Containing some scattered and some more delineated thoughts on failure, O'Hara, theatre, folk song & the faux-pas. The continuation of our grand narrative. On the way back from a Chinese traditional music concert in Oxford at the weekend I mentioned to my housemate that I could quite easily have sat through two hours of solo qin music without the modern recapitulations of sung poetry, to which he responded tetchily "not everyone's you, Joe"; a valid point, but doesn't my desire to expand my self into everything subtend and undermine that protest? I love harder than you, I will encompass your desire and you will see. Love as the great colonizer; the reflexive machinations of Wilkinson's Proud Flesh attempt to dislodge these anxieties but ultimately reinforce and re-inscribe them. Do I drown in this gross superfluity of desire or revel in it?
Letter to Luke Roberts, 14.5.10
Great to hear back from you, and glad to hear you're having a hectic, if not entirely healthy trip. I recently read your Terraform Lecture Notes (long overdue, I know) and was particularly struck by your:
"What fails but this, the failures I love, into the earthquake shortened day where for milliseconds we might have done something special"
Which at the moment of writing, shot-through with totally contingent personal lyric from where I sit in the computer room of the Taylorian library on a lunch break, sounds like the fallout from a rebuff, and then after the comma, the interrogation of the validity even of THAT as feeling or (responsible) response. I was looking at Yves Klein's Leap into the Void again for the first time in a long while, and reveling in the pathos and awfulness of the whole endeavour - Klein in some dirty Parisian back street wide-eyed and flapping around, it's all so utterly tragi-comic, leaping into the great Void whilst a disinterested lady cycles down the street with her groceries, completely oblivious, the sincerity of Klein's action just segues into ridiculousness. His imaginary "architecture of the air" becomes a vaguely phallic gesture of pre-failure into which he can throw himself but nothing else. Perhaps, finally, that's where his personal vision of transcendence fails, but fails beautifully. The world accepts and absorbs his passion but then immediately and imperceptibly becomes brittle and dry, leaving him hanging in photo-montaged air, a idiot grinning in the face of the love that he loves.
That's the discrepancy in perception when desire falls short, that the primary result is a feeling of being incommensurable with the world, discontinuous and dis-contemporaneous. This is true whether the subject is a particularly unobtainable Laura or Beatrice (longing - distending - stretching), or video footage of an American helicopter killing Iraqi civilians (impotence - weakness - horror). It's the time dilation involved in the inevitable alienation from the common ground of language, which is possible only thanks to love's greivious machinations. And through that alienation we desire all the more, we're then able to produce the necessary superfluity of desire that could subtend a poetics of the impossible made, if not possible, then at least (mostly) manifest.
Failing beautifully is something I know a few people in our ambit are interested in - Chris Goode is the primum mobile here, who got a lot out of a blog-piece that Matt Trueman wrote, and I've talked with both of them about notions of failure in performance, or perfomative failure, or performing failure, which I think for Chris always needs to orbit an axis of vulnerability and weakness (see his blog post on the matter, which you have probably already done). I wanted to ask you what ARE the failures that you love, and why? Is there something bigger going on here? I mean Keston's working through his tripartite thesis comprising the cardinal points of WRONGNESS, BATHOS and STUPIDITY, which seems to have some parallels with Chris' aesthetics of failure. I don't for a minute want to suggest that Failure and Wrongness are isomorphic, because they're patently not, and anyway Keston and Chris have massively different praxes. But I think there is a more general thrust here towards embracing these antitheses of literature and performance and re-appropriating them in order to re-infuse them with the passionate arguments needed to keep us all afloat.
I've come to think that the tragic is the only true, or perhaps the truest, measure of life. That we have to come at it from that angle. How the tragic opens up a wound in perception that is productive and powerful, both alienating and universal at the same time. I love how "tragic" in common parlance has become a byword for social or artistic failure or faux pas, marking the instances of our descent. On the other hand, how foreign death is immeasurably more powerful when couched in indignation, as opposed to tragedy - "a tragic loss of life" now sounds the hollow apolitical horn of cowardly complicity. Here the tragic is co-opted into the foul and evil-smelling mouth of Brigadier Major Sir Jock Stirrup as a means to dodge & obscure a measure of human life in fact brutally defined by SMART bombs and surgical strikes; this he has to do, because to admit of an adversary's humanity is the first step towards pacification and negotiation, obviously anathema not only to military operations in general but also to the language employed to present such operations as necessary and urgent.
Letter to Y.S., 5.5.10
I hope you don't mind my writing to you - I'm sorry I had to rush off after the seminar & I would've liked to talk more about O'Hara and your paper, which I really enjoyed. It was rather depressing, in one sense, to encounter a rather regressive streak in the audience that still clung to the idea of art for Art's sake as some kind of tautological and self-referential institution that runs like a parallel line alongside life, culture and politics, as if such a discourse hadn't worn itself out over the course of the entire gamut of twentieth-century acts of embedded, contextual, engaged and active art & performance. Still, I don't want to get bogged down in refuting such a concept - we might just quote Oscar Wilde or Guy Debord and be done with it - but at the same time it mirrors an argument that still to some extent plagues any work, particularly poetry that is self-avowedly or even critically referred to as "political"...You were totally right to say that everything is political - at least any art that engages with human relationships, as all human experience is conducted & mediated in liminal zones whose boundaries and limits are themselves defined by the given cultural and political rules of engagement. Of course a poem is not a sit-in, or a march - and I wondered what exactly was the point of labouring this issue, especially given the fact that the questioner had already decided that art is to be referred to and thought about Artistically in light of the Canon. A manifesto is as inert as a poem on the page if it is not taken up and given a social role, and surely readerly practice has as much to do with how far a work can be "politically effective" as the agency, or lack thereof, of the (debased and outmoded idea of) "art in itself". What I find striking about O'Hara's work, and this is inevitably coloured by the kind of criticism I read around him, especially Malcolm Phillips', is the the fact that the interstices and rivulets of interaction and time that he works in create fragile and transient occasions for being together, moments of engagement that are not transcendental or escapist (the major difference for me between O'Hara and Ginsberg) but actually fully committed to working in the gaps and fissures of the urban consumerist absurdity that characterises New York in so many of his poems. Now, that kind of work is political on a more complex and deep level than the gapingly large definition I provided just now because it figures out the various spaces in which thought and love and motion can be processed in the glaring mass of the city - these moments of extreme and often all-too-tender intimacy are conditioned by the melee that goes on around them, the flux that is constantly tearing O'Hara from one party to the next. I think there's a reason that O'Hara and Berrigan talked about Coke and pills all the time, and I think it has a dark side to it, that it reflects negatively the positions these poets had to adopt to stay both committed to lived reality and create instances of new forms of engagement within that reality - to whit, they must have gotten pretty tired being so various. The tone of quiet resignation that pervades poems like Having a coke with you and Aus Einem April I think bears this out.
But to be more specific, I think a poem can be politically just as much, if not more than, it can mean politically; the latter category segues all too easily into a position of reflection and critique, which is not what O'Hara does to my mind - or if he does, it's constantly his self that is being critiqued for staying in the same place for too long, and thus missing out on something going on down the street. The denial of national identity in Grand Central is a wound almost protected by the breezy tone of the way "love" is bandied about immediately following this statement (even that I find slightly disturbing - as if he didn't quite trust love enough and felt more comfortable using it as a kind of human shield, using a part of himself to defend another, wayward part that won't play along), but finally left open to the machinations of the reader - the self from which the poetic voice is reconstructed is ALWAYS to some extent created by the readerly act, and that's a kind of political manoeuvre that bleeds out frequently from O'Hara's more naked poems. What is more political than manipulation at the hands of a distant other? This is what I mean by the poem acting, or being political more than meaning someTHING political, in that narrow sense that politics sets up for itself when being referenced in those terms. Is the faux pas in O'Hara a radical wound through which the poet allows the reader a glimpse into their own manipulative designs upon the body of the other?
Letter to Jonny Liron, 9.5.10
So, the terms of engagement. After spending the last couple of days with some sort of letter sploshing around in my head, I'm not even sure any more of the points I was supposed to make, or even if they need to be made. What am I trying to do comparing Poetry and Theatre when what I should be doing is getting on with making poems? I remember reading about Yves Klein and his entourage, that Klein was approaching Art through his painting, one of his friends through poetry, another through music, etc, but the point seemed to be that they were all looking for the same essential fix, they just differed on their respective ways in. I don't think that sets up our terms very satisfactorily, because I wouldn't presume to want the same thing that you do, and I think to assume that is arrogant and stupid. There isn't just some great big Art that we're traveling towards through our different praxes, no point at which we can all say - we've arrived, Jonny get here through theatre, Joe through poetry, that's just too universalist and ultimately bland and reductive.
Nor do I want to "defend" poetry - it's failures and limitations are what interest me most. Have you seen the recent discussions on the List about sestina form and wrong poetry?
But I am interested in the form an event takes. The liveness of any art is contingent on the act of its occurrence - any given performance of a composed piece of music or a written poem is an instance of a singular thing that acts to transform that thing - it is no longer inert but performative. In some musical cultures the idea that there is no such thing as a piece of music outside of the act of its being played is more explicit than in others, and only relatively recently have Western musicologists questioned the superiority of the idea of the "Great Work" that exists before and after any of its articulations in performance, and subtends those individual instances within some grand structure of meaning. That's obviously not how we encounter art in our lives - meaning is totally contextual, delineated by the subjective and the communal, and tied up with culturally ingrained responses. Theatre brings these things to the forefront of the stage, as it were, as it is. The continuing and responsive present moment of being, distended indefinitely. The ultimate mode would of course be Chris's utopia of ever-on-going theatre that the public would and could encounter at any point - the never-ending present distended indefinitely in actual praxis. I don't know, maybe this stuff is just so totally intuitive it doesn't need pointing out, and the dialectic between a work and its articulations in lived experience is just something that hovers at varying radii from any practice. This is why I'm so fascinated by folk song - it is constantly dealing with this dialectic (or what in the essay on Dorn which I attach I call a trialectic, because you have to take the singer into account as well) at the forefront of its practice. That discrepancy between the artwork and its articulation in performance, whether what is being performed is the same essential THING or whether it becomes a new phenomenon each time, and the discrepancy between the artist and the historical context out of which she arises, are isomorphic. I'm building patterns of reality in the hope that they'll break down and split. An act of tuning. The history of temperament.
From a letter to Neil Pattison, 1.5.10
So, enough quotation. I want to address folk song in Olsonian terms, especially the sense of the phylogenetic in the ontogenetic, which is something I reference above when talking about Jonathan P. Stock's response to Victor Grauer's article on the evolution of musical forms in the journal World of Music, and then move onto talking about the use of song in modern poetry, specifically with reference to Ed Dorn's Geography. One of the key elements of folk song, as I mentioned at the very beginning, is the position of the singer within the song. When a folk singer sings, is she singing "the song", her "version" of the song, or something else entirely? Cecil Sharp tries to pin down the question of the authorship of folk songs in his English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, rejecting both the idea that the folk song has no author and simply arises out of an anonymous collective tradition, and the super-relativistic conception of there being no such thing as "a song" and that each interpretation of such a phenomena is a new song in itself. His compromise is to cite a constant development of the body of song in which the songs are transformed over the course of generations to mean the particular version that is sung at any given time - in other words, that each articulation of the body of song will occur in an environment in which that song's status is always already assumed. The divergences and discrepancies between "different" versions of the "same" song is a paradox that is contained within the legitimacy allowed to such "versions" within their communities. Nonetheless, always with folk song there is the looming sense of the singer coming out of and returning to a wider tradition that both authenticates and subtends her voice - that determines its variation and encompasses its scope. Always in folk song there seems to me that essential ontology of being one amongst many, how to determine the scope of one's voice. The dialectic can be disturbing - folk song, in any culture, is a closed system, or cosmology. It prescribes and determines the limits of one's capacity for love.
Photograph from the Brighton Poetry Festival by Marianne Morris