This is going to require a preamble, I’ve said before that I have no problem with poets who write with a political objective nor would I denigrate a poem just because I don’t hold with it’s political stance. My two favourite contemporary English poets, Prynne and Hill, write from opposite ends of the political spectrum and I’m comfortable with that because I don’t read poetry to be politically persuaded. I’ve also said before that I think it’s a mistake to endow poetry with powers that it doesn’t actually have. By this I don’t in any way wish to deny the power of poetry to enable us to radically challenge the way that we think about things. I also recognise that poetry is immensely influential in shaping the culture of any society but let’s not forget that it is one of many forms of creative expression and each of these has its own strengths.
Now for the confession, I’ve been on this planet for 54 years without reading any Adorno. Unforgivable, I know, but I’ve never felt the need to get to the bottom of Critical Theory even though the Frankfurt School has a reputation for intellectual rigour and ‘sound’ Marxian thought.
Being aware of this lacuna in my reading, I’ve been psyching myself up to start working out the finer points of negative dialectics. The other reason for tackling Adorno is that I’m various types of dialectical analysis since reading Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ last year. I’ve re-read David Harvey’s description and examples, I’ve also read Stalin’s explanation and examples. I have to say that I’m not convinced by any of these, Benjamin seems to miss the point whilst Stalin is incredibly facile. David Harvey (who is a personal hero) tends to over complicate things and throws in elements that shouldn’t really be there. Adorno therefore is my last hope in getting to the bottom of dialectics but then I came across an essay entitled ‘On lyric poetry and society’ which seemed to offer a useful short-cut.
I got through the first few pages without finding any thing too disconcerting then; “My thesis is that the lyric work is always the expression of a social antagonism. But since the objective world that produces the lyric is an inherently antagonistic world, the concept of the lyric is not that of a subjectivity to which language grants objectivity.” Adorno goes on to point out Romanticism’s link with the folk song, Prynne makes the same point in Field Notes and John Wilkinson has pointed out the importance of work songs and sea shanties in Prynne’s poetry. I don’t however accept that lyric work is always the product of social antagonism, nor do I accept Adorno’s view that some lyric poets are privileged because they are capable of grasping the universal through ‘immersion in the self’ or ‘to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves”. This seems more than a little far-fetched, I’d need to know precisely what is meant by ‘immersion in the self’ and isn’t ‘autonomous subject’ an oxymoron? Nevertheless it is clear to me that Prynne’s view of the Romantics is very close to that of Adorno.
The essay continues with the introduction of two poems which Adorno says he will treat as philosophical sundials telling the time of history. The first poem is “On a walking tour” by Edward Morike which is ostensibly about a visit to a small town and the poet’s experience of happiness. Adorno commends it as it skilfully blends the classical elevated style with the romantic private miniature and is particularly impressed with the tact by which this is achieved.
At the end of this discussion Adorno writes: “In industrial society the lyric idea of a self-restoring immediacy becomes- where it does not impotently evoke a romantic past – more and more something that flashes out abruptly, something in which what is possible transcends its own impossibility”. Normally I would groan at this point and despair of ideologues ever getting rid of tautology but I have to ask whether this transcending the impossible business is at the heart of the Prynne project. We know that he has an antagonistic relationship with the ‘witty circus’ of discourse which he sees as corrupted and I now have to consider whether the poems are actually striving for the impossible by means of a ‘self-restoring immediacy’. It does appear to explain the very enthusiastic and detailed analysis contained in ‘Field Notes’ as well as some of the more lyrical (if truncated) passages in the later poems.
Adorno then introduces a poem by Stefan George which is a kind of pared-down love song and remarks that it is written in a kind of German that could be a foreign language to German speakers. He refers to the use of the word ‘gar’ in the poem and concedes that critics have said that it serves no purpose in the lyric. Adorno counters this by remarking that “great works of art succeed precisely where they are most problematic”. Adorno concludes by saying of George “this very lyric speech becomes the voice of human beings between whom the barriers have fallen”.
Is this what Prynne is after? His work is recognised as problematic and his project would seem to be about creating a discourse that is less corrupt.
I have to say that most of this essay is far removed from my own views on the place of poetry, I also have to say that I still don’t understand the Romantics but it does enable me to understand a bit more about Prynne’s motivation in writing the way that he does. The essay is available for download on the incomparable AAAARG.org site.
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