Jack Ross, ed.: Spin 42 (March 2002)
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)
A correspondent writes in to ask:
I’m intrigued as to why you say that you are drawn to “discourses that challenge stable views of reality.” I’m not in opposition to this, and it’s not an unusual idea, I would just be interested to hear how you’d explain it. I’m thinking too that this could become a self-sustaining quest and lose purpose.
I did indeed say that, in an essay entitled “John O’Connor / Alan Loney / John Geraets” [in brief 22 (2001): 63-73]. However, I went on to (I hoped) elucidate:
Nor do I see this as an (entirely) temperamental thing, but a response to the circumstances we live in, the knife-edge of pseudo-certainty we walk on – and what it shields us from.
I can see now that that’s not as clear as I intended it to be, but it’s the best way I could express it at the time. Now, just back from two months in Asia (Thailand and India), New Zealand seems to me even more than before an island of peace and calm in the midst of a turbulent sea of pressure and need. When you can’t walk down a street without hands grabbing hold of you: demanding alms; seeking comfort; offering food, taxis, trinkets, accommodation, sex; mere survival seems to demand a carapace.
Even in little New Zealand, though, there’s a lot going on under the surface. All is not calme, luxe et volupté … would that it were! “Stable views of reality” seem to me, then, another version of that carapace: the attitudes we adopt in order not to have to see the mind-numbing need all around us. My correspondent goes on to say:
I do look to be entertained by writing on the aesthetic level but also to be encouraged to be a better person – to me my personal journey is what matters most and a perfecting of my own behaviour is what I’m after.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s just a question of how we define that “perfecting of our own behaviour.” I wrote elsewhere [in PNZ 21 (2000): 80-83]: “if smugness is the crime, then outrage is the solution.” I still hold to that. If you think you’ve got it all sussed, then you’re little use to the rest of us. India was a shock to me, I must admit, despite having studied Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth: however sprawling and chaotic their structures, they still can’t help but try to make sense of the strange complex of contradictions going under that name. It would be silly to expect to work it all out in a brief tour of six weeks, but I felt it went beyond that – that India defeated understanding in a fundamental way. There was just too much there for any diagnosis to fit. So:
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.
[W. H. Auden, “Petition”]
I guess that’s what I’m looking for in so-called “experimental” writing: ways to effect a change of heart. Not just there, by any means: “I wonder if you can have poetry and meaninglessness ...?” the letter-writer muses, and it’s a good question. I would imagine not. But that’s not to say that something that seems meaningless to one person may not be full of profound meaning to another. Midnight’s Children seemed rather tedious and doctrinaire to me when I read it in Auckland. Reread on a train between Bombay and Bangalore it took on a new spectrum of significance. However,
I liked what you said in the editorial of SPIN#36 about accepting each others’ points of view and getting along.
Accepting, yes, but it’s also nice to be offered this opportunity to come a little closer to understanding each other’s point of view. I mean, “Harmless”? Or just “Mostly harmless”? Any new edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I have anything to do with will have to find some radically different labels to apply to the Earth. After Thailand and (especially) India, I doubt things will ever seem so harmless to me again. This place, yes: wide-open, green, relaxed, quiet, but you don’t have to be paranoid to feel over-exposed when you’re attempting to cross Bombay in a commuter train at rush-hour, or when the queue to worship at a Krishna shrine threatens to crush the life out of you …
I must confess that the avalanche of envelopes waiting for me on the mat when I opened the front door didn’t exactly make my heart sing, either (by the way, some of you have asked if you can submit electronically, by e-mail. By all means. E-mail submissions save time, money and trouble. If you have the technology, please feel free to use it). Then I started to look through them.
I know I asked for odd poems: “the odder the better,” in fact. But some of you are a bit weird, you know. “You are awful, but I LIKE IT …” as Dick Emery used to say. Imagine playing an ex-lover all your Suzanne Vega albums, “knowing how much/ you hated her”! That really is cruel and unnatural punishment. Speaking personally, if I ever have to listen to “Tom’s Diner” or “Luka” again I’m going to run berserk … But then there was Robin Fry’s “man in a wool cap and a worn jacket / … ignoring the rain”
something long and black lies below him
flattened and sodden on the grass
he kneels and strokes the wet fur
That’s beautiful writing by anyone’s standards.
In short, I hope we’ve got something for everybody this time round. If not, don’t blame the fifty-odd contributors, blame …