Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2011

Christian Campbell's Aesthetics of Envy

Notes: ii/viii

Minerva, goddess of weavers,
Had heard too much of Arachne.
She had heard
That the weaving of Arachne
Equalled her own, or surpassed it.

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, (London : Faber, 1997).

Christian Campbell’s class was held on Friday 4th November at 2pm in the Gallery of the Aldeburgh Cinema. There were about 10 of us in attendance. A couple of ex-librarians, a social worker, a retired primary school teacher, etc. Campbell opened the class requesting a working definition: what is envy? Robert Seatter, a Poetry Trust trustee and poet, ventures that envy is ‘curdled desire’. This seems to suggest that envy’s psychoanalytic structure might mirror desire’s own metonymic (substituting the part for the whole) design. Thus envy’s progression seems to issue from our own perceived lack (a missing quality or object) which we then observe in the possession of another. This missing quality or object comes to designate access to a larger or more comprehensive position of power. Kate Miller, a poet and graduate of Goldsmiths University London, says that she finds envy inspiring, that it moves her to action. There is some discussion of this: is envy a stimulus or is it paralysing? Campbell’s thesis is that envy is extremely productive and that poets are inherently envious of the power invested in aesthetics and registers beyond the poetic or even the linguistic.

He therefore advocates the appropriation of form (the style or structure generally) and register (the variation or part of language governed by the level of formality, the selected vocabulary, the weft and warp of the syntax and the speaker’s civil standing or relative position of power) as a ‘productive’ solution to envy’s grip on the poetic sensibility. The class is given a copy of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Discourse on the logic of language which we read (as a chorus) and discuss. Here is M. NourbeSe Philip reading Discourse on the logic of language at Words Aloud 7 Spoken Word Festival in Durham, Ontario, Canada, November 2010. As Maria Helena Lima writes, '"Discourse.." [is] a poem that although sculpted out of the colonial experience -- exploitation of peoples, destruction of mother tongues -- manages to reconfigure poetic conventions to do away with notions of objectivity and universality....Like the women represented in this poem, writer Marlene NourbeSe Philip discovered that she could not challenge the history without challenging the language she has inherited, and ultimately "without challenging the canon that surrounded the poetic genre."'

Following a discussion of the various registers employed in the poem’s composition (the poem is part creation myth, part incantation, part pseudo-science/institutional nonsense, part cultural artifact, part edict, part multiple choice examination), Campbell asks each of us to construct a poem in the form of an essay question. This technique is used in his own poem Sidney Poitier Studies.


General Certificate in Education
Ordinary Level Studies

Section A (100 Marks)

Choose the option that best describes Sir Sidney Poitier.
Poitier is_____________:
(a) A barefoot Bahamian boy of so-they-say Haitian
blood who grow up pickin tomato on Cat Island.

(b) The perfect black man and the rightful heir
to the Kingdom of Negrolandia.


Christian Campbell, Running the Dusk, (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2010)

And so the poem continues. Campbell’s own manipulation of register traps the reader in a rhetorical web, forcing answers in the completion of the reading. NourbeSe Philip’s use of the multiple choice question in her poem is particularly interesting (not only because it is the form Campbell uses in his own poetry) but because here, the form performs Spivak’s problem of the speaking subaltern. What happens when the only language available is the language of the oppressor? When all possible answers are given, pre-articulated? As Kate Miller suggested, the multiple choice is a closed circuit. In the poem’s articulated context of imperial brutality, its absurd trap is inescapable and horrific.

After a few of the group read their new poems to the class, Campbell presents us with a second text and from this we construct a second set of poems:

As I try in vain to write my own poem (‘My Government of the Tongue's legislative programme will be based upon the principles of fine grooming, extreme laziness and luxury. The first priority is a good cocktail for breakfast…. etc’), it becomes increasingly clear that inexperienced appropriation of certain registers is a quick route to gimmickry.

As previously mentioned, Campbell’s primary thesis is that a poet should be envious of the ‘natural power’ residing in other art forms or sign systems. Such invidiousness should lead the poet to seek to recreate that power within the confines of their own composition by appropriating forms and registers that act as metonyms for a larger power discourse. This reproduction and subsequent manipulation of form mimics the mechanism of a drag act. In aesthetic terms however, this is a fundamentally ekphrastic movement. In fact, Campbell reads envy as an inherent function of ekphrasis, extending the desire to appropriate forms beyond the visual realm. Such a thesis leads Campbell to proclaim that you will find poetry in tapestry and such like.

A literal reading of this statement (‘you will find poetry in tapestry’) provokes an irrational feeling within me of almost absolute boredom. This declaration tells me nothing of poetry. It tells me very little of tapestry. Despite myself, I remember a similar feeling of irritation is provoked when a critic indulges in a profoundly comparative structure of evaluation rather than broach the detail of poetic composition. For example, how many times will it be written that Racinian poetry is like classical architecture? What does this tell me of the linguistic manifestation of Phèdre’s lust or the metrics designing Bérénice’s devastation? What on earth does this tell me of the Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena? It tells me that we are often adept at noting likeness and little more. Envy is, in fact, a manifestation of the proclivity for the comparative appraisal of one’s own condition.

So ‘You will find poetry in tapestry’ announces Christian Campbell and this produces no envy for his eloquence or insight. Yet what follows in the class’s aftermath is nothing short of exceptional: Campbell’s study of comparison itself and his pedagogical construction are defiantly elegant and tenaciously subtle. And it’s only when reading the class as a poem (indulging my own metaphoric evaluation process) that the workshop’s multifaceted comment on the hierarchy of canons and registers becomes a truly significant reading. As such the metonymic reading of the statement ‘you will find poetry in tapestry’ is extremely rich. The sentence holds the fragmented image of an idea that governs my reading of the class as a whole, pointing to a much larger exchange on discourse.

Campbell’s decision to comment on the poetics of tapestry was not arbitrary, nor was it hasty. Campbell mentions that Discourse on the logic of language is taken from M. NourbeSe Philip’s book, titled She tries her tongue, her silence softly breaks. The work won the Casa de Las Americas prize in 1988. Its title is taken from the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the Syrinx, the chaste nymph, escapes Pan’s attempted rape and is transformed into silent, whispering reeds at the river’s edge. Part of the ideological impact of Discourse… hinges on decisions the reader will make regarding whether to privilege one discourse over another during the reading. Competition between varying discourses and art forms is central to a pivotal moment of envy and ekphrasis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here is Ted Hughes again:

‘Arachne was humbly born. Her father
Laboured as a dyer
Of Phocaean purple. Her mother
Had been humbly born. But Arachne
Was a prodigy. All Lydia marvelled at her.

The nymphs came down from the vines of Tmolus
As butterflies to a garden, to flock stunned
Around what flowered out of the warp and weft
Under her fingers.
Likewise the naiads of Pactolus

Left sands of washed gold
To dazzle their wonder afresh
On her latest. They swooned at all she did.
Not only as it lay done, but as each inch crept
From under her touches.

A grace like Minerva’s, unearthly,
Moved her hands whether she bundled the fleeces
Or teased out the wool, like cirrus,
Or spun the yarn, or finally
Conjured her images into their places.

Surely, only Minerva could have taught her!
Laughed at the suggestion
Her sole instructor, she claimed, was her inborn skill.’

Indirectly Campbell has posited the Arachne (mortal born) and Minerva (goddess of poetry, craft, wisdom…etc) episode as an allegory for subaltern/imperialist power play. To be extremely schematic about it: here is Minerva as the classical cannon, Arachne as the subaltern literature. It should be qualified briefly that this is by no means the governing theme of the class, just one of the many by-products subsequent to rethinking class discussions and Campbell’s own direction. The emphasis on the role of envy in the allegory falls on its transformative production, rather than which agent (in this case Minerva) is envious of the other’s skill or art.

As the class closes Campbell is insistent that envy culminates productively in translation and transformation. That is to say that a poet translates essential forms in the world itself into poetry. True to the circular nature of Campbell’s incredible pedagogy, the envious climax of metaphoric translation finds its counterpart in the Metamorphoses. Minerva’s envy of Arachne’s perfection of form leads her to transform the mortal into a spider.

As Dryden writes,

This the bright Goddess passionately mov'd,
With envy saw, yet inwardly approv'd.
The scene of heav'nly guilt with haste she tore,
Nor longer the affront with patience bore;
A boxen shuttle in her hand she took,
And more than once Arachne's forehead struck.
Th' unhappy maid, impatient of the wrong,
Down from a beam her injur'd person hung;
When Pallas, pitying her wretched state,
At once prevented, and pronounc'd her fate:
Live; but depend, vile wretch, the Goddess cry'd,
Doom'd in suspence for ever to be ty'd;
That all your race, to utmost date of time,
May feel the vengeance, and detest the crime.

Then, going off, she sprinkled her with juice,
Which leaves of baneful aconite produce.
Touch'd with the pois'nous drug, her flowing hair
Fell to the ground, and left her temples bare;
Her usual features vanish'd from their place,
Her body lessen'd all, but most her face.
Her slender fingers, hanging on each side
With many joynts, the use of legs supply'd:
A spider's bag the rest, from which she gives
A thread, and still by constant weaving lives.

Ovid, Metamorphoses translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al.

In the coming days I will continue to look at transformation in Campbell’s own work, Running the Dusk. His reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival took place on at 8pm Friday 4th November in the Jubilee Hall.

Still to come: Emily Berry’s Stingray Fevers and the new voices, the poetics of the 21st century, Hass on Miłosz and everything else.

Fiona Moore and Charles Boyle are also writing about the festival. Their posts are, as expected, erudite and excellent.

Thank you, Haydn. You are very wonderful.