RIP @williamempson

In 2012 I created a Twitter account in the name of William Empson (@williamempson), mostly in a fit of enthusiasm that his work should be seen by all (having spent some time at university writing about him). Not that his great reputation needs my promotion or care, but I feel generally that his poetry deserves as much esteem as his criticism enjoys. Like his prose, his poetry is idiosyncratic such that it has, now nearly a century from its composition, had to stand on its own or not at all; it is too knotty and esoteric to appeal to formalists, and too formal and often grand for the experimental to claim as their own. Helpfully, though, its concision and density favours the brevity of a tweet.

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Criticism as obsession

On his blog, the poet David Clarke described part of the strange business of reviewing poetry:

This means reading, re-reading, a fair amount of travelling around with the book in your bag or walking about the house with it under your arm.

Writing criticism involves a strange reading, as Clarke describes: not just reading, not re-reading, but staying with the book even thereafter, coming back and back to it, holding on with begrudged compulsion. It’s completely odd behaviour, in that all the normal reasons for reading a book are exceeded or depleted, and yet the book is still there, needing to be read again and again to keep it from fading. Its capacity to thrill or excite, to surprise or repulse, are gone, and, if they’re required to account for themselves, must be pulled up and reanimated. The ridges and furrows of the text, its form and features, are exaggerated with each repetition, swelling it all out of proportion.

Insight is hard. Writing is hard. Expressing something useful from the monster you’ve made of the book is hard, and harder especially when you suspect you may, even so, have something to say.  During composition often one’s own critical writing feels at best impoverished and at worse a sham. You return, then, to the book, again. It becomes a grim obsession, akin to the madness of expecting different results from doing the same thing. The glimmer of any fleeting idea you thought you might have becomes a trap, and so you’re  stuck there with only the book for company, like cellmates.

You chase and then lose your train of thought, like this. You call an end out of impatience, like this.

Some similes from Luke Kennard

The roadside diners glimmered like bookshelves, little glowing bookshelves. (‘The Solex Brothers’, The Solex Brothers)

I’ll hawk him like a watch. Like a watch. (‘The Esplanade’, The Solex Brothers)

There are horrible opinions everywhere:/Like oil slicks (‘Halatnost’, The Harbour Beyond the Movie)

The prison sits on the horizon like a great ash-tray (‘The Murderer’, The Harbour Beyond the Movie)

‘Look,’ he said, shaking it out like a pigeon. (‘Baltimore Orioles’, The Harbour Beyond the Movie)

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Robert Herbert McLean’s ‘Pangs!’ — Notes from an abandoned review

thoughts are expressed and then repudiated — revisionary, impulsive (and sometimes repulsive), suggesting, like its title, that — lived through desire’s pangs and that language is not so much the container or medium for pre-ordered subjectivity but its waste product, — known by the whistle of its passing rather than its form or shape as it goes

not that a poem follows the creation and curation of a self, but rather McLean’s poems are that self in the act of revision

Despite then being interesting in theory, the book itself is boring. You flick through the ~70 pages of ‘waste material’ — the book is bound like a flipbook — and stop here and there, you put it down and pick it up again, you read some lines at random:

Fond bends of the bob and tug of love giving over as if an illegal fireworks display. Swans
are the best friends of a shoe seller’s ghost. I told her she’s the coldest witch of any winter.

This restless phrase-turning goes on and on.