Landfall 218, and A Return to The Rocky Shore

Hooray, I’ve finally made it into Landfall!

Pity it wasn’t either my own work being published, or my own book being reviewed.

Yes, Iain Sharp has decided that the review section of Landfall 218 is the appropriate place to express his …dismay? … at my post(s) about Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore (hereafter referred to as “TRS”). I’m not sure how the three poets whose books were supposed to be under review feel about so much space going to a discussion of this blog, but I’m choosing to take it as a compliment.

That said, there are a few of points I would like to address.

Like Iain Sharp, I cannot accept Bornholdt’s statement that “personal poetry [is] not given much/ time of day any more.” This particular collection is nothing but personal, as Sharp himself tells us when he talks about the poet “confiding the continual problems she has with her hair and the bad luck she had in her youth with boyfriends”. A little later he writes that the poet “tells us about her lifelong battle against an innate tendency towards hesitation, her fear of flying, her hopelessness at buying clothes, the messiness of her garden, the doubts she’s having about the best way to end the current poem.” The difference is in how the reader receives this litany. Sharp offers it as evidence of the collection’s “unvarnished persona-free honesty”, and then that the “revision she makes to the Wordsworthian agenda is to include all the domestic drudgery that Wordsworth never needed to think about because it was all done for him by his adoring sister and wife. Characteristically, she begins by talking about some household chore (washing, ironing, weeding the garden, making the children’s lunches) and then moves imperceptibly on to discussing a larger theme, such as death, grief and the sustaining power of friendship and love.”

Stripped of rhetoric, the issue here is subject matter, and treatment. Despite the straw man jibe at the conclusion of the piece about “the exalted zone those who sniff at the ‘quotidian’ hope to inhabit”, Sharp is exactly right. There is as much potential beauty and worth in something ordinary as in something extraordinary. But reportage is not art. Neither is mere depiction. And Sharp gives himself away by his choice of Vermeer as example – the last thing Vermeer ever did was simply reproduce in paint what was in front of him. Subject matter itself is almost irrelevant. What art does, is transform. Vermeer uses light and shadow and his skill to make his subjects seem luminous, special. What we react to is not the ordinariness of the subject matter. It’s the way that the artist renders it new, that quality of attention paid to it by the artist that lifts it above itself. It’s a bit like the difference between an artistic photograph and a happy-snap. The photo you take of your family on holiday may well have deep significance to you. Maybe it’s even lovely – maybe your family is made up of supermodels-in-potentia and you managed to get exactly the right blend of light and focus and setting. Maybe when you show it to your work colleagues and they say “oh, gorgeous!”, they actually mean it. But how likely is it that one of them will come back to you a week later and ask for a copy of it, because they haven’t been able to get it out of their heads and want to hang it on their wall?

The choice of Wordsworth as an antecedent is interesting. Billy Collins, writing in the introduction to The Best American Poetry 2006, rightly referred to Wordsworth as the originator of the ‘I-came-I-saw-I-felt’ poem, adding that too many poems seem “content to convey an experience followed by a reaction to it without factoring in the reader’s presumed indifference to the inner lives of strangers.” Lyrical Ballads was revolutionary in its time. But that was more than 200 years ago. The novelty value has worn off. To quote another American poet of the extreme-plain-speaking-school:

“The only genre that the anecdote has … insinuated itself into and then seized substantial control over is poetry … Readers of the late twenty-first century, looking back at a broad sample of our poetry after a hundred years’ winnowing, may likely conclude that most of our poets were attempting to elevate the everyday personal anecdote to acceptability as a work of art … plainspoken anecdotes tricked out in lines …”

concluding that

“… you have to do something special with that material if you want it to be a poem.”

(Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Poetry Home Repair Manual, University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

A disturbing corollary to this is another thing that Sharp offers in regard to the subject matter of TRS:

“In interviews Bornholdt has revealed that The Rocky Shore was written during an uncommonly miserable period in her life when she was debilitated for months by serious illness, grieving over the death of her father and saddened by the premature demise of her old friend Nigel Cox from cancer. Yet it’s not a miserable book. Bornholdt’s twinkling sense of humour is evident on almost every page. Anyone can make jokes when things are going well, but to keep on smiling at life’s ironies when you’re feeling like shit, your legs aren’t working properly and you’re pining for a recently dead parent takes rare courage, poise and perspective. This, I think, is why The Rocky Shore draws such an emotional response from readers, who want to cheer Bornholdt on because they admire her as a human being as well as a poet.”

British poet Philip Gross referred to that sort of thing as “an unearned-emotional voucher”. (From my grandmother, I’d call it emotional blackmail.) I sympathise with Bornholdt’s grief, as anyone would. But tragedy is not art. Grief is not art. It may be the catalyst or the subject of art, but it is not sufficient in itself. The revelation of psychic trauma was shocking and new when the Confessional Poets first started writing about divorce, suicide, abortion, madness and so on. It was brave and it was important, because this was opening up poetry to a range of subject matter that had been deemed out of bounds. But that too happened a fair while ago. You don’t get brownie points any more just for making the world your psychotherapist. To return to Billy Collins (this time paraphrasing Coleridge):

“I turned away from poems that presumed an interest on my part in the poet-speaker’s psychic condition (usually misery) while showing no interest in providing any degree of linguistic pleasure”.

I don’t know Jenny Bornholdt. And something that seems to mark a strong difference between Sharp’s and my reaction to this collection is that to me, the poet is irrelevant. I’m not criticising her, or her life. The biographical details may give extra meaning or depth to the context of the poems’ creation, but surely the poem has to stand alone as a poem first! And then as a collection of poems. And no, I’m not “charmed” by it. (A revealing choice of words.) I’m still waiting for the poetry.

Which is the second point that needs addressing. Sharp is right: in free verse, the poet does throw judgment of things such as musicality back on the reader’s individual ear. And to mine, TRS is not poetry. Despite claiming that, to his ear, “Bornholdt is a mellifluous writer”, he doesn’t actually offer anything as proof. Instead, he falls back on Bornholdt’s referring in interviews to TRS as “her ‘talky poems’”, and the information that the poet “is quite relaxed about differences between verse and prose”. In refutation of my stated belief that the line breaks are arbitrary, Sharp informs us that, on the contrary, “Bornholdt generally favours long, loping lines of fifteen to seventeen syllables, arranged in couplets”. Oh, and that “she divides her poems into sections signaled by the Manhire-influenced device of an asterisk”.

If this is his idea of evidence of musicality and the strength of Bornholdt’s lineation and patterning, then yes, he and I do indeed lack a common language of metrics. Or prosody. Surely it’s the patterning of syllables that is a key to musicality? (Emphasis on ‘a’ key.) Merely counting them, or chopping lines into couplets (an odd justification for the patterning of ‘free’ verse?) doesn’t equate to poetry. (But it is a good example of the word “arbitrary”.) Why are the lines broken where they are? What does the piece gain from them? Where’s the patterning of sound, of sense, or rhythm? Where are Sharp’s examples of singing lines, of skilful patterning?

Realistically, we’re back to the thing that bugged me most about this book. It doesn’t need to be poetry. It isn’t poetry. Take away the linebreaks and the author’s name and you are left with a memoir. Subject manner, treatment, style, use of language … this is memoir. Not poetry. The judges themselves said exactly what I did – that it is sprawling, that it is solidly personal, that it is made up of ‘unpoetic’ elements, and that the language is not lifted into the poetic. Sharp’s arguments are essentially straw men and ad hominum deflections. I’m not asking that the language be florid, or saying that the subject matter be grand. None of these flaws are, on their own, poem-killers. But to incorporate all of these things and still convince as poems requires something quite special. The missing ingredient is poetry.

There’s a final twist of course. Sharp begins his criticism of my blog posting by saying that “everyone I spoke to agreed that Bornholdt should win the poetry prize—even the publishers of the other contenders” (which should be ‘publisher’ single – AUP was the only other publisher involved). My own experience has been almost exactly the opposite: of all the people I discussed this book with, there were only two who thought it was a good poetry collection. Ok, I might not have the social circle that Iain Sharp does, but that’s still not “universal acclaim”. As a matter of fact, I’m not even the only NZ poet/blogger who has criticised the book. All but one of the people who left comments on the post were in strong agreement with me. Of those who voted in the polls I ran, only one person thought that TRS deserved to win. (And all but one thought that it would anyway.)

One of the most worrying things is the number of people who contacted me afterwards (online and privately) with variations on a theme of “At last, someone’s finally come out and said it.” This shocked me. Why the ‘finally’? Why didn’t they say it themselves?

So maybe the final question to ask isn’t whether TRS was the best collection of poetry published in New Zealand in 2008. But rather, had some of the people Iain Sharp spoke to disagreed with him, would they have said so?

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14 thoughts on “Landfall 218, and A Return to The Rocky Shore

  1. I have to side with you, but there’s more that I would add:
    RE Sharp’s assertion of the book’s “unvarnished persona-free honesty” – Isn’t that some kind of intentional fallacy? How does one judge “honesty” without being inside the head of the poet, or at least knowing them intimately. I’ve always been an advocate of the artificiality of poetry, and “unvarnished […] honesty” seems to me to be evidence either of a naive understanding of the medium, or praise based on a category mistake. I’d also take issue with “unvarnished” as a praiseworthy quality – sounds like regression back to the bad old days of the austere modes of cultural nationalism.

    Also, when, after saying that, he says that “Characteristically, she begins by talking about some household chore […] and then moves imperceptibly on to discussing a larger theme, such as death, grief and the sustaining power of friendship and love” – that is artifice, and rhetoric (though I must add that I am an ardent believer in the artificiality of all speech/writing, and that there is rhetoric in it all as well). And it’s not clever rhetoric, or formally interesting (as you state when talking about her prosody). It’s the “I-came-I-saw-I-felt”, or “experience followed by reaction” school, or what I call the “look at me I can talk about the weather while cleverly making it mirror my inner turmoil” school.

    As for turning tragedy or illness into art, it can be done, and done well (though anyone who has been in a writing workshop will know that the inverse is true as well). One great NZ example is Wystan Curnow’s Cancer Daybook, which , while having cancer always present through the title, is anything but some self-indulgent pity party.n Or Paul Celan’s Holocaust poetry. And emotional excess can be done well too, as in the work of Ariana Reines (who I’ve posted on recently).

    Sorry for the length of the response, but I just wanted to reinforce the fact that I totally agree, and think TRS is, all in all, a boring book.

  2. Jo,

    it speaks to flexibility of contemporary poetics that a key principle of the New Criticism can be co-opted by one of its loudest denigrators.

    Given the priorities of NZ’s literary institutions and the agents stationed within them, Ms Bornholdt’s prize winning book is a deserving and unsurprising exemplar. One consequence of its elevation is that intelligent and language savvy non-poetry converts – i.e. those who don’t write poetry and are therefore not obliged to keep up who’s up to what – who may have chanced buying a collection of poems most likely wont bother doing so.

    I know of a number of broad-minded and progressive folk in, for instance, university humanities departments for whom such decisions only increase the ease and justification of their continuing to make pointed jokes about poetry and poets at cocktail parties. And not buy their books.

    Best,

    Robert.

  3. I found this very interesting and particularly like Ted Kooser’s comment on anecdote poetry. Suspect I shall post and link later…

    Re the Sharp thingy, it’s quite amazing how many people cannot accept that others genuinely do not like poems that they love. I’ve seen folk assume it must be jealousy, personal animosity, wilful ignorance, anything rather than a difference of taste. People take their poetry likes very personally.

    Of course anyone who doesn’t like Louise Gluck most be stark staring bonkers…

    • Hi Sheenagh,
      hmm, looks like OUP have been doing things with their website. Try this link for the Landfall article. Not sure why the two other links didn’t work for you, as they seem to be working ok when I log out. But the first post about the book is here, and the followup post about the judges’ comments is here.

  4. Hi Joanna,

    Actually, much as I respect Flemish domestic art of the Baroque period, I “chose” Vermeer because Vincent O’Sullivan’s Blame Vermeer was one of the other two books I was “supposedly reviewing”. Have you read O’Sullivan? Do you like his work or do you consider it, like Bornholdt’s, insufficiently transformative?

    In spite of our irreconcilable difference of taste and opinion about Jenny Bornholdt’s poetry (witty, humane, affecting, carefully constructed, fully earning its “emotional voucher” and, yes, charming to my eye and ear; worthless, it seems, to yours), I enjoy this blog for its passionate intensity. That’s one of the reasons I decided to publicise it in Landfall, although you’re right, of course, I do owe Jenny Bornholdt, Sonja Yelich and Vincent O’Sullivan an apology for taking up space that should have been theirs. The other reason for mentioning your contrary take on The Rocky Shore in my review was as a piece of conscious self-deflation. Because I’ve been around for so long (Jeez, I was even acquainted with Kathleen Grattan in the 1970s), I sometimes need to remind myself that, no, indeed, my circle of acquaintances does not amount to universality.

    Best wishes

    • Hi Iain,
      thanks for the comment. I have read Vincent O’Sullivan, although not yet Blame Vermeer. And no, I quite enjoy his work.

      I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I look forward to many more discussions about the matters we agree on, as well as those where our tastes diverge.

  5. Jo,

    The main problem I have poems such as those in The Rocky Shore is that the reader’s only response can be is to sympathise with the writer i.e. it’s a one way proclamation. There are no grounds for empathy, which is a very difficult task for any writer to achieve, but one of the few worth pursuing. Nowhere in RS is responsibility taken for the decisions which led J. to the point at which quotidian constants such as death and sickness could have induced frisson to the degree it did in her. All the novelistic particulars induce a spell of immediacy in the reader, but they also serve to harshly differentiate Ms Bornholdt’s world from anyone who doesn’t partake of the privileges she does.

    It’s like the difference between Life Studies and Near The Ocean. I have no interest or stake in Lowell’s ‘difficult upbringing’ with his Boston Brahmin well-to-doers; to say the least, daddy issues are passé. But poems like Waking Early Sunday Morning or Near the Ocean, in which the public is privatised, not the other way around – that’s where empathy becomes possible. I’d argue the energy generated between syntax and meter in the later also contribute to one’s sense that a difficulty has been understood and overcome – not supinely welcomed as fodder for ‘art’.

    Best,

    Robert.

  6. Hi Joanna,

    A brief response to Iain Sharp’s: “Everyone I spoke to agreed that Bornholdt should win the poetry prize—even the publishers of the other contenders”.

    As you correctly point out, the other contenders (Sonya Yelich and myself) were both published by AUP. I’ve been in touch with AUP who are adamant that no one there made any such remark to Sharp. I’m surprised to see such sloppiness in a Landfall review. It’s the kind of thing used to bolster a weak case, and perhaps to cover over a lack of persuasive textual references.

    Regards,

    Chris O.

  7. Hi. Interesting discussion. In my opinion a g good reviewer – and certainly an awards judge – should be able to rise above their own friendships and allegiances and even their own tastes, in order to recognise the best of a current crop. You quite rightly express your own beliefs and preferences on your blog, but it’s a bit of a leap from not liking a work yourself to fulminating that such and such a book is a false winner, merely because you don’t personally “get” that literary genre or that author. Having read your earlier comment back in July that the only reason Janet Frame or Allen Curnow won Montana Poetry prizes was “sentiment/reputation”, it struck me that you suffer from the very thing you seem to accuse others of – an inability to perceive that there are values and standards outside of your own special interest area. Do you really think Montana judges care about anything but choosing the best book in front of them? The poets of the quality of Curnow, Manhire, Frame, and yes, Bornholdt, have already shown they have staying power despite your parochialist tirades against them. Their words and lines and poems are quoted and reprinted and cherished – you might think of it as “sentiment”, but I’d say it’s a deeper emotion evoked by the power and quality of the literature those poets have delivered to us. If those poets have grown to be that most hated of things in Kiwi-land, tall poppies, it’s because they wrote well, not just because of their schmoozing abilities. If their books fall into the path of a judging panel and the judges actually read ALL the books and all of EACH of the books (something a lot of the armchair critics obviously don’t bother to do) then they are the ones who are in the best position to make the choice. Of course there are subjective factors at play, but at this level one assumes that the finalists are all terrific books – that’s why it’s so prestigious to be nominated or to get into the finals. Bornholdt’s style isn’t my favourite, actually, but I can get over that and recognise that she is very good. I’m not going to claim skulduggery if a poet whose work I like better doesn’t win. And if I was judging I certainly wouldn’t just pick anyone to win just because she is a lovely person (as I believe Bornholdt is). Or would you rather disqualify nice poets because they are likely to have influential friends?

    I think there has to be a line drawn between disagreeing with the choices a particular panel of judges makes – we all do that – and accusing them of stupidity or corruption, as you seem to have done. When I hear someone mutter about “sentimental choices” or “favouritism” it has sounded a lot like envy. CK Stead is the great proponent of this variety of sour grapes – when his work has lost out to work by a Maori or a woman, he has actually claimed that the judges must have been applying positive discrimination. He clearly thinks their work is inferior to his (intrinsically, one suspects he believes).

    If you’re going to rail about anything I suggest finding out how much influence the publishers have over the works submitted for prizes. It costs them money to submit a book (including a promise to have sufficient stock available) and some wonderful books haven’t been in competition because their publisher wasn’t motivated to enter it. So the works from smaller presses are disadvantaged. There’s a real injustice.

    • Thanks for your detailed comment.
      I don’t agree that my comments have been down to “an inability to perceive that there are values and standards outside of your own special interest area”, or that my dislike of The Rocky Shore is down to “envy”. I have taken quite a lot of effort to genuinely make my case as to why I believe that it is a bad book of poetry. As for accusing the judges of “of stupidity or corruption” … again, no. But sentimental choices? Yes. Favouritism? Yes. I stand by my comments – Allen Curnow was a wonderful poet, and someone whose work I greatly admired. But no, I dont think The Bells of St Babels was the best book that year. (Yes, my opinion. But not only mine.) Ditto when Janet Frame’s The Goose Bath won. Again, she was a literary great, who deserved recognition. But did that book deserve to win that year? Again, no, I don’t think so.

      As for my “parochialist tirades” … come on, if you want to actually attack my arguments, then attack my arguments. Ad hominem jibes do nothing. My tone wasn’t perhaps as measured as it could have been, but then the post was label a “book rant”, not a “book review”. Consider it an attempt to speak for those of us who are drowning in the pro-TRS rhetoric. Tell me what I’m missing, because I do, genuinely, want to know!

      But yes, I agree with you about the injustice of the current system – Tim Jones and I both made a number of posts on that subject. It will be interesting to see if anything has changed next year.

      Anyone else like to respond to Schroedinger’s Tabby?

  8. I agree re: The Bells of St Babels, though I can’t say re: Frame – I can’t remember what else was on the list. While we’re on a dissenting buzz, I’ll also say that I haven’t been fussed on anything Manhire has written in a long time – I thought Lifted was a pretty poor book, to be honest. And I definately agree on TRS – and reckon Sam Sampson should have won(though my standout NZ book of the year would be Ted Jenner’s Writers in Residence, published by Titus)

    • Ross – am I crazy? I thought Sam Sampson did win?
      A great book by the way, as were all the entries in the Best First Book of Poetry award.

      The Rocky Shore as a subject matter/style combo isn’t generally my kind of thing, but I have no doubt that Jenny Bornholdt is a skilled, important writer. Should we not be able to feel both those things? I guess this is problem with awards and the ‘there can be only one’ structure it necessarily enforces. There is so much good challenging writing coming out of New Zealand and it seems to be diversifying all the time. To me, it seems like we are comparing apples with oranges, as it were. Perhaps this is a hangover from a time when New Zealand writing was a more or less a monoculture? That is probably a controversial thing to say, and perhaps the fact that the writing community in New Zealand is fairly small, so the natural inclination is to believe that it is possible to find ‘the one.’ I look forward to the day when no one asks that question anymore.

      I prefer to ignore the awards, although it is nice to see a slip of publicity for poets in the media (besides when the die).

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