Exceptionals and the Rules

FullSizeRenderI was very struck by The Guardian‘s editorial this Monday reflecting on the deaths of Chuck Berry and Derek Walcott, and thinking of poetry as something which encompassed and is lessened by the loss of both. Not only did this pick up the issue of Dylan’s Nobel in an intelligent way, it was a rare chance to see how a major cultural institution – one of the four ‘estates’ of modern society – views poetry.

The recent springing upon us of ‘World Poetry Day’, and this morning’s sad news of the death of Roy Fisher (hard on the heels of another significant loss – that of Tom Raworth – and accompanied by that of another fine critic, poet, and editor, David Kennedy), provokes reflection on the insights thus revealed.

It set forth the tenets of a generous orthodoxy, one where memorability and melody are equally at stake, where the underlying issue is: what is resonant – sonically, emotionally, historically? As such it made me think again about two areas I’ve been concerned with over the years, and test my assumptions.

The first is the relation between the poem and austerity: ‘There should be no spare words in a poem any more than there should be any missing.’

On the surface this is self-evident, or at least self-evident about everyone else’s poetry – one’s own always has to resist its own special dispensation, based on a more, um, nuanced understanding of ‘spare’.

But why should there be no spare words in a poem, no excess? Why should all poetry be tied to a fashion or cult of minimalism, or, worse case scenario, be considered a safe place for some sort of obsessive perfectionism? Why not be as messy and flawed, or ordered and economic, as the subject, tone, or approach requires? Is that principle of appropriate variance not how we get from the epic of Omeros to the lyric concision of ‘Johnny B. Goode’?

Could this be more a constraint upon the constraints rather than a virtue ascribed to them? It seems to suit those who wish to control and position poetry – editors, journalists, bureaucrats – rather than practitioners or readers. If, as the editorial goes on to say, ninety per cent of poetry is lost in time, let it be so. But it may not be because, as the article implies, they failed to be economic. It may just be an uncomfortable fact that, initially, most, and, eventually, all things must pass.

The second is a touch more contentious: ‘Poetry, music and religion must all once have been indistinguishable, but they separated millennia ago in the west.’

What, then, we might ask, are hymns? What if this were never the case, or only the case in certain cultures, or, as with hymns and psalmody, at certain but nonetheless sustained points in certain cultures? Might this apparently mythical union of poem, song and religion be better identified as a way of reading?

What if it’s perfectly alright for there to be three separate but cognate modes of handling patterned, performative, ritualistic language? David Kennedy as well as Derek Walcott had much to say about the various types and purposes of ritual. What if these poetic, melodic and spiritual modes simply formed part of a spectrum, including patterned, performative, and ritualistic prose, including legal, political, and indeed literary and journalistic discourse?

Fundamentally, if, as World Poetry Day purports to do, you cram everything you think of as poetry into a day, must we spend the rest of the year in what you suppose is prose? What if there wasn’t a single monolithic block called ‘Prose’ which encompassed all speech and all writing, and a minuscule series of ‘Exceptions’, where the supposed privilege associated with these, like that fabled former unity, was in fact a mode of marginalisation?

I am reminded by all this of a quote from Roy Fisher, who summed up his writing by suggesting, ‘Anything I have seen, I’ve only seen by…looking at what was out of the corner of the picture, what was outside the frame.’

This principle of the epiphenomenon, the peripheral, and the secondary, as a resistance to all the grand old narratives, with their focalising and their teleologies, their categorising and orthodoxies, seems to me the one exemplified by both Berry and Walcott, as well as the other writers we have recently lost. There are stories about poetry as about poets, and it is the job of poems and even poetics, not to deny the narrative as a mode, but to offer that which is contrary to those stories which, in their neatness and need for satisfactory conclusions, memorialise poetry to the margins.

As Walcott’s St Lucia, Berry’s Cadillac, and Roy Fisher’s Slakki (‘Not much of a valley’) demonstrate, as David Kennedy’s New Poetry anthology argued (‘Province Plenty, London Nil’ as Peter Porter’s review was headlined), everywhere not in the centre is yet another centre, but to be eccentric in this sense is to be alive to both locations in a manner the purported centre always struggles to see and hear, and indeed regularly requires the perspective of those peripheries to achieve.

About Bill 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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1 Response to Exceptionals and the Rules

  1. Billy Mills says:

    Nice take on what I thought was an intensely stupid editorial.

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