Sunday, December 31, 2006

Stirrings Still

(Originally posted Feb' 2004. I would now be nicer to Zukofsky and Olson.)

pragmatics is a politics of language

If genre is shattered, collapsed, erased, I wouldn't necessarily call that theory. It's not a stylistic decision any more. Look: you know it, poetry no longer works. That doesn't mean there is no poetry. It means that traditional poetic form has no use because, now, it stops words from functioning. Poetry works as form in a specific context, for example: Elizabethan drama, between the opening of the first theatres in the 1570s and the Civil War that closed them again in 1642. With Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Middleton and Rowley, words and form and social function and energy work as complementary instruments and forces towards perfect pitch, interaction, exactitude. And at the same time, for example, Tamburlaine still remains ferocious, repellent, compelling; is still useful beyond all measure (humanity as both aberration and source of beauty: that is eternal) but could not be written now.

As for the writer, he is sitting on a melting iceberg; he is merely an anachronism...

Stanza, rhyme scheme, metre, rhythm etc...: these formal aspects and residual arrangements constitute poetry as "craft" in the way that Pound defended pure verse. This craft is now akin to carving Love Spoons. It already was by the 1920s and Pound was the first to say so. If Pound still retained the idea of writing as a craft then you can see that the requirements and techniques had changed. Craft now, as it stood, was destructive: dismantle parts; or more actively, vividly, break them. At that point reconstruction began, and only at that point.

That was The Cantos' ambition: a process only thus begun. This now represents the pure form of poetry: a blueprint and manual. The formal potential contained within is infinite, and incomparable. Think of it not as drudgery but as a kind of dance.

Genre is not dispersed: it just feeds a reading market that feels and seems and is removed from writing and the use of words to translate or render or evoke. To write you cannot demand anything from writing, but you must demand as much as you can from words, dialects, grammar, syntax. And not even "demand" but forget all formal and thematic restriction and slide easily, silently, onto free space (an empty page to fill is different from a sentence to write, poem to compose, novel to construct).

And this is, in fact, a political choice. A politicised slant or route. The politics of writing (as in, far from simply political subject matter). So that Orwell can claim the most apolitical writer, Henry Miller, as more political and nuanced than self-conscious polemicists like the Auden-Spender coterie of Oxford Communists. Because of the force of one decision, and this is the decision to make, either way: "He is fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames." (If you want that clarified then Inside the Whale is available from Oxfam for, usually, £1.50.)

Here's a political choice that can be made both outside of and in relation to (i.e. to go elsewhere, not recede) history and tradition: The reclamation of satire as untenable disgust and sickness, but not as (simply) nihilism or (sadly) cynicism. For example: Swift, Wyndham Lewis, Celine as effective and useful precendents. Or, actually, more important than that: the reclamation of irony from retreat, guise, disappearancee, immunisation, or abdication. Irony should be the most responsibly used weapon. The fact that it is now used to forfeit responsibility itself is our great loss. Irony is not a smirk: it should be employed as an offensive strike. And that can be (as this is different again, and in a crucial way): irresponsibility as a deliberate option, like, in Orwell's terms, Henry Miller. Or, again, responsibility as a dangerous declaration of strengh or defiance.

Either way, the moment you work and think as a singularity - a hopeless, helpless, formless voice seeking, trying or exploiting new forms and ways to express what you see and feel on a blank space. Irony can be used as a crucial tool at that exact moment. Whatever tools are used, that is when words work effectively, fully.

That involves any language, all aspects of language - any spatial or temporal arrangement or formation. Language constitutes elements, variables, devices, dynamics. Also: music, chromaticism. Metre and rhyme in constantly novel configurations. But: the eradication (the refusal) of stanza form, structural rhyme schemes (e.g. couplets), sonnets etc., proscribed as a rite, an ideal. Plus: not accepting the notion of free verse as an opposing tendency or "alternative" to structured norms; this should entail abandoning the idea of free verse altogether.

Apart from a politics of writing, there's the problem of writing about politics (outside of straight reporting). This is almost always reduction to opinions (or "commentary") which are even less useful than they seem. In fact, opinion is disingenuous, or outright duplicitous.

It should be the attempt to curate and collate paradox. Only then, if you can, carve out a position while retaining all complexities that exist and you have learned. This should take exceptional skill and courage. It should seem impossible until the moment you feel you have to choose - and even then that choice should remain open to challenge and change. That kind of responsibility (which is also, in a way, irresponsible) should always remain flexible, permeable. Because that is what distinguishes it from blind faith (i.e. abdication of responsibility to superstition, spiritual despotism). It's what makes it better (and that's my choice). Look, you can no longer be "left" or "right" - that's the fool's position; faith, as such, is inflexible and dangerous. It's the essence of jihad and Shining Path and the discursive root of Bush's "axis of evil" speech.

Literature as we know it is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty and a minimum of censorship. And this is even truer of prose than of verse...The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature.

Consider the market as the new orthodoxy: its own rigorous strictures and demands. Life is becoming...more harsh and direct, less opaque, in many ways. The 90s moral and semantic fog is actually lifting (or has lifted). War has clarified things, even if it cannot clarify its own dimensions. 9/11 drew up clear sides for the first time since the Cold War (if not completely, re: Saudi Arabia, at least more clearly since then). And even Baudrillard can see that: he said it first, the events strike is off. Except he's also wrong, because his (correctly) predicted return to Gulf War syndrome can never effectively reverse that. The dilution and co-option of journalism (see the fate of the BBC; pervasive "tabloidisation"; last year's editorial scandal at the New York Times; the tragic suicide of Sky News reporter James Forlong) is the great danger that writers face: this is the frontline of a fight for the use-value of language (spin is as damaging in this respect as totalitarian jargon; r.e. the Clinton administration: "it is possible that acts of genocide may have occurred in Rwanda"). That's a political fight. On the other hand, the terminal condition (or: the end) of traditional literary form and genre (poetry, theatre, the novel...) offers a clean slate for those capable of and inclined to liberate and exploit language (in all its manifestations) and make it work again as poetry. That's a political fight, also.

Useful writers, then:

There is no limit to voice or text, except formal limitations as harness, frame or leash. Like, do not abandon poetic form if used to exploit particular sound, symmetry, or rhythm - again, use-value, as in exploitation, application, not utility. Poetic form as a set of potential devices or hybrids or voices. And: slangs, patois, dialects, urban variations, jargons, professional and technical languages, secret languages, lyrics, signs, headlines...

As already cited: Ezra Pound; The Cantos. So, no, don't be cowed by aggressive erudition, deliberate intimidation or elitism - you can, after all, track down all allusions and references if you care or worry enough about it. The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New Directions, 1970) is a final arrangement of fragments to be used - like their condensed cousin, The Wasteland - for the strategies they invent and evolve. They are the most useful (for poetry and prose): the most applicable and evocative. I say "use" because language is, after all, a technology; words, grammar and structure are cogs, bolts, mechanisms, circuits.

The Cantos respond to, or stem from, World War I and its aftershocks: the immolation of nation states, laissez faire capitalism and Empire; the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, the Soviets; the wake of the Wall Street Crash, and the Great Depression. It is a number of tendencies, strategies, and dominant voices: the American emigre immersed in European culture and history, Asia and the Ancients; the poet breaking up language into variable particles, incorporating Chinese characters, ancient Greek, diagrams, drawings, sheet music, hieroglyphics etc; the privileged male breaking away from his position of security, up into voices from the Roman Empire, the Orient, fascist Italy, the feminine, etc. This one singularity forced to confront and contain (an explosive rupture) all potential voices, cries, quakes, escapes. Any other singularity invariably takes the same course: The Cantos provide a principle workbook for a contemporary inscription of voices. That potential often glimpsed in those who follow this route: T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Mina Loy, Anna Akhmatova, Basil Bunting, Frank O' Hara, for example.

Pierre Guyotat; Tomb for 500, 000 Soldiers and Eden, Eden, Eden mount a fierce offensive on the Novel and on political discourse. The Cantos are a product of conditions of breakdown and malaise that result from World War I, but Guyotat's novels are like projectiles shot straight out of the Algerian War and into the white heat of Paris, 1968. Guyotat writes in one tense: the present. In Eden... this is taken to an extreme horizon: the text is comprised solely of clauses, or the pure phrase, what Roland Barthes calls the "substance of speech, with the qualities of a fine cloth or a foodstuff, a single sentence which never ends, whose beauty comes not from what it refers to...but from its breath, cut short, repeated." Guyotat's scope and reference is intensive (Pound's extensive) but elemental: sex, violence, language; Catholicism and War. The politics of writing (and the writing of the political) are at their most intimate and indissoluble: Guyotat's texts weave all strands with a ferocious, basic, rough-hewn felicity.

All coordinates are lost and therefore inherited strategies are worthless and you are forced back on your own resources and your own reserves and your wit and your nerve. Once you stop accepting then accepted order breaks up, or just evaporates, almost magically, like when a population suddenly refuses the will of a tyrant.

Samuel Beckett; prose works. Beckett is the central prose stylist of the 20th Century after Joyce. His novels and prose fragments are in some part Ulysses satellites, but more poised, condensed, artful, and ironic. Interior logic, microperceptions, and the claustrophobia of limitation come out in dry, thin, ironic, cruel, allusive, slow, keen, gentle, hesitant, beautiful, wise and weakened voices. Each voice is written, in the way you seem to see the shape of a word in your mind; a combination of letters, phonemes and physical, emotive or any associations: a packet of ghosts. The mind's focus when observed in splendid isolation so; insular workings, markings, tendencies, and obsessions. Reduced to a few elements - physical, mental, linguistic - that can sustain a paradoxically parched but inexhaustible poetry.


Re: Luka

Within this past, there is no end to my reminiscent visions of myself. But always alone, without family. I do not even know what language I spoke. I do not see myself ever in the councils of Christ; or in the councils of the nobles - Christ's representatives.

A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.
Ezra Pound

More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence. Technical solidity is not attained without at least some persistence.
Ezra Pound

I wouldn't normally go in for this, but the talent involved deserves a response, and the challenge demands it. I certainly accept mistakes, and I am willing to correct a minor misunderstanding or six, but - errors of judgment? That's another thing altogether.

To start with something minor. Of course I would be wrong to say that Pound was the first poet in history "to understand that poetic form was an anachronism," but that was not my claim. In truth this was entirely my fault - an error of sloppy thinking and writing on my part. What I should have said is that Pound would be the first to say this, and so fully convey my real point which is that, despite the emphasis and value he placed on poetic craft, he also - in context of tradition, time and place - recognised its formal redundancy. His reappraisal of what poetic craft could mean and do, however, was more self-conscious and deliberate than Rimbaud. In this sense he has more in common with Mallarme or Joyce. This is where you break from me, perhaps: for you that emphasis on form is academic and slows the pulse of poetry, its life-force and effusion. On this I couldn't agree less. When allied to extremes of feeling - but also thinking, seeing - then we can sense the true force of poetry.

I do think it's worth discussing the relative characters, lives, and beliefs of the poets involved, more so as you dismiss Pound in favour Whitman because of his "insistence on the starched collar." Well, on this "insistence" - culled from what I would consider an off-hand and self-ironic jibe - I would also disagree. For all the reasons cited in my defence of The Cantos - the various personal and historic striations and ruptures that run and course though it - I would argue that Pound's "effects" and conclusions are every bit as valid, radical and elemental as Whitman's. They differ in technique and tendency, but certainly not to the detriment of Pound as a poet.

What we have done is draw up our own separate little canons. Yours = Blake, Rimbaud, Rilke, Baudelaire, Nietsczhe, Whitman. Mine = Mallarme, Pound, Eliot, Loy, Ahkmatova, O'Hara, Guyotat, Beckett (with a dash of Orwell and Swift, but that's another story). One thing: we both agree on Shakespeare: he shredded blank verse, gutted the sonnet. I don't argue that traditional poetic form is devoid of all use or potential ("destruction": that was simply Pound's approach in The Cantos, and even that's not accurate). (And didn't I also say "do not abandon poetic form if used to exploit particular sound, symmetry, or rhythm".) What I do deny is that reliance on or acceptance of proscribed norms of composition retains any value whatsoever. On this we completely agree.

And as you say - formal development, to be successful, must always be fed by excess of feeling or perception. Which is why "my" poets work as well as "yours" (if you'll forgive my crudity). Why Eliot, as the morbid, apocalyptic emigre of The Wasteland, is a better poet than the dour and eloquent Anglican of The Four Quartets. The power of Loy's personal flights and breakdowns explodes into dry, technical logophilia and formal implosion. Ahkmatova's life-or-death run from the Soviet censor, the imprisonment of her son and friends, the loss of St Petersburg and all the symbolic implications contained in that - all of this finds an indirect and fearlessly experimental voice (or, more accurately, voices) in, for example, 'Poem Without a Hero'. And what about the joy of O'Hara and his dancing, violent, quickly-dashed words - why can't the frivolous be as profound and compelling as the infernal? Maybe more important are my deliberate omissions: the entire international school of Concrete and Language poets, George Oppen, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Creeley, and many others. Here form is a series of effects without root - feed both an "idealisation of the self and an idealisation of form", with thin, uninvolving, and, yes, quite useless results.

Pound and Rimbaud bring utterly different qualities, inflections, manifestations, phantasms, etc., to the table. The question, I argue, is not one of a comparative excess of inspiration or Spirit - I don't consider Rimbaud's flight to Africa and arms trading to be too far removed from Pound's exile in fascist Italy and incarceration in a mental ward, if that counts - but rather technique and expression. I maintain that - partly through neglect, partly through quantity, and certainly in terms of quality of writing - The Cantos can be used as an invaluable sourcebook for a fresh, vivid, relevant, politicised form of poetry if - and only if - informed by an excess of Spirit, an almost damaged drive for blood, love, immolation or salvation. You may be interested to know that when I read your brilliant poem 'Heronbone' it made me think of Pound as well as Baudelaire.

One last point: satire. I think you are right about this up to a point, and then you are wrong. The author of satire is very definitely not "invariably a figure of moral authority" - the very opposite in fact. Which informs my further points that irony can be used as a weapon, and humour must be fearless. Do you think that what you say of satire would be true in Moscow in the late 1940s, say, or Poland in 1956? And why is satire so thoroughly oppressed by any even slightly despotic regime (say, Cuba)? Hitchens quotes an apocryphal story about Freud that nevertheless illustrates the use of satire, irony and humour against the ignorance of total authority of any kind:

When he was trapped in Vienna by the Anschluss, he asked the Nazis for a safe-conduct to leave. They granted this on condition that he signed a statement saying that he had been well-treated. He asked for permission to add an extra sentence and to their delighted surprise wrote "I can thoroughly recommend the Gestapo to anyone."

posted by oc  # 6:10 AM

citta vecchio

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