Thursday, November 20, 2008

Another Voice

I went to a reading and short Q&A by the poet and translator George Szirtes last night at the Warwick Arts Centre; his New & Collected Poems (which is not actually his entire output, simply selections from all of his published collections) has just come out, and is sitting on the bookshelf above my head, balanced on some volumes of Clive James' TV criticism (my excuse: they were only 50p each.) He seemed about as charming and likeable a man as I can imagine: affable, soft-spoken, and determined not to take himself too seriously (speaking to Michael Hulse earlier this week, he told us that Geoffrey Hill is something like that - the total black and suedehead glower belie his willingness to take the piss out of himself.) He read out, amongst other things, a long poem about rabbits, and about the 18th-C. fish-fascinated poet William Diaper; he joked about his Manchester United fandom, and his non-careers (musician, painter, novelist...) He is, in short, exactly the kind of man who shows up one's multitudinous shortcomings as a human being. Dipping, as I have begun to, into the Collected Poems, one always finds something exquisite, something which, it strikes me, is what I feel poetry should be: an expression of inexhaustibility, the possibility, always, of coming across something that impels. I get the feeling that no-one who ever read this blog wants to read me write about poetry, but it's not something that's going to go away, of that I can assure you.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Cold Days

"And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did."
--Raymond Carver, Late Fragment

I spent almost all of last night working out what to write about some poetry I've made over the past few weeks, listening alternately to free jazz and the distant fireworks outside. I had forgotten it was Bonfire Night; I don't leave the house that much in the evenings now - away from my family, there was nothing really to celebrate. When conditions were right, we sometimes went to my aunt and uncle's farm in the New Forest, and stoked an enormous fire in one of the empty fields, occasionally cooking foil-wrapped potatoes or marshmallows on sticks in the flames. The night before, I had been out to see Acid Mothers Temple at Taylor John's House in the Coventry Canal Basin; passing the student union, I was surprised to see so many out for the election night. Not having a television, after getting home at 2 o'clock, I didn't stay awake to wait for the votes to come in. The next day, listening to the Brotherhood of Breath, I occasionally reflected how strange, how laughably, absurdly brilliant, it was to have an African-American as the soon-to-be most powerful man on earth, and that such an event should fall on the anniversary of the attempt to destroy a government. No fresh starts, but a breath at last.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Speaking Of

I would, of course, apologise for my not writing anything here; but, given that I seem to spend more time downloading stuff (still) than doing proper writing (which is kind of, um, my job), I don't have much in the way of excuses. I have actually been engaged in writing posts, but none of them ever seem quite to work out, and end up in the 'zygote' drawer. As always in these situations, I was drawn towards the question of how we write what we do, especially in the blogging medium; why is it that the process becomes impossible for me, and why did I begin it in the first place? There’s an interesting passage in The Cambridge Introduction To Creative Writing, by David Morley (the gentleman polymath who has just finished teaching us to write poetry):

“Many writers and students maintain a regular weblog or blog: an online journal. I believe this form of writing is a huge ally to creative writing, and a massive open space for creativity and cross-form art practice. Writing a blog provides excellent discipline, like keeping a diary or notebook. The difference is that this diary of experience, imagination and observation is online and public, and it alters the way you write, even though the audience is invisible…”

The audience is invisible. But isn't that always the case? It always shocks me when, whether online or in real life, I meet people who have read work I've done for Plan B. I don't think I'm quite thick enough to have never considered that, given the general availability of my online writing and the bits I do here and there for the magazine, no-one ever read it. The idea, I suppose, never really entered my head; one doesn't really think about this question during the actual act of production. But: I keep diaries and notebooks, and know that what one writes in there (in 'private') is different from what one writes in 'public'. There are a whole cornucopia of unfinished and abandoned blogposts on my hard drive about just this question: the way in which the nature of writing is both altered and revealed by the act of placing it in public, and, more specifically, online. Reading a_ of Aloof From Inspiration’s most recent posts, this question I’ve mused about over the past year struck me again: “Where do you write from?” Readers may well ask this question: where do the pixellated words come from, exactly? What part of the writer do they come from? This question, of course, makes a presumption of presence behind the screen, a presumption many blog-writers are more than happy to reinforce. When this blog was reactivated after an eight-month hiatus, in November 2006, its purpose was explicitly confessional; I was, at that point, at the top of a downward slope that would leave me fearing for my sanity. At the time, it seemed as if that writing was better than my previous form, precisely because of the schism it performed between a public self who bumbled through each day, dull and miserable, and a ‘private self’ whose emotions, essentially dramatised, were legitimated by the act of being set down in words. Looking back, of course, everything I wrote around that period is total shit, tainted by the self-dramatising, exhibitionistic streak alcohol imbued me with; it reminds me of nothing so much as the unleavened (and unnecessary) darkness of an adolescence wasted.

These ruminations aren't merely ineffectual meta-activities. One of the most intriguing things about blogging is its disassociative effect for the reader: the most intimate detail of someone’s thought might be laid out, but its presentation – as words on a screen, chained to their form – is alienating. The most confessional monologue is made to sound as if, as Sam Beckett put it, “it’s all coming out of the dark”. And yet, many bloggers seem determined to undermine this quality: chatty, colloquial prose; lists of favourite records in the sidebar; pictures of the kids; breezy anecdotes about work; even bright and harmless design. It all enforces a sense of connection, of human presence behind the screen: Look, this is me, just like you! Over the past year-and-a-half, I had gradually come to feel that merely talking about my life on this blog – as many blogs are used for – was at best pointless, at worst positively damaging. “Talk about records, politics, local events, anything, just for fuck’s sake don’t talk about yourself!” My tendency in so-called ‘real life’, at least in the company of others, is either to remain sepulchrally silent, or to monologue, usually talking about myself, a tendency I’m progressively trying to efface, and which I long since started to try and get rid of on the blog. I’ve long since wanted to try and escape the “all-too-cheap-and-familiar economy of confession, in which we are made more ‘real’ the more small humiliations and mundane disappointments we circulate through the Spectacle”; to reach beyond the so-called ‘self’ (an ideological construct and mental aberration, in any case) to the outer world: to interact with the world (like a recovering misanthrope and depressive ought too) without sending all information through the mediator of my own biography, to direct people’s attention to the impersonal forces that shape us, to render oneself up to more important, impersonal projects.

Recently, reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition & The Individual Talent’, I was struck by the continual emphasis on the dissolution of the personal: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality… Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” To a certain extent, this is merely a reformulation (within Eliot’s own reactionary terms) of the ideas I had begun coming across in my reading over the past year or so: Deleuze/Guattari, Lyotard, Baudrillard (all, for the most part, through k-punk), Zen, Greil Marcus’ invocation of a transhistorical heretical tradition that seems to entirely possess its subjects, psychedelia’s rewriting of the human brain, the traditions of shamanism… Impersonality, the evacuation of self, the giving up of one-Self to the blaring signals of the Other, the destruction of the Romantic tradition of the isolated writerly subject (a tradition that had its own implications of now-bourgeois ideology, sexism, and, worst for me, self-destruction; a tradition, in short, which I began to identify with the misanthropic depression that almost got rid of me)... There's not that long a distance between Eliot's self-immersion in the currents of history, and the dispersion of the self into communal data-patterns that characterised electronic-music theory, and that so thrilled me. And yet... and yet I begin to feel uncomfortable. I'm aware that my writing, at least for the magazine, whilst having been reined in from the confessional excesses of the above-mentioned perioud of this blog, remains personal (sometimes not as much as I'd even like, due to space restrictions.) I acknowledge, somewhere in the back of my mind, that, in my focuses, my opinions, my prose style, remain traces of a self and a history that should have, by rights, disappeared a long time ago; by the same token, I acknowledge that Plan B isn't the kind of magazine where a completely impersonal approach - a la much of The Wire these days, where they seem to spend more time talking about the hygenic habits and marital status of the musicians involved in a record than the writer's actual opinion of the music - would be suitable, and the writing would, in the end, perhaps be more dull if I did entirely excise my personality from it (the best moments in The Wire always seem to be when Ian Penman comes out of exile and fires off some hyper-intense neologism-ridden missive, or, indeed, when Dan Warburton/Joseph Stannard/Clive Bell/Brian Morton/insert chosen writer here really lay into a record or praise it to the skies).

This may seem ridiculous for a minor writer on a relatively small (by Vogue standards) magazine, but, of course, it has implications elsewhere. I recently began writing poetry again for the first time in two years. It may well be that my initial teenage introduction to the genre - through the tortured obliquities of Paul Celan, Janos Pilinszky, Geoffrey Hill, etc., rather than through the actual tradition as we know it (e.g. Shakespeare, the Romantics, Tennyson, etc., etc.) - may have given me a better start in the curbing of so-called self-expression; nonetheless, and despite the fact that I've only written a handful of lines that could be called 'confessional' (and they were swiftly suppressed), there does seem to have been a resurgence of the 'personal' component in writing since I began again. Not that I believe that, suddenly, there is a self again to express, but something has changed (you may have noticed it on this blog, which seems to have gotten more diaristic in recent months). The problem - and, indeed, the most interesting thing - being, of course, that the impulses in poetry are never quite that categorisable; in a recent essay about authorship I quoted John Stuart Mill's dictum that "poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude"; this seems to me a cop-out: poetry, even if it's never published, is never wholly a 'private' medium, there will always be something shaping the language other than the poet's uninhibited whims. And indeed, this something is Other; the audience remains even when it doesn't (and, indeed, this is all to the good, even if it's just to force the poet not to bore or embarrass the shit out of all and sundry - aspiring Beats take note.) The poetry I'm most enjoying at the moment, the stuff that really stirs me, has me addicted - Michael Hofmann, John Burnside, Michael Longley, W.S. Merwin (well, some Merwin) - and, of course, the poetry that got me into this whole penniless mugs' game in the first place - late Plath, R.S. Thomas, Eliot, etc., etc. - has this binding quality: a sense of something intensely 'personal' filtered through a thousand lenses (of language, of inherited form and structure, of audience expectation and the better angels of aesthetic self-judgement, of the knowledge that someone's done it before, of the need to keep doing it better and keep coming at experience fresh) to become something, paradoxically, both more 'personal' and more general, less penetrable, but more transparent. There's a rather unfortunate presumption made in the way we are taught to appreciate poetry that the best poems are those where the illusion of direct communication is kept up most effectively, preferably with a bit of verbal fireworks to justify the form. But surely poetry should make use of its own status as poetry? There's a reason, after all, why something is written as a poem, and not as a piece of non-fiction prose (where the illusion of direct communication is much easier to keep up); it's precisely the pressures and fissions of the form, its 'difficulty', the care and attention that needs to be taken in reading it, its knocking around of the atoms of language, its roughing-up of language and slowing down of reading, that provides its potential for unheard-of energies, for keeping the audience on its toes, for generating an entirely different conception of writing. Its power lies in the dialectic between the impulses of communication (which even shut-ins like myself feel) and the processes by which that impulse is turned into an end result - fragmentation, concealment, excision - that leaves, bubbling beneath the surface, a tension, a welter of things suppressed but present in their absence.

"Where do you write from?" In blogging, as in poetry, as in magazine writing (or good magazine writing, anyway) we write from 'here', but also from elsewhere, because we in turn are written by the Other - by geographies, politics, culture, history, the invisible, omnipotent audience. Good writers know this, they know what happens when pen is put to paper, how to utilise the potentialities of writing's alchemy. Hopefully I can get somewhere toward that. That, after all, is what I'm here for.