stubbing my toes on Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore

these daysOk, a confession to begin with. I was somewhat taken aback by Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘assemble your own poem’ piece in “These Days”, and have been somewhat leery of her ever since. But I did try with this one, honest, I really did. (Several hours of my life that I’ll never get back.)

Why on earth is this book being sold as poetry?!

I’m not the only one to ask this. At some point I remember someone commenting on an earlier poem of mine, which resembles this one, saying some people might think it’s not poetry. Well … everything in this paragraph from the first full stop to the ellipsis was directly lifted from her ‘poem’ “Fitter Turner”.

And the whole book is like that. Ok, I accept that ‘long poems’ (and this book is six of them – two of which have appeared in previous collections) tend to be more expansive, more rambling, more discursive. But, dear god, they should at least still be poetic! Rhythm, word-music, patterned language … there’s no end to the list of poetic devices she avoids.

The Rocky Shore coverHer subject matter is almost exclusively personal: her father dies; she builds a shed; her kid gets sick; she gets sick; other people get sick; she moves plants around her garden; she makes bread; she wears pants. (Her own words: “I was thinking about personal poetry and how its not given much time of day any more,” (from ”Confessional”) – why is that, I wonder? A personal aside: try and guess where the line breaks go.)

Why pretend these are poems? There is a genre that they fit into much better – the memoir. Start looking at them this way and the arbitrary  linebreaks actually harm the work. And it’s not a bad genre – one of my favourite Australian poets, Kate Llewellyn, has published glorious memoirs, which sell extremely well! So why insist on shoving these observations into too-tight shoes and whalebone corsets and calling them poetry?

Looking back at the Montana Judging Guidelines:

i) Language: What does the poet do with language? Is language used in original ways to fasten the poetry in the imagination and memory?

Ah, no. Language is used extremely flatly, and there are very few memorable images, let alone lines.

ii) Technique: Is the poet proficient in the use of form, patterning, rhyme scheme and lineation?

Not on the basis of this collection, no.

iii) Originality: Does the overall aesthetic effect and appeal of the work go beyond technical proficiency? Are issues explored in real depth in nuanced tones?

No. There is no attempt to go beyond the quotidian. Quite the opposite in fact (see quote from “Confessional” above).

iv) Integrated whole: Does the work produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts? Do the poems work together harmoniously to create a sense of unity, clarity and completeness? Are themes developed coherently?

It doesn’t manage to equal the sum of its own parts. You could, if feeling charitable, give it half a tick for tonal and thematic homogeneity. But bland on bland isn’t exactly a virtue. So no.

detail from Question mark by Joana Croft

I think the thing that gets me the most is the feeling that it’s all some elaborate con-job. Which would be preferable to the idea that she is such a highly regarded poet in New Zealand because the people with influence have no idea what a poem actually is.

It’ll probably win the award.


20 thoughts on “stubbing my toes on Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore

  1. AAAAAaaaaaahhhh! thank you! someone thinking as I do! (though I’m at the other end of the spectrum, and have had the “you call that poetry” speech on occasion).

    You should check out the intruduction to Marjorie Perloff’s article on Christian Bok and Caroline Bergvall, where she demonstrates this exact same phenomenon with a large number of big-name contemporary US poets. I’ve got a pdf, I can email it to you if you want.

    As i was reading it i was thinking “wow, i could change the poets and poems, and this is NZ, too”. It’s either what your describing with Bornholdt, or people writing poems that are essentially “look at me, and how oh-so-clever i am”, such as David Beach and Glenn Colquhoun.

    There’s my somewhat vociferous two cents…

    • I’d definitely be interested in reading the article, thank you.

      The whole “annecdote as poem” thing is a worldwide bugbear, as far as I can tell. As part of my MPhil thesis I did a very brief email poll of international litmag editors, asking if the personal lyric was the most dominant form in the submissions they saw. Only two said no. Nearly every one added something to the effect of “and we’re sick of it”.

      But it’s not the anecdote itself that’s the problem. It’s what people do (or usually “fail to do”) with it afterwards. Mere reportage isn’t poetry. It’s taking it beyond that moment, making it matter to people who have no interest in your emotional state whatsoever. I’ve just been reading Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual (not bad), and he goes on at quite some length about the subject …

  2. Rage against the prose with linebreaks masquerading as poetry. Champion musicality and an overt joy in the language. All these things will advance the cause. Poetry is in dire need of strong and courageous voices like yours. Rage on, I say,

    • Amen!
      Although in this case, it’s the way that this collection fits so well into a different genre that annoys me. It’s a memoir, not a collection of poetry. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and acts like a duck, why hitch it to a plough and pretend its a bullock?

    • Sound, yes, absolutely. But some level of meaning – however unlikely or illogical – is needed too. Otherwise we may as well just chant “rhubarb, who barb, do-whop you barb” at each other. And I do believe that a poem should be some sort of discovery, even just of something that you thought you already knew. And some emotional investment at stake – some sort of hook, to make the poem matter.
      But that’s just me.

    • What in particular are you referring to, Ross? (She says, carefully avoiding making a comment until she knows how deep the water is …)

  3. I’m sorry, I may have assumed that you’d more familliar with my work than you actually are. I’m big on Dada, Fluxus, Language writing – therefore “poem-as-message” isn’t a big concern to me in my writing.

    • No Ross, I know your work – some of it I’ve really enjoyed, some baffles me. My comment was because I was wondering what it was that you thought was “a tad extreme” … my comment on meaning, or yours about sound? Your description of your own work “asemantic”? Or something else?

      One of these days I’ll have to sit down with you to try and get my head around Language poetry . (Dada, yes. Language, no. And I have to admit I haven’t come across Fluxus before …) Hopefully I manage to go beyond “poem as message” in the narrow sense, but I am principally a narrative poet, so I’m coming from a somewhat different perspective. (In my defense, “meaning” is different to “message”.)

      I have to admit that my main prickle with Postmodern and Language stuff is the idea of “purposefully meaningless” poetry. Finding a way in to it is difficult too – I appreciate the freedom that Language etc gives the writer, but to the reader (well, this reader) there’s too often the feeling that my participation in the poem is not only unnecessary, but actively unwelcome. So I have no idea where to begin.

      edit: doing some link surfing from your blog, I came across your comment on the WordSalad discussion of Lyric vs L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E … which suggests to me that we may be very much in agreement about the fundamentals. The following question is a test of this theory:

      “accessible” is a pejorative term – true/false?

  4. Re: Fluxus – the two main writers associated with the movement are John Cage (a great writer as well as composer) and Jackson Mac Low. The “extreme” was directed at “asemantic”.
    I’ve been finding it very useful recently to describe my work as being akin to jazz and abstract expressionist painting, if that’s any help. And I (generally, as always there are exceptions) generally steer clear of any idea of “meaninglessness” in writing – by using language there is meaning anyway, whether the writer intends it or not.
    I think the main impetus behind “language writing” was, rather than an eschewing of meaning all together, an attempt to create meaning in ways that subvert the normal function of language in day-to-day speech – and the active participation of the reader in the construction of that meaning.

  5. and re: accessibility, there’s a couple of things on my blog. I wouldn’t say that it’s a pejorative, but I take issue with those who say that inaccessibility, or difficulty, or the challenging are.
    Some of my favorite writers, such as Paul Celan, and Ronald Johnson have been described as hermetic, and yet still produced deeply beautiful work.

    • I wouldn’t put “inaccessible” in with “difficult” or “challenging” – it’s perfectly possible to be both challenging and still accessible. Celan is a wonderful writer because he combines the two. ‘Todesfugue’ is a poem that anyone can get something from, but you can spend years studying it and never exhaust the possibilities. I don’t think many people reading it for the first time would feel rebuffed. Puzzled, yes (that’s not a bad thing). But you get the sense of the poet standing with his hand reaching out to you, just beyond touch. That he wants you to be there, that he’s on your side. My beef with much Post-Avaunt poetry is that it feels too often like a series of in-jokes, with no interest in letting anyone come in who doesn’t already know the secret handshake. The poet is standing there with his arms folded and a sneer on his face. Or has his back turned to you. And you have no confidence that, having put effort in to try and understand the poem in some way, the poet isn’t going to whip around and yell “There is no such thing as meaning, you fool!” (I know, this is a terribly technical and objective discussion …)

      There has to be something there for the reader to get initial purchase on. Maybe it’s an amazing bit of imagery, or wonderful music. Something. If you have no interest in the reader, why are you publishing? To quote Billy Collins (I know, I’m somewhat shocked too – hear him out though, he makes a good point):

      “Too many poems seemed oblivious to my presence and not the least interested in my participation as a reader. If you’re not going to talk to me, then I’m going to stop listening. … I am bored by poems that are transparent from beginning to end, but I am quick to put down poems whose opening lines make me feel I have walked in on the middle of a Swedish movie being run backwards with no subtitles … “

      (Introduction to Best American Poetry 2006)

      Here endeth the lesson.

  6. I see what you mean, kind of, but I wouldn’t characterize experimental writers like that at all – it’s more like, to paraphrase Daniel Kane in his introduction to What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde (a fantastic book, btw), discussing John Ashbery – That reading Ashbery is like being in the country, on a beautiful sunny day, chasing a rabbit (meaning) through a field. You keep getting close, almost catching him, only to have him slip through you fingers, but don’t mind, as the whole thing is great fun, and on a day like this there’s nothing you’d rather be doing.
    Of course the analogy isn’t totally right – there’s huge amounts of half-meaning and so forth that one picks up reading someone like Ashbery, but it’s the experience that matters – It like someone has called you up and said “hey, do you want to come into my thoughts today, hang out, explore – just see what’s happening at the moment?

    Do you know what i mean? Generally the experience I get from reading such poets is they’re saying “Here – Look at this – isn’t this cool?” rather than any sneering or elitism – there are poets i get that feeling from, and I tend not to like them, but they’re fewer than you think (i think)

    • I know, it’s quite a sweeping generalisation. But then so are the usually disparaging comments made about “accessible” or “mainstream” poetry by many experimental poets …

      Ross, I suspect we agree on more points than we disagree on where poetry is concerned. Just the extent to which we value quality A over quality B. It’ll be wonderful when all the different styles of poetry – mainstream, formalist, avaunt garde, modernist etc – can all just appreciate the passion that we all share for this artform without feeling the need to cut each other off/down/back. Then we can learn from each other, maybe even branch a little into each other’s sphere of practice (a better term than “territory”) without feeling the need to be defensive.

      Then we can join together to trash the post-modernists.


  7. I know what you mean. The trash-talking doesn’t help anyone. I love difficult poets like Susan Howe and Tan Lin (I recently posted a review of one of his books), but I also love Yeats and Coleridge, or closer to home Ian Wedde and Bernadette Hall.

    And to be fair, there are a lot of disparaging comments made by more conventional poets as well. I think on both sides it comes from people feeling left out, the Avant Gardists don’t get a lot of attention or large readerships, and therefore people don’t know that there are people writing like that, and and miss out on a lot of big prizes, fellowships etc; while more ‘mainstream’ (scare quotes to show it’s not a perjorative) poets feel excluded from the poems of the Avant-garde, think of it as a clique (which it can be at times) or some kind of gnostic order (which it’s not) and from their academic discussions of Contemporary Poetry (with capital letters).

    It’s just a case of different strokes for different folks at the end of the day, but people continue to talk about “Poetry” as if the other side of the debate doesn’t exist, or is inconsequential.

    And it’s the folks who don’t talk trash who tend to write the best poems.

    And I agree with the postmodernism joke – although I’d rather just trash the word – possibly the most meaningless word in the English language.

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