A CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN TWO FRIENDS NAMED ALEXEI ON THE DEFINITION OF POETRY
(A Homage to Vladimir Mayakovsky, published here online on the 83 anniversary of his untimely death. First published as a pamphlet by Alexis Bhagat on April 14, 2000)
April: the time of rain and new warm days. Returning song-birds. Flowering bulbs and soon lilac-blooms. And a wet garden, heavy from the melt, replenished often by showers. I wake up each day, thinking how long I may spend in the garden that day, what to plant, how long it will take this seed to become a basket of tomatos, etc… but the heavy ground sends me back. The earth says: Your seed will rot, now. I evade her: Go to the potting shed, and prepare flats and six-packs, recording everything in the calendar.
I count the days and weeks in expectation… wanting the water to go away, to go down, to meet the Hudson and return to the sea, so that I may fill my garden with human will.
Sometimes I become impatient. Anxious. I try to sit under the apple trees and recollect myself, but the flies give me no calm, and the sweet perfume whets my appetite for greater blooms. I think of Philadelphia, and her magnolias, and her absence of flies… I dream to nap in a hammock
while the wind knocks a storm of heavy magnolia petals down…. but there are responsibilities. The starts to care for, chickens to feed, children to teach, show proposals to get out. Can’t just go chasing around peak blossoms of springtime, can we?
No, we cannot, for ultimately, springtime is the time of the greatest work. This is precisely its beauty. And soon enough the ground will be dry, and there will be no more time for tangential thoughts such as this, penned in the afternoon over a long tea-time.
There will be the digging of beds, and planting, and weeding, and staking, and transplanting, from sun-up until dark… and I will only have the night-time to write at my desk, to piece together verses and letters from the fragments of sound taken in that day. Its hard, you know, to
write in the night always. Melancholia can overtake you. The silence of concentration can easily flip into loneliness, or lovelessness, or worse- longing for particular lost loves: the sound of their laughter, the warmth of their arms, the shape of their bottoms… their idiosyncratic grammar.
But then they are there, and their language becomes a tributary to the stream-of-one’s-own-consciousness, diluting the toxins of melancholy. A fertile river now flows behind the eyes, meandering softly to the heart, where it picks up force, rapidly surging towards the fall into the belly.
Here, a mighty oxbow presses against the resistance that is bread, and turns right round, sublimated, to the waterfall of the shoulder, and down the rocky palisaded channel of the arm, to the delta of the hand, spilling out freely onto page.
And thought is now whole. The frailties and fearfullness of our individuality cured by the incorporation of the spoken words of another.
Remarkable to feel. …
Lex, my friend, you are indeed a dreamy fool. “Hippie” does not come close to describing the affliction, nor the source of your flawed perceptions. I don’t know why you waste my time with accounts of apple blossoms and magnolias. Perhaps it is to point out to me that I do not even know what a magnolia looks like: perhaps you point out that in this I am impoverished, and flawed in my own way.
I have the beauty of cables and wires and computer screens: and they are unchanged by primitive events such as springtime, or mist. And this is the world I am in, and I love it as best I can. (Indeed there are no flies here… I thank you for pointing out that this is a luxury.)
There is human will, undeflected by the natural obstacles that dictate your garden calendar…
Deflected nonetheless… Deflected at all time, by the darker aspects of human will (or is it hunger?) which seek to exploit, to create hierarchies, to spread hysterical mysteries of god and good to maintain these hierarchies;
to imprison and starve and murder millions; to divide humanity into empires and colonies; to transform every unique existing thing into a commmodity, which may be bought, sold and consumed, all for the enrichment of capitalists, and for the impoverishment of workers and the destruction of the earth… Always the imagination and creativity must come up against the dictates
of this system, which brutally crushes its challengers, and stifles its questioners, and provides limitless support for the propoganda of Disney, or the litigations of a Richard Serra.
So then I realize that why I endure my friendship with a crunchy granola fuck like yourself: that you do dig up some kind of wisdom out of the earth along with your potatos. You’ve got me thinking, with this, “incorporating
other voices” thing in your letter. There’s a potency and power that emanates from that idea of language, something that fires on target at the heart of the beastly system.. Please explain further.
Explain further you say, and so I will try, but really mind is so fluid that the thought changes from day to day. I realize that it was pure arrogance to liken the flow of thought in one’s head to a river. Truly, language is a river, but it is the ceaseless flow of A LANGUAGE, of American English, of Rumanian, of Urdu, it is that ceasless flow which is a river. From the cloudy sky of abstraction and the immaterial, concepts fall down like rain, to collect in the gutters and puddles and streams which are our limited individual human thoughts..
Some communities become isolated from all others. They do not write. Their words flow only into a pond, which will someday fill in with muck, and become a field. Humans will pass away.
Others live on hillsides, so to speak, and their words rage down into the great river of their language, which courses wide and lazy through the plain, to ever larger cities, until it meets the sea, where all concepts lose any materiality they’ve gained, and lose their identity within the river they’ve come from: Here, churning, they become something else, that we fresh-water drinkers, trapped in the limits of our own-language, can never guess at.
Which has me then wondering: If language is a river, what then is poetry?
I welcome your thoughts on this, Alyosha, and will also put forth a few of my own spectulations.
If language is a river, is poetry the spring? Or would the spring rather be the sound before language: the babbling of infants and the crooning of birds? Or does the spring come even before that: In the fabric of utterances of strikes and swooshes and claps and twangs, falling treesand jackhammers, wind and waves? Or is this water beneath the spring, the water beneath the ground, which waits to find a crack and unearth, to rise up, to develop, to express, to be language?
If language is a river, is poetry then a river confined? Braced. Shaped. Its meandering prohibited and its tides rendered impotent… it attains new force. Organized, the river of language becomes the canal of poetry, capable of bridging oceans, or of travelling from mountaintops to crowded cities of the valley. And most importantly, defying the eternal gravity time: Its permanence is an eternal present.
will break the mountain chain of years
and will present itself
as an aqueduct,
by the slaves of Rome
enters our days.[i]
And may, after millennia, still effectively carry water, so that cities may bathe and drink, so that crops may grow. Well-built poems continue their work, long after their crafter expires, carrying the water of language to a place that had been dry.
Please tell me what you think of this metaphor, and then I will address your question on the incorporation of voices. Now I must return to work. Looking forward to hearing from you.
First, let me say that your definition of poetry you offer definitely shocks me coming from your mouth, since it likens poetry not so much to an aqueduct, as to the iron encrusted Hackensac, or the Mississippi ONLY when it passes Minneapolis or St. Louis. And your beloved Hudson? Unshackled, and given to tides: is that childish talk, devoid of concept?
Second, if it were not Apirl I would not have recognized the author of your verse, that “champion of boiled water.” Considering its source then: It strikes me as inaccurate as a definition of poetry: To which Mayakovsky tells me, it is A definition: one among many, a working method for some poets. For poets come in all shades, and serve different audiences, different tradtions, different causes. As he says himself, (in that same poem)
some pour their verse from water cans;
other spit water
from their mouths-
Some spit it on the people. Some spit it at the pontiffs.
Some so concentrate their verse that their words hit like bullets:
again, it is up to them, where they would like to aim.
It is up to them if they would like to shatter the world of exploiters and exploited, or if verse is their weapon with which to enter that guild of rapists and pimps which is the ruling class.
“The iron encrusted Hackensac?” Is that that body of water which flows through Elizabeth, New Jersey, under the Polasky Skyway, surrounded on all sides by magnificent container loaders and even more magnificent stacks of containers? How I love seeing those uninhabited cities erected in honor of capitalist consumption, when I get the opportunity to be driven on the New Jersey turnpike. I always thought that was the Passaic, or the Newark Harbor though. (I look at the map, and see that they all
come together there.) Precisely, though, yes, the iron encrusted Hackensac is poetry! Its iron encrusted portions. Structure, and resistance to mortality, in defiance of nature and season: but it is not possible without the nourishment of its its entire vernacular behind it: Its rich vernacular, filtered and filthied continually by the Wetlands, and the tidal kiss of the sea.
Precisely: the Mississipi is like the most formal lyric poetry as it passes Minneapolis, with its docks and its levees and its geometric concrete waterfalls. There is no reason for such structures of rhyme and verse, though, if not for the force and grandeur of the vernacular language surging through the structure. It is this which is the river, which comes before, and follows after, poetic sites.
Precisely, the tidal Hudson is not poetry, because poetry is the work of people and mother Hudson is something greater than people.
Precisely, the Allegheny comes down from all manner of utterances in Appalachian Hills: praising of Jesus, discussion of deer, and coal and lumber; into the valleys and the train tracks, where coal moves across the land; deeper into Pittsburgh, to the day to day talk in bars of tired workers of olden days, Polish talk in butcher shops, to professionals with chubby cheeks, discussing “money markets” and “mutual funds”… In Pittsburgh it all becomes poetry (and a new river, too): Vernacular channeled to deliver energy, just as lazy mountain water is harnessed into factories, so that Pittsburgh may give us I-beams and roofing nails.
And, this I’m guessing is what you meant in your letter about firing on target: for what is all the tragedy of Shakespeare, fashioned from scraps of cloth discarded by royal tailors, compared with the roofing nails of Pittsburg or Gary, fashioned from the collective labor of people and the channeled energy of the Earth and her rivers? This is what we have had in this past century to work with. (Now workers here crafft but guns and images: this is our malaise.)
As Mayakovsky wrote: The Revolution, for instance, has thrown upon the streets the unpolished speech of the masses; the slang of the low-towns has howled along the downtown boulevards; the enfeebled language of the intelligentsia, with its emasculated words like ‘ideal’, ‘prinicples
of justice’, ‘the transcendental visage of Christ and Antichrist’- All these expressions, pronounced in little whispers in restaurants, have been trampled underfoot. THERE IS A NEW LINGUISTIC ELEMENT: HOW CAN ONE MAKE IT POETIC? The old rules about ‘love and dove’, ‘moon and june’, and Alexandrines are no use. HOW CAN WE INTRODUCE THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE INTO POETRY? AND EXTRACT POETRY FROM THIS SPOKEN LANGUAGE?[ii]
(Just so you know, Alyosha, I added the emphasis.)
Exploitation cannot take place without hegemony. Artists and writers play no small part in the maintenance and enforcement of hegemony. Many artists are principal agents of it, agitators we might even say, for the values which make the world of property and commodification go round. Does not Hollywood export an idealized carefree American psyche thoughout the world, dissolving the solvent ties of family and dare I say, faith: even in regions where such networks are as yet integral with agriculture and municipal organization, and as such necessary for the maintenence of communal human life?
Long ago, Plato went on a rant, blaming poets and playwrights and the illusions they pull over the heads of common folk for so much ignorance and suffering. Lke all authoritarian thinkers (I would consider The Republic anti-democratic, wouldn’t you?) he purported that poets and playwrights can have no other role nor affect but this hegemonic one, and should be suppressed or even banned outright. So much for his “humanism” eh?
If a barricade exists, though, and it is made of words and images, cannot a poet step to the other side of the barricade? It has always seemed difficult: Thankfully, Mayakosky showed us that it is possible: but that
to do so, one must relinquish the techniques of the Whites. The traditional structures of verse are creations of a culture which maintained the traditional structures of power: the King and the Church. To blast at the King’s power, the poet must blast at the King’s Highway: the traditional dsiciplines of painting, sculpture, rhyme, music and architecture: which make of the creative human being an element in that grand symphony of civilization, that Leviathan, which demanded a head, the King. And while one can simply REFUSE the traditional disciplines- that can lead to blather. Truly, the most potent technique in the struggle is to attack authority by ATTACKING THE AUTHOR (oneself): Loving the sound of language, of the language of the street, and merging oneself with this, serving this surging river of existing vernacular language, working with it,
shaping it, elevating it: in doing so, elevating the people, higher than the courts which had once stood upon them.
This is the greatest agitation.
I receive your letter on the 14th. Love’s boat has smashed.
It lends a double meaning to your statement: “attacking the author (oneself.)”
I think of the Revolution betrayed in all the forces which brought his hand to that trigger, that pistol to his head… and am thankful that his lessons of agitation continue to teach poets such as yourself, as Roman aquaducts still teach architects and engineers.
Your friend, Alyosha
i from At the Top of My Voice (1930)
ii from How to Make Verse (1926)