Saturday, 20 March 2010

Sub-prime: The idea of the cliche

The idea of the cliche

essay on 'naive' and 'up to date' poetry

A huge grey area of dullness and fatigue is right at the core of the poetic art. In the area which must be easiest to reach, because so many people get there, is a set of ideas that don’t work. You set out by trying to use them in poems, and learn that they do not work. Most poets are too tired at this point to go on; others persist and write original poems. Which is very tiring. You can define a competent poet basically by what they don't do: dip into the pool of banal situations, worn out ideas, debilitated images, tawdry conceits, derelict projects. The most typical experience in reading a book of poetry is a feeling of flatness, as the poet has failed to find anything distinctive - as an experience or as a literary tactic - and so there is no lift. This desperate slough of sludge is the main feature of the shared geography: by the time you get out of it, you are strange and puzzling.

I tried at a certain point to produce a catalogue of these sub-prime ideas, of what we know as clichés. What stopped this was the difficulty of recording patterns, since what is copied and repeated is the patterns rather than complete poems; what slowed it down was the nostalgic and emotionally charged quality of the clichés. I could not look at it without mutating it into a kind of Betjeman. The cliché is a formerly loved thing. If you could fill a room with books by imitators of Tennyson, this is inseparable from the emotional fact that his poetry was supremely inspiring to imitators; and the original can still be reached, and is still great poetry.
If a poem says "I am angry. I am jealous/ I am happy. I am proud./ I am successful. I am unemployed./ I am on Bali. I am in Huddersfield./ I am old. I am young." we are unlikely to participate in the states it offers. However, poems essentially consist of such offered states. The gap between a banal poem and a good one consists of nuances, and the more we look at them the more frail and artificial these nuances appear. It is nearly true that all bad poems are like all good ones. Bad poems are imitations of good ones, the resemblances are strong. There is no feature which is not imitated. The bad poems run through all the stored sensations which are already there, the defocused array, without amplifying them. Chemical analysis of bad poetry is just going to dredge out the elements which we recognise from good poetry.

What inspired me to think about the uninstructed was an essay by Peter Fuller which talked about research by Andrew Brighton which looked at unfashionable, amateur art, mainly painting, and found a range of traditional modes of beauty which were profoundly unfashionable but which still flourished, by some measures anyway, in cultural zones which were unaffected by reflexivity, pessimism, the critique of personal experience, or what have you. Admittedly, although this was 15 years ago, I never found the research - it may have been in the catalogue of an exhibition curated by Brighton, the National Open Art Exhibition, although I think it wasn't. I did find it inspiring. So many times I went to the ICA in London and passed the exhibition of the association of marine watercolourists, held annually next door, and wondered at people still faithfully painting sea landscapes and ships passing by. Perhaps the key is not to read the poetry, but to imagine a world of poems which recaptures all the beautiful things of the world and which is uncorrupted by reflexivity and theory. I experienced all this within poetry when reading the magazine Fire, a very successful magazine which takes on the whole spectrum and includes what you would call naive poetry. Even when the poems were e not of great artistic quality they were pleasurable to read and I lost the upper layers of my personality, I myself split open and flowed across the spectrum. Ego restraints were lost. Depolarisation hit its target and exploded its warhead.

Because the domain of myth is also made up of collective and familiar things, there is an odd simultaneity at the heart of the basic area: a double image where things are simultaneously grey and banal and then, shimmeringly, hot, golden, and mythical. This is hard to explain. Amateur poets are attempting to reconstruct primal cultural experiences. This is where poetry meets politics - propaganda images of Britain are designed to be loved and yet they are the most shabby and worn-out things. Indeed, almost all original modern poetry reaches that condition by abandoning the battered myth-park of collective politics and migrating out to where the original can be chased.

Whenever I have started to collect sets of clichés I have been pulled up short by my affection for the material hidden under blundering and badly drawn forms: pilasters recalling temples on Classical promontories, religious kitsch recalling baroque masterpieces. The project of assembling and exhibiting clichés is too close to the project of building an English mythology.

We could put this in simple terms by considering the death of narrative poetry. This was possibly the most popular genre in the 19th century. After a certain point it stopped. Probably, poets today do not even try to write narratives. They clock fairly early on that it does not work. I see book-length narrative poems by amateur poets - beneath the horizon. They have not learnt that narrative does not work.
The idea of reviving narrative is beautiful. We could theorise that all cultured writers imitate each other and learn inhibitions. Then, they do not write narrative verse because they have been taught not to. The trouble is, narrative poetry really does not work and the amateur poets just write failed poems. The inhibition is in the reader as well as in the poets: maybe even in something more structural and virtual, in a set of shared semantic structures or in the teaching processes by which people acquire literary habits.
What applies to narrative poetry also applies to a range of other things which I would also claim as unconscious collective inhibitions: regular metre and rhyme, verse drama, religious poetry, nature poetry. Even, love poetry.
What is striking is how social these rules are: the problem with telling stories in verse is not something that struck down one or three poets, but has crossed the entire social field and wiped out the genre everywhere. The inhibition theory can be inverted: people who read are acculturated by the experience, they learn how to enjoy what modern poetry has to offer, people who fail in the imitation never come to enjoy the art in its modern form. Along with being bored by what it is seemly to be bored by there is being excited by what it is seemly to be excited by.
Anyone who starts up a poetry magazine - more exactly, anyone whose magazine is listed in the sources easily available to amateur poets - knows that there are hundreds, even thousands, of people who see themselves as poets but who have not qualified that innocent belief by actually thinking about how they write. The most conventional poets are unpublishable: when we speak of the mainstream, we normally mean poets who are exceptional in their ability to use conventional patterns and ideas in an at least partly effective way. The history of poetry could take account of these toiling hundreds, since their numbers are so great: but generally will not, because of the problems of acquiring the data, never mind reading it. We are going to talk about outsider poetry which dwells entirely within the boundaries of the banal. This is an unusual moment for a critic. But we are going to look for the virtues of that poetry, its vigour, its hopefulness.


Let's suppose that there is a set of rules which allow you to read a complex modern poem and that these rules are acquired by reading poems, so that they are not available to outsiders. They are also invisible, even to experts - so that their existence, let alone their nature, is in question. There would in this supposition be a fundamental difference between insider poets and outsider poets - people who wrote poetry but are not very interested in poetry by other people. To read them would be utterly unreasonable. There is a vital line of division between the m-stream which is widely published and reviewed, and poetry which is conventional but sub-literary and hardly published or disseminated.
With the unfiltered amateur poetry we have the perspective of a vast range of subjects and styles which make the professional literary taste of the day seem artificial and selective. The link with metrical formalism is just one example; there is such a huge spectrum which modern poetry is just leaving empty. We can glimpse that empty spectrum, as a wilderness, a kind of excessive and inexhaustible wealth. Of course actually reading the unregarded poetry brings us back down to earth: it doesn't work and reading large amounts of it just brings us back to the well-known poets, who actually know how to write. All the same looking at the empty spectrum takes us to the characteristics of the age - confined inside invisible boundaries. It is as if the acknowledged poets had learnt a hundred lessons of what does not work, and had wiped those areas off their maps, whereas the amateur poets have missed all the lessons and are happily wandering about in the rest of the universe.

rule: only someone who knows very many of the rules, and is therefore an insider, knows enough to appreciate stylistic innovation. Formalist art rewards previous knowledge.
The social logic surrounding formal innovation resembles that around the domestic car, as an object where competition can take place in terms recognised by all, without physical conflict, and bringing pride; and involving endless reminiscing and discussion of nuances.
If cars could not be owned, or if they were all the same, they would hardly arouse as much interest. This territorial map of innovation is meaningful to very few people, and accepted, as a long social game, by even fewer.

The site where such rules are issued and distributed may be the text on the back jacket of books. This produces an inequality between experienced readers and new ones; in 1998, someone who has been reading poetry since 1973 (me, in the concrete instance) knows more rules than someone who began reading it in 1996. This is not quite the same as education, because it might just come from hanging around in bookshops and public libraries; we can guess that the distinction between reading as a free consumer and reading as part of acquiring accreditation within academic institutions may be important in the composition of the market.
The argument on literary rules also has it that the rules are unconscious once acquired, so that people who have learnt them have no insight into the problems of people who haven't. The behaviour around "modernism" may be a discriminatory barrier, offering a target for learners to strive towards, and a rough and ready way for people with mastery of the rules to signal it to each other. The unconscious is the most voluminous part of the literary set; when the genres shift the unconscious lurches into full view and we can briefly see the full extent of it. As a socialist I always want to reach out for these collective rules - but then all poems are written by individuals, so the collective view takes us out into the unfocussed and to somewhere where there are no poems, but only abstract patterns. The difference between the unchanging and abstract and the unique and transient is of peculiar importance to the success of poetry.


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In 'Wild Minds', by John McCrone; New Scientist 13/12/97, we read

"The tick-over firing echoing around the brain may be a defocused representation of everything you have ever learnt". We can qualify the action of a successful poem within this model. It activates existing patterns by using words which we recognise; but by amplifying them it also makes new patterns. Words are shared, conventional, and referential of past experience; but the pattern linking them can produce new states of mind. All brain cells fire all the time. The "grey" stable low-voltage activity which may be the sum of all experiences we have ever had, repeating itself but with such a low level that it is a mere background; and large-scale high-energy connection patterns which are temporary and dynamic. It is a darkness composed of degraded light.

The passive "grey" network could correspond to our knowledge of the language, more precisely the language plus the knowledge embodied in it or {L+K}, which is there the whole time. This library of stock footage, with its recognisability, is another way of describing the most basic component is a central zone of modern poetry, the pool of grey torpid sludge which is not only at the middle but also below everything else. The m-stream poem stays forever within this domain of the already experienced, dully reverberating from one grey memory to a dozen others.
The distinction between the m-stream and underground poetry is essentially that the m-stream realises modules of the banal but spins a slight variation on some aspect or other of them, whereas the underground flees from the centre and creates something thoroughly original and unheard-of. The disposition of the underground scene is therefore scattered and untrackably diverse: each axis leading away from the foul swamp of banality leads away from every other trajectory, and distances on the periphery are greater than those in the middle.
There is a necessary argument about how easy it is to revive the module degraded by repetition; for example, if someone writes a poem about falling in love, about industrial alienation, about the sight of the sea, about birdsong, are those experiences so necessary and strong that they can be revived by a poet although they are necessarily familiar, as much from life as from other poems and songs. Ash and fire are typically found in the same places. They are opposites: the ash shows where fire has passed and use up the possibility of fire in future. It is a great effort to hope that fire can return where so much ash, so much greyness, has buried the traces of so many past fires.


A poem cannot be familiar without being boring, but also cannot contradict the world-knowledge of the reader, which supplies the elements of meaning of which the poem is made.
The fact that there is a limit to the brain's resources suggests that a rule exists which resists excitation; a large scale activation pattern excludes other patterns from forming, thus protecting the resources of the brain. A pattern, having overcome this resistance, has to provide its own resistance to other patterns. Competition between patterns takes place, for the same resources. Perhaps removing information, the baffles effect, is an excellent way of intensifying mental activity around a single, selected, topic. This concentration is an improbability, it is self-referential, or at least self-organising. But some poems create temporary high-energy patterns, which are unique and transient reconnections of common and permanent units of speech and knowledge. It is striking that they use the same words and the same syntactical and metaphorical structures as bad poems.

It would be tempting but distracting to recover exceptions to the negative rules. There was a burst of verse dramas around 1950, some of them of much interest. There is a category of modern narrative poetry - for example Logue’s great Homer translation, or George MacBeth’s narrative poems, or Gaudete. The social nature of these rules is puzzling and gives us pause. If it is social, it is the true matter of history - perhaps the structure of genres is the area which most lends itself to historical study. One has to do a great deal of work to reach these results. That part is less enticing.
The gaze at the reaches of empty spectrum gives us a tantalizing glimpse of a unity between the m-stream and the underground, a set of rules of extreme abstraction which unifies the whole period and underlies the whole world of surface variation. When I try to look at this unity, it instantly vanishes.

It is notorious that photographers do not simply register reality but go out with an ideal in mind and take photographs of momentary patterns in the visible world which resemble it. We can suppose that if we could look at hundreds of poets, it would be like looking at masses of amateur photographers, and there would be an ideal of landscape which many of them would have in mind and which would be collective. Poetry presumably grasps directly at these ideals, although unable to escape from the sensuous world in its attempt to capture them. There is no doubt that English people love the English countryside, or English nature in general, and that they are willing to respond to symbolic representations of it in art. It almost seems as if the poets are withholding this pleasure, distracted either by the less fascinating demands of their own personalities or by the intellectually prevailing distaste for such things, held to put us at the mercy of the ruling class, or some other reason which makes the appreciation of forests and green hills a source of contempt for the well informed.



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