Poetry and disobedience


Early on Saturday morning of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival (Tom Pickard threatened not to get up in time) Robert Seatter chaired a panel discussion between Finuala Dowling, Thomas Lux, Tom Pickard and Hannah Silva on the theme of disobedience.

Finuala Dowling objected from the start that she didn’t like the term ‘disobedience’, preferring instead the notions of transgression and resistance. Resistance, she said, is refusing to say, when you are asked ‘How are you?’, ‘I’m fine’, when clearly you are not. Poetry is also an essential safety valve of relief and release. Imagine the shock, she said, of reading ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ for the first time, or Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’. Then imagine how commonplace those poems have become. We need to be able to write about our mothers when they have dementia. We need to be able to articulate the fleeting wish for them to die.

Thomas Lux averred his belief in the rules: ‘How else can you break them if you don’t know them first?’ But he was careful to say he that it was impossible to digest every encyclopaedia going. There is a tension, he said, in keeping one foot in the rules, while knowing you need to break them. And anyway, he said, what use are rules, really? Algebra is full of them: I think it’s a conspiracy.

Tom Pickard learnt to break rules from his mentor-friend, Basil Bunting. ‘What about form?’ he asked him. ‘Invent your own,’ Bunting replied. He would show Bunting pages of manuscript, only to have them returned with only four lines remaining. ‘Move the last line and make it your first,’ he said. ‘I could,’ Pickard told him, ‘but it won’t mean what I wanted to say.’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Bunting said. ‘Now you’ve got a poem.’

The collaborative nature of creativity was also highlighted by Hannah Silva. As she embarked on the writing of her one-woman show Shlock, she ran into difficulties with repeated reminders that she would not be able to translate her vision onto the stage in the way that she wanted. This led to something of a dark night of the soul. She realised that in order to get the work done she would need to ask for help, in this case of a sign language specialist. It was only much later, as the work came towards completion, that she understood her work stood in a long tradition of merging different art-forms: music with theatre, gesture with performance and poetry. ‘To get what I need to get done, I need to get sneaky.’

‘‘Tradition’ is such a tricky word,’ said Finuala Dowling. ‘Even if we are talking about a ‘tradition’ of dissent or disobedience, it sounds like an oxymoron. Our challenge is to move out of the traditions we grow up with, otherwise we end up sounding like other people. If we are not careful it becomes a stylistic contagion. We need to maintain constant self-consciousness so that we write in order to write, and not just to get published.’

Thomas Lux said that the traditions of disobedience which appealed to him early on his career were those of the surrealists: ‘Ridicule is much more powerful than irony,’ he said. ‘As Emerson said, the greatest act of patriotism one can perform is to dissent. The young people of America in the 1960s learnt to protest over Vietnam, and for once they were right. As Pearlman said: ‘What on earth is the point of writing if you aren’t going to piss somebody off?’‘

‘In this reactionary age which routinely brutalises the poor,’ said Tom Pickard, ‘it becomes an absolute duty of being a citizen. It’s our arsenal.’

Finuala Dowling said the severest act of disobedience of all was to ignore that ‘sacred moment of reverence -the prayer thing- of sitting down at the desk and writing. Most of us don’t write poems because we don’t get up at 5am and listen to our voice. To be disobedient we need to be obedient to our inner voice. For me it is one of fury: I am furious at not being heard. It’s my engine room.’

1 Comment

  1. Another reason for sadness at missing the Aldeburgh Fest – but your summaries inevitably return me to Blake’s ‘opposition is true friendship’ which – if not taken to bloodymindedness – will always destabilise an impasse, kick start another round of the dialectical process. As a teacher, I always find something a little adolescent in ‘disobedience’, a willfulness.


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