October 05, 2006

Oxford Conference: More Thoughts

Writing about web page http://books.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1873614,00.html

About this Oxford debacle…

OK, so some people that were not able to give a paper, but many others were, some on mainstream poets like Heaney, Muldoon, Duffy, Oswald, Boland, Larkin etc. but some non-mainstream. These non-mainstream talks may not have been flying into the outer space of experimentalism, but the conference included a talk on various absurdist prose-poem writers by Luke Kennard, Nigel McLoughlin talking about stress weight in Northern Irish dialect poetry (a topic rather neglected), Alexandra Davies on poetry and dyslexia, Abi Curtis discussing critical discourse using the machine metaphor, Jonathan Ellis on Catriona O’Reilly, Claire Crowther on Lee Harwood and others, Alex Wylie on Geoffrey Hill etc. I don’t think that these poets are really ‘mainstream’ even if they are not wildly experimental.

Here are my thoughts about Farley’s article which has been much criticised by Geraldine Monk (See letter titled ‘Streams of Consciousness ’.

Farley’s argument in his article goes like this:
1. Farley doesn’t like the label ‘mainstream’ poet – he struggles with money and recognition as much as the next poet, he says, and poetry is a backwater anyway – this is probably true. Most poets do struggle, even mainstream ones. OK so he enjoys the privileges of ‘being mainstream: academic post, national reviews, prizes’, but I am sure that it is not so easy being a mainstream poet.
2. Donaghy ‘learned to regard tradition and form in a larger sense than the academic one’.
3. Beat poets in the US drew attention away from the forms that Donaghy liked and from a kind of literary poetry. Nothing to do with British experimental poets. See summary below if you don’t believe me.

(Here’s the crucial part about Donaghy importing ‘a sense of mid-century American formalism to a British audience who’d either forgotten about it or never encountered it’. Farley describes Donaghy noticing ‘how the Beats were blocking out the light even as the revolution slowed down – Ginsberg’s “Howl” was published in 1956, a couple of years after he was born, but by the time he sat his Graduate Record Exam, the first question related to that poem (you could fail an exam on Ginsberg!)’. In the specific context of ‘the States’, Farley writes: ‘He’d seen “underground” or “experimental” poets in the States networking their way to the centre of an academic marketplace, becoming powerful cultural arbiters in the process’. The consequence of this according to Farley was that: ‘Literary taste vanished, or was banished, from the curriculum when he was a student’.)

4. Farley explains that Donaghy preferred England precisely because it had a mainstream and Donaghy ‘saw “mainstream” differently’.

(In the US, apparently, ‘literary poetry was confined to an academic subculture’ while over here it had more coverage even if those “mainstream” poets that were covered were branded ‘as sentimental philistines’.)

5. Donaghy wanted British academia to engage more with ‘emergent and contemporary verse.’

(Farley’s argument here seems to be that “mainstream” poetry is ‘often traduced as being hopelessly in thrall to a long-discredited lyric “I”, plying its naive, post-Romantic trade in a world broken into thousands of pieces’. He thinks in contrast that “mainstream” poetry is the inheritor of a formal tradition. He also throws in a comment about how modernism broke the bond ‘between poetry and its readers’, a common view expressed by many poets, such as Eavan Boland in her essay in Strong Words. The implication is that mainstream poetry can fix this problem.)

6. Farley throws in a note here about marketing and poetry. Farley doesn’t think that poets alter their work for the market. But he does think that poetry criticism is so concerned with ‘awards and prizes, on a perceived sense of hype over here and concurrent neglect over there, that any insightful consideration of form and shape and the constructed-ness of poems seems to have fallen by the wayside’
7. The conference at Oxford is supposed to be an antidote to this bringing the mainstream poets and the academy together.

So to Geraldine’s points. Farley never said that he was anti-experimental as such. He did express a view of Donaghy’s, that experimental poets in the US pushed out literary poetry though. The context is the States not here. He does not conflate these US experimental poets with today’s British experimental in any way at all (See point 3).

Also he never says that the aim of the conference is to re-engage with the reader, but he does say that mainstream poetry and the tradition of literary poetry can mend the break between reader and writer. (See point 5).

Geraldine did have a point in her letter when she suggested that Farley saw experimental poetry as having no concern with form. She is right that form is integral to experimental poetry.

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