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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: November 2019

3 - Gestures of Affront

Summary

Barbarians is an important volume in Dunn's oeuvre because it discovers, in Sean O'Brien's words, ‘where a political poetry [is] to come from’ (RDD, 72). The discovery is both ideological – it is impossible to discuss class without discussing nation – and poetic: we find Dunn almost totally abandoning free verse. It is worth quoting at length Dunn's comments – in his introduction for P. R. King and a Poetry Wales symposium on rhyme coeval with the book's publication – on the book's metrical organization:

Barbarians is ‘about’ psychologies of class, racial and national superiorities – distempering, recalcitrant subjects. It is largely written in metre for the reason that someone in the persona of a barbarian would be expected to write them in grunts. A reversal of the standard myth of barbarism is obviously implicated in this stylistic ploy. The style of the book hopes to portray a gesture of affront to readers who might be expected to approve of a metrical way of writing, while finding the meaning of Barbarians disagreeable. (King, 225)

My most recent use of rhyme and metre has been part of a strategy which is aware of the literary and political associations of verse. That is, while poems like ‘Here be Dragons’, ‘In the Grounds’, and ‘The Student’ flatter the stylistic preferences of orthodoxy, their content is at the same time ostensibly engaged in censuring that culture.

Dunn's ‘gesture of affront ‘ and ‘the literary and political associations of verse’ are partly clarified by some of Wordsworth's remarks on metre in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth argues

that by the act of writing in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association, that he not only thus apprizes the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded.

Dunn intends his ‘stylistic ploy’ to discomfort the reader because ‘formal engagement’ will be only superficially present and the ‘ideas and expressions’ in Barbarians will be those that are normally excluded. This, in turn, will cause the reader to reflect on the mechanisms and processes of exclusion.