Sunday, October 12, 2008

PLACING PETRA WHITE

In the eternal conversation in my head, I continue to worry at the theme of --and here I'm struggling to find the words-- 'person & place', 'representation', 'the traditional address'-- all or any of these as they fold in on one another, even as I try to clarify my thoughts! --and in particular, the value of such tropes within the ramification of postmodernism. So, in this foray, augmenting the crumbs I've already salvaged from memory of my brief exchange about poetry & place with Andrew Zawacki & others during a reading at Collected Works, ca '99 or so [see Vive la Connections, September blog, poetry & ideas], is the stimulation of Petra White's article in the Victorian Writer of June, '08, entitled Placing poetry (in which, according to the sub-heading, she "considers the role of 'place' in poetry").
The theme of that issue of the Victorian Writers Centre magazine is A sense of place, and besides PW's piece there are contributions from Alex Miller, Betty Pike/Charles Balnaves, & Julie Gittus, about political & spiritual identity, & what might be called the authenticating relation of literary character to place.
Often agreeing with her I still find myself raising objections, and vice-versa! For example, and right at the start of her article, no reason at all why she shouldnt declare she's "not altogether sure what is meant by 'a sense of place' in poetry", but to follow with, "for me, what makes a poem viable - gives it a reality - is its language", suggesting the opposition of 'sense of place' & 'language', has me jumping!
Referring to poems in her collection, The Incoming Tide (John Leonard Press, 2007), she explains that "place is not the focus of these poems so much as the site for them..." I wonder how 'focus' really differs from 'site'? Ultimately it's an individual taste & purpose that distinguishes the poem in which place is an effect from that in which it is the crux, and no bigger deal than the poem makes for itself...
Her key paragraph might be the following : "Writing about place for its own sake is quite difficult: the danger, particularly from a travel perspective, is of producing something like the doddery jottings of a detached, interested [is this a typo? 'disinterested' intended?] observer; a dreary parade of random otherness. How do you make the otherness part of you, so that it matters? Can we write about the effect a place has on us, avoiding Baedecker poetry?"
This is the quizzical point of her piece, though what an example of that error might be is left to one's own prejudice (assuming it's shared with her). When I think of what I've always called 'topographical writing' , which I realize has become a major part of my own project through the years, the concept 'spirit of place' comes to mind as its herald. Now, how adjacent is that to White's 'Baedecker poetry'?
It occurs to me that a fear of the obvious may underscore her objection, but even the baldest inventory differs according to poet & poem. Perhaps it's an attitude that's being impugned here --a suspicion of what I'm sure is variously decried as literal, naive, transparent and whatever else is jettisoned from the postmodernist bag. Not that Petra White is necessarily a subscriber but there's no doubting that the mood of this time, informed as it is by a supposedly new science of life, encourages a range of pseudo-sophistication of which the pejorative 'Baedecker poetry' might be one!
Assuming one's not referring to doggerel & deliberately light verse, like Dorothea McKeller's My Country perhaps, which are the Baedecker poems? William Blake's London? Wordsworth? Whitman? Brooke's Grantchester? Lowell's sumptuous family catalogue? Betjeman I suppose, but isnt he indelibly true to period & place, isnt the persona(lity) point perfect? Who else? The New Yorkers I guess, O'Hara, Denby, Schuyler, Berrigan et al.
At the same time, PW's appreciation of Wallace Stevens is commendable, as she writes, "Consider Wallace Stevens' famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, which has nothing to say about Key West, but is entirely concerned with the mystery of a woman singing to an audience. Key West remains in the reader's awareness throughout the poem as the site, and possible source, of an opening into imagination, and a place to return to." And what she discerns is probably typical of the behaviour of poets & poems vis a vis place most of the time.
Alternatively, from the ancient Chinese & Japanese (& that magnificent influence in their contemporary poetry) to the city & bush Beats (--though that tradition's created back to front in actual fact; the moderns' embrace of the concrete & colloquially concise against the loftily metaphorical, leading to what the holos-bolus translation of Eastern poetry & philosophy has made contemporary), there is an attempt to be so grounded in 'place' as for it to resound without interlocutor, or at least for poet to be the 'jotter' Petra White maligns. Of our era, consider the Objectivists (with Pound & Williams in the wings), Rakosi & Niedecker for example, and then Ginsberg & Snyder et al, and in our neck of the woods Ken Taylor, John Anderson, Robert Gray, or from another & somewhat dissimilar angle, Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown, Ken Bolton... I have to say I dont mind the jotters at all! 'Random', she says, 'dreary' --but too much in the eye or ear of the beholder for any general rule.
With reference to one of her own poems, she closes thus, "If there is a sense of vividness in Munich, it is not the result of description alone, but of finding the purpose of the poem and the significance of the places [Munich, Adelaide, Stoke-on-Trent], and charging them with the lightning thread of the movement of mind through language and the world."
It occurs to me that there may well be a gender aspect to the discussion : masculine outwardness, feminine interiority. Discussed by many, including Elizabeth Janeway whom I recall quoting in my book discussion services notes for On The Road (Council of Adult Education, c 1981). She described women writers who "seem to be putting themselves at risk purposively, in order to penetrate to the heart of the mystery of being(...)It is possible to see this kind of journey interior, as a counterpoint to the masculine drive to physical journeying, to 'the road' of Kerouac and the Beats." (Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, 1979.) The point here being that recording, transcribing, notating & even jotting down the world's particulars, as given, without author's 'charging', might reflect gender as much as stylistic difference or preference.
My other objection in this instance revolves around PW's term 'description alone', for the question is surely begged as to whether 'description' is ever alone, that is without authorial distinction ('voice' at its most basic). It also invites discussion of the contrast between pictorial & conceptual (the limitations of the former, the limits to the latter), representational & abstract and even the true poem versus the strategic...

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Kris Hemensley
25th September/12th October, '08

6 comments:

david lumsden said...

I think I like Baedeker poems ... I've posted more detailed comments here.

PB said...

Hi Kris,

A slanted comment -
One of my favourite modernists - Mina Loy - 'The Last Lunar Baedecker'
(the Jonathan Williams edition !)
Pam

susan fealy said...

Every poem has surely been ‘home’ to the poet for the time of its development : a place to be and perhaps a place to tidy up before the visitors arrive. Petra has shifted the geographical location she calls home a fair bit so perhaps for her ‘place’ is not fundamentally tied to a core sense of self in the way that it can be for others. I wonder what some indigenous writers would have to say about her concept of place as a site for a poem. It seems to me that Petra is using place itself as an example of a broader concern about the kind of poetry that ‘sites’ a poem via an external definable otherness be it a painting, music, somewhere / something locatable in the ‘real world’ and the detail of the ‘site’ merely decorates - does not reach and integrate with the poet's deeper unconscious level of creativity, including the poet’s sharp eye and ear on the language. Then it is just lazy poetry in one of its forms.

lorin said...

'Baedecker poetry'?

So much, then, for English language concepts of 'places in poetry',which might eventually approach the Japanese utamakura and haimakura.
(see eg Shirane, 'Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho')

ah, well...

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Ciao, Lonely Planet, and thanks for all the fish.

Adam Aitken said...

Der Kris

I really would like to read Petra's article. I think I side with David Lumsden and worry about what Petra is thinking of when she writes of a dreary parade of otherness. I am not sure what people mean when they say "travel poetry". It seems to have become an automatic term of derision in some writers' circles. Travel can include forced migration, so this kind of otherness differs from the idea of the Baedekerisch tourist who visits, writes, leaves.

Adam

Anonymous said...

dreariness is in the eye of the one who rains on the parade

sam langer