Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Sincere Austerities 3(b)

The telling phrase, a high seriousness/irony that younger poets don't feel entitled to, or are even excluded from refers back to the sense of power. Yes, they are excluded, but the promise is that, like every generation, they will shortly become the included, not to mention the includers / excluders.

But Sam is not talking exclusively about being in office. He is talking about poetics, at least I think he is when he says:

Pop culture references and deliberate flatness and an almost obsessive use of qualifiers all might be symptoms of this [the sense of exclusion]... These 'anti-poetic' stylistic tics are conspicuous exactly because of their inappropriateness in the context of poetry and what we expect from it. In turn they might highlight the style traits in 'confident' mainstream poetry and make it seem artificial or forced by comparison. Coleridge, I think, said he aimed to write poetry that affected not to be poetry, and this work could be seen as an update of that ambition. The eschewing of metaphor might make content of 'personal' details or references more emphatically metaphorical, and the way it reaches you a bigger part of its meaning. Maybe not using images in the traditional sense makes the text itself somehow imagistic.

I want to ignore the element of inter-generational dissatisfaction because, psychologically speaking, that seems as dull as ditchwater, and I think I have dealt with it in part (a). If you don't think I have, do write in and point out in what manner I haven't. You can even write your own guest post on the subject.

The real argument here concerns poetics, which is never dull.

The poetics Sam suggests is not quite of the Dadaist, the Pop, or Punk sort. It is more specific and more paradoxical than that. The point of the deliberate flatness is not so much to burn down the museums in the wake of a cataclysmic world war, not to be ironic about the commercial pop world, nor to provide shots of sheer anarchic energy, but to attain a new level of sincerity. It gains confidence by eschewing confidence. It gains heat by looking cold. Cold is, in effect, hot. It is hot by virtue of what it admits into the ice-box: the possibilities of the Internet (the new Nature as well as the new History). The net, as Leiby put it, is cold, but the ingesting of it may be a hot process. The virtual is part of the real.

I think this is a substantial position, in that we cannot help knowing what we know: the Internet has changed our ideas of knowledge and we cannot help knowing it. Like Bishop's sea off Newfoundland (how apt the name of the location is!) the Internet sea is cold and burns at the same time. The flowing and flown sea of At The Fishhouses might or might not stand in apposition to the sea of the Internet.

We do have to be a little careful about not getting carried away and dizzy with the idea but we still have to consider it. I forget which poet it was who suggested that since cars and planes had replaced horses as a mode of transport there was no more use for meter. It wasn't the same as the artist who suggested that now that photography had been invented that meant the end of painting.

Nevertheless, there remains the fact of the poems produced - the anti-poems, if you like. The fact is that, in Sam's case at least, as in Lidija's, the ideas work as poems.

How do they work?

They work, as does all art, by producing states of mind beyond the simple instructional reading of the text. They invite more. By states of mind I mean something like guesses or apprehensions. What apprehensions? Here we must be prepared to get a little subjective and rely on personal guesswork. The terms hyperactivity and boredom have already been mentioned. But there are others, such as anxiety, melancholy, violence and, beyond them, schizophrenia (whose are all these voices?), disorientation (where are they?) randomness (in what order have they appeared, where or when might they appear again?) and apocalypse (a sense of closing-in, the great paradox in all those wide Internet spaces). These states of mind are interwoven with the sense of playfulness, grace, smartness, sophistication etc.

When asked, as I sometimes am, what is the point of poetry, I sometimes say it exists to define a sense of being in the world. The definition is necessarily ambiguous and provisional but poetics is the range of possibilities whereby that definition might attain form. The sense of the world I have just described may or may not be Sam's but it is what I might share with Sam. That sharing - the invitation to enter a state of mind - is what makes it possible for me to respond at all. What I am sharing is not a relationship with Sam, but with the form of a state of mind, a recognizable poetics.


One last thing to pick up, the long promised economic or political. Here's what Sam says:

1. As for a political dimension, perhaps the binary here is between enjoyment of and seduction by mass culture, and the attendant anxiety and uncertainty about it. Is your complicity in a commercial strategy like self-marketing/branding liberating or more a kind of subjugation... in a way this is the subject of much of the work. I think this goes on whether you write poems or stories or not. Uncertainty seems like the most authentic, sincere position one can take up.

2. [I]t seemed inappropriate to make video trailers for a collection of my own poems, which is at least partly why I did it. All the footage was found online, sometimes using the poems as searches, sometimes looking for images that correspond with voices/images in the poems. I wanted the videos to in some way act out the arguments about surface and depth that happen in the text.

3. I think it was my brother who first pointed out to me some kind of similarity between poems and advertisements, specifically film trailers – we are more aware here perhaps of omissions, selection, images, snatches of speech, rather than a 'grand narrative', though that of course is sketched and inferred. The trailers can often be 'better' than the film (the recent planet of the apes movie for example, is a far inferior work to its trailer), and maybe the suggestions of narrative, quick use of images etc, can work much like poems sometimes work. [from his last clarifying email]

4. So there's this formal similarity between poem and adverts which seems often to be (deliberately?) overlooked. But beyond that I think there's also a false opposition set up (probably actively on the literary side) between 'commercial' works, and poetry as a sort of 'pure' art form somehow above market concerns. The fact that the poetry market is in monetary terms 'small beans' [sic] doesn't really matter, as the logic of a market situation is still to a large extent followed, and I think this is becoming more explicit: for example if you submit to a smaller poetry press now it is often pointed out on the submissions page that a condition is that you must be prepared to go out and 'sell' your book. It isn't of course an entirely natural market condition: support comes from outside and hierarchy isn't dictated by sales (it would be interesting to have a glimpse of what that reality would be like) but by 'gatekeeping' authorities, which could be regarded as at least an equally dubious system to the the usual one. In a way there's a double standard, in that poetry is presented as being exempt from such concerns, is presented as fundamentally anti-commercial, but in reality it must be obedient to demands made by existing publishing channels, which are interested in commercial potential, which is to some extent prescribed by them too. from his last clarifying email]

'Gatekeeping' is a reasonable phrase. The gatekeepers are the real powers. I think we have to be careful not to identify the gatekeepers with the market situation. Are the gatekeepers the editors? the financial managers? the distributors? the bookshops?

The market situation is, to a great extent, defined by the available technology. The following should be said:

1. Poetry has only rarely made money and often, certainly in modern times with an educated public and a potential mass market, publishers persisted with poetry despite frequent losses by subsidising their poetry list with some popular best sellers. This was partly an idealistic position and, possibly, a matter of establishing seriousness, to show that the press was not just a commercial operation.

2. Public funding of the arts generally - and poetry is a miniscule fraction of the cost of theatre, opera, music, and visual art - has taken the place of what used to be the wealthy private patron, or, rather, it has taken its place beside such patrons as the merest glance at a concert programme will demonstrate. This public funding has an agenda determined by whatever the prevailing ideology is, and the way that is transmitted through bureaucracy. That ideology is not primarily commercial but, since it depends on public money, is conditioned by the necessity of demonstrating that public money is spent on the public.

3. Most poetry books never find their way into bookshops. The big publishers manage it, sometimes, by being present in the bookshops in forms other than poetry. Faber, Cape and Picador are commercial presses. How then to get your poetry, or, if you are the poet's publisher, your poet's poetry, read and sold? If there is no way through the bookshop gates you must rely on personal appearance and either the commercial premises of the internet or the internet's powers of tempting and persuasion.

4. Anyone can become a poetry publisher. It is cheaper and easier than ever, granted print technology, but it takes a lot of work, some money, and a degree of validation by those you would care to be validated by. In many cases this means by the same established poets and critics you might distrust for their inappropriateness and dishonesty. I doubt many would turn down endorsement by Don Paterson, or indeed a long review by him in the New York Review of Books. Of course you can do it for yourselves, and people do, but it takes time and more work and some money, and a degree of validation by your peers.

5. The idea that poetry publishing is - in some ways - pure is perfectly true. I think of characters like Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt and Chris Hamilton-Emery and I suspect they would have done something else if money was what they wanted. The sheer amount of work they get through and the number of young and upcoming poets they support may have a speculative aspect (and who could blame them hoping that some of their poets should make money and reputations, however dim the prospect), but their intentions count as pretty well pure in my book.

6. Under all the circumstances above it is a miracle that poets generally - or so I have found - are as accommodating and open as they are. Most writers (I am including novelists here) earn no more than the minimum wage. What I earn directly from poetry a year would barely last us a month, if that. Nor do I know any rich poetry publishers, or, if we are thinking of gatekeeper-editors at commercial publishers, poetry editors at major magazines. There's none rich among the lot of them except by accidents of birth or fortune. My advance hasn't changed in thirty years. That is despite being, I suspect, one of Bloodaxe's better selling poets. I am worth, roughly, a single strand of hair in Wayne Rooney's hair transplant. Do I care? No.

7. Personally, I plead guilty to a kind of playful high-seriousness if only because a lot of my experience of history, however unreal that might seem to someone coming to poetry after 1991, seems highly serious in its effects to me. That doesn't mean I can afford bombast or rhetoric or even a high-serious tone. I think it's the playing that saves the day, if it does save it.

Seven points are quite enough. Good night and sweet dreams.


Tim Love said...

"As for a political dimension, perhaps the binary here is between enjoyment of and seduction by mass culture, and the attendant anxiety and uncertainty about it" - could be. In a busy mass-culture market, try to seduce with an attention-seeking start (teaser) that earns you a few more seconds to make your pitch. Some adverts work this way and maybe some poems too - see halfway through http://sites.google.com/site/jcorelis/fromscotlandtosuburbia

But some potential customers are wise to such tactics. A quieter approach might work with them. Don't challenge them early on. Don't do anything that might make them reject you. When I was a local env campaigner I was told that rather than try to emulate the style of those in power, I could try being natural, even a little unprofessional, pretending not be sure about facts and figures I'd memorized. It's a style that's easy enough to learn.

Gwilym Williams said...

OK, George. I admit it. I'm guilty*.

I came to poetry through the 12 words or less apt and original competition tie-breaker slogan - an art form with which I made a modest 'living' several moons ago.

*This correspondent has been advised to plead insanity.