The Nay I Know Not Seamless Garment Garment

An eminently sensible question from a former student, ‘Do you have different blogs for a reason? Maybe you should just choose one and stick to it?’ has made me go over this old niggle from a new angle.

Whether we’re talking about blogs or about writing poetry, it’s clear to me that I’ve stumbled into a complicated way of doing both. And just because I’m now using one to try and understand the other evidently doesn’t mean I’ve escaped from this stubborn and unfortunate approach. But it does mean I can attempt to justify it by citing examples of great stumblers I’d like to fall over myself in following.

Because, very gradually, you come to realise that your style and your methods and your content aren’t separate things, but parts of one thing that extends beyond the poem into your reading, your criticism and your behaviour. That that thing, whatever it is, isn’t exactly your ‘self’ and is probably not a complete entity, and is very unlikely to be a ‘thing’ at all. That, if anything, it’s writing which shows you this incoherence, rather than you who imposes a coherence upon writing.

It seems increasingly useful to me in this respect to draw a distinction between the concepts of writing as a mimesis and as an embodiment.

By ‘mimesis’ I mean an artwork which is not only engaged with an act of depiction or interpretation of an exterior reality as Plato describes it, but which seeks to evoke that depiction or interpretation through its own formal decisions.

By ’embodiment’ I mean an artwork which is itself inescapably part of the reality it is engaging with, not separable except nominally as a form amid other forms, concepts and objects, and therefore discovering meaning as much through form as through expression – indeed seeing these as two sides of the same coin.

Examples of the mimetic are not hard to seek: the concept of portraiture is implicit in Plato’s definition, but I’m really thinking of examples of technique as a completed system of analysis, as in realism, where the novel is assumed by many readers to resemble reality and therefore to provide insights into it. It is believed that an invented character, for instance, can give us direct insight into our own character traits, rather than insight into how we think about our character as possessing things called traits.

Poetry has its versions of this in, for instance, anecdotalism and assumptions about validation by form (‘It must rhyme’) or the biographical truth of the depicted ‘I’. But equally this can be manifested in linguistically innovative writing as the complete alternative to conventional prosody, rhetoric or style, i.e. the creation of a new mode, which is assumed both to contain and express a complete ideology, whether that is decodable or not without exegesis.

Ashbery and Prynne are often cited as examples of style as critique. Their work appears almost from the outset to have achieved a stylistic clarity that can be opposed to the equally ‘finished’ modes of the mainstream. The assumption is, however, that one set of writings is finished in the sense of perfected while the other is finished in the sense of redundant.

Whether the ideology that this work is meant to express is held up as a more accurate or more radical depiction of cultural or political reality isn’t as important as its assumed mimetic validity: mode reveals monde.

The problematic issue of whether mode is more accurately described as code I’ll try to come back to elsewhere. What interests me here is what happens if you offset the concept of mimesis with that of embodiment.

Many of the 20th century writers who interest me most, such as MacDiarmid, O’Hara, W.S.Graham or MacSweeney, made great conceptual leaps in their poetics, but seemed to do so as a series of discoveries through the act of writing. To read their works is to engage with a curious type of non-realist meta-narrative in which stylistic switches, impurities of register or tone, and the alinear nature of their progression, seem to be key to their achievement.

Their work embodies its discoveries as much through its divagations as through its clarities. Indeed it suggests that it is as much in the manner in which they struggle to mean, as in their temporary achievement of harmony between form, content and sensibility, that they reveal their essential genius.

Of course exactly the same is true of Ashbery or Prynne, or indeed the worlds of Wilbur or Heaney or Donaghy to which they are sometimes opposed, it’s just that thinking from mimesis leads one into thinking of how one might construct complete systems of writing, and these are then sometimes used to oppose a prosody similarly depicted as an inadequate modelling of reality.

This approach separates poet and, more importantly, audience, from the area under discussion through the assumption there can be a separate plane on which such discussion takes place, as opposed to a general field in which motive and misconception play as large a role as principle and perfectability. Fundamentally, this leads to the deliberated construction of models that demonstrate how things really are. Except how things really are is never simply deliberate.

This is like the legend of the Persian flaw, that flaw in the rug which is there to demonstrate that only God is perfect. Except of course the weaver put the flaw in deliberately, so it is actually part of a larger, more didactic concept of rug design. It is a mimesis of a universe in which only God is perfect, but in this universe it only contradicts itself.

Look more closely at the rug, or rather, look at ‘The Seamless Garment’ by MacDiarmid. At the time, perhaps he genuinely thought it was seamless, a poem which united him with his mill-working cousin and working-class roots (he even puts in a faux-humble flaw: ‘(I canna think o’ a rhyme)’) – but which now reads as evidence of the fundamental separation his espousal of Modernism had brought about:

A poet like Rilke did the same

In a different sphere

Made a single reality – a’ a’e oo’ –

O’ his love and pity and fear;

A seamless garment o’ music and thought

But you’re owre thrang wi’ puirer to tak’ tent o’t.

Next he would go further, beyond Scots and into collage and, almost without meaning to, blundered onto Language Poetry and indeed Uncreative Writing decades before (almost) anyone else. ‘The Seamless Garment’ may be a failure, but it is a brilliant, human and passionately engaging failure, full of unexpected energies and promise.

As Norman MacCaig put it in his marvellous portrait of MacDiarmid, ‘A Writer’, it is how we embody our strange progress that matters, not how we depict our supposed arrivals:

Events got him in a corner

and gave him a bad time of it –

poverty, people, ill-health

battered at him from all sides.

So far from being silenced,

he wrote more poems than ever

and all of them different –

just as a stoned crow

invents ways of flying

it had never thought of before.

No wonder now he sometimes

suddenly lurches, stalls, twirls sideways,

before continuing his effortless level flight

so high over the heads of people

their stones can’t reach him.

About W N Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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