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.


Poetry and limitations of the ironic mode in the new millennium, Part 2

[The first part of this essay can be found here.]

The composer subsequently explained that he saw the work of Lucifer at work in New York, an entity without love, as the negative force in the struggle to create artwork—but the whole tendency to aestheticise experience, and then theorise that experience, shows how stillborn the expected revolution had turned out to be. With claims that language  had been liberated from the old paternal, sexist past, yet another regime battened down the hatches and enforced its own perverse brand of ideological correctness. It was clear that there was a disconnect between what the language theorists said could be done and what had actually been achieved. Rather than wringing the neck of rhetoric, which the modernists were over-fond of quoting as a devoutly-wished consummation, they had invented a Byzantine rhetorical mode all their own, with its arcane, intangible poetry-speak that simply baffled those who didn’t fall for its nostrums and blithe indifference to the actual act of communication. Having missed out on real revolutionary fervour, soixante-huit and all that, they seemed to think artistic change could come about through substitute barricading of printing presses and metaphorical shouting from digital rooftops. Thus their naive nostalgia for Left Bank subfusc Marxism or Greenwich Village groove as they imagined themselves following on in the tradition of Bakunin, Tel Quel, the Situationists, or whoever.

What developed in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century as a suspicion of feeling, never mind the antithetical examples near to hand of Tennyson and Keats, was ironised beyond recognition in the States where the experimental became a due process, then a status quo, institutionalised by academe and magazine. Of course, there were exceptions—Crane, Frost. Philosophy provided a convenient  resource for those who were growing wary of their own emotions. When Wittgenstein said that words should be distrusted as agents of truth, poets should have rebelled with every fibre of poetic being, since that is where poets find their truth, such as it is. Swathes of poetry read as if they had been cauterised. Burnt verse offerings were mute testimony to the divided self that wanted at all costs to be seen as Modern, echoing on the shores of publication the surf of their rebarbative white noise.

September 11 was a signifier like no other. We had been alerted before by the bloodbaths in Vietnam, Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, the Balkans, the Palestinian struggle, world without end. But it took the destruction of the prime symbol of Western capitalism to give the ultimate wake up call to the West. Was our civilisation worth fighting for? Of course it was, but some couldn’t see the writing on the Western wall. The land of the free and home of the brave resided in everyone who honoured parliamentary democracy. Democracy bestowed on us the virtue of citizenship, the citizenship that gave us not just rights, but obligations too. Just what those obligations should be for the artist, the poet, was a piece of hard thinking not done by those undergoing their compulsory fifteen minutes of fame in the moronic inferno (Bellow’s phrase). The sound and fury could turn out to be an insubstantial pageant faded. The long haul across a lifetime of creative endeavour had to be centred in truthfulness, beauty and fidelity to the Muse, Nietzschean scorn notwithstanding, if it was going to thrive once the iron lung of praise was switched off. Time had a special way of sending down to darkness strident pronunciamentos already fading to uncertainty.

Kant said that Hume aroused him from dogmatic slumber. A large swathe of the poetry world is yet to awake from its own dogmatic slumber, so pleased is it with its own enervating, inward-directed gaze. The rest of the world may very well be passing it by: to those manning the approved poetry portals the view looks good—calm seas and prosperous voyage ahead! Semiotics, deconstruction, bricolage, the age of mechanical reproduction, Lacan, Derrida, the uncertainty principle—these were the constituent elements of the postmodern sensibility which had pirated the good ship Romanticism. The ship sailed on through uncertain, nihilistic seas, but almost everyone was happy to be on board. ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find’ Whitman had intoned. But that was no good anymore. Was it now just ‘Sail forth’ because there was nothing left to find, motion for the sake of motion, language for the sake of L=A=N=G etc. However, being a pluralist did not mean accepting the validity of all that was offered, since a great deal of what was offered was mediocre. The receding tides of imperial might still drew in minorities clinging to the coattails of the deceased as a mountain of books and ezines were launched into bulimic oblivion.

A new humanism is certainly needed, but it cannot be the kind that uses the terminology of race winning—art says more than science; science reaches further, and explains more, than art. A poet has a tremendous amount to learn from the scientific and technological revolution. But a poet is not a scientist, a few professionals aside, and it is our job to use language to describe the world, and our feelings, not try to make language the metaphoric adept of quantum mechanics, string theory or fractals, as much as language might reflect aspects of those subjects in its verse technique.

If we were wise, we would envy the relationship of a Nietzsche and a Wagner. Not wearing the mendacious rose-coloured glasses of Heidegger/Arendt, Sartre/de Beauvoir, here was a relationship based on aesthetic venturesomeness and passionate intellectual confrontation that took no hostages to fortune. There was the inevitable falling-out, as is often the way with heroic minds, and mistaken enterprise on both sides, but what gold was deposited in the artistic and philosophical bank vault along the way! How unsatisfactory seem our poetry schools with their frigid theoretical totemism. Groucho Marx: I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. Australians were a bit too proud of their ability to make a joke of everything and everyone; a savage irony and sarcasm was waiting for anyone who got above themselves. The trouble was, art required getting above yourself since art reached beyond what could not be grasped. Here was a conundrum for the Australian artist. Would they play up to the ideology inherent in convict history and just laugh at the world, or would they willingly choose the ostracism waiting down the pathway of seriousness—laconic Australian speech with its concern for the pragmatic quotidian being somewhat at odds with the demands of memorability and expression of complex feeling. Well, the punishments were duly handed out: Margaret Sutherland lived a life of virtual exile in her homeland; Francis Webb’s Brucknerian confrontation with land and spirit was all but ignored, Joy Hester’s tormented vision waited for the six-feet-under years before people started to look at what she had given*. Here were some of the artists who took the hard choices. They were ironic about themselves, but not about their art. Feeling, contradictory and complex, and intelligence, disturbing and antithetical, was evident when artists chose to challenge themselves, not with the technological tools at hand, but with artistic solitude, the rigours of the Muse, the uncordial and unlovely, unfunded and often unacknowledged hard slog sparked by the visionary gleam. An ironic homunculus is always at work in art, and is always a part of any useful artistic enterprise, but when that ironic component has come to dominate the sensibility of an art form, then the capacity of that art form to respond to the complexity of the world is vitiated. What can follow in the wake of terminal irony but sterility and irrelevance.

I remember the first time I saw Lucian Freud’s work, and I didn’t like it at all. Only experience and a greater knowledge of figurative painting brought me to the realisation that here was an admirable artistic seriousness and consummate technical skill. Freud made absolutely no accommodation to the -isms and -ologies of the twentieth century, and paid a price, in the interim, for doing so. To look at Freud seriously is a forbidding experience, a truthful, liberating experience. When I look at his paintings and etchings, I also intuit the presence, and influence, of Rembrandt, Constable and Ingres, and know that I have a great deal to learn from being confronted in this way, lessons I once was not ready to receive. It seems that some artists now believe that they have no need of an inheritance. And some poets think they can make language over again. Their knowledge of history is so slim that they haven’t come to the realisation that it is given to very few writers to remake language in that transformational way. It would be a supreme irony if the future decided that these attempts to revolutionise language had reduced the status of poetry to that of a kind of esoteric language game. Irony as stimulus, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, certainly. There could be no greater exemplar of this kind of irony than Shostakovich who enclosed within a satirical and tragic doubleness an entire emotional and intellectual cosmography, an irony capable of quoting both Rossini and Wagner in its last symphonic confrontation. Sachs tells Walther at the end of Die Meistersinger to honour the masters, the mastersingers—Walther has said he has no need of them. Wagner says it is essential to have a knowledge of the art that has brought us to the present moment. This has nothing to do with burying one’s head in the sand—being a classic Stuckist—and everything to do with knowing the good that is not interred with bones, the art that stands as a challenge to everything we achieve and which it is our duty to honour—or what will be left that that will be worthwhile? Here should be the joy, not the anxiety, of influence. We cannot invent the world again; this is the same world that brought forth Aeschylus and Euripides, Newton and Einstein, no matter how enticing the technological marvels, with their intimations of transformational experience, now laid out before us. If a poet believes with John Cage that the goal should be to show there is no goal, that is an irony that will be of little interest to future readers. But that is a choice we make, with the language we use, with our poetics and aesthetics.

Poetry embodies the gold nerve of our condition, the impulse that circumnavigates our world, sewing up in vowels and syllables the extraordinarily vulnerable yet tenacious human condition. We may well feel an overwhelming irony confronting the task of producing art in an era that seems, in some respects, to trivialise art and the ideal of art—that has always been the lot of the artist. But in poetry, and I should say the rest of art too, that irony will never be enough, unless one has given up on civilisation. We must move on from the ironic mode, and from the nihilism and scepticism inherent in the ironic mode of discourse, to a more exploratory and expressive aesthetic. The feeling that comes after irony—this is what we must grapple with, as we work our way towards the source that has led us from amphora to cyberspace. To be worthy of that impulse is the duty of the poet.

*Margaret Sutherland, Francis Webb, Joy Hester: respectively, Australian composer, poet and artist.



That flickers,
After reels
Collect facts
In an air-conditioned room;

Which fills
With gristle of tongue,
Beginnings and endings

Whose weight
By the fold
Of computer digits
And printouts;

This word,
Beautiful, true, free,
We hold.

Written 1990 Published 1997 A Dwelling Place 82