Monday 7 July 2014

Artifice and UK writers

No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most
feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what
they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.

Do you wish then that the gods had made me poetical?

This, from "As You Like It", exploits a pun - "feign" means "fake" and "fain" means "desire". Julian Barnes when he quoted the passage added "Does he mean that feigning is the only way to a higher truth? That all poetry is made of lies? That true poetry comes from a lover’s deepest desires? That love poetry is deceitful, and provides a way to satisfy one’s desires under a pretence of love?".

The popularity of Artifice and Mannerism goes through phases. "Give a man a mask and he will reveal himself" said Oscar Wilde, but in general, readers like their prose to be free of artifice. At book clubs where novels are discussed, the behaviour of the characters ("why did he fall for her?") and the book's main issues ("should she have had that abortion?") tend to dominate the discussion over issues of technique and word choice. When authors like Julian Barnes, Toby Litt, Matthew Francis and Ali Smith (in "Artful") slip into essay mode, use wordplay or exploit Oulipo techniques, the effects may be described as clever, but they're less often considered to be of literary value. Even if they're not described as "showing off" the effects are "distracting". Sincerity and restraint are admired both in displays of emotion and of language.

Not quite as bad as being called "clever" is being described as "a stylist". Again, content is seen as being affected by (or obscured by) the mode of expression, which is considered to be of less literary value than the content (though at least style, unlike form, is unlikely to have a negative value).

I think my prose is vulnerable to both types of criticism - I write Formalist Prose, and passages of mine like the following depend on style and symbolism at least as much as on character

  • My parents’ loft is full of broken pieces of my childhood. There’s a suitcase of Rupert Annuals with sellotaped spines. The annuals included origami instructions — a historic breakthrough for the British Origami Society. When there was a bird in a story, they had instructions to make a bird with flapping wings, as if the bird could escape from the printed page.
  • When mum used to drive me home from swimming practice I sometimes closed my eyes, guessing from the turns and braking where we were. Often, as we turned into our drive, I'd convinced myself we were somewhere else

The norms of poetry are different, though even there some types of artifice are frowned upon - acrostics and foregrounded rhyme are playing with words, but unobtrusive syllabics are ok. In his recent Twenty-First Century Modernism blogpost Gareth Prior writes "A caricature of the current “conventional wisdom” would trace a line of descent from Edward Thomas down through Larkin to the contemporary lyric “I”, bypassing poets like Bunting, MacDiarmid, David Jones and Lynette Roberts. . He goes on to suggest that "Poems are allowed to be experimental in an easy-to-grasp tricksy way that makes us feel smug for “getting” them, but genuine difficulty is seen as suspect and/or elitist", and that the UK "seem to have it worse than the rest of the Anglophone world". He's writing more about difficulty than gaudy artifice, but for readers who want the language to be as clear as possible to reveal the true meaning of the content, anything that draws attention to language isn't welcomed.

Perhaps the English reputation for plain speaking intellectualism is deep-seated, perhaps US writers have more freedom. Helen Vendler wrote that Jorie Graham "is willing to indulge in extreme Mannerism in order to reproduce, in what she believes to be an accurate way, the shimmer of body-mind as it attends to nature".


  1. Nice post Tim. What do you think of Michael Donaghy who famously spent ages on each poem?

  2. I think he was a bit of a one-off, and he had charm to help his poems get listened to. I think Glyn Maxwell can exhibit ostentatious virtuosity. I admire item 905 on though I can see why people might liken it to showboating.