Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Marechera's Poetry.

In 1984, Marechera gave an interview to Flora Veit-Weld (the text of which appears as an epilogue to Cemetery of Mind). Most reviews of Marechera’s poetry come from generalisations made by writers which relate to what they think his poetry was about. Here is an attempt to look at what he actually thought himself and try and understand the implicit sources.

At the start of the interview, Marechera associates and then disassociates himself from Eliot. Marechera states that is the “poet’s job” (M) to find as Eliot put it, in 1919, “ a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” (E). He re-terms “objective correlative” (E) as “verbal correlative” (M). That could be a half-recollection of the term, or it could be something more pointed: Eliot’s emphasis on the objective as a code for the subjective, physical for mental, was taken over from Poundian Imagism. In 1913, Pound developed Imagism into Vorticism which placed emphasis on the verb, action within the image—verbal manifestation. Quite possibly, Marechera implies that emotion seeks its correlative in action, in the moving image. Marechera’s objection to Eliot’s objectivism is quite simple, in one respect, however: Marechera sees its weakness: a writer may have a “feeling” (more complex than an emotion) for which there might be no obvious objects capable of creating it.

For Marechera, poetry is a “retreat from physical reality” into philosophy. Here, the human exists no longer and the soul takes over. This shift into metaphysics is rather startling, not at all where the opening discussion seemed to be going. Marechera feels this retreat as a withdrawal into invisibility—into the “invisible poet” (M). The term “invisible poet”, by implication, once more returns into the framework of Modernism. When Kenner used this phrase, in 1959, of Eliot, it was used to mark a shift from the poem as the creation of a real person, one easily identified, into a realm of Poundian personae such that the poem became the creation of a unifying consciousness. From Marechera’s perspective, this withdrawal into invisibility allows the poet to illuminate “things from within as from without out”(M). A double illumination? This borders on how Langer described the process by which symbolism is made in Mind: nature is transformed subjectively by mind and mind is objectified metamorphically by nature. The “objective correlative” is half of imagination and imagery. The other half is the subjective irrelative. Marechera sees poetry as coming from an invisible centre, a self, an individuality which “you can’t really find in Africa”. His view-point, here, again is Poundian, but also older than Pound, as Pound well knew and acknowledged. (The roots are in Reniassance Neo-platonism). Pound wrote “the stone is alive in my hand”. Nature is not dead. It isn’t simply moulded by the sculptor, subjected to the mind’s conscious design. It knows the design that the mind seeks and so allows itself to objectify an idea. The light of the mind is already in the light of nature. Marechera compares poetry, through simile, to a kaleidoscope. This isn’t quite what happens, but it is a way of linking to the process of poetry. The physical world can be shaken and shaken into new coloured patterns. Objects endlessly transform. What must be noted, however, is that Marachera says that this method fits “physical environments” (M) “rather than” (M) “mental environments (M). The mind is not best imagined as a kaleidoscope: he does not view the mind as directionally mutable. Marechera appears to be alluding to Modernism all the time, yet his thoughts do not appear to simply coincide. It as if there is something he can’t relate in the language of Modernism. Its European logic of perception, developed obviously in Eliot’s aesthetic “objective correlative” and then re-designed in the psychological critical principles of Richards, in 1929, is not in Marechera’s blood.

When Marechera upholds the view that poetry is a “musical notation” (M), well, that is a re-statement of Modernism; both Eliot and Pound played endlessly with the relationship between music and poetry, the sound qualities if the image, but when he upholds the link between poetry and music rather than “a reasoned linguistic structure” that is another direction. The disorder of poetic language returns, seemingly, to the kaleidoscope. Though the physical landscape can be endlessly structured into logical symmetries, the mental landscape is known through randomness. And that is why the logical, consciously selected “objective correlative” of Modernism is flawed. Not only can it not represent some emotions it also cannot represent the mind at work.

By arguing that there is no difference between prose and poetry, Marechera once more follows Pound and Joyce: charged writing is simply speech intensified. But what fascinates Marechera is something more than the logic within the illogic of the stream of conscious technique—Ulysses, for all its eccentricities—is shaped by a logical, concentric mind. All the rejoicing in language comes from the unified consciousness of Joyce. What rather fascinates Marechera is the “enchantment” of language, the reverberation of language, as in his own Black Sunlight, that moves thought towards disorder, “psychotic insanity”. Why? Because the abnormal society that Marechera sought to critique in poetry and prose would require an abnormal language. (The uneveness in his poetry, its annoying register breaks and irregular dictions, challenge the very notion of poetry, in the West, as polished…).

Poetic commitment, according to Marechera, is double. It is a commitment to the world inside the self and outside the self. The “visible poet” is committed simply to the last of these: the poem is a message to be delivered. The “invisible poet”, however, is not the logical antithesis, a poet committed simply to the self. Marechera illustrates the “invisible poet” by referring to Soyinka and Okigbo. Of these, Okigbo is the most revealing—a poet who knew the metric of Eliot, who faced his self, the tensions of a dual education—yet broke with Eliot to write a poetry of dissonance and dissidence.

As an “invisible poet”, one not split by inwardness and outwardness, but living the unification of the two, Marechera’s extensive comments on language and education make a lot of sense. Though he previously placed Soyinka as an “invisible poet” (one who has more to offer than those who look back innocently to a pure Africa before colonialism) there is a note of anxiety when he describes Soyinka as “a cerebral poet” (M). There is an awareness that as much as he appreciates Soyinka, the existential clash between colonialism, neo-colonialism, contact with European and Western values, Soyinka is not poetically in a place that Marechera wants to inhabit. The “invisible poet” is not a fixed ideal, it has specific levels, levels of discrimination, differences without hierarchy.

When the question is put, “Do you start writing a poem with a specific feeling or idea?” Marechera’s response is emphatic. The poem does not begin with an idea (mind). It begins with “the first line” (M) -- a point where inside and outside already exist. The poem begins with something physical, never as a conception waiting to be nailed into place. It then becomes a matter of “abuse”. Interestingly, Marechera finds in writing the exact opposite of the existentialist Beckett. As a conscious writer, one requiring absolute control over the written word, Beckett preferred to write in French then translate into English. Thinking in a second language brought a conscious discipline to his work. Marechera reversed the whole of this process. English was his second language. It made him too conscious. A disciplined language was unwanted. So, his writing in English became an argument with consciousness and English had to be roughed up so as it learnt to say what he wanted to say. To the Modernists, most noticeably Pound, language paralleled sculpture. Polished form reached its height with the work of Gaudier-Brzeska. In Marechera’s work, there is a different awareness of how language is sculpted. To Western eyes it might seem to be uninformed, lacking in polish, but really what exists is an unpolishing, and re-informing. As with African sculpture, Marechera is not afraid to leave the marks of craftsmanship, his creative actions.

In discussing the love-sonnet, nothing really develops, not until the subject matter of the Amelia poems enters. The fictive “Amelia” is White and Marechera, of course, was Black. Veit-Weld pursues the obvious inter-racial line, puzzled that Marechera did not explore this more. His response is direct and existential: a relationship is a relationship and loving people of the same race is “an incest” (M). His statement about race, here, seems perfectly in line with his approach to poetry. He isn’t interested in binary splits or being confined to one side of an equation. He is more interested in love and its “very personal and intimate kind of terror” (M) and the multiplicity of forms that result. The “emotional chaos” (M) experienced in a “concrete way” is poetical theory being lived.

The 1984 interview, like any interview, does not amount to a poetic ideology. As with any interview, it is a dialogue opened and closed by the interviewer’s questions. It would also be wrong to commit an intentional fallacy and start to read insights from the interview into Marechera’s poetry and create a canon of poems that fit his statements. What does exist in the interview, however, is a record of an unusual intelligence at work, and a clear sense that Marechera’s poetry existed in relation to an intellectual and experiential mindscape. To either call him a genius and avoid analysis or view him as a Beat hobo and deny synthesis is to do him a considerable wrong.


Unsane said...

Very good! He does venture into metaphysics at times (for example in THE BLACK INSIDER, when one's love for Helen, though now dead, is still considered to be a viable motivator -- hence what else but a metaphysical affectation?)

He also seems to emotionally relate to the condition of Cartesianism, when he states (in BLACK SUNLIGHT?) that there must be something missing from his constitution as he cannot seem to connect with the physical environments of Modernism -- it's industrial landscapes only invoke alienation, even more so in their artistic rendering. Music, however, gives a much more positive affirmation of that human detachment from objective reality, for Marechera.

Marechera certainly has incorporated elements of Modernism into his writing and theoretical approach. As you appear to concur, this does not necessarily make him a Modernist -- metaphorically at least, there is some other quality "in his blood".

Unsane said...

By the way, you should read Stephen Toulmin's book, COSMOPOLIS. He distinguishes between 16th Century humanism and 17th century scientific rationalism and says that the two have been mistakingly conflated, and that most of the thought which elevated artistic and humanistic ideas was the property of the 16th century -- not the 17th. Rather, the 17th century imposed mind-body dualism, from which we have only -- towards the latter part of the 20th century -- partly succeeded in breaking free. The absolute rationalism and self-control prescribed by dualist ideology hardly supports creativity as a predominant cultural value. So, I'm not sure about "neoPlatonism" either, as a pro-Creative value. We know that Plato's views on art were not very positive...

eshuneutics said...

Wickedly put--there's nothing like love and death to make one metaphysical. Modernism (in the guise of Vorticism and Futurism) took artists helter skelter into the worship of industrial progress and speed as you say, but what they left behind was alienation. Neo-Platonism was the base for Humanism...and this would seem to be Marechera's point of connection. He argues for the validity of world literature because of its humanistic elements-- and its interest in "being". Yes,
what intrigued me, as I pondered Marechera, was the influence of Kenner on Pound and Eliot studies: a profound and vast influence! Yet, Kenner was a Modern critic shaped by the Enlightenment. You could almost alter Pope's famous line on Newton and attach it to Kenner: 'God said, "Let Kenner be" and there was light.'I hadn't seen this before--been somewhat duped here--so missed the extreme rationalism he applies as a method of clarification. Though Pound was an arch Modernist, always modernising his Modernism--there is a huge pre-seventeenth century element to his work. This involves states of being, not mind and body.
I keep reading your posts on Toulmin...

Unsane said...

Well I'm not familiar with Kenner. I did enjoy your article on Marechera, though, immensely.