French poets can sound hollow to British ears—their idioms too abstract or grandiloquent, their poems hermetic dramas of unsayability, full of words like ‘vide’ ‘plénitude’, ‘présence’. As Valéry wrote about Hugo: ‘he took huge words but handled them without effort, so lightly they sounded empty ... and they were empty; “Farouche”—“Infini”—“Immensité...”’This isn’t a bad thing, though. It’s this lightness that corresponds to a British notion of freedom, sunshine, the ‘Midi’ in poetic-imagistic form. Conversely, McGuinness suggests, ‘for the French reader, British poets are caught in a descriptive-realist dead end, whilst their propensity for irony and self-distancing makes them write as if they believed more in language itself than in any thing they specifically had to say in it.’ Which I think is fair enough (I mean: the attitude of French readers described here is fair enough), although as a writer (and as, you know, a human being) pretty thoroughly committed to ‘irony and self-distancing’ I might say: but this is to fall into the trap of thinking that having something specifically to say is reducible to the semantic content of one’s writing. Which is to say, irony and self-distance is ‘something to say’, and something big and important too.
Friday, 4 June 2010
There’s something in this. Patrick McGuinness: