Poetry, bourgeois optimism and the social demand

I’ve been reading Keston Sutherland’s “Statement for the Helsinki Poetics Conference 2010” which makes considerable use of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “How are verses made?” (a remarkable document but not in the way that Sutherland thinks). He also makes use of a letter written by Engels which expresses the view that it is the function of the novel to “shatter the optimism of the bourgeoisie and to cast doubt about the eternal validity of the existing order.”
I don’t have any problem with poets attempting to shatter bourgeois optimism/smugness but I think it is equally important to recognise the intransigent nature of this particular problem and where it may come from. The educated middle class do feel a little queasy about the bad things that occur in the world and some of them will give money to charities as a way of alleviating this queasiness. What they will not do (under any circumstances) is give up their class position and forfeit the material goodies that this brings. In order to cast doubt about the validity of the existing order, the poet needs to present a viable alternative that doesn’t carry the taint of state socialism. No-one on the left has yet managed to do this and looking with nostalgia at essentialist Marxian recipes simply won’t do.
Mayakosky is an interesting character who was deeply involved in the Bolshevik revolution and was admired by Stalin- set out below is his listed summary of the essay:
1. Poetry is production. Very difficult and very complex, but production.
2. Learning poetic composition is not the study of the manufacture of a definite and limited type of poetic article, but the study of methods for all kinds of poetic work, the study of production techniques which help the creation of new ones.
3. Newness – newness of material and of method – is essential for every poetic composition.
4.The poet should work every day, and this ensures the improvement of his technique and the accumulation of poetic work-pieces.
5. A good notebook and the ability to make use of it are more important than the ability to write with facility in obsolete metres.
6. The is no need to put into operation a vast verse combine in order to manufacture poetic cigarette lighters. Steer clear of such uneconomic small stuff. Only take to your pen when you have no means of expressing yourself other than in verse. Do not go into production until you are conscious of a clear social demand.
7. In order to understand the social demand properly, the poet must be at the centre of affairs and events. A knowledge of economic theory, a knowledge of everyday reality, a preoccupation with scientific history – in the essential part of his work – are more important than the scholastic textbooks of professorial idealists who go down on their bended knees before antiquity.
8. In order to meet a social demand, you must be at the head of your class and with your class you must wage the struggle on all fronts. You must smash to smithereens the myth of non-political art. This old fairy tale is currently gaining ground under cover of burble about “broad epic canvas” (first epic, then objective, and finally non-party), or about the grand style (first grand, then exalted, and finally celestial) etc., etc.
9. Only a production approach to arts will eliminate the elements of chance, haphazardness of taste and arbitrariness of judgement. Only a production approach can you get the different aspects of literary works in perspective: poems and reports by workers’ and peasants’ journalists. Instead of mystically pondering a poetic theme you will have the power to tackle a pressing problem with accuracy, by means of poetic tariffs and standards.
10. You mustn’t make the manufacturing, the so-called technical process and end in itself. But it is this process of manufacture that makes the poetic work fit for use. It’s the difference just in these methods of production that marks the difference between poets, and only a knowledge, a mastery, an accumulation of the widest possible range of varied literary devices makes a man a professional writer.
11. The everyday circumstances of poetry have as much influence on the composition of a real work of art as other factors do. The word ‘Bohemian’ has become a term of opprobrium describing every Philistine-artistic way of life. Unfortunately war has often been waged on the word ‘Bohemian’ and only on the word but what remains actively with is the individualist and careerist atmosphere of the old literary world, the petty interest of malevolent coteries, mutual back-scratching; and the word ‘poetical’ has come to mean ‘lax’, ‘a bit drunk, ‘debauched’ and so on. Even the way a poet dresses and the way he talks to his wife at home has to be different, and entirely dictated by the kind of poetry he writes.
12. We the poets of the Left Front, never claim that we alone possess the secrets of poetical creativity. But we are the only ones who want to lay these secrets open, the only ones who don’t want to surround the creative process with a catch-penny religio-artistic aura of sanctity.
I find myself in complete agreement with most of the above and note that the concerns of 1927 Soviet Russia aren’t that different from the concerns of today- the malevolent coteries and the mutual back-scratching are still very much with us and remain a structural problem. The ‘religio-artistic aura’ of sanctity is something I’ve complained about in the past and continue to despair at those who claim that poetry is somehow privileged rather than important. The role of the academy also continues to be of concern.
The idea of the social demand is useful, as is the notion of not putting pen to paper unless there is not other way of meeting that demand. Recent events in the UK set the stage for a number of social demands over the next few years but there are probably more effective ways of responding to that particular challenge.
I’m much taken by the notion of poetry as production which implies that the poem is a product and should be thought of in those terms rather than as some mystical expression of feeling or thought.
The political situation has changed somewhat since 1927 and for poetry to be effective in the here and now then it needs to be more than ever aware of its own strengths and weaknesses. It needs to recognise that it’s good at giving voice to complexity, that it’s not good at agit-prop and that if it wants to shatter the treasured beliefs of the bourgeoisie then it should engage with those beliefs rather than hitting them over the head with a hammer.


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