Orpheus Sings the Situation
an old essay for school
Any poetics begins by becoming aware of its situation. Here, situation is the relationship between an individual poet (or small group of poets) and his or her or their surroundings, natural, social, or linguistic. The individual in context—the totality of human life, therefore—provides the ground upon which poetry situates itself, and only when one is aware of the stakes involved can one realise the importance and difficulty of sketching a poetics. By attempting so, I show how the figure of Orpheus might help postcolonial writers better understand their situation.
This wide definition of poetics suggests two things. First, wo/man changes over time, and situations evolve—poetics reflects life, and any more specific statements made about this poetics must be understood as participating in human development, subject to variation, not closed to growth. Second, as the totality of life informs poetics, it would be impossible to provide a complete description of the situation. I have tried to include what I feel are the most important aspects of my life and describe how they affect my poetics, but I recognise the asymptotic nature of the endeavour. This is, as I said, a beginning.
Poetics must account for both the individual and the contextual if it is to achieve both authenticity and authoritativeness. To the extent that a poetics speaks authentically, it proceeds from a deeply personal engagement with life. This engagement with life, even as it is recognisable to others, is recognisable only in the sense that it is seen as unique to the poet. To the extent that a poetics can speak authoritatively, it has to make sense of the context in which the individual writes and propose possible applications beyond the individual. Poetics describes the productive space between the totally universal and fully particular, where all making occurs.
Aristotle’s Poetics is the first extant work of this nature. In his discussion of the various genres of poetry and each genre’s conventions, he traces relationships between the parts and the whole. All poetry, for Aristotle, imitates life, but different genres choose different aspects to imitate in different ways. The details of his Poetics necessarily take into account his situation—for him and his culture, music is obviously poetry, as is the case for oral literatures throughout the world, past and present. That is not the whole picture, however; indeed, the place of music and song within poetics is deeply ambivalent. Insofar as music gains strength from liveness and performance, it stands in an uneasy relationship with the written word, which is both envious and distrustful of its power.
The figure of Orpheus dramatises this ambivalence. He is known to us—despite being so closely wedded to his lyre and his music—only through the written word. His ability to charm rocks and trees, his descent into Hades, and his prophetic utterances even after decapitation, while being absolutely unnatural, evoke a primal power so great it has inspired countless other works of art. Orpheus is the ur-poet insofar as he makes apparent the creative power of humanity over and against nature, death, and time. This power can be and has been inherited by the written word. It has made texts transmittable beyond the physical abilities of its authors. Orpheus appears through literary history.
At the same time, Orphic power cannot be fully embodied in the written word. We have no idea what Orpheus’ songs sound like, and nothing we have ever made comes close to what he (we read) has done. This ungraspable power is something that every poetics deals with, even if unconsciously or in negative terms. This singular, concrete force (we are told) was tied to an individual’s utterances, and to the extent that writers seek a unique voice, they are wrestling with Orpheus. Even as the trace of Orpheus is recorded in history, the voice that he sings with represents the personal drive to creation. In this way, the situation of poetics appears via this mythological figure.
As Orpheus makes clear, the relationship between particular and universal often manifests as the relationship between voice and language. The question that every poet must answer is how to achieve a synthesis of both; how to create something that communicates meaning (not entirely divorced from language) while contributing something to the history of thought and expression (exhibiting a distinct voice). This occurs whether a poet answers with anxiety, as Harold Bloom suggests, or with postmodern cynicism towards originality, or indeed with Ezra Pound’s confidence that he could ‘make it new’ via ancient Chinese texts (North).
Every instance of ars poetica is an attempt at an answer. Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” is, to my mind, a quite clear-headed poetics:
In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry. (135)
Her “raw material” includes animals and baseball and critics and “business documents,” the range reflecting the totality of life. At the same time, a place for the genuine is essential to her poetry—her voice always remains singular, even and especially when she quotes from those aforementioned documents.
The most radical communion of universal and particular is implied in the attitude of Pound in his recycling of ‘make it new,’ of Moore in “Poetry”. Here, it is only in the universal, the historical, the contextual, that the truly individual, new and genuine is found, just as the transformative singularity of Orpheus’s voice appears to us as such only by being subject to mediation, through language that persists in its intelligibility over time.
Having discussed situation in general, I would like to further illustrate the impact of context on poesis from the perspective of the so-called transnational or postmodern moment. I focus on three distinct but interrelated aspects of my own poetics—speaking personally is the most concrete way to speak—but they will surely apply to anyone whose situation is informed by cultural multiplicity. The literary aftereffects of postcolonialism, the problems of poetic form, and the possibilities of translation are areas that should receive more attention. All three deal with ‘receivedness’ in one way or another—culture, form and language respectively—and it is only through this receivedness that creativity and subjectivity can spring forth.
Colonisation is the reason why I write in English; Singapore was once a British port. My familiarity with Anglo-American culture, while not wholly unproblematic, has opened up its literary resources to my disposal. I am able to, as Homi Bhabha theorises, exploit the ambivalence of mimicry; I can, as Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin suggest, write back to the Empire. My upbringing as a Chinese Singaporean places me at the margins of Anglo-American literary production. Making sense of hybridity and navigating multiple cultures through writing is, obviously, both constraining as well as enormously productive, if attended to with seriousness.
Concretely, this manifests in an awareness of different Englishes and languages that can be deployed in poetry. Singlish is available. Other languages can be incorporated wholesale or transliterated into Latin script. All these practices may be used for widely differing ends—for painting a realist picture of language use in Singapore, or for more experimental pastiche or collage effects. Entirely new categories of wordplay open up. A whole culture makes a claim to be heard distinctly when Singlish asserts itself as fit for poetry. Thus Englishes are a vital source of voice for postcolonial poets.
Closely intertwined with language use is poetic form. Poetry, like all art, necessarily keeps its content in form, and heightens a reader’s awareness of form far more than other modes of writing. For postcolonial poets, a relationship with received forms is impossible to ignore. Some poets reject traditional form—whether from Anglo-American culture, as in many post-independence practitioners of free verse in Singapore, or from traditional ones, as in Burmese writers who broke with their own forms as protest against military dictatorship. Others compose sonnets in Urdu. Either way, it is insensitive to ignore the potential of a purposeful use or non-use of traditional form in postcolonial poetry.
One of the biggest dangers of form lies in being inattentive to the histories and logics underlying any use of form, even if form is free verse. Sonnets become exercises in rhyme and haiku in syllabic counting. Free verse becomes flabby and prosy. On the other end of the spectrum, inattentiveness to form also manifests in slavish imitation. While this might be useful training for younger writers, it cannot be a developmental goal. Content and form exist in a similar relation as the individual does within his or her situation, and the best uses of form reflect this productive tension.
Finally, after discussing languages and creoles, it would be remiss to leave out translation and other related creative practices. Translation is straightforward enough—writers with access to more than one language at a high level have access to more than one tradition, and the ability to make meaning available to different linguistic audiences is valuable. More interesting to me is transcreation, and the awareness that every act of translation is creating a new text, instead of ‘merely’ carrying meaning back and forth, and representing that awareness in poetry. Transcreation includes such diverse practices as erasure, free translation, completing fragments, found poetry, and other ways of toying with text.
Transcreation makes transparent the act of translation that occurs in every poem. As Aristotle already realised millennia ago, poetry is fundamentally an act of shaping a poetic artifact out of an aspect of lived experience. Transcreation comments on the imitative aspect of poetry, and it is this self-reflexivity that gives it both its freedom and its constraint. The poet is free to choose his or her method of transcreation, but the rules of translation and the texts chosen should justify the method. Ronald Johnson erased Paradise Lost partially as a way to deal with his own sense of anxiety over Milton’s influence, to “[mute] the old, blind bard” (Macdonald).
The poet who is aware of the linguistic and cultural fissures in his or her situation is like Orpheus, losing Eurydice twice, and finally ripped apart by the Maenads, left with only a head and a mouth full of prophecy. Such breaches mark the poet as dispossessed, but also allow the poet to stand aslant to his or her culture. This gives the poet a certain detachment, a relative—but never complete—objectivity. Unable to identify fully with any one culture, the postcolonial or transnational poet is able to observe each from afar and speak to each.
This element of prophecy in poetics is often trivialised when reduced to identity politics or ideology pure and simple. Prophetic poetry is more than airing social grievances or speaking one’s own truth; it is immanent critique, aimed at transforming the situation even as it is itself produced by the situation. Only poetry that has become aware of its situation, that is both authentic and authoritative, can hope to achieve such an effect. Without authenticity, the poem is propaganda; without authoritativeness, it is a private statement meaningless beyond the singer. If postcolonial poets wish to gain Orphic power, power to change their situation, to move rocks and win back the dead, then they must first turn their cultural dividedness to their advantage.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Project Gutenberg. gutenberg.org, 22 Jan. 2013. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm>.
Macdonald, Travis. “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics.” Jacket Magazine 38. jacketmagazine.com, 2009. <http://jacketmagazine.com/38/macdonald-erasure.shtml>.
Moore, Marianne. “Poetry.” Complete Poems. London: Penguin, 1994. 135.
North, Michael. “The Making of Making it New.” Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics. guernicamag.com, 15 Aug. 2013.. <http://www.guernicamag.com/features/the-making-of-making-it-new/>.