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Wednesday 6 February 2013

Glyn Maxwell's 'On Poetry' (Part 2 of 2)

in which the Judge continues the argument he started last week.

Maxwell opens his book with a promising discussion on evolutionary psychology and the way that we process and appreciate images and symbols. It is an anthropological outlook on poetic studies – one which could yield a great deal of results. Unfortunately, he abandons it almost right away in favour of his ‘primal’ discussion of the black and the white. This is a pretty transparent attempt at festooning his theory with a little bit of scientific legitimacy. It is sad, because he is going the wrong way round: he would probably find more fertile ground if he took a scientific approach to his aesthetic categories, rather than an aesthetic approach to a scientific idea. The latter is best left to poetry – using it in criticism only seduces the reader without actually revealing anything about the subject matter at hand. Indeed, the only thing that you can learn from this type of criticism is how the author thinks (which is enough of a reward with thinkers like Eliot or Calvino, and which was certainly enough for me when looking into a poet I admire as much as Maxwell). On Poetry is most interesting when Maxwell chronicles his own attempts, his own failures and successes, in his approach to the art. At those points you really learn a lot. For the rest of the time, however, there is little that comes with a sense of permanence. Today, nobody uses the word ‘classic’ in the sense that Eliot did. When reading On Poetry, you can never quite get rid of the feeling that even though Maxwell’s words are very pretty, no-one will ever use them if not in circumstantial exchange (“Oh, this reminds me about that wonderful book by Glyn Maxwell, he said something about pulse”…). This is necessarily the case, because they are not useful; and they are not useful because they are not true. By the time I reached the final chapter, ‘Time’, and found out it was entirely written in verse, I decided there was no point in bothering with a review and I closed the book.

On Poetry is a good book. It’s enjoyable and written with gusto and verve. But it’s certainly not the best book on poetry I have ever read (I’m picking on you, Newey – sorry), for the simple reason that it’s hardly about poetry at all. What it is, is a frolic. It’s a little exercise in form that only an established writer / poet can get away with (because the only thing that makes it interesting is what it reveals about the author). It could stand neatly in a library next to, say, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. But it is also a book that loves to dress up. It wants to look like it’s bringing new ideas to the table, like its approach is fresh and original. And it’s all the more disappointing that there should be nothing new or original in this book because new concepts and possibilities in criticism are emerging, and there are so many things that we could learn from them.

The trouble with the circularity of literary criticism – i.e., having no means other than the poetic ones to describe poetry – is one that has on occasion been transcended. In the nineteenth century, psychoanalysis and Marxism pointed the way to new methodologies for reading literature. These schools have opened new doors for us in ways that more ‘poetic’ studies of literature (the preface to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Poe’s The Poetic Principle, Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life) could never dream of doing.

Today – and this is where I stray away from Maxwell’s book and why I didn’t want to write this as a review, but then I said that’s what I’d do, didn’t I? – we are faced with new concepts and ideas that have the same potential to open new doors for criticism. This isn’t the place for a rigorous enumeration of them, but off the top of my head, I might start with the school of cognitive poetics, which has revolutionised our idea of how ‘beauty’ is attained by studying the effects of poetry on the brain. Then there’s the fact that texts are now being uploaded digitally, which allows for an exponentially faster process of cross-reference. A group of scholars (whom I was, alas, unable to trace down) used this to find the ‘signature’ of famous writers, the traits and memes that generally identify someone like Jane Austen or Gustave Flaubert, and this allows us – among other things – to study their real effects on other writers by finding out where these patterns have been picked up again and recycled. And since I mentioned a meme, I should say a word about memetics – if only because Maxwell does borrow a memetic framework for some of his arguments, but – again – I would argue that his treatment is superficial and appropriative. Memetics is the school of thought according to which ideas develop according to the same evolutionary principles as genes; the applications of such a concept to the world of literature – if done rigorously, with a proper mathematical model behind them – would be endless. And since I mentioned maths, it is only recently that small attempts at using the formidable means of mathematics in the study of literature are being made, and this too links with a digital study of literature (the first, tiny fruits are coming out).

Things such as these, and not a vague reference to anthropology, give twenty-first century criticism the potential to truly renew our understanding of poetry. Some of it may sound like a fantasy, or even semi-blasphemous – I’m sure someone will call me a positivist or something for suggesting that mathematics may be used in understanding literature – but I’m not suggesting that new methods such as those I outlined above should supplant more traditional forms of criticism. There is the space for new ideas and established methods to coexist in harmony, especially in the humanities. The problem is that for a book such as Maxwell’s, it is dishonest to flirt with apparently unorthodox critical approaches (such as the ‘scientific’ backdrop of anthropology and evolutionary theory) and then be remiss to actually use them. Things have changed enormously in the last few decades and we have many new means of studying literature – Maxwell is employing none of them. In fact, his own means are no different than those used by Aristotle twenty-five centuries ago – except that Aristotle understood the need for rigour. To the best of his ability, Aristotle investigates – he never tries to seduce. Maxwell may not be expected to write a text comparable to the Poetics, but precisely for that reason he could at least try doing something different.

One final note in closing – and this isn’t strictly necessary, but I can’t help myself. Here’s a line from the back cover, detailing one of the things that Maxwell does in his book:

He speaks of his inspirations, his models, and takes us inside the strange world of the Creative Writing Class, where four young hopefuls grapple with love, sex, cheap wine and hard work.

Usually, the blurb behind the book throws around hyperbolic adjectives to encourage us to find out more about apparently dull subjects. You will find the memoirs of someone who worked in the ‘fascinating realm of space engineering’, or a novel set in the ‘mysterious alleyways of Paris’, or some pop science about the ‘revolutionary field of nanotechnology’. So I think it’s a sad measure of just how mind-numbingly boring some circles of poetry have become that even the editor couldn’t find any more exciting term to describe the setting than ‘the strange world of the Creative Writing Class’ (assuming it can even be called that – the only ‘strange’ thing about those classes I can think of is that they involve writers paying their readers, rather than the other way round). And I can overlook the fact that Maxwell’s description of the interactions between these four jocks is a collection of clich├ęs, though I often wonder at older men who look at university students and assume they’re having casual sex every minute they’re not in a classroom (that, or I must have studied at the wrong universities). I’m not saying that everyone has to be Lord Byron, but really – have we come to the point of thinking that a Creative Writing class is a subject worth writing about? Then perhaps a book on poetry that is not actually about poetry really is the only type of product we deserve.

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