A Tourist’s Guide to Appropriation

I’ve resisted buying Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies, having been tipped off that Hill’s near-lookalike Santa Claus might be bringing me a copy in a couple of weeks’ time. Meanwhile the 1985 Collected Poems has again taken up residence on my bedside table (not the treasured, battered copy I carried around like a prayerbook in the mid-late ’90s, but a replacement battered copy bought second hand a couple of years ago). And so I happened to be immersed in Geoffrey Hill when I read Claire Trévien’s excellent Poetry School blog post on poetic tourism.

It’s a characteristically intelligent and articulate post that nails a couple of important points: superficial appropriation ruins poems; and any halfway-decent poet appropriates all the time. Although I can’t imagine any poet congruently disagreeing with Claire’s argument, someone has to be writing the annual deluge of (in)appropriated poems that make this such a resonant topic.

Pushing this a little further, it’s worth distinguishing between the many reasons for finding superficial appropriation obnoxious as a behaviour (in ourselves or others) and the reasons we dislike it in a poem. If, in a parallel universe, someone who’d never visited late 18th century London had written Blake’s “London” (word-for-word, the same poem), it wouldn’t magically become a bad poem. The issue isn’t that a poet has to pass some kind of authenticity test before being allowed to use certain material, but that anyone trying to handle material they only superficially understand is going to produce a crap poem. Put another way, someone who’d never visited late 18th century London couldn’t have written Blake’s poem.

Geoffrey Hill has been preoccupied with the risks of appropriation throughout his poetic career. Often he tackles this head-on, as in “September Song” (which, if it’s “about” anything, is about the impossibility of writing an elegy about the holocaust, especially if you were lucky enough not to have experienced it first-hand). When I read Claire’s blog post I’d just been revisiting “Funeral Music” and the following was bouncing around my head:

.                                  Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead.

Hill missed the battle of Towton by a little over 500 years but there’s no hint of tourism in these lines. In part this is down to syntax (that imperative “Recall” works wonders, where the more conventional “I remember” would have wrecked the poem). But more importantly there’s no attempt to appropriate, which is why the lines inhabit their subject so compellingly. Hill doesn’t set out to write a poem “about” the Wars of the Roses (in the way that a writing exercise might urge us to write a poem about a cat or a five pound note); he doesn’t illustrate; there’s no sprinkling of “authenticating” detail. For all that he reaches towards something poignant and universal in that tingling “Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn”, what we take from these lines isn’t a BBC-costume-drama immediacy but a sense of historical distance – as if the impossibility of bridging the missing 500 years were part of the point; as if we were seeing simultaneously Eliot’s “pastness” of the past as well as its presence.

Taking (appropriating?) appropriation as a subject in its own right isn’t new. Browning gave us perhaps the ultimate critique of poetic tourism in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”, where the unnamed narrator holds forth on Venice for 45 lines while admitting “I was never out of England – it’s as if I saw it all”. The narrator goes on, piling up all kinds of geographical, sexual and disciplinary stereotypes – even ventriloquizing the dead composer whose music is the poem’s ostensible subject – until the whole thing collapses under its own weight and “unintentionally” gives us some of the finest lines in the language:

“As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
“Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
“What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too—what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

As a wise man once sang, “everybody hates a tourist”.

If you’ve got to the bottom of this without having clicked on the link above and read Claire Trévien’s original post, I’d urge you to do so. Especially if you write (or ever intend to write) poems.

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