Statement for ‘Revolution and/or Poetry’
Once upon a time, Ezra Pound: ‘The common or homo canis snarls violently at the thought of there being ideas which he doesn’t know. He dies a death of lingering horror at the thought that even after he has learned even the newest set of made ideas, there will still be more ideas, that the horrid things will grow, will go on growing in spite of him.’ Earlier but closer to us now, Rosa Luxemburg: ‘No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark “Theoretical controversies are only for intellectuals.”’ The most influential modernist poetry fashioned its aesthetic priorities on the dogmatic basis that the majority of people are stupid. Pound’s assurance to the loyal cognoscenti of BLAST, that ‘of course the homo canis will follow us’ because ‘it is the nature of the homo canis to follow’, is not just a festering scrap of leftover Nietzsche, but also a defamation of working class experience. Its judgment (posing as a rollicking mannerist exercise in fascist ribaldry) is that the power of art to move is the same power that keeps stupid (working class) people unfree. Where it moves, they must follow. Art proves the necessity of blind compulsion. Its power depends on the unequal distribution of intellect as the condition of aesthetic possibility; its immortality depends on the inexorability of that unequal distribution and the power of art to exploit it. Luxemburg’s account of the worker whose living labour is already theoretical is the true blast. What might be the complexion and activity of a poetry that started from the principle that all people are equally intelligent? How might poetry shape its technical priorities and depths of feeling in response to the proposition of Jacques Rancière, that ‘there is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations; but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity’? What would a poetry sound like, how would it move, whose principle is that radical egalitarian activism—activism aimed at abolishing social hierarchies—depends on the communication of energy to the intelligence?
A poetry that started with that active principle might agitate on two fronts at once. First, it could be a ruthless criticism of everything in existence that functions or contrives to block the communication of energy to the intelligence: the whole complex machinery (which it is not enough just to suborn in a fantasy of contempt or tidy away under grand concepts like ‘the spectacle’) of repression and paralysis and thwarting that keeps working class individuals trapped in inescapably unequal lives. Second, it could be a passionately optimistic gift of musical and cognitive energy that aims to make eloquent, to invigorate and to revitalise the fullest possible extent of living and dead experience, to occupy the commons of sensation and desire where real equalities and the speculative premonition of their permanence can flare into meaning and sound, however contingently for now.
A poetry that starts from the equality of intelligence might be able to think and sing new potentials for the equality of experience too. To do that, poetry must take working class experience seriously. Living labour is not just an abstract category belonging to political economy, but also and at the same time a speculative concept whose dialectical poetics is necessary for the critique of political economy: the distance between the abstract category of living labour and its speculative concept is unthinkable without a poetics of subjective transformation. We do not all feel the same and we do not all wish to feel the same. Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow. An actively egalitarian poetry would disappear up its own index the instant it attempted to claim that revolutionary subjective universality can be made stable and permanent right now, down here under the despotism of capital, as though the subject were an object whose conundrum is merely how to be matched to its proper relations or to its orientation in ontology, like the dollar in Shenzhen. Poetry is one of the ways in which we know and learn this. It always is, because it is inescapably a representative art, moving and therefore making claims on and for real other people and on their share in the universal, however it may also be activated by an aesthetic, moral, ethical, or political priority to be anti-representative and to speak for nothing but itself or for no-one. Representation is unavoidably transformative: we get other people wrong. But this is the risk and pressure which poetry cannot avoid without resigning itself to playacting the subaltern to political economy, as if deference to its schematic alternative were the only way for poetry to establish the realist credentials of its author. Poetry will not take experience seriously enough unless it risks destroying those credentials. My feeling is that the problem of revolutionary subjective universality (which in academic terms is the problem how to make a partisan recalibration of Kant’s ‘subjective universals’ so that the very idea and its possibility depend on felt solidarity with others in scenes of active protest against capital and its repressions) will be more energetically illuminated the more extreme are the risks taken by poetry in exposing and interrogating the individual subjective life. Poetry makes life move by risking life. ‘Lyrical confession’ versus ‘formal complexity’ is a false contest whose function in literary critical culture is to blackmail poets and readers out of the formal complexities of subjectivity: the formal complexities of life itself.
A poetry that tried energetically to occupy the commons of sensation and desire might aim at least to interrogate, and sometimes, where it can do so to true communist purpose, to defy, every form and instance of deadening proscription and disallowance that would confine it to the use of compulsory or approved techniques, compulsory or approved trivialisations of technique, compulsory or approved evacuations of technique, and their common use value. The legal advice that you can’t do x, y, or z any more (rhyme, use your own voice, write about experience, etc.) because art history has long since advanced beyond them (out the alphabet and by means of upward mobility into space) is thoroughly harmonious with the spirit of capital and with the mentality of its career-savvy managers, who are likewise corporately on the lifelong lookout for efficiencies in best poetic practice. Poetry can be theoretical, musical, conceptual, nonsensical, clamorous, abstract, tender, rageful, confessional, formally complex, suspicious of pronouns and determined to risk their use, erotic, satirical, timid, rational and delirious all at once, not because it is an ideal plateau of already free and unenclosed expression, or a virtual world beyond the impediments, suffering and division of labour in which we get our reward by entering into the joy of possessive freedom, but because it is a perpetual exertion of imagination and of desire: the subject at full stretch.
The living labour of poetry makes audible as music and makes count as longing the infinite distance between people that is locked inside even the smallest material distances between people.
THE WHITE REVIEW
— We’ve been speaking about lyric and polemic in your writing, and the necessary fudging of the two. Would you say that it is possible to be both a poet and a political being? Or are they two distinct personhoods?
— I think politics has a number of distinct identities or meanings. There are a number of overlapping but not perfectly co-extensive fields of operation that we would call ‘political’. In one sense politics is nothing more than what professional politicians do. If we define politics narrowly like that, we get an emphatic account of the value of the social, that what really matters is social relations – what really matters is us, who are not politicians, and how in spite of and at war with politics, we can rebuild and redesign our own ways of relating to each other, against those formal institutions. In that sense I would say that I am a political being only because of a deeply resented conscription into a field of activity which fundamentally ought not to require political institutions of the present order. That is not to discount being a political being, but to painfully accept it. But it is also to assert its provisionality.
Marx often distinguished between politics and socialism, stating that socialism starts where politics ends. In another, broader sense, politics might extend to just about anything we do, think or feel. I feel that when I’m writing poetry my mind, my senses, and my body are all in unpredictable ways politically active. At times this is perfectly explicit in my poems, as in the section of ‘Ode 5’ subtitled ‘10/11/10’, about the student protests in London. That is absolutely direct political poetry. What is crucial to me is that it is direct, that it is completely undisguised, that it is aggressively emphatic, and that is a socialist and realist art which attempts to describe the real detail of social relations and to find the intrinsic forms of contradiction which structure social relations, one of the fundamental forms of which is the permanent and ongoing contradiction under capital between the means of production and the relations of production. My poetry is always in some sense about precisely that: what is the material that we work or live with, what are the techniques for building and living with it, and, on the other hand, what are our relations between each other and what are the conscious and unconscious forms of mastery, of control, of manipulation, of affection, of togetherness and care which comprise the extent of our lives together – you might say a dialectic between technique and life. So I feel all the time, when I’m writing, thoroughly and consciously engaged with questions that at least have a political dimension and which extend to everything from ‘Enron to Xbox’. Or further. The orgasm to Michael Gove.
At the same time, it is crucial to my conception of the present limits of poetic eloquence that there really is a significant material difference between writing poetry and being a politically effective agent in the world whose activity directly and unarguably transforms social relations, particularly if we mean transformation by collective or institutional means. Poetry with a restricted and small circulation whose specific temporality of self-disclosure can be very extended, and which might not make sense for a few decades to come, can hardly seem like the most effective form of direct political intervention. That for me is a problem, but it is also a fact that can be endlessly explored and reflected on from an infinite variety of angles. I try to do that with THE ODES, to explore the limits not only of agency but of inertia and of impotence. The danger is that reflection on impotence can easily degenerate into mannerism; but that risk too is socially meaningful and ought to be reflected on and tested.
It remains, nonetheless, a fundamental ambition of mine that my poetry will exercise some influence of a political character over living individuals, now, in this world, and that it will contribute meaningfully to creating, sustaining and enriching a vibrant communist public culture, in which it is a loyal and constant ambition to break down the forms of social paralysis and injustice, as well as of self-interested mastery and of exploitation, which under capital adulterate all of our relations with each other, even the most intimate. I want to turn those relations inside out and aggressively, beautifully, passionately and frantically find the most copious account I can make of how we can live together in a more profoundly generous way.
THE WHITE REVIEW
— One critic noted that you represent ‘what the future of British verse should look like’. What do you think the future of British verse could look like?
— I deeply hope that I don’t know. I want it to be inconceivably astonishing to me. I want to encounter it as the most threatening and primitive freshness, I want to be so comprehensively confused by it that it takes me forever to learn to live with it and to reconcile the world that I already know with whatever this poetry is and does… I suppose, to be honest, that is my ambition as a writer for the future of my own poetry. I hope that the future of verse in this country, and everywhere, will be a future of more and more resolute, more passionately principled and more ardently dedicated confrontations with the injustices and machinery of capital, and that its interrogation of the structures of capital in living experience will be conducted more and more thoroughly, vibrantly and vitally. But I suspect that what will continue to happen, for a long time at least, is that lots of anxious and conservatively rather than radically narcissistic poets will go on writing verse which, with more or less justification, is meant to encapsulate and preserve in the aspic of sentimental memory and sensation the trivia of working-week-life and their surface profundities, poems that may only distantly touch upon the complexity of social relations, and then with a defensive, pretty archness. Or the audience will go on uncritically accepting that poetry is and ought to be in this way a modest and circumscribed art and, in its end, a comfortingly politically inert and ineffective one, from which the best we can hope for is lukewarm consolation.
I hope not. I hope not. I hope that, in Britain and everywhere else, amongst people who care about poetry, we might be persuaded, sooner or later, that there is no part, or detail, or potential of experience which cannot be radically addressed and transformed through the sheer delirious and euphoric momentum of powerfully expressive verse. I hope that might eventually become a collective ambition for readers and poets alike: to radically reconceive and feel again human relations in honour of and in the brilliant light of the power of poetry. The fundamental transformation of human life, that’s what I hope for.
THE WHITE REVIEW
INTERVIEW WITH KESTON SUTHERLAND