Monday, April 09, 2012

The Great Unwritten

Alongside those marvellous things we wrote but subsequently lost, and those things which, being not yet written, shall be among the wonders and the terrors of the word, we must also include those things we really meant to write, which we were indeed commissioned to write, which it would have done us a power of good in the actual factual world to have written, but which, for reasons we'd rather not go into (but will anyway, for that is the, um, scoopy nature of this blog), we did not manage to so much as draft out beyond the first few broken phrases. These, too, we must rank among the lost.

I've got four examples from a chequered career of inactivity which seem especially relevant, not only to this site, but to its companion category over on Press of Blll. It's generally considered a good thing in the great empty hall of the Herbert head when a few of its scattered thoughts come together and are prepared to acknowledge each other without fisticuffs or over-hearty feasting (psychically the same thing), so I will rehearse those here in the first instance, since this blog is a type of holding area for all such prodigals, exiles and otherwise estranged ones.

Two of the miscreations are reviews, the others are essays. Both reviews were for Poetry Review: one in the mid-90s under Peter Forbes' editorship, the other more recently under Fiona Sampson's. In each case I was sent a packet of books which might have been thought highly congenial in one way or another to my own literary enterprise. Perhaps that was the problem. I should say I apologise here yet again to those editors who placed their trust in me - in some cases I hope I've been able to regain it, in others my penance continues.

Those books for review were, firstly, Selected Poems of William Neill: 1969-1992 (Canongate, 1994); Collected Poems of Alexander Scott, ed. David Robb (Mercat, 1994); and A Keen New Air, by Raymond Vettese (the Saltire Society, 1995). And, secondly, Petr Borkovec, From the Interior: Poems 1995-2005, translated by Justin Quinn (Seren); The Golden Boat: Selected Poems, Srecko Kosovel, translated by Bert Ribac and David Brooks (Salt); and Stephen Rodefer, Call It Thought: Selected Poems (Carcanet) - all published in 2008.

The essays were, firstly, on MacDiarmid and Bunting for Jim McGonigal and Richard Price's book (published in 2000), The Star You Steer By; and, secondly, on Auden's light verse for Tony Sharpe's forthcoming W.H.Auden in Context.

What interests me here is, not just these lost opportunities, but the psychology of losing an opportunity. Am I just congenitally unreliable? Probably, but the record of all the other reviews and essays I more or less unproblematically completed would suggest not. So what specifically went wrong?

I think in each case I was encountering a type of creative block which led me to repress rather than surmount, to 'lose' the problem. In each case the full nature of the block will probably only be recovered by completing the task - and it is of course the duty of this blog to recover just such lost things. Therefore the completion of these four tasks (plus a couple I'm still processing, as it were) is heretofore added to my compendious lists of the great unwritten. But I'd like to include a few incipient sentences here.

With that selection of books by Scottish writers, I think the issue is clear: these are mostly strongly Nationalist writers in Scots, poets for whom the choice of language is a matter of principle as well as of aesthetics. They are identifiable or at least associable with the second wave of the Scottish Renaissance: those writers who, from around the 1940s onward, displayed the direct influence of Hugh MacDiarmid. Writers like Maurice Lindsay, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Douglas Young all adopted 'Synthetic Scots' as it was known, tended to favour traditional form such as ballad, followed MacDiarmid politically at least as far as Nationalism, and even seemed to favour MacDiarmidean 'datchies and sesames' when it came to vocabulary.

In other words they were old-fashioned writers even by the 70s, when Tom Leonard's work heralded the next significant step in writing in Scots: the move away from a literary language and prosody toward an urban late-modernist free verse, and then Liz Lochhead grounded this in strongly performance-focused writing. The writing of later poets working in Scots like Robert Crawford, David Kinloch and myself tended to try and synthesise these two elements, and part of my difficulties with this review were clearly those of the inheritor.

When I think about that second set of review copies, my main focus is on Rodefer, a writer who followed the initial generation of the New York School, carrying their main stylistic innovations on into what we would tend to characterise as Language Poetry. Here again, I can see that my hesitancy is to do with inheritance. Frank O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler and Ted Berrigan all exerted differing degrees of influence over me at different times in my own writing, and I had issues with both Rodefer's rehearsing and his development of their tropes and tactics. But something about Kosovel helps me to put those difficulties into context.

Kosovel, a Slovenian poet who died aged only 21 in 1926, wrote in two distinct styles: put very crudely, the earlier work is 'impressionist' and late Romantic, much focussed on the landscape of his native Karst; the later is 'expressionist', filled with early Modernism's enthusiastic critique of language and sensibility. The tensions between these two styles made me aware of the issues at stake when I was reading Rodefer.

With the Scottish poets I was clearly reluctant to make a decisively negative judgement about their relative conservatism; with Rodefer's Call It Thought I was equally clearly resisting too negative a critique of his mannerist development of the New York School. In each case I was hedging my bets not because of what any potential review said about its subjects, but because of what it told me about myself. Both the step away from sentiments about writing in Scots to which I was to some degree sympathetic, and the distancing from a movement in US writing by which I was strongly engaged, obviously marked a movement into a middle period of my own writing which I needed to think through. Not that I realised this at the time.

It is traditional, almost inevitable, to lose one's way in the middle of the journey, but what I lost, what I am attempting to recover here as in my other blogs, is both the moment and the significance of the change I therefore underwent.

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