Daily Archives: June 20, 2009

Serge and Jane

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Humanity

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Coltrane LIVES

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Is there a corner for poetry?

Is there a corner for poetry?

By Harry Eyres

Published: June 6 2009

 

All the recent media hullabaloo in Britain about
poetry has revealed much more nervousness and discomfort about the cardinal art
form than genuine understanding and love. The general assumption seems to be
that poetry is a good thing and we should all have more of it in our lives. But
what if poetry is not a thing at all? Or if, as Robert Penn Warren suggested:
“Poetry is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see, and
what we see is life.” Or what if poetry is not something we can harmlessly add
to our store of pleasures – it is such fun! – but a scourer and excoriator,
killing 99 per cent of all known hypocrisies?

I recalled some comments made to me recently at a party by an arts
producer working for a national broadcaster; “I hate poetry,” said this young
man and, to make matters clearer: “I don’t believe in free expression.” For all
the rebarbativeness of his remarks, I felt afterwards he was being more helpful
and honest than all the bland promoters of poetry, or purveyors of a product
called poetry that is not the real thing.

It might be better to ask ourselves why, on the whole, we hate
poetry – that is to say why we ruthlessly marginalise it and exile it to a cold
place of almost total neglect – than to utter dishonest platitudes about how
great it is. That at any rate was the approach of the American poet and
environmental activist Muriel Rukeyser when she came to write her passionate
manifesto, The Life of
Poetry
.

Rukeyser begins her book in the most dramatic circumstances: a boat
full to the gunwales of Republican refugees is leaving Spain, by night, as the
civil war intensifies. The bombing of Guernica has just taken place. People
discuss the horrors they have seen, the horrors to come. Then a voice speaks out
of the darkness: “And poetry – among all this – where is there a place for
poetry?”

That is the question Rukeyser sets out to answer but she begins
with a long section called “The Resistances”. In a primarily scientific and
technological age poetry is resisted because it asks awkward questions of a kind
that science and technology would rather avoid. It asks questions about
wholeness and integration, about what it is to be a complete human being, one
who feels as well as calculates. “Poetry, above all, is an approach to the truth
of feeling,” says Rukeyser with admirable simplicity.

Poetry’s championing of wholeness and emotional truth comes up
against formidable obstacles. Rukeyser lists them: “The ruling out of emotion,
over-specialisation, aversion to the disclosure of oneself to oneself, neurotic
embarrassment and coldness, contempt for others.” In a technocratic society, “we
make the specialised skills and expressions our goals … We think in terms of
property, weapons, secrets; we exalt the means … Less and less do we imagine
ourselves and believe ourselves.” She sums up the situation with none of the
blandness we have heard in recent weeks: “I must say that [poetry] has no
acknowledged place in American life today.”

This seems to me a good start. Poetry is up against it in all sorts
of ways. Unlike video games, reality television, amateur dance troupes, it is
not a cultural phenomenon that is generally welcomed into people’s lives. But
what could it do for us, if we would allow it?

Rukeyser was a socialist and, therefore, an optimist and she did
believe in the power of poetry. But she also lived through the Spanish civil war
and the second world war and could see that poetry could not intervene directly
to halt carnage. Poetry’s power is a preparatory and paradigmatic power – as
Rukeyser puts it: “We will not be saved by poetry. But poetry is the type of the
creation in which we may live and which will save us.” Or in other words, we
will only be saved if we gather all our intensity, “Roll all our strength and
all/ Our sweetness up into one ball”, in Marvell’s great words, to face our
current crisis as whole human beings.

While returning to Rukeyser, I have also been rereading one of the
novels that has impressed me most in the past five years, The Poet by Yi Mun-yol. It tells the true story
of the 19th-century Korean poet Kim Pyong-yon, grandson of a powerful politician
branded a traitor, forced to live his life on the margins of society.

Yi Mun-yol differs from Rukeyser in suggesting that it is always,
at all times and in all places, the fate of poetry and the poet to exist outside
the mainstream. “Not all non-conformists are poets, but all poets are
non-comformists,” he writes. Even the poets who show none of the usual signs of
non-conformism “are bound to deviate from the norm at least in the use of
language”. Living as a vagabond and a beggar, sceptical of yet also caught up in
spasms of political revolt and idealism, Kim remains true to his vocation and,
thus, faithful to the truth of feeling

 

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Rear View

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Brian Wilson Magic

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