Non-fiction poetry


Lisa Gorton

Today I moved all my books. Here was further proof that I am not Walter Benjamin. I did not develop a single insight into the nature of collecting. I did think of Ivor Indyk’s essay, ‘The Book and Its Time’, in which he describes a scene from Arnold Bennett’s book, Riceyman Steps: ‘In the dining room there are more books, settled on the dining table, the sideboard, the mantelpiece, the chairs, the floor; in the bedroom the wardrobe is stuffed with books; in the bathroom the bath is full to the brim and overflowing with them…’. There were moments, at the top of the ladder, when my feeling expressed itself in a vision of the whole edifice splitting from the wall, and burying me in books and dust.

Taking a break, I opened Ruskin’s Frondes Agrestes. There, I happened upon his manifesto, ‘Principles of Art’. Point 13: ‘But the mass of sentimental literature concerned with the analysis and description of emotion, headed by the poetry of Byron, is altogether of a lower rank than the literature which merely describes what it saw. The true seer feels as intensely as any one else; but he does not much describe his feelings. He tells you whom he met, and what they said…’.

I have a great liking for manifestos: they are so hopeful. Reading Ruskin’s manifesto, I was put in mind of the Realpoetik manifesto that Jessica Wilkinson and Ali Alizadeh published the other week. Here are some points from it: ‘The Realpoetik demands a poetic reclamation of the historical field, the biographical portrait, the autobiographical reflection, the scientific analysis of facts. The Realpoetik demands that poets join novelists, historians, memoirists, biographers and philosophers as writers of the real world.’ Yes, I thought, looking over my bookshelf. Here are the historians and the memoirists, biographers and philosophers. Here is Laurie Duggan’s Ash Range, Ken Bolton’s At the Flash and At the Baci, Ruth Padel’s and Emily Ballou’s biographies of Darwin; here is J.S. Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. Wilkinson’s and Alizadeh’s manifesto is part of a wider impatience with the lyric mode.

Only I don’t like their term: nonfiction poetry. The trouble is with non-fiction itself: it is too much in the habit of plain-speaking. Inwardness, recalcitrance, awkwardness: these exist; and justify difficult and fantastical modes. Also, the real world seems so often out of reach. I mean, I seem too often to be reaching for it with some dream instrument.

Reading Rabbit, however, Wilkinson’s journal of non-fiction poetry, I find that I have no argument with anything but the term. Here is a sparky and principled journal. I’m reading issue 6, The Age Issue, which Bonny Cassidy guest-edited. For this issue, Kate Fagan judged an Under-21 Poetry Competition. Zoe Blain won with ‘A Supermarket in Victoria’: a wide-open, tough-minded poem which ends: ‘and every grey rabbit reminds me of my sister’s/ rabbit that died/ of myxomatosis which is a bit like Ebola./ That rabbit sat on the couch for weeks rasping and rattling/ until my brain fell out of my head and begged to be put down/ shot with this stuff that cost eighty bucks a hit/ she cried but/ it had blood coming out its eyes and was going to die anyway.’ Other highlights: Duncan Hose’s pictures and his artist statement: ‘I prefer working with ink on paper as together they have a great fidelity to nuisance, to accident, and to remorse when you fuck it up.’ Also, it includes Alan Wearne dreaming future poets into existence, and Mal McKimmie tackling non-fiction: ‘I don’t see why a thought is not considered a fact: it exists…’

Thinking of manifestos, I get out Towards the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950. What is surprising is how alike most manifestos are in tone, and how, more than anything they assert, the style in which they assert it defines their values. Of all these manifestos, my favourite is Gertrude Stein’s ‘Poetry and Grammar’. It starts: ‘What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose.’ Later: ‘Everything has a lot to to do with poetry everything has a lot to do with prose. And has prose anything to do with poetry and has poetry anything to do with prose.’ Maybe that’s a useful distinction for understanding the Realpolitik manifesto. Maybe Alizadeh and Wilkinson mean that poetry has to go after that everything; maybe that doesn’t mean that poetry has to go after prose. This is what Stein wrote about the difference: ‘Poetry is I say essentially a vocabulary just as prose is essentially not. And what is the vocabulary of which poetry absolutely is. It is a vocabulary entirely based on the noun as prose is essentially and determinately and vigorously not based on the noun.’ And, ‘And so that is poetry really loving the name of anything and that is not prose.’

OK, maybe it’s hard to summarise.

Ruskin again, point 17: ‘Examine the nature of your own emotion, (if you feel it,) at the sight of the Alps; and you find all the brightness of that emotion hanging, like dew on gossamer, on a curious web of subtle fancy and imperfect knowledge. First you have a vague idea of its size…– then, and in very sadness, a sense of strange companionship with past generations, in seeing what they saw. They did not see the clouds that are floating over your head, nor the cottage wall on the other side of the field… But they saw that… Then, mingled with these more solemn imaginations, come understandings of the gifts and glories of the Alp; — the fancying forth of all the fountains that well from its rocky walls … We call the power ‘Imagination,’ because it imagines or conceives; but it is only noble imagination, if it imagines or conceives the truth.’

2 thoughts on “Non-fiction poetry

  1. Dear Lisa. Thanks for a great post, and for addressing our manifesto. I think your list of the books that could fit this description is very interesting, and your point about the real world being out of reach is totally valid. In fact, it’s precisely because of this — the real world being, in a hegelian sense, impossible — that I feel poets should go after it with renewed vigour. I like Stein’s point about the centrality of the noun to the poetic — and i understand your reason for including it here — but i also fear that a perception of the poem being based on the noun does away with, precisely, the impossibility of the real world and makes poetry, in the actual Platonian sense, sophistic: it sees language as capable of (appearing to be) displacing the impossibility of the Real. I feel the term non-fiction, plain as it may sound — & regardless of its uses in publishing industry jargon, ‘creative industries’ and so on — does a good job of describing a poetics that neither ignores nor aims to supplant the Real. Anyhow, thanks again for an engaged and supportive post.

    – Ali Alizadeh

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