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The Contemporary Anybody
.But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time..

O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart."

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
-W. H. Auden, "As I walked out one evening"

What explains poetry's present anaemia and neurasthenia? Suffocating under the weight of its own importance, it hovers between life and death, a patient aetherized to flatline, a pale ghost of its former self.
Mainstream diagnoses focus their sights on the inaccessibly exclusive texte, or on the insufferably precious outpouring in most contemporary volumes of the stuff (for bloody good reason).
My diagnosis is different. What most views miss is that two seeming opposites-the romanticism of the gushers and the pragmatism of the professionals-are two sides of the same toonie. One key to the connection is that pragmatists are-etymologically and actually-"doers".
Aristotle distinguished between doing- praxis-and making-poiesis, which also has the specific meaning (and derivative), "poetry". Poets are not doers but makers-and poetry, no matter what most postwar practitioners fervently wish to believe, chooses its makers (and not the other way around).
So Aristotle left us a fitting antecedent to the fundamental difference between the professional and the poet. In examining this premise, the neo-scholastic thinker Jacques Maritain concludes that "doing" (under the influence of prudence) produces either moral or immoral results; "making" always produces amoral ones and points up the validity of Ars.
The British poet and painter David Jones stressed, in a 1945 letter to the Times, that "the artist, qua artist must know no conscience except with regard to the formal perfection to the work on hand." He qualified his assertion with the condition that the conscience of the artist "must be of the most scrupulous order" and reiterated Maritain's conviction that art's amorality presumes its objectivity, locates its rules and values not in the individual, but in "the work itself".
Art is not an activity, not a praxis. Art is a life; and, as Mr. Jones astutely adds, "totalitarian" in the demands it makes upon the individual. According to his biographer, Thomas Dilworth, "Jones feared that the modernist movement in literature would be wrecked by the moralists and he may have been largely right. The moralists were Marxists and subsequently feminists and others concerned with art chiefly, if not solely, as it reflects and affects society-but their concern is not so much with society as with right and wrong.. In the mid-1950s, Jones thought that the principal danger to literature and art was subjectivity.
"Maritain helped him to achieve a confidence and direction that allowed him, in making pictures and in writing about what he believed to be `the decline of the west', to transform (in his words) cultural `balls up. a kind of Praise.'
"Whether or not this is the best art can do is a subject for endless debate between formalists and social moralists, but it was what Jones did."
In The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones, Dr. Dilworth further illuminates and situates much of the current debate, focusing on considerations of form vs. content, subject vs. object, formalists vs. social moralists, the useful vs. the useless, pragmatism vs. gratuity, etc., etc.:
"Of itself and regardless of its content or object, then, gratuitous activity, and art especially, expresses man's spiritual nature and metaphysical affinities. [Jones] was probably helped to this perception by Spengler's judgement that the war itself marks `a historical change of phase from a culture with artistic possibility and interior dimension to a hardened civilization of only "extensive" or practical potential.' "
Postwar practitioners and pragmatic bizicianists, by contrast, always opt to read either the mood in the mirror or the bottom line of the writing on the wall.
Our Age, referred to variously as one of Analysis, Decadence, Postmodernism, Information, Optimism, etc., short-circuits the connections among useless callings such as poetry, philosophy, art, and religion in the numb of the useful (I'm alluding to Finnegan's Wake). Creative expression, the "propaganda" of the human spirit, most acutely suffers from trickle-down dynamics.
Our time, considered by many the best of times, requires a virtual reality check. Yesterday. Mass-mentalitied fictions-courtesy, mostly, of media's (de)mythologies-diametrically oppose the growth of the self-realized individual who revels in the gift of life (in the context of eternity) and is mindful of the responsibility of human potential (in all its disciplines and manifestations).
The self-realized individual is in no way, shape, or form an utterly isolated entity (or monolithic totality); rather, such individuals create and locate corollary constructs in the concept and context of the group (or society). Each of them sustains, contains, balances, and restrains feelings, needs, wants, beliefs, dreams, values, ideas, etc.
From the Age of Belief (Saints Augustine, Aquinas, and Bernard) through the Ages of Reason, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution, and Ideology (Kant, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, et al.), philosophy and poetry sustained a mutually beneficial relationship, dependent on the respect both parties accorded art, nature, culture, civilization, and human value. (Whatever else, poetry was freedom. Philosophy could prove it.)
Freud excavated neuroses; Marx mined social and political thought; and Kierkegaard perfected a philosophy of the human spirit. Each-whatever else they did or did not accomplish-courageously examined the stuff of lived lives, sublimely conscious of their contributions to culture, the key and cornerstone of value for the individual human being. But the old doctrine of metaphysical Christian humanism sought to square itself with the new doctrine of pragmatism, the system that makes the almighty distinction between producers and owners (rather than labour and capital concretized in "an honest day's pay for an honest day's work").
The seeds of our now hardened civilization-exhibiting de rigueur symptoms of advanced decay-took root in the Renaissance but blossomed with the romantics. Even a cursory summary of romantic thought can give a solid explanation for the near-atrophy of contemporary poetry and of its attendant assessments.
The key romantic phases-Kant's transcendental reason, Comte's realism-classicism-positivism, Spencer's radical empiricism, and Poe's (or Rimbaud's) symbolism-engendered both modernism and postmodernism, evidenced most acutely in the schism between the subjective and the objective roles of the creative self in relation to a context we agree to call "the world out there".
These roles, in our radically ahistorical times, originate within the shadowy outlines of bourgeois liberal virtue in tandem with its uniformly rebellious romantic detractors-epitomized by the German Die Romantik movement of the late 1790s-who used poetry to promote liberal causes and modern democracy, to demote religion, and to sing the praises of free love, sexual equality, and hypertrophied behaviour.
Romanticism's spiritual conundrum-as North-rop Frye, Owen Barfield, Paul de Man, and Harold Bloom have viewed it-involves the relationship between nature and consciousness.
With romanticism, notions of the Fall-and its corollary distinction between the unconscious natural individual and the conscious free one-led to the rise of nationalism and, among other things, modern beginnings of theories inextricably linking poetry with given authors and championing their content, most readily apparent in the pseudo-autobiographical (and therapeutic) uses and abuses of art.
Romanticism's emphasis on extreme individualism in opposition to dehumanization achieved its therapeutic apotheosis in the middle decades of this century, providing all and sundry with the perfect placebo to keep the New Proles-tedious yet useful consumers-busy (working on their homes, gardens, families, stocks, bonds, portfolios, personalities, physiques, or childhood traumas) in order to become fully integrated spokes in the wheels of production.
Which brings me back 'round to, loosely, talkin' 'bout my generation.
Not only did post-war babies in this hemisphere grow up to become flower-powerists-back-to-naturalism, do-your-own-thinginess, etc.-with artistic pretensions and narcissistic tools of divagation; they also got down, dirty, and filthy rich in the corporate trenches, lookin' out for number one.
Inexorably bound up with our parents' generation-those self-described golden-agers, that general assembly of armchair critics and rocking-chair terrorists spouting silver-tongued propaganda and self-aggrandizing conceits, elevating the output of the 1970s to the lofty realm of Golden Age-my generation pays near-universal lip-service to an arrogance that indicates either an inelegant thoughtlessness or an overactive imagination prone to material degeneration. (Must later generations pray that 1980s practitioners don't eventually proclaim that decade the Platinum Age?)
My generation-the collective contemporary Anybody-finds its most admiring reflectors among the hell-bent minions of health and personal besters, the pursuers of wealth and power, the beautiful people, the back-to-nature movers and shakers, etc. Ruthless postwar materialism made manifest at the height of the biggest economic boom in history cast cheap in a whole new pall, setting the world stage for the global village's accelerating cultureless utilitarianism.
George Grant believed the "culture of monolithic capitalism creates the very fabric of all our lives" (Philosophy in the Mass Age). As North American culture's distinguishing characteristics, he isolated "scientific domination of man over nature", coupled with the primary expression of our society reflected in "the dominance that the large-scale capitalist exerts over all other persons."
Pragmatists could not care less that culture civilizes citizens, reminds us how our foolish human hearts still provide us with solace, inspiration, and a reason to work the line. Not by a long shot. They despise and pity our antiquated not-for-profit notion of culture (which abhors a flatline).
Concurrent with a pandemic disregard for the value of a human being, pragmatists (a.k.a. myopic misanthropes) decree our cultural agencies, institutions, repositories, structures, outlets, and art-support organizations to be obsolete while actively counter-lobbying to put artists out of their misery by slashing funding and support lifelines and pulling the plug on the body and soul of civilization.
"Poverty," said Mavis Gallant in 1960, "is not a goad but a paralysis."
This civilization, the latest manifestation of the evolution of European civilization, paradoxically freed and enslaved the individual in a way unprecedented in human history, the first-person singular declined in the third-person plural.
Our civilization conscripts art, the cultural, and the sacral in service to its pragmatic and profitable ends: it seduces and entertains us; educates us; soaks us with its mass-mindset values; and, distracts us from living an examined life or exploring the interior landscape of the individual (where exteriors-namely, products of profit-cease to exert control). Hell is the metropolitan mentality, now multiplying exponentially (thanks, in no minor part, to my generation, the greedy kids I grew up with).
Literary Hell is winding up on the deck of the Titanic. The professionals and creative-writing conventioneers are going cowardly into that good depth.
When did the pragmatist, the contemporary Anybody, ever consider poetry valuable? More to the point, why do the professionals clogging literature's arteries consider the pragmatists to be their potential audience (or market)?
My generation, parentally instructed and firmly entrenched in its belief in the supremacy of the individual at the expense of community, humbly and numbly accepted the party-line yardstick of success; as a result, formal distinctions along genre lines spluttered in a self-conscious predilection for content dependent on an ironically detached practitioner eschewing bourgeois rationalism in favour of passionate sentiment.
Cribbing variously from history, psychology, philosophy, art, science, and religion, this generation's literary criticism grew up to be consonant with the tenor of the self's newly discovered internal landscape, juxtaposed with the dissonant crumblings of the collective chorus. Perspectives of figure and ground assumed their proportionate places, appropriately preparing both subject via mirrors and object via windows with views on the "grand and glorious fall", succinctly described as the break of individual consciousness from its identification with nature.
Romantics look backward to either childhood for individual salvation or to antiquity for cultural salvation in a destined-to-fail attempt to reclaim pre-fallen innocence, harmony, and peace among individuals within the context of nature. Their nostalgia for the good ol' days denies the validity of both knowledge and freedom as the fertile ground from which the fully realized self emerges (and precludes such artistic notions as integrity, originality, synthesis, and unity, while reinforcing profane and mundane pragmatic dicta drowning the individual).
The mundane and mass-mentalitied include both techno-chatterers and spoken-wordists, who swear as much by user manuals as by media manipulation and conceive of cyberspace in final-frontier terms (yet cannot confront that irony). They also include creative writers swarming from the tour d'ivoire with no inkling of the odds against their being among the few who will redefine, realign, or reinvigorate The Tradition.
(Of course, most graduates-beset with an insipid writerly atrophy transferred by an equally insipid leader-console themselves with the illusion they attended Advanced Literary Therapy for their own self-developmental good.)
James Michener recently wrote in the Washington Post Book World on successful creative-writing schools and workshops where, by his estimation, producing what appeals and sells should and does dominate the curricula.
I applaud his efforts and insight into the role such 'shops play, functioning as an academically sanctioned alternative to Be A Successful Writer! complete with tuition coupon. Tellingly, writing what appeals and sells generally involves either the regional, anchored in specifics of space and locality, or the historical, tethered to specifics of other times or ages. Fuelled by the demands of super-sentimental daytime-televisionists, appealing writing also drives the literary mass-marketplace, creates homogenized gridlock, and turns readers into crash-test dummies (while savvy careerists race to cross big-figured finish lines).
Few of the best writers are among the best teachers, in an academic sense or otherwise. For the most part, creative writing courses and degrees ought to appear under the rubric of Literary Therapy.
Most teachers, students, and poetic/critical practitioners do not recognize that in the so-called dialectic between subject and object, figure (the individual) and ground (the context) fuse in an inseparable though endlessly fluctuating coexistence. Ditto for form and content. Therein lies congruence, shape, order, synthesis, splendour, clarity, awe-in short, all the stuff Joyce practised, preached, and intransigently celebrated.
The poet writes out of the subject of "the enunciation" while the professional waxes lyrical on the subject of "the enunciated". This distinction-énonciation / énoncé -drawn from linguistics and borrowed from Robert Richard, deserves closer attention: L'invisible et inaudible sujet de l'énonciation vs. le visible et très rassurant et finalement très banal sujet de l'énoncé.
The voice vs. these ubiquitous gabby chatterers.
This distinction, according to Dr. Richard, includes the corollary that writers simply write; all others "become" writers as though they somehow contained the cause, source, and origin of their writings or le sujet de leurs énoncés.
Books author us, despite the hype about becoming writers becoming famous authoring books befitting becoming human beings. (Imagine watering the lawn in a downpour. Aye, there's the rubber boot.)
With the deluge of poetry flooding the country, why does precious little of it whet my appetite or satisfy my search for a lifeboat in the cesspool of postmodern swill? Probably because, as Goethe observed, a subjective nature soon talks its "little internal material out" and spontaneously combusts in "mannered ruin"; quoth he, "I call the classic healthy and the romantic sickly."
Enter the professionals, brandishing flashy bios, exchanging suitably embossed business cards, blithely prattling and tattling (or bickering and snickering), terminally optimistic, willing to wait for their fifteen-minute kick-at-the-cadaver of culture while respectfully paying homage to their cee-vee-ities.
Small wonder that postmodernism speaks eloquently to them. Deconstruction provides mass-mangled practitioners with justification for their utterly jaundiced view, particularly rampant and oh-so-precious in poetry.
(Look no further than the pages of most literary publications, particularly those with ivory-tower connections, where, invariably, lipstick lyrics and cream-dream narrative themes complement profiles of poetic hustlers at the robotic and idiotic popular trough.)
So many books. So many professionals. Same old devastating! breathtaking! heartbreaking! sold, told, retold, and resold.
The professionals insist upon the absolute value of touchy-feelingness, silly sentimentality, and repulsive egocentricity while recklessly disregarding spontaneity, intensity polished to the nth degree, and a certain shapely discipline of form in simultaneous consort with content.
With Aristotelian katharsis descending to emotionalism, ultrasubjectivity, Prometheanism, the infernal internalized quest ad nauseam, the professionals choke up and turn misty-eyed over unconscious genius, driven by an equally unconscious alignment of primitivist conceptions, which allows for pedal-to-the-metal me-myself-and-mood modes.
Most professionals write to distract their lonely selves or to please their critics, who, for the most part, would not know a good poem because, true to formula, most critics also write the self-same stuff in their spare time.
Few "critics" in this (or any other) country possess the strength, sensitivity, core of conviction, and fatal weakness for the truly brilliant to distinguish works of value from status quota; hence, without the critical foundations for a meaningful development of poetic discourse, our (generally ignored) best poets tend to languish, while the mediocre milk the mass-language line.
The professionals hang up their freshly lettered shingles while obligingly pointing out their designated areas of aesthete specialization-romantic rebel, robotic information processor, theoretical linguistic angster-and get on with their deaths, remote control locked on Chatter Box.
Perhaps my generation specifically and recklessly damaged poetry in the same way my fellow demographs ruthlessly ran the country into the ground? Writing out of the enunciated, perhaps our numbed and nameless contemporary Anybodies conveniently forgot-or wilfully avoided-their proper and fitting place in the profitable retro-reality of spin-and-hype, which yields to a mass-attack of Attention Deficit Disorder, a direct result of time compartmentalized in sound-bytes, commercials, segments, and such, which paradoxically leaves both readers and professionals with a toxic case of catatonia. Hence, the writers of the enunciated-whether pessimist, aesthete, romantic ironist, pragmatist, optimist, or bizicianist-write from stasis and work the status-quo line; conversely, poets who write out of the enunciation live with both the tension magnified in eternity and the flux of the continuum called chaos.
Our thoroughly romantic professional aesthetes-dramatic ironists?-flee from this world; cogs-in-the-slog escape into it. Both tactics betray the self: the former demonstrates a tendency to focus on content without form while the latter more often than not emphasizes form to the exclusion of content; ultimately, neither matters, since both fail to situate the self as the holding centre.
When one blurs the two or promotes one to the exclusion of the other, one's self goes AWOL or, in the present context, the professionals and their quasi-critics consider the task at hand as one of form vs. content, forever missing their inseparability, never hitting on the idea that art, by definition, reconciles the two.
Put simply and practically, the difference between these approaches finds an analogy in the difference between going naked or wearing the uniform. In professionalist terms, practitioners either bare all under the aegis of post-romanticism or toe the party line under the aegis of contra-modernism, which, of course, devolves into the amorphous and frightening concept of postmodernism.
When anything goes, everything goes.
Perversely, true postmodern poets obsessed with language, shape, discipline, congruence, landscape, and synthesis receive precious little attention (or support) in the sterile anterooms of the twenty-first century.
Our extraordinary poets and literary journalists/critics write out of the enunciation, artfully conveying their conviction that freedom and its attendant anxieties raise the individual above the level of cows or trees, continually solving and resolving the self in the validity of realizing its full potential in the genuinely human being.
The professional tells the story in the mirror. The poet sees it in the window.
Art issues from the sanctuary of the self (regardless of constructs of "reality" or ego): Writing, a form of praying, allows respite from exigencies and pressures of the utterly finite we generally negotiate. Good poetry allows a view of the timeless within the context of the temporal-a paradoxical loss and gain of control in the bliss of self-abandonment-that transforms a lived life, forever altering details of past, present, and potential in the landscape of the future. Lousy poetry ka-thuds in this world that is too mush with us.
reassurance that the individual's struggle matters (even though a given individual, by definition, comprises a synthesis of opposites and balances a galaxy of attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs in mind).
The poetic self is not a closed system. It is an obligation to recognize the individual within a social context beset by existential anxiety-as opposed to its pathological counterpart-and to be true to the duty and responsibility granted and demanded of it.
In The Pessimist, Benjamin Franklin King, Jr. (1857-1894) penned two lines that reverberate across time: "Nowhere to go but out,/ Nowhere to come but back."
bp Nichol's enduring presence resides in his humble and "aw-shucks" acceptance of the gift he passionately cherished and realized. His celebratory and sacramental reverence for the individual self infuses his writing with a sense of glorious transport.
I interviewed him in 1982. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of his living-room floor, he "explained" his mission with Book I of the Martyrology:
"One of the conscious goals I set for myself was to be able to write about emotionally loaded material without sentimentalizing it, without romanticizing it, without self-pity-you know, just to get it out."
Ain't no way out but up.

Judith Fitzgerald's most recent book is an epyllion, River (ECW). It was shortlisted for the Trillium Award. She lives in the Beautiful Downtown Middle of Nowhere, approximately a hundred kilometres south of North Bay, Ont.


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