Poetry and Paris


Allen Ginsberg outside Shakespeare and Company, Paris

by Jenny Diski

A great sadness in my young life was to have missed Paris in the Fifties: those existentialists sitting morosely in the Deux Magots (did Beckett really pour a glass of beer over his head without showing any sign of emotion, and continue simply to sit drenched at his table?), the Beats hanging out stoned and anarchic at Shakespeare & Co. I got there as fast as I could, aged 16, but everyone I had in mind had gone, and all I found was a very attractive Portuguese painter and too many cockroaches in my hotel room to cope with.

At twenty I tried again and spent half a year in Paris, mostly with American students and refugees from the Vietnam draft, staying in a perfectly rundown hotel on the Left Bank where many of the Beat poets had previously stayed. They had existed on crusts and washing-up jobs. I wrote a film script, washed a couple of floors (badly), gave English conversation lessons and typed up an English translation of a dreadful novel set in sixties’ London. I lived up to Paris’s image: I was full of angst, young, broke, smoking dope, reading poetry and philosophy in cafes, arguing about books and movies, and rattling around in the city that echoed time, literature and revolution with every breath I took, in a way that London just couldn’t for me. My romantic months.

In 2011 I went to Paris again – almost for the first time since then (a couple of brief visits intervened, but not memorably). This time I tagged along with the Poet (my live-in…oh well, husband) to a three-day conference called ‘Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today’.  Let me explain, since my early twenties I have understood that the world is a better place for me not writing poetry. The Poet is always trying to see my juvenile verse, but it’s tucked away behind decades of clothes in the attic which only someone as small as a grandchild will ever get to. I’ve read poetry, quite a lot, but I don’t feel I’m up to its challenge. I don’t really know what poetry is, what it’s for or why exactly poetry is poetry. This makes living with the Poet quite interesting.

When he isn’t teaching 20th century literature at Cambridge, he writes the kind of poems which, and is engaged with the kind of poets who, refuse to allow themselves to be easily classified. He taught an MA course called ‘Reading Difficult Poems’ which includes such writers living and dead as: Ezra Pound, W. S. Graham, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olsen, John Ashbery, J. H. Prynne, Tom Raworth, Veronica Forest Thompson, Keston Sutherland… poets many of whom you, like me in my pre-Poet days, may well not have heard. The term ‘difficult’ is used somewhat ironically and pedagogically: difficult until you are prepared to think very hard about how to read them. But after years of life with the Poet I remain an outsider even as a reader: too scared or lazy to think that intensely.

The Poet rages about the pointlessness of popular poetry – by that he mean what most people think of as modern poetry: the established poets published by large publishing houses who constitute the judges and winners of poetry prizes, or who are made Poet Laureates. The acceptable face of poetry, that offers easily recognisable emotions and subjectivity in uncomplicated forms, and wants to make itself immediately accessible. The Poet’s poets, the difficult ones do something else, although I’ve never been quite clear what. At a Christmas party in London, before I went to the conference, I was raged at by a poet of the other kind who berated the Poet and his sort for inaccessibility, elitism, for not giving people what they want. Mr X was even crosser about the Poet’s poets than the Poet is about Mr X’s popular, easily palatable sort. So much crossness, and me a kind of idiot on the sidelines not knowing what to make of it all as poetry, but inclined generally to think that popularity is not likely often to produce the kind of intense commitment to the investigation and writing of either poetry or prose that I so admired about those in Paris in the 1950s.

When I was coming up to my sixtieth birthday, the Poet started wandering around the house, opening and closing the far too many books on the shelves, muttering and generally being very annoying. It was a poem he said, a project. That was all he would tell me. Why don’t you sit down and write it like regular poets do, preferably with a quill pen, I said irritated by the mystery. The mystery was solved on my birthday, when he presented me with a lengthy poem, along with a minimalist drawing that I had admired in a local gallery, of a simple bisected rectangle, something like a window – pencil on white paper. The poem was called 60 Windows For Jenny. It consisted of 60 lines he had found with the word ‘window’ in them, on page 60 of 60 books. A great piece of research, and when read, a stunning poem that had grown to be itself out of the almost but not quite arbitrary choices from the words of others. Straightforward, simply understandable, obviously narratological it wasn’t, but compelling and thrilling it was. Not that I got it. Help me, I said. I don’t know, he said. So annoying. You must know what you’ve done and why, I insisted. Why, he asked.

What is really exciting to an outsider – neither an academic or a poet – is the passion these poets express for a particular way to write, the seriousness of the project, the assumption that making meaning with words is all you can do in a world where you know really that there is really nothing you can do. It’s heroic and determined this poetry, these poets, young and old, and some of it is very funny. They refuse to separate form and content: what a poem looks like, how it is laid out: what the words do visually or across the space of the page is an essential part of the poem, not decoration. The reader needs to read and think, give time and effort, really work on a poem, struggle with it. Perhaps this poetry is the continuing struggle that is the essence of a left-oriented engaged politics.

Keston Sutherland, one of the younger poets, gave a talk at the conference about Marx’s theory of accumulation and circulation, and connected it to the use of language in literature. Poetry is like capital: you can circulate it or hoard it. Either way, it becomes a commodity. I think what the Poet’s poets are doing is trying to find a way to bypass the easy common sense of the poem as commodity by breaking it apart, holding familiarity and comfort at bay, and requiring readers to read hard and think with the poem, rather than simply to consume it. Whatever they are doing, hanging out with them, listening to them being passionate about writing in seminar rooms, bars and restaurants in Paris, was as close to the Paris I never saw as I will get.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued

Adapted from a piece originally published at Goteborgs Posten