I’m thinking about resistance. Frozen resistance. I think one can exist in a state of resistance without an object, but only if a substantial part of the personality is statuesque. I have a resistance to group-cohesion that doesn’t always produce action and sometimes incapacitates it. I don’t think it’s voluntary because it doesn’t have a coherent philosophy—which I suppose is why it’s frozen. I wonder if philosophies sometimes arise because we have a recurring or sustained state of resistance, rather than the other way around. If resistance is a response to something, is it inevitably subject to that thing? Do we resistant people often forget this for the sake of an element of hardness?
The imposing of constraints is a question of resistance—the creation of a difficulty. The most interesting and skilful art must be in a state of resistance—to carelessness, to mediocrity, to balance, to lack of balance, to previous art, to certain points of view, to the medium, to aspects of the genre itself. In this case, the resistance is always active.
A statue’s “way of breathing is to lose itself . . . with each exhalation the stone is less.”(1)
– Vahni Capildeo: “Too Solid Flesh”
In her introduction to Last Year in Marienbad, Ginette Vincendeau says that the film comprises a series of refusals:
refusal of conventional storytelling
refusal of stability of point of view
refusal of stability of character
refusal of chronology
refusal of naturalism(2)
I’m struck by this description of something in terms of what it's not. The word “alternative” is meaningless if you’re not familiar with what the speaker means by “mainstream.” The alternative is only such as long as it remains resistant or “other.” In a primarily “liberal” society (where equal opportunity is accepted as a fundamental principle) fascists consider themselves alternative. On the other hand, in a liberal society the majority, having once been “alternative” may think themselves into a kind of fulfilled Bliss where the enthronement of the Equality Principle makes the language of resistance a kind of fashion rather than something won by experience.
Caroline Bergvall’s position is different. The goal here is to keep raising questions. A Socratic door-opening process. There’s resistance to the establishment of any “right” way. Open the can of worms and let them writhe.
. . . my sense is that Performance Writing would wish to inscribe itself within debates that revel in conflict. Conflict at a formal as well as an ideological level.
– Caroline Bergvall(3)
Alice Notley is aware of the fundamental paradox in resistance or disobedience. Her formula is to see all positions as temporary. Resistance becomes statuesque only as a touchstone. She declares her practice as the adoption of “a particular form or set of rules” that serve her for a while, depending on the particular work in process. “But NO DOCTRINES.”(5)
For a long time I've seen my job as bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well. For a long time—well in fact since the beginning, since I learned how to be a poet inside the more rebellious wing of poetry; though learning itself meant a kind of disobedience, so like most words the Dis word, the Dis form, cannot be worshipped either—and that would be an obedience anyway.
– Alice Notley(4)
The central resisting component in Alice Notley’s work, she says, is the “I.” “I” resists definition. The Descent of Alette was a rebellion against “dominant social forces, against the fragmented forms of modern poetry, against the way a poem was supposed to look according to both past and contemporary practice . . .” The overseer of the metro to which Alette allegorically descends, is:
I can extract myself
from that emotion
Throughout this 145-page poem, the poet isolates individual phrases in quotation marks, emphasising, presumably, the fact that all language is originally spoken by the symbolic order and no words are one’s own. The text is formally resistant as a result.
“a tyrant” “a man in charge of” “the fact” “that we were”
“below the ground” “endlessly riding” “our trains, never surfacing”(7)
I’ve only just discovered her work, but my impression, based on her own statements and on the few texts I’ve read, is that her focus from 1998 has been on the communication of lived experience, on “what was going on most literarily around one, the pregnant body, and babies for example.” She perceived this as requiring opposition to the “practices of literary males.”(9)
It's possible that my biggest act of disobedience has consistently, since I was an adolescent, been against the idea that all truth comes from books, really other people's books . . . Not believing, then, became the crux of Disobedience . . .(8)
The raging debates set off by Rebecca Watts in PN Review 239 (January-February 2017)(10) in relation to the poetic credentials of “instapoets” and performance poets have something to do with my ruminations on resistance. My own inherent resistance has been, I think, against crystallisation, both the necessary personal sort and the monumental unmoving sort. Resistance like that can leave you outside all the doors. I've learned that this resistance must be further resisted by conscious discipline. Fortunately I’ve always respected and engaged with the long-established complexities of poetry as much as I’ve wanted to play with newer methods. Probably fortunately also, I don’t really have the ability to be populist.
I wonder if educators have played a large role in changing the perception of poetic standards. With greater educational resources and more emphasis on free expression, poetry has become something of a pragmatic tool. Or should I say the notion of poetry. A young person puts some words together to say what she’s feeling, arranges them in lines, and because everybody has something to say, the arrangement is called a poem and put on the wall. What’s the alternative? It encourages. It might create the deluded hope of success without effort, but time and the profession will probably set that right.
Then every so often someone arises as a genuinely talented voice of her/his community. Rap artists and performance poets wouldn’t win audiences if they couldn’t produce coherent, relevant work and be dramatically effective presences. Can we think of them as balladeers, verbal motivators, versifying polemicists, on the literary spectrum? Can they be protagonists of the resistance of the self-concerned “I,” within a modern social paradigm where that “I” is forced into performativity and the presentation of an “accessible” face? rupi kaur is, at her best, verbally economical, sexually brash in the face of her inherited culture, celebratory of both her gender and her culture, aware of personality paradox:
my legs spread apart
like an easel with a canvas
begging for art
. . .
so that’s what you do
you command attention
. . .
skin the color of earth
my ancestors planted crops on
to feed a lineage of women with
thighs thick as tree trunks
eyes like almonds
. . .
don’t tell me my women
aren’t as beautiful
as the ones in
I like clarity, but I don't want total transparency. Though I think she planned her pieces neatly I’m not sure I'm on solid ground. I’m not sure she can laugh at herself. I got bored. Many others can and have said the same in a more satisfying and powerful manner, but she has hit the optimal note at the right time in the right medium and produced an effective saleable commodity. In this sense she’s professional and knows her audience. She has an audience. Though Rebecca Watts may be right about the fetishization of certain groups, there’s a resistance of cultural norms here that might breed artists. And she might grow more craftily resistant in time.
(1) Capildeo, Vahni. Measures of Expatriation, Manchester: Carcanet, 2016.
(2) Resnais, Alain (director), Robbe-Grillet, Alain (writer). Last Year in Marienbad.
(3) "What do we Mean by Performance Writing?"
(4) “The Poetics of Disobedience.”
(5) opus ibid.
(6) “Do You Want To Be Excellent An A Actress No Not That Either” from Disobedience, New York: Penguin, 2001. Poem online here.
(7) The Descent of Alette.
(8) “The Poetics of Disobedience,” op. cit. Referring to her book, Disobedience, New York: Penguin, 2001.
(9) opus ibid.
(10) See also Don Paterson’s reply at The Guardian and “No Filter” by Soraya Roberts at The Baffler.
(11) Milk and Honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas, 2015, 57, 62, 170.