“Poetry is dead!” It’s an edgy and intriguing title for a poetry event on 9th December 2015, part of the Brisbane Powerhouse’s end of year Wonderland Festival. Presenter J.M.Donellan and musician Mike Wilmett highlight contemporary poetry using elements of hip hop and stand up. The defiant “is dead” also suggests they think poetry has had its day. So we get a contradiction whereby poetry is thought of as both dead and alive.
However, in representing the performance, Donellan made it clear to me he is not interested in this contradiction. He was quick to remind me that there is more to poetry than such a paradox. “Poetry is dead” is just a name, any intrigue is on loan. While the pair’s subject matter is up to them, what I will now argue is that the shallow use of “Poetry is dead” to simply appear intelligent has exactly the opposite effect. Whether or not poetry is in fact dead, Donellan and Wilmett’s cynical approach to it must be a dead end.
To uncover the problem we can first ask: Why is the handle “Poetry is dead” so edgy? Not all contradictions are that intriguing. “Square circle,” for instance, just seems plain dumb. Obviously to doubt the value of poetry itself is audacious.
1.Some historical background
The audacity to suggest poetry is dead goes back to the avant-garde. Following Greek etymology, poetry came to stand in for all creativity, as well as art itself (‘poiesis‘). ‘Creativity’ we can take to be the transformative expression of unusual ideas, including about expression itself. ‘Art’ then tells us something about what we mean by ‘unusual.’ Types of art indicate where certain expressions fit or do not fit into broader society: folk art, high art, commercialised art, graff art and so on.
Around the time of the Great War (1916), the Dadas were early avant-gardists making fun of the elitist nature of much art. This was in part because an elite had ordered them into the trenches. The Dadas also believed everyone is creative in their own way, and they wished to liberate that creativity.
For the same reason later similar avant-gardists like the Surrealists and The Situationist International bought into Marx’s idea of revolution. Here the means of production are placed at the service of creativity, not market madness. The avant-garde developed an idea of generalising creativity. We could have non-stop poetry where today we have drudge. We could have evocative cities where today we have family values, 2.5 kids, 1.4 cars, suburbia and CBDs. As some types of art already promise, folk art or graff art for instance, if people had the leisure and resources, everyone could be creative, mutually enriching each other’s lives.
Here comes the contradiction. If everyone is a poet, there are no more poets. If art is everywhere, then it’s nowhere. It becomes impossible to distinguish art or poetry from the rest of a superior society. Poetry is dead, we have killed it you and I. Yet, as well, poetry is realised.
The avant-garde were twentieth century movements, but their message is urgent today. We live in an energy economy which is literally destroying the world. Our labour is used to make weapons of all sorts, including those which could wipe out life. Alongside starvation we find insane overproduction, alongside mindless work we find the pointless duplication of tasks. Next to landfill we find planned obsolescence. Beside horror lives boredom. The liberation of creativity is the solution to all this.
The idea of liberated creativity certainly moves us beyond poetry as concerns Donellan. It includes the transformative expression of unusual ideas about renewable power. Intelligent transport. Creativity liberated and generalised means fantastic cities instead of weaponry. It is re-configuring how we relate to each other when it comes to producing food and cleaning toilets. The “poetry is dead” slogan imparts an urgent sense in which poetry must die for the salvation of us all. But just because historically “Poetry is dead” as a slogan has had these overtones, what exactly is the problem with Donellen and Wilmett simply concentrating on more recent performative poetics?
Ignoring the avant-garde.
So given the concerns of the avant-garde move us beyond art, Donellan might object that he should not have to deal with the avant-garde and their contradiction in Poetry is dead. Along these lines Donellan told me he loved da da and surrealism (of course!), but only as one of his many influences.
Donellan could likewise object that the title of a performance does not have to dictate its content. He’d be right. In 2009 I saw The Origin Cycle by Jane Sheldon and Peter Godfrey-Smith. The title of the piece of music referred to the title of Darwin’s work, The Origin of Species. But even though Godfrey-Smith is a noted philosopher of science, I did not go along to demand arguments around natural selection. Instead I just enjoyed some music.
However, in terms of what’s in a name, Poetry is dead is altogether different to The Origin Cycle. We must consider the urgency with which the need for creativity confronts the human race. We must also consider the audience confronted with the contradiction between death and life in Poetry is Dead, only to find Donellan and Wilmett deaden poetry by avoiding the important issue with creativity raised by last century’s avant-garde.
The problem is that professionalised artists increasingly feel the need to adopt elitist ideas of art. Even if paying lip service to street poetry, they need to justify their own professionalised position by avoiding the issue of generalised creativity. Confronted with the accelerating amount of DIY art produced since even before punk, they network and compete within their networks rather than engage with the issue of how creativity could be coordinated en masse. They lock out, or use unacknowledged, many cases that would show them up. They laud favourites to further their professional development.
In my exchange with Donellan, he then justified his Poetry is dead branding on the basis that other art practicioners, no doubt themselves savvy careerists, also use it. He brushed off my concerns, giving me the “heads up” that his show is poetry, theatre, comedy and irreverence, not theory. Needless to say, it would be odd to think of Dante’s comedy as separate from his social critique of the medieval church, or Shelly’s poetry from his sophisticated understanding of emerging British industry.
Donellan also claimed his “poetry is dead” byline referred to old fashioned poetry. “In with the new, out with the old!” he declares, perhaps also thinking it is the new poetry that avoids theory. But a change of the poetic guard is not the same as poetry being dead, even if the newer poets he has in mind are anti-intellectual. Donellan helps himself to avant-garde kudos to which he is not entitled. He uses the “Poetry is dead” slogan to awkwardly advertise himself in a market that the slogan was intended to abolish.
Nevertheless Donellan’s endeavour could have easily been saved. He could have been a little more enthusiastic about discussion afterwards. After all, participation is at issue. The presentation of poetry could have then segued into the glaring contradiction of the brand naming of his and Wilmett’s performance, and other content in their show discussed besides. Win win. Instead Donellan semi-politely fobbed me off when I suggested this. Along with poetry, he obviously thinks public discussion has died, and it is time for the public to sit back like good passive little consumers of art.
Even without seeing their show I can only conclude that it is a mistake for Donellan and Wilmett to use the title “Poetry is dead.” A little further attention to the issue would have made a big difference to this conclusion. But their impoverished understanding of art theory ensures nothing of the kind will happen. They are left displaying only a faux cleverness, and the way the pair has used the slogan Poetry is dead gives entirely the wrong message about poetry itself. For that reason my advice is boycott.
Graphics: a publicity shot of Donellan and Portrait of Cezanne by Francis Picarbia (1920). The event in question is here.