Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

*I am especially gratified that this was the second most ‘liked’ and viewed poem that I posted this year. It is a piece that had been rattling around in the back of my mind for some years now, but only came together under the inspiration of one of Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab prompts. It is a poem about childhood memories and the demise of 1970s trade-union politics, but it is also a belated Christmas poem of sorts. I continue to trim and touch it up, but I think that it is approaching a definitive version.*

 

Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

 

The squeaky plastic toy postman

was part of a series of shampoo bottles

—policeman, hard-hatted construction-worker,

fire-fighter, farmer, nurse—

a whole trade union movement

of workers dirtied by politics and labor

and cleansed by a daily baptism of bubble-bath;

and dirty for having been in and out

of your baby mouth so often,

and in and out of your high-walled pram

into the dirt and back, little sister,

until lost.

*

Oddly,

the loss of that little postman,

somewhere outside of the pram,

squashed, on the narrow sidewalk

between the blackened car-park walls

and the trucks thundering

along the once sleepy high street

through the center of town,

somewhere between the shiny-windowed family planning clinic

and the bakery chimney black with sugary soot

and the scent of gingerbread men,

lost forever under the wheels of a juggernaut,

upset me far more than you

with your giggling fort-da games.

*

The little postman was thrown unceremoniously

under the bus, as workmen drilled the road

noisily under red&white striped tents

between cups of tea. And probably laughed.

Mother didn’t even notice he had gone,

still less you, little sister, with your new-born smile.

Only I noticed that the postman

was missing and no longer among us

no longer lined up alongside the other smiling guilded icons

rimming the bath.

The only smile lacking mine.

The engineer was not weeping,

nor the policeman seeking him out,

nor the nurse tending his wounds.

“I’m alright, Jack,” they each seemed to grin back

from their own squeezy soapy toy world.

No solace there.

The dirty bathwater gurgled down into the plughole

as always and all was lost. The postman gone.

*

Later, policemen would take sticks to the backs of miners

and printers; squeeze the life out of picketing dockers;

bludgeon firemen and factory workers. Throw them all

out of the high-walled pram of the nanny state,

like unwanted toys.

*

The message the stern-faced postman brought was never his own:

letters from half-forgotten family members popped

through the post box among bills. The flurry of cards

and packages at the end of the year justified the postman’s Christmas box.

Even carefully packed clotted cream.

*

Once a year—double overtime—we would trudge—

duffel-coated little Santa’s helpers—

down to the railway station to load bags

full of gifts and festive greetings onto waiting trains.

And the ASLEF driver would step off the plate

to warm his feet on a two-bar fire and rant Utopian dreams,

riding his metal sleigh sullenly through icy dark of night,

a Santa clad in Lenin red

cheering us with his tales of times to be.

….

We wait now for the postman thrown out of the pram to be found—

the redeeming Übermensch,

Homoousia knitted back together

by kind ladies who go to church—

and hang fairy lights in trees

to welcome his return.

 

Tinker, tailor, soldier and sailor

have lost touch with the candlestick-maker

who is out of work these days. Unions come

and go. Places taken by accountants,

upstart slum landlords, slick-talking lobbyists,

lawyers, ad-men, bankers, TV anchors.

But none of these become icons filled with foaming bubble-bath

squirted out with the cheerful squeak

of a station master ordering off a train

in a mist of sooty steam and a flapping of flags;

or of a factory chimney tooting time

for workers to knock off and get back home

on bikes

to polish billiard cues for the night ahead,

or of milkmen whistling

on whirring floats

as they do their rounds.

 

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Freckles

* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. *

Your Freckles

These dots of melanin occur quite without evident or reasonable order. Refreshing moles intermittently punctuate swathes of otherwise desert skin; do not blemish but accentuate its softness. Their magnitudes vary greatly: some are large and a very chocolate brown; others almost infinitesimal points of blond pigment, barely visible to the naked eye. Some constellate into large formations; two or more coalesce into binary or more complex systems; some, solitary, command huge expanses of unpigmented skin.

The surface of each human body is a largely uncharted firmament. The larger moles are not blessed with names of gods not otherwise worshipped. Unseen lines and patterns are not drawn between them, drawing legends from their random distribution. The volume of the human body is not drawn on rectilinear sheets overlaid with a navigable network of co-ordinates.

Being such unmapped surfaces, is it no wonder, we each feel so alone and uncared for; and so much the outsider in the world of others? If we learnt to be one another’s cartographers, love would not then be blind and intangible.

How dare the cosmologists have plotted the beginning and the end of time when each one of our terrestrial bodies lies uncharted! How dare men’s boots have imprinted the moon’s dusty craters, when my fingers have not traced imaginary lines between your freckles!

 

Epic

Here is my condensed cynical somewhat tongue-in-cheek but ultimately serious take on the Odyssey, as suggested by this week’s Poetry Rehab prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/893323549 . My apologies to Homer and to the generations of rhapsodes and classical scholars who have labored to preserve his words.

 

Epic

Dad went off to the war & didn’t come home;

did a lot of dirty things;

shacked up with birds on foreign shores.

*

Tel has a thing about the father he has never seen;

& Pen’s nervous fingers pick away at the story

every day & unpick it by night;

spurning all unsuitable guys.

*

Dad turns up twenty years too late

looking like a bum;

remembered

only by a dog;

& goes out on a shooting spree.

New Moon

* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. *

New Moon

When, in times of transition,

a sign appears

of the moon to come

held fleetingly

in the arms of the old,

 

and when, in times of transit,

an image lingers

of the past moon

shiveringly pinned

on the horns of the new,

 

and when, in times of trance,

the shadow of the old moon

and the egg of the new

mix and dance shimmeringly

on a shared sliver of gold,

 

the moon

rises long before you can actually see it

and not long after it is made visible

by the advent of the night

is gone.

Couldn’t

* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. This article and short poem provides a more personal take on the role of the avant-garde in contemporary English poetry.*

One of the most interesting features of this process of posting poems online is to be able to observe which receive a lot of welcome attention from fellow poets and fellow bloggers and which do not. Blogging, like poetry, is a necessarily Narcissistic activity. I have been pleasantly surprised that poems I imagined to be slight or somewhat offensive have garnered so much positive feedback and online support.

My poems have many not necessarily mutually compatible facets and I like to work in a variety of styles. One of these is an avant-garde Dada-inspired manner that challenges conventional notions such as self-expression, internal consistency, and authorial control. It is interesting that these have generally received the least positive response or simply gone unnoticed by my peers, although my most liked and commented on online poem so far is (much to my surprise) “Stuff stuffed in a Drawer,” https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/writing-201-poetry-task-8-drawer/ which combines Dadaist dogma with apparent personal revelations.

I started experimenting with such poetry in the late 1980s, inspired by Tristan Tzara’s ‘How to Write a Dadaist Poemhttp://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/tzara.html and the largely defunct but much mourned do-it-yourself punk ethos in popular music. I aimed to extract material from a wide variety of sources—children’s school projects (Drawing Maps), jurisprudential records (Knee Damages), and even a Jane Austen novel (Emmagrams). These early experimental poems were deliberately lost, by leaving the original on a photocopying machine and frivolously gifting all remaining copies in my possession to fleeting lovers and seeming friends. At the time, I, somewhat pretentiously, felt this to be an interestingly self-deconstructive act.

I was interested, back then, in remaining broadly faithful to Tzara’s arbitrary method, but also adding a degree of form, derived from Hebrew acrostic poetry and the unintended poetry of the alphabetical arrangement of items in a catalogue—I was working as a librarian and compiling indexes for a publishing company at that time. I was also interested in assuming some degree of authorial control. I selected the fragments of text, not entirely randomly, but as I pleased, like someone picking blackberries from a hedge, and I deviated at times, although not often, for aesthetic reasons, from the self-imposed formal rule of arranging these snippets in strictly alphabetical order.

In the late 1980s, this was a painstaking process—a thankless labor of love. No software eased the path. I teased the text out from physical books, organized it into alphabetical order in notebooks, and typed the final version up haltingly on an old Remington typewriter I had inherited from my wannabe novelist mother, through ink-drenched ribbons that were forever wearing out and becoming increasingly difficult to acquire. I was especially interested in the fact that such creations depended more on manual labor than inspiration and was spurred by the thought of the digital drilling my mother must have been forced through, in the 1950s, as one young woman among many in a typing pool.

I stopped producing this kind of writing for various reasons, some personal, some practical, some historical. My acrostic Dadaist poems were routinely dismissed in the poetry workshops I attended, while even slightly more confessional work received great praise. I eventually gave up on it altogether and retreated into a more confessional conventional mode.

The kind of avant-garde poetry that I had been trying to create in the late 1980s had, besides, become much easier to produce, almost throwaway, with the advent of the word processer, macros, hypertext and the Internet; word clouds, corpora and chic data presentation software. My modest Dadaist project was at once cowed by this and spurred by a realization that this aestheticization of text and fetishization of technology was not the direction in which I wanted to go.

Google has perhaps come to my rescue in this regard.

Google attempts to anticipate your search by filling in the first letters or words you type, helpfully or not, with those that have been keyed in most prevalently by people around the world. I find this both creepy and inspiring. It combines, at a keystroke, seemingly magical high-tech with a punk-like shift to the vernacular and re-evaluation of poor taste.

Taking Google’s ‘cold reading’, akin to that of a cheap psychic, and combining it with personal choices, a formal framework, and aesthetic judgment, I am now trying to use this resource to produce avant-garde poems similar to some extent to those I labored to create in an age before we were all jumbled up online. I have already posted one such poem on this blog https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/burning-questions/

The following poem takes up Andy Townend’s ‘couldn’t’ prompt for this week’s Poetry Rehab https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/775617764 to produce a pseudo-random take on the theme. The tag ‘couldn’t’ preceded by a variety of pronouns was searched on Google and the most commonly occurring phrases recorded by autocomplete, with a certain leeway for the poet, noted and arranged in alphabetical order, according (first) to the pronoun and then the verb following the modal ‘couldn’t’. See also my ongoing research on the history of English modal verbs https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/modal-verbs-over-time/

This at once laborious and flippant process I like to think produces interesting aesthetic effects. But that is for others to tell.

Couldn’t

He couldn’t get it up

I couldn’t agree more

I couldn’t ask for more

I couldn’t become a hero

I couldn’t care less.

*

It couldn’t be better

It couldn’t be done

It couldn’t happen here

It couldn’t just happen.

*

She couldn’t change me

She couldn’t say no

The one who couldn’t love

*

They couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery

We couldn’t create a new partition

You couldn’t see me.

 

Why poetry didn’t go Dada

* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. This article reflects on the demise of the avant-garde in contemporary English 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.

*

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.

 

Lucy

Yesterday’s re-reading of John Donne’s A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day inspired me to write this related piece.

Lucy

(after John Donne)

The year comes to a glum end.

We wake up go to work come home—

all in the dark—

in a world spared a wearied sun,

lying long abed.

 

Trees are miserably stripped of life & leaves;

earth is barren and hard to dig.

Vitality plumps herself down

at the foot of a bedsit bed & drinks

gin to forget and deepen her gloom.

 

The lover’s skip in her step

will come again come spring;

ruined but reborn.

She has no chlorophyll in her skin

or veins to tide her through the year;

 

survives under the influence of lesser stars

& brief affairs on summer hols.

“When Adam delved & Eve span,

who was then a gentle man?”

is her lullaby and sing-a-long.

 

Two Short Poems

* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. Here are two more short poems.*

Stack

The soft limestone is worn away by acid,

as uplifted igneous rock resists,

bridging coastal tides.

Thinned by wind and rain,

it collapses under its own levity and gravity,

leaving us an off-shore stack of granite—

an imagined castle,

noble and lost.

 

A Little Metaphysical Haiku

The astronomical clock

the laws of physics do not obey

ticks down to an apocalypse

none can foresee.

 

St. Lucy’s Day

One of the few rituals I try to follow is to re-read this poem by John Donne on 21 December each year. It is at once a shockingly dark piece and an inspiring master-class in flexibility of rhythm and theme.

 

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

By John Donne 1572–1631

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,

Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;

The sun is spent, and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

The world’s whole sap is sunk;

The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,

Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,

Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,

Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

 

Study me then, you who shall lovers be

At the next world, that is, at the next spring;

For I am every dead thing,

In whom Love wrought new alchemy.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations, and lean emptiness;

He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

 

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,

Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;

I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave

Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood

Have we two wept, and so

Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow

To be two chaoses, when we did show

Care to aught else; and often absences

Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

 

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)

Of the first nothing the elixir grown;

Were I a man, that I were one

I needs must know; I should prefer,

If I were any beast,

Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,

And love; all, all some properties invest;

If I an ordinary nothing were,

As shadow, a light and body must be here.

 

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.

You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun

At this time to the Goat is run

To fetch new lust, and give it you,

Enjoy your summer all;

Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,

Let me prepare towards her, and let me call

This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this

Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

 

Amateur and Professional Poetry

* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. I was especially gratified that this essay on amateur and professional poetry attracted interest from around the world.*

When did poetry cease to become mainstream? Was it ever read or written by more than an élite few? Could it really now have become marginal to the point of insignificance, if not extinction? Or has it merely been driven underground?

There was a time, not so long ago, when poetry was part of the mainstream and the lifeblood of society. Until quite recently, no self-respecting middle-class home would have been without books of verse on the shelves and working-class culture was pervaded by popular ditties, whose passage from one generation to the next, in a world with no sound-recording technology, required them to be memorized, improvised on, or written down.

There was a healthy flow back and forth between the erudite and the popular, as the numerous poems attributed to anonymous authors in the early sections of anthologies eloquently attest. It is practically a cliché to note how Shakespeare’s plays were carefully crafted to appeal simultaneously to the various and varying strata of Elizabethan society.

Elitism in poetry, as more broadly in literature, would appear, therefore, to be a relatively recent phenomenon, coinciding ironically with the emergence of a superficially more democratic age, less sharply divided by class. While pre-modern societies were pyramidal in structure, with the masses firmly oppressed at the bottom, the cultural mortar that held them together was more uniform and the layers shaded, both socially and culturally, more subtly and haphazardly into one another.

Modern societies are more likely to take the form of a wedding cake, with clearly distinct tiers, each with its specific ingredients to appeal to the increasingly ingrained tastes of increasingly firmly entrenched tribal groups. In this world of culturally, rather than socially-determined status, social mobility tends to be low, even though, in principle, all citizens have an equal right to cut a slice from whichever tier of the cake they might wish to try.

I think it is fair to say that, in the highly circumscribed world of so-called ‘contemporary poetry,’ verse is published by and for a tiny minority who define themselves and their taste in terms of that world; many, if not most, connected in some way to university departments of English Literature.

In the US, as early as the time of Lowell and Berryman, this was already largely the case, although, different from other parts of the world, US students are still encouraged to write poetry at all levels of the education system.

In the UK, until recently, poetry did still reach out to a wider audience, largely due to the efforts of a still paternalistic mass media. As a result, some of Lowell and Berryman’s contemporaries on the European side of the Atlantic—Betjeman, Larkin, even Auden—managed to garner a broader appeal. The popular appeal of academic poetry probably reached its most recent peak with prurient interest in the Plath/Hughes dyad in the late 1960s and thereafter, though more have probably read the biographies and the gossip than the poems themselves.

On the Celtic fringe of the United Kingdom and its former colonies and ghettoes in the US, poetry continued to thrive in this period through its association with nationalist movements and the long overdue promotion of diversity. It is debatable however whether many or most of these poems will survive beyond their immediate historical setting, except in libraries and university lectures.

Few mainstream anthologies include any poets born after 1964 and precious few born after 1945; poetry competitions are routinely won by academics who imitate long out-dated styles and the very idea of poetry is enough to evoke an impression of stuffiness, elitism and class oppression and a yawn of passive-aggressive indignation in perhaps most of the population of the contemporary world.

But it is not true that poetry in general has declined. In fact, with the possible exception of a personal diary, poetry is probably the medium of written expression that ordinary people are most likely to engage in, be it as a counterpoint to the drudgery of their everyday lives or as a response to events by which they are emotionally overwhelmed. Their work tends to be sporadic, often secret, and when one of these amateur poets is ‘discovered,’ their verses are more likely to be turned into pop-songs than printed in a slim book.

I am not interested here in judging the merit of this work or arguing as to which criteria should be applied to assess it, but merely in its extent, as a pool from which, in the future, a new, more genuinely democratic, canon might be drawn.

This has happened before in other fields—the rediscovery of the Blues in the 1960s, for example—and it is in fact more likely to occur now that so-called amateurs have the option of publishing their work, however precariously, online, rather than stuffing hand-written manuscripts away in a drawer, Emily Dickinson-style.

In fact, this reliance on a largely subterranean aquifer of unexplored talent for continuing innovation has probably been more the norm than the exception throughout history. The cliques and elitism of modern culture—the departments of literature, as if poetry could be fitted into a bureaucratic structure—are a peculiar—and ultimately unnatural and counter-productive—feature of the capitalist system; as are the inverted snobberies and glib philistinism that this engenders in its loudest opponents.

Poetry has always felt ill-at-ease in a market-oriented and elitist system. This is in part because it is practically impossible to make a living, let alone a profit, out of producing intangible small artifacts at an infrequent rate dependent on a force as fickle as inspiration. The result is that poets are practically forced to be super-specialists or amateurs or both. Super-specialization by its very nature carves out only a minuscule niche market; amateurism is condemned and discouraged by an increasingly bureaucratized, ‘professionalized’ form of capitalism.

My hope is that the Internet is now changing this and that we will soon see a flourishing of innovative, democratic literary production akin to that which occurred in the music industry in the 1960s with the rediscovery of the Blues.