What do I know? (Or, why I’m giving up post-modern poetry to live an irony-free life.)
One theory holds that Northern Irish poets ‘share elements of an outlook – ironic, stylish, suspicious of obvious sincerity’ (Martin Mooney’s words, in the book of interviews with poets In the Chair), but in fact when I was growing up, all the best culture was like this: ironic, referential and – God help me – ludic. In the 1990s, the films of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino played in multiplexes as well as art house cinemas, and I can’t have been the only one who was too young to appreciate their references and flirtation with pastiche, but enjoyed them anyway. The novels I read likewise borrowed their plots from other novels, or contained real historical characters, or flagged up their status as fiction. On TV, the most popular programmes were The Simpsons, all witty self-consciousness and game-playing with genre, and Friends, which – as with the later, delightful British series Spaced – centred on characters who had been adrift from familiar reference points, recognising cultural authority only by way of an in-joke or parody. Such ‘post-modernism’ then, was far from an academic adventure, and its modes were also those of the poetry I wanted to read – and wanted to write. My exit from school had coincided with the 1994 ‘New Generation’ Poets promotion in then UK (which with hindsight sometimes seems the poetic equivalent of Friends: jokey, full of impersonation and cut loose from its Oxbridge-educated parents), and the poetry I instinctively liked at twenty-something shared some of its attitudes. It was not magisterial. It suspected authenticity – but it perhaps also set its poetic sights a bit higher. It ‘preferred enigmatic surfaces’ and was ‘suspicious of the self’ like Elizabeth Bishop’s work, or like John Ashbery it was all motion and ‘deferred meanings’. Or, as with the Northern Irish poetry I eventually began reading, it was defiant, and tongue-in-cheek, irreverent towards its elders and mercilessly indirect.
To discover Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson, whichI did quite belatedly, was to find (not to paraphrase Frank O’Hara for the sake of it) poetry that was actually better than TV. Muldoon was already highly acclaimed, and I loved his poetic leaps from filthy bedroom antics to quasi- serious posturings on philosophy and language; from cowboys and Indians to art and politics. McGuckian’s Venus and the Rain and On Ballycastle Beach also seemed enormous achievements. Her poems were gorgeous patterns in sounds and images that daringly, provokingly, implicated their linguistic experiment with gender (was it a parody though?), but also felt sublime and inspirational. Carson’s Belfast, encountered last of all in The Ballad of HMS Belfast was more alive and full of possibility than the city in which I incoherently lived, and found incoherently refracted through the news. It was the formal brilliance of these writers that thrilled. Paul Muldoon’s poems seemed to possess the capacity to endlessly proliferate and generate new forms. He spoke of his interest in ‘structures that can be fixed like mirrors at angles to each other . . . so that new images can emerge from the setting up of the poems in relation to each other: future ironies are possible, further mischief is possible . . .’ And it was all too stylish, done with such virtuosity – from dismantling and renovating traditional forms, to his now semi-famous system of substituting words in a fixed pattern of 90 end-rhymes. So an endless proliferation of further poems seems invisibly to hover, a half-rhyme or ‘click’ away around the Muldoon poems on the page. Carson’s repeated little squares of violent narrative likewise drew attention to their own artifice – while in a totally different way (a way more like Ashbery) McGuckian’s poems unfolded under their own steam, threatening all the while to fall to bits, but ultimately hanging together, just, on the level of syntax. Then they finished and started up all over again. Such repeated patterns appealed to a scepticism about the individual or anthology-piece poem (I was rigorously, though inconsistently, ‘against’ free-standing poems that didn’t flag up their own phoniness, or seemed guilty of an impossible sincerity). They also suggested a right-minded preference for art over life, and the pursuit of structure into which all might be subsumed. In their achievement of this they were as defiant of the reader as they were of Northern Irish elder statesmen.
More pretentiously, sure, I sometimes seem to have liked stuff on the wilder shores of poetry too. Or so I presume, since I find I have annotated a comment by Edna Longley in Poetry and Posterity, ‘Who would want to go to bed with a Language poem? A masochist possibly’, with the ‘hilarious’ remark, ‘It depends whether you want a meaningful relationship?’. Yet, if this suggests that poetry, for me, was encountered through an academic filter I would argue again that the refusal of ‘meaningfulness’ actually chimed with an experience of life at the time. As Frank O’Hara’s poems seemed in-the-moment, or ‘in process’ (pre-empting tweeting?), and the better New Generation stuff referenced music lyrics and pop-culture, or like some of Denise Riley’s poems seemed caught up in a mesh of quotes and different technologies of communication, this was exciting because this was how life was. Approaching the end of the millenium, it did not occur to me to feel anything other than a bundle of different, fragmented selves. The situation was perhaps exacerabated by my being female (and studying ‘feminist theory’ – though not, it should be said, very competently, or necessarily with a view to writing poetry or writing about poetry). Accustomed to the cognitive gap between ‘women’ as the word was bandied about in various political and literary contexts, and a sense of who I was or might be that – though shadowy – balked at being represented by this dubious category, I decided to embrace the disconnection. ‘Women’, I was persuaded, was a kind of fictional identity multiplied across different surfaces and throughout different discourses. It was liberating in a way, I suppose. At any rate, my thinking in this vein was entrenched enough for me to be mystified by the discourses of identity- politics when I encountered them in the context of Irish writing. Or rudely to scorn them. Later, reading Eve Patten’s review of Irish women’s writing 1985–1990 in Krino, I remember barely relating to the terms of her argument when she wrote of the ‘identity-quest’ which was becoming conformist and formulaic in women’s writing. Why would anyone seriously seek to engage with their identity – as a woman or as a person at all – in writing?
All this now seems a rather bizarre set of ideas to take as a starting point. If McGuckian et al reacted, brilliantly, against the authority of their forebears (and Heaney, of course, believed that poetry could be a ‘revelation of the self to the self’), in what way could one react to the authority of their poetry? What could impressionable readers do with a half-grasped appreciation of parody (I also liked Frank Kuppner), or playfully mixed-up registers (and John Berryman). With poetry which witholds its truths and is sprawlingly non-linear, oblique and de-centred and a bit ‘quotey’? Vitally, the generation of Northern Irish poets I admired all turned out to be prophetic. All laid a path, in one way or another, into the future. Ciaran Carson reimagined Belfast before it began (more commercially) to re-imagine itself and his work was invoked, rightly, by critics rethinking the city’s identity. Medbh McGuckian’s poetry should have midwifed a discussion about women, poetry and tradition; about feminism and aesthetics – if anyone could have been bothered to have it sensibly. And Paul Muldoon, of course, invented the internet. Critics have been sceptical about the extent to which the poet’s arbitrary links and lateral‘rhymes’ shadow a ‘hypertext’ which was developing at the same time – but if his excessive allusiveness didn’t prefigure Google, Google certainly helps reading, say, ‘Yarrow’. Now, however, technological communication has speeded up and expanded so it seems ever more open-ended and without centre. Now arguably the teaching of creative writing has generated networks of writers in which a top-down authority on what’s good – or even what’s teachable – is not always evident. (Coincidentally, it’s notable that Muldoon’s work has closed down at the same time as the internet has become less serendipitous and more channelled through coercive engines; Muldoon even has his own website, which is less a link in his work’s open-ended network, than an anxiously comprehensive database into which it has been collected.) The dialogue between the ‘post-modern’ poets I first read and their predecessors has, of course, worked both ways, as something like Michael Longley’s The Weather in Japan shows. But recently I began to wonder if it wouldn’t have been more constructive to start with something a bit more real, a bit more in touch with life or the self. Something that doesn’t just present a flat avatar of the self or filter everything through B movies and song lyrics but wonders who we are? Maybe even a bit of an ‘identity quest’ . . .
At any rate, the fact is that after falling for Larkin (not magisterial), then avidly reading Armitage, Duffy and Paterson (not magisterial either – or not initially), a sense of authenticity or sincerity was entirely absent from the poetry which, formatively, I thought was good and worth emulating. The first poems I wrote that I liked and later published, which were mostly written in a top floor flat in Edinburgh over the course of a year – the selfsame year of supposedly studying, but actually more or less abandoning, cultural theory (not Edinburgh University’s fault, needless to say) were still circumscribed by a forceful adolescent intensity. But they also sought to be arch and oblique. They tried to remember, until they forgot, to be fragmentary and ephemeral and not to say ‘I’. And in later work any kind of personal experience or suffering was to be referred to only in the most elaborately circumspect, mediated way. Later (for which a massively discontented Ph.D. thesis on Medbh McGuckian, rather than millennial disaffection, might be blamed), it’s clear I only wanted to understand community or tradition in terms of half-parodied forms, or blunt superficial Wikipedia-style factoids about other writers. A disconnection existed – not merely between my sense of myself and some welcome fictional or elliptical version of it – but between the vague, emotional impulse to write poems and any sense that they might be meaningfully directed outwards towards people who could understand. There was no audience. I was not trying to communicate with anyone, and I was not trying to communicate with myself. In fact, I seemed actively to be trying to avoid some sort of conversation with myself by endlessly changing the subject. And tellingly, when I couldn’t write, I could only remember the idea or attitude of the poetry I wanted to write, and this was, loosely speaking, indirect or tongue-in-cheek. So there it was: poetry, the most intimately personal form of writing, and I couldn’t even think in terms of what I meant any more. An appreciation of post-modern Northern Irish poetry had left me supposing it wasn’t supposed to mean anything or be in touch with anything.
This is not to say I don’t like this work now. I do. I think there is genius in the (say it) ludic work of Medbh McGuckian. In the games her early work plays she shows one way – maybe the best way – for a woman writer to approach the problem of authority and tradition. (Though I also think that if there were a charge for wasting readers’ time, as for wasting police time, she should be prosecuted.) Nor is it to blame a particularly brilliant generation of writers for their shiny surfaces. It was just easy to think that the best poetry did not prize sincerity – and now, belatedly, I find I don’t fancy formal experiments any more unless they rise out of some encounter with life.
Rather than figuring the endless textual networks with which we have all become so familiar, I want to stop clicking, scrolling and speed-reading and shuffling on to the next song, and instead focus on poetry which stays still and feels something. And this is what I want to write too. Not unmediated self-expression, of course, but not pre-emptively cut off with a glib reflex. The old disconnection, between inner whirring cogs and outside world, have to engage somehow – and for this reason, I don’t think that the teaching of creative writing is necessarily a bad thing, as long as the students have something ready to work with. (God knows it’s better than encouraging them to be also academic critics). Above all, I have recently come to think that it is essential to think that among the tiny, fragmented audience for poetry, and perhaps even among those who just use the language, there might be some with whom I might communicate sincerely – or reasonably sincerely. Amid all the other kinds of technological communication, both shockingly intimate and weirdly superficial, I have to think that poetry can do something unique. That – perhaps because it doesn’t have an easy brand to sell, and will almost certainly not be trending any time soon – it can communicate something a bit more complex and lasting. But then a lifetime of defensive irony is a hard habit to break so, yeah, like, what do I know?