An Oral Compulsion: The Image

25 09 2009

The following is a copy of the talk I’ve been compelled into delivering for one of my  coursework subjects this semester.

Hello everyone.

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

 I’m from the English, Media and Performing Arts school of UNSW and I’m going to talk to you very quickly about what is the central notion of my Masters Thesis.  We’ll look at two ideas that I’ll be considering further in the full thesis project, and we’ll also have a look at some examples that illustrate these concepts.

 The thesis itself is an examination of the ability of poetic language to make us see visually, or at least to make us experience poetic meaning through visual metaphor.

I tend to approach this idea as a cognitive, phenomenological concept, so that’s the filter I’ll be using for this particular discussion


 There are, ostensibly, two types of ways that images can operate on a basic level, which I refer to as internal and external genesis.  The internal genesis is where, rather than describing a visual sensation, the poet conjures a sense of seeing and experiencing by suggesting the arrangement of elements that are already within the reader’s understanding.

 A regular user of this type of imager was Wordsworth, and a couple of verses pulled from his much longer poem ‘The idiot Boy’ make a good example.

But Betty’s bent on her intent,
For her good neighbour, Susan Gale,
Old Susan, she who dwells alone,
Is sick, and makes a piteous moan,
As if her very life would fail.

There’s not a house within a mile,
No hand to help them in distress;
Old Susan lies a bed in pain,
And sorely puzzled are the twain,
For what she ails they cannot guess.

Wordsworth doesn’t draw the image for you, instead, in the way the Romantics adored, the image comes filtered through human experience, and so we are told ‘there’s not a house within a mile’ leaving us to conjure the lonely pastoral house from our own conceptions. Similarly, are told that Susan ‘is sick’, and ‘lies a bed in pain’ but the image of an ill woman isn’t painted for us, it comes from inside and presses outwards on the experience of the poem, the meaning moving from our knowledge towards the poem.

 The External genesis is where the image is ‘painted’ for us by the poet. This is a more easily understood form of image and has been readily described by the poets and critics for thousands of years. 

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

The Roman poet ‘Horace’ called this ‘ut picture poesis’, paraphrased as ‘poetry is like painting’.  This form of imagery has been a favourite to many of the poetry movements over the years, the neo-classicists, romantics and modern poets had a lot of fun with it. It is probably most famous for its deliberate centralisation by the Imagists of the early 1900s. A number of very good examples can be found for this style, but I think William Carlos Williams is probably the most sophisticated but accessible poets of this type.  One simple example is his poem ‘The red Wheelbarrow’:

 The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

beaded with rain

beside the white

 Rather than asking us to conjure the image internally, the objects are painted for us by the poem. They are painted in minimalist, modernist terms certainly, but they are painted. This was Williams’ intent. He wanted us to see the objects, with the aim of breaking down the distance between the word and the thing.  In this way the meaning of the image is directed from its external existence into the reader and the meaning moves from poem to knowledge.


 The second point I wish to make about the cognitive operation of the image is the idea that the image as a figurative unit can be broken down into two halves. I call these the physical half and the symbolic half of an image. As I was casting my mind around for examples I passed a kebab shop and I thought that its name would make a fine example, so well go with that. It was ‘The Golden Kebab.’

 When something is being described as golden, how does it operate in terms of the dual existence of the image?

  The physical half of an image operates by referring to a real physical thing that could be seen and touched. A golden kebab, then, in this shop name would be a physical kebab made out of gold. Yellow, heavy, hard yet pliable and completely unappetising.  

Kebab (just ass)

Kebab (just ass)

But the name ‘the golden kebab’ isn’t operating on the physical level the way ‘The red wheelbarrow’ was. That was literally a red wheel barrow, and it’s the physical nature of the image that is being used in that poem.  With ‘the golden kebab’ the metaphor comes from the conceptual side of the image.

 In the conceptual sense refers to the symbolic connotations that are suggested by the physical thing, or the idea of the physical thing. Something golden is precious and valuable.  Something is golden if it is the best of its class, a golden boy, the golden child, the golden crown of a king. It implies authority, value, purity and supremacy. So ‘the golden kebab’ uses transference of the conceptual elements of gold for their metaphor, rather than the physical.


  Poetry is one of the ways a culture talks about itself, questions itself, its actions and its values. The image is the way in which experience is brought into the poetry and directed either from the reader into the poem, or from the poem towards a new understanding in the reader.  You can tell a lot about a society by looking at how they used the image in their poetry, it’s like a handshake. Everyone uses it, but always a little differently.


Pornography’s Many Faces

4 09 2009

Pornography is a complex issue, but it shouldn’t be. There are a few reasons

The least NSFW image i could find in Creative Commons

The least NSFW image i could find in Creative Commons

it’s complex. For Americans it can be divisive along the Freedom of Expression lines that have customarily guarded distasteful expression from the majority opinion. Pornography, if not really a minority form of speech, still represents a subject matter not commonly accepted as socially approved. The main reason that pornography is a complex beast*, however, is that there has traditionally been a lack of consensus about how Pornography is defined. In an exploration of this issue, and in preparation for an essay I’m about to write on the subject, I thought I would run through a few of the more common definitions of pornography that have held weight over the last century or so.

 The original meaning of the word ‘pornography’ comes from the Greek root word ‘Porne’, for prostitute. So the form of pornography was originally as a list of prostitutes and the services one could *ahem* *cough* obtain from said *cough* ladies. While the word has, obviously, moved on from this form of definition since its conception there is still some usefulness in this definition, which we’ll come to when we consider the aesthetic definition of Porn.

 Another common definition of pornography was based on its function. This is to say, pornography was whatever material designed for the purpose of arousing sexual desire in the reader/viewer through explicit descriptions of sexual acts. This definition is still pretty fundamental to the ‘genre’. One could, for instance remove whatever semblance of plot from a pornographic book and it would still be porn. Take the sex out of it though, and is it still pornography? No. it is a brief pamphlet composed mostly of adjoining scenes. From this functional definition comes the old maxim of porn being literature read with one hand. Appropriately or not this also implies a male oriented nature in pornography, which is relevant when we come to look at Feminist definitions.

 A liberal mind, open to sexual explicitness, might tend to say that sexual explicitness doth not the Porn Book make. In the wake of serious literature that contained within its content scenes of explicit description, a liberal definition of pornography might choose to draw a line between sexual literature and porn on Aesthetic grounds. Pornography, they might say, is not just the explicit depiction of sex; it is also badly written with no character development or plot to speak of, save what is absolutely necessary to move the reader from one sexual encounter to the next. This aesthetic definition tends to couple itself** with literary definitions which, similarly, seek to define pornography as a genre along aesthetic grounds. In this way Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence is not pornographic, as its detailed descriptions of sex come within a social and literary context.

 The aesthetic definition harks back to the original idea of pornography as a list of prostitutes’ services. The aesthetic idea considers porn to be no more than a list of sexual exchanges described in utilitarian*** detail.

 At about the same time that the Aesthetic/Literary definitions were gaining strength, the strength of moral definitions of pornography was waning. The moral definition is closely tied to obscenity law, where something is obscene is pornographic if it (more or less) has the effect of corrupting those into whose hands it is likely to fall. The moral definition of pornography as a sexually corruptive force tends to be focused on the effect that pornography has on the reader/viewer, rather than the aesthetic of technical components of the material. As such, it is seen as being corruptive because it promotes an unrealistic idea of sex in a vulnerable mind, a view based on male sexual fantasies rather than a fulfilling reality. This definition was traditionally adopted by conservative voices who sought to prevent the creation and dissemination of pornography through legal means. Strangely, though this definition fell out of favour, more or less, with the rise of the aesthetic definition, it was revitalised and re-adopted by a new, antithetical force:

 Feminist definitions of pornography are a mix of Moral and Functional definitions (which were always pretty similar to begin with) with their own social slant. In basic terms the feminist idea defines pornography in terms of its power relationships. Like the functional definition it sees pornography as material that aids lust, but more specifically as an aide to male masturbation. As such pornography is inherently a male artefact that uses women as the centre of male ‘sexual gaze’, turning women into sex objects subordinated for the purpose of satisfying male sexual desire. Like the moral definition it also seeks to define pornography by the social effects it has, which is generally seen as reinforcing a male subordination of women socially and sexually. Some more extreme views see pornography as being a contributing factor in rape and the abuse of women.

 While the feminist idea of porn I definitely driven by a social agenda rather than a desire for literary understanding, the truth of the power-relationships inherent in mainstream pornography is hard to deny. Interestingly, the definition doesn’t tend, in the abstract, to differentiate between pornography that is well written or pornography that isn’t, instead being concerned with whether or not it represents an anti-woman idea of sex. From this definition comes the divide between pornography and erotica, where erotica is seen as sexually focused material that presents a ‘realistic’ or ‘balanced’ idea of sex without subordination.

 I myself, while I recognise the inherent issues surrounding the politics of representation, am uneasy with a definition that has an agenda. I am attempting, in preparation for this essay, to organise my brain around a non-pejorative definition of pornography, so that pornography can be well written or badly written, masculine or feminine, and also change in line with social norms. What was pornographic for Victorian England is no longer pornography for us, so I see the need for a definition that takes changing contexts into account. It may end up being a definition based on the notion of authorial intent, but also coupled with a functional, response based evaluation.  

 Perhaps it should be material that, in social context, had the effect of being sexually explicit material with the aim of sexual arousal. This would need to differentiate between material that was not intended for this purpose but which might be adopted as an aid to masturbation. This would be a fringe, and aberrant form, however, and probably needs a definition of its own based on user re-appropriation rather than as a genre of intent. This non-pejorative definition, also, would need to allow for the existence of  pornographic ‘moments’ within a non-pornographic text.

 It will require some consideration.


 *          A complex beast of many backs.

**        So to speak.

***      One Handed

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

27 08 2009

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee


 One of the great maxims of our age* should be: when in doubt, quote Shakespeare. It’s not one, at least that I’m aware of, but in the busy storm of life, or in a lack of inspiration, Shakespeare is a safe harbour to sail into…

 Any Poet in a storm? **

 Yes? No. No, sorry. Forget I said that. *cough*

 Anyway, enough has already been written about the romantically titled Sonnet 18 (above) such that adding my meagre voice to the mix is hardly going to contribute to the overall understanding of the poem. In short, however,  the poem asks whether it should compare the subject to a summer’s day, and then describes why the subject is much ‘fairer’ than that, as a summers day is shorter, rougher, and more likely to decline than the person that it is being compared to. In the same way that a person may be flattered with faint praise the poem has the effect of praising the subject through the fact that a summers day compares unfavourably to them, though it is perhaps fairer to say that the person compares to the ideal summers day, one that is not rough, or brief, or intemperate.

Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18

The poem is, ostensibly, as much about writing poetry as it is about the subjects ‘fairness’. Where the first half denigrates the act of poetic comparison, and the poet’s ability to find an apt symbol, the second half of the poem brags that by expressing the subject in poetry they have essentially immortalised them.

 But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

This may be a bit of ‘street’ poetry criticism. But with this sonnet I feel like there are serviceable lines, for eg. ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’, and then there are the ‘Money Quotes’ like ‘Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade’. Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff. It’s all great, don’t get me wrong. This is Shakespeare, the man had a skill. But some phrases are more… transcendent than others. ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of may,’ is another one. Rhythm, rhyme, and meaning all come together into one finely tuned phrase. The beauty nearly obscures the actual meaning of the line.

 Neither sentiments – that the person being described is too beautiful to be described aptly, and the immortalisation in poetry of said beauty – are original to Shakespeare. Ovid’s Tristia is the much cited [suspected] inspiration for the second theme.

 What is more interesting is the gentle battleground being drawn across this poem as it relates to the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality. Actually, it’s not really a battleground. It’s more of a vague musing on the part of those Shakespeare scholars who have plainly exhausted all other possible avenues of speculation. The matter breaks down, more or less, into the order of the Sonnets as they were published.

 Sonnet 18 is clearly a poem of intense adoration, to the point where it is very often used as an example of classical love poetry. On the other hand, the poem is traditionally understood as being part of a series of sonnets called ‘The Fair Youth Sequence’ which are dedicated to a male friend of Shakespeare. This leads some scholars to think that, mayhap, the Bard preferred a bit o’ the ‘love that dare not speak its name.’ the counter argument is, of course, fuck it, Shakespeare was married. Then again, he ran away from his wife to live amidst the merry thespians of London. All in all, it’s fairly inconclusive. The other complication is the suggestion that the order of the poems was arbitrarily changed by the publisher who just threw number 18 in after 17 because, hell, it seemed to fit. No one’s going to read too much into it, right?

 This is, very possibly, the least important question in Shakespeare scholarship. You can also tell that this is one of his earlier sonnets. As time went on, Shakey*** became less fond of the end stopping he uses frequently in this poem and gets more into the use of enjambment. It is said, though I’ve put almost negative effort thus far into verifying the claim, that REAL Shakespeare scholars can date his plays and sonnets by how heavily enjambed they are. Cool, eh?


  *What ARE the great maxims of our age? I have no idea. Don’t spit into the wind? No, that’s more a maxim for EVERY age. I know: Don’t go up against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line! and stay out of the Fire Swamp. Also, you can’t be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself. 

 ** I Ought to be Bard.

 *** Otherwise known as The Bard, or DJ Spears.

Won’t somebody please think of the children!!

14 08 2009
Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

So, I’ve been reading Plato. Not much of it, to be sure, but some and to a specific purpose. I’ve been pretty much argument mining from the Republic, and have come out with some useful stuff. One thing I’ve come out with, more than any number of other things, is how very annoying it is to read Plato. Reading Plato is like hearing a conversation between your grumpy moralising professor and a robot that has been programmed specifically to agree with everything he says.

 Aside from this revelation of stylistic narcissism I have been reading Republic as a guide to these Socratic and Plato..istic… Platoean… Platoesque… Platonic? notions of the poetic image. On the way to these ideas however I came across Plato’s arguments about censorship. He doesn’t call it censorship, of course, but it amounts to much the same thing. What he’s doing is exploring moral arguments in relation to the ideal city that he is hypothetically proposing, so when he argues for what shall be allowed into the Republic, he is also discussing what should be excluded, and why.

 It’s interesting because of just how little Plato’s argument differs, in its fundamentals, from the current arguments in favour of censorship. Plato’s argument is that certain forms of poetry (Epic, Tragedy, etc.) should be excluded from the republic because they are misleading about the nature of the gods, and represent (or imitate, produce mimesis) of behaviour that the ideal Platonic man should not emulate in the Republic, and that they encourage emulation of that behaviour. Who is likely to emulate this behaviour. Certainly not a man like Plato, or his mouthpiece Socrates, but the impressionably minded children of the Republic. The specific line of reasoning, involving the nature of the gods, is of course specific to the time and place.

 However, this is much the same argument as is put forward today by those who argue in favour of censorship. In the 1959 Obscene Publications Act in Britain the argument was that a published artefact should be censored/deemed obscene if it had a tendency to corrupt those who were like to come into contact with it. Again, the question is that certain materials have a tendency to corrode a public moral. In Plato’s Republic it was religious thought and public behaviour, in the case of the 1959 Act’s test case Lady Chatterley’s Lover it was sexual morals and promiscuity.

 Both Plato and the writers of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (OPA-1959) assume that certain ideas/thoughts are corruptive, and there is some sub-population that is likely to be corrupted by them if exposed. Plato argued that the young were likely to be encouraged to emulate the ideas of Homer and the epics. OPA-1959 argued that the young and the working class would have their fragile conceptions of right and wrong corroded by the novel.

 This revelation surprised me at the time, but in retrospect I realised that it ought not have. The reason being that there is, to my mind, only one reasonably line of argument in favour of censorship. A society, ideally, starts from the state of complete openness, and that a society needs a reason to ban something. The opposite of this is the idea that everything is banned until a reason to un-ban it is produced. So, starting with the idea that we need a reason to ban something, the person making the argument for censorship must make a case in favour of banning. To plausible make a case to ban something, one needs to argue that there is something inherently harmful in having it be permitted. In arguing this the person must ask: who is it likely to be harmed? In such a case, the person making the argument is unlikely to think of themself as likely to be corrupted by it, as they are the one who initially recognised its detriments, so they must identify some other person or group who will be harmed / corrupted. In most cases, it seems, the children, the poor, poor defenceless children are the ones to spring up like corruptible weeds from the pavement, with the possible inclusion of the working class.

 Oh GOD! Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!!! It really does come down to the defence of families and public morals by someone who considers themselves to have moral authority.

 There are, of course, various subtleties to the arguments, but the general principle remains the same. What is also interesting is that the more progressive arguments against censorship have not remained stagnant, but developed with the culture that produces the supposedly offensive materials. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write more about these arguments in the future.


Snapshots of an Aussie JFK

9 08 2009

Justin F. Kern (JFK) is a lanky bloke with a loud laugh and eerily spider-like limbs, which, until recently I had only seen wrapped around a camera when the man was attending weddings, ceremonious birthdays and other noteworthy occasions. Watching him during these functions, as he leapt, dived and squeezed himself into a range of necessary positions for the ‘ideal shot’, it was easy to tell that he had a good eye for framing, aesthetic and that most elusive of qualities – the human element. This final ephemeral ingredient is always the defining factor in taking a ‘technically good’ photograph into the realms of magic. Having said that, working with a bride and groom, or beaming flower girl, it often seems that anyone with a big enough lens at these ‘special occasions’ can be taking these kinds images ‘filled with meaning’ – so what is the difference between a photographer and an amateur having a good day?

The debate goes back to the beginning of photography – just ask William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer photographer of the 1800s, or looked at another way, a very rich man with spare time and money up his sleeve to spend on a hobby. Was our dear Talbot, now revered as one of the grandfather’s of photography, a professional or amateur? And if he did become a professional, there must have been some time when he was still practicing as an amateur, training his skill – yes? Once again we return to another age old debate: the question of the artist or creator as genius vs hardworking and persistent labourer. The institutions of the ages have perpetuated the myth that artists, for instance, occupy a space almost of sainthood – in their ability to create something worthy of ‘holy’ reverence, objects which become relics in the museum space that should be determinedly conserved over the years as some meaningful production from the ‘artist’s hand’. The conceptual, and often historical, meaning of the work often has less relationship to the work itself than it does to the contemporary reception of the work. Though it may be sensually ‘uplifting’ (or not as is the case-in-point of postmodernism) to view a beautiful artwork it does not necessarily tell us much about why it was important historically.

Returning to our modern JFK, we begin to ask ourselves, why does the work of this young Australian, at the beginning of his experimental photographic career, intrigue us? The answer is emotive, as all good answers to intriguing visual imagery should be. There is a combination of heartstrings being pulled on in these images. In those of the outback I feel the connection to Ansel Adams, and joy at my own country’s landscape bursting so in outrageously celebratory colours. In the images of the pipes, emerging man, and light drawn onto the playing fields I appreciate the humour and irreverence brought to a visual plane and it’s representation of a country’s spirit. The fire images – at once beautiful and terrifying in their meaning, and the city lights that dazzle – all add to a multi-faceted portrait of our country that encapsulates many landscapes, experiences and moods.

What would I like to see from our JFK? More. I cannot to wait to see how his work matures, most importantly as he educates himself in other photographers and artists of Australia, and the globe, and uses their work to inform his own. I want to see many more faces of our nation and how they might be represented in increasingly complex ways. Most of all I want to see how he develops this theme of humour balanced with the land and people – ephemeral spirit emerging from within that which is actually seen – what I would call the visual equivalent of ‘reading between the lines’.

And what would I like to see from the rest of Australia? JFK, and other photographers like him, not only on gallery walls – but with a crowd standing around appreciating what the images have to offer them and their story.

Howl as a poem of WW2

1 06 2009

In response to the article: ‘“A Lost Batallion of Platonic Conversationalists”: “Howl” and the Language of Modernism’ by Marjorie Perloff.

In 1996 American poetry critic and theorist Marjorie Perloff wrote of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ that it is best understood as not just a poem of vague social revolution and madness, of a radical new aesthetic, but also as very much a part of the tradition that had come before it, and the social wounds that had inspired it. In this way Perloff makes her case that ‘Howl’, as much as any of its more traditional precedents, was a product of the second world war, and the American culture that had been created by it.

This so-called Cold War poem, with its “howl” against the Moloch of “skeleton treasuries! Blind capitals! demonic industries! . . . monstrous bombs!” (H 22), must be understood, I would argue, as very much a poem of World War II, the war Ginsberg, born in 1926, narrowly missed.

To understand Perloff’s argument we need to begin where she begins. The first appearance of ‘Howl’ was in 1956 at Manhattan reading, but the subject matter came earlier, with the real life food for Ginsberg’s thought, the ‘insane odes’ and ‘crazy’, appearing in the years following on from WW2 up until the first performance. One of the early strophes (strophe 55) of the poem came from an anecdote that Ginsberg references to fellow poet Louis Simpson:

who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot
for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks
fell on their heads every day for the next decade

As Perloff states:

It seems that, for a brief moment, Simpson too was one of the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection.” Like Ginsberg, for that matter, he was an outsider at Columbia, a native of the West Indies who was half-Jewish. But to become a poet, in postwar New York, meant to give up the “starry dynamo” in the “tubercular sky” in favour of the formal (and indeed political) correctness that would characterize the Hall-Simpson-Pack anthology. By the time Simpson  Published his first book Good News of Death and Other Poems (Scribners, 1955), he had mastered the genteel mode almost perfectly.

Simpson for a while shared a similar madness to that of the Beats. Ginsberg’s madness, Perloff tells us, is not dissimilar from that of Simpson, who was a veteran of the war and whose own letters reveal an intense psychological reaction to the experience.

In letter November 21, 1985, kindly responding to query from author, Louis Simpson writes:

‘This must have happened shortly before I had a “nervous breakdown”— the result of my experience during the war. There may have been other causes, but I think this was the main. I have no recollections of the months preceding the breakdown, and if people say I threw watches out of windows, OK.’

Simpson’s poetry, however, was stylistically far more mainstream that the Beat Ginsberg, and indeed Simpson rejected the mode of ‘Howl’ when he first experienced it.  However, the reaction to ‘Howl’, Perloff argues, is (and was) primarily a reaction of ‘distaste’ to the extremeness of the content and the expression. Nonetheless, Perloff maintains that not only is ‘Howl’ a logical continuation of the Modernist school of poetics, but also that his intent was the same, in principal, to that of the more mainstream/formalist poets like Simpson.

Even Ginsberg’s fabled rejection of metrics for what was ostensibly the mere piling up of “loose” free-verse or even prose units can be seen, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, as formal continuity rather than rupture: the use of biblical strophes, tied together by lavish anaphora and other patterns of repetition.

There is a ‘show, don’t tell’ mode at the heart of ‘Howl’ expression that Perloff argues is more true to the spirit of Modernism than the Formalist mode.

Again, the poet’s careful choice of place names– Fugazzi’s bar on Sixth Avenue in the Village or the neighboring San Remo’s or the “Paradise Alley” cold-water-flat courtyard at 501 East 11 Street, cited in line 10 above—give “Howl” its air of documentary literalism.

And it is in this ‘show, don’t tell’ spirit that Ginsberg’s poem is to be understood as a poem of the second great war. In the understanding of Ginsberg’s writing of ‘Howl’ as being overstated and crafted, but crafted deliberately within a framework of ‘documentary literalism’, we can see then that what we are being shown is the Beat reaction to the society of Post-war America. And the post-war America of the Beats is an America damaged, an America of countless young men like Louis Simpson sent home with broken bodies, broken minds, or not sent home at all. The damage of the country was the damage of its people.

It is usual to say that such violence—the violence of those “who burned cigarette holes in their arms” or “bit detectives in the neck”—was endemic to the protest against “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism” (H13). But in 2005, capitalism is more ubiquitous than ever and yet no one today writes this way;  … Rather, from the distance of fifty years, we just understand “Howl” as at least in part a reaction to those, like Louis Simpson, who had been there and wrote odes to the “heroes” who “were packaged and sent home in parts”

In this context the violence and madness of ‘Howl’ becomes more understandable. Indeed, it becomes much more human, much more sympathetic, in the face of Perloff’s framing.

The Image and the Futurists

25 05 2009

I’m going to start this out by admitting that I am a bit of a cannibal. I went into this last article (more a chapter really) by Marjorie Perloff knowing exactly what I wanted from it, and no more.  In the same way that a cannibal doesn’t really care whether or not his victim had a tremendous singing voice, I’ll admit to being a bit indifferent to the larger point that Perloff was making. What I’m going to do, then, is tell you just what I got out of it, and encourage you all to go and read the chapter yourselves. There, now that I’ve plead for clemency, let’s  begin.

The article I’ve just finished was ‘The Great War and the European Avant-Garde’ and can be found here. What I was looking for was some indication of the ways in which the various protrusions of the European avant-garde used and understood the visual image, in the various movements in general, and in poetry in particular.

The first movement to be examined in the lead up to the first of the great European wars was the Italian futurist movement. The futurists are a hard group to understand these days. Where we tend to idealise the past, the pre information revolution simplicity and ‘rustic simplicity’ of the early 1900s the futurists looked forwards to a future of exiting, fast and above all powerfully transformative technologies. One can imagine that an Italy, with its long memory of failed roman empires and its housing of the millennia Old Catholic religion, might look forwards to a transformative and purging technological revolution in a quest for new glories. Indeed, Perloff shows in her chapter how this is just what was being imagined.  At one point they referred to Italy as a nation of dealers ‘in second hand clothes’ and sought war as a way of reinvigorating society. In F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto  of 1909 he writes “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers…” and, at the beginning of the piece, he writes:

…we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars glaring down at us from their celestial encampments. Alone with stokers feeding the hellish fires of great ships, alone with black spectres who grope in the red-hot bellies of locomotives…

It’s clear that Marinetti pictured the avant-garde as a deliberately forward looking phenomenon. Like the military position that gives it its name he saw the avant-garde as deliberately forging forward, driving the machines of the culture behind it like great ships or the cars in an immense locomotive. The imagery is therefore similarly militaristic, conjuring up great metaphorical juggernauts against the dusty background of old empires.  Perloff writes:

…in futurist painting, stokers and railroad workers are depicted, not as ordinary men but as part of an exotic and colourful landscape.  The enemy, in this context, was the status quo: the timid and provincial nineteenth-century culture that had turned Italy into no more than a vast museum…

The futurists saw war as the great reviver of culture, bringing about a new and better type of world. Accordingly they saw themselves as part of that war, politics and aesthetics being one and the same.  Perloff points out that the futurists wouldn’t quite reach the point of reconciliation with the reality of their new Europe until 1916, and ‘the futurists could never quite reconcile their aesthetics to their actual political situation.’ The idealism of the Futurists never bore the fruit that they were expecting from it, and yet in their art we see repeated attempts to conjure their ideal Europe into existence. Their politics looked for a great future to be found in technology, motion and visual revolution, and so the images they depicted were full of energy portraying the power and strength of that technology.

Punctuation was to be eliminated so that poetry might be ‘an uninterrupted sequence of new images; – the ‘imagination without strings. … and further:  Marinetti advocated the destruction of ‘the I in literature; that is, all psychology’.

The images were there to offer a direct conduit to the experience of Futurism, an experience that would never quite make it into reality. Perhaps the intent was even to take poetry from the description of imagined objects into being an object in itself. It’s problematic to try to describe the intent of a movement, but to the extent that we can assign a general ideal to the movement we can say that they wanted to radically change the way that language was used in poetry. And in their optimism for a bright, technological future they found themselves attempting to narrow the gap between the reader and the physical embodiments of this future.

But the endless cataloguing of ‘analogous’ nouns, as in ‘noise + weight of the sun + orange odor of the sky + 20000 right angles,’ and onomatopoeic typographic units, capturing the sound and look of battle, as in Karazouc-zouc-zouc/Karazouc-zouc-zouc/nadI-NadI AAaaaaaaaa, is also tiresome in its simplification and reduction of experience.

Perloff is generally critical of the Italian Futurists, perhaps because they never achieved the strength of the Russian avant-garde, who’s aesthetic also featured the image strongly for its own sake.

Like Marinetti, they celebrated ;the whole brillian style of modern times – our trousers, jackets, shoes, trolleys, cars, airplanes, railways, grandiose steamships…

Like the Italians the Russians were experiencing modernism as a sudden rush of new technologies and comodities, and sought to put these things at the forefront of their aesthetic through the minimal filter of the image.

The Russian avant-garde was far more far-reaching than that of its Italian counterpart. Indeed, it remains central to poetics today: witness the so-called LANGUAGE movement that came into being in the US in the mid 1970s – a movement that has strenuously made the case for the primacy of the signifier rather than the referent.

The Russians however also glorified war as ‘magnificent’ and sought to exemplify it through images of gun-barrels and other mechanistic extensions of war. However, the outcropping of the Russian avant-garde managed to overcome the nationalism of their aesthetic in the early years of the second decade of the century, and head towards a more subtler form of presentation.  In this time the images take on less of a sense of flashes of nationalistic propaganda and become more hallucinatory.

In the civil war years of Russia’s early 20th century the extreme poverty of the people managed to cast a shadow over the optimism of the previous decade.  Russian poet Khlebnikov, who fought in the wars before wandering the torn country on his own  wrote a number of poems that are much more palatable to the modern conception of war, but retain the attempt to evoke the true nature of a situation through the presentation of concrete images. He wrote one poem that reads, in part:

Roast mouse.
Their son fixed it, went and
Caught them in the field.
They lie stretched out on the table,
Their long dark tails.
Today it’s a decent dinner,
A real good meal!
Just a while back the housewife would shudder
and holler, smash the pitcher to smithereens
if she found a mouse drowned in the cream.
But now, how silent and peaceful.
Dead mice for dinner
stretched out on the table,
dangling dark tails . . .

And Perloff writes: ‘again the lyric is depersonalised, documentary, imagistic, almost casual.’ In its maturity the Russian avant-garde managed what the Italians could not. They reconciled the aesthetic of their language with the reality of their situation. The politics and the situation was stark, and the imagism of the writing, the depersonalisation of the self, was exactly what the culture required.