Monday, October 13, 2008

Baedeker poetry?

Kris Hemensley in a recent post looking at an essay by Petra White zeroes in on her use of term 'Baedeker poetry' - specifically in the context of her question "Can we write about the effect a place has on us, avoiding Baedecker poetry?". The derogatory import here of the term 'baedeker poetry' would perhaps seek to invalidate one of the occasions for poetry; and it is tempting to see all poetry as occasional. Laurie Duggan in a diary entry from August 2003 wrote "I’d mentioned to Kris that I’ve started to see myself as a kind of ‘occasional’ poet – no less a seriousness about poetry, just an awareness of its contingency". Duggan's recent poem on Milan and those poems John Forbes wrote while in Rome seem Baedekerish, but they are good poems. To disparage poems written in response to travel seems 'occasionalist'. Although of course the occasion of travel, like the occasions of love or love-gone-wrong, might inspire a lot of third-rate work, but that's another matter. Petra White has described "a dreary parade of random otherness" and this might locate the problem - poems should simply not be dreary. But if this is the crux of the objection, why the term 'baedeker poetry'?

The term was used in a 1969 paper by Vladimir Markov which was a 'reappraisal' of Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont (1867 - 1942), poet & translator of Poe and Shelley and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Markov described Balmont's sequence Аккорды (Akkordy - Chords) as 'baedeker poetry': it contains short lyric pieces such as Пред картиной Греко В музее Прадо, в Мадриде (Before a picture of El Greco in the Prado Museum, Madrid), Английский пейзаж (English countryside), В Оксфорде (In Oxford), and Крымская картинка (Crimean picture). This is work in the same line as Wordsworth's "Memorials of a Tour in the Continent, 1820' and 'Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837'.

Taking a broader view we could even see the origins of pastoral being cityfolks' nostalgic descriptions of a distant country life: Theocritus scribbling his idylls amid the clamour and stench of Alexandria. And of course the nostalgia for a lost bucolic life is rendered also in the classical Laments for Adonis - elegy and pastoral meet. Here is Theocritus rendered by Barbara Hughes Fowler:

Bear violets now, O brambles, bear violets, thorns, and let
the lovely narcissus bloom on juniper trees. Let all
be opposite of all, and let the pine bear pears
since Daphnis is dying. Let the stag drag the hounds.
From mountain tops let owls sing to nightingales.

Which sets the tone of deploration for poetic grief for the next couple of thousand years:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!

Anyhow, as a reader who has been known to enjoy books by Bruce Chatwin or Bill Bryson or H. V. Morton, I think there's definitely a place for the undreary baedeker poem and its parade of details.


Adam Aitken said...

David Malouf has a poem called After Baedeker. These lines stand out:

On their climb to Fiesole
the Germans capture nothing
with their sketchpads of the play
of light on terraced hills. Twelve years later
in the blue dusk of Hamburg, the whole unlikely organism
flares, the landscape shimmers and ascends in an unsheathing
of wings....

Travel itself is not the point of it, this poem suggests, but the memory of travel and the idealism that colours the memory of our having been elsewhere. Not the dreariness of the other, but the dreariness of home itself...

Adam Aitken

david lumsden said...

Yes ... & Malouf is such a pertinent example here: in that book - Neighbours in a Thicket - there are several poems which surely must fit within any intended reference of 'Baedeker poetry' ... 'Among the ruins' & 'Bad Dreams in Vienna' for example ... 'At Ravenna' opens with a statement of the universality of the otherness of place:

We are all of us exiles of one place
or another, even those
who never leave home.

& ends with

... We all die

under alien skies at a place called Ravenna. Whether the new atlas calls it
that, or Sydney,
or Kisangani formerly Stanleyville.