Poor poetry

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…

About Martin Mooney

Author of four collections of poetry - Grub (1993), Rasputin and his Children (2000), Blue Lamp Disco (2003) and The Resurrection of the Body at Killysuggen (2011.)
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2 Responses to Poor poetry

  1. Bridget says:

    Martin, there is pleasure in mystery and bringing together unlike to make something new. But I remain convinced of the old fashioned notion that our duty is to make sense. (And that we have a duty!) Can you tell me what you think of this essay?


    • Bridget,

      thanks for getting stuck in…

      No, I am at least as old-fashioned as you (even used a hyphen there!) and certainly have no doubt that the word ‘duty’ applies. As poets, we have at least one, I think. The problem I have is that while the duty to the language itself seems to stay pretty steady in the top two, there are various other duties – ethical, political, familial, hey, you know the score – which compete and are at various times dominant. And by ‘at various times’ I mean at various stages in the making of individual poems.

      ‘Mystery’ I don’t care for: mystery = mastery = that old arcana, a secret code, an in-joke. I hope you know I’m not interested in that kind of superiority. The thing I’m trying to understand is the unintelligibility the poem presents to its ‘author’. I could say: I write this shit, and sometimes I’m trying to make a point, but it comes out not only wrong, but radically wrong: I didn’t mean this, and had no idea that you could mean this!

      So I suppose where I’ve got to (in some of the poems of the last five years, not all of them) is a kind of active surrender. At a relatively easrly stage in composition I’ve said to myself, Look, you’ve no idea what this image or phrase signifies, but it resonates in some way that you’ll have to keep digging to understand. In the end, only some kind of formal equilibrium brings things to a close. ‘Understand’ doesn’t often come into it.

      But this is descriptive not prescriptive poetics (if it’s poetics at all). Which brings me to the really interesting essay you linked to. It’s been years since I’ve been able to immerse myself in thinking about poetry the way we did back at Poets House. So it was good to feel comfortable in that. But (and I’ve only gone through it a couple of times) while I enjoyed the characterisation of modern poetry as falling into the two camps, it feels analytical after the fact. It may be that poems fall into one of the two kinds – though I reckon that all good poems, all real poems, are ‘vertiginous in that they startle or surprise or re-orient their reader – but from the writer’s perspective, bogged down more often than not in actually trying to make sense of a line or a phrase or a rhythm, an intellectual decision about the philosophical truth of our place in the world just doesn’t factor at all.

      What struck me as old-fashioned about the essay is an assumption that the job is mimesis. Poets depicting the world in ways that depend on whether they see it as stable or unstable. Poets depicting the world at all! I think that maybe what I was getting at in the ramblings that sparked this off was that mimesis is neither here nor there. Of course I agree that we must – and yes, have a duty to – make sense. But ‘sense’ doesn’t have anything to do with ‘representation’ or ‘realism’ or all those other terms we borrow from the visual arts.

      To go back to the source of my original meanderings: I used to think I knew what I was doing as a poet. Then I didn’t. Then I stopped thinking of myself as a poet (not a bad thing, by the way). In the last few years I’ve trying to piece it back together, which has involved looking at a lot of typed pages and asking, What on earth is going on there? And then having to acknowledge that something is going on, but that I am fundamentally unsure as to what it is.

      The thoughts posted earlier in the week aren’t a manifesto of any kind. I flatter myself that it’s more ‘scientific’ than that, in the sense that I’m faced with an unknowable – are these things poems, and do they work as poems? – and have to come up with hypotheses that might explain them. And I rely on old, beloved friends and colleagues like you to supply the challenge and the falsification!

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