Saturday, October 07, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 5: the paradox of removal

The DaDa paper game, the cut-up technique as developed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, other chance operations and literary games: these are all relevant methodologies of removing the "I."

I would say, though, that many of the developers of these methods only took them so far, and didn't often pursue them to their fullest potential. I think Cage went further because his use of chance operations went further, and was used to determine more decisions during creation about the elements of the finished piece.

In many ways, these are not new ideas. None of what I am presenting here may be entirely new. It is entirely possible that I am merely recycling, in my own manner of speaking, very old ideas. (Precursors to this discourse lie in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, as well as in avant-garde literature, music, and poetry.) I freely admit that my basic approach is musical, as my artistic origins are in music composition (an artform in which the term "experimental" means something perhaps both more practical and more ephemeral than it does in literature).

Gertrude Stein also explored this non-normative syntactical egolessness in Tender Buttons (1921), predating Cage's later development of textual egolessness by some decades; Cage readily admitted that he came to poetry late, and he did acknowledge his precursors as influential on his thinking. The reason we keep inventing Stein's wheel is the same reason we keep re-inventing Cage's wheel, or Charles Ives' wheel, for that matter: most artists react against this level of experimentation, and reject it, rather than embrace it. (I can name poets who still hate Woolf, Borges, and dadism, too.) Most artists prefer to repeat the familiar rather than embrace the Unknown. (This is, after all, what sells.) Most artists are not avant-garde and don't want to be. We keep re-discovering Stein simply because most people keep forgetting about her. The same for Ives: he's still so far ahead of the curve, musically, that he still rarely gets performed. Cage still isn't performed all that often, either, if you really look at the facts; his notoriety far exceeds the actual number of performances of his works—which should tell us he's on the right track, as an inventor and explorer. None of this is unique to Stein or the rest. It's true of most of the genuinely avant-garde. (As opposed to the pseudo-avant-garde, most of whom are mere shock-artists, who take tropes and ideas and apply them as window-dressing without actually pushing the artistic envelope. Simulations rather than actual explorations.)

A discussion of egoless poetry is eventually going to overlap with discussion of spiritual/visionary poetry, as the goal of the Surrealists and DaDaists both was to surprise themselves as well as each other, and to directly tap into the then-stilll-new theories of psychology about the unconscious mind. Freud was just becoming publicly well-known and internationally discussed at about the same time as the Surrealists and Dadaists were breaking things up; Jung was already working at this time, but had not yet broken away from Freud to pursue his even more fertile explorations of synchronicity and the archetypes. It was an explosive time of great explorations on many fronts of human life (and that's one big reason there was a vital avant-garde during that period). The overlap comes of course because once one starts to remove and/or diminish the "I" which is the persona and personality-ego, the other aspects of consciousness will come forward, not excluding the transpersonal (spiritual) and pre-conscious (autochthonous) aspects of the Self.

But here's the paradox: if you try really, really hard to get rid of the "I" you tend to make it stronger. That's the paradox that has to be worked with (and is one area the Surrealists, I believe, failed to account for). If you strive to write an egoless poetry, you might end up with something that is in fact very self-conscious, very mannered, in the sense that no-one wants to talk about the elephant in the middle of the room. You might wind up inflating your own ego. (Frankly, I think much of the 1920s and 30s avant-garde suffered from this, as did the Surrealists. A lot of them were their own best cheerleaders.) I'm not interested in that.

I think my personal methodology to remove the "I" would be more what Meister Eckhart called "sinking and cooling," and what some writers about haiku have called the abandonment of self into the poem, to be replaced by fuga, the poetic spirit (which is made up of the characters for "wind" and "elegance"). In meditation practice we gradually silence the mind's ceaseless chatter of ideation and judgment. This is a very practical way to remove the "I:" basically, it runs down when it runs out of steam, after no one is paying attention to it for awhile. In writing from that place one arrives at when the mind (ego) is silent, what comes forward is from something other than the persona/ego, and not from the "I" but from the Self, or from something else. Perhaps from the materials themselves.

In other words, rather than striving hard to write an egoless poetry, which paradoxically can make one very self-conscious, we might simply let it all go, including the ego, and see what sort of poetry comes forward. Effortless effort.

This is obviously only one methodology among many, and I know some poets will run screaming from it, for fear of losing themselves entirely. Such a poetry might still contain traditional or radical syntax, familiar words used in unusual ways (another good definition of some kinds of poetry), yet the absence of the writer's "I" will be notable—or, rather, the absence will go unnoticed rather than bringing attention to itself. I know this is tricky stuff; I didn't say it would be easy to pull off, or even possible, just that it's something I think is a worthwhile goal.

Another paradox that can sometimes happen, as it does with John Cage, is that the more the composer removes himself from the piece, the more present his personality may be felt to be, by the listener. Cage's paradox was that his egoless pieces still sound like "Cage pieces." This might be unavoidable. I wouldn't worry about it too much, I'd just acknowledge the issue and let it go. (Worry promotes self-consciousness.)

I've been accused, in all this, of wanting to start a new poetic movement. I don't want to start a new poetic movement, because in many ways I feel than none of this is new. But I do feel like I'm trying to restore to balance a kind of poetry that already exists but has been subsumed under the guise of scientific-rational (intellectual) discourse. The very idea that poets and musicians make it all up "out of their heads" exemplifies the problem. Just like the fish might be the last to realize that fish breath water, it's hard to get poets, immersed in language as they are, to see that there are both other ways of using language, and that language might not be the ultimate tool that some tout it to be.

We can start by weaning ourselves of the (addictive) (ego-inflating) belief that art is all about personal expression and psychological revelation, and restoring equal value to art that isn't necessarily about personal psychological revelation.

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