Regardless of the style or mode of a poem, regardless even of the stated intentions of the poet, who may vociferously deny his or her own voice, a ‘voiceless poem’ is an impossibility; the phrase “a voiceless poem” is simply a flat contradiction in terms. To be clear, there is no such thing as a voiceless poem.
Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of defining the ‘voice’, you cannot surgically remove the individual (‘voice’) from the creative process without destroying the mechanism of the creative process itself. Beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed towards a specific poem, the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the unique ‘signature’ (strong or weak) of the author; it is always the product of unique sensibility. The essential criterion of difference between a poem by one writer and another is ultimately a difference of personality; it is matter of psychology, irrespective of literary theory. This is self-evident. It is also true of poems written by poets who tell us they deny the voice – all you hear is their voice.
The existence of an authorial voice does not imply interpretative exclusivity. In principle, the potential for plural meanings in a text and the creative involvement of the reader remains unaffected by the presence of an authorial voice. The ideal poem will always resist, or subvert, clear-cut interpretations or didactic messages; it is unlikely to conform to expectations derived from the received wisdom of either traditional dogma, or fashionable orthodoxy. Of course any given poem may be less than ideal.
In the Sixties, British poetry was divided into two symbiotic warring camps: conservatives and radicals. The conservative anti-modernist counter-revolutionaries can be epitomised by publications such as Encounter magazine (1953-1967), and by poetic ‘schools’ such as The Movement and the Confessional Poets. The ‘radicals’ comprise what is now known as the BPR (British Poetry Revival), but was recognized in the Sixties as the Underground, or the Children of Albion. We can refer to the latter as the Albion Underground.
The abuse of the word ‘radical’ to mean ‘progressive’ is endemic when looking back at this era and its immediate aftermath. There is an assumption that experimentalism must be ‘radical’ by definition but that is not necessarily the case. Poetic movements of the Left tend to monopolise this terminology, conflating the meaning of ‘progressive’ and ‘radical’, terms sometimes used as a synonym for ‘militant’. Radicals like to think of themselves as working to a ‘progressive’ political agenda, often involving ideas such as social justice and even ‘revolution’, hence the somewhat spurious notion of The Underground (in The West no poetry movement was really Underground in the strict sense). Most ‘radical’ poets fall into this category along with, for example, ‘protest poets’ who often are neither innovative nor experimental in the avant-garde sense (‘avant-garde’ here being another vague synonym for ‘radical’).
Surely the term ‘progressive’ must be related to freedom and – in a literary context – to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression depends upon the concept of ‘the authorial voice’; consequently, if you deny the voice, you deny the agent of expression. To deny the voice is, thus, a reactionary and not a ‘progressive’ position; essentially it as an anti-Romantic backlash, or often poses as such.
The cultural climate of the later half of the twentieth century was very different from that of the Second World War or the period of Late Modernism. The Beat Generation of 1945-1960, haunted by the ghost of Rimbaud was among the last of the ‘Romantic’ groupings defined by the image of the artist-poet as mystical prophet, seer, wandering visionary and popular shaman. Ann Charters has observed that the Beat Poets ‘relied on autobiography’ because their marginal identity leads them to insist ‘on the validity of their own experience instead of accepting conventional opinions and the country’s common myths’. Jack Kerouac who sometimes claimed Beat was Existentialist, defined himself as ‘actually not ‘beat’ but a strange, solitary, crazy Catholic mystic’.
From the 1970s onwards, in the UK, in Continental Europe and in North America, we see, with local variations in chronology, the continuing and ever-expanding influence of academia. ‘Literature’ became an almost exclusive domain of the universities, resulting in most ‘innovative’ poets becoming functionaries in the Academy while most ‘radical’ poets outside the academy still maintained an affinity with the Academic Left, regarding the scholastic as the guarantee of the credible. Consequently, the traditional metaphor of the poet as wandering troubadour, alienated ‘genius’, or tortured outsider was replaced by the ‘academic expert in loco parentis’ drawn from the post-Structuralist intelligentsia. A new fashionable orthodoxy was born – Postmodernism.
Postmodern Theory (a diffuse and ambiguous phenomenon full of internal self-contradictions) was a consequence of the French universities general strike of May 1968 (‘the May Events’) in which academics became disillusioned with the traditional Left after the Unions and the Communists sided with the Gaullist Establishment. Displeased by this turn of events they decided that all the Grand Narratives of the Modern or Proto-Modern past (the Enlightenment, Marxism) were worn-out or invalid – the ‘condition’ was Post-Modern, the ‘situation’ was new. At the same time, Roland Barthes proclaimed The Death of the Author, one of the first assaults on the idea of the integral authorial voice; in fact a Marxist attack on capitalist bourgeois individualism.
By the 1970s there were, roughly, two strands or varieties of ‘difficult’ poetry trying to maintain the status of the avant-garde in a post-avant-garde cultural landscape. There was the Euro-centric strand, inspired by Neo-Dada movements such as Fluxus, and there was the American academic (Black Mountain) variety inspired by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and the Objectivism of Louis Zukofsky.
Fluxus was an early Sixties Action Art movement initiated in 1961 by George Maciunas. It was concerned with the integration of art with life and the negation of social hierarchies. Allen Fisher, a poet once associated with Cobbing’s Writers Forum, is the most noted exponent of Fluxus-inspired poetics in the UK, as can be seen in his publications Place (1974-1981) and Scram (1971-1982). Objectivism was an offshoot of Imagism promoted by Ezra Pound. British Objectivism imported by Basil Bunting, came to be identified with the Northumbrian School centred on Barry MacSweeney, and the Cambridge School whose most famous exponent is J. H. Prynne. Prynne is also an enthusiast for the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (as you might expect Heidegger’s philosophy is both notoriously ‘difficult’ and prone to ultra right-wing interpretations). One aspect of Black Mountain doctrine was the eradication of the ego. Ironically, and despite this, the Post-Albion Underground experimentalists were addicted to huge, grandiose, self-important projects emulating the Cantos, Patterson, Zukofsky’s A and Olson’s Maximus.
Academic poetry differs from the writing of the pre-Albion Underground era in that it substituted theory for personality in the creative process. This was, above all, a Poetics of Process. As a Poetics of Process it paved the way for the next style of American poetry to arrive: the Language Poets.
Like Olson (who, in Proprioception (1964), demanded ‘Wash the ego out.’) the Language Poets were explicit in their denial of the individual ‘voice’ and by their concern to exclude all ‘autobiography’ and ‘ego psychology’ from writing. This stance, which coincided with contemporary debates in the academic sphere about the role of science, identity politics and knowledge epistemology, assumed the illusory nature of the ‘Lyric I’, and the non-existence of facts beyond language as unchallenged givens. These debates were in fact symptomatic of a wider crisis in higher education and the sphere of philosophy. It was Wittgenstein who said that ‘the sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language’. Cynics have argued that this state of affairs had risen out of the widespread view that ‘philosophers’ were out of their depth when it came to confronting the scientific picture of the world (or even the universe). As Stephen Hawing said, science had become too technical and mathematical, so philosophers were impelled to reduce the scope of their enquiries. Language was the last bastion of knowledge, the final frontier for the professional thinker who was not a scientist.
In many respects these ideas have now become entrenched as key doctrines of ‘radical’ experimentalist poetry in both the US and the UK. In reality it was another generational revolt: they used the denial of the ‘voice’ and the principle of linguistic determinism as tactics to challenge the established status quo and assert their own ‘radicalism’ – just as all ‘new’ movements seek to do. In their 1988 group manifesto the Language Poets said: ‘Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist’. This statement suggests an authoritarian tendency in operation. Nothing is more authoritarian than the denial of, or marginalization of, individual ‘expression’. As an aesthetic or poetic this is entirely retrograde and reveals a mistaken view of the creative process. Furthermore the negation of the individual (Olson’s ‘Wash the ego out’) is an act of piety, the very reverse of ‘radical’, if by the use of the term ‘radical’ one means a form of anti-establishment non-conformism. The principle of the ‘unegoistic’ is the basis of our orthodox, culturally dominant morality; an ascetic morality for which the selfless ‘unegoistic’ virtues of renunciation, self-loathing, self-denial and self-sacrifice are foundational. These are virtues which, for thousands of years, have been deified and transcendentalised; glorified as articles of faith whereas, in fact they are nothing but altruistic social conventions; conventions that have evolved by chance to enhance group survival among many animal species, including Homo sapiens.
These various innovations had a major influence on non-mainstream British poetry which, prior to this, had shared, to some extent, a Beat poetry aesthetic, founded on an authorial voice. In Britain the Academic Left consolidated a position based on Post-Structuralism and similar tendencies (e.g. Social Construction Epistemology, Reader Response Theory) influenced by the later writings of Wittgenstein, flawed interpretations of Nietzsche, and an enthusiasm for Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). This latter in particular, together with a wilful misreading of Nietzschean Perspectivism, had a tremendous impact and precipitated what is known as the ‘science wars’. A key idea was the denial of objectivity and the view that the individual is a ‘cultural construction’. There can be no established facts, only incommensurable ‘paradigms’ afloat in a sea of relativistic viewpoints where no given viewpoint is any better or more useful than any other. However, significant transformative action in the real world requires the participation of an integrated unified, human individual/subject. By extension, the same is true of artistic creativity in all forms. Postmodern Theory usually denies this possibility; a convenient doctrine for those zealots of identity politics for whom all tradition and cultural baggage – however inimical – is sacrosanct.
The continuing rise of the mass media since 1945 has consolidated an already incipient post-cultural state. This is a state in which former cultural values have evaporated and ‘high culture’ has lost its historic dominance. It does not follow that the evaporation of ‘high culture’ vindicates the historical claims of Postmodernism – that would require an agreement on the nature of Modernism and a clear distinction (perhaps) between Modernism and ‘modernity’ in order to define ‘post-modernity’ as a viable chronological category. Postmodernism is a worldview or a doctrinal outlook: a limited (but diverse) quasi-philosophical tendency intrinsic to the late Cold War period. The era 1968-1989 saw the rise and fall of ‘Postmodernism’ in this narrow, doctrinal sense. The emergence of post-culture on the other hand can be dated back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century (for Barthes the historical turning point was 1848), a period that saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the rise of mass circulation newspapers, department stores, celebrity and popular mass entertainments such as Cabaret and Music Hall; the period that saw the first use of plate glass, the Singer sewing machine, the emergence of photography and the first moving pictures.
In the twenty-first century the state of post-culture continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration, rendering the old, nineteenth century ‘vanguard’ model of literary and artistic self-definition superfluous. A crisis of self-definition on this level has created an alienated intelligentsia still clinging to notions of high cultural value. These values have no viable place in a ‘new world order’ of globalised mass ‘infotainment’. We now inhabit a world where hitherto ‘profound’ masterpieces stand revealed as propaganda; a world where a tabloid headline or a refrain from a pop song may well possess more aesthetic value than a poem by J H Prynne or Basil Bunting.
It is ironic that the position we are describing has lead an alienated literary class to deny the value of the authorial voice, not only the voices of others – but their own as well.
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