Purposeful nonsense? John O’Connor

Comment 

Lenin once said, “When I see a dung heap, I do not rummage in it to see if it is a dung heap.” Polemics, of course – entertaining, but not enlightening.

Freed, Morepork, Parallax, And, Splash (all discontinued) and now Ab.WW (A Brief Description of the Whole World): the newest of our avant-garde literary journals. Issue 17 is devoted to the work of Alan Loney, whose poetry has often elicited responses similar to Lenin’s one-liner; which dusts off the language of opposing positions, neither side willing to read towards understanding: “The battle is still going on … they hate postmodern writing … so when [they write] about some of us postmodernists making people like [them] feel old and crusty and out of touch, well that’s exactly where they are.” (Alan Loney. Interview with Graham Lindsay, Ab. WW 17.)

Yet we’re not obliged to think in these terms; terms which usually generate more heat than light. Looking at Ab.WW 17 – and therefore at the work of Alan Loney – we can ignore the operatic dichotomies (boring-old-fart versus radical chic, etc) and choose instead to consider the issues.

2

A useful starting point might be a distich from Loney’s “Melbourne Journal” – lines which characterise his approach over the last decade or so:

writing as a form or mode of waiting
waiting as a mode or form of writing

 

One could just as well quote (from Sidetracks): “I have an enormous & unqualified respect for the tradition / I have an enormous & unqualified contempt for the tradition”, or “hey man, / let’s, and let’s not, do it again” or much else; but let’s stick to the couplet above as a sample, a formulation which appears to have something to say. It might even be taken as suggesting that if we think about it enough, we’ll figure it out. Let’s try that.

An initial (semantically-based) question might be: is waiting the sort of general phenomenon that has specific forms or modes (types from now on)? As we all know, there are words which indicate general categories, categories which are divisible into specific types. Writing, for instance, is one of these general terms: poetry and prose are types or categories within it, each having its own sub-categories and hybrids. There are of course many other general terms and their specific types. Yet I have never heard anyone speak of types of waiting. On the contrary, waiting is simply taken as an awareness and acceptance of someone’s or something’s imminent or eventual arrival; it is not divisible in itself. Uncontroversial to most of us – we know that this is how we use our language – but it does clarify the lack of ordinary sense in the first Loney statement. Which brings us to the second (its inversion): waiting as a type of writing.

Again, from a semantic point of view, it is obvious that waiting – unlike the lyric, the sonnet, haiku, biography, short story or novel – is not a type of writing. One might suggest, however, that as Loney uses “as” rather than “is”, he could be signalling a meaning cognate with, say, “Running can be used as a form or type of therapy.” Thus: “Waiting can be used as a form of writing”. No (need to) comment.

Alternatively, Loney may be meaning: “Writing is one of the things you can do while waiting.” If so, I think he would have said that – when he wishes to communicate simply he does so very well. Or again the “as” may be taken as intending or suggesting figurative usage; but in this case the reading necessarily comes undone as we are being asked to connect writing and waiting with categories of the other that simply do not exist.

There are further options, but in the end each comes to the same conclusion: that the only connection between the concepts of waiting and writing (as used) is that which is forced on them by approximating the structure of meaningful formulations such as: the sonnet is a form of poetry.

Without attempting to simplify the flux of post-modernism, it is accurate to say that this intermittently non-lexical approach is one of its significant characteristics and is the usual focus of negative reaction to it. Yet, on analysis, it becomes clear that such language is not intended to make conventional sense – and this despite the appearance of sense, and, in Loney’s case, despite frequent references to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Jung and Einstein. There is an aura of intellectualism about the work – yet the texts often refuse to engage us in shared conceptual terms. It comes then as no surprise when Loney (again in interview) says: “the subversion of that transparency [of language] is basically what the postmodernist movement is all about.” Okay; from this perspective we’re looking at postmodernism as the subversion/destabilisation of the semantic relations of language. But what can we make of this approach; and how, for Alan Loney, does this come about?

3

Loney correctly says of himself: “I am a writer of fragments.” As readers of his poetry will know, these fragments are often of considerable power. The problem for both poet and reader is how to contextualise them. If part of the context or background is read as purposeful nonsense – however seemingly intellectualthen assessment of the poetry comes down to whether one feels the fragments are given convincing support in this way. Personally I remain unconvinced, as this context does not communicate enough to allow me to know, or to experience, the extended text as a reasonably coherent unit.

That isn’t our only interpretative option, however; we don’t have to read language subverted as the creation of purposeful nonsense. Loney again: “nothing beyond, nothing transcendent, there’s no territory towards which the poem as map is supposed to point, because the poem is itself part of the map or part of the territory.” A bit vague (even confused) but standard postmodern stuff nonetheless: ie, the text has its own structures, life and meanings; it doesn’t indicate beyond, but is a self-reflective textual identity. I must say I can see some point in this. At certain levels, of image for instance, it might be acceptable – meaning that we agree to suspend our disbelief – to have other than conventional things happening: von Sturmer’s Eiffel Tower bouncing on a trampoline, for example (see “Hekiganroku Verses”). But at the level of concepts, such as our waiting/writing example, I’m not so sure. Assuming that at least the basic terms retain their conventional meanings, we are asked in this interpretation to somehow imagine a type of writing called waiting, and vice versa. But what can they be like? We are left, I think, with unimaginable concepts, specific types without (as it were) samples or ideas of their reality. (The alternative is a free-floating acceptance of vague or apparent ideas.)

Perhaps the main difference between a poet such as Alan Loney and others who profess similar notions (the poem as self-reflective text) is that he actually does it. But why does he do it? Another comment from the Lindsay interview is helpful here:

AL: I’ve always loved a phrase from Jung … he talked about a constellation of affective signs … affective means something that affects you … if it’s a phrase you respond well to, then that too becomes part of that constellation … it’s language, gestures, marks, symbols, all those sorts of things …” GL: “Maybe that would be quite a good description for some of the poems in for instance The Erasure Tapes, constellation of affective signs?” AL: “Yeah.”

 

The genesis of Loney’s oft-noted obscurity: he finds something that affects him, and into the poem it goes. Hardly a philosophical approach, but okay – poets are often magpies, picking up this and that which appeals to them. But if this is carried to an extreme it will produce a poem of potentially interesting bits and pieces, not necessarily a successful poem. That will depend on how the pieces are brought together and shaped into an effective, reasonably coherent unit. Such shaping requires selection on the basis of meaningful relationship. Greater inclusion on the other hand is possible within a subverted, destabilised language, but at that cost.

Generally then – and whether I read Loney’s poetry as brilliant fragments within a context of nonsense or within a context of self-reflective language – I find the fragments largely fall short as poems or sequences. I am often left with a feeling of frustrated intellectual/emotional expectation – but I guess this is part of the postmodern outcome, what (for Loney) postmodernism “is basically all about”. It might be argued that it comes down to temperament: some people prefer their expectations of language to be subverted. Others prefer them to be adjusted, enriched, transcended or whatever: meaning they prefer more definite, if not clinical, outcomes to a poetry that is “drenched / with possibility void / of meaning” (The Erasure Tapes). Yet the question remains whether a significantly destabilised language is capable of exploratory or genuinely challenging communication, as distinct from aligning with an emotional preference for semantic scramble. Given that language is the field or alternatively the medium of poetry – and is also what most distinguishes our humanity – it may be poem-, even self-, negating to take such an approach very far.

Notwithstanding, there is in general a tacit acceptance of the Loney œuvre among the commentators in Ab. WW 17. But it doesn’t surprise to find a good deal of attention being paid to Loney’s “Squeezing the Bones”, a superb sequence that does not subvert its own ends. It’s also not surprising to find a great deal of description and other space-filling strategies in place of interpretation. More positively, due recognition is given to Loney’s real achievements as a printer. There is then much of interest here, even if at times one feels that the commentators are stretching the limits of critical tolerance – aligning more with benefit than doubt. Jack Ross represents this in terms of the poem-as-self-reflective-reality myth: “I can’t embody Alan’s poems by writing about them – they are, in their own right, and the only way to sidestep that would be to quote them, entire, on my allotted pages. I can make remarks about them … I can describe them – for what that’s worth – and make certain speculations”, which is also an open and intelligent recognition of the difficulty of engaging with such work. When, after his bibliography, Ross places a line from “Melbourne Journal” – “How little, finally, one makes, of everything” – it is difficult not to read a comment into this.

The question then of how much one can value poetry that is relatively unknowable. The question we started with: the heap of dung – or the heap of gold? But let’s not recycle the language of absolutes.

4

A few general observations. Modernism and, later, postmodernism were introduced to New Zealand some decades ago. They have had marked influences on our poetry. That is no small thing and Alan Loney was part of that development. Equally, I would have thought that after such a long time – had it been capable of living up to its publicity – the extreme of this once-new poetic would have produced more telling results. I find it difficult then to agree with Loney that the avant-garde is still meaningfully in “battle” with reactionary forces within the “mainstream”. There may be a few die-hards reliving the old conflicts well after the debate has moved on, but in reality our poetry has been long aware of these “new” possibilities; our poets feel free to use a range of techniques from across the spectrum. The strongest poems of the last two decades – Campbell’s Polynesian sequences, Sewell’s Erebus, for instance – are just such centrist or technically eclectic works. It is also clear that most of the commentators in Ab.WW 17 prefer Alan Loney’s work when it occasionally moves towards the centre – it simply works better there, or communicates more effectively. Which suggests it’s time to vacate the trenches. It doesn’t have to be:

it happened a long
and a short
time ago

 

John O’Connor’s most recent collection of poems, A Particular Context, appeared in 1999.

 

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