An Aesthetics of Earliness by Deryn Rees-Jones

On poets Hamilton, Riviere, Hazzard, McLarney, and Cronk

July 3rd, 2013 reset - +

AT THE BEGINNING of On Late Style, Edward Said writes with melancholy eloquence of the paradox by which “late evenings, late blossoms, and late autumns are perfectly punctual — there isn’t another clock or calendar they are supposed to match.” “[W]hat difficult temporal longing,” he continues to ask, “lurks in our calling them ‘late?’”. Written towards the end of Said’s own life, and in part a counterpoint to his early book on beginnings, the lateness of his own style is one infused with his own proximity to death: “The quality of time alters,” he writes, “like a change in the light, because the present is so thoroughly shadowed by other seasons: the revived or receding past, the newly unmeasurable future, the unimaginable time beyond time.”

Harold Bloom’s recent anthology, Till I End my Song talks of the “fiction of duration” that the late poem represents as it sets itself against up against both the envisioned end and the desire of the poem to progress into perpetuity. Elsewhere, Helen Vendler has written of the “last looks,” which a poet might take at “the interface at which death meets life,” describing what she calls “the strange binocular style” as life and death are presented as “mutually, and demandingly, real within a single poem’s symbolic system.” But for Said, of course, lateness is much more than this: lateness is, with Adorno working as his touchstone, also a shift in style, “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against.” Whereas early work (and it is Beethoven he is thinking of specifically here) is “vigorous and organically whole,” late style is all “process,” marking “a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order [...] and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship to it.”

While the idea of late style must necessarily be a generalization of creative progress, the teleology and timekeeping of which we might also want to resist, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily seductive one precisely because of its impulse towards a kind of a letting-go-nothing-to-lose-wisdom in the face of the void. Is it simply contrariness amongst such critical preoccupations to wonder, then, what late style’s opposite might be, and its relevance as a concept for reading first collections, were we inclined to look for such an opposite, if even for a few shorthand rhetorical moments?

Words and phrases such as “herald,” “presage,” “maturity of vision,”’ “promise,” and “youthful energy” surge to the fore when reviewers discuss first books. More negatively, earliness suggests other words such as “immature,” “rough,” “unpolished,” “inconsistent,” terms, which imply not just that the art form is unwieldy (earliness as not being fully in control), but that a certain lack of self-consciousness is born of a lack of weight of poetic responsibility. And although we can sometimes be fed a publishing cliché in the expression “long-awaited first collection,” very often a new volume builds on no expectation; it is responsible only to itself until the moment it is succeeded. So while it is necessary to be aware of the significant nuances there might be between first and last books, earliness and lateness, beginnings and ends, I am curious as to whether first books might also carry in them an aesthetic of earliness that can be usefully explored, and which, in deconstructive mode, one might want to see alongside lateness as mutually dependent and redefining.

First thoughts. First volumes are not always the containers of first poems, but they are the result of the rejection of early poems, and the anticipation of later ones. Further, a first book sets its shoulder against the lintel of “juvenilia” in ridding itself of the poems, which do not sit in a perceived unity of beginnings or accomplishment. At the center of the first collection is the negotiation of influence that the first book must take on. Whether or not we follow Bloom and Oedipus, or more gender-aware object-relations theorists, this might mean: imitation, invention, reinvention, connection, assimilation. If it is true that first books set the psychic and aesthetic blue print of the work to come, presenting a cluster of ideas and ways of thinking and feeling that will get endlessly worked through during a poet’s life, first books are also concentrations which hold within them all the pitfalls of style and the dangers of self-parody the poet might then meet in middle style of the third or fourth book. Perhaps most of all, though, the intrinsic nature of the first volume, like youth, is its refusal of its own mortality, its ability to connect a poetic past forwards into the unbounded future. In other words, a first book sets its store towards posterity while cheerfully refusing to imagine what such posterity must inevitably mean. Early style, with its sense of “measurable future, imaginable time,” might therefore potentially be monocular, vital, and perhaps even more compellingly if we are theorizing earliness, more connected with the established social order. If late style sets the work of the aging poet up as difficult and austere, stripped back and broken down to something essential, early style might surely suggest a poetry of the social rather than the individual, not of conformity necessarily, or conservatism, but offering a poetics that prioritizes speaking with and for. If late style breaks down all that has been learned into a new beginning, and disconnects, might it be then that early style establishes and builds, accrues and connects in its becoming?

In the introduction to his recent anthology of contemporary British poetry, Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK, Nathan Hamilton suggests that in the 21st century

the Young Poet is less likely than previously to be concerned with the construction of a coherent assertive character/persona or self with reference to a presumed world of common knowledge. They are more likely to be engaged in conducting linguistic dramatisations or ironisations of the tensions between a notional self and the world. This is a reflexive response to the media-rich world in which they live; its exerted social/corporate pressures

Hamilton’s anthology suggests that there is a new though homogenous movement in British poetry, and a reading of the anthology would suggest that the main divide between mainstream and experimental poetries has become less severe or politically contested through a renegotiation of modernism, and an assimilation of postmodernist and poststructuralist theories that have filtered into the mainstream of contemporary culture.

A few lines from Heather Philipson’s anthologized poem “Jesus Christ” suggests such ironizing territory, which asks us, amongst so many other things, to question exactly how we might locate the “I” who replies in Philipson’s poem, (Jesus Christ, we might well exclaim!):

You could say he had the veneer of a ladies’ man in the smash-up of his career.

A man, or a desolate landscape. A trampled-on forest. Yet still, strangely

attractive. Death overwhelms even mediocrity.

 

Why must it always end this way? ‘the face is the only avant garde we have’,

I replied. ‘And the name. A good name is promotable.’

Here by way of comparison is the end of Frances Leviston’s poem, “The Historical Voice,” which appeared in her collection Public Dream (Picador, 2007). Although stylistically coming from a different place, and carrying no direct reference to an I at all, it also asks us to wonder who that I might be, and to question the grand narrative of its title:

Knowing the worst, it speaks from that shadow. We,

it says, including itself, we are like this. What has occurred

cannot be hidden, perhaps not understood. It tends to be

more kindly than severe, less grave than good-humoured,

 

as if in exhausted agreement that we now comprehend

the long half-life of cruelty

Does such a new wariness of the univocal self in British poetry set itself also against mythologies of creation and the unavoidably gendered paradigm of genius? How far might Hamilton’s assertion extend across the Anglophone world, and apply in particular to American poetry? Is the relationship between subjectivity and the world so mediated and overloaded by technology that changing constructions of the self also become enacted within a poem? Does this suggest that in the plethora of first collections to be published in any year something new and distinctive is happening that is the hallmark of a new poetic generation emerging? And how might this sense of the self in the modern world impact aesthetically on the idea of what early means to these young writers?

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I am asking a lot of questions, and ones to which within the space of a review only the books themselves might attempt to provide a provisional answer. Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities (Faber, 2012) began, so the book cover tells us, as a response to the austerity measures which were implemented by the newly elected British coalition government in 2011; the poems “cut” themselves “on levels of sentiment, structure and even subject matter.” Thus the volume ambitiously attempts to set crises of personal economies in the context of the economic crisis, and to transform the idea of austerity into a contemporary aesthetic which simultaneously mimics the transitory, disposable, information-laden world the poems construct/inhabit. The volume is conceptual in its layout, whereby each is poem is glossed and categorized in an index. “Crisis Poem,” for example, which begins the volume, is described flatly in the notes as one that “sets out stall as critique of poetry and arts institutions.” The poem ends:

capital is the index of meaning

anything is better than stealing

from the Co-op with a clotted heart

without it you don’t survive

But how do we locate the ironies that are established in this poem? Riviere, who was born in 1981, apparently offers a critique of capitalism’s commodification of art, as well as writing, and drawing up an arbitrary structure that makes connections between the poems, the self, and history (81 poems arising from the 81st year). But crucial to this poem is the word “it” in this final line. Without what do we not survive? Capital? Or the heart? In crisis it seems that choice is not one Riviere is willing to make. Meetings of reflections and eyes, dominate the book. There is a constant anxiety about the self’s existence and realm in the context of the social media revolution, an anxiety brought most cogently and painfully alive in “When it Came” (glossed “yep” in the index and listed under category heading “The modern” in the back of the book):

as if everything on earth were texting
Furiously everything else I could feel
Their texts arriving in my body
This has been a blue / green message
exiting the social world

Perhaps when David Morley in a recent Guardian review described Dear World as “the friendliest poetry anthology ever,” he also put his finger on what, despite its engagement with notions of subjectivity and the avant-garde, the new British mainstream does not do, which is alienate. Elsewhere, for Morley, in Riviere’s work “the apoetical becomes apolitical [...] a kind of purified inaction.” The big question that raises itself for me is whether Riviere’s poems have at the book’s end also reached a creative and political impasse, and whether their earliness, as manifested in a resignation to the apolitical, is an end in itself. If Riviere enacts a generation’s exhaustion, it is in its surrender to the disembodied society that to some extent is an inevitable consequence of engagement with social media, pushing the self into a partial inhabitation of a disembodied world. Whether Riviere abnegates poetic responsibility, is descriptive or prescriptive, it is hard always to tell. Shinning up or smashing down the wall of that impasse is surely the obligation of his second collection.

Born in 1986, Oli Hazzard prefaces Between Two Windows (Carcanet, 2012) with a quote from “Maentwrog,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ early poem: “The sun on falling waters writes the text / Which yet is in the eye or in the thought. / It was a hard thing to undo this knot.” The book separates then into two clear halves, leaving us a notable textual “between”that becomes dramatized in individual poems. This second section is prefaced by John Ashbery’s lines, “But as the days and years sped by it became apparent that the naming of all the new things we now possessed had become our chief occupation.” The idea of between-ness, between word and expression, is the preoccupation that announces itself in the early pages, and the rather careful and beautiful first poem in the book “Moving In” is also a first announcement of aesthetic intent, and of the ongoing relationship between human understanding and the natural world:

Convinced that night is simply the folding over
Of fingers, leaned into a steeple — we hunt
For some burrow, some hood of earth
Where the sound of the sea is as unbroken
As it is within a coiled shell and build
A fire whose voice, like chicks-being-
Incessantly-hatched, will make our
Own seem all the more improbable

Hazzard is currently writing a thesis on the work of Ashbery, and reviewing him recently in the Times Literary Supplement referred to Ashbery’s habit of “turning the contingencies of telling into that which is told.” Like Ashbery, and unlike Riviere, Hazzard has retained a lyrical impulse; there is more of an embrace of the undamaged music of what happens that can arise in the practice of formal constraint (mirror poem, sonnet, and sestina). But a poem like “Four Landscapes”seeks also to highlight the dangers of the information age:

I am learning about the history of Libya
the inbox choking itself with charity junk
thick miles of sunlight unrolled
an abandoned blueprint curling up on its tube
I am terrific and unable to concentrate
on the calibre of hesitation that characterises
what I imagine to be the space across which I
distinguish between thinking and speaking

If Riviere’s “cut” self includes a refusal of the “terrific” I, Hazzard’s, it seems, finds in poetic form a place whereby that I can be interrogated and held in language.

Rose McLarney was born in 1982, and The Always Broken Plates of Mountains (Four Way Books 2012) seems light years away from the work of these two young British contemporaries in terms of its negotiation with an embodiment of a social self in a community. McLarney has cited C.D. Wright as an important influence, but to a British eye not wholly attuned or nuanced to what can seem from afar the almost impossible breadth and variety of American poetries, there is an obvious association to be made with Frost through her negotiation of the idioms of farming and in this case her inhabitation of the Appalachian landscape: the word “apple” recurs like a little post-edenic Frostian memento mori. In fact this book is brimming with animals and fruits, as McLarney’s engagement with the modern world is posed through the setting up of dialogues with landscape as a way of self-interrogation. These interrogations are rooted in the history of the inhabitation of the landscape and as she tells other peoples’ stories, the I of the poem moves in its identifications and understandings. This is a self under construction as it views and mediates and understands. The Always Broken Plates of Mountains is also a book where time is slow, and this slow time is also a deeply social as well as a psychic time. Where Riviere and Hazzard are engaged with surface, McLarney plumbs the depths. In the poem “Poet” she scrutinizes the very act of seeing alongside that of telling:

                                Now he has cataracts, and squints
at moving things, as I do when I want to understand
and wonder. Symbol? Metaphor?

Another poet would not have added those final qualifying questions, but such self-questioning is also intrinsic to McLarney’s honesty of poetic vision. Like Hazzard, though, there is a preoccupation with the telling of stories, stories, “like explosions of elderberries / arrayed on stems, pawpaws leather / swelling with creamy meat” (“Jubilation, Then”):

                                                        I pass horses on a steep slope
standing apart in what looks like an argument for being alone forever
because love is when the track of your talk comes undone
and you spill your stories into each other and these animals are still,
breathing fog but certain, certain of singularity, this morning.
This is country for the ones who have stayed
true to self-sufficiency and silence
and speak of family land, kin, our kind, where you come from,
and will not come too close to you

Like McLarney, Laura Cronk (born 1977) is also a love poet, but whereas McLarney‘s poetic method is often to set up a triangle between a male and female relationship, in a landscape into which there often emerges a more threatening male other, Cronk writes about the self as emergence, a self engaging with the world in an act of composition, often under the lurking threat of death. The opening poem of Cronk’s collection begins by asking, “Would I be able to stand / a horse charging past? / Stand still if it approached?” and compares this with the ability to know another, once the horse had gone “coming close / enough to graze me.” Closeness, intimacy, the ways in which we know difference and experience in the world see her sharing poetic ground with McLarney. In interviews Cronk has spoken of the three emotional poetic centers of her work: Rilke, Neruda, Tsvetaeva. The notes at the end of the volume flag up intertextual connection to the work of Mary Jo Bang, to Mayakovsky, to Donne, to Pound, to Shakespeare, Whitman, to the King James Bible and Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement and in particular Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. As much as this list is worn at the book’s end like a testament to all that has been assimilated and read (“maturity”), such closeness to a literary and theoretical context perhaps also speaks to a youthful anxiety. Avoiding all risks of either bravado or parody, however, the extraordinary and sometimes disorienting and perplexing title sequence “Having Been an Accomplice” is a sustained and serious attempt to know the self and its motivations in relation to action and intention. In “Having at Least Dressed Appropriately” Cronk writes: “I want to forge the self with the darkness, with the dead, with the/ language that cracks out of study” only to return to these lines later in the poem with “but that must have / been a century ago. How could I say such a thing?” In some ways this title poem reminds me of Rimbaud, whose own late works were written so early in his life, and who describes the function of poetry, age 17, as an attempt to “arrive at the unknown.” Cronk writes her own Season in Hell:

I want to walk deeply into the darkness, nude as a god, through the
self into the darkness.

 I want to blow up the Law with Language, having run my tongue
around my mouth ten thousand times. Instead of not speaking, I
want to speak.

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Such questioning by the authors of these first collections suggests that the act of making can only be meaningful when the I who speaks in a poem is embodied, nuanced, and able to engage in a physical landscape. It is perhaps not a surprise that the poetic inheritors of Whitman are so attuned to the I that can contain multitudes. If Riviere’s poems sit at the other end of the spectrum, they do so with a kind of careless knowing of the perils of replicating the seductions of the “cut” self that the new technologies and the social media can represent. Such a socialization offers connection, dialogue, and exchange at the same time as disturbing the boundaries between public and private, and is one that is always in danger of offering false intimacy and a commodification of both the social and the poetic.

What, though, of the shifts of light that happen at the day’s start? Of what the poet Edward Thomas might refer to as “Spring all along the road”? Would I have guessed that any of these collections were first books, written by poets in their early 30s? Might I assign to their writing the nomenclature “early” in any meaningful way?

What will continue to resonate as I reread them is the question they foreground of the relationship between the individual and the world that poetry asks us to question and to find a way in language to inhabit. Such questioning is not totally unrelated to the idea of an early style’s ability to speak for and of the social world, and what is noticeable here is that such questioning has become part of a generational preoccupation that has segued into an aesthetic of seeing. At their best these poets know instinctively to keep the self in process, to push death away, realizing that when confronted with meaninglessness the only meaning we have as humans is the meaning that we allow ourselves to make; and that in the light days of our imagined futures our only selves are the ones we allow ourselves to imagine and become.

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Deryn Rees-Jones is Professor of Poetry at the University of Liverpool.

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