My review of A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine, ed. Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown has appeared on the BSLS website
My review of A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine, ed. Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown has appeared on the BSLS website
As Biblicists know, eating an apple can get you into all kinds of trouble. I’m not writing about the work that first hooked me into reading, because that was Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man, and I’ve already written about it. The work that took my reading to a new level was T. S. Eliot’s group of short poems ‘Preludes’. I’d been a voracious reader at primary school, but lost interest between 11 and 16 because no-one could recommend anything suitable for me. Then a couple of works grabbed my interest during my O-level years.
The first was Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’, which we covered as a poem in our anthology, Rhyme and Reason. I wrote an essay on it, had a spine-tingling moment when I realised that it was a kind of parallel creation myth, and the teacher was lavish in her praise. (She didn’t even grade it; just wrote ‘Superb’. You could overdo that kind of praise, but it was an important endorsement and confirmation.)
The other encounter happened by accident in the last lesson one Friday afternoon; spring or early summer, I’d guess. The teacher, Mrs Harris, was off sick, and the lesson was being covered by a youthful, likeable Geography teacher, Mr Koenig. I was hungry (my packed lunches were never big enough), and realised I still had an apple in my bag, so figured that I might as well eat it. The chairs were arranged in double horseshoe configuration, so even though I was on the outer row, there wasn’t a great deal of cover. I was spotted, and as a punishment, Mr Koenig took an old anthology from the cupboard, found a poem by a poet I’d never heard of and told me to write an essay on it: write about the urban imagery in ‘Preludes’ by T. S. Eliot. He must have done English Lit at A-level, to be able to identify a suitable topic with such speed. At first I was resentful, as eating when you’re hungry didn’t seem such a terrible thing to do, and I’d never before been set a punitive essay or subjected to any ‘demerit’ or detention. But at home, when I began to read the poems, and still more when I began to write about them, I was really blown away: the tone and manner were completely different from anything else we’d done.
My guess is this must have been the spring of my O-level year. I can’t remember whether there were any other Eliot poems in the anthology, but somehow I must have found out more about him. At the point when I left secondary school I was signed up to do science A-levels at sixth-form college (Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics), with a vague plan of going on to do a medicine degree; but over the summer I started to feel that I needed some expressive, artistic dimension to my studies, so after the O-level results came I phoned the sixth-form and swapped one of the science subjects for English Literature. At some point in September of that year, I bought Eliot’s Collected Poems; I wrote the date September 1984 in it, but nothing more precise. I remember distinctly buying it in Wallingford, a small market town ten miles from home where we didn’t shop very often; or rather, I remember beginning to read it in the car on the way home. Within a year I’d dropped another science subject, and set myself on studying English at University, now with the unusual subject combination of Chemistry, Maths, and English.
Pig Cupid, a small pamphlet of poems in response to Mina Loy’s ‘Songs to Johannes’, was where I first became aware of this neglected modernist poet. That was in 2000; later, when Lawrence Rainey’s Modernism anthology came out (2005), I read her for the first time, and was amazed by ‘Parturition’ in particular, for the way it connected intense physical experience with philosophical abstractions. Rainey’s selection led me to what remains the most readily obtainable selection her poetry, and undoubtedly the best place to start, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger Conover (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; later published by Carcanet). But tantalisingly, what Conover wasn’t able to include in that selection, given that he wished to include annotations and an introduction, was Loy’s autobiographical poem ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’. He had included it in an earlier collection of her work, The Last Lunar Baedeker (Jargon Society, 1982), a beautifully made and hefty book that now re-sells for equally hefty prices.
You can get a good feel for Loy’s poetry without reading ‘Anglo-Mongrels’, but nevertheless, it attempts something quite different: an autobiography. And it’s an autobiography that explores where personhood comes from, so rather than beginning with Loy’s childhood, it begins with her parents: her Hungarian-born Jewish father, Sigmund Felix Lowy, and her English mother, Julia Bryan. And her presentation of them isn’t straightforward: Sigmund becomes ‘Exodus’, and Julia is initially named ‘English Rose’, later to become ‘Ada’. In consequence, we see them as types rather than individuals, she ‘simperiing in her / ideological pink’, and he something of Jewish stereotype, ‘loaded with Mosaic / passions that amass / like money.’ Mina Loy herself is born twenty pages into the poem (it’s about sixty pages long in total) and is referred to as ‘Ova’; her later lover Arthur Cravan is presented at the moment of his birth as ‘the male fruit / of a Celtic couple’, and is named ‘Colossus’. The narrative doesn’t carry the main characters far beyond their early childhoods and formative impressions. While ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ is by no means perfect as autobiographical poetry, it’s a singular and striking experiment that deserves to be more widely read.
The occupational hazard of being a lecturer is that some literary favourites are also on the reading list, and so they become encrusted with layers of pedagogical questions, and it’s hard to return to the moment when they were genuinely new and personal. Sometimes that’s great: you re-read the text and it now contains memories not of your own personal reactions, or not only, but of conversations you’ve had and people you’ve known; passages connect back to insightful commentaries in student essays. But sometimes it can prevent you having a personal relationship to the text, and then it’s a relief that not everything is teaching fodder.
The texts that are least encrusted are the ones that I read between the start of my A-levels and the end of my BA degree, and which I’ve never or scarcely ever taught. I was first introduced to the Metaphysical Poets at sixth-form college, King James’s College, Henley-on-Thames. At that date Oxford had an entrance exam for English Literature, and those of us thinking of applying were advised to do additional reading beyond the syllabus and prepare for the exam. The Metaphysicals were considered ideal Oxford-exam material, and it appears that in May 1985 I bought Jack Dalglish’s 1961 edition of them in preparation for the exam that November.
That the Metaphysicals were considered suitable suggests that T. S. Eliot still exerted considerable influence over ideas of what was considered erudite. (Though a student in the year above me who had successfully applied to St Hugh’s reported that her interviewer interrupted one response by saying ‘I don’t want to know what T. S. Eliot said; what do you think?’) Scarcely two and a half pages into Dalglish’s Introduction he has quoted Eliot’s 1921 ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (‘A thought to Donne was an experience ….’), and by the end of the third page, there he is again (‘the intellect was at the tip of his sense.’) Over the page, we encounter the inevitable example, the famous pair of compasses from ‘A Valediction, forbidding mourning’. Oxford tutors marking the entrance exam must have been heartily sick of compasses.
But although my critical judgements were probably neither well informed nor refined, I’m glad to have had that early introduction to the Metaphysicals and above all to John Donne. It was in Dalglish’s anthology that I first encountered ‘A nocturnal upon S. Lucies day’ and its end-of-year melancholy, and Holy Sonnet xiv, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’, which I loved for its breaking of regularities (‘knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’). He’s brilliant at coming up with dramatic opening lines that draw you into the poem, though to my surprise I see Dalglish’s anthology doesn’t include ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this..’. There’s an amazing range of tones and voices in Donne’s poetry, even in Dalglish’s selection. There’s also a great deal of what looks like adolescent angst: ideal material for a seventeen-year old.
Dalglish’s notes I don’t remember, though I’m sure I must have used them: if we got any additional tuition for the Oxford exam, it was no more than a class or two. Dalglish seems very concerned to assert the masculinity of the poems (‘vigorous’ comes up a lot, and there’s at least one ‘sinewy’) and keen to remind us of their connection to normal speech. Here the ghost of F. R. Leavis also haunts the text: Dalglish studied under Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge, from 1946-48. I think it was already clear that this was an ancient and foreign critical idiom; I seriously hope I never commended anything for being vigorous, sinewy, or tough. The edition itself I remember fondly, for all that the cover looks austerely pedagogic: it was printed on good paper, and the margins allowed plenty of space for annotation.
This early encounter gave me a good foundation: I went back to Donne in the second-year of my degree, now armed with the Penguin Complete English Poems and a Penguin selection of the sermons, and wrote an essay that was positively New Critical in its fascination with imagery of circles, loops, and spheres. I taught Donne a little when I was first at Bangor in seminars on the first-year Jacobean literature module; just enough to revive my interest and not so much as to taint him. And insofar as I’m planning to write a book on the neo-metaphysicals of the 1920s and 1930s (Herbert Read, Michael Roberts, William Empson, and others), they’re still with me, ‘vigorous’ as ever.
‘It is only by hindsight’ that a classic may be known, wrote T. S. Eliot: if we adhered to that position, the idea of a ‘future classic’ would be a meaningless one. It’s certainly a difficult question, and not only because it’s always risky to make such predictions. Notoriously, in 1932 in New Bearings in English Poetry, F. R. Leavis notoriously announced that the poet Ronald Bottrall would be one of the greats; in a revised edition in 1950 in the face of Bottrall’s almost complete disappearance, Leavis retracted the prediction. It’s difficult for me to choose a future classic, because part of my interest in the question of ‘the classic’ derives from an interest in book history, and the book-historical perspective tends to emphasise the extrinsic factors in the making of classics: are they put on syllabuses? do they have powerful promoters in academia and in the world of publishing? From the book-historical perspective, the classic is denoted by a style of paratext, best known in the UK in the forms used by Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics. Such observations in themselves don’t help predict what will become classics, though they point to relevant factors: if part of the raison d’être of a classic edition is to provide notes, then for a text to become a classic, a kind of linguistic or cultural change must have intervened that justifies annotation. That doesn’t mean that any text that requires annotation has the potential to become a classic. The status of Ulysses as classic is jeopardised by its needing more annotation than can be contained in a single volume, and by the editor’s choice of what to annotate risking the appearance of arbitrariness. After editing Ulysses for World’s Classics, Jeri Johnson gave a lecture entitled ‘Editing Ulysses: The Nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’
Ankhi Mukherjee’s essay ‘”What is a Classic?: International Literary Criticism and the Classic Question’ (PMLA ) doesn’t remove ‘the classic’ from extrinsic factors, but clarifies some issues in ways that book-historical approaches don’t. While those texts chosen to go into editions of ‘classics’ look very much like part of the canon, Mukherjee reminds us that the classic might have qualities which make it sit uneasily in the canon. Certainly if we conceive the canon as presupposing an interconnected tradition, one in which relationships of inheritance and indebtedness predominate, then the classic might be admitted despite its failure to fit in. In Harold Bloom’s definition of the classic, it has qualities of ‘strangeness’, ‘a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange’. I’m cautious about the second clause and the assumptions about community that are rolled into ‘us’, but the idea that the classic is singular and resistant to assimilation is one that I’m happy to work with. Another way of putting this is that it’s like Michel Foucault’s idea of the ‘founders of discursivity’ (in ‘What is an Author? ). Writers like Freud or Marx ‘are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and rules for the formation of other texts.’ However, when Foucault tests this concept against a literary example — Ann Radcliffe, as founder of the Gothic novel — he finds her wanting, not because her example wasn’t enormously generative, but because the real founders of discursivity also enable ‘a certain number of divergences’ from their example. Likewise, Bloom’s non-assimilable author generates not just developments of her mode, but texts that work in opposition to it. It’s much easier to demonstrate the fact of opposition when one is working in fields of theoretical propositions, like psychoanalysis or linguistics, and much harder in a field where, if there is a rationale at all, it is buried in the practice.
Mukherjee also proposes that the classic exists in a relation of co-dependence with literary criticism: ‘the classic is that which survives critical questioning, and it in fact defines itself by that surviving’ (Mukherjee, p.1028). This raises a question of how narrowly or widely we should define ‘critical questioning’: does it mean only academic writing, or only prose writing operating within a recognised critical idiom, or could it be extended to include the kind of critical questioning undertaken by creative rewriting of earlier works? A robust definition of the classic would have to envisage the survival of the concept even in a world where academic literary criticism had never existed or had ceased to be.
An older humanist mode of literary criticism would have spoken of classics as embodying timeless and universal human values. That sort of answer doesn’t seem viable any more: definitions of the timelessly placelessly human have all too often embodied the culturally specific outlooks of the definer. It’s one thing to hope for united humanity; it’s another to define its essential characteristics. Moreover, defining classics in terms of human values tends to favour lyric poems speaking in a recognisable human voice, or realist narratives depicting recognisable human situations. Those are enormously interesting kinds of writing, with great internal variety, but there’s more to literature than they can encompass. Shakespeare’s plays and the Canterbury Tales are readily absorbed, but its harder to justify fantastic works like The House of Fame or Paradise Lost.
Tom MacCarthy’s Remainder (2005) struck me as one possible future classic, because it feels very fresh and original and yet also familiar, as Beckett had written without existential angst and in a recognisable modern south London setting; but thinking about the distinction between the classic and the canonical, I wonder whether Remainder, because of the suggestion of Beckett, might not be canonical rather than classic. It’s impossible to anticipate what critical questioning it might face, and whether it might survive it, and part of the problem here is of not knowing where MacCarthy’s career might take him. (The novel that followed it, C (2010), was highly acclaimed, but I haven’t yet found the time to read it; there’s another novel now complete in manuscript.) If we’re thinking about extrinsic factors, MacCarthy seems to have influential backers, and Zadie Smith’s widely cited ‘Two Paths for the Novel‘ argues for his direction being the one with a future.
I’m more comfortable making predictions in the field of poetry, so, with some reluctance about the exercise, and the ghosts of Leavis and Bottrall looking down on me, I’d suggest that J. H. Prynne’s poetry has the necessary qualities to survive. For all that he’s indebted to Charles Olson and Edward Dorn, Prynne has consistently invented new ways of writing poetry that go far beyond the production of poems that are in themselves inventive and constantly surprising. Put alongside Foucault’s demanding comparison of Ann Radcliffe with Freud, Prynne’s inventiveness might place him equal only to Radcliffe, but to an imaginary Radcliffe who invented not just Gothic but the marriage plot novel, the condition-of-England novel, and the sensation novel. And as I say, with literary discourses, it’s much harder to determine whether a later writer is working within the terms established by their predecessor. As well as being some sort of a founder of discursivity, Prynne has also written works that startle in their range of reference and in their juxtapositions. Whether it will survive critical questioning is harder to predict because we don’t know what questions critics might pose, and in the short term will be less important than whether later poets wish to follow his example. And it’s clear that his example has been enormously important to several generations of poets.
I’ve found the earlier volumes (Kitchen Poems, Day Light Songs, The White Stones, Brass, Wound Response, which date from c.1968-1974) the more rewarding to read, though The Oval Window (1983) is magical. In reading Prynne I’ve benefitted from the guidance of N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge’s Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (1995), and it may be that their extended treatment of The Oval Window is why it works for me; there’s no comparable guide to the later volumes, and it’s notable how many critical accounts of his work treat the late 1960s work as if it were typical of the whole; in the later work syntax becomes increasingly compressed and unreliable as a guide.
Ten years ago John Carey expressed outrage that Randall Stevenson had declared Prynne rather than Philip Larkin to be the most important English poet of the late twentieth century (in Stevenson’s The Last of England? (2004), his volume in the Oxford English Literary History; I’ve forgotten the exact terms in which Carey framed the comparison). It’s hard (consulting the index of the volume) to find Stevenson making the comparison quite as starkly as this, though it’s true to the broad drift of his account. Carey’s preference is entirely consistent with the populist and anti-modernist line he took in The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), in which accessibility outweighs other considerations. My guess is that Carey’s future classics would speak to universal human values and would do so in a register not far removed from everyday English speech. I’d argue that literature can do more than speak everyday English, and that Prynne’s poetry has shown us several ways of doing it.