Why Poetry Didn’t Go Dada—the waste land of contemporary English-language poetry

Recent reflection on the 50th anniversary of the death of T.S. Eliot and the award of the T.S. Eliot Prize to yet another academic reminds us of the extent to which English-language poetry is still for the most part a deeply conservative minor art-form appreciated only by a tiny privileged élite.

The contrast with the visual arts could not be greater. While contemporary art has expanded on the modernist initiatives of the early 20th century and reached out for new media and to new audiences and embraced a much broader range of subject matter, contemporary poetry is a by-word for backward-looking academicism and celebration of the values of a shrinking and gated haute-bourgeoisie.

Much of the vibrancy of contemporary art comes from the need both to react to and embrace new technologies. Instead of simply trying to imitate its rival media or quietly die out, painting reacted to photography and film by radically reinventing itself and raising a wealth of social and philosophical issues in the process.

Poetry could have done the same. In the 1910s and 20s, Dadaism was as much a literary as an art movement. Tristan Tzara was as important a figure as Marcel Duchamp. But while Duchamp’s radical break with both modernism and traditionalism would later engender the likes of Beuys and Warhol, Basquiat and Banksy, Dada and Surrealism in poetry drifted gradually back to a twee late 19th century sensibility or off onto the largely fallow ground of the collectivized diktats of socialist realism.

The seeds of poetry’s persistently conservative bent can already be found in Tzara’s own work. As I have pointed out in poetry workshops I have conducted based on Tzara’s ideas, Tzara’s hallmark How to Write a Dadaist Poem is not, in fact, itself a Dadaist poem. Its use of language is witty and gritty, but largely conservative in terms of the relation between words and meaning or between content and support. Tzara, of course, probably intended this ironic contrast. That was part of the anarchic joke.

More damning, is the fact that, while whole industries of art installations and exhibitions have grown out of Marcel Duchamp’s cheeky yet thought-provoking inclusion of a urinal in an art gallery, no mainstream anthology of modern and contemporary poetry contains a poem produced in anything like the way Tzara suggested in his manifesto poem. Dadaist poetry was always more about thinking than doing.

Can we make excuses for poetry? A sort of evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest approach to art history might suggest that visual artists had to deal with much sterner competition than poets did and were thus spurred to evolve at a faster pace. The advance of photography and cinema pushed artists out of the field so far as traditional representational art was concerned and they were forced to find new ground. Poets did not enjoy this negative incentive.

This argument, however, breaks down on both sides. First, photography and film, in their initial phases were no match for painting. A Titian is clearly infinitely superior to a Daguerrotype; a Hogarth series more vivid than any early moving picture. The visual arts did not ‘run scared’ of new media, but rather took them on board. The best artists of the time were interested in both painting and photography.

Neither is it true that traditional representational art has completely died out, even today. The rich and famous still prefer a traditional or semi-traditional oil on canvas portrait to a selfie, installation, strip cartoon or piece of graffiti art, and many artists still make a decent living producing such work.

On the other hand, it is equally untrue to argue that poetry did not have to deal with such an onslaught from new media. At the same time as painting was grappling with the challenges posed by photography and moving images, poetry was faced with Tin Pan Alley, tabloid journalism, television and the advertising industry. However, rather than embracing these new developments, as art did, poetry largely turned its nose up at them and retreated to its roots.

Poetry takes modernism up to a certain point, but then always seems to lose heart and back off from more radical departures. A good example of this is e. e. cummings whose eccentric use of punctuation provides a modernist/contemporary-looking veneer for otherwise fairly unremarkable traditional romantic verse. This is a much more cheaply and easily accomplished trick than the genuine hard-won revolution in form achieved by a Picasso or a Braque.

Another argument commonly presented to account for the demise of poetry is that poets have been replaced by singer-songwriters who write lyrics for musical accompaniment.

Again, we can present a two-pronged assault on this argument. On the one hand, it is doubtful to say the least whether the work of even the best of contemporary singer-songwriters (Dylan, Cohen, Morrissey) can stand alone without the music. In fact, all of these figures tend to be failed poets who found their voice with the aid of a band and accomplished musicians and producers. It is simply nonsense to suggest, as the Tony Wilson character does in 24 hour Party People, that the drug-fuelled lead-singer of the Happy Mondays was a poet on a par with W.B. Yeats. In fact, it is a deeply unfair comparison, for both of the individuals concerned.

On the other hand, poetry has always had to contend with popular music and the wise-cracks of the orator, jester/stand-up comedian, preacher and popular dramatist and it owes its existence and identity to being something different if ultimately derived from song and these other primarily oral media. A silent form of music made of words; a quiet private source of humor and joy.

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As poets, we should ask ourselves why, given that writing is a relatively late development, poetry ever detached itself from song? On the one hand, there is the need for the preservation of tradition over time, especially when the chain of oral transmission begins to break down. This break, in and of itself, necessarily injects writerly elements into the aesthetics of a previously oral tradition. Writing can also inject a degree of cynical hindsight into tub-thumping enthusiasm and encourage people not only to think (always a double-edged sword) but (crucially) to think again and again. The principal difference between a written and an oral support is that, while the latter fixes content in time and place, the former both preserves it and subjects it to reflection and the passage of historical time. Poetry was, therefore, a kind of early form of the photograph, film or recorded disc.

But there is another spiritual dimension to this.

At various points in human history, music, dance, performance and visual representation have been regarded as distasteful, immoral or ungodly and subsequently discouraged or banned. During such puritanical phases, writing becomes both a more morally upstanding corrective to these lustier forms of expression and a refuge for those who wish secretly to continue the prohibited tradition.

It is perhaps no coincidence that alphabetic writing first flourished in Semitic cultures in which visual representation was taboo. Likewise, modern bourgeois poetry emerged in a post-Puritan climate, in which theatrical performances, dancing and any form of gaiety were still regarded with suspicion, especially when women were involved. We forget the extent that the values now espoused by so-called Islamic extremists were not so long ago our own.

Even when this repressed desire for vivacious self-expression found an outlet in reading or writing verse, it was often deemed a lesser vice, best kept private and not over-indulged. Young ladies in the 19th century would hide a book of poetry from their governesses and intended fiancés.

The extraordinary example of this Emily Dickinson, the unusual form of whose secretly-produced work is driven by a duty to contain emotion combined with an overwhelming desire to give it full vent. In the history of American poetry, Whitman also fits into this pattern in a more swashbuckling way. There is always an unresolved tension in poetry between repression and liberty of expression, which these great 19th century North American poets exemplify better than their European contemporaries.

Modernism provided poetry with a peculiar conundrum in this regard. There was at the same time nothing to be contained and nothing hidden to be expressed. Hence a growing tendency towards obscurity.

The first modernist poets confronted this dilemma by inverting the formula. Baudelaire achieved this by containing then taboo subject matter in meticulously precise if innovative forms of verse. Rimbaud went the other way: care-free so far as form is concerned to the point of producing prose, yet not especially radical in terms of content. Other French poets of the time used fairly traditional forms to present content derived from modern urban life.

Modernism, in general, was about including technology and a broader social perspective into the traditional repertoire. It varied greatly in terms of the extent to which it applied this to content and form, but, as a result, managed to detach the two forever.

T.S. Eliot published The Wasteland in 1922. Nothing like it had been written in the English language before and, more tellingly, nothing like it has ever been written since. Eliot follows various modernist and proto-modernist modes and prefigures some post-modern ones in this truly unique—yet ultimately flawed—poetic tour de force. He incorporates vernacular content—as he had experimented with in earlier work—and produces a collage that mixes contemporary slang, Middle English, vaudeville, traditional folk ditties, Oxford erudition, Greek mythology, bald realism, Sanskrit mysticism, and a semi-mocking undercurrent of modern scientific and literary-critical meta-discourse. The result is still stunning and still bewildering.

The Wasteland is modernism stalled. A new-fangled Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang of an automobile-poem driven proudly out of the factory, only to break down a few hundred yards down the road. (cf. Apollinaire’s nouveau nostalgia piece La petite auto http://centenaire.org/fr/texte-1-guillaume-apollinaire-la-petite-auto written a few years earlier plays much more interestingly and overtly with both content and support). Apollinaire’s Calligrammes look forward to modern and contemporary advertising, while Eliot’s modernism, for all its puffing efforts to imitate the factory and city life, ushers in a silver phase in the canon of English literature based on over-complication and the juxtaposition of the vernacular and erudite allusion.

And yet, like every flawed innovation, The Wasteland contains elements that can be learnt from. Ironically, in the contemporary world, the feature that seems most up-to-date is precisely the use of foot-notes, which was mocked at the time and often still is, although a revival of this technique forms the basis of Faber & Faber’s latest attempt to continue to monetize the Eliot legacy through online media.

Contemporary poetry has almost completely failed to incorporate HTML and similar new forms of support for content and text, and yet stuffy old T. S., tapping away at a typewriter, was pushing up against that boundary almost a hundred years ago.

Likewise modern and contemporary poetry alike—apart from the odd spicy expletive or colloquialism, or punk or rap poet paternalistically accepted into the fold—has largely eschewed the use of the vernacular and post-modern cut-and-paste in favor of a return to the romantic illusion of creative self-expression as a soft-focus conventional portrayal of supposedly normal bourgeois life—a format that the benefits of social media have done little or nothing to subvert or dispel.

Few ‘contemporary’ poems are at once as vulgar and vernacular and ironically erudite as Eliot’s Wasteland was. Pound, whom Eliot idolized, now seems unbearably pompous by comparison.

The overriding metaphor of waste land is equally prescient. [Eliot intended the two syllables of his title to be two words given equal stress, rather than a compound noun with the stress on the first syllable, as it has generally come to be pronounced since]. An American convert to British conservatism and fusty Anglo-Catholic mysticism, Eliot was nevertheless a prophet of his time, imagining the rubble left by Nazi bombs and the cardboard cities of the homeless created later by neoliberal economic policy and yet seeing these as somehow connected to a deep-set, long-standing spiritual malaise.

Poetry didn’t go Dada, especially in the English-speaking world, but Eliot’s Wasteland was perhaps the closest it came.

Eliot’s later work is competent and theologically and philosophically profound, but he would never manage to square the circle between the highly radical forms he originally thought it important to employ and the spiritual profundity of content he wished to convey. His last failed grasp for the illusion of a conservative modernity was to attempt to re-invent poetic drama, but it ran aground on its insistence on combining neo-Shakespearian form with the already outdated neo-bourgeois content and mores of Wilde and Coward. The subsequent success of kitchen-sink drama and the minimalist existentialism and absurdism of Beckett and Pinter, simply swept this still-born project away.

I am somewhat reluctant to play the poetry critic, except to praise the perhaps too narrow range of poets I especially admire. I am reluctant because, different from the other subjects I comment on, I am a poet myself and know how criticism can be at once fair and cruel.

Different from other art forms, few poets produce more than one or two truly great pieces of work. Poets are more like master jewelers than composers, novelists, film-makers, artists or architects. It is very difficult to forge filigrees of gold for an entirely new purpose in an entirely new way. Nevertheless, this is something I believe it is extremely important that poets, if they are to be truly creative and remain relevant in the contemporary world, continue to endeavor to achieve.

As a poetry teacher, I suggest the following exercises for poets and students:

  1. Try writing poetry on different supports: road signs, cycle paths, Mobius strips, formats that can’t be supported by a computer screen;
  2. Try to apply the principles of what I call “Dogme poetry”. Your writing should contain no combinations of words or phrases that could not naturally occur in real life;
  3. Work collectively. A truly great modern poem will always be the product of many diverse and divergent voices and hands.
  4. Mine discourse. Cut and paste phrases that real people have uttered in real-life or online.
  5. Don’t self-censor. Other people are all too willing to criticize. Let them do it and take their advice, but only if you think it apt.
  6. Visit people in prison and communicate with them. Many great writers and thinkers have been imprisoned at some point in their lives. And many prison inmates are great potential sources of wisdom and creativity.
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Greece in Europe

Greece has often been in the forefront of European revolutions, but is also a deeply conservative country. Admired abroad for its democracy, independent spirit, philosophy and culture, it has always been riven internally by contradictions and intractable divisions. Mythology and history inevitably tend to mix.

At the very outset and the very center of this warp and weft of Greek history and myth lies the concept of Europe. While it was the Greek city-states, through their experience of the Persian Wars, that first established the distinction between Europe and Asia, it has never been entirely clear where Europe ends and Asia begins. Much of Ancient Greece lay on or off the coast of what was then called Asia Minor, present-day Turkey, and much of its famed philosophy and scientific speculation can be traced to mystical roots much further to the East.

Even the Romans, who did so much, especially after Octavian’s defeat of Egyptian-based Anthony and Cleopatra, to foster a stark divide between Roman Europe and decadent Asia, regarded Greeks—for all their admiration—as somewhat Asiatic and effeminate. Neither, however, should we underestimate the extent to which the Roman Empire itself, especially under some of its more colorful rulers, was hardly as distinct from Asia as the orientalist discourse of Medieval and Modern Europe would later make it out to be.

In late Roman times, it was an ecstatic Asian religion—Christianity—that rose to predominance over the creaking practicalities of Stoicism, paganism and emperor worship that was the empire’s stock in trade. That religion came to Rome filtered through Neoplatonism and written in Greek.

When the Western Roman Empire came to an end, Rome continued to flourish in the Greek-speaking east for a further thousand years. The term Byzantium is, in many respects, a misnomer, imposed by an orientalism-inspired view of the world, not least because the Byzantines regarded themselves as Romans and were designated as such by their surrounding rivals.

With the Fall of Constantinople, in 1453, Greece and most of the Balkan peninsula came to be governed—albeit somewhat loosely—by the Ottoman Empire. In the jargon of the time, the Balkans came to be known as the Near East and the Asian Near East of ancient times was given the neologism Middle East. So far as Greece was concerned, the result of the Persian War and Alexander’s subsequent conquests seemed to have been reversed.

Greece, however, was set to rise again, if not in its former glory, at least as one of the first nominally independent nation-states to emerge in the wake of the Napoleonic War. I say ‘nominally’ because its freedom still depended in large measure on the goodwill of a Britain and Russia locked in their Great Game of scrambling for control of the crumbling margins of the moribund Ottoman Empire.

It would be wrong, however, for all the romantic rhetoric, to view Greece as a bastion of Western enlightenment and freedom in the east. Socially, Greece remained very conservative and turned towards Asian culture for many years to come, and certain illiberal practices, regarding women’s rights, for instance, persisted deep into the 20th century.

Internally, in the wake of its war of independence, in the 1820s, Greece was also divided and, as had happened, shortly after the Persian Wars, and would again, after the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, be plunged into civil strife.

There has always been a tension in Greek politics—perhaps in the Greek psyche itself—between demos and tyrannos. In the Peloponnesian War, Athens, punctiliously democratic at home, acted like a colonial tyrant in international affairs, whilst Sparta, a rigid military dictatorship, fought to defend the independence of weaker city-states. Interestingly, most of the Athenian intelligentsia of the time, including Socrates and Euripides, tended to be sympathetic towards the Spartan cause, just as Plato and Aristotle would later prefer the patronage of foreign dictators over the messy parochial democratic politics of home.

This struggle was a curious precursor of the modern Cold War, with intellectuals supporting a militaristic domestically tyrannical Soviet Union/Sparta on account of its support for anti-colonial movements and criticizing more liberal democratic domestic régimes.

Of the various internecine conflicts that continued to plague Europe in the aftermath of World War II, that of Greece (with the exception perhaps of Yugoslavia and the Ukraine) was by far the bloodiest and most protracted. Different, however, from Yugoslavia and Ukraine, where the conflict fed on age-old ethnic rivalries, the civil war in Greece of the late 1940s directly reflected the coming Cold War ideological divide. This was, in part, a direct consequence, of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt’s decision not to establish a clear “sphere of influence” in the country, but it also reflected deep ideological divisions within Greek society: those who looked back to the now largely lost cause of a Greater Greece embracing the Aegean run by strongmen, and those who looked forward (and perhaps further back also) to a utopian democratic socially-harmonious coexistence of communities. The Peloponnesian War continues to this day.

With some help from the British, who still regarded Greece as a semi-colony, and Stalin’s growing lack of interest in the fractious peninsula, the forces of the right—including many who had collaborated with the Nazi occupation—eventually prevailed; and, until the early 1980s, Greece was the most reactionary of the countries supposedly liberated from the Hitlerian yoke. Still an exception, with more in common, in some respects, with the dictatorships and social conservatism of the Arab Middle East than with the new freedoms, enjoyed in widely differing ways, of Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc.

In a euphoria of expectations on all sides, when the PASOK party came to power in the early 1980s, Greece was fast-tracked, first into the European Union and then into the Eurozone, despite the fact that it had not properly met the political and economic conditions for either. Different from Spain and Portugal, which were also, on hindsight, incorporated a little too hastily into the new integrated Europe, Greece did not go through the process of national reconciliation and re-invention that the restoration of the monarchy in Spain and the shedding of colonies in Portugal entailed.

In Greece—despite a nominally pro-European social-democratic government—business continued largely as usual, with traditional élites retaining their right to exploit and corrupt, while social-democratic politicians borrowed money from abroad to pay for welfare reforms. This, of course, would be a ticking time-bomb, in any country. In Greece, the ticker was speeded up when it ceded control of its currency to the European Central Bank, less than a decade before a worldwide financial crisis was set to explode.

As a result, Greece has been subjected to an austerity program the likes of which no other European country has seen. Five years later it is still on its knees, now in thrall not to Ottoman suzerains or Nazi thugs, but to German bankers and Brussels Eurocrats. Austerity has not improved the quality of life in Greece—far from it—nor has it done anything to alleviate the pervasive sense of imminent economic doom that hovers over the whole Eurozone.

With the likelihood of an election victory for Syriza (a genuinely left-wing anti-austerity party with a clear anti-establishment agenda) in the coming week, Greece yet again looks to be on the verge of deciding Europe’s fate. Just as Greece once prevented the European Mediterranean from becoming yet another satrap of a Persian King, just as it once upheld a Christian Roman Empire in the east for a thousand years, just as it spearheaded the wave of nationalist movements that created the modern global system of nation-states, and just as it stood up to both Nazism and Stalinism during and in the wake of World War II at great domestic cost, forming a crucial bulwark in the iron curtain, Greece now seems poised to open up a new chapter in the European story. It will not be easy, especially, as always, for Greece itself—Europe’s most far-flung yet influential corner and gateway to its Asian neighbors.