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A SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.

ISSUE 7
Last Updated: 15 April 2005

Rain in the Radio: Notes toward a Political Aesthetic
Henry Louis Card

"some smooth chords on the car radio
no hard chords on the car radio"
X, The Unheard Music

It is raining in Chicago as I write this. A flock of pigeons sits on the grass, too wet, apparently, to peck at crumbs; silver drops are shaken from the lilac branches when the wind changes; people in bright slickers see themselves in puddles as they pass. In a lot of poems the rain expresses universality & materiality - the human condition, etc. One such image of rain occurs in the first poem of George Oppen's DISCRETE SERIES. Maude Belssingbourne, having "'approached the window as if to see / what really was going on,'" sees

rain falling, in the distance
      more slowly,
The road clear from her past the window-
      glass -----
Of the world, weather-swept, which
      one shares the century.

Francis Ponge made a similar observation: "Each of its forms," he wrote of the rain, "has a particular speed; to it corresponds a particular sound." For Modernists like Ponge & Oppen, perceived changes in the tempo of the rain - which, after all, drops everywhere at the same pace - reminds us of where we are, of who we are in relation to "over there," to the past. Perhaps this is why Hugh Kenner, for example, finds in Oppen's image of the rain the heavy hand of history. "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," says Oppen's rain. Like history, the rain locates us, but in doing so it also makes us disappear. The rain is a leveller; it transforms humans into herds. It does not discriminate; it falls on rich & poor alike, on blacks & whites, on women as on men; it places us, it destroys us, it links us across the globe.

The abstract noise of the rain blends its static with half-heard war commentary on my radio. The rain brings history, but not politics. The radio brings politics, the stuff of history, but not history itself. The terrain changes when you cross the Euphrates, the radio tells me: more little palm groves for gunmen to hide in. Hussein is alive, the radio says. "The video tape proves nothing," Ari Fletcher drones; "it doesn't matter anyway," he explains. Like all the other C students in the Bush Administration, Fletcher believes he's living in Historic Times. From within the hegemonic belly of the beast, fools like Fletcher, Bush, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, & Cheney think of themselves as Historic Actors - making history single-handedly, like players at a game. The power that allows them to tinker with the world, to smash things up, to strip people of their jobs, to arrest them; torture them; kill them & let them die - the institutional control that lets them do all that, is like a veil over their eyes. They do not know what history is.

In particular, they do not know that it happens in the past. They do not seem to understand that we suffer it, that we do not make it as we choose. They see the world as if a crazy mirrored curtain stretched between their eyes & their minds. The more power they have, the closer to the center of the institutional network that suspends us & pins us down they are, the more they believe the bullshit they smear us with. Ponge writes: "Rain, in the courtyard where I watch it fall, comes down at very varied speeds. At center it's a fine discontinuous curtain (or network), an implacable but relatively slow downfall of probably rather light drops, a sempiternal precipitation of no vigor, an intense fraction of pure atmosphere." Seeing rain like that is seeing history; it is seeing poetically, which in modern times often means seeing through the bullshit. Bush does not see or hear that rain; the CNN camera men almost never do; it rains on all of them equally, but they do not understand. Rain falls like hegemonic practices on us & between us; rain, stood in - seen - heard - washes the hegemonic bullshit off.

This is a poetic defense of poetry, an effort to put into new language the political aesthetics of verse. It is also just an essay, typed out on a word processor one rainy afternoon, with the cat rubbing her chin against the edge of my screen, annoyingly. Ponge says of the radio:

A little apparatus with a wonderful "selectivity"! Ah, how ingenious it is for the ear to be improved to this point! Why! So as to pour out into it incessantly an outrage of the worst crudities.

The whole flood of muck of worldwide melody.

I take it for granted that most of my readers will agree that it is understood by practitioners of the art today that writing political poetry is important & difficult. That something is somehow very important in understanding whether or not, & how, poetry is "political." Is it political or historical? Can poetry be the radio, or can it only be the rain? Ezra Pound put history into his poetry, & it is widely acknowledged also that his politics were something else, something not good for poetry, something to be ignored, despised, shrugged off, argued against, excused away, etc. His radio broadcasts are a minor scandal among poets, just as his poetry was among the bourgeoisie of his day. History & politics do not mix when it comes to poetry.

We like to think of some poetry as hegemonic, some poetry as counter-hegemonic, in terms of both subject matter & form. We tend to feel that good poetry, be it conservatively traditional or progressively hip, is better when it helps us resist hegemony. Here is a famous bit from Charles Bernstein's A POETICS:

Too often, the works selected to represent cultural diversity are those that accept the model of representation assumed by the dominant culture in the first place. "I see grandpa on the hill / next to the memories I can never recapture" is the base line against which other versions play: "I see my yiddish mama on Hester street / next to the pushcarts I can no longer peddle" or "I see my grandmother on the hill / next to all the mothers whose lives can never be recaptured" or "I can't touch my Iron Father / who never canoed with me / on the prairies of my masculine epiphany". Works that challenge these models of representation run the risk of becoming more inaudible than ever within mainstream culture.

The subjects of Bernstein's lampoons are not at all important, except inasmuch as they are hilarious & smart examples of the sort of hegemonic poetry that tends to have institutional & educational poetic hegemony. Nearer the center of the network of financial, honorary, & institutional power they get, the more full of bullshit they are, it turns out. In other words: what makes this passage so good is the realization that it is not a critique of style, but a critique of certain perspectives on one's self & one's relation to history. I quote it to let my readers know what frame of mind I'm in, this gray afternoon, what sort of frequency I'm asking you to find.

How can we write poetry that is really good & yet is really political? There is a war on, people! CITIZENS TURN TO POETRY AFTER 9/11, we are told by the TIMES; "a small voice in the ear," or something like that, Billy Collins says - as though the most poetry could aspire to was a mosquito whine. But where is the "real" political poetry? Where is the counter-hegemonic poetic response to the war? No one's sure. "It takes time," we say, "it doesn't just arrive overnight" - which is absolute bullshit, total crap. The poetry we write today is as spontaneous as it ever was. More so, even, than ever before, since we don't really have to master any formal structures & everything's gotten so democratic & marginalized it almost doesn't matter what we say.

In other words, there currently is, among serious North American poets, nothing quite comparable to what Ice-T can do with his lyrics; nobody can quite respond in a voice that is both counter-hegemonic by virtue of being linked to a formal tradition (of rhyme, for example), & politically active, responding immediately & explicitly to events one hears about in the news. Lyricists are being the political poets of our time: "avant-gardists" & "post-language lyricists," & what have you, do not have an audience for or really know how to write explicitly political verse. There is rain in all our radios.

Shelley saith:

Man is an instrument over which a series of external & internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, & perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise . . .

& so on. (I like the man, don't get me wrong.) We know, I think, the story that the Romantics - except for Byron, maybe Blake - left us with:

1. a description of the human being that we still basically accept - "an instrument over which a series of external & internal impressions are driven" - as though we were a screen on either side of the skin, a weird screen body externally attacked & comforted by material circumstances, internally comforted & attacked by the Imagination.

2. An image of poetry that is silly - full of lyres & logic. "Poetry is indeed something divine," he says. Easy to disagree with that. "The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish & calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature," Shelley says. I guess he means that poetry helps us resist commodity culture. This, however, makes no sense at all if you accept that someone like Ice-T is in fact doing something like poetry, or if you feel that poetry should be something the hegemonic censors can't control. & what has human nature to do with anything? Human nature is the rain: it is precisely what gets us away from the radio, from helping to influence history before it actually occurs.

Any real movement in history results in an end to history. Texts become illegible. That which is poetic, that which lasts, is therefore ahistorical. Yet poetry carries w/in it the details, the secret legislative records w/out which history would always be unreadable. The base on which the monuments of history stand. Shakespeare, for example, was way into this. So was Pound: details! Details! Of such stuff is history made (poetically, at least)! Easy to fall back into this mode: but politics is the zone of the hegemonic, not history, never history. History is the cure of the hegemonic: so what happen to the details? Is there really, as Adorno - lover of Einstein-like rationality that he was - wanted to believe, a kind of "force field" that produces black holes in the structure of hegemonic "rationality"? "Art becomes social by its opposition to society, & it occupies this position only as autonomous art," Adorno wrote. "By crystallizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms & qualifying as "socially useful," it criticizes society by merely existing, for which puritans of all stripes condemn it." OK - but look at everything that ends up not getting counted: Miles Davis, probably; probably The Clash. Moments in John Ford westerns featuring John Wayne. The Stooges, most likely; Cheech & Chong, without a doubt: Amy Heckerling's movies, & Doris Wishman's, & definitely Ice-T wouldn't count: so many good things left out! The only problem with Adorno is the big problem I've been dealing with all along: his details reveal that he was subject to history; his politics expose him; his style betrays him - the black hole continues to collapse, but still gets washed away in the rain. More importantly, it bends light, nothing political escapes its force-field - hegemony is devastated, but the radio cackles on, unbeautiful, unexposed.

Ezra Pound defended poetry by saying that

Beauty in art reminds one what is worth while. I am not now speaking of shams. I mean beauty, not slither, not sentimentalizing about beauty, not telling people that beauty is the proper & respectable thing. I mean beauty. You don't argue about an April wind, you feel bucked up when you meet it. You feel bucked up when you come on a swift moving thought in Plato or on a fine line in a statue.

It bucks you up. He's about as silly sounding as Shelley. Adorno's problem, when he disdains jazz, for example, is the same problem one finds in Pound when he says "buck you up," or "Beauty in art reminds one," for that matter. We need new words; we need to swim our asses out of the muck that both rains & radios can, at different times, bring.

Enough with the negativity. It is nearly 5:00 pm. Not getting any prettier out there, although the rain has mostly stopped. A zombie-gray, pallid luminosity shimmers like an ugly curtain across the sky. I've said it before & I'll say it again: the rain has fouled up my radio.

What should we ask of poetry? What should we let it do for us? Here are the second & forth sections of Rae Armantrout's poem, "Veil":

Now the optimist

sees an oak
shiver

and a girl whiz by
on a bicycle

with a sense of pleasurable
suspense.

She budgets herself
with leafy

prestidigitation.

I too
am a segmentalist.

*

As a mentalist,
I must suffer

lapses

then repeat myself
in a blind trial.

I must write
punchlines only I
can hear

and only after
I've passed on


Armantrout is one of the best poets writing in America today. One need only read these lines carefully, perhaps several times, perhaps while you're really high, to understand why. They are about the mental condition, about who we are as the rain of ideology falls on us, on all equally. These are counter-hegemonic poems through & through because they investigate & record the flow of thought; they get into words what it sounds like for the mind to record, with love, its static self. This is Shelley's lyre; this is history in verse, & there is a frequency. The personal as political is one of the greatest contributions to a certain kind of modern poetry - the kind Williams plucked from the mouths of poor immigrant women - that exists. It should be acknowledged when it occurs. In the end, however, a more or less careful avoidance of the radio, of current events, exists in this sort of poetry. A transformation of war into the realm of the subject is the stuff of this verse - it is reception driven, & has little to do with the news as it occurs (preferring instead to investigate the impact the news has on some individual - as though history were for us to make, rather than merely feel). This poetry is vital, but it is not the only answer. Overt political thought remains difficult to get into poems.

Someone who writes politically active & aesthetically unimpeachable poetry very well is Kamau Brathwaite. Here are some lines from TRENCH TOWN ROCK [Ed Note: the limitations of HTML keep us from presenting Brathwaite's poem exactly]:

click/click
gape/gossip
even though the
bodies of their
silence of potato
sacks had long
been thrown into
the dark blue
police vans. The
dark blood hosed
away . . .

This is the 309th dead by gunshot in 61/2 months in Kingston in the kingdoom of this world; on 15 Aug 90 the Police High Command, having said a few weeks earlier that ‘Crime was under control', announced that since the begrinning the year, there had been some 3000 crimes recorded in Jamaica - how many many not! - inc. 357 murders

[. . .]

17 Aug is Marcus Garvey Birthday

the same day (1983) the poet Mikey Smith was stoned
top death on Stony Hill


The larger fonts help people with less good eyesight to read a book like this: reading Brathwaite it is possible to imagine that such a consideration might have occurred - the poetry is formally complex - the apex of what post-language, post-subject, post-modern thought can be - while remaining utterly imbued with the voice & breath of the people. The vernacular is not merely typographical in this poetry, nor is it confined to a vernacular of thought-observation: history enters the poem, yet politics are also there. The radio cuts its static across the static made by the rain. We are here & there at once, singular & plural, erased & yet also aware of where we are. Statistics matter in poetry like this; the newspapers matter. Tom Raworth & Ed Dorn wrote poetry this smart, as did Ginsberg at times, & Byron & Melville. Tom Gunn sometimes achieves something like what I am talking about, as does Yeats. Robert Frost & T. S. Eliot, although quite wonderful poets, do not. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge does it sometimes, & Derek Walcott sometimes & Robert Lowell sometimes & John Berryman sometimes & Elizabeth Bishop in one poem at least, & Frank O'Hara in at least five. Geoffrey Hill gets it when he writes the opening part of Mercian Hymns, which ends "‘I liked that,' said Offa, ‘sing it again.'" Dashiell Hammett gets it just right in the opening sentences of RED HARVEST:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who culd manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieve's word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville & learned better.

Hammett wrote better modernist prose than pretty much everyone except possibly James, if you want to call him a modernist, & Joyce & Stein. Faulkner had nothing on him; Hemingway & Fitzgerald aren't even close. What do they do that matches these lines in terms of the location of the narrator in a public sphere, or the exhibition of a linguistic spread of historical factors, the delineation of interaction between figure & background? Vernaculars fall like rain: faster here, slower there - they come across on the radio the same way. The vernacular - it is time to say it - is where the rain & the radio merge. Creation (imitation/formulation) of the vernacular is, for modern poetry, the sound of rain in the radio.

Harryette Mullen writes:

deja voodoo queens
rain flooded graves in New Orleans
sex model dysfunction
ruint a guest's vacation

figures with lit wicks
time to make a switch
rumba with the chains removed
folkways of the turf

black dispatch do do run run
though graffiti brierpatch
scratch a goofered grapevine telegraph
drums the wires they hum

mad dog kiwi antifreezes
green spittle anguished folks
downwind skidrowed elbow greasers
monkey wrench nuts & bolts

Such poetry is, formally, poetically, as close to achieving a political aesthetic as anything I've quoted so far. A poetry of the vernacular, yet also of the sort of lyric that Adorno could not have quite objected to. You could hear half these lines by spinning the talk show radio dial - not something you could say of Jack Spicer's poetry, despite his brilliance & his insistence on metaphors of the radio. The form gets history into it, but the vernacular puts that tragic history on the radio.

A news update about how a Michigan couple has identical twin brothers fighting side by side in Iraqi comes over the radio. I am not making this up. We are living in a nightmare world. These notes point like arrows toward a political aesthetic.


 

 

 

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