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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Three Nov-Dec 2023.
Poetry: The Permanent Revolution, guest editorial by Mark Tredinnick.
It didn’t work out well in the end for Yevgeny Zamyatin. It rarely does for the true revolutionaries, which is who the truest poets are.
Revolutions begin by resisting and overthrowing old regimes, corrupt and moribund and bound in orthodoxies; but revolutions end, in time, in entropy, hardening themselves into new dogmas and orthodoxies, opposing the very freedoms they began by asserting. Literature, Zamyatin knew, is a revolution that never ends, like life itself. Dogma, hegemonic ideology, no matter how enlightened in its aspirations, kills the freedom that literature practises, embodies, promotes, and depends upon.
Not many people remember him now, but Zamyatin was influential, as a poet and essayist and novelist, as teacher of creative writing and as an advocate, before and after the revolution in Russia, of independence of mind and freedom of spirit, of art that had about it the conditions of nature, of life itself. You can find the influence of his thinking in Orwell and Hannah Arendt, in their critique of the drift toward totalitarian thought, whether left or right, control of minds and freedom of action, practised chiefly through the constriction and dehumanisation of language, and every generation we forget what Zamyatin lived to see in Russia, and Arendt in Germany, and Orwell among his bedfellows of the left. We forget, each generation, because we imagine ourselves free of the egregious errors of the past, the chauvinisms and solipsisms and myopia of those who came before us, unenlightened as we suddenly are. But we should never forget. For we are still human, and in us run the old Animal Farm tendencies of the righteous, the newly enlightened, to become autocratic. We are all, let’s face it, little monopolists. I guess I’d like, as you can tell, for everyone to see the world and poetry the way I see it too.
And so it goes these days, as it always did. And because we need literature, poetry in particular, to carry on the revolution of life, the insistence on freedom and love and integrity and diversity, we must do what we can, as poets and readers and arts bureaucrats, to keep our language free of how our times and ideologies will inevitably seek to constrain it.
Zamyatin was an early Bolshevik. And the Bolsheviks loved him while they, too, were working to overthrow the old regime, with its thought control, its patriarchies, its hierarchies and intransigence, its injustices. They liked him much less, when, after the revolution and after Bolshevism became the new regime, Zamyatin kept insisting in his allegorical novels and teaching and essays on the same freedom of thought they had all been fighting for before 1917. Here’s the sort of thinking that got him blacklisted and exiled: “Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought. When the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma—a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatization in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns; it only gives off warmth—it is tepid it is cool.” That’s from his essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,” published in1923, and had he not been so close to Lenin, it might have cost him his head. For revolution had become terror and autocracy by then. In an earlier essay, “I Am Afraid,” he wrote: “True literature can exist only when it is created … by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics.”
The world itself, Robert Bringhurst asserts, happens in poetry—a wild order, a constellation of tongues, as old as time. What we call poetry, I’d say, with Bringhurst, is how, occasionally, in human language, we catch some of how Being goes, how the earth spins, the way of things, and say something so freshly, with such integrity, you’d have to call it alive. In this way the best poetry affirms life, and earth, and all being in it. And because so much of the language that transacts itself around us, does not embody such wildness and freedom, we desperately need poetry, so that we can feel what freedom feels like and so that we can, some of us, try to keep language in the kind of repair it needs to be in to bear adequate witness to the experience of life, which will otherwise, most likely, be too much for us to bear.
[Zamyatin, a revolutionary, a heretic and a sceptic, lived to see his fellow revolutionaries become the apparatchiks of an autocratic state. But the moral of his story pertains even where the purveyors of orthodox thought are not also state-based terrorists.]
We are always in times when the freedom of the human heart and mind and of the living world are at risk of being ignored or denied; radical thought ossifies into orthodoxy; the arts will be recruited to the causes that prevail—the old regime or the new. But no matter how fine, art should best not join. Poetry is for what life is for; it goes well when it stays loyal to life; the perpetual recreation of the real is what poetry through the ages has mostly witnessed and stayed faithful to, as politics come and go. Life itself goes on varying, dying and rebirthing, adapting to time and season. The conditions of life are the conditions of revolution: one moment always ceasing to allow the next to begin, day passing into night and el nino into la nina. Time is tidal. Transformation is the way of things, metamorphosis—sometimes slow, sometimes fast. The way of things, the living and dying, the coming and going, the persisting and the fleeting, are a perpetual revolution. Being is beginning, again and again; life prospers when things vary and diverge, ecologies prosper when they are layered and multiple, manifold and various; and poetry goes best, and literature flourishes, when it is not asked to articulate codified thoughts and images. Poetry is for freedom, and it keeps us free when it keeps its language free from cant and cliché and orthodoxies of idea and speech.
Poems are soft bombs, small incendiary devices. But the kind of breaking they fashion is the breaking of the heart wide open, the busting of cliches, the disassembling of habitual and commonplace ways of being in and understanding life. The kind of death they inflict is the useful kind, the fiery kind Zamyatin speaks of, from which good poems resurrect you into someone you were not before—or as I prefer to think of it, into much more, and much else, and something much other, than you knew you were before.
Good poems keeping going off, too, long after you’ve put them down. They work like a perpetual revolution. They break what needs breaking because it constrains and diminishes an understanding of what a human life is and what all life is, and they keep on breaking you open to your self and all selves and the world.
Good poems can do this, they can do what a controlled burn does to a eucalypt forest overgrown with woody weed, they can renew an understanding of the human condition, of the way of all things, to the extent that they know what they’re doing with language the way a plant knows what it’s doing with light. They can do it if they understand craft and ask more of language than casual talk asks, if they write free of the orthodox constraints of theoretical or intellectual utterance. The kind of language a poem depends upon has about it the same integrity and wild order that life, itself, in all its forms, instantiates and which all human lives, know deep down beneath the categories the world imposes and theory insists upon. This is the kind of thinking I had in mind in one of my Nine Carols, “The Carol of the Living”:
NONE of us will last, but something will:
Let’s be that from now on. Let’s sing out
Our brief lives in the language of things.
Let the forms that nature takes—even
These our organic selves—be our speech
Again. Eternity incarnate—
Carol that, my friends, the way the wrens
Do, choughs and pardalotes and tidal
Flats and desert oaks. Alleluia.
Though I end with choughs and tidal flats and wrens, I am getting a bit declamatory there. But the most revolutionary poems are often the quietest, the most humble. They are not, on the whole, the poems that profess rebellion and declaim mantras, pronounce domination of prevailing orthodoxies. The heresy of the great poem—the way it perpetuates the revolution that is life, the way it refutes the false and all that diminishes an understanding of what it is to Be—is its modesty and openness and vulnerability; its insistence on the holiness, the enoughness, of the small and particular, its refusal to see things in stereotypes and categories (of class and gender and identity and power, for instance). The poem that changes you most and consoles and delights and renews you most will be the poem not about the world, to riff on Blake, but about the grain of sand (in which it shows you the world); the most revolutionary poem will write the wild flower, not so much the heaven—but it will help you find heaven in it.
The great poem offers an instance of being and lets you, the reader, find yourself there, heard, for once, and also forgiven. The poem that is capable of encouraging a more just understanding of the plight of the downtrodden and silenced and excluded, will often have nothing in so many words to say about any of that. The poem that understands your heartbreak or your mental illness best will be the poem, silent on such themes, that depicts a quiet or an edgy moment of vulnerable human existence set down somewhere in particular, and which lets you find yourself, in your own frailty, there on the moment on the page. For the experience offered up to a reader in a good poem does not protest the uniqueness of the speaker’s experience; it offers up, often from the poet’s lived experience, a metaphor for all such human experience. The poem doesn’t tell me about the poet; it tells me about my self; it speaks all selves.
This poem of Louise Glück’s is such a poem.
Alas, very soon everything will disappear:
the birdcalls, the delicate blossoms. In the end,
even the earth itself will follow the artist’s name into oblivion.
Nevertheless, the artist intends
a mood of celebration.
How beautiful the blossoms are—emblems of the resilience of life.
The birds approach eagerly.
Notice, by the way, the birds and non-human things in this. Poetry catches our human plight only when it remembers the rest of the world in which we know and sometimes barely survive our lives. Too many poems I hear these days, even when the poets profess ecological concerns, disregard the more than merely human world almost completely. They are set inside their poet’s heads. Such poems don’t do justice to life as it is, to the world in which our living and suffering participate.
Hear how this poem of Mahmoud Darwish figures something like his own experience as a displaced, imprisoned, and exiled Palestinian, as if it were the life of any one of us at all, and how he does so with imagery in which the actual world, nor merely the conceptual, runs.
I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.
I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell
with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.
I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,
a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.
I have lived on the land long before swords turned man into prey.
I belong there. When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to her mother.
And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears.
To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a
single word: Home.
—“I Belong There”
In this poem, the particular displacement stands for all such displacement—actual or potential. Like all good poems, the content is a synecdoche; it stands for the whole class of such experiences. This is achieved by the lyric accomplishment of the making—the metaphors and images that stand a step or two back from the actual, historical content—and it depends on the artistic intention of the poet to write a poem from but not merely about his lived experience, so that it is the reader who feels the poem’s emotions, lives its moments.
The poems that change the world are the poems that change us and put us back in the world differently. They perform a small molecular revolution upon us; they change the way we experience our Being. These poems are lyric poems, not didactic poems (or if they are didactic, they are lyrically didactic). Only in the lyric dimensions of language can the fullness and layeredness of lived experience be caught and carried, and only in lyric language can readers be touched and implicated in the lives they live in their cells and race memories.
The perpetual revolution is a lyric revolution, then. Poetry is its idiom; it says in language what the world practises—a radical kind of being alive. And this lyric revolution, on the page, in the organic world and in the heart, enacts itself more like a falling leaf than a felled tree or a fusillade:
Every leaf that falls
never stops falling. I once
thought that leaves were leaves.
Now I think they are feelings
In search of a place—
someone’s hair, a park bench, a
finger. Isn’t that
like us, going from place
to place, looking to be alive?
—“Victoria Chang, “Passage”
As Chang throws her soft bombs and I write about them here, hard bombs rain down on Gaza. In the damage actual artillery does one can begin to understand, by contrast, how poems work and how, to work, they need to rise, as Darwish’s poem does, above enmity and othering. War is always a bad idea; “swords,” writes Darwish, “turn men to prey.” Poetry is a peaceable revolt against the attitudes (animosity, tribalism, abstraction, ideology) that start wars and the violence wars are. The revolution that poetry performs is lyric; it changes how Being feels, it changes the neurotransmitters in a reader’s brain, it fashions a new seeing. The poetic revolution does not happen in conflict, in streets and on fields of battle. It occurs, where real life happens and real change starts, in the country of the inner life, and in the felt sense of the existence, of the reader. There, shouting and insisting and proclaiming helps as much as bombs help in a densely populated area, as violence helps in a border town.
Paradoxically, the least revolutionary poems may be those that declare the revolution.
Poetry carries on the revolution of renewing us by being what the self-renewing world is, and being it the way a tree is, or a moment, or a bird.
Another thing. While, like instances of being, like moments of world, a poem will have layers and complexities, it will be, if it’s any good, clear enough to enter and dwell in. A good poem, another attribute of the good revolution, the constant schooling of the senses, the tough love literature practises on us—a good poem is not so much obscure or tricky, as radically clear: open enough to inhabit, complex enough to defy a casual interpretation. It asks questions, but only after it’s asked you in and sat you down and offered you food.
Here’s another small moment of the revolution. If it declares, forgive me. It’s a sijo, a Korean form, and it’s supposed to philosophise, as long as it does so lyrically:
WE THINK too much in fences, and we live too little like fields.
Across the river in tumeric light, horses graze summer
Pasture. Where it ends, the Divide picks up. On the wind, two hawks.
“Alas, very soon everything will disappear … nevertheless the artist intends a mood of celebration.” Listen to Louise Glück there, making the revolutionary case for carrying on in celebration, notwithstanding death and suffering. Her words bring to mind Mary Oliver’s poetry and Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” and, since I am striking a Russian theme, Anna Akhmatova. “Why then do we not despair?” sha asked in the grim midst of Stalin’s totalitarian revolutionary stasis. And her answers? The “surrounding woods” and “cherries” and “summer” blown into town and “something not known to anyone at all/ but wild in our breasts for centuries.” (I quote from the translation by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward).
There is always the earth, our only home, the stars, our original mother. Good poems remind us of that profound consolation, and they seem to be made of that “something wild in our breasts” that land is also made of. There are always trees or grass or rain or distance or mountains of seas or, best of all, birds, moving through the poems that speak the revolution. Poems, in their grim hope and stubborn gladness, practise wildness and dance us back into it. Gratitude and reluctant joy at the miracle we find ourselves set down within: if I look across the lyric poetries of the world, that is what I find. Carrying on even though so much hurts, and the griefs pile up, though “your work will be ignored, your name misspelled,” (as I put it in “Before the Day, a prophesy coming truer faster than I’d hoped); carrying on even though in the end all, including the earth, will be lost—this is the madness and the wonder of life, of all living, and poems that report such living and exhort us to take part in it carry on life’s eternal reinvention of itself.
But by God, it’s easy these days to find poems that seem to know no joy and give rise to none—poems in which there is no love for language and no knowledge, innate in all Indigenous poetry, by the way, that we live lives and speak tongues that participate in the ways of places. It is very easy to have a bad time at a poetry gig these form-free and Sadducee Days, these days of outrage and complaint. “I’m tired of being punished for reading poems,” someone said to me last year in Melbourne, an activist and health worker, a mother and grandmother and writer. And I had to laugh. She spoke to me at the end of a reading replete without any manifest shape on the page or in the mouth—scribbled notes most of them seemed to me, whose language was tuneless and carelessly chosen, whose ideas were theories, whose instances were generic, who spoke dissatisfaction and grievance and blame, through which few birds flew. A poem, said Horace in a letter once, “should both instruct and delight.” Not merely catalogue and judge and cry foul.
I think Jack Gilbert had it right when he wrote in “A Brief for the Defense,” a title that knows it’s flying into a prevailing headwind:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
Words that keep the peaceable revolution burning, Jack. Thank you.
I heard the composer Eric Whitacre say recently that when he was studying at the Julliard School in New York, exhausted by the persistent atonality and abstract intellection of prevailing new work, he and some other formed a group called something like the Bolsheviks. They proposed the revolutionary idea that music be delightful to listen to and perform—not just in being melodic, or sounding happy, but in being made with a care for human traditions everywhere (of cadence and tonality and shape and beauty) all of them much older and wiser about love and the earth and the mystery wild in our breast than the clanging and tone-deaf theories, afraid of the heart and of the music inside things, that have prevailed in the West since the end of the Second War. We need the same kind of revolutionary turn in poetry. There are many writing such work, but it is hard to find them or hear them in the cacophony of the abstraction and complaint.
Life is too glorious and terrifying and short to spend much time with the technique-light, head-heavy, music-free poetries of strident social justice that have a lot of the running these days, including in my native Australia. Please let’s all read some more across the ages and the cultures and remember the poet’s obligation to be radically clear in image and compelling in language and to offer some insight and to give some delight; please let’s observe the disciplines of grace that poets across the planet have studied in the works of poets across the planet, so that their one true voice might find expression and sing the lives of humans, of stars and fires, everywhere.
We live downriver from the past; we fish
Our phrases from the stream. They are not ours;
We finish stanzas long ago begun.
We fly them like a flock of migrant birds
Into the years…
—from “Before the Day,”
I’ve heard form dismissed as patriarchal—a glib and foolish claim, which imagines itself, I guess, revolutionary. In every culture the earth has thrown up, lyric poetry has evolved, and everywhere what poetry was understood to be occurred in shapes of sound and sense, and women and men have made it and taken part in it, the powerful and the powerless, the conforming and the rebellious. Poems are what happens to language and to us because the making of the act of speech takes seriously the elements of language that are not reducible to thought: sound, rhythm, speech music, figurative language, lineation, syllable count. Poetry is what happens (to language, to writers, to readers, to reality) when one asks more of language than prose can ask, a thing we humans need some writers to do because the world asks questions harder to answer or endure than conventional thought and phrase allow. Form is how one asks (there are other ways, but they are all the application of a rigour and pattern in languaging that, as in free verse, are a kind of form in any case). No form is not the patriarchy; no it is not privilege; it is what poetry entails and teaches. The world, after all, transpires in forms, and so do we. If you’re not thinking much about form, you’re probably writing prose. And there’s unlikely to be much world in it, much of the fire of life’s revolution. And you probably can’t hope to elicit much revolutionary spark in anyone who reads or hears.
Up the hill from where I am blessed to live (in debt, because poets always own little and owe much) on stolen ground, there is a quarry lapsing back into landscape and lately when I walk there, among the many birds (robin, spinebill, bowerbird, butcherbird, kookaburra, whistler, fantail, wren and thrush) I encounter in form or voice, I have been hearing a whipbird. It asks a long question to which so far there is no response, beyond my hearing and delighting and worrying for him. He’s hoping for the du-du-du of the female: the response to his call. The whipbirds sing an antiphon when they join each other’s company. And it strikes me, as I write this, in the wake of a referendum in which a thundering chunk of Australian society couldn’t find its way to listening long and hard enough to recognise First Nations people, and to listen to them, in the way in which they asked to be heard, that in poetry, as in politics, as in our relations with all others, especially those we configure as the enemy, what we need is less talking and more listening. Let the poem say “Yes” in response to the world and its needs and miseries and joys and forms. Let it mostly listen and then come close and say, like the mate who hears the whipbird’s long plaint: “I am here. With you.” A good lyric poem has always been how a single string, the pronoun “I” has heard the world of her acquaintance, and vibrated with her listening. Saying only what it is that the world speaks to her.
Poetry as a listening. That’s a revolution we need the world needs to hear about.
Poetry, Seamus Heaney once wrote, refuses the mind’s tendency to foreclose.
Poetry keeps opening to life and the multiplicity of existence, the mystery and wildness of things. Ideology and theory tend in the opposite direction—toward old or new orthodoxies, toward conformity, toward fixedness and certitude. Poetry wants to celebrate newness and, at the same time, to value and carry on forms and truths that know what eternity knows; theory and politics don’t have much room for uncertainty, vulnerability, the ways of the heart and the wildness of life; they tend to look, these days especially, upon the past (at least in the West) as a failed enterprise in need of redemption.
We need politics and theory, I guess, but because we have them, we need art, we need poetry, the way we need love and country and wildness and music. So, let’s not do the politics and the theory with the poetry, or else what will happen to what it is that needs poetry to witness it? Let’s do poetry with the poetry and let’s work at the crafts that make it a form worthy of the world it uniquely witnesses.
The politics of poetry is how it refuses politics; how it resists and transcends the language and values, the orthodoxies, the categories, devices, and manoeuvres of politics and theory. Its politics is to speak for what goes unspoken for, disregarded and even disdained by conventional discourses, including the intellectual and the poltical; its revolution is to do justice, in its languaging and forms, to the irreducible originality, the tragedy and the mystery, of life as it is experienced and articulated in any human life, moment by moment—indeed as it is expressed in any moment of the world.
A range of historical wrongs need righting today, as they and other wrongs always did, and as the wrongs we scarcely imagine we are committing today will need righting down the line. But there are sharper tools for fixing social wrongs than poetry. Poetry is for inspiring activism, but not for performing or achieving it; the wrongs it rights can be righted no other way—the way it lifts the silence all other discourses keep and insist upon about what it feels like and what it may mean to live a short while, in suffering and in joy and in the certain knowledge that one day “everything will disappear” and to live that short life in the miracle of your body amid the marvellousness of the world.
© Mark Tredinnick
Mark Tredinnick is a celebrated Australian poet. His honours include two Premier’s Prizes and the Montreal, Cardiff, Newcastle, Blake and ACU poetry prizes. His writing and teaching over twenty-five years have touched the lives and influenced the work of many; in 2020 Mark received an OAM for services to literature and education. His books include Fire Diary, A Gathered Distance, The Blue Plateau, and The Little Red Writing Book, and Walking Underwater (2021). His fifth collection, A Beginner’s Guide, was published in 2022. In June 2023, Mark received the Golden Tibetan Antelope International Poetry Prize, an honour bestowed periodically on a foreign poet for their body of work.