April 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

A strange remark in this (otherwise good) review of Nia Davies’ pamphlet Then Spree (wh/ sounds worth a read): “These poems don’t always wear her experience lightly”. The literal meaning of this, although slightly opaque, isn’t indiscernible. We know what it means for someone, or something they write, to “wear their learning lightly”: their erudition isn’t ostentatious nor an end in itself, but something used in the flow & movement of their argument, moving towards its own end. The sense, then, seems to be that sometimes experience appears to be an end in itself. But after all that doesn’t make much sense in the context of the rest of the review, wh/ suggests that Davies’ poems are, rather, cryptic about the experiences they depict or which compose them. ‘Experience’ as a component of (English-language) poetry is generally understood only as the object of (clear) description (Orwell’s prose-as-clear-pane-of-glass), as something to be narrated or related (the anecdotal mode) & have its significance strip-mined, as the capitalist prevails upon the phenomenal worker to give up his labour; to encrypt experience is to render it no longer experience, to move outside of ‘experience’ as poetry’s genre of meaning, into, say, the dramatic monologue/the abstract poem/the cut-up etc. The more one thinks about it, the less clear this surface meaning seems. Frankly I find it difficult to understand what it would mean to “wear one’s experience lightly”, unless as a stylistic demand it denoted simply a certain breeziness or blitheness – the winkle of knockabout mordancy in early Auden, Betjeman passim, O’Hara’s enthusiastic suavery, the fairy-tale casualness of certain eastern European poets. There isn’t very much binding these poets, certainly not in their treatment of ‘experience’. So what on earth could this demand actually be pointing to? I ask partly out of genuine bafflement & exasperation (if anyone actually has an answer, please do supply it) & partly rhetorically, as I have my own suspicions, suspicions that reach down into more fundamental questions about how ‘experience’ is understood by the culture at large, & written.

The bafflement proceeds in part from the odd feeling I sometimes have that descriptions of other people could be applied too to me, & so constitute indirect insults. I feel this too whenever someone describes another writer (or even just person) as “self-absorbed” or “solipsistic”. I remember having a spat w/ L. in wh/ she described me as “so fucking self-absorbed”; it seemed to me at the time that the phrase was so overused & misused that it meant barely anything, but was also genuinely baffled as to what about me could meet the criterion of any possible interpretation of “self-absorbed”. (When I’ve asked her since what exactly she meant, she refuses to say.) So I feel it again: my own writing, on this blog in particular, could hardly be accused of wearing its experience lightly. But then what would it look like if it did? On my creative writing degree we students were fed a more cautious variation of Eliot’s principle of impersonality: poems were not to simply be “mirror[s] to be clouded with your emotions”. Hence the notion of writerly craft: the ore of affect or experience in its immediacy, as the belonging of the self constituted by it, was to be smelted down, assembled, hammered, carved & polished into the constructive or exquisite presence of finished language. (This is the principle of ‘light verse’, in which ‘experience’ is entirely subordinated to the finely tuned mechanisms of rhyme, meter & “servile wit”.) First thought was only very rarely best thought (although we were encouraged to seek out those rare moments). But we were taught too that the adolescent impulse that finds material in ‘significant’ experiences & impulses isn’t wrong. As the above analogy makes clear, experience is not discarded but worked, & sometimes its less refined state can be right for a particular moment in a piece.

This recognises that it is, after all, your experience, constitutive of the you that regards & assesses it as material. To “wear one’s experience lightly” would be like shrugging off the shout of the hailing cop or carrying off a disfiguring birthmark as one would a Prada cardigan. One of the primary tasks of philosophy has been precisely this kind of self-distance, but this doesn’t imply much about style beyond the necessity for ‘rigour’ in argumentation, & not for poetry (poetry written in the style of classic philosophical tracts could be a source of endless amusement, if not for me). We could look, too, to examples of experimental writing that take on the verdict of critical theory concerning the bourgeois self – although one doubts that the average critic would suggest that Prynne, for example, “wears his experience [or anything else] lightly”. One thinks perhaps of Hopkins (as suggested by Matt), in which the quicksilver surface movement of the verses condenses, tamps down or reduces affect to this script; in the writing that begins with ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, and particularly in the ‘terrible sonnets’, the experience of dejection, psychic torment and numbed observation is dialectically sublated or overcome into a kind of negative of cosmic awe that irradiates the world “like shining from shook foil”. (Indeed, Hopkins is mentioned in the Davies review, but one wonders whether this is what the reviewer intended by said remarks.) Part of the problem is that Hopkins represents a kind of historically disappeared possibility, at least in the present conjuncture, in which ‘experience’ is always-already inscribed in the circuits of affective labour. For those of us who have to fend off our own affect for the sake of decorum – self-disgust, terror, viciousness, loneliness, pathetic weakness, unbearable & pointless sadness, & all the other detritus of mental illness, social brutality & class trauma – the at-once ethical & stylistic demand to “wear one’s experience lightly” presents a double-bind. We wish both to do so – to destroy experience by its reforging in the crucible of style – and to not give it (that is, our selves) up to mechanised charm. We are told at once that the special-snowflake particularities of our experience should be valued (think of the regrowth of the ‘personal essay’ in recent years), & that they must be disciplined – transformed at work, where sullenness must be replaced by genuine happiness; in writing, where they must be subordinated to house style, & the oppressed are “asked to be pleasing, soothing, perky, comic or melodramatic, status-enhancing, and available”.

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