Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Poetry Session 1: Howe / Leggott
"Into the Archive" was the theme of the session, and that's one reason why I brought quite so many books and papers along with me.
A close parallel can be seen between Susan Howe's work on Emily Dickinson and other "submerged" New England women writers and visionaries (not to mention ambiguous figures such as Charles Peirce and Herman Melville) and Michele Leggott's work on New Zealand equivalents such as Robin Hyde, Ursula Bethell and Lola Ridge (not to mention the sixties and seventies writers she and her fellow-editors Murray Edmond and Alan Brunton unearthed for Big Smoke (AUP, 2000)).
Susan Howe's complex layouts, visual sensibility, and methods of poetic sampling also proved useful when we attempted to read some of the more experimental pages in Leggott's DIA (1994), though the differences between their poetic projects become more and more apparent from this point on. Howe's obsession with the bloody implications of past repression and normalisation are quite tonally distinct from Leggott's more affectionate celebration of an overlooked past of gardens, beaches, family albums and romantic love.
We discussed, in this connection, "Dear Heart," from Leggott's second book Swimmers, Dancers (AUP, 1991), but then went on to examine her own version of the Ishtar / Persephone myth: the seven gates of the underworld in the form of meditations on her growing blindness in "a woman, a rose, and what has it to do with her or they with one another" (from as far as I can see (AUP, 1999)).
At this point, paradoxically, we noted an opening up and enlargement of Leggott's poetic work, in the expansive Milk and Honey (AUP, 2005) and (more recently) the deluxe art-book Journey to Portugal (Holloway Press, 2007). Gretchen Albrecht's colourful collages in the latter book also emphasise how much Leggott has continued to concentrate on the visual arts, rather than moving her poetic palette into imagery of touch and sound - as some reviewers seemed to expect of her after as far as I can see.
This - rather astonishing - enlarging of her poetry is the note we ended on. The next session will be on Nigel Cox, so make sure you've read Dirty Work before then.
[NB: I've put up some new links to sound recordings of Susan Howe and Peter Reading. Recordings of the New Zealand poets are all accessible in the AUP collections Classic and Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance (2006-7).]