Political Poetry: A Few Notes. Poetics for N30
by Jeroen Mettes
Translated by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei from Jeroen Mettes. “Politieke Poëzie: Enige aantekeningen, Poëtica bij N30 (versie 2006).” In Weerstandbeleid: Nieuwe kritiek. Amsterdam: De wereldbibliotheek, 2011. Published with permission of Uitgeverij Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam.
L’égalité veut d’autres lois.
The modern poem does not have form but consistency (that is sensed), no content but a problem (that is developed). Consistency + problem = composition.
The problem of modern poetry is capitalism. Capitalism—which has no image: the unrepresentable Idea of “everything.”
The problem is that a poem cannot be justified. There is no excuse for it.
Political poetry—pure poetry—has to be problematic, though not in a mannerist way. Yes, its problem is first its own problem—poetry’s existence in the same world as the newspaper—but therefore also always everybody’s problem (the problem of any world at all).
The cult of the sublime points at a suspect desire for transcendence, nostalgia for paradise lost (the womb?). Melancholia of the post-. But a problem neither sorrows nor mourns, it is alive, and the fact that it is alive is the problem—the problem for death (rigidity, the status quo).
Our symbols and ideologies do not hide any god: symbolic = state; imaginary = human; real = money.
Problem: the possibility of communal speech (poetry) in the absence of a “we.” Or: what is a “we” that is not a collective subject (or in any case is not a volonté générale)? What is a universal history that is not a History?
This work was started in the shade of the anti-globalization protests at the end of November 1999. I considered N30 to be the closure of the nineties, of my adolescence, and of the a seemingly total extinction of social desire. From the beginning I was skeptical about the alterglobalization movement as the avant-garde of a new politics, but something was happening. Maybe this event did not show that, as the slogan would have it, “another world” is possible, but for me it indicated that such possibility was at least still possible. That naked possibility is carrying forward. And if the fundamental tone of this work sounds more desperate than utopian, this is not caused by the catastrophic sequence that since 1999 has plunged us ever deeper into the right-wing nightmare—a nightmare that this work also gives an account for—but because my hope as yet remains empty.
Composition. Composition is no design, but the production of an autonomous block of affects (i.e. a POEM), rhythmically subtracted from the language of a community. A poem does something. Is something.
New Sentence. Choosing the non sequitur as compositional unit has the advantage that an abstract composition is subjected to the stress of concrete, social references. Where there is a sentence, there is always a world. (This does not hold necessarily for words on their own.) And where sentences collide, something akin to a textual civil war takes place. It is not about “undermining” whatever, or de-scribing the raging global civil war, but about writing social (or even: ontological) antagonism — including all its catastrophic and utopian possibilities.
Why would poetry be the no protest zone par excellence? It is nothing but protest, not simply qua “content,” but in its most fundamental essence: rhythm. Rhythm is resistance against language, time, and space, and the basis of (what we will continue to call) autonomy. Rhythm starts with the anti-rhythmic caesura as Hölderlin remarked about Sophocles, a disruption of the quotidian drone. The destruction of everything that is dead inside of us. The noise of the avant-garde has never been the representation of the noise of (post)modernity (from the television or shopping mall), but the sober noise of the systematic exchange of an unbearable worldview. The poet does not describe, but looks for a way out:
There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, tis translucent & has many Angles
But he who finds it will find Oothoons palace, for within
Opening into Beulah every angle is a lovely heaven
William Blake was not mad.
And there has always been only one poetry: the poetry of paradise. The principle is that there is something in art (the essentially creative element) that is disgusted by that which, unlike art, does not aim for the supreme. Wonder is not supreme, tranquility is not supreme, beauty is not supreme. Even amusement is not supreme! The supreme is supremely open, “das Einfache,/ Das Schwer zu machen ist”1: paradise. That is abstract. Literally. For me it is not about a concrete imagination, an idyll or utopia. There is no doubt a need for that, but it is not so much the supposed lack of imagination or ideals (human rights are ideals), but a fundamental lack of desire (human rights are no desires) that we suffer from, and from which we do not need to remove Nietzsche’s label of “nihilism.”
George Oppen: “Of Being Numerous asks the question whether or not we can deal with humanity as something which actually exists.”
What is less actual than humanity? Nowadays it appears as a lifeless ideology of cynical power politics. Or as what makes one think. It is a shame to be human.
The event is the caesura that defines rhythm. Writing toward the event is not the description of the event, but marking an abstract and intense space in which the event may unfold and keep itself. It is a task. “Remember that thou blesseth the day on which I seized thee, because such is thy obligation.”
The event is a contraction (or a series of contractions) with its own rhythm and unique qualities. It is more than an explosion or demonstration. But at the same time less. The endless repetition of images and stories in the media points to a fear for the indeterminate and indeterminable void of the event. In the end there is nothing to see. We do not live in disaster’s shade or miracle’s light, but rather in the rhythm, which is contracted time, having little to do with omnipresent representations.
For this book I did not intend a rhythm of evental representations (a narrative rhythm), but a rhythm which would be an event itself, because it draws the border between artwork and history. My desire for a direct engagement with the “extra-textual reality” has nothing to do with the representation of “rumor in the streets.” (What has less street cred than representation?)
Naturally, a poem is no historical event and does not change anything. But a poem is a part of history that wants to be repeated forever, constructed in such a way that it is worthy of repetition. It is a part of desire (composition) made consistent (durable). The “historical event” flares up and burns down, and has to burn down to be effective. The leftovers are images and stories (representations), History—no event. The artwork—that is the ambition—remains event (though monumental and inefficient/inoperable).
(No wonder that a historical singularity, a revolution, reminds us of a work of art; the resurrection yearns for a judgment, an affirmation; everything depends on it.)
Hence the title does not summarize the book, let alone contract its “content” into a quasi-transcendental signifier. The title is juxtaposed to the book, like everything else inside the book, and in that relation it precisely forms a part of it. The ideal work is an open whole, lacking nothing but to which everything may be added.
I have been interested in this “everything,” the world, or as I said above: capitalism. “Everything” is not the space for “wonder”—a code word, a shibboleth for petty bourgeois imagination (I recognize myself in the strangest things, a speaking dog, a canal, a pond standing straight—oh my god). No. The world is a social world, not YOUR world, poet. Power is number one. I will call “Dutch,” or “shitty,” whatever denies this power. That hurts, but this pain is an expression of the desire in the world to write another world, or as Blanchot says, “the other of all worlds”2: the world. Not as what “is there,” but rather as that which urges for an escape from what “is.”
This is a testament of how radical reality has become, for me—or rather, a writing body—in a having-been-written.
I am not interested in the problem of “meaning” as misunderstood by literary scholarsi: “order” in “chaos,” “symbolization.” Bullshit. What is there, hop, hope, now: the meaning of the taste in my mouth. Bullshit. I am not interested in the frustration of interpretation; I am writing for readers who do not want to interpret. I do not know how many “professional readers” will hear the music of a paragraph like:
Sun. Sushi. Volvo.
I hope more than I would think. There is a suggestion (or rather, an actual production) of speed and infinitive owing to the absence of plosives, i.e. articulations such as /k/, /t/, or /p/. Can you hear the slick suaveness? Driving car dark, vocal chiaroscuro of the word “sushi.” The unstressed /i/ stands in the middle of dark vowels and thus acquires its own special out of focus, like a momentary flash or brilliance—an obscure light. It is not about recognizing a story, but about avoiding any story whatsoever: the car disappears in the glow, cars and raw fish have nothing in common except their articulation in a language that brings them together, blurring them. A world appears in its disappearance. For a moment, light is a metaphor for language, though it cannot be reduced to tenor. It is not necessary to be a linguist or philosopher to hear this—a “difficult” poem all too often becomes an allegory of its own impenetrable being-language. The only demand: leave your hermeneutical fetish at home. This was no interpretation.
Most shit has been stolen etcetera. That is no longer interesting. You cannot shoot the body with information and let your lawyers reclaim the bullets. So every sentence has been stolen. Also the ones “out” “of” “my” “head.” Why would I be allowed to steal from myself and not from others? Man takes what he needs to move forward. Whatever he encounters, finds in front of him, “occurs” to him. The writer as text editor, or singing pirate. Nothing new here. Important difference with for example Sybren Polet’s4 montage technique: anti-thematicism. Most of the time ferocious citation from whatever I was reading, listening to, ended up in, and so on. I wrote chapter 12 on my laptop while watching CNN. On the air instead of en plein air. I often employed search engines to generate material. Chapter 20 offers the purest example of this. Often I stop recognizing a particular citation after some time. It is not uncommon for a stolen sentence to conform itself to the paragraph in which it finds itself. Sometimes I nearly arbitrarily replace words. Arbitrariness as a guarantee for absolute democracy.
It is a poetics of the non sequitur: a conclusion that does not follow from the premises, the strange element in the discourse. A discourse of strangers. No logical, narrative, thematic unity. There is unity in speed/flight. It has to be read linearly, but not necessarily (not preferably) from beginning to end. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but this line precedes every point. The middle, the acceleration, comes first. A point occurs where two lines cross.
It has been written from up close, at the level of the tension between sentences. Nothing to be seen from a distance: no form except the exchange of form, no geometrical or mythical meaning. You have to get in, “groping toward a continuous present, a using everything a beginning again and again” (Stein).5
In Dutch, experimental poetry has been mainly dense: a small rectangular form filled with a maximum amount of poetic possibility. But at the moment the poem starts to relax, the anecdotical content seems to increase. This is what is called “epic”: long, narrative. I believe that an epic is more than that, in fact something completely different. An epic is “a poem including history,”6 a long poem tied up with the life of community, that as a whole does not need to be narrative. The American poets of the twentieth century (Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, Silliman) have put the epic back on the map by interpreting the poem itself as a map, and writing it as navigation. They have invented the experimental epic, a genre that has generated little original following in “our” poetry.
N30 is the middle part—“always start in the middle”—of a trilogy, the contours of which remain as of yet unclear, although each episode investigates one of the three “ecstasies of time”—past, present, future—concerning society X. N30 concerns itself with the PRESENT: not with the description of actual facts but of the rhythm and the intense depth in which facts appear to us. Where are we? We are camping in the desert. Sometimes we are looking at the stars.
As opposed to maximum density and minimal tension (a characteristic of most (post-)experimental lyricism), I have sought a minimal density and maximum tension in this book, considered as a long non-narrative prose poem. On the one hand, the minimal density is obtained by the inherent formlessness of prose, on the other hand by the conscious refusal of any active (formal, non-rhythmic) synthesis: the poem tells nothing, shows nothing, has no theme. I did not seek maximum tension either by loading the quotidian with epiphanic radioactivity (“wonder,” confirmation from above), or by means of the intensity of the linguistic structure. I want an abstract tension, but social in its abstraction, in other words, not neutralized by and subjected to Form. Instead of form (transcendent): composition (immanent).
The concept is series. Ideal: every unit is necessary for the efficacy of the others and the whole, their relation is purely linear, i.e. non-hierarchic, non-syllogistic, non-discursive, non-narrative. Sentence related to sentence like paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter; the whole means nothing and represents nothing. Inside the sentence: syntax (Chomsky’s tree, a type of parallel circuit), outside: parataxis (coordination, an asyntactic line through language and world).
I consider duration—the energy of duration (rhythm)—to be the fundament of a poem, the temporal inclination to delimit a “space.” Being as consistency, its consistency. A spatial part of time is not merely a metaphor for an inevitable trajectory, an inescapable time, something like “our time.” Not merely—because rhythm comes from language and is not projected onto it; the poem derives from the world like a scent and a color and a life from a flower.
A series, a sequence: nothing potential, but truly infinite—the movement of an infinitude. The infinite series = everything minus totality. That means that there is no container—no Form, no Self, no Image, no Structure, not even a Fragment—just “the prose of the world.” No representation, but also no staging of the impossibility of representation (the postmodern sublime). These are no fragments, no image of a fragmented world or personality, no cautious incantations around the Void. It does not exist. It is a movement. Buying bread, a flock of birds, a bomb falling—they do not depict or represent anything, not literally, not metaphorically. There is an Idea, which is however nothing more than a rhythm, in the same way that capitalism is nothing more than a pure function.
Parataxis: the white space between two sentences stresses, which is nevertheless always there, also between words, even between letters: the out of focus of idle talk, the gutter, the irreducible Mallarméan mist which renders even the seemingly most transparent text legible. The white space suggests a neutral medium for free signification, a substance of language. A non sequitur is an element from a foreign discourse, which stresses the white space as space, and problematizes freedom for supra-sentential signification.
I start by withdrawing material, leaving the initiative to the sentences.
In general a word presupposes less often a discourse than a sentence. What discourse is presupposed by “dog”? We could think of several, but why would we? It is more probable that, when faced with the naked word, we think of its naked (dictionary) meaning, of its denotative signified. By means of two simple interventions we may also write the word as sentence:
In no way this suggests the discourse from which this sentence originates, but in any case we’re presupposing one. This is shown by questions like: “Whose dog? Who’s a dog? What kind of dog?” Etc. (Sentences are question marks.) A sentence implies/is a microcosm—a subject, a verb, an object, and so on. Even an incomplete or ungrammatical sentence does so. My main fascination while writing this book is the worldly and social aspect of language, an aspect that often becomes invisible, or rather, transparent in narrativity—the stretching of sentences into stories. Narrativity organizes a new discourse and a new world, and places a sometimes all too dispersing relation of transparence in between. The conventional novel is the brothel of being. I do not intend to prohibit brothels, and I have certainly not intended to write an anti-novel (THIS IS A POEM), but I do consider narrativity (in general, in poetry, in the news, in daily life) to be ontologically secondary with regard to an immediate being in the world through sentences, also if the latter have been withdrawn from a narrative or otherwise externally structured discourse (which in that case would therefore be chronologically primary).
Naturally, two or more sentences are always in danger of telling stories or arguing, just like the world is always in danger of becoming an objective representation, facing us, strangers. That is why need to wage war—against representation and against the interface, against interaction. AGAINST THE “READER.” To the extent that a sentence is worldly, writing is a condensed global war, and in so far as there is ultimately only one world and one open continuum of languages, it is a global civil war. Nice subject for an epic.
The elaboration of a singular problem—prose as the outside of poetry, the form of the novel as purely prosodic composition scheme—“expresses” the universal problem: capitalism as Idea of the world vs. poetry as language of an (im)possible community.
The paragraphs are blocks of rhythmically contracted social material. By choosing the sentence as the basic compositional component, an abstract whole may contain social sounds, without telling a story or showing an image. Composition is subrepresentative —a rhythmic, passive synthesis, or rather: a synthesis of syntheses. I never write large blocks of prose in one sitting, because there is no obvious organizational vector —plot, theme, conscience—outside the inherent qualities of the material itself. Usually I write down one sentence, sometimes two, but rarely more than three. Those sentences are usually placed in the text which I am editing at the time. In fact, there is no original composition, new chapters split off from chapters which became too long during the editing process. (Revision mainly consists of adding and inserting, displacing and dividing; only during the last phase, when the text has gained enough consistency, there may be subtraction to tighten the composition; each chapter requires a season of daily revision). This constant revision, accompanied by a continuous influx of collective background noise (to speak with Van Bastelaere),7 makes every chapter a block condensed (“historical” and “personal”) time. The block itself is a-personal and a-historic; it is ontologically autonomous. If there is such a thing as a spirit of the times, I do not try to offer an image of it, but rather to cancel something of it by erecting a monument of its own excrement within its own boundaries. Tuning and dis-tuning, “in de taal der neerslachtigen een eigen geluid doen klinken,”8 in other words, desiring in an Elysian way.
In this sense I have intended to be able to write a political poetry. The ultimate political poem is the epic, “the tale of the tribe.” I consider N30 to be a prolegomenon to a future epic (of which it in the end will form a part a structural moment, as introduction-in-the-middle), an extended pile on top of an epic as narrative, a question of the tribe and question of its history. I was burdened by too much satire, too much bullshit. But: satire willy-nilly = the only justifiable satire. Against the abstract universalism of the market (“globalism”): concrete disgust, a positive way of saying “No.” Moreover, disgust is a specifically total attitude, which ultimately concerns the world as a whole. I hate this or that, but I am disgusted by EVERYTHING (when I am disgusted), and so it appears that satire is in fact related to the epic, in so far as it concerns society, the cosmos, history. Maybe it is no coincidence that the Dutch literary canon knows no great poet of disgust; what could be more fearful to us than society, the cosmos, and history? The T-tendency (T from Tollens9) clearly points into the direction of the small, friendly, ironic, melancholic, acquiescent, wondrous, and so on. The anti-political, anti-cosmic, anti-historical. (Why am I so philosophical? To scare away the Dutchies.) And most of all: the “poetical” (the pseudo-mysticism from the backyard).
Yes, the N in N30 also stands for the Netherlands (just like 30 indicates the number of chapters). I was not in Seattle, I do not live in Iraq. But is not the whole world bleeding to death on Dutch paving stones? Let’s hope that we mowed away something with this total satire, also “in myself.” The arrogant stupidity that definitely thinks to know the essence of freedom (the free development of esthetic needs inside the void), that cannot take anything serious, only believes in the disciplined bestiality of the individual (“norms and values”) and the mere functioning of a social factory which finds no justification whatsoever outside its functioning (“get to work”)… Who knows.
A certain aimed destruction leaves grooves and craters, mapping out a next adventure. Pound’s periplum: sailing while mapping the coasts. Immanent orientation. The terrain changes with the map, history changes with the poem.
Maps never merely organize the chaos, transcendent schemes imposed on a formless Ding-an-sich. They organize from within, surfing. But they are most of all routes back into the chaos or forward to paradise (final identity of chaos and paradise; Schlegel: “Nur diejenige Verworrenheit ist ein Chaos aus der eine Welt entspringen kann”10). A poem is not only a piece of history, it is also a flight from history. Maps give chaos to the form of reality, open escape routes, break through representations, make us shivery and dazed. Paradise is immanent to a fleeting desire.
History is the history of labor—this is Adam’s curse—and the poet works too:
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, school masters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world11
But: the poet works in paradise. The paradox of the artwork, the work that is no work, the piece of history that cannot be reduced to History—this is explained by The Space of Literature, a virtual space, an autonomous rhythm, not outside, but in the midst of the noise, a piece of paradise in hell, a postcard from the vale of tears addressed to paradise, to X.
Political poetry means: a poetry that dares to think about itself, about its language and about its world and about the problematic relation between both, which is this relation as problem. A poetry that thinks at all, articulates its problem. It has nothing to do with journalism or morality or debate, let alone the law or the state. It has nothing to do with “criticism” if this means the replacement of incorrect representations by other, more correct representations. It has something to do with ethics in the sense of learning to live. It has something to do with the community and the language of the community (whichever that may be) and the role of the poet regarding the community. It concerns justice without judgement or measure. In the end the just word is just a word, to paraphrase Godard: it is from a future that is unimaginable. It Is no rational engagement, but an aversion against everything that obstructs life, and love for everything what is worthy of having been loved. The world is engaged with me, not the other way round. First Exodus, then Sinai. A desire does not start with an agenda. To answer the question whether I am really so naive as to want to change the world: “We only want the world.” Justice is the world appealing to us to liberate it from all possible chains, from each organization and inequality, to be it, smooth, equal, under a clear sky—a desert and a people in a desert. That moment between Egypt and the Law. It is not a revolution, but the sky above the revolution. Poetry = the science of escape. There is no art that we already know.
The weakness of modernistic epic poetry seems to me to be the unwillingness to completely abandon narrative as a structural principle, in favor of a composition “around” or from an event. The China Cantos and Adams Cantos are the low point, and the Pisan Cantos the high point of Pound’s poetry. Two types of research: archival representation of the past vs. ontology of the present (which virtually presupposes the entire history). Presupposing an event means that it is impossible for the poet to stage his own absence, but in no way makes the work personal. An event is the unknown, the new invading into the business as usual, so also the personal. The question heading this research is not: “Who am I?” but “What is happening?”
The book is as little illegible as Mondrian’s work is invisible.
Form is of interest only to the extent that it empowers liberation.
So no formalism, but what it means to live in this world and to have a future in it.
I want something that holds together that’s not smooth.
The past above, the future below
and the present pouring down: the roar,
the roar of the present, a speech—
William Carlos Williams
If my confreres wanted to write a work with all history in its maw, I wished, from the beginning
to start all over again, attempting to know nothing but a will to create, and matter at hand.
Piece originally published at Continent |
1) “The easy thing/ that is difficult to make.” Bertold Brecht, Lob des Kommunismus. (All footnotes are the translator’s)
2) Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press (1989), 75.
3) Mettes uses the word “Neerlandicus,” which refers to scholars of Dutch language and literature.
4) Dutch poet.
5) Gertrude Stein. “Composition as Explanation.” A Stein Reader. Ed. Ulla E. Dydo. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press (1993), 495-503.
6) Ezra Pound.
7) Flemish poet.
8) “Resounding an original sound in the language of the despondent.” A. Roland Holst, De afspraak.
9) Dutch poet.
10) “Only such a confusion is a chaos which can give rise to a world.”
11) W.B. Yeats, “Adam’s Curse.”