Letter from Poetry Magazine

Fiona Sampson Responds

by Fiona Sampson

I’m grateful to Steven Cramer for his letter, though I’m not sure Joan Houlihan benefits from its muddled advocacy. Of course “nonstandard dialects” conform to their own rules and are rich in resource. It’s precisely my point that “Houlihan’s invented lexicon” fails to satisfy the criteria by which we recognize such dialects. Clearly, it’s difficult to devise a full dialect-world, since communities enrich language through use; but I don’t think it’s enough to say that whatever Houlihan invented is what she intended. Evidently so, on one level. But the combination of limited grammatical and conceptual invention with that difficult term “primitive people” makes for a reductive—as well as a reduced—characterization I’m pretty uneasy with. I don’t think that suggesting her “primitives” might be contemporary hunter-gatherers makes such (I’m sure unconscious) stereotyping less problematic. Rather the reverse. Cramer is correct, though, that I relied on several cues in the book, from aspects of design to the use of the historical “Argument” form—as well as what we might call my native political correctness—in making an optimistic assumption that its setting was historical.

I was also, it seems, optimistic in my use of the term “ugly” to characterize a sudden clash of compound nouns. Rhythmically-inappropriate diction does not speak to the ugliness of life—and death—unless it is well-used (so not, then, inappropriate). It feels odd to find oneself having to point out in the pages of Poetry that poems are not spoken by the world. There are particular relationships between the words a poem uses and what those words address. At their most successful, these relationships may seem transparent—as indeed in John Berryman’s lyric idiolect, or forms of lament including the blues, as well as in many realist projects—but in fact, of course, they are negotiated, wrought, achieved. The sudden use of two compounds in a single low-register line explaining a ventilation system, together with the selection for these neologisms of four clunky monosyllables which preclude any “whiff” of the mimetic or hint of lingering homesickness, does no work beyond suggesting that this writer is not in control of her language.

On the other hand, at least “sky-hole” and “cook-smoke” are successfully denotative. The point about poetic ambiguity, whether you’re “telling it slant” or being “capable of doubts and uncertainties,” is not to leave the reader unable to visualize the concrete detail you’re focusing on. And accidental double-entendres matter exactly as much as, and in the same way as, the richness of intentional multiple meanings. “Bathos,” that term which encompasses causing an unplanned snigger when your rhetoric is at its most high-flown, was identified centuries before my review sought to soften it with euphemism.

Finally, explanations are corroborative. The answer to the question why or how enlarges the state of affairs that question presumes. Where it does not corroborate, it does not explain. Exemplum: Q: Why did you review Houlihan’s The Us? Corroborative explanation: Because the commission allowed me to embark on an interesting cultural exploration. Q: Why was your review reductive? Response, non-explanatory because non-corroborative: It wasn’t.

Originally Published: April 1, 2010

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This prose originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2010


 Fiona  Sampson


Fiona Sampsonwas born in London and trained as a violinist. Her early musical studies and professional career as a musician in Europe influenced her editing and writing. She studied at Oxford University and received a PhD in the philosophy of language from Nijmegen University in the Netherlands. Her poetry collections include Folding the Real (2001); The Distance Between Us (2005), a novel in verse; Common Prayer (2007); and . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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