Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Metaphysicals

I just come across a rewriting of Andy Warhol's phrase, for the new "social software" world. Here, everybody will be famous for 15 people. I've not been able to trace who said it first, so sorry about that. I'm actually writing a story about this subject as well! (I'm writing a story about most things, at one time or another, it seems, but that's mainly because I start more than I finish, like a particularly badly prepared marathon runner.) I'm indebted to Baroque in Hackney, for pointing our A.S. Byatt's referencing John Donne, if only because for the last few months I've been ruminating on an essay called "Towards a new metaphysical poetry." Ms. Baroque makes the telling remark that "So much current, anecdotally-based poetry just seems tame and pale to me." Which sums up my own view, though because so much contemporary poetry is anecdotally-based, it sometimes seems that even this mild criticism is an attempt to stab the sickly beast to death, best to see if it fades away of its own illness. But what is "metaphysical poetry"? I remember my O Level English teacher struggling with any definition that made sense, particularly since the metaphysicals themselves, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Marvell etc. were all so very different. T.S. Eliot's words seems as valid as ever, that

“…thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.”

But what would a new metaphysical poetry look like? We've not the religious backbone that underscored these writers (and those who have that backbone seem incapable of realising how it should be flexible, not rigid). Yet, prior to the romantic finding God in nature, the metaphysicals were finding nature (or life) in a "living" God. But are our writers looking for the metaphysical? I think they are. Compare these lines from Simon Armitage's first book "Zoom!"

“Heard the one about the guy from Heaton Mersey?

Wife at home, lover in Hyde, mistress

in Newton-le-Willows and two pretty girls

in the top grade at Werneth prep.”

With the last poem in his "Selected Poems" -:

“I looked for an end, for some dimension

to hold hard and resist. But I still exist.”

Anecdote replaced by the unfamiliar? I think so. And the metaphysical narrative that he applied recently to the the anniversary of the World Trade Centre attack, shows he's still looking in that direction. I'm not for a minute pretending this is Armitage's primary aim, he might well be horrified to be so analysed. I only use him as a familiar example: but I think it shows that whatever the merits of an anecdotal poetry are, they have limits - and it's not the romantic imagination that can be relied on to expand that range, but a metaphysical view of the world. Yet, we are either pragmatists (we work, we buy, we play, we consume), or fundamentalists (green, Christian, nationalistic) in our every day life. The metaphysical imagination seems to require a fundamental layering of our physical needs under our mental and psychological needs, so that we cannot address the one without the other. A new Ikea is hardly what we need.

So why did I begin with that quote about "famous for 15 people?" Perhaps because the internet is moving painfully, awkwardly, and not-all-that successfully, towards this "layering." It's no more than a pragmatic solution on the one hand - and has its own fundamentalists on the other. But given a "need", can it provide a "solution?" Though Donne was famous in his life, as Dean of St. Pauls, and particularly for his later religious poetry, the poems that now make his name along with those of Marvell and Herbert, to name just two, had the smallest of circulations whilst alive. "Famous for 15 people" indeed. And it makes me ask, that in the gap between the pragmatist and the fundamentalist, how wide can our circle of understanding be? Millions can enjoy "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, untold millions can be born into a religion that affects every aspect of their life; more copies of the Ikea catalogue can be distributed by the Bible, but both will sit on the shelves of their respective pragmatist and fundamentalist audience, flicked through, at a surface level. A metaphysical sensibility has its own limits; perhaps a micro-audience of 15 people. Don't turn that dial.

1 comment:

Ms Baroque said...

Very interesting! And thanks for reading my thing... you raise some fascinating ideas. I feel a bit galled at maybe not digging in deep enough.

I was probably too cheap with my "pale and tame" remark; those aren't even very interesting adjectives, and anecdote can of course be interesting. But like anything else, it's what you do with it.

Anyway, I'll think about what you've written! It's too late to make any sense right now.