CLR blog

CLR @ Wordfest

Lydia Wilson, co-editor of CLR, will be talking about literary journals at Cambridge Wordfest in April. The event is a breakfast-roundtable, and Lydia will be joined by Mary Kay Wilmers (LRB), Ella Allfrey (Granta) and Peter Stothard (TLS). The event will be chaired by the classicist and TLS-regular Mary Beard.

In the context of Wordfest—more festival than literary; hearty pats on worthy backs—this ought to be a vital discussion. We’re hopeful that some of our concerns will emerge from the general bonhomie. Cf., for example: the gender imbalance in literary periodicals; the glib dismissal of much contemporary poetry in the pages of the TLS. (On the subject of which, more later…)

Should be fun; croissants will be served. The details are:

    Literary Editors’ Breakfast
    11 Apr 2010 – 10:00am
    The McCrum Lecture Theatre
    £8/6, booking here

Letter from Peter Riley

15th February 2010

Dear CLR,

Of course clarity is not socially determined. How could anyone entertain for a moment such a balmy idea? Clarity is fought for. Have we really lost touch so completely in this place with the central message, the “old romantic wisdom” and its offer of reward: support over phases of transition, consolation for tragedy?

O unbewölkets Leben! / So rein und tief und klar. —

Not only rein and klar but also tief, all three terms interdetermined, and so possibly at last the yearning is stilled, and the “sweet, good old man” settles to his end. And “thousands of stars”! But in Cambridge there is a preference for the clouds that hide them?

Obscurity is a natural condition of poetry. To fail to acknowledge that is a cowardice and an evasion. It is poetry’s song condition which it always fails to renounce. Listen to any song and it is obvious. It speaks in shadow. It has to because it is not alone, it is not free to speak. As a developed faculty obscurity opens the text to far laterality and distant sightings, it shakes off the fetters of sense and relevance. But why, to what point? Surely the ambition must be to pass beyond the pleasures (and pride) of obscurity into the real world without losing the reach, and then possibly total sense, a kind of paradise.

Why Cambridge should become a fortress of shadow I don’t know, blanketing its discourse in all the mechanisms (symbolical, mystical, etymological, psychological, phenomenological, etc.) of undermining, ever evading the question of transfer. Absolutely refusing to move out of the shadow into light, obstinately generation after generation, coddling itself in the ramifications of the undertext, the secret. But the text of the world, that we work by, is an evidence, it is in front of us and the only way not to see it is to close your eyes.

As if we could rest there. As if that were any kind of road into death. It is necessary to be heard. Der alte horcht, der alte schweigt. Der Tod hat sich zu ihm geneigt. What do we offer the old fellow if he can’t hear us at all, and sinks into death in a fog of mere language?

And of course, if clarity is … etc. and all the coercive rigmarole of political claim that follows, from step to step until finally the silent reader is criminalised for existing—surely the dirtiest trick ever played on a poetry-reading public in the western world.

Peter Riley

P.S. I’m aware, of course, that it is possible to make out a perfectly good case, from a different angle, for clarity as socially determined. But in that case, if it is going to be a real clarity “social” will have to stop being a dirty word, and the poets may not like that, though probably people would.

[The German is Mayrhofer, via Schubert. 1. Der Sieg (The Victory): O unclouded life! So pure and deep and clear! 2. Nachtstück (Nocturne): The old man hears, the old man is silent. Death is inclined towards him.]

Wildfire, by Andrea Brady

Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination by Andrea Brady has just been published by Krupskaya. (Three parts of Wildfire were printed in CLR2.) This is extraordinary poetry; I think the following publisher/author statement says all that I’d like to:

WILDFIRE is a verse essay. It is trying to persuade us, to recognize that certain catastrophes and felicities are not inevitable. It concerns the history of incendiary devices, of the evolution of Greek fire from a divine secret which could sustain or destroy empires, into white phosphorus and napalm; the elliptical fires of the pre-Socratics, Aristotle’s service to Alexander in the fashioning of pyrotechnics, the burning/blooming/mating bodies of G. H. Schubert and the self-feeding crowds of Elias Canetti; mechanisms to project fire, to make it burn on water and stick to wood and skin, to keep it off the walls of the besieged towns, and what those mechanisms (projection and defense) have done to geometry; the courts of fire, the legal chamber and the hortus conclusus, and the margins of ambiguity where it is lobbed with impunity; embedded nuggets and embedded reporters, the discovery of the chemical element, industrial tragedy, the resistance of the matchgirls at Bryant & May, the corruption of Quaker capitalists, washing powder and toothpaste. It is an etiology of metaphors, “shake-n-bake” and whisky pete and phantom fury. It is also an argument about obscurity and illumination: WILDFIRE does both, smokes the bright air and singes the night with trajectories. And so an interrogation of writing practices which fume as much as they enlighten.

In fact, I might add to this description, that in addition to its historical elements, Wildfire contains an element of political engagement that at once overrides the debate over political/apathetic poetry and makes that debate seem somehow behind the times, too slow. Even more, perhaps, than in Andrea’s letter to the CLR on political engagement, Wildfire demonstrates precisely what can be done—crucially, it seems to me, without cynicism—within the confines of overtly politicized subject matter.

Wildfire is available for purchase via Small Press Distribution:

Or, perhaps more conveniently, Andrea is accepting cheques for £10 + £1 p&p, payable to her at: 26 Allerton Road, London N16 5UJ.

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