I mean it goes on, and its funny, ghoulish afterlife is in the form of
tours and readings and poetry slams and all the rest of it...
According to Martin Amis we - the readers and contributors to
magazines such as Stand - are all inhabiting and, indeed, contributing to
what he has described as poetry's 'ghoulish afterlife'. With
characteristically disarming urbanity, the novelist greeted his listeners at
the Hay Festival last summer with the following muted revelation: 'You
may have noticed that poetry is dead. The obituary has already been
written.' Readings and 'poetry slams' are, for Amis, no more than
phantoms, the strangely energetic evidence of this afterlife, while the
thing itself, the poem, is now, he suggests, a superannuated form well
past its read-by date. Adopting for a moment the studied demotic, he
suggests that 'not many people curl up of an evening with a book of
poetry'; and the reason is, apparently, that we no longer like 'these
moments of communion with the poet' which involve 'self-examination'.
Leaving aside what looks like a doggedly autobiographical idea of the
lyric mode - communion with the poet, not the poem - the tone of
Amis's statement requires some examination. This peculiarly resigned,
archly conversational revelation is neither lament nor celebration, but
takes the form of a laconic, realistic diagnosis: the deep chat of the
serious novelist pronouncing idiomatically on the progress of history.
It is this progress, particularly the new speed at which 'history'
operates, its 'accelerated' nature, as Amis puts it, which has implications
for the ways in which the self reads in the contemporary world. The new
speed of our time, he argues, makes it more difficult to appreciate or to
experience the peculiar form of epiphany poems can offer. A cultural
malaise which includes a combination of what he calls 'dumbing down'
and 'numbing down' only adds to the problem. Poetry's 'demise' has
been brought about by our dominant culture's addiction to forward
motion. According to Amis, the poem works in the other direction; it is a
stopping of the clock. One might add that the kind of attention a poem
can sometimes generate involves not only a stopping, but also a
reversing: even forwards and backwards repetitively at different speeds.
This is a process which has more often been described by 'meditation',
though the word doesn't necessarily carry the possibility of shock and
disturbance which can arrive with such attentiveness to the text.
Geoffrey Hill might be more famous for his writing on the poem's
capacity, in these time-stopping epiphanies, to offer atonement, quite
literally, 'an at-one-ment', but he is equally alert to its 'menace' and to
what Charles Olsen has referred to as the 'energy discharge' that a poem
can effect ('Poetry as Menace and Atonement' in The Lords of Limit).
Even more pertinently, Hill has written insightfully on rhythm's capacity
to register 'mimetically, deep shocks of recognition' ('Redeeming the
Time' in The Lords of Limit, 1984).
Just such shocks, I would argue, are all too readily available to us in
the dominantly lyrical mode of our popular culture. Amidst the plethora
of headphones relaying sounds from mobiles and ipods within the public
spaces of trains, planes, buses, and pavements grey one might yearn for
the seemingly ancient silence which, we've been told, 'surrounds all
poetry', but the turns and returns of lyric rhythms are being played out in
all their rich variety beneath those insistent scratchy sounds emanating
from the headphones and, of course, beneath the relentless forward
movement of the time.
Tishani Doshi and Josephine Hart, among others, have responded (in
the pages of The Guardian) to Amis's description of demise with forceful
reminders of poetry's apparent successes: the increase in titles, the
emergence of new imprints, the very proliferation of readings and slams
which constitute the 'funny, ghoulish afterlife' of which he speaks. And
it's certainly true that the fairly recent and welcome arrival of Salt,
Worple, and Shoestring presses, among others, onto the poetry scene
might rightly be said to be indicative of energy, enterprise, and life.
One of the other proliferations - of books explaining how to read
poems, write poems, and how poems work - provides, however, what I
take to be more ambivalent evidence of the health of the current poetry
scene. Indeed, it could even be used to prove something at least of
Terry Eagleton's How to Read a Poem, Jeffrey Wainwright's Poetry:
The Basics, Ruth Padel's Fifty-Two Ways of Looking at a Poem, Tom
Paulin's The Secret Life of Poems, and Stephen Fry's The Ode Less
Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within are just some of the host of recent
books that attempt to explain how poems work. It is difficult to gauge the
extent to which this proliferation of titles simply reflects a healthy
demand for more books on the subject or whether it is evidence of a
pervasive anxiety about poetry. Certainly, within academe, there seems to
be a concern that students need some helpful handbooks in order to allay
their fears about dealing with the perceived technical difficulties of verse.
By far the most agonized, the most joyous, and the most irreverent
of these recent volumes is Fry's book, which offers itself up in defiance
of what it sees as the lazy, undisciplined excesses of contemporary free
verse: what he refers to in his familiar idiosyncratic short-hand as 'arse-
dribble'. Fry presents himself as a nervous but committed amateur,
unabashed at his self-professed traditionalism and belligerently disposed
towards what he refers to as the formlessness of much contemporary
writing. No doubt because of his celebrity status, his book may well exert
undue influence, but, to judge by the conflicted response it has already
engendered in blogs and on-line reviews, it exposes a heart-felt difference
of view between poetry lovers on the subject of form. In his own
inimitable style of eccentric, learned, and bloody-minded belatedness, Fry
makes a lively and entertaining contribution to poetry's hectic after-life.
To complement it, we would need an intervention from the heart of
contemporary culture, from the very 'slams' which Amis categorises as
'funny' and 'ghoulish'. If it is true that in our contemporary culture we
are, as he suggests, pushed relentlessly forwards in a limiting linear
fashion in our acts of reading, some closer attention to the rhythms of our
culture might not go amiss.
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