Sentinel Poetry (Online) #39
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics
February 2006. ISSN 1479-425X. Editor: Amatoritsero Ede
Much Rhyme and Little Reason
What is the purpose of poetry? This is not, yet again, a probing of that age-old question of social relevance. Why write poetry at all? Definitely there are as many answers to this query as there are poets and readers of poetry. Yes, the reader is important – the ‘super-reader’; ‘super’, that is, not necessarily in Riffaterre’s magical all-empowering structuralist terms but in a sense of an appreciation of the reader as the reason for the poet to ‘poetically’ exist in the first place.
This might seem a position validating the humanist model around the idea of writing and reading generally, where the reader is emphasised: the reader is visible, the writer invisible. For whom does the poet sing if not for the reader? It is possible to argue that the poet might simply write just for himself, inspirationally or as a form of self-therapy; besides, not many read poetry, anyway. To that one could respond by noting that if the poet writes long enough and also publishes it, the effort finally lands on the readers’ desk or claps him by the ears as it occurs during a poetry reading; that poetry and poets are on school and university curricula- this suggests a large enough readership. Besides, a suddenly fashionable ‘pop-poetry’ scene - slam, dub and so on- increasingly brings the ‘audience’ closer to the poet such that these days there is no escaping another ‘slam poetry’ event. In short the reader has to read or be read to; he has to be communicated with. Why then the alienating effect of ‘new’ or contemporary avant garde poetry? As the proverbial German reader would ask in mock exasperation: Was will uns der dichter damit sagen?, meaning, what does the poet intend to tell us with that (i.e. with the poem)?! The poet must communicate, in short, even in his abstract and distracted heights.
Before we proceed it should be noted that the avant garde in poetics is not anything really new. At least there is a sense in which, in the western tradition, Gerald Manley Hopkins or T.S. Eliot and other ‘modernists’ like James Joyce or Virginia Wolfe, are actually postmodernist and avant garde in that that they broke free from the traditions of their own day. In the African tradition so did the Nigerian Christopher Okigbo, who boasted that he wrote his poetry only for other poets. The critics Chinweizu et al have labelled such ‘first generation’ African poets – including the Nigerian Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, who is a consummate poet himself – “shamanist obscurantists” or ‘euromodernists’. The kind of non-communication being referred to hear goes beyond the usual deliberate obscurity of which some poets like those mentioned or say W.H. Auden, are notorious. They, at least, still leave cues for the reader. In breaking away from tradition – and this is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, those modernist European poets still make sense, they communicated just as the African poets do. The contemporary avant garde in the West seem to have gone to its possible extreme limits in the 21st century. The ‘experiment’ itself becomes the goal and end of poetic contemplation. Christian Beok’s Eunioa comes readily to mind. A very successful experiment in phonic accretions possible in a newfangled ‘lippogram’ within the constraints of vowel-ed words only in each stanza:
writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit scribbling in ink
this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism,
disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish
hijinks which highlights stick sigils. Isn’t it glib?
isn’t it chick? I fit childish insights within rigid limits,
writing shtick which might instill priggish misgiv-
ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-
picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I
bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits,
sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis-
tic thinking, in which phillipic wit is still illicit.
The above is a typical stanza. Now imagine a hundred and five pages of this beautiful nonsense! Like the German reader we may ask in frustration “Was willst uns der Dichter damit sagen?”! What does the poet intend to say to us. Why is the poet suddenly dumb? Apart from the pleasant aural effect we do not get much meaning out of the above or from the whole collection as a single unit. There is no central organising plot or thought or a thematic thrust. Its strength lies in its entertainment value, which it achieves powerfully, insistently - almost to a point of screaming distraction. In a different context discussing African literature, Chinweizu insists that though a writing may originate as self-expression nevertheless “literary works are an integral part of public conversation”. Furthermore a work of literature is “a moving or memorable utterance which touches the reader or hearer emotionally, intellectually, morally, or aesthetically”. Eunoia touches the reader deeply, (re)soundingly on the aural level; it is doubtful if it touches the reader morally, aesthetically, intellectually or emotionally. Nevertheless it is a remarkable work of lippogrammatic permutation and combination and successful as far as such linguistic avant garde experiments go. But then the question is experiments to what purpose? What is the difference between experiments like Eunoia and the ‘jabberwocky’ in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland?:
brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
”Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Again beautiful nonsense! The experiment might be different in that Lewis Carroll’s diction is made up of neologism anchored to the usual grammatical and syntactical features of English; the jabberwocky is not a lippogram like Christian Beok’s work. But they share the same estrangement of language, and a defamiliarising shift, which in itself is interesting as examples of the extent to which a language can be ‘wayward-ed’. Beyond that one begins to wonder at the communicative value of such experiments. It must be said that the Jabberwocky is understandable in context within a children’s story. It is like the meaningful gibberish that some children would speak or can respond to. It is a Freudian da, da, da. Not the same can be said for Eunoia. It is presented to the reader as a work for serious contemplation even though its effect is one of an empty entertainment. Now there is another avant garde work comparable to this is its breath and foreshadowing of works like Eunoia - James Joyce’s much-shunned Finnegan’s Wake. It is not a book of poems but a novel, a truly ‘novel’ novel. It takes experiments to ridiculous levels. Eunoia is much more successful in comparison, in that it at least communicates even if on an aural level. Finnegan’s wake does not communicate at all. Seamus Dean’s introduction to the Penguin edition warns that “the first thing to say about Finnegan’s Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.” Yet Finnegan’s Wake is considered a classic! Ulysses was a clear modernist statement; Finnegan’s Wake is postmodern verbiage.
An unreadable book is less of a book then to the reader, that is, unreadable on all levels, cognitive or intuitive. Is the reader supposed to ‘drink’ the book or by touching it acquire or intuit its content through some psychic osmosis? Irvin Layton, the recently deceased Canadian poet, as provocative as he can be accused to have been in his work, did make another provocative comment that is nevertheless true – that we pretend the world is a trouble-free and beatific habitation and write lies. We refuse to address what goes on in the world. Why this avant garde literary masturbation; this anti-poetry that is suddenly fashionable? It is perhaps in the answer to this question that the worth of such pseudo-poetry lies.
The avant garde reflects an age-old modern and now rabidly postmodern sickness – especially in the West. It emphasises a decadence, chaos and spiritual vacuity which, to some extent resulted in introspection amongst Victorian poets – Hopkins and Houseman for example; experiments with language and questioning of tradition in the modernists; an intensifying of such rebellion, and a repudiation of modernist aesthetics in the avant garde– especially after the ‘great war’. There are similar breaks with tradition in African poetic aesthetics as we have suggested earlier but since the continent is still in a ‘post-traditional’ stage and has not reached the level of technological sophistication and industrial depletion of relationships in the West, such experiments with language are not completely alienating as of yet and are mere European offshoots of that disease as Chinweizu et al rightly points out in Towards a Decolonisation of African Literature.
For example most of what goes by the name of ‘performance’ in the West these days like performance poetry, slam poetry, dub poetry, sound poetry - even to some aural extent the lippogram, does not have that eidetic tonalities of aesthetic quality and communicative strength as in African oral forms like the ‘ewi’, ‘ijala’ or ‘rara’. Most cultures of the south, even though they struggle in that direction, do not yet ‘own’ anything near the sophisticated and philistinic interactive economy of capital, technology and exchange and its dynamics of fragmentation redolent in the West. At the heart of the avant garde project is then a reaction and a protest against the fragmentation and dispersal which is the hallmark of capitalist societies. It is the over-individualistic capitalist economy that the avant garde protest against in its seeming celebration of aural obfuscation. Aural, importantly, because the range increases with the other fashionable forms – slam, jam, ram, dub, rub and so on; all heavily oral and sonic components in the unconscious bid of western culture to communicate again! In this urgent and unconscious desire for communication, meaning, depth and most times too, aesthetic quality is sacrificed for empty ‘talk’. It could become noise - heavy metal noise in a disco-crazed world rather than a dialogic communication since the reader or hearer is alienated.
The avant garde is irrational in mood. It is anti-enlightenment generally even though it appropriates empiric tools like arithmetic in its permutation-combination of choice words. In its irrational postmordern mood it hybridises language with other interactive media, it incorporates the computer and its dynamics – all in an effort, ironically, to communicate even though it fails at the end of the experiments and becomes simply subjective art mostly. It has that quality of subjective art, which is to please. It becomes an extension of the entertainment industry for the bored or unhappy western worker! A recent western survey around the world declared Nigeria a ‘happiest’ country in the world. Perhaps, what the western social scientists saw was simply the communicative ability of ordinary folk; the ability to hold active interesting rejuvenating conversation and to have community (that might change with time of course); this is therapeutic and necessary for human habitation or co-habitation. Robinson Crusoe had his man-Friday.
The inability of the west to communicate has lead to misunderstandings and war and the attendant misery and inequality that follow it. What the avant garde does is to show how western culture refuses to communicate by repeating the same lack of communication– in a reactionary way – in relation to a reader. In that case what we get then might be a song or a collocation of sounds, a stringing together of words for phonic effects but not poetry in the sense that they touch the reader all at once emotionally, intellectually, morally and aesthetically. They might affect some faculty but remain deficient in reaching others. They are not a public conversation with the reader but rather private ruminations. If anything contemporary avant garde produces art – even beautiful art but not poetry.
Writer-In-Residence, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.