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Notes to Poetry: Or, defending freedom for the future

Notes to Poetry: Or, defending freedom for the future

Der Zauberlehrling (1797) is the title of a famous ballad by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a re-telling of an ancient Egyptian myth that was later put to music by the French composer, Paul Dukas, in his orchestral scherzo L’Apprenti sorcier (1897). The latter was chosen for the title of a text published in 1938 by the French writer, critic and philosopher, Georges Bataille, who adopted it to describe a lineage to which he saw himself heir, and which comprised the poets, writers and artists who, in both their lives and their works, sought what he called ‘the totality of existence’. As the names that carry this lineage testify, such an existence can only be reached through a violent loss of self.

The Marquis de Sade was incarcerated by the French state for half his life; Francisco Goya was imprisoned by deafness for half of his; William Blake was dismissed by English society as a madman; Charles Baudelaire was prosecuted for his writings; Fyodor Dostoevsky was exiled to Siberia for his reading; Emily Brontë, Edgar Allan Poe, Isidore Ducasse and Arthur Rimbaud all lived brief lives of wild desperation; Friedrich Hölderlin, Gérard de Nerval, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vincent van Gogh and Antonin Artaud paid the ultimate price of their sanity. As a destiny, this is as far from the lures and rewards of art and literature as it is from the aims and influence of scientific or political practice.

In opposition to which, Bataille advocated a return to the world of myth, in whose cyclical time he saw the plenitude of a total existence beyond the linear time of history. As distinct from the man of science, who comprehends a world of objects abstracted from the totality of the real, the man of fiction, who creates a dream world in its place, and the man of action, who seeks to transform the world on the basis of this comprehension and in accordance with dreams that invariably become the nightmare of history, this is the sovereign attitude of what Bataille, in this text, called ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.

It was with these lines that, in January 2008, I announced the publication of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a monthly periodical which explored the relationship between poetry and community. The format of each issue varied: an anthology of texts on a single theme; a new translation or contextualisation of a work by a single author; an extended reflection on different aspects of community; or the preparation for an event in which the theme of community would be explored in practice.

These events typically took the form of a collective reading of texts, but also engaged in more complex activity we called ‘encounters’ — a walk through Epping or Ashdown forests, across Greater London, to the sites of Berlin Dada, around Greenwich Peninsula, in the terrain vague of the Thames Estuary, along various shores of the British Isles, to the Chateaux of the Marquis de Sade in the South of France, at exhibitions to which we had and hadn’t been invited, in pubs or simply at a house party convened for the occasion — all centred around these readings. In exploring the relationships these events brought into focus, this periodical aimed to be not only a site of reflection but itself an occasion for the formation of community.

Published monthly in slim booklets distributed to a small and limited number of sometimes reluctant readers, a wide readership was never their intention, and certainly not at the initiation of this project. Instead, the booklets, each of which included a short essay on their contents, were always understood as instrumental to the readings they were made to facilitate. There was almost no limit to where these readings were held, or who could participate in them, or what would determine their setting, other than that they engaged with the values of poetry. The basis to this practice was the belief — which the readings would explore and reaffirm — that poetry is a spoken art in which we best participate collectively, and that only in this way could its values be first discovered and then conjured back into the alienation and interiority of contemporary life. Well, perhaps not the only way, for most of us encountered or will encounter poetry for the first time as it is presented here, within the pages of a book, and read silently in our heads; and without that first, private and often overwhelming meeting with the ‘goddess’ we would not be able to pass from a silent to an audible reading, from listening with our inner ear to hearing the voices of ourselves and others in the vibrating air between us.

It was one of the aims and purposes of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to encourage and enable as many people as possible to cross that line, and in doing so to join what I called, in issue no. 47, ‘The Community of Readers’. And in this respect, at least, it was successful. By the time the project came to an end in December 2014, it had produced 77 issues over seven series in as many years, and involved maybe a hundred readers in dozens of readings that have not ceased with its publication.

So why publish these Notes to Poetry now, nine years since the conclusion of this project? The answer is that, while these texts were written immediately after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the decade of fiscal austerity and social uprising that followed, they didn’t anticipate the dark pit into which the West has fallen since March 2020. Now, more than ever, the values of poetry need remembering, defending and keeping alive through the new Dark Age we have entered.

In a New Normal in which we are told that our biological existence is a threat to others, our bonds of community are more crucial than ever. When woman is being erased in our laws and culture by the enforced orthodoxies of so-called ‘trans rights’, it has never been more important to recognise the unique inspiration of the goddess. When desire has been all but criminalised by ever more intrusive legislation into human relations, the origin of eroticism in the transgression of the law is a lesson we must remember. When every expenditure is counted in the balance of profit and loss, the economy of sacrifice can restore us to a morality of giving. When our bodies are the object of new technologies of biopower, the freedom of the dance reminds us of the corporeality of our being in the world. When our human rights are being removed on the justification of saving us from numerous manufactured crises, we must show courage and even joy in the face of death, rather than cower in fear before the risk of being human. When art and poetry have been reduced to entertainment, advertising and propaganda, recognising beauty in its increasingly brief appearances is more urgent than ever if the phenomenal world of our five senses isn’t to be entirely replaced by a digital and virtual reality. When our children are being trained to servitude and unquestioning obedience as the highest civic and political virtues, man’s unending quest for sovereignty must not be abandoned. When we are ruled by a combination of public displays of compliance and state terrorism, we must not be afraid to look into the night in wonder at a universe vaster than the rapidly shrinking world in which we are being imprisoned. And when our freedom of speech, expression, conscience and thought itself are being erased in both law and custom, poetry must reclaim its always contentious but pre-eminent role in asserting that freedom — as the French poet, André Breton, wrote a hundred years ago — is still the ‘colour of man’.

These are the primary, although by no means exhaustive, ‘Themes’ of poetry, which I discuss in the first section of this book, and to which I return and try to elucidate throughout these texts.

As for the ‘Readings’ themselves, which comprise the second section, there is no particular unity to their selection. They include the authors of the Gospels, William Shakespeare, John Donne, William Blake, Friedrich von Schiller, Ludwig van Beethoven, Novalis, John Clare, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Rimbaud, William Butler Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dada, Kurt Schwitters, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Robert Graves, Georges Bataille, Concrete Poetry, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Kate Tempest.

Some of these would meet Bataille’s definition of a ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’, but others clearly do not. Rather, they were selected either from what I was reading during these years or, drawing on past readings, what I had selected as capable of galvanising a collective reading. It was these readings that my ‘Notes to Poetry’ — the title of the second issue of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — prefaced. Since they accompanied the read text, they are generally short, written to be read aloud prior to the commencement of the reading, and much of their concern was with contextualising the individual work or oeuvre of the poet or poets for those unfamiliar with their writing. They are, therefore, notes and not essays, and what insights they have are proposed rather than explored at length.

If I were to revive this project now, I would add other poets about whose work I would like to try writing, including San Juan de la Cruz, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse, Rainer Maria Rilke, André Breton, Bertolt Brecht, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and Arseny Tarkovsky — whose presence in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was limited to my translations of individual poems and texts — as well as contemporary poets like Tony Harrison, Jorie Graham and Alice Oswald. Indeed, there is another volume of Notes to Poetry to be written about these authors.

Until I write it, however, and partly in order to bring my thoughts on the situation of poetry up to date with the world in which we live today, I have chosen to end this book with a new and more extended essay on the last of these poets, ‘An Open Letter to Nobody’. Since it is different not only in length and date of composition but also in its purpose, I have included this text not among the other ‘Readings’ but in the final section, ‘Manifestos’. These collect my occasional attempts, over the seven years of publication, to articulate both what I understand by poetry and its place in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

But what it this situation? In her 1968 book, Men in Dark Times, the German political theorist, Hannah Arendt, reflected on the ways in which philosophers, writers and poets had survived and continued to write while living under authoritarian and even totalitarian regimes, and her book is a series of portraits of both their lives and works.

That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth — this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn.

Arendt’s examples — which included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht — were mostly drawn from those who lived through and in some instances died in the horrors that engulfed Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and from which she herself had escaped to the USA. But her words have as much bearing on our own survival now, when a new form of totalitarianism is stretching out its digital fingers to enclose the entire globe in its grasp.

The profiles I have drawn in this book — which I have limited to the poets who did not constitute the only authors about which I wrote in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — are offered not as a guide (for poetry’s power is never instrumental) but as a form of defence against the architects, financiers, administrators and commandants of this digital prison. It is increasingly clear that the primary target of the new totalitarianism is our children, who are being molded into a generation for whom freedom, human rights, democracy, community and even beauty no longer have any value — are, indeed, perceived as threats to their safety and that of the state.

Like the authors and publishers of the samizdat ‘self-publications’ that were circulated in the Eastern Bloc states between the 1950s and 1980s, my intention and hope in publishing this book, therefore, is that it will help to retain the values of poetry in a world in which poetry no longer has any accepted role, it would appear, other than creating the illusion of individual freedom within the mirrored cell of identity politics in which art and culture have been imprisoned today.

All the poems about which I write in this book contain some, many or all of these values, and my notes to them have no greater goal than to illuminate a space in which they can more clearly be read in the darkness of the present time, when the future of all art is in doubt. I do not claim that these values are universal, and the readings offered here are restricted to those authors and works in which I was and still am interested; but what is universal is the contempt in which these values are held today, and not only because of the threat they represent to our uniform adherence to the principles of biosecurity: surveillance, censorship and unquestioning obedience to the state, all of which have been uncritically adopted by our culture industry and most of its practitioners under the corporate-manufactured blanket of diversity, inclusivity and sustainability. Poetry, whose history is the never-ending struggle between freedom and power that today is experiencing one of its most crushing defeats, is a repository of these values. If we are to survive this nightmare of digital totalitarianism, state authoritarianism and corporate anarchism, these values must be defended from permanent erasure and kept alive for the future — if not in the books we are no longer permitted to publish or read then at least in our memories, in our hearts and in the hushed voices of our collective reading.

But it is not only a matter of survival. Our greatest weapon in the struggle against the enemies of humanity is the dystopian nature of the future they are constructing for us. Indeed, only a generation raised on a succession of manufactured civilisation-ending ‘crises’ could possibly view this dystopia as something desirable. It is up to those of us who remember a different past, therefore, and who are not cowered into obedience by the state terrorism of the present, to paint a more desirable and hopeful picture of our future. That means, among other things, defending the values of poetry against their erasure — not only from our present but also from our past.

As George Orwell prophetically saw, those who control the present control the past, and it is from the rewritten past that the future is being made to order today. When I wrote these Notes to Poetry, I never dreamed that I would live to see the texts of dead authors — even if, so far, it is mostly of children’s books — rewritten in accordance with the ideological dictates of the present.

On the trajectory of blind obedience we are taking, the works of many of the poets in this book will soon be censored or, worse, rewritten to comply with the new orthodoxies of thought and expression being enforced on Western society and culture. Under these orthodoxies, a dignified death is denied to those kept alive under even the most undignified of conditions; sacrifice is declared unsustainable in the dearth that apparently awaits us all; sovereignty has been recast as a servant of the state; the goddess of inspiration has been dismissed as a construct of patriarchy; the intoxication of dancing denounced as ableist by the self-elected priesthood of equity; any attempt to create community is now condemned as an attack on our diversity; beauty is no longer anything more than a form of discrimination; the realm of eroticism is policed as a site of potential crime; love is a duty we owe exclusively to an abstract humanity; woman is an empty cipher waiting to be defined by men; and poetry, for some time now, has been a two-way mirror onto this trans-human ideology.

In ‘The Apprentice Sorcerer’, which opened the second series of booklets in February 2009, I wrote:

Is it not indicative of just how far we have strayed from an existence worthy of our genius that the man who represents the model of modern citizenship — the aptly named ‘businessman’ — will happily relate the most contemptuous details of his business, and proudly exhibit, like some idiot child, the rewards for his servility; while another, in order to earn the eternal contempt of his peers, has only to confess an interest in, never mind a commitment to, those values of poetry, beauty and community without which human life is little more than the brawling of dogs for scraps from their master’s table?

Some fourteen years later, when the scraps have been reduced to a bowl of maggots, the brawling for them has never been so loud with threats, and our masters demand not just our obedient service but our willing compliance in the forging of our own chains, the values of poetry are more important, perhaps, than they have ever been. Amid the systematic cretinisation of the population by our education and culture industries and with it the impoverishment of our hopes for this world, there are, still, glimpses of beauty to be found, and nowhere more so than in our refusal to bow to what appears to be the inevitable. Poetry is both that refusal and the possibilities that can only be seen when we raise our eyes above this looking-glass world.


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