Voluntary History: Memory as Performance
For a conference on poetry and memory in April, 2006 at Occidental College, I was asked to write a very short statement on how “memory” functions in my poetry. What follows below is that statement though it is bound to infuriate a few of my peers due to its overly general terms (due to the word count requirement), and especially its rather unfashionable stand against poems made through interactions with computer search engines or collages based solely on pop culture. I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in personal memory or psychology when I write. I’m more interested in memories that are really “voluntary histories” as opposed to involuntary memories or the monumental, “great man” histories. Tipping my hat to Aristotle, I make a distinction then between retention and recollecting.
For Aristotle, retention belongs to those who have quick minds. These minds are good with names, dates, and anecdotes. But recollecting is slow memory. It takes work and is self-inflicted. Recollecting, for Aristotle, involves not simply recounting a set of perceptions or conceptions but also reflecting on the lapse of time itself as one re-experiences an earlier time not in the mind but in presentation. This is the terrain of voluntary history.
In fact, Aristotle insists that a memory must be presented to even exist. Without a “presentation” intellectual activity is impossible because memories remain in abstract forms, like proofs in geometry. I would add only that until presented memories are largely reactions, and poets, no matter what else, must be interested in construction.
Aristotle insists that our ability to reflect on time sets us apart from animals that have memories, but not real consciousness. He then goes on to talk about how dwarves can’t remember well because they have large upper bodies that exert too much pressure around the memory organs. So Aristotle only takes us so far.
But the question of duration that Aristotle raises is crucial to poetry. Poetry is not blogging or surfing the web: it requires more extended concentration by both poet and reader. And this is compromised if the work resembles too closely the visual culture we live in. To me, poetry should avoid being too frivolous, too superficial, especially if doing so only reproduces the type of consciousness created by the larger culture. For me, machines already monopolize the larger culture, already demand too much of my attention. I go to poetry that, almost like humans themselves, is capable of thinking, of constructing new associations, of rejuvenating our powers of concentration.
With that in mind, I tried highlight seeming coincidences in my Water & Power. One poem explores 1948 in the context of Los Angeles, particularly the relocation of the poor from Chavez Ravine in order to build Dodger Stadium. And I mention “Truman’s Resurrection” and “the invention of Israel” both of which took place in the same year. The suggestion is that loss of various types of common space, mental and physical, along with rise of a war economy are more connected than we tend to realize. The book tries to suggest how the history of Los Angeles more than Walden Pond encapsulates the national character.
The idea is to use local history to illuminate common but difficult questions. Even if we don’t have strong ties to Israel/Palestine, we can ask, Do we really want to approach the problem in the same way that Dodger Stadium did? Even in poetry that addresses the quotidian we can see how these voluntary histories illuminates what of the quotidian we choose to value, what we choose to repeat, what infelicities we are repeating.
It is possible to think of “The Tempest” in this light too. I’ve recently “re-written” the play, if you will, to include the fact that Shakespeare got much of his information about Caliban from letters from the Virginia Company that described how the natives lived in Bermuda. The Virginia Company shipwrecked and the indentured sailors mutinied because it was a tropical paradise that grew its own food and there was little need for work. Shakespeare himself was an investor in the Virginia Company and that intrigues me, because he could have interpreted this news of paradise in another manner. Shakespeare, the first author to be marketed and branded in the modern sense, relied on the letters from abroad to fuel his imagination, and this means he is writing not only from a privileged position, but from a position that combined privilege with history to create the modern imagination. The imagination is exploitative. And it is worth asking as poets who and what we want to exploit, fully aware that we always complicit with larger culture.
Now my poem goes on to investigate the role of the artist who lives in his head and makes things up as the world goes on beyond him. And I try to implicate myself as an heir of Shakespeare’s tradition in the long dismissal of certain themes of inheritance, work, otherness, and I don’t hide from the fact that Shakespeare is also pop culture. I could have grandiosely employed historical details to trace the long arc of capitalist modernity, but I don’t. I only suggest that writing itself has integrated some of capitalism’s biases, particularly its emphasis on scarcity and by extension competition as the engine of progress. Perhaps like the mutinied sailors who tried to embrace their newly found paradise, there is a rather obvious cooperative side of history that’s been lost. It’s true, for example, that prior to Shakespeare credit for play writing was usually shared among the participating members of the cast. The point is that history is always context and content. It is a source many types of knowledge that have been lost. And while poets may not be able to resurrect that knowledge fully, we can draw from it, exploit it. In doing so, we affirm not only that knowledge and beauty are connected in the Keatsian way, but also we can affirm that the world itself remains a place of abundance and not scarcity, that writing is still a question of redistributing and reorganizing knowledge, and not just an ornamental activity.
Some poets attempt to shun the personal or the solipsistic by drawing almost exclusively from pop culture. But pop culture is about speed. It’s about a corporate enclosure of the public sphere. To write from primarily from pop culture is to assume that scarcity is complete, and that there is only an abundance of too familiar ideas and phrases. It demands of the reader to be retentive only, quick-minded as Aristotle said, and it depends on a false newness that itself is dependent on sheer speed, a fake accessibility, a fake immediacy. Only superficially can it gesture at the heightened relevancy of community.
An artist who draws overwhelmingly from pop culture or collages from technological means is an impoverished artist. It makes no difference if the artist believes herself to be a critic of that world, some maverick roaming the boundaries of what Adorno called The Culture Industry. Reliance on pop culture, like reliance on personal memories, affirms the notion that there is a scarcity of ideas or experience. It does not offer a site of commonality, but the illusion of commonality, an alienated form of humanity.
Hyper-mediated critiques of hyper-mediated culture reinforce the idea that things human and vital are inaccessible. Often this absent vitality leads to an aesthetic of reaction, even offensiveness that both the left and the right celebrate. Hate radio and the poetry of disgust—particularly that which attacks political correctness only in order to reform the very same terrain —suggest that the more wildly we stab at the void, the more alive we are. Some of these poets celebrate these avowedly futile and superficial gestures because they believe it reflects the ironic substance of our lives. A poet who can draw on history criticizes more forcefully and expresses a desire for change. He or she can seduce and inspire, not just seduce or deliberately offend. To affirm history then is not just to affirm old conceptions such as the narrative of inevitable progress or the narrative of catastrophe or the “survival of the fittest.” It also affirms chance and contingency, all the vital flux that makes being vibrantly human still possible.
For me, history and poetry are the search for sustainable ideas. Thinking of history as a set of voluntary, self-inflicted memories sets it apart from simply reacting to the quotidian. To be clear though, I am not suggesting poetry should be as opaque as Ezra Pound’s is often said to be. But I also do not believe poets need to include explanations of all their historical references. They can include historical details that don’t necessarily fuel the theme, although to some this too will appear superfluous. But all of it is done to encourage readers to slow down and think. Poetry is a place where people can go to reflect on their times without so much blinking and buzzing. It’s a semi-autonomous zone, quite temporary, like the one the sailors attempted in Bermuda. But from within it, one can see the value of looking at things from the point of view of abundance and collaboration as opposed to scarcity, competition, and individualism.
If I can be abstract out of brevity, I would argue that poetry, memory, and beauty intersect with knowledge, and that at this point of intersection all the categories become muddled. The kind of poetry I try to write seeks to follow the contours of this intersection and offer it to the reader as one possible assemblage of knowledge. If this is done without dogmatism, all the better. Should the knowledge be of any value to the reader it will be because it is not Aristotle’s knowledge, but more like David Hume’s who placed belief in its place. By investigating the conditions that legitimate belief, he set out a theory of probabilities. And what is memory or history but a probable depiction of events, tendencies, habits?
The consequences are important: if thought is belief, it has more reason to defend against illusion than error. To write from history is to write from belief. To write from belief is naturally to flirt with error, but it doesn’t have to be solipsistic or tied to the illusion of scarcity or accept the type of beautiful illusions our times so fervently collude to convey. Of course, someone will say all of this sounds rather heady, even pretentious. Certainly it can be. However, I believe writers should try to avoid the trap of anti-intellectualism if they are inclined to see their work in opposition to the status quo. In America, it is usually our masters or our masters’ minions who voice objections to intellectualism, substituting common “horse sense” or American pragmatism as an allegedly more democratic mode.
Whenever intellectualism is championed by our masters, as it often is in the universities, a writer might do well to ask, Do I want to be any less intellectual than those who would use it against me? If the answer is no, then we are led back to history because
history is only a set of associations and allows us to ask about relationships between people and ideas. With Hume as our guide, what appears contractual or natural is revealed conventional. History, unlike memory, requires no theory of the mind, only an understanding of how tendencies among individual people or ideas become habits, for example, the habit of saying “I” or the habit of rejecting intellectualism out-of-hand. Using “voluntary” history in writing is to illuminate habits and investigate their legitimacy. It is also to resuscitate the sustainable ideas and rescue history from the dead, to restore it as a resource for the future, one that encourages active involvement not just with the literary world, but within the other terrains of our lives.
None of this is to suggest that, for example, we should reject a poet like Frank O’Hara simply because so much of his work is devoted to pop, nor am I saying that history alone is the source of any real rejuvenation of society or the arts. All I am saying is that writers who what to affirm “the commons” as opposed to the “enclosures” of humanity will be, as Aristotle said, performing an act of memory-- in the potential service of others. That performance can inspire others who want to stand up against the enclosures of life and the mind, the sealed-off and stagnant notions of what politics can be. The more work we have that expands the realm of knowledge and beauty, that refuses to affirm the corporate, technological and state-oriented enclosures of speech, thought, and experience, the larger the commons become.