new zealand electronic poetry centre


Alan Brunton

essays, interviews




First published in A Brief Description of the Whole World 7, September 1997.

"The continuum of history is that of the oppressor. 
While the idea of the continuum burns everything to the ground, 
the idea of the discontinuum is the basis of genuine tradition." 
- Walter Benjamin

... the FUTURE OF POETRY is also a question of the future of the poet. A poet makes a 'thing', to make the legendary biography, to put yourself on the rood of honour ... James Fenton suggests the antiquity and prestige of the poetic art held women back from entering into the magic circle ...

"After 200 years it is still not easy to answer the fundamental questions about Percy Byssche Shelley (1792- 1822). In a very short lifetime he published 12 volumes of verse, four political pamphlets, and a verse play about incest; he fathered six (possibly seven) children; he wrote a dozen erudite philosophical studies, including A Defence of Poetry (1821); he translated from German, Spanish, Latin, Arabic and Greek, including Plato's Symposium; he attracted an entire solar system of women muses and admirers, as recorded in his verse autobiography 'Epischychidion', many of whom whirled away to disaster; and he was an accomplished rider, billiards player, pistol shot and single-handed dinghy sailor. All this before he was 30. Yet we still have to ask: How do we remember him, how do we read him, how do we rate him?"
Richard Holmes-New York Review of Books, September 24, 1992

If not disappearing yourself by jumping off a ship into the ocean, it might be necessary to think of dying in the back of a long white Cadillac!
How else to generate the stuff of legend given competing attentions required of life today, the threats to consciousness of: 

1. Television; 
2. the 'cultural press'; 
3. a sensationalist daily press; 
4. that worm-hole, the Internet.

Can poetry go 'commercial'? There was an attempt to do this, to 'free the word' ... to throw it into the world: in the 1960s-BUT there was a confusion of 'pop art' with 'popular culture'-see, Julian Schnabel's film BASQUIAT where Schnabel allows Gary Oldham to make a ruthless exposure of himself, compared to the cool black guy who was making a legend, promoted now (in an orgy of self-referentiality) by the film itself ... the language of film is the dominating language of our time; but the domination (by the play of the dialectic) allows freedom: a new play of forms-& a new register of perceptions ... the language of the Spectacle: the idea of the Spectacle entered artistic discourse when V. Meyerhold took a trip to Rome to watch the Pope celebrate Easter, he was impressed! Art must engage the dominating language, at the level of Spectacle

"Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle's banality into images of possible roles. Stardom is a diversification in the semblance of life-the object of an identification with mere appearance which is intended to compensate for the crumbling of directly experienced diversifications of productive activity."
   Guy Debord - The Society of the Spectacle, New York, 1994

Fear of a disintegrating Self through awareness of the dangers of exposure through spectacular 'blossoms'; satire as a defence mechanism:
the Spectacle is reduced-to 'melodrama' -
Spectacle represents by illusions; melodrama shows how it is made and opens the form to scrutiny BECAUSE the audience must recognise the form, it must be established


the new is always a reaction (of Necessity: the hair shirt of the poet) 
the new poem alienates itself from the chosen form, it distends and, in a fever of disgust, distorts and dissembles in a Dis-talk, this talk ... this present 'disaster' ...
it is the 'antiquity and prestige' of the art that fuels this disgust
to write is to enter into history, to walk into the vomitorium, with ardour to endure:

"I will tell you something astonishing
in 1897, 3 fragments of a broken water jug 
were discovered in Egypt
they dated from the XX Dynasty
that is to say: from 3000 years ago:
on them poems were painted;
in 1951, French Egyptologists
excavating a rubbish dump in Thebes
found 28 more pieces from the same jug
which doubled the number of poems;
love poems, words as precious as the water
which kissed your lips as you read the poems;
in one of them, the poet smells the lover's shirt
and is instantly transported to the South Seas;
that is astonishing, don't you think?" 
    Brunton, 1997

Poetry enters the society of the Spectacle because of its emotions, the poetry of the future will not be solely for the intellect


it will be about charms, it will useful against our enemies and head lice, speaking it will cure mangy skin, the blind will SEE; charms must be spoken; there has to be a performance; in the performance there is pleasure; it is the pleasure the adept takes in the performance that makes the charm powerful; performance makes 'texts an event' (Edward Said)

"Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that is was first song ... Homer says in the Odyssey, "The gods weave misfortunes for men, so that the generations to come will have something to sing about."
   Jorge Luis Borges-Seven Nights, New York, 1984

through performance, events enter history
the event can be either in the location of the making (poesis) or in the location of the interpretation (hermeneutics)-George Steiner

the poem shares with the interpretation that fact that it comes second; the originary event is always legendary; the urge to repeat the legendary event is what makes an 'avant-garde'
the interpretation comes into view and then it disappears-laughter followed by tragedy; in the laughter is the transcendence, the interpretation of the Main Event ... everything is previous; every 'making' is an adaptation: see that astonishing book: The Oxford Anthology of Classical Verse in Translation 

'adaptation' returns us to 'melodrama'-from 'melos' = a song; melodramas featured poems/songs; melodrama makes what is simply real more interesting;
into the repetitive and boring, it introduces fantasy-and tragedy, the song is validated by the legendary life (and death) of the poet:

"the Song With No Self comes out of the moss,
it is the gift of a voice from the nomads
who sing the Song With No Self
as they cross the mountains on horses,
breathing with long and open breath
they don't care where they're heading,
their only care is bring the young bride
immaculate to her wedding"
Mandelstam (from #365)

With the return to melodrama, the poem will be spoken again, it will be spoken as a parody of the classic (see, encore, the Oxford Anthology ...)
to be spoken, poetry of the future will need characters, only characters can speak, what will be the stage business these characters do?


Mandelstam intuited that Dante composed his Commedia while walking, and Benjamin that Baudelaire walked his Fleurs du mal -"an intoxication comes over those who wander through the streets for a long time without any particular goal. The activity of walking itself grows in power with each step taken"; the legendary biography grows step by step as the poet walks, without hooks, into the future; by walking, we endure the modern, and survive 

..."Shelley is still only 200 years old. Like Faust, we still cannot be sure if he will be saved from the pact of the Devil of oblivion." (- Holmes)

walking is watching, for what's new, which we know by the noise it makes


  • did not the original, the legendary Orpheus, receive his gift from the divine power as a banjo made from a tortoise's shell?;

  • was not Orpheus the original enunciator of mysteries that could be approached only through ceremonial means and by privileged persons?

  • was not the prize sought by the Orphic, eternal life?


Alan Brunton 

Last updated 11 May 2001