An Offence of Poetry

28 May 2007 at 4:23 AM | Posted in News | 4 Comments

“Before the invention of written letters,” British satirist Thomas Love Peacock wrote in 1820 in The Four Ages of Poetry, poets were “not only historians but theologians, moralists, and legislators: delivering their oracles ex cathedra, and being indeed often themselves regarded as portions and emanations of divinity: building cities with a song, and leading brutes with a symphony; which are only metaphors for the faculty of leading multitudes by the nose.”

That “iron age,” said Peacock, was followed by the “golden age” of Homer and Sophocles. “The maturity of poetry,” he said, “may be considered the infancy of history.” The “silver age” followed, “the poetry of civilized life,” which to Peacock was “a step towards its extinction” because it was imitative, “thoroughly wearisome, even to the most indefatigable readers of the newest new nothings.”

The silver age gave way to “the second childhood of poetry,” which Peacock labelled the “age of brass.” These four ages of classical poetry were followed by a cycle of four analogous ages, namely, the Dark Ages, the “revival of learning” or what we now call the Renaissance, the silver age of Dryden and Pope, then the decline, represented principally by Wordsworth. Peacock described the poetry of Wordsworth and the Romantics as “remaining studiously ignorant of history, society, and human nature.”

Peacock’s conclusion hit hard: “A poet in our times is a semibarbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.”

The British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley could not contain himself and had to answer Peacock. Most 20th-century anthologies of literary criticism include Shelley’s 1840 “A Defence of Poetry” and do not include “The Four Ages of Poetry,” thus unwittingly confirming Peacock’s belief that the poet or poet-lover “buries himself like a mole” in “the darkness of antiquated barbarism.”

Shelley defended poetry by retreating into the realm of language and claiming it to be the poet’s. He was then forced to hold two contradictory views: first, that everyone that uses language is a poet, and second, since only a poet uses a language well, that not everyone that uses language is a poet.

“In the infancy of society,” said Shelley, “every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry.” Poets were “not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they [were] the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers. … Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets.”

At the same time, speaking of his own time, Shelley was not willing to grant the title of poet to everybody. He limited the term to a select few, including himself, of course. “Poetry,” he wrote, “is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” Consequently, “a poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men.” Shelley’s last sentence is a famous quotable quote: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Fast forward to our own day, a day when most people on earth were born after 1980, making them what Marc Prensky famously labelled in 2001 as “digital natives,” as opposed to the few of us still alive that are “digital immigrants.” Prensky identified the “singularity” – “the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century” – that has radically changed the human brain itself, not just psychologically but physically. Digital natives, said Prensky, “are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards.”

In a digital age (which we still do not know will be labelled by future historians as iron, gold, silver, or brass), is poetry or literature a digital immigrant?

I take my cue, but not my tone, from Shelley. Because of both feminism and its backlash, I have to expand Shelley’s use of male pronouns to include biological females. His inexcusable use of exclusive or sexist language was deliberate, because he was talking only to his fellow biological males. In contrast, I want to talk to everyone, not just biological males.

Like Shelley, I believe in poetry. Unlike Shelley, I do not believe that we need to defend poetry. Like some though not all team sports coaches, I believe that the best defence is a good offence.

It is true that many poets are still very much fixated in the 20th century, if not earlier. We still see poetry books published, despite the very low sales of poetry books. We still see poets reciting or performing in poetry jams, in small cafés, in school auditoriums, and places like that.

There are, however, poets that have one foot in the 20th and the other in the 21st: they have blogs, but their blogs feature poems that can be printed out and read, the predigital way.

More important, not all poets today still live in the 20th century. Many poets are very much digital natives, or behave like digital natives. As early as the early 1990s, in Singapore, George P. Landow identified the literary trend that we now call hyperliterature. Hyperliterature now has its own organization (the Electronic Literature Organization), its own scholarly apparatus such as bibliographies (see Landow’s National University of Singapore website), its own journals, conferences, courses, jargon, and so on. It has become, in the predigital sense, established.

I am not aware of any study of the biological age of digital poets. It may or may not be true that hyperpoets or hyperwriters were all born after 1980, that magic year when, according to Prensky, everything changed, in the same way that “on or about December 1910,” as British novelist Virginia Woolf wrote in the 1924 essay “Character in Fiction,” “human character changed.” 1980, not so coincidentally, is also a signal year for literary critics: in that year, critics say, literary theory changed with the publication of British critic Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice.

If we put together the ingredients of digital immigration, hyperliterature, literary theory, and yes, Shelley’s unacknowledged legislation, we have the recipe for offence.

What is the virtual universe without poetry? I mean by the word poetry, of course, what the word originally meant in Aristotle’s Poetics, namely, literature, or as it is more fashionably called these days, as popularized by British literature teacher John McRae in his 1991 book, “literature with a small l.”

If we accept Shelley’s definition of poetry as “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds,” and if we accept that the “best and happiest minds” nowadays are online, then we logically have to accept that the quadrillions (that’s 10s to the 15th power) of bytes on the Web are analogous, perhaps even identical, to syllables, even words in poems. We are back to Shelley’s original idea that everybody that uses language, now the language of the computer, is a poet.

I make such a claim, and boldly. Composition is composition. Creation is creation. If creation involves words or letters that make up words, then what we have is creative writing, ergo, literature.

That sounds very much like just a play on words, and it is. Poetry is nothing else but playing on words. The Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and quasi-literary theorist Sigmund Freud said as much in his 1908 “Der Dichter und das Phantasieren.” Poets play with words and everyone else plays with poets.

What is poetry but where, in the classic 20th-century definition popularized from the unwitting British critic Samuel Johnson by the British-American poet T. S. Eliot, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”?

There is heated debate among hyperliterature critics about whether links constitute metaphorical binding or, if we use their jargon, rhizomes (a metaphorically-used botanical term appropriated from Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung but more recently from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychotherapist Pierre-Félix Guattari’s 1980 Mille Plateaux, translated by Brian Massumi as A Thousand Plateaus). Debatable or not, there is clearly some connection between clicking on a link to get to another site and using allusion to jump in your memory to another poem or text.

Earlier types of hyperpoems, in fact, were basically ways for a reader to learn the meaning or reference of a word by clicking on it, a more efficient and faster way of looking up a definition or an allusion in a dictionary or encyclopedia. Today’s digital native (perhaps we should use the linguistic term “inner circle”?) does not use allusion but metaphor, in the sense that, by clicking on a link in a poem on the screen, the reader may never get back to the so-called original text, but may and should get lost in the centre-less surfing. In Friendster language, if you restrict yourself to your friends, you have missed the whole point of Friendster. Even in the days before YouTube, if you restricted yourself to the words in a poem, you would have missed the whole point of a poem.

Let us turn that description around. If you think Friendster is only one way of expanding your circle of message senders and receivers, if you think that YouTube is only one way of eavesdropping or allowing others to eavesdrop on personal lives, if you think that blogs are ephemeral, though eternally archived, cocktail conversations, you have forgotten what you learned in kindergarten, namely, that everything is a story, or as the British writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton termed it in his 1908 Orthodoxy, “elfland.”

The Web has the ethics and the logic of elfland, and the logic of elfland is exactly what drives poets to write poetry. Critics must now finally fully discard their concept of Literature with the big letter L, writers must finally fully discard their elitist appropriation of the term “poet,” the billions of webtizens should now finally fully accept that what they punch into their keyboards or say into their voice-activated word processors are not just words on a screen, not just ideas from their heads, not just messages or stubs or posts, but poems.

Poetry is dead. Long live poetry.

(First published in The Philippine Star, May 10 & 17, 2007)


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