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 When I sat down at my desk, I worked on the annotations to the selection of unpublished Smithyman poems that Titus Books will be publishing in - gulp - November.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
The line grows
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
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