Oh Welcome Complexity
Clarities, Blandine Longre (47pp, 8 euros, Black Herald Press)
It's always a jolt. That reminder of how complex and demanding poetry can (and arguably should) be. I certainly tend to forget how tough and intellectually rigorous much of the classic English poetry canon is - and this quality is underestimated in explaining its survival. But teaching Donne and Milton recently, the sheer and unashamed intellectualism - combined with constant readability - certainly makes for dispiriting comparisons with today's British 'classics'.
Who doesn't seem either thin and trivial or hieroglyphic and hermetic by comparison? Of course, this statement is partly both ridiculous and bogus - picking two stellar names to judge against. And maybe Prynne, Hill or Fisher can be exempted. But the lack of intellectual ambition in so much other work is a worry, especially when one realises how widely despised (indeed ridiculed) contemporary British mainstream poetry is - particularly in continental Europe. Anyone baffled by how appalling so many of the feted names are can feel reassured, this judgement is gaining ground, away from the broadsheet and profile-management boutiques.
Black Herald Press is an outstanding new imprint - physically and stylistically their books are a delight - established in Paris by the English poet Paul Stubbs. A separate review is required of his quite brilliant new sequence Ex Nihilo. Briefly for now, it is highly unusual and disturbing metaphysical poetry, without the slightest concession to contemporary fashion. There is a nicely 'exiled' ambience at work, a determination to plough on and produce good writing, whatever the idiocies of the British poetry scene.
Longre's work is similarly ambitious and philosophical:
...I am a field a realm and a route
an expanse of everdark crops
awoken unadorned and brambled
yet hardly maimed by the too-still rivulets of reality...
(from 'Avoiding the blackest eye of might')
This type of thing is easily dismissed as overwritten, even pretentious and portentous. What argues against that is an admirable consistency of tone, with a refusal to drop ideas, to become concrete, except on her own terms:
Wreck-born snakes refusing to embrace
their wet doom (never was a river redder)
crisscrossing their anathema
begging for parched soil and dryscape
(the perhaps of a mutability)....
All of the poems here are self-exploratory, yet without even the slightest hint of biographical or personal details. Again, I'd have longed for these, but their absence gives the work a haunting and driven quality:
...suburban leaps over fleeting darkscapes
evading senses above wizened throngs
splashed-out paces along sharpened
meridians and riverbeds of pain -
all steering our stammering selves away...
The usual point of reference for this sort of corporeal (and feminised) writing would be Plath, especially since she is quoted in the introduction. But the effect, especially above, is more reminiscent of Rimbaud's 'Illuminations', This is interesting, because English is a second language for Longre, yet clearly the poems were (well) written in our great language - sorry for that vulgarity.
It's never been clear how many - if any - of Rimbaud's seminal prose poems were attempted in English; certainly his note books (and hours spent in the British Library) show a fascination with English slang and arcane vocabulary. This collection prompted me to look back over them, and also references on the differences between poetic effects in the two languages.
There's an Ashbery quote, about French being too clear and logical a language for some of the nuanced tonal effects achievable in English. Yet look at what Celine, Genet or Artaud achieved, poetically. Indeed, look at the best poems in this collection. Although written in English, they have the unmistakable clarity and relentless logic of the best French writing.
© Paul Sutton 2010