Ourselves of Nothing

The Country Between Us firstly appeared in 1981, published in the US by Harper & Row, at a time when the conflict in El Salvador had finally forced its way into public awareness. At the time of publication, The Iowa Review placed the collection among the most notable books of a young poet in recent years. The book received the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and it was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. The collection has been reissued this spring in the UK, by Bloodaxe Books.

Structured in three parts, ‘In Salvador, 1978-80’, ‘Reunion’ and ‘Ourselves or Nothing’, The Country Between Us explores the socio-cultural devastation of a country ripped apart by civil war. Although Carolyn Forché worked as a journalist and investigator for Amnesty International, and was closely involved with the political struggle in El Salvador, her poems are personal, immediate, and moving. The collection resists the temptation to sensationalise, and responds to Wittgenstein’s definition of poetic relevance through a masterful use of a language of information which does not, however, give information:

If we go on, we might stop

in the street in the very place

where someone disappeared

and the words Come with us! we might

hear them. If that happened, we would

lead our lives with our hands

tied together.

[from ‘San Onofre, California’]

The horrors of war Forché relates are referenced with subtlety and control of the language. In the poem ‘The Visitor’ she only suggests the cruelty of a civil war, in which ‘There is nothing one man would not do to another’ (p.17), whilst in ‘Message’ she alludes to the war’s impact on people struggling to establish a sense of normality:

Margarita, you slip from your house

with plastiques wrapped in newsprint,

the dossier of your dearest friend

whose hair grew to the floor of her cell.

Leonel, you load your bare few guns

with an idea for a water pump and

co-operative farm.

[from ‘Message’]

Forché builds her lyrical power through subjective connections established between herself and the events unravelling in front of her eyes. History becomes therefore meaningful and relevant to readers, who construct references and personal connections. Her directness brings in focus César Vallejo’s poetics, as well as Pablo Neruda’s and Miklós Radnóti’s, through her ability to correlate cultures and transcend times:

When we listen

we hear something taking place

in the past. When I talk to her

I know what I will be saying

twenty years from now.

[from ‘The Island’]

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Forché’s The Country Between Usemerges from her ability to confront politics and history, beyond their national and cultural boundaries. It reaches out to a readership who might not ordinarily read poetry. The strength of the collection is underlined by the honesty in exposing human suffering. It is done with sensitivity, maturity and without condescendence. A collection which opens a wider range of questions about the meaning of history:

It is either the beginning or the end

of the world, and the choice is ourselves

or nothing.

 

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Published in Stride Magazine, 29 May 2019.

 

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‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ – Polarity in British Contemporary Poetry

In the past decade, cultural theorists formulated the concept of the ‘cultural fragmentation model’ which incorporates the influences of ‘contemporaneous social conditions’ as well as the constant transformations experienced within a society defined by change and competition. In contemporary poetry, the fragmentation model accommodates numerous directions and trends, some situated in a position of tension or conflict with each other. This phenomenon generates a polarised spectrum which has yet to crystallise into a cohesive operant model. Consequently, poetry is at a stage of self-discovery and exploration, whilst witnessing significant transformations with the influence of social and mass media.

The current cultural environment accommodates a wide range of poetic discourses, with many writers preoccupied to articulate their art and to engage with the readership and new audiences. However, the idea of tension or conflict in poetry is not new.

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 concept establishes a classic categorisation and polarity which are not without relevance within the contemporary British poetry. The current cultural reality has led to a generation of poets which Anne Stevenson defined in 2000 as being ‘at the mercy of technology and in thrall to the media.’ Furthermore, the new generation of poets is getting better at identifying its own specialist clientele and is exploring intense themes like abuse, misogyny, racism and mental illness.

Editors and poetry promoters observe that the poetry market is booming, as audiences for poetry, as well as poets themselves, are diversifying. Nielsen BookScan reported in 2017 a 66% increase in poetry books sales. Despite this positive development, theorists look at the contemporary poetry with criticism, if not cynicism.

Susan Sontag expresses her scepticism in reference to the contemporary poetry which, in her view, appears to suffer from an ‘uninhibited display of egotism’, thus igniting the need to redefine the concept of poetry as an art form. At the beginning of last year, Rebecca Watts published ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ (PN Review) in which she includes the British poet Hollie McNish in the category of poets viewed as ‘noble amateurs’, preoccupied with self-promotion whilst offering the consumer an ‘instant gratification’. Watts expressed concern about the literary establishment’s readiness to modify the readership’s engagement with poetry. This modification or change implies the acceptance of mass media’s influence on poetry markets and, consequently, on poetry as literary genre.

But going back to the idea of ‘poets with history’/ ‘poets without history’ and the relevance within the current context, Marina Tsvetaeva’s reflections are as fascinating as they are applicable. Tsvetaeva identifies the ‘poets without history’ or ‘poets without development’ those poets consumed by personal expression and lyricism. Furthermore, she believes that such poets have ‘narrow knowledge and they come into world not to learn, but to say and to make themselves known. A poet without history cannot have a striving towards a goal. He himself doesn’t know what the lyric flood will bring him. His poetry has no project.’ (Tsvetaeva, 2010, p.139-140). By contrast, in Tsvetaeva’s vision, ‘poets with history’ are ’like an arrow shot into infinity. They seem to reincarnate in themselves all the days of creation. No more than the tirelessness of the creative will. They don’t have time to turn around to look at themselves, only pressing forward. The loneliness of such walkers!’ (Tsvetaeva, 2010, p.136-139)

The process of ‘looking forward’ implies a continuous drive to innovate and explore new artistic territories. This gives a new dimension to the idea of craft. These poets are not particularly visible on social media and they tend to engage with their readership through their work and public readings. Moreover, they become preoccupied with linguistic nuances and concepts, using language to its full capacity, to surprise and delight the reader over and over again.

Tsvetaeva’s axiom opens the discussion about the type of poetry set to formulate new trajectories in contemporary British culture. This poetry is ‘not necessarily the one which wins competitions in the Irish Times or the New Stateman’, as Seamus Heaney wrote in 1974, but a poetry which defines value systems and reveals new interpretations of the world. Moreover, it is not a detailed ‘self-interview’ but becomes memorable when the writer assumes the responsibility to challenge complacency, and has the courage to experience the transformative power of change.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

References:

Sontag, S. (2009) Against Interpretation and Other Essays.London: Penguin Random House.

Stevenson, A. (2000) A Few Words for the New Century. In: Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, M. (eds.) (2015) Strong Words. Modern Poets on Modern Poetry.Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, Pages 181-183.

Tsvetaeva, M. (2010) Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books.

Watts, R. (2018) The Cult of the Noble Amateur. PN Review 239. Vol. 44, No. 3. Available from https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090.