Back soon. Sooner than you or I imagine — with any luck.
Hello-and-goodbye, … unless, against long odds, you read on. Why so pessimistic? Though this is said to be the age of the image, people measuring attention spans have found that in ten seconds flat, an online video loses a fifth of its audience. How much less hope must there be for the seductive power of a mere text?
This new painting by Shawn Yu was still brightening my day on a part of my screen when I saw the report on video watching. It led me to marvel at how fast aesthetic attraction, not just dismissal, works on the net. Of how quickly we can recognise a certain je ne sais quoi in an artist’s work impossible to explain, even to ourselves, which guarantees that we will find that painter’s oeuvre consistently engaging – at the very least. As I’ve explained (see the second footnote here), it was a drawing Shawn made from a photograph of Bruce Chatwin that originally caught my eye as I was speed-skimming my way through images of that writer served up by search engines.
Every visit to Shawn’s site since has been rewarding. Lately, going there has been like popping into a magical gallery in which a wizard keeps putting up new paintings on the walls for an exhibition by a single artist, and on the same theme – in this case, kettles, teapots, jugs and coffee pots, of all things; some with and some without human companions. As someone who has always had trouble with collections of short stories, anthologies of poems, group shows by artists – or even a single artist displaying pieces on several themes in more than one style – the staggered presentation has felt so right that it might have been designed for me. Finding my way to it without any intermediary or other people’s interpretations of the pictures has only heightened the pleasure of looking at them.
I think Shawn is still a student but close to being hatched by his art school. There’s no saying whether he will or won’t stick with Surrealism. He does seem to me to have a very special feeling for that style. Some of his pictures have taken me back to standing in the Dali museum in Figuerres a few years ago, enjoying the expressions on the faces of other visitors as much as examining the exhibits. Like the great moustachioed one, Shawn’s blog shows that he can also be a fine realistic painter – impeccably accurate as an anatomist, just as Dali was. … But scrolling down his online exhibition, it has also occurred to me that Surrealism remains the only approach to depicting our world that captures the grain, the scent, the unending, stomach-churning topsy-turvyness of contemporary life.
Last week I was surprised to find – in another context – that Herbert Pothorn, a German architectural historian, thought that Surrealism had a precedent in a style that defined another age of uncertainty and chronic disruption:
The final phase of the Renaissance is known as Mannerism. In art history the term implies a highly personal mode of expression; it also indicates the adoption of the specific idiom or manner of a certain artist by others, or by a whole school. … [I]t also entails a love of exaggeration and artificiality, obtained by any means possible. Mannerism tends towards excess, towards distortion of perspective …It was the product of a spiritually uncertain age – an age caught between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, seeking for new certainties, and attempting to guide itself through all this insecurity with the help of fantasy […] Mannerist painting was … a forerunner of Surrealism, i.e. that trend or movement of ideas that aimed to re-establish the unconscious, freeing it from the tools and formulae of reason.
… Something paradoxical about the way we deal with people’s posts in the Blogosphere is that we’re as apt to dismiss some prematurely as we are to relentlessly monitor others for signs of behaviour we don’t approve of – scrutinising these post-writers’ beliefs and inconsistencies more often and minutely, from thousands of miles away, than we could have done from right next door in the past. Then there’s the fun of comparing our reactions with those of others – comparisons all the more exciting for our having no ties or obligations to our fellow blog watchers.
It seems as if lots of other visitors to the Guardian‘s site have been put off by that paper’s barbaric censorship policies; in particular, by its victimisation of Desmond Swords/Kevin Desmond (or HerMajesty here). You might imagine that the dramatic drop in the comments count for a weekly poetry blog there in recent weeks would have registered with the managers of that site as a protest against its suppression of free expression – and that they might have tried to make amends, or at least offer some form of apology. You might imagine that they’d have noticed that for several years, now, that blogger who refuses to accept being banned has been responsible for more lively debates and click count-boosting posts than anyone else. … You might imagine that they’d have noticed that without him, there is only word for the threads in that section: dull.
But no, they appear to be have decided to sit out what is virtually a commenters’ strike, and do nothing at all.
The reasons why so many of us are supporting Des are: (i) The Guardian’s site managers’ failure to understand that it is commenters, not their ‘above-the-line’ bloggers, who have made that spot on the web worth visiting – a fact that makes their obtuse and draconian censorship utterly counter-productive. (ii) He can be wonderfully witty and inventive in the way he undermines the stodgy, misguidedly technical and needlessly jargon-ridden introductions to the Poem-of-the-Week – by an author who has shown, when she posts in comments sections, that she is capable of being funny and lively, on occasion. [(iii) See addendum, below, which contains the most important part of the explanation.]
Yet above the line, week after week, she holds forth in her droning Voice of Authority – in a style of criticism I expect will come to be known as Early Debased – or Very Early and remarkably Debased (as someone said about a bell tower in a church in an English university town in the late nineteenth century that was referred to as the Meat Safe).
Why don’t people like her see what is happening to the presumption of literary authority? In my last post I mentioned keeping tabs on the staggering – and widening – gap between paid and unpaid critics’ assessments of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. On a trip to the Amazon.com page a few hours ago, I noticed that 579 of 660 readers of an exemplary review by ‘zashibis’ — who awarded the book a one-star rating — had marked it as helpful. Its opening establishes that zashibis is objective, and nurses no personal grudge against the much-fêted author:
Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.
I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years …
My impressions of the book from reading its first twenty five-odd pages have been confirmed, to the letter, by dozens of detailed descriptions of the rest of the mega-tome by lay assessors. ‘Taken in’ is exactly how I would have felt fifteen years ago, before there was an Amazon.com publishing extracts from new novels on its site – or offering instant access to hundreds of uncredentialled but obviously astute zashibises. I wouldn’t have been able to get a refund for the hefty price I’d have had to pay for Freedom, and I’d have had felt miserably and furiously isolated in my bafflement by the laurels the literary establishment had heaped on it.
Censors like the Guardian’s will have to take over the world to reverse the flood tide against pontificators who specialise in king- and queen-making in the arts. All hail, Canute!
(iii) As Scott Adams recently said about his brilliant satirisation of corporate idiocy,
Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy.
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)
Continuing our inspection of censorship at the Guardian, here’s a surprising suppressor of free speech — that is, if you are used to thinking of poets and other artists as passionate believers in unfettered communication.
Could that honestly be said of Carol Rumens, a published poet, university lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger for that newspaper? Her electronic column — when written by her predecessor in that space — was a quick, open-ended introduction to a poem chosen for discussion by all comers. Under Rumens, the blog has taken on a directive and teacherly tone that some of her readers enjoy.
This week, an extended argument with commenters keen to lift the dead hand of academic analysis from modern poetry – affecting not just its criticism but writing – grew intense. Guardian moderators slashed comments by Rumens’ opponents so wildly and in such quantities that at least one onlooker wondered about the possibility of unhinged combat rage (think My Lai and Green Berets.)
The butchery was justified on the grounds that commenters had been attacking a living poet – the author of this week’s poem, Vona Groarke. Actually – as is clear from careful inspection of the unexpurgated record, there were no personal attacks on the poet, with the exception of a childish remark about her name by someone notoriously infantile. It was the opinions and judgment of Rumens herself that came under fire and, in a scant few posts, the poem itself.
At the end of the cull, Rumens made an ominous announcement in her comments section:
[…] I have emailed the mods via Sarah […] and they will watching the blog extra carefully.
@Einsloth, a delightfully whimsical commenter known to be an accomplished poet himself, was singled out for a special rap on the knuckles. Why? Because he had begun his critique by referring to ‘this precious pearl of a poem’. Comparisons with other samples of acid wit in the annals of literary criticism would reveal that to be mild – as intended.
But Rumens said,
He begins with a sneer. That is NOT doing what we should all do here. [her caps.]
Should. Shouldn’t. … Hmm … Now, this particular Guardian blogger has been a teacher for decades. We must allow her the tics of the more dictatorial members of her profession. But what was a newspaper doing, denying its commenters their right to disagree with her?
This post on acciaccatura is aimed at those moderators and constructed to honour the old maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by.’ I would like to see the Guardian simply highlight all comments it finds questionable – except for libel – and let readers reflect on them and draw their own conclusions. How? Just as I’m setting out these excerpts from the blogs and comments-section remarks of Carol Rumens – neutrally, and in a spirit of enquiry.
Can a prose style like this, introducing poems, earn poetry more readers – and stimulate new interest in the most graceful literary form?
It’s a strong poem that inhabits a slightly uncharacteristic lyric angle, off-road to the central preoccupations of this septuagenarian poet’s spacious, modernist imagination. Yet I feel it reveals the emotional forces implicit in those preoccupations.
… when the same ideas could have been stated like this:
It’s a strong poem, with an uncharacteristic touch of lyricism, a departure from the usual preoccupations of this septuagenarian modernist. Yet, to me, it reveals the passion behind those preoccupations.
APPROACH TO CRITICISM
Is this a helpful interpretation of a cheerful short poem? Lines that describe an athletic woman diving into the sea?
In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.
N.B. A controller critical of controlling?
Should a blogger cooperating with censors of free speech be calling her own employers at her university ‘you bastards’ in public – on a Guardian blog? Carol Rumens was gently reprimanded by a kind commenter: shouldn’t she extend the same kind consideration to the impassioned comments of others?
Comment No. 1200270
July 2 18:41
To my Employers (the National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, University of Bangor)
Sorry but they are trying to get me to do some extra teaching that forces a younger colleague out of a job. Hope you’re reading this, you bastards.
Comment No. 1203154
July 4 8:57
Never slag off an employer on
Impulse, especially in forums
Everyone can be a voyeur on
Carol Rumens, Oh Carol Rumens
Ire will misfire- its – hire or fire
Seriously, Carol I think it is best that these matters be resolved using the appropriate channels. If you believe there is a case, then take it to the union or whoever represents you, and take it up with the boards. If it is a Dean or Director who has made this decision then go to the head of the college. If you have already exhausted those channels then you can use this blog to vent off your anger, but not until then. I do not personally think it is useful to make fun of your employer’s strategy which is one that is typical of all those humanities departments that had to reinvent themselves in the 1990′s so as to be more attractive to business. …
Readers, I’ll let you decide …
Readers of this blog are invited to consider three comments recently rescued from oblivion – to which they were consigned by censors at The Guardian. They are reproduced below. I hold no brief for or against the sentiments expressed in them, but would suggest weighing them against this question:
Censorship was invented with the printed book: does the death of print mean that it’s time for it, too, to disappear?
It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.
By  the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.
[By the late 1500s] books had come to be seen as potential threats to political and moral as well as to doctrinal values. So Machiavelli, as well as Luther, became a totally banned author. Bawdy books jostled occultist ones on the list …
[I]n spite of growing repression it was possible for determined readers with money and some courage to secure much of what they wanted […] There were never enough censors to deal thoroughly with manuscripts submitted for publication.
Inquisitors – another overworked corps of repressors – rarely showed more interest in convincing unimportant suspects of their doctrinal errors than in swiftly and if necessary cruelly extorting blanket vows of obedience …
from The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994
Comments deleted by Guardian moderators in a single fortnight earlier this month, with links to the blogs where they were published fleetingly (… their gist is easy to grasp, so do not be distracted by references that will seem arcane to anyone who does not visit that site very often…):
This wickedly entertaining scrap of satire was written, like many of the commenter’s contributions, in the spirit of charivari. Those were once officially sanctioned ‘rites of excess’ all over Europe – so noisy that the Latin root for the word is caribaria, meaning ‘headache’. I’m quoting from the same book on Renaissance Europe with which this post begins. It mentions anarchic leaders of celebrations that released ‘the volatility which civility feared, even if some of its representatives enjoyed its licence’. Their names, ‘Abbot of Misrule’, ‘Bishop Meany’ ,‘Duke Kick-Ass’ and so on, could be screen names for the censored blogger, known elsewhere as Desmond Swords or Kevin Desmond.
His comments on the poem capture what many of us readers found regrettable – that although it is elegant, named for a famous piece of classical music and apparently written in its honour, it lacks any musicality. . . . Now, isn’t that a far less engaging way of saying what the censors snipped from here?
2 Aug 2010, 12:22PM
Reading it aloud, one is struck by the lack of ..I mean abundence of rhythm and melody. Sweet cadence of a song singing softly, some sweet sibliant odour of it; roses on a tongue, oh sheer raw the passion one found on a playground in asphalt-city Islington, gang-turf where there be, to-be the poets of yesteryear moesying o’er thine ears like sweet the sound of lilacs and lavender lillies, breathing oh liddle foldero fee, bright spark Fiontan of moon-hawk, soon in June the losses felt what o’er thine seer like deep note of cherry, sits at table in Betterton Street, Forward Prize contendor in no way run bcuz of thine dayjob, liddle Fion, satyr and faun sporting in the water park at Brockley, Crouch End lido, Hampstead pond, dipping in prose the tenor of lemon and oranges, thine own banana in the spume blent, oh bright star no shoo-in, on talent alone thine ears and eyes make filidh trumpet of the goats at Syrius: stall not thine brilliance in this embodying essence of Schubert and his tinkly winkly music.
I really love this poem, because it captures the delicacy of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D956, in such a way as to make thick pple want to go out and buy it because it in no way perpetuates the idea that poets are frosty keepers-out of culture or owt like that, Ms.
I am going to buy the book immediately and demand Fiona is awarded the prize that will broadcast tot he world what a democratic, open, warm, welcoming space British Intelligensia Poetry is to pple like me, an unpublished dabbler networking online, making the right noises and wanting only to be myself; a bitter begrudging hater of all things not to do with me, as per erm, I dunno.
The next deleted post supplies an instance of woeful inconsistency by moderators. Even those who consider moderation essential surely see that the fastest way to lose respect is by not sticking to your own rules – deduced partly from precedent. Yet after a string of posts in the identical tone from the same commenter, the moderators gave this one the chop. Why?
For any student of human behaviour, the spontaneous remarks we all make in the Blogosphere give us an incomparable laboratory – for studying, for instance, the legitimacy of old and new ideas about temperament. This particular blogger, @ artfarmer — or, as he insists elsewhere, Mishari al Adwani — often supplies illustrations of the sort of temperament once described as splenetic, about which the Wikipedia says, in part: ‘The connection between spleen (the organ) and melancholy (the temperament) comes from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks. One of the humours (body fluid) was the black bile, secreted by the spleen organ and associated with melancholy. […]. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, women in bad humour were said to be afflicted by the spleen, or the vapours of the spleen.’
14 Aug 2010, 10:28PM
Yeah, right: falling on your knees and asking favours of an invisible friend is an unmistakable sign of spirituality and ivariably leads to good art.
Actually, it’s a sign of cowardice and gullibility, a gullibility encouraged by shrill, screeching hysterics who love the human race but hate people.
Crap poem, by the way. I’ll bet you went to Sri Lanka and pontificated on their misery, self-righteous bourgeois voyeur that you are. Pinter wrote this kind of rubbish, too, but least he was a good playwright.
Unlike those other two samples of deletions by Guardian moderators, this egregiously repetitious one can hardly be said to have been written in the most literate voice.
But isn’t its contribution to the debate on the burkha question exactly what you’d want to see on a forum The Guardian named Comment is free? Doesn’t the commenter’s case for reaching beyond our prejudices and cultural conditioning deserve airing? Elsewhere on the net, others are making closely similar points – on blogcritics.org, for instance, where one poster reasonably suggests, ‘Maybe they can make the pope stop wearing that ridiculous hat.’?
16 Aug 2010, 8:55AM
@minervahere, @Parisa, criticisin Dawkins fanaticism don’t mean havin a strong opinion bout burkqas one way or another. I mean, havin a personal opinion meself.
I suspect from the listenin I been doin that yeah, if lotsa Muslim gals sez n really means it they love the privacy the garment gives em and the thrill o’ sharin their undraped selves only with their old man and this is kinda thrillin for em (I read some Orthodox Jewish gal explain all that someplace bout coverin up *their* selves), then why not jest believe em?
I mean look at India n Pakistan. Benazeeer Bhutto n Indeara Ganndi wuz real powerful. Powerful enuff to make some suicidil fanatic mad enuff to snuff em. Yet they opted to wrap themselves every — or many a — mornin, in a whole nine yards o’ drapes never givin any indication o’ hatin saris which I know would give me ma and jest about any gal I know a conniption fit and a half if I or anyone no matter how much they lurved us had the gall to insist on em wearin em. Would think I was advocatin foot bindin.
Theres Hindu n Muslim Indian gals today with 3 degrees from places like Harvard n Cambridge runnin multinational corporations who sometimes or always dresses in their trad dress. Yer only have to look at em to know yer caint walk as freely as a western gal can in a saree leave alone run for a cab in Podunk or Manhattin. So whos to say millions o’ Muslim gals don’t consider the constrictin of their black nun-ny garment like lockin em in the county jail but instead, kinda sexy – or purifyin in a way they wanna be pure? Why not jest believe em?
Different o’course if theres intelligence says theres a real n present risk o’ terrorists secretin ‘emselves inside a burqa so if I wuz Sarko or Carla whichever of em’s really runnin France Id wanna make sure I also included nuns habits n muu-muus pinned out with detachable supersized hoodies the same law thats outlawin them boorkqas. I mean wouldn’t you in the interests of equity n all.
Has it bin passed yet? That law? Probably an academick question unless yer real quick cos the thread’s closin and this has to be so long until the next time.
If anything proves the pointlessness of repressive moderation on the net, surely it’s that anyone can so easily rescue victims of censorship?