Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who needs poetry?

Back in the late '90s I took a paper called Image and Text with Tony Green, a long-time and soon-to-be-retired lecturer in the Art History department at the University of Auckland. In his first couple of lessons Tony made it clear to his audience that he was frustrated, if not disillusioned, with the demands of pedagogy, and near the end of our course he announced, in a voice which might have been mischievious, that he had decided to award every student in the paper a B grade, no matter how much or how little they wrote in their essays. Lecture attendance dropped off rather rapidly thereafter.

I remember considering Tony Green's rejection of the intricacies of grading a sort of abdication of intellectual responsibility, and a sign of softheadedness. Near the end of this year's first semester at the 'Atenisi Institute, though, I felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Tony.

Tevita Manuatu, who was made dux of 'Atenisi in 2012 and is on the verge of finishing his Bachelors Degree at the tender age of twenty, had attended my Creative Writing classes assiduously, and had not ceased to argue that literature, and indeed all forms of art, were somewhat eccentric and superfluous pursuits. When I talked about the visionary trances of poets like Rimbaud or the intricate imaginary worlds created by novelists like Don De Lillo, Tevita argued in favour of the 'objective' methods of scientists and lawyers, and the transparent, universally accessible texts that these professionals supposedly produce. Why, Tevita wanted to know, didn't poets accept the necessity of communicating, in calm and clear language, with the widest possible audience? Why did they succumb to obscure images and private reveries?

When I asked students to produce 'subjective maps' of their lives, which should combine features of the geography of Tonga with their own memories and fantasies, Tevita eschewed the distorted distances, grotesque illustrations, and scabrous annotations used by other students, and instead created an coolly accurate map of his home village of Kala'au, complete with quasi-ethnographic notes on land distribution and use.

Towards the end of the semester Tevita gave me a carefully argued essay called 'Creativity', in which he argued against the possibility of deciding that any work of art was more worthy than another. Shortly afterwards he handed in a long and fascinating oral history of Kala'au, which he had collected at the knees of elderly members of his village. Tevita's history spanned centuries, and acted as a sort of complement to his map, explaining the names which landmarks like Niue Cemetery and Tsunami Rock had acquired.

How could I give Tevita the mark his final piece of work for Creative Writing deserved, when he had scorned the very notion of literature? I decided, eventually, to give him the A he deserved, but not before I'd understood the dark nights of the soul that Tony Green must have suffered as he struggled to balance the various qualities of his students and award them fair marks.

Here's a text Tevita's criticisms of literature inspired from me. I'd like to think that I'm defying Tevita's arguments by making them into poetry, even if the poetry in question is perfunctory and mediocre.

I'll post excerpts from Tevita's history of Kala'au on this blog soon.

Poems against Poetry

Ted Hughes wrote about soaring hawks
but drop his Collected Poems from the shelf
and it flies low
and lands
like a chook.

No need to fell a tree,
to slice it fine 
as paper:
the people of Rekohu wrote on trunks,
the windy kopi grove
was their Alexandria.


At Castle church Luther swung his hammer
ninety-five times.


Do not bore me with the Louvre's
painted caves, 
the wolf whistling
of symphony orchestras,
archaeologists digging like dogs
at old rubbish dumps.

Words as clear as a bleb of ice
are my only instrument,
and minds are the only artefacts
I collect.  


Trakl's giant pale orb
is a Japanese fisherman's float,
not the gouged eye
of Poseidon.


Words want to be 
deeds. Words want to rise
in bold type,
above a smudged photo
of the burnt-out van.

Words want to scrawl themselves
on a door,
the evening before it opens
to the Special Police.


Words are not deeds.
Bloodstains on broken doors are deeds.
In a poem words
are hardly even words.


The nails that Luther hammered into Castle church
were the nails that pierced his saviour. 


As the horse breaks in its rider
so these words will read their reader. 


Anonymous simian said...

He sounds like my kind of guy.

4:22 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

He's a great guy. I'm probably being a bit unfair when I say he's opposed to creativity. His view is more that the work of creative artists can't be adjudged truthful or untruthful, unlike the work of, say, physicists. That sort of stance towards the arts was taken by AJ Ayer and the Logical Positivists, who denied that the statements in a poem could be analysed in terms of truth-content:

'The Vienna Circle believed that a significant proposition has to be either a proposition of formal logic or a proposition of science. Any other statement would simply be nonsensical; not true, not false, but nonsensical. If it had any meaning at all, it would be ‘poetic’ or ‘emotive’ but not cognitive. To the logical positivists, “God exists in the heavens” is as nonsensical as “Bong shong in the dock pock.”

5:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to reply with a poem, but not today. I enjoy reading those of the blogger -- blog on! and good wishes to your students. :-) bill d.

5:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Of course art or creative work can never be judged as truthful or not.
That is not an issue (especially since the advent of Modernism and later developments in Literature etc).

I read a book by Ayer. But I think the Positivists are (mostly) quite wrong. Even in the area of physics there is no avoiding huge areas of indeterminacy. This is not only a reference to Heisenberg but also to many other aspects of mathematics and science. The ideal is logical clarity but it was never attained - as Russell and Whitehead failed to get even arithmetic onto a logically consistent basis.

But it isn't necessary to evoke these many examples* as philosophy also shows the impossibility of the kind of clarity required or desired.

Of course in practice scientists and engineers work in areas where probability is assumed and where (given most normative situations) things work in an b follows a manner.

Some people have no way of seeing the beauty of art, or poetry or many other things. Many don't see the necessity of any of those things. Language for them is a means to an end only. In some cases they are "hard-wired" in this way (or it seems that way).

Oliver Sacks gives many examples of people who (like the mathematician Paul Erdos, who was only interested in mathematics) "see" the world as a vast field of numbers. They are not interested in music (they may be) and their drive is to solve problems (as is the case with chess players who can spend thousands of hours simply analysing chess positions).
Other people play endless games of "war" etc on computers.

It is true, there is no need for poetry or art or music. These are or seem to be kind of evolutionary "add-ons". But they must have some evolutionary purpose. V. S. Ramachandran has a whole chapter of one of his books on what he sees as the neurological rationale of art, focusing on such as the erotic art of India

But I like poetry and lit. and art, and it is true that there are also many engineers and scientists who also love art and literature.

There is lot to this.

This is a great poem again Scott!

I didn't study with Tony Green but I think his work is interesting. A B pass for everyone?!

Who needs an A! There is also the example (I'm not sure how apocryphal) of Beuys who supposedly resigned his university art teaching position unless everyone who applied to do art was admitted regardless of how "good" or "bad" they were.

A kind of reverse of Frost's "Poetry without regular meter is like playing tennis with the nets down."

Something like that.

*Some of these issues are seen in the books of the theoretical physicist J D Barrow:

1)"Impossibility: Limits of Science and the Science of Limits.",
2)"Material Content of the Universe",
3)"Pi in the Sky: Counting, Thinking, and Being,"
4)"Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity". I've read 1) and 3) but there are many of these interesting popular science books, and they are easy enough to read.

12:51 am  
Blogger Richard said...

There is also our friend Kenneth Goldsmith who writes "uncreative writing".

12:57 am  
Anonymous paul said...

Poetry is for wimps.

When I think of poetry,
I think of maidens,
skipping through meadows
in gossamer gowns,
with baskets full of flowers.

Can you imagine a poet
going out for a beer with the guys
after a hard day
of writing poems?

I can't.

Poetry is for wimps.

It's all about doilies
and butterfly wings,
or stuff so personal
only the writer
could possibly know
what it's about,
which really
makes me crazy.

And half the time
it doesn't even rhyme anyway.

10:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:28 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for your kind words Bill and Richard. Tevita and the other members of the 'Atenisi Performing Arts group are currently gearing up for a concert tour of the US, which is being timed to coincide with showings of Paul Janman's doco Tongan Ark: I just hope they emerge from Vegas in one piece and with some spare change!

3:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is funny art poetry its all personal taste same as going down for a burger or prostitue black blonde maybe both!

10:04 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

By the way I still hold Ted Hughes in high regard. He overdid the 'savage nature' thing but I still like his poem about the Jaguar. Recently read a book by Coetzee called 'Elizabeth Costello' and it is quite strange but very good - the person Elizabeth is a great writer who goes about giving lectures which always make audiences very uncomfortable but there are a range of 'Lessons'. In the process she talks about writers (poets) who have written about animals (as one of her [and Coetzee's big issues is the way we treat animals and indeed she / he argues that we have no right to kill them and compares slaughter houses to the Nazi death camps, which Cerian would be interested in: I at the same time have been reading a book by a scientist who thinks along similar lines and I have some books on "Non-Human Thought" and "Animal Thought" etc: but she uses Blake (Tyger), Lawrence of 'The Snake' and other "nature" poems, as well as comparing Rilke's poem about a tiger in cage (he abstracts the 'force' of the tiger) to Hughes's poem which gives power and freedom to the tiger or jaguar.

Literature can be MORE informative than science, in that it gives us a deeper more human understanding of life: and another point is that many writers of fiction were either scientists or interested in those areas - only some include Pynchon, Solzenistsin, Atwood, C P Snow, and Coetzee is (I am pretty sure he had a degree in mathematics) no fool in these areas.

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