Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Strong View of Poetry

I've compared Lisa Robertson's poetics to Irving Layton's before. Here is a paragraph from Layton's "Poets: The Conscience of Mankind" that is worth comparing to the paragraph I quoted from Robertson's "Prosody of the Citizen" in my last post.

Poetry opposes the totality of the self to the creeping totalitarianism of the twentieth century. The pressures on the individual to simplify and abstract, to deaden his senses, and to live either in his brains or in his loins, are becoming more and more difficult to withstand and resist. In the face of these pressures, poetry affirms that life must be enjoyed in all its delicious complexity. It says to the harassed men and women of today: you must live fully and experience all that you can; only in that way will you be living humanly. A great poet said it a long time ago: we must all be born again. Modern life, with its specialization and division of labour, is turning each of into anatomical and physiological fragments — a brain, an eye, a nose, an arm or a leg. We must somehow find a way to re-assemble these into a human being. I believe that the reading and writing of poetry is a necessary start in the process of reassembling.

Layton's essay is from 1963, which offers us an interesting (if of course entirely constructed) line of historical development from Ezra Pound's "The Serious Artist" (1913) to Robertson's "Prosody of the Citizen" almost a hundred years later, with Layton right in the middle. We go from poetry's foundational role in the ethics, to its opposition to totalitarianism, to its "urgent social abjection". It is important to notice that Robertson and Layton agree on poetry as the "beginning" of something, and both I think mean the beginning of being human. (Layton seems to be quoting Jesus on the need to be "born again"; Robertson gets her concept of "natality" from Arendt.) But isn't it curious that they all (including Pound) have such high hopes (and desperate needs) for poetry? Why should it be so important to write verse? Does our ability to "live humanly" really depend on writing down lines of words that form strophes and then arranging these into poems? Is our humanity threatened, these days, by the palpable absence of poetry in public life? Or are our needs, along with our humanity, changing?


Andrew Shields said...

I have been coming back to this for the last five years now, from Transtromer: "the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another."

Thomas said...

Thanks for this, Andrew.

"'s customary to describe poetry as discarded, almost moribund, an all-too-exclusive art form, without power to break through. And the poets try to push themselves upon the world of the mass media, to get a few crumbs of attention. I think it is time to emphasize that poetry--in spite of all the bad poets and bad readers -- starts from an advantageous position. A piece of paper, some words: it's simple and practical. It gives independence."

As a message to poets, this is of course good news. Don't complain about your conditions, Transtromer says, notice instead your "advantageous position", which, interestingly, corresponds exactly to what Robertson calls its "social abjection".

But it doesn't solve the other problem: the totalitarian "pressures" of "modern life". Though poetry remains possible (because it has such simple, practical needs to get started, it may precisely not "break through" the media of public life. These, I should say, are not just "out there", where they can be ignored. Rather, if Layton is right, they impinge upon the life of the citizen, impoverishing it. Even supposing we find time for poetry, it is unclear what has to happen on the page (those "inspired notes") to re-assemble us.

There is a real problem there, to which it is marvelous to think (but I can't say I am always able to think) poetry is the solution.

Andrew Shields said...

Your comments on Transtromer reminded me of another passage I've been pondering for several years:

"Starved of a general readership, poets are writing only for other poets, like shortwave radio hobbyists who build elaborate machines on which they can only reach each other."

Brian Phillips sees "shortwave radio hobbyists" as a bad figure for poets. Transtromer's "inspired notes to each other" makes ham radio a good figure for poets. Your comments point out that poetry does have a problem that poets need to deal with; we can't just count on each other as long as "modern life" is impinging on us, permeating our notes to each other.

Thomas said...

Maybe it would be enough to have poetry circulate in certain "elite" environments. (In my utopia, not everyone reads Lisa Robertson, but high officials in the technocracy do. This makes their policy work more precise, more human.)

Tocqueville points out that in aristocracies, few read literature, but it is taken seriously. In democracies, by contrast, everyone reads, but it is not taken seriously. So you can't make money as a writer in an aristocracy but you will at least be read with comprehension. In a democracy, by contrast, you can make a good deal of money as a mediocre writer.

So maybe we have to choose between poetry and democracy. Maybe poets are precisely those "anti-government" kooks keeping their ham-radios operating while they wait for the welfare state to collapse?

Andrew Shields said...

We're playing our glass-bead game.