In the 1960s certain European artists, taking a lead from dada and Marcel Duchamp and reacting against the art-market commodification of the works of the great US abstract expressionists, began to make art that was self-consciously ‘impoverished’. Arte povera celebrated an anti-aesthetic of found objects, junk, unconventional processes, mundane materials, impermanent constructions or installations. It opposed itself to an economy of dealers and galleries and museums and sought to position its output as radical, even revolutionary, interruptions of that economy.
For some years now I have been considering if some of the things I do in poetry could be clearer (to me at least) if seen as a kind of similarly ‘impoverished’ practice, a poesia povera if you like. Now there’s a long tradition – in fact, it’s probably the backbone of the canon in English poetry – of the art stripping itself down for action, revolutionising itself by a radical turn to the demotic, to common subjects, common forms and common speech. Wordsworth’s contribution to Lyrical Ballads is possibly the most famous example, but poets as different as Milton and Eliot in their own way broke with practices that had become ornamental, self-perpetuating, uncritical.
The arte povera practitioners of the 60s and after had and have their counterparts in poetry. Lines between visual art, poetry and music blur and dissolve into ‘asemic‘ texts and aural soundscapes. I’m not interested in any breach with meaning, in an abstract poesis of what some artists refer to as ‘illegible’ writing. But I am interested – I have had to be, given what I seem to be able to write and what my limitations or restrictions as a writer seem to be – in trying to find ways for poems to mean the way an installation by Joseph Beuys or Jannis Kounellis means.
I once took part in a series of readings in Hungary, whose audiences unsurprisingly did not usually have English as their first language. But most spoke English well. The other writers taking part included a Scots Gallic poet and a Welsh novelist. At dinner on the last evening our host and organiser tried to characterise our work. Mine was, and then she hunted for the right word: ‘Incomprehensible. But I mean in a good way.’
Brooding on that (for too long, clearly) I take consolation in the notion that there is a productive incomprehensibility. I acknowledge that a poetry that takes its obligations to the demotic seriously may have trouble with direct communication to wide audiences. Of course it’s not a revelation to say that direct communication is not the poem’s job and that the size of one’s audience is neither here nor there. Nevertheless there’s a paradoxical situation where an art which draws on everyday materials – the anecdote, slang, ephemeral references – may fail to communicate to those who live in the world more or less represented there.
I have grown increasingly convinced that poems can communicate like contemporary sculpture, by being where and what they are. This is not to eschew meaning any more than contemporary sculpture eschews geometry: meaning is what language does. But there is also an element of the asemic in all instances of language. Handwriting can be illegible, printed text can foreground typography rather than sense. Words can be detached from meaning by repetition, in a process called semantic satiation.
The poem’s formal structures, even just the simple fact of its layout as verse rather than prose, can sometimes seem to inch the language of the poem as a whole towards a kind of semantic satiation; no single word or phrase may be obscure, the images may be simple and clearly depicted, the voice natural: and yet the end result will sometimes be a poem to which I can only say something like the cliche ‘I hear what you’re saying, but…’
I should illustrate this by reference or quotation: of the poems shared here from the forthcoming book that seem informed (or better, explained or accounted for) by this train of thought, maybe the wee ‘Poem‘ is a good example. There are others, but even a piece like The Humours of Ballycran strikes me as something that not only needs no explanation but positively requires that it be to some degree inexplicable. It’s someone talking to you, but the full import of whjat they’re saying escapes you. They don’t use any words you don’t understand, but why they’re telling you this fragment of their story is probably beyond any kind of understanding.
Maybe all this has done is describe what poetry does. Maybe I’m not out on a limb here…