A Thousand Empty Bowls: A Provocation
“I tried to map a space where the everyday was the focus. An everyday that is at one level a source of massive oppression; but which we know can be transformed, into something liberating, poetic, savage and beautiful – even if we know that this has happened very rarely and very briefly; an everyday in which perception is no longer on ‘automatic’…”
Ron Hunt: ‘Icteric’ and ‘Poetry must be made by all / Transform the World’: A note on a lost and suppressed avant-garde and exhibition (Papers in Art & Education, 2010).
There is more poetry to be found by staring into a back-yard ants’ nest, at a malfunctioning neon sign in a bus terminal or through the thinly whitewashed glass of a broken window than there is in most gatherings of poems.
If a poem is merely one potential vessel for poetry, which it is, then most poems remain the equivalent of an empty bowl. It is not the distribution of ever-greater numbers of bowls that will satisfy hunger.
The mistake for many is to have confused “poetry will be made by all” with “everyone shall write poems.” Poetry is the current, the lightning; the poem itself is nothing more than a conducting wire.
The typing and dissemination of densely woven text, constructed under some theoretical justification, is of less use and interest than the blank sheets left unmarked in the printer tray.
All poems are texts but texts are not poetry. Texts are quantitative in nature, judged by their ability to fill cultural space. Poetry, by contrast, is judged by its ability to open new space around itself.
The annotation and interpretation of personal experience is to poetry what a shopping list is to a meal. What is not transformed by the process of translation from life into language is unfinished work.
The system of production in our time encourages the generation of textual noise over the distillation of potential new meaning. The reconfiguration of mental space is poetry. The manufacture of clutter is consumerism.
That poetry may be increasingly standardised within its various niches is denied, even as a series of plagiarism scandals demonstrates the inability of the craft’s most ardent supporters to tell their own prize marrows apart.
The competition is a method of judging poems based on the arbitrary creation of divisions and hierarchies, much as dog shows divide dogs by reinforcing the differences between them through the distortions of selective breeding.
As in dog shows, the poetry competition dictates that pedigree shall determine entry to the field. Provenance is a more reliable indicator of critical response than any particular value in the poems under examination.
The tendency to evaluate poetry by listing the publications, awards, prizes, accolades and arbitrary subject matter of the poet is designed to eliminate a need to ask why work is made in the first place, or what effect it might have on those who encounter it.
As long as we insist on dividing ourselves into team-spirited factions and looking to a succession of annual prize-givings for approval, we should not be surprised that we are perceived as dutiful pupils trapped inside a regressive Public School.
Authenticity is an effect of style, no less artificial than any other poetic approach. It is the skin-toned make-up product of the poetic realm, seeking to persuade mainly by its self-conscious emphasis on the unremarkable.
Those who claim to be innovative would do well to note that if innovation is already labelled and its desirable characteristics known, then any chance of actual innovation taking place will be remote.
Anyone proclaiming the death of the author, professing a meaningful affinity with oral tradition or presuming to speak on behalf of others must first become anonymous.
The moment an individual’s name is put onto a book cover or declared aloud to an audience, the person whose name it is has acknowledged that they are seeking inclusion in a canon of one kind or another.
To consider the digital realm a new and unprecedented paradigm is the sole preserve of those lacking historical perspective and those in possession of roles where such assertions serve very particular agendas and career objectives.
‘Resisting closed meaning’ and ‘not bothering to properly finish your work’ are too often taken to mean almost exactly the same thing in practice. They are not even remotely the same thing.
Formal devices, like fake wood-grain effects, often help to give a desirable appearance to mass produced artifacts. Only when a preconceived form is deployed instinctively or abused without conscious effort is it useful for poetry.
Recognition is the antithesis of poetry. To seek little more than reflections of ourselves in art ossifies and stunts rather than transforms our thinking. A closed door with a mirror hung on it merely invites us to admire our own imprisonment.
If you wish to challenge the hierarchies and boundaries that separate one kind of poetry from another, do not use those hierarchies and boundaries as your primary reference points and do not create more of them.
Further, if you wish to challenge the boundaries that separate poetry from its readerships, it is inadvisable to make those boundaries your work’s primary reference points, on which it will quickly become lethally dependent.
Prose poems are prose, a medium perfectly capable of generating and sustaining poetry on its own terms. To nit-pick over definitions is to forget that a jar of water contains water regardless of any labels stuck to the glass.
The best way to oppose a set of assumptions that you consider invalid is to act as far as humanly possible as if they don’t exist. Such assumptions can exist only for as long as we maintain them by acting as though they define us.
If you want to send a message, use email, advertising or petrol bombs. If your priority is to make a statement, use a billboard or a megaphone. If you’re keen to share your experience, have a conversation with someone.
Most people do not ignore most poetry because it ignores them, any more than the poor steer clear of cash inheritances because they don’t like the colour of banknotes, or Midlands families shy away from holidays on Saturn because the weather is unreliable in August.
The cryptic crossword puzzle appears to be prized by poets seeking the reassurance of superficial linguistic daring, and by Daily Telegraph readers seeking the reassurance of comfortable familiarity, to some inexplicable but more or less equal degree.
It does not go unnoticed that the word ‘elitist’ is most routinely used by those with platforms, keen to rally followers behind their own bids for power and status. The elite is always elsewhere even among the elitists.
‘Common sense’ and ‘the real world’ are phrases uttered most frequently and insistently by individuals who appear to have little acquaintance with either and no intention of allowing the necessary introductions to be made.
Those who angrily demand instant comprehension do so not because they fail to understand but because they have glimpsed an understanding and recoiled from its implications. Neither reality nor language is singular or fixed.
To point out that a seemingly invincible fortress is a child’s crumbling sand-castle is to doubly court accusations of pretension: first, from those who depend on our fear of its dungeons, then from those who imagine their complicity exposed by the observation.
The genotype that will produce poetry of value is almost always inclined towards paradox and self-contradiction. It cannot be trusted and builds its own internal logic from only superficially absurd premises.
Poetry almost invariably operates through the induction of a temporary synaesthesia in those encountering it. It is experienced as colour, moisture, sound, light, scent, arousal and specific texture before it is understood.
All statements, in life as in these notes, must be considered negotiable. No rule can be taken as absolute. This proviso affects the present clause even more than the others.
The catch is that we understand exactly what must be done to achieve recognition while being all too aware that success on the terms available guarantees the failure of the art itself by every important measure.
It is probably not insignificant that in our own time and place the two most commonly encountered words in the course of any attempt to make work visible are ‘submit’ and ‘submission’.
An emphasis on the poem as product over the poetry that might otherwise have justified its existence guarantees the redundancy of our work.
What is valuable in anything we do by accident or are capable of doing intentionally, especially at our best, does not belong to us. Only our failures and our least productive errors can remain our own possessions.
None of us has even a passing entitlement to write poems. What we have is a duty to draw attention to the poetry that is already latent in the world. We can only do this if we are constantly surprised by its existence.
To repeat: there is more poetry to be found by staring into a back-yard ants’ nest, at a malfunctioning neon sign in a bus terminal or through the thinly whitewashed glass of a broken window than in most gatherings of poems.