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 …”
“… 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?