Blog of the AMM

Sean Bonney: Critique of Ben Watson’s ‘Blake in Cambridge’

Paper read by Sean Bonney at AMM4, 7th Jun 2012; transcribed by Keith Fisher
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Ben Watson: Now, I suppose, it’s quite unusual to launch a book by getting it attacked so I’d like to say briefly why. Originally I thought – I’d hoped – that Sean would write this book with me and then it turned out that he didn’t like what I was saying and because we like dissention and we like debate and because the most exciting politics I’d discovered was when the SWP was great and there was Pete Green arguing with Chris Harman about what ‘Capital’ meant and it went over my head and it was really exciting when they disagreed with each other. I thought that that tradition, as opposed to everything being sorted out and boring. Because we have a conflict I thought ‘let’s air it’, let’s get going. So we asked Sean to introduce the book by attacking it…
[Background laughing]

So Sean, over to you.

Sean BonneySean Bonney: I am now, really, terrified…

[More laughter]

Blake in Cambridge isn’t a bad book. It’s funny, it’s entertaining and everyone should BUY IT!

[Laughter, AW says, “Done!” others say ‘but…’]

Sean Bonney: But, entertainment is not nearly enough. As an attempt to talk about poetry in terms of class struggle it falls far short of the mark. Its view on Blake is absolutely mainstream. With the exception of the brilliant Cambridge protest against David Willets it has nothing to say about the struggles of the past few years and it should do because those struggles have changed the way we see and understand everything, and that includes poetry.

The book could have been written at any point over the past half century. It’s ahistorical and because of that its use to revolutionaries is fatally limited. Watson tried to get an early version of the book published by the small poetry press Veer Books but they turned it down. Ben assumed it was because it was too hot for them, that its fearless critique of old farts like TS Eliot might compromise their association with Birkbeck. Ha! They turned it down because it didn’t go nearly far enough. Everyone was excited to see what Ben Watson might have to say about Blake. He let us down.

The critique of Elliot has been the starting point for radical poetics as far back as I can remember. When I wrote to Ben that Terry Eagleton and Frederick Jameson had already demolished Eliot and with a lot more fervour than he had he wrote back saying ‘his universe wasn’t defined by Eagleton and Jameson’. Well, neither is mine but I have read ‘em because I think it’s handy to know what other people have said to stop me parading completely familiar ideas as if no one had ever thought of them before.

Eliot argued that poetry; literature in general, was ruined by foregrounding ideas. Easy for him to say, his own work was so drenched in ruling class ideology that his own ideas were invisible. He hated Blake and Milton because of their ugliness, because of the imperfections in their form. Beauty, whether it’s Eliot’s toadying verse or the air-brushed photo of some no-mark on the front of a magazine is absolutely counter-revolutionary.

The revolutionary ideas in Blake and Milton explode poetic forms, turn formalism inside-out and make the esoteric content visible to all and available for instant revolutionary use, Watson knows this. He quotes Blake saying, “there is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find, nor can his watch-fiends find it, but the industrious find this moment and it multiplies and when once it is found it renovates every moment of the day if rightly placed.”

Walter Benjamin writes, independently of Blake, of this as, “making the continuum of history explode.” Watson rightly recognised this as, what Blake calls, the Vortex, heaven, that haunted house all of Elliot’s efforts are aimed at. Heaven, as something behind us, our real time on Earth here as the big deal. But, Watson makes a mistake worthy of the most cryogenically preserved buffoons of the English department when he connects this with Vorticism. Despite its typographical brilliance, Vorticism was the most moronic of all the early twentieth-century avant-gardes, as if Futurism had been dreamt up by some columnist on the Daily Mail…

[Dissenting groans from audience]

Sean Bonney: …Wyndham Lewis, a fixed star in Watson’s pantheon is the Jeremy Clarkson to TS Elliot’s David Starkey…

[Louder ‘oooh’s’]

Sean Bonney: …Anyone who’s read through Lewis’s ludicrously tub-thumping One Way Song will know it makes Rudyard Kipling look like Mayakovsky. Watson’s on more solid ground when he talks about the similarities between Blake and Finnegans Wake which among other things was Joyce’s absolutely magnificent kick in the teeth to Lewis, Eliot and Pound, but while it’s true that the vortex diagram at the centre of the Wake is identical to the vortex diagram at the centre of Blake’s Milton the fact that Watson draws attention to it, as if nobody had thought of it before, is central to what is wrong with Watson’s book.

It stays all too comfortably inside what has already been said and, as such, is not revolutionary. Further, for Watson, Finnegans Wake, like Blake, is frozen in time. The vortex remains ahead of us and we are given no clue as to how we might actually wake up from the oneric babble of Joyce’s masterpiece. That is, for Watson, it remains a masterpiece where, for revolutionaries, such literary artefacts have to be turned into handbooks and instruction manuals.

Combining poetry and revolution ain’t easy, Watson tells us. I don’t know anybody who takes that seriously who thinks it is, but how to combine them has been a running theme for centuries. The very obscurity and difficulty of most poetry worth reading is itself a metaphor for the block on revolutionary consciousness put in place by bourgeois society.

When in the tenth book of Paradise Lost Satan and the rest of Pandemonium’s citizenry are transformed into servants that transformation is registered primarily by the loss of language, communication and thought, “dreadful was the din of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now with complicated monsters.” The rebel angels are forced into a maddening intensity of noise where thought and speech become impossible. Attempts to deal with the necessities of speech and cognition from within a place where they are made impossible is a defining theme throughout revolutionary poetics from Milton, through Blake and Shelly and via Marx into the radical avant-gardes of the early twentieth century.

Blake’s Urizen in the Four Zoas tries to, but cannot, communicate with the horrid shapes and sights of torment he sees within the abyss – that is the prison, factory, slum – because his language, whether soothing or furious is but an inarticulate thunder.

Shelly’s poetry is full of a sense of a liberated language which comes from a place so distant from the official world that it can barely, if at all, be heard. In the Revolt of Islam the Spirit of Liberty speaks in a strange melody that might not be long on earth. While in Prometheus Unbound we are told we cannot speak at all if we cannot already speak the language of the dead. The ‘language of the dead’ is, in Marx’s terms the voice of dead labour, capital itself.

Most contemporary poetry is allergic to those voices and would like to pretend that poetic time lives separately to the dominant time of capital, which in Blakean terms would be the anti-Vortex.

Poetry has to pretend it can’t communicate ideas because the cargo it carries, to use a metaphor from Benjamin, is the collective voice of the victims of those ideas. The problem is how to make the revolutionary secret of poetry audible. For example, what do Blake and Brecht have in common? I’d like to know, but I don’t think Watson is able to tell me. His Blake and Joyce are still trapped inside the English departments he claims to despise.

In the second half of the book Watson makes his pitch against academia. It is by far the best part because he does write against a few received opinions about contemporary poetry. His critique of Prynne is, at least, a critique from the left, which makes a change from all the right-wing crap that gets paraded around the place lambasting Prynne for his difficulty.

The attack on Simon Jarvis’s overrated The Unconditional, however, is stupid because Watson hasn’t bothered to try and understand what Jarvis is trying to do. It makes him look silly. More importantly, Watson’s critique of academia, given the current attacks on universities is stupid. I’m not about to pretend that I haven’t got a problem with universities or that the retreat of poets into academia hasn’t given rise to a bland avant-gardery as frightened of its own shadow as it is of pissing off the boss. It’s true that most literature seminars are taught by the most boring people alive and ninety-percent of academics are worthy of our merciless bile, but when arts education is being systematically destroyed by the class enemy, Watson’s position is…

When Watson talks about the problems of being paid to think it sounds like the sneering of the gentleman amateur who doesn’t know what it’s like to have to count up the 2ps to be able to afford a loaf of fucking bread. I know that’s below the belt, the trouble is Watson’s right. His full sentence is, “the problem of being paid to think is that actually you are being paid not to think outside your field”. But given that Watson’s account of Blake doesn’t go much beyond the field of actually existing Blake studies, it rings absolutely false. If he’d written that sentence even in early 2010 it would have been fair enough but he didn’t. He wrote it in a period when universities themselves had become a site of class struggle. When students and some academics have learnt the absolute necessity of thinking outside their field. The student occupations, demos, teach-ins, etc. are the real critiques of academia and they were all trying to defend it from bourgeois business practices attacking it from within and without.

Watson knows this and his mention of the Willets protest in Cambridge, when radical students put a stop to David Willets lecture by a mass performance of a poem – a real manifestation of Blake in Cambridge – makes me wonder why he imagines that his book is somehow telling us a truth about Blake, poetry and revolution that’s gonna blow everything apart when its failure to meet the demands of the moment is so blatant.

Sean Bonney, AMM#4, 7 Jun 2012

Ben Watson Replies to Sean Bonney

About Blake in Cambridge
[amazon asin=0956817688&text=Buy Blake in Cambridge&thumb=/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/amazon-buy-button-sml.png]


  • Ken Fox says:

    I am intrigued by the idea of a reading of Blake informed by recent political events – I hope Sean Bonney publishes a book or paper along those lines.<br /><br />&quot;for Watson, [Finnegans Wake] remains a masterpiece where, for revolutionaries, such literary artefacts have to be turned into handbooks and instruction manuals.&quot; – This should, or is, BW&#39;s critique of the Joyce industry –

  • William Rowe says:

    Ben, you report only part of your conversation with me re Veer turning down your Blake in Cambridge. I also said that Veer were looking for something that would address the struggles of younger people, that would have an agit-prop quality. And when I said Eliot was important for A-level students, I meant that the mystification starts there and your work would be useful for them.

  • Out to Lunch says:

    That&#39;s what I thought you meant! I suppose the answer to all this is for Sean to produce the revolutionary handbook he expected me to write. I&#39;m looking forward to it. In fact, I&#39;ll sell it on the streets!

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