The Acid Tongue
Wrecking the light by which one is judged
Selected By Cyril Wong
When reviewing Robin Robertson's latest poetry collection for Eleutheria - The Scottish Poetry Review, Catherine Woodward could not help but recall being irked by something that Robertson had said in The Herald: "There's too much bad poetry being published, polluting the pool." And Woodward admits, "I find it almost a shame that it is now impossible for me to review Robertson's new collection The Wrecking Light outside of the light of that unfortunate comment." She first establishes this bias in her review, then proceeds to safely guard her objectivity, quickly establishing Robertson's well-known strengths:
Robertson has a very sensitive ear for subtle rhymes and metres, finding his own cadences which push his poems along lightly and easily which is good because of his very narrative, oratory style. He also has his moments of great clarity, precision and originality of image.
I am a huge fan of Robertson, but something about his new book disappointed me, and I found my disappointment adventitiously mirrored in Woodward's following comments, which go against more widely-read reviews that praise the poetry's "luminosity of myth" (The Guardian, 20 Feb. 2010) and "subtle but implacable rhythmic momentum" (Times Online, 21 Mar. 2010):
I find his poems lacking... pressed upon by terrifying anachronisms, myth, nature and a dark, unbearable absurdity. Indeed Wrecking Light is ponderous with the horrible urgencies of things past and things yet to come and those incomprehensible powers of the environment which may or may not be real…the mystic-anachronistic pressure of the past and the fantastical-natural make for at times intense and unnerving reading. But I often found myself unable to believe in the grandiloquent miseries of Wrecking Light. Only at a few illuminated moments do these poems... earth themselves to a palpable, person-shaped feeling. These poems often impressed me but they did not always move me... they were not doing anything important.
The site that this review appears could benefit from better editorial attention, as Woodward's review — in its original form — suffered from spelling and grammatical slip-ups. This never helps in building a steady readership for journals like Eleutheria that can serve as critical alternatives to more popular newspapers and magazines both on- and offline. But Woodward's review did strike me as presenting an honest and unpretentious argument not only about the failures of Robertson's masculine rewriting of old myths in his work, but also about the snobbery that can mark and, ultimately, undermine any literary scene:
QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010
I'm beginning to think that the comic, ironic and satirical are doing more for us now then this sort of classic approach to thought and feeling, because to make us laugh poets must open up new corridors, they must strain on thought and subject, dig up and innovatively turn over something new... I found that that kind of necessity and urgency was missing from Wrecking Light, which then comes across as a work that exists only for itself... I believe that Wrecking Light is a good mirror for holding up to Robertson's sort of elitism; there are poets and poems that are important for people to read and they do need publicising for people to find them in the murk of all that choice, but that importance will depend on the reader reading them. The issue of promoting the necessary poets then is far more difficult than establishing and advertising a canon as Robertson might have it; ultimately it won't be for him to decide what is pure and what is pollutant — at least I hope it won't be.