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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
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 Phillips’ in 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.