Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Poetry and liberation

I'm at the conceptual poetics conference in Tucson right now and fled the panel discussion to type up the notes I've been accumulating all day, set off by work by Tracie Morris this morning. These will be more organized I think later, and I have some quotes to look up but I really wanted to put this out there for you all now.

Thoughts on Poetry and Liberation


Thinking about African Americans and avant garde work, about the use of language in hip hop, which influences and infiltrates poetry slam, while at the same time poetry slam is my example of a highly reified form of performance poetry. Is African-american poetry inherently avant garde and experimental? The work has had a way of becoming normative but just as avant gardists themselves make their way into broader culture and no longer remain marginal, that is, not irrelevant, but a set of margin notes, corrections, editorials, on the mainstream, on what is "inside the box" or margins. The way that marginal work gets taken up in the mainstream is criticized as co-option, but the reality is that avant gardes are often about bringing about changes -- in consciousness, in acceptable art practices, in language, etc. So is it truly that the avant garde, and by extensino, that subcultures must constantly change to "stay ahead of" or outside of mainstream culture? to be sure, the danger of the mainstream in capitalist culture is that the mainstream carries with it commodification. And the mainstream also carries with it a tendency to reify, to take the new that it has found, and make it normative. Thus the danger here is that the freedom that the subculture has sought becomes lost and so the constant shifty or need to shift is the attempt of a subculture, avant garde, etc. to be constantly searching for freedom, for the ground of greedom, to maintain a stance, a space carved out.

It is not, as is often charged then, elitism, but rather the desire to stay outside the boundaries, under the radar, where freedom can be tried on, tried out. I believe that those on the margins, once they feel their own liberation, develop the best intentions and want to pioneer a freedom that can be shared with all, passed on to the masses. Breton believed that the liberation of the imagination, for example, was not merely for the poet, but for all, for actual social and revolutionary liberation. As Comte Lautremonte wrote--poetry must be made by all.


John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols said in The Filth and the Fury "I was never very good at violence. Words are my weapon." Richard Schechner once wrote about the fact that if the actual revolution he and others from the 60s spoke of, were to come, he, as a white academic, would be the first under attack and it would completely disrupt his life. Gil Scott-Heron wrote that "niggers are scared of revolution." The truth is that most of us are. most of us in the west have much to lose, even many of the poor and the working class have been led to believe and do believe that they have much to lose. In fact, they have the most to gain and to lose as they will be the front line, they will be the avant garde of suffering, of foreclosures, job losses, food on the table, money for basic pleasures like theatre and books and movies and cable television and a night out at a restaurant. Perhaps the Marxists who attacked surrealism were right in a way and that poets are armchair revolutionaries, comfortable revolutionaries, not willing to risk.


But I don't think so.


We could argue, as Breton might suggest, that poets are truly the avant in the avant garde of society, the first line of the revolution, those who pave the way, create the consciousness, create the restlessness, the vision outside of the safety of the known, the mystical vision, if you will, that brought the Jews through the desert that makes the mystic survive the extreme asceticism needed to get to the next stage of their existence. Not to ask the ordinary person to sacrifice unnecessarily, but to create the consciousness that will allow them to move from away the devil that they at least know and toward something unknown of which we have given them a glimpse. How do we create this space for all outside/before reification/commodification. Perhaps we do not bring the avant garde, the margins to the center, but move everyone out of the center, where, as in Richard Schechner's Rasa Boxes acting technique, the center box remains largely empty, Shanta, which he says is both all and nothing. Moreover, maybe the center doesn't need to shift so much as we need to take everyone out of the center, to the margins where feeling exists where imagination flourishes.


The avant garde has a democratic impulse, as opposed to what we call the High Modernism of Eliot et al, where we are taught that metaphors are virtually mathematical, constant, we only need to learn the language of poetry, which functions as a kind of cryptogram where one word or letter = another, an inside secret language of the educated, the need for cliff notes, cheat sheets, crib notes, a dictionary side by side with the poem. The desire of the vernaculr in poetry comes out in several ways. First in confessional poetry, which has a similar desire as the avant grade, to put things out on surfaces, present itself in a straightforward manner. But confessionalism still relies on private meanings, but assumes that through commonality and sentiment that the masses will be able to decode the work without their crib notes.


Kenneth Goldsmith here has talked about stealing/borrowing/appropriating in work and this of course, does give the lie to the idea of originality and newness that is so fetishized in the avant garde. Of course ready-mades and collages are not original or new per se. It is in the concept, in the re-vision that newness comes out. It is in the criminality/thievery that the newness of the avant garde can exist. If the tired old saw from Plato has any truth whatsoever that every poet is a thief, is every thief a(n) (avant garde) poet? Do we dare romanticize criminality in this day in this point in time? Yet do we note de facto romanticize the pirate, the renegade, the robin hood who liberates materials from the rich, the bourgeois, the masters, for those who need it or even just plain desire it? Is a ready made, a collage, a found poem, a "liberation" of materials for those who need it--materially, creatively--and for those who desire it, with the desire for liberation of all things at its core.


Why does stealing matter? Because things matter? I think it's because of the breakdown of relationships and trust. The center will always protect itself and its property. more police. more cameras. But we borrow, we try to stay out of the vision of the lens, we try to appropriate and liberate what will set us free--the machines that will open the chains, break down the fences, keep the margin safe.


Probably more to come.


Please comment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are avant garde movments incompatible with the academy?

Perhaps co-optation is inevitable because the power of institutions to shape minds is all but irresistible. I know I build up a crust of "character armor" in order to deal with the day job & the middle class world.

Hugh Tribbey