Category Archives: poetry

First Step

The question of the utility of literature and of art generally is never quite scotched. If someone asks me about the value of literature, or more bluntly says that they don’t see the point, there are are all sorts of thoughts and statements that come crowding in, an abundance of personal, emotional and intellectual objections, but no knock-out blow. That’s partly because any decent answer feels like it needs to encompass some sort of reasonably worked theory about the Importance (capital I) of Art (capital A), and that is very contended ground – abundant with theory and argument, but also messy, incoherent and sometimes contradictory.

And it doesn’t help that I don’t think there’s good connexion between ‘weak argument’ approaches and ‘strong argument’ approaches. In fact, arguments that say things like ‘art is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society,’ beg the question. While I agree it’s true, it quickly becomes so complicated by counter-statement (‘art has been a hallmark of barbaric and uncivilised society’, ‘some art is supportive of totalitarian society’, ‘I can conceive of a civilised society that provided housing, education, transport and health equally to all that did not have art’ &c&c) that it ends up contributing through its very weakness to the opposing team.

And sometimes you just want to exclaim ‘O, reason not the need’.

I originally wrote here “In fact, I think that makes it a good question” – but that’s ponderous nonsense, and I don’t think it does in fact. It is a question tainted by its production from the lenten-spirited motherfuckers who utter it and I dislike the direction of covert hostility from which it often seems to come. But for someone who finds what is contained in artistic creation more interesting than the question of first principles, and who therefore takes the question of its importance or not as absurdly irrelevant, it is sometimes a good question to ask.

I think if it could be fully reasoned, that if there were a cogent, knock-back answer, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Art. It does not prove itself in reductive, materialist spaces, though it must exist in them.

But every now and again you come across an expression of why art or literature or whatever is important that you find potent and compelling, and it’s worth recording.

So I was sitting on the tube earlier this week and read Constantine Cavafy’s poem collected as The First Step.

A young poet is complaining to Theocritus that he’s been writing for two years and has only completed one idyll, and that he’s only standing on the first step of the very tall ladder of poetry. Theocritus responds:

…”Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it’s a hard unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.”

Its councils are full of Legislators / no charlatan can fool. ‘When I read this I felt an involuntary internal exclamation of forceful assent. ‘Yes!’ Yes, and at the moment, in these times*, especially yes. There is something serious about the point of deciding to materialise that mixture of idea and feeling into the creation of something that doesn’t at that moment exist. Something like ‘How will I execute this idea to do it justice?’ or ‘How will I understand the nature of what I want to do so that its external representation does justice to its internal meaning?’

It is not that Art contains truthes, though I suppose it may, but the more solid coin is that it is the outcome of a process that is… not truth exactly, but through which it is impossible to pass falsely, as a charlatan – it’s a good word.

In a time when public statements are so vexed by mendacity and which jemmy the intention/apprehension divide to such an extent that we are incapable of auditing them socially (and do not seem to have the tools to do so), the existence of that process, that first step, that essential seriousness, is important to state; that done well, it is impossible to speak meaningfully of deceit, and where there is deceit it will only result in failure.

This is about creation rather than appreciation, and the poem is about the meaning of being an artist and poet, rather than of reading a poem, art as practice rather than art as object. (Though its weight and force is gained from the subject matter of the practice of poetry). And there’s thorny, conceptually rocky spaces between aesthetics and artistic intent. In some respects, this only refers to an artist like Evmenis in the poem, who is able to say when they have failed and when they have succeeded.

And yes, this is inherently mystical (tho art is too, probably, I think) and unlikely to win you any pub arguments. But when I read the poem, the cogent force and fullness of feeling was greater than any pedantic uncertainty produced by the question of utility. And you know, it’s a good thing to have up your sleeve, so if someone does come at you with this bullshit, you can pause between sips of your beer and say, “Well, the thing about art is, as Cavafy said, ‘Its councils are full of Legislators no charlatan can fool,'” look momentarily wise, and then go back to reading your paper (who am i fooling – checking twitter) and ignore any attempts to brook the question further.

Anyway, good poem I think is what I’m saying.

*’in these times’ – a rather complacent and self-centred phrase and refers current US and UK society and politics of course. After all the need for Legislators no charlatan can fool has been felt in societies throughout time.

(And as always when I put words down these days I feel like putting the coda – that is a way of putting it, not very satisfactory. or ‘there are other arguments on other days.’ But what are you going to do.)

DER WAHRHEIT IST KONKRET

as Hegel had it, and as Brecht had up on the wall of his Danish retreat (der Dänische Zufluchsstäte) and later in his New York home. it’s a pleasingly astringent thing to say to yourself whenever you find your thoughts becoming too fanciful or high-flown.

i’ve been really enjoying the poems in the Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems, edited and with a really good introduction by Michael Hofmann, and have been coming back to the Brecht poems in particular. This one’s been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:
(although I don’t speak a word of german i do like pretending i can pronounce the words, so original first, then translation.)

Zufluchtsstäte

Ein Ruder liegt auf dem Dach. Ein mittlerer Wind
Wird das Stroh nicht wegtragen.
Im Hof für die Schaukel der Kinder sind
Pfähle eingeschlagen.
Die Post kommt zweimal hin
Wo die Briefe wilkimmen wären.
Den Sund herunter kommen die Fähren.
Das Haus hat vier Türen, daraus zu fliehn.

[1937.]

(A Place of Refuge

An oar lies on the roof. A moderate wind
Will not carry away the thatch.
In the yard posts are set for
The children’s swing.
The mail comes twice a day
Where letters would be welcome.
Down the Sound come the ferries. 
The house has four doors to escape by.

trans. John Willet)

Why do I like it? There’s a ghostly sense of uncertainty and unease about the now of the poem. The absences are alarming. It’s tense and watchful. The first line has a strange and unstable image – the oar on the roof feels like the consequence of an atmospheric upheaval, but the wind is only moderate. In fact the second line claims stability – this instability is in fact solidity. The yard posts are ‘set for / The children’s swing’ but there is no swing there. Has it been removed? a reminder of loss of innocence, of flight maybe? Or is it yet to come? If a swing has been there before, it can be set between those two posts again, when there are children once more. In its absence it holds in potential both possibilities, swinging neither this way nor that. Will there be a future here, where there was a past? Both future and past flow away from this isolated point in time.

‘Down the Sound come the ferries’ – this is something that happens daily, continuously, reliably. Solid, habitual present tense. ‘Down the Sound’ feels like a rather jangling translation. The original German has a lovely balance  and flow: ‘Den Sund – herunter kommen – die Fahren’ – with the lingering, almost longing sound of ‘Fahren’ before the blank practicality of ‘Das Haus hat vier Türen’, again balancing something continuous and reliable – the ferries – against spatial and temporal uncertainty: any one of those four walls, any direction, might need to be the  method of a sudden exit, at any time. The refuge is necessarily porous. And after all, what else might those reliable ferries bring?

It all constitutes the refuge as an ambiguous notion – a place of safety, but also a place to which you run out of fear or danger.

I’m uncertain about ‘the mail comes twice a day / where letters would be welcome.’ It’s an unnerving image  – communication without anything to be communicated, administrative continuity but without any ability to bring things that you actually want. And what are the letters that are wished for? Letters from loved ones who have not left Germany perhaps? Or letters to relieve solitude and fear, bringing a sense of the outside world?

It’s a very guarded poem – it won’t put its money on any particular outcome. But, like the other Brecht poems I’ve read, it’s also wide open, like a raw nerve or an open eye – it’s not a self-indulgent poem (he does not seem like a self-indulgent poet).

Expanded existentially, it could be argued that it becomes about a permanent state of uncertainty and futures being held in abeyance in the face of that uncertainty, though I think Brecht would reject the existential reading (not KONKRET enough) and just say in times of war and state violence this is who you are, refuges are where you live, this is what the world becomes.