Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Footnotes, barricades, and the space between

The shrewd Bill Direen recently made a couple of observations about this blog, as he helped me sample the rather watery house beer of the Thirsty Rooster, the only pub in the small landlocked West Auckland suburb of Glendene. "Reading the Maps has two distinct constituencies", Bill said, after draining the last of his pint and adopting the look of profound regret that invariably sends me back to the bar to buy another round. "There are the politicals, and the literary crowd. They may not be reconciliable."

When I sputtered about discovering "the political edge" of Kiwi poets like Kendrick Smithyman, and of unearthing the "fantastic, imaginative" strand of socialist tradition that EP Thompson felt had flowered in the utopian wallpaper and decorative novels of William Morris, but had then been driven underground by philistine Stalinists and social democrats in the twentieth century, Bill shook his big head sadly. "It doesn't matter, anyway" he announced. "It's inadvisable to publish too regularly over a long period. Blogging is unsustainable. Sooner or later you'll want to disappear." He went on to talk about the desirability of "splitting to the Manawatu" for a few years, and perhaps working on the sort of "unpublishable, almost incomprehensible Joycean masterpiece" which has reportedly preoccupied him in Paris. "Splitting to the Manawatu can be a revolutionary act", he claimed,
as I stared sullenly into my beer.

Bill's argument about the difficulty of reconciling political and literary activity has certainly resonated with me over the last few days. I spent last weekend, and the early part of this week, wandering from bed to sofa to study, pausing to sneeze or cough, and carrying a series of bowls of steaming water in my hands in a vain effort to unblock my nose. When I sat down at my desk, I worked on the annotations to the selection of unpublished Smithyman poems that Titus Books will be publishing in - gulp - November. I find it fascinating to dig into Smithyman's texts, disinterring layer after layer of allusion and pun and half-rhyme, but I'm not sure how immediately relevant his decades-old meditations on the theology of Karl Barth, the troubled state of his marriage to his fellow poet Mary Stanley, and the misbehaviour of his beloved cat, Mister Music, are to the burning political questions of our day.

While I have been sniffing and annotating at home, Skyler the class warrior has been busy on the barricades. She is a member of the Tertiary Education Union negotiating team which has spent the first part of this week annoying university management by demanding better conditions and a fairer pay system for the proletarians of the academy. After having its demands flatly rejected by management, Skyler's union has created a video, which you can view here, that does a rather good job of highlighting the contradiction between capital and labour at New Zealand's premier tertiary institution.

As they face down the bosses, Tertiary Education Union activists are taking heart from the Post Primary Teachers Association, which is doing a fine job of fighting the Key government's plans to simultaneously micromanage and underfund secondary schools. The ongoing strikes by secondary teachers and the popular campaign by unions against National's fire-at-will legislation may be early signs of a concerted struggle against a government which is, like its counterparts in Britain, France, and so many other Western nations, keen to use the global economic recession as an excuse to attack the public sector and the working class.

And if the contradiction between capital and labour, between the profits of the bourgeoisie and the needs of the working class, pulls apart the Key government, what might it do to this blog? More worryingly, what might it do to my civil union? How will I be able to work Skyler's barricade-building and molotov cocktail-throwing and my scholarly annotations into the same posts? What will Skyler and I find to talk about over our split vegetarian-meat dinner, when her head is filled with the latest updates in the class struggle, and mine is filled with the assonatal rhyme schemes, palindromes, and allusions to obscure theologians beloved of Kendrick Smithyman? Will there be no option but to 'split' to the obscurity of Bill Direen's old stomping ground of the Manawatu?

Instead of trying to answer these distressing questions, I want to post a poem called 'Self-criticism', which I published last year in the thirty-ninth issue of the literary journal brief. The poem tries to fuse the language of literary criticism, or rather literary polemic, with the language of a certain type of political polemic. Its refrain is taken from a typically vituperative letter by Keith Douglas, the great but nihilistic poet of the Second World War, and some of its other admonitions come from a handbook of Sendero Luminoso, the incurably sectarian Peruvian advocates of 'Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist-Gonzalo' thought who almost bludgeoned their way to power at the beginning of the 1990s.

When I wrote 'Self-criticism' I thought it was well-nigh impenetrable, but it has generated more comment than almost any of the poems I have published in journals in the several years since my collection of poems, To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, made its clumsy way into the world.

EP Thompson dreamed, and I used to dream, of the revolutionary cross-fertilisation of literature and politics, as the steel of political reality entered the sometimes-otherworldly meditations of poets, and the visionary qualities of the likes of Blake and Yeats enriched the rather stolid mental universe of many political activists. I wonder, though, if there might instead be a negative crossover between the discourses of politics and poetry, based on the parrallels between the fractious politics of both the literary world and the left, and the paranoid language of both literary manifestos and political polemics? Might be the gulf that Bill Direen perceives between the 'literary crowd' and the 'politicals' be bridged in a way EP Thompson never expected?

Self-criticism (for Jen Crawford)

Every word in a line must work for its keep.
Commissar. Kalashnikov. Mosquito
net. The line is more important
than rifles, more important
than rice, more eloquent than the boulders
the river brings down.

If the line is correct
then the gorge will echo
and empty of birds.
If the line is correct
then it will feed us -
our baskets will fill with sweet potatoes
until they sag
like the hammocks the commissars hang.
The line grows as slowly
as andesite.
The line grows
one word
at a time.
am your comrade. This
is my position.
You may attempt

The line may find you
in a hollow tree
or at a desk
on the city side
of the mosquito net,
as the words fall in together
proposing themselves,
in the commissar's report,
in handwriting as fine
as the window's wire.
The line is a stone
worn smooth in our mouths.

Every word in a line
must carry its weight,
must carry a sack of potatoes
or a comrade's body
to the head of the gorge,
where goats are scattered
to disguise our tracks,
and the commissars argue
with andesite.


Blogger Skyler said...

I think that people (or I hope) they can be more nuanced and can be interested in literature/the Arts and be politically aware and active. I hope that is how I am.

I also think people go through phases of being more preoccupied with one or the other but that doesn't mean they forgo either.

I also think ones political ideas/view of the world will come through in your art - and having something interesting to say about the world is what makes the Arts interesting. A pretty poem about a flower or a painting of a flower without anything to say to the world or observe about it is boring.

9:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ha ha maps and tim bowron - the two great refugees from the class struggle in new zealand off to study meaningless poetry

oh well the real struggle goes on

death to bourgeois art

9:30 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

What an ignorant comment anon!

10:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

National's kiwiblog is smearing the teachers:
the teachers must be doing something right eh!

10:24 am  
Anonymous eustace said...

art for art's sake, not art for charts sake!

10:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Manawatu/Palmy: the Siberia of NZ

11:46 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

There is nothing forlorn in the hope that the union of art and politics should be fruitful.

All that's required is potency and fertility.

But when the politics turns cowardly and the art becomes incomprehensible one shouldn't be too surprised that so many of their offspring are stillborn.

11:49 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This poem is very good - you exactly get the spirit of Eliot's "objective correlative" (e.g. the heavy sack of potatoes carries the feeling of what you are "arguing" at that point in the poem).

The poem has to work firstly as a poem. Then the philosophy of or / or politics can come in or be in there but it is secondary as Eliot's religion was.

In the mid to late 90s I was hostile to (esp. overt) politics in poetry at all [some politics (in a bad form) has an effect of deadening a work as the writer treats it as propaganda exercise...which is fatal)...I wanted "pure" abstract thinking -whatever. But am not so sure now.

In a deep way Smithyman's poetry (by e.g being historical and sometimes is personal and philosophical) was also "political".

Bill Direen is attracted to the Joycean fireworks but 'The Dubliners' - which I feel was Joyce's greatest work (I feel that is Ulysses and 'Finnegans Wake' fail at profound artistic (and even human)level where that and "The Protrait..." do not...The Dubliners is good model. Here we have "ordinary" people of Dublin who could be Aucklanders -they could be from anywhere. It is moving and profound. As D H Lawrence is - but Lawrence doesn't outlaw say Robbe-Grillet (at a complex level HE is poetical also - Camus is, absolutely is - but ) - nor does it dismiss Beckett or even Stein.

It all interconnects. Balzac was philosophical-political, Hugo was...all art including Conceptual art is. There is no need for guilt but one does struggle over these questions of relevance...

You are driving in the right direction - you dont write simplistic "Socialist Realism" -it doesn't matter if you follow say Trotsky, Mao or Marx or Barth or Hegel or even Derrida matters if you care.

And you do - go with it Scott. This Blog is good -a great mix of stuff here. Direen is wrong. Academia, too much postulating and theorizing of a kind of fixed nad abstract kind (I feel Smithyman is ultimately his own thinker despite perhaps is interest in Heidegger or Barth), one thus sees, has its dangers. Everyone needs to read E P T's "A History of the English Working Class" for example... and Douglas, I could argue for him possibly being the greatest poet of that time. Any time even. He has powerful poetry and deep and moving messages. Some of NZ's most vaunted poets are simply no where in his league. (But we have some who are of course)

I have spoken.

10:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"I also think ones political ideas/view of the world will come through in your art - and having something interesting to say about the world is what makes the Arts interesting. A pretty poem about a flower or a painting of a flower without anything to say to the world or observe about it is boring."

Good points- but - even when you see the profound beauty of a flower, you are engaged with life, hence "politics" and everyhting else.

As an artist perhaps you might want to go beyond pictures of flowers and for many it would be "boring"...but this is more complex. But otherwise you are right.

For example Turner's greatest art comes close to abstraction (but it deals powerfully with "chaos" and mystery and light and hence "freedom") and this perhaps greatest work is a profound political even apocalyptic cry of anguish - a great painting of a ship and of slaves drowning, terrible "vision" of real event, a real human atrocity committed by the captain of a British slaver who threw 130 men women and children, in chains, into the sea to drown, so he could claim insurance on that "cargo" - this painting deeply embarrassed and disturbed the critics & establishment -as they were congratulating themselves they were "fighting" and had outlawed slavery...but the painting has wider and deeper human and even cosmic implications.

10:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Here is a ref to that great painting.

"The Slave Ship" or "Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on"[1] is a painting by the British artist J. M. W. Turner of a slave ship, first exhibited in 1840.
The subject of the painting is the practice of 18th century slave traders who would throw the dead and dying human 'cargo' overboard during the middle passage in the Atlantic Ocean in order that they might claim the insurance for 'drowning'. Turner was inspired by two sources: by the Zong Massacre of slaves,[2] and by lines from James Thomson's The Seasons:

10:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think Trotter is right that politics and poetry etc can have strong meeting point - but wrong that art or literature (for me it is all art) is ever really "incomprehensible".

There are merely degrees of what Charles Bernstein calls "absorption or anti-absorption". Clarity CAN be as dangerous as "obscurity" or so-called complexity.

And some things can be "profoundly simple".

11:02 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Two rejoinders to anons:

it is an honour to be categorised with Tim Bowron, and isn't it Southland, according to Gregory O'Brien, which is supposed to be Siberia of New Zealand? I wonder whether the Chathams might deserve the label - remote, cold, and a dumping-ground for political prisoners (most famously Te Kooti) in the nineteenth century...

1:25 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

I like Skyler's take on this. I like to think of the arts as reflecting society and changing ideas and holding some intrinsic anthropological element. I'm not sure all 'art' necessarily does this, but I suppose the process says something about society at the very least.

10:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for dragging me into this blgpst, even if by the heels. I leave sickbed to make a contribution to yr hard-slogging blog. During our private chat I think (beer-blurred memory) I did compare blogging to a necessary (otherwise unfound) sort of journalism, and compared yours favourably to old proto-bloggers like ADdison, Steele and perhaps Defoe . . . . see you have a subseq. blogpost on Brunton .. will read w. interest. I didn't mean that bloggers write themselves out, but that many seem to have found a circular rut and they whizz happily about in it, sounding off to the converted. You continue to amaze with challenging matter, and unstinting support of like-minded writers (and musicians). Hats off to your altruism. Shucks. I MUST be ill. Bill

10:19 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

What Skyler said, and also, what Bill said. Not to mention what Richard said regarding the poem being very good.

3:45 pm  

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