Speaking beyond the filter

George Quasha

Image by Susan Quasha and George Quasha


We need a transformation in this country. We need a transformation in the world. We need a transformation of our system, of our values, of our opportunities, towards love and justice and community. That’s why I write. I don’t want to be a writer against Trump.
I want to be a writer for transformation.

— Lina Srivastava, in video for Writers Against Trump[i]

And a transformation within language, in the very syntax of thinking, feeling, and acting in an endangered and dangerous world.

Addressing what’s happening at this particular moment in our collective experience is a lot harder than it might seem. Not that “we” don’t tend to agree in broad terms about the extraordinary challenge of the present — we being those who might actually read this series, poets and others interested in poetry with “a certain edge.” Rather because there’s so much agreement, the situation seems in fact to need somewhat less repetitive comment within the “group.” I can’t think of anyone I know, for instance, who isn’t experiencing fear of the terrifying consequences of the Abominable Four: a Trump win, another SCOTUS right-winger, more climate disaster, unending pandemic. This is a time of living with fear. More than any point in my lifetime there are sustained multiple dangers at a global level. And a special aspect of the present is that for the first time we can be confident the majority of people on the planet share related specific concerns, and they know it — they feel gross threat in common. Global has new meaning for us and approaches interchangeability with individual in the syntax of the present.

Our discourse in any given context filters our thinking. In a stance of personal or local concern, can we speak to the scale of the issue? How does language embody actual planet-sized interactive emergence? And what would be a useful syntax of poet discourse in this situation? I mean aside from the tinderbox of correctness that one and all are keen not to ignite in our expressions. Correctness is a razor’s edge but hardly a straight one. We all have opinions which we may express freely but perhaps do it more carefully these days; and we debate this or that strategy being employed, or not, to our side’s advantage. But obviously no one has anything like all the answers. “Our side” of course flexes its boundaries by the moment, depending on the dynamic. We say what we think while opinions expressed may be little more than momentary escape from anxiety: informed chatter, with style. Perhaps if we can get some agreement we’ll feel a little better. But despite our sophistication and vast acquired knowledge as information and long history of apparently competent critical thinking, we’re participating to some degree in socially approved escapism, no doubt at a “higher level.” And maybe it’s out of necessity to keep us somewhat sane. But it’s still tending toward automatic behavior, minus any actual new insights; who can resist the need to chime in? Otherwise we might appear to be indifferent or running scared. If we were able to travel now, maybe we could find common ground almost anywhere on the planet — an extraordinary fact in its own right, and one that, in other circumstances, might be cause for rejoicing. And maybe our relentless self-expression reduces some measure of public panic, who can be sure? But are there other options? I mean as poets — if indeed there’s a meaningful difference embodied in our we, those of us who have taken a poetic discipline to heart. I’m addressing a kind of conviction that poiesis would seem to hold implicitly: in principle, self-true language is substantially the basis of transformation.

What is so striking about Lina Srivastava’s statement is that she hits a level beyond opinion and personal preference in reaching toward the greater need, speaking at the level of principle — transformation. And yet she does it in a nuanced discourse of personal force and directness that performatively realizes its principle in the very fact that she is saying it. Writer, activist, and person unite in effectively projecting a presence that is in itself transformative. (Do watch the two minute video which the citation only partially invokes.) One doesn’t so much hear/read such a statement as undergo it. That means, in my way of thinking, it has a poetics.

Can we even detect how much of what we say is basically chatter, the discourse of unconscious comfortable aligning with the group with no call to difference? I think of much of what we do as making human noises in public. Sure, we may be honest in our expression of discomfort or informed opinion, and honesty is ever more clearly an important and seriously endangered value. And maybe it contributes to the public good that poets, often perceived as engaging in self-serving elaborations and proud constructions whether aesthetic or theoretical, can instead be perceived as sharing common fears and undramatized uncertainties. We too are just folks here. But to my mind it doesn’t foreground — it may even block — the question of what we as poets can contribute from the center of our actual practice.

I’m not pretending to offer a solution to this ancient problematic of poet in society; neither is this a call to help get out the vote, though I hope we all do. And I’m clear that working with Writers Against Trump is powerful action. Still, responding to the invitation to say something here, I’m stepping back and looking for a perspective that I can “honestly” share — in fact, I’m wondering aloud about the real value of poet discourse in hard times. After all it’s something we may never stop thinking about. And I do believe there is no one and lasting answer, so the question has a guaranteed long future.

It’s no doubt important for poets to think they make some kind of impact beyond a very limited sphere, and that’s not trivial. Hence the powerful group actions like Writers Against Trump and 1000 Poets for Change, as well as of course the longstanding human rights work of PEN, Amazon Watch, Amnesty International … fortunately the list is long. They give us a chance to be planetary level participants, beyond our own work. And obviously poetry itself has many functions, even unknown or unthought ones. Some poets clearly put the idea of public or political function in the foreground, and many don’t. The diversity of poetic functions is as important to keep in mind as any other kind of diversity, though perhaps not as obviously related to immediate necessity as the more acknowledged kinds. Diversity recognition seems to require a kind of fair-minded neutrality, at least provisionally: a space of some priority where unapproved behavior is allowed to flourish. That doesn’t seem to come much more easily for poets (e.g., “poetry wars”) than, say, racial diversity for insulated social groups.

Correctness is a hard act for poets, writers, and artists who so feed off going against the grain. Some of us see poetry as unauthorized discourse. Staying in step with consensus is alien behavior. Heresy is possibly even more a poetic than a religious tendency. And for good reason. Contrary action is basic to creative thinking in language. Poetic thinking may well originate in the intuitive awareness that diversity brings health to language mind. Comparable to diversity in the genome. Mutt health for strong stock.

I view diversity as something like a natural principle clearly operative at the biological and social levels but also at the level of multiplicity in poetic genre and especially within language process itself. If this is a genuine natural principle, it’s inherently contrary to the mainstream of almost anything cultural, which values consensus. Consensus necessarily tends toward the conservative; its important job is to conserve essential collectivity. But language goes to sleep when highly governed by consensus; it loses vitality. So the poetic function that interests me is sustaining an intensively creative diversity within language that makes new thinking possible.

New thinking is connected to poiesis as self-reinventing language. Poiesis is inherently antiauthoritarian. It goes beyond our discourse filters, those manifestations of our mind’s basic role as editor. It tries to work with the fact that mind discriminates veritably infinite data by its honed value filters — yet filters age and lose function. The truest and most challenging instances rarely if ever find a consistent home in our culture. The tricky part is that we’re attached to the culture that impedes us; we recognize its value, and it’s hard for humans not to seek approval at almost every level. Thinking has trouble monitoring itself in process. David Bohm said, “We could say that practically all the problems of the human race are due to the fact that thought is not proprioceptive.” That is, thought, unlike the body managing itself in balanced and self-corrective action, doesn’t work with feedback from its own process; rather it drives forward toward its goal of completion — and dominance, overcoming “chaos.” Conventional language enables this self-blindness. Our institutions protect the consensus as instrument of power. The historical instance of David Bohm is instructive, the way the power alliances of physics (starting with J. Robert Oppenheimer) suppressed his most radical discoveries (see the film Infinite Potential: The Life & Ideas of David Bohm). The politics of “truth” is at play pervasively in our culture, most recently in such weaponized memes as “fake news”; Trump mind is Oppenheimer mind is related to the part of our mind that is authority/model-driven and not regenerating itself in “proprioceptive” — indeed eco-proprioceptive — thinking, language, consciousness. This is one of the most basic inconvenient truths.

Thinking this way of course is problematic even for the kind of consensus we’re so drawn to at present — committed political action. How not to dilute public language (action) while sustaining unauthorized poetic free space? The paradox is authorizing the unauthorized. A positive point is that impossible language dilemma, actively embraced as principle, can serve as energic source of regenerative language possibility. Likewise times of great global stress may have value potential on different scales. We can think the value of forest fires on an appropriate scale even while experiencing the horror of the kinds happening now; in fact we need to do so. Likewise any powerful global awareness has the potential to reframe our way of thinking, our ways of language — provided we don’t go unconscious in usage out of fear or whatever urgencies drive consensus — like now. Our cultural acts, our skillful stylistics, our brilliant innovations may distract us from less evident kinds of urgency — to open the space for something truly other, radical in the kind of revelation that only shows up in unprecedented diversity of mind. What Gregory Bateson called “ecology of mind.” The kind our proud successes as much as our fears keep hidden.

In our drive for political consensus there’s danger of overriding the subtler impulses that are the seedlings of new insight and new globally focused awareness, the kind most urgently needed in our unprecedented crisis. And crisis is at once a spur and an obstacle to a revitalizing flexibility. In poetic and political terms, a practice of intentional variability in language prepares us to listen to each other. Speaking with listening — another possible name for poiesis — opens discourse to its lost middle voice, where speaker and listener, agent and recipient, share a further awareness toward transformation.

 October 1, 2020
Barrytown, New York


[i] Srivastava is founder of CIEL | Creative Impact and Experience Lab: https://www.linasrivastava.com/.

Photo credit: Susan Quasha

George Quasha’s most recent books are Not Even Rabbits Go Down This Hole (preverbs) (Spuyten Duyvil, 2020) and Poetry in Principle: Essays in Poetics (Dispatches Editions: Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). Relating to the present piece is “Eco/proprioception” in the recent ecopoetics anthology Poetics for the More than Human World.