Suspensions of the Real

10 April 2013

Studying the Sylvia Plath archival papers at Smith College in 1993, poet, editor and critic Felicity Plunkett intuited that a number of pages were missing from one poem draft. Plath assiduously page-marked drafts of the poems that were to become the Ariel poems. Plunkett was unable to uncover these pages in any of the archives made available to her, which were still in the process of being organised. One night, in dream, she ‘receives’ a phone call, made from a black, period-piece telephone, words delivered in Plath’s idiosyncratic trans-Atlantic diction – ‘look in the yellow folder’.

Next day: that folder, considered to have held only ‘bits and pieces’ (words of the librarian), thus not known to Plunkett originally, contains the missing pages. For Plunkett, this experience demands a respect for the eerie, otherworldly, mystical and (perhaps) inexplicable when it comes to the process of poets approaching what we postulate to be the ‘real’.

In an emailed discussion following her paper, Plunkett tells me that ‘understanding’ this experience didn’t feel crucial. She is interested in ‘thoughts, dreams, communications and hauntings … (how), in many ways, these things propel research and creative work’. She also suspects that ‘clairvoyance’, beyond its popular definitions, might have ‘everything to do with poetry’.

‘The Real Through Line’ – a full-day symposium on poetry held in Melbourne 5 April convened by Jessica L Wilkinson and Ali Alizadeh, during which Plunkett presented this story as part of her paper – was ostensibly about ‘non-fiction’ poetry, But the essential problem with this as its overarching pivot, posing a stable bond between poetic language and ‘reality’, is conveyed through this anecdote.

Indeed, across the day’s eleven presentations, all radical I found, this ‘non-fiction’ governance dissipated effortlessly. Poetry is too much with itself, a reality with its own weight, to allow such demarking. Because it also affects in its own right what comprises non-fictionality.

will > language > experience > language > will

Above is an equation that I created and keep thinking about after the immersion of poetic ideas, language and the ‘real’ which was my experience of this conference.

All the poets who presented – Louis Armand, Jill Jones, π.O., Felicity Plunkett, Jordie Albiston, Justin Clemens, Ann Vickery, Patrick Jones, Kate Middleton, Jessica Wilkinson, Ali Alizadeh – are, necessarily, committed to and working in poetic language of their own.

Some of the speakers overtly explored the process of distilling the historical lives of others into their poetry: Wilkinson on composer Percy Grainger, Kate Middleton on poeticising the logs of American explorer Major John Wesley Powell, and πO on a poem about Sydney eccentric, Bea ‘Bee’ Miles, who quoted Shakespeare for money and regularly hijacked taxis.

Ann Vickery – in a paper with words tender yet drum-tight – addressed American poet Juliana Spahr, exploring the radicalised memoir-based poetry of Well Then There Now. Patrick Jones walked from his home at Daylesford to Melbourne (yes, over 3.25 days) as an example of one ‘real through line’, his own, which also resonates with his eco-political commitment. As he read a long letter (his ‘paper’) written for a writer colleague, the video of his walk was projected silently behind.

Alizadeh formulated a call for a new Far Left Poetics – in my notebook, an FLMP (Marxist added in ‘M’) – to galvanise the present up rush of Marxist thought and activism. Jill Jones explored collaborative poetic projects that traverse the globe’s time and space meridians. We were reminded of all language’s essential quality of insubordination with Louis Armand. Justin Clemens addressed the self-governing mathematical purity – the ‘real’ – of the ‘palindrome’.

If there was one notable commonality among the symposium papers, it was the idea of the poet creating a ‘container’ or architecture of ideas, themselves constituting a ‘containment’, within which to mark the territory of a particular work.

Plunkett, in her paper, also discussed the ideas of responsibility and ethical management that she is bringing to the writing of her poems on Donald Crowhurst (1932-1969), who died at sea in the world’s first solo world-circumnavigation yacht race, leaving a log in which he recorded his last experiences … ‘IT IS THE MERCY’ being among the words of his final entry. She does have a personal relationship with the Crowhurst family but (whether that was the case or not) she suggests a double-take on respect and ‘truth’ when working with material which is so intimate and controversial that not all members of the Crowhurst family have yet felt able to read the log. She also asked for consideration of some old-fashioned words when it came to the approaching of a work, be it as critic or writer: use ‘courtesy’; employ ‘hospitality’; be aware of whether there is an ‘invitation’ into the work present; that you are a ‘guest’ of the work.

Ideas of mathematical and scientific code arose in a number of papers. Jordie Albiston posed, in her presentation, ‘Toward an Algorithmic Poetics’, the idea of ‘Poetry as one code among many’, addressing the experimental poetry of the late Danish writer, Inger Christensen (1935-2009). In her native language, Christensen wrote her collection, alfabet, using an imposed, intersectional pattern whereby each poem addresses, in order, a word provoked by that Latin alphabet’s letter, A, B, C … A for apple. But the poems also follow, in cumulative line-numbered volumes, the Fibonacci Numbers sequence, which is exponentially additive, mathematically. The number of lines in each poem is the sum of the preceding two. Christensen halted the published sequence at the 14th letter, N, also a mathematical notation. For Albiston – quoting Iris Cushing on alphabet – the codal structures used by Christensen in the book allow us to experience a ‘discovering freedom just under the surface of constraint.’ Albiston concluded strongly; noting that what is of essential interest is the intersection between the double-helical concepts of Christensen’s borrowed real ‘architecture’ of the Latin alphabet and the Fibonacci Sequence. Here is where the freedom in poetry grows.

The papers were largely generous and passionate offerings. I am struck again by how much dedicated poets love words, yes. We forge with words, but we are also forged by them. A double-helix of sovereign territories, negotiated, attentively. And from that, something wholly itself erupts, grows.

A poet is extremely self-willed in relationship to language. One must have psychic strength. These thoughts also occur to me after the conference. In instances, writing is like being dragged ferociously behind the wild-horse of a language – we’re flayed, and this can be perfect, but it can also be an experience of consonance, horse and rider-writer in co-operation.

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