Vertical Takeoff

On 1st October 1972, having just left the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky wrote in New York Times a five-thousand words article in which he condemned the political climate in Europe, and worldwide, evaluating its dangerous principles and hunger for domination and destruction. Brodsky expressed his scepticism in reference to all ‘political movements’ which he described as ‘structured methods used to avoid personal responsibility.’

Brodsky defended his belief in a different, and superior, system built on ‘personal movements – movements of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change.’ The article, translated from Russian by Carl Proffer, appeared tangled, verbose and aimless; it sounded like so many other disoriented voices coming from dissidents and defectors of the era, but those who managed to read it in full recognised its unswerving accuracy in describing a failing world system.

Seamus Heaney called it a moment of literary ‘vertical takeoff’, crucial in establishing the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and preoccupations of the self.

It was, in itself, a warning signal that politics became a psychological danger for humanity, as it engaged people in external fights with the Evil, which automatically made them begin to identify themselves with the Good. And when mankind begins to consider itself bearer of Good, it slides into self-congratulation. This is a state of complacency which Brodsky, who was stateless in 1972, saw it as the source of everything that was radically bad about people.

Brodsky carefully re-considers the role of a united writing community which is vital in opposing official points of view and which should support ‘personal movements’ by engaging with our society in real exercises of reflection and learning. This engagement, however, is built on access to books, not articles about books; direct contact with ideas, not ‘pre-packed’ blurbs.

The latest PN Review editorial comments on the closure of nearly 800 British libraries over the past ten years. The Trump era defines how we conduct literature not only politics. ‘The triumph of the tweet’ reduced our engagement with books to a suite of emoticons, in which the responsibility for personal engagement with ideas is a constant forward-re-tweet and a sum of likes. Bring me someone who sits down to read War and Peace or a five-thousand words article in New York Times. I’ll be either their friend or their follower.

© Maria Stadnicka 2020

[‘Vertical Takeoff’ was published in International Times on 25/01/2020.]


Brodsky, J. (1972) ‘A writer is a lonely traveler’. New York Times, 1st October 1972. Available here.

Brodsky, J. (1997) On Grief and Reason. Essays, London: Penguin Books.

PNR, January-February 2020, vol. 46, no.3. Available here.

 

Transitia Miserabilia: The Illusion and Delusion of Change

Thirty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the final months of communist regimes 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 the Eastern Block states. The change meant new societal structures and political strategies, created in response to the demands of newly formed democratic systems. 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 had defined the Cold War, The West began the reconfiguration of own strategies, while maintaining scepticism about the viability of Eastern democracies. However, the European institutions appeared to put aside old ideological conflicts which were replaced with economic alliances. Europe appeared united around a common purpose. The East-West divide went underground, driven by economic competition, by cultural misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Transition is always marked by change, insecurity, doubt, pain, loss, anxiety and conflict. All transitions have similar attributes. Transition emerges when a revolution ends. Transition brings probing questions about values, beliefs and principles, forcing a society to find new answers. During transition, a society ends up reconfiguring its own institutions and their symbolic power.

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 cultures and societies. In poetry, for instance, the 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.