Beyond Yourself: Where the Poet Hides

Clive James argues that poets should know the rules before breaking them. “Technique’s Marginal Centrality” (Poetry, January 2012, pp. 326-335) is a very conservative argument, often repeated by those who do know the rules and have come to control the prescriptions, and we find the argument in the criticism of all the arts as well as in the professions. Few exceptions are acknowledged, and those must be geniuses. And yet what these same critics value is hiding the rules, dressing the technique in camouflage. But isn’t this what we call advertising?

Why James sees fit at the end of para 1 to dis the lovely Yoko Ono isn’t clear, but his value goes beyond technique. To prove something simple has lasting value, a simple but beautiful line of Picasso, for example, the critic must work hard at uncovering the camouflage, thus validating the artist’s “expect[ing] to charge you a fortune for it” (326). Whenever we see something simple or even “bland,” but good, James argues, we can be sure the poet has been to school and learned the trade first, before, as E. B. White prescribed, “omitting needless words.”

James uses as one of his proofs the musician, who must learn scales, for example, the rudiments of technique. One problem with the comparison of musicians to poets is that most musicians don’t learn technique to compose, but to play the work of others, who themselves might not be very good musicians, but very effective composers. And musicians need not know much theory to play pieces proficiently, for the theory is embedded in the piece and brought to life through the musician’s technique. Is technique an art? Itzhak Perlman practiced his violin technique while watching television.

James is not talking about the reading of poetry as much as the writing of poetry. He’s not talking to readers of poetry (an increasingly dwindling number), but to writers of poetry (an increasingly increasing number, and James would plainly like to see fewer poems written by fewer poets). James is trying to restore poetry’s value in linguistic skills, prescriptions that he argues are learned then disguised or ignored to create something new. But the new isn’t always pretty to James’s taste.

Consider the Coltrane example. “Ugly on Purpose,” an Open Letters Monthly review (2008), by John G. Rodwan, Jr., of Richard Palmer’s Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin, also addresses the issue of the apparent camouflage. Here, the subject is jazz, where musicians like John Coltrane blow dissonance and cacophony at their audience. They can also play otherwise, but their sound is deliberate, however unintelligible the average listener may find it. But here James doesn’t seem to approve of the disguise. Even average listeners require training, experience, or special upbringing to appreciate an art form, popular or other, lowbrow or highbrow, standard or anti-standard. Rodwan says that in his Cultural Amnesia, “Clive James complains of Coltrane ‘subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder’ and the ‘full, face-freezing, gut-churning hideosity’ of his playing, in which ‘shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals.'” But where James can read through to what’s concealed in poetry, he seems to have missed it in free-jazz. James’s conservative argument will never approve of free form improvisation.

These arguments, that the simple or incomprehensible work of art is rooted in learned, valued, talented apprenticeship, are by now classic responses to the popular criticism of “modern” art, that a monkey could have made it, or a child. Indeed, James barely disguises his acknowledgement of this argument in his opening paragraph, where he discusses the Japanese artist Hokusai, who made a painting, in part, by having chickens, their feet dipped in paint, walk across the paper. So much depends upon a critic justifying technique. I understand that James prefers Ben Webster over John Coltrane; what I don’t understand is why he thinks John Coltrane should sound like Ben Webster (another conservative argument). Should we criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be?

James has more to say, that poets often write too many poems, thus ruining whatever reputation, “name,” they might have earned with their few really good poems. There’s also an interesting discussion of technique suitable to message: “…the argument is the action”; and “…the reasoning is in command of the imagery” (332). But there have been so many successful informal poems, so many successful Duchamps and Rauschenbergs, that “…we must contemplate the possibility that there is such a thing as an informal technique,” but James rejects this notion, for to accept it would suggest that we can write poems while watching television.

James ends his short but full piece with an odd coda of sorts, about a copy of a book owned by Elizabeth Bishop (not one she wrote) in which she jotted notes for a poem, and the book recently was put up for sale, valued by virtue of its being owned and written in by Bishop. Says James, chances are this won’t happen to most poets (no kidding), “but that’s the chance that makes the whole deal more exciting than Grand Slam tennis. Unless you can get beyond yourself, you were never there.” From chickens with paint on their feet walking across an artist’s paper to Grand Slam tennis – I for one am certainly beyond myself at this point. But I don’t quite get James’s conclusion. He seems to be saying that fame is the exciting part, the chance that a poet might become so famous that readers would scrounge for her notes. But fame seems an odd place to want to hide.