POETRY, PRAGMATISM, CRITICISM AND CITIZENSHIP


Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, John Redmond (217pp, 14.99, Seren)


John Redmond sets out to challenge the way 'that readings of British and Irish poetry rely too often on a thesis of public relevance'. It is a way of reading that is characterised by what Redmond dismisses in some eco-critical writing as 'hooray words'. Eco-critical writing is one of the more obvious instances of contemporary writing being valued for what it represents as opposed to any sense of writerliness or literariness. And, in a wider sense, 'hooray words' nicely catches both the use of widely approved terms and the tone of evangelical boosterism and marketing speak that has accompanied journalistic accounts of British and Irish poetry since the 1990s.

Exactly what reading practices Redmond wants to propose instead are a little harder to discern and, with two exceptions, his chapter titles and choice of poets don't give obvious clues: 'Derek Mahon: The Student Prince', 'Glyn Maxwell: The Spectral Adolescent', 'John Burnside: The Corpse as Threshold', and Plath's influence on Heaney. The closing paragraphs of his introduction take pains to argue that he isn't offering a return to privacy or rejecting poetry's public role: 'In short this book opposes the excessive
claims made for the public orientation of poetry.' [Emphasis added] At the same time, his discussion of Derek Mahon concludes that 'The difference between Mahon's poetry, early and late, was located above all, in his attitude to privacy' and that, in the later poetry, Mahon no longer has any confidence in 'the self-sufficiency of poetry and the purity of his inwardness'. Redmond's lengthy discussion of John Burnside also seems to be arguing that the more the poet's work leaves its initial inward-looking private worlds the worse it gets.

These readings are clearly the result of deep, thoughtful engagement with poetic oeuvres but, at the same time, they seem unwilling to deal with the dynamic relationships that poetry sets in motion. Redmond is rightly frustrated by historical readings of Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' and makes a strong case 'that the poem's main concern is consciousness'. As I have argued in an article in Irish Studies Review
, the type of historical reading represented by Hugh Haughton's account of the poem fails to do it justice. But the answer is not a question of 'either/or'. Mahon's emphasis on inwardness was a response to a belief that Irish poets in the 1970s should be writing public poetry and the consciousness that is explored in 'A Disused Shed' is part of a much larger argument, a satire if you will, about the impossibility and ridiculousness of trying to write an important, 'epic' poem about the Troubles. Similarly, what's missing from Redmond's discussion of Burnside is any attempt to account for his success and yet it ought to be clear that such success is down to the poetry's public effects more than any tangible meaning. That is, his poetry taps into a wider cultural moment where the uncanny is what passes for a generalised, non-religious feeling of spirituality as well as giving the comfortable, bourgeois subject a controlled frisson of otherness. You can find the same thing in Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Prayer'.

The effects of literary texts and the reception of those effects ought to be a larger part of Redmond's book because the book itself is a rare thing in British literary criticism: a work of pragmatism. Richard Poirier and Richard Rorty are important presences. But pragmatism is difficult to apply to literary texts. Redmond wants to use pragmatism to oppose what he calls 'the determination to make [poetry] fit with one kind of public program or another'. He quotes Harold Bloom's approving gloss of the questions that Rorty argues pragmatism 'always asks of a text: what is it good for, what can I do with it, what can it do for me, what can I make it mean?' But this ignores two important aspects of poetry. Poems that are 'good for' something are generally so because (a) they are records of the process of their own making; and (b) because an important part of both process and record is, in Lisa Robertson's words, already a refusal of the bounded transmission of a sign. I shall return to Robertson shortly but one also feels bound to ask whether Redmond thinks that critics who have written about the work of, say, Heaney or Muldoon in the context of the Troubles aren't asking pragmatic questions or whether he just doesn't like their answers?

Redmond's chapter on Vona Groarke suggests that it might be the latter. He has an entertaining pop at theory-inflected readings of her poem 'The Annotated House', in particular Selina Guinness's argument that the poem describes female masturbation. He is equally uncomfortable with David Wheatley's suggestion that Groarke's collection Other People's Houses
may be marked by the Irish economic boom of the late 1990s. In contrast, Redmond argues that 'The Annotated House'

is a pillar in a kind of metaphysical void. Hers is a quest for definition mainly conducted inside webs of literary influence - an individual struggle which takes place in an unpeopled, anonymous landscape. In relation to this struggle the public sphere has only the most limited relevance, teasing us, at best, with reminders of its absence.

It is significant, I think, that pragmatism has disappeared from the argument and 'an individual struggle' and limited public relevance seem hard to square with pragmatism's assertions that truth is founded in shared practice. Redmond's argument seems wishful. Rorty's questions about texts fail to account for the literariness of literature. A practice is only a practice because more than one person is involved it and a practice always takes place against and/or within a larger context. Rorty's questions about texts cannot be asked in isolation or, if they can, poems become solipsistic practices - which is what Redmond's reading of Groarke seems to imply.

There's no doubt that the type of criticism that Redmond uses Selina Guinness to represent can take us into some silly places. I once heard someone argue that the 'kill box' referred to in Jo Shapcott's 'Phrasebook' was a vagina dentata. Such readings are the result of changes in ideas about the function of criticism. As Stefan Collini argued in a 2010 public lecture 'History in English Literary Criticism', in the period of its dominance - roughly 1930-1970 - literary criticism played a crucial role in what historians call 'the national story'. Despite its practitioners' protests to the contrary, it was involved in disseminating a particular, largely declinist, view of the past. What one needs to add to Collini's account is that for much of the period 1930-1970, the status of literary criticism as a kind of national story and the status of poetry were intimately and inextricably linked. This link occurred not only because important public critics like Eliot and Empson were themselves poets but also because literary criticism tended to place poetry at the centre of its own story. It was poetry that seemed to be decisive in forcing a revision of dominant reading practices. For reasons beyond the scope of this review, that's no longer the case and criticism's role in the national story has been replaced by the publicly oriented, usually politicised readings, which Redmond seeks to counter.

The book ends with a discussion of David Jones and W. S. Graham. Redmond is acute on the alleged difficulty of both poets but I would have liked more on how their work negotiates between the public and private sphere in ways that few other poets have attempted in the last 50 years. It's perhaps more obvious in a number of Graham's later poems which seem to need an imagined addressee to complete their meaning or, at the very least, to bring their language into something like full activation. A greater sense of this would have enabled Redmond to take his argument to a place that pragmatism or scepticism can't reach. It's a place that's worked out in considerable detail in the poetry and criticism of Erin Moure and Lisa Robertson, a place that can be called poetry as citizenship. Poetry as citizenship was the subject of Lisa Robertson's keynote address at 'North of Invention: a Canadian Poetry Festival' in January 2011. You can listen to her at PennSound. What she proposes is a new understanding that poetry is intimately involved in three things: beginning to speak to another is the beginning of citizenship; speaking is synonymous with recognizing the co-agency of others; and speech is what we give one another and what therefore constitutes us as citizens. This would enable a more subtly and more urgently inflected understanding of private and public. And from here, it seems a short step to a view of poetry in which public relevance is less a question of mirroring present concerns and more a matter of imagining or even rehearsing future social and political structures. From this perspective, it's clear how the 'thesis of public relevance' that Redmond challenges is more often than not complicit with a retreat from political culture. In other words, the critic's idea of 'relevance' is just another version of the journalist's 'poetry is the new rock and roll'. This makes Redmond's book an important intervention and, one hopes, the starting point for a vigorous and overdue debate.

   David Kennedy 2013