nature of such poetry, and its origins in the academy. Riley uses the term ‘laboratory poetry’, which seems cruel, but apt (and has implications for the UK, as poetry here moves academy-wards). Things don’t have to be this way.  It is possible to write experimental poetry and communicate; language and meaning can and do coexist, in new and interesting ways.  

US anthology American Hybrid is edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John, Norton (2009)


  1. Ah, a poet bored by the surrounding poetry was excited by some poetry he encountered in his formative years and thinks the newer stuff has taken a wrong turning. Well there's a turn up for the books.

    I too thought that "American Hybrid" leant towards the radical, but then I think that recent UK anthologies do as well. I think the latter only reflect what's in many of the more dynamic magazines. And the new anthologies (perhaps because of the selection process) show an increasing creative-writing influence. For example, in "The SALT book of younger poets" nearly all of the poets mention that they have a degree. When they mention their subject it's English or Creative Writing.

    I can't make much sense of Peter Riley's "there is only one way of making sense" unless read in the light of his later "If you can no longer talk about, you are silent". In general I don't get abstraction or minimalism in Art/Writing, but I don't mind a "truth to materials" slant - an interest in sound/letters at the cost of content.

    In Anthony Howell's companion piece there are points of agreement with Riley, but also some sympathy for abstraction. "… use of abstract nouns that sounds sort of ‘French’ and transfigured and metaphysical but is actually just a mush of syntax – a species of poetic rhetoric divorced from content or persuasion. Actually you could swap chunks of this elevated text around – from one poet to another – and no one would ever know." Also "The point of conjunction for realism and abstraction is that the real is never real, since there is a shift into art or artifice … . Equally, however, the abstract is never abstract" and "Truly original works are vulnerable, because they have to abandon something that is supposed to be there. Rhyme, for instance. That used to be a bugbear for the anti-free-versers! Today it might be absence of meaning – a criticism aimed at the abstractionists by the lyrical realists. This need to abandon some accepted rule in order to make something new accounts for originality’s vulnerability, and is why Cummings, Sitwell and Vachel Lindsey are still distrusted by a myopic establishment. The abstractionists, for their part, have set up their own taboos – narrative and signification, for instance"

    1. Tim - thanks for this. To be fair, Riley makes a declaration of his own prejudices at the beginning of the review.

      It's interesting that he describes the Americans as "small-scale, meticulous", adjectives I used to associate more with mainstream British writing. But I do think it's recognisable from the US contemporary anthologies I've read, and so is the interchangeability remarked on by Howell - thanks for providing the quote, that bit of it's as damning as Riley's small-scale etc! Though neither applies by any means to all poets.

      As for British poetry, I think anything that disrupts the mainstream writing-from-within-a-small-field atmosphere is good, and yes, that does seem to be happening though I wonder how much of it could be described as radical.

      Would be interesting to hear an American comment...