Poetry and Culture

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA. All postings at 3QD (September 26, 2005–March 3, 2008) are copyright, the author. All rights reserved. Apart from fair use provisions under the Commonwealth of Australia Copyright Act 1968, and its amendments, subsequent copying in any other manner requires written permission of the author.

The following essay can also be read online at Blesok in an English/Macedonian bilingual edition. Blesok No. 56 Volume X September-October 2007 ed. Igor Isakovski; available in print, Prosopisia Vol 1, 2008, Jayanta Mahapatra, Anuraag Sharma, Pradeep Trikha eds., Ajmer, India 44–56

To Seek and Find: Poetry and Limitations of the Ironic Mode in the New Millennium

The catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 were, obviously enough, an epic  moment in world history. And in cultural history too. Here, with Dantesque finality, was a brutal confrontation between annihilating fundamentalism and capitalist pluralism. Art is political, and the implications for art arising out of this attack have complex resonances. Artistic periods never end with punctuation marks of such cataclysmic force, and doubtless, in years to come, there will still be people bringing their lack of seriousness  onto us in the name of some tail-end of the expected modernist nirvana. September 11 should have brought us to a political and artistic reckoning. Subsequently, Australian artists have every reason to similarly confront the tradition within which they work and create, after the outrages in Bali on October 12, 2002. What have modernism and postmodernism given us, and what might be the limitations of their aesthetic cultural agendas. And where will we go from this point on.

One might have read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil as a brilliant intellectual exercise without thereby adhering to his scorn for what he termed ‘slave morality’. Perhaps one could claim Nietzsche as the ‘godfather’ of the present loss of nerve amongst poets, though that would be unfair—Duchamp’s Fountain looks to be a more likely progenitor. In fact there was no getting beyond good or evil, even as love, just as there were clear limitations to the philosophical and artistic liberation proposed by modern and postmodern sensibilities. If Voltaire was the instigator of the enlightenment, then, surely, an act of terror was the symbolic black end of one loop of cultural experimentation which not all the references to Joyce, Eliot and Beckett, Mallarmé, Kafka or Sartre, Schopenhauer, Heidegger or Foucault, could summon back from entropy. Could the imagery be any starker: the contrast between art that indulged itself, increasingly in the ironic mode, at the cost of any semblance of responsibility to its increasingly unimpressed and diminishing readership; and there, in countless desperate acts, the brittle certainties of the funded fun future made seemingly redundant. In poetry, amenable sensibilities had a propaganda effort made on their behalf worthy of Goebbels, but the prospective audience was never convinced, either by the art itself or the slurry of theory surrounding it. The gentility principle might have driven many to the desperate shores of a verse technique where a confessional mode almost became a therapeutic cry for help;—much contemporary verse politicking espoused a similarly-perceived principle. There, the understood ground rules were based on an a priori assumption that what had passed before during the entire history of poetry was no longer adequate to meet the expressive demands of the brave new world. Since stem cell research and silicon chips could only preserve a sense of well-being to a certain extent, some were now going to open up a newly-evolved and superior verse technique that would conquer the deconstructed past and lead us into a freshly-felt and apprehended poetics. Or not. It was all very well to get enthusiastic about the Modernist ethic as espoused by a le Corbusier. Actually living in the buildings put up proved to be another matter altogether. And living in, or with, the poems put out by the critical establishment as similarly worthy of merit often found readers abandoned in a maze that could lead them up a desolate cultural garden path.

A large part of the critical ethos of our culture, with its net of conservative and avant-garde sensibilities, now seems an inadequate systematisation of the complexities within important works of art. In the sudden and unexpectedly given act of courage, grace or death, or the long slog toward some human dignity—the aid worker getting down in the dust and the blood, the teacher supplanting ignorance with learning—there was an alternative poetic act that had no need of accommodating aesthetics. As artists, we had learned to corral art into convenient and limiting holding pens; the animals inside were then sold off to the highest bidder. Some gave good money for New York expressionism; others paid handsomely for suicide chic; over at  the ISCM they put down a fortune for the Boulez electronic extravaganza. But something strange happened along the way because it looked increasingly as if apparently outmoded nineteenth-century art had got beyond whatever forefront was being temporarily talked up. Tristan und Isolde sounded the depth of our skinful, but there was a Verklärung waiting in the wings, and the contemporary had no time for transfigurations. Emily Dickinson’ s poetry startled with its savage joy; Goya dragged revolutionary tumult to the edge of the canvas, seething with the imagery of disaster. But art aficionados, safe in their Western enclaves, mute herds trading their tame emails, had entirely missed the point. One was never in advance of the immediate historical moment, however seductive it seemed to want to have it otherwise. There has been some not-very-logical wish-fulfilment in the poetry world based on a futile desire to appropriate a time-traveller’s gold points reward scheme for being ahead of the rest. Certainly, talk about art, and theorising about art, reached the point where secondary considerations—the talk about art—was in danger of supplanting the primary consideration—the art. If Australians grabbed at people who ran or swam fast, or bashed balls of various kinds skilfully, as a desperate remedy for a failure to confront their destiny—Aboriginality, salinity, harsh political reality—the rest of the Western world showed that it was no less given to avoidance of reality too. Foreign policy had failed the poverty of millions; political imperialism had given itself over to triumphalism; fanatical hatred made suddenly clear the terrible cost of the partial, self-congratulatory view. Mandarin encyclicals sent forth from politically-correct, or incorrect, clearing houses had nothing to do with the creation of genuine works of art; to see so many poets set up house in them was just one more sign that the poetry world was diminishing in strength, diversity and vitality despite the fact that more poetry was now published than at any time in history. But how do you employ a poet, since any reasonably-good poet is going to be a Cassandra given to  psychic keening: that never went down well in the staff room.

It is easy to make accusations of parochialism and to portray the reaction I have just outlined as retroactive. But if artists are claiming to do something important and worthy of our time, it is essential that we also remain worthy of the  inheritance of freedom and democracy that gave us the option to write, compose or paint—digitise, download or deconstruct—as we wished. Aesthetic freedom never meant anarchy; being an individual in art did not mean you could indulge your sensibility, because the resulting artistic ivory towers were just as certainly going to go down in flames. Fortunately, this could occur without violence (though perhaps not the ‘violence from within that protects us from a violence without’ Stevens). Despite a century of despotism from various factions in the poetry world, from which one might have thought people had learned some principles of democratisation, and putting all the stylish folderol of HTML to one side, we were just getting the old Stalinist power plays all over again. Nothing had really changed in the minds of these people; they were dully intent on repeating their one-note aesthetic agendas. Thus when it came time to anthologise what we usually got was a series of fetishised poems meant to underline the editor’s subjective aesthetics—we hardly ever got the best poems by the best poets. And these people could not resist utilising the means of production. You could draw a comparison between the appalling collectivist farms at the height of the Communist period in Russia and many a poetic enclave. Just as the collectivist farm failed and millions starved, so the self-enclosed poetry collective saw off any untoward intellectual or poetic disturbing element. The purifying flame of excommunication hovered in the background. The end result was always the same—death of the system and the extinguishment of its hopes. Only the seeding ground of the house of all nations could breed the soil from which a civilised sensibility could emerge. Strangely enough, it was the Russian poets who seemed to get beyond the usual politics. What a roll-call of talent and individuality they managed amongst all the turbulence.

When considering the history of poetry during the twentieth century, it looked increasingly clear that the poets who mattered enough to become part of the culture that was going to last were going to be those instinctive poets who wrote because they had to, not spruik lines at the behest of a grant. There was Auden’s cosmopolitan insouciance, Frost’s dark pastoral, Stevens’ marmoreal aesthetic grandeur. Limestone cliffs, glittering birches, dazzling Key West reefs: the aesthetic was personal, political. It never made the mistake of romanticising itself through adoption of theory or of using language as a game, because poets of their stature knew that art was far too serious not to take language seriously too. Though clusters of theory gathered around their poetry, they had no need of it. If it was merely funny to hear a teenager refer to the ‘genius’ of the latest ersatz pop star, it was truly terrifying to read the German composer Stockhausen referring to the September 11 events as a ‘grosseste Kunstwerk’. Here was the aesthetic response gone completely awry. A century of aestheticising and ironising experience had reached beyond the protecting field of common sense.

[Part 2 of this essay continues here.]


                   A Definition

It lives
When the gold myrtle wreath
From an uncertain tomb
Is put on display under glass,
Is sex and death
In each of their various fashions,
Tastes of salt,
Smells of hot bitumen
Or a handful of crushed leaves.
It rids the boredom of known stuff
And gossip that doesn’t amaze
In a shiver scalping our skin.
It can’t be polite—
Mucus, scar tissue, fluids
Best not mentioned
Rush to its page
That we sometimes write,
Sometimes sleep with,
Sometimes kill with.
Our depression won’t exhaust it.
Think of a cleaver stuck in your thigh,
Skin made mortal,
Or the crimp on the face
When we stand on the edge of large things—
A hard birth, the end of the affair,
That loved thing whose name makes us sweat.
It isn’t money,
Though money might buy
Something of it
(Cézannes on the wall,
The rights to Fellini’s next film).
It might come
Just as you’ve ironed the ninth shirt
And feel like throwing the kid
Who hasn’t shut up for three hours
Out the window along with the bills
(But the child
Is made wholly of this thing—
It can shred as years intervene).
Then, for each expert
Who sets down its plan,
The real thing goes off at tangents.
It won’t fit in troughs,
Glinting, flittering over books,
Breaking Olympic records.
Try to put a sack over it,
Hold it under water—just like Johnny,
It’ll be back, grinning.
So, whatever you might think
About its demise, it will be around,
The warmth behind our monotony,
That passion in the slipstream,
For it lives and keeps on:
That’s what poetry is.

Written 1989 Published 1997 A Dwelling Place 20–21