Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Todd Swift

I disagree with the observation that, since disrupted syntax, shifts in levels of discourse, and other apparently innovative techniques are more common (in submissions, even so, to Salt), they may be designated as mainstream. While stylistic divisions between the so-called mainstream and the innovative schools may be shifting (as styles and aims merge or adapt) in the UK - and I think that, among younger (under-35) poets, they are - there remain actual differences in the poetics behind the choices that lead to, for instance, a disrupted lyric, versus an empirical, first-person, traditional British poem (for instance, that Nick Laird might write). There remains, in Britain, profound mistrust of opaque, excessive, or abstract usage of language, in relation to poetry, which, for most people, is still ultimately a vehicle for expressing something - for saying something - about the self and experience. Or rather, not about the problematic nature of an apparent self apparently trying to say something - but, instead, an easily accepted self easily and transparently conveying truths. Moreover, poems continue to be, on the whole, validated in terms of "making" that Pound, or Orwell would have approved (terms better used for for prose): clarity, hardness, and so on. These are scientific values that work well for language mainly built to control, or sell, things, including sentiments and ideas. In a paradox that I think has not yet fully dawned on British poets, modernism's no-nonsense tenets propelled the sort of Protestant work ethic of the Movement style, and its purities of diction - Davie, after all,
admired Pound.

My chief concern is with the idea of the "good poem" - so cherished by entrepreneurs in the poetry-editing business - since most often, when one examines the sort of criteria even so-called innovative editors swear by, they end up being rather traditional, and usually trite. The idea that poets have something to say, or that form and content are finding an organic match, are hardly cutting edge observations, and could easily sum up the New Lines view of the Movement era. Poetry publishing cannot be everything to everyone, or it stops being the art of publishing, and instead becomes the entertainment of publishing. Recent trends, in poetry, do seem to be moving from theory (as in the English departments) - how much is Eagleton to blame for this? Likely, not much. More seriously, few younger poets read, or understand, Poetic Artifice, and how that work inspired Charles Bernstein in America. There is a very real feedback loop, between 1976 era British Poetry, and Language poetry in the US - just as an earlier British generation found Allen's The New American Poetry foundational. But, in the mainstream, such a loop seems weaker - few American poets read or recognise, for instance, Don Paterson - and fewer British mainstream poets seem to get their bearings from North Americans (other than, say, Billy Collins, and even that seems unlikely).

The most important American poet, in terms of influence, remains O'Hara, who does seem to create a strange brotherhood of followers. The main ongoing tragedy in British poetry, to my mind, remains the unquestioned connection between publishing and poetry, in some minds. Too many young poets seek a career (sadly, or laughably) from the mainstream, one that seems afforded by the capital which publication - vindication - by Salt, or Faber, seems to accord. The main thing should be the composition of the poem. Poems should be read, and appreciated, regardless of, and indeed, apart from, their publisher. Instead, house styles, and publishing cliques no better than small closed clubs, predominate in the UK, whose poetry communities seem, from an outsider's perspective (and I have been kept an outsider), mostly incurious, and certainly, anti-internationalist, except in mainly avant-garde, circumstances.