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I CAN HAZ NEW AESTHETIC ORDER?

a partial response to Keston Sutherland’s talk http://militantpoetics.blogspot.com/2013/05/keston-sutherland_28.html on “revolutionary subjective universality” at the Militant Politics and Poetry Conference at Birkbeck in London, May 18, 2013 / a partial other thing

 

I want to disclaim any intention of this being an attack on Keston’s poetic project.  My desire is to address the sphere of community – i.e., within the and/or of “poetry and/or revolution”.  I should add, also, that much of what I am saying here is OLD, or rather, is part of a long-term struggle.

 

I want to raise questions about the use of feminine pronouns by male writers in critical and theoretical discourse (when a man refers to his default hypothetical subject as ‘she’) because I think it affects how we are heard and read by each other.

 

The use of the female pronoun in critical discourse is frequently done with good intentions, and may in some contexts have a positive impact beyond the merely symbolic.  No doubt KS uses the feminine pronoun throughout his talk in the spirit of generosity and inclusivity.  And yet, the female pronoun seems to create more animosity than feelings of solidarity amongst the female poets that I know on two continents.  That is to say, the affects outweigh the intentions, and perhaps even do damage to the possibility of ‘being on the same page’ when thinking, talking, and writing together.  In a bid to understand the source of the feeling of discomfort that arises, I have compiled some provisional hypotheses. 

 

 

SHE, THE PROLETARIAN SUBJECT

 

 

KS: ‘Reproduction at its most basic is what subsistence does for the proletarian subject.  She eats to be recharged, to persevere in her subjection to exploitation.’

 

Who exactly is this female proletarian subject?

 

  • Men and women are exploited in different ways under capitalism.

The use of the pronoun ‘she’ here collapses gendered histories into an undifferentiated universal proletarian subject.  In actual fact, the exploitation and control of women has historically been related to reproductive functions and her ability to withhold them, and associated with the enforcement of her passivity, the realms of the domestic, and the weak[er] of two possibilities which interact within an embedded power dynamic.

 

  • Or, a woman is not a subject.  It seems too easy to re-write the history of active subjectivity and passive otherness such that it allows subjecthood suddenly, if generously, to be inclusive of women, with no redress of the processes by which subjects are delineated, or indeed of the order of language in which such categories are deployed.

 

 

 

TRAUMA

 

 

  • As a consequence of any theory of the subject already having been appropriated by the masculine, an acceptance of the notion of female subjecthood silences the specificity of her suffering.  KS valorises the voice which is silenced by the noise of the discourse here, by holding up the ‘weak subject’ as a necessary element in the thinking of ‘Marxist poetry’ – but still, she does not speak – or cannot, in this discourse, without subsuming to terms not her own.  The story of her body is told, presumably, elsewhere.  It appears in this theory of poetry as a hypothetical – in fact – other.  What it says remains mysterious.  Its suffering is mysterious.

 

  • The exploited and paralysed subject, she, ‘must be made eloquent’, he says.  Perhaps another way of thinking of this would be to make possible the conditions in which the weak subject can begin to speak, inarticulately if necessary.  Such conditions would demand the fundamental undoing of even the most radical traditions of critical theory constructed upon and within the discourses many of us are comfortably eloquent in.  Such an undoing would need to go far beyond the changing of pronouns (and venture into breaking the habit of conceptualisation? Or of fluency in the hypothetical?).

 

  • As a call for the overcoming of trauma and the ‘ideological coercions and repressions…insecurity, fear, anxiety, terror, forgetfulness…[which] function to keep someone paralysed,’ this paper makes an important point.  It is all very well to say that a woman can now be a subject, that history will allow her to step in and assert herself, but if the mechanisms by which she is made to believe in her mysteriousness are not made transparent, this becomes possible only in private space, and falls prey to the ‘self-expression’ that is often a sitting duck within established aesthetic orders.

 

 

FOR EXAMPLE, THE POINT OF REVOLT

 

 

KS: “The subject must exert itself such that it is itself at full stretch, so that it can somehow endure the temporal extension of the point of revolt.” [note: the expression ‘point of revolt’ is quoted from Hegel]

 

A female subject under capitalism is subject to phallic order and currency—that is to say, an economy built on the understanding of subjectivity as male and otherness as female, of action as male and passivity as female, of strength as male and weakness as female.  Proof that this cannot be glazed over with pronouns even emerges in KS’ paper, under the banner of ‘the point of revolt’ – the force, the action: the sharp end. [Hegel, incidentally, described the clitoris as ‘inactive feeling in general’.  Just saying.]

 

The ‘point of revolt’ is phallic, ‘temporally extended’ through its hardening, reinstated again and again.

 

Penile extension, depth.

 

The subject, already classified as a ‘she’ earlier in the talk, is vulval.  By which I mean that, by ‘exert[ing] herself’ to accommodate, to ‘somehow endure’ the [penile] extension of revolt, she mimics a vagina (which, on arousal, elongates to accommodate the depth of its lover).  Under the terms already set up, the subject is indeed female, but in a phallic order.  She is active in ‘exerting herself’ to the full inverse shape that will receive (and endure!) the ‘point of revolt’, a great phallus extended and reiterated, over and over again, ‘for a long fucking time’, by the linear world and its ability to be measured. Perhaps we remain at ‘the point of revolt’ because the power of the female sex has to be conquered over and over again.  When woman is asserted again and again, she still does not constitute ‘women’.

 

This subject is projected in order to be possessed, in order that the point of revolt can penetrate and overthrow her – ‘her’, this word that implodes.

 

The woman arbitrarily placed here, within the ‘she’ and ‘her’ of the ‘proletarian subject’, is the mirror of the first subject, the male order that conjures her.  The proletarian subject is thereby denied her otherness, the mystery of her body, her unique loquaciousness, her verbosity, her trauma – the very language that might be expressed by the ‘weak subject’, if it were not already precluded from speaking by the fantastic nature of its subjective status.  How can the ‘weak subject’ speak if she is not a subject, and if her language is not reasonable, does not extend, does not accommodate.

Sean Bonney, Letter on Silence

It’s difficult to talk about poems in these circumstances. London is a razor, an inflamed calm has settled, we’re trapped outside on its rim. I’ve been working on an essay about Amiri Baraka, trying to explain the idea that if you turn the surrealist image – defined by Aimé Césaire as a “means of reaching the infinite” – if you turn that inside out what you will find is that phrase from Baraka: “the magic words are up against the wall motherfucker”. Its going very slowly – hard to concentrate what with all the police raids, the punishment beatings, the retaliatory fires. It’d be too much to say the city’s geometry has changed, but its getting into some fairly wild buckling. Its gained in dimension, certain things are impossible to recognise, others are all too clear. I wish I knew more about maths, or algebra, so I could explain to you exactly what I mean. So instead of that I’ll give you a small thesis on the nature of rhythm – (1) They had banged his head on the floor and they were giving him punches. (2) He was already handcuffed and he was restrained when I saw him. (3) He was shouting, “Help me, help me”. (4) He wasn’t coherent. (5) I went to speak to his mum. (6) He couldn’t even stand up after they hit him with the batons. (7) They knocked on her door three hours later and told her “your son’s died”. I can’t remember exactly where I read that. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in a literary magazine, but I guess you’ll have to agree it outlines a fairly conventional metrical system. Poetry transforms itself dialectically into the voice of the crowd – René Ménil made that claim way back in 1944 or something. But what if that’s not true. What if all it can do is transform into the endless whacks of police clubs – certainly you get that in official poetry, be it Kenny Goldsmith or Todd Swift. Their conformist yelps go further than that, actually, as the police whacks in their turn transform into the dense hideous silence we’re living inside right now, causing immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, runny nose and coughing. Because believe me, police violence is the content of all officially sanctioned art. How could it be otherwise, buried as it is so deeply within the gate systems of our culture. Larry Neal once described riots as the process of grabbing hold of, taking control of, our collective history. Earlier this week, I started thinking that our version of that, our history, had been taken captive and was being held right in the centre of the city as a force of negative gravity keeping us out, and keeping their systems in place. Obviously I was wrong. Its not our history they’ve got stashed there – its a bullet, pure and simple, as in the actual content of the collective idea we have to live beneath. They’ve got that idea lodged in the centre of Mark Duggan’s face – or Dale Burns, or Jacob Michael, or Philip Hulmes. Hundred of invisible faces. And those faces have all exploded. Etcetera. Anyway, this is the last letter you’ll be getting from me, I know you’ve rented a room right at the centre of those official bullets. Its why you have to spend so much time gazing into your mirror, talking endlessly about prosody. There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Turned inside out, tormented beyond recognition. So difficult to think about poems right now. I’m out of here. Our stab-wounds were not self inflicted.

Sean Bonney, Letter on Poetics

So I see you’re a teacher again. November 10th was ridiculous, we were all caught unawares. And that “we” is the same as the “we” in these poems, as against “them”, and maybe against “you”, in that a rapid collectivising of subjectivity equally rapidly involves locked doors, barricades, self-definition through antagonism etc. If you weren’t there, you just won’t get it. But anyway, a few months later, or was it before, I can’t remember anymore, I sat down to write an essay on Rimbaud. I’d been to a talk at Marx House and was amazed that people could still only talk through all the myths: Verlaine etc nasty-assed punk bitch etc gun running, colonialism, etc. Slightly less about that last one. As if there was nothing to say about what it was in Rimbaud’s work – or in avant-garde poetry in general – that could be read as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of any revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous. That kinda romanticism doesn’t help much either. I mean, obviously a rant against the government, even delivered via a brick through the window, is not nearly enough. I started thinking the reason the student movement failed was down to the fucking slogans. They were awful. As feeble as poems. Yeh, I turned up and did readings in the student occupations and, frankly, I’d have been better off just drinking. It felt stupid to stand up, after someone had been doing a talk on what to do if you got nicked, or whatever, to stand up and read poetry. I can’t kid myself otherwise. I can’t delude myself that my poetry had somehow been “tested” because they kinda liked it. Because, you know, after we achieved political understanding our hatred grew more intense, we began fighting, we were guided by a cold, homicidal repulsion, and very seldom did we find that sensation articulated in art, in literature. That last is from Peter Weiss. I wondered could we, somehow, could we write a poem that (1) could identify the precise moment in the present conjuncture, (2) name the task specific to that moment, ie a poem that would enable us to name that decisive moment and (3) exert force inasmuch as we would have condensed and embodied the concrete analysis of the concrete situation. I’m not talking about the poem as magical thinking, not at all, but as analysis and clarity. I haven’t seen anyone do that. But, still, it is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital. And this is why no English speaking poet has ever understood Rimbaud. Poetry is stupid, but then again, stupidity is not the absence of intellectual ability but rather the scar of its mutilation. Rimbaud hammered out his poetic programme in May 1871, the week before the Paris Communards were slaughtered. He wanted to be there, he kept saying it. The “long systematic derangement of the senses”, the “I is an other”, he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s clear, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is. Obviously you could read that as a simple recipe for personal excess, but only from the perspective of police reality. Like, I just took some speed, then smoked a joint and now I’m gonna have a pepsi, but that’s not why I writing this and its not what its about. The “systematic derangement of the senses” is the social senses, ok, and the “I” becomes an “other” as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. Its only in the English speaking world, where none of us know anything except how to kill, that you have to point simple shit like that out. In the enemy language it is necessary to lie. & seeing as language is probably the chief of the social senses, we have to derange that. But how do we get to that without turning into lame-assed conceptualists trying to get jiggy with their students. You know what, and who, I mean. For the vast majority of people, including the working class, the politicised workers and students are simply incomprehensible. Think about that when you’re going on about rebarbative avant-garde language. Or this: simple anticommunication, borrowed today from Dadaism by the most reactionary champions of the established lies, is worthless in an era when the most urgent question is to create a new communication on all levels of practice, from the most simple to the most complex. Or this: in the liberation struggles, these people who were once relegated to the realm of the imagination, victims of unspeakable terrors, but content to lose themselves in hallucinatory dreams, are thrown into disarray, re-form, and amid blood and tears give birth to very real and urgent issues. Its simple, social being determines content, content deranges form etc. Read Rimbaud’s last poems. They’re so intensely hallucinatory, so fragile, the sound of a mind at the end of its tether and in the process of falling apart, the sound of the return to capitalist business-as-usual after the intensity of insurrection, the sound of the collective I being pushed back into its individuality, the sound of being frozen to fucking death. Polar ice, its all he talks about. OK, I know, that just drags us right back to the romanticism of failure, and the poete maudite, that kinda gross conformity. And in any case, its hardly our conjuncture. We’ve never seized control of a city. But, I dunno, we can still understand poetic thought, in the way I, and I hope you, work at it, as something that moves counter-clockwise to bourgeois anti-communication. Like all of it. Everything it says. We can engage with ideas that have been erased from the official account. If its incomprehensible, well, see above. Think of an era where not only is, say, revolution impossible, but even the thought of revolution. I’m thinking specifically of the west, of course. But remember, most poetry is mimetic of what some square thinks is incomprehensible, rather than an engagement with it. There the phrase went beyond the content, here the content goes beyond the phrase. I dunno, I’d like to write a poetry that could speed up a dialectical continuity in discontinuity & thus make visible whatever is forced into invisibility by police realism, where the lyric I – yeh, that thing – can be (1) an interrupter and (2) a collective, where direct speech and incomprehensibility are only possible as a synthesis that can bend ideas into and out of the limits of insurrectionism and illegalism. The obvious danger being that disappeared ideas will only turn up ‘dead’, or reanimated as zombies: the terrorist as a damaged utopian where all of the elements, including those eclipsed by bourgeois thought are still absolutely occupied by that same bourgeoisie. I know this doesn’t have much to do with ‘poetry’, as far as that word is understood, but then again, neither do I, not in that way. Listen, don’t think I’m shitting you. This is the situation. I ran out on ‘normal life’ around twenty years ago. Ever since then I’ve been shut up in this ridiculous city, keeping to myself, completely involved in my work. I’ve answered every enquiry with silence. I’ve kept my head down, as you have to do in a contra-legal position like mine. But now, surprise attack by a government of millionaires. Everything forced to the surface. I don’t feel I’m myself anymore. I’ve fallen to pieces, I can hardly breathe. My body has become something else, has fled into its smallest dimensions, has scattered into zero. And yet, as soon as it got to that, it took a deep breath, it could suddenly do it, it had passed across, it could see its indeterminable function within the whole. Yeh? That wasn’t Rimbaud, that was Brecht, but you get the idea. Like on the 24th November we were standing around, outside Charing Cross, just leaning against the wall etc, when out of nowhere around 300 teenagers ran past us, tearing up the Strand, all yelling “WHOSE STREETS OUR STREETS”. Well it cracked us up. You’d be a pig not to answer.

 

 

  1.  

Experimental poetry is usually written by highly educated and/or well-read people. The work tends to expect to be read by highly educated people: it employs poetic techniques recognised as familiar by only a small group of highly educated or well-read people. That does not immediately mean the alienation of readers or listeners unfamiliar with such techniques, but it is an obvious risk. Gaining political change entails mobilising large numbers of people from a range of educative backgrounds.   

 

2.

Engaging with difficult material – let us say, today, with difficult poetry – challenges automatic responses and ingrained “common-sense” conceptualisations of reality, pulling the world into new and different shapes for us. This can be emotional. It is creative: meaning is made, a labour, not just received. Creative thinking is essential for militant protest and strategies for confronting capitalism with its hypocrisies. As a labour, such creative and critical engagement is tiring and time-consuming. Poetry is for the retired – they have time – the dilettantes – they have money – for the academics – paid to read – for the poets, who claw back the day.

 

3.

The majority of poetry written at the moment by us is non-collaborative, written alone and tends towards the expression and celebration of the individual through the very fact that it is my poem, written by me, usually read by me, standing up straight and tall in front of a collection of people called an audience, who sit opposite me. The group is silent while the author speaks. Even those very facts underline how different poetry – as it is conventionally practiced among us – is to participatory or consensus building politics, or to the political moment of collective action. The author-authority poet reads to the silent audience; the professor lectures the students; the priest in the pulpit delivers a sermon to the church; the orator addresses the rally; the politician with the microphone on the TV set addresses the nation. The structure is as old as kingship, as old as God. It is that of the visual and oral dominance of the one over the many, even if and while in all these situations the audiences have chosen to listen and even enjoy it.

 

4.

A poetry reading, even by the most flamboyantly gesticular, hypnotically swaying or rabidly pacing of us, is not essentially mobile. A lot of political actions are. This does not condemn the poetry reading, of course, or other non-mobile activities. But it has consequences for readings at the site of protest, in the midst of protest, which risk replicating the above structure I presented in (2): the one in front of the many. Drama and dance and collaborations less so (I’m thinking of the figures who danced down Oxford streets during the student protests): there is more than one human figure to draw attention; there is a greater communication of collective creativity.

 

5.

“Extreme individuals…engaged in a purely co-operative enterprise that also involves transgressing ordinary boundaries” (DG, 384): this description by David Graeber of direct action and protest is one of my favourites. I can imagine a self-organising group of poets who could be described in such a way, but the way we usually make and read our poetry would have to alter. This desire of mine betrays a desire for poetry to be part of political event-making in some capacity.

 

6.

The traditional elements of difficult page-read poetry may have unexpected advantages in a moment of political protest. A man reads a poem in front of a line of riot police. The absurdity of the act highlights the absurdity of the violence turned towards him. Would a woman reading a poem in the same conditions produce the same affect?  

 

7.

At Millbank, and other moments of spontaneous protest I have participated in, there was a sense that anything could happen. It was exciting. We felt we had agency, even while we knew it was temporary. We could see the results of our defiance on happy faces around us. It was disorderly, a little silly, potentially dangerous. Everything was jumbled up. Institutions and the police which protect them want to impose order and straight lines and hierarchy. I would like some of the affective energies of protests such as these to be opened up in poetry readings sometimes. Where has this happened? The Situation Room November Saturday nights in 2010 captured something of this for me. There was art on the walls, performance, poetry readings, sound recordings. The atmosphere was collaborative and collective. I didn’t quite know how it was going to feel to be there.   

 

8.

I write angrily, melancholically, often out of desire for change and frustration or despair at the current political configuration. I refer to political events in my poems, sometimes to complex political machinations and I read them in front of people who already know these things. Why do I never write of the moments in protest which are luminous with excitement? Or try to capture how Oxford Street feels when it is transformed by direct action? How explaining to passers-by what is going on and hearing their interest and support gives me renewed hope, at least momentarily shifts and realigns my conception of ‘the (so-called) public’? Is Adam Phillips right? That we haven’t yet been able to write interestingly about happiness?  

 

 

specific texts read during writing this

 

 

Adrendt, Hannah, ‘Action’ in The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 175-247.

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Path to Success in Thirteen Theses’, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 2 (1927-1934), ed. Michael W. Jennings et al, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1999), pp. 144-147.

Elliott, Jane and J. D. Rhodes, ‘The Value of Frustration: An Interview with Adam Phillipsin World Picture, vol.  3 (2009). Available at: http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_3/Phillips.html. Accessed 18/5/13.

Fisher, Phillip, The Vehement Passions (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Graeber, David, ‘On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets: Broken Windows, Imaginary Jars of Urine, and the Cosmological Role of the Police in American Culture’ in Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire (Oakland, CA.: A K Press, 2007), pp. 375-418.

Phillips, Adam

 

 

I have to begin with an apology, which is that this is not quite the paper the abstract promised, and that, in fact, I won’t be looking at any poetry in detail at all but instead discussing the role of poetry and the figure of the poet in relation to politics. In this paper, I want to explore several related problems, as I see them, for the relationship between poetry and revolutionary potential, or, more prosaically, poetry and the political events of protest and social dissent. These comments assume several premises, potentially problematically, potentially wrongly (although perhaps productively wrongly), and it’s probably best to sketch them at the beginning. Although I’ll be referring to Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland, I’m using them as examples of a certain type of politically committed left-wing poetry. Within the left-wing commitments of these types of poets there are rather a lot of shades, stretching from reformist, Marxist or socialist to anarchist.[1] In other words, they might agree about what they dislike but they don’t necessarily agree upon what to do about it, or what might replace it. The other broad brush I’m employing is to term what these poets write as ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’, in different ways and to different extents, of course. It would be accurate, I think, to say that most of these left-wing poets were in support of the students protests of 2010-11, if not of every act committed during those protests, and that some of them were supportive of the London riots too, although perhaps to a far lesser extent and with greater qualifications. Sean Bonney is right to note that everyone went rather quiet after the riots. It was not ‘our’ battle, after all, in the same way that the student protests traversed the field of work and study that many of us are involved in, and the riots were conducted in an intense, contagious, but also diffuse way which is somewhat unfamiliar to – or at the very rate unexpected by – traditional activists on the left. Indeed, both the protests at Millbank and the riots of August 2011 took most left-wing activists by surprise. Poets wrote poems commenting upon these events: Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney, Timothy Thornton, myself, Emily Critchley, to name a few.

 

So, one of the things I want to explore here is how poetry responds to the event of political protest; specifically, in fact, I will be examining a common critique of avant-garde political effectivity in the light of occupation readings by Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland.  I want to explore the fact, and also, significantly, the prevalent feeling amongst politically committed poets, that poetry only does and can respond after the event of political dissent and disorder instead of contributing to the coming, crystallisation or happening of that event. There is a desire in some of this poetry to be politically instrumental (indeed, the conference poster suggests poetry wishes to be): not merely to be a comment upon, a commemoration or celebration of events of public protest and dissent after they have happened, but instead, or at least additionally, to participate in their revolutionary potential. I’m going to explore moments when avant-garde poetry has been involved in political event-making, and their implications for how we recognise, make use of, and create that poetical involvement for poetry, and what challenges that might pose to our usual conception of poetry and its performance.

 

Let us begin, then, with a traditional objection to avant-garde, late modernist, innovative practice and its political positioning, which in this instance I am identifying as left-wing and therefore critical of capitalism, especially neoliberal and conservative forms of capitalist policy-making and organisation. In her recent, brilliant book Cruel Optimism (2011), Lauren Berlant points to two related problems with political avant-garde art. Firstly, it is ‘preaching to the choir’, performed for usually small and like-minded audiences, often composed predominantly of other poets, who essentially broadly agree with its political message.[2] Thus, many of us have sat in the Judith E. Wilson Studio at Cambridge, or the Centre for Creative Collaboration in London, or in the upstairs and downstairs rooms of many pubs listening to poetry which criticises what we agree needs criticising, and expresses the anger, ridicule or despair which we ourselves feel about the political landscape. Berlant does not think this is without merit. In fact she deems the primary aim of this kind of work to be providing ‘a scene for being together in the political’ (237). The secondary aim of avant-garde political art, which is where she locates the second and more complex problem, is ‘to magnetize the political desires of a larger public’ (238). I’d want to switch these around in terms of priority, since I’d argue that the manifest desire of experimental political poetry is more about magnetizing and inspiring, about anatomising, highlighting and sometimes satirising the social contradictions produced by capitalism, than it is about any sense of collective scene-making or affirmation, even if, in fact, that feeling is produced as a corollary effect, and even if the poet recognises that the context of the reading is one of choir-preaching. This is evident in the forms this poetry takes and the syntactical jumps, slices and violences it commits upon the language it employs and often detourns: the work is more immediately alienating (visually and syntactically) than it is offering a warm site of solidarity and coming-together. Nevertheless, there is some sense of togetherness insofar as I am referring to a poetry reading, where the poet is the centre of the room’s quiet focus, and where there is a collective sitting down together to listen. It makes a significant difference, I think, that Berlant’s argument pertains to video art, where the artist is absent and the audience comes and goes, stays perhaps only for a while, and hasn’t necessarily chosen to encounter that work specifically.

 

Berlant concludes that despite the affirmation of preaching to the choir, traditional avant-garde practice is politically nullified by the social relations its aesthetics imply and tend to disclose: ‘[t]o offer solidarity through an uncanny and lightly discomforting aesthetics that keeps its own commitments and program implicit is to conflate solidarity with aesthetic sophistication – that is, with a privileged class location’ (238). Whilst we might want to qualify the kind of effects she outlines here, it is indisputable, I think, that the appreciation and enjoyment of avant-garde poetry is inescapably indicative of particular class structures and positions. It doesn’t have to be a formal, university learning that provides the aesthetic education such poetry tends to require in order to be ‘understood’, but it takes first of all an encounter, and then the time and space to engage, think about and become familiar with such work, and perhaps to meet and talk to others who appreciate such linguistic and formal strategies of deranged and deranging poetic composition. These days, such time, space and contacts are usually the result of education and/or a certain level of socio-economic security. That is not to say that no working class people are involved in writing, reading or listening to this poetry, bit that the majority of us are firmly on the side of socio-educational privilege, even if we might not be free from economic precarity.  

 

This raises questions about the relevance of late modernist radical aesthetics in attempts to address poetry to a political moment, especially if, as we all I think acknowledge, any political revolution or change needs to galvanise a large number of the population, specifically, given they’ve the most to gain from socio-political re-organisation, the working class. Simply, and bluntly, does it matter if we write political poetry which only a small, usually highly-educated, section of society, a section of society with broadly the same political stance, understands and appreciates? Does it matter politically? Does it matter than it might be alienating to the very people whose support it needs if its political dreams are to be realised, and alienating precisely because the poetry displays overtly a familiarity with nonpopular and complicated aesthetic forms and ideas and thus demonstrates the probable social (though not necessarily economic) privilege of the poet? One simple answer to this is to say, no, it doesn’t matter; that art is art and must unfold in relation to its own aesthetic logic. Yet I think the poetry, or at least some of it, wants to matter politically. For instance, Sean Bonney’s first poem in his recent collection Happiness begins: ‘september 2003. we were wondering why the poets were silent’, as though events that month, which included various Iraqi deaths at the hands of Coalition troops and the election of a BNP candidate, should be remarked upon poetically, should have moved the poets to speech.[3]  

 

 I want to explore these questions tangentially, through examining two scenes of poetry readings during political events, namely at occupations. It’s probably worth pointing out many occupiers (all of them, in the context of student occupations of university buildings) are educated and therefore broadly part of the more privileged strata of society, even if that privilege doesn’t any longer guarantee security. However, it is probable that most of them will be unfamiliar with experimental poetry and its strategies. Writing of his experiences of and frustrations with the interface between poetry and politics, Sean Bonney specifically refers to his occupation readings in his ‘Letter on Poetics (after Rimbaud)’, dated 25th June 2011:

            How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous. That kinda romanticism doesn’t help much either. I mean, obviously a rant against the government, even delivered via a brink through the window, is not nearly enough. I started thinking the reason the student movement failed was down to the fucking slogans. They were awful. As feeble as poems. Yeh, I turned up and did readings in the student occupations and, frankly, I’d have been better off just drinking. It felt stupid to stand up, after someone had been doing a talk about what to do if you got nicked, or whatever, to stand up and read poetry. I can’t kid myself otherwise. I can’t delude myself that my poetry had somehow been “tested” because they kinda liked it.[4]  

 

There are a host of desires being articulated here: a call for art to more effectively mirror experience; for a new poetic form; for better slogans or something better than slogans; for poems not to be feeble; for poetry and protest to move beyond one rant or a singular act of property destruction; and, linked to this, a rejection of romanticism. I want to pause on this last point. The romanticism rejected is both the fantasy of creating a formal monstrosity and the illusion that small acts of dissent, protest and denunciation are as effective as they are passionate. In other words, poetry doesn’t do anything in the world, anything useful, and therefore it feels politically redundant even though the illusion of singular agency to express and act, to create and to rant, might sustain us for a while. This is the point Bonney makes about the reading of experimental poems at occupations: it doesn’t seem as useful as other types of communication, even if people enjoyed it. If the slogans of the student movement offended Bonney’s poetic sensibility, reading his own poetry at occupations offends his sense of political praxis.

 

            Another poetico-political anecdote might be instructive here. In March 2010, Keston Sutherland was invited to read to a group of students occupying a lecture theatre in protest at managerial decisions made at his place of employment, The University of Sussex. Whilst waiting to read, Sutherland penned a poem, which he subsequently circulated to the UK Poetry Listserv, along with an account of the reading, its atmosphere and some thoughts upon why he’d suddenly felt he should write something new, there and then. I’m not going to reproduce the poem here, but suffice to say, it had the Sutherland markers of metrical care but was unlike his poetry of that and preceding times in most other respects: it rhymed in simple ways; it was extremely easy to follow semantically and syntactically; it was rhetorically rousing, utilising the recognisable voice of political protest; it was angry and specific about the targets of that anger (which was not internalised); and the poem included a description and promise of political and physical solidarity. Sutherland has never revised it for publication, even though it was published by Joe Luna in Hi Zero, where he printed an essay of Justin Katko’s which reproduced the poem amid a critique of another poem of Sutherland’s (‘10/11/10’) about the student protests in London.[5] Sutherland’s occupation poem criticised the management of the university, complained about the fiscal orientation of the institution’s decision-making, and expressed solidarity with the students and who were protesting: it was technically an illegal act, breaking a Court Injunction which the university had taken out to prohibit staff from entering the occupied spaces. His explanation for writing this poem, on the spot, was that it felt to him like an immediate response or address to the political moment. This suggests that his other poetry on its own was in need of supplementation or that the moment called for something of another order, something new that addressed the context. He read it last, after only a few 12-line sonnets, and it got a big cheer from the students in the room.

 

            The feelings of Bonney and Sutherland towards reading in these occupied spaces and the reactions to their work by the activists within them is, I think, a practical route for thinking about the relationship between poetry and the immediacy of the political moment that addresses the critique which Berlant outlines. Sutherland wrote differently for the occasion, directly addressing the circumstances in a language which the occupiers could identify with and immediately recognise; Bonney desired for his poetry to be more instrumental, more useful, and, not insignificantly, I think, some of his poetry of this period is prose, and that which isn’t, has become more accessible than his earlier work to the reader unaware of the tradition out of which the poetry is working. I think it is also centrally important that both of these poets give extremely affective readings; readings which don’t of course negate the difficulty of the poetics the poems are enacting, but which certainly hold out an emotional register for the audience to inhabit and share, enjoy and feel the immediate political scene-making that the poetry itself and those two readers reading it create. Occupied spaces are creative, impromptu political spaces; thus, however fragile they can sometimes feel, they are powerfully imbued with the transformation they effect in the use and ownership of space itself. Writing of the fact that artistic circles often cross over with revolutionary ones, anarchist-activist-anthropologist David Graeber suggests that this is ‘precisely because these have been spaces where people can experiment with radically different, less alienated forms of life’, and, we might add, forms of agency.[6] The occupation space is a microcosm of what could be potentially possible: the decision to invite poets to read is an affirmation of the kind of relationship between the imagination, art and political space that the occupiers are envisioning. Although Berlant points out that preaching to the choir can feel like a kind of pointless cliquey insularity, she also points out that it: 

is always undervalued…[A]s a world-confirming strategy of address that performs solidarity and asserts righteousness, it is absolutely necessary to do. When an intimate public is secreted in its own noise, it rehearses affectively what the world will feel like when its vision gains mass traction…perhaps reinforcing intimate binding is the main function of avant-garde counternormative political work. (238)                        

 

Rehearsing how the world will feel when a vision is made reality is precisely what occupations, however temporary, try to do, which is why the arts are affirmed alongside more practical lectures, reading groups, and political discussions which these spaces also usually host. Graeber sees the artist or poet and the revolutionary as one with the potential to challenge and help restructure the social imagination (61); they provide spaces where experimentation and play with the concept of value is central (97). This final point about value is, I think, one of the most important that Graeber gives us if we want to think about radical poetics and political spaces.

 

            One of the indisputable facts about radical poetic aesthetics is its insistence on valuing what it does outside of everyday market forces. There is the fact that it is possible to buy, for very little money, and for a price which in no way reflects the labour and time involved in the making of them, seriously beautiful objects, like the books made by Richard Owens of Damn the Caesars or Richard Parker of Crater Press. These are exquisite objects and no one who holds them would think otherwise. On top of that, the poetical values the poetry itself enacts is also removed from economic thinking. This is one way of thinking of disputations of ‘good’ work: not as a fascistic act of judgement but as the formation of categories which are not subject to economic equivalence.

 

            Viewed in this light, Bonney’s and Sutherland’s acts constitute important affirmations of solidarity, vision-sharing, and partake in a new kind of social and spatial imaginary which shows us ways to value both poetry and its potentially affective space-making. However, there is nothing necessary about the radical aesthetics of what they write which makes this true, except that avant-garde practices tend to line up against a mainstream which is institutionalised and attached firmly to the market. I have one reservation, however, one that is remarked in, worried at, and often satirised in the work of both Bonney and Sutherland, and that is that a deeply affective poetry reading which displays a fantastic skill with language and knowledge of poetical strategies can risk leading us right back to the figure of the artist, of the poet. I think some of the ways the Occupy movement has used the human microphone reconfigure this problem, as, indeed, do certain forms of experimental performance (such as Becky Cremin’s paper yesterday), and I look forward to seeing poets negotiate political spaces in ways which demonstrably challenge the centrality of the poet.

 

 

 

 

 


 

[2] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), p. 237. Further references, where clear, will be in parentheses in the body of my paper.

[3] Sean Bonny, Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud (London: Unkant, 2011), p.12.

[4] Sean Bonney, ‘Letter on Poetics (After Rimbaud)’ in Crisis Inquiry, ed. Richard Owens (Buffalo: Punch Press, 2012), p. 21. First published on Bonney’s blog, Abandoned Buildings in 2011, and then in a small print run called Four Letters, Four Comments published by Punch Press in 2011. 

[5] Justin Katko, ‘On ‘10/11/10’’ in Hi Zero, ed. Joe Luna, Vol. 4 (2011). Unpaginated.  

[6] David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art and Imagination (London: Minor Compositions, 2011), p. 98.