To Seek and Find: Poetry and Limitations of the Ironic Mode in the New Millennium
The catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 were, obviously enough, an epic moment in world history. And in cultural history too. Here, with Dantesque finality, was a brutal confrontation between annihilating fundamentalism and capitalist pluralism. Art is political, and the implications for art arising out of this attack have complex resonances. Artistic periods never end with punctuation marks of such cataclysmic force, and doubtless, in years to come, there will still be people bringing their lack of seriousness onto us in the name of some tail-end of the expected modernist nirvana. September 11 should have brought us to a political and artistic reckoning. Subsequently, Australian artists have every reason to similarly confront the tradition within which they work and create, after the outrages in Bali on October 12, 2002. What have modernism and postmodernism given us, and what might be the limitations of their aesthetic cultural agendas. And where will we go from this point on.
One might have read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil as a brilliant intellectual exercise without thereby adhering to his scorn for what he termed ‘slave morality’. Perhaps one could claim Nietzsche as the ‘godfather’ of the present loss of nerve amongst poets, though that would be unfair—Duchamp’s Fountain looks to be a more likely progenitor. In fact there was no getting beyond good or evil, even as love, just as there were clear limitations to the philosophical and artistic liberation proposed by modern and postmodern sensibilities. If Voltaire was the instigator of the enlightenment, then, surely, an act of terror was the symbolic black end of one loop of cultural experimentation which not all the references to Joyce, Eliot and Beckett, Mallarmé, Kafka or Sartre, Schopenhauer, Heidegger or Foucault, could summon back from entropy. Could the imagery be any starker: the contrast between art that indulged itself, increasingly in the ironic mode, at the cost of any semblance of responsibility to its increasingly unimpressed and diminishing readership; and there, in countless desperate acts, the brittle certainties of the funded fun future made seemingly redundant. In poetry, amenable sensibilities had a propaganda effort made on their behalf worthy of Goebbels, but the prospective audience was never convinced, either by the art itself or the slurry of theory surrounding it. The gentility principle might have driven many to the desperate shores of a verse technique where a confessional mode almost became a therapeutic cry for help;—much contemporary verse politicking espoused a similarly-perceived principle. There, the understood ground rules were based on an a priori assumption that what had passed before during the entire history of poetry was no longer adequate to meet the expressive demands of the brave new world. Since stem cell research and silicon chips could only preserve a sense of well-being to a certain extent, some were now going to open up a newly-evolved and superior verse technique that would conquer the deconstructed past and lead us into a freshly-felt and apprehended poetics. Or not. It was all very well to get enthusiastic about the Modernist ethic as espoused by a le Corbusier. Actually living in the buildings put up proved to be another matter altogether. And living in, or with, the poems put out by the critical establishment as similarly worthy of merit often found readers abandoned in a maze that could lead them up a desolate cultural garden path.
A large part of the critical ethos of our culture, with its net of conservative, contemporary and avant-garde sensibilities, now seems an inadequate systematisation of the complexities within important works of art. In the sudden and unexpectedly given act of courage, grace or death, or the long slog toward some human dignity—the aid worker getting down in the dust and the blood, the teacher supplanting ignorance with learning—there was an alternative poetic act that had no need of accommodating aesthetics. As artists, we had learned to corral art into convenient and limiting holding pens; the animals inside were then sold off to the highest bidder. Some gave good money for New York expressionism; others paid handsomely for suicide chic; over at the ISCM they put down a fortune for the Boulez electronic extravaganza. But something strange happened along the way because it looked increasingly as if apparently outmoded nineteenth-century art had got beyond whatever forefront was being temporarily talked up. Tristan und Isolde sounded the depth of our skinful, but there was a Verklärung waiting in the wings, and the contemporary had no time for transfigurations. Emily Dickinson’ s poetry startled with its savage joy; Goya dragged revolutionary tumult to the edge of the canvas, seething with the imagery of disaster. But art aficionados, safe in their Western enclaves, mute herds trading their tame emails, had entirely missed the point. One was never in advance of the immediate historical moment, however seductive it seemed to want to have it otherwise. There has been some not-very-logical wish-fulfilment in the poetry world based on a futile desire to appropriate a time-traveller’s gold points reward scheme for being ahead of the rest. Certainly, talk about art, and theorising about art, reached the point where secondary considerations—the talk about art—was in danger of supplanting the primary consideration—the art. If Australians grabbed at people who ran or swam fast, or bashed balls of various kinds skilfully, as a desperate remedy for a failure to confront their destiny—Aboriginality, salinity, harsh political reality—the rest of the Western world showed that it was no less given to avoidance of reality too. Foreign policy had failed the poverty of millions; political imperialism had given itself over to triumphalism; fanatical hatred made suddenly clear the terrible cost of the partial, self-congratulatory view. Mandarin encyclicals sent forth from politically-correct, or incorrect, clearing houses had nothing to do with the creation of genuine works of art; to see so many poets set up house in them was just one more sign that the poetry world was diminishing in strength, diversity and vitality despite the fact that more poetry was now published than at any time in history. But how do you employ a poet, since any reasonably-good poet is going to be a Cassandra given to psychic keening: that never went down well in the staff room.