Thursday, August 23, 2012

Layton & Robertson

I want to put two passages alongside each other. The first was published in 1961, in the foreword to Irving Layton's The Swinging Flesh:

The society of the future will have no more need for living, creative art than for religion. To the comfortable air-conditioned suburbanite of tomorrow the intuitions of the one will appear as ludicrously pitiable and archaic as those of the other. Indeed, they will be as incomprehensible to him as the vanished ecstasies of bull-worshipping. Such a society — its outlines are already visible to anyone who is not afraid to take a good look — will be run by a tolerant élite composed of scientists, well-heeled technicians, and efficient commissars, buttressed by serviceable cadres of social workers and psychiatrists. As the tragic drama unfolds,these grousp must play the assassins of whatever is passionate and unpredictable in human experience — that is, of art.(Engagements, p. 93)

The second is from Lisa Robertson's "Untitled Essay" in Nilling (Bookthug, 2012) also published online as "Prosody of the Citizen". Here she says:

Now language and money circulate using the same medium, a grammar which is digital, horizontal and magnetic, and politically determined. Maybe all language will be eventually administrated as an institutional money: a contained and centrally monitored instrumental value. On the other hand, the digitization of value could mean that language in its vernacular expression can infiltrate and deform capital’s production and limitation of social power. If it is to be the latter, then vernacular language’s magnetism will reorient the polis.(Nilling, p. 78)

There are vast differences in temperament between Irving Layton and Lisa Robertson, but I think they are diagnosing the same problem (the tragedy continues to unfold), and, interestingly, they offer the same solution: poetry. The problem, in a word, is money. (See Layton, p. 35ff.)

Robertson's introduction to Occasional Work reads as follows:

The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as a I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid called money. Buildings disappeared into newness. I tried to recall spaces, and what I remembered was surfaces. Here and there money had tarried. The result seemed emotional. I wanted to document this process. I began to research the history of surfaces. I included my own desires in the history. In this way I became multiple. I became money.

Layton quotes Pound's "Serious Artist" with approval: the poet displays "a sort of persistence of the emotional nature, and, joined with this, a peculiar sort of control" (125). That describes Robertson's work during her process of, if you will, becoming-money.

For Robertson a "poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers". Layton is more old-fashioned: A poem is "the miraculous fusion of sound and sense" (124). In both cases, the poem is going to have to counter (or perhaps just modulate) the effects of money, in which our cities, and our homes, are dissolving.

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