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Sunday, 4 August 2013

A Refusal To Cry Over Broken Crockery

Whatever your politics, it's undeniable that Leon Trotsky was some sort of genius. The founder of the Red Army, he read French novels while travelling across the just born Soviet Union in an armoured train during a Civil War in which he was commander-in-chief of what turned out to be the winning side.
Of course, the Russian Revolution went very wrong after that; or before that, Anarchists and others would say. But that's another day's argument. Trotsky also wrote a large amount of literary criticism. Sometimes, as in political matters, he was wildly wrong. But he was more often stunningly perceptive. And he was never afraid to go in for the kill.

He had this to say, in a letter to the New York based literary magazine, The Partisan Review:  “Every new artistic or literary tendency (naturalism, symbolism, futurism, cubism, expressionism and so forth and so on) has begun with a “scandal,” breaking the old respected crockery, bruising many established authorities. This flowed not at all solely from publicity seeking (although there was no lack of this). No, these people – artists, as well as literary critics – had something to say. They had friends, they had enemies, they fought, and exactly through this they demonstrated their right to exist.” Leon Trotsky, letter to The Partisan Review, January 29th 1938.

You can read the letter in its entirety here
A lot of the complaints you read, especially online, about the Irish poetry scene are a simple case of people crying over broken crockery, which in most cases absolutely deserved to be broken. Irish poetry is far more open, less dominated by a particular class of person than has perhaps ever previously been the case. It is certainly true that, in the process, the occasional Caliban has crept in the gate. Time will take care of them, not in the Al Pacino sense of care being taken of someone, but more prosaically because people won't continue to read mediocre poetry, however heavily it is marketed.  Most participants agree that the Irish poetry world has benefited greatly from this opening of the windows to let in a little fresh air. A few resent it greatly and hark back to a mummified version of the past, when Dolmen Press was the only show in town and most poets went in want of a publisher. 

Some who have benefited from the newly opened window and have one or two books out suddenly realise, horror, that there are a lot of other poets with books out too. This somehow makes them feel a little less special than they thought they were. So they wander over into the camp of the resenters. Although to call it a 'camp' is to imply more than is actually there. Mostly, at this stage, the opposition takes the form of a slightly manic online update here, a ranting letter to a local newspaper there. The literary equivalent of shouting the Our Father at people as they enter the sex shop across the road.

Whatever is said or done, though, the crockery has been broken and there's no point either crying over it or trying to put it back together, because the pieces won't fit. Despite this, a few will try. And via Facebook, they will find and feed each other's anger. No matter. It was an argument worth having. But now it is all over bar the whimpering.

We have, as the man said, demonstrated our right to exist. 

Here are couple of great literary arguments from the past: Gore Vidal vs Norman Mailer & Mary McCarthy vs Lillian Hellman.