On Johannes’s Theory of Kitsch: Yeats, Owen, and Brian Turner

by on Nov.18, 2010

When I was reading Johannes’s post below, and how kitsch is used as a bulwark to protect the Highness of the High Modern, I immediately thought of Yeats leaving the War Poets out of his Oxford Anthology of Modern Verse (1936)– defending his choice against critics, he wrote in a letter:
“[…]I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper, […]He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber’s Anthology– he calls poets ‘bards,’ a girl a ‘maid,’ & talks about ‘Titanic wars’). There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . .”

This is dripping with kitsch signifiers– country newspaper, ‘sucked sugar stick’, even ‘dirt’ and ‘blood’, as if there is something unseemly about soldiers being dirty or bloody. In the next sentence these three sticky substances are associated with the tacky, poem-y diction of ‘bards’, ‘maid’ ‘Titanic wars’—the ‘dim lands of peace’ stuff that Pound condemns in ‘a few don’ts.; So somehow poeticisms and euphemisms here are equated with dirt, blood, and sugar stick—art at its most overstated and artsy (and thus kitschy) is equal to contaminatory and bodily things. It’s enough to remind you that ‘tacky’ has two senses– both ‘sticky to the touch’, and ‘corny/tasteless’. Yeats mobilizes both against Owen.

What’s ironic about this is how kitschy Yeats himself is – he of the Golden Dawn, ‘silly like us’, as Auden pointed out, who could write a line like “Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn” and other hoary insta-chestnuts (incredibly memorable). On the other hand, Owen famously said in the Preface to his own book, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”. In locating his Poetry “in the pity”, he pokes with his sucked sugar stick at that very nerve that made Yeats so hysterical. He’s working with affect here. At the same time, I think the imagistic keen-ness in Owen is almost over-keen– it is like a wound of uncertain depth and uncertain protoplasmic/haunting/contaminatory capacities of nostalgia and pity. It reminds me of Keats’s ‘This Living Hand’. It’s a counter occult to the kind of occult Yeats had in mind, though the Golden Dawn was of course gloriously redolent with hocus-pocus, psuedo-erudition, nicknames, infighting, and nostalgia.

However if we scratch the surface, we find something very interesting here. We find that absolute kernel, that absolute material, that syndrome which was to be the alchemical source (via Breton and Surrealism) of so much of twentieth century film and literature: shell shock.

Wikipedia confirms this:

“However, Owen’s outlook on the war was to be changed dramatically after two traumatic experiences. Firstly, he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, landing in the remains of a fellow officer. Soon after, he became trapped for days in an old German dugout. After these two events, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was whilst recuperating at Craiglockhart that he was to meet fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter which was to transform Owen’s life.”

This description of Owen ‘landing in the remains of a fellow officer’ recalls the spatial proposition of the Poetry being ‘in the pity’— the ‘Poet’ being ‘in the remains of a fellow officer.’ What kind of speaking and writing does one do when one’s mouth is full of the gore of a fellow officer? Posthumous writing, yes? Sticky, bloody, dirty writing.

A final note: When (MFA-trained) poet-soldier Brian Turner’s book made such a splash a few years ago, it was often seen as continuing the War Poets tradition, but it was little noted how much “Here Bullet’ is at times an exact overlay of Owen’s book. You can pick out the exact poems Turner’s poems are remaking. What I mean to say is, though Turner’s book was received as if ratified by the absolute experience of war, it really seems to me that it was funded by an absolute experience of Art—an experience of Art (Owen’s poetry) that shaped the way he viewed his own war, that interceded, occultly, posthumously, that interceded doubly between him and experience and between him and the page. Knowledge of Owen gave him not just the formal/dramatic/generic approach but is itself implicitly his material.

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3 comments for this entry:
  1. Carina Finn

    “There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . .”

    I feel like this statement illustrates so much of what is problematic about the power-structure of poetry. Even if somehow, someone does manage to slip through the cracks and produce/publicize something that’s interesting, evocative, messy, etc., people won’t be “allowed” to like it because the Establishment gets to define Taste, which becomes tangled up with Morality, and then there is this imaginary divide which causes all kinds of unproductive smack-talking where there could be such invigorating discussion.

  2. Brian

    Um, no. It may feel good to write criticism like this and to feel you know the pulse of the writer’s intent, but this just isn’t true or accurate. I knew of Owen’s work but I certainly wasn’t steeped in it and I certainly didn’t ape it/swipe it/steal it/revamp it. I have begun to steep myself in the work of Owen and Douglas since returning from the war. You would do better to look at Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Doug Anderson, Walt Whitman, and John Balaban (in terms of tracing my ‘war poet’ roots).

    And Wikipedia as source material for your thoughts on Owen? Really? Easy criticism reeks of laziness.

  3. Joyelle McSweeney

    Brian, my post was in good faith. I used Wikipedia because it was to hand and is an appropriate source for a blog post; I didn’t have time to go check out books to confirm something that I already knew, and anyway I wasn’t just after the ‘facts’ here; I thought the way this particular quote was phrased, with its somewhat oblique phrase ‘in the remains’, actually presented an structural analogy via its syntax to Owen’s famous phrase ‘in the Pity’.

    I could just as easily accuse your comments here as being hasty and lazy. They are not ‘accurate’. I didn’t say anything about your intent, and I didn’t imply stealing, swiping, or aping. ‘Revamping’ might come close to what I was implying; by ‘overlay’ I meant to evoke something more like palimpsest, with all the physical/material properties inherent in that. Reading your poems I experienced a kind of vertigo, in that I felt I was reading other texts at the same time. I like that effect in Art. It seems to me to present an implicit critique of the primacy of Experience in funding Art.

    It seems a little “lazy” for you to try to condescend to me about my (non-existent) presumption to know your intentions, and then to present me with the ‘correct’ frame of reference in which to situate your work– doesn’t that just restore intent to the center of the frame?

    Experience of War is frequently held up as the sine qua non of experience itself. My remarks about your work were meant to propose something different– that experience of Art can have a competing claim on ‘reality’, and that War is experienced– even and especially by soldier-poets– through the mediations of literature, culture, art, etc. The list of poets you provide for my edification confirms this.