Kevin Saving on
Writing Poetry - Creative and Critical Approaches
by Chad Davidson and Gregory Fraser
Palgrave Macmillan (2009)
Mystifying Poetry - Obscure and Esoteric Approaches
Writing Poetry has to be one of the most pointless, pretentious, canting productions which it has been my misfortune to happen upon. Compiled - 'written' would be a misnomer - by two American academics (both 'Associate Professors of Literature and Creative Writing' at the university of West Georgia), this volume is subdivided under various headings such as 'The aleatory voice', 'voice as palimpsest', 'The infantilized voice', 'The Semiotic Simian' and 'Reursivity redux'. The authors name-drop a series of 'trendy' theories ('Defamiliarization', 'Flow theory', 'Autotelics' etc) for no discernable reason other than to show how 'Right-on' they both are. A repeated exercise is to introduce work (frequently by their favoured students, sometimes from more-established writers - 'practising poet' is their stock-phrase) before adding a paragraph or three of elliptical, attempted exegesis. If we leave their students out of the equation for compassionate reasons - and they surely have my sympathy for a start- let's trundle out the two professorial poseurs on Gertrude Stein...
...whose poetic noise seems to have 'substance' and 'weight' all of its own. Listen, for example, to the opening lines of 'If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait Of Picasso':
If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.
Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would
would he like it.
If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would
he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he
like it if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I
told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him.
If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.
A gifted prose writer as well as poet, Stein starts by casting clamorous poetic repetitions in what appear to be prose form. The almost block-paragraph style of the initial lines grates harshly against the clipped, one- and two-word lines that follow. All the while, Stein creates a kind of sound-machine, a veritable calliope of words.
On many levels [...] 'If I Told Him' reinforces the physicality of the text, the sense that poetry remains the hyper-material [author's italics] literary genre.
By way of explanation, a 'Calliope' is an American term for a steam-organ (also 'doubling' as the Greek muse of Epic poetry). Very clever. Also, very dumb. Miss Stein is quite self-evidently having a laugh at our expense here. She would clearly have loved the thought of her lines being treated in so determinedly serious a fashion by this pair of posturing poetry-pseuds. As she might well also have written: 'A pose is
a pose is a pose'.
No mere flash-in-the-pan, Davidson and Fraser can maintain their asininity-levels for as-long-as-it-takes. Next, they sink their collegial teeth into something a bit more meaty: Philip Larkin's quietly-terrifying 'Aubade' (arguably the one substantive poem reproduced in their text -though they also anatomise Craig Raine's over-hyped 'Martian' postcard, plus Browning's 'My Last Duchess' and Dickinson's 'Because I could not stop for Death').
We have explained five (but in no way all) of the potential meanings embedded in Larkin's formal repetition of 'no' in order to make a few important points about semiotics and poetic practice. First, poets learn to trust form and structure not just as architecture on which to hang their ideas. Rather, these features become significant contributors to the complex act of meaning-making in which any successful poem engages. Larkin's structural repetitions, then, are not merely ornamental exuberance devoid of significance but remain intricately connected to the poem's nexus of arguable meanings.
We have also engaged in some literary criticism -unpacking several significances inscribed in Larkin's repetitive 'no's- to help foster a kind of 'X-ray vision' for the ways in which forms and structures function as carriers of meaning. What's more, we have illustrated that a dynamic, dialogical readership half-creates meaning in tandem with the text at hand. As readers of poetry, we do not passively receive
the meanings of Larkin's 'no's. Instead, we actively engage the sign, wrestle with its multifaceted contours with respect to culture and manufacture multiple meanings with the poem. To look at poems in this charged, semiotically informed way provides endless material for analysis whilst also respecting the formal complexities of any artistic production.
Blah, blah, blah. I have underlined the one sub-clause which I could (a) understand (b) agree with
and (c) feel is worth saying. Our two word-struck commentators cannot seem to get over the (indisputable) fact that Larkin used the word 'no' nine times in a fifty-line poem. They attribute a 'Sisyphean Complex', cite Albert Camus (without acknowledging that the latter saw Sisyphus as a 'happy' figure) and maintain that the poet's 'obsessive repetitions of the word 'no' also capture the state of mind that typically characterizes postmodern existance'. Ludicrously, they argue that 'the poem's repetitive negations simultaneously begin to sound like an exaggerated, over-emotional plea for clemency. The speaker pleads, 'no, no, no', in what amounts to gothic melodrama'.
Hrrumpff!! I shall go on believing that Larkin wrote 'Aubade' to communicate (or 'share') his personal feelings of revulsion, horror and fear, engendered by his own impending mortality. And that, paradoxically, it was rather brave of him to do so -particularly when his words can be the victims of this type of over-analytical, academic guff. Larkin's 'no's? My arse!
Occasionally, a 'How To' book of this nature can provide a useful stimulant (merely by diametrically opposing each of its counterfeit contentions). Unfortunately, with Writing Poetry, the density of the prose - and the thought- obviates even this, happy, possibility. If comfort is to be had, it lies in the discovery that there is still, apparently, a market for books which purport to study prosody and/or the mechanics of composition - though Palgrave Macmillan are highly culpable in feeding this 'market' the egregious twaddle they have here.
Kevin Saving © 2009