crippled by gentility

by Michael Peverett

There is class war on the internet as everywhere else. And I'm as implicated as anyone, and (thinking of myself as a player here, because I've now written so many literary pieces) I keep noticing common literary/journalistic expressions that I just would never use, because of personal snobbery and because I want people to see that I've got more class than to write crap like that (which really means that I'm not being told what to write by paymasters, because no-one gives a toss about what I write).

1. "a gem of a book"

Pure Hustle is a gem of book ... (Jo Shapcott on Kate Potts' debut collection for Bloodaxe.) BTW, since we're taking potshots, the worthy but ancient Bloodaxe website desperately needs a facelift. Can you imagine it, you can't even browse in the books, there's no samplers! So the only things Kate Potts has got to promote her probably unique gifts are two worthless blurbs, Shapcott's heartwarming "gem of a book.. pure gold..." and Jen Hadfield's woolly stab at a more surreal style ("this assonance-jellied, beetle-drawer of a pamphlet..."). Is this of any use to anyone? Contrast, of course, the Shearsman or Salt websites: you can really discover a whole lot about, say (pause...), Sascha Aurora Akhtar's The Grimoire of Grimalkin.. Hey, I like this book a lot; that wasn't in the script. I thought Salt had stopped publishing my kind of books (NB I was right, but you can still buy some old things). Anyway, you see what I mean? That's what a publishing website needs to do, isn't it? The business of a publisher is to publish, not just print.

[You can read about Kate Potts' book here, though:]


"This gem of a book" - most appropriately used of debut collections: attempting to suggest a cherished personal discovery that one has hugged to oneself for ages before coyly, earnestly, almost reluctantly, feeling impelled to speak of it among friends.

Of course we do not use expressions like this in the alt-poetry world.  (We pretend that we don't have any friends, while mainstreamers pretend that they don't live in an economy.)  Perhaps we view the gushingness of "this gem of a book" as further evidence that mainstreamers in general don't have any thoughts about poetry worth attending to, while they continue to believe that we don't  really care for poetry at all but just use it to promote our own personal agendas; both very true insights.

The more generalized expression used by both these blurbers: "This A of a B" now appears to survive only in the provincial world of books, long since discarded from more fashionable media spheres (who used to say "this colossus of a performance", "this determined beauty of an anti-single" etc).

More distantly, it makes me think of:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Essentially all these expressions are about asserting (creating) value, i.e. they attempt to propose a heroic scena in which swords are magic and heroes can hold up stone bridges with their bare hands. Used in reviews, this transmutes into a heroic/commercial nexus, i.e. in which you can BUY THE ACTION: bucklers, bridges and all.

2.  "in defence of"


Yup. That's it. No, I mean, that's one of the things I would never, ever write: an article entitled "In Defence Of" something. But lots of people do. Try Googling "in defence of" ... well,  anything. Modernism, moral imperialism, moral absolutes, mothers, monarchy, moderate aesthetic formalism, model-based inference in phylogeography, Morgan Tsvangirai, and that's just the MOs.

Gillian Beer in defence of rhyme (Guardian, Jan 13th 2007): "Rhyme is often dismissed as conventional, old-fashioned and childish. Not so, argues Gillian Beer, who believes its potential to persuade and surprise should not be underestimated". That's the subEditor speaking, with his brisk "Not so". The article that follows is often intelligent, not at all original, and eventually sinks under the oppressive discomfort of trying to pretend to be a perky topical must-read: "One difficulty in discussing the effects of rhyme is that these are manifold and diverse," the author laments helplessly.

(Bit of a soft target, you're thinking? I know. The fact is that I've lost contact with the original article that inspired this particular snobbery; I can't even remember if it was about poetry or not.)

So why are people so fond of titling their articles "In Defence of X"? Because it vaguely reminds them of other articles they've read. They think it's a clever quote from something, was it Shelley? (No, it wasn't.) Even if it was a clever quote, I'd despise it because it wasn't a cleverer one. Think of all those other vague appropriations of forgotten quotations: I want to say that entitling your essay "Post-Structuralism and Its Discontents" (Globalization, Simulation, The Euro...), so far from differentiating you, in fact places you on just the same beery level as if you write "The Great British Barbecue" (Pudding, Christmas..).

But the real reason why cool people don't use "In Defence Of..." is this. Consider the scenario: you use it to stand up for something that is, in your opinion, under attack. In other words, you tell the world that you're going to come on a bit reactionary here. Obviously, you're saying it oh-so-knowingly so as to prove that you're not REALLY a reactionary. (Keston Sutherland could possibly get away with that, but absolutely no-one else can.) But it won't work. Your title proves exactly the opposite. It proves you have a taste for sitting among reactionary furniture, so probably you ARE a reactionary, it's just that you're so reactionary that you don't even realize how reactionary you are. Actions speak louder than words. (And it's a safe bet that though you're finding relief in giving vent to some of your reactionary views now, you're still holding back on all the worst ones.)

But, wait a minute, doesn't it make a difference WHAT you're defending? No, not really. Never defend. It's A. defensive behaviour B. A lost cause. C. Suggests the puzzled blinking of an owl in daylight. D. Proves you're in denial.

And by the way, the perhaps exemplary object that you've set out to defend is now, thanks to your own bungling, tainted by association with the reactionary attitudes encoded in the word "defence".

You think I'm joking. Well, take Michael Pollan's big-selling "In Defence of Food". Main assertion, that there's no point taking any nutritional supplements because you cannot reduce food, which is so chemically complex, to a small number of active principles. I can't help noticing that the same argument would seem to condemn all medicine or pharmaceutics; it asserts an obfuscatory integrity of nature and makes experiment or investigation as impious as to question the ways of God. Interesting argument, nonetheless. But hold on! Soon the author is complaining that people don't even sit down together to a family meal these days! And if you want to know what real food is, then it's whatever your grandmother would have recognized! .... The author together with his cherished damsel (defended object: "Food" in this instance) are equally betrayed from within by these mindless DailyMailisms.

There's a more important reason than any of that. Attack and Defence are like Good and Evil, they tend to reduce the complexity of nature to the ancient binary systems, always more or less inaccurate, that humans rightly fall back on in extreme emergencies when action of some sort is paramount and layers of complexity must be stripped from the vision. At all other times, binary is pointlessly wrong.

3.  "oft-presented".

Now that's nasty, isn't it? Evidently, the word "oft" is a poeticism and has no idiomatic existence today, supposing it ever did. Nevertheless some people love to use it when they're writing. Well, I don't. Oh but surely this is just about personal taste? No, it's about class struggle. But it doesn't necessarily work the way you might assume. In this case, middlebrow huxters write things like "oft-denied" or "oft-imperilled" in order to demonstrate, as they suppose, that they have some culture about them, that they're at ease with public writing. Highbrow huxters would be ashamed to do the same, because their secret conviction is that their writing is sufficiently commended by its own essence to obviate the need for pathetic decoration with such faded blossoms as this.

4.   "I'm reminded of"

People are very funny when writing about other people's poetry books. When it's the kind of poetry that I mostly follow, the uppermost experience is usually puzzlement, and this can be signalled in various ways. If a modern poet is lucky enough to get a review at all, it is usually just a ragbag of "I'm reminded of".

This phrase means that the critic is about to introduce something that, within the critic's personal imagination, has a vague connection with the book under review. At the same time, the phrase signals that the critic realizes that this association, this something, is in all probability purely personal to the critic, and is not at all likely to be known to the poet; and is probably an evanescent impression that oughtn't even to be mentioned, but hey.

[Something similar to this is when the reviewer confides "I happened to be reading such-and-such last night and ..." ... followed by quotation from tangentially relevant book.]

There seems to be a consensual recognition that a review of a book is not a study of the author's work. It is sufficiently justified, so this consensus runs, by being written by a reader and by honestly recording how it strikes them. But does this mean that the reader's happenstancial experiences are all grist to the mill? Traditionally, I'd say no. In former days the reviewer aimed for typicality, or rather pretended to do so. Now that this is rightly discredited, the modern reviewer is encouraged to confide the random synchronicities of their readerly life, even when only flimsily connected to the book in hand. I think that's how it's meant to work.

5.   "There is a sense of"

This timidly risks proffering an interpretation, while ready to snatch it away at the first hint of a frown.

Perhaps it is meant to evoke the enormously long, calm middle-distance musing that I remember from university tutorials. I hate the way these manners still persist.

6.  "only to"

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, 'Eurydice' suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek myth around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again. .... it is tempting to conclude .... Chillingly, .... etc etc. (Stride review of James Womack by Thomas White.)

Is it fair of me to single out out "only to", surely that's unobjectionable??

Well, perhaps it is as regards the quotation I've taken up, but it strikes a disagreeable note in me nevertheless. It's something to do with being knowing, with consciously seeing all round a subject, and with abusing the short and easie way to seeing all round a subject, which is reductiveness. You fancy that in the hierarchy of knowingness, Thomas White sits somewhere above Christopher Reid who himself sits above Ovid who sits above poor naive old Orpheus. White, above all, knew where the story would end almost before it began. Yet to me (doubtless excessively reverential) this hierarchy is upside-down. The commentator should never sit above the subject, you can't see through your own butt.

7.  "who should know better"

This chiding schoolmasterly phrase is inexplicably popular among critics who, I think, would want to reject its implications if they thought them over. Borrowing the enemy's weapons is good in war but bad in criticism, is the way I see it.

8. "serves to"

This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Obviously part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing (as per 6); the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. In Righter's case, this knowingness is probably unintended. She is apt to state that such-and-such a passage "serves to" support her thesis, when it might seem to serve to do other things that are a lot more obvious. (I mean just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? Isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's one of the most obvious things there is, that "make-believe" is something that a young child "gets" without any help whatever?)

The other part of my objection, and I admit this is more speculative, is that this expression encodes a master-and-servant view of the world. I am all right with services as something provided by servers (computers) or by companies. But I'm uncomfortable with people serving and I'm uncomfortable with a view of the world or nature as something whose main function is to serve us. And I extend this to the materials of art. I don't believe that the artist's relationship to her/his materials is one of using them to serve her/him. I see the relationship as more human and more tentative. The artist, as I see it, participates with materials (such as language or vocabulary) that are already imbued with a certain life because of their context within interpretive communities.

9. "itself"

We live of course in an era where art tends be self-conscious and self-reflexive and self-referring. Somehow this has been seen by many not as lamebrained mannerism but as a revolutionary brilliance that they have been keen to associate with and to mimic. (The truth is, it's nothing but a heat-sink for controlled dispersal of those instinctive revolutionary restlessnesses that one hesitates to employ to any purpose.)

Personally I was bored of it in 1976 and I haven't become much less bored of it since.

Most literary commentators are not Derridas. Their wielding of self-reflexive argument amounts to little more than arriving at the word "itself".

What the hell am I talking about?

...interweaves political intrigue, personal responsibilities and the ways in which the forces of history are played out in the struggles of individual human lives. But its true subject is perhaps the role of narration and the limits of storytelling itself.

(Jacket note to the Edinburgh Edition of Scott's Peveril of the Peak.)

Can you hear the triumphalism in that ending? The author believes that by arriving at the word "itself" they have achieved a climax beyond which no other is necessary or even possible. Like Anselm defining (or rather, manhandling) God into "that than which nothing more Godly can be conceived".

But why did and does this snake-swallowing-its-tail manoeuvre have (in the eyes of its authors) such incredible prestige? I believe it's to do with the disenfranchisement of the first-year Arts student who suddenly ceases to acquire any further information about the world, while her/his colleagues continue to dully mug up on economics, technology, genetics, chemistry, medicine, civil engineering and political history. Meanwhile the Arts student is left with her /his swift intelligence intact, but without any knowledge. (I know. I was one.) The outcome is that the Arts student becomes addicted to arguments of this form: "If that were true then it would also undercut your statement since this itself would by implicated by what you claim."  It's a form of argument that requires hardly any knowledge about the subject under discussion, and for that very reason (an inner consciousness of comparative ignorance) it seems to the author almost miraculously clever, the first couple of times you bring it off. A lot of people never get over the thrill of it.

NB Yes, St Anselm was an Arts student.

10. "It is as if"

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

(Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates (2007))

Ah, fancy! "It is as if" introduces a proposition with the minor concession that it has no basis in fact, but offering as a substitute the rarely-kept promise of a brilliant dash of intellectual play. Obviously I have no sense of humour left. I note that Seneca did commit suicide ("all but incapable"?), and that his slow bloodflow was due to being old, and almost certainly not to reading Plato. I also note that contrasting Rome disparagingly with Greece has a long literary tradition. Why was anyone bothering with this, in 2007? What was this, actually, but bookmaking, that is, very old wine in new bottles?

("Nicely summed up", according to the columnist who requoted it.)

11. "extraordinary"

This is more spoken than written. If you listen to or watch any arts program (I'm basing this mainly on BBC Radio 3), then you'll find that the interview is paved not only with plugs, awards, anniversaries and anecdotes of the famous but with the regular utterance of the word "extraordinary", used to self-complacently gratulate shared moments in the speaker's own life-experience. A generous reading of this interview-mannerism is that it honourably recognizes the distinction of others and encourages the listening art-lovers to see their own art-loving lives in terms of a series of "extraordinary" events shared with art-makers; though one must point out that even this generous reading boils down to an encouragement to spend more money. An ungenerous reading (heaven forbid) would interpret it as someone working hard to define themselves as within a hagiographised elite, and reporting a certain wonder at finding themselves there. So far from this sense of wonder being disabling, it is actually legitimizing, since it is well-known that members of the elite are A. humble B. born to it.

12. "not dissimilar to"

Another vague pretext for the imminent incorporation of dubiously relevant mental clutter, as per 4 and 10, above.

But really, I'm including this only as an excuse to quote Prynne, writing about the opening lines of Tintern Abbey.

The present visit is made 'again' after this double interval [sc. five summers/winters], part-clement and part-forbidding, and 'again' is a marker word which is itself repeated, so that these linked doublings establish a rhythm not dissimilar to the rhetorical patterns of the renaissance handbooks, or the looping journeys of a tour of visitations. 

 (from the essay "Tintern Abbey, Once Again" in Glossator (Fall, 2009))

The quotation is meant to be a welcome refreshment (plus, don't you think clement and forbidding would be a good pair of concepts to characterize Prynne's poems?).

How much more suggestive is that word "visitations" than (what one more commonly achieves on a tour) mere "visits" !

Ah, poetry!

But still, "not dissimilar to" remains a burbling reminder of dubious relevance. How have the repetitions within Wordsworth's text been amplified in Prynne's commentary! - a commentary that very much enjoys overflowing the bounds of its subject. Attentiveness is one thing - but amplification, that's something else, there's a fuzziness in it. In this case the amplification is done by raking in some bits and pieces that the poem doesn't hint at (those very unspecified renaissance handbooks, for example) and by doubling the doublings again and again, not omitting to apply the essential assurance of the word "itself" (see 9, above).

Well, it's no good getting too hung up over vocabulary. Prynne's essay - it was written in 2001, in fact - is exemplary, its sentences full of depth-charges (four examples: "variations of nature and nurture" in unripe apples; the latency, absence and promise in "murmur"; connection of orchard tufts to youth; and the contemplative threshold of "natural unhoused wandering and its mimicry by the traveller on tour"). Anyway, that's enough of praise for now.

[This pallid eviscerated UK poetics-related whine is a stub. You can help Mikipedia by expanding it.]

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