From the Heroic Life of Bohemia
Kicking Shit with Arvel Watson and C.Day Lewis: part 2 of the review of Conductors of Chaos (edited Iain Sinclair, 1996, Paladin, £9.99, 488pp.)
The title of the work conceals something of its content. Acoustically, it is an echo of counter culture; the prominent DUCT block, as also the conduit element, points us to the keyword UNDERGROUND, which is where the poets live; while the CHA of chaos reminds us of a specific town, what conducts us over a chaos must be a bridge, and in fact the whole phrase is a shadow of Lonductors of Cambridge.
Literary conventions; mediations
Literary form is the alleged opposite of chaos. If you converse with someone in a language of which you both only know ten words, you have few conventions; few common structures; but your exchanges are likely to be simplistic and repetitive. There is a prima facie possibility that having more conventions (more shared lexical items) allows more complex, diverse, and adequate communication. Poetry which doesn't use any special literary language tends to come out a bit Janet and John.
A hypothesis relates the superior emotional intelligence of girls to fine discriminations acquired in childhood years of assiduously breaking and re-forming friendships. The hypothesis also claims that poetry readers internalise a set of discriminations and conventions which they unconsciously apply while reading. The playing of such intense and absorbing games develops finely branched discriminatory pathways, and the ability to guess moves several steps ahead. Non-experts cannot follow the play; its signals are too rapid and subtle. The concept does make it possible to think about poets who don't use the poetic conventions: they appear impossibly self-righteous and their poems are repetitive and stultifying. Again, the mastery of forms is what allows you to let chaos in; it doesn't exclude fertility and indeterminacy. If these conventions exist, then what I should be doing as a critic is to force them to surface, and verbalise them for the benefit of the new reader.
The zone of mediations finds the edge of chaos, and so defines it. The distribution of vocables within a perceptual field is partly arbitrary, so that we (but not all languages) distinguish between a bottle, a jug, a pan, and a basin; but objects take their value from the intentional behaviour which manipulates and uses them. The overall classifications of the language are permissive, they need to be filled out in any given text by local ones, whose structure derives from intentions and purposeful behaviour. Mediation has to include the personality as the agency which bestows meaning and pattern on things. Of course the poet has the option of blanking out the personality, like a pop group leaving out the vocals: a drastic act which reveals that identification is the central act of Western lyric poetry, and does give us the chance to reflect on what that act means. Mediations in the broad sense include all elements of a genre; in a dramatic poem the characters play this role, in a narrative poem the events do, in a geographical poem regions, rivers, and soils do. The opposition which Lawrence proposes between chaos and form seems to me erroneous; any element of language capable of expressing any part of the cosmic energies can be described as form. Whatever is linguistic is formed; it has gone through the act of being coded in a shared semantic structure and shaped into a series of phonemes bound to that structure. Are we to accept that his na‹vety and repetition are not language, are not rhetorical, because they are inefficient? The opposition seems to be between someone dealing with a situation which is new, high-energy, exciting, hard to express; and someone in a situation which is old, has failed to renew itself, which has become colourless, worn, predictable, ritualistic. This cannot be a binary opposition, it is more of a patchwork: one place is interesting, another is not. The latter situation (which seems to predominate in the Day-Strong anthology) may derive, not so much from living in an overcrowded country with a constrictive spatial layout and social system, as from nervousness about technique, which makes you stick to tired subjects and familiar methods. Sticking to intuition, and being afraid of thinking about technique, produce this airless and weary effect.
The death of genre
In the 1940 Day Lewis-Strong anthology, there is what may be a poem of ostranenie, called "Presbyopia", after a special condition of the sight: "men sweat and cry,/ I muse and leer./ I have an eye,/ But not a tear. (...) There's beauty there,/ Solid and sad-/ A strangled bear,/ An ape gone mad,// A boy on stilts,/ A snail-eyed god,/ Women in quilts/ And men in quod.// Elbow on knee/ I muse and blink,/ And thoughtless see,/ Or sightless think." (by G.H. Luce). This is a very odd poem; its effects seem to rely on reducing the visual world to a plane, and distorting that plane all over; the effect is hard to cope with, and so may anticipate contemporary making it strange.
Defamiliarisation, ostranenie, was described by Viktor Shklovsky in 1925, not as something he'd thought up, but as something basic to literary art. W.S. Graham used estrangement as his favourite move: "When the birds blow like burnt paper/ Over the poorhouse roof and the slaughter/ House and all the houses of Madron,/ I would like to be out of myself and./ About the extra, ordinary world/ No matter what disguise it wears(.)" (from "Clusters Travelling Out", p.220). I fear that this inspires page rage in the reader; well, defamiliarisation is just something you're going to have to get used to!
It's common today to find one source of poetry in the riddle and the paradox. It's quite possible to argue that all metaphors are a form of ostranenie: by breaching classification categories, the poet makes an object seem strange, and through the strangeness emerges a new understanding of what it is. The reverse phenomenon, normalisation and desensitisation of language, is agreed to exist by everyone, not just the avant-garde: I don't know how you can overcome familiarisation except by defamiliarisation. Allen Fisher names a sequence of books Gravity as a consequence of shape: true enough, since the pattern of the Earth's gravitational field derives from the spherical shape of the Earth. Barry MacSweeney refers three times in his poem here to "maniac milk": it would be quicker if he just said "alcohol", but if you really object to this kind of periphrasis, you might be better off reading a newspaper. Modernity is a fine balance of conventional shared discriminations, the rules of the game, and subversive estrangement, twisting and invalidating the context. Each demands the other.
Shklovsky also says that slowing-down, zamedlenie, is basic to the literary art, all forms of ornament aim at this same thing. So also the enjoyment of poetry has something to do with pace; to do with making the brain work and making it play. None of the poems in this book contain information you really need; the point of reading them is to alter your brain state, temporarily; we can shut out the data layer and look at the more abstract levels of linguistic organisation for the payload. Since we're going to throw the information away, it doesn't matter if we get it quickly.
This approach can also claim an ancestry in Heidegger's poetics, where the aim is to write about everything as if I'd never seen it before, and the poet starts by emptying out knowledge which we already possess, trying to hypnotize us into a first-time experience. Heidegger wrote about the earliest available etymologies of words as if (a) they represented the temporal origin of the concept (b) by gazing at them we could lose our acquired knowledge and be present at the dewy dawn of pristine time (c) etymological reconstruction gave us an integral subject in a lived horizon rather than fragments pressured and gouged by the recovery process. Since none of these three things is true, poems based on them can be faux-naïf and pretentious at the same time. However, because Heidegger was observing something (for example, poems by Trakl and Hölderlin) which already existed, his proposals on poetics are tenable.
Defamiliarisation of a rule of social structure obliges us to think over its purpose; renormalisation has a low probability of returning to the original state, so the process raises political consciousness. Some laws of society seem right when thought over; large-scale ostranenie separates out natural climax states from unnatural ones by simulating the process thousands of times.
There is a prehistory of disconnection, running through surrealism; Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt; the Absurd; the montage poetry of the sixties, like Raworth's; psychedelia; the montage of the seventies; sampling; complexity and chaos. Mégroz speaks in 1933 of Edith Sitwell's disruption of logical sequence, and remarks "Most clearly revealed in Jules Laforgue is the beginning of a literary technique for making new associations by dislocating the normal sequences of conscious thought." Laforgue was writing in the 1880s. "In Gold Coast Customs, [her 1929 masterpiece] the discontinuity, if we are to accept her account of the composition, is a deliberate technical device to make the mind aware of several layers of argument simultaneously." Mégroz also devotes two chapters to "dreamlike" poets, which points to the prevalence of irrational logic already a hundred years ago: the shift has been in demarcation of the subjective processes. A feature of the 1960s was the death of genre: the rules linking ideas on a larger scale than the line were simply abolished, and the new poet had an empty space for building designs in. We have a lack of names for the designs of poems; critics feel a huge relief when they manage to identify a modern poem with one of the traditional genres, but the point is that awareness of design was very weakly developed until recently, and poets were recycling forms derived, often, from the Hellenistic and pre-Christian past, without thinking them through. At present, conventional junctures stick out like sore thumbs. Overall design is the most interesting aspect of the poem; an easy way out is to make the personality the source of all decisions, so that the poem simply presents the self, and has only to copy from nature. This, as a way of utilising an empty stage, is despair. The abolition of genre causes the reader problems: if you don't know how the parts are going to fit together, how do you know what to notice? People get angry because they have binding expectations and the poet doesn't fulfil them. I think you just get used to this; anyway, very similar severings of rules have been felt in cinema, pop music, painting, etc. In the suspension of logical associations, poets are judged by the speed and style of their irrational montages, of which there are a thousand kinds. Maybe I should sit around and think of names for them all. Arguably, every modern poem belongs to a different genre, because its high-level structure is unique.
Time-sense of modernity: the past as property, the past as damage
Social class is frequently invoked as an explanation for everything that happens in British society, usually an account missing because it simply alludes to an unstated, silent, knowledge which the listeners share. I must confess that I don't share this knowledge, I find enormous problems in formalizing it, and I don't think any theoretical framework for class is sufficiently advanced and error-free to be used to explain poetry. I believe the problem is a lot easier for the pre-modern period, for example the 1930s and 1940s: I'd like to quote a 1944 piece by John Sommerfield:
'Boy, bring me some more cakes, and jaldi karo!'
The accentuation and distortion of the vowel sounds, the assured tones of the voices, the phraseology of the conversations, gave so clear a characterisation of the speakers that I didn't need to see them. As an experienced hunter can tell from an animal's tracks and droppings its species, size and condition (etc.)... For some reason or other my mental picture was without faces. But I knew their expressions by heart, the lines and curves and wrinkles engraved on the mobile flesh by time and experience were shaped by the code of behaviour and thought that governed their lives (.)
Sommerfield was a thirties radical moving here into the wartime world of aspirations to a more just society. The class revolutions of the 1940s and 1960s disrupted the system which guaranteed his perceptions; social historians of the affluent society, such as Harry Hopkins, stress, from the later fifties on, the greater choice of lifestyles available to people in Britain, so that the predictive information contained in speech patterns simply evaporated. What disappeared was not power relations, but the transparent link between the sound of someone's voice and the way they behaved. Within power relations (a zone where dishonesty and disinformation are prevalent), the emphasis has shifted from inherited patterns, who your family are, to currently existing ones: i.e. what you own, your position in an organizational hierarchy, your income and purchasing power. I think people tend to mis-describe economic relations even though experiencing them, because their explanatory systems are stuck in the past and use origin as a clarifying metaphor. If the market is all-powerful, looking at someone's culture and family past is irrelevant. If, as I have claimed, there was a class revolution in the 1960s, this does not take us outside commodity capitalism (outside to where some people wanted to go), but does invalidate the existing set of prestige symbols, to produce a mismatch. The greater disposable income, and dilution of the "old" middle class by new cadres of graduates and professionals, made status signs insecure, inclining people to spend more on status symbols and reinforcing the commodity capitalist system. As choice of lifestyle became diverse and differentiated in a consumer revolution, as Hopkins and others have claimed, this diaspora dispersed the knowledge which Sommerfield claims, the "hunter's knowledge of the game" which was presumably his stock in trade as a writer, and threw up a crisis of representation; making a strength of unpredictability was certainly a solution, another one was probably evading the problem of depicting a new society by making the writer's own consciousness the site of the text.
The issue of the past is highly involved with the relations of class. Someone preoccupied with the past may not be consciously conservative, but preserving past relations denies the individual the right to define who they are and to make their own way in society. If literature is biased towards stored knowledge, it is also biased towards social hierarchy and immobility; literature of the past was undoubtedly used by the landowners as a tool for glorifying themselves and for disparaging those of lowly birth. The project of a continuously present poetry is political and aims to abolish all hysteresis effects and hangovers, to destroy the memory stores where the patterns of inequality are kept.
Elimination of syntactic markers may increase the ambiguity of the text, therefore the number of available information and interpretation paths, and so its adaptability to different conditions, i.e. to different readers. The cult of leaving out organised syntax (both at the level of the sentence and of the higher sense-units binding sentences together) may be entirely rational, the optimum way of achieving polyvalence to face a heterogeneous audience. When Raworth writes
his extensive library
the centre of his picture
merge into the verdict
one moment threatens
an explanation of why this language
representing the glorious past
belongs, even to those
following me into this war
by blending the impersonal ethos
beyond the reach of satire
to account for its success
in demonic or satanic terms
yet the basis of this neutral identification
(from "Sentenced to Death")
the lack of semantic labelling is an apparent lack of resolution, even of completeness, which may quite literally leave more information inside the system. The semantic labels can be seen as eliminators of information. Leaving the extra paths in there leaves the poem uncommitted to any social or ideological group; the poet's voice evaporates, in a detachment which alienated much of the reading public, who wanted less ambiguity. Suppressing tribal loyalties makes you invisible in a world of eyes which are sensitized only to tribal stripes and insignia. Again, I have to point out that quoting one stanza understates the polyvalence of the poem. I selected this stanza because it may be about the construction of one-track language: "neutral identification" is the point in the room claimed to be occupied by the objective scholar, accountant, politician, or manager, taking decisions on behalf of other people. In writing this I am directing attention to one aspect of Raworth's work, destroying its ambiguity and probably annoying the poet whose best efforts are thus overruled; and claiming a neutral identification as a source of genuine information, eliding the slide from "I like Raworth's poetry because it is excellent" to "he likes Raworth so he obviously reads small press poetry and is that kind of person so we wouldn't let him into the building". Does a labyrinth of polarisations, step by step reducing the spectral target from 58 million people (in the UK) to 300 (who buy Angel Exhaust), represent a thousand generations of discrimination and refinement, or getting so close to silence that you can't hear yourself? Raworth's asyndetic syntax (look it up) leaves polarities unmarked, which is also what neutrality is, neuter meaning neither one thing nor the other.
We could ask whether this language is before (a highland region before social language has played its tricks) or after (a reprocessing of other language to win its raw materials). Is truth what we realize after the philosophers have spoken, or what was there before anybody began to fabricate and distort it? The explanation of why this language representing the glorious past belongs even to those following me into this war carries recognizable traces of an origin, in the mouth of someone, perhaps a wartime politician, justifying the war in terms of a shared community represented by language, by culture, by the past, as the long run of time in which individual differences and interests merge into a collective identity. This explanation is threatened, and one can see why; how could the language belong to everybody when the means of production belonged to a few hundred families? The official record is only one representation of the past, because access to it was selective; it conflicts with folk memory passed on from parents to children. "The centre of his picture" points to selectivity, because space has no centre; wherever we direct our attention is a focus, but different people focus on different things. The idea of a centre is where we pass from the world of light to that of power. Raworth is not in Conductors; the Introduction says he declined, having no work suitable for this outlet. His work, starting in 1963, sums up the rest, all the issues of determinacy, conflict with a prepotent information authority, rebuilding the laws of association, asyndeton, and so on.
One can see the past either as an accumulation of design expertise or as damage. The assertion that history is a convergent process which discards the bad paths and repeats the good ones justifies stored knowledge and so the distribution of wealth as the outcome of past events high up a maximisation curve; the good outcomes are in fact the content of the stored knowledge. Innovation, and the redistribution of wealth, then become dangerous steps back into the unknown. Language doesn't belong to everyone. The area of democratic choice is restricted by rules: a contest of past and living present. Indeterminacy describes series of states: it is difficult to work out the previous states of a gas from its state at any moment; we can say that a gas lacks a past. A liquid, equally, is unsuitable for use as an information store. This erasure of the past implies that the future is not predictable either. All of this implies, when addressed to social systems, that stored knowledge is of little use, because future states of the system are not contained within past states however exhaustively described. So a belief that society is a highly indeterminate system disagrees with the allocation of power to a few, based on past events; the need for hereditary wealth; the power of the educated; the burying of rules, from the past, which cannot be altered, limiting the area of democratic discussion and decision. The defence that the social system is a success tested by time assumes both that the future is like the past and that there was some optimizing mechanism, whereby the superior system became the real one. The more free the individuals in a system are, the more chaotic it becomes, and the less they can rightfully be bound by rules from a vanished past. That "a library/ [is] the centre of his picture" suggests someone who sets great store by stored knowledge; drawing attention to this suggests the alternative, putting faith in living people and so allowing them political and economic power. Because of the privileged access of the upper classes to the written record, intensive study of it may simply make you reproduce their viewpoint, concentrating the toxins of triumphalism and partiality in your tissues. After all, the written records are best at recording property rights, and the genealogies (of rich families only). My knowledge of the fifteenth century is almost entirely of landowning life, as preserved in the texts, whereas my experience of the twentieth century is somewhat lower down the social scale, to say the least.
The lack of causal relations in Raworth's poetry points to a universe, not one where causality does not operate, but where the causes and symptoms of things are not obvious: the past of the system does not forebode its future. He does not eliminate semantic labels altogether: in the quotation, the words even, to (account for), yet, and is irrelevant define (and so restrict) the relationships between primary semantic blocks. This stanza is atypical of Raworth's style. We can claim that a fully formed clause, such as one moment threatens an explanation, implies causal relationships, and that words like threaten, merge into, beyond the reach of, also have a pointing and de-ambiguation function. One can claim that the ordering of words implies such syntactic links, in English, because in that language word order is the main marker of syntactic function. Because to know causality implies general understanding, it implies knowledge of the past; and the excluson of change from the passage from past to present. But certainly this poetry is very ambiguous and non-causal when compared with, say, the prose I am writing. This stanza is soaked in the modern Left critique of the objectivity of managerial discourse, and so resembles the older kinds of poetry, which also contain ideologies; the effect of this leaning depends, however, on the quality of the intellectual system it leans on.
Analysis of poetry of the recent past, for example in the 1940 Day Lewis-Strong anthology, reveals a high proportion of statements referring to timeless truths: immediate experience is only presented as evidence of unchanging truths about life, which dwarf temporal concerns and so provide consolation. Passages like
This clay that binds the roots of man
And firmly foots his flying span—
Only this clay can voice, invest,
Measure and frame our mortal best.
(C. Day Lewis) are taboo now, as generalized, didactic, static, browbeating, moralizing; yet they were then the stock in trade of poets. Out, with these abiding moral truths, go the static frames of classical myth and Biblical story. Genres like the character sketch, or the poem on someone's grave, also disappear, because they are temporally flattened and do not show a unique event. You can't have a high rate of change running through statements which are supposed to remain true for thousands of years. Purging the text of these, either for philosophical reasons or for aesthetic ones, leaves something fragmentary, which needs a whole new shape. The goal of unpredictability demands the elimination of statements generalized as to time; the new poem tends to exclude any statement which presents static truths, but presents events which are new and transient. This follows on from Lawrence's belief in a poetry of the immediate present, its "wind-like transit". It also follows on from a distrust of mediations, an attempt to elude the assumptions about social relations embedded in them by getting at more primary data. The doctrine of a "continuous present" follows from democratic empowerment, the belief that the laws of social structure can be remade by participants and on a continuous basis; the laws bequeathed by the past have no sovereign claims, because they begin with the inherited and unequal distribution of wealth.
If the past is damage and knowledge is the shape of the past, then one wishes to lose knowledge because its structure is damage. Writing through experimental rules offers severance from experience. This conflicts with the precept of making the personality the centre of poetry: target number one, perhaps, of thirty years of radical poetry. The exemplification of a timeless truth is replaced by the hypothesis: the poet devises a possibility and writes exemplifications of that, perhaps enabling us to think about the nature of language or of social conditioning by doing so. The hypothesis is a form of ostranenie. The experiment is like play, which is also a form of free activity governed by rules; we repeat play acts until they lose their fascination, and that is probably also the regime for experiments. They belong to the primary level of art by this playful quality, and, because they produce objects which are strange, perplexing, free, inconstant, they ask for participation. Art which isn't experimenting with the world is a dreary proposition. Admittedly some of the experiments are ruined by a self-important, authoritarian, didactic, humourless, etc. attitude of the artist.
The past is most demandingly present in the persons of Old Poet Codgers, antiques held to gain value if the arrow of time works in the expected way. The fetish-word tradition swells up to mean, really, "it is politically wrong to write in the way you want", and the Fogey Ogres turning purple and beating anything new to a pulp. Respect for tradition could, in practice, mean "verbal respect to a lot of old people you dislike". The defence was along the lines of "if literary tradition only represents a millionth of a percent of national life then importing new literary forms can expand the percentage and make poetry much more accurate as a reflection of society"; and this gave a further polarisation, between believing "life is complex" and believing "life is dead simple". Incidentally, the claim about reflecting national life is a hostage to fortune, since it is possible to represent lots of real things while writing very bad poetry (does the poem get better every time you mention a chip-shop?), and this is a bad way to judge poetry. The fashion for writing poems about Place which peaked in 1974 may have been partly a manœuvre to elude criticism for not being rooted in the sacred soil of Britain; actually, this topographic descriptiveness recorded our sacred national sites while following the examples of outright foreigners like Ed Dorn and Charles Olson.
The deletion or slimming-down of the information in a poem has always left more room for procedures to evolve in: Raworth is at one end of the spectrum, the procedural band. Because reading involves a search pattern as well as passive packages of data, this daring deletion serves an artistic purpose; which does not disguise the intent of criticising inherited wealth, organized knowledge, secret corporate authority, scriptures, and the deeply internalised and partly catastrophic behavioural patterns of English people and groups.
The critique of the personality : the future as terra nullius
Modernity involves two contradictory impulses: systematically rewriting all social relations touching oneself so as to aggrandise oneself, effacing truths which are disobliging and making one's wishes binding on other people; and criticising the self, dissipating its constructions as mere cobwebs, decrying its claims to originality and autonomy, drawing attention to its incoherence and intermittence. This contradiction makes the self the site of major contemporary intellectual arguments; reinforced, although not originated, by the ideological opposition between Capitalism and Communism being expressed in terms of individual autonomy. Denying the validity of the self and its experiences is a recipe for authoritarianism, but has nonetheless been an (irritatingly?) fruitful line of enquiry. Where stressing individual attainment is a way of disabling other people from saying "your success is due to your class background (and not to your merits)", putting stress on family relations may be a way of atoning for individualism at the symbolic level.
Much of the politics of contemporary poetry is the struggle around the importance of the personality. Anthony Mellors, editor of fragmente, has drawn attention to: "what I see as a general and abiding epistemological division between the largely anti-modernist mainstream trend in poetry publication/attention and the continuing tradition of experimental work inspired by modernism and the objectivists in particular." (Mellors would be writing this section if things had worked out better.) I would prefer to qualify the word epistemology: the knowledge in question is not so much of the outside world as of the processes of consciousness, especially as governing relations between the self and other selves. The mainstream approach is to take feelings, and awareness generally, as sacrosanct, merely unquestionable: a great swathe of the radical and experimental wing is pursuing a project of criticizing the immediate data of awareness, so as to find out the truth, and so become less selfish and more authentic in behaviour towards others. If one concedes that inner awareness is complex, oscillating, easily influenced, and partly contradictory, it is hard to see where the consistency of mainstream verse comes from: one must suspect that it is reached merely by following rules, and these rules are specified by the market for the poetic product. However, if one believes that there is a reason set above these turbulent data, which speaks through them and can criticize and reject them, one has a complex flow of information, laminated, qualified, reversing itself, which can fill complex poems. Behind Mellors' comment lies a theory, expounded notably by Andrew Crozier, that the poem as domestic anecdote is the source of the huge tedium which surrounds us; the theory is too simple, but the ennui is real. Writing poetry is different from being a radio personality.
A sector of the market bases its choice of identification on the premise that the artist has bigger feelings than they do. Some girls are bigger than others, as Morrissey sang sometime back in the eighties; a hoarding slap opposite the 82 bus stop where I spend much of my life has about 300 square feet of underwear advertisement, all supple curves and abandoned writhing. The starting point for elevated culture is the denial of gratification even if the end point, the apex of the curve, is gratification of the brain which calms your desires. The hoarding is a snapshot, a frozen point: poetry has extension in time. The hoarding is dumb, apart from the brand name of the manufacturer, and sensuous: poetry, as articulate intelligence, is purely symbolic and can never become sensuous. The hoarding is wholly unambiguous, and so cannot expand beyond a pinpoint in time without beginning to seem tawdry, manipulative, subhuman; poetry starts with ambiguity, and, if it doesn't break up its own utterance to achieve finer discriminations, suspend its major weights in doubt and guesses, deny its statements with dialectical reversals, it still cannot acquire the shock effects of the megavisual tradition. Pop culture has reached a state of perfection; it is hard for a poet, surrounded by it, to push far enough into poetry to grasp purely poetic means. Art which relies on unqualified self-assertion is infantile: this was fine for me as a teenager, it isn't sinful, but I have the right to enjoy something more finely analysed and highly patterned now I am a mature man.
One of the major splits, then, within the radical camp, would be their attitude towards the poem as a vehicle for a personality and towards identification. There are some contributions here where critique is not the most admired act; where the poem is more like a kind of backing band for a personal appearance by the Poet. Page 362 has Jeremy Reed's brave interpretation, reminiscent of "Laugh at Me" by Sonny and Cher, of why people don't like him: because he wears lipstick and mascara, allegedly. I don't care if he wears orange silk underwear so long as he rocks the joint. He fails to mention
a) these narcissistic fantasies exclude all thought of an emotional relationship, reducing the lover to an awed spectator and the poet to a spectator of his own fantasies. Being immature is a different condition from loving men.
b) the chosen model since the mid-eighties has been the magazine glamour photograph, a regressive and fetishistic genre whose sleek surfaces yield nothing warmer than a camera lens.
c) Reed's poetry of the seventies, and at least up to 1981's Bleecker Street, a key work of its time, was harsh, unremitting, dredged beneath the skin of its characters for their bones and turned them inside out. His mature work not only seems like a betrayal of those macabre and autopsically precise early poems, but also an assertion that we cannot stand pain in art, which must be sweet, sheer and sleek.
d) he has written far too much, and the surface of some of his late work is like cellophane or some lamination, smooth but without organic life and warmth. Far too much of it is the exhibition of his skill rather than the consummation of it.
The authority he defies to write transgressive poems is also the voice of reality, and the fierce piercing eye which observed the poems in Saints and Psychotics or Walk on Through; and the surrender to fantasy, to life as style acts, is an evasion of the fact that feelings have consequences and that attachment is possible. By choosing to live out the audience's fantasies, he may have sacrificed one level of artistic intelligence. Still, these new poems are excellent; "Far Out" feels like a return to themes of an earlier time, like "Floyd's Package" or "Scott Engel", parts of a mythology too precise to be obsessive and too intricate to be merely a fantasy.
The auteur theory of cinema proposes that the director (in a variant, the scriptwriter) returns to certain pervasive psychological patterns, transformed sometimes in startling ways; Freudian approaches to art also fasten onto repeating patterns, with the assumption that they reflect personal, infantile experiences of the artist, are in fact drawings of an anatomy of the psyche. The use of versatile and highly finished linguistic resources to evoke situations we can never get enough of is one step away from the underwear advertisement: the poem offers exotic and flattering and enticing sensations. This doesn't really work out. Even the gratifying repetition of the unresolved scene (Hitchcock's preoccupation with icy blondes and detected guilt) seems old-fashioned as a philosophy of art. The scene these poems propose is more being immersed in a situation which is rapidly changing, and where the startling novelty of patterns makes one forget affective states.
One of the expectations in our society is that poetry is the expression of secret and personal feelings, the last refuge of the authentic in a world of capitalist self-aggrandisement; while nothing except the purely personal has a place in a poem, even though our mental processes involve all kinds of other things, for example politics, economics, power relations, other people. This reduces poetry to something like the genre of singer-songwriter. But the depiction of the personality is the thing most threatening to spontaneous and indeterminate poetry: any poem will be made freer by striking out the parts which refer to the poet, because feelings are a predictable closed system, because the poet's experiences are a given which the poem is obedient to, because the poet's social being takes place within a restrictive and unexciting framework of class society; and even because the poet wants to be consistent, in order to be remembered, and because he is vain and is only going to record experiences which show him in a favourable light. Such poetry dwells on moments in the development of a personality: the more decisive they are, the more deterministic their result. The motivation for giving over the poem to arbitrary rule-based processes is to eliminate the personality, migrating towards a poetic fabric which is 100% design. Process and personality are in competition as sets of decision rules. If there is a rule "you cannot write this line because it didn't happen that way", this reduces the search area to minute proportions; making the poem very easy to write, but restricting its climb up the slope of perfection.
The poem exhibiting the direct, unmodified experience of the poet offers a channel for exploration of secret feelings and simultaneously threatens to make the course of events incomprehensible: it is philosophically dubious that one can record human life, which is mainly social, by adding together series of accounts of a single person's perceptions. It is morally dubious to wish an art which takes personality patterns and relentlessly reproduces them, as if colonizing an empty continent. The personality programme is flawed because it selects for behavioural acts which are consistent with an underlying pattern, while selecting out the acts which are inconsistent with it. The poet's personality may end up being simply a commodity, a designer label. The Faint Object Camera investigates the skies by screening out bright objects; it is possible that a psychological camera which blanks out the bright foreground objects, emotions, will make visible a new, intricate, and unsuspected world of relations hidden by their light. The displacement of strong infantile emotions may feel like a cold bath for the romantic, but opens up the poem to a flow of new, unfamiliar information.
This undertaking may resemble the decentring adopted by philosophers of the anti-statist Left in France in the 1960s.
Logique du sens can be read as the most alien book imaginable from The Phenomenology of Perception. In this latter text, the body-organism is linked to the world through a network of primal significations, which arise from the perception of things, while, according to Deleuze, phantasms form the impenetrable and incorporeal surface of bodies; and from this process, simultaneously topological and cruel, something is shaped that falsely presents itself as a centred organism and that distributes at its periphery the increasing remoteness of things.
(Foucault, reviewing Deleuze's book; quoted from Schmidt, Between Phenomenology and Structuralism, quoting from Language, Counter-memory, Practice, by Foucault, trans. D. Bouchard; the Phenomenology is a book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty)
The works of Gilles Deleuze and his collaborator Félix Guattari offer us a replacement for the incredible central, homogeneous, conscious self in the shape of a thousand autonomous functions, which are themselves "peripheral" because many of them exist in object relations, with components situated outside the body. Deleuze and Guattari said "What is the unconscious? It is not a theatre, but a factory, a site and an agent of production. Desiring machines: the unconscious is neither figurative, nor structural, but machinelike."
If the philosophizing consciousness of the Graeco-Roman-Occidental tradition is consistent, and therefore very simple, and, perhaps therefore, endowed with perfect self-knowledge, this may derive from the forensic weaponry of pleading; where success is rewarded with the tenure of estates and with the upper hand in commercial dealings. If it was a kind of weapon, a specialized training of the mind for agonistic purposes, it was not also an empirical account of how the mind works. Part of the project of Capitalisme et schizophrenie was to rip out all the inherited terminology for the mind, and test the theory that we are trapped in deceiving metaphors by building another world of metaphor, to set alongside the first and be a measure for it. The lyric ego is a voice which pleads for itself; it offers partiality as justice. It may not be possible to drag the intellect out of its nesting-ground, the courtroom with its formalised antagonism, tendentiousness, and controversion.
There is some doubt that I can even describe my own states of mind with any completeness, and in fact it may be that my accounts are consistent only because it is a rule that they should be so, and because when I focus my attention I create a clarity by repressing the peripheral. If my wishes were hard and clear I should be doomed to frustration in a social group, where things aren't always going to be the way I want them, and it is a virtue to fall in with other people's wishes, being indeterminate and suggestible in oneself. The relation between central and peripheral awareness is thus a rule of politics. What, after all, is the relation between my first-person experience and my empathetic, second-person, experience of other people's feelings and states of mind? and is the experience of art first person or rather empathetic and passive? Allen Fisher undertook some experiments, reported in the magazine Spanner, into the effects of listening to simultaneous acoustic sources, shifting in phase towards each other; a direction of extraordinary interest to the student because it tends to break down the central monster of modern art, the artist's Self, into many different self-organizing agents or patterns, competing or co-existing. There is a tape, Blood Bone Brain, of Fisher's which displays multiple independent sources as a way of investigating the boundary between concentration and peripheral awareness. The state of the brain at any instant, instrumental measurements seem to tell us, is not "one" but many patterns which ceaselessly shrink or grow, competing with each other for cellular resources. The coherent unit is not the individual human but the individual brain activation pattern; the "desiring machine". Subjectively, we are afraid both of monotonous experience (one pattern takes over and repeats indefinitely) and of psychic disintegration (too many patterns oscillate and break up without order emerging).
The personality is what is constant when outer circumstances change; but up until the revolution, outer circumstances are largely constant, so how can you demarcate what is permanent in the inner world? The method opens and cannot close the possibility that the self is a series of more or less gaudy or regal garments with nothing underneath. It is perhaps the very effort needed to make the speaking self speak without incessant inconsistency that demonstrates the self to be fluctuating and mutable. It would, if this demonstration is true, be a plenitude which makes everything true which the tongue signifies. Perhaps every successful poem goes through the barrier of legal-professional rigidity to open up the multiple world of hyperassociation underneath, a torrent of fluctuating and affectively charged ideas which seems to be strangely similar, whatever different routes we use to reach it. Possibly the apparent persistence, and immovability, of the "personality", is only a reflection of the monotony of the way one lives, conditioned by the division of labour, and the rigorous simplification of jobs in an old-style industrial capitalism. The redesign of the job could cause the collapse and evanescence of the personality traits that went with it. This applies, not only to jobs, but to the family, its archaic and ossified division of tasks and of emotional patterns. Autogestion, self-management, proposed the abolition of preset work roles; it was soon extended into the sphere of the personal, into the household.
Rock music, the soundtrack of rebellion, seemed obsessed at the time with a brutal tautology which turned music into a Pavlovian conditioning lab, the song repeating a simplified module of meaning hundreds of times in a short space, as repetitive as the advertisement with its slogans. This frenzied recursion revealed a fear of change and liberation. It was the factory in leisure form. This explains the political hopes attached to improvisation, something negligible in popular music up to about 1965, which nonetheless acquired a certain importance in the years of maximum political optimism, before moving ahead into a newly partitioned minority culture.
Guattari has suggested that the linguistic distinction between I and impersonal it is a misunderstanding of psychological process when the notion of "I" is overcoded by temporary social rules:
The tools brought into operation by the arrangements of individuated subjectivation will become boomerangs. At one level, that of the individual and the person, they succeed in nullifying desire in its relationship with material fluxes, with intensive de-territorializations. But they cannot prevent the molecular, sub-human, semiotic escape of a-signifying figures of expression from starting up a desiring machine at a quite different level, and with a quite different power. The sudden, absolute de-territorialization that broke desire up into subject and object has failed, despite its absoluteness, to abolish itself in the paroxysm of joy of a machinic consciousness that has truly broken all territorial moorings. ("Subjectless Action", p.136 of The Molecular Revolution).
The term molecular (in opposition with molar) refers to processes composed of very large numbers of independent interacting agents (molecules of a gas, molecules in an organ of the body), where events are due to statistical aggregation of behaviours, rather than to overall control. Gas is derived from chaos, a transfer more obvious in the original Dutch. Applied to psychology, this means the explosion of the phenomenological Ego or cogito into thousands of competing functions. Applied to politics, it means autogestion, and presumably this was its source. Applied to capitalism, it could mean the demise of macroeconomics and the move to a desired state of indefinitely many small firms traversing the economic resource surface to find peaks of optimization. Looked at historically, the message is that, when our means of data collection, handling, and storage were remarkably poor, we used to build very simple intellectual models, to avoid the sensation of swamping, and its sequel of dementia; these models gave wrong results all the time. You can't assume, for example, that 58 million people can successfully be treated as three coagulated blocks (three parties, or three classes) rather than as 58 million autonomous agents. If you multiply the total number of educated people by 50, if you reward people for dismantling all the simplifications and laying bare the cheapness of the models, if you capture endless amounts of raw data with cameras and tape-recorders and measuring devices, and apply sub-infinite data-processing power in millions of computers, your old models simply explode. Deleuze and Guattari are forerunners of chaos theory.
In thinking about poetry, the notion molecular would expose the errors of lumping a poet's works together to form a single Golem-like object, the Poet, a drip-bucket to soak up all imprecision, to be manipulated as a token; and break down three thousand lines of poetry into three thousand autonomous objects, each possessing its own trajectory, so that we can trap the process of concentrating these snippets, or frames, and lumping them up into larger entities. If we look at the units of lines, and junctures—the only immediately visible reality on the page—we find that the attribute called ownership has disappeared, since lines, metrical patterns, links, collocations of words, linebreaks, etc. can be shared by many different poets. It's a bit pointless being proud of writing an original line when it carries out generative patterns which are used by a thousand other people. If a poet's work is homogeneous, it may also be tautologous. If good poetry characteristically varies rapidly over a short stretch, how can large amounts of it be reduced to a term of discourse? What can we say of the process whereby a poet's name becomes a token of a homogeneous if interrupted speech act, and again three poets are allowed to become a decade of poetic history, standing in for all the others?
This was not at first a merely descriptive project.
We have to paralyse the functioning of each family, school, university, factory, business corporation, television company, film-industry segment-and then, having stopped it, invent mobile, non-hierarchic structures that distribute the accumulated possessions over the whole world. These structures will become rigid in due course because of our fearful attitude to our freedom, but if we observe the principle of continuous revolution—the overthrowing of social structures that after a while unknowingly invent their own death and then pretend themselves a certain life—we shall find a way not only to survive but to never fall back into the normal pattern of the world which is the only sense of "regression" that one can recognize at this stage of history. (David Cooper, The Death of the Family, 1971).
Cooper's project was so-say paralysing, but is partly for that reason evocative of the counter-culture and so of Conductors; we can hardly help seeing in this call to arms the source of poetry which makes up all the rules as it goes along. The anomalies in any social institution can often be traced to hidden elements of arbitrary power and eminent domain. The fetish-saying of the time in response to any set of rules was who makes the rules? Cooper, a sometime associate of Guattari, sees the past as damage, and this argues for poetry which erases the past even to the point of refusing to accumulate a semantic context, a textual past within the poem. The phobia for subordinating syntax and for the conjunctions which mark causal relations between clauses comes from this superordinate need to have each line start from zero. If the past is damage, portraying the personality is reactionary, because it mortgages the work of art to the matrix which produced the damage and was produced by it. The damage is stored in personalities rather than in, say, buildings or objects.
Foucault uses the word phantasms, which we can break down into fantasy and phantom: a fleeting fancy. In this model, there is no longer a polar opposition between the Alienated Shell and the Real Self, as sealed and cased wholes; instead, the organ of the affects consists of fluid and shifting impulses, partly imitation of pictures offered from outside, partly arising spontaneously, a repertoire from which one selects and combines at any moment to make a mood or a behavioural sequence. If we put together enough of these pneumatic breezes, we might produce the volume of oyxgen we call an atmosphere or ambience. They resemble the souls in Cave Birds, vainly suing to be granted bodies. However strong the artist's sense of self, it cannot explain what is happening to the reader, who can enter the text only as a phantom, parting with the body; the image of phantoms gives us a convenient way of describing identification, literary emotion, emotional suggestibility, and their sister, fantasy. Persistent study of propaganda reveals that social influence is so pervasive and powerful that there is no material to be examined when it is switched off. The socialisation of children into behavioural roles resembles the process of identification with figures in TV, cinema, or literature. Influence and influenced have no separate existence. The new order could not be the composite of all the economic and emotional demands of the frustrated; instead, we should abandon all our desires in the new formation, to make way for new and adaptive desires and for new duties.
Because the path into the liberated future appeared to lie through destroying attachments, radical art during the era of revolutionary expectations, say 1968-75, cut out the artist's emotions and attacked the reader/onlooker's attachments, self-esteem, sensibility, and affections. This was a notable break from the sympathy and indulgence which art of the past had extended. Such a work of art began, as if a Hitchcock film where the hero is accused of murder, by taking away our self-esteem, and put us through the shocks of a thriller in menacing not to give it back to us, as citizens of a Utopia of which the text was a magic mirror.
Cooper's project puts faith in individual freedom as a source of universally correct decisions; the demand that the artist take responsibility for all rules operative within the text gave rise to the line of conceptual art, which by isolating the rules would make artists up with the running, able to talk to and about the revolution. At this point the line of time returns, dialectically and allowing no plea or evasion: the joyful research project born within the counter-cultural revolutionary atmosphere changed its nature when that superordinate project collapsed, or mutated into a shower of tiny horticultural schemes, somewhere around 1973-76. (In the Soviet Union, the tolerance extended to samizdat literature in the 1960s was also replaced by police repression and jail sentences in 1973-75.) The revolutionary outside which the art had fitted itself for turned out to be either the university, or a more febrile and less safe Bohemian milieu in Camden, Brixton, and analogous Latin quarters in all the cities of the world; this clustering, as much in Sydney as in East Berlin, demonstrated the unnameable truth that the greater world is toxic to these ideas. One does not say the real world, because inability to discriminate between a specialised, optional world and a world of fantasy points to a kind of 1950s, Cold War, CIA mentality. Anthony Powell remarks that no area of life is more real than any other. This Bohemia Beach, reptile enclosure, or whatever, is central for the historian of art: I agree that a lot of people went on voting Conservative, supported the Vietnamese War, thought strikes were wrong and the City of London is fair, etc., but most of the real excellence of the last thirty years has come out of the extremist euphoria of the sixties. The historian of culture doesn't have to deal with the whole of society.
The anthology, with its context of assertion, accumulation, and display, cannot describe how the countercultural poets deal with the dissolution of the counter-culture during the inflationary crisis and consequent breakdown of the social contract with its wages and prices agreements. Textual time involves the liberated future, but also the sign which says that future is obsolete; the past (of optimism about the future) which has to be worked through if only to rebadge it as bohemian glamour; the expected (real) future in the script of merchant bankers and their political stooges; the status of the nameless twenty years of Waiting Time since the project closed. By now, the declarative autonomy of the poem from an Outside can appear in the balance sheet as wilful blindness—or, confusingly, as heroic defiance of a regime where property dealers have more say in the art world than artists.
Of the poets in Conductors, Prynne, Wilkinson and Milne are fossils of this era of contempt, and can be associated with the critique of the personality as such. They detach the reader's self from its reference points, acquisitions, and gratifications. Recently, I detected a resemblance between Hendry and Wilkinson:
For this the pearl stands in the eye of the iris
And grief, clear as a tear, cuts diamonds of innocence.
Eclipsed in cloud, her face's opalescence
Unwound in a sky-blue turban heady sorrows.
Girlish, girlish, it is hope herself undone.
Break then, memory, into images and petals! Shower
Abroad you promise bright as the wild abundant
Rose! Through thorn this subtly-pierced hour
Shutters with leaves the legend of time's tragedy.
Birth stagflation riots in the nest in their nest
woven from the tresses cut according to call-sign,
Bits of copper wire, of red & black sheathing
stuffed with shred old copies, end-users' manuals
nest inside the hollow greet their candidate:
it billows as a canopy above the head of Horus
ducks beneath the coverlet and plays hide-&-seek
with accident investigators prowling a far bank,
produced out of reeds, out of clay bringing home
bottle-garden actors, a back-up power referee
reaches down & triumphantly brandishes his toy.
It is not so much the sonorously repeated phrases ("Girlish, girlish", or "Still still the hunting winter", cf. JW's "Where isn't that the limit forming just a giddy/ limit") which chime, as the lack of identifiers of time or relative position, the reliance on images pushed out to virtual autonomy. Apparently these draw on the genre of funeral elegy, in Hendry's case: solemnity, elevation above the individual, religious tension, impersonality. Real events are dissolved away to leave a timeless emblematic world of substances. The poet is gambling on maximising qualities which had already reached the extreme point on their gain curve and could only progress into mannerism and the luxuriating of means with no ends. Wilkinson, as an extension of Hendry, an overfulfilment of the aesthetic imperatives of that era, shows how the forties were continued. The lack of modifiers is chaotic, because alternatives are never dispelled, no hypothesis about meaning is confirmed or denied. Yet this is the least evocative of poetry. The request that a poem be about a person, that the incidental data converge around a feeling of that person, that we be allowed to find out what the mood is and identify with it, and so see a pattern within the images, seems embarrassingly old-fashioned here.
The selections from Wilkinson seem almost to be comprehensible, although I dare not look too closely in case it all crumbles. One of them includes an image where he seems to be comparing one thing to another: "Like dying film stock delicate fingers may accept/ a flat hearing", we can see that the fingers' insensitivity (to his poetry?) might be like the spectral decline of aged film stock, something extremely rare in his work, where images are typically one-sided. He is the most dehumanized of these poets, the least lyric, the least social; impersonal because he fixes reality as a snarl of wriggling, unidentifiable, teeming snippets, the knots on the underside of the carpet, a colour photograph blown up so much you can only see the stars of pigment; where the distinction between memories, perceptions, hypotheses, fantasies, metaphors, constructs, is not yet operative; where the distinction between yourself and other people, fantasy and reality, has not yet been drawn. At times he seems to be building a radical variant on the petrol engine, an extraordinary and visionary object, which does not in fact run or generate power. The "flat hearing" (fingers cannot feel the flat, but irregularities, and flat hearing might be like flat singing, turn it down flat) is presumably what I do, although Wilkinson is far too aloof to give either act, utterance or hearing, a subject; after interviewing him, I can explain why he does things, but I still can't see how to read this poetry. If that's flat is clarity, Wilkinson is Mister Lord God roundness. Another poem in the 1940 volume also reminds me of Wilkinson:
Do not expect again a phoenix hour,
The triple-towered sky, the dove complaining,
Sudden the rain of gold and heart's first ease
Tranced under trees by the eldritch light of sundown.
Consider then, my lover, this is the end
Of the lark's ascending, the hawk's unearthly hover:
Spring season is over soon and first heatwave;
Grave-browed with cloud ponders the huge horizon.
(C.Day Lewis, from "From Feathers to Iron")
where already the richness of imagery is beginning to jettison an external referent and become one-sided. Possibly the images in JW's poetry ("out of reeds, out of clay producing bottle-garden actors") come from some external illustration of inner states, as "Do not expect again a phoenix hour" is admonition to be pessimistic; and they would turn out to mean something or other if only we had a commentary or explanation. Day Lewis already has baffling decorative phrases on peripheral features of the allegorical object, for instance "the triple-towered sky". The policy of speeding up the notes while ignoring the artistic values can only remind us of Rick Wakeman, a style known as technothrash. The critical profession faces a disaster if some auditor demands an explanation of what Wilkinson's poetry means. There seems to be no way of finding one. He and his armour-bearer Drew Milne seem to be building a language without an outside, a building without an inside; technophile casualties of a closed-in era, competitively pursuing one quality to its maximum while ignoring the overall picture. Because communication and sensibility have been reduced to zero, the claim is to objectivity and universal validity.
The day after a night when in a phonecall Barry had explained over and over again how at his appearance at the Cambridge Poetry Conference he was going to dress all in black, like Johnny Cash, and come on stage on a motorbike, as Billy Fury did at Newcastle Town Hall in 1963, I was walking through a square in North London and met Jeremy
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