Transitia Miserabilia: The Illusion and Delusion of Change

Thirty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the final months of the communist regime in East Europe, leading to a period of transition which culminated with the end of the Cold War.  It marked the transition from realist-socialism to democracy in all the Eastern Block states. This change required new societal structures and new political strategies, in response to the demands of a functioning democratic system. The transition from mono-party governance to political plurality was difficult and, at times, painful for all newly formed democracies, unaccustomed to rapid market and social changes.

It was as difficult for the Western side of the continent. Left without its common goal which defined the Cold War, the West began the reconfiguration of own strategies, while maintaining scepticism about the viability of the Eastern democracies. However, the European institutions began to change, putting aside old ideological conflicts and replacing them with economic alliances. Europe appeared more united around a common purpose, whilst the East-West divide went underground, driven by economic competition, by cultural misunderstanding and misinterpretation coming from both sides.

Transition is always marked by change, insecurity, doubt, pain, loss, anxiety and conflict. All transitions have similar attributes. Transition is a societal natural process which emerges when a revolution ends. Transition brings probing questions about values, beliefs and principles, forcing a society to find new answers. During this process, a society ends up reconfiguring its own institutions and the symbolic power it attributed to them or to groups of people.

Vermeulen (2010) opens another thread of discussion about transition. He proposes ‘metamodernism’ as a concept which defines the current developments in aesthethics, philosophy and arts. These developments are less and less focused on tensions between countries or religions or genders, rich or poor, young or old, black or white.

Vermeulen (2010) identifies that the contemporaneity experiences a more fundamental tension; between past and future. In his vision, our response to this transition it’s about whether ‘we settle for the same divisions, distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense and innovation, a politics of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity’ (2010).

Transition is defined by fragmentation, a model which dominated the past decade and which has proven detrimental to the cultural space. In poetry, for instance, this fragmentation created conflict, polarisation and an artistic space unable to cope with / and to respond to, the pace of our time. Whilst poets are caught in the bubble of their own discourse, the artistic focus shifted to expand the engagement with the readership, and to find new audiences.

And one would say, it is all part of this change. Nothing wrong with it.

It’s not. But it is!

This type of transition is wrong, when the cultural space shows, as Stevenson (2000) says, that our generation of poets is ‘at the mercy of technology and in thrall to the media.’ It causes the illusion of power and relevance in a culture which has not yet defined what ‘relevance in poetry’ actually is. It is wrong, when the new generation of poets ‘proliferate under pressure to please a specialist clientele’ (Stevenson, 2000). It is wrong, as Susan Sontag remarked in 2002, when contemporary poetry begins to suffer from an ‘uninhibited display of egotism.’ It proliferates a cultural delusion defined by everything goes, everything is important, everything needs to be heard.

In 1934, Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva published the essay ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ in which she identifies two opposing categories of poets (and poetry): ‘poets without history’ and ‘poets with history.’

The first category refers to poets preoccupied with self-expression, whilst the second category refers to poets engaged in artistic discovery and literary innovation. Tsvetaeva’s categorization is not without relevance today, more than eighty years later.

The ‘poets without history’ or ‘poets without development’ as she said, include poets consumed by personal expression.

‘Sometimes their knowledge is narrow and they come into world not to learn, but to say. They come into world to make themselves known. […] A poet without history cannot have a striving towards a goal, as his/hers poetry has no project.’

By contrast, in Tsvetaeva’s vision, ‘poets with history’ are:

’like an arrow shot into infinity. They seem to inhabit the creative will, don’t have time to turn around to look at themselves, only pressing forward.’

The process of ‘looking forward’ implies a continuous drive to innovate and explore new artistic territories. And here is our moment of metamodernism, the moment when our transition begins a dialogue between past and future. This is a cultural opportunity which rejects both illusion and delusion, preoccupied with shaping the power of its voice, rather than consumed by its own narrative.

And what kind of poetry can face such a challenge? To quote Seamus Heaney, it is a poetry which doesn’t win ‘competitions in the Irish Times or the New Statesman’ (Heaney, 1974, 2000). It is not a detailed self-interview, but a poetry which questions systems, and it reveals new interpretations of the world. This poetry becomes memorable when the writer assumes the responsibility to challenge complacency, and has the courage to experience the transformative power of change.

© Maria Stadnicka, September 2019 / Published in ‘Stride’ magazine on 15 October 2019.

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Exit and Antiexit

 

Stroud Book Festival Poetry Night, 9th November, 7.30pm

The Stroud Book Festival is thrilled to once again be hosting an eclectic line-up of poets and poetry from Gloucestershire and beyond.

The first poet on the bill is multi-award-winning poet and broadcaster, Daljit Nagra, on Thursday 8th November at Wycliffe College, one of the festival’s splendid sponsors. Nagra, who was the first ever poet in residence at BBC Radio 4, will be reading from his latest book, ‘British Museum’, as well as earlier books, including the Forward Prize-winning ‘Yes We Have Coming to Dover!’

“He’s a marvellous reader of his work,” says Adam Horovitz, who will be introducing him on the night, “and his questing, questioning, witty and politically pertinent poems are well worth discovering aloud as well as on the page.”

On Friday 9th November, the Stroud Book festival Poetry Night offers up a wonderfully varied and immersive evening of readings, performance and music by a hand-picked bill of acclaimed poets, in two parts.

The first part brings together three poets with Gloucestershire connections: Kate Carruthers Thomas, Patrick Mackie and Maria Stadnicka. It closes with acclaimed Welsh poet and singer Paul Henry and will be compered by Adam Horovitz.

“On Saturday 10th November we’ll be celebrating the work of Gloucestershire poet and composer Ivor Gurney with a one-woman show starring writer and actor Jan Carey, to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One,” says the festival’s artistic director Caroline Sanderson. “Author, Composer, Soldier-of-a-sort: The Life and Work of Ivor Gurney is fresh from an acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and we are delighted to bring the show to Stroud.

“We round off our poetry programme on Sunday 11th November with a magical family event inspired by nature,” adds Caroline. “We hope that children of all ages will come and meet Frann Preston Gannon, illustrator of the poetry anthology I-am-the-seed-that-grew-the-tree.

“It’s a glorious new gift anthology of 365 nature poems for children, spanning over 400 years of poetry, and including the work of poets as diverse as William Blake, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, John Agard, Eleanor Farjeon and William Wordsworth. As well as a chance to enjoy the poetry-telling, Frann will be encouraging children aged 6 and above to create and illustrate their very own nature poem.”

How to book tickets:

In person: at The Subscription Rooms, Stroud

By phone: by calling 01453 760900

Online at https://stroudbookfestival.org.uk

The Politics of Inevitability and the Art Education

Photograph: ©JStadnicki, 2018

There is no way one can observe the social transformations within a community and society without resorting to strong political clues in order to understand the sources of those transformations. And clearly, when things go wrong, we blame the politics, the legislators, the government. But when the political sphere moves away from the reality of the people it represents, the laws and the policies have no real impact on the wide majority. The decision-making groups have little will to support change, and the economic downturn Britain has been experiencing for over a decade seems to move towards a silent collapse. And nobody appears to take responsibility. The blame placed on the government rules like a shadow, hiding underneath the roots of bad financial decisions, personal greed and managerial incompetence.

Let’s consider the situation the art sector is in at the moment.  The issue came into focus with the news of the devastating fire which, this second time, damaged the Glasgow School of Art beyond repair. There you have £35m down the drain, or rather turned to ashes, and everybody is powerlessly looking at the building asking, in disbelief, ‘how could this be possible’. The fate of the Glasgow School of Art seems, for now at least, sealed by confusion and uncertainty. Who is to blame?

Extrapolating the Glasgow tragedy, we are looking for someone or something to blame for the uncertain fate of hundreds of art schools across the country, which slowly, but surely, are decapitated by unachievable targets and percentages. This time, we encounter another type of devastating fire, which is slowly cooking to ashes the art sector, in general, and the art education, in particular: the drive to achieve the funding targets, the attendance and the achievement rates, the literacy and the numeracy benchmarks. What do they all mean? Certainly, they mean nothing to those involved in the art sector (students, artists, writers, musicians, teachers), but mean everything to those in charge to justify the bureaucracy supporting their livelihoods; bureaucracy which satisfies the pleiades of regulators and inspectors. The focus of this type of education is not the youth’s creativity; it is to produce a nation of self-absorbed adults, ready to slot into whatever social square is allocated to them as soon as they join the education system.

And here we face again another type of politics. The ‘politics of inevitability’ as Snyder eloquently describes it, which makes the art education vulnerable and a victim of the constantly expanding globalisation. Since the mid ‘80s, the way we talk about art has fundamentally changed as well as the way the education system works to serve the economy, under the bright colours of neoliberalism.  One would say, what is the problem with that? There is nothing wrong with expecting profitability, and economic success. There is, though, if the principle on which the profit is based, is wrong.

The education and the arts remain essential social institutions  in a healthy society. They create and preserve what we call our ‘decency’. They remain our ‘sane barometer’ if you like, which supports the configuration of our future and the values this future will act upon.

I remember a recent conversation I had with a head of school who recognised that things have taken a turn for the worse, with the Brexit uncertainty looming, but, as he said, ‘what can one do against a whole government, with a mortgage to pay?’

Here we are again, in the blaming game equation. The well-suited head is back in his leather chair, the young artist is back revising for another maths test. New financial cuts are drowning the hope of an economic recovery and the silence of those suffering its effects sounds more and more like a resigned agreement. Not once we feel that the history allows us to see patterns and to understand that action is a possibility.

History permits us, ‘to be responsible; not for everything, but for something’ as the poet Czeslaw Milosz said. This responsibility has always worked against loneliness and indifference.

©Maria Stadnicka, June 2018, Gloucestershire, UK

 

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You are cordially invited…19th May, 8pm, ‘Imperfect’ – book launch – published by Yew Tree Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire

New Event – Imperfect Book Launch

Poster design @John Stadnicki