Blesok no. 56, September-October, 2007

Poetry and Culture

Peter Nicholson

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, contemporary 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.

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

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 naïve 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.

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