Brueghel - Children's Games (1560)
On a recent trip abroad to visit my parents I developed a case of hives. It started in the early hours of the 17th of June, 2006. I woke up with itchy feet at about four in the morning. The next night the same thing happened, though now it had spread to the palms of my hands. Within a week I would begin to wake up covered with welts. The attacks extended to my waking hours. At any given moment a kind of virile punctuation would spread over my body and my face would explode in a hot red flush, like an over-ripe strawberry left behind on a picnic table in the middle of a summer afternoon. Job came to mind. But, whereas Job’s only conceptual outlet was metaphysical, the wrath of God, I had a gamut of competing scenarios, all of which quickly overwhelmed me. The Internet, where I daily (no, hourly) went to confirm my latest hypothesis, only aggravated the hives. After an hour of virtually surging liver enzymes, soaring lymphocytes and hypothalamic concussions, I would scratch my way out of the upstairs office in my parent’s seaside cottage and throw myself into the open air in an attempt to escape my own skin.
Before I realized that my affliction was a cathartic reaction and that, unlike Job, my skin was crawling with surplus information my body wanted to be rid of, I did my best -- by immersing myself in the very allergen that was provoking the outbreaks -- to discover an organic (read “literal”) agent.
American life is, after all, the most literal of all lives. The bible is literal. Evil is literal. Hum-mers, the largest sports utility vehicles on the planet, are immensely literal. While the Europeans have Nietzsche, our most emblematic philosopher of post-metaphysical modernity is Dewey. We are awhirl, in facts, factoids and factlets, which appear and disappear like welts on the surface of consciousness. One of those welts, I thought, should be susceptible to biopsy, a process which would in turn reveal a name: “bilary cirrhosis”, “lymphoma”, “gallbladder disease”, or “pancreatitis”. The graver the disease, the sharper the word; a word whittled by death; a word which refused the relativity of those vaguely medieval notions like “stressed”, “neurosthenic”, or “melancholic”, with its etymological echo of black bile (melas, melan- ‘black’ + khole ‘bile.”)
I discovered more about the pathology of disease, more about my body, more about the bodies of others, more, indeed, about the world than I could reasonably assimilate. Self-diagnosis on the Internet quickly reduces the human brain to a state of entropy -- we reach a point when the information we take on causes other information to silt out of the solution. It literally leaks from the mind, like the leakage of histamines, bradykinim, kalhkrein and other vasoactive substances from mast cells suspended in the fabric of capillaries that irrigate our largest organ: the skin. Once loosed, these chemicals write their version of the world on the page of the body. After a careful reading of my Jobish affliction, I began to suspect that the lack of a barrier between the information about my disease and the manifestation of the disease itself was paradigmatic (the more I researched, the more I itched).
Like any other social category, the culture of disease has spawned its own media: its representation outside the body, where we can see it. Unlike in the case of Job, whose only reasonable recourse was colloquy with a fickle god (via his browser of received faith), the modern mimesis of illness is manifold and constantly proliferating: the more knowledge we take on, the less we know, the less we know, the more we need to learn. As with opiates, whisky and tobacco, infor-mation tolerance sets in after heavy and prolonged use. Our chemistry -- which is the new word for “soul” -- adapts to the unrelenting presence of a pathogen. It begins to rewrite the dictates of the day so that they conform to a given need. The addict, as William Burroughs said, needs more and more junk to maintain a human form.
The media mimics disease. Its model follows that of any other pathology: replication, coloniza-tion and the gradual conversion of the hosting organism, into itself. “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent”. We in the secular West, in the post-Wasteland world of kacotopia and gated enclaves, have even more to fear than Job, since the arbitrariness of our mechanistic God of information is garrulous compared with his Old Testament counterpart; the mediatic deity is, if anything, over-communicative, the big brother that never shuts up, drowning out any of the feeble piping we might muster. Even if our lack of existential control and the haplessness of our questioning have not changed all that much, the paradigm of the deity has been utterly inverted. Instead of the exacerbated remoteness of the Old Testament God, we have a kind of disembodied Dr. Ruth on anabolic steroids who suffers from general situation rage. We are no longer made in his image, he/she is made, and remade and made again, in ours. We are adrift, without consensus, without rudder. Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, et al, initiated a series of philosophical strategies to justify a Godless and arbitrary universe. But because the media is both theological and technological, both personal and impersonal, both highly present and invisible, because of its “insidious” capacity to overlap other systems, to project them even as it replaces them, because it cannot be avoided, because its infiltration has replaced ideology, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, et al have been rendered merely “literary” finger food for students and specialists. Most of us just don’t have the time to stop long enough to take them seriously.
All systems, including the Arts, have had to adapt, have had to rewrite their basic algorithms, perhaps streamlining their lexicons, removing the grace notes and placing statement in the foreground. The prominence of conceptual art today, which puts the caboose before the engine, is typical of periods in which the criticism of the arts dominates the arts themselves. One of Dr Johnson’s many definitions of poetry serves well here: "Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason." Poetry for Johnson becomes the handmaiden of reason.
And yet, of all the arts, poetry has failed most profoundly in this contemporary adventure of ad-aptation, and not for want of trying. Yet the most “advanced” poetry places statement in the background, or leaves it out altogether. It removes discernment (even in the Christian sense of perception in the absence of judgment, which translates into the dynamic of deferral in lyric poetry). In the Darwinian scheme of things (of bifurcated cows and gorgeously constructed mechanical simulators of haute-bourgeois scatology) poetry is a dying discourse, a species of speech that no longer has the equipment to respond to a general audience, or to counter the predacity of the media. Charles Bernstein is probably the American poet who most explicitly theorized this problem: that, like Asian and West Indian cricketers in relation to their colonizing sportsmen, the media has co-opted and outperformed poetry at its own game of figurative language, metaphor, metonym, synecdoche (that famous pair of “ragged claws”) and rhetorical figures in general, all of which were traditionally used by poetry both to clarify and vivify what might otherwise have seemed banal and to transport the reader into a new relationship with the ordinary and its spiritual underpinning. Bernstein’s demonstrably Dadaist praxis (and one of the central pillars of the Language ideology) was to use poetry to alienate rather than attract or transport the reader. And that is what it did, setting poetry even lower on the survival/relevance curve and creating one of the most academic poetics of all time.
Yet, Language poetry, during the last two decades of the last century, was just the sharp end of a wider poetic flight, as American poets of all persuasions began to mass behind the University ramparts. It is curious how this migration coincided with the rise of globalized, real-time, mass media and its gradual transformation into the so-called “new media”, whose first flourishing occurred in the years between two signal events, the fall of the wall, and the fall of the twin towers. Twelve rapid, and from our perspective today, innocent years – the Clinton interregnum – during which, somehow, the way we communicated with each other changed forever.
Poetry, like other peripheral discourses (including the dangerous ones) has managed to resurrect itself online. The Net (bless its terrifying heart!) has been a boon for the non-profiting, under-profiting, marketplace alienated, subsidy skimmers which make up the majority of working po-ets. We are, as a group, indebted to technologies that, if not wisely negotiated, will kill us. We are like a team of synchronic swimmers performing in a pool full of sharks. We have become beholden to a form of Boolean package delivery that costs the average cheater absolutely nothing, at least in the moment of transaction.
Under these conditions, the publication of poetry in actual print resides in a kind of karmic niche, a good (read moral) thing for the large houses to continue doing, and the only thing for a bevy of small and independent presses to survive by, via subsidies and other forms of patronage, most of it meant to prop up in Arnoldian fashion (that is, as a social instrument) what’s left of high literary culture. Unlike fiction, nonfiction, history, the new American poetry is virtually unknown outside a small cohort, an archipelago of the embattled spread across the United States. And there is certainly no interest abroad among general readers, who are hardly interested in their own “national” poetries. But even in European academic circles, there is little real understanding of what is happening in America, though there are “events” which celebrate it. Some European poets seem to get it, but they get it like the get Coca-Cola and Levi’s. There is very little organic basis behind their enthusiasms for experimental poetry from the States. Language barriers often get in the way, but cultural history is even more of an impediment. Have you ever tried to listen to hip-hop in German?
But the failure, in Europe at least (and I would suggest in America as well) to properly construe the tenor of post-modern American poetry stems from a deeper misalliance within contemporary American poetry itself: there is a the gap between the political and ideological agenda of today’s avant-garde and the means by which this agenda is expressed in practice. The agenda itself (a seemingly noble undertaking): to undermine power structures, to undermine canonical assumptions and the anti-democratic elitism of a codified system of evaluative criticism, to readjust the horribly maladjusted relations between genders, between races, between the poor and the well-off, between the singers and the moaners, and finally to broadcast, in the original sense of the word - scattering seeds by hand instead of placing them in drills or rows - a kind of poetry that would embody the most basic of all cultivating procedures: to engage and liberate the masses (which unfortunately don’t, as a collective literacy, actually exist)… all of this runs awry of their highly problematical aesthetic procedure of deconstructing traditional discourse, of trying to fashion, as some sort of poetical analogy of “direct action”, a praxis based on willfully obscuritanist styles. This is not the famous “difficulty” of modernist poets and their legatees; it is more nihilistic, more anarchistic, less interested in maintaining a link with some imagined public. What their political agenda really wants is the plain language of the pamphlet; they should have taken Brecht or Hikmet, or even Robert Frost as models. On the contrary, what their aesthetic wants is to defeat, replace, transform and often mutilate sense-making, as though this were a way to change the world. But rather than changing anything, their relationship with traditional literary elitism is maintained.
This dissonance between a means and an end is part of a larger dissonance within contemporary poetry in an age that, for all intents and purposes, is driven by post-literate forms of communication, in the arts and otherwise. All poets, from the avant-garde to the neo-formalists, from the traditional deep imagists, to the poets of narrative and description, from the uptown poets to the downtown poets, need to rethink their relationship to their audience.
Poetry makes nothing happen. Have we have forgotten Auden’s injunction?
On a previous note, my hives, much to my chagrin, refused to behave like a metaphor. It took almost two years, with the help of my psychiatrist, Dr Neary, a wizard of psychopharmacology, for me to overcome them. The secret lay in a drug called Blusterwonder, an antihistamine, but one used to treat the “melancholic” and the “hysterical”. I know they’re still there, my hives, waiting just beneath the skin to breakout once again. Robert Burton would have loved my dilemma. He would have laughed out loud. And you should too.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...