Friday, 9 September 2011

More Austerities

Spooky Dust from Grave Berries on Vimeo.

I am still interested in those shifts of sensibility. Best perhaps to start from the points in my reply to a comment by Anonymous, who turns out to be panther. These are the two paragraphs.

When I want to be curmudgeonly about this I tell myself the young have nothing to write about. Nothing beyond the personal has happened to them - and everything they have witnessed has come to them filtered through the technologies of our time, technologies that people like Baudrillard regard as constituting another reality - the computer game of the first Iraq War for instance (the one about the occupation of Kuwait)...

Before the Berlin War [mentioned by panther as the chief historical turning point in his/her memory] there was Vietnam and Prague 1968. Before that it was the Six Day War, before that the Cuba crisis, before that Budapest and Suez, which is as far as I go back as a child, though my life was clearly conditioned by what had happened before - the War and the Shoah, the fascist Thirties, the break-up of Hungary, and all those Biedermaier buildings of Budapest that signal the Habsburg era.

That essentially is the dynamic of the flowing and flown river within the cold-as-fire sea. Frankly I don't know whether any of the events referred to be above mean anything to someone born after, say, the mid-seventies or early eighties. Or rather if the 'meaning' of such events is any more real than almost anything else. I am aware that even talking of the sea as I do above might well seem just like another Romantic trope to them.

They have, of course, absolutely no obligation to any realities other than those that strike them as real, and reality is a problematic area: more than a problematic term it is a problematic experience. When Francis Fukuyama wrote of the end of history he was referring primarily to ideology but this 'end of history' is almost sub-ideological, or rather the ideology that it swims in, its own notional sea, is borne out of a different set of educated neuroses.

I should quickly say that this ideology is not value-free, is not apolitical, nor is it weightless in the moral sense. It is not the unbearable lightness of being about which Kundera - a man twenty-years older than myself - wrote so convincingly. For a start it does not seem unbearable, nor is its lightness without a heavy consequence.

What it knows is that its experience is mediated, and that their knowledge of that mediation constitutes the chief sense of reality.


None of this is quite as revolutionary as it seems. Rimbaud wrote of wringing the neck of rhetoric. I take him - one of my great heroes - to be referring to two things at once. The first is any dominant set of poetic dictions, tropes and modes. Repeating poetic manners is not poetry. Simple repetition, in this sense, is a slow draining. But he also means something less literary I think. He means the relationship between the way the world comes at consciousness and the way that consciousness responds in language. Language, he knows, is not a fixed thing. Language is not the dictionary though we'd have a very hard time without a dictionary. Language attempt more precise definitions - it attempts definitions on the move. The reason poetry exists, and has always existed, is because life itself is on the move and the artifice of language needs a continual understanding of itself as artifice in order to keep up. In that sense poetic language is a product of all the languages that surround it. It is a conscious artifice that constitutes the nearest thing we have to a reality sense in language.

But there is one major difference now. It is what I think of as the ahistorical sense of history: history as a set of flickering moments that can appear from anywhere at any time, each moment mediated, feeding the imagination and the nervous system with a set of potentially infinite connections, each as good as the other. There is a category that may be apprehended as 'the past' but it is not greatly differentiated. It exists in tension with a constantly teasing 'now'.


Listening to Lidija's poetry I am struck by two main things. First her use of time. Time is a dramatic device that allows certain actions to happen. These actions are brief, arising suddenly out of miscellaneous material that serves as a kind of stage property. Drama persists as long as the voice that delivers itself maintains a dramatic unity. The form of the poem is the search for that dramatic unity. It is - this analogy will be of very limited use - like wandering through the aisles of a supermarket of forces, occasionally glimpsing a figure between the shelves.

Who is that figure? As suggested in my first post, it is a sense of the constructed self. You may well argue that all selves are constructed, and I wouldn't disgree. All figure 'I's are dramatic personae. It is just that the relation of the dramatis persona is generally - and rightly - assumed to have a root in historical reality, in time in fact. But the sense of time here is disrupted. So when Lidija Dimkovska appears in a poem by Lidija Dimkovska, in a poem called Decent Girl...

At this age it’s best if somebody else
cuts your umbilical cord,
and I am not afraid of Virginia Woolf,
I fear Lidija Dimkovska. Have you heard of her?

...she appears in tandem with Virginia Woolf who however is not Virginia Woolf but a figure referred to in a stage play. And so it is with many of her characters who appear to be real, such as Brodsky who fails to show up at Struga (I was myself there when he didn't show up) not because, as the 'The Poem at the Beginning' says -

Brodsky got scared, he got scared he might be hit
by a bomb, a watermelon or the evil eye of a Struga maiden,
and back then we still didn’t have e-mail
for him to ask me in the Subject line: Is there a war going on in Macedonia?
so he didn’t come.

- but because, as I understood it at the time, like other American poets who might have been there, he wasn't given a visa because of US worries about the situation in both the then Soviet Union (Gorbachev was released from the dacha in which he had been kept as a prisoner on the night I arrived in Belgrade on the way to Struga) and the condition of the former Yugoslavia.

That doesn't matter as far as the poem is concerned. I give the history poet's account which is irrelevant to the poem because this Brodsky is like that Virginia Woolf and that Lidija Dimkovska.

In the conversation I linked to yesterday Lidija talks about realism and I respond by murmuring that I don't know anything about realism, going on to develop the point that the poets she refers to as wanting to escape reality were the ones actually - meaning 'really' - banned, arrested and imprisoned. My response was the curmudgeonly self's twitch of resentment of the implication that my generation were in some way inferior.

But that reality is not reality to Lidija, and there is no point in holding her, or any truly intelligent poet - and Lidija, like Sam, is highly intelligent - to a version of reality that is different to the one firing their neurons. It really doesn't matter. It never has. Only to the George Szirtes, who is not the real George Szirtes, whose grip on existence is less illuminated (which is not to say unilluminated) by devices and conditions that he did not grow up with but came upon at a historical moment.


The 'I' that appears in Sam's poems has a different dramatic character, but the drama is similar. It is a drama whose success depends on invented voice and adopted register. The poems work because he is good at such things - otherwise they would be texts of no particular character. The person who is good at such as things is the real Sam Riviere, just as the person who is good at being Lidija Dimkovska is the real Lidija Dimkovska.

Sam has written a long email from which I am hoping to quote in the next post.

Castro photographing Khrushchev and his family during a visit to their dacha in 1963.


Ioana Ieronim said...

Exceptionally interesting discussion!

I would say that, whether a poet speaks from an artificial paradise, from a virtual purgatory or hell, or from whatever is closest to the thing we still call reality,whether city or "nature", whether historical, futuristic or as strictly in and of the moment as possible (ours is a time of all possibilities, aren't we lucky!) there is one thing to beware - disingenuity.

George S said...

How nice to have you comment here, Ioana. Welcome! I don't think there is any disingenuity here. Poets have always felt the urgency of their own position, in their own time. In the cases of Sam and Lidija I am interested in their perceptions of the world - the sense of self and time as modified by the era and conditions into which they were born. I take the high quality of their work, and indeed their high seriousness, for granted. That is to say, I recognize it: in fact I recognize their perceptions as overlapping with my own. But they're not same and where they are different it is, in some respects, a category difference. That which I see existing and in which I partly exist might be what they entirely exist in.

panther said...

Lidia, and Sam, and any other good poet simply writes, perhaps, what s/he needs to write. This might or might not chime with the sensibilities of this major publisher, that panel that awards prizes. It might or might not chime with that slithery thing, the Zeitgeist.

Does it matter ? It might mean for the poet that s/he wins fewer prizes and awards than certain other poets. But in a wider sense, it doesn't matter. Each poet will find, we can only hope, readers who are sympathetic. Am not sure I agree with Mandelstam when he writes "Writing a poem is putting a message in a bottle: it will reach the one person for whom it is destined." But it's an interesting thought.

Ioana said...

Hi again, George, I must say I was / am following your attempt at defining these differences, these changes of voice, with utmost interest, especially as I know your subtly tuned, knowledgeable and unprejudiced way to approach such topics. The time we live in obviously shifts very quickly (unpredictably too), complete with its ever changing Zeitgeist, and with us in all of it. Admirable poetry comes from so many places - a golden age of poetry - and it is of so many different kinds. I was making the reference to disingenuity only as a matter of principle (meaning, there is only this limit I would consider to be not quite acceptable in poetry, or any other form of art, for that matter. Though that limit too might be discussed...) So I did NOT refer to Lidija, whose outstanding poetry I have known for years, and even translated and had published in Romania, or to Sam Riviere whose poetry (and poetry cum video) I have recently discovered and like a-lot.