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This report is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

A Baroque Imagination Kirsty Gunn
I’ve always loved a remark Muriel Spark makes about novels, in a lecture she gave to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1970, describing them as part of a tradition ‘of socially conscious art’ that should not be doing our thinking for us. ‘For what happens when the sympathies and indignations of a modern audience are aroused by a novel of the kind to which I have referred?’ she says. ‘I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that a great number of the readers feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled.’ Nearly fifty years later, her words are a reminder that long form fiction is not there to serve some sort of socially ameliorative function – to answer to agendas, feed quotas or reflect right-on attitudes – but might be put to better use helping us to think, actually, and use our imaginations.

Poems, of course, do this all the time – bring us into the thinking and dreaming zone – but the novel gets stuck, mostly, serving the requirements of society, whatever they are, to be entertaining or educational or to show itself off as being relevant and timely by doing a great job of fictionalising the news stories of the day. Poor thing, it could be a poem, the novel, in a lot of cases – there are a number of us keen that the form might aspire to that kind of role. Be itself – a ‘cry of its occasion’ as Stevens had it – and not just some mimetic machine clunking away to show the world back to us in a mirror. But, of course, society, the one from which the novel emerged and that hasn’t really changed since, wants no dealing with such nonsense. Stories must be stories must be novels and that’s all there is to it. They’re a product of their own history, they’re supposed to get bought and owned and read – even if, as Michael Schmidt reminds us, in his wonderfully reminding The Novel, A Biography, there has always been a distinction between what Ford Madox Ford termed ‘virtuosity’ and ‘artistry’, bestsellers and, say, Moby Dick. So today there may be the odd flutter with the experimental novel, or its cheerless cousin ‘faction’ as it’s sometimes called, journal and memoir reported incrementally as the stuff of narrative, but in general little is happening in the bookshops that would have us believe anything much has changed since the nineteenth century and The Way We Live Now.

I was thinking about these things – about imagination and how it might get to work across all art forms and not just some – when I was reading Peter Davidson’ s rapturous The universal Baroque, ‘a set of variations on a word’ set in turn within the context of, well, the expansion of the world’s boundaries, I suppose, geographically and intellectually, in the period following the Renaissance. The book is a marvelous way in to seeing how our understanding of the very term ‘baroque’ – or ‘mannerism’ as it was swiftly renamed by those in charge of policing cultural activity – has been influenced, tainted, even, by a highly successful Protestant project. Not that that is its point at all, those ‘allegiances of religious confession or nationality which have come to seem, since the nineteenth century unavoidable descriptors of all cultural endeavour’. No. The book is far more sophisticated and nuanced and creative than that and presents for us a liberating kind of sensibility that allows for all kinds of artwork fashioned in all kinds of ways, in forms and effects that are breathtaking in their understanding of plasticity and invention. For my part, it’s made me consider how the baroque might also be just the right term for the kind of imaginative activity I’m proposing for the novel; how for many of us, toiling away in the pits of long form fiction-making, we might use ideas like ‘Baroque is an artistic mode for realists, besides which most “realisms” look mannered and contrived’ for thinking about what we do.

It occurs to me that when I write novels I’m reflecting all the time on one of The universal Baroque key themes, of being ‘never at a loss’, of considering how much each work of fiction can... manage. For I never want to avoid the subject of any of my novels, only find ways of having that subject be borne. How long may I be able to keep writing out of the single poetic idea the fiction started with is another matter to consider. How much formal creative activity might each novel express? Another. And then, how the form’s very capaciousness – this is long form fiction after all, not just some stretched short story or a novella – may be also somehow contained? Be both ‘permeable’ – in a phrase usefully employed in The universal Baroque to describe the way the Baroque goes out into the world and adapts and changes in order to sing its song but also actively wants to absorb and be absorbed by other cultures – and refined, with a distinct shape and outline. There’s a terrific phrase about ‘inconvenience and the sheer oddness of the Baroque as well as its magnificence and internationalism’ that pretty much sums up what I’m trying to to get at here – though I also can’t but help love the line for its own merry sake, too.

Certainly all these kinds of thoughts are present in the planning of my novels, ideas about their shape and tone and form and how the subjects and themes that power them, in their variousness and unexpectedness, might be set in relation to those aesthetic concerns. It’s a way of thinking described so appositely in The universal Baroque as a sensibility – the notion of the wild project of a thing needing some kind of measuring and cutting and organising, for sure, but nothing like for the purpose of being well behaved or, for my purposes here, fitting into what society might have decided long form fiction is or what it is good for. Like a poem on acid, this novel I’m imagining is a crazy baby.

And it’s also – thanks to Peter Davidson’s book, I can now think of it this way, too – quite simply, a lovely baroque thing. For just because a certain kind of novel might be a bit like the kind of art the protestant imagination has been keen to dampen down somewhat, lest it lead us wickedly straight to Rome, doesn’t mean it can’t find a place in the world. There’s Muriel Spark, again, reminding me that there is indeed a kind of fiction that may be as lush as it wants to be, and excessive in all kinds of ways, and pulsing with feeling and sensation, and wilful and curious and also utterly riveting... Her twenty­two novels all in print are proof of that.

So when I ask of the art form I am engaged with making: How long can this piece of fiction be, how short? How to frame the experience of the reading of it? How to position its language and affect? How will it sit in society? (those bookshops again, those publishers with their spread sheets)... I might also ask of it to be part of this larger, older culture that, Peter Davidson’s book has shown me, was interested in all kinds of artistic expression, including forms of writing that turned and moved and ranged through the world long before the Man Booker Prize defined success, and sales figures determined what is noticed and what’s not.

Most poets have always known that the imagination is not to be constrained – even though the likes of Herbert Grierson and T.S. Eliot might have prescribed certain fixitives for it, over the years. I remember so well the sense of a door opening when I read as a student Mario Praz’s ‘The Flaming Heart’ – even with that hectic title, I’ve now learned, a somewhat more subdued version of an earlier edition following Grierson’s severe pronouncements about metaphysical poetry – and went to John Carey’s lectures on Crashaw and Donne, after having gone through, by contrast, his Paradise Lost edition, and noticing then how the poems seemed so... full on. Idiosyncratic and peculiar and strange-making... It was as though a different temperature had been called up in the room.

How chill the atmosphere now, though, in our right-on world. For of course with the peculiar and strange being exactly what I’m interested in, I can see, through my lovely new Baroque lens, how the gorgeously rich work of the mind and sense that has been crafted so expertly out of the canon of English literature could not be further in soul or substance from the stuffs of today’s required reading. In fact, Peter’s book has got me thinking that it might just be imagination itself that is the element missing in so much of the fiction that’s around. For making it up – more, more, more – seeing what happens when one does this, or that... It’s great. That we can ask, as the philosopher Franz Berto did recently in a lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Knowledge via Imagination’ how imagination will ‘give us knowledge about reality, help us become better mental simulators’ as he puts it. Or as Peter Davidson writes in his lovely rather more poetic way, ‘It would be possible and agreeable to multiply examples of the meraviglia, the baroque exciting of wonder...’ in order to cross what has otherwise been marked ‘an uncrossable boundary’. 

This report is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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