Thursday, 29 March 2012

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich died yesterday.

She was a very important poet as well as being very influential
as a lesbian feminist critic.  'Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence'
is awkward reading for straight males because it seems to argue that ALL women are in fact gay.
Whatever your sexual orientation though you have to recognise the powerful intelligence at work
in the poems, and the insistence you get in American poetry that it's possible, in poems,
to discuss ideas explicitly. British poetry has always fought shy of this in its stress
always on 'showing' rather than 'telling'
The result in Rich's work is a poetic that's restlessly questioning, and not just about gender
but also, eg, about ecological damage.

Check out her poem about the Vietnam War, 'Shooting Script'
where 'shooting' refers to cameras, guns and penises.
By contrast with that sort of deadly closure, she invents an imagery
of feminine open-endedness:

You are spilt here like mercury on a marble counter, liquefying
into many globes, each silvered like a planet caught in a lens.

You are a mirror lost in a brook, an eye reflecting a torrent
of reflections.

You are a letter written, folded, burnt to ash, and mailed
in an envelope to another continent.

Monday, 26 March 2012

relativity of comedy norms

In his book The Gate Francois Bizot describes how, when he was being held prisoner by the Khmer Rouge, one of his fellow prisoners used to bring him a piece of bay kdang, 'the crust of rice that had been hardened and burnt during cooking', and how he made this man 'smile mechanically reciting an adage well known in country areas: Bay kdang, reug kda'. He translates this as 'Crust of rice, stiff penis.' Maybe this only becomes a joke in context - 'you had to be there'; it's an adage so might resemble 'crust of rice will put hairs on your chest'. An adage might be similar to a proverb, and some Cambodian proverbs also read oddly. David Chandler, in his The Land and People of Cambodia quotes about ten, including 'Don't believe the sky; don't believe the stars' and 'If a tiger lies down, don't say, "The tiger is showing respect" '.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Geoffrey Hill on difficulty

I went to Geoffrey Hill's most recent Professor of Poetry lecture last week. He concluded by stressing the need for difficulty difficulty difficulty, though nothing earlier in the lecture had prepared for it, except the difficulty of following his argument about the medieval and the early modern. He'd be surprised to know how much he shares this emphasis with 'experimental' poets, given his view that postmodernism is all about accessibility, mindlessly generous reviewing etc. But it's surely a perverse emphasis, a perverse quality actually to aim for, and has damaged his work, as in his elegy for Ken Smith. When you write a very difficult elegy, what's going on? When it's difficult so that it bears no trace of the dead friend, isn't this plain rude?