Saturday, September 26, 2009

Last week I visited relatives in Newcastle, going there and back in a day, by train. As reading I took W.S. Graham's New Collected Poems. Of course, WSG is one of my Poetic Heroes, and the book, published in 2004, which has a beautiful hardback version, contains all Graham's published work, plus a lot of stuff from previously unpublished manuscripts. It's an awe-inspiring collection. I enjoyed burying myself in his 1940s collection "The White Threshold". But one thing that spoils the book for me, is the 6-page "Foreword" by Douglas Dunn. It's hard to see what purpose it serves, as there's already a brief and interesting Introduction by editor Matthew Francis which talks about the text and sources. Dunn's "Foreword" is too short to say much about a collecton of such scope, but too long to be ignored, and in fact veers into unsubstantiated opinion, culminating in this:

"Literary history invites us to choose between Graham and Larkin, or Larkin and Hughes, or who and who... it's the owl-cry of bores attempting to make a name for themselves by 'revising the canon'. God rot them."

which is no more than a rant. Really, it seems to have no place at the head of a book like this. Personally I would choose between Larkin and Graham, and would assert that the latter is a more important poet. This would make me a "bore" who is "revising the canon" in inverted commas. Yet in the very next sentence, Dunn says "... literary history is often wrong...". So, it's OK for Douglas Dunn to question literary history and the canon, but anyone else who tries it is to be rotted by God (at least that phrase has the virtue of originality, as I've never heard anyone use it in all my years on the planet). But hey, I've wasted enough time on what is really just a sloppy opinion-piece. To get to the point; Douglas Dunn is a British poet of the "mainstream", or what Ron Silliman has dubbed "The School of Quietude". Silliman's phrase points up how what we call "mainstream" poets are really just another school or faction within the Byzantine complexity of contemporary poetry. Pretending they're not a School, and that they're a gold standard which everyone else deviates from, is a longstanding tactic. It's this tactic that forms the rationale for Douglas Dunns's piece.


John B-R said...

As Ron wd surely point out, it was Poe who coined the phrase School of Quietude. Got rot me, it's fun being a bore!

Alan Baker said...

That's interesting - I didn't know that. I just googled the phrase, and it seems Poe used it in pretty much the same way as Silliman does.