Trouble in River City (2013)

Alistair Paterson, ed.: Poetry NZ 47 (August 2013)

Trouble in River City
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust Poetics

John Barth: The End of the Road (1958)

1 – The End of the Road

There’s an interesting scene near the beginning of John Barth’s second novel The End of the Road (1958). His hero, Jake Horner, is sitting on a bench in the railway station unable to decide what to do or where to go next. “I simply ran out of motives, as a car runs out of gas.” Jake continues:
If you look like a vagrant it is difficult to occupy a train-station bench all night long, even in a busy terminal, but if you are reasonably well dressed, have a suitcase at your side, and sit erect, policemen and railroad employees will not disturb you … in the nature of the case I suppose I would have remained thus indefinitely, but about nine o’clock a small, dapper fellow in his fifties stopped in front of me and stared directly into my eyes.
Barth’s novel operates, at least on one level, as a parody of the then-fashionable theories of Parisian existentialism: “self-justification by an act of the will,” “pure avoidance of the void of non-being” etc. etc. Jake is as close to a cipher as a fictional character can be – more so, even, than Albert Camus’s famous étranger [outsider] Meursault. His novel actually begins with the statement: “In a sense, I am Jake Horner.” And yet Jake’s dilemma is not really a meaningless one, and most readers will find it easy enough to emphasise with this moment of inanition: his complete inability to choose from the myriad options before him.

If lack of will-power leaves Jake stranded on his bench, what jolts him out of it is theory, pure and simple. Or, rather, in this case, the Doctor:
He was bald, dark-eyed and dignified, a Negro, and wore a graying mustache and a trim tweed suit to match. The fact that I did not stir even the pupils of my eyes under his gaze is an index to my condition, for ordinarily I find it next to impossible to return the stare of a stranger. (Barth, 1988, p.323)

After a quick consultation, the Doctor whisks him away to his mysterious treatment centre, the Remobilization Farm, where Jake undergoes intensive therapy in the Progress and Advice Room, as well as callisthenics and other forms of mental and physical exercise. “It would not be well in your particular case to believe in God,” the Doctor advises him:
Religion will only make you despondent …. Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist? It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you. (p.333)

As far as employment goes, the Doctor counsels him to look for a job at a local teachers’ college:
“Apply at once for the fall term. And what will you teach? Iconography? Automotive Mechanics?”

“English Literature, I guess.”

“No. There must be a rigid discipline, or else it will be merely an occupation, not an occupational therapy. There must be a body of laws … Tell them you will teach grammar. English grammar.”

“But you know, Doctor,” I ventured, “there is descriptive as well as prescriptive grammar. I mean, you mentioned a fixed body of rules.”

“You will teach prescriptive grammar.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No description at all. No optional situations. Teach the rules. Teach the truth about grammar. (p.259)

Hopefully by now the point of this long preamble is beginning to become clear. What is “Poetics”, after all, but a kind of grammar of poetic theory and practice – prescriptive or descriptive according to the whim of the practitioner?

2 – What is Poetics?

That’s one way to understand it, at least. While the word “Poetics” sounds as if it derive from the English word “poetry,” in fact both words come from the Greek poïesis [ποίησις], which can be translated either as “making” or “bringing forth.” If poetry is the art of making a world with language, then poetics is the art of that art, the how-to (or taxonomy) of the discipline. Gérard Genette defines it simply as the “Theory of Literary Forms.”

Aristotle’s famous work on Poetics, then, covers a whole range of subjects which we might not feel inclined to place under the genre-heading of poetry. His principal interest is in tragic drama, which he is careful to distinguish from epic and lyric poetry (as exemplified by Homer and Hesiod on the one hand, and Sappho and Anacreon on the other).

Before we begin to discuss poetics, then, we have to decide just how far we intend to extend the term. Strictly speaking, a “poetics” can be compiled for any literary genre, from Historiography to Horror Fiction. Even (if we’re prepared to stretch the term “literary” a little to include anything composed according to artifice), Automotive Manuals – or Textbooks on Iconography, for that matter.

If we are confining ourselves to a poetics of poetry, though, it’s as well to acknowledge that most contemporary poets use the term as shorthand for lyric poetry (originally: poems accompanied on the lyre). That is to say, more-or-less autobiographical (or at any rate experiential), musical (or at least song-like) word-patterning. And if that’s all you mean by poetry, then perhaps that’s all you need to know about it – “if you are reasonably well dressed, have a suitcase at your side, and sit erect, policemen and railroad employees will not disturb you.”

Lisa Samuels, in her 2011 conference paper “Six modes of poetry experiment in New Zealand/Aotearoa,” puts it very succinctly:
poetry might be said to consist of experiments in language, thus ‘experimental poetry’ might be seen as a redundant term. But people who live in poetry contexts perceive different acts and values among those contexts. Over there some people want to report on how they feel, over here someone wants to appropriate language, across the room someone breaks apart syllables to see how they behave. (pp. 1-2)

You don’t have to read music or have any real grasp of the laws of harmony to start a garage band. Nor do you need to understand perspective to slosh paint on a piece of canvas. What you do need to have (presumably) is some instinct which enables you to develop preferences for certain of the various musical or painting strategies you’ve occupied yourself in absorbing over the years. Let’s call that instinct your aesthetic sense.

Ditto poetry. If you read enough of the stuff, you’ll start to internalise the genre categories and even some of the endless permutations (chronological and theoretical) within those categories. Your sophistication as a judge of what you like in writing will, in other words, have to be based on a prolonged immersion in examples of the form you’re trying to engage with.

3 – The Machine Stops

Theoretical knowledge does not equal practical proficiency, or else Harold Bloom (inventor of the so-called “Anxiety of Influence”: a literary-critical concept that claims that every major poet is always engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his immediate predecessor) would be regarded as a better writer than his near-contemporary Seamus Heaney. Perhaps he is. Who’s to say he isn’t, in fact?

All of which brings us back to Jake Horner. “I simply ran out of motives, as a car runs out of gas,” is how he puts it. If there are no agreed-upon rules, no constraints upon how we write (or understand) poetry, is it possible to make any meaningful judgements about it?

Not so much judgements of the “Keats is a better poet than Shelley” type, which are inevitably predicated on a whole theory of literary craftsmanship (as well as – hopefully – a close knowledge of the work of both poets), but internal judgements of the effectiveness of each word, each structural effect, in your own work?

I’m sure we’ve all met poets who inform us that not a word of their original spontaneous effusions can be altered without the risk of compromising their inspiration. They’re generally the same people who tell us that no value judgments are possible within the field of poetry – that you can have no possible basis for claiming (say) the superior interest of T. S. Eliot’s “language experiments” over (say) those of Pam Ayres or Rod McKuen.

A mystical belief in inspiration is its own kind of theory, though – and tends to foreground that teleological element in literary criticism which is always lurking somewhere there inside. It is, however, a dead end, since it leads to more metaphysics, not to more precise discussions of poetry.

What, then, is poetry? Any attempt at an answer requires one to enter the field of poetics, either prescriptive (concerned with value-judgements, albeit within categories) or descriptive (a synchronic [historical] or diachronic [systematic] chart of the various forms of utterance which have been described – at one time or another, by both its writers and its readers – as “poetry”).

Now it will have occurred to you by now that the Doctor in John Barth’s novel is some kind of confidence trickster, preying on the weak and unfortunate for his own profit. And so (in context), he is. Is he also a genuine healer, interested in curing his poor patients and saving them from their own demons? It’s hard to say. Almost as hard as it is to answer the same question with regard to Freud or Jung – or, for that matter, B. F. Skinner, whose theories of behaviourism also receive rough handling in Barth’s book.

Poetics (or “theory,” if you prefer) is just as dubious a guide, I’m afraid. There are as many theories of poetics as there are eggheads in English departments – more, if you include all the querulous autodidacts thronging the land. It is tempting, at times, to wish to return to simpler times, when Caedmon or William Blake received their songs directly by dictation from angels or the Holy Spirit.

When the machine stops, though – when you cease to be able to delude yourself that more than a vaguely versified version of your own prejudices and experiences is filtering through your pen – what then? Then, I’m afraid, you need some sense of context, of being one thing in order not to be another, to enter the equation.

Are you, for instance, a formalist, devoted to solving complex technical problems as adeptly as possible: a virtuoso – W. H. Auden, or Marianne Moore? If so, why? Is poetry (for you) a glorified form of crossword puzzle, re-arranging deckchairs as the Titanic goes down? Or do these technical experiments you delight in act as some kind of purification ritual, straining your thoughts into an ever more concentrated form, turning the mash of impressions into ever more heady triple-distilled spirit?

The study of poetics will not, in and of itself, make you a better poet. But it should, at the very least, serve to enlarge your bag of tricks. What’s more, it may enable you to write in such a way as to engage others struggling with the same dilemmas.

There’ll always be a certain appeal to those four-piece groups who set out to save the world with “three chords and the truth” (as country singer Harlan Howard once memorably put it). Only a very few of them still seem to be up to producing anything equally passionate a few years later, though. They don’t change, and they can’t evolve, unless they dive back into the craft and ethos of their profession, and begin to take their vocation as musicians more seriously than the ability to strike naff poses on MTV.

The same applies to poets. If you don’t take an interest in the history and theory of your craft, it’s hard to imagine that there can be anything sufficiently thrilling in your personality or experiences to fuel the engine year after year, decade after decade. Not that it has to, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with shutting up shop when you’ve nothing left to say.

But maybe there is more to say. Have you reached that plateau of self-repetition, of inglorious stasis in the midst of all your instruments of wonder (see Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I)? Of course you have. To pose the question implies an automatic reply in the affirmative.

4 – On the Plateau

Lisa Samuel’s Melbourne conference paper, which I quoted from above, contains an interesting distinction between “experimental” and “normative” poetry:
‘experimental poetry’ points to mode of imaginative representation that are not in a one to one relation with a stabilized social real. Such poetic modes are not expository essays; they are not normative narrative works; they are not posited socio-economic persuasions (commodities or their advertisements) nor normative explications of neuro-emotional states (p.2)

Don’t you just love that phrase “normative explications of neuro-emotional states”? She’s talking about poems that say “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” – or even: “I’m in love.” There’s a certain gain to Samuels’s hyper-abstract language, though: it’s very concise, and it enables us to climb out of the sandpit for a moment in order to get a more panoramic view of what’s going on around about.

But if these ‘experimental modes’ are not any of the things she mentions, what exactly are they? Samuels continues:
To push towards experimentalism, poems reach outward from normative employment of one or more of the following: syntax, punctuation, allusion, page use, screen utility, synchronic sounds, indexical logic, object telos, poetic seriousness, and stability in the line, word, speaker, and/or reference. All of these elements are consciously up for movement, in order to investigate the feeling and knowing ratios of creative language as it demurs from normative language utility. (p.2)

Stop Making Sense, in other words: just like in that old Talking Heads song. But why, for God’s sake? Why disrupt all these hard-won conventions of meaning-bearing language? Another Ancient Greek term springs to mind: Barbarian – a foreigner who can only bleat unintelligibly (“Ba – ba – ba”) instead of conveying actual information.

Samuels has something to say about that, too:
It might be a truth universally acknowledged that visual art can escape from the bonds of Cultural Seriousness in ways that language arts never can. Language is our most crucial mode for logic and law, and unveiling its dynamisms will always disrupt efforts to stabilize its cultural applications. (p.14)

She points out that the acceptance for such experiments in New Zealand culture has something to do with the status of Colin McCahon, whose “painted words are generally Biblical or otherwise oracular (as in his use of John Caselberg’s poetry) and not especially invested in genre experiment, though the non-word parts of his paintings certainly do experiment.” Local poets can therefore “take advantage of a cultural acceptance for visual experiment and slip in verbal experiment while the blinds are open for verbal play” (pp. 14-15).

It would be interesting to discuss at greater length the six modes of experimentation which Samuels identifies in our recent writing:
  1. Historical looping
  2. Lexical parataxis / lexical fracture
  3. Haematopoetic
  4. Transacted prose
  5. Neo-ekphrasis
  6. Digital poetry

However, I can’t really in good conscience spend more time summarising her essay, which I recommend strongly that you read in full (it should be appearing in print soon in an anthology entitled A Trans Pacific Poetics, co-edited by Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu).

In any case, my purpose here is not so much to recommend ‘experimental’ over ‘normative’ modes of poetry per se, as to point out that even to distinguish the one from the other requires a poetic. Any mode of representation – verbal, aural, visual – can be argued for, but that argument entails an engagement with the theory (distillate) of many creative acts (aggregate).

5 – Last Conference before Passchendaele

[5th-7th January, 1917]

Everyone knew it wouldn’t work, but nobody
could think of a way not to go through
with it. Lloyd George knew
Douglas Haig was self-deluded,
believing every ‘intelligence report’
from crystal-gazing Colonel Charteris
– God (after all) was on his side.
Sir William Robertson (Chief
of the Imperial General Staff) knew
Haig was next door to an imbecile
but backed him – lacking better –
against any alternative. Haig knew
the Fifth Army Staff, Gough’s boys,
were capable of stuffing up
the most elegant and foolproof
plan. Everyone knew
it always rains in Flanders
in the Autumn. The result was
the ‘most indiscriminate slaughter
in the history of warfare.’
No-one could find
a good way to avoid it.

Without losing face, that is. (Ross, 2010)

Theodor Adorno famously wrote in 1949: “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch” [to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric]. Further on in the same sentence he uses the word “unmöglich" [impossible] to supplement his earlier choice of “barbarisch” [barbaric]. They don’t, of course, mean the same thing.

It may be barbaric to write poetry after the revelation of mass-produced slaughter in the Nazi death-camps, but is it – strictly speaking – impossible? The groaning shelves of poetry books and journals produced since World War II would seem to argue otherwise.

What it comes down to is, in fact, a question of poetics. The entire quotation (as reprinted in Prismen [Prisms] (1955), reads as follows:
Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten Stufe der Dialektik von Kultur und Barbarei gegenüber: nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, und das frißt auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmöglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben.

[Cultural criticism is the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.]

That’s a far more complicated proposition. Kulturkritik [cultural criticism], the “final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism” has now become the villain of the piece, corroding – literally “eating away” – at the knowledge that tells us why it has become impossible to write poetry today.

What is this knowledge? Not so much the knowledge that there was once a place called Auschwitz, as knowledge which tells us why that place is significant, why there’s something in that massacre which transcends all earlier acts of horror and genocide.

If you don’t possess this knowledge already, Adorno appears to be saying, then theory – Kulturkritik – will not impart it to you.

Scribble away, guys – keep on producing what you call “poetry.” Adorno’s point is that it is impossible to regain that naiveté of outlook which might make a “normative” (in Lisa Samuel’s sense) approach to cultural processes acceptable (or even feasible).

Now we can argue about the date when this fact became unequivocally apparent to humanity: to the non-“barbaric” (i.e. culturally informed) portions of it, at any rate. Henry James saw the final eclipse of liberal, ameliorative values in the outbreak of World War I, which he termed the “Great Interruption.” (Lubbock, 1920, II: 402). This fall into the abyss seemed him to negate all the fallacious optimism of the past hundred years, as he said in a series of letters to different correspondents.

W. H. Auden, in his classic “September 1, 1939” identifies the moment with the outbreak of World War II, “as the clever hopes expire / of a low dishonest decade”:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good. (Auden, 1945, p.58)

I began this section by quoting my own poem “Last Conference before Passchendaele,” written a few years ago after reading Leon Wolff’s 1958 book In Flanders Fields. I know that his devastating account of the third Ypres campaign has been much disputed since, but the thing that really struck me about it was the fact that everyone knew what was going to happen, but no single one of them could think of a way of putting that knowledge into action: choosing not to send 250,000 or so Allied servicemen to their deaths (not to mention at least 200,000 Germans) was quite impossible for them.

There were many reasons for this, of course (there always are), but since the institution I work at was in the middle of a particularly hostile takeover / “restructure” at the time I read Wolff’s book, I felt very tempted to send our Head of College a copy of my poem to illustrate the point. Some things are just a bad idea from the get-go, and everybody knows it perfectly well. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to happen, or that any significant resistance can be mounted against them, though. Why is that?

Well, in the simplest possible terms, it’s because the culture-machine controls and allocates meaning (and therefore action) along certain pre-set channels. For a closer analysis of just how these structures of power / knowledge operate, I would recommend to you a study of the works of the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Perhaps Power / Knowledge, his 1980 book of interviews and occasional writings, might be a good starting point.

Hence Lisa Samuels otherwise perverse insistence on disrupting “normative”:
syntax, punctuation, allusion, page use, screen utility, synchronic sounds, indexical logic, object telos, poetic seriousness, and stability in the line, word, speaker, and/or reference.

Not (simply) because she – we – want to screw with your head, but because we want to interfere with our culture’s propensity to make any kind of behaviour (attaching electrodes to people’s heads to calm them down; collecting them in giant shower-baths to poison them with pesticide; dumping leaky containers of radioactive poison in every ocean, lake and field we can find) seem perfectly rational and straightforward.

Once you’ve internalised the discourse of virtually any professional pursuit (death-camp management / currency destabilizing on the Stock Market / online paedophile pornography distribution), the battle’s already over. You talk a language which cannot admit change, which regards destablisation as the ultimate evil. You have been subtly manipulated into privileging “order” (in whatever form) over the alleged “chaos” of open form.

Not so, says poetics. Every type of order is subject to analysis. Those who resist theory simply reveal that they are in the grip of an earlier theory, proclaimed the pundits of Post-structuralism in the 60s and 70s. There’s something in that. The sole merit of theory is that it can be isolated and examined, compared systematically with other theories. Praxis, on the other hand, is self-perpetuating. Once you’re caught on the plateau of your own “poetic practice” (your “voice,” if you prefer), no further progress is possible. Even Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of secular hymns extolling the cleansing properties of conflict in the opening days of World War I before he came to his senses.

Poetics may sound a bit tedious at times, a distraction from the sheer fun of monkeying around with language. It can also bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the “cultural criticism” Adorno was desperate to warn us against. At its best, though, it is meant to act as an antidote to such systems for normalising the aberrant and abhorrent. In a sense, then, Shelley was quite right when he called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (Shelley, 1887, p.41). It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

  • Adorno, Theodor. (1949). “Quotation: To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Herbert Marcuse Adorno Page (8/6/05):
  • Aristotle. (1953). Poetics & Rhetoric. Demetrius: On Style. Longinus: On the Sublime. Essays in Classical Criticism. Introduction by T. A. Moxon. Everyman’s Library. 1934. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton.
  • Auden, W. H. (1945). The Collected Poetry. New York: Random House.
  • Barth, John. (1988). The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. 1956 & 1958. Rev. ed. 1967. An Anchor Book. New York: Doubleday.
  • Bloom, Harold. (1997). The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 1973. 2nd ed. New York : Oxford University Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. (1981). Power / Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. Trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper. 1980. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Genette, Gérard. (1983). Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. 1972. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Foreword by Jonathan Culler. 1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Lubbock, Percy, ed. (1920). The Letters of Henry James. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.
  • Ross, Jack. (2010). “Last Conference before Passchendaele.” The Imaginary Museum (8/2/10):
  • Samuels, Lisa. (2011). “Six modes of poetry experiment in New Zealand/Aotearoa.” Unpublished conference paper. Poetry & the Contemporary Symposium (Melbourne: Deakin University, 7-10 July). Pp. 1-23.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. (1887). “A Defence of Poetry.” 1821. In Essays and Letters. Ed. Ernest Rhys. The Scott Library. London: Walter Scott, Ltd.. Pp. 1-41.
  • Wolff, Ian. (1961). In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign. 1958. London: Pan Books.


Poetry NZ 47 (2013): 93-103.

[4112 wds]

Poetry NZ 47 (2013)

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