CLR likes nothing better than to be timely. Modish, if you like, faddish if you don’t. Either way, because the effect of listening to election debates is verbal and visual imprisonment—and because of Thursday’s inevitable return to happier times—our thoughts turn to that thorny Arcady: the politics of poetry.
Taxonomy—though inimical to certain strands in this very area—has its benefits where category errors and talking-across abound. So, in the spirit of George Steiner’s ‘On Difficulty’, here is an experiment in poetico-political classification:
Disclaimer: We do not expect this list to be final, though we would be very surprised if any form of poetical-political nexus could be found that was not ultimately reducible to one of the lines in Joseph Walton’s proem.
1. Resistance. Pace Andrea Brady’s letter to CLR: “I would include, among my political acts, teaching, conversation, and collaboration.” Here poetry is contingent on acts of persuasion and sophisticated engagement. Teaching is the paradigm, insofar as it implies dialogue, elucidation, generosity.
2. Complicity. J.H. Prynne has provided perhaps the most succinct and eloquent passage in this vein:
Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared places, the echoes are no-one’s private property or achievement; thus any grace (truly achieved) of sound is political, part of the world of motion and place in which language is like weather, the air we breathe. [...] So that if you like is the politics of truth, change & motion in the world at large and this is the order of feeling, public and private a vested patience.*
This is mildly stated, and tends away from the kind of argument that itself lives and thrives in the position(s) of aesthetic and political implication. But for that very reason it is powerful: it suggests that other forms of communication are owned, are complicit, are constrictive, suffocate.
3. Solidarity. Here is part of a description of a poetry reading given at a sit-in demonstration against funding cuts at the University of Sussex:
But for all that the mood in the theatre wasn’t, I thought, unchallengingly just grateful and benign: people were really listening, picking up on new angles and sparks in the language, their nerves and hearts really exposed to it; but also, their heads screwed on and their tactical ears alert to the front and back of the stuff, the language surface and its scintillations as well the pressures of argument deeper down.
This is closely related to (1) but differs in setting and agitation. The problems of (2) become generative of powerful disjunctions; the public setting heightens both the potential for and absurdity of poetry’s claim on politics. But the description is of an act in overt defiance of funding cuts and implicit defiance of cruel administrative threats. As such it is of the utmost importance.
4. Political Poetry Proper (PPP). No finer exercise in this execrable medium has been provided than the recent Openned broadcast by Joseph Walton. After this, no poetry with political claims can be unsullied by the drip-drip pleasurework of defamation: