THE WORD IN FLAMES:
Some observations on poetry and politics occasioned by Greg Delanty's Loosestrife.
A review by Dave Lordan
Dave Lordan was born in Derby, England, in 1975, and grew up in Clonakilty in West Cork. In 2004 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary and in 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. His collections are The Boy in the Ring (Cliffs of Moher, Salmon Poetry, 2007), which won the Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish writer and was shortlisted for the Irish Times poetry prize; and Invitation to a Sacrifice (Salmon Poetry, 2010). Eigse Riada theatre company produced his first play, Jo Bangles, at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum in 2010. He has lived in Holland, Greece and Italy, and now resides in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
(Fomite Press, 2011)
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It isn’t easy to balance being an activist with being an artist. Both are concentrated pursuits that require large amounts of spare time, energy, and staying power. From an individual perspective, art and politics normally take place in separate spheres and in different modes of engagement, although there is obviously always an art to being political, and a politics embedded in artistic practices. Poetry, lyric poetry in particular, is first and foremost a narcissistic delight for those who write it, as well as for those who read it. At the most common point of its realisation – read quietly and gratifyingly to oneself – the lyric poem is a private and quasi-erotic exchange between two introspected, charged-up intellects conjoined through a mutual fetish for certain arrangements of words.
Poetry generally requires tranquil solitude and unbroken periods of concentration – staring into the mirror of the self – for its fashioning. Genuine activism – not PR-motivated charity work – often takes place under fierce public scrutiny and can be pot-bangingly noisome. Poetic composition under the conditions normally attached to radical political activity is next to impossible; nothing like a baton in the face to scatter the poetically-ordered rhymes and metres from your brain.
Activism is also something you do for at least partly selfless motives. It usually involves collaboration and co-operation and, in that sense if in no other, is an ego-sacrifice. Responsibility to any kind of collective is something which poets as poets, as opposed to as political agents, would be well-advised to avoid. Self-proclaimed literary schools and movements often produce more interesting manifestos than they do novels or poems. The best poems will usually be ones we want to write for our own unrestrainable and often opaque motives – sometimes these are deeply political motives of course – rather than ones we are commissioned to write for say, an anti-war demonstration, though there is nothing wrong with doing that and it is a great compliment to be asked.
This is not to say that individual originality and political commitment cannot connect in art. They often do. But even the most politicized artists must find space and time away from the ebb and flow of political engagement. They must create at a remove. I know many political activists who have talent and wisdom and vigor and guts and who would probably make good artists. However, their all-consuming political commitments mean they are simply too busy to devote the time that it takes to make significant art. Choosing to be serious about art usually means choosing not to be political in any grass-roots, day to day sense.
The outcomes of artistic and political activity can also be very different for the individuals involved. Impacting as an artist wins you friends and admirers, praise, and perhaps even a prize or two. The only retribution you are likely to face for artistic success is the septic outpourings, tedious but inevitable, of the resentful and envious.
Effective political activism could draw a far more threatening response. In many places it will get you tortured and killed (these are usually also the places where art is most directly political in both progressive and reactionary senses). In the Corporate Governed West it could mean facing arrest, police brutality, spurious and vindictive prosecutions and so on. Ask the people of Rossport, County Mayo about all this. If you are a well-known figure in the arts it might also mean you will be subjected to vilification, misrepresentation, and character assassination from reactionary politicians and their intellectual snipers in the commentariat. Witness the recent campaigns against Günter Grass internationally, and here in Ireland against the composer Dr Raymond Deane, for daring to suggest that artists should not ignore the solidarity appeals of the long suffering Palestinians.
No wonder many excellent writers, risking nothing but a bad review, write piercingly about abuses of power committed decades and centuries ago and/or about political issues on which there is general liberal agreement, but choose to maintain a diplomatic public silence about imperialism’s ongoing crimes.
So it is refreshing to come across a poetry collection by a writer of stature featuring a cover photo of its author being arrested outside the dreaded White House and which showcases his attempt over a twenty-five year publication history, to unite his political and aesthetic impulses. Loosestrife contains politically themed work excerpted from several of Delanty’s acclaimed collections alongside some from the forthcoming The Greek Anthology, Book XVII.
Delanty shares with his (broadly speaking) leftist Cork contemporaries like Theo Dorgan and Patrick Cotter the thematic and formal self-confidence of the relaxed classicist. Like them, he tries to speak of important public issues in a refined yet accessible manner. He is at home in that generative poetic space where politics and metaphysics overlap, where the spiritual and the political pose intricately connected questions of each other (What is the meaning of life? How can we make life better?) and where the angels, gods, and archetypes of myth are part of and complicit in history, rather than its aloof auteurs.
His intimacy with the poetic canon is obvious everywhere, but it hasn’t made him pretentious or uptight on the page. Delanty’s is an organic formalism in which each piece is both distinct and well-wrought. The echoing alliteration threaded into his near-colloquial re-working of 'The Wanderer', surely one of the freshest of that poem’s countless translations, opens the book and announces the poet’s intention to work inside tradition while at the same time stretching it:
I wander winter-weary the icy waves,
longing for lost halls, a helping hand
far or near. Maybe I’d find
one who’d host me in the toasting hall,
who’d comfort me, friendless, ...
The euphonious ease with which Delanty’s best lines unwind and with which his themes and narratives mostly progress is his poems most constant and winning attribute. ‘The Alien’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Wonder of Wonders’ are lessons in poetic composition and musicality, almost aphrodisiac in their pleasurable effect on the throat, no matter the troubling subject matter:
A girl cries. Her father beats her, convinces her she’s dumb.
She’ll land back in that cave of herself again
and again for the rest of her life. So many are like mythical characters
blindly returning to tackle whatever invisible monsters
brought them down so long ago.
('Wonder of Wonders', lines 1-5)
I’m not just being provocative for the sake of it when I highlight the jouissance I get from reading these lines aloud to myself. I’m pointing to a contradiction found in any art which attempts what Joyce Carol Oates has called the "sanctification" of the downtrodden, the forgotten, the abandoned, the marginalized, the dead, the denied, the overlooked, the repressed, and so on. "Sanctification" is a process that readers of, for example, the Irish short story in its long-dominant melancholy naturalist mode, from Joyce’s Dubliners through to McGahern and beyond, will be very familiar with. The question "sanctification" raises is this: how can we make art from suffering without making that suffering something beautiful and therefore admirable? And by making something beautiful and admirable aren’t we also inevitably making it pleasing? "Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps",writes Blake (who made such beautiful and influential poetry of innocents’ suffering) in 'Proverbs of Hell'. By the same token, excess of suffering, whether undergone or beheld, might bring us to the threshold of ecstasy, as Jesus’ ordeal on Calgary opened the vaults of the sky to him and his followers. The more beautifully tortured the saviour is the closer he and his flock are getting to paradise. Isn’t that the logic of "sanctification"? At least that is what it looks like in Italian art galleries, where it is impossible to avoid.
Take or leave this line of argument, it can’t be denied that in art suffering and pleasure often intersect. The artist produces beauty and pleasure out of the suffering he contemplates and represents; by doing so she provokes a complex entangling of pity, admiration, enchantment and desire in the audience. The dependency of art on cruelty and suffering for its subject matter and much of its effect goes back to its pre-historic origins. It’s already present in upper-Paleolithic cave-paintings depicting multiply-speared large mammals. Art, including poetry, has been married to rituals of slaughter/sacrifice throughout much of history. 1000 years of Christian art leading up to the renaissance, during which churches, with all their bloody sacrificial iconography, were the art galleries of the western world, laid much of the framework for the practice of "sanctification" which continues to be a core aesthetic strategy in mainstream literature today.
As artists and as audiences we have always been fascinated and moved to both pity and awe by images of the slaughtered. But pity, a human emotion much exploited by both religion and art, may demobilize us politically. When we are crying or grieving we can’t do much else besides. We’re fixed in position by our grief, like the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, overwhelmed, awaiting miracles.
So, feeling for the representation of the oppressed and feeling or acting for the really existing oppressed are not the same thing. There are huge differences between an aesthetic response to suffering and a political one. In fact, politics and art may be deep-rootedly opposed to one another. The introspective, secluded contemplation of the artistic act could be a neutered and pacified stand-in for the co-operative/ combative public engagement involved in political action. In his thought-provoking essay 'The Case Against Art', the anarcho-primitivist critic John Zerzan argues that the central function of art in civilized societies (meaning hierarchical, exploitative and highly technologically dependent ones) is to displace our naturally evolved emotional responses and spiritual connections to each other and to our planetary habitat into an abstract symbolic realm where any potential political mobilisation dissipates dreamily. Artistic mediation thereby serves to prevent political responses to oppression and despoliation, based on empathy and solidarity, from emerging.
For Zerzan, art is both a product and a generator of alienation. Humans, he claims, began producing art at the same time as they began commercially exploiting each other and the planet. Artistic mediations arose interconnectedly with hierarchies based on new modes of exploitation. Art and hierarchy were conjoined and mutually reinforcing elements of the epochal metamorphoses from the primitive egalitarianism extant among hominids for millions of years over to the earliest forms of class society. Art and associated rituals were employed by the new ruling strata to publicly and collectively narrate a symbolically unified realm which masked actual social disunity and helped to boil off rising social tensions, as well as legitimising the new social order by representing it as inevitable, divinely ordained etc. Ancient Greek theatre with its dramas of power and divinity, its catharsis, and its separation of the chorus from the noble agent is only the most obvious and well-known example of this. Religion, art, and political ideology were once exactly the same thing. They still form a continuum which can be critically traced by excavating such processes and strategies as "sanctification".
The objectification of the other in art arises from, mirrors, and reinforces the economic objectification of humans and nature. It makes of the suffering other an object of pathetic contemplation rather than a motive for empathetic action. "Art anesthetizes the sense organs .... turns the subject into object, into symbol .... provided the medium of conceptual transformation by which the individual was separated from nature and dominated, at the deepest level, socially."(From 'The Case Against Art'.)
For Zerzan, then, art is intimately and unavoidably connected to hierarchy, injustice, and inequality, and also to the unfeelingness which serves them. It stands between us and the world, splintering our vision and obscuring our path. It can do nothing really but tell us over and over how far we have fallen.
We don’t have to go all the way with Zerzan to agree that in aestheticising suffering, the artist runs the risk of disassociating us from it. In the gallery or the library or the theatre we direct our emotions towards brush strokes and rhyme schemes and "characters" in place of their flesh and blood referents. Both making and contemplating the art of suffering could be part of avoiding having to deal with the deeply political issues real world suffering inevitably raises. The stages of Dublin are rarely without some acclaimed theatrical representation of the marginalised. Yet, coming and going to the theatre, the audiences, actors, critics, and everyone else involved must literally step over the dying bodies of the crying-out, abandoned poor now encountered everywhere on the Brueghelian streets of our capital.
At an individual level there is only one way to resolve, or at least hold at arm's length, the contradictions involved in making a putatively progressive art and that is to be politically active alongside. Delanty, a lifelong anti-war activist, is to be commended for choosing to become both a political and an artistic actor.
Today both politics and art are, like every other human activity, in critical transition towards who knows what. We all live, the artist or activist no less, in a shadowy, interstitial period with no idea of what lies ahead. We are full of dread for tomorrow. We don’t know if the great catastrophe of contemporary humanity precedes our extinction, or our metamorphoses into something far better, or far worse. Beauty and destruction, possibility and its annulment, co-exist for us in perpetual perceptual synthesis. Who can really see the world now without also seeing its human doom written all over it?
An advocate for world-wonder, world-beauty and world-peace, Greg Delanty rarely writes these things without contrasting with the human interventions making a mockery of them. ‘For The Record’ reads as a (perhaps unconscious) riposte to Seamus Heaney’s unconsciously anti-Gaian sixteen-liner ‘Postcript’. In 'Postcript', Heaney, on a touristic spin in County Clare, experiences a spiritual epiphany brought on by nature’s beauty. He does not realise or admit that the means he has used to access the beauty of nature – his fossil fuel engine – is also the greatest threat to it. Delanty, on the other hand, warns us that "the car we drive" is "undoing our skies".
In general Delanty’s impulse is to praise and lament the passing beauty of the world, rather than satirise or attack its destroyers. He usually does so with poise, calm, and melody. Those who associate the term political poetry with brash and prescriptive ranting would be pleasantly surprised at how gentle this book is on the eye and the ear.
Delanty knows how to tap into multiple connotations and make an image or symbol shimmer with multivalence. In the scarifying ‘International Call’ he transforms a comic-surreal image of a landline telephone receiver held out a top-floor window into a token of complicity, deafness-to-the-other, uncrossable distances, the cruelty of war, and much more. ‘International Call’ is one of the book’s stand out poems.
The "complicit" as Delanty appears to see the majority of western humanity, going about their daily business while willfully ignoring the crimes of their governments and the cry of the oppressed, are a target of his ire at points throughout Loosestrife. This is more of a moralistic stance than a political one, however, and has an element of blaming the victim to it. The vast majority of people in the west may be disappointingly passive most of the time, but they are also trying to survive the crisis and suffering varying degrees of exploitation and oppression themselves. The radical minority need to win over the passive, subjected minority to have any chance of success. Blaming the masses for the crimes of the ruling class isn’t going to help in this regard. Poems like 'The New Citizen Army', which acts out the weary activist’s irritation at the suburban sheep of America, while well written, are Delanty’s least intellectually impressive. If the millions of Delanty’s scorned "minions under orders" don’t rise up to change the world there will obviously be no changing it. We’d be better off, as both activists and poets, using our eloquence to convince the passive rather than condemn them. In the right circumstances downtrodden apathy can transform into uprising anger en masse; think of the Egyptian people, who not so long ago were regularly dismissed as an ovinely unvariegated herd.
But then one gets the sense that what Delanty is writing, over and over, is less of a call to resist than a lament. He sings the passing of the world without, it seems, much hope that it can be saved. "None can escape the dark spreading here", he tellingly declares in ‘Oil Spillage’. In ‘Mother’, perhaps Loosestrife’s central work, he parallels and conflates his mother’s death from cancer and the industrial mortification of our Earth. It’s a risky and unoriginal conceit but Delanty has the skill to make it interesting and his own. The poem implies, through the fatally-recurring-cancer analogy, that it’s too late to save the world. All we can do is to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. In this schema the poet is like a chaplain in the planetary hospice, whispering the rhythms of consolation in our ear as doom descends to smother everything we dwell in.
In the ‘Human Monarch’, the book’s final poem, utopia makes a briefly flickering appearance as a transhuman fusion with edenic nature in butterfly form. But Delanty doesn’t give much indication of how he thinks we could get all the way to the land of our promise from the nightmare of the now we are stuck in. Lack of more concretely declared political proposals and alternatives might be considered a rather glaring lacunae in a declaredly political book. However, leaving big questions posed but unanswered is possibly intended to open up the aesthetic space to the engaged reader to try and provide their own radical suggestions. Not offering alternatives and solutions is a poor political strategy, but it is a good poetic one. Even at his most political Delanty gives us poetry, not bare advocacy or propaganda.
Arguably, however, what the anti-war movement and the social movements in general need now is less poetry and more and better propaganda. A good propagandist might have a far greater chance than an excellent poet of becoming an "unacknowledged legislator". Propaganda is the only truly political artform and in the deep past most art was propaganda for a ruling/religious order. Crudely speaking, much art is still propaganda for liberal individualism. At the very least art is always propaganda for itself and for the "genius" of its makers. Those who say that political propaganda cannot be an art form have never read the 1916 proclamation, a document which is more poetic than most poetry I know of.
Political dreamers rarely if ever see even a fragment of their dreams come true and so it’s not surprising that there is a resigned and melancholy tone to much of Loosestrife. The sense that we must carry on behaving as if we can change the world even if we no longer really believe that we can is not uncommon among political activists these days, in my experience at least. For an older generation, the ones who have been at it since the seventies and eighties, and who are now rapidly tiring and losing faith, it’s often the default mood. Post-conviction, in the throes of a crushing despair, the options are limited to a cynical or disappointed quietude, the grotesque theatrics of a public betrayal, slow or fast suicide. Some, like Delanty, lament but at the same time refuse to give in. As Delanty makes his mediaeval-modern Wanderer say "Driven men often harbor/ chill dread fast in their chests ... "
It’s four decades since there were any serious challenges to the ruling classes in the west, and even these were very minor compared to the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Civil War. The anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth believed that it might be centuries before the immense revolutionary opportunities of the 1917 - 1939 period returned. That’s a long time to be Waiting for Godot. In the unfavorable circumstances of a decades-long downturn in mass consciousness, the world-changer who sticks it out is all the more remarkable. The salmon is our most desirable fish because it persists against all obstacles in swimming against the current, in leaping the impossible weir, in going back to the originating spring of its inspiration to give birth to itself over and over. Loosestrife is the book of evidence for an unwavering lifelong commitment to hopeful consciousness, written in a time when oblivion and nihilism continuously tempt and goad and so often succeed in conquering. Delanty remains one of the unconquered. His poetry is often shimmering and wise. I applaud him for his glorious stubbornness.
©2012 Dave Lordan
Lordan page at Salmon Publishing
Article on and poems by Lordan at Poetry International Web
Articles by Dave Lordan in Irish Left Review