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Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry

John Redmond
ISBN-13: 
9781854115850
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
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Poetry and Privacy questions a set of relationships – critical, authorial, and existential − between poetry and the public sphere. Its main contention − that readings of British and Irish poetry rely too often on a thesis of public relevance − arises out of a more general conviction: that the relationship between poetry and the public sphere is negatively woven. It is undoubtedly true that poetry and criticism are bitterly aware of their marginal status. Both have lost confidence and direction. In public life as in literary life, we have entered a period of deleveraging and disavowal, of recanting and retrenchment. This seems a good time for emptying out some old ways of thinking about poetry. Large claims were made for poetry in the 1930s and large claims were made for literary criticism in the 1970s, but they have led to no obvious outcomes in the public world.

The major response of poetry to its marginal position has been promotional in outlook and anti-intellectual in spirit, and in the context of burgeoning creative writing courses universities host a poetic class both anti-academic and hostile to intelligent scrutiny. Each needs the other but the result is trimmed expectations, the dominance of populism and a poverty of ideas.

In essays on Derek Mahon, Glyn Maxwell, Robert Minhinnick, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, John Burnside, Vona Groarke, David Jones and W.S. Graham, John Redmond seeks to introduce a sense of pragmatism into the relationships between poetry and criticism (academe) and poetry and social or political relevance. It opposes is the determination to read poetry in publicly oriented ways, the determination to make it fit with one kind of public program or another. The essays in this book offer fresh appraisals of noteworthy poets while creating a portrait of British and Irish poetry in a new century in which in politics, society and poetry there is a broad sense of an ending, and ask how poetry might progress in the future.

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Review by New Welsh Review

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In an autobiographical anecdote in the introduction to this book of essays by the poet and critic John Redmond, its author tells a thought-provoking tale of two offices. Both were in the English Department of University College, Dublin, in the second half of the 1980s. In one worked the administrators of the ‘Modern MA’, a course that specialised in literary theory; in the other those of the ‘MA in Anglo-Irish Literature’, a course devoted to novelists, playwrights and poets. Nowadays, when seven or eight university departments can be labelled a ‘School’ and crammed into a single administrative office, recalling the times when each MA course had its own facilities and administrators has a certain nostalgic appeal. However, the division that the wall between these offices symbolises is still with us, metaphorically separating literary criticism into different compartments. From one of these UCD offices, writes Redmond, ran a course that celebrated ‘the critic as hero’; from the other, one which held up ‘the author as hero’. Anyone with an interest in literary criticism will know the different vocabularies for which these offices stood as sponsoring presences: one with watchwords like ‘unmasking’, ‘subverting’ and ‘radical’; the other with favoured terms such as ‘irony’, ‘ambiguity’ and ‘paradox’. The tension between these two ways of thinking about literature, I think, is the tension out of which this fine book of criticism was written.

Each of the essays in Poetry and Privacy; Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry focuses on one or two authors, and is tied together by a strong line of argument, often on the theme of under-acknowledged inwardness or misdiagnosed introversion. Their subjects include Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Robert Minhinnick, Glyn Maxwell, John Burnside, Vona Groarke, David Jones and WS Graham. The big idea that runs through the book is that readings which yoke poems to issues which command broad public interest (like ecology, feminism and consumerism) can run the risk of ignoring the poems that they purport to elucidate. Redmond does convincing work on this theme, successfully querying the placement of many poetic square pegs in the critical round holes that they have come to occupy.

Of course, there are certain risks involved in seeking to separate poems from publicly relevant readings, the most important of which is caused by the difficulty of distinguishing the public from the private. Seamus Heaney wrote that writers ‘live precisely at the intersection of the public and the private’, and their work often seems to do the same. In a convincing essay that queries the coupling of a poem by Vona Groarke with ideas of transgressive sexuality, Redmond links her work to another public context: the greed and property-mania that coincided with the Irish boom. Redmond admits in the book’s opening pages that the distinction between public and private is a notoriously slippery one, and a book whose project is to argue for the private rather than public significances of poems almost invites the reader to identify signs of their social and public contexts.

This is more a book written in protest at the idea of the poet as good-guy ‒ a responsible citizen whose work, properly interpreted, reveals an intention that matches the critic’s own idea of the right attitudes towards subjects that are more important than poetry. Redmond shows the ways in which Gordian knots can be cut and discussions cut down, and identifies a widespread pattern in which critics aim for closure in the identification of a poem with the quashing of an inhibiting cultural norm, the championing of a disadvantaged group, or the espousal of a responsible opinion.

Most people who read poetry criticism also have an interest in writing it. Therefore one of the strongest points of Poetry and Privacy is that it is a model of style. It is the sort of writing that can hold your attention anywhere, as I discovered in the week I carried it about with me. If the vitality of the ideas in a work of criticism can be gauged from the language in which it is expressed, then this book, with its pithy, wry, sidelong style, more than passes the test. It is one of those very rare critical works that yields something worth quoting almost every time it is opened at random. This is why it is likely to be of interest not only to people interested in the poets who are discussed in it, but also to anyone who is interested in thoughtful, readable criticism.

By engaging with ideas from a wide range of literary critics, Redmond shows how the divergent trends in literary criticism can be brought into productive conversation with each other. In doing this, he also does a considerable service for the poets whose work he discusses.

– Adam Hanna, NWR

see the full article here: http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=676

13/02/2014 - 09:57
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Guardian Review

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The public life of poetry today means different things to different people. To some it is Carol Ann Duffy writing a laureate poem on the banking crisis or Geoffrey Hill attacking her for mistaking "cast off bits of oligarchical commodity English" for the language of art. To others it might be a hastily assembled anthology of poems protesting the war in Iraq or a display of high-voltage postmodernism by Keston Sutherland on the same subject. John Redmond considers the treatment of public and private spheres in contemporary poetry and the way in which these concepts inform its reception. His principal aim is to counter the lazy application of political rhetoric to literature in ways that appear to make sense of poems but don't – "the determination to read poetry in publicly oriented ways, the determination to make it fit with one kind of public program or another".

A prime instance of this occurs in Redmond's revisiting of one of the great poems of our time, Derek Mahon's "A Disused Shed in Co Wexford": "Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel, / Among the bathtubs and the washbasins / A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole." While "A Disused Shed" has always been read in the light of Northern Ireland's Troubles, there is little consensus as to what it might be saying on that subject, once we apply critical "determination" that it should deliver a translatable allegory of its dark times. To Seamus Deane, it is about waiting for the nightmare of violence to end and history to begin. To Tom Paulin and Hugh Haughton, Mahon's mushrooms give a voice to the victims of political violence, while to Seamus Heaney the mushrooms are identified with Unionist power, speaking with the "pre-natal throats" of Mahon's Protestant ancestors.

But as Redmond quite reasonably asks, what manner of violence are Mahon's mushrooms supposed to have endured? His argument is that the poem longs to escape from history altogether. When it invokes Pompeii and Treblinka it does so in a vein of deliberate overstatement and desperation. Redmond's point is not that it uses these disasters to talk obliquely about the Falls and Shankill's stereophonic nightmare, but that it is registering the pressure of sincerely and strenuously not wanting the theme of the Troubles pressed on it at all. Yet this is not to call Mahon's poem ahistorical, and even his rejection of poetry's power to set a statesman right (to paraphrase Yeats) still situates it in the public realm from which it attempts to break free. Nor, to Redmond, is there any escape for Mahon from the impossibly high achievement "A Disused Shed" represents.

In his 2007 study Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence, John Osborne gave a master class in rumbling critics for attacking assumptions which they themselves had placed in Larkin's poems, and here Redmond does something similar with over-interpretations of the contemporary lyric. Is a boyishly innocent Glyn Maxwell poem really a critique of consumerism and reification, courtesy of its "dialogism" and "polyphony"? When Redmond suggests it isn't, he does so not for anti-intellectual reasons. He is a pragmatist, concerned above all else to read poetry in ways most useful to the poems themselves.

Redmond has an enviable knack for telling asides ("Maxwell, we might say, divided Auden into eleven parts and threw ten away", Burnside is a "taxidermist on an epic scale"), but there is wisdom as well as wit in his throwaway style. Other chapters examine Plath's influence on Seamus Heaney, David Jones and WS Graham, and another discusses Irish poetry and feminism. Redmond's chief exhibit here is a poem by Vona Groarke and a contested reading by the critic and anthologist Selina Guinness. The debate hinges on whether a closing reference to a boiler "shunt[ing] the here and now into one full clause" is or isn't a description of female sexual pleasure. This is close reading as spectator sport, carried out with real gusto and sense of discovery.

Where I found myself diverging from Redmond was a chapter on Robert Minhinnick and eco-poetry. Drawing on Rortyan pragmatism, Redmond insists that natural disasters are poignant only from our human point of view and "not because they are breaking an imaginary law of nature". There are no natural laws, only human laws. Redmond wishes to condemn sentimental identifications with the non-human world, but while a poem in the voice of a dodo must speak across an unbridgeable divide, the pragmatic uselessness of the exercise can just as easily be an opportunity for hard-headedness as for self-delusion. A poet of the natural world such as Jane Yeh works in this way. Denis Donoghue wrote that pragmatism has "nothing to say of first or last things". What Rorty lacks as a tool for the understanding of poetry, I would suggest, is a sense of the tragic dimension.

Nevertheless, there is a cut and thrust to Redmond's work. "The dominant culture of contemporary poetry is promotional in outlook and anti-intellectual in spirit," he says despondently at one point. Thankfully alternatives can still be found – as in this fine book.

–David Wheatley

read the full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/21/poetry-privacy-john-redmond...

11/12/2013 - 09:29