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Friday, September 09, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Poetics, lit crit and self-explication: the poet-critic

As a ‘poet-critic’ I have often wondered what the relationship of one function to the other is in this hybrid construction. I have always felt somewhat distrustful of readings of my poems that attempt to link the terms of my criticism – for example, the Levinasian distinction between the qualities of ‘saying’ and the qualities of ‘the said’ as outlined in my critical book The Poetry of Saying – with particular poems of mine. (See here). I stopped Christopher Madden - nicely I hope - trying to make this move in this interview here. (I am probably just as guilty in my eager desire to crack the nut of the difficulties of innovative poetry by raiding and reading the literary critical formulations of poet-critics as poetics, I know!)

I believe that my criticism must inform the poetics – the speculative writerly discourse that I have with myself in my journal, with others in explicit poetics pieces, and perhaps in this post I’m writing now – but I don’t particularly know how. Indeed, one of the reasons I value writerly poetics in the terms I have defined it (see here but perhaps even more so here), is precisely because writers cannot read their own work (as witnessed by the centrality of the communal workshop in creative writing pedagogy). The poetics may use some of the same counters: I have used the term ‘creative linkage’ to describe the kind of supercharged collage practices one finds in Gravity as a Consequence of Shape by Allen Fisher, and I have used it of my own poem The Lores where I self-consciously ‘mix’ different linguistic ‘tracks’ as though I were producing a sound recording, but I am not sure of the relationship between the two usages. It’s not for me to say.

The transformations I am going to trace in a practice-led narrative I am writing will not touch on those kinds of relations because I believe I cannot access them accurately: in short, I cannot be my own critic, for the reasons I have just expressed, and also because of a certain English reserve which dictates that to speak of one’s creative work is a particular kind of false special pleading, this, despite the fact that I find it a useful practice for ‘apprentice’ writers within the academy; for writers in the wild, as I call them, it is a different question.

Part of this thinking, or rather somewhere in the background, is a very strange passage I read in the excellent Cambridge Companion to British Poetry, 1945-2010, which I posted about here, by the usually perspicacious Peter Barry. Writing of long-poems and projects (like Allen and Roy Fishers’), he says: ‘The major examples of this kind of enterprise look likely to remain unrivalled, partly because the poets who would undertake such a project will probably now have full-time university posts in creative writing.’ (236) Though he makes an exception for Zoe Skoulding, he nevertheless says she’s ‘a university-embedded poet in the pressured present, one who is necessarily engaged in a wide range of project grants and collaborative work of various kinds’ (238) This may be so (I’m not!) but just the arrival of Gavin Selerie’s massive Hariot Double on the day after I read this, tells the lie. It also reminds us that there are writers outside the academy (it is my ambition to become one). It’s as if Peter only meets poets at academic conferences (poets outside can’t get in, they can’t afford it!) and that creativity is inevitably wrapped up with practice-led research and all that caper (and it is a caper). I have had some funding for my writing (which I gratefully acknowledge), but these were for projects already underway, but I like to keep the energy of them a long way away from the ‘pressured present’, and I urge other poets (and writers and artists generally) to do the same. Only buy time. (I’m not even going to visit ‘impact’, but I’ve seen some gutless work produced under its supposed guise: willing itself to be art, willing itself to be relevant, quite useless in imaginative efficacy, and therefore useless to the social polity.)

I saw a poet give a reading the other day and it was like a practice-led presentation, which ‘reads’ very oddly for audience members not used to it, once the PhD is finished: it feels like the special pleading I suspect above. It’s a habit worth kicking. In the piece I am writing tracing the writing of fourteen variations on a ‘translation’ I made of the third sonnet of Petrarch, (see here and here) a partly conceptual, partly expressive sequence, under the sign of Oulipo, but informed by earlier poetic interests of my own, I need to avoid this kind of self-explication. (‘Poetics don’t explain!’ sez Charles Bernstein.) If I even dare to judge that Petrarch 3 is at once impersonal and personal, if I declare that it is at once hugely derivative and original, my thoughts above must halt my interpretive impulse here and dampen it to aspiration. I can only hope for such effects… Poetics is aspiration. (As well as provocation, and all the other things I’ve said it is over the years.)


FOOTNOTE: '...talked - I think - about a lack of proper criticism, not literary critical, but of immediate response internal to the 'poetry scene' (shorthand I know), particularly with all the new writers emerging as they are. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far: all these 'practice-led' 'creative writers' (they use this terminology whether in or out of the academy) have a poetics but there's no critical apparatus to evaluate the efficacy of both poetics and poetry. Without it, everything sinks to the bottom. Especially with conceptual writing which is so easy to do (badly).' (From my diary 30th August 2016)

For my own recent project, and book The Meaning of Form... see a hublink to various posts here

For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Here is some book data:

eBook ISBN
Hardcover ISBN