Poetry is the durable record of the future ingrained into the present experience of hurt and historical disenfranchisement. The structure of verse contains and expresses the movement of history beyond what is presently possible to write of poetry’s effects, because effects have the inconvenient tendency to either happen or not, whereas what is effected in poems is not limited to the immediately discernible reaction they may or not elicit in people, but is instead realised according to the historical coordinates of their composition and reception. The questions of contemporary verse practise the understanding of present struggles by subjecting those struggles to the innermost scrutiny of affective resolution, and by doing so they preserve in language - in the intimate shape of common feeling - the conditions of political existence. To write of what is effected in poems built at moments of acute crisis or the threat of social upheaval, far from relatively promoting or relegating such moments beyond or beneath the generalised political crisis of what passes for "the times," is in fact to recognize crisis itself as the indelible mark of historical transformation, and in turn to transform through the praxis of reading what might otherwise remain latent into the shared acquisition of manifest social knowledge. This is to offer a definition of close reading that treats the object of interpretation as a social fact of historical contingency. It is to refuse the logic of simple cause and effect by representing effect as a product of the world poetry swallows and regurgitates the better to savour its taste: effect is mathematical, logical, universalised without a second chance; poetry is the promise of non-equivalence in the sound of an equivocal promise. Antithetical to the slick, gilded logic of consumption, poetry sticks in the craw.
2. One way in which poetry generates an extraordinary reserve of critical momentum is by being basically and belligerently unrealistic. Reactionaries always claim that this is a failure of the imagination; or rather, they claim with the syrupy pathos of a broadsheet editor that the poet’s eyes are bigger than their stomach, but that nevertheless they provide a hopeful vision (whether visible or invisible) of a future stripped of the qualities of the world from which it emerges. This is bullshit. Hope in poetry is not to be idealised out of existence by cleverly diluting it in the antidote that would cure the poem of its ills, but maintained at the cost of its violent eradication at every turn. Against cynicism, readers should claim the audible communication of hurt as the condition of social truth; against idealism, they should interpret this hurt within the careful proximity of material injustice. Likewise, those that claim that damaged or hurt poetry - that is, poetry marked by crisis - only parades the wounds of the bleeding heart solipsist, betray their own narcissistic image of suffering as something that exists only to be claimed as one’s own, rather than produced in the contingency of individual composition as a protest against its social organisation. Bad poems are usually bad because they forget this basic fact; the mainstream perpetually misrepresents "protest" as a levelling of the unrealistic against the real, whereas the point is to fashion the unrealistic as a critical weapon against the present terms and conditions upon which reality is conceived and enacted. The recent production of hexes by contemporary poets attests to this fact. Spells are the ironic exaggeration of material powerlessness to effect the justice that material inequality demands. To read them as magic divests them of their social truth. But to believe entirely that social truth snaps shut the eyelet opened by the spell’s casting.
Nostalgia, like love, is neither inherently radical nor inherently reactionary. The losses of the past, like the losses of the present, need not be recast in the bloody light of pathos or damaged optimism to remain painfully alive and persistent; they can injure the despair of complacent rectitude just as well by refusing to succumb to a happy ending. Love in the poetry of Frank O’Hara, Lisa Robertson, and Keston Sutherland is not the end in futurity of a presently unrealisable affective surplus, any more than it is finally the same thing in each of their poetries. But it is possible in each of these cases to discern a passionate optic of desire that motivates, even as it interrogates, the social constitution of desire. This is the recursive critical idiom of the best contemporary love poetry. Recursive does not mean self-destructive: no excoriation of the unlovable subject completely atones for their willed self-importance. But neither can love be abandoned to the scrap-heap of self-indulgence without also abandoning the desire for self-transcendence, the loss of which curses the poet to a paradise of one. During moments of particularly intense social momentum, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2010 student movement, the poetry of love acquires a semblance of blank futility, as it reflects beyond catastrophe the solace of intimate conservation. But such desire should also be read as its readiness for adaptation, in the sense that elegy is always also a projection of relational memory. The poetry of those periods is riven with exorbitant, flailing, gratuitous violence, precisely as a means to measure, apperceive, and comprehend the destruction of life that each moment seemed to promise, on their different scales of historical significance and proximity. That response, in all its variety, was a form of loving exactitude enacted on the principles of solidarity with the victims of military and economic violence. What are the forms of love that will make the interruption of the present moment cleave most passionately to the future it drags behind it?
Aphorisms are a cop-out. They claim through wilful hermeticism and the dense topography of impacted thought an insight into historical time, especially that of crisis or struggle, protected from the scalpels of the uninitiated by a thick carapace of rhetorical suggestiveness. In this sense they are the exaggerated image of the shibboleth-esque that some read into the contorted lines and ligaments of contemporary radical poetry. Why should we listen to these poets, the argument goes, when they simply will not tell us what they simply mean? The answer to this question is a necessarily aphoristic one: because they have nothing to tell you that you want so desperately to know that you will stop at nothing to have it told. Times like ours present this contradiction in the starkest of terms: you can see it on the picket line, in the contorted lines and ligaments of the face of the scab, in the enormous focus of concentration it takes to ignore an invitation proffered, however clumsily, in the spirit of joyful cooperation. There is no greater ringing endorsement of the primacy of address to each other that we make in our poems than the face of the other for whom an invitation can only be heard as an insult. In the face of that narcissistic portcullis, initiation is a field day. And in the moments gathered in the fragile precarity of collective resolution, by the permanent record of beautiful dissent, the day is ours.