Monday, December 2, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
CRITICS GET IT WRONG TOO
At the beginning of November I attended and participated in the poetry conference in Hawkes Bay that was organised by Bill Sutton. Many things of interest were said and read by the visiting poets and panellists. Nobody would ever be so crass as to call a session something like “Whither Poetry?”, but that was more-or-less the theme of one panel. Speakers told us about the world of poetry slams and rap and performance poetry and on-line publishing and poetry discussion groups and what have you.
Always in such discussions, I find, there is an anxiety that we should keep up to date with the latest thing lest we be thought retrograde, out-of-date and unimaginative. Trouble is, what is currently popular is often ephemeral. And I have this abiding sense that the poetry most worth the time is the poetry that is meaningful when it is seen (and properly considered) on the printed page. Yes, by all means have poetry that performs well and can be read publicly. But slams and rap (and pub poetry) are essentially invitations to sounds without sense – what will grab an audience and win applause in the listening moment, but lacks any real depth or resonance.
Anyway, in such retrograde and old-fashioned thoughts, I was pleased to hear Harry Ricketts tell an anecdote on the ephemerality of literary fashion. Referring to his own book Strange Meetings – The Poets of the Great War (which I recall reviewing for the Star-Times when it came out in 2010), Ricketts reminded us that when the First World War was actually being fought, the poet who had the highest popular reputation, sold the most copies, and was seen as reflecting most truthfully the experiences of soldiers, was a chap called Robert Nichols. At that time, virtually nobody had heard of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who are now canonised as the most meaningful English-language poets of the conflict. Yet Robert Nichols is quite forgotten now and with very good reason – his poetry is very forgettable.
The message was quite clear. In literature, what is currently popular is not necessarily what endures or what is worth emulating, analysing and responding to. Don’t be caught in the web of fashion. I’m fairly sure that in telling this anecdote, Ricketts was in part responding to the fashion for rap, slams and so on, but perhaps you would have to ask him if this was indeed the case.
While endorsing the message, I would add one very important rider: It isn’t only popular fashion that gets it wrong in artistic and literary matters. Often, it is the critical establishment.
It is easy to compile lists of yesterday’s bestsellers that are now either forgotten or regarded with some embarrassment. But, if you have access to journals of criticism (academic or otherwise) it is just as easy to find critiques by respected intellectuals which talk up works that have long since dropped out of the canon.
Allow me to switch genres and cannibalise myself. My first book was a series of analyses of New Zealand movies which were produced in the first ten years of the “revived” new Zealand film industry – A Decade of New Zealand Film (John McIndoe publishers, Dunedin, 1985). In the preface I remarked on how wrong some older and respected books of film criticism had got it when they made comments of the films of their own day. In particular I referenced “the 1940s edition of Paul Rotha’s and Richard Griffith’s classic of (British) film criticism The Film Till Now” noting that in it “many Hollywood greats, which have in fact stood the test of time, are written off as mere frivolous entertainments; while many earnest, preachy, liberal-humanist social dramas, long since forgotten, are praised as models of cinematic art.”
Something is not a classic because you have seen a favourable review of it in a respected publication. I myself have written a very favourable critique of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for the very respected Landfall. (That is why I have not referenced it on this blog). I think it is an outstandingly good, imaginative and well-crafted novel. But I would not call it a classic. Or at least – not yet. Time alone sorts out what is and what is not a classic. In novels as in film and poetry, even the endorsement of the best critics does not make something of enduring worth.