Sunday, February 24, 2008

Poetry as Massage.

Poetry is derived from poesis, to make. That simple fact prompted Susanne Langer (in the 1950s) to ask a very simple question: What exactly does the poet make? Not words, is her reply; perhaps, then an arrangement of words. Not a very satisfactory answer because (as Langer points out) someone could arrange plates on a table and that would not be art. (Though in 2008 it possibly could be art!) What the poet would appear to do is: create poetic elements that are double, at once referenced in an illusionary way to reality but also referenced to a real emotional response (in poet/maker and reader/maker). The emotion transmutes illusion to a point whereby the poet offers a significant experience.

Langer’s writings on Felt Form continually move in the direction of significance and a belief that poesis is a making of something new. As Christopher Middleton argued in Bolshevism and Art, the poem is a made space (a prosetic space) in which experiences are offered that are not in the everyday world.

Replying to I A Richards, Langer recognised that there were two responses to a poem, one was concerned with “understanding” (which Richards found problematical) and another related to “sentimentality” (which Richards found useless). Locked in this debate is one of the problems that faces contemporary poetry. For poets who create “prosetic” spaces (such a rare word that Google does not appear to possess it), poets such as Reginald Shepherd, Christopher Middleton, Robert Duncan, H.D. who ascribe meaning to the world that is born with the poem, the sentimental response is inadequate; and this, I begin to feel, is the root of the “difficult” slur and why it is applied with such venom to certain poets/poems/poetries.

The bookshelves of Borders and Waterstones, for example, are filled with anthologies, all of which support a certain kind of response. Poems that are known well. Poems that can be approached with sentiment. “Ah, I know that feeling well.” “Oh, I remember when I read that poem at school.” “Such a universal truth in that poem.” An ever-popular species of this is the poetry as health-guide. Poems for bereavement. Poems for depression. Poems for days of crisis. Poems for Love. Recently, I heard a modern (living?) poet make the claim that “Poetry is massage”, it calms the mind, eases the strains in life, such is its gift to humanity. Personally, I cannnot think of a definition more likely to knot every muscle in my body.

The poetry world, with all its talk of poems for well-being, has come into a very unhealthy splitting of consciousness. As Marechera once asked in Thrones of Bayonets, “Is verse the massage/And poetry the message?” The whole difficulty, elitism, anti-reader debate finds its substance in a belief that verse should massage the self…will confirm what we know of ourselves…convince us that our own narrow ego judgements (this poet is great, this tradition is great) are all that matters. Massage leaves us floating in the present, caressed by the past, not swimming to the future.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nationality "Wog"-- Institutional Racism and David Oluwale.

Kester Aspden’s book is a criminologist’s eye view of the 1969 David Oluwale case in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The title is intended to be eye-catching, using the term—Wog—that the local police entered as Oluwale’s “nationality”. The title has upset some, who see it as offensive as “nigger”, and a deliberate attempt to court publicity. Personally, this does not seem to be the case: “wog”, though undoubtedly offensive, does not share the historical depth and scarring of the term “nigger”; and Aspden’s book is anything but a popular real crime thriller. The book is a thoroughly researched account of how Oluwale left his homeland in Nigeria, claimed his British nationality according to the phrase civis Brittanicus sum, then slipped slowly from citizen, to mental patient, to vagrant, to a corpse in the River Aire as a result of police brutality. The sub-title of the book, “The Hounding” implies what really happened to Oluwale: he experienced the slave-minded attitude of institutions who hunted him down as surely as slave owners pursued uncompromising slaves.

The historical facts are well recounted by Aspden. Oluwale entered the United kingdom as a stowaway. After a fight in the centre of Leeds, he was arrested and subsequently deemed to be mentally unstable: a schizophrenic (a rather easy and popular diagnosis of black males). Eight years of treatment left him a changed man. On his release, Oluwale became a being of no-fixed abode (mentally and physically) who slept rough in Leeds. Eventually, after numerous kickings by local police, jokes and insults over a long period of time, he was chased towards the river where he drowned.

Many modern issues connect to the death of Oluwale. Racism. Institutionalised racism (though no such legal notion existed in 1969). The belief (originating in slavery) that black males are children (wogs, pollywogs, tadpoles, babies rather than adults). The assumption that African males are violent. And the presumption that black men carry mental illness within them, rather than see that the disturbance is caused by an individual’s isolation from a white orientated system. In many ways, Nationality: Wog. The Hounding of David Oluwale is a timely book. As Aspden notes, the mental system in the UK has not had its “Stephen Lawrence moment”. Official figures show that the police are twice as likely to refer a black male as a white male to as psychiatric unit following social disturbances. The mental system has not woken up to the prejudice within the penal system. Aspden might also have added that the police system still hasn’t had its “Stephen Lawrence moment” either. It hasn’t really woken up to the institutional racism that directed the Stephen Lawrence murder…it still does not want to accept what it was told: the death of Stephen Lawrence was not about a number of bad apples in the police force. It was about a system of policing that was rotten to the core because of racial prejudices.

Aspden’s book is an important and interesting book. If it has a weakness, however, it is in its structure. Some of its comparisons are forced, such as that between Oluwale and Albert Johanneson, Leeds United’s South African signing. Aspden tries to widen the reader’s understanding of Oluwale by showing the racism that Johanneson endured. But the two personal histories are really very different. Johanneson, who had endured apartheid, found communal bathing with white footballers a traumatic event. But Oluwale’s trauma was not born from apartheid, rather from colonial rule and (seemingly) a Yoruba identity allied to an American jazz image that did not suit subservience. This lumping of the black identity is something of a weakness within the book. Also, for a book written by an academic, Aspden was a lecturer in history at Leeds University, the book has an amazing lack of references. Quotations are never referenced, and though the book has a list of sources, it has no index, something which makes the location of information a laborious task. A little more thoroughness and less generalising would have improved the book further.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Payday Loans: Jee Leong Koh.

Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) is a short selection of poems by Jee Leong Koh. It is offered as a chapbook of 30 sonnets, all of which were written as part of Poetry Month, 2005, at the rate of one per day. Jee Leong Koh, judging from the content of his blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, his numerous poetry readings in New York, and his elegant emails in my direction, is a scrupulous and intelligent poet committed to the poetical voice: not just the structure on the page, but the form in the air. The blurb to Payday Loans points out that “April 13th, Wednesday” was banned by the Government of Singapore: it sanctioned the printing of the poem, but not the performance (as required by Singapore law) because of its overt gay content. But this should not put a reader off because Jee Leong Koh is not a “dangerous” poet as he read English at “Oxford University” and studied writing at “Sarah Lawrence College”. I have to say that this made me chuckle — such a blatant attempt to offset supposed notoriety with tranquilising academic credentials. The truth is that Jee Leong Koh is a “dangerous” poet and what rings true in his poetry is the urban, naughty, erotic, incisive, explosive content; everything that you do not find in the UK in an Oxford Poet!

Payday Loans has received some mixed reviews since its publication. Tia Ballantine applauded it, but remained irritated by its Poets Wear Prada connection: far too American for the UK where Poets Wear Green Wellingtons. James Midgley approved of the colloquial irreverence, but felt that its “flaw” was “inextricable” from its virtues (whatever that means). And George Held, in a grudging review, criticised idiomatic slips, yet recognised great versatility. I am pleased that I read Payday Loans before reading any reviews because (as ever, it seems) I appear to be reading a different volume. Of the three reviews mentioned, Tia Ballantine’s struck the fairest tone. Yet, her refusal to read the poetry and stay true to the poem’s epigraph towards Gestalt theory, is a bit of a cop-out: to read individual lines would be to disturb the whole? Please. Come on! Nice joke, but…

In his appreciation of Payday Loans, George Held observes that much of the pleasure derived from Payday Loans is formal. That comment is something like the kiss of “Mr Certain Death”. Just as well, then, that it is as inaccurate as his survey of form. According to him, Jee Leong Koh writes “alternatively” in English and Italian forms. In truth, out of the 30 sonnets, 5 are Shakespearean (Surrey), 6 are Petrarchan (with sestet variations cdcdcd or cdecde), one, “April 24th, Sunday”, referencing Paradise Lost, is appropriately Miltonic (no obvious octet/sestet shift), yet most are flexible inventions of the poet’s own imagining. Like the early Thom Gunn, who used Petrarchan rhyme schemes, also Petrarchan sonnets with Shakespearean structures, even sonnets using couplets, Jee Leong Koh is an experimenter. His sonnets are not simply allusive like Robert Lowell’s in Notebook, yet they do contain something of Lowell: a sense of journalism, in the true sense, of holding a day’s thoughts in a closed unit. The first impression that comes from Payday Loans is that of a poet at play and a poetry that is shaped by inventive thought and prepared to push against tradition.

As I read Payday Loans, I kept in mind a question that has occupied me much over the past few months: if “gay” is a sexually defined term, what is the “gay” individual outside the sexual act? And if the individual is more than his “gayness”: why are critics of (gay) poetry fixated on sexual acts? Consequently, I was puzzled by a further affirmation of Held’s: “Next to form, Koh's obsession is sex, a subject that informs his better poems here.” There is one poem in Payday Loans that wonderfully addresses this. “April 10, Sunday” focuses on the love between lover and beloved. It is a love in which the beloved shapes his body as the lover shapes the body of his poem. The Petrarchan rhyme scheme abba is pushed to excess, to a point where the repetition of four rhyme words, “chest”, “enough”, “obsessed”, “buff” becomes a tiring exercise. The poem’s couplet seals the problem in: the worship of Beauty creates a pornographic insensitivity—a wonderful inversion of the relationship between Beauty and the sonnet (from Michelangelo, through Shakespeare, through Wilde, through the whole homoerotic tradition). Yet, what emerges within Payday Loans is anything but an obsession with sex. There is a tender poem of sexual frustration in “April 3rd”, a poem of sexual adoration in “April 6th”, (but underscored with humour and pathos, much like Gunn in “Venetian Blind”), a resonant poem on the gap between poetical and sexual communication, “April 16th”, and a mock sexual aubade, “April 17th”. There are two overtly sexual poems, “Come on, straight boy and make gay love to me” and “What’s on tonight but lips pressed on lips”, yet even these are measured, anything but obsessive. “April 18th” is a physical version of “If music be the food of love” and “April 13th” (the banned poem) is a hilarious piece of anti-Platonism…its speaker is not some sexual obsessive (as Jee Leong Koh said of the banning in Singapore, what did they think I would do in my performance, “waggle my dick at the audience?”) but a piece of witty sophistry…Socrates could have used the argument to seduce some Greek youth…or Ficino, in Italy. Payday Loans does contain gay themes. It also contains human themes: time, age, identity, family, work, this leant life. And is utterly convincing in how it makes gay and humanity fuse together.

Reading Payday Loans left me with a sense of deja vu. It brought back the thrill of reading Gunn a decade ago and thinking “Yes, here is a voice with a rich, human intelligence.” Also, a modest voice. If there is a poem and a poet to listen to, it isn’t the one on YouTube, though that video is worth watching. It is rather the man who reads “April 23rd Wednesday” on his blog. And does so with warmth, precision, depth and conviction. Not an April Fool piece, like “April 1st”, “Please lend me thirty,” but a poem fitting for Shakespeare’s birthday, as a tribute to the father of the sonnet in English: “My father doesn’t know Zeus from Zeno.” The main impression given by Payday Loans is that of a poet who can combine pathos and wit, who takes poetry ever so seriously, a sequence written by someone for whom words are a valve releasing pressure. For example, take these lines written to a macho, sexy Lifeguard:

These past months, year, treacherous tides , in vain
I have been waiting for a versatile
Savior to hold me up in dry denial
of waters that have swallowed up Hart Crane.

Often, an exuberant wit meets introverted emotion.

Payday Loans is all that a chapbook should be: it communicates its truths in idioms that catch and reward the ear.