Thursday, November 10, 2011

Politics and poetry: a tip from Richard

A semi-sympathetic reviewer described the great Kiwi poet Kendrick Smithyman as 'widely and sometimes bizarrely read'. The same phrase could be awarded to Richard Taylor, the bookdealer, poet and psychogeographic explorer of Panmure. Richard lives amidst the rubble made by thousands of books, and seems as keen to read treatises on chess games played a century ago, studies of Antarctic history, and elaborately incoherent exercises in conspiracy theory as he is to consume poetry and novels. In the late '90s Richard laboured on The Infinite Poem, which was made up almost entirely of quotes from hundreds of different texts.

Richard occasionally supplies his friends with reading tips, but they tend to involve volumes which have been out of print for a formidably long time, and which can apparently only be acquired through the offices of a certain Panmure bookdealer.

Recently, though, Richard sent me a plug for a new and - I hope - more easily accessible book. I've reproduced his message, and added a few hyperlinks:

I am reading and enjoying a book called American Poets in the 21st Century, edited by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell.

All of the writers in the book are interesting in different ways, but Mark Nowak would intrigue you the most, I think. Nowak seems to have really got to grips with a dialectical method of writing poetry, and the result is something political.

Nowak takes some of the postmodern, abstract method of the Language poets, and elements of something more traditional. He quotes from working class history, discusses factory closures, the hardships of the unemployed and so on, then comments on the etymology of the words he uses in a manner reminiscent of some of the Language poets. In his poems postmodernism has found a 'use': it works with 'realism' in an interesting way, allowing political statement yet getting around the problem of 'lecturing' and the danger of transparent or sentimental poetry. Nowak sees economic theory and political 'philosophy' and the statements of right wing (or left wing) politicians and theorists as stuff which is analysable as poetry.

Nowak is an active trade unionist, so he doesn't write from a vacuum.

Some of the other writers in Rankine and Sewell's collection are worth your while. There's a black sound poet who comes out of the hip hop scene called Tracy Morris. She won Poetry Slams at the Nuyorican, a working class New York cafe, in the early 1990s, at around the time I was in the city.

The Nuyorican is, or was, a forum of sorts: there were Europeans, Afro-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups represented there, and different approaches to poetry were also featured. There was some 'conflict' between the more serious Language poets like Bernadette Mayer and the Lower East Side 'school', which was made up of more direct, lyrical poets.

Perhaps to some extent there is now a kind of merging between these different approaches to poetry, as if a dialectic is working, thesis and antithesis leading to a synthesis...

I recently read your book on Thompson, with its chapter about the quest for a poetry which was political but not crudely propagandistic. Perhaps Mark Nowak has the kind of 'mix' that Thompson was seeking.

And perhaps not only Thompson was seeking to blend politics with poetry. Was it in your book that I read about Marx basing The Communist Manifesto on Faust? And about Marx jumping up in London pubs and drunkenly shouting, in German of course, long passages from Goethe's play? Ha!

[Posted by Maps]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

24 people here answer the question


2:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

be good if ordinary people could UNDERSTAND all this art talk

3:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...


Anonymous 2 - the "art talk" CAN be quite difficult and I think you have a good point - a lot of jargon is used (and a lot of it is rather dubiously obscure so don't worry you are in the same boat as myself and most others, you have to get your head round it* if you want to unravel it if need be - but Nowak's book is pretty direct. The idea he has I think is to present what happened but not to interfere himself. So while there may be a lot of long words and "theory" associated if you read his work it isn't aimed at intellectuals.

The book I recommended was a selection of 21st Century US Poets. But to read it all (I only read about 3/4 of it) you need to do is read the poems. And there is a CD on which you can listen to the poets read. (Don't worry if they seem "difficult" as poetry can be a kind of magic...)And each poet makes a comment. You can takes those comments with a pinch of salt (most writers don't really know what they are doing when they write) and the commentaries by poets are often formidable but interesting. Again, you don't need to read those commentaries. They are often simply too difficult and it is as if they could benefit from being "translated" (I read science but it is "popular science) via good writers such as Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, Richard Dawkins or John Barrow etc (or even Bertrand Russell who is almost understandable in some of his books: and he was VERY political, and mostly pretty direct: he protested nuclear weapons etc and the Vietnam War (he was in his late 80s still protesting) and also refused to fight in WWI and was put in jail etc). Now, the point is, these writers have translated some very difficult ideas for ordinary people such as myself. The commentary on Tracy Morris is huge and enthusiastic and frankly I found it quite obscure but it reads like a kind of poem on its own right.

But I am, in general not good on abstract theory. Nowak is completely accessible, as indeed any useful political-poetics should be. (Should be? Needs to be? Probably...) (L=A=N=G=U=A=N=G=E poetics guru Charles Bernstein would disagree (he has just done a book about the virtues of difficult poetry!!)and I understand his disagreements. But the so-called Language poets come from a tradition starting with the protest movement in the 60s to 70s on, and they were rightly suspicious of rhetoric): that said to some extent the reader needs to work.

Nowak's book eschews rhetoric and sentimentality (I think)(and) is relevant as it is about a major coal mining disaster in Virginia USA in 2006. (Much worse than the similar one more recently in NZ.) Nowak includes comments by workers and their families, newspaper reports etc. You wouldn't find any art theory in it. (You might, perhaps it could be good to find such...but probably not too much (unnecessary) complexity as such. Certainly no bullshit.) But it would be an interesting take on how to present our own recent disaster in Buller, for example.

I have only seen excerpts.

9:19 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Of course we have some (probably more than we realise as in a sense all writing is political); "political poets" in NZ including the Maori poet Hone Tuwhare who was a communist (and as indeed his friend R A K Mason who introduced Hone's book "No Ordinary Sun" was also, and his poetry is very beautiful and far from being "difficult") as well as very consciously Maori. Baxter and even Smithyman might be seen as "political" and this question of where politics meets poetics is a difficult one for sure.

One way of looking at things is to see" difficult poetry as a kind of game. (Maps will tell you all about language games and Wittgenstein etc and our little "debate" some years ago in SALT when he was on a Wittgenstein jag...) Difficulty has its place.

Recently I thought of studying J H Prynne's poetry (notoriously obscure and way beyond me I am afraid) but a book I got on the subject and on Modernism (Pound Olson etc with references to Derrida and Heidegger) I eventually abandoned as simply too difficult! (I started reading a book about Maori folk tales about Auckland for kids instead! Much more fun!) So if you find poetry and "art talk" difficult, join the club!

I believe Ralph Hotere never commented much on his art (just got on with it and made things) and Hone Tuwhare never went to a university (but he did teach himself and no doubt read considerably) he didn't get bogged down in (too much) abstract theory. He was relatively free of bullshit in other words!

And I am not saying Maori are not or cannot be subtle thinkers. I suppose it depends what does the job.

But some things are a bit difficult...but as I say I am pretty sure no one would have trouble reading such as Nowak
and it seems to me he has adopted a useful method of making politics (ad poetry perhaps) accessible and interesting.

* Rather like some maths, once you see that they are using a kind of short hand it gets easier, or can do. But some art theory and literary theory is ridiculously abstract and I often wonder if anyone understands some (or any) of it.

9:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

You may well ask with all my long comments why don't I do a Blog post on it myself...well I was intending to. Maybe I will expand on this matter (art "talk" literature politics and poetry etc) at a later date on my own Blog.

9:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well do we recollect the last words he spoke in our hearing; which indeed, with the Night they were uttered in, are to be forever remembered. Lifting his huge tumbler of Gukguk, [*] and for a moment lowering his tobacco-pipe, he stood up in full Coffee-house (it was Zur Grunen Gans, the largest in Weissnichtwo, where all the Virtuosity, and nearly all the Intellect of the place assembled of an evening); and there, with low, soul-stirring tone, and the look truly of an angel, though whether of a white or of a black one might be dubious, proposed this toast: Die Sache der Armen in Gottes und Teufels Namen (The Cause of the Poor, in Heaven's name and—'s)! One full shout, breaking the leaden silence; then a gurgle of innumerable emptying bumpers, again followed by universal cheering, returned him loud acclaim. It was the finale of the night: resuming their pipes; in the highest enthusiasm, amid volumes of tobacco-smoke; triumphant, cloud-capt without and within, the assembly broke up, each to his thoughtful pillow. Bleibt doch ein echter Spass- und Galgen-vogel, said several; meaning thereby that, one day, he would probably be hanged for his democratic sentiments. Wo steckt doch der Schalk? added they, looking round: but Teufelsdrockh had retired by private alleys, and the Compiler of these pages beheld him no more.

* Gukguk is unhappily only an academical-beer.

1:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps etc - I just received in my post, by coincidence, Mark Nowak's book "Shut up, Shut out"! I was thinking of buying it as I wasn't sure if I had actually bought it! I got it via Alibris who are very good to deal with.

It is really interesting. I might focus on Nowak and write something on politics and Poetry etc

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