The ‘prison-house of language’1, or, rather, the prison of system – language itself the system of systems (the ‘linguistic metaphor’: even the subconscious, says Lacan, is structured like a language): a situation in which poetry, as worker at the edges and limits of language, becomes itself a model and metaphor of resistance.
What, then, is it going to be? A breakout? Or an acceptance that there is nothing else – that there is nothing out there when one does? The choice is marked out succinctly enough by Robert Adamson in his 1977 poem ‘Lovesong from across the Border’:
I drive, so all I have taken in revolving here, will be turned about, change and drift freely across the border … I drive, and the lawless music I make clears the air, moving in no direction is a swift-flame dancing, and alive with energies separating descriptive words. Driven in fear, driven in love, all instincts awake, out from boundaries of sanity, nerves thin and the song expanding in continuing creation of itself. I drive the complete body now so consciousness is forced to follow as swiftly as the spirit across the border, where governing reason will return and be taken into the heart, where law is breaking into the imaginative cosmos and then out beyond order, language adrift, exploding, moving through and taking me backward from here.
And by John Tranter, in his ‘The Wine Bar Women’ (from Dazed in the Ladies’ Lounge, 1979), which could very easily be seen as a rebuttal (indeed – a thirty-line poem, for example, just like the Adamson – it’s hard not to see it as such):
Driving in the country clears the mind, and soon you’re thinking – what should you buy for a woman who’s deeply involved with a young girl – a doll? A bottle? By now they should be badly drunk and making an exhibition of themselves at the wine bar but you’ve left that scene behind at the Mental Date Line. … Driving fast in the country is like hopeless love: there are no stop lights out here, and when an accident threatens you have to trust your reflexes – braking fast you see the darkness at the edge of the landscape spread across the sky like – you’re skidding badly – like a stain of satay gravy down a new poplin shirt, … Confused, you gaze up at the glittering constellations and realise that a fine white powder is settling in your hair and clogging the air filter of the two-litre engine – the ignition coughs and with a harsh bark from the exhaust you’re moving swiftly in the direction of both women with a thousand miles of dusty road to go.
That’s it? Go back to the (metaphoric) wine bar, where alcohol – a metaform of what Harry calls the creaminess? – has blurred everyone’s vision, represents the way none of us can ever see straight, since language and its paraforms will always stand in the way? Except that, even in the wine bar, there are women, exciting the poet’s persona, but paying him scant attention, making love to each other, Other to Other, ignoring him, like a knowledge he can never have. Pointing, they might almost be, and as does ‘Tunnel Vision’ far more consciously, to a third way.
- See Fredric Jameson, The Prison-house of Language: a Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton UP, 1972). ↩