February 13, 2010

Wallflower poetics and ‘the orthodoxy of subversion’

Back in December, I wrote a letter contributing to the online correspondence between choreographer Jonathan Burrows and Live Art theorist Adrian Heathfield (http://tony-trehy.blogspot.com/2009/12/gauging-freedom-and-constraint.html ). It’s been a while since the two put anything online to continue their conversation. In his new letter, http://www.thisisperformancematters.co.uk/news.1.12.html Jonathan tells us that they have been continuing development of their thinking by phone, which seems like a breach of the convention of starting a public conversation in the first place, and implicitly it does now feel like a dialogue that we have missed part of. Anyway, though I understand my contribution was pointed out to Adrian at least, I wasn’t expecting a response or acknowledge; I did hope that proof of an audience would up the quality of argument. Maybe a nod to this in Burrows letter is his references.

So, to the content of the argument: I find it bizarre that their thinking continues to be located in the arguments of Michael Donaghy. If they were poets I would now be discounting this conversation as banal drone from the UK mainstream - it wouldn’t even have crossed my radar. I find myself almost thinking that this must be a different Adrian Heathfield than the one who wrote Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh
In Wallflowers, Donaghy makes much shadow of a dance, a metaphorical formula for the social transaction between the artist and audience in an oral tradition; I don’t understand how this isn’t just ridiculed when someone like Tehching Hsieh (for instance, whom Adrian must know well) posits considerable linguistic rigour as the continuity of a temporal act in space.

With Jonathan now also introducing ‘theory’ from folk(!) musician John Kirkpatrick, I almost want to warn the dance/performing arts worlds that there is a dangerous retrogressive agenda to drive these forms into the same tame deadend into which UK ‘public’ poetry now languishes.

Because of the gaps in the correspondence due to the shadow of phone conversations, with irritation I felt compelled to buy Donaghy’s “The Shape of the Dance” (which includes the Wallflowers essay). Imagine the level of irritation when I actually then read it. I shouldnt really have to put up with this nonsense, life is too short to waste on it, but the marker needs to be put down in the Burrows/Heathfield dialogue and then I will move on to more serious things.

In responding to the meandering Donaghy style, it is the most efficient use of time perhaps to focus on the Wallflowers “In Lieu of a Conclusion”. In this he acknowledges the literary battlefield that poetry became at the end of the 20th Century but of course located where he is, this is framed as an ‘attack’ on “traditional terms of engagement with the audience, modernist poets and critics…cut poetry’s lifeline to the oral tradition.” He does however recognise that this “developed immeasurably our capacity to think speculatively and innovatively about the genre.” But instead of seeing what we can now do since 'our capacity to think' has been expanded, he turns back from immeasurable possibility to ask the final question of the essay: How do we re-engage with poems? (I’ll come back to the wrong-headedness of the question in a minute).

Donaghy’s answer is “Memorize. When we learn a dance step, a part in a play, a song, or a poem by heart, we give it a body to live in.” Memorize?! The answer to re-engagement with poems is to memorise? There are two objections to this outrageously simple-minded harking-back-to-the-romantic-pre-industrial-bucolic-idyl-nonsense. As Donaghy himself identified earlier in the essay “In non-literate cultures, of course, the only way to preserve knowledge is to make it memorizable”. We don’t live in a non-literate culture. In the 21st century who the hell has or wants this form of oral relationship with poetry? We live in a literate, but predominantly visual-technological culture. Donaghy posits a central relationship of the artist to the audience; how is his (non-literate) audience served by perpetuation of a fantasy that poetry is an oral form (as opposed to a linguistic form)? No-one would deny poetry’s origin but this laughable position is the equivalent of arguing that drama should return to institutionalised competitions celebrating the god Dionysus; and if antecedence is validation you could argue that live art itself is historically illegitimate; and sound art isn’t proper music so that should be crossed off too; and multimedia art is ...(etc) (etc).

How do we re-engage with poems? Asks Donaghy. He also anticipates one of the questions that this raises: why is this desirable? Both questions are actually rooted in the mainstream’s location of the problems of poetry in marketing and audience. Who are the 'we' he refers too? What poems? ‘Re-engage’ suggests readers who used to read poems but don’t now, or maybe, read poems but somehow fail to ‘inscribe on their hearts’. The tenor of the passage is that it is modernism’s fault that readers are disengaged because the “lifeline to the oral tradition” was cut. This is the argument against conceptual art from the Stuckists.

The second objection to privileging memory as the functional repository of a poem is the fossilisation of the artform. This is a sad reflection on poetry itself – what other artform would think like this? No-one goes to a Lawrence Weiner exhibition with the intention of memorising his texts. Does Jonathan Burrows expect the audience to memorise the choreography of one of his dance works? And if the voice is going to be only measure of poetic quality, how are we expected to memorise poems by Christian Bök or Caroline Bergvall? Fundamentally most other artforms, and contemporary poetry that “developed immeasurably our capacity to think speculatively and innovatively about the genre” are driven by an artistic imperative (analogous to scientific method) toward discovery and ideas, hypothesis and experiment. Which brings me to the question of the discussion of what Jonathan calls the orthodoxy of subversion – “how to negotiate the relationship between old and new, especially in a time when the marketplace pushes us always into buying the new and even the old is repackaged and sold back to us.” Interesting to note that the greatest public ‘exposure’ to poetry nowadays is through the use of its forms in TV/radio advertising. Jonathan quotes 'Wallflowers':

"A player in such a tradition is expected to improvise, to 'make it new', and the possibilities of expression within the prescribed forms are infinite. But it's considered absurd to violate the conventions of the form, the 'shape' of the dance tune or story, because you leave the community of your audience behind.” (Mmm… 'making it new' – it makes me smile when one of the Hegemony of the Banal make the Poundian claim because it indicates the incapability of their desire and their absence of self-knowledge.) In another section of the book Donaghy comments that “the reader is willing to go halfway to accommodate you – but no more”. I have often quoted from William Carlos Williams’ autobiography where he uses the metaphor of the artist as bridge builder: the artist is faced with a gorge, the bridging artwork is the method of crossing; the artist makes and uses the bridge to cross. The bridge is useful. (Lawrence Weiner: “Art must be useful”); the viewer/reader/audience can also use the bridge. It is of no interest to the artist if critics don’t like the shape of the arch, or if someone doesn’t want to cross. The artist has moved onto the next valley. In my writing, if the reader is only willing to go halfway, then they won’t get all the way across, they won’t get to see what I discover on the other side, and if they don’t, why should I care? I crossed because I had to. If the reader doesn’t cross, they don’t have to. This isn’t a declaration of transgression – the desire for that would be to privilege the effect on the audience over the imperative to know. If the artwork is transgressive, it was the requirement of the creative imperative; if it is not transgressive, it was the requirement of the creative imperative.

Coincidentally, I was recently in a workshop where the 6 object exercise was used, and gratifyingly in this context I didn’t have any urge to take the objects out of the room. I agree that there is a misconception that the creative act must involve transgression, it can, but the over-egging of it, as Jonathan and Adrian agree, has had negative effects which are tied into commodification of the impulse, the prioritisation of the ‘emerging artist’ and the subsequent interchangeability of artists as fashion accessories. It is this very context which demands that the artist address their own artistic problems; to let the audience or the salesman or the educationalist define the problems is to compromise the possibility of discovery. Donaghy’s Irish country dance, in reality or as analogy for poetry, is a community entertainment, it is a fun night out; no-one begrudges the audience having a good time, but it is frankly silly to elevate it or its shadow in memory as a serious artistic discovery.

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