Tuesday, February 05, 2013


A Spiral Dance essay

Thinking how the poet plays with identity. How poet Fernando Pessoa created personae (which he called heterenyms): other identities, each with their own characteristic styles and personalities, who wrote his poems. He even had biographies for them. The poet mirrors and duplicates himself. When Pessoa granted himself an imaginary interview, he played both roles, although when the interviewer asked a question the reader saw only dots, so sometimes the answer seemed to arrive from another continent at first.

Sometimes the I of the poem is me, mostly it's not, or perhaps it's part of me, a partial identity. Not as fully realized as Pessoa made his, but that's a matter of degree rather than kind. I do create a speaker in a poem who is not me, or not exactly me, or was me at that moment but is never locked into that stance forever. A snapshot, not a manifesto. I change, what I write will change, how I read what I wrote years ago will change.

Identity is fluid, that's the point. It's neurotic to fix yourself permanently into one identity and become inflexible. There is a playfulness to Pessoa putting on and taking masks off identity, no matter how serious the poems he created were. One of his poetic personae was very serious, actually, while another was a bit of a Trickster.

We all create characters when we retell our lives to ourselves. We use the scattered bits of memory, most of us, to construct a linear narrative out of our own life, to give it shape and order and purpose, and we fill over the gaps with what we tell ourselves must have been true. Then we convince ourselves it was true, and come to believe it. Most people are scared by the chaos and unknowns of life, so construct a narrative to make sense of it. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, so without even realizing it, most people live mythic lives; especially when they project themselves onto the narrative mirrors of mass entertainment media, novels, sports, movies, pop music, fairy tales. (Which makes you wonder why zombie apocalypse narratives are so popular right now. But I digress.)

One of the innovations of modernist literature, a century ago, was to grow impatient with the unraveling lie of linear narrative and orderly progress, and begin to represent in writing the fragmentation and scattered spotlight that consciousness really is. Not that there is no continuity, rather that continuity flickers and is not orderly and unidirectional. This insight is still true, and still only half-understood. We do love to impose order and make sense of things, even when it's impossible. About half of the past century of literary criticism has been a desperate attempt to reimpose older species of order upon the fragmented state of contemporary literature; that is, an attempt to stuff the genie back into the broken bottle.

And now, a century later, we have a century of writing that depicts stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and the chaos of life, after a century of continuous bloody war, and fragmentation and superficiality have become the fashionable tropes. In this postmodern era of mannerist art, the Ouroborous eating its own self-referential tail, with a hipster wink and ironic smirk, if you write neither reactionary classicist tomes, post-Dickens, post-Tolstoy, nor fragmentary arcane superficial (in the sense of being focused on the surface effects of words rather than their meanings) language poetry, all the critics and other poets will tell you you're lost at sea. In truth, Hip-hop poetry is no different than LangPo practiced by credentialed academics, in that both focus on rhetorical effect rather than content. I've been to readings by both camps where any poet who tried to do something slightly more deep was effectively booed off the stage.

Pessoa, I think, would be tolerantly amused. Because I think that he, like Virginia Woolf, understood the psychology behind what he was experimenting with in his writing. A great deal of the first generation of avant-garde and Modernist art and literature was made in response to the discovery by psychologists of the unconscious (Freud), and later, the collective unconscious and archetypes (Jung). Pessoa was exploring the hall of mirrors that is the personality, the self that conceals from itself the Self. He knew there was a man behind the curtain, pulling the levers, so he gave him a name.

A century later literature has become all about that hall of mirrors: imitation and self-referentiality. Narcissism, which is confused with literary referencing, and is mo longer about finding new ways to depict the evolving workings of consciousness. That psychological insight was new to the artists of a century ago, and they found ways to make their art new thereby. Now that their methods have become the mainstream, there's a lot of flailing around, some of it admittedly better than others, but it mostly repeats the now-familiar. As always seems to happen, the avant-garde becomes established.

Now people are tired of trying to make it new, be original, say things in ways that are new. Exhaustion and irony and despair (in the sense of giving up) are the mainstream of art. Artists are praised these days precisely because they spin the past. The avant-garde has literally become the academic establishment. They hate that, even though they have nothing left to rebel against. Calling a brash new poet every few years "the James Dean of poetry" is more accurate than they know.

We're back to Pessoa's hall of mirrors, his closet full of discrete identities. We don't know who we are anymore, or how to be, and we don't know what to do about it.

And that's a good thing. Because that kind of identity confusion is fertile ground to grow something new and solid in. You see hints of this in the current round of public discourse on identity politics; which is perhaps now in its third generation. People have turned back from a couple of decades of narcissistic identity politics in which they demanded for themselves their share of the pie: now you see a lot of identity politics that is, rhetorically, collective calls for social justice. Thirty years ago the political left was very narcissistic; now, lagging behind as always, the conservative right has become even more self-absorbed and self-centered than the left ever was. What does this have to do with poetry? Everything. If you think that popular culture, and entertainment, and the media, do not reflect all of these evolutions, on every level, you need to start connecting those dots.

And, as a hundred years ago, there are many on the margins, ignored by the critical center as usual, who are doing something new. You mostly haven't heard about them, unless you go questing for them. There are artists making landscape sculptures seeking to reconnect the cultural fragments with the old spirituality of the land. There are poets who wish to synthesize the scattered fragments of consciousness together again, not into the old linear narratives of apparent order, rather into a higher plane of observed order.

Just as mathematics evolved, beginning in the 1970s, from catastrophe theory towards fractals and chaos theory, in which order itself is observed as an emergent property of chaotic systems. (Anyone remember catastrophe theory? I can recall two science fiction books based on the concept. Although surely by now you've heard of fractals and the butterfly effect.)

If I knew where poetry was going, I'd be a prophet, but I'm not. Nevertheless I sense the stirring of change over there, and over there the smell of freshly-turned earth. We find ourselves (our selves) in turbulent transitional times, creating new identities as we go along, as needed, and often by surprise. One great lesson that Pessoa can still teach us is to float, and not take ourselves too seriously.

Who's that knocking at the door?

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