Thinking back on my last post on Jacket2 (Dada to Daesh) I realized that the sense of poetry I was proposing (defending?) has been with me for a long time. So, here a short piece that expands on my sense of what poetry can / should be today if it is to be of use. I wrote this back in 1987 as introduction for an international anthology following a poetry festival I had organized with poet Jean Portante in Luxembourg, just a few months before I left Europe & moved back to the U.S.
INTRODUCTION TO « ANTHOLOGIE POÉSIE INTERNATIONALE »
The only absolutes for poetry are diversity & change (& the freedom to pursue these); & the only purpose, over the long run, is to raise questions, to raise doubts, to put people into alternative, sometimes uncomfortable situations, to raise questions but not necessarily answer them, or to jump ahead with other questions, to challenge the most widely held of preconceptions in our culture, that “Western man” is the culmination of the human evolutionary process.
As this century winds down it is becoming increasingly clear that poetry may well constitute the single area of literary endeavor that has managed to renew itself & widen its scope enough to accommodate our various new knowledges & perceptions; to embrace & honor a poesis of human vision going all the way back to the Paleolithic & still actively alive among the so-called primitive peoples of the earth; to open new areas of consciousness for investigation, and to create the tools that should make it open-ended enough to prevent closure and paralysis.
Thought is made in the mouth
Relieved by the rise of the novel over the last 2 or 3 centuries of the burden of upholding & perpetuating the accepted imago mundi of repeating & banging home the doxa, the norm, political, moral & aesthetic, the powers that be want to impose as social & artistic orthodoxy, poetry has found itself more & more in the margins of the literary arena, & has found there an exhilarating freedom to breathe, and renew itself.
Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. It is doing that always doing that, doing that and doing nothing but that. Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.
(The novel, malgré the hype re its death &/or resurrection has remained an essentially 19C form dealing in linear narratives & traditional Euclidian spaces. Theater — for reasons linked to the whole mare’s nest of representation — is roughly in the same unsatisfactory position. Film, if we can think of it as a literary genre – & it does have that element of duration specific to language constructs – has, with a few exceptions, remained too close to the novelistic tradition to be presently of much use. Though it should be said that poetry has made use of some of the elements of all of these forms).
Without contraries is no progression. Attraction & Repulsion, Reason &
Energy, Love & Hate, are necessary to Human Existence.
Hence, a veritable explosion at the beginning of this century: with the onus of having to transmit “the” truth removed from it, poetry could break its boundaries & did so. When nothing is true a priori every experiment is permitted. & so the Old Man of the Mountain was reincarnated in Rumania as Sammy Rosenstock who became Tristan Tzara & created dada, while out of Idaho came one Ezra Pound, hurrying across plains & oceans, to bring a new, specifically American energy to the work of poetry. They met in Paris, or so I would like to imagine, though maybe only their luminous paths crossed. It does not matter: we are in any care the children of their revolutionary poetics.
Form is but an extension of content.
To put it that way is of course much too reductive: the filiations are manifold, as the poetry is. Gary Snyder spec of a Great Subculture of visionary poetry going back all the way to the Paleolithic & the various anthologies edited by Jerome Rothenberg chart this tradition much better than I can do here in a few words. I will however add pell-mell as sources that seem essential to me: Blake, Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Khlebnikov, Stein, some surrealist work, H.D., Pound, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Celan, Charles Olson, Hugh McDiarmid… & back of them a myriad mad shamans, gnostic prophets & kabalistic visionaries.
The mutability of the truth. Ibsen said it. Jefferson said it. We should have a revolution of some sort in America every ten years. The truth has to be redressed, re-examined, re-affirmed in the new mode. There has to be new poetry. But the thing is that the change, the greater material, the altered structure of the inevitable revolution must be in the poem, in it. Made of it. It must shine in the structural body of it.
William Carlos Williams
You still don’t believe my pitch for the essential vitality & necessity of poetry? Look around & open your eyes. Consider the incredible array of recent multi-media work (happenings, events, performances), the achieve-ments of concrete & sound poetry, the experiments in aleatory poetry of such seminal figures as John Cage & Jackson Mac Low, the Lettrists & Pataphysical poets of France & South America, the ongoing renaissance of poetry in the “third” world, informed as well by the Euro-modernists as by the politics of liberation & a return to the live forces of oral & tribal forms. (The Nobel Prize in literature may well be a random kiss of death, & yet, the fact that it did go to an African, at long last, does indicate something).
language control = thought control = reality control: it must be decentered, community controlled, taken out of the service of the capitalist project. For now an image of the antivirus: indigestible, intransigent.
Thus, now, quickly: why has poetry become, again, this force? Because by bursting its boundaries, by re-inventing itself, it has created an OPEN FIELD large enough to accommodate the multiplicities & complexities of this, our present world. It has given itself the processual means (as over & against the procedural orthodoxies) to deal with & make sense of a post-Newtonian, post-Euclidian world-gestalt, a multi-phasic, many-layered reality, so as to create an imago mundi complex enough to do justice to, and, possibly, to knit together the dispersed, over-specialized knowledges of our age.
“the poets (now)
last scientists of the whole
busy at their work.”
Paris / New York / Luxembourg /April 1987