A debate on how we can write poetry in the 21st Century

Dear Rupert

While I agree with your proposal that we can’t cross the same river twice as writers, you seem to be expressing a fallacy by contrasting two anthropomorphic myths: romantic nature as superceded by nature red in tooth and claw. If you suggest, as you appear to, that the latter is more ‘about’ the present than the former, I think you are inaccurate, in that both are mythic constructs and can be relevant or irrelevant according to how they are used. It seems to me that any idea or any method of writing can remain alive through mythmaking: ‘Urban development’, ‘food chains’ and so forth are forms of myth, not necessarily forms of fact, in that they are ways of interpreting reality just as much as a painting by Turner. You seem to propose ‘scientific’ forms of interpretation as if their development has invalidated other forms of interpretation, but I don’t see how that can practically be so. Your approach sounds very like the modernist’s enthusiasm for the modern, an idea that is itself dated, yet I don’t think irrelevant for that. I do think though that the vocabulary of chaos theory, red-blue shifts etc sounds as mannered to me as that of a nature poet, just a different manner: knowing a vocabulary does not necessarily equate to possessing knowledge, and anyway why do these so-called facts of contemporary life invalidate any myth or fiction we may have made in the past, or may make in the present? The whole of time is our territory, not just the pin-point of the present.

On another tack, I do think proposing limitations and rules is for the authoritarian among us, and our propensity to obey rules makes these rules seem inevitable and natural. This rather avoids the issue of any ideological structure beneath the rules, as I think your statement does by suggesting we can do this or can’t do that. The fact is we can do what the fuck we want as writers, and it can be effective or ineffective, and this may have nothing to do with ideas of essence or necessity, which are themselves myths. By which I mean: you may propose one myth, one construct, but I may propose a different one, and we are both ‘right’. As for whether poetry itself is a clear means of reaching a large number of people, I think the same principle applies: sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. I would say that poetry’s failure, by and large, to achieve a mass audience in the manner of, say, music, does not define whether or not it is effective. To resort to quantitative yardsticks to judge poetry negatively seems to me rather conventional and conservative in itself, and I’d say your depressed materialism is a rather backward-looking place to be right here and now, in that any ‘better’ future, whatever vocabulary or method we use to describe it, must first be imagined or supposed, must first be fiction, before it can become fact.

          © Keith Jafrate


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