“Distant Reading” by Peter Middleton is (so far anyway) the most brilliant, intriguing and irritating book on poetry I’ve read. Yes, all of the above. And it’s not even that some essays in this book are brilliant, some intriguing, some irritating. They are almost always all three simultaneously.
While it is a collection of eight discontinuous essays, they are linked by a desire to talk about poetry beyond the “meaning inherent in the text”, which Middleton rightly questions. He sees a poem not just as a literary product but as an historical, cultural, political artefact, circulating via various means, and being transformed by those means. This includes the poetry reading – in an astounding essay called “A History of the Poetry Reading”, Middleton discusses how intersubjectivity is integral to poetry.
Performance is a moment when social interaction can study and celebrate itself, and the poet is given significant new materials with which to extend the signifying field of the poem… The presentation of the poetry in a public space to an audience that is constituted by that performance for the time of the reading enables the poem to constitute a virtual public space that is, if not utopian, certainly proleptic of possible social change as part of its production of meaning. (p.103)
No, I didn’t choose the most snappy, accessible quote, did I? Actually, Middleton does have a keen literary wit, but he’s nothing if not ambitious in his scope. Interestingly, though, for all of his depth of analysis and his assiduous care in respecting the complexities of how poetry circulates, there is very little mention of the specific and varied embodiments of authors and readers, of what these might mean for poetry.
I’m thinking of how writers and performers like Antony Riddell, Kath Duncan, and Angie Jones claim a space on stage that is entirely their own, that unashamedly present their own embodied difference as valuable and inextricable from literary meaning. Simply by being themselves, visible and engaging, they expose the anaesthetics of the usual “author-audience” relationship. The easy empathy, identification or abstraction that is usually generated by poetry readings is made all the more complicated and (appropriately) fraught. I include myself in this. When I got up in a Brunswick pub and read for the first time, “I have a hunch / that curvature / can be aperture…”, I knew that this was my poem, not just as author, but as this body on this stage. That sharp intake of audience breath is not just the sound of a taboo being broken, but it is the drop of a stone into a pool, the beginning of ripples outward.
In “The New Memoryism”, Middleton analyses the role of memory in contemporary poetry. He suggests that the recruitment of memory acts as a prop to stabilise ideas about identity.
During the past decade the rapid growth of interest in suppressed histories of oppressed, colonized, marginalized, and annihilated peoples led to a new method of cultural and literary study that could be called the New Memoryism. Recovered histories of individual and collective self-representation make ethical and political demands that require the recognition of the different temporalities at work in recovery, atonement, trauma and forgetting… The New Memoryism has yet to reflect on the consequences of its indebtedness. (pp138-9)
Interestingly, in this essay, Middleton doesn’t discuss poetry that arises from within any of these marginal communities. The quote above, to me, indicates that his central thesis – that the internet and mobile technologies have fundamentally altered our way of reading and remembering – would have been even more powerful and nuanced had he examined how feminist and “disabled” poets, for example, explore identity in an embodied but also strategic way. Their use of irony, myth, deconstruction, confession and affect operates also upon the media of literature – whether performed live, displayed as text on a screen, as film on YouTube, or printed on a page, each version includes a destabilising reminder of embodiment and difference. In a way, such poetry “re-embodies” a poetry that (at least in our common conception of it) has been disembodied by technologies.
I’m of course here talking about some of those moments in my reading of “Distant Reading” where I wanted to argue or interrogate. There is much in the book that I found fascinating – including a chapter written in poetic form but right to left on the page (“The Line Break in Everyday Life”); and an essay (“Eat Write”) divided into two columns on the page, the two columns exploring food intolerance, consumption, postmodernism and capitalism in separate and contrasting modes.
At many points in an essay on J H Prynne, Middleton refers to “more sophisticated readers” or “familiar readers”. With no “scare quotes”. Which leads me to think he’s not being ironic. I can’t decide if this is an accurate vision of what happens to readers (they become more “sophisticated”, less satisfied with more “straightforward” or “accessible” poems), or if this is a kind of elitism. Middleton also says that “poems that wear their literalism on their sleeves and are bedecked with realist flair may nevertheless be much more secretive and uninterpretable than is usually allowed”. So are all poems sophisticated? And am I a sophisticated reader? Should I be? Does it matter?
I can say that I have been challenged, encouraged and confused by “Distant Reading”. I will no doubt return to it later, read it again to see if I or the book has changed.