Poetry and public issues

John Redmond’s recent book from Seren, Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (2013), puts forward an argument that poetry is all too often read automatically alongside public issues. Poetry is thus, Redmond suggests, contorted to fit one social theme or another. By contrast, what he wants to argue is that if you scratch at such public interpretations of poems, they tend to flake away – with poems often being revealed as much more fundamentally expressions of a private state.

So, for example, Redmond argues against a historicist reading of Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ (i.e. that it is bound up with The Troubles) to suggest that its primary theme is actually ‘consciousness’:

The poem, I will argue, is not about history. It is about consciousness. What gives the poem its complexity are the conflicting attitudes towards consciousness which it keeps in play. (p. 40).

Similarly he writes against the helpfulness of seeing Robert Minhinnick as an eco-poet, suggesting instead that Minhinnick’s work is best understood through a very different rubric:

For all his environmental activism, what we overhear in Minhinnick’s poetry is not ‘the song of the earth’ but a song of myself. (p. 108)

Again, the brief reading of David Jones in the book’s final chapter proposes that the best way to understand Jones’s work is through the notion that he was ‘a weaver of his own fictions, […] a self-creator’. Thus:

First and foremost, his books were a tremendous performance. […] I am not suggesting that we ignore the versions of the world to which he drew attention, but am suggesting that we dwell a little more on that from which he draws our attention, the performer and his performance. (p. 191)

For a project such as ‘Devolved Voices’ which is, precisely, constructed around the public matter of Wales’s post-1997 devolutionary story, we do well to bear in mind Redmond’s caveats about public and private interpretations of poetry. At the simplest level, what his book seems to suggest for our purposes is that writing which emerges from a devolved context does not always have to speak to that context. Or to put that somewhat differently, and to echo issues raised by Jasmine Donahaye in the book Slanderous Tongues, a sort of ludic play in poetry of the early devolutionary period does not necessarily point to a sense of post-devolution confidence. To misappropriate a phrase from Freudian apocrypha, sometimes ludic play is just ludic play. The poem, to put it differently again, does not have to become a figure for, or an allegory of, its socio-cultural context – specifically, in our case, the devolving state of Wales.

I don’t think Redmond is arguing against the proposition (which seems simply basic to me) that literary works are inevitably products of their times and places, and that they emerge out of influences and knowledge-banks that are available at a given moment in a given location – however much such influences, such times and such places may be filtered, shifted, digested, resisted and variously worked over to create a particular piece of literature. But he clearly has issues with what is done, critically, within that sort of broad context. So, when he discusses an interpretation of Mahon offered by Hugh Haughton, he argues:

The contention seems to be that since the poem [‘A Disused Shed’] was written during a particularly violent phase in the Northern [i.e. Northern Irish] conflict, the poem must be about that period. This is hardly a convincing line of argument since it would arbitrarily bind all poems to any events that occur in their immediate historical radius. (p. 43)

I understand the nature of Redmond’s objection: don’t assume that, just because a poem was written during particular circumstances, it has to be about those circumstances. Indeed. However, I don’t think Redmond’s second sentence at this point necessarily follows his first: just because one poem seems compellingly to do with its generative circumstances patently does not mean that all poems must be so read. That is a question for the nuances of critical judgement, from case to case.

But Redmond’s fundamental point here seems sound to me and really very simple: the most helpful, most revealing way of reading a poem isn’t necessarily through the public issues of its time and place – although I simultaneously want to maintain that every poem is, in complex and over-determined ways, bound (to take Redmond’s word) to its generative socio-cultural context in the same way as it is bound to the generative psychological context of its author.

Notwithstanding such caveats, Redmond’s warnings against deterministic or simplistic ways of reading that box poetry into ready social categories, trends, and events are clearly useful. A project of literary analysis done under the sign of devolution must not contort its poetic subjects so that they all point, in obedient critical fashion, in a neatly devolutionary direction.