:: Article

A Challenge to Poetic Generosity

By Joe Kennedy.


Tom Raworth, Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems, Carcanet, 2010.

The thirteenth poem in Tom Raworth’s latest collection concludes a curtain-raising sequence of retrieved pieces which, according to the acknowledgements, were omitted from the author’s 2003 Collected Poems because of ‘carelessness’. Characteristically soldering ideationally-hectic montage to acerbic metapoetry, ‘How to Patronise a Poem’ is a study of diverse vintages of readerly wishful thinking distributed across ‘eleven segements/ […] left to trust/ and imagination’. The unversified third shard is a skillet in which whimsical notions of poetic disengagement receive an ironic toss:

stunting their own growth…making themselves ornamental
Japanese trees, safe, instead of being the trees struck by

Raworth’s ventriloquial turn here presents us with a dilletantish student of Pound and Eliot, a part-timer who needs to believe that a poem’s ornamentalisation is a consequence of its own agency rather than of the collective cultural imagination’s requirement for a territory distinct from the shabbiness and clutter of the everyday. Such a position patronises because it affects to scold the poem for shunning the soiled language of acquisition and exchange whilst simultaneously indulging its capacity to do so. The voice can’t hit the heights of outright disapproval; instead, it sets up the object of its analysis as tragicomic in its unwillingness to pursue the potentials of worldly connection. What goes unacknowledged, of course, is that this rendering-hermetic is an effect of reading which projects onto the poem a quasi-Oedipal aspiration for extrication from a reality which presses us to behave as pragmatic, realistic subjects of capitalism. ‘Difficult’ (read: ‘modernist’) writing is portrayed as aloof precisely because its separateness represents a reservation to which we might still elect to repair.

A word that has achieved real currency in journalistic literary criticism lately is ‘generosity’. Syntactically, conceptually complex late modernist poetry, such as Raworth’s, or J.H. Prynne’s, is perceived to be bereft of this quality, whilst the tersely  observational work of a John Burnside or Don Paterson is believed to possess it in spades. Like all abstract nouns, though, the term implies an associated rubric which marks out its ground and assures its semantic utility. Underpinning an understanding of the generosity of, for example, Zadie Smith, is a plexus of liberal humanist vagaries handed down from E.M. Forster, all of which come down to little more than a proposal that literature should – and here’s another baggy idea – enrich the community to which it is addressed. In practice, this has meant that poetry is most energetically commended when its reviewer feels confident that they are, stably, its addressee. Raworth is therefore treated as suspect because, as in the example above, he seems to be implying that we invariably contort a poem until we are satisfied that it is speaking to us. Vast numbers of critics would be inclined to shoot the messenger here, because they want the thing criticised to be ‘generous’ enough to be the occasion for a nicely-lathed remark, the kind of observation which fancies itself as bright as a note struck on a tuning fork. The poems in Windmills on Fire are sceptical of this image of responsive precision, reading it as a vanity peculiar to late capitalism.

Few Raworth poems prostitute themselves to clean-cut summation, but that the idea that this should allow us to dismiss his writing as hermetic is half-baked should become obvious if one persists with a little close reading. ‘Caller’, the long piece which forms the central column of the collection, is an ideal go-to for a demonstration of this:

paramilitary wreckage
arks one musical

fierce turn crucial
shift forgiveness
you jolt that table

nature corrupt nature
romped bound constituency

non-electrical devil
is this thought

all were buxom
mushroom and oyster

This is a montage of language which is either already besmirched by usage or conscious of the inevitability of its becoming so, its minimal units uneasily collocated by contemporary culture’s madcap eclecticisation of all experience. Anything can be anywhere in a given instance; ideas and ideologies have been loosed from their moorings to form impudent and improbable blends. It’s hardly surprising that Raworth made a name for himself in the sixties, when this carnivalisation, oiled pharmaceutically, still looked as if it had the ability to terminally decentre ruling hegemonies. Now it is capital, made infinitely tentacular by technologies that overrule longstanding geographic realities, which is at liberty to exploit centrelessness and disruption (the poem’s title, of course, immediately requires us to think in terms of telecommunication). That ‘wreckage’ in the first line quoted needn’t be blamed on some clichéd, balaclava-clad figure: throughout Windmills in Flames, Raworth shepherds us towards an understanding of the modern corporation as something that behaves militarily. Business, just as Guy Debord predicted in Society of the Spectacle, has brought all the old walls crashing down.

Strangely, poetry is best positioned to confront and critique this state of affairs when it emulates it to some degree. ‘Generous’ poems allow themselves to be consumed, digested, and regurgitated as reassuring paraphrase: Raworth’s use of ‘buxom’ encrypts this idea (once upon a time, buxomness was the quality of lacking resistance) in the image of sexual promise. This vision of a poem or feminine body’s pliancy dissolves at the line break into what might be a glimpse of the tiniest scrap of a takeaway menu, a furious comment on the ‘wreckage’ produced by conditions which throw everything into a system of equivalence with everything else. ‘Caller’ doesn’t lay claim to a space outside this state of semantic and ideological collapse, but advertises the inevitability of being within it. Every convulsive movement (each ‘shift’, each ‘jolt’) moves us through this spectacle, rather than away from it. If the reader is willing, they might be enervated by Raworth’s frenetic deployment of the apparent non-sequitur; however, this rapid cutting also entails political analysis couched in form.

In the introduction to a sampler of T.S. Eliot’s hits given away with the Guardian a few years ago, Craig Raine was given license to be dismissive about the ‘difficult’ poets who many in the generosity-suffused mainstream – with an almost unreal degree of paranoia – consider a threat. Eliot, he wrote, inspired a view of modernism ‘so influential it has spawned a postmodern poetic school led by JH Prynne whose purpose is to be difficult – emulatively difficult. (Not difficult to be difficult, actually.)’ Accessibility: the rallying call of those setting poetry’s table ever since The Movement. Leaving aside the idea that any poet influenced by Eliot must, by definition, be ‘postmodern’ (Raine et al may well be the real ‘postmodernists’, given their smug certainty that High Modernism’s formal experiments were the last genuinely innovative ones), what we’re faced with here is an overworn division between writing which is well-wrought and accessible and that which wields its complexity to conceal an absence of craftsmanship. Raine’s conviction that the poets in the ‘postmodern poetic school’ aspire to difficulty for its own sake has a motivation coextensive with the one which drives the celebration of generosity. Difficult poetry, we’re asked to believe, padlocks the gate behind itself, refusing entry to members of a vaguely-defined public who come in search of enrichment. What Raine neglects is the fact that there is another form of literary generosity, namely one which trusts its readership to do the work and, in doing so, generates new communities of response. Raworth’s unexpected diversions, garden-path sentences, and abrupt slips into profanity (see ‘Baggage Claim’: ‘a lacy white statue parched/ bronze beneath shit on a stick’) call for these in ways which are unceasingly unpredictable. He might be careless when it comes to anthologising his own work, but when it comes to the writing itself he’s anything but.


Joe Kennedy is an academic and poet.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 23rd, 2010.