SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
Rain in the
Radio: Notes toward a Political Aesthetic
chords on the car radio
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
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:
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:
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.
& 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
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":
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]:
[. . .]
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:
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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