On the back cover of this energetic book Andrew Duncan, blurb-master, tells us that in the years 1999-2001 ‘roughly as many books of poetry were published as in the whole of the 1970s. This is a poetry boom’. And his book has a reverberation to it in keeping with that little statistic. It is a very strange book indeed comprising a selected Whos Who of the contemporary poetry scene and some waspish attacks which are rather funny. It offers highly interesting insights into what it means to read a poem and dismissive strokes to the boundary for those who may have thought themselves in for the long innings. It reminds me a little of Falstaff’s comments about Mistress Quickly whom he suggests is like an otter. When asked ‘Why an otter?’ his reply is prepared for maximum target-hitting:
‘Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not
where to have her.’
Let me give you an example from a subsection, ‘Powers of Intuition’:
‘People who read poetry prefer the line of intuition, first person insight, creativity, personal symbols. This predisposition got them to the poetry section in the library, allowed them to be attracted by a book of poetry, and guides them into the meaning of the poem’
Yes, indeed, one has met these people and the emphasis upon that mean little definite article in the last clause gives us the closed shop of poetry readers, and, I shudder to say, many secondary teachers of English!
Now, try this from the same sub-section:
‘My idea of poetry sees it as a zone where suggestibility, collusion, identification are enhanced and made effortless. Take Kenneth Allott. (editor of Mid-Century Poetry, Penguin) If he thought 40.6% of the significant British poets (1918 to 1960) were Oxford graduates, that shows that he had taken collusion a long way. He was reading signs of authenticity but he defined them as signs of having been to Oxford—as he had. Prominently, he carried out repetitive acts of judgement and pleasure.’
This raises interesting issues about the role critics play as readers and I rather relished Duncan’s following paragraph in which he makes comment upon THEORY:
‘Everything taking place under the label of theory acts to reduce the value of artistic connoisseurship and of individual taste. The only purpose of poetry is the first-hand experience of someone inside the poem, where everything happening depends wholly and solely on individual judgements and acts of appreciation.’
This prompted me to recall a short section from the Notebooks of Philippe Jaccottet:
‘Inside, outside. What do we mean by inside? Where does outside end? Where does inside begin? The white page belongs to the outside, but the words written on it? The whole of the white page is in the white page, therefore outside myself, but the whole word is not in the word. That is to say there is the sign I write down, and its meaning on top of that; the word has first been in me, then it leaves me and, once written, it looks like strapwork, like a drawing in the sand; but it keeps something hidden, to be perceived only by the mind. It is the mind that is inside, and the outside is all the mind seizes on, all that affects, touches it. In itself it has neither shape, nor weight, nor colour; but it makes use of shapes, weights, colours, it plays with them, according to certain rules.’
If I am left dissatisfied with Andrew Duncan’s burlesque at any points it will come down to the ease of that Falstaffian response! For instance, in a sub-section titled ‘Prynne Follower’ I am confronted by the following passage in which Lockwood Laudanum, that well-known Classicist of the very best school, is being interviewed. Upon being asked ‘What would you pick out as a perfect purchasing experience?’ L.’s reply is forthright:
Twelve Poems, by R.F. Langley, which I bought from Peter Riley in Sturton Street in 1993. This just absolutely summed up what I like in poetry. Obviously anything not based on Prynne is second-rate and out of date and doesn’t really count. Obviously anything that isn’t impenetrable isn’t really modern and doesn’t repay the effort. I find most modern poetry tedious but I obtain my supplies by following a particular genealogy. It’s like inheriting an estate, the closer you are to the primogenitary bloodline the more of the estate your share is. Pound goes to Olson and Olson goes to Prynne. It’s like the Da Vinci Code really.’
Ok, shades of Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding but I would like to know more about Duncan’s views on Langley who, incidentally, inherits far more from Olson that he does from Prynne. The fun of mischief-making is often delightful although, when it stretches to three-hundred pages I wonder if a little more variety might have been offered. I’m being fussy since after all I did enjoy so many of the side-swipes. Get a copy from Shearsman and decide for yourself!
P.S. I wonder how many poets gave their money to appear in the show; and I wonder how many paid not to.
Ian Brinton 20th December 2015
I have never liked Andrew Duncan’ work,if his forays can be so dignified.His editing of ‘Angel Exhaust’ I found bizarre.Contemporary poetry is hugely fragmented and we are still waiting for an anthology which shows us what is on offer.I like the quote from Jaccottet very much,