November 11, 2011

School's in session for Cambridge poetry

Monday night, University Professor of Practice in the Arts John Wilkinson presented a lecture on the Cambridge School of poetry in front of a rapt, intimate audience for this fall’s Wirszup lecture, continuing a decades-long tradition.

In the Max East Commons, speaking with a poet’s density of meaning, Wilkinson examined the topic from every direction, often mirroring the tone of language poetry with his lyrical turns of phrases as he explained the movement—defining it, tracing its history, and reading from a handful of telling poems.

Wilkinson, a Cambridge poet himself, posited that a discussion of Cambridge poetry, also known as language poetry, would be useful for its general insight into the formation of schools of artistic thought, as well as its championing of the “power of obscurity.”

He discussed at length the influence of J. H. Prynne, describing his influential lectures where notes were not allowed and how, before a poetry reading, Prynne, leader of the cultish group of “original” Cambridge poets, locked the young poet Veronica Forrest-Thomson in a cabinet—an action that was the rule, rather than an exception. Taking the cabinet as a symbol of their group, Wilkinson mused, “maybe the cabinet needed recharging.”

Wilkinson spoke just fast enough that his phrases felt like water slipping through cupped hands, but his language gave immediacy and meaning to an admittedly obscure topic. He emphasized the importance of poetry in general and to its practitioners. The Cambridge School, he said, views poetry as “for the highest possible stakes.”

In Wilkinson’s view, poetry is not “useful in its uselessness”—instead, he said, it is all-encompassing. He traced that nature of Cambridge poetry back to the early 1900s, to the obscure student magazine Experiment, which introduced distinctly non-poetic language into poetry.

Looking at his own involvement in the movement, Wilkinson described how the academic concept of “schools of thought” involves “involuntary enrollment,” where distinctions of geography and time define an artist more than the content of his or her work. He also argued that a school can only become legitimate after lasting more than one generation. Therefore, he appropriately concluded his speech with a video of Keston Sutherland reading his recent poem “Hot White Andy.” Sutherland’s poetry, Wilkinson said, is an example of Cambridge poetry’s attempt to synthesize separate currents into poetry that can have a political effect.

Throughout the body of his lecture, Wilkinson identified the political affiliations of Cambridge poets and their detractors. He also drew parallels between the Cambridge and New York Schools, and pointed out the divergence between French theory and language poetry, returning time and time again to Emily Witt’s account of the Cambridge school in the magazine n+1.

Wilkinson recognized and embraced the fact that Cambridge poetry can be difficult—this gives it, he said, the “magic of a find…of an acquisition.” His lecture, too, was difficult, but stunning, and left his audience almost breathless, with few questions.