Saturday, 8 January 2011

The idea of subject in poetry (5)- Town and City



I would like to get to a round fifty, then stop, if only because I will find myself ever further from the centre.

So let us begin with the centre.


40. I liked litref's contribution to the second post in this series. He gives a lovely example of 'making strange':

Language can "make strange", can make a cliché into a surprise. My city anecdote: having bungled a short-cut walking in London, slightly lost, I emerged from an unknown street and found myself suddenly in Trafalgar Square, as if for the first time (because of the new angle and my state of mind)

I assume he means Cockspur Street, which looks a little unpromising as you approach Trafalgar Square. In the same way the Rue de Francs Bourgeois, in Paris, leads into the beautiful Places des Vosges (above). And that is the way a poem might well take you, both in writing and reading. Not that the first lines are side streets but that the sense of the poem is a kind of convergence, a made thing involving nature and architecture and people.

41. Also from litrefs:

"I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat when I say that a poem is the city of language just as prose is its countryside. Prose extends laterally filling the page's horizon unimpeded, while poetry is marked by dense verticality, by layerings of meaning and sound. Cities and poetry also share compression, heterogeneity, juxtaposition", Cole Swensen

The verticality seems right to me: the vertical axis of language is mostly echoic association not so much syntactic forward drive, though the poem too has to move forward in its own dancing way. A city of language? Perhaps. I was born in one capital city, brought up in another, and studied art in a major industrial city. Since then I have lived in towns. There is no Places des Vosges in town.

42. The third passage from litrefs:

"If, for the modernist writer, the city existed as a space onto which s/he could map their own psychological terrain, for the postmodernist writer the city is experienced as a rapidly changing domain in flight from ... rational and official discourse", Paul March-Russell

Well now, here is an interesting thing. Beyond the polemics, there is a perfectly rational case for locating something like postmodernism, though I am not so sure of March-Russell's rather over-theoretical description of it. I am not sure that the Places des Vosges is ever in flight from rational and official discourse, as if that was what the modernist city had offered (plus the psychological terrain, etc). The city is relatively stable and we have our official and rational A-Z street maps to help us through it. Nevertheless, something has changed, and I propose that it is technology. The new technology makes possible several parallel discourses to be conducted at once. The point is that each of these discourses might appear rational and official to those conducting them. For some people it means wearing a tin helmet, but for most of us, most of the time, it is a domain of possibilities. The eclecticism of the postmodern is an enormous toy-shop. You want sonnets? We have sonnets. You want Dada? We have Dada. You want an Ashbery? We have several Ashberies in stock, all colours. Would you like that with an O'Hara?

43. Where does this leave the poet - a poet younger than I am possibly, though not necessarily? What voice, what language, what gestures, are feasible? I don't think it is possible to keep repeating the same venerated Modernist gestures and calling that avant gardism or (Godhelpus!) cutting edge. You can only strangle a certain sort of rhetoric once; after that you make your own. Artistic commerce loves the look of a heroic gesture: that is its lifeline and cash cow, and, I quite understand, the young need to do heroic things, but...

44. The city still wears a Modernist look but we who live in it are part of various alternative wirings. We walk the streets of Modernism and keep arriving at one or other Place des Vosges, a space that is serenely itself, and to which we cannot help but respond. Because the essence of city is not this or that period, but the visible historic trace, a compression, heterogeneity and juxtaposition that has never quite obliterated its antecedents and antitheses. This doesn't mean that nothing means anything but that everything means all too much. You cannot spend your entire life in the Rue de Francs Bourgeois and certainly not in the Place des Vosges. Nor is it good to spend your life in the most dreaded banlieu, Man, you gotta go.

45. And if you are writing, all these things can colour your work. These are the streets and cafes and libraries you can frequent. Then you imagine the terrifying and exhilarating galactic spaces beyond all this fiddle, beyond the glorious nonsense of language, and you dive back in to your haunts and responsibilities and other mental landscapes.




46. The image I originally used was the town, not the city. The subject field of this or that average-length poem may resemble the topography of a medium sized town rather than a city. Most poets, I suspect, inhabit towns rather than cities of the imagination. There is a good chance of recognizing people in the street. It is possible to find your way round without a map. You might shop at the same round of shops. Does that make the place dull? The other week we passed four rusted, half-dismantled bicycles chained to each other. Boris's bikes, a notice said. The war memorial is crowded with names. There are five names of one family, nine of another. The men in the betting shop are staring at the screen showing a race. An ambulance screeches down the main street. The old hobble, potter, trundle, waver, come to a brief stop. If you have an eye for microcosms nothing is dull. Emily Dickinson had her room and the universe. The poem with this town as subject needs the universe, but it starts with the bicycles, the war memorial.

47. Axiom: the silver poets are often as interesting and more human than the gold.

48. It is, however, very likely that it is their language, rather than their subject, that makes them interesting. Probably? Surely!

49. When there is an electric storm in the city you can leave the curtains open and feel billows of damp of air passing through. I remember one year in Budapest, a bat flew in and got caught in the curtains. The whole electric shebang was pulsing away. Somewhere, at bottom, life is like this, if only because even a town needs a proper electricity supply, and not just in the official wires.

50. I have long imagined my own natural habitat to be a displaced, slightly run-down tenement block some way from the centre of a foreign city, a good long bus ride from its version of the Place des Vosges. Let there always be lodgers there. Let them keep talking.

Now, enough of this. Tomorrow it's back to The Kinks.



6 comments:

litrefs said...

Technology brings the city to our desktop (zapping through channels/websites is like walking thru a bazaar, a flea-market - literally so with YouTube's tourist clips, etc).

"Where does this leave the poet ...?" - moreso than ever, the "retreat from the hurleyburley" needn't involve travel - just switch the TV/radio/broadcast off and listen to the silence.

"We walk the streets of Modernism and keep arriving at one or other Place des Vosges" - Yes. In the city I guess people are more used to incongruous collisions: beggars on bank-steps, art in powerstations, chicken tikka pizza. Perhaps this mentality seeps into people's writing more now that the computer is both a tool for writing and a city gate.

"Most poets, I suspect, inhabit towns rather than cities of the imagination." - Or "The text as airport. Nothing stops here but thousands walk through everyday", Caroline Bergvall :)

Angela France said...

I have enjoyed these posts - and wonder whether you have read Richard Hugo's 'The Triggering Town'

George S said...

Technology brings the city to our desktop (zapping through channels/websites is like walking thru a bazaar, a flea-market - literally so with YouTube's tourist clips,..

This is what I think of as the Postmodernist Fallacy, Tim. Technology doesn't bring the city to our desktop - it brings images of the city. The Fallacy is to propose that images and things are the same (extreme example: Baudrillard). We know they are not, you know they are not, so why do we say these things? (I have ideas about that, but welcome others.)

What technology does in the non-image world is to take us to the city faster, and once we are in the city, to inform us in copious manner, modifying the experience of the city, as any knowledge is bound to modify the experience to which it relates.

In the city I guess people are more used to incongruous collisions: beggars on bank-steps, art in powerstations, chicken tikka pizza. Perhaps this mentality seeps into people's writing more now that the computer is both a tool for writing and a city gate.

These collisions are not new. Where better for a beggar than on the steps of a bank? Why not the power station as art? Well, it was to the Victorians. What I do think does seep into people's minds and writing is the sense of simultaneity, and doubt about the truth of both representation, and the various claims of authenticity

There is no doubt in my mind, or most people's minds, that the real city exists. Romantic love, for example, exists beyond the images of it. I have often quoted Le Rochefoucauld - 'Whoever would love did they not know the discourse of love?' - considering a degree of scepticism to be appropriate about emotions with a fancy superstructure, but my own answer to him would be: 'I don't know, but I suspect they might. It's just that the articulation of love might be different, producing a slightly different discourse, since everything we experience produces a discourse of one sort or another.' I do know the city exists.

George S said...

"The text as airport. Nothing stops here but thousands walk through everyday", Caroline Bergvall :)

Yes, that's a lovely image, but, before that, text was railway station, bus stop, coaching inn. It's temporary all right, but we spend time there, and occasionally linger before moving on. Mostly we find ourselves back in such places when movement becomes necessary for our lives.

And that still leaves text as Emily Dickinson's the house that tries to be haunted. My instinct is that the ghosts are there, the house chockful of them, packed to bursting, but they don't jump to command: we have to whistle them out of our very bones. Besides that, the house of flesh is also, we might feel, something of a transit lounge. It's just that there are probably no more flights leaving. Keep checking that departures board.

Mark Granier said...

'I have enjoyed these posts - and wonder whether you have read Richard Hugo's 'The Triggering Town'.

Me too Angela. I was first introduced to that marvelous book during an MA course I did in 1995 in Antrim, and I have often recommended it to others.

George S said...

Angela , Mark. No, I haven't read Richard Hugo. It sounds as though I should. I'll order it.