Having taken some time off for most of this month, I’ve had the opportunity to think about how some poetry is especially appropriate in terms of what might be going on in the now. This has produced some surprising results:
- appropriate poetry isn’t always good poetry;
- I know what I mean by ‘appropriate’ but have difficulty in expressing a definition (this might not be a Bad Thing);
- for poetry to be appropriate it must first of all express/describe/expose some element of the now;
- the ‘now’ is not to be confused with the zeitgeist, it is used here in the way that Brodkey used it in ‘The Runaway Soul’;
- accurate or astute description is often preferable to commentary:
To take the last point first, I’m increasingly of the view that poetry is best at a description that encourages the reader to do his or her own ‘brain work’. It’s also important to point out that Brodkey’s now doesn’t exist and may appeal to me only because of it’s inherently manic properties. I would however argue that these properties are ideally suited to a culture that has an attention span of (at best) about 25 seconds.
I’ve chosen the poems below because I feel that they are appropriate to the now in which they were written and because they each contain aspects which demand our attention.
Aral Beach by Benjamin Mullen.
I don’t think this has been published yet but suffice it to say that it’s the sort of poem that Sir Geoffrey Hill should be writing if he wasn’t so enamoured of his own productivity. It begins with:
So situated we can only stand:
overlook from a long
thick-and-great-windowed room the tide’s errand
then type. The crass dock circulates a song,
we jeer and shuffling grouse—
what’s wrong is we can’t quite say what’s wrong.
Enjoying there the fluid world—its spit and douse—
call this utopian place
immense, enormous, the size of a house
This does seem to epitomise a fundamental aspect of the now, the increasing feeling that life is is assuming more and more characteristics of a spectator sport and that our inability to grasp what it is that might be wrong (in the sense of both sin and error) can be seen as the essence of our cultural/political malaise. I’m also very fond of the ‘spit and douse’ of our fluid world which has presented me with a different way of thinking about my particular now.
The poem ends with-
Spectators of our losses, even we disband—
reacting it with joy
we void our peace on threatened land
far from the rilled pall which issues us joy;
but abreast of its beach
We can only stand and stare at England’s joy.
Apart from the brilliance of ‘rilled pall’ this does seem an accurate description of the feeling of impotence that many of us have in that we can only spectate / stare as our many losses accumulate around us.
Witness Account 01 / 12 by Francesca Lisette
This is the first part of Lisette’s ‘Casebook: a History of Autonomy & Anger’ sequence and I’ve written about it before as a superb act of defiance in the current political fiasco but this sets the scene-
Seizing up the weakened cradle your bent-black chest is present to, louder in the gritted wind. Notes of lice tinkle down in sun, hard with malformed lushness, muffled in swathes or a swept lip. You press me volatile to your pure solicitations, which complicates my being ONLY A TOY. Not for labels are there teeth arrowing out like angels sicked on ash vulvar. We make a face, or two, playing for feed at whites which hiccup ‘self/object’: sheathed in PLAYDOH. Slip away knowledge as dust booms the bar; nook hanging as a blond void, to be filled, or something like it. Renders impulse slide nectarine, breaks open the police-helmet, sniggering at small-stitch. Speechless with depth, we relinquish flounce & pass on so naked, burnt as a side reminder of what catches in the real light of day.
I make no apologies for reproducing this in full because it brings us to the final sentence which was probably the best thing that I read in 2011. It manages to sustain/maintain a level of defiant anger whilst presenting a ‘cool’ description/picture of what is going on around us. On a first reading I was concerned that it might be a little too clever, a bit too pleased with itself, but paying more attention has led me to the view that it is quite measured and that there is a lot of thought going on as well as the stunning verbal dexterity. Being present to the gritted wind, slipping away knowledge and being rendered speechless encapsulate (as with Aral Beach) almost inevitable ways to be in the clattering now.
As Mouth Blindness by J H Prynne
This is the first poem in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection which was published in 2010 and appears to have been written, at least in part, as a response to the financial collapse that continues to disfigure our lives. I’ve chosen it because I don’t think it’s one of Prynne’s best but it nevertheless fulfils his stated aim of describing things as they are. It begins with:
Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded gainsay now
for aspect close to residue, you'll see it there. Not full
scanned at damage so far, ridges debased fetch so plainly
or even gradual, nothing not due. Lay a hand over plus
to connote slant cutting life and knife, the road on offer
be level be sane two for one.
This is reasonably explicit for Prynne and the tone is one of angry sarcasm (the two for one jibe is a fairly constant trope since before ‘Brass’) but it does more than most to be accurate about the edifice that continues to crumble. There are other telling phrases- ‘For both / market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank / less and less, claimant for right.’ and ‘…unbroken torrid reason / will commute previous and lie down.’ Both of these, and the opening lines, go further than anything else to present what politicians would rather we forget- that the unrestrained market is based on inequality and exploitation and wreaks real, pernicious, havoc when it believes its own propaganda.
The last sentence is simply ‘Now get out.’ which may be a comment rather than a description but this is more than compensated for by the accuracy of what precedes it and because it also encourages readers to undertake more than a little for themselves.
In conclusion, I readily accept that this is a subjective selection and that I have yet to work out what I might mean by ‘appropriate’ but these three poems seem to me to be honest and skilful attempts to describe key aspects of the clattering now.