Sunday, 11 January 2015

Understanding Medbh McGuckian's poetry

CL Dallat studied Statistics & Operational Research at Queen's University Belfast" and writes about literature for the "Times Literary Supplement" and "Guardian". In "The North" No.47 (2011) he writes about Medbh McGuckian's book "The Flower Master" because it "stood out, when [he] was beginning to write, as something of a book of revelations". Especially given the author's background I was interested by several passages in his article, which I'll comment on here -

  1. There is a school of criticism that argues that some of the 'aboutness' of McGuckian's poetry ... is created ... by the reader, by multiple readers
    I think this school might be able to use statistics to support their assertions - e.g. if multiple readers recognise in each other the same signs of understanding (preferring the same poems, for example) there must be something in the poems. Even if there's little commonality of response, if many experienced readers have strong, positive responses to the poetry, it's almost by definition "good".
  2. I was probably - thirty years ago - already too wedded to notions of sense and conventional sensibility to allow much of that necessary surrender as a writer ... although I did learn, as a reader, about less subjective, less investigative, less forensic ways of ... experiencing certain poets' poems in a world in which our verses are too often expected to have a purpose
    I'm probably wedded to notions of sense and conventional sensibility, though I'm happy to attempt applying the aesthetics of painting and music to poetry. I agree that it might be easier for people from a science background to read (rather than write) this type of poetry. I'm puzzled about why he seems to group "subjective" with "investigative" and "forensic". A typo?
  3. the collection embraced sudden new subject matter and brought, to my attention at least, new ways of writing where texture can trump syntax, where connections outweigh meaning, and inevitably, therefore a new way of reading
    Both as reader and writer I think I've indulged in these "new ways". I've heard it called "Spatial Form" ("Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'", "The Art of Fiction", Lodge). But in choosing what to print or read, what criteria come into play? Is it fair to ask?
  4. I feel the emotions, the flow, the accretion of detail, the underlying cultural shifts, the personal pain and dissatisfaction, but I didn't, even then, 'get it' in the way one solves a Muldoon poem ... And I still don't necessarily 'get it' and perhaps don't need to and don't want to. Just as I accept the 'aboutness' of a symphony. But it is the music itself that moves, that one 'understands.'
    That said, some music's more canonical, more often listened to, than others. I'm happy not to 'get it' (I think "understand" is often too vague a term) as long as I can appreciate it somehow. I feel some poems more than I feel some others. What critical vocabulary can I use to express this difference? I think McGuckian's poems have a rather calculated feel to them - the sonics aren't insistent, nor are there cascades of imagery. There are collages of interrelated phrases which I think can be mapped in the way that Dallat begins to do.
  5. its tiny animadversions each of which may be a casual passing choice or a door into several other parallel but geographically and historically distinct worlds, despite its inviting us to surrender to harmony and sound and scent and impressionistic blurring
    I feared as much. Parts of the poems might be random or not. Explore at your peril - there are blind alleys and wild goose-chases.

His comments about "Lychees" (which is quoted in full) point out much that I'd otherwise have missed. However, in the first sentence he writes "the string of cat's-eyes also mimics the coachman-antecedent's told rosary beads in terms of metrics, mathematics, string-theory, as it were" which rings alarm bells re point 1 above. And as usual when discussing such pieces, a few details have been extracted then joined in dot-to-dot fashion, ignoring the dots which would mess things up. One way of trying to "understand" a component (a resistor in a circuit; an organ of the body) is to remove it and observe the effect. If I remove the puzzling parts of "Lychees" nothing breaks or dies. I only sense improvement.

In Danger of becoming a poetess (Carrie Shipers, Michigan Feminist Studies) contains interesting passages too. I won't comment on them individually, but they offer further explanations of the supposed obscurity (the limits of language; the social context, private/public conflation, etc) -

  • Considering the density of images in many of McGuckian’s poems, as well as the syntactical impenetrability of sentences that steadfastly refuse to make recognizable sense, it is not surprising that many critics have sought to decipher her work by first asking whether her poems can best be understood as "private" or "public" interpretations of the larger world.
  • Repeatedly, she exploits the language of poetry to draw our attention to the potential of language as well as its limits ... the failure of poetry or poetic language to adequately communicate what is most in need of being said teaches us that poetry’s occasional inadequacies are not the same as abject failure
  • In much of McGuckian’s work, the very qualities that make it difficult to discern a poem’s meaning—or its allegiances—make it a viable method for communicating political concerns ... the “hidden” nature of McGuckian’s political concerns “may well be obligatory for a woman poet writing in a cultural environment in which myths of political and religious sacrifice and images of a suffering holy Virgin Mary or a militant Mother Ireland still loom large”
  • However, this more overtly feminist reading seems potentially suspect if we consider Leontia Flynn’s convincing argument that McGuckian is at best an unreliable source of explication of her own work
  • To dismiss McGuckian’s work, as have some critics, as merely difficult, or even merely beautiful, is to fail to acknowledge the essential truth about political poetry: the poetry of resistance is resistant not only to paradigms of power, but also to easy critical readings that seek to understand it through simplistic one-to-one correspondences.

The article ends by saying "In the world of McGuckian’s poems, poetry is dangerous precisely because of its refusal to speak directly; it is a weapon that cuts most deeply when we are most tempted to disregard its bladed edge". However, such refusal to speak is a double-edged sword, and some of the circumstantial evidence (page layouts, author's notes, etc) suggest to me that the poet's sometimes playing jester, which I don't mind.

I've written more about McGuickian on Padel, McGuickian and I

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