Wednesday, April 2, 2014

poetry today: position and process : a montage

I am going to present a montage.
In this montage of a selection of quotations everything will probably sound like an 'aside'. But as you know, a lot of things can happen in an 'aside'.

Poetry now belongs to a subculture. It is no longer part of the mainstream of intellectual life, it has become the specialised occupation of a relatively small and isolated group
        (Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter, The Atlantic 1991)

...isolated from a larger engagement with society, 'with a lack of connection to the reader' and readings attended only [mainly] 'by other aspiring poets'. 'It's an unsustainable system. Even the most niche of niche artforms has a- [public] audience. Not so with contemporary poetry'
        (Daniel Nester, The Morning News, Sept 2009/June 2010)

Sometimes it seems as if there isn't a poem written in this nation [country] that isn't subsidised or underwritten by a grant either from a foundation or the government or a teaching salary or a fellowship of one kind or another
        (Joseph Epstein, Commentary Magazine: web 2011)

...the questions of relevance, of audience, of efficacy, will always haunt us
         (Susan Schultz, A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry 2005)

One of Malcolm McLaren’s art teachers told him : “We will all be failures. But at least be a magnificent, noble failure. Anyone can be a benign success” not sure about magnificent and noble there, it was Britain in the 70s! But we could all name dozens, maybe hundreds of “benign successes” and everyone knows what Samuel Beckett said : Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Only what does not fit into this world is true.
        (Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory)

“…I feel whatever I say will be inadequate to articulate the hours we spend in a condition of poetry, or I find it difficult tonight to separate myself from my work and my work with the world. It is an unruly drama of desire and its depiction. A shape, or a sound, a sentence to compose what is and what isn’t. A circulation that travels an ellipse; sometimes it wobbles and then breaks and from that a poem will begin to take form. A figure announcing itself beside itself. It needn’t be fancy: not unlike a dog barking at its shadow, confusing its own sound as the other’s. Or a solitaire in front of the television speaking back to it out of habit. A mother singing in the nursery. A stoner at the light talking to himself with the radio blasting ‘it’s like this and like that and like this and a.’ I balk at description. It fails me just now. I question even this rhetoric.”
        (Peter Gizzi, from “An Open Letter of Poetics to Steve Farmer")

Novelty is now so thoroughly established as an aesthetic virtue that "innovative," "experimental," "fresh," "original," and the like are all terms of praise. It was not ever thus: in the eighteenth century Lord Shaftesbury could write about beauty as a timeless, natural harmony, and condemn innovations in the arts such as orientalism or the gothic with the epithet 'novel'. Even as late as the romantic period (late C18th early C19th), when the concept of originality or novelty was gaining philosophical ground, it could still be looked upon with suspicion...much of the suspicion had to do with whether the new kind of art would be of lasting interest. In fact, this sense of the moment-bound nature of the interesting has continued down to our own time, although without the accompanying suspicion.
        (Robert Archambeau, Harriet blog August 2013)

And here's a plug for the Elizabethans (the golden age of the late sixteenth century) :
...the journalistic critical cliché about a young poet is to say that [these days] “[s]he has found his her own voice,” the emphasis being on his [her]differentness, on the uniqueness of his [her] voice, on the fact that he [she] sounds like nobody else. But the Elizabethans at their best as well as their worst are always sounding like each other. They didn't search much after uniqueness of voice…. It would hardly have struck them that a style could be used for display of personality.

        (Thom Gunn,‘Nowadays’)

the poet's discourse can be compared to the track of a charged particle through a cloud-chamber. An energised field of association and connotation, of overtones and undertones, of rebus and homophone, surround its motion and break from it in the context of collision...Multiplicity of meaning, 'enclosedness', are the rule rather than the exception ...Lexical resistance is the armature of meaning, guarding the poem from the necessary commonalities of prose.
        (George Steiner, 'On Difficulty')

Poetry shows the ink the way out of the inkbottle
        (Charles Bernstein)

the way out of the hard drive -
        (Pam Brown )

Poetry’s social function is not to express but rather to explore the possibilities for expression. Poetry is difficulty that stays difficult.
        (Hank Lazer via Pound/Williams)

Conservative anti-modernism continues and appeals to those who claim they can't understand the dislocation, post-subjective non-narratives in much contemporary verse, for the conservative complaint often refers back to a supposed golden age of the coherent, stable "I" of a writer who has straightforwardly true things to express.
        (Al Filreis, March 2013)

So much depends on what you mean by failure, what you want from success, and what you imagine poems do. Insofar as a poem is successful, it fails to fail, but, in failing to fail, it also succeeds at failing. That's a lose-lose scenario (which in the alchemy of poetry we imagine as win-win).

Poetry is to the classroom what a body is to a cemetery.

If reading poetry is not directed to the goal of deciphering a fixed, graspable meaning, but rather encourages performing and responding to overlapping meanings, then difficulty is transformed from obstacle to opening.
        (Charles Bernstein - NO: A Journal of the Arts #6, 2007, and in Recalculating, 2013)

Mallarmé says he uses “the same words that the bourgeoisie reads every morning” – in the newspaper – “exactly the same! But… if they happen to find them in this or that poem of mine, they no longer understand them.”
         (Roger Pearson)

Poetry anthologies pile up by the side of the internet, rusty as a prayer belt while witches dance around them in army uniform.
         (Michael Farrell, An Australian Comedy)

Now I'd like to quote myself about poetic process, extracting a few short stanzas from a poem called 'Twitching' -

atoms of language

'her cinematic oeuvre'
     sounds like
    her breakfast

We appear to be reduced 
to apostrophe : the elegant
                       Gee Whiz

interstitial thinking -                                   
                a particle

                ('Twitching' p31 Dear Deliria Salt Publishing, 2003)

and this poem -

Retarded pretensions

        "They won't come through. Nothing comes through. The
          Of every poem in every line
         The argument con-
                                                 Jack Spicer

nothing more untoward
than monotony
has occurred

my process commences
without instruction,
with an artless question
"anyway, why communicate ?"

surrounded by scenery.
why don't those
migratory birds
leave here ?
is it such
a beauteous ecology ?

having landed in times
when the usual response
to beauty
is to buy it
or to try to
          win it,
I make my clunky gestures
a build-a-bricks outlook
(construction, not architecture)

how do I do this thing
& appear not to ?    at least
never be seen doing it.

not writing
for any cause
& feeling
consequent guilt
about it.

how well-motivated
are you?)

an epiphytic magnavox box
clings to a telegraph pole
beginning the link outwards

transitive and optimistic -     
flick that crow off the antenna !
head pell-mell
for the grammar !

                 (p150 Dear Deliria (Salt Publishing, 2003)

Now to return to some quotes:

Referring to John Ashbery - "I think he demonstrates more what poetic thinking is. It’s both a jumble and coherent.".
         (Alice Quinn New Yorker poetry editor 2013)

And John Ashbery says : For better or worse, I do not think that writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is. What does your poetry do - I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language. At John Cage’s 1952 New Year’s Day concert put on by the Living Theater. Cage played “Music of Changes,” an atonal, rhythmless work for solo piano -
“I was completely taken by surprise,” Mr. Ashbery said. “It was just arbitrary bangs on the piano over quite a long period of time. And long pauses. I had been in a drought with my writing. I felt I hadn’t written anything good in almost a year. It really gave me ideas about how to write poetry again.”

A critic's question:
What would I like about this poem if I liked it?.
         (Peter Schjehldahl)

A change:
Distraction and digression as process :-

Poetry '... that can be seen to demonstrate [a] dynamic process; it is both distracted, and attends to that distractedness. That is, it is able is to detach, drift off, and to simultaneously observe those operations as they occur. Distraction as a mode of thought and perception is consonant with the ‘process poem’. The emphasis ideally bringing out something of the texture, the individuality, of one’s own thinking, a kind of ‘hearing the gears change’.
        (Tim Wright on Distraction)

Distraction ‘allowed me a way to find out what connections my mind did make.’
         (Ken Bolton, 2011)

Distraction and digression are... methods – as well perhaps, as ethical, democratizing stances - from which to write, and which enable a reader to chart the movement of thought. That a process poem contain – or live with - the contingent knowledges it admits is part of the poem’s contract, and, actually, part of its process. The connection between thought and affect or feeling is important.
        (Tim Wright on Ken Bolton)

Digression has something like the form of bliss. Repetition of the theme is the very opposite of that.
        (Friedrich Schlegel, Literary Notebooks 1979-1801)

Any digression enacts (although it may not intend) a criticism because, once one has digressed, the position from which one departed becomes available to a more dispassionate or ironic analysis: it must have been in some sense inadequate or one would not have moved away from it.

The option in favour of digressiveness implies a general critique... critical of modes of authority (let's say kingship, or the power of the law, or academic authority) that depend on cultural conventions.
        (Ross Chambers, Loiterature)

While poetry is, in theory, available to anyone, it is demonstrably not for everyone.
        (Ted Pearson)

Ludwig Wittgenstein said 'Explanations come to an end somewhere'
That's the end of the montage

Now to make a detour :
Over the years I moved gradually from being an opponent of the academy to thinking of it, briefly, as a haven for poets who couldn't get state-funded arts grants becoming fellowship-funded post-graduates, and progressing more recently to an indifference to academic institutions. I realize that I'm saying that when, here I am, having been invited to talk to you by your colleagues in the English Department of Auckland University and also having spent sixteen years employed by a university sciences library plus having done some part-time tertiary teaching over the years. But universities so often seem to have an institutionalised version of poetics ensconced in English and Cultural Studies departments as a form of professional currency, but without having real political/social influence or relationship outside of the university (and little within it for that matter - especially in these end-times of the dominant, unmitigated free market).

But then, earlier this year, I watched a short video of the American philosopher, Yale Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, Judith Butler. It was hearteningly optimistic about university education. I'd like to play it for you now

Finally I'd like to read the poem 'Worldless' - it's a poem in which I tried to convey the experience or actuality of nothing happening -


where’s my donkey     :     thursday evening

catch the train,
           seagulls circling 
                   Central Station

catch a bus
         pick up a paint chart,

at the gallery -
        Korea and Kinglake 
               photography exhibitions


a very thin man
    in Oxford Street 
              in red leather pants

talk on Eastside Radio
             read two poems

at the bus stop
          long haired boys -
regenerate fashion,
      arrive & go by
          really quickly -
I had to live through
               the entire decades!


catch a bus,
          redhead woman driver
   playing jazz piano cd 
                   loudly, in the bus
          (suits the traffic)

catch the train,
     seagulls gone to Pyrmont,
night workers
       eating chocolates & chips


walk to the seafood shop
         buy the dory, grilled

                 walk home


I am the donkey    :    saturday afternoon

step onto the crossing,
             lift palm to car,
      thanks driver.
quicken pace, cross smartly,
       ‘why do I do that
        why do I want to live
        am I depressed?’

Scottish sentimentality -
        car alarm with violin



I pass the donkey    :    tuesday morning

walk to the bus stop
        (forgot my watch & silver ring)
     open umbrella, 
           light rain shower

catch the sad bus
        through the streets 
          sad blocks of flats

paint swatches 
    (I must remember)
what colour the door?
   the brick fence, what colour?

coffee at Zoo,
         hair colour in the arcade

buy underwear, 
       blue, mauve,
             & stripey

buy preserving jar 

       honey, celtic sea salt 
                     & iodised sea salt

carrot & celery juice,
the juice maker
                      takes ages 
          to juice the vegetables

almost miss the bus

quickly buy the newspaper, 
              here’s the bus

winding back 
        past Centennial Park

there’s the donkey,
             no, it’s a horse


here are the streets
   the sad flats 
                 & here’s
the Cauliflower Hotel

listen to Patti Smith ‘Twelve’
   (Changing of the Guards!)
         on an ipod 
                       on the bus

on the move
          but in the clouds

thought stuck,
              pinned down

stupid under
            a roaring sky


there is no donkey  :  friday night

hazard lights
    in the bus lane

       remove the number plate,
the driver 
        brays drunkenly

going home
     to make a poem
(this one)
       to give my problems
 to you, reader

everything fails 
            when all else fails,
                                when all else

some of what I think
             is a piece of crap
                              some of what I know
                          is worse

some things I say
             shouldn’t be said

my heart, 
  my feelings towards you,
      my straight ahead empathy,
          in the right place

nearly home,
      the streets seem dark

enter the house,
                              hug you,     
my synthetic coat

                                     p109  - 'Home by Dark' (Shearsman Books, 2013)