HOW TO WRITE ABOUT WRITING

 

Essays on Performance Writing, Poetics and Poetry, vols 1 & 2, John Hall

(250pp and 276pp, Shearsman)

 

 

John Hall's preface to the first of these two important volumes tells us that one of the earliest pieces collected - a piece on the poetry of Peter Riley - uses 'the epistolary modality of I-you, where responsibility to the addressee is self-evident' as posed to 'the third-party triangulation of a critical essay, where lines of answerability are much less clear-cut.' He goes on to note that the essay is a matter of trying something out as opposed to disseminating knowledge from a position of authority. And this has definite and definitive implications for the poet, writer or performer: 'what is it that writers and performers know? (And what do their writings and performances know []) What should they know? What is the source of any authority they do have?''

 

Anyone working in HE and the world of anonymously peer-reviewed journals ought to have thought about these questions. My article on, say, Seamus Heaney is given the authority of publication because I have revised it in response to anonymous readers' reports. It has therefore been admitted to an agreed body of knowledge called 'Seamus Heaney'. Other people can read it with confidence that this process has taken place. But, of course, this authority has nothing to do with the authority of Heaney's lyric voice which existed before I wrote about it and will exist long after the journal I published in a forgotten about and/or pulped.

 

These questions also go to the heart of Hall's major concern in these two volumes: the status of writing and the future and nature of performance writing. For Hall, performance writing is 'as much to do with what writing performs within a society as with what forms it takes' and is 'a name for a set of dispatches towards textual practice and enquiry' and 'their embeddedness is political economy.'

 

Volume One collects essays and notes that address performance writring directly and will be of great pedagogical interest, both historically and for anyone wishing to continue working in this area. Voume Two opens out to consider poets and their writing: Harry Guest, Kelvin Corcoran, Allen Fisher, Lee Harwood, Peter Hughes, John James, Nicholas Johnson, Karen Mac Cormack, Geraldine Monk, Alice Notley, Douglas Oliver, F.T.Prince, J.H.Prynne, John Riley ad Peter Riley. What is striking about these essays is the care evident in the writing and the corresponding eschewal of authority. Many of these essays are beginnings, approaches, journeys around, ways into. As Hall notes in his short essay on F.T.Prince, 'the terms of engagement for this particular poem have been declared.' It is such terms that are Hall's concern throughout Volume Two and if that means that a 'reading' doesn't get much further then recognising the nature of such a declaration then to be it.

 

The recognition if terms of engagement means that essay after essay is full of surprising insights not least because of Hall's deliberate self-conscious about whether or not to disentangle key features of a writer's work from its overall readerly impression. So there is much to learn here about how to read and about how to write about poetry, particularly that in the broadly late modernist tradition. These are beautiful and important volumes and I shall be returning to them often.

 

   David Kennedy 2014