The following is a recent article, a version of which appears on the web-site of Resurgence magazine and which arose from Judy Gahagan’s most recent course at the Poetry School: Claiming the Heartlands
CLAIMING THE POETRY HEARTLANDS
As poet and tutor at The Poetry School I run courses for poets on themes arising out of my interests in psychology and in ecological thinking. In this capacity I’ve become very aware of perennial debates about the nature of poetry and its importance or otherwise as an art. Time and again certain themes surface: poetry’s place among other forms of art and entertainment; how a poetry text may be distinguished from the myriad other texts that engulf us on a daily basis; whether the continuing and widely diffused writing of poetry somehow compromises those standards required by its status as an art form. My contact with poetry writers frequently reveals a paradox: that they are often assailed by the suspicion that, in the absence of public acknowledgement and indeed even with it, in the confusion surrounding ‘standards’, what they do may be trivial verging on the pointless; on the other hand they go on doing it –often with great commitment.
Recently I had the chance to confront some of these questions in a course I ran called ‘Claiming The Heartlands’ in which we searched for some core features that have distinguished poetry from other text-based activities. One important realisation for me was that writing poetry can involve (should involve?) particular states of mind and attitude that run counter to a current and dominant state of awareness, and in this sense (not in the political sense) poetry can be subversive, offering expression to states of mind, quintessentially human, that otherwise find little outlet. The ‘ poetic moment’ the small epiphany is what impels a poem and it’s striking how much people want to claim such moments. The moment is one where something strikes with feeling and connects to some larger idea and the search is on for its particular aesthetic form. This process, I thought, is the most important aspect of poetry writing. This realisation was strengthened when I thought about the context in which poetry is written, read, evaluated and published and the degree to which that context is sympathetic or otherwise to the poetic mind-set. So what about the context?
THE CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT
Poems And Other Texts
Poetry has to find its place in a rich and brilliant linguistic world of advertising, entertainment and journalism electronically and powerfully diffused and therefore insistent. Where does poetry stand in relation to all this? Since the beginnings of ‘modernism’, nearly a century ago, poetry has not been expected or, latterly, not often permitted to claim a special diction or to speak in a special or portentous voice on limited and special themes. The point has been reached where no topic is excluded from poetic treatment, nor any linguistic code (except perhaps the elevated and portentous). The demand for accessibility and the rejection of elitism have reinforced this process. Furthermore rules that previously constrained text into poetry, rules of metre, rhyme or form have become diffuse and obscure. As in the visual arts, where only the context of the gallery allows us to recognise some display as fine art, so it may be that often poetry is recognised as such only by the context in which it appears. This, with poetry, is something of an exaggeration of course since the clue to a piece of text being a poem lies also with the lay-out of its lines on the page. But as many people writing and reading poetry will acknowledge, line arrangement and form appear often to be subtle if not arbitrary. I have tried laying out texts from a variety of sources, including poems, on similar themes, obliterating line-ending clues, and inviting people to identify the poems. A task that’s very difficult but at the same time revealing in the sense that something behind the text as much as on its surface can indicate a poetic intention. Nevertheless people who are not poets will often say of a contemporary poem that they don’t understand it; on closer questioning it often turns out they do understand it but don’t understand why it’s a poem. Linguistically, one could say, the once unique poetry habitat is a threatened one.
Experience As Commodity
It’s not only in language that poetry may lose itself but also in its experiential terrain. The mass production and promotion of goods for consumption has been central to society for a very long time: ‘Daddy, what’s the moon supposed to advertise?’ runs a joke surfacing around the time of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. More recent is the powerfully insistent promotion of experience itself for consumption: life can come scripted as life-style. In the film ‘The Truman Case’ a man, living an unexceptional life somewhere in suburban America, begins to sense that he’s not really the author of his own experiences. It turns out that from birth he’s been conscripted into a television soap.
Huge amounts of potential experience can be and is pre-packaged : love to become viewable sex, travel to become tourism, relationships to stock character drama, our relationship with the natural world a leisure resource. The poet’s dilemma might become like that of the professional chef who no longer had access to the raw materials with which to create dishes since they’d all been used up in processed, pre-prepared meals.
But writing poetry is one way of fighting back. The individual writing a poem is claiming an experience as opposed to consuming it. Consuming is largely constrained to the one dimension of satisfaction and value for money or otherwise. Experience can be multi-dimensional as is the poetic moment that might arise from it–image, feeling, connection, idea –a small epiphany- and an aesthetic form. In claiming a moment’s experience a poet recovers the soul in things and events, recovers Keats’ ‘vale of soul-making’ in a world whose soul is menaced. Like the poet in Huxley’s futuristic fantasy the poet is thus subversive; the poem permits the ‘internal migration’ discovered by poets in explicitly totalitarian regimes. Whatever the quality of a poem the writing of it keeps alive some region of life beyond commoditisation. It privileges a unique terrain for the poet –amateur or professional.
The Priority Of The New
Consumer capitalism demands turnover. It therefore demands endless sources of novelty and youthfulness; and it demands functioning markets. Poetry like other arts has to be evaluated in this context. It’s not surprising then that the language of poetry and poet promotion resembles that of the promotion of other things, people and experiences: launch, break-through, exciting, challenge, the latest, a new generation – (when the previous one may have only emerged a few years previously) - and so forth. Thus the winners of prestigious competitions soon appear as the new judges of the next ones.
Consumer capitalism also demands competition for its success. As in the other arts the world of poetry is dominated by competition which plays a role in its marketing. Anyone wanting their poetry to get public approval must necessarily run the gauntlet of these demands. Anyone wanting to appreciate the quality of work has also to take this context into account. Publicity and acclaim will have a certain relationship with values arguably inherent in poetry but it will be by no means a straightforward one. We also have to take this context into account when we try to distinguish the millions of ‘amateur’ poets from the fewer ‘professional’ ones.
Englishness And The Rule Of The Ordinary
Within this contemporary context of language and experience common in varying degrees to all modern societies there will be mind-sets peculiar to particular places. They establish underlying attitudes that are not often acknowledged and become canons to which poets may become submissive. One particular to England is the love of material, common-sense ‘reality’ and suspicion of the visionary, the ideological, the big idea and hyperbole in general. The risk inherent in this, a serious risk to the making of poetry, is distrust of the imagination; poets will be urged to speak the truth –that is stick to the facts, resulting in: ‘the desert of exact likeness to the reality which is perceived by the most common-place mind’ as T.S.Eliot warned. Unfortunately this valuing of the ordinary and the common-place often appears masked in canons about ‘sincerity’ or ‘honesty’ or ‘telling it like it is’ should a poet invoke some world that runs counter to the commonly acknowledged ‘reality’ and worse take a portentous attitude towards that reality. The elevation of ‘ordinariness’ in poetry is likely to run counter to that re-enchantment of things a poet experiences in the poetic moment. William Blake, renegade, was already crusading for the primacy of imagination a very long time ago. Poetry is where you may defy this underlying stricture.
The main idea then that emerged from this analysis of the context in which poetry is made was that poets are in essence subversive; they conserve states of mind, attitude and voice not privileged in the wider world, indeed that may be repressed in whole zeitgeists; and it will be this process that offers poets a distinctive terrain, experientially and linguistically, and one essential to preserving basic human qualities in the face of economy and its impositions. So much for the general context. What kinds of attitude and mind-state might be the privilege of poetry, what experiences might be repressed in a particular epoch? In the current scene I’d propose the following:
Subversive States Of Mind
Reverence, awe and humility : the virtuosity of science and technology and the potential availability of almost anything in the rich world provide the background for a sense of control and demand. The tone is one of knowing what one wants and how to set about getting it. The poet, though, often speaks of the unknown, the uncertain, the unobtainable, the longed for, the subtle currents that flow between events in the world. Maintaining that pervasive sense of the mystery of things emerges in poetry all the time. Along with that is preserved a sense of humility and in that, contentment, at contemplating both the marvel and the mystery of the world;
Reserve and modesty: along with the sense of demand and control are the full-frontal assaults on and display of so much human experience. The investigative drive of much media to the ‘truths’ behind surfaces contrasts with the elusive and tangential voices of poetry; and with the dwelling on surfaces and appearances for their own sake that create the aesthetic of poetry.
Need for and response to beauty: beauty as a concept has become as taboo in the arts as it is repressed in the world at large. It’s easy for beauty to stay out of debates in the arts, sheltering behind the belief that it cannot be defined, being irredeemably subjective. The topic merits a huge debate –too huge for this paper. However one approach to the dilemma of definition lies in focussing on the root meaning of aesthetic – to the ‘drawing in of the breath’ in the presence of some phenomenon –where it’s sheer presence is breathtaking. It’s also tied in history and myth to love and to pleasure. Whatever the benefits of material progress, the world around – its sights, sounds, smells, its cityscapes and landscapes at first sight evoke little pleasure or love. They will need a very special kind of apperception to do so. Beauty, our need for and impulse towards it, unlike sex and violence and horror, is largely repressed. The delightful is regarded as superficial, the wretched or appalling as close to the truth. Yet finding and capturing beauty was at one time the major preoccupation of artists, including poets. Poets have the task of finding beauty lurking in an often soul-destroyed world. Many have submitted to the repression. Plenty have not.
Connection with Nature: the human-centred-ness and arrogance resulting from control over the material world has had disastrous consequences for one source of beauty, psychological well-being and artistic enrichment – the natural world. Even now the environmental crisis is thought about as a technological and political problem rather than a psychological and spiritual one. The natural world offers the potential for a sense of reverence, beauty and humility, repressed elsewhere but raw material for poets. Jonathan Bates explores this issue in depth both in his wonderful study ‘ Song of the Earth’ and in his studies of John Clare. John Ruskin, more than a century ago, put the question of why so much of the natural world, its colours, movements, patterns, forms, sounds are perceived as beautiful by most people, a question that incidentally raises challenges for the theory of evolution. We are now learning just how much effect the presence of non-human nature has on physical and psychological recovery. Yet in recent years there have been voices claiming with pride that poetry is not ‘about nature’. But in even more recent years there’s an emerging and wonderful highly acclaimed poetry of the natural world.
Recovering place: the world-wide homogenisation of urban and suburban landscapes, mobility forced and voluntary, have disrupted our sense of and need for place and home territories. This sense and need locates us in nature alongside other species; it’s part of our nature. Place once played an intense role in poetry as in other literary forms. In poetry it’s beginning to do so again: consider Mark Doty’s America, Kathleen Jamie’s Scotland, John Burnside’s Scotland, Glyn Maxwell’s home counties, Alice Oswald’s Devon-to mention a few.
The dialectics of soul and spirit:
In life as in poetry we run the gauntlet between the prodigal, emotional, elaborate and intense, on the one hand, and the ascetic and spare on the other; in home fashions between minimalism and clutter; in self-management between indulgence and denial; between the spirituality of high rare places where we contemplate the unearthly and eternal and submit to the emptying disciplines of meditation, and the luxuriant valleys of soul (as James Hillman puts it) where we’re immersed in dramas of attachment, melancholy and absurd joys, ‘problems’, and absurd exaggeration. Poets explore this polarity all the time; it necessarily involves fundamental questions of technique and treatment as well as of content. Spirit in poetry is often also found in the lightness of humour. In the long run poets will find themselves clinging more to one pole than to the other.
These were my candidates for states of mind and process that could allow poetry its particular domain apart from the domains of other media and provide a kind of reservation where ‘subversive’ states of mind can graze.
Many Are Called And Few Are Chosen
One ‘dilemma’, to my mind not a real one though it’s sometimes raised as such on public occasions, is the question of countless amateurs cluttering the professional spaces of poetry. The designation ‘amateur’ or professional, as I’ve suggested already, is arrived at by social as well as artistic process; that is - the features that lead to acclaim for a poet and his/her work are partly artistic but also arise out of social processes of exposure, competition, marketing, personality features to do with the poet rather than the work and often resonance with the current zeitgeist. This means that ‘quality’ or ‘standards’ can’t apply unequivocally or uniquely to professional poets. There’s more than one route to acknowledgement and fame. One of the reasons for the ubiquity of ‘the competition’ in the arts generally is, in fact, because of the deep uncertainty around enduring values. The competition throws it to the crowd, as it were.
The dilemma surrounding value though affects all poets profoundly: ‘how can I get published?’; ‘what is the point of writing poems if they don’t reach a wide public?’; ‘poetry is largely ignored and volumes of poetry are barely reviewed in the literary media’; ‘poetry makes no money’; ‘poetry makes nothing happen’; nobody reads poetry’.
I would argue (excepting the last of these problems – which if true is a great pity) that it is precisely these weaknesses that are poetry’s strengths; not just for the art itself but for the sake of conserving essential attributes of being human. Poetry can’t possibly compete with big entertainment nor should it; nor can the processes of writing it thrive in celebrity culture. The fact that it makes little money (and need cost very little to create) is a prime indicator of its subversiveness in a world in which money largely replaces other values – values poetry is uniquely designed to enshrine; if poetry can ‘do’ anything at all it can awaken states of mind and consciousness in reader and writer alike: state of consciousness - that slow invisible current which underlies the activities of epochs.
The major actors on the poetry scene, the professionals may establish, with their borrowed authority, canons or they can overthrow them. They will also charge themselves with the experimental and perhaps offer new resources to the poets who remain followers. They create both an image of an epoch in poetry and also its avant-garde. That’s important but it’s not uniquely important; it’s also the countless individuals who claim some experiential moment and allow their creative faculties to embark on enshrining it, transformed, into a poem. That alchemical search for the fine poem sends them to countless writing groups. They may appear to bring little more than some unleavened small observation. In the best of group processes the epiphany buried within such a poem will be invoked and the search is then on for the form that will most faithfully reflect it. How better to create a subversive movement for our times!
Judy Gahagan is planning a course for the Poetry School next year: Two-way Mirrors in which participants will explore the way outer and inner events can mirror one another.
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