Monday, 12 September 2011

Sincere Austerities 2

The sleeve: what is on it, up it, and in it.

Yesterday's first post was a way of laying out what might be common ground, albeit under different circumstances and in different terms. Today I would like to think about Sam's ideas as expressed in his email, which I quote with his permission. Sam begins by referring to the environment in which he and other young poets are writing, drawing particular attention to the internet. I think I need headings for this. It is, after all, a long post.

1. The internet

For me an increasingly dominant part of this environment seems to be the internet. I recently read somewhere it described as an 'infinite interior'. The way I went about writing and publishing the Austerities poems is related entirely to my internet use... I remember you describing the poems as having a sort of 'hyperactive boredom' when you saw some of them, which sounds pretty close to the appearance of much online activity.

The idea of an infinite interior catches my eye. In a slightly curmudgeonly comment to an earlier post, quoted in a later post, I suggested that one difference between my generation and the generation following - that is to say those young enough to be sons and daughters - is that we belonged to the history generation with its sense of time and direct effect, whereas the young live in a post-historical environment in which everything arrives mediated by technology. They receive far more information and comment than we did, but the differences between the imagined and the real are less defined. To put this simply and sourly: nothing has happened to them, it's all pre-packaged. That's an exaggeration, but Sam's notion of infinite interiority offers a version of the same thing.

In saying that nothing has happened to them, I don't mean on a personal scale. They are human beings, and as individuals a great deal can happen to them. They are born, feel pleasure, pain, fear and hope. They are as various as all previous generations. That is the major part of common ground and almost goes without saying.

My first response to Sam's Austerities, early on in the series, as 'hyperactive boredom' does, however, describe my apprehension of a certain psychological condition as I then perceived it. On the internet everything comes at once, whenever you call it, and may be juxtaposed without context. Getting everything coming at you at once makes you hyperactive and jumpy: an infinity of equal value is, well, boring.

Add to that the point where the distrust of 'grand narratives' reaches education - precisely in my children's schooling - and it is clear that the ground has been prepared for the irruption and settling of the world wide web, a web on which the flies hang in no particular order and in which everyone can be both spider and fly.

2. Uncertainty, scepticism, cynicism

Sam talks of a community of internet dwellers, drawing attention to their use of "images, clips. music, appropriating text via screen captures and so on". He then mentions a friend using an internet dating service who wonders about the authenticity of much of the information he is given.

It's the internet," he said, "you can't be sure of anything." Maybe the internet makes explicit something that poets have always engaged with, that with language you 'can't be sure' and in some ways that is the starting point for writing
That sense of uncertainty about language is central to poetry. This is a short verse, part of a set I wrote for Peter Porter's seventieth birthday back in 1999.

God knows where words go.
Dust to dust.
The poet likes and distrusts them.
Someone must.

At seventy the good news is that
there’s still news.
So poetry feeds the hand that bites it. J’adore
means J’accuse.

Inter urinam* there is still time for
razor wit
to cut a stylish swathe through the rich
fertile shit.

That was, to coin a phrase, a way of putting it. Sam knows it is "something that poets have always engaged with". (The truest poetry is the most feigning, said Touchstone in 'As You Like It') The difference now might be - I am pretty sure it is - the level of that making 'explicit'. He explains why:

...if you were born in the 80s you have grown up with 'clever' ad campaigns constantly pointing out their own aims and that kind of thing. This sort of cynicism has been almost over-present.

I do remember the moment back in the 80s when a bright sixth form art history student explained that the best things on TV were the advertisements because of their production values. I was startled for a moment. Was content of no significance then? Had the medium entirely become the message? Had advertisements entirely ceased to be about the product? And did this mean that if it didn't matter what was said that anything could be said providing it was said with appropriate production values? Did this road lead directly to the Nuremberg rallies? The Big Lie?

Well, of course I was naive. The cynicism Sam talks about is, in some respects and to some degree, an insurance against that. If there was one thing cynicism might be thought to guarantee, it was that the Nazi uniform was not the Nazi. The uniform was a web of conscious half-random associations.

The difference in this case might be between scepticism (which seems a pretty good default position for a poet, whose condition is compact with the lunatic's and the lover's according to that arch-sceptic Shakespeare) and cynicism whose terms and effects are more thoroughgoing.

3. From cynicism to sincerity, via irony

In a fascinating segué from cynicism to sincerity, Sam writes:

...often a poem gestures at something we can't know or be certain of, a place or a conversation, a person or thing. In some way, this awareness, or irony, seems like the a given for many poets now. The gap between text and life is assumed, and the challenge might be how to connect them rather than point out the separation

I think we can assume that the irony Sam talks about there is a given in all poetry, even the most romantic. Irony is a function of language. I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed. One too like thee: tameless, and swift... wrote Shelley in the Ode to the West Wind. Gambling on such identifications raises the dramatic stakes for the self in the poem. A fever is invited. The poem gestures at something we can't know or be certain of and makes a drama out of the gesture. It is exhilarating of course, but still a drama.

It is not that there is no 'gap between text and life'. I myself argued - in the Eliot Lecture 2005 - that the poem was a way of temporarily bridging the gap between the signifier and the signified, in other words between word and event. All readers know, and have always known, and I include Shelley's contemporaries among them, that Shelley is not the west wind, that he is not bleeding, that the poem is one big metaphor, but they suppressed that knowledge because they were persuaded to accept the invitation to fever, presumably because fever was what they desired.

To follow Sam's argument, the invitation is now the subject of far greater cynicism. That cynicism is part of the 'white noise' referred to by Chris McCabe at The Poetry Library.

4. Arriving at the new sincerity

This is the trickiest part of the journey. Let's see how we get there, following Sam. This is how he begins.
A distinction that may be visible in some new poetry is the willingness to appropriate these forms in an attempt at sincerity.
The big surprise here is that sincerity should have become a prime value for those to whom Shakespear's 'the truest poetry is the most feigning' is a natural stepping stone to cynicism. Was Shakespeare sincere in pointing out the poetic paradox? Perhaps the invitation to sincerity is a rough equivalent of Shelley's invitation to fever, a romantic - indeed Romantic - call to vigorous action, the merging of the stubborn self into the vortex of nature in order to wreak change.

This is how the sincerity works:
I think the possibility of irony has to be acknowledged, in a way doing that allows the   possibility of being sincere. Part of the charm of some of this work is that although 'shallow' techniques from advertising etc might be used, it's obvious to a viewer that it has been produced for very little or no money. It seems weirdly appealing to combine such approaches with poetry which normally positions itself as the precise opposite those methods. But this seems disingenuous given that poetry also has a market, trends etc, and in my experience is home to some highly competitive individuals and some extremely bitter feuds.
OK, I am all ears now, paying fierce attention. I hear irony and sincere clearly enough but am chiefly drawn to the word charm. I feel for a moment like a Victorian aunt. Charm, my dear! Now you truly shock me! But then I melt as I notice the inverted commas around 'shallow'. We have not left irony out altogether. As Sam says: I think the possibility of irony has to be acknowledged. So charm and 'shallow' are part of the acknowledgment.

And what of the sincerity? It is partly lodged in the obviousness to the viewer that it [the work] has been produced for very little or no money. Sam then opposes this to the world of 'existing poetry' that also has a market, trends etc, and in my experience is home to some highly competitive individuals and some extremely bitter feuds. I think the proposed opposition is a little shaky here, or at least not as strong as it might claim to be. The markets and trends of poetry are very small beer indeed, and I have yet to be shown the Eden of non-competitive souls outside 'existing poetry'. Presumably Sam's generation is all peace and love, with not a competitive soul among them. He also exaggerates the 'bitter feuds' in the world of what an old fashioned Soviet might call 'really existing poetry'. As he himself points out in one of his Austerities poems, there is probably more danger of overdosing on enthusiasm and mutual support than on Mortal Kombat.

I wouldn't claim there is no resentment at times in places. Poets, as I wrote yesterday, are by definition sensitive creatures who, according to some, 'wear their hearts on their sleeves' - my contention would be that the heart was neither on the sleeve nor up it, but the sleeve itself - but I do think this argument is the least convincing.

The more substantial part of that argument follows and I will pick it up tomorrow.

*Inter urinam et faeces nascimur, (We are born between a piss and a shit), attrib. St Augustine.

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