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Monday, April 04, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 4 : Poetics Some Examples

From Aristotle to Nomadic Poetics: Some Examples

(The original un-updated version of this list of examples may be read in the earlier version of The Necessity of Poetics here.)
Poetics has a long history: from Aristotle, through Horace, into (in English anyway) Sidney, Puttenham, Campion, Dryden and Pope (both in verse), onto Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’, Coleridge’s Biographia, the assertions of Shelley’s Defence, some of Keats’ letters. Onto: Henry James’ essays and Prefaces, and DH Lawrence’s spirited defences of both free verse poetry and the modern novel – to summarise the contents page of a possible volume of historical poetics (My rough chronology of these and other documents may be found online.) 7

In the twentieth century the discourse of poetics proliferated. The intense artistic innovation of the era demanded such a discourse, not least in the manifestoes and documents of the great modernist and post-modernist movements from Dada to Situationism, from Negritude to Neo-HooDoo, from Stein’s ‘Lectures’ to DuPlessis’ feminist poetics, to take a few examples from the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Rothenberg and Joris 1995 and 1998).

A well-known collection such as Allen and Tallman’s The Poetics of The New American Poetry (1973) collected documents ranging from Pound’s group manifestoes to Frank O’Hara’s patapoetical one man movement statement ‘Personism’, from Lorca’s essay on ‘duende’ to Olson’s influential ‘Projectivist Verse’ essay. America, as if asserting its cultural autonomy, seems particularly attracted to the discourse, from the Imagists to the Language Poets. In Britain this has not been the case, certainly since the Apocalyptic Manifestoes of the war years. To think of Basil Bunting’s dust jacket disavowal of meaning in poetry alongside the critical corpus of his mentor, Ezra Pound, is emblematic.

However, one of the most prolific examples of twentieth century poetics comes from the British Isles. In 1944, Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid published parts of a long associative list poem – he called it a ‘testament’ (MacDiarmid 1985: 1030) –  written in the late 1930s, entitled ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ as the backbone of a chapter of his intellectual autobiography Lucky Poet, in order to argue for a poetry of fact and wonder, ‘a poetry full of erudition, expertise, and ecstasy’, as he put it (MacDiarmid 1985: 1019). Politically it is ‘a poetry that stands for production, use, and life,/ As opposed to property, profits and death’ (MacDiarmid 1985: 1023), and for the development of a modern consciousness of ‘super-individuality … to assimilate, utilize, override, and fuse/ All our individual divergences’, a fusion that would represent a technological, artistic, scientific, and political synthesis of World Thought – Eastern as well as Western, folk and popular as well as high cultural, with MacDiarmid’s international Communism perfectly counterpointing his Scottish Nationalism. (MacDiarmid 1985: 1004-5)

This example makes me wonder whether there is something essentially ‘English’ about a refusal to theorize in poetics, as in other areas? Does philosophical empiricism rule the day (which matches the continuing lyric empiricism of the dominant post-Movement orthodoxy itself) – or is it the geopolitical centrality of the English imagination, and its refusals of the necessity of poetics, the defensive and normative restrictive practices of the colonial centre? It may well be that a declaration of independence (cultural or poetic) generates more necessity than an act of union!

One exception (and to remember that poetics pertains to all genres) is a collection by Malcolm Bradbury, a pioneer of creative writing teaching at the University of East Anglia, who saw the value of poetics, though I do not remember him using the word when I was a student of his, nor was even ‘commentary’ a requirement of the MA I studied.  His anthology The Novel Today (1977) still constitutes an important sourcebook for the poetics of fiction: from Doris Lessing’s influential Preface to The Golden Notebook, to the in-the-thick-of-it ‘Notes on an Unfinished Novel’ by John Fowles, which are preliminary studies for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, along with some American and continental poetics, such as pieces by John Barth and Robbe-Grillet.

With respect to the more adventurous British poetry, Eric Mottram, in his still-uncollected essays, delineated a poetics deriving from the American modernist inheritance, although his polemics often obscured its positive aspects. However, he did coax poetics out of dozens of recalcitrant poets in his interviews, chiefly in the context of ‘Poetry Information’ evenings at the ICA during the 1960s and at the Poetry Society during the 1970s, which, transcribed, were mostly published in the important magazine Poetry Information. One such interview, with Roy Fisher, also forms part of one of the few British Poetry Revival publications to rival the American collections of interviews with single poets. Roy Fisher’s Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose (2000) includes 90 pages of various interviews garnered at various times, by various methods ranging from face to face to email exchange. There have also been valuable interviews spread among the pages of little magazines, and some of these are collected, and augmented by especially commissioned interviews, in Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan’s Don’t Start Me Talking: Interviews with Contemporary Poets (2006) with British and Irish poets ranging from so-called Cambridge poets Andrew Crozier and David Chaloner to younger poets such as Sean Bonney and Peter Manson, as well as independent voices such as R.F. Langley and Elisabeth Bletsoe.

One pioneering example of British poetics is Denise Riley’s 1992 edited volume Poets on Writing, which contains a rare number of essays of poetics as well as a selection from Veronica-Forrest Thomson’s important Poetic Artifice. But tellingly, Tom Raworth provides a selection of (presumably) his most recent poems from Eternal Sections under the inviting banner: ‘The State of Poetry Today’ in a typically British refusal to tackle that very theme in a discursive way! The 17 year gap between this volume and Rupert Loydell’s poetics anthology Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: Manifestos and Unmanifestos (2009) is telling, but the latter volume demonstrates the full range of poetics as a discourse.

The only reason to make a poetics public is to share with others, either collectively as a manifesto, or agonistically as position statement – in both cases it is a social fact, and implies at least community of exchange or risk. These have not been the favoured British options; there is little explicit work (although it doubtless exists, implicitly, as private meditation and notebook jottings, etc...). This is one reason why the pedagogy of creative writing seems central to me, particularly as the advocate of a particular poetics myself (and again the evidence of creative writing is seen in Loydell’s collection). 8


After I had written the above I catalogued every item of poetics I could find and they may be read here, in four brutally compacted parts: 

Part One: Poetics and Proto-Poetics

 Part Two: Through and after Modernism

Part Three: North American Poetics

Part Four: Some British Poetics


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.