Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Is it so unusual,

asks Carrie Etter, for poetry to transverse the boundaries between the experimental and the mainstream?  She is responding to some commentators on the “experimental” side who “struggle” with her “mainstream qualities”.

Yes it is.  For the debate in British poetry between these two wings (on a bungalow, if the truth be told – poetry almost doesn’t exist as an art form in British society) is about something much wider than individual poems and book collections. A style of poetry has become associated with a particular approach to life.  It is about politics. A radical politics that is both aggrieved by the dominant culture and aggressive towards it:

Poetry has a poor public presence in contemporary Britain, even though it plays a role in many people's lives. Where it does play a role, it is often as therapy or entertainment, or comfortable nostalgia….  [Experimental] poetry is largely ignored by the dominant cultural propagandists and pedlars….This poetry is a major cultural activity that remains not yet picked up by fashion, finance or administrators — still at least in touch with genuine avant-garde impulses, though now with some academic bases.

…To phrase it aggressively, the cults of deliberately narrow-minded provincial pettiness (Philip Larkin), felt-in-the-bones organicism and nature-worship (Ted Hughes) and populist triviality and accessibility (so many! — say Simon Armitage) have all imbedded themselves deep within the dominant British poetic tradition in the period since the 1950s… In Britain only a restricted "mainstream" poetry published by the larger commercial and heavily subsidised presses is given the bulk of what little publicity and distribution there is for poetry, or else a commercial entertainment-based “performance poetry” that aims at an amusing evening out.

British Innovative Poetry has maintained itself in a position of opposition to the now sterile mainstream of British literary culture since that time. It will be interesting to see if its nature is changed by its recent success in establishing some toe-holds in universities and colleges. (mordernpoerty.org.uk; my emphasis)

Such a desperate need to build a Berlin Wall between itself and the outside world; between it and all that trivia!  This is the language of the outsider, of Militant Tendency and all those fringe groups on the left.  Compare them with these remarks, from a left-Labour journalist:

Yet such is the lack of ideological coherence across the British political spectrum these days that attitudes seem driven more by focus group or day-to-day exigency than by discernible principle. (David Osler)

We want principles! and ideological coherence.  We want a poetry that is not accessible, and that is concerned mostly with itself:

a focus on or acute awareness of poetry as concerned with the process of perception/consciousness/putting into language, rather than on what is perceived or experienced – hence phrases like language-centred or reflective, and hence too accusations of "difficulty" or "elitism", as its concerns aren’t just simple ones of recording things and emotions.

A large problem with the little groups of the Left is their extremism; which guarantees a lack of wider appeal (read Socialist Appeal for a modern take on the arts – by Leon Trotsky in 1938!  Who in the art world could take this seriously?).  Historically this has led to large numbers of splinter groups, bred by the need for ideological purity; which becomes part of their very character.  We are martyrs to the truth!  For with little chance of political power they can replace the messy compromises of actual influence with the power of conviction.  And for this to work psychologically a certain distance must be kept between them and mainstream society – like monks in their monastery they must be saved from temptation by strong gates and high walls.  Another advantage of political exclusiveness is that it allows intense political infighting and power politics; intrinsic needs for all politicians, irrespective of size of party (see Murray Kempton’s comments on the necessary hates of the true believers; and Jessica Smith for the maliciousness of commentators).

Poets are politicians too!  Notice how Philpotts conflates poetry with power politics and economic inequality – he is not just attacking poets but the system that makes and distributes them.  This is the class struggle metamorphosed into a verse war. Then consider his manifesto: art reduced to its own language – how many lay people will be interested in that?  Even better than a political party, this kind of thing guarantees a small sect or cult.

…various forms of estrangement effect to enable focus on language and process, and enforce awareness of the language of the poem itself

Like the language of Lacan and Julia Kristeva, this poetry will alienate not only the mainstream but just about everybody else.  And it is designed to alienate – to ensure, and enforce, an aesthetic purity; a small club that can be easily policed….

The politicians must not win!  It should be left to the poets, to live on the borderlands, to fly between different countries:

It is the poet’s business to be original, in all that is comprehended by ‘technique’, only so far as is absolutely necessary for saying what he has to say; only so far as is dictated , not by the idea – for there is no idea – but by the nature of that dark embryo within him which gradually takes on the form and speech of a poem.  (T.S. Eliot)

Eliot writes somewhere else of the “eclectic mind” of the poet.  This seems absolutely right.  An artist must be free to roam, to search for his material wherever he can find it; although the core of their work, their “dark embryo”, will always be inside themselves.  Thus the continuities Carrie Etter writes about.  Ideas, politics and critical theories, all these are external decoration, the secondary qualities, which poems can draw on, as they use nouns and adjectives, towns and the colour orange.  But decoration is all they are… although not for the critic.  A person of intellect, for them it is the idea, or the category, that is the most important thing; not the individual poem but the schema into which it can fit; not an individual poet, but that part of the zoo they can be placed; this is what excites them.  All necessary, just like politics; but just as a moral person will avoid 10 Downing Street so a poet must be careful of the critic, and wary of Foucault and Derrida.

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