Sep 12 2011: It Ain’t Easy: Conformity, Culture & Complexity (from Thumbscrew 11, Autumn 1998)
It Ain’t Easy: Conformity, Culture and Complexity was initially written in response to a Poetry Review editorial by Peter Forbes and forwarded to him: if I remember rightly he did hold onto it, with a view to using it somewhere in an issue, but eventually returned it owing to the lack of an appropriate slot. So instead of the magazine it was, in some way, debating the point with, it ended up in Tim Kendall’s refreshingly disrespectful Thumbscrew (issue 11, Autumn 1998) instead. Like my slightly later review of The Deregulated Muse and its associated anthologies featured in Sheffield Thursday, I suppose this essay was part of an attempt to understand my own antipathy to certain ideas in circulation at the time that, while on a gut level I knew I opposed them, I also knew I supported many (if not all) of the professed objectives of those putting the ideas forward.
So what was the problem? In the end, I think the broad conclusion was that I have a fairly dogged belief in the transformative function of art that may have been inherited from an early interest in the ideas of many of early c.20th art movements (not least Surrealism) but probably also has roots in my own experience, as someone whose imaginitive horizons were transformed by the availability of books and images that were very much beyond and outside the cultural landscape I’d grown up in. When it came down to it, hearing those academics, critics and Oxbridge graduates talking of art’s need to relate to ordinary people, of representation and dealing with the contemporary mundane, often felt very much like arguments that would have preferred my own limitations (aged six, or eight, or eleven) to have been simply reflected back at me, like a closed door with a mirror hung on it.
Art, in short, is capable of far more than this line of argument tended to assume and, having immersed myself as a teenager in such alien mental landscapes as those created by Amos Tutuola, Aime Cesaire and Christopher Okigbo, Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret, Federico Garcia Lorca and Monique Wittig, Richard Brautigan, Angela Carter and Vasko Popa…well, I wasn’t having it argued that only simple language written on subjects I already knew about was capable of being understood by the likes of me. Or that pointlessly anecdotal postmodernism amounted to any sort of challenge to conventional ways of thinking about the world. Those old arguments do still waft around from time to time but are a lot less strident now than they were circa 1998: perhaps that’s because things have improved, or maybe I’ve just got a lot better at avoiding those who still insist on pushing them.
It Ain’t Easy: Conformity, Culture & Complexity
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilisation as it exists at present must be difficult.
- T.S. Eliot, The Metaphysical Poets (1921)
Eliot’s words have been widely misread over the years as a demand for obscurity, for difficulty for its own sake and rejected as an elitist position. One of the problems in pointing this out is that some of Eliot’s supporters read it this way too, and did demand (and produce) pointless obfuscation of precisely the kind his opponents feared. But two misreadings don’t add up to a correct reading, and Eliot has been misrepresented on this point for long enough. Exactly how misrepresented is made clear by Peter Forbes’s comments in How The Century Lost Its Poetry, an extended Poetry Review editorial attacking the Modernist conception of poetry, and Eliot’s in particular:
Where did Eliot’s blithe assertion of the necessity for difficulty in complex times come from? You could just as easily assert the opposite: the necessity for clarity.
This isn’t the first, or even the most glaring example of this misreading, but it is a recent one, by someone with a platform to push a particular poetic agenda on the contemporary scene. So where does this go wrong?
One might ask where it goes right. In plain English, if the times are complex, and poetry is to engage with them in anything other than an oversimplified, reductive way, it follows that poetry must be capable of dealing with that complexity. This will result in complex, and by extension difficult poetry. Since difficult and complex are terms defined by their relation to their opposites, easy and simple, Forbes’s leap to clarity is facile and self-evidently insupportable. Clarity of expression depends entirely on what one is trying to express. Explaining the workings of, say, Quantum Mechanics, or the implications of psychoanalysis in the field of human subjectivity, will, unless the concepts are grossly oversimplified, be a difficult thing to accomplish, and result in a less than easy read. It is this that Eliot meant. Not that poetry should be difficult for the sake of it, not that everything poetry does needs to be made difficult. Just that in a complex world – “our civilisation as it exists at present” – there is a great deal of difficulty to be expressed and to express it in easy, simplistic terms is not only inadequate, but dishonest.
Since both these things still apply, it follows that Forbes is evading the issue in his insistence on steering clear of difficulty. He cites The Beatles as examples of a popular, “objective” art, grouping Eleanor Rigby, She’s Leaving Home and Penny Lane with Auden’s Funeral Blues and The Fall of Rome in opposition to the idea of difficulty (or self-indulgence, as he puts it elsewhere). These are used as grounds to keep out not only Eliot, but by extension the Auden of September 1, 1939, The Shield of Achilles and The Orators; The Beatles of A Day in the Life, Strawberry Fields Forever and Tomorrow Never Knows. He appears to forget that the discomfiting I Am The Walrus found itself relegated to the b-side of the catchy banality of Hello Goodbye for reasons not dissimilar to those he advances against Eliot. Forbes is arguing not so much for clarity and accessibility, then, as for an art that doesn’t frighten the horses: an art that minds its language, so to speak.
This is nothing new. The best known expression of Forbes’s underlying position is Adrian Mitchell’ s line – at least as well known as Eliot’s assertion of the need for difficulty – that “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. In some quarters this is an article of faith, unquestioningly accepted, though it is in fact less benign in its implications than it appears. It omits to note, for example, that “most people” don’t ignore poetry, at least not in the conscious sense implied by Mitchell. “Most people”, quite simply, don’t know about poetry: it is possible – even probable – that unless by some quirk of fate the right poem happens across your path at the right time, you can get from one end of your life to the other without once reading a poem. Not outside the classroom, at any rate, or the occasional, off-puttingly wholesome context of the poetry promotion, where the apologetic ‘it’s-good-for-you’ platitudes routinely manage to make even poets themselves cringe with embarrassment.
It ignores a deeply-rooted cultural prejudice against poetry, not only against its perceived difficulty, but against the medium itself, which is seen as self-indulgent and narcissistic. Just in case this appears to support Forbes’s and Mitchell’s point, this image is rooted not in Eliot and Pound, or in the texts of any group of poets, but in the popular idea of the doomed Romantic, and in exactly the kind of Golden Treasury preciousness that “most people” are prone to condemn modern and contemporary work for not resembling: the pale, androgynous body of Chatterton, in extremis; the consumptive Keats dying of unrequited love in Italy; Wordsworth falling into paroxysms of ecstasy at the sight of a few daffodils. Jeanette Winterson points out how these kinds of images, and resistance to changing them, combine to undermine all the arts:
The untaught ‘I know what I like’ approach, now encouraged by the media, is neither fresh nor untaught. It is the half-baked sterility of the classroom washed down with liberal doses of popular culture… The charge against art, that it is elitist, is too often the accuser’s defence against his or her bafflement. It is quite close to the remark ‘Why can’t they all speak English?’ which may be why it is the favourite insult of the British and Americans.
Randall Jarrell (writing in the 1950s) went further still. Pointing out that the “truly popular poets” of the Latin American countries are, far from simple, in fact “all Surrealists”, he asks:
…is clarity the handmaiden of Popularity, as everybody automatically assumes? How much does it help to be immediately plain? In England today few poets are as popular as Dylan Thomas … yet he is surely one of the most obscure poets who ever lived. Or to take an opposite example: the poems of the students of Yvor Winters are quite as easy to understand as those which Longfellow used to read during the Children’s Hour; yet … if Dylan Thomas is obscurely famous, such poets as these are clearly unknown.
What this prejudice amounts to, then, is not so much a demand for ‘something I can understand’ as for ‘more of what I like or know about already’. Populism is not incidentally but inherently conservative in this way and serves only to reinforce existing prejudices and tastes. It is also a refusal of effort, a fear “of what is not instant, approachable, consumable” (Winterson), a process in which ‘elitist’ becomes synonymous not with inaccessibility or exclusiveness, but with any challenge whatsoever to preconceptions.
There is another aspect to Mitchell’s line worth exploring in some detail since it ties in with a broad movement in culture as a whole towards demands for accountability to ‘ordinary people’ and their lives, a general movement towards ‘accessibility’ and ‘anti-elitism’ that sounds reasonable enough (who out there is vigorously arguing for elitism in the cultural sphere?) until its underlying assumptions and effects are examined. Behind this superficially reasonable demand lies at least one fairly major assumption that few outside the Daily Mail‘s readership would grant unqualified support if they thought for a moment about its implications. Do we really agree that ‘ordinary’, with its associations of ‘normality’, has any specific existence beyond the dubious averages of statisticians, their shoehorning of diversity into categorical ‘means’ to enforce the views of a majority (the largest single minority) as somehow normative across the whole society? Do we accept this rhetoric of ‘ordinary people’; ‘most people’; ‘right-thinking people’ when those opposed to lowering the age of consent for homosexuals use it? Or when calls for tighter immigration control, or calls for the return of the death penalty, or birching for juveniles are made?
So why do many otherwise sophisticated people revert to such rhetoric in debates over poetry and culture? Here’s Anthony Easthope dismissing poetry at the end of a book full of ingeniously subtle assertions that not only is iambic pentameter inherently oppressive (it enforces the individual voice), but that English Poetry since the Renaissance is a bourgeois plot to dupe the working classes. Fortunately, Easthope can reassure us that:
Bourgeois poetic discourse now has no real audience. It is kept alive only in a tainted and complicit form. The state promotes it in secondary and higher education as part of the syllabus for public examinations and ‘English’ degrees. In Britain, the state also subsidises such poetry through the Arts Council, which gives money for readings and magazines. Meanwhile, people are much more interested in such genuinely contemporary media as cinema, television and popular song in its many varieties.
Much as working class voters were “more interested” in genuinely contemporary Thatcherite economic policies during the 1980s, one assumes. British literary theory is a sad, pragmatic and simpleminded affair at the best of times – no Kristevas, Benjamins or Foucaults here – but the Easthopes, Eagletons and Belseys undermine themselves with their constant Marie-Antoinetteish ‘let them eat pop culture’ refusal to engage in any critique of market capitalism as it actually exists, focusing instead on challenging the same liberal-humanist values comprehensively trashed by Thatcherism, thereby revealing their political function (as opposed to their stated political alignment) far more eloquently than any overt critique I can make. However, David Kennedy, in his recent New Relations, a substantial expansion of his introduction to the influential Bloodaxe anthology The New Poetry, inadvertently exposes something of the mechanics of this delusion:
…it may not be going too far to suggest that postmodernism, as practised by contemporary British poets, may start from a realisation that if redistribution of wealth is not possible literally then it can at least be achieved culturally.
Since the central plank of Kennedy’s thesis is the contention, in the wake of Eagleton’s ‘political criticism’, that a radical decentering of culture is democratising in its social and political effect, then this statement calls into question the whole basis of that argument. For if, as this makes clear, it is all little more than a large-scale displacement activity, how can it be justified as a politically viable means of resistance? To create a horizontal, ‘democratic’ cultural axis in which nothing carries more weight than anything else, against a vertical axis of economic inequality, can only make culture more, not less, dependent on unregulated market forces. With no specific, oppositional value to the ethos of the marketplace embodied in cultural practice, that practice becomes only an extension of the dominant, economically utilitarian norm (this might be best expressed in the phrase: “if it makes money, it’s worthwhile. If it doesn’t, forget it”).
This not only undermines any political effectiveness attached to a collapsing of value judgement, it actively enforces a Thatcherite ethos in the cultural sphere. Since the collapsing of values is usually one-sided, resulting in low-status cultural forms (of high economic value) displacing high-status cultural forms (of relatively low economic value), the process also claims the cultural authority of the demoted forms as a support to, and on behalf of, a pre-existing economic status quo. The collapsing of value judgement, in other words, only has the effect of increasing cultural conformity to the ‘popular’ models produced – and to a large extent enforced – by multinational entertainment conglomerates with little regard for the niceties of difference, locality or diverse identities, except insofar as each defines a niche market.
This may partly explain why so much of the poetry being promoted today operates in a homogenised urban vernacular with very little noticeable distinction between a ‘Northern’ and a ‘London’ voice, and not very much to distinguish a ‘black’ from a ‘white’ poetic persona. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ voices divide, where they do divide, largely into the most conservative stereotypes, hence the profusion of young male poets writing about pubs and football, and similar numbers of young women writing about love affairs and cooking, as though we were still stuck somewhere at the level of Shoot! and Jackie. Such stereotypes are, of course, made ‘strong’ and ‘positive’, but they’re an inordinately conspicuous presence, as a glance through the lesser names in The New Poetry and Sixty Women Poets, or any number of current magazines, will tend to confirm.
This facile version of ‘attention to most people’s lives’ seems too often rooted in a cult of ordinariness that has little to do with the complex affiliations and differences to be found among the individual members of a generalised mass. As in market research or ratings polls we are reduced to our averaged selves at a low common denominator that seeks ‘popular’ approval. It hardly needs be said that this is an inherently conservative position, liable to close off rather than enable the construction of new modes of cultural activity, new kinds of human identification and relationship. It is emphatically not, for all the rhetoric it comes so often couched in, a formula for questioning established power relationships and structures or achieving cultural change.
I don’t suggest that the ‘democratic’ poets or the Critical Theorists arguing their case are necessarily conscious of these effects. I do suggest that their demystifications of earlier assumptions might be productively applied to their own, in order to demonstrate that, all too often, opposition to value judgements and liberal humanism happen to coincide with shifts in capitalist organisation that require the removal of that line of defence in order to clear the way for newer, more efficient models.
These are tied to shifts in production away from mass-manufacturing and towards niche-servicing and entertainment-information. As long as production of commodities is kept separate from production of knowledge, liberal humanism can safely act as a kind of ineffective conscience. The new information industries, however, require that territory for themselves: old-style concepts of truth, value and nature will, if allowed to survive, block the flow of information-as commodity with complications of non-monetary value. Truth must therefore be made a flexible property, nature displaced in favour of self-referential culture and value reduced to an issue of subjective choice without reference to factors that might complicate the flow of information in the marketplace.
In other words, as mass literacy becomes essential to the new production processes of the advanced industrial nations (manufacturing can be devolved to the ‘developing’ countries, where 19th century practices and levels of profitability can be maintained) the effective use of mass literacy endangers the stability of these processes. The proponents of populism, in both politics and art, consciously or not act as willing accomplices to this shift. It’s a point that their own analyses of the ambiguous roles played by supposedly progressive attitudes in earlier eras ought to have assisted them in working out for themselves.
It will be argued in response to this that literary judgement, for all its pretence to ‘objectivity’, has been used as a mask for the suppression of alternative viewpoints: the values embodied in these judgements needed to be shown to be based in sex and class assumptions that elevated the values of the ruling class over those of the majority. These values were white, male, European in origin, and therefore ill-equipped to judge work from black, female, non-European perspectives.
Few would seriously question most of this, but it does not arise from the concept of literary judgement itself: it is a contestable – and contested – use of literary judgement for one set of political ends. To use it for another, in opposition to the first, or in a tangential departure from it, is not an inconsistent project. To appropriate the authority attached to literary culture is a useful, practical and effective means of resistance to prevailing assumptions. To demolish that authority leads to a Pyrrhic victory in which particular kinds of writing may occasionally become less marginalised within the literary sphere, but also become effectively marginalised as literature in relation to the structures they challenge.
Put another way, the act of appropriation marginalises the cultural space it appropriates, not by the act itself, but by the means (the devaluation of its authority) used to achieve that appropriation. In this sense, Terry Eagleton’s much-quoted line about “the marginal becoming central” is based on a fallacy, since it only applies in certain, culturally marginalised spheres. It does these newly central groups little effective good when cultural authority passes from the sphere they occupy to the economically dominant, industrialized popular culture of the multinationals, in relation to which they remain as marginalised as ever. It is therefore crucial that literature – and the arts generally – be retained as a sphere in which commercial, ‘populist’ interests fail to dominate; as a sphere in which genuine differences, new ideas and models for human society and relationships are granted a space for their articulation at the highest level necessary for their inherent complexity and difficulty. There are no easy or simple solutions, and to pretend otherwise is to have given up altogether.
This is not a commonplace notion at the moment, however, and the lack of it produces a tendency to judge poetry by criteria that enforce this conformity. In a recent review, Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris found itself condemned by John Redmond in these terms:
With its maples and birches, its wave on wave of buttercups, roses, foxgloves and violets, it is a landscape from which the modern world has been carefully pruned away. What remains is a serene little oasis, rather like an English Garden Centre or Tom Bombadil’s enchanted forest in The Lord of the Rings, where it would be less surprising to see one of the High Elves than someone sporting an Oasis T-shirt.
This is a complete misrepresentation of the tone of Gluck’ s book, and a facile piece of populist rhetoric to boot. Here’s Deryn Rees-Jones on Sharon Olds’s The Wellspring:
Olds seemingly enforces, rather than questions, a mystical relationship between men and women of power and forgiveness. Tricky ground, this, and to be fair to Olds, it is only because she is brave enough to explore the dangerous areas of gender, love and sexuality that these problems arise. Nevertheless this is emblematic of the way Olds’ work can stumble from a valid exploration of sexual politics into a dismaying conservatism.
Whatever the problems in Olds’s poems might be, I don’t feel that the mere failure on the poet’s part to confirm the reviewer’s existing opinions ought to be made one of them. The important point about these reviews – which are not isolated examples, and are selected more or less at random from current magazines – is that the first condemns a poet for not writing about the ‘correct’ subjects (“the modern world”, an “Oasis T-shirt”), the second for writing about an approved subject (“a valid exploration”) but coming to the wrong conclusions (“a dismaying conservatism”). The assumptions being made are that some things are more ‘real’ than others (though in what sense exactly an Oasis T-shirt has a better claim on reality than maples and birches is not made clear) and that these things are subject to policing by opinions self-evidently correct even in “dangerous areas”. No complexity or difficulty is allowed for.
This returns us to Eliot’s dictum, to Peter Forbes’s populist attack on it, and to the more general need for a genuine engagement with the “civilisation as it exists at present”. The attempt to evade this by appeals to conservative populism, or attacks on value judgement, amount to a complete betrayal, not of tradition, or any particular view of culture, even, but of art itself, and its function as – in Peter Burger’s words – “a free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable”: the idea that art’s very function is as a shared imaginitive territory.
The existence of this territory is every bit as essential to the ‘popular’ cultures as to the ‘high’, and the current attempts by institutionalised academic theorists and media-friendly populists of all stripes to close it need to be opposed while there’s still some free cultural space left to work with. This doesn’t mean we can go back to an unexamined liberal humanism or some nostalgic idea of a culture (that never really existed) where art plays an unquestioned central role either, though. “Civilisation as it exists at present”, as I believe Eliot knew, requires complex new thinking, not the application of formulae; a genuinely oppositional, risky stance. I’m not convinced of its chances, but its necessity? Absolutely, yes.