The notion that poetry is primarily self-expression has often seemed to me a seductive (but conveniently commodifiable) mistake. We all like to think that we are makers of language, but anyone poking around in the engine of poetry uneasily realises that it is just as likely to be the other way around, that just as DNA shapes our morphology, language is the shaper of our consciousness.
What, then, is the self that this language is supposed to express? Might we not be, instead, expressions of language, that parasitic virus that both makes and unmakes our humanity? Is it possible, for example, to actually possess a poem? Is it more that a poem possesses us? (Is this why something in the primitive lobes of my brain tells me it isn’t right to sell poetry books, that poetry should just be given away, like air?)
All the poems I have written are remixes of all the language I have ever heard, filtered through the accidents of my physical being. I am a pattern-making animal, and words have been my means of play: I make and remake those patterns, seeking not so much to express myself, but to find some kind of unexpected beauty, however fragmented, however broken.
If the pattern forms a resonant shape, it might strike a vibratory response in the mind and body of another; it might generate the complexities of conscious emotions – not only the emotion itself, but its intellection – that I call feeling. Art, it seems to me, can’t do anything more than that: but that is surely a great deal, in a world which so often seeks anaesthetisation.
The more a self intrudes on poetry, the less poetry is able to play, the less able to discover its own strangeness. A self nails language down, so it will behave, so the poem won’t compromise the vanities of the writer. It is poetry which walks naked, not the self: but try telling that to the self, who has constant nightmares about walking down the street in its pyjamas. This is why poetry aspires to a condition of anonymity.
These musings are, of course, prompted by the experience of editing Cordite’s Creative Commons issue. I loved reading the initial submissions, and was proud of the diversity, ingenuity and beauty of those selected. Reading the remixes has been a joy, a singular act which, in its continual echoes and variations, has felt a little like listening to a baroque ensemble. These individual works have, by virtue of their genetic exchange, become expressive parts of a single and vital thing.
I was most of all startled by the quality of the remixes: I thought it very high indeed. I hope it’s not impertinent to think that this reflects the joyousness of pattern-makers released to play, finding in their anonymity a liberated language, an estrangement from themselves in which they might create moments of unanticipated feeling and beauty.
In short, what you have here is a microcosm of how cultures actually breathe and reproduce, released from the constraints of corporate or individual ownership. I hope you enjoy reading these poems as much as I did: and my thanks to all the generous contributors, both the poets who originally offered their work, and those others who came to play on the creative commons.