RIVALS OF POETRY
This was written in 1993 as part of a book which eventually became The failure of conservatism. A redesign 9 or so years later narrowed the focus of the book, and this chapter fell overboard. I like it because it takes the viewpoint of the consumer of information, not the poets. It betrays the basic fact that poetry is the least specific flow of information, and mostly synthesises data from other, primary sources. The poet can promote their personality as a source of uniqueness, but the poem is only going to be interesting if it recognises its non-unique status and competes with other information flows.
Poetry is only unpopular when compared to other forms of art, or of information media. It is simple to understand why people write or read poetry; to achieve analytical understanding of poetry's (restricted) social role we have to go outside it and frame some way of comparing it.
Poetry must compete for its image and market share with a growing variety of other goods, some artistic some documentary. Other kinds of information shape the space in which poetry has to exist, and perhaps drive it in on itself. This struggle for space is a formative process; notions of "value" and "the self" have emerged out of struggle rather than from some internal process. They have been influenced by defensiveness and psychological compensation. Poetry has internalized certain limits, and these limits form unconscious rules which patience might disengage. Perhaps the most significant poetry crosses one of these boundaries and transcends itself, even if the boundary reasserts itself after the heroic burst of energy is spent.
Marketing projects for poetry usually ask it to masquerade as something else. This presupposes that poetry can compete with (say) rock music or the newspapers at being rock music or newspapers. There is no kind of information which is unique to poetry. Even the moment of perfect (alleged) intimacy is claimed by the interview, the pop song, and even the advertisement-in its direct address, shared jokes, its setting of domestic impromptu, sly sharing of infantile wishes. The question of what poetry essentially is, what is its homeland, can only be answered through its verbal nature: words can describe anything at all, what they can't be is sensuous in the way that painting or music is. Language is transparent, like a camera lens; it takes in everything but has no identity of its own. It can compete only by bearing a signature so intense that the memory of alternatives fades. A strong artificial and formal organization must be burnt into it, down to its smallest units. No subject matter is excluded from poetry. The more information is available in society, the more is available for poetry.
The better someone's education, the higher the mix of numbers and words, as opposed to pictures, in their cultural intake. Equally, the more you can handle words and numbers, the better the quality of your understanding of current affairs. The chairman of GEC gets information in the form of tables, written reports, and (numerically exact) computer graphics, you can bet; he would be much worse informed if he relied on a paper full of pin-ups, photos, and star interviews. The difference between the Daily Mail and the Financial Times is the difference between ignorance and knowledge, between passivity and control. Perhaps imagination is similar to analysis; as both are active, not passive, and based on small amounts of precise information rather than buckets of visual data. It's hopeless for poetry to be primary, in the way that a colour photo of someone smiling is; poetry can chase the populist genres of interview, pinup, and soap opera, but it can never catch them up. The class signature of poetry is written in its non-sensuous nature; it can reach the educated audience if it achieves internal artistic maturity, but it's never going to capture the audience of television and the Daily Mirror.
So what is the difference between words and images? Words represent (not are) an abstract system of traces which can be scanned, excerpted, re-organized, and so forth, by virtue of their abstraction. A revealing feature is the ability of words to be indexed; if you have a million words on computer, you can search them automatically and retrieve key words; this isn't so for pictures. If an astronomer has a thousand miles of pictures on a computer (perhaps sent back from a space probe), there is no way of automatically scanning them for objects; because the object is at a level of abstraction higher than the storage of the data. The attenuation of language as a datastore makes it more controllable, control making for feedback. Pictures don't have feedback because their data source is the outside world. In a curious way the words are indexes to objects rather than objects. Language doesn't need an index outside itself. Language is visual data when they are no longer visible.
If poetry tries to be 'sensuous' it is partaking of the discourse of the weak, and the sites where they are weak. I find this a quite unattractive idea. Should the poet be someone who knows what colour the new car is but doesn't understand that the car factory is about to be closed down and restarted in a Third World country? Poetry shouldn't be writing about objects, but about the way society is organized. Literature is quite unlike (say) photography in its various forms; poetry is close to the abstract control language in which the social structure is encoded.
I hope the examples which follow help to demonstrate the pressures which actively shape poetry, and the potential which its own inherent form gives it. I have omitted other, equally important, rivals of poetry; such as painting, novels, science, cinema, sociology, magazines.
I recall one of the English teachers at school saying that ads were broken-down poetic forms. He was right; advertisements so often offer the moment of truth, the moment of lyric sensibility when reason is set aside, the moment of intuition and regression. But there are so many genres of advertisement, so many kinds of verbal approach, that many ads fall quite outside this description. In the pursuit of understanding, we should begin by putting all symbolic representations of a given society in the same light, and set up categories only as a result of this unprejudiced appraisal of primary data. Ads must be considered first of all as fiction, as poems, as art in fact; we can state that they satisfy many appetites of the public, and that most people take pleasure in them, even if this pleasure is not intellectual and not avowed.
We disqualify ads as art because we expect art to be the personal statement of some individual. This is already alarming. Does it mean that ads are allowed to possess imagination and poetry is not? do we abandon fantasy, desire, and montage to the advertising agencies? And besides, one senses that a profound shift has taken place as "high art" evacuates the territory occupied by ads. I feel that the assumption is that poetry cannot fight and win. I am not happy about this. I am only interested in victory. I don't see "high art" as some kind of Alpine redoubt of purity and withdrawal, but as something intense and able to go anywhere because of its driving energies.
A lot of the contents of Homer is very like advertizing. Take the description of the contents of Priam's treasury in Book 24, as he is gathering the ransom of Hector's body before driving to the Greek encampment to plead with his mortal enemy.
He spoke, and lifted back the fair cover of his clothes-chest
and from inside took out twelve robes surpassingly lovely
and twelve mantles to be worn single, as many blankets
and as many great white cloaks, also the same number of tunics.
He weighed and carried out ten full talents of gold, and brought forth
two shining tripods and four cauldrons and brought out a goblet
of surpassing loveliness that the men of Thrace had given him
when he went to them with a message, but now the old man spared not
even this in his halls, so much was it his heart's desire
to ransom his beloved son.
(Richmond Lattimore translation)
This would be impossible for a modern poet, because of the similarity to advertizing. (Other parts of Homer are similar to sports commentary.) Note that the poet twice uses a form of the word perikalles, given here as 'surpassingly lovely', in these few lines. A rule of 20th C poetry is not to use the word 'beautiful'. But why should the territory of poetry have narrowed in the past 3000 years? Any description of what one desires sounds like an advertisement. This does not only apply to desirable objects, since ads also show every kind of pleasurable contact, they show a world of harmony, love, and physical perfection, the mundane world transformed by an inner glow. Advertisements show a Utopia cut into 30-second fragments. There is a certain acerb tone in poetry: a vain belief that enthusiasm is somehow unintelligent because advertizing and other photography shows us an endless row of smiling faces and passionate endorsements.
One can argue that the whole vocabulary of this passage was inherited from formulae of praise poems devoted to the expensive gear of Bronze Age nobles, especially in the context of gifts, where expense was part of signalling status. This is too simple. The beauty of the objects is integral to the pleasure of the poem. In Homer everything works in several ways, and here the signs of Priam's wealth are also ominously reinforcing of the sense of doom we feel having been told that Troy is doomed. We know that he will die and all his possessions will be burnt or looted. At a basic level ads are pleasurable and the view of a towel deified for softness whiteness and opulence is pleasurable. It is important that the wagon is solidly and expensively made.
As an aside, one may note that all the qualities of advertising copy - stridency, unambiguity, populism, lack of sensibility, brutal repetition, fascination with objects, subordination to the power structure, rhythmic drilling, assertiveness - are also present in the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, and through him in the Soviet poetry which imitates him. Agitprop poetry (which never really caught on here) unmistakably shows the lineaments of advertizing, as soon as it gets into its stride. Communist agitprop tells you to work harder, capitalist agitprop tells you to consume more; both activities are socially necessary, and they "confirm" the listener who is certainly already working and consuming. They help to hold society together. They reassure people about what is happening to them. I don't think we're in a position to dismiss this kind of civic writing altogether; any description of social action is likely to bring up the question of duties and obligations. I think the structural implications for poetry of giving up the imperative mood could be severe.
The 1960s style was the poetic equivalent of nakedness. As if throwing out knowledge and logic was a guarantee of authenticity. But advertizing also uses this direct address, where simplicity, confidentiality, eye contact, the elimination of evidence, etc., are all staple techniques. The primary aim of salesmen and advertisers is to suppress the level of awareness which deals in objective fact, and step up the level of pre-verbal signalling, which is direct suggestion. Where would advertizing be without fake intimacy? The phrase "direct communication by use of the body without confining Reason" perfectly describes scantily clad models in advertisements. This has got nothing to do with authenticity. More convincingly, it is poets, the most unpopular and impoverished branch of cultural endeavour, being sucked into the preconceptions of the dominant cultural branch of the period, i.e. advertizing. The prestige of the "post-knowledge" star always had to be based on the claim of being 'cool' and sexually liberated. This may have been based on the super-intimacy of TV, where the personalities communicate directly via their physique, which is 90% of the signal reaching you. The speaker wins the audience's trust by pre-rational means and then says super-banal things. The problem of the Sixties poets, having jettisoned knowledge and artistic complexity, was in acquiring sexual prestige to make their superbanality go across. To some extent, this could be achieved via photographs, interviews, personal appearances, etc., again reducing the poetry to zero; no wonder they were against "the domination of the word" and craved the attention of the camera. This approach destroys all the autonomy of poetry; and it hasn't gone away, it leads on to the terminal insouciance and vacuity of Simon Armitage and John Hegley. The appearance of 'cool' was in reality part of a furious and protracted competition with other poets (also with critics and academics, naturally); it's hard for us to recall how much, at that time, the message was 'Person A has short hair and a suit and is repressed and Person B is young, has long hair, and wears cool King's Road gear, therefore what Person B says must be true'. One has to speak of a starlet mentality among male poets of the time. I think it could be a mistake linking this to changes in society at the time; it's more economical to link it to changes in the rules of symbolic representation. The values of the Sixties can still be found in television and the world of magazines and advertisements, which is perhaps where they came from. I remarked that TV makes being young and pretty and wearing nice clothes, and skilled use of body language, far more important than words; isn't it true that much of the Sixties "counter-culture" was not subversive, but only an extension of the rules of TV into poetry, theatre, scholarship, and politics? If we look for the origin of the doctrine that what kind of clothes you wear expresses what kind of person you are, don't we find it in the Advertisement? The rise of colour printing in the 1960s, the arrival of ITV, colour supplements, etc., made the Model far more important in people's visual intake; and the image of the Cool Poet making the right consumer choices and effortlessly Being Cool all day, is a copy of the Model whose adventures covered so many miles of colour print and consumed so many cars. cigarettes, and clothes. Of course, capitalism has two faces, the idealessness of the photographic model preening and posing in ads, and the numerical, analytical precision of the financial pages. I fear that the latter has much more to do with life as a grown-up, and that poets have to learn how to work with language as an intellectual task, rather than just practice being photographed, if they want to be read by grownups. The essential feature of a poem is that it is only a string of words. Normal human intercourse is carried out on many more planes.
Some occurrences of photography in everyday life might be:
a. on advertizing hoardings
b. in newspapers - black and white - informing rather than persuading
c. in magazines - coloured; sometimes of "stars", sometimes of models advertizing things; not informative, but aimed to attract and attach
d. security cameras in shops, banks, etc.
e. on the packaging of goods; less common on food products than on books and records
f. on security passes and bus passes
g. snapshots of domestic life
i. films for cinema or video
j. photos in shop windows, e.g. of houses for sale, or of places where you can buy holidays
Clearly, photography plays a large role in our daily perceptual intake. A lot of the memories from which we write poems will be memories of looking at photographs rather than at "unmediated" objects or behaviour. I find it hard to assess the influence of photography on poetry, or on the cultural appetites of the audience. One of the key differences between photography and non-mechanical arts is that the former strips away subjectivity. The photographer can capture the likeness of things in the outside world but has to struggle to capture the meanings inside his head. Security cameras record faces without even a human operator. Language naturally combines the two kinds of meanings, and one has to work very hard to ever separate the two.
The whole apparatus of photography is secondary to an archaic language of the human body; its parasitism does not exclude distorting and influencing the latter. Historically, the photographer borrowed the techniques of posing human models which had been developed over 2500 years of European painting; this highly sharpened and stylized code of gestures interpreted and manipulated a far older system of gestures, some of them older than the species. Presumably part of the reason for adapting natural gestures is that the latter occur across time whereas a painting (or mosaic, sculpture, pen sketch, etc.) is a frozen instant. Poems have the opportunity of capturing human behaviour in short sequences, which is more realistic. Walking, for example, is one of the actions which typifies a specific human being, among millions, and it is a sequence of actions, no still can show it.
The obvious advantage of the photograph is the rapidity with which it swallows and reproduces data; the image is mechanically won, it doesn't cost the effort which verbalization costs. A second implied difference from poetry is the primary sensuous quality of photographic data; the camera picks up fine textual details of the objects taken, it takes all the wrinkles on a sheet, if it takes a dozen people then it differentiates the skin tone of each of them, according to what light shows up. Photography is massively used by scientists, by engineers and manufacturers, by the police, by the passport authorities, etc., for just this motive of mindless accuracy. The selfsame quality makes it possible to take hundreds of separate exposures of a single subject in a short time, thus capturing motion; a feat hard to equal in poetry. A photograph is allover and simultaneous: but poetry is serial and strung out along a single thread. This is another reason why poetry doesn't present hundreds of snaps of a single object in motion.
As a poetry fan, I should now be saying that "taking in such huge glops of data makes you stupid", but I don't believe this. The reasons why most film (e.g. TV, cinema, video) is so stupid are striking but secondary; a lot of cinema is supremely intelligent. Consideration of poetry of the past has convinced me that it is just as eager to soak up and spray out floods of eyeball-tiring data as cinema. Reading Victor Hugo today, one is faced with an eyeball-gouging barrage of data which is thoroughly reminiscent of Hollywood. Poetry has tended to become less spectacular, more subjective. Possibly the dryness (scepticism, sparseness, refraining from big effects, distanced, critical) of modern poetry is a reaction to the pressure of photography and other mechanical means of reproduction. When I say reaction, I mean withdrawal. J.H. Prynne, for example, has exploited the means specific to poetry more intensely than anyone else. However, he has also abandoned the means common to poetry and other arts more thoroughly than anyone else. In order to assess Prynne, one would have to make a close study of the popular arts, and of their limits.
There is another positive influence of photography on poetry, namely that it has made close study of faces, poses, and household objects easier, and consequently has influenced our perceptions and the poems we write. Photographs supply a constant rival to our subjective visual memories, and so throw those memories, or perceptions, into doubt. This means that the advance of technology is implicated in the rise of critical thinking. Since we do not live wholly in the present instant, memories are a central part of our identity and knowledge: to be presented with a rival pointing up the inaccuracy of memory is to be given a kind of self-knowledge which the 18th C never had. It's strange to be aware that your visual attractiveness at a certain moment was based on lighting effects; one would perhaps wish to hang on to illusion in this area.
Potentially, the presence of memories drawn from photographs should supply a much wider stock of shared experience for poems to lay on and draw out. In the 18th C, the shared landscape of the Bible and of Classical times (history or myth) played a predominant role in poetry; today, it's perfectly reasonable to pitch your poem in Palaeolithic East Africa or 16th C Japan and still expect the reader to visualize it. They've seen it on TV.
A difference is that the photographer poses his shots, assembling objects and posing live models as well as manœuvring light and reflectors. I don't think poets do this. Why should I be tied to reality just because I am a poet and not a photographer? As so often in my investigation, I stumble across the repellent possibility that contemporary poetry has lost all contact with the imagination, crippled by a doctrine of authenticity which is about as lenient as Methodism.
The serial nature of words means that each word is foregrounded at the moment of its occurrence. This makes the relation of foreground to background quite different from any picture. The perpetual disappearance of the verbal string as it moves puts weight on temporary memory; opening up the suspicion that cinema tends to drug people by blasting them with data the whole time and numbing their minds. It also shows a formal coincidence between speech and writing: at second 136 of a 5-minute oral text, you must have somewhere in memory a symbolic store of seconds 1 up to 135. (You might like to ponder the ratio between the original length of those 135 seconds and how long it takes the listener to move around the symbolic store in order to interpret second 136 as it arrives.) So even listening to oral literature involves strong skills in the area of abstraction, memorization, and symbolic manipulation. These skills were what made written literature possible, although literature also drives them to new and unheard-of pitches of intensity and speed. At every step in modern poetry we are faced with the shift from direct sensuousness to abstraction. Words are already secondary and symbolic: primary sensuousness is not possible in words. One would guess that the brain organizes sense-data into stable total-forms which integrate information from all the senses; so that photos and poems can describe the same subjects, and perhaps it doesn't matter too much which medium we choose. I was going to use the word "abstract" for these forms, but that has the wrong associations; evidently the total-form, which integrates perception, deduction, long-term memory, and recent memory, is richer than unmediated perception. The other difference is in tense; perception vanishes when the outside object moves on, but behaving in the world is impossible unless we have representations which are more constant. If the mouse disappears from view, the cat still "knows" there is a mouse about. This autonomy from the fickle flux of perception is related to the ability to calculate future events, e.g. pouncing accurately on a moving mouse. Because a future event is non-actual, I suppose it must be "abstract". But abstract cannot then mean "starved, unreal, disappointing, fictional".
Photographs appear to be "uninterpreted" but in fact they tend to incorporate signalling systems in their subject; the model may be making an unmistakable sexual come-on in the angle of her neck, the set of her lips, the angle of her hips, the fine flush on her face and chest, etc. A great deal of work is invested by the photographer in making sure that the photo is "readable", and therefore, I would say, that it is "written". We can guess that a modern poet might be "seeing" a film camera travelling through a setting of some kind, whereas a 17th C poet might have been "seeing" an engraving, for example.
Perhaps a whole region of poetry rests on a deep error to do with photography. A camera can pick up a lot of information of which the operator was unaware; so that you can contrast the "unselected" photo with the "composed" one. Much poetry has attempted to pick up raw material in just that unmediated way, to get back to a "primary" state of perception. But words are already categorizations and classifications, you can't have an undifferentiated sensuous flow; and there is no mechanical way of winning raw data in words, as the camera does for visual data. So perhaps this enterprise is best left to the camera. A lot of contemporary poetry records external appearances without inner meaning because the poet is hypnotized by photography. A related issue is fakery: the onlooker is used to scrutinizing photos as a way of finding out their truth. One studies photos of people, for example, to see just how good-looking they are, and what cosmetics they are using to disguise things. This derives from the indiscriminate greed of the lens, its apparent ability to bring us unmediated reality. This affects poetry in two ways: the reader is too concerned by realism, and undervalues subjectivity, and the poet is too inclined to describe the details of objects as if that were art or as if it were necessary. One does not find a certain ironmonger realism in Classical poetry, the poetry is too highly integrated for these details to be allowed in. Homer describes a spear because we are to think of someone being pierced by it; modern poets describe any kind of things without motive, because they think that is "evocative", i.e. to be like a camera is to write well. But if you think things are more evocative than ideas or feelings you shouldn't try to write poetry, you should buy a camera.
Painting has overcome two inbuilt handicaps - lack of duration, silence - by concentrating on and developing the means which are proper to it. The third handicap - flatness - operates in a different way, given the flatness of the image which the retina forms in any case. Poetry clearly has analogous handicaps and has excelled them in analogous ways. The failure of certain kinds of poetry may be due to a failure to analyse these handicaps. I take it that the natural face-to-face link involves facial gesture, gestures of the body, decoration of the hair and body, and speech, all at once. The other element would be the intervention of the listener to modify the direction of the speaker. This is always missing in art; which is non-dialogic. It can however contain quasi-dialogues. For this reason, the listener is not involved in art as in a real situation, but can remain on the outside and does not have to take part.
The problem with primary sensuous reality is that it isn't how we apprehend the world. There is no doubt that a cat tracks its prey by smell, sound, and sight, simultaneously; although these senses are physiologically separate. Evidently there must be a combined symbolic language into which these raw data are translated in order to locate them and locate the mouse with precision; it must be "symbolic" because e it is no longer sense data. The cat successfully uses the auditory data of a mouse scrunching through leaves to move its gaze to where the mouse is about to appear. If a cat can integrate inputs from several senses at once, how much more can a human being do! Now that we have posited this combined symbolic language, we can see that it is like words. Language has got nothing to do with direct sensory input, it is an abstract totalizing synthesis. It may in fact be not only a means of sharing information with comrades, but also the means by which the brain talks to itself, at the highest and most powerful level of meaning. Language is both less capacious and accurate than photography, and more powerful: it is more handy to manipulate because it was specially designed for manipulation. It differs from any merely sensuous representation. Perhaps a degree of attenuation of input is needed in order to prevent flooding, and to acquire some independence from the turbulence of sense data. This can be expressed in terms of a familiar paradox of navigational processing: if the Analyzor takes more than a second to process a second's worth of input, then input has periodically to be suspended to let the Analyzor catch up. If where time=t the Analyzor is still processing the raw data of t=100 at t=105, then it is essential to throw away the input data of t=101, 102...105. So perhaps our intake of the world is discontinuous; if we have to think sometimes (which seems to be subjectively true). Analysis implies freezing. So the suppressor function of consciousness may be as important to health and survival as its analytical function. A constant stream of sense data is not unmediated bliss, actually it's a form of psychological discomfort and even violation. The more fecund our senses, the more it is necessary to uncouple them and throw their information away. All models of bits of the world are less complex than what they model; but if they were perfectly accurate, they would be quite useless.
Well, back to texts. Consider the following passage:
Leave it with the slender distraction, again this
is the city shaken down to its weakness. Washed-out
green so close to virtue in the early morning,
than which for the fervent curving round to home this
is the fervent companion. The raised bank by
the river, maximum veritas, now we have no
other thing. A small red disc quivers in the street,
we watch our conscious needs swing into this point
and vanish; that it more cannot be found, no
feature, where else could we go.
(J.H.Prynne, from "The corn burned by Syrius", from The White Stones, 1969). Would this poem gain by being less reflexive, more like a series of objects? what is the emotional impact of denying a literal solution, where the poem reveals itself to be no more than a photograph? If the denial forces the brain to work, this should not be an unpleasant sensation. If a poem is about eating a watermelon, in what sense is reading the poem like eating a watermelon? If a string of words cannot recall primary sensation and gratify the physical appetites, it is logical for the poet to stimulate properly cerebral appetites as much as possible. But these appetites are all curiosity; they only want the information, within a pattern, which they haven't got. The object of desire has to be missing for the poem to have a propulsive force. A poem must be like a sensory deprivation chamber, it contains no pictures, sounds, tastes, smells or sensations. A poet survives in the intellect or not at all.
I recall the arguments of adult authority, of one time, that rock music was "rubbish" and a proof of stupidity if you liked it. I think 1965 was the year when people began taking rock music seriously, so that for example it began to attract an audience which had previously been the natural possession of jazz. Few people - few poets - who were younger than 18 in 1965 have not been strongly marked by rock music, whether this has made us stupid or not.
Rock music, since 1969, or since Dylan, has had an access to a kind of ambiguity and mystery and artistic density which orthodox neo-Movement poetry altogether lacks. I suppose the most distinctive style of rock is "hard rock", repetitive, boisterous, assertive, libidinous, like Led Zeppelin, hiphop, or (in his time) Eddie Cochran; but the Top Twenty has at no time had a majority of such records. We can't imagine the development of rock without the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, doo-wop, the Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, the Beatles, Traffic, the Band, Bob Marley, REM, and the Smiths, among others. The same people who bought heavy metal records sounding like the Afrika Korps revving up in the desert were listening to pretty little tunes in between. Poetry needn't worry about Jimmy Page stealing its thunder, but if it can't make good its claim to the area of the pastoral, the pretty, and the romantic, then it must bleed to death. It's indicative that the adjective lyric implies poetry with a musical accompaniment: does this imply that (printed) poetry has lost its connection with the folk song and courtly song, and therefore cannot be about love any more?
Every song lyric is a poem. So much for the formal side; if we define the poetic apart from form, we run into all kinds of problems of categorization. Useless to bring in discriminating terms like "complexity", which we can't define: this would mean that half the poems in a book are "not poems" because they're "too simple" and the other half are; or even that something starts being "a poem" halfway through. I prefer to stick with it, songs are poems. Poetry reaches most people with music wrapped around it; and without intelligence wrapped around it. I should have analyzed song lyrics alongside the printed poems, in this volume; but I love rock music far too much to describe it in only a few hundred pages. Poetry is popular when sung, it's the printed version which causes problems.
Poetry has evolved by separation, depriving itself of everything but words; rock is still at a mediaeval level of integration. Perhaps rock music could never have happened without television; certainly its visuals are central to it, as are the whole range of methods - dance, dress, interviews, pinups, etc. - which it uses. Rock appeals to many senses at once, and I think this is more natural and more primary than poetry, which is cognitively specialized. I suspect that printed poetry has reacted to rock music by evacuating all the areas where it overlaps with rock, and would have to compete; I regard this as disastrous, although the affinity with other "evacuations" in poetry (of a political nature, or in seeking outlets and markets) is clear. The co-action of music, dance, visual effects, etc., amounts to a great deal of information reinforcing the words; poetry which does not find a formal equivalent for this information must remain scarse, dull, and blank. Colloquial poetry is simply a waste of time. The only issue is whether the countervailing "information wealth" should take the form of rhetoric, myth, or cognitive criticism.
There are problems with the idea that "poetry is more intelligent than rock music". I don't think most poets are very intelligent. We should face the possibility that most poetry has less expressive autonomy than rock music, and is pinned to a dull domestic realism by its lack of means; with massive dependence on forms like the essay, the biography, and the interview. There is a big difference between sounding intelligent by sounding like an educated person, and possessing artistic intelligence, which transforms every phrase and every line. Indeed the notion of "personality", which mainstream poetry holds and purveys as its commodity, prevents artistic intelligence, as the latter obstructs the total access to personality. Words are hindered by social manners in a way which music isn't; it may be the "class signature" imprinted on much poetry which makes it unpopular, not the intellectual challenge offered by cold print. Anyway, intelligence isn't a thing you can just plug in to freshen up a worn-out tune.
Let's suppose that the specific thing of poetry is intelligence. It would have to specialize in, extend into, ideas and abstraction. But 99% of English poetry is bad domestic realism, with no ideas content at all, and the fetish for "sensuous detail" piling up toasters, frogs, and bits of masonry everywhere. Most of the poetry public regards "ideas" and "abstractions" with utter horror. I think such poets should ask why they're doing what they do, and whether it's good for anything.
If pop music is "poetry minus intelligence", and poetry is "science or sociology minus intelligence", what on earth is poetry for? I believe poetry has to do with feelings. That is, the poet should have a faculty for emotion, and for understanding other people's emotions, and for expression, at least as much as a faculty for organizing words. But emotion is where song is so strong and adequate. Intelligence isn't a subject in itself the way emotions are. I'm not sure how much any feminist poem has more than Lesley Gore singing "You Don't Own Me".
Poets have imitated the concept of Meness from rock, the star concept, not always borrowing at the same time the means to sustain it. Because they have wrongly learnt from marketing analysts that the appeal of artists depends on sociological identification, they believe that sociological identity is enough, and that they don't actually need to spend time writing as well. If a reader laughs at them, they accuse the reader of social prejudice, and their cosy little delusion is only reinforced by rejection. One sign of this is when more effort goes into the "caption biography" and the photograph of the poet, than into the poems. But then, thought is inauthenticity, as we know.
An alarming possibility is that poetry resembles singer-songwriters. That whole compound of whingeing sensitivity, 'intelligence', apathy, hypochondriac self-regard, low affect, winsome simpering, and total reliance on the singer's personality, is predominant in the world of amateur and mainstream poetry. The difference between modernist poets and self-struck lyricists is just that between rock music breaking its own boundaries by improvisation and sonic research, and singer-songwriters languishing in a comatose neat melodious hush. This is identified as being intelligent. The typical reaction of poetry to commercial art is not to adopt ideas and thinking, but to entrench itself inside a kind of authenticity which is less insistent than the ear-piercing and highly organized effectiveness of cinema or rock or advertizing. This "reliability" or stolidity precludes the obtrusive and damning act of expressing emotions in public, that is, in poetry. So we come to the grim truth: the orthodox English poet fears and shuns both ideas and emotions. The nature of their aims and appeal is quite different.
It seems that there is a shared imaginary underlying poetry and rock, given by the preconceptions of society, not specific to any art form. These take the form of a site-meaning complex, a stable formation consisting of numerous traits bound together, with a present emotional value. The only example I will give is the "slum frustration complex", and its realisation in "Girl we gotta get out of this place", by The Animals (1966); I vividly recall watching this on Top of the Pops at the time, with a black and white verite sequence of slums in Newcastle (I suppose) illustrating it. The wordless footage of ordinary streets with high-rises and so on carried the emotional value of pity and frustration: Girl, there's a better place for me and you. Watching reruns of such footage from that era recently, we noticed that uncommented film of British families and towns as they are is always tear-jerking. It's hard to dredge up where these meanings were first encoded, but this complex does illuminate many poems, where uncommented realism is supposed to be moral and moving and progressive all at once. This meaning (actually site-emotion complex) was already existing in the British public mind, so that it was used up, and a poem which evoked it straight would be clichéd. The problem is to evoke such sites and give them a different artistic and emotional value. When a poet avoids commentary on a presented scene, it usually means that the pathos being evoked is completely conventional, and so does not need to be pointed out; poetry must present its arguments.
One could find perhaps a couple of dozen place-meaning complexes. It seems to me that these mainly originate in the nineteenth century, and have a religious framework, rich in both piety and sentiment. This is why we dislike those words, while however an artist who lacked piety and sentiment would be found quite heartless. Because printed poetry is a cold medium, it has to be evolved in its methods: the primary place-meaning complexes, developed over centuries by various mass forms (engravings, melodramas, popular tracts, newspaper photographs, etc.) do not work in a cold medium, they unravel themselves. Poetry starts from the shared complexes of scene, emotion, and interpretation, and cuts up these already sophisticated deposits of meaning as its raw material. The subtlety of British poetry in our period was made possible and necessary by the convergence of popular cosmology in shared social-political frames and in television programmes which seven million people watched every week. Closeness was the ground of distance. Conversely, the emergence of unorthodox cosmologies in the early 1970s made for poems of a much more orthodox and primary organization.
Rock music is identified with rebellion. This is very popular. However, it runs the risk of being merely surly and abusive, a mugger's work song. The techniques by which rock songs avoid this are subtle, or if not subtle at least efficient and thorough. Rock has always had a strong elements of burlesque and self-parody. Rock has at its core the assertion of visible power, just like the parade architecture of kings and aristocrats; everyone's aware of this power, but its play nature is never to reveal whether it is sexual potency, or electricity, or the ability to rock, or youth, or lack of emotional ambiguity, or being in a crowd, or simply the awareness that everything is in fun. Greil Marcus said about Elvis singing "Have you heard the news? there's good rocking tonight", laughing with delight, that the good news was him. If someone's palace is laughing, you forget its basis in wealth. Rock's revolt is secession from space owned by jealous adults; but always also entry into play space filled by teenagers. Dancing is an assertion of strength, which also acknowledges the power of everyone else, to look and grant prestige, if they wish. So this game can be highly competitive and energetic without hurting anybody. Rock and roll is founded on the invitation to sociality and the dance, offering a space where conflict can only be harmless. Rock offers the party of "C'mon everybody", with its promise of available members of the opposite sex, and of rivals who are not so formidable as human specimens that they wipe you out altogether. I feel that poetry should offer this kind of ideal party, and will not be popular unless it does.
It's forgivable for adolescents to be sulky, because they are the bottom of the pile; they get low wage rates and aren't given responsibility. Someone who is uncooperative even when offered equal shares, as a grownup, is a bad lot; which is why poetry based on this premise is unattractive. Surliness is close to apathy, a net inability to be interested or to express yourself. The spirit of revolt must, in poetry, become genuine politics or else exhibit itself as a character defect. Rebellion in poetry cannot be as simple as adolescent frustration ("no more movies for a week or two"), it is more fraught with consequences.
Poetic style is also linked to revolt, even generational conflict. Rock music does correspond to modernism insofar as the use of new technology obliterates a "naturalized" palette of sounds, as new technology is experimental, and as the sheer libido of rock music resembles the subjectivity of modernist art, freed from realism in order to express the soul more fully. The stress on the "lead guitar", in constant ad lib ornamentation of the main melody, is curiously like abstract painting, as the wilful ornament fights with and drowns the realist basis. Electronics made the sound freely controllable, and the rise of the producer from Eddie Cochran on is an instance of artistic elements becoming conscious, and artists questioning the rules rather than simply expressing "character". Poetry has no electronics but can put the Personality into question, and make the rules of language free. The whole point of breaking up the formal verse pattern of the 1950s was to make every line a variation, and the whole cadence a tremor of constantly renewed energy. Because rhythm is made up of emphases, you can't have rhythm without motivation.
The altered sounds of rock contained the traditional sounds of wood and fibre as allusions or as hostages. The structural similarity of every rock song makes the slight contrasts more striking and so encourages the composer to pursue stylistic distinctiveness, as the point of major interest to everyone. Not only improvisation, but also the elaborate ornamentation of the "solo" and the pseudo-"code violation" of electronic effects (e.g. fuzz guitar) were made meaningful by this rule-boundness. Rock is only free because it always follows the same cadence. This public sensitivity to style allows rock music to address a collective mood. When "Sister Feelings Call", by Simple Minds, came out in 1982, it felt like a huge relief as it ended the era of very condensed, angry, depressed songs, during Punk; it was telling you to forgive yourself for bad feelings, it was OK to be happy again; and everyone reacted to it in this way, so it included the recent past. I think poets want this density of meaning, but the poetry community is too sparse for such meaning to be deposited and shared. This time-bound meaning of 'Sister Feelings Call' is not strictly present in the grooves of the record, it is supplied by a shared imaginary from which we take meanings to be given to the work of art. Perhaps a critic of poetry ought to be supplying just these slabs of context: but these cannot be put in a review unless they exist, i.e. unless there is a consensual aura of beliefs, hopes, and attitudes, on the part of artist and audience, which floats the work forward and gives it a symbolic load. A test is whether it is possible for poetry to betray something: betrayal is not possible unless you stand for something.
One of the issues here is individualism: as we have said, it's meaningless to describe a single consciousness when that consciousness exists to relate to other consciousnesses. A great deal of contemporary poetry defines lack of stylistic awareness as authenticity; this also confines the poetry to a single voice. In rock music, intense stylistic awareness makes for the incorporation of the Other (in cover versions, for example), which frees expressive means for mimesis of all kinds; it allows the musical discourse to contain two voices, and therefore to express the encounter of two personalities. Fear of style traps the poem in a single voice, unable to express interaction or variation. Stylistic freedom is needed to describe love as a process. Evasiveness ('sensitivity') is then the atrophied stub of response to another person, present only as a perceptual block confining the poem's field of manœuvre; as inability to describe feelings is exhibited as the sign of true feeling.
Finally, let's quote some lines which sum up, in every sense, the literary attainments of rock and roll. These come from the theme song to "Muscle Beach Party", as interpreted by Miss Donna Loren. Kick, slap your thighs, and that's how it goes. You turn your head and you strike up a pose. Do the Mashed Potatoes and stick out your chest. The guys are looking good but the girls are looking best.
Journalism is a misleading category, because the contents of periodicals are so diverse; what interests me here is poetry discussing the state of the nation.
Poets posed, in the 1960s, as in the 1970s and 1980s, and today, the question: why shouldn't poetry deal with urgent current affairs? This is in fact one of the ideas which cause young poets to swell up with pride and to scorn their elders. But it has always been so; their elders also wrote about pressing concerns of the day, but those poems have been forgotten, or are dull, for precisely that reason. Autumn Journal, by Louis MacNeice, is closely written about current events (in 1938, or whenever it was exactly) but is no more interesting than reading hundreds of pages of Times editorials from the same year. Robert Graves wrote, with Alan Hodges, a social history of Britain between the wars, The Long Weekend, still irresistibly interesting; none of Graves' poems deal with the topic of social history, and evidently he thought that prose was the correct medium for this subject. Graves was right.
The most prominent factor in journalistic writing is how bored everyone is by it. You can't sell yesterday's newspapers. The release of the information devastates its market value. Of course this proves the effectiveness of the news media in informing people, in huge numbers, quickly. Reporters are desperate to find new stories. It's puzzling how poets could expect to derive new value by recycling what's been in the newspapers. The difference between Auden and several hundred journalists of the period is that Auden didn't say anything about international affairs in the Thirties, and also was devoted to himself rather than to international politics. He was rewriting the newspapers in the belief that his personality was added value. I am not sure this concept of personality is any more than a cultured accent and an air of distinction. Today's Green poems are like journalism except they contain no interesting information and are unconvincing as arguments, mainly signalling what a nice person the author is.
There is a whole world of people studying British society, and the activity of public officials and of Parliament is guided, at least in part, by the ideas and data which come out of this pool of talent. Surely no one studies current affairs merely as stories, surely the interest is always to reform society. One has to ask whether the language they use to communicate with each other has not reached a high degree of perfection for its purpose; which is why there is so much stylistic agreement between the quality press, the internal discourse of quangoes and the Civil Service, the papers of academics, serious TV programmes on current affairs, and debate in Parliament. These interlock with each other, the avoidance of repeating old data is a concomitant of the fact that debate advances, and that each stratum is built on the results of the previous ones. In order to say something interesting, you have to be at the top of the cone of knowledge. The conduct of an argument is easier in a newspaper (TV programme, conversation, radio programme, etc.) because the audience has a huge amount of contextual information; it's like the 17th day of a court case. This dense context is not easily set up in poetry. Of course, six months later the context will have vanished, as the news-consuming audience forgets the details. Density is transient and monopolistic. By the time poetry has become perfectly effective as journalism, it is journalism and consists of prose mixed with photographs and tables. I feel that most of the poetry I see which tries to comment on social reality, in the manner of newspapers, is flawed both logically and informationally. There is no gap to be filled. It would be a lot more tragic if British journalism went into eclipse than if British poetry did.
Journalism deals in what is central and public, and has to label those selected events as central in order to make money by writing about them. Rolling back the frontiers of the State has critically reduced the Government's power and responsibility; the centre is smaller and whatever disasters occur are due to apparently immanent features of the "system". But newspapers sell this idea of "central place": the king gets murdered in his tent one night and the whole "national destiny" is there, in one camera shot. History isn't literature; but literature trades in this centrality, this gallery of tableaux. The shared imaginary has this tinge of allegory and paranoia. A story about a dole faker incenses everybody, because that is a hot spot in a shared fictive space. Somehow we agree to project our identity into those spaces, to fight over them, to accept their legitimacy as gauges where the pressure of political fluids can be measured.
I've said that poets lack the journalistic virtues. Let me add that, when they write about current affairs, they amply share the journalistic vices. One problem is that newspapers have had their ideological decisions fixed early on, as part of their marketing strategy. This correlates with people's desire to read a newspaper quickly and to be given as little information as possible. Newspaper stories sell a political-social attitude, not doubt. News copy is homogenized in the same way as hamburgers and automobile parts. Roy Fisher has drawn attention to the English penchant for moralizing everything, as if we were still living through Victorian moralism in a literary sense, newspapers forcing reality into stories whose formulae are 150 years old, with the Imperial efficiency and unbreakability of Victorian machinery. Maybe news copy is a poison pill for poets (and for songwriters, dramatists, painters...) because its high finish as a commodity means that it is too standard and too worn-out to be usable in art. Genuinely politicized poetry must be oblique and fundamental. Perhaps cognitive criticism is the only way to be political in poetry. Of course this means the reader will have to think, and will accuse you of obscurity. Staleness is usually referred to by journalists as immediacy.
You seek high profits, as a property speculator, either by buying empty land or by buying up inner city sites; both have potential for rapid growth in value. The writer has the same fatal choice between the place where everyone is and the place where no one is. In the first, no one listens to you because it isn't about them and has a lack of events. I suppose the delays in getting poetry published and read mean it will concentrate on the spots where everyone isn't.
It's instructive to go through a daily newspaper and count up how many of the stories are rewrites of information issued by the Government, or corporations, or by the Stock Exchange, or the courts. In practice, newspapers don't have the resources to undertake large-scale data collection. Now, I'm not saying that journalists passively transmit the messages (sometimes even truthful) emitted by Government and corporations; on the contrary, journalists add value by collating different accounts of the same events, and revealing inconsistencies. (Of course, much journalism isn't like this, it's a branch of showbiz, as we know.) At this point we enter the realm of cognitive dissonance — which has been important in modern art since "The Caretaker" and "Stiller". The journalist overlays different accounts, maps their data topology onto each other (in which points of identity become critical) and then points out the bias and concealment of each one (where points of dissonance become important). This critical method is certainly the only way of finding out the inner meaning of the text, its methods of construction. Critical journalism contains more, not less, information than the official sources it reworks. Now, this is something which we can expect poems to deal with; by being cognitively critical, poets are in line with the analytical criticism which is the staple of serious journalists, of businessmen, engineers, scientists, and also (if they're worth their salt as attorneys of the people) by elected politicians. This is another example of making the rules of the code visible along with the messages written in the code. Metre is a continuation of the rhythms of speech in more radical terms, cognitive criticism is a continuation in more radical terms of the reality-testing and data collating function of listening.
It has been said that "programs equal data plus procedures". If the audience already has the mass of shared public data discussed above, then poets can achieve new results merely by describing and teaching new procedures.