Monday, 2 May 2011

The Linguist Roman Jakobson described the language of Poetry as ‘Organised violence committed on ordinary speech’. With reference to a number of poems, consider the validity of distinctions between ‘ordinary’ language and poetry.

Common speech is not poetry. Nor is it common speech. Though certainly there is a certain style that may impeach the one who fixed a meaning that is always gone. Of each word, may we not say rather, it is always out of reach? And never fixed? It is my opinion that all language is susceptible to some form of poetic appreciation and analysis, and that we might find poetry in unassuming statements everywhere. What greater poem is there than a man buying cigarettes, a child’s collage, a milk carton, a hand covered in glue, an escalator, or a chemical reaction? Here is a demonstration of my premise, which can do nothing more than fail gracefully. ‘As one Buddhist precept goes, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon’#. More coherently (as we, like children, habitually enjoy sticking things together), the ‘violence committed on ordinary speech’ that Jakobson is referring to may well be the process of Defamiliarisation.

Viktor Shklovsky, in his essay ‘Art as Technique’#, expounds his views on the gradual familiarisation of lived experience, which he posits as analogous to algebra: a systematic replacement of reality for sign. ‘We see the object as if it were enveloped in a sack’ he complains. Perhaps we could go further and contest that we are living in a world of sacks, and that we never really see an object. To live here is to sit with Plato in his cave, in which case, surrounded by sacks, it is a miracle that we never bump into things. I, for one, believe (and it is always finally a matter of belief) that we are fully capable of letting the world out of the habitual bag; that it is sheer laziness, rather than ontological impossibility, that is covering up, for most of us, and for most of the time, the richness of the world. Here is my definition of ordinary speech: the bad habit of putting things in a sack.

Here is Shklovsky’s declaration of Defamiliarisation: ‘The technique of Art is to make objects “unfamiliar“, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’ Praise the Lord! I find myself imagining I have ‘just popped out for a loaf of bread’. What a tired phrase. I imagine I have lingered too long talking to ‘them next door’ or maybe it is ‘an old school friend’. I tell them ‘keep me posted’ or ‘keep in touch’. I imagine myself desperately trying to escape from a letter box, my once jovial neighbour inexplicably blocking my escape. I seem to have become permanently glued to my old school friend. What childish imaginings. I go inside. My hungry fellow tenant throws his hands in the air in mock celebration ‘Praise the Lord!’. LORD- Old English- hlafweard- loaf-ward - provider of bread.

The indefinite deferral of the moment of absolute communication is certainly an element of the poem. If we wish to make it, in Jakobson’s terms, the ‘Dominant’, perhaps a shopping list will be a stanza, but it is an uncommon reader who will listen contentedly to the music of utility. A table of trains was enough for Camus’ prosecuting attorney# precisely because he was deaf to it’s rhythms. A clinical violence requires certainty; the same certainty that is offered by Algebrisation. Even today, a work like Alexander Chen’s MTA.ME#, though it recognises a music in mechanical process, feels it necessary to generate real music from an implicitly amusical motion. Poetry is a reactionary violence at most. The world speaks through us in its language, language is poetry and the first violence against language is ordinary speech. A general citizens arrest. A restraint that leaves it’s mark like a hand wrapped around a wrist. It is in the midst of this violence that Heaney writes ‘all around us, though we hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.’

Heaney: Fosterage: “Description is revelation!’… But to hell with overstating it’# If we return to Shklovsky‘s ironically very succinct assertion that the difficulty of interpretation forced on us by a poem’s unordinary language and syntax is an end in itself, this time with a political rather than a personal struggle for language in mind, we find that description (which Heaney posits as synonymous with revelation) of social injustice may well be as violent an act as is necessary in the struggle against colonial oppression… but Heaney is not sure. Distrustful of his fragile poetic sensibilities; we find evidence of his uncertainty everywhere in North. Too much of a square handed pragmatist not to realise it is clearly safer to run from rifles than to linger with the intent to ‘get them true’, Heaney finds himself playing Hamlet, pondering skulls, ‘pinioned by ghosts and affectations… dithering, blathering.’ Heaney is colonised by an ordinary language that he wishes to dig up, to commit an affirmatory act of violence. What he reveals in the pen-digging of North is a richly ambiguous heritage. No simple uncovering, but a past which is buried as it is exhumed; exhumed as it is buried. What he is looking for in this disturbance of the past is simply that his digging will be graceful, a natural chiming together of sound and intention: ‘Don’t have the veins bulging in your biro’

‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces’ opens with an acknowledgement of ambiguity followed by a resolution to continue without the need to resolve uncertainty. ‘It could be a jaw-bone/ or a rib or a portion cut/ from something sturdier: anyhow…’ My reading of the opening of this poem, is that the source, be it what type of bone? or what did the poet mean? is, as long as we desire fixity of meaning, forever lost behind the distorting magnifying glass of language: ‘the line amazes itself, eluding the hand that fed it’ and later ‘magnified on display, so that the nostril is a migrant prow’. All we have to go on here is instinct; hoping, with Nietzsche, that there is genius in our nostrils, our eyes having no direct access to these artefacts. But what of the ears? Isn’t all this uncertainty a kind of Kantian positing of a transcendent reality which is the unknowable cause of an unreliable appearance? And where does this leave poetry as an expressive form? If ambiguity of meaning is common to all language, as long we are willing to interrogate it far enough and chase it out of the hiding place of it’s context, it is tempting to conclude that what remains the distinguishing feature of poetry is nothing more than it’s designation as such, it’s material placement as figures in a book of poems or phonemes in a poet’s mouth. Heaney’s emphatically ambiguous response is that the music of his language is a direct communication. A communication which on the level of rational designation, will necessarily and deliberately fail in order to acclimatise our investigation of meaning to said failure, so that we might emerge from a poem, into the world, with the same mindset: that of complete mystification; defamiliarisation. ‘My words lick around cobbled quays’. Consequently Heaney’s language, and by association (for Heaney at least) language in general, is concretely communicative only as sound. A meaning which has no logical dimension. To which the only response is an indefinable stirring of neck hairs, a strange compulsion to sniff the air, or perhaps burst into song. Later in Trial Pieces, Object and sound merge, a ship becomes ‘plosive as Dublin’. Later still, the Colloquial and Poetic come together in the lilting Joycean lines: “Did you ever hear tell,’/ said Jimmy Farrell,/ ‘of the skulls that they have/ in the city of Dublin?/ White skulls and black skulls/ and yellow skulls, and some/ with full teeth, and some/ haven’t only but one’’. When written as prose, these lines, especially the second quatrain, have no obvious metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. Their rendering as poetry presents the reader with a demonstration of the allotropic nature of the ordinary speech/poetic language distinction of this essays title. A useful definition of allotropy can be found, strangely enough, in Jeri Johnson’s introduction to Ulysses. ‘…it is capable of existing, and indeed does exist, in at least two distinct, and distinctively different, forms at one and the same time… e.g. carbon exists within nature as graphite and diamond’#. This certainly appears to be the case for language, not either/or, ordinary/poetic, but both, and the acute awareness of this is, paradoxically, poetry. As Tim Lilburn puts it in his essay Walking out of Silence: ‘Poems are fidelity to what they themselves cannot say but that stipples forth as world. Poems can’t take their eyes off the signs. Poems are the homage of an alert leisure enacted before these things; poems are the world as deep singing’#.

Tim Lilburn: There. ‘I was in the ground and the animal came to me wearing signs./ It came out of the water moaning in stone, and it turned toward/ me and this was speech.’ This is no ordinary speech. It is certainly not the speech of our language, and it cannot be. There is the speech of the world in our presence, and then, there is the speech of our language, which is not the truth of the thing. Lilburn’s language has no literal counterpart, it is vehicle without tenor. Lilburn has often attempted to explain his encounter with the world, and it‘s relation to his poetry, in prose, as in this extract from an interview: ‘Approaching it -- the river, the hills, the deer, anything -- you are tempted to simply give up in front of it. But if you don’t give up, can’t do this, say, the thing has about it a kind of distance. Its sheer distance is a kind of violence; it thwarts what you pride most in yourself, your ability to comprehend, your ability to draw things toward you through language. All of these powers are humiliated as you approach the differentiated thing. And out of this humiliation comes courtesy. You are forced to give the thing back to itself and your ability to encase, hold, draw toward you, domesticate, is shaped; it is bent back on itself.’# The distance of the world, the impossibility of description, ‘is a kind of violence’ of the world against language. For Lilburn, poetry is not organised violence against ordinary speech, but a perpetually failed organisation of the inferior power of language in the moment of an overwhelming encounter with the indescribable. Poetry then, like ordinary speech, can do nothing other than wrap a sack around the real. It is not in itself the moment of an unveiling. A distinction then, between ordinary speech and poetry, though this distinction rests, as we have seen, with the interpreter, and is not absolute, is that poetry has no confidence in its ability to accurately describe; it defers the moment of communication indefinitely in order to gesture towards that which it is incapable of saying. This lack of confidence is not a defect in the poet, quite the opposite, it is the necessary acknowledgement of the limits of the craft, the very acknowledgment that is lacking in ordinary speech (which we may only tenuously define as the use of stock phrases, though they may be revitalised in the act of interpretation). ‘Poems are praise songs or a careful, lonely moan for the world: either way it is the world itself that lifts them forward. They are the speechlessness of things ripening, pressing, into language’. In There, the world is a poem that speaks us: ‘The animal came with many people inside; inside it was a boat, carrying many people over night water, a kind of creature.’ This is a language that we cannot truly speak with our imitative moans; ‘the word of the river’. This creature has ‘sides of a no-speaking but a musical, half-weeping gravity’. The absence of rhythm and rhyme in Lilburn’s writing is telling. His music is getting close to the music of the world, rubbing up against it, and the music of the world has no discernible pattern. All of this, as Heaney was only too aware, is not merely the solitary crafting of a private world, no mere ‘Bamberging the Berg’ as Gombrowicz’s Leo would have it#. The personal and political is the final distinction which must be synthesised if we are to fully realise the value of poetry. The ordinary language of the politician must be replaced by the emancipatory discourse of a new poetry. A synthesis which Heaney was unable to accomplish, always pacing, as he was, between the spade and the pen. Lilburn is confident: ‘if one of us travels into the cut off world of stones, rivers, then all of us do through the sort of reading which is anagogy. This means that poetry insofar as it is erotic, insofar as it is religious, following desire into things, listening in things, is political: one enters the sole trustworthy politics through a deepened subjectivity’.

So lets all raise a pen, a glass or an eyebrow: to the process of poetry everywhere: to the indefinite proliferation of ambiguity. There to be realised, smiling at us even, in the analytic ropes we thought had tied it down.

After all…

Common speech is not poetry. Nor is it common speech.
And certainly there is a certain style that may impeach
The one who fixed a meaning that is always gone. Of each
Word, may we not say rather, it is always out of reach?

Or perhaps…

Common speech is not poetry. Nor is
It common speech. And certainly there is
A Certain style that may impeach the one
Who fixed a meaning that is always gone.
Of each word, may we not say rather, it
Is always out of reach? And never fixed?