Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poetic Conspiracies

Has anyone seen this article over at Poetry Foundation? It's about Michael Field, a Victorian poet who was actually two women, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. I had never heard of "Michael Field" before, and I was quite taken by a few of his poems. This excerpt sums up the main argument of the piece:
Although Bradley and Cooper frequently acknowledged in their personal writings the prejudice against women writers, they viewed the prejudice against collaborative creativity as their larger foe. In a journal entry dated July 21, 1891, Bradley recounts an evening that she and Cooper spent at the London literary salon of American poet and critic Louise Chandler Moulton. By this point, Bradley and Cooper were known by most in their literary coterie to be Michael Field, and after an encounter with the poet/novelist Thomas Hardy and man of letters Theodore Watts-Dunton, Bradley exclaimed with emphasis that “[b]oth these men found it inscrutable, incomprehensible, that two people could write poetry together.”

At first I thought, "It is incomprehensible. Who else does that?" And then I remembered that Keats had written a verse drama (not a very good one, really) using plots and ideas cooked up by his friend Brown, and of course there is the famous collaboration of Eliot and Pound on "The Waste Land," which was going to be called "He Do the Policemen in Different Voices" before Ezra got his hands on it. I also thought of those two Australian poets who created the incompetent Ern Malley to sock it to Modernism. One of the attractive things about poetry is that, unlike film, it can be created by one person on a zero-dollar budget. But there's no law about this. You can collaborate with another writer; and as for the shoe-string budget, you can always run over it by deciding that you need to move to New York or Munich or Constantinople to write your poetry.

And lest I forget, I have collaborated on poems, just for fun. My sister and I once wrote a ballad together, trading off stanzas; and Sheila can testify that she and I wiled away an hour, while we were at Christendom, on a parody of "Jaberwocky" (she came up with all the good bits, though). In fact, I can't be really good friends with someone and not want to write stories, poems, or invented languages with them; and I do think that for some people this impulse can result in really good art. I bet that most of my readers have cherished a project or two of this sort with their dearest friends. As for famous examples of writing as a team, are there any I've missed? I'm sure there are.

I'm rather intrigued now by the ladies behind "Michael." Here is another smidgen of background information:
Though Bradley and Cooper often discussed modernizing their style and worried about becoming too traditional and passé, they never bowed to critics, even when their readership dwindled to an intimate few. In their later years, when they converted to Catholicism, as was the trend among many of their circle, their lyric poetry and plays continued to echo with Shakespearean and mythological themes and never shied away from their virile power and a masculine tone.
Read "Summer Wind" for a taste of their talent. And then read their translation of a lyric by Sappho, a version worthy to be learned by heart:


Yea, gold is son of Zeus: no rust
    Its timeless light can stain;
The worm that brings man's flesh to dust
    Assaults its strength in vain:
More gold than gold the love I sing,
A hard, inviolable thing.

Men say the passions should grow old
      With waning years; my heart
Is incorruptible as gold,
      'Tis my immortal part:
Nor is there any god can lay
On love the finger of decay.


Sheila said...

You know, I had forgotten completely about the Jabberwocky thing?

But it wouldn't be the first time I collaborated on poetry. Poetry has a lot of elements -- almost like music with lyrics -- which can be handled by separate people, I suppose. It can't be easy to do on a regular basis, though.

some guy on the street said...

(aside: Meredith, you must do something about the spam. If necessary, get your clever analytics-set-up-er to adjust the commenting permissions, or you might even want to turn *off* analytics, because you can't have someone track your traffic without the spambotsphere noticing.)

It occurred to me today that a really good interview is actually a rather popular form of collaborative literature. I don't mean the celebrity aural questionaire sort of interview for infotainment, but where two intelligent and knowledgeable people sit down and talk about some thing, and all and sundry emerge aedified by the end of it.

I thought I had more to say, but that seems to be it... oh well. Off I got to stew!

Meredith said...

Sheila: It's harder for me to forget, because we wrote it in *my* notebook. I greedily kept it to myself. ^_^

someguy: argh, yes, the spam. I don't know where the Chinese spam is coming from (some of it looked Japanese too..). I'm loathe to bother my brother, but maybe I will. It seems to have given up for the moment.

Interviews! But of course! It's really difficult to do a good interview, since the questions are as important as the answers.

Ramon said...

This is interesting, I find it hard to imagine two people working poetry, but I guess it can be like anything else, and was one editing the others rough drafts, the wasteland to me is a wasted example.

It could be like cooking together, but even then most people, one prepares and assists the other. I guess it could be like making a new recipe, where one friends changes it a little and the both revisit it. Some times two people can both cook at once and make it work but mostly it people do some part of it and assembly it together.

What a waste of time and talent to make the wasteland. People only read it because it is on most college first year reading lists. Maybe it was how my teacher talked about it, each day I hated it more and more. The wasteland to me was well named, and most would say it was well written and good poetry and it may well be, I just did not see it or like it at all.

Kinda reminds me of None Shall Look Back, Caroline Gordon, she used her own name but I thought for a long time reading it was a pen name for some male writer it being so masculine. I always felt she had her husband edit it for her or her editor and they made it more masculine, but it is about war and the perfect war hero. So that may explain some of it.

I always think of two people making poetry anyway. the poet and his love like the Divine Comedy by Dante and his inspiration and guide Beatrice. Most people think of poetry and love so the poet is the lover and there has to be a love.

Sorry if my wasteland was a distraction, but I just hate it and partly because of the teacher and how she described it. I found it to be the hardest piece of poem I ever tried to connect to so I could write about it. I was forced to write such a narrow subject about it. I think my choices were why is the the best work of poetry ever produced, why is it better than any of the classical pieces, and finally why is it going to last in history longer than any other piece of literature or poem. Really seriously these were our subjects to choose from and to top it off the teacher was send to the hospital after the semester because she became completely unstable. I guess she did that from time to time and she got off her medicines. But I have gotten off the subject at hand.