Auckland University Press, $19.95
Auckland University Press, $19.95
I teach a second-year university course in modern poetry where one of the chief requirements of the lecturers is to prevent panic. It’s alright, we say, yes, this isn’t a complete sentence, this poem doesn’t tell a coherent story, no, it doesn’t rhyme, it doesn’t give you a sense of place or character. The language is kind of fragmented, isn’t it? It’s OK ‑ it’s modern ‑ modernist ‑ postmodern. It’s playing around, but there are still ways you can connect with it. You just have to read in a slightly different way from the way you read “Ode to the Nightingale”.
The modern/modernist/postmodern poem makes new demands on its reader. It’s no good being like the Kurt Vonnegut character in Cat’s Cradle who looking at the piece of string demanded “Where’s the cat? Where’s the cradle?” Don’t be literal. The poem may have an inferred coherence ‑ a narrative, a situation, an argument ‑ that you can construct as you read. It may work by association ‑ with other literary traditions, with cultural or historical reference, or to some reconsideration or rewriting of orthodoxies. It may, by its opacity, be forcing you to think about language ‑ about the words it is made up of rather than the ideas and images these words usually convey. Or it may be foregrounding the sound of words above their meaning. The poem’s sense of disorder may be because the poet wishes to write about disorder, or make up a new definition of harmony. But none of these things are barriers or disincentives to reading pleasure.
This is the point of modern poetry, the process of encountering the strange and the difficult without needing to solve or reduce. But as the medium of communication is still language, the literate reader remains powerful. The fundamental skills of reading ‑ word by word, sentence by sentence ‑ still apply, even when the reader marks divergences rather than conformities to the normal practice and use of language.
And with such tutelage, students whose experience of poetry is very limited ‑ we don’t read poetry recreationally as a society ‑ can relax and learn to love James Fenton or Wallace Stevens or Sylvia Plath with a suitably informed and tolerant passion. Which is why I feel angry about Auckland University Press’s two new offerings, Murray Edmond’s The Switch and Michele Leggott’s Dia.
It is not that they break the rules. There are by definition no rules (it is in fact a rule). Breaking rules, making it new”, was the manifesto of the modernists of the first decade of this century, whose poetic inheritance we still enjoy. It is that both collections break a kind of minimal contract with the reader in presenting a kind of difficulty that ‑ through I think artistic ineptness ‑ becomes solipsism, elitism and pretension.
Edmond’s collection is the worst example of this, as it combines obscurity with an emptiness that leaves me, as a reviewer, uncertain about what I possibly can say. It is (says the back cover, I don’t think I would have realised otherwise) a long poem in 49 parts about (back cover again) love. Take for example (chosen at random) numbers 43 and 44:
turn it on
turn it out
turn it in
turn it up
turn me round
turn me over
turn me down
turn me up
it comes down
down and it
it goes up
up and it
The critic ‑ by which I mean me ‑ feels vaguely stupid even commenting on these pieces. The playfulness of the language? The sexual innuendo? The interesting textual parallels between these and number 6 ‑ “down on your cheek/ down on your luck/ the down stroke/ down boy down”? Repetition and alliteration? The quaint way in which the English language ascribes different meanings to the same word? And it gets worse. These at least have a rhythmical bounce ‑ a bit like ‑ a very, very, little bit like ‑ Dennis Lee’s Riffs, where language is used to mimic jazz forms. But what can one say of number 30:
thought is made in the mouth
said Tristan T.
the fish has a night song
The first line perhaps suggests the priority of language as a way of shaping ideas and experience ‑ a little Saussurian reference for the cognoscenti? Is the second verse a metaphor to reiterate and concretise the abstract first verse? But I can’t see the parallel ‑ a metaphor should expand meaning. And I can’t think of any useful association with either Tristan T (not Tristan Shandy, nor Tristan and Isolde), or Morgenstern (Margery Morningstar?). Possibly (quite possibly, I’m afraid) they are the names of Edmond’s cats, in which case, as purely private references, they have no business here. But there is a more sinister possibility. A kind and more literate friend suggests that Tristan T may refer to Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist poet who pioneered the simultaneous poem (No, I don’t know what a simultaneous poem is. But that’s what he was aiming at.) As far as I’m concerned this doesn’t improve things. Reading a poem should not be like entering Mastermind (tonight’s specialist subject will be Murray Edmond and minor Dadaist poets). Reference and allusion should be more generally available.
To return to the text, are the “o”s ‑ 10 of them, followed by a larger and differently spelt “oh” ‑ the fish’s song? If so their emptiness contradicts the initial statement ‑ “thought is made in the mouth”. There is no discernible thought here. Is this the point? Does the second verse and “o”s stand in opposition to the first abstract statement?
One might think that this is to subject the piece to critical overkill. But I’m not. I’m simply assuming that the poem has an integrity and I’m using various reading practices to discover what that integrity consists of. I’m trying to make a connection with it. I can’t. Alright, then, does its resistance to interpretation make me reconsider assumptions about language, poetry, or meaning? Maybe, if I was feeling in a really kind and generous mood, but this is all so old-fashioned. The Dadaists and the avant‑garde were, after all, doing the “épater les bourgeois” act 80 years ago. To provoke a reader by baffling them is hardly useful and has connotations of a smart‑arse élitism that was one of the negative hallmarks of high modernism.
I’m not sure whether Michele Leggott’s work is better or worse. It is certainly fuller and more complex. It has an awareness and a foregrounding of the sensuousness of language that Edmond’s “snook/snuck/sneak/tick/tuck/tock” (and I quote, number 32) does not. The first piece, “Where exactly are we?” begins
INCANDESCENT LACUNAE FLORESCE AT A
TOUCH DESIRE TORQUES DILOQUENT PEARL
CURVES LUMENS CON BRIO ALIGHT NO BODY
Nice words. Must have been fun to write. Bit boring to read after a while. There’s nothing like coherence to keep the reader’s interest alive. Got a nasty feeling that something’s meant to be going on, but the shortage of verbs makes it difficult to track. “THE HARD BIT IS GETTING/ ASHORE WITH YOUR HYDROPHILE PURLING” would be fine if I knew what the last two words meant. But I did notice that all the bold type read in sequence comes out as “IN DESIRE DESIRE ORAL DELIGHT DELIGHT OUT”. Enough to get anyone’s hydrophile purling.
“Micromelismata” are two concrete poems in the shape of lips, the first being entirely made up of “x”s, the second made up of words. I haven’t read a concrete poem since 1972. I’ve resisted the seventies revival in clothes. I’m damned if I’m going to revert in literature. Poems in the shape of lips have much the same connotations for me as platform shoes. As with Edmond, I have this nasty feeling that the literary wheel is about to be reinvented and we are being asked to applaud as clever and inventive what is already part of the canonical literary tradition.
The major piece in Dia presents problems of another kind. “Blue Irises” is a sequence of 30 sonnets. To write a sonnet sequence is to overtly position oneself in some kind of relationship to the mainstream literary tradition. For a woman poet to do this has further associations ‑ of comparison, development, parody, rejection ‑ with the male authored tradition, but also with women practitioners. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is an obvious figure here, and the reference in number 2 to “… the Portuguese/ wind in her hair alongside us here/ on the deck unhidden she slows your reading down” may be an allusion to her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (but note my tentativeness). More recently the American poet Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons charts the progress of a relationship with occasional references to Shakespeare:
Forty‑two winters had besieged my brow
when you laid siege to my imagination
in a cafe named for a subway station…
Leggott’s style has something of Hacker’s intense sensual reference, but it also has a wilful obscurity that lurches over into the self‑indulgent:
Make me a heaven in a huluppu bed, noon
on the wing and the little seahorse in the brain
richly doped with pleasures that transform
This sounds like the sort of thing Edith Sitwell intoned through her stengerphone. Worse, it sounds like Noel Coward’s take‑off of Sitwell.
The italicisation of the first phrase of this quote is presumably a marker to indicate that the phrase belongs to another poet. In a somewhat overblown note at the end of the collection, Leggott explains that she has incorporated fragments from other NZ women writers into her own writing:
Vocatives, interrogatives, imperatives. If I thought I was on my own I would give it away. I work with others, listening and talking back, picking up the conversations over a distance, following instructions or making them up. What I am looking for is the perfect poem, what I am doing in the interim is paying out attention and reeling in language.
Specifically, her appropriation of these writers is intended to rectify the influence of modernism in New Zealand poetry in the 1930s, which marginalised writers such as Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde who continued to use more traditional forms. They are very oddly placed in Leggott’s work, and. one doubts that they would have thanked her for rescuing them in this way. Moreover, I’m not sure that they need it. Historically they may have been marginalised. Now they are surely part of the literary canon, celebrated, reprinted, and the subject of countless undergraduate essays.
Overall, I find these two collections depressing. Leggott’s shows marginally more linguistic adeptness and literary self‑consciousness. But in both there is a kind of wilful obscurity that communicates a contempt for the less enlightened reader, and which makes them simply uninteresting. Subjectivity can be fascinating for the subject. It can be a bit boring for those who are not.
Jane Stafford is a lecturer in English at Victoria University of Wellington.