Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

Poetry and the Narratives of Enlargement – Martin Langford

The following is an attempt to draw a distinction between poetry and the enlargement-narratives in which so much of the imagination of our media is grounded.

The first step out of the prison is to imagine the other.

The point of language is to enable us to gesture beyond our biology: to create spaces in which we are not simply defined by our instinct for hierarchy, but in which the other is allowed to exist.

The principal dichotomy, in all writing, is between work which is grounded in the author’s best understandings, and work which is driven by the urge for security or enlargement. The former includes most poetic and literary writing, as well as those genres which are underwritten by substantiation, such as history, biography and journalism – and, of course, science. The latter is exemplified by the narrative structures of mass media news, by most writing in popular genres such as romance, thrillers and crime, and by almost everything which comes out of Hollywood. There is much overlapping between the two: writing steeped in understandings can nevertheless be reluctant to forego the anxieties of the ego; conversely, enlargement narratives can be enlightening in their portrayal of the world the ego inhabits. One encounters history or poetry which is based on ego and positionality, and journalism which is the purest enlargement-narrative. Ultimately, however, there is a profound difference in perspective between the two. The enlargement-narrative places the self at the centre of the universe; its satisfactions are hormonal, manifest as release-from-anxiety, or as triumph: it is a function of the discourse of power. The meditative response, on the other hand, believes that egocentrism may be a condition of being in the world, but that it must nevertheless be resisted and managed, if society is to be anything other than a jungle. Its satisfactions take the form of understandings, and of the textual pleasures with which they are explored. If the writing is really good, it may also create a sense of communion. It can only be read from a position of one remove from the compulsions of power as part of a discourse which might be described as an enactment of the dialogues of consciousness.

Narratives adopt either the protagonist’s point of view, or the author’s: they are either wish-fulfilments, in which there is no appreciable difference between the author’s perspective and the protagonist’s, or they are meditations on desire – dialogues which generate a sense of distance between the author’s self, and his or her understandings. The first, more commonly encountered sort of text is typically an enactment of the author’s desire for enlargement, whereas the latter is congruent with the lyric, an expression of consciousness – free of the self at least to the extent that it is aware of the self: an interrogation of the self and its others. The former might be thought of as the genetic imperative expressed through the imagination, as biology enacted in words; the latter as a meditation on this from one step back.

The poem assumes that you contain the same need to be reconciled with the moment as it does. The self-based narrative assumes that, given the position of the hero or heroine, you too would want to realize a similar potential for some other position.

The poem participates in narrative: it arrived at the point it inhabits by reason of narrative precedents, and it must be situated at some point of relationship to a narrative. Its perceptions may have narrative implications. But its point of view is rarely, nowadays, within the narrative itself.

Poems are written in the same space in which free will is possible: one step back from the event.

In narrative, we take things to the limit because we are fascinated by what we might be able to achieve. In poetry, concerned with ways of being in the moment, we consider modes of experience. Both, in separate ways, are sourced in dissatisfaction with the current situation, one exploring what we might do, and the other, how we might be.

Being unstable and without boundaries, our experience of the world is inherently disturbing. One way of managing this is to shape it with boundaries and alternatives, destinations and arrivals. As a consequence, most of our narratives are translating machines, in which flux and vulnerability are recast as changes in status, proofs and accreditations. Many writers, however, do not believe in such things, and try rather to engage with that fluidity which, at some point, we will all have to learn to inhabit—which, in fact, we inhabit now.

Narrative keeps promising to take you somewhere, but then proceeds to tell you another story.

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Biological narrative is one dimensional. It has one centre of gravity, the self. Rather than constructing a dialogue between the self and an other, it is the paranoid monologue of a self negotiating others conceived only as obstacles or allies. The idea of the poetic, on the other hand,  is grounded in a multiple awareness, a sense of simultaneous but distinct gravities: knowledge and desire, the subject and the other, the rational and the affective. One such gravity is insufficient: the poetic only appears in the tension between multiple acknowledgements.

Since the poem almost always contains an acknowledgement of the poet’s perception of the way things are—irrespective of how intensely regret and desire are played off against it—the poem is, contrary to the common view, closer to the position of documentary or science, than it is to enlargement-narrative. Although we think of poetry as being synonymous with the expression of emotion, ego-based narrative is in fact more uncritically grounded in affect: it is driven by the emotions and receives no commentary, whereas poetic emotion rarely appears without being interrogated by the poem’s alternative voices.

There are plots one can think of as poetic in themselves: expressions of the simultaneities under which the protagonists live – the plot of Oedipus, for instance, or of James’s Wings of the Dove. But mostly, the impulses of the narrative seek to dispel the dualities from which it arose. The purpose of plot has been to clarify the sources of authority – to establish an unambiguous position through the exercise of the will – rather than to enact or celebrate multiplicity.

A “thin volume of poetry” typically articulates many more cruces and polarities than the average enlargement-narrative, which only seeks to simplify them into a “satisfying” ending.

Without being captive to the text – without being prepared to yield at least some control over our reactions – we can have no relationship with the other. How can we relate to anything else if we have pre-empted all our responses? In fact, we need both to be captive – to be letting the other speak – and to be aware of our own responses, to distance ourselves so that we can make judgments about it. Poetry is the site at which both absorption and resistance occur most acutely together. 

The dual nature of poetic language – in Bernstein’s terms it is both absorptive and anti-absorptive1 – means that we read it both involuntarily (surrendering to the momentum of its lacks) and self-consciously (because such captivities are undermined by the language with which they are enacted). It is because it does not seek to make us wholly captive that it has such a small audience. People do not wish to be confronted by the disruptions it seeks: the general preference is for the satisfactions of enlargement, not the dilemmas of consciousness.

One reason people do not read poetry is because they believe it might weaken them: the awareness of the other it elicits might make it more difficult to ignore the other’s claims.

Obsessed by their various disempowerments, people do not wish to be reminded by poetry that power is absurd.

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If the biological narrative is the form best suited to a world whose first requirement is survival, the meditative forms can develop only in those spaces in which security is not an issue. One must have confidence in one’s spaces if one wishes to invite the other in.

The biological narrative constitutes others either as threats to or allies; the poem and its equivalents constitute others as equals.

Conflict is essential to the enlargement narrative: life is cast as a contest between the self and its obstacles. Conflict is not essential to the poem, but the presence of the other is.

One cannot engage with an other if one’s main concern is to defend or advance a position.

At one level, the narrative of the biological imperative is just another chemical addiction: the blind, pre-verbal pleasure of an anxiety resolved; the raw, hormonal surge of a triumphant ending.

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When people say they are “in love with story”, what do they mean? That they love the evocation of danger from the safety of the lounge? That they like to be manipulated by false trails and withheld information? That they are addicted to vicarious triumphs? It is said that narrative is essential to our self-understanding, but the only understandings available in the narratives of increase concern the means by which the self can be enlarged, at the expense of the others it must deal with. But aren’t these only tactics in a war-zone? Doesn’t the work of understanding begin at the point where the other is granted its voice?

Emotional openness can develop in many ways: in retreat from the insistences of the self; in attentiveness to the senses and the body; in concern for the exact weight of one’s responses; in sensitivity to the other. These are rarely qualities promoted by the narratives of enlargement.

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The ultimate source of belief in any particular narrative is the anxiety of the audience.

The scriptwriters say, Keep raising the stakes. Increase the difference between failure and success. The more there is to be fearful of, the more gripping the story. Narrative works by binding us as completely as possible to the wheel of anxiety and desire.

It is no coincidence that the age of the novel should also have been an age which challenged power-based hierarchies with the counter-claims of morality. The novel was an ideal way of pursuing the interaction between morality and status, of testing the dream that one’s position might be defined not by one’s power, but by one’s behaviour towards others. It did not cease to dream of power: it simply sought a more acceptable distribution of its spoils.

So many of the moments in a conventional surrogate-narrative concern status: conflicts between status and morality; challenges to the status of the characters; arguments about the terms by which status is defined; revelations of “true” status, and, at the end, the confirmation of status in the arms of a status-bearing lover.

It is still too common for men to choose stories about the achievement of status, and for the interest of women to begin at the point where it has been achieved.

Narrative is the means by which the ego becomes visible.

Once the conditionality and self-interest of the motivations became apparent, the confidence of the narrative faltered, and the authorial focus slid towards thoughtfulness and exploration.

Enlargement-narrative is at home wherever people are competing—for money or land, for a partner’s affections or for a point of view.  It is in the nature of competition that only one subject can succeed to the prize. At the heart of such narrative is the alienated other.

Ultimately, subjects may only co-exist within a dance.

Historically, the moral basis for narrative has been the judgment of the god(s) who wrote the framework in which they occur. But if the context is silence, or the bush, or the materiality of things, there are no such frameworks, and the capacity of the narrative to define the lives it reveals is diminished. Narrative has had a faltering history in Australia because so many of our stories were written when the certainties which might once have underpinned them had already vanished.

Narrative stumbles when its journeys are internal.

Once the emotional settings have been made, most narratives proceed predictably. The responses of the characters are readable and reliable, irrespective of the accidents of story. When, however, the emotional settings are challenged – as a prelude to being re-established and bedded down again – and the characters have to make choices about how to exist in the moment, narrative and poetry intersect. Typically, these are the crises around which the rest of the narrative revolves.

The courage or otherwise of the decision-making is one means by which the body inserts itself into the story.

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There are no resolutions which are not, in the long run, contrived. Narrative in itself can only ever attain a partial resolution. There are always more lives to be lived, and more things to be explained. The end of narrative is not resolution, but either extinction or kenosis.

All our narratives lead only to some temporary ledge.

                        ~          ~          ~

Narrative begins in dissatisfaction with the moment: a desire for change with respect to some relative position. But poetry seeks the moment out: it wants to enact it in words.

People speak of the incidental colours of the narrative. The poem explores the idea that the colours may be central, and that the narrative may simply represent the conditions of arrival.

Sensuality and narrative are opposites.

First justice, then happiness. First, equality of opportunity for our narrative possibilities; then the subtle and complex journey towards the moment.

Too often, narrative asks, When shall I triumph? rather than, How shall this conflict end justly?

And poetry?  – After justice, what then?

Published at Febraury 8th de 2015

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