The delivery of intimacy
essay on social behaviour around poetry
It was a bad day. I had published a book about modern British poetry, in the teeth of all the poets who weren't mentioned in it. One of the reviewers – quoting another one – was saying that I only seemed to like nine or ten poets. I was disturbed at this. The book in question had included a list of poetry books which I liked and recommended, 262 in all. It was obvious from the list that I liked about 100 poets. Reviewers would have no hesitation in sneering at me for liking anything, so the only motive for putting anything on the list was that I really liked it and was willing to be jeered at for doing so, obeying my real feelings. Nonetheless the reviewers wanted to believe that I only liked 9 or ten poets. I knew many poets and the claim that I disliked their work would cause great social inconvenience.
I felt great pain over this. I felt that the reviewers were using pain as a means of reducing to me to a state of unconsciousness where I would be unable to defend myself from further and even more deceitful attacks. At the same time, withdrawing from the whole literary world seemed like a good idea, since any participation in it would expose me to similar attacks, and be frustrated in its purpose by similar misrepresentations. It became clear, in a hallucinatory light seeping out of bruised feelings, that what was most important in my life was being close to poets, and liking their work, and that the image of being cut off from this hurt me more than seemed possible. I had written five books about modern poetry in order to get room to write about all the poets I liked. There was apparently no way of arresting these lies. The part of myself which was hurting was invisible and very small, yet it seemed close to where literary processing took place – it was the literary organ, perhaps. Because it was hurting so much, the information it was emitting was unusually vivid and frequent, and the moment seemed opportune to collect this information and try to detect patterns in it.
The picture I saw of the poetic world was like a big London restaurant crowded with people shouting at the tops of their voices, and yet being drowned out by brutal techno music. Where every table had two or three independent parties seated at it, and conversations were continually being sabotaged by other people, jeered at, or interrupted, other people taking away what you had said, taking the experiences you described and claiming them as their own. Where everyone else took your calls and your drinks. Where a dozen people standing around you were mortally hurt by the sight of you making psychological contact with anyone, and would go to any lengths to stop it. Where all your sentences are completed by two other people, and the context of any conversation is constantly being paraphrased in a distorted way by three or four people standing nearby and looking on. Where the only motive for not running away was the fear that your whole life would be recounted, in tones of the darkest malice, and that at least one person would go round the room telling everyone, one by one, that you had meant to insult them personally by leaving. People were constantly reading poems aloud and then declaiming “You aren’t listening to me!” Some of the poems consisted of this line, vehemently repeated. People were writing down all the abuse and malicious inventions they could collect, gathering the loose sheets in dossiers, with partitions for each poet. As a dossier got larger, they wrote on its cover the title of my book.
Critics hate it when other critics like a book. Because intimacy with a poet is the precious asset which all this game revolves around. Once we understand that, we know what to focus on. This scene seemed to offer the possibility of explaining some of the startling features of modern British poetry. It offered a way of finding the connections between stylistic gestures within the poetry and the level of practice and everyday interaction in the poetry world.
Poetry is in a balkanised state with no accepted narratives of reputation. There is no agreement on the basic artistic facts of the last 40 years.
Partly, because the pressure on poets to dissimilate is overwhelming. They want to be distinct from everyone else as a prelude to being remembered. They want their poem to have signature. They want their poems to be dissimilar from everyone else’s. To the extent that experience is shared, part of a common sense, it interferes with signature and has to be removed.
Why is there a preoccupation with being empty-headed; the Nincompoop school? Why the domestic bias of poetry?
According to social historians, culture has been heading in this direction of privatisation for a long time. The target is the cosy middle-class home with the poet in the role of a favourite child. This is the residue once all the external possibilities of poetry have been abandoned. Biedermeier is a name for a period of German and Austrian art and literature dominated by sentimental portrayals of rosy-cheeked children and the family circle, conditioned by State censorship of ideas of any wider scope. When looking at the anthology The New Poetry, we talked about the flavour of the times being Biedermeier - perhaps because the focus of the new economy on education involves a preference for poets who are young or who adopt the role of being young. Adult subjects are outside the range of this kind of poet. The wish of poets to exclude each other is rightly called sibling rivalry because it is a consequence of this infantile state.
Poetry has exited from drama and narrative, its most popular forms in the 19th century.
External action is irrelevant to the expression of personality and the attainment of intimacy. Style involves an extent of control over the details of experience which is only attainable over a short range and in a protected environment.
Anthologies are hermetically sealed off from each other. Why do different groups mutually ignore each other?
This is partly because style evolves, and small groups provide a sheltered environment where that can happen. Partly, because ventures into self-description create bad feeling. Partly also - because anthologies create an 'atmosphere', and an atmosphere in which communalism is good defines stylistic originality as bad, and one in which original style is good makes unoriginal (but populist and sincere) poetry seem bad. This means that a poem may only work in a matching atmosphere. Partly, because segregation prevents outright conflict from breaking out.
How do we get from “I like red or blue” to a scale of poetic judgements?
Why is there such a multiplicity of aesthetic philosophies?
These two questions are closely related. In fact, the multiplicity is a natural state, bound to triumph once you remove strict centralising rules (and a group prestigious enough to impose them).
The evolution of a reader may be as complicated as the evolution of a poet. However, poetry relies on shared experiences, and since spontaneous aesthetic reactions are as unshared as the choice of "favourite colour" it is more efficient to use response patterns acquired in a shared subjectivity, i.e. within cultural experience (books, films, church services, the classroom...). Readers are shaped by the poetry they read more than by anything else. Studying the poetry may give us a window on this shaping process - without being direct evidence of it. We may overrate the shared experiences because it is possible to talk about them. In the end, poets cannot make poems "efficient" in the sense that everyone will like them; and poetic judgements cannot be more "efficient" than the poems. In fact, I do not aspire to make evaluative judgements which will be shared by everyone else.
Poets like games in which you start by cancelling everyone else’s assets. The clique is a basic formation, and is a sheltered area where members accept each other’s assets. If you reject the common sense of things, it is efficient to develop a version of human life which is personal and private – which has signature all the way through it.
Within the poetry world, invalidation predominates as an act, internal violence is a daily event.
This is part of the balkanised state. Poets are trained to compete, must do so by differentiating from other people, and must invalidate the assets which they do not possess. It is not enough to have a unique set of verbal experiences of your own. Other people must recognise it, too. And you must destroy rival sets of experiences. Being invalidated is one of the most vivid subjective experiences, so I think more attention needs to be given to who's doing it and why. Perhaps poetry changes because acts of humiliation discourage a poet from using existing forms - they get chased off. Ridicule enforces stylistic rules.
What is the connection between privatisation and pop poetry?
The poet does a mime of being ineffectual in order to elicit parental caring behaviour from the reader or critic. Of course, there are also the critical and intelligent poets as an alternative to the Nincompoops. The media promote youth because they cannot stomach the critical momentum of poetic originality; "newness" is blazoned on book jackets as a disguise for formal conservatism.
What is the stake of fratricidal struggles in an art world where there are almost no economic rewards?
The object of struggle is attention. The means of struggle are linguistic.
How do children strive for the attention of adults?
Sibling rivalry is a mighty force. The historian of psychology, Frank Sulloway, has depicted competition between siblings as a struggle for niches, which become character, the set of preferred scenes into which adults try to make inchoate reality flow. Children develop extremely effective tactics for seizing adult attention, and some of this skill flows, through however many long and indirect reaches of learning and adaptation, into the tactics used by poets. At some level, a poem is always a suit for attention. We are grateful to poets who tone down the insistent melodies of need and demand and do not jab the buttons too hard. When poets make emotional demands too crudely, we are shocked by what those demands are. I would emphasize the voluntary nature of the reader's participation in poetry. Poetry really worth our time is written by people so gifted at seizing our attention that they have adapted to what we want, including being interested by other people, losing egocentricity, incorporating knowledge about the outside world, building in decoration and variation, etc. Poets have to focus on our needs, not just on their own. As for why children want the attention of adults, this seems to be an anthropological given.
How does the concept of being out of date circulate?
This may be only a special form of the game of invalidation.
Using worn-out ideas may be a symptom of being a bad writer, rather than the cause. People with a poor grasp of a language use rigid and stereotyped turns of phrase, people who have a good command of a language tend to produce original utterances, varied as the situation demands, all the time. These variations are original, but only as a symptom of being adapted, in a conscious way, to the situation. An unoriginal poem, similarly, may have problems besides being unoriginal.
In an art museum, the physical succession from one room to another implies the succession of styles; a new one arrives and, it seems, an old one disappears. Looked at closely, the game of poetic reputation involves dozens of small futures owned by small groups. To turn literature into history, we would need to look at innovations which failed, the mechanism of failure, and the economy of the small groups owning memory. Maybe the salon labelled “2000-2010” would have a dozen different styles in it.
Maximising attentiveness works to the benefit of the reader. It increases the supply of the precious asset. So why are the available accounts of the period so partial -overlooking most of the good poets?
Someone asked in a recent issue of Chicago Review dedicated to the under-rated why the neglect of gifted poets was so obvious and so extreme. My reply was that the championing of favoured poets was the reason. Loyalty creates a bounded zone of light inside which everything else is invisible. The prescriptive gaze of advocacy prevents people from getting a glimpse of the cultural field - and the whole range of poets.
Why do people lose interest in poetry after leaving school?
School allows formal situations for display, admiration and accreditation which the market does not. Simply, people wrote poetry because there was a structure of teachers, of grades, of prizes to be awarded, etc., not sustained by any enthusiastic audience. Also, they stop being children -and adult models of poetry are rarely available.
When will a consensus emerge about who were the significant poets of the period?
Where everything is a loyalty test, there is no firm external reality – and this makes paranoia far more persuasive. If there were respected reviewers, a collective narrative could emerge which would bestow a stable reputation on certain poets. But there is no respect for any reviewers, least of all from the poets, who panic at the sight of someone potentially affecting their career. Eric Mottram was the last respected critic who took an active interest in innovative poetry. Reputation leaks out as a kind of Gnostic lore, spread from mouth to mouth, reaching no further than across a room. Poets want to believe that, “in twenty years of work I have built a firm reputation and position”, but in the land of competing paradigms that is of course impossible. There are no firm positions. Everything is being attacked all the time. It’s the transvaluation of all values. If your self-esteem is attached to this vortex of shifting, vaporous, ideas, you are doomed to misery. You can stabilise your self-esteem by building a narrow horizon and not looking beyond it – but that brings problems of its own. Many of the mysterious features of the landscape, the eroded earthworks and ruined walls, are defensive works which some poet has erected in order to enclose a horizon in which they can remain stable.
A symptom of this paranoia is hostility, projected onto the people who have a low opinion of you. The multiplicity of value-systems encourages hostile projection. The projection might often take the form of caricaturally low evaluations of the person who isn’t interested in you. Uttered in speech, print, or emails, these hostile ideas make the problem of egos changing size even worse.
Why do poets strive for individual styles?
The concept of private property has to be invoked here.
This has also to do with being remembered. Someone who reads poetry magazines will see dozens of names and may only remember the ones who write originally. This imperative becomes clearer if we look at dozens of poets in whom the aggrandisement of originality has carved down the intelligibility or the sense of their poems.
But the majority of published poets have no individuality of style at all, and a deeper question is what induces a minority of poets to write in an original way. The ability to write originally may be the reason for doing so. Unoriginal poets are perhaps trying to develop attachments in the reader by showing attaching scenes - like Biedermeier prints, perhaps. They may also be relying on loyalty tests of a sociological nature - a reason why cognoscenti automatically think of 'social group' poetry as tedious and inferior.
Why the preoccupation with qualifying the experience of the self, and with invalidating the experiences of someone who is not philosophical and critical in the right way? Why would it seem to anyone that sceptical reason is necessary to writing a poem?
There is an interesting summary of this problem in Randall Stevenson's The Last of England, at pp. 229-245.
The answer has to do with the distribution of educational assets. Because the objections have to do with recondite branches of literary theory, they are only comprehensible to people with the required level of education. Using them is a way of disqualifying people with fewer educational assets. Invalidation is made more effective by the use of organised knowledge and alliances.
In reality, the objections to the validity of anyone’s experience are unimportant, and at the same time insuperable. Literature which is apparently sophisticated does not get round the objections merely by acknowledging them. The choice to identify is at all times a valid one. The choice not to identify is at all times a questionable one. This game of invalidation is ignored by the vast majority of the reading public. It belongs originally in France, and has been imported, to a limited extent, into elite universities here.
Applying the rules is an obligatory part of belonging to a certain caste, and makes pleasure impossible. Such rules are not applied to writers from the Third World, and this absence of rivalry is why literati enjoy that kind of literature so much.
Why is English poetry different from Welsh and Gaelic poetry?
This seems to be something to do with social roles – whether they are rigid or flexible. Flexible social roles help a commercial economy but make for permanent emotional insecurity. The insecurity is what makes you attack other people’s experience. A rigid set of roles is much more comforting. It allows prestige and recognition to the poet, makes praise poetry possible, and allows a sense of security. It discourages innovation but encourages high technical achievement.
Why is rhetoric a dirty word?
Through most of European history, rhetoric has been the goal of conscious study. The fact that it has become a dirty word in England is bizarre, and no explanations seem sufficient for what looks like an act of failure and forgetting. However, part of the explanation is to be sought in withdrawal from organised religion and from affairs of state as subjects for poetry. Elevated language was entwined with the offices and proceedings proper to these spheres of activity, and the specialised words no longer have a meaning when transferred to other spheres. The course of poetry has taken saints' lives and chivalrous romances, and displaced the Saints and Heroes in order to have the Poets take their place. This has been an extraordinary coup, a seizure of roles. Insofar as poetry puts the Ego more at centre stage than the novel, with its cast of characters, does, poetry is more modern than the novel. But the replacement would induce anyone to modesty and discretion, I would think - and it has killed off rhetoric.
This withdrawal by poets is part of the privatisation we have been talking about, and can of course be seen as a new higher valuation of bourgeois experience. Opinion in England – perhaps all over Britain – favours the intimate, the casual, the spontaneous, the implicit.
Why has formal technique collapsed? Why is poetry written so casually?
The disappearance of (regular) metre and verbal ornament is very closely related to the shunning of rhetoric. Some light may be shed on it by the dialogue in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much', which we discussed above [see posting on 'Eccentricity']. It seems that theatre and cinema went in for the casual, bantering style in a big way in the 1920s. There may well be a link between this innovatory and spontaneous style and the new conventions of poetry. Perhaps a belief in amateurism means that you are forced to write bad poetry. The words are supposed to be transparent in order to make character visible. The reader is supposed to be fascinated, maternally, by the manifestations of this character.
Why has so much poetry shifted into something incomprehensible to most readers?
This is only a specific form of originality, an exacerbated one. Serial dissimilation, applied again and again, produces language which is unfamiliar but also original; eventually someone has to reach the point of being highly original but incomprehensible. Of course, there is a social basis, in the form of a clique sharing implicit knowledge, whose members regard each other as more important than the rest of the literary world. Natural language is highly dependent on context and on implicit statements, and transforming it into something comprehensible when shown to someone without the contextual knowledge has always been effortful. Casual poetry is a terrifying thing, and intelligent poets react against it.
How does rivalry model the landscape?
Dissimilation is the key process - where a poet strives to make their poems dissimilar from other forms of speech. It takes two main forms, which we can call competitive and contestatory. Competitive dissimilation is where a poet moves away from existing poetic norms in order to become original and to write poems which are distinctive. Contestatory dissimilation has more to do with looking at symbolic codes which represent solidarity, and so political norms, a consensus, an agreed authority structure, etc., and writing against them, perhaps by reproducing them in distorted form. This is directed more at political and theological norms than poetic ones.
Dissimilation can always be perceived as distortion. The grotesque is a key area of modern poetics. Mannerism and the grotesque are closely linked. Where character can be seen as deviations from a norm, say of facial features, extrapolated originality is close to caricature, another development of the same period of Italian art. Where originality is dissimilation, the distortion becomes your special thing, the thing you identify with.
It is possible to see national myths in the form of authorised scenes, and poems as presenting variations on these scenes - with changed emphases. This is hard to prove.
Is style a metaphor for private property?
The rule that "what A has done, avoid" might resemble a suburban plot layout more than a balkanised terrain. In a suburb, what is owned by A cannot belong to B, and everyone tries to acquire their own plot. Everyone, there, desires to get out into boundless and unoccupied space, and this is the lure of new poetic techniques - they offer a new dimension, a way of migrating into virtual space.
The landscape is the result of an organic process. It has been going on for a long time, and the landscape is old and mature. Progress is compelled to follow particular lines. It is quite logical for someone who wants to outstrip rivals to push their development out along axes on which variation is possible. If we see poetry which is distorted and incomprehensible, this points to someone who has taken rivalry too seriously. The point at which someone stops the flight into the uncoded is where they feel the internalised pressures relax and go quiet. This point is the niche which they then occupy as poets.
The fact that the poet has personalised their style may not be of benefit to the reader.
Is privatisation an authentic artistic act?
It is a harsh environment in which it is still possible for artists to succeed. The verbal link to one single person is vital because it focusses matters into a zone small enough to be filled with intensity. The link to a person is vital because people are the milieu we live in, to which our faculties are attuned, which can transform us through mimesis, which we can assimilate at every level of the mind. Mimesis is the direct pathway to the soul. Archaic yet complex and perfectly integrated. Mimesis isn't going to work with clouds or abstract ideas or tree frogs. Just with people. It is a tunnel of brilliant light. An agate octagon. A swirling beam. A door which opens on the abyss where everything is waiting. It draws us into acute simple allover locked states of being. Phases of archaic unity binding spans of time.
Why is the modern avant garde so disliked when the modernism of 1920 is so prestigious?
A constituent part of the avant garde method is querying the hot gush of natural emotions and this comes over as coldness- the exact opposite of what people here want from a poem.
These descriptions of the whole field of modern British poetry are like looking down from high above and may be helpful when generalisations are hard to come by - as an antidote to myopic close reading of texts. However, the poets differ a great deal from each other, and analysis which explains why they are similar has limits on its accuracy. The explanation of the era through privatisation has (at least) two major rivals: the account through upward mobility, where the story of the period is one of excluded groups finding their way into poetry, failing to understand literary codes, and writing poetry which directly tells of their experiences, in a naive and banal, yet typical, way; and the account through bourgeois guardianship, where a moral elite write small-scale, clear, self-denying poems discouraging people from political or moral deviance.
I don't feel any incongruity in enjoying poetry of the most diverse kinds. We could say, I have a weak sense of identity. There are so many latent patterns. 4000 species of bacteria in a gram of soil. A million species in a kilogram. (Where did I see these numbers?) Maybe all patterns are latent in the brain and the problem is their reluctance to rise out of thermal death, not that they are missing. They compete with each other for dominance and resources, no doubt. To suppress the major ones is to release the unfamiliar ones - exactly the reason for the interest in minor and unconventional poets. Reading is a protected situation, and so one where it would be safe to allow any kinds of pattern to emerge. There is a particular cluster of sensations which I am addicted to, and I emerge from the ground like a bacterium whenever that microclimate comes into existence. Maybe I am present everywhere in the soil, but as minute spores.
That cluster has to do with finding rich and unfamiliar information, and a good source for it is uncovering the shape of the verbal world of a poet. The half apprehension of the extent of their strangeness and newness. The stage before you see the whole shape. When everything is growing and unfolding as you gaze at it. Extending my mind along a surface whose extent I cannot realise. Being a self inside a self. My preferred state is being inside unfamiliar experiences, and I do not see any continuity between the poets I prefer. What I prefer is a shift of coordinates, the peripheral becoming central. Fulfilling this basic wish to see new things all the time, I have enjoyed shared attention and closeness with more than a hundred modern poets - the ones I write about, the ones I like, in fact. The claim that I don't like them is malign and sadistic.
If you are being borne up by water, you want the water to be a mighty rushing torrent, not a trickle which cannot take you anywhere. We want the experience to be as immersing and as new as possible. It is not clear to me that I want to repeat acquired reaction patterns when there is a possibility of regressing to a state of mind which is nothing but empty and inchoate forms, impelled by their emptiness to acquire new data and new experiences. It's obvious when you reach the core of someone's work, because the pressure increases so much, hidden structures become so clear, hundreds of correlations emerge into plain sight. It's hard to keep balance under the buffeting of such forces. At the same time, the pressure to get to that point, the eye of all things, is racking and disturbing. Because the media and the retail trade gave up on modern poetry decades ago, the quest for the books where the evanescent fine details of personality are stored demands great energy and persistence. The thrill of the chase gives secondary structures, like the catalogues and shelves you have to fight through to get at the poems you want, a charge of excitement and affection. The landscape is hidden and opaque, but this too becomes a source of pleasure, in the lull before the senses are freed from clouds and the true shape of things is revealed. The ingenuity it takes to identify the essential books, and to find their meaning, however strange and complex, is another source of excitement, and pride. The landscape is soaked in frustration, but somehow this too ferments and is transformed to pleasure at the moment of realisation.
It's clear now that other collectors want to prevent this at all costs. That the moment of intimacy causes them a pang of envy and regret which lacerates some small soft part of them. They become territorial and wish for closed boundaries around the most precious object. The display of trophies of successful cultural experiences provokes panic and denial. As soon as you have intense focus, you have around it a zone intensely peripheral - a site of keenly humiliating and thwarting experiences.
If poets are miserable it is because the number of living poets of amazing talent is so large. It is logical for a reader to be happy and for a poet to be sad. I have discovered all the modern British poets of wonderful talent, and this fills me with amazement. I can see that it makes people jealous.
It might seem odd that I like some of Kathleen Raine's poetry, but in fact I have a vision of an implicit order, and her poetry is all about implicit order - even if she can't evoke it all the time. What I am addicted to is the glimpse of recessed orders making language transparent and model-like, a surface that articulates the bones of the land.
Serenity is possible as soon as we move out of the public space, with its overcrowding, its malice, its cacophony. Pleasure in poetry is like simply sitting in a quiet restaurant where intimacy and trust are possible, supplying a higher quality of speech. There, we share attention with three or four other people, ignoring a million conversations developing in other places. The implicit comes to be rich, undamaged, and fulfilling. We understand, and are understood. Hostile people are kept far away. This world is small enough to be changed by us, and we are small enough to be changed by it.
So much of the artistic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s seemed to involve a kind of sorcery whereby the artist conjured up the vast world of grey, defocussed, neglected facts and smashed a breach in the little shared world of discourse to let the excluded pour in. This was almost always ineffective. It mostly led to a loss of focus - the self when dispersed over a large cold space wanted to reconcentrate itself in a small warm one. For me the poem is the realisation of a vision confined to a strip - the model-like transparency making the focus sharper and more fixed, the periphery less distracting and less assertive. Information exists all the time as a three-dimensional matrix stretching off in every direction; the poem is a unique realisation of a series of violent acts of attention, a momentary path through that matrix, a kind of temporal paradox which did not exist before it happened and which ceases to exist as soon as it has finished happening.
The delivery of intimacyStevenson, Randall, The Last of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Sulloway, Frank J. Born to Rebel (London: Abacus, 1998)
There was also an earlier discussion of individualism in 'Council of Heresy'.