Why Poetry Didn’t Go Indie

In 1871 Arthur Rimbaud wrote a poem called Les Chercheuses de Poux (The Nit Pickers) . It is one of the few pieces I would include in a very slim anthology of truly all-time great poems. Rimbaud was 15 at the time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7HDznbYwjw He subsequently, with a self-confidence that makes modern rock stars look lily-livered, trudged across the war torn fields of Northern France and went to Paris to meet up with Paul Verlaine.

Rimbaud’s first foray into poetry was obviously heavily based on the work on the Charles Baudelaire, whose style he had already mastered and to a certain extent outdone. Verlaine was also working on furthering and radicalizing the Baudelairean legacy, but his work was cramped somewhat by the Parnassian mode in which he chose to operate.

The two famously became quarrelling lovers. Rimbaud would later give up poetry to pursue a career as an arms dealer and Verlaine’s subsequent mediocre literary output was forever overshadowed by the scandal. Only in the next century was Rimbaud’s radical slash and burn approach to poetry (or for that matter Verlaine’s radical if somewhat mincing minimalism) taken up with any degree of seriousness by the modernist, Dadaist and surrealist movements.

Modernism too, however, would go astray in the desert or give up the ghost in the bistro and, with a few notable exceptions—Ponge, Plath, Berryman maybe—poetry would go back to ploughing the increasingly elitist increasingly lonely furrow it had always been inclined to pursue.

*

In 2016, the ageing singer song writer, Bob Dylan, was controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Rock star style, he refused to turn up for the ceremony and cribbed his acceptance speech off the Internet, as if in a deliberate last-gasp attempt to shrug off his critics.

Debate in literary circles circled superciliously around the question of whether Dylan was a worthy laureate. Snobbery apart, different, for example, from his contemporary Leonard Cohen, who died the same year, he had never actually written anything purporting to a novel or a poem. But perhaps that is precisely why the judges in Stockholm chose him over Cohen—an apparently much more worthy candidate. Dylan was Rimbaud. Cohen Verlaine.

Dylan obviously moved in Beatnik circles in the late 1950s and is clearly influenced by this literary style. A similar driving force unfurls the long rambling lyrics of Like a Rolling Stone or Desolation Row.

I am an enormous admirer of Bob Dylan, but I opposed his being awarded the Nobel Prize. He is not a poet or a writer and, even if he were, true to his radical pacifist roots, he should have rejected the accolade, established as penance by an arms peddler. Perhaps he felt the pull of his Rimbaudian roots.

There should be an Oppenheimer Prize for literature. That might focus minds more closely.

*

This Christmas I discovered Dandelion Radio https://www.dandelionradio.com/index.htm , which purports to continue the time honored tradition of the late John Peel’s democratically culled Festive Fifty best independent music tracks of the year.

I am struck by how so much of it is now Parnassian-style techno-music, but also by how a counter-cultural tradition still persists through this diverse genre. Gavin Osborn’s folksy, Billy Bragg influenced “I am European” made me cry for the first time in years.

I was especially impressed, however, by the number of ‘charting’ songs that involve a kind of dead-pan pared down poetry accompanied by a musical backdrop rather than singing. In the case of the No. 1 song, Paul Rooney’s Lost High Street, a lengthy and amusing discourse recited to both a musical and various sung backtracks.

However, it is questionable whether these arty pieces or Dylan or Cohen or even rap for that matter truly constitute poetry, if the words are dissociated from the music. For me, a defining feature of poetry is that it should stand up independently of any musical accompaniment, specific performance or recording. Poetry, I like to say, is ‘music without sound.’

It is worth noting that both Dylan and Cohen were failed writers who turned to popular music as a way of making more money and reaching a wider audience. The same goes for Morrissey and many other classics of popular songwriting. Rooney, like many of the artists in the contemporary indie scene, hails from an art school background and his work is arguably more video installation than the product of a master songsmith. I shall leave rap to one side for now, as I think that it is a special case that deserves special consideration in a separate post.

Previously on this blog, I have reflected on why contemporary poetry has taken such a different and much more conservative route from that taken by contemporary art. The same question could be asked regarding contemporary independent music.

Independent (or Indie) music grew out of the 1970s punk movement and evolved as an explicit rejection of the highly commercialized and hence conservative form that popular music and youth culture had already assumed by that time. Indie music, as the name suggests, is normally produced by small-scale record labels and its artists and producers are more interested in artistic quality and/or political messaging than in profit-making or widespread popular acclaim. History will probably judge these works much more highly than their mainstream pop and rock contemporaries. But that is for time to tell. The indie music scene is nevertheless a thriving cultural movement often explicitly linked to left-wing political activism, feminism and environmental issues. Contemporary poetry is not.

In my previous post on this subject, I argued that contemporary art differs from contemporary poetry primarily in the way it radically and playfully subverts the relation between surface and support. https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/why-poetry-didnt-go-dada-the-waste-land-of-contemporary-english-language-poetry/ The very provocation Dada originally posed, flirting with the scorn of the masses, eventually turned this scorn to its own advantage and it has now found a comfortable and lucrative niche within mainstream culture.

Indie music has operated differently, but no less effectively. Although there is some deviation from the norms of mainstream music, much Indie music is in fact structurally quite conservative, compared to rap, for instance. Indie music continues to thrive because it has consistently tapped into an undercurrent of otherwise voiceless popular discontent and successfully created social networks of performers, producers, DJs, political activists, visual artists and the disaffected underclass in a way that contemporary poetry could not even dream of doing.

I put the title of this post in the form of a question without a question mark. It is indeed a question that is more rhetorical than literal, a fact that requires no real explanation. Contemporary poetry could, if it wanted to, move more in the direction taken by contemporary art and indie music and would be much the richer for it. It has simply chosen not to do so. It has neither challenged tradition nor reached out to a wider network. And no matter how much writers whinge about short attention spans and poor literacy (complaints that are as hackneyed as they are untrue), there is no getting round the fact that poetry does not nowadays enjoy the same cultural status as popular music or the visual arts (or film and TV for that matter) because it has opted not to seek out this path. Poets have no-one but themselves to blame. And, given poetry’s long history of radicalism and relevance, it is a crying shame.

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Expurosis (Finding Everyday Inspiration 16)

[In response to the 16th Finding Everyday Inspiration challenge prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ I am going back to being lazy and posting something from my extensive back-catalogue of poems and writings, although this piece has never before been published on this blog. This poem marked the transition to my second phase of creativity in 2000. It is the first in which I fully move away from prose poetry into a sort of musicality and use of short sharp lines. I nevertheless felt obliged at the end to append a prose coda. Should anyone be curious, Expurosis is the word used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to a future apocalypse in which the whole world will be engulfed in fire and readied for the next iteration of the universe.]

 Expurosis

 everything

                 is broken

in that final fire

            that does not come

as an ending

                     but lies

at the heart

                     of all things

            stirring

all the illusions

of light and life

            into cold truths

of darkness, stone and ash

like ingredients

in a wedding cake

that comes out of the oven

hard as a tomb

*

                       no

trumpets or angels

proclaim an apocalypse

domestic

as a two-bar electric

fire

in the living room

whose plastic coals and flames

are fakely flickered

by a calm rotation

of dusty, creaking, rusted metal blades

within,

domestic

as the blue wisp of paraffin

in the portable kitchen heater

or the steam from Ready Brek

dissolved in warm milk

in a winter morning stomach,

domestic

as the muffled clunk and

early-morning hiss of central-heating

coming on

one snowy morning

through freshly-bled

radiators

     *

everything

            is broken down

to the bare fact of existence

in thick pink hospital blankets

where we shit our last

in a sleeping-bag under

a rain-dripping tent

where we had our first blow-job

under the 3-tog double duvet

of couples at home,

every cry of the damned

is tucked in for the night

under a quilted eiderdown.

      *

everything

            is broken down

in the boiler

starched with blue and pegged out

to freeze on a winter-garden

washing line

                       everything

is broken down

and mixed up

and spun dry

in the magic of the new Electrolux.

everything is broken

down in the warm

flip-flopping air

of college tumble-driers

and

everything

found in the woods

            is broken up

—twigs and dead leaves,

and branches dank with moss—

and stuffed in the old clothes

of a guy

            for Bonfire Night

*

everything

            is broken up

crushed to almost nothing

by time or accident

like old Ford Cortinas

at the scrap yard

*

every

            tenderness

you have given

            will be broken up

brittle as if dipped in liquid nitrogen

*

all loves

will be lost or left

so much kitsch and junk

shattering across a hard-stone floor

of empty space

and swept up by a cleaning-lady

the next morning

*

everything

is

broken

in the warm morning breeze

on your feet

in the twinkling atoms of dust

in the warm summer light

through bedroom windows

in the warm flushes of caresses

caused by care or lust

in the warm sea

under the warm sun

on the warm sand

between her warm thighs

behind her back

everything is broken

up, down, off and away

everything is broken

and bloo

as a sky-light or a bruise

*

everything is broken

up, down, off and away

everything given

is given up

and back and away

everything is given

into that final fire –

into that two-bar electric fire

into that paraffin lamp

into that blanket

into that greenhouse earth

into that radiator –

zipped up

in the warm-cold sleeping bag

that does not come

only at the end

but lies

at the very weeping heart –

the oven and the fridge –

of all things

stirring

all the illusions of light

and life back in

as it first did at the beginning.

*

The ladybird, which is neither lady nor bird, was a sufficiently infrequent visitor to my childhood world, to justify a special welcome. The red wings with black spots, which served also, when clasped together, as a crusty beetle-like back, appealed to my infant attraction to hard, brightly coloured things, but, in an instant, could disappear into a fluttering upward moving criss-cross of black, bearing the precious thing suddenly and thrillingly away on the wind.

Most times, however, they were docile and domestic, hugging the carpet floor. I kept one in a match-box once, and fancied I could train her to do little tricks, like climb, at my bidding over ramps and bridges made of bricks and encyclopaedias. One day, my mother was making jam-tarts, and I had been playing with her on the floury kitchen table, when she disappeared. I hadn’t noticed her fly off as they are wont to do, as mentioned above, and wondered whether she hadn’t by chance been seduced by the sweet scent of the sugar, to burrow herself into the jammy centre of one of the tarts, which had already gone into the oven. The doubt was strong enough that we threw the cooked tarts out into the garden for the birds to feast on. So, my ladybird, if indeed she was entombed in them, received, after all, unwittingly fitting Zoroastrian last rites.

*

Ladybird, ladybird

Fly away home

Your house is on fire

Your children are gone

 

  •  

John Berryman and the Male Gaze

Does anyone read Berryman, these days? Or has he become one of those once feted poets now lost in the cracks of oblivion?

Current fashions and trends do not augur well for his survival. His drunken testosterone-driven poetic rants and sentimental attachment to racial stereotypes raise every red-flag imaginable. His privileged academia-confined background reeks of entitlement in an age in which the apparent outsider is king.

And yet there is still something exhilarating and liberating about reading the Dream Songs. The way that Berryman strips away everything that is decorous about the sonnet form, leaving only its barest essence: a sort of cogent lack of cogency, like logic going over a bumpy road. The unbridled honesty; the sheer sprawling, oozing scope of the confessional yet non-confessional work that is nonetheless totteringly controlled.

Myth has it that Berryman wrote these poems fast, one each morning, a night of dreams still fresh in his mind. He would then slip the poem under the glass top of his desk and just look at it. Then he would start in on the booze. After a few drinks, he would take the poem out again from under the glass, make a few alterations, file it away, and spend the rest of the day binge-drinking and arguing on the telephone with his ex-wives.

Myth or not, this bizarre routine reminds me of the Greek historian Herodotus’s account, repeated and embellished by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, of the ancient Persians’ political decision-making process. They would, according to these imaginative and frankly racist and orientalist accounts, first come to a collective decision during a communal orgy of alcohol and hashish consumption. Then soberly, the next morning, they would take the very same decision and, if the two votes concurred, the decision was ratified.

Exaggeration and racist stereotyping apart, this has always struck me as rather a good way to make decisions and it is, in fact, mutatis mutandis, what modern democratic parliaments do. Wining, dining and lobbying are followed by more sober deliberation in a more formal setting.

Berryman, however, does the reverse. He writes sober but refuses to allow himself to edit his work until slightly drunk. He writes his first draft when still half-befuddled by sleep but refuses to let his growingly conscious mind edit or censor it until it is befuddled again by alcohol.

I hazard a guess that until the 1950s in America, no poet would have imagined working this way. Poets, for sure, have always had their drug-filled recreational breaks, but the actual writing of poetry, guided by obedience to stern rhythms, required a certain discipline and sobriety. Baudelaire and Verlaine consumed their fair share of absinthe and opium, but did not deliberately write under its influence. Inebriation, in their world, was romanticized and seen from the outside: a variation on the sublime. It was not seen as anything approaching a method or a technique, Jackson Pollock style.

The US artists and poets of the 50s and 60s changed all this. Their principal metaphor, as On the Road testifies, was the motor car. And just as motor cars need to be fuelled by gasoline, so poets and artists needed to be fuelled by drugs and alcohol.

In Berryman’s work, somewhat shockingly to modern mores, inebriation runs through the poetry like an original scar, actively informing the structure and content of the work, as glibly as his casual misogyny and racism does.

Berryman’s true genius, however, concerns the way he re-invents poetic form: enriching the poetic canon by bringing in the vernacular and vulgar without losing touch with the sound sensitivities of traditional forms.

In this, he uses techniques similar to those developed by the much soberer William Carlos Williams: long flowing streams of poetic prose broken conscientiously and intriguingly into often very short lines. But, while Williams’s verse aims to achieve an at times pastorally mawkish resolution of conflicts, Berryman seems to relish chaos and his poems often end with some kind of metaphysical/psychological challenge that is reflected in a jumpier more jarring form, more akin to the feisty repartee of vaudeville than to Williams’s exquisitely executed painterly thought experiments, which are always carefully wrapped up in flowers and bows at the end.

My favorite Berryman poem is Dream Song #4, even though it is controversial and perhaps not one of his best. I like it because it presents a master-class in his peculiar poetic technique and also because it exemplifies the way Berryman elevates the vile and the vulgar to an almost transcendental, if still troubling, status. It is brash, it is swaggering; it is apparently America at its best… And, of course, it is half-drunk on its own success.

The poem is written from the point of view of a male character observing a woman he finds attractive across a crowded restaurant. It could not be more banal a situation, but it looks back humorously and critically to earlier tropes in the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry and forwards to modern-day feminist literary criticism regarding the ‘male gaze.’

The poem itself starts off in the manner of a hipster menu extolling the virtues of an expensive restaurant. The lines go on to pick through the sensorial and intellectual delights of the scene, like knives and forks tucking into a gourmet meal, though unable to disguise the essentially bestial nature of the act of eating.

[1-3] Filling her compact & delicious body

with chicken páprika, she glanced at me

twice.

The first tercet is, as it should be, almost perfectly turned out. Beginning with the gerund ‘filling’ introduces an element of pronoun ambiguity. The grammar speaks of the woman filling her body with food but, stuck ambiguously at the beginning of the poem, the gerund also suggests right from the outset the lecherous gaze of a male onlooker imagining filling her with something else.

Berryman, like many of his contemporaries, liked to use ampersands. He does this to control both the rhythm of the poem and the degree of connection between ideas. The adjectives ‘compact & delicious’ here are meant to go together metrically and conceptually. Note also how the first line draws the reader’s mind’s eye back and forth over various visual, olfactory, gustatory and tactile stimuli the way both food and sex do.

In the second line, Berryman introduces the menu, being careful to put an accent on the first syllable of paprika, both to mark it out, in the way of menus, as something exotic and to indicate the correct metrical reading of the line in a seemingly fussy way, Gerard Manley Hopkins-style. Here, however, Berryman is clearly taking the piss out of both pretentious uses of the diacritic by playing them off against each other.

The comma in the middle of the second line marks not only a sort of hiatus but also an almost cinematic shift of perspective. It is followed by the banal but flirty ‘she glanced at me’, amusingly carried on by way of enjambment onto the third line by the single word ‘twice’, as if it were a wink. We are already laughing and lusting along with Berryman and his alter ego Henry and the devices used to effect this quick outburst of mirth are both metric and concrete. Note also how the first three lines flow together as a perfectly natural and pleasingly rhythmic prosodic whole. Mid-twentieth century American poems tend to start like this and then become more stuttering.

[4-6] Fainting with interest, I hungered back

and only the fact of her husband & four other people

kept me from springing on her

“Fainting with interest’ in the fourth line introduces pronoun ambiguity again although this is rapidly cut short by the comma and the abrupt introduction of the first person singular pronoun. “Fainting” we should note is an historically gendered word, applied more to women than men, and thus it comes as a slight surprise when the second half of the line reveals that the narrator is actually using it to refer to himself.

‘Hungering’ especially in the continuous form of the verb, picks up the already established eating=sex motif and the subtly ambiguous ‘back’ provides a little rakish grammatical and visual playfulness and echoes metrically back to ‘twice’. American free verse is especially fond of this kind of rhythm rhyme.

Line 5 is much longer and more matter-of-fact than the previous four. This produces an ironic and apparently jarring metrical effect of upping the pace, as if the hunt were now on, while, in fact, the content puts a damper on Henry’s priapic enthusiasm. The comic use of the ampersand to link together the ogled woman’s husband and his four dinner guests, as if they were just a blur, serves to reinforce both the fixedness and inconsequentiality of Henry’s lustful gaze.

“Kept me from springing on her” speaks for itself, comically using a springing conclusive rhythm to convey a sense of sexual failure, frustration and impotence.

 

[7-12] or falling at her little feet and crying

‘You are the hottest one for years of night

Henry’s dazed eyes

have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon

(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,

de world, wif feeding girls.

A grammatically unjustified line-break now marks a marked change of tone. The quixotic confidence of the previous climactic line now turns to pathos. Predator becomes suppliant; the imagined direction of domination is turned around.

At this point, Henry tries a little poetry of his own, a poem within a poem if you like. It begins with vulgar language but manages to lift itself up to a certain lyricism by the end, vitiated by Henry’s insertion of his own name in the third person, as if Berryman were using his alter ego to mock himself. This is swiftly followed by an ‘I” focusing back on Henry’s high-dining. We are left with a confused sense of who the real Henry is: the one who lusts after women in restaurants or the one who dutifully, if despairingly, tucks into his spumoni. Bones, a recurrent Berryman antagonist/alter ego, based on therapists and characters in racist Minstrel shows, chips in here with a blackface version of the platitude that ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.”

Note also the huffingly alliterative sequence of ‘f’ sounds in this poem (filling, fainting, falling, feet, stuffed, feeding, feasts), conveying both a sense of breathlessness and suffocation and one of fullness, of being overfed and, ultimately, fed up.

The poem now descends in lines 13 to 16 into a shameless syntactically and visually chopped up (almost cubist) representation of the male gaze.

It concludes with two stark lines of dialogue.

[17-18] Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.

—Mr. Bones: there is.

The first of these lines is delivered by Henry to himself “Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry,” the second by his blackface alter ego/comedy duo partner, introduced stage direction wise: “There is.” Note that all the ‘f’ sounds now have suddenly gone silent.

The last lines are clearly, in their abruptness, brevity and prosaic quality, designed to make us sit up and think. Henry/Berryman has produced an almost perfect poetic expression of the banality of the male gaze, barely veiled by various layers of irony and self-deceit. But now the law comes down and the poem is dramatically concluded by a grammatically austere but empty edict that seems to come from a higher power but is expressed by an imagined member of a minority group trapped in an oppressive stereotype.

Berryman may well be the Bart Simpson-like prankster in the pantheon of dead American poets but he sure does still serve up food for thought and still has much to teach us regarding the impeccable orchestration of free verse in a broadly vernacular mode.