There’s a Godard movie (probably ‘British Noise’) where one character asks the other if intellectuals can also be revolutionaries. The question that I’d like to ask is whether poets can be revolutionaries and intellectuals. Some months ago on this blog I made a glib and entirely gratuitous remark about poems not being very effective at changing things, I’ve now had some cause to re-think this observation.
Let’s start with some definitions: the intellectual usually works in the academy and thinks about theory and is comfortable with theory; the revolutionary is convinced that the world must change and will do whatever he or she can to effect that change; the poet writes poems.
I think most of us would agree that these are not good times for political revolutionaries, the ‘old’ revolutionary movements in Europe have been decimated in the last thirty years by the effects of the current long wave of capitalist development, the success of the state’s infiltration of subversive groups and the eternal revolutionary habit of self-destruction by factionalism.
Things are equally bad for contemporary poets who aren’t read except by other contemporary poets (and those who aspire to write contemporary poetry) and academics who gain professional status by writing about them. The revolutionary potential for poetry is further compounded by Bourdieu’s analysis of how creative expression functions in society today. Poetry also suffers from factionalism and what some would see as wilful obscurity.
Intellectuals, on the other hand, are thriving. Anxiety about poor standards of education in the West has led to the state throwing huge amounts of money at higher education which has led to the proliferation of theorising and endless pontification. Most ‘serious’ poets work in the academy, mostly because they can’t earn a living from book sales.
I’m not a revolutionary, most revolutionaries that I’ve met (and conspired with) are so driven by the absolute need for change that ‘the revolution’ becomes the only objective without too much consideration given to what may ensue from that event. I’m more attracted to the radical position which acknowledges that things do need to change but is deeply sceptical about iconoclasm for its own sake.
I do read poetry and (occasionally) I try to make poems but I’m not entirely sure that the current poetry game is a game that I want to play because the framework in which it operates is fundamentally flawed. However, I do keep getting drawn back to it because of its strength and power to challenge the way that I think and use words.
As one of the self-taught, I reserve the right to be sceptical about intellectuals and especially the role of intellectuals in a state sponsored academy. There’s a nagging suspicion in the back of my head that ‘important’ thinkers achieve their importance because they merely appear to pose a threat to the status quo.
So, is poetry a useful tool in the struggle? I think poetry can be quite good and effective at revolting against itself (The Waste Land, The Cantos, Atemwende, Brass etc.) but that it takes far too long to have an effect on the world psyche. It can be argued that the poetry of Wordsworth has now reached public consciousness ( a belated interest in the power and importance of the natural world) but two hundred years is simply far too long.
Poets can be revolutionary poets and reactionary ideologues but this shouldn’t deter us from the potential of poetry for effecting radical change. In fact, poetry can re-engage us with the world at a time when the established order is pushing us towards rampant individualism with its consequent sense of alienation.
In order to break out of the current malaise and to act as a part of the struggle poetry needs to change the frame in which it operates. To do this it needs to recognise the poem is a commodity that exists in a market and that it competes with other commodities in terms of reception, value and effectiveness. It needs, in short, to sell itself and it needs to articulate that value in a much more direct way. Its current structural weaknesses need to be quantified, e.g. does its incestuous relationship with the academy do it any favours, is the teaching of creative writing really a good thing, is difficulty a mark of quality?
I have to believe that a poetry that is truly as ‘impossible as reality’ is a feasible possibility but those that produce and proliferate verse needs to change the nature of the frame.
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