|World Congress of Poets Sydney 2001|
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The overall theme of the congress was: Poetry for world peace in the new millennium with five sub-themes.
Poetry, Biology, Peace
Lyric poetry develops from a different impulse to that which drives narrative, as it is usually constructed in movies, novels and TV. Most narrative is a verbal enactment of our instincts for either survival or enlargement and triumph—of perhaps the most basic instincts of the tribe. There are endless variations of the ways in which it is a ritual of increase: we follow a hero or heroine through a journey strewn with anxiety-inducing obstacles until a situation is made safe or an adversary is overcome, or until the status of the protagonist is confirmed or improved. A woman ends up in the arms of a high-status partner. The protagonist of the thriller deals with the threat, asserts his righteous independence against the agenda of his superior, and has his status confirmed by the sidelong glances of his beautiful co-worker. All the genres have at their heart such formulae of survival or increase. It makes sense that we should have a deep attachment to prevailing—after all, getting through the day has been the primary task of our species for most of its history. But this instinct, which has looked after us well, which has been our emotional backbone, has become the source of many of our most difficult problems, as it has led us to confront limitations to resources, territory, and population growth.
The project of civilization has always been a precarious one, and time and again it has taken second place to the necessities of survival, and the power-constructs of the ego-narrative. It is the function of the contemporary lyric to create and meditate on spaces in which humans might live free of these restraints—or, at least, not wholly determined by them. Ultimately, the lyric is born of consciousness: one might say it is the result of awareness of narrative (I have always thought that much of our consumption of narrative is not quite conscious: we chew our way through it as if involuntarily). This places the lyric in the position of being at odds with many of those instincts which drive narrative. To be fair, there is also much narrative that, rather than being simply increase-ritual, also contemplates human behaviour: most contemporary literary prose, for instance—although, with the collapse of narrative confidence, it is ironic to see the asymptotes of prose tending, as Eliot might have said, towards the condition of poetry.
One of the chief differences between the lyric, and ego-surrogate narrative, is the fact that the lyric, not being driven by a passion for increase, is free to contemplate the other. Lyric is, as it were, an inherently democratic form, it uses the unpredictable but focused attentiveness of the imagination as a conduit by which the other can enter the gaze of the society. The capacity to imagine the other is a pre-requisite for the emergence of democracy, and I think there is a connection between the emergence of the modern lyric, and the mindset from which the early formulations of democracy developed. Ego-narrative, on the other hand, characteristically perceives others as rivals or obstacles—or subsumes them as allies—simplifying them so that they are easier to handle within the framework of the narrative’s objectives. It is one of the commonest psychological tropes: faced with the possibility that our enlargement, our agenda, may have to consider someone else, we find some way of making sure that we can forge ahead without restraint by de-legitimizing or otherwise neutralizing the claims of the other. In this respect, our typical narratives are not democratic. They take the form of rivalries perceived through the eyes of one particular combatant, and are characteristically resolved through one party winning at the expense of another. Admittedly, this is within the framework of morality, but the effect of morality is typically to harden our distinctions, to act as a means of exclusion: to demonize so that our own agendas are permitted. One thinks of the way in which words such as "evil" do not actually mean anything in themselves: psychologically, their function is to enable us to act by pre-empting the necessity for thought. It is noteworthy that forgiveness is a very rare visitor to the domain of the narrative. Forgiveness belongs to the world of many voices, the world of the lyric.
If I were asked to nominate the characteristic emotions of the ego-narrative I would propose a pairing such as resentment and triumph—resentment at one’s empowerment being delayed, triumph as the elation when this anxiety is finally released. Many people have pointed out that the dynamic of triumph is ultimately nihilistic: if one were able to be triumphant over everything, one would, in fact, be triumphant over nothing. The conquests of narrative are always relativistic. They only ever make sense in terms of signs. They are not reactions to the world, they are reactions to some pre-conceived semantics of status. Ego-narratives are always moving away from the moment in pursuit of such goals: flags, certificates, pay-rises, trophy-wives, territory. Hitler embodied this pattern. It infected the dreams of the communist leaders. It is also endemic in capitalism: it is the selfishness which capitalism legitimizes. But it means nothing. I think of Frost’s "victories of doubt/That need endless talk-talk/To make them out"¹. The impulse of the lyric, on the other hand, is to explore the moment: to investigate the different impulses it contains and to see how we might live there, to celebrate and re-enact the sensual and the other. And it is the moment in which we must live: with which, finally, we must come to terms. One might even say that the trouble with history has been that people have too rarely been capable of living in the moment.
One reason, I suggest, why audiences for poetry in the west are relatively small, is that people do not like the place where poetry takes them. For people whose lives are negotiations of power, the moment is a disturbing place—naked, fluid, only partially inhabited by the sign, a gap between narratives where social constructions of power are in a state of constant tacit interrogation from the non-verbal. This wariness with respect to verse implies some profound denials: I often think there is a profound realism to poetry, when compared to the absurd significations—the escapism—of the ego-driven imagination.
The challenge, then, is to find some way of leaving behind these narratives which are so deeply ingrained in us. Most post-modern interpretations will say that injustices developed because we allowed an unjust master-narrative to shape us (Many, of course, will argue that the idea of any master-narrative is inherently unjust. While disagreeing with this, it is a huge question, and not one that can be dealt with in a paper this brief). I believe rather that unjust narratives are an expression of our emotions, that an instinct for power—necessary while living close to the possibility of extinction—is natural, but that peace and morality are constructed. The history of the race has, perhaps more than anything else, been one of a continuing agon between culture and instinct, so if I am proposing that humans need to be permanently in conflict with elements of their own nature, I am not really proposing anything new. The major religions, for instance, have had a long history of arguing against the impulses of the ego-narrative, countering instinctive growth-narratives with alternatives of their own—where, for instance, exaltation may still occur, but later, in heaven, as a result of suppressing the immediate urge towards enlargement.
As well as the issues involving the relegation of the other, a further problem with narrative is that it does not actually offer us a place in which we might live. It does incorporate debate about the choices we might make with respect to behaviour, but not, as it were, what the point of behaviour might be. The end of all narrative is to arrive at the place from which it has been trying to escape: to find itself, that is, in the moment. But it does not offer us any ideas about what to do when we get there. I am not suggesting we can afford to live without it: it is indispensable—I have no idea how we might characterize our passage through time without its patterns. It is ideally suited, for instance, to the continuing dialogues about the nature of justice. But there is a sense in which all discussions of meaning only begin when the narrative has ended.
Some people argue that the lyric is only a shorter piece of narrative anyhow. I certainly think that it cannot help but be situated within narrative possibilities, that it may indeed contain elements of larger narratives—those of literary debate for example—and that, being drawn from the theatre of imaginative enactments, lyric poems must, potentially, open out onto narrative. But I still do not think it is a narrative itself. Mostly, it is written at a point one step back from the thing which it is contemplating, and therefore exhibits a dual awareness: it is both absorbtive and anti-absorbtive, the reader will be situated both within and outside it. It is precisely this space, accommodating both the reader’s desires and his or her sense of limitation, the reader’s sense of self as well as his or her sense of other, that is so different to the single-voiced projections of our biology-based narratives. The lyric enacts, within it, the same multiplicity of presence that is found in democracy—or, at least, in that idealized democracy we continue to work fitfully towards. (At present, I would be more inclined to say that such elements of democracy as we do have are the results of negotiations among single voices, than that they are the result of multiplicities at home in our imaginations). One way, I would argue, of writing bad lyric verse is for the self to appropriate this space in which dual awareness occurs—out of some desire, perhaps, to be noticed—in such a way as to usurp the poem’s balance of gravities with its own insistences. The overly self-conscious voice is, currently, a common impediment to the creation of spaces the reader and writer can share.
The ways in which the lyric constructs its imagined spaces are, also, ways of being in the moment. They shape exploration and pleasure rather than triumph: the music of language, the enactments of the diaphragm and larynx and amygdala, the invocation of presences. This last is important. To experience the presence of an other is a very different thing to pushing ahead on a journey to some place which is only as solid as belief in its codification. Presences invoked in the lyric are not necessarily encoded for power: Slessor’s harbour², Hart’s Brisbane heat³, Malouf’s lover 4 —the very thing that has drawn the poet to them is that they resist reduction to meaning. Such virtual presences have been largely overlooked in theory, partly perhaps because people have thought, incorrectly, that their function—their structural semantics, as Bernstein might say—is similar to that of the immanences on which some master-narratives were constructed, which have already been systematically challenged. But contemporary poets have not tended to invoke them as justifications for a system—or for anything. They are much more likely to be invoked for their meaningless power to move us, their gesture towards the non-verbal. Anything can operate as an other in the lyric: it is one of the enduring fascinations of the form that it allows a continuing meditation on that which is beyond meaning. Even semantic constructs—narratives, for instance—can operate as presences whose power in the imagination is enhanced precisely because at some level, even meaning stops being significant, as the pattern into which something fits reaches the limits of its explanatory power: I think, for example, of the border ballads, where, it seems to me, the narratives and their moods are the real objects of attention.
To be both inside and outside, to be both captive and commentator, is the difficult place in which we have to live. It is not a comfortable place: it assumes the provisionality of identity and belief, and provides no sanctuaries. It is in constant flux. But to stay wholly inside is to be captured by narrative, to risk a future where our biological imperatives are repetitively transformed into the competing nihilisms of the ego-narrative. Lyric poetry is an alternative to this: a means by which we can create spaces in which we both acknowledge our biology, and critique it. The struggle to construct and maintain such spaces will, I think, be a difficult one for a long time yet.
1. Robert Frost, "An Empty Threat" from New
2. Kenneth Slessor, eg "Five Bells" in One
Hundred Poems, Angus & Robertsons 1944.
3. Kevin Hart, Wicked Heat, Paperbark Press,
4. David Malouf, eg "The Crab Feast" in First
Things Last, UQP 1980.
Poetry and My Life
CHO, KWUNGSOO(IWA), Pastor Poet(WCP)
poem takes a high level of concentration to do this kind of work, it is
necessary to take a rest.