Monday, 30 June 2008

On the Overeducated

Nathan Hamilton of eggbox publishing recently posted on his blog a response to Chris Hamilton-Emery's new direction for Salt, as described here, which in turn became the impetus for a classic piece of provocative belligerence from Todd "I have shown integrity and conviction" Swift over on his blog. Phew!

One part of Nathan's post in particular drew my attention. Hamilton-Emery says this:
"… poetry belongs to you, not to the poet or the critic or merely the privileged and overeducated, not teachers or academics or editors..."
To which Nathan replies:
"And, further, I can’t let this one go: is it really possible to be ‘overeducated’? What kind of strange nonsense is that? Is he pulling our legs? Can you actually have that much education that it eventually becomes a bad thing?"
It is an interesting concept, isn't it? I've heard the phrase bandied about before, very often as part of a general argument (diatribe, if I'm to be unfriendly) equating intellectualism to elitism. But I do think there is some weight to the idea. It references, I suppose, formal education rather than all kinds of learning, and this perhaps leads us to the idea that too much regulation of anything is a bad thing. Formal education, particularly at University level, teaches specific ways of acquiring and using knowledge. Moreover, it is centered around the acquisition and use of knowledge as a means of responding to whatever the world throws at you. Just as growing up in a rough area with a poor education might burden a person with limited methods of resolving conflicts and solving problems, so might formal education, with its emphasis firmly and rightly on the intellect, lead to a propensity to respond to all manner of impetus in the same way.

The principle target of Private Eye's 'Pseuds' Corner' is not, after all, stupid or uneducated people trying to be something they aren't; it is educated people applying the full force of their intellect to banalities - in other words, making a lot of bluster over nothing. This has the effect of making intellectualism seem, as it well can be, like a mere exercise in being intellectual, rather than the application of a tool for the purposes of uncovering meaning. This is what I understand the criticism of 'overeducated' to be, that a person has, through absorption into academia, become more interested in the game of intellectualism, in the simple delights of applying the intellect, than in what it actually achieves.

Which is exactly the nature of the criticism most often directed at the poetry world from those who consider themselves outside it, though the view is expressed in a manner of different ways. Poetry is self-absorbed, if not interested in itself then interested in games of the intellect and written principally with intellectual gamesters in mind.

I don't agree with this view. But I don't feel that it is a completely unreasonable one to form based on some of the evidence. Most of the major British poetry journals tend to publish criticism in a format that has more in common with the essay mode of writing than a review of a film, novel or computer game. The trouble with the essay mode is that it assumes substance - so all poetry considered in this fashion automatically makes the leap to 'high' art - and that it discusses the mechanics of the accomplishment more than it does the effect. It skips the part which tells the reader why on earth they should be interested in the subject. When a review does make the effort to communicate some sense of an emotive response, there is often a whiff of Pseuds' Corner about it, partly because a high register is almost always inappropriate for declaring excitement or emotional transformation. So we end up with reviews that oscillate between oddly cold intimations of technical achievement, often expressed in quite foggy terms:

"This technique is an impressive expression of loss, of the desire to become what is missing."
Charles Bainbridge on Ciaran Carson in The Guardian
And sheer silliness:

"His genius is in creating poetry for anyone with the slightest lingering wish for the beauty that can still infuse life. How he liberates us!"

Judy Gahagen on ‘Human Nature’ by Lance Lee, in Ambit

Somewhere along the line, all trace of genuine enthusiasm - and what else indicates an affair of the heart - is lost. I wouldn't suggest that the reasons for this, if anyone is with me so far, have to do with pretension or establishment politics. Nor do I suggest that I or some new generation are poised to wash the old order away, or indeed that there is no place for intellectualism in reviews. But its dominance makes me sympathise with anyone who has dipped a toe in contemporary poetry and fled, howling.

It may be that poetry compels more of an intellectual response. It could also be that poets, particularly those with a literature degree or two, are prone to over-analysing. Nathan's original post, for example, seems to me to give disproportionate consideration to what is ultimately a piece of marketing. "Who is this 'you'?" he asks, in response to Hamilton-Emery's "poetry belongs to you". Obviously it is the same 'you' that is addressed in all the other advertisements you see on the tube, in shop windows, on TV, on the Internet and in magazines every day. The advertising industry long ago cottoned on to the idea that people want to feel a product was specially designed with them in mind. That isn't to suggest Hamilton-Emery is being cynical - I'm sure he is sincere - but we often appropriate phrases and concepts we see elsewhere when writing in a similar mode.

And here am I giving even more disproportionate consideration to a phrase that really just means 'big-headed Guardian readers with degrees'. So there we are. Overeducation in action.


Curiosa said...
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Curiosa said...
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Curiosa said...

[excuse having made a mess of your blog by repeatedly deleting comments while I try to get the links working!]

Excellent Jon. Like it, but don't completely agree that you're in context of the blog post as a whole...

I answer the point about taking an academic approach to what is essentially a piece of marketing

here (check comments).

-- it was a comic device, to make a separate but concurrent point about bluster (indeed, similar point to yours!) and to lightly parody the high and low divides.

And there is a little bit more about the criticism stuff, growing out of comments after the Live Lit post (and they make some similar points to yours, but position things differently)...


I think, deep down, we are of a similar mind, but I'd argue you are still relying on an old fashioned 'us' and 'them', 'high' and 'low' positioning/framing/debate -- as I mention in the post about Chris -- which is outmoded. If we can do away with that (maybe by assuming all is 'high' and worthy of consideration) then your issues to do with kind of performative intellectualism (which is basically an issue of style and tone) are largely answered, perhaps...

Otherwise, one might start to sound a little dangerously like one where advocating a form of dumbing down, which I don't think you are -- you are more asking for an accessible and genuine approach to considering culture, I think, which I'd agree with and argue for also...

Curiosa said...
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Curiosa said...

And, thinking about it, you might find some of this stuff about poetry and music Curiosa:

Poetry Notes

Would be interested to hear what you think.

Jon Stone said...

Hi Nathan,

Not sure it does come down to a high/low divide. My issues with what you call 'performative intellectualism' are twofold. Firstly, that there is an imbalance or lack of variety. Poetry criticism is dominated by a particular range of tone and register that you only find towards one end of the spectrum of film criticism. In arguing for accessibility (as opposed to dumbing down, which is pandering) you've got to be arguing for a broadening, not a singular change in the direction of layman's language that ends up being just as narrow. I would want to see more publications write in a down-to-earth style without the loss of the intellectual style, so that you will get some types of people reading one publication and other types reading another.

The second issue I take, if you go back to those two quotes I've dropped into the post, is that an intellectual tone and register doesn't equate to intellectual rigour and poetry crit makes itself look particular stupid when it *acts* like its high tone and register is necessary but transparently has little to say except a rambling, blustery variation on 'This blew me away'. Doesn't happen all the time but far more than it should. I'm personally pretty tired of reading poetry reviews where the critic is straining to find some wordy, robust-sounding way of awarding a five star rating while in film you have magazines like Little White Lies and Sight & Sound which keep the level of intellectual rigour at a satisfactorily high level while adopting a style and tone that is far more pop/approachable in LWL's case, or at least slightly more readable in S&S's case.

As far as my arguing Us & Them goes ... well, if I'm being that general, if has to be Them, Them and Me, because I never agree with the proles either! I usually advocate some sort of via media, but people on both sides of that divide tend to want to out me as an agent for the opposition. I like robust intellectualism, but it seems plain as day to me that poetry critics often struggle to attain an appropriate level of cogency.

Background Artist said...

When i first read seamus heaney's criticism in 2004, after three yrs studying a writing studies joint drama BA, i was *blown away* by how eloquent and insightful the mossbawn magus is, the genuine Yeatsean proofs -- at least for my eye -- are delivered in a way which proves why he is the one poet writing in the English language, who fully embodies the gravity of his native poetic tradition.

But he w=may not be yr cuppa, but for me, he is. And he is a great role model, in the sense that his critical eloquence, is the unreachable bar of attainment one can set their sites on when starting out at the lamp posts, with only an instinctual yearning to articulate whatever creative force within us, causes our hands to make verse.

Being honest, i think the reason the waxy vibe emanates when Intellect and poetry are conjoined as the base for an exploratitive chat on the whole shaboodle of Poetry and the intelligence; is because nearly everyone is bluffing and few hold real Live weight about their person, reflected in their work.

I spent seven yrs following a strict course of poetic study, taking the bardic training as a template.

The bardic regime is as challenging a course of study as that which makes a barrister, doctor, engineer, or any professional vocation.

The course involves taking on the four cycles of Irish and Scottish myth, originall contained in 350 tales, of which 200 remain.

250 of the tales where are what is termed, Primary Tales, which form the basis of the ones left; and 100 were secondary tales, which where the top secret ones, apparently, which related to the prohetic aspect of a bards job.

The course to become a professor of poetry in this system, takes 12 yrs. each yr a grade was passed, and the seventh grade is ollamh. However it was one grade a yr for six or seven, and then from Anruth -- ridgepole -- to ollamh (poetry prof) took from yrs 7 to 12, a final five yr slog, and then eight practicing at the top level, before the fully primed poet was working..

And it was only in the seventh yr of study, the fili poet could publically practice.

And being hinest, this is the native british poetic, but the last five hundred yrs, due to the way court poetry was arrived at in tudor england, we have bought into the fiction, that the graco roman myth, is our native on.

And so the clever clogs bollix comes because this myth is so massive, a bluffers paradise, as traditionally, being a smart arse in english culture, is to quote a foreign language, Latin, even better greek, and not give a translation, a silent play that says, au contrair doo dah lah, who really gives a fig about graeco roman Myth, today?

And so all the poets, think that to appear smart, classical learning is needed, which is true, but the brehon, living poetic, alive and ignored, as the truth is, Poetry in the uk today, who is in it?

State subsidised bores who act appalled at other peoples taste and have theoretical debates about the relevancy of summat they cannot articulate a collectively shared understanding of what it is and how it works, all one upmanship.

The bottom line is, just do the poetry, get good live and progress along the path of yr learning according equal weight to the page and its recital, and yr following the original bardic method.

So just keep yr head down, do the work, write as much as you can, ignore the ppl who only want to con you and have you in their pocket, and after seven yrs, you will know if you're instinct lead to the right path..

poetry is about being Human, caring, love and peace, using the intelligence and imagination, to create a world in print which contains Humanity, warmth, using poetry to say in Art waht is to appalling to be heard by the straights..

gra agus siochainn

Background Artist said...
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