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.