Monday, 23 July 2018

The plasticity of poetic language

At 5.57pm on 18 July, ABC Perth tweeted: “The parents of student Mehreen Ahmad say they are trapped in a ‘never-ending darkness’ after she suffered brain damage at the hands of a Brazilian man in an attack in a Perth apartment block stairwell.”

The drama in the words of the parents is present and the feeling of helplessness is palpable but on second thoughts the expression used is a little overblown. Parents of a child who has just been killed are supposed to express feelings like this, right? But it’s hard to imagine anything in this life being “never-ending”, for a start. “Darkness”? Certainly, things seem pretty bad right now but given a few years and the restorative action of justice the world will look a lot better at some point in the future, surely. It can’t rationally be all that bad. Forever and ever.

It’s not. But this is the thing about language: its plasticity. It is malleable and casual expressions using language, even carefully thought-out incidents of it such as poetry, can be made to do things that more stubborn artefacts of civilisation, such as the law or the economy, cannot. (Even though language is in both of these cases the medium of communication.) This is the great blessing of poetry: that it fits whatever shape we design for it without complaint or resistance.

Almost. There is the matter of style. You have to get other people to believe what you are saying, otherwise the strength of the words is reduced. Or annihilated. People who write poetry experiment with style never-endingly as they seek out ways to engage with the community, in order to amass wealth. If they are very good, their fame will outlast even their own lifespan, and they will be recognised as a minor poet by posterity, if not a great one.

The thing about poetry (literature in general) is that it can be produced in almost any conceivable circumstance. Regardless of the nature of the freedoms available in the country you are writing in, you can write anything you want. Publishing however might be a different proposition. Many great writers have had to live in countries other than their native land in order to publish their work. But in the main, poetry is tolerated by the authorities even in oppressive regimes because it is seen to be a harmless type of writing not linked to political activism, as journalism might be thought to be.

Which brings me to the point of my post. Some of the best literature we have was written at a time when the political settlement was inimical to the types of freedoms that people in the developed world today take for granted. This brings me back to the opening of this post. Strong, affective language that is designed to highlight the cause of your pain, such as the words used by the Pakistani parents of Mahreen Ahmad when speaking to the media in Perth, are characteristic of what you can hear in places where basic freedoms are not available. There, you are forced to overstate your case because you know, from the outset, that you are going to come away unsatisfied unless you appeal to the something buried deep inside the person you are talking to. Official channels will not bring redress and so alleviate your burden. Your only hope of relief rests with a sense of pity that might be possessed by the man standing in front of you. So verbalising hyperbolic claims to emphasise the strength of your feelings is a way to cut through official obduracy.

I want to take a small detour here. People who grow vanilla beans know that in order to get the plant to produce them you have to restrict the amount of water the plant receives. The judicious application of stress to the plant in this way results in the desired outcome: dozens of the delicious, pungent beans that we have used to flavour food since the plant was brought back to Europe by the Spanish in the Renaissance.

With literature, the same rule might apply. The high-toned, pathetic literature that we like to read in our leisure hours might be possible only in repressive political climates. Take Rimbaud, for example, who lived mostly during the period of the Second Empire during the second half of the 19th century in France, under Napoleon III. There was no free press in the country at the time, as there was of course in Britain, and the French legislature, which had very restricted powers, was ultimately controlled by the executive headed by the emperor. But Rimbaud’s poetry is far more interesting than much of what was appearing in England at the same time, although Swinburn is an obvious contender in the originality stakes. Great strides forward in literature were therefore made under inauspicious conditions. But it might have been precisely the lack of individual freedom in France at the time that led to Rimbaud’s extraordinary inventiveness.

Look for contrast at what appeared in Australia in roughly the same era: poetry such as the verse of Banjo Paterson (1864-1941), that we nowadays consider to be practically indistinguishable from doggerel. In the colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania, and Victoria, voting for members of part of each of the legislatures was introduced in 1856. South Australia gained the same privilege in 1857, Queensland in 1860, and Western Australia in 1890. And the press in each of the colonies before federation in 1901 was highly vocal and influenced government policy. Having the freedom to decide your destiny does not necessarily lead to the production of a fine quality literature.

In fact it might impede it. Look, for another example of attitudes held by people in the Australian community, at the motto of the University of Sydney, Australia’s first university. The plan to establish the institution was first mentioned in the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1848 and the University of Sydney Act was signed into law by the governor in 1850. ‘Sidere mens eadem mutato’ is the motto, and it translates from Latin as “The constellations change but the mind stays the same”. In other words, the new university would be made on a model already established by the two universities that existed at the time in the UK: Oxford and Cambridge under the Southern Cross. The poetry being published in the colonies was just like this: pale copies of what was appearing “back home” in the British Isles.

Under such oppressive conditions (from the point of view of the arts), strange episodes might however result, such as the Ern Malley hoax that was carried out by conservative writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart. They cheekily wrote some “Modernist” verses one day in 1943 and submitted them to the magazine Angry Penguins, which was edited by Max Harris and John Reed, who printed them in an issue of the magazine along with enthusiastic commentary. The hoax became public knowledge, Harris was put on trial for and convicted of publishing obscenity, and the magazine folded in 1946. Nowadays, no-one reads McAuley’s poetry. Rimbaud is a star.

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