Or, How Little Alison Learned to Love the Bomb Again
Onstage, I am a real person, not a "persona." The people for whom I play are just that: individuals, not a faceless or generic "audience." We bring to our experience together preferences, histories, and expectations, and this is a volatile combination. This kind of immediate, intimate encounter is as far as one gets from an abstract cultural construct. And personal encounters, as everyone knows, are the riskiest kind.
Pianist Marilyn Nonken, from an interview in Superfluities
Language, so the wisdom runs, is what separates us from beasts. Unlike the average amoeba or domestic cat, we possess a glittering consciousness that is a microcosm of the galaxy itself, and of which the most noble excresence is the ability to communicate in abstractions. This raises us above other living things, and – like our expulsion from Eden, which was an expulsion into consciousness and the primordial moment of our alienation from other living things - justifies our exploitation of the planet, which is given to us, God’s chosen higher beings, to do with as we will.
This has been the basic contract of human authority since around the Renaissance, though it started long before. Our humanity is measured against the non-humanity of animals, and if we wish to deprive others of their humanity, we merely need to categorise them as less than human, as animals themselves. George W Bush is only the most crass example of what happens when such linguistic manifest destiny is put into practice.
At the other end of language are writers who are concerned with at once smashing and exploiting the hidden legislations of language, worrying the loosening tendons of syntax and grammar into the animalities of sound and redelivering language to the body, bewildered and unknown to itself. They make a various and implosive language, corrupted and broken and enlivened by post capitalist consumerism, conscious and angry, shamanistic, ecstatic, beautiful, polluted, impure: but most of all, it’s language that articulates consciously, through soft tissue palate and breath and skin and bone, the impossible abstractions of thought. It’s language that traces the oscillations between the tangible and the intangible, here and there, the said and the thought, the mediations of technology and self. Poetry.
If language is so deeply embedded in our idea of our humanity, then tinkering with its DNA, as poetry does, is a deeply political and significant activity. At the same time, it’s an activity which has to negotiate its own lack of significance, its continuing marginalisation, which it does with varying degrees of defensiveness or belligerence or grace. At its best and most bracing, it’s an art about which, even more than most, it’s impossible to generalise: it is stubbornly particular in the multiplicities of its insistences on now, here, this. Poets have to be spoken about one by one. And a week ago in Cork at the SoundEye Festival of the Arts of the Word, about 30 poets proceeded to prove that truism.
This was my third visit to SoundEye, a 12-year-old poetry festival run by Irish poet Trevor Joyce with cohorts Fergal Gaynor, Matthew Geden and Jimmy Cummins. It is one of the more nourishing poetry events I know of. It’s hard to describe the mixture of chaos and organisation that seems peculiar to SoundEye: at one moment it seems impossible that anything might occur, and then, without any sense of real transition, you are suddenly watching something extraordinary. And it’s even harder, even impossible, to describe the electric clash of poetries that in Soundeye 2008 made it such an energised and vital event. But I’ll give it a go.
The programming was marked most deeply by diversity: from the anti-aesthetic noise poetics of Justin Katko and the multiple unselvings of Jow Lindsay, to the shamanistic disarticulations of language and exquisite visual poems of Maggie O’Sullivan; from the “uncreative” media collages of Ubu Web founder Kenny Goldsmith, to the bone-tough lyrical constructions of Trevor Joyce, or the splintered urban demolitions of London poet Sean Bonney, or the baroquely observed minutae of poet Peter Manson (whose forthcoming translations of Mallarmé will be a significant event). There was even an epic romance, of sorts, from Cathy Wagner.
However, all the poets present – hailing from Ireland, England, Scotland, the US and Australia – were, in one way or another, heirs of modernism, in all its diversity of definitions. A hint of this provenance – and of its historic depth – was given during the cabaret night, which opened with a violin de gamba trio under Marja Tuhkanen playing Renaissance and baroque music, which was punctuated by readings from Sir Philip Sidney by Keston Sutherland and Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt by Fergal Gaynor, and from there plunged into successive anarchies.
SoundEye reflects the fact that contemporary innovative poetry is a bewildering variety of poetics, an uncountable collection of micro-communities scattered throughout the world, tracking their own aesthetic traditions and rebellions and deeply involved in each other’s work. These splintered communities are often deeply at odds with each other, or at least peer sniffily over each other’s fences to throw snails. What’s called, with varying degrees of impatience, the “poetry scene” can be a disheartening place, one I often find myself contemplating with depression or irritation. I suppose the general tendency of the world in general to despise poets internalises itself in a propensity for poets to despise each other, and the divisions that can ensue, as the so-called Australian “poetry wars” during the 70s and 80s demonstrated, can generate a lot of heat and shadow.
Which is to say that for some time the idea of poetry, outside an idiosyncratic network of relationships and my own private practice, has not much interested me. For me, poetry has always been driven by an inarticulate internal necessity; it is a mysterious if dominant force in my life which seems to imperiously demand certain questions, certain explorations, certain attentions. And it has not always been clear to me – it isn’t clear to me even now – how what I do fits into any particular poetic community. I am, for better or worse, a lyric poet, and “lyric poet” is in certain vocabularies a synonym for “twat”. But the truth is that most poets, whatever their provenance and chosen traditions, feel unhomed and isolated.
Poets assume, quite rightly for the most part, that their primary audience will be their peers. Within a multitude of tiny economies flourishes an infinity of small presses publishing beautifully made chapbooks and collections and online journals and blogs, holding readings and conferences, attracting those with the specialised literacies such work demands. Thus it ever was - Milton and Wordsworth published in much the same way - but there are times when one tires of the resultant inwardness. It's seldom that you will hear poets thinking with such depth or complexity about a relationship to a general audience as you will see in UK poet Chris Goode's latest (especially mammoth) post on Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire. (That's because Chris also works in the theatre). There are good things about this as well as less good things: but sometimes, in the hurlyburly, it's hard to remember them.
Well, I seem to have wandered off the point. Or maybe the point is that I didn’t think any of these thoughts at SoundEye, even though I was elbow to elbow with so many and so different poets. For five days I was intrigued, fascinated, excited and stimulated. Sometimes I was bored, but the longueurs were relatively rare. And instead of a bunch of defensive egos, I was for the most part among that rare collective noun, a generosity of poets. I remembered how poetry works at the edges, inventing new languages out of what lies prosaically around us in the contemporary world or imagining vivid alternative realities. It is all life – hatred, snails, love, curiosity, passion, sex, jokes, cities, arcane intellectual obsessions, insects, war, television, home. It is paying attention.
And what I carry away mostly is how the many readings I saw confirmed poetry in the body and in the present. Keston Sutherland’s reading of a poem in which his body was at war with itself, a fleshy dismembered microcosm of wider political violence, was among the more startling of these assertions, but no less memorable than Maurice Scully’s quiet, seated reading of his wickedly turned articulations. There was poetry made for that day only and poems that will be read in books for decades to come, and it was all alive and dynamic and grabbed your ears and showed you how many ways there are to listen. Listening is a choice not often given in our cultures of endless consumerist distraction: the open ear is a necessary balance to the incipient fascism of the eye. The parties were great too. I am glad I was there.
Note: The poems and readings linked to here were not performed at SoundEye 2008. However, the event was recorded on video and readings will (eventually) be uploaded to Meshworks and, it is threatened, YouTube.