/ 30 May 2018

Plea for Poetry

The Week of Felix Poetry Festival, 31.5.-1.6., Belgium

I recently met a disillusioned structuralist, a teacher of Dutch. He explains Ferdinand de Saussure to his pupils. He talks about the difference between the signified and the signifier. The signifier is the concrete, linguistic sign as executed, the external shape of the word ‘tree’, for example. The signified is the mental concept addressed by the signs. Together, the signified and the signifier refer to an object in reality, to a ‘real tree’. Dejectedly, the disillusioned structuralist says to the class: “We will not manage it. There is a huge chasm between signified, signifier and reality and when we leap, when we speak, we so often fail to reach the other side. The only hope is the poet, because that is why he or she is called a ‘dichter’ (which in Dutch means both ‘poet’ and ‘closer’); it is because he or she is able to get closer to the signified by means of poetry.”

I do not know whether that is true, whether that task can be completed, but the attempt appeals to me.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, during a game of croquet with flamingos as wooden hammers, the Duchess says to Alice: “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

Just like Alice, I mistrust the letter. Correctly, the translation into Dutch proves this. This quote from Alice in Wonderland reads in the Dutch translation: “Let op de geest en de letter let op zichzelf.”, translated back into English: “Take care of the spirit and the letter will take care of itself.” The letter is thus not at all competent to take care of itself. I mistrust the letters, the signs, the signifier. They are so often inadequate for the signified. Just think of words like ‘sorrow’, ‘happiness’, ‘death’, ‘love’, ‘moon’, ‘change’, ‘politics’ or ‘body’. Examples whose “signified” can shift from speaker to speaker. When confronting the inadequacy of such words I become stubborn, I want to find ways to say the words differently, more vehemently, stretched, yet again, noncommittal, more precise, better, or if need be, not at all.

Bouncing back and forth between the disillusioned structuralist and Alice, between daring to leap over the gap of the signified and surrender to the mistrust of the letter, that’s the rickety position from which I begin this plea.

Refusal. I do not want to make any plea for poetry at all. A plea involves an attempt to convince, to defend the subject, a careful argument to direct the verdict – even more manipulative, to get something done, namely that whoever hears the plea will shift in favour of the speaker.
I’m not right when it comes to poetry. The poet is the least credible person to make this plea. The poet is too far gone, dedicates his or her days to lines of verse, and the argument is wrapped up in that dedication. Whether the argument is anchored in the highly personal, the social, the artistic or in the acceptance of uselessness with open arms, the poet will probably be able to sum up a few reasons to justify the existence of poetry to himself and to the outside world. And if the poet does not succeed, he or she will certainly use words like ‘beauty’ and ‘languor’ and ‘necessity’ to apologise.

Resistance, because I have no interest in apologies, they call poetry to account. I know the allegations: there are indeed relatively few readers (presumably there are more poets than readers), poetry can be difficult to understand, sometimes a poem does not even seem to mean anything at all and yes, twenty euros is a relatively large sum of money for the number of pages of an average collection. Menno Wigman anticipated the accusations: Poetry is an illness that spoils the lives of people and for which precious wood is also chopped down to provide a handful of people (hopeless idiots) with a dubious pleasure. The poet also knows counter-arguments and counter-examples by heart, but I will not justify poetry with a defence. The justification resides within the work itself, which pushes itself into existence and onto the paper, preferably without the consent of argument or plea.

Rickety. Because one and the same poem is capable of ripping open a reader yet leaving another completely cold. Both experiences are more decisive than anything the poet could assert about it. That’s why the reader is the only one who can rightfully make this plea. Despite the most accurately composed, polished form, the poem can still be so open that it means nothing for some, for others a multiplicity of things and perhaps, who knows, for an individual at that one moment in that one line everything. It is in that openness that the poetic reading experience is to be found. The plea lies in the possibility of that random single everything.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard speaks intensely about ‘the poetic experience’. He asserts that when reading poetry or when in contact with poetic images, two principles are in operation that ensure that the poem can speak to a reader, can move, or even take possession of us. On the one hand, he speaks about resonances: the poetic image resonates with one’s own emotions and thus appeals to sentiment. On the other hand, the image has to touch us deep down before it can resonate on the surface. He calls this reverberations: when the image reverberates within us, it gives expression to something within ourselves, through which we ourselves would become expression.

I believe strongly in that manner of expression. I believe that the coming together of words into line, into image, into stanza, can harbour a becoming. As if I, when reading the poem, recognise something in me that I did not know before. If that pulling together of paper and eye takes place, if the poem expresses a suspicion in myself, then the poem becomes part of me, then the greedy feeling arises that the poem is mine. Then it takes possession of me. It is then difficult to lose it again. From cranes by Peter Verhelst:
Now the evening, that particular evening when the light so rare, / the evening would be like that from now on and this the lake where we once, / the wooden pontoon where you now look across the water / for a bird alighting, always the last crane to a stone in the water
How long have these lines been with me? How often have I sat on that pontoon in the meantime? I’ve never been there.

Or this poem by Paul Celan, a dog-eared page in his collected works, that lures me time and time again: Hervorgedunkelt, noch einmal, / kommt deine Rede / zum vorgeschatteten Blatt-Trieb / der Buche. / Es ist nichts herzumachen von euch, / du trägst eine Fremdheit zu Lehen. / Unendlich / hör ich den Stein in dir stehn.
That stone has assumed all sorts of shapes within me over the years.

Ask me, have I fallen in love with the mechanic? Although there is not a single mechanic whom I know personally, I have to answer ‘yes’ to this line by Tara Bergin. It’s his hands, so thickly black with engine oil, so hardworking and in such high-demand. Ask me, is there violence in the dirt?

I think of Ghayath Almadhoun when I get on the train in Antwerp: my hand stops touching your lips [...] a taxi stops when its driver is killed by a bullet from a sniper in Damascus in front of Antwerp central station terror stops on Playstation

The act of inescapable reading, let that be the plea.