Alistair Paterson, ed.: Poetry NZ 21 (September 2000)
Avant-garde vs. Traditional Poetry in NZ
than it used
[ABDOTWW 6 (1997): 9].
In context – A Brief Description of the Whole World, the avowedly “oppositional” literary journal founded by Alan Loney – these words occupy an entire page. They are attributed jointly to Lesley Kaiser / John Barnett, who, according to the Contributors’ notes, “live in Auckland and have worked together since 1991 … They exhibit at the Gregory Flint Gallery.” [ABDOTWW 1 (1995): 69]. But how are we to read them?
First of all, is it true? Is stone more stony than it used to be? Surely not. I would have thought that stone has always been as stony as it is now (at least since the earth cooled). What’s “stone,” though? Do our authors mean stone the substance; or our perception of it, coded into the word “stone”?
“What’s brown and sticky?” “A stick,” runs the old gag. That’s just a pun, you may say, but perhaps the purpose of puns is to point out possible areas of confusion within language. Coming back to Kaiser and Barnett, why is stone more stony? Why isn’t it less stony than it used to be? Perhaps both are equally true – or false. Perhaps the more you think about the word “stone,” the more “stony” it becomes. Does the opposite apply also? I wasn’t thinking about the subject at all until I encountered their pagework.
Their statement is, then, a kind of paradox, but not the logical conundrum kind [“All Cretans are liars, said Epimenides the Cretan”] dissected by Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica (1910-13). Those go round in circles to make us analyse the nature of knowledge. This, as I see it, is intended to make us question the nature of language. A quote from one of Loney’s editorials may illustrate what I mean:
I ever hope for words clear as these, on a sign on a lamp-post I saw last year – “Our cockatiel has flown away. We miss him” … a search for clarity among the literally unimaginable welter of words we live in, would be useful.[ABDOTWW 1 (1995): 3].
Do Kaiser and Barnett have the same intention – clarity? Their statement is deliciously concise – but also teasing, as if questioning the basis of our reality. (They are, of course, also thinking of Shklovsky’s famous prescription for poetry: “making the stone stonier,” but if one disclosed that ironic act of homage first, any residual message might be muted).
My question, though, is does this kind of allegedly “thorny,” “academic,” “semiotic,” or “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” writing occupy a significantly different space to so-called “mainstream” or “traditional” poetry?
Let’s go to some prominent spokespeople to find out.
In the introduction to his recent anthology New Zealand Writing: the NeXt Wave (1998), Mark Pirie claims that young people have been “discouraged…from reading, buying, and supporting poetry in this country” by “the often alienating and intellectually obscure high Modernist and postmodern poetry of C. K. Stead, Ian Wedde, Murray Edmond, Gregory O’Brien, Joanna Paul, Michele Leggott, Richard von Sturmer, John Newton, Leigh Davis, and Alan Brunton, and the semiotic and LANGUAGE poetry of Alan Loney, Paula Green, Roger Horrocks, and Wystan Curnow.” However, “youth culture icons and tele-photogenic poets such as Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare, James K. Baxter and David Eggleton” have, by contrast, “encouraged public interest in poetry and [enjoy] immense popularity among young readers and writers.”
Alan Loney, too, sees his own brand of poetry as more than just another “option on the menu:”
… there is only one Tradition, and everything whatsoever is in it, like it or not. But if everything is in this Tradition, what can being ‘marginal’ mean?
…. What is, for instance, ‘postmodern poetry’? By the mainstream it tends to be taken as a kind of ‘thing’, which one can have to deal with or not as one chooses. Postmodern poetry is then seen as a kind of poetry, a sort of style, as if it’s an option on the menu that we can click on or pass by, take it or leave it. But what if postmodernity is … the name of the condition in which we [as a culture] find ourselves?”[ABDOTWW 8 (1997): 3-5].
It’s irritating (and probably falsifying) to have to rely on generalisations when characterising two schools or tendencies in poetry. “Those who specialise in generalist overviews that mention oppositional writing in passing lack the credibility that only published close readings can provide …” says Loney in ABDOTWW 4 (1996: 6), and I have to say I agree with him.
Nevertheless, it’s true to say that there is a kind of poetry which is uninterested in asking hard questions about the world – physical or intellectual – which it inhabits. In these poems (it’s not difficult to multiply examples) there is a world, it can include the quasi-autobiographical “I”, as well as cats, and vases, and lovers, and beloveds, and – while any or all of these details may be the purest fiction – they convey their freight of meaning by making reference to a cosmos where such things do make sense. These poems, then, are not about themselves (except in the narrow sense of making reference to their own process of composition), or language, but about a reality unproblematically external to their text. The world is the problem here, not world the word.
In philosophical terms – to borrow a distinction from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (1987) – these poems may be interested in epistemology (“what is my place in the world I inhabit?”), but they take no account of ontology (“which of many possible worlds am I inhabiting at the moment?”).
Is ontology the answer, then? Will that suffice to make your poetry interesting? I fear not. When, above, I referred to Kaiser and Barnett’s page-work as “deliciously concise,” I must have betrayed the fact that my criteria for judgement of this or any other work are aesthetic, rather than intellectual. I may also like the messages I perceive in their text (and other texts in A Brief Description): existential doubt, a desire to call the boundaries of language and reality into question, but that wouldn’t keep me reading if I didn’t like what I read, if it didn’t (finally) amuse and delight me.
The same is true of poems in the more conventional (or epistemological) mode described above. They, too, rely on conciseness, precision, the unexpected, teasing detail – I may perceive in them a whole complex of imponderables which boil down, in the final analysis, to the somewhat limiting inquiry: “Don’t you, too, feel that …?” but their merit or lack of it cannot be decided simply in terms of what ideas they embody.
We come back to that question of Alan Loney’s:
what if postmodernity is … the name of the condition in which we [as a culture] find ourselves?”
If that is the case, then of course we must write and read accordingly – there must be a burning of the books, a purging of the unclean, referential. But can “postmodernity” be (in that phrase he attributes to the “art critic Lila Barrie … in The Listener some years ago”) the “name of the condition we as a culture find ourselves in?” The question begs the question, it seems to me. Q: “What is postmodernity?” A: “The name of the condition we find ourselves in.” Q: “What condition do we find ourselves in?” A: “Well, it’s a bit too complex to describe, so let’s call it postmodernity.” This kind of circular reasoning doesn’t get us very far.
It’s time for me to declare myself less equivocally. I agree with Pirie and Loney that one should put up or shut up: that is to say, a certain get real factor should enter any too protracted discussion of Art in the abstract. Sometimes “Who pays your salary?” is a more pertinent question than “What’s your dominant aesthetic theory?” Does your work has a social conscience? Can it be said to produce good effects? A smug, self-absorbed poetry bolsters up the status quo, just as hungry, obsessive writing cuts away at it. On the evidence, I would find it hard to say which of these two schools was more likely to produce such writing.
It’s perhaps too much to come to so bland a conclusion after all that: Each type of poetry has its own audience, its own possibilities for excellence … I should prefer to put it more combatively: if smugness is the crime, then outrage is the solution. It’s as well, though, to remember that (in certain contexts) Jane Austen can be more outrageous than William Burroughs. With this in mind, I reserve my right to scroll down the menu of poetry providers looking for something which transcends this, in the end, somewhat futile squabble. Other things matter more. You don’t need me to tell you what they are.