Poetry and the academy

In my journey up Mount Prynne I’ve been looking at some of the academic work that sets out to elucidate the poems and place Prynne in a wider context. The Jacket site has been particularly useful in this regard but unfortunately most of the stuff on there is couched in dense and (to the lay reader) impenetrable terms which doesn’t actually elucidate the work but does serve to further mystify and complicate the business of climbing Mount Prynne. I cite as evidence Kevin Nolan who writes- “rather than a merely mechanical materialism or, even worse, a Heideggerian apophatics which would collapse the autonomy of the poem in the rush towards a negative theology of the unennhalte?” How many people, other than post-graduates, are going to be entirely familiar with the meaning of this?

There’s also the issue of value in poetry and the fact that an impossibly elitist and obscure discourse on poets and their work effectively destroys that value by means of exclusion. This is not to say that I am against theory nor am I against the various European brands of criticism per se. I do recall however watching with some dismay as deconstruction, post-structuralism and all things Foucault started to seep into the Anglo-Saxon world in the early eighties. This seepage has produced what is, at best, a bastardisation of the original ideas and, at worst, a complete travesty of what was meant.

I need also to say that there are some insights in Mr Nolan’s piece but the hapless reader does need to wade through the bullshit to get at them. Unlike David Harvey, I don’t think that Eng Lit has entirely lost it’s theoretical way  but I do feel that attempting to be more ‘difficult’ than difficult poets themselves are does nobody any good. Criticism, if its any good, should provide readers and students with the wider context and provide the tools for us to appreciate the poems finer points. Alastair Fowler’s gloss on Paradise Lost, for example, tells me about the way Milton makes use of astronomy and of the significance of numbers in the poem’s  construction.  I can then choose whether or not to marvel at the astronmical invention and puzzle over the numbers but Fowler also lets me know that these are not barriers to understanding. George Steiner writes with great warmth and enthusiasm about Paul Celan but he does this with far more clarity than many members of the academy.

So, this is a plea for Eng Lit to sort itself out and to remember that obscurity and quality do not always go hand in hand and that ‘difficult’ poets do should not be written about in difficult terms.

4 responses to “Poetry and the academy

  1. I don’t think Kevin Nolan can be taken to stand for the whole range of critical practice in the academy. Prynne gets written about quite lucidly by other critics, even on the same site.

    But nor do I think that professional technical language needs to be regarded as obscure. I don’t understand most of the things plumbers say to eachother: doesn’t mean they are wrong to have a special language for their trade.

  2. I’m not criticising the whole range of critical practice in the academy but I do feel that there’s a tendency in some areas of practice to make things more complex than they need be. Both Paul Celan and Prynne do seem to attract both excellent analysis and stuff that seems to be written solely for the purpose of impressing other members of the academy.
    There’s also a kid of elitism that surrounds many ‘difficult’ writers that really isn’t helpful to those of us who just enjoy reading the work.

  3. Agreed; not all critical discourse is supposed to be helpful to every kind of enjoyment of any text. But enjoyment must be acknowledged a complex and various event; I find my enjoyment of “Brass” enhanced by Nolan’s strange and vibrant criticism. I would guess the temperament of our enjoyments of Prynne’s work to be different, even if they are internally consistent, which seems in turn unlikely.

    What do you make of Keston Sutherland’s work on Prynne? I find him the most helpful critic of the poet I’ve read so far.

    True, academics are professionally obliged (I mean that literally, indeed they are effectively coerced into it by the system of peer-review) to try and impress eachother. I don’t think it’s elitist, though: there’s nothing notably elite, in any meaningful sense, about the special discourses of literary criticism in the academic context. You just need to learn to use it; this is easily undertaken with no special training, by any literate person with the patience to engage.

    I’d also argue that critical writing is a also text itself, which also gives up pleasures as strange and complex as those of Prynne or Celan, don’t you think?

    Anyway, you may *enjoy* a forthcoming number of “Glossator” featuring commentaries on Prynne — be interesting to read your thoughts when it appears.


  4. I have to admit that I didn’t actually get past the use of ‘apophatics’ in Nolan’s piece so I’ll give it another go. As a reader I enjoy Prynne because he forces me to think about language and our perception of the world in a radically different way and I fully acknowledge that is pleasure is both complex and idiosyncratic.
    Sutherland is excellent as an advocate for Prynne and as a poet in his own right. He writes about complex stuff with great clarity which is what criticism should be about.
    With regard to special discourses, I make a living by explaining social and health policy terms in ways that people can understand. In these fields policy makers often use specialist terms to ask the truth of their intentions. A good
    example is the use of ‘conditionality’ in terms of welfare benefits which actually means coercion.
    The use of such specialist terms (in any field) is often an expression and instrument of power which is why I’m suspicious. I don’t have a problem with learning special discourses, I just don’t see why I should have to.
    I do see critical writing as a text but wish that some critics would consider their audience a bit more.
    Thank you for your posts, they’ve given me a lot to think about. I look forward to the Prynne issue of Glossator with interest.

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