Saturday, 15 June 2013

Poetry's Wine is its own Klein bottle


  Why might a poet, even a crap poet like me, feel a need to believe his oeuvre has, at least potentially, properties we might call closure and connectivity? In other words, why might a poet want everything he writes to be mutually contiguous or inter-navigable? 
   A reporter does not have any such desire or expectation of his body of work. Today, he is covering a gangland killing, tomorrow it's a fashion show, the day after a Party Political Conference, and finally he might end his days running a Trade Magazine for Chemical Engineers or Pigeon fanciers or whatever it is that pays enough to keep him out of jail for defaulting on alimony or child support from his string of failed marriages.
   Why can't poets be like reporters?
 Why do they instead insist on aping that most contemptible type of journalist who begins with gossamer jeu d' esprits then graduates to spinning out eccentric feuilletons before- now firmly stuck to the auriferous thread connecting every Beaverbrook's ring of bright water to Shelob & Sauron's eye of blazing fire- finally settling down to a Midas like senescence of Inedia recycling the same old bromide or jeremiad for the Op Ed columns while still believing it to be gold not dross?
One answer is that perhaps poets see themselves as 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world' and therefore are committed to knitting everything together according to a principle of harmonious construction made prescriptive by the lyric beauty of its 'bright line' aesthetic judgements.
   If this is the case, can neglect, as opposed to obloquy,  ever really constitute a sufficiently condign sanction against the  unimpeded practice of the poet's vocation? Masturbation, at least on this side of the North Sea, is still stigmatized, yet to be called a versifier no longer carries the same freight of opprobrium as the ubiquitous 'Wanker!' with which not just our elderly Mums, or the avuncular  Emeritus Professors we've kept in touch with, but virtually everybody we turn to hoping to discuss the finer things in life, greets our effusions and either slams down the phone or unfriends us on Face Book.
  One important reason for the de-stigmatisation, if not rise in status, of the practice of writing verse has to do with the wide-spread belief that it is now confined to menstruating women of mean intelligence, recovering alcoholics of extreme belligerence and such moralising lunatics and inept terrorists as harbor a malice against the common weal not even its own all too dramatic, or democratic, self-destruction can blunt.
  Another, perhaps actually intimately related, point has to do with the manner that the persona of the poet has been individuated and abstracted out of both the craft of poetry and that which it navigates.This means that any two poets can constitute a barzakh- an isthmus between two bodies of water, one salt, one sweet- and writing poetry becomes the project of populating that imaginal limbo. However, something topologically more complicated- like the Hopf fibration pictured above-  obtains when a poet identifies more than two poets as providing a 'covering set' for his poetic universe.

   For example, the American poet, Jessica Greenbaum, writes-
'Here is the handful of poems that cover the thought-world particular to me:
“Under One Small Star,” by Wisława Szymborska
“Brief for the Defense,” by Jack Gilbert (this can alternate with “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” by Adam Zagajewski)
   The problem here is that though the resultant covering militates for closed paths,  orientability- think  of the Klein bottle- is going to be a much taller order because the fiber bundle constituted by the covering poets is going to generate holes and toruses and Moebius strip like weirdness and, for some cardinalities, Strangeness so beautiful it must be true.
  Now, the older notion of poetry as something impersonal, like Math, meant that you could simply turn poets into ideal types, or make them synonymous with specific lemmas or Research Programs so that the covering space defined by a list of poets is orientable and has a canonical or high salience Schelling type solution- so partial ordering comes as standard. Here, just as in the barzakh of the ghazal- or the type of poetry that arises from the conjunction of two poets- e.g. Dante and Laforgue for early Eliot- the task of populating the isthmus or limbo between them can proceed with high orientability and algorithmic or zairja like fecundity. Milton is into both the Bible and boring epics- no problem, Satan can soliloquise and Angels fire canons. Michael Madhusudhan likes both Valmiki and Tasso- no problem, we get the interminable Meghnad Bodh Kavya.

  Those were the good old days. Greenbaum, naming her covering set of poets, asks  'Is there any blank space left for a new poem, old subjects? 

  My concern is less noble
Not that Heaven we blame that our throats are dry
Nor our drunken Mullah's obscene reply
But that all these years we've of the Saqi thought ill
When Poetry's Wine is its own Klein bottle



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