|University of Canberra|
1 A question
This sort of questioning has a real academic premium at the present moment. Twenty-eight of Australia's 39 universities now allow forms of higher degree research to be conducted through creative work (AAWP 2009); 15 years ago, only eight did so (Milech and Schilo 2004: fn.2), while one only has to go back 40 years to track the introduction of creative writing undergraduate teaching into Australia (Dawson 2004). The freshness of this field of higher study, both here and abroad, and the lack of any cogent position, both within the discipline and beyond it, as to how an artwork might make a 'substantial contribution to knowledge', renders questions like the one posed above vital to the future of creative arts as a university discipline. It's a matter of working out, in as many fields as possible, how art knows.
I've pointed to the lack of a cogent position on art's contribution to knowledge. This is not to say that we lack positions, including many valuable ones (e.g. Bolt 2004; Carter 2004; Green and Haseman 2006). We may not have found one compelling enough to force the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research to pay a university the same funding rewards for an academic's book of poetry as for their literary studies monograph - this is what I mean by 'cogent' from the Latin co-agere, to compel - but we've certainly arrived at positions. In fact, we've had no choice but to do so. For the desire to get and stay employed in an environment where quantifiable research output is increasingly the measure of one's value has only doubled the imperative on creative arts academics to find ways to link knowledge and art, in all sorts of contexts.
Hence this project, which involved interviews with 14 significant Australian poets, as part of a pilot study investigating the links between poetic composition and formal academic knowledge production. Hence also why it hadn't really crossed my mind, till the interviews began, that poets with little or no academic affiliation might look upon the question 'What research do you do?' with a certain incredulity. Here's Alison Croggon's response:
If the term 'research' got relatively short shrift over these 14 interviews, 'knowledge' fared even worse. In Aileen Kelly's words, 'What do you mean by knowledge? It's a terrible word' (Kelly, interview 2007), while Mal McKimmie was rather more discursive, but even more blunt:
Elsewhere in the interview McKimmie indicated that he couldn't stand words like 'express' or 'expression' either.
2 The most common response: reading other poets
These may not seem promising beginnings. On the other hand, these are people who clearly like a challenge. The very obtusity of my approach seemed to inspire my subjects to find ways to expand and stretch words like 'research' to approximate something recognisable in their practice. This led to some quite surprising results.
So Alison Croggon, continuing the comment above, added:
Further passages in the interview made clear that reading other poets was, for Croggon, one of these 'research / keeping fit' practices. In fact, most of my interview subjects tackled the question of what research they do by mentioning the reading of other poets. Mal McKimmie, for instance, mentioned his ongoing reading of other poets and added that he would be happy to use the word 'research' to describe that reading, while Jenny Harrison (interview 2007) was quite direct about it: 'I research by reading other poets. I think that's my primary research tool'.
I find this a surprising result. I'll explain why, and then in the sections that follow, I'll rehearse some other surprising results of this queerly-framed study of mine. For the fact of the matter is that by asking all the wrong questions, I got poets to cast light on otherwise unremarked aspects of their practice. What follows will, I believe, open up some future lines of inquiry, and not just in relation to the artform's function as research. Take the issue I have just raised: that the majority of my informants, all highly regarded, published and awarded Australian poets, mentioned the reading of other poets as something as integral, or almost as integral, to their practice as research is to scholars. That's the analogy they spontaneously put forward when I raised the word 'research'.
There are two things I find surprising here. The first is the total absence of the fears of derivativeness encapsulated in phrases like 'the anxiety of influence' (Bloom 1997). Aileen Kelly referred to such fears in her disparaging reference to those 'people who will not read other people's poetry because they're too afraid it will influence their voice', an attitude she saw as fatal to the desire actually to become a poet. Harrison alluded to such attitudes too, to show how irrelevant they were in her case:
Harrison added that when writing her first book, Michelangelo's Prisoners (1994) she was reading a lot of Borges. And yet, 'The poems in Michelangelo's Prisoners are very different to those of Borges.'
The second thing I find surprising in these equations between research and reading other poets is what it suggests not merely about the sort of research that goes into composition, but also about the very being of modern poetry. I'll approach this via Jan Owen's comments on how the encounter with another poet's work might spark off ideas that would lead directly to an act of writing: it was because the best poetry would put her in a 'ruthless poetry-writing mood' (Owen, interview 2007). Owen glossed this mood elsewhere in the interview as a sudden decision to abandon all everyday concerns and niceties and insistently write instead:
Far from being anxious about the influence of such reading, which she too labelled 'research', Owen accesses her desire to create through it. The intimation of Coleridge in these comments (viz. his description of the primary imagination as 'the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM' [Coleridge 1975: 167]), underlines what they effectively imply: poetry acts to elicit creative desire in its readers.
If true, how little support such an implication would offer to the still-prevalent critical practice of seeking a prior meaning, or even meanings, in poetry (e.g. Eagleton 2006). To the contrary: from the comments I've cited above, one would be tempted to conclude that modern poetry has less to do with conveying the artist's own ideas - whether they be conscious or unconscious, individual, ethnic, class-based, gendered or however - than with generating the production of myriad ideas in others.
3 Another response: reading for 'triggering moments'
I've just raised the possibility that a modern poem is not a knowledge-report, nor even a mode of self-expression, so much as a device for generating creative desire - the desire for meaning, for resolution, for further aesthetic experience, for an infinite number of things - in others. It leaves one dumbstruck, and then in search for words. If this characterisation of modern poetry is true, it will obviously cast a great deal of light on my question as to poetry's contribution to knowledge. I'll return to this possibility in future articles. But for now, I want to maintain my focus on the curious responses elicited by my specific research question, how do poets research? For they are by no means exhausted by the response I've just sketched. For instance, and despite the widespread misgivings I cited at the start of this paper, a number of my interviewees did report practicing something like formal humanities research, in the sense of systematic reading on a given topic. Marcella Polain described reading up on 'the language of astrophysics' for the Jupiter poems in Each Clear Night (in Polain 2008). The fact that Harrison's mesmerising Folly and Grief is the product of specific research into the Commedia dell'arte tradition is clear not just from her discussion of its composition in the interview, but from the list of references appended to that very volume (Harrison 2006), while Alex Skovron too described reading up on specific subjects when composing some of his prose poems (Skovron, interview 2007).
More commonly, however, what seemed to find its way into the poetry was the sort of unsystematic reading Alison Croggon described:
As my own response indicated, such autodidacticism can be something of an academic habit too. Continuing that parallel, everyone interviewed gave the impression of being a huge reader, not only of poetry, but much everything else besides: e.g. Jan Owen's references to phenomena in electromagnetics and quantum physics, Claire Gaskin's quotation from the Tao de Ching, Aileen Kelly's paraphrases on tenets in negative theology, Mal McKimmie's references to Vincent van Gogh's letters, Jenny Harrison's reading in phrenology.
But how might such reading, whether systematic or otherwise, work its way into the poet's lines? Marcella Polain's comments on the role of research in the composition of 'when bees see blue' are suggestive. Having described her research as 'broad', and adding that 'it involves reading, not just poetry, but also fiction, narrative-fiction and memoir', Polain went on to describe what she could recall of the genesis of this particular poem, which runs as follows:
Here are Polain's comments on the reading that went into the making of 'when bees see blue':
On further questioning she revealed that actual diction of the poem might come to her in that exact moment. She added, however, that often she would have to wait for the right words and rhythms to come. In such instances she would allow the triggering complex to:
The 'line' that emerges from this process 'is in response to whatever it is that's struck me'. I can't help but compare this description of Polain to the material I tabled above, the references so many of my subjects made to reading other poets as a form of research. For it seems quite clear that the very thing Polain is finding in her prose reading, and in her hearing of evocative facts like bees' relation to the colour blue, is poetry itself.
This is not a description of how Polain reads poetry, but of how she reads astrophysical literature on Jupiter. Without the context one would probably think the former. What this suggests to me is that the poetic moment is already out there in the world we read, and just waiting for us to realise it. We realise it as the idea for a poem. That said, one wouldn't want to misunderstand the function of the signifier in all this. There's no reason why such an idea - that thing that 'resonates, shocks or triggers some kind of deep response' - might not be signified by a rhythm, for instance. Aileen Kelly's discussion of metaphor in her poetry has some light to cast here: 'My concept of metaphor is very big. It includes rhythm; sometimes it includes grammar.' I think we have to understand 'the idea for a poem' in a similar fashion, to refer to a larger than usual concept of ideation, one that incorporates an idea's 'formal' presentation as much as, if not more than, its purported meanings. That's why I prefer to speak in terms of 'the poetic moment'.
The point, at any rate, is that it can always arrive. Which is why Polain, just like Croggon, sees the main part of her research reading as a process of maintaining preparedness for such moments. In Croggon's words, once more: 'I think of it more like keeping fit, to be honest' (Croggon, interview 2007).
On the other hand, it's clear - from section 2 above, where another's poetry forms the precipitating force, the 'research' toward a poet's own poem, but also from Polain's own comments here - that the transposition from the poetic moment one encounters elsewhere into one's own creative production is by no means direct, simple or even necessarily immediate. In response to my further questioning, Polain clarified that the diction for a poem like 'when bees see blue' will sometimes come to her immediately, but it will also often take time to germinate, time for the correct words, and correct rhythms to arrive. Questioned on this issue, Polain referred once more to the idea of a 'writing space', the place where these matters are worked 'on a level that I can only intuit [...] It's just the space. When we're casting around for words and we feel that space, it's the same one' (Polain, interview 2007). Often, she'd have to wait for the poem to come to her.
A similar issue - the need to wait for such triggering moments to turn into verse - arose in relation to the first of Mal McKimmie's Brokenness Sonnets, which runs as follows:
In his interview McKimmie revealed that the Rilke analogy pacing through lines 4 and 5 was from Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, and that it came specifically from the self-description of a sufferer of encephalitis lethargica, the physically but not mentally frozen state otherwise known as sleeping sickness. Having been physically sped up by Sacks' administration of dopamine to the point where he once more had the ability to speak, this encephalitic patient made an analogy between his condition and that of Rilke's 'The panther', an analogy that went on to lodge itself in McKimmie's brain, only much later to form a poem. In McKimmie's words:
I'm going to return to the theme of temporal delay, for it offers a clue as to just why my informants found my proposed analogy between their practice and academic work so dissatisfactory. But first, I want to round off this discussion by making three points.
i) The first point relates to the fact that both Polain and McKimmie described themselves practicing the sort of reading that plants triggers in them - 'the line is in response to whatever it is that's struck me' (Polain) - triggers that will later turn into poems. One of the things that is interesting about this is that it suggests a very different way of reading from that social scientists, for instance, practice, with their tendency toward the generalisation of characteristics from large ('statistically significant') samples. This also puts Polain and McKimmie at a divergence from the reading practices of the majority of humanities academics, who need to proffer at least the appearance of inductive reasoning (e.g. one must show that one has read, or in other instances sampled, all the relevant documents) to pass the refereeing process and make it into publication. I write the 'appearance of inductive reasoning' for it is clear, as Charles Saunders Peirce has shown in relation to history writing, that the huge quantity of objects that present in cultural fields generally preclude the possibility of any real induction; for there is no way you can determine the proportionality, and therefore significance, of your sample if it comes from an infinite, or even just uncountable, set. Such humanities 'induction' is really more akin to 'asserting the truth of anything, if it seems to render the world reasonable' (Peirce 1998: 95). Given the curious way the presence of power manages to 'render the world reasonable', it is perhaps not therefore surprising that there is such a concomitant stress in humanities scholarship on having read all the relevant authorities ... However that might be, there is still clearly a vast difference between the way Polain or McKimmie read, compared to social science and humanities academics. Neither of these poets are - at least in the instances cited above - reading an array of phenomena to find their general features. It is rather that they're letting one specific poetic conjunction speak through them.
ii) On the other hand, I have to say that I'm wary of generalising from Polain and McKimmie's accounts, and not just because their discussions of how reading passes into poetry are relatively isolated in my archive. For that's not to say I won't find many more such responses in future interviews, where I will aim questions more directly at this issue. Strands in other of the interviews lead me to suspect I will. My reservation is rather that poetic lines are obviously based on all sorts of inductive readings as well, in the loose sense that Peirce allows us: assertions that seem 'to render the world reasonable'. For the contentions within poems are clearly often the product of the poet's repeated observations of things. As Wordsworth stated, in the clause which qualifies his rather more famous equation of poetry with the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings':
Wordsworth reminds us that poetry often conveys inductions, that is generalisations, arising from the poet's own research into the world. He also reminds us of the existence of a temporal delay between cognition and composition. In fact, there's an enormous amount one can read into the passage beyond the simple idea of a 'spontaneous overflow', but all I'm really trying to do here is qualify what my research is suggesting about research for poetry writing involving the search for and transmission of the sort of triggering moments Polain and McKimmie describe. It's clearly indebted to the more celebrated modes of knowledge production as well.
iii) The third point I want to make is that little of this poetic research leaves a paper trail. My exchange with McKimmie on his Sacks' reference is apposite:
4 A third response: it's retrospective
The fact that poetry usually arrives without a scholarly apparatus plays a part in obscuring the last main form of research my respondents mentioned. It therefore came as a shock to me to hear so many of the poets asserting that yes, they do indeed do something like academic research; only in their case it comes after the act of writing.
The retrospective nature of poetic research was a frequent theme in the interviews. It came up in the first few minutes of Jan Owen's interview:
While Alex Skovron said:
McKimmie admitted to similar practices himself. To continue his earlier figure, and invert it, in these instances of retrospective research, it's like the flat has suddenly appeared from nowhere, and it is the poet's task now to furnish it.
5 Time and speed
I've looked now at three different modes of poetic research, taking the three most popular of my interview responses:
Putting these accounts together, it strikes me that what unites these three research practices is the fact that almost no one describes composing with an actual book in front of them. There seems, as I suggested a number of times above, almost always to be a temporal gap between the reading or research, and the writing of the poem.
Harrison provided one exception in her description of composing poems for Cabramatta/ Cudmirrah (1996) with a reference book beside her; the book offered her the proper names and also photos of the shells she wanted to describe:
This, and some other instances aside (e.g. Skovron), the overwhelming impression I received from the poets I interviewed was that the knowledge input had either gone on way before composition, or would take place much later.
I quoted Alex Skovron at the end of the previous section offering a clue as to why this temporal disjunction might occur: 'If the words are flowing I've got to let them'. In an earlier paper on these interviews, I tabled the hypothesis that contemporary poets often compose very rapidly (Magee 2008). More precisely, I suggested that poets often compose at too great a speed to think through all the different prosodic, dramatic and intellectual decisions fleshing out the poem in their hands. Take the example of Jan Owen. On receiving a forward copy of my questions in the mail, and seeing that I would be asking her about her speed of composition, Owen actually started timing herself:
Commenting that 'the last draft of all ('Does that word go in or out?') might take many days,' she added, 'as in, it will involve a few moments here and there, over many days'. There's a term in evolutionary science for this sort of time-relation: punctuated equilibrium, which denotes rapid epochal change with long periods of stasis in between (Gould and Eldredge 1993). I heard descriptions of something like this time-relation from many of the poets I interviewed. Now, poets certainly put forward other models for how they composed, including models that involved the accretion of lines composed in painstakingly slow fashion. But generally speaking, high speed emerged as a common factor for all the poets, at least some of the time. I'll offer some more reasons for why this might be below, and I'll flag that offering by suggesting that it has something to do with acting. For now though, the important point is that such speed precludes poets from having mounds of texts all around them and composing by close reference to them.
6 What is composition?
I've just suggested that the acts of reading and composing are mutually exclusive. Only this is not entirely the case. It would be so, were it not that the word 'reading' has other meanings beside that strange - seemingly 'telepathic', as Benjamin pointed out (Benjamin 1978: 190) - process of taking in through our eyes the words on a page. We also speak of reading the world. We often talk of academic writing as providing a reading of events, whether they be contemporary or historical. Indeed, I relied upon this usage in my brief discussion of humanities and social science methods above. Is this idea of reading things other than the words on a page just a flimsy metaphor? I don't think so, and the reason is that I follow Peirce in regarding all our impressions, whether they be visual, auditory or otherwise sensory, as forms of semiotic activity: 'a sensation is a simple predicate taken in place of a complex predicate; in other words, it fulfils the function of a hypothesis' (Peirce 1955: 237). In a way, we never have our heads out of a book. Or rather, like Finnegan's Wake, the book has no beginning or end, it is all around us. We are, as Peirce would put it, in a state of 'infinite semiosis'. To put this another way: what I'm getting at through this preamble are the sensory inputs (perceptions, murmurings of ideas in one's head, memories) one experiences at the exact moment of composition. How might one characterise them? What is one observing and turning into verse at the moment one writes? What, in short, is one reading?
Here's my question, as I put it to Mal McKimmie:
This question occasioned all sorts of difficulties in the poets, and perhaps even some anxiety. I am referring to the sort of productive anxiety (the 'poetic moment', perhaps?) that makes dialogue exciting. In most instances, it was apparent that my subjects had to think very hard to work out exactly how to word their responses. Harrison commented on this at the end of her interview:
Croggon put it this way: 'if I start thinking about what I'm doing, I usually end up stopping. It means the poem has run out. It almost always runs out of invention at that point' (Croggon, interview 2007). The difficulty the question occasioned was clearly related to the difficulty of recalling, and analysing, a process which seemed much more integral at the time, and passed quickly. But there were other factors, including the desire not to echo clichés about inspiration, as in the following exchange with Mal McKimmie:
Alex Skovron referred to a related potential misunderstanding: 'I mean, I'm not suggesting channelling - I don't want to go into those kinds of questions'. This was as a gloss on his initial statement that 'the writing is coming out of the writer, of course - yet in a strange sense it also isn't' (Skovron, interview 2007).
There was much variation in the responses here, the main line of divergence being that most poets stressed the priority of hearing, while only a few prioritised sight. On the other hand, a number who generally heard the words first and foremost also reported occasional instances of describing something, e.g. the Eiffel tower, which they were simultaneously holding in their mind's eye for the sake of the composition (e.g. Skovron). What emerged, however, and with relative clarity, was that the first option the question offered - 'Is it something you see in your head that you're then describing?' - was just generally inadequate, whether the poet described having such 'eidetic' experiences or not. The problem was the separation implicit within that formulation between the thinking and the thing thought. Aileen Kelly's response made this clear. I put the question to her in this fashion: 'When you write do you actually see what you're writing?' which I then sought to clarify by adding: 'Take a poem that involves an element of description: are you ever actually looking at an image in your head and finding words for it?' Kelly replied, 'Sometimes, but I'm not looking at it and finding words for it' (Kelly, interview 2007). Kelly expanded on this response with references to theatrical improvisation and the subjective immersion that involves, but there's enough in even this brief quote to see that the problem with my question lies in the desire to see composition as a sort of commentary upon an external object. In Harrison's words:
Harrison also described eidetic experiences, though for her these were more characteristic of editing: 'I'm thinking more consciously by then. I've got the image. What do I ... how do I put that into words? So it's not in that rush ... that flurry-kind-of-writing.' Whereas when composing in a rush, 'it's almost as if you can inhabit both the subjective and objective positions at the same time':
This stress on the simultaneity of composing and conceiving of the thing described in the composition provides the link between Harrison, who does not particularly privilege hearing, and a poet like Alison Croggon, who does:
Croggon is a well-known theatre critic and we had discussed the influence of good theatre on her poetry earlier in the interview. That there are other reasons, however, for her to shift so suddenly from composition to theatre, will emerge later in this article when I will turn, as I hinted I would, to the relation between composition and acting.
The point for now is, at least initially, a much stranger one. The poets whose interviews I'm analysing can certainly be described as producing readings of the world in their poetry. Alternatively, and depending on how you decide the issues raised in section 2 above, you might say that they are sketching the outlines of all the sorts of things the world does not know how to read. But the problem with both these metaphors of reading or sketching is that we tend to assume that person doing the activity is in conscious control of that process at the time they're doing it. The material I tabled in the previous section on the temporal disjunction between book reading and composing should have already cast some doubt on the applicability of such understandings - for they imply conscious rumination. As for the passages I've just cited, they suggest that poets are not so much reading or sketching the world, as participating in a reading or a sketching that's being done through them:
Polain's words are further reminiscent of Skovron's: 'The writing is coming out of the writer, of course - yet in a strange sense it also isn't' (Skovron, interview 2007). It is indeed decidedly strange, and Croggon's comments on her experience of writing descriptive prose (she is also a fantasy novelist) only add to the enigma:
What is one to make of these sorts of comments, which extend our focus from the composition of poetry to prose, and further underline that the conscious agent is not really the one doing the writing? I am reminded of Duras, who claimed:
And later added: 'The making of pictures of books isn't something completely conscious. And you can never, never find words for it' (Duras 1993: 30).
But all of this adds up to the fact that the oddness and mismatch in my questions about the relation between poetry and research was not merely to do with the implication that poetry conveys its author's findings (as opposed to producing new findings in others). It was as much to do with the implication that research implies a conscious researcher. That is why the responses to my next question were so interesting:
7 What is academic speech?
I was surprised by the near totality with which poets rejected the idea that their words were written by another. In part this could be attributed to the desire to shun those same 'channelling' clichés alluded to above. But I think it was also more than that. I'd put it this way: poets know, better than most people, that they are not identical with their conscious selves. But, by the same token, they realise that those foreign sources of speech are as much a part of them as the hand that signs their signature. Actually, those foreign sources of speech are probably much more important to them than the conscious ones: what else in your writing is truly yours?
Now although the question 'Do you ever feel like someone else is doing the writing?' elicited an almost unanimous string of 'No', 'No', 'No' ... the elaborations were utterly fascinating. Take for instance, Polain's reference in the quote above to that internal font of speech, that space we can almost physically feel at those moments 'when we're casting around for words'. Might the physicality of that virtual space have something to do with the poet's ability to cast words in such sensuous form?
Equally intriguing was Alison Croggon's statement that 'It always feels like I'm doing it. But it feels like I'm listening to some other part of me, that's not always available. I almost feel like there's a door in there.' A door to where? Compare Alex Skovron's reference to overhearing himself, which emerged when I asked him whether he ever used phrases he'd heard in other's conversation:
Croggon and Skovron's comments open up the final line of inquiry I want to pursue here. For even if another person cannot be said to be doing the writing, that does not preclude the poet him or herself from becoming another person - or rather, persons - during the writing.
Polain broached a similar issue. The following exchange followed immediately on from the comment with which I began this section ('I just have never had that experience. I don't get it'):
Jan Owen also said something similar, though in her case it was as a gloss on her 'Our Lady, Notre Dame, Paris', which runs as follows:
Owen referred to this poem in the course of her response to my question as to whether the genesis of a poem is always linguistic. We had been discussing overheard speech, and how it might spark poetry. I asked her whether something 'visually or emotionally striking' might not have the same effect. Owen responded, just like Harrison above, that she couldn't separate the words that came to her in composition from her perception of the scenes, experiences or incidents those words recounted. She then added that the origin of a poem would often be a sense, whether linguistic, visual or whatever, of mismatch. Owen elaborated that, in such moments, 'I can't see something or don't fully understand something, or something doesn't fit and I need to explore further,' and gave as example the precipitating experience behind 'Our Lady': seeing a fellow churchgoer's 'tears course through thick make-up till you can see the stubble':
Owen's shift from a discussion of logical dissonance to an assertion that we all have sub-personalities is intriguing. Her implication is that our attention to logical dissonance ('the poetic moment', as I called it above) is ineluctably linked to our possession of multiple personality.
A similar connection was made later in the interview, following Owen's discussion of 'Through Kersenmacht' (Owen 2008: 287), which was written during the same trip that led to 'Our Lady':
Owen's use of the word 'argument' provides a further point of convergence between the logical and dramatic sides of her compositional practice, both of which are predicated, in her view, upon the fact that 'we are legion'.
As she put it, again while glossing 'Our Lady': 'if I explore other people's viewpoints, I often use one of my sub-personalities to do so. It's a form of method acting.' At another point in the interview, she discussed the many parodies she has published and here too used the same metaphor: 'you are in a sense playing a part. It's like the Stanislavsky method, where you become the person.' Now the connection between acting, and drawing upon another side of oneself is obvious when we are discussing parodying. What's most curious is that Owen uses these same dramatic metaphors not merely in relation to parody, where mimicry is clearly paramount, but also in relation to more seemingly authored poems, such as 'Our Lady', a poem which, as she says, was based on a situation that spoke not so much to her as rather to the 'legion' within her.
The more one delves into Owen's manner of speaking about these things, the more one realises that it amounts to a fully fledged ontology - an ontology with some Jungian borrowings to be sure, but one which can do service in a wide array of situations. As she said elsewhere in the interview, quoting Robert Dessaix, and while speaking on the topic of her own many travels: 'you travel not so much to escape from yourself, as to find other selves that have been suppressed or denied or ignored in your usual situation' (Owen, interview 2007). Does one do the same thing when composing? Is it a matter, as when travelling or acting, of becoming multiple?
Polain's comments on her own sense of multiplicity, cited at the start of this section, corroborate such a theory, at least as far as composition goes. Elsewhere in the interview she added that 'Acting was something I loved and really miss. I regret leaving it, but I once said to somebody that I write because I can play all the parts' (Polain, interview 2007). It's worth noting that most of Polain's poems are written in the 'I'. The implication is that even as an 'I' one has multiple characters to play.
The fact that the poet is simultaneously engaged in an act of make-believe seems integral to their capacity to let go in this fashion. This is how I understand all these references to acting. Acting allows you to abandon yourself, so that you can in turn allow all these other selves to appear. This is how I read Kelly's likening of composition to:
Note that Kelly refers to actors in the plural as the agents of this process. Such intimations have further support in Freud, who famously commented in 'Creative Writers and Daydreaming' upon the way make-believe serves to facilitate the modern novelist's tendency:
Keeping in mind that for Freud the ego is an institution with roots down into the unconscious, one can make the further link between these part-egos and the figures of unconscious Oedipal phantasy. The point, of course, about the Oedipus Complex, is that it is dramatic in form, which is to say, it is multiply peopled, with the triad mother-child-father at its core. Only we're not really talking about a core as rather a constellation of speaking positions, a constellation of speaking positions around a moment of subjective impossibility - 'something' as Owen says, 'doesn't fit.' That the creature on the other side of that door is a multiply personed one is given further, inverse support, by the clear ambivalence most of my respondents evinced toward my attempt to analogise aspects of their practice to academic epistemology. For what is academic speech, really, if not an attempt to rein that contradictory multiple in and pretend it is one?
1. These 2007 interviews were funded by a University of Canberra Early Career Researcher grant. The pilot study they constitute has since expanded into a 2009 Australian Research Council Discovery application (Poetry and Knowledge: Research into Creative Practice), which is based on my work, Jen Webb's pilot study conducted on practice-led researchers, and Kevin Brophy's work on consciousness, creativity and composition. Jen, Kevin and I will seek to expand the archive to incorporate interviews with 50 more poets, across a range of Anglophone countries, and we will also seek to expand the theoretical breadth of the analysis to incorporate psychoanalysis, new developments in neurology and consciousness studies, and theories of embodiment. return to text
2. Of the 14 poets interviewed, two hold academic positions, both as teachers of creative writing. I cite here interviews with eight of the 14, including both of the creative writing academics. The other six interviews are either yet to be transcribed, or are transcribed but yet to be approved for quotation and study. return to text
3. I write 'modern poetry' rather than 'poetry' in general for a very specific reason. The epistemological properties of modern poetry -- or, as I prefer to label it, the sort of poetry capitalist societies produce -- are radically different from those of other poetries. That difference is manifest in the attitudes these respective bodies of poetry display towards the present day world of their authors. In oral epic poetry, 'the represented world of the heroes stands on an utterly different and inaccessible time and value plane' to that of its singer and audience (Bakhtin 1980: 14). Epic is never about the present of its singer; nor are the singer's attitudes or values at all relevant to the story he or she is communicating. There is no way one can imagine Homer interrupting his narrative to present a 60-page essay on contemporary life. Compare Les Misérables, with its famous chapter on the Parisian sewers. When literature starts to portray its author's contemporaries (as it does in Hugo's novels, but also Heine's poetry, not to mention the poetry of Croggon, Harrison, Kelly, McKimmie, Owen, and indeed much of the high art and popular literature of the last few hundred years) this constitutes a 'radical revolution' in literary form (Bakhtin 1980: 14). Bakhtin will describe this shift as a 'novelization' of literature, a phenomenon whereby drama (his example is Ibsen), modern epic poetry (the Byron of Childe Harold, but even more the Byron of Don Juan), and even lyric poetry itself (e.g. Heine) increasingly rely on representing the multiple and conflicting 'speech genres' of the present. In fact it is the conflict between such ways of seeing that becomes central to this literature, and the end result is that in it the claims of any given monological world are undermined, cracked open to the future: '[a]ll literature is then caught up in the process of "becoming," and in a special type of "generic criticism"' (Bakhtin 1980: 5). What novelisation 'inserts' into these literary forms, precisely by its tendency to collide and so undermine prevailing speech genres, is 'an indeterminacy, a certain semantic open-endedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the open-ended present)' (Bakhtin 1980: 6). As is doubtless apparent, a literature fashioned upon such a searching attitude to present-day speech-genres is far more likely to open up questions for knowledge. Bakhtin's analysis might even lead one to suggest that this is the very function of such literature. On other hand, the fact that we can't work out from the internal evidence of his texts where nor even when Homer wrote is starkly indicative of the fact that the poetry he was writing / reciting had no real interest in addressing the present-day world of its author. It is only in the Renaissance, Bakhtin comments, that Europeans began to feel 'an incomparably closer proximity and kinship to the future than to the past' (Bakhtin 1980: 40). Our literature bears its truest affinity to the future because it focuses so unremittingly on the cracks, gaps and fault-lines of its authors' present-day reality. In short, it bears a thoroughly scientific attitude to time.
This is not the place to delve further into such periodisations, though I will add that Bakhtin's account of an epochal shift in literature's epistemological properties is closely paralleled in Eric Auerbach (1953), while Jacques Rancière has more recently added force to the corollary idea implicit in Bakhtin's account: that the distinctions between romanticism, modernism and postmodernism - assuming anyone still bothers with the last of these terms - are of little ultimate account (Rancière 2003). We are still very much within the period - 'the Aesthetic Revolution' is Rancière's term for it - theorised by Schiller, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Kant:
It is hard to imagine any Classical parallel. The idea of revolution made little or no sense to a writer as seemingly contemporary as Tacitus (Auerbach 1953: 38), while the restriction on representing everyday life in any genre other than comedy was still functional well into Shakespeare's era and indeed writing. In short, no discussion of the relation between art and knowledge can afford to ignore the fact that the artforms produced in capitalist societies bear totally different epistemological properties to those of alternate and / or prior societies. What we do now bears far greater affinity to science, which is also why it is often regarded as dangerous. return to text
4. Indeed, you could regard the whole passage as quite rationalist, which is curious given the contemporary tendency to abuse the Romantics for being all things 'romantic'. What really calls for critique - or at least clarification - in Wordsworth's paragraph is the final clause, which seems to bring all this ideation back to something like the empiricist's nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu [Nothing is in the understanding that was not earlier in the senses]. If that's what Wordsworth meant, then yes, you could criticise it as Romantic, though you'd have to label it Lockean as well. return to text
5. It's worth adding that there are other factors precluding a close relation to prior authority among such poets, including generally negative attitudes to prior authority. return to text
Interviews cited in the text
Alison Croggon, Interview with P Magee,
Melbourne, 24 April 2007 return to text
List of works cited
Auerbach, Erich 1953 Mimesis, or the representation of reality in western literature (trans William Trask), Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press return to text
AAWP 2009 'Writing courses', Australian Association of Writing Programs, http://aawp.org.au/courses return to text
Bakhtin, Mikhail 1980 'Epic and novel, towards a methodology for the study of the novel,' in M Holquist (ed), The dialogic imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press, 3-40 return to text
Benjamin, Walter 1978 Reflections: essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings, New York: Shocken return to text
Bloom, Harold 1997 The anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry, New York: Oxford University Press return to text
Bolt, Barbara 2004 Art beyond representation: the performative power of the image, London: IP Tauris return to text
Carter, Paul 2004 Material thinking: the theory and practice of creative research, Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Publishing return to text
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 1975 Biographia Literaria (ed George Watson), London: Dent return to text
Croggon, Alison 2006 The naming: the first book of Pelinor, London: Candlewick Press
Dawson, Paul 2004 Creative writing and the new humanities, London: Routledge return to text
Duras, Margueritte 1993 Practicalities, Margueritte Duras speaks with Jérôme Beaujour, New York: Grove Press return to text
Eagleton, Terry 2006 How to read a poem, London: Wiley-Blackwell return to text
Freud, Sigmund 1975 'Creative writers and daydreaming,' in The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud vol 9 (trans J Strachey), London: Hogarth Press, 145-53 return to text
Gould, Stephen Jay and Niles Eldredge 1993 'Punctuated equilibrium comes of age', Nature 366.6452: 223-227, http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_comes-of-age.html (retrieved 23 June 2009) return to text
Green, Lelia and Brad Haseman (eds) 2006 Media International Australia: incorporating culture and policy (practice-led research issue) 118, February return to text
Harrison, Jennifer 1994 Michelangelo's Prisoners, North Fitzroy, Vic: Black Pepper Press return to text
Harrison, Jennifer 1996 Cabramatta/Cudmirah, North Fitzroy, Vic: Black Pepper Press return to text
Harrison, Jennifer 2006 Folly & grief, Melbourne: Black Pepper Press return to text
Magee, Paul 2008 'Suddenness: on rapid knowledge,' New writing: the international journal for the practice and theory of creative writing 5:3: 179-95 return to text
McKimmie, Mal 2005 Poetileptic, Carlton, Vic: Five Islands Press return to text
Milech, Barbara H and Ann Schilo 2004 'Exit Jesus': relating the exegesis and creative/production?components of a research thesis', TEXT Special Issue 3 http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue3/milechschilo.htm return to text
Owen, Jan 2008 Poems 1980-2008, Elwood: John Leonard Press return to text
Peirce, Charles Saunders 1955 'Some consequences of the four incapacities' in J Buchler (ed), Philosophical writings of Peirce, New York: Dover, 228-50 return to text
Peirce, Charles Saunders 1998 'On the logic of drawing history from ancient documents', in The essential Peirce, selected philosophical writings, Vol 2 (1893-1913), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 75-115 return to text
Polain, Marcella 2008 Therapy like fish: new and selected poems, Elwood Vic.: John Leonard Press return to text
Rancière, Jacques 2003 'Politics and aesthetics, an interview with Peter Hallward translated by Forbes Morlock,' Angelaki, journal of the theoretical humanities 8.2, August: 191-211 return to text
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1805 Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme return to text
Paul Magee is a Senior Lecturer in Poetry at the University of Canberra, author of Cube Root of Book, which was shortlisted for the Innovation category of the Adelaide Festival Awards for the Arts 2008, and also of From here to Tierra del Fuego, a work of surrealist ethnography published by the University of Illinois Press in 2000. Paul is currently much exercised by the question of art's relation to knowledge. He has published extensively on epistemology, poetics, boredom, stagnation and revolution.
Keywords: poetry; knowledge; research; composition; acting
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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb