Monday, June 2, 2014

Anti-‘Craft’ in the Context of Western Capitalist Cultures

by John Kinsella

There's a major issue around notions and terms such as 'craft'. I am concerned with the way 'craft' in present discourse is a mode and articulation of reactionary constraint, and fear of innovation, and embodies a pro-aesthetics control (I am anti-aesthetics) over how we see and experience. It mediates experience, gives it a setting, and validates it through rule-compliance to fit a world order that has long suppressed liberty and fairness.

'Craft' is used by the retro-'lyrical' and 'clarity of meaning' poets as a sign for permanence and validation of text as '(the) object'. Now, that statement wouldn't be 'feeling' enough, but in the end, it's what happens when so-called 'craft' (often limited and narrow in its actuality) is used as a tool of measurement (and competition!). It is curatorial and reductive process/procedure, and it's about fetishised production values. It purports to be about the unique handmade object, but is actually about marketing and controlling the market in such objects. It's more production line than they'd like to think. Their problem: how to get around the mass production of books (even if they are small print-runs for poetry), and to have the privileged legitimised object created for the 'art' of it. This is compounded by that neo-romantic sense of being discovered, of not putting it out there but still letting everyone know of one's 'genius'... these are the dissemblings of the craft/ers. They want the attention but deny they look for attention. Politics stumps them because the point of a politics is to articulate a position re something. The 'craft'/ing affirms the power of the guild, and operates as a sinecure: the makers of 'craft' as criteria for judging the worth of a poem approve of craft in others and give it the official stamp of approval, or deny that stamp, but always the ones who cite craft position themselves as authorities and interpreters of the past. They use the past to validate and valorise the present, and to concentrate power in (their own) hands.

The idea that language, which constantly changes, should be constrained by a set of rules of good behaviour and a straitjacket of form and function, I entirely reject — that's why I wrote the book Shades of the Sublime, as a refutation of aesthetics, 'craft', and the encultured rules of prosody. What bothers me is that a wide group of Australian poets still hold a cringe re 'craft' — that they can only prove their mettle and prowess through subscribing to the rules of english-language cultural precedent. If they choose to do that, fine, but notice how they wish to impose their 'model' on all else. They wish to teach it, judge it, and ensure its permanence to the exclusion of whatever threatens (they allow a little innovation around the edges, but only, in the end, if the primacy of their activities is publicly and even privately acknowledged... it's a paranoid reaction while in denial of paranoid readings that reveal the theft, bankruptcy, and disrespect in so much non-indigenous culturising in Australia they are sourcing). Sure, they inflect their 'craft' with the 'local' (at best, it's a kind of new wave Jindyworobakism that's in denial), but in the end they are about chronologies of belonging, a community of heritage and projected (future) values. Values... a disturbing and deeply conservative notion.

I think all poetry is an extension of memory, and recalling memory is 'craft'. However, the application of that recall is where i'd depart from those I feel are too conservative — to deploy an extra article is not 'sloppiness', but a choice about speech and its implications. repetition isn't an accident, but a form of refrain (not a replacement, but a diversion, a tangent in the sense I mean it — too many 'students' over-edit their work and basically destroy anything challenging it had to say formally and/or thematically... the university creative writing 'craft workshop' has brought sameness, a lack of political purpose (it has to comply with the university/institution in the end), and merely highlights their teachers as exemplary models... disturbing).

Obviously, one is always calling on precedent and the (pre)existing rules of prosody and certainly literary texts when creating a poem — that's the 'template' (I use early writing not to extend but to undo... some seem to think this is disrespectful, but most of the texts I use had already done this to other texts in their time, directly or indirectly!) — but the template alters as it is tested by language and the socio-political conditions under which it's existing. There's a worrying cultural purity at work in this 'craft'-emphasis that also bothers me — rather, all 'crafts' from all cultural spaces should be acknowledged (I am not saying appropriated, but I am saying that an awareness of them should feed into the 'language' of locality and experience one is part of by choice or default)... comparative literature came about not through a desire for more entertainment, but as a way of finding how common ground does or doesn't work, and how we might translate the universal experience into the localities of 'history', place and language without disrespect (or, at least, attempting to minimise disrespect).

I would use Lorenz's summation of chaos in a different way from the 'craftsmen' and 'craftswomen', I'd imagine. Firstly, I'd take on the gendering and its implications. Then I'd break the constraint of rhythm which I don't recognise as a given, a universal. I think the bending, substitution and slippage (and downright wrecking) of rhythm is a vital 'tool' (ha! craft?) in dismantling the status quo of aesthetics and enslavement to a hierarchising of existence (as soon as I see 'good' and 'bad' I am distressed). Chaos rather becomes a way of ensuring a future can't be approximated through 'craft' because, so far, 'craft' has underpinned the destruction of the biosphere. Further, 'craft' has underpinned war, imperialism, and police states. 'Craft' gives the artisan an excuse to ply his/er trade in destructive causes. Craft creates degrees of separation. And then there's the quantum leap from 'craft' to 'lyric'.

I am sometimes portrayed as the 'enemy' of the lyric. I am not, but I am a resister of the poetics of the unified self and of the so-called lyrical-I. No secret there — I’ve been saying it for decades. But it's not just for the hell of it. It's because I see that poetics as the vehicle through which the poet becomes the mouthpiece for the status quo, for the concentration of power and its dire consequences for liberty and the actual 'self' (individual and communal). It's one of the reasons I find artistic collaboration so generative — it affirms and denies subjectivity at once, and though it can generate its own compliances and even impositions re power, it at least suggests that the unified self is questionable, if only by the act alone. But even that's challengeable, as the voice of the work as construct so easily becomes a tool of the language and ecology of place it works in. I like singing, I like hearing song, I even like writing poems as songs. But I will not sing-along with the faux-lyricists who see it as a mode of linking 'real' feelings with undifficult ‘musicality’ (while denying 'ideas' — the craft movement in australian poetry is anti-intellectual in so many ways), with the damned beautiful rhythms of life (producing what I hear as a kind of muzak!). That's not about what’s inside people, it's about advertising what one is given permission to show as being inside oneself. The lyric so easily falls into step with the status quo when it doesn't have to. That's what conventional rhythmics does. It subscribes.

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