Friday, September 10, 2010

Georgians on My Mind

Nicholas Manning & I traded comments about Robert Graves, wondering how his opposition to some of the key strands of literary modernism shapes what we make of the formal & metrical directions he took in his poetry. If Graves’s verse doesn’t float your poetic boat, does he get a pass, or take more kicks, for his principled rejection of the period style? Do the Georgians come off any better for writing like they didn’t know the 20th century was happening? (As late as the 1970s, Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, leaning hard on the Georgians, could create a mirror-world where it more or less hadn’t.) Here’s Nicholas pulling things deftly into the present:
“This might be then an important distinction to make: on the one hand formalists or "conservatives" who militantly argue for this aesthetic, and those who pretend nothing has happened and that this aesthetic constitues a norm.

Might this not be two rather distinct (and interesting) groups?
With Graves and Thom Gunn and Robert Lowell maybe at one end of the spectrum (the critically aware and aesthetically argumentative end) and then the Ted Koosers and Billy Collins at the unthinking other?

Maybe this would be an important distinction for Ron Silliman to make regarding the controversies of Quietism too, as Ron often seems to imply (anyone correct me if they don't agree) that "Quietists" invariably presume that they constitute a middle-road mythical normality, whereas many, and this seems to be Graves's case, explicitly and often eloquently argue for the superiority of their poetic tradition. Even if one doesn't agree, this explicit, cards on the table argument is obviously the one we need be having.”
This got me trying to gauge the distance between “normality” and period style, a two-edged concept if there ever was one. On the one side, you want to believe that your aesthetic position—your “poetic tradition,” as Nicholas puts it—bears some necessary connection to the important poems being written in the present. It’s what puts the avant in the garde: Their eccentric became our normal. At the same time, that particular view of tradition—one damned avant after another, to tweak Henry Ford’s famous quote about history—implies that your own poems will, at best, become outmoded, mulch for the next era’s advances. New then, you’re “period” now, and the anthologies need to push on. Isn’t that proof that your style, qua style, succeeded?

In practice, though, “period style” is a stone thrown more often at poets seen as derrière, not avant. I remember the small shock I felt when Marjorie Perloff during a lecture in Portland projected onto the overhead a Language poem (one of P. Inman’s, I think) as an example of writing on its way to becoming a “period style.” Why was that such a strange thing to hear about a poem nearly a quarter-century old? And why should it sound dismissive? Doesn’t the idea of a poetic avant garde, or experimental tradition or whatever, automatically trigger the notion of a period style? Whereas if you sit all Graves and lordly above history, you can claim the White Goddess, or time-resistant craft standards, or centuries of poetry as ritual practice, or the universal nature of the human condition to buoy up your efforts against the faddish present.

Maybe the notion of a period style only really comes into its own with the idea of an avant garde, so that Graves or the Georgians or a Lowell (broad brush for a short post) are inoculated against the “period style” charge, at least in their own minds, by their very different understanding of poetic tradition. If you don’t concede there’s a road, you never have to be in the middle of it; no train, and you’re never off the rails.

1 comment:

helen said...

At first glance at cover - I thought this a book of poems by Georgian poets translated to English - now that would be rare!