Between Two Lectures

Simon Armitage.
On the 24th November of last year, Simon Armitage – one of the UK’s most popular poets – delivered his first lecture, as the latest Oxford Professor of Poetry. Three days later, on the 27th November, poet and Oxford academic Peter McDonald delivered a lecture at Christ Church College titled “The Quarrel with Ourselves.” Two lectures, delivered by two senior figures from the UK’s poetry establishment, delivered in the grounds of a centuries-old university: this might seem like a bad place to look for weak institutions. Oxford has played host to generations of well-known writers, from Wilde to Auden, and is still home to many contemporary poets and critics, and should define what we might think of as a thriving European cultural hub.

Yet between them, these lectures point to the weakness of the very institutions that provide them with a platform. They point to rifts between political, social and artistic life that are opening up across the EU, as its politics becomes polarized by the specters of extreme right- (and left-) wing discourse. Armitage’s popular criticism and McDonald’s occupation of an institutionally-constituted center ground demonstrate a key locus of interaction between arts institutions and the widespread problems of gender and racial diversity within European arts culture.

Public Criticism and Institutional Inheritance

On the surface, Armitage’s lecture appears to be a gesture towards better things: for all that he began with Milton, he takes in Rankine’s Citizen and makes a nod to the “Breakbeat Generation” poets, in the shape of Aracelis Girmay’s “Elegy in Gold.” His central contention, however, makes a much more troubling assertion, by suggesting that the inclusivity of the contemporary arts scene has drawn its focus from the narcissistic “I” to the more socially-conscious “we.”

This lecture forms a good example of one of the most common rhetorical moves prevalent in the contemporary arts scene, when it deigns to reflect on the suggestion that it may be excluding non-white, non-male artists. It is, in effect, a dissimulative strategy, claiming to recognize these non-white, non-male voices as part of “the canon,” whilst taking no discernible action to build them into the tradition, at an institutional level. As such, it represents an attempt to pre-empt the more radical approach that demands that the canon be substantially rebuilt; it presents tokenism as moderation, occupation of the center as consensus-building.

This may seem an excessive criticism. Surely recognition for these hitherto-excluded voices from such a central voice as that of the Oxford Professor of Poetry constitutes a meaningful step forward – especially considering the more obviously conservative motions made by the post’s previous incumbent, Geoffrey Hill? Not so. When Armitage begins with Milton’s Sonnet 23, he is echoing – as he suggests – a point of “first exposure,” the means by which he first arrived at a realization of the “power” of poetry. But this is not quite a complete account, as what he has elided is the sense of institutionalization that this poem conveys: beyond its simply “poetic” content, it also carries with it the institutional sense of a teacher’s exemplar. There is something obviously tutelary in the echoing of Classical literature that opens the poem. When Milton says:

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,

In the references to “Alcestis” and “saints” we don’t just hear the voice of Milton referring to universalizing points within European literature. We also hear the tutor’s approving nods that align the pupil and the classroom with an appropriated literary lineage that runs from Greece to Rome to the British Empire.

Indeed, in each line of the poem – neatly printed and lineated as it must inevitably have been – we can detect the teacher’s finger pointing to the blackboard, the sense of a poem that should be read, and an echo of Palgrave’s “Age of Milton” that defined an English educational understanding of that period of English literary history, right up to the 1980s.

This interpretation of the poem does not exist in a parallel universe to the poem that Armitage describes; it overlaps with the personal sense of loss that Armitage articulates. When he describes Milton’s blindness, quoting the final line:

I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.

he does not point out that the very “poetic” power of the lines is rooted in the compulsion to see some kind of everyman within that darkness. This sense of the universality of Milton’s experience derives directly from the teacher’s finger and the neat grammar-school edition of the poems themselves. There is no reason, beyond this, to see Milton’s experience as the template for some universal language of loss. By failing to recognize the institutional, institutionalizing context the poem carries with it, even as he attempts to wrestle with this very dimension of the poem, Armitage places a white man’s experience at the center of an entire art.

Thus, when Armitage places his own critical emphasis on the centrality of the “I” – specifically, how it emphasizes the bereaved over the deceased – in Milton’s poem, he is concealing the true place of the poem within his experience. He is carefully skirting around its status as a poem in which the “I” becomes a cipher for the reader-as-pupil, the reader who is taught to define personal experience – as Armitage was – through the language and perspective of the poem.

Criticism, Patronage and Institutional Division

We can read this reading as one among many attempts at concealing an abiding institutional weakness within the arts. Armitage conceals the institutions that educated him in poetry precisely because he is trying, through his lecture, to diminish their hold on him. His lecture arises from a critical awareness of the weakness of the very institutions he is trying to renovate through his incumbency. He must recognize the cultural centrality of the platform he stands on, yet also comment on its social marginalization. This places his criticism in an impossible position: despite his aim of giving recognition to non-canonical poets, he has to defend the critical authority of his platform, even as he acknowledges that this authority resides in a symbiotic relationship with the canon he seeks to subvert.

This is not simply a weakness of Armitage’s platform: it’s a weakness that lies in the fundamentally dual nature of contemporary arts institutions, whereby the functions of patronage and criticism often become split from each other in an institutional context. The authority to criticize resides in a connection to canon, yet the power to patronize must exert itself within a society to which these canons hold an ever-decreasing relevance. How can we patronize (as “good” artists within a canonical tradition) those whose social context allows them only the most tenuous links to the canon? Armitage tries to resolve this by making the problem one of personification, of transitioning from a poetry of the “I” to a poetry of the “we.” This is entirely inadequate; it cannot articulate the institutional complexes of criticism that demand the relevance of an “I,” any more than it can describe the social power of patronage that seeks to appropriate the voice of the “we.”

Poet of the Week

Valentina Neri


Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

As in Armitage’s lecture, these competing impulses create a dramatic fault-line in the arts community, wherein we lack any real consensus as to how the public criticism of art can adequately reflect a contemporary social consensus. We struggle to find art that both reflects our ideals of equality and social justice, and yet still strikes us as “good,” in that most immediate sense. Instead, we are forced to turn our critical ideas backwards towards the canons of art we’ve inherited from previous generations of critics – critics who only intermittently shared our social perspectives. The end result is a crippling one: we struggle to articulate a sense of the “quality” of art, without reference to a tradition that is, in almost every sense, phallocentric. Despite the best efforts of contemporary scholars of feminist, queer, non-European or non-white literature, our public perceptions of the canons for every art are predominantly focused on the white European man.

This problem of canon is itself a part of the weakness of our arts institutions: in the arts, we have never developed institutions that are flexible enough, or sufficiently deeply rooted in our society’s structure, to enable them to do anything other than stand on their dignity and insist that great art is this way or that way, when challenged. Often, they must simply rely on a reaction that something “just is” good. When attempting to go beyond this, public critical institutions can rarely go much beyond claims that new art is bad when it deviates from some canonical tradition, or good when it meets some novel alignment of critical planispheres. The judgements of awards committees are often the best place to encounter these difficulties inherent in the public criticism of art – yet we see them reflected in Armitage’s lecture, all too clearly. He is unable to recognize the immediately apparent phallocentricism of Milton’s poem, precisely because his institutional platform prevents him from finding, within his reading of Milton, the figure of “the sexist.” In the same way, his platform prevents him from finding, in the institutional context of his own reading, the “sexist institution.”

The Authority to Un-See

Peter McDonald, by contrast, does not immediately come across as having any particular angle on the gendering of the arts. His lecture, taking its title from Yeats’ critical prose, focuses on the difference between poetry and criticism, the distinctions between quarrelling with others and with ourselves.

Yet underlying McDonald’s lecture is a language of exclusivity – notwithstanding that “exclusion can be a good thing,” as McDonald points out – of “Great Poets” and apparently obvious “authority.” It is a lecture that, in effect, stands on two dignities: that of the speaker, and that of the place of speaking. It seems inconceivable that someone could get their audience to accept so many statements – from both dead poets and a living critic – without them already having bought into the authority of the speaker and his context. His criticism works as both an inspired paean to, and a flagrant abuse of, the personal freedom of expression enjoyed by the white male European; when he gives authoritative opinions, he is using the privilege of this position to implicitly cover his tracks. Who would question a white male Don, speaking to an audience in the middle of Oxford, when he says that something by Yeats is great or profound?

Nonetheless he has a point – though it is not quite the point he appears to think he is making. Where McDonald points to the divided state of contemporary artistic culture, he constructs it as a division between those who think of themselves as “lonely” outsiders, those who are “nothing,” and those who are part of a crowd, with “politics and cultural correctness on full display.” Only the last of these groups would naturally see phallocentric art as a problem; only the last one is making the politics of art a part of their critical philosophy. Not all art, he seems to say, need wear its politics on its sleeve, nor should it be judged by the politics it does or doesn’t show.

McDonald is thus, on the face of things, involved in a broadly conservative project of the kind developed by, for example, John Redmond in Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. He questions the right of academic critics – of all critics – to engage in what he calls “progressive” criticism of the arts, because it represents a step back from the perceived ideals of (implicitly liberal) artistic freedom of expression enjoyed by the “great” (and largely male) poets of the first half of the 20th century.

For all that, his artistic landmarks map Anglophone poetry as an almost entirely male province – Auden, Yeats, Arnold, with Elizabeth Bishop as the only female representative – McDonald’s lecture also maps precisely the fault-lines between institutional and personal artistic endeavor that drive the phallocentricism we see in contemporary arts culture. Where McDonald separates the politically-conscious “crowds” from the lonely or absent, he is only rehearsing one side of the equation: the other two positions imply no critical philosophy whatsoever, yet it is these positions that McDonald seeks to make present, within his view of the ideal artist. What he fails to grasp is that, without some implicit politics of art, there can be no criticism. Even to be judged by the standards of the great artists of the past – the canon – is to be judged by a political standard, often the same political standards in which those original judgements of inclusion or exclusion were formed. It hardly needs saying that, for much of our contemporary canons of art, these are gendered, sexist standards.

Thus, when McDonald avers (after Yeats) that “the purest quarrels are the most nearly disinterested ones,” he is doing something quite other than seeking a moment of calm in which good critical order can be restored. He is, in the most white, male way possible, un-seeing the desperation that underpins these political contests for art’s center ground. He is un-seeing the fear of harassment and assault that defines non-white, non-male lives in the society he lives in; he is un-seeing the fear that shapes art from anywhere beyond the center of that society. He is, likewise, un-seeing the absence of these things in his own context of speaking; like Armitage, he is rendering invisible the walls of the masculine institutions that not only shape, but also defend his judgements and his privileges. When he talks about freedom, it is as though he is waving at a brick wall and pretending to see open fields and clear skies.

Radical Canons and Killjoys

We do not often think of our institutions in the arts as being “weak;” underfunded perhaps, overlooked within the mainstream of our cultures maybe, but we do not often use the word “weak.” Yet my aim here has been to show that this is precisely what they are. They are weak not because of a lack of funding, or because they do not get much more than one day a year in the limelight of a newspaper column. These are only side-effects, though limiting ones.

The real weakness of our institutions is that they are compelled to reconcile the political interests of two opposed groups: those who define themselves through their relationship to an (institutionally) established artistic canon, and those who, in trying to create art, have found that it is being used to define them (regardless of its adequacy for that purpose). The circularity of this situation should be clear: some arts institutions, having implicitly agreed to straight, white, male canons of what is “good” in their respective arts, are now finding that they are committed to retaining these as part of their foundational principles.

By contrast, those that explicitly reject these canons have found that they have little more than the social framework of their own institutions as a basis for their criticism of art. The middle ground – that of the radical, redefined canon that rejects phallocentricism – remains inaccessible; the social and political pressures that define the spaces in which public institutions operate ensure this. The ongoing political struggles for a society that is inclusive and equal in real, material terms (not just on paper) mean that a contemporary arts institution can either have no foundations or no building – never both. This dual nature of criticism and patronage being effectively irreconcilable within a single institution is a response to wider social pressures in relation to the radicalization of the canon – but it is cemented by the unwitting compliance of these institutions with the norms that these canons foment.

And let me be clear: even though I am a straight, white man, one who has enjoyed as much benefit from such institutions as I could ever have reasonably expect, I find this situation not merely distasteful or limiting, but crippling. When Armitage reads Milton’s Sonnet 23, looking at the pathos of the poet’s white blindness, I cannot help but see Milton’s black, female antithesis, the blinded slave, and realize that I will never hear the poem she might have spoken. It is only this reading of Milton, with the silence that it leads us towards, that gives us a hint of the scars we paper over in our artistic lives. And as long as we adhere to the white, phallocentric modes of creativity and criticism that we have established for ourselves, this will continue. I find this awareness painful: who could know this and be happy?

Sara Ahmed has given this process the apposite name of “unseating from the table of happiness.” Ahmed’s central point is that, by seeking equality or fairness, we are reminding others who are happy with the status quo that we – or others – are not happy. This, as Ahmed points out, is an act that “kills joy.” It seems clear to me that, in the arts, to bring the politics of gender and race to the table often accomplishes precisely that: it reminds us that what we had thought was universal (the “greatness” of some particular piece of art, say) was, in fact, merely a function of being seated at that table. If bringing non-male, non-white, non-straight people to that table would kill the joy of art – perhaps it is time that somebody found an art with new forms of joy?