Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Catatonically Speaking

For me, Salvador Dali’s painting “Visage of War” signifies both all that is wrong and all that is right with the world.
It represents what is wrong because it reflects the vulgar voracity of war, through the endless repetition of skulls inside the mouth and eyes, which symbolize the infinite horrors set in motion by violent conflict.
On the other hand, the painting represents what is right with the world because it is an artistic depiction of death, and although skulls are intrinsically unappealing (well, to some timid types, anyway; I have always found them fascinating), in Dali’s painting they evoke the “bleak beauty” of death. For if you want to wax poetic about it, that’s what death is – bleakly beautiful.
Of course, that’s not to champion the sick reality of war. But since death is inevitable, I do believe we must locate some purpose cloaked within it to more easily absorb its grim gravity. And art is a vehicle that helps us discern meaning behind disturbing ideas and events.
So Dali’s painting appeals to me on both the political and poetic levels. Politically, it takes a strong stance against war, and yet poetically, it stands as a strangely moving meditation on death.
This issue of Clockwise Cat is concerned with political poetry and fiction. Each issue of The Cat contains polemics, to be sure, and sometimes even political satire. But until now, with the exception of a few pieces, we have not showcased explicitly political fiction and poetry.
I’ll be honest: For a long time, I was skeptical of overtly political poetry, because I hadn’t found a lot of it to work very well. What I read often devolved into pedantic cliché. I love reading political screeds of the prose variety, and indeed am a prolific writer of my own polemics. And I also feel that political fiction - at least what I’ve read - has generally worked well. The form of poetry, on the other hand, does not, in my mind, genuinely lend itself to the polemical, for the polemical is subversively raw and assertive, while the poetic seems to work best with tantalizing nuance and layered implication.

Indeed, often my favorite type of poetry is that which is image-heavy, juxtaposes unusual ideas and words, and resonates with my subconscious thought process. In other words, in poetry I have often gravitated toward subtlety and novelty, and shunned sermons and platitudes.
But I began to change my mind about political poetry when I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind.”  Among other topics, Ferlinghetti treats themes of industrialization and the smashing of democracy. Such lines as

“I am waiting for a way
to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody” and “freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness”

are constructed with such creative conviction that one is hard-pressed to dismiss them as trite treatise.

And then of course there’s satire in Ferlinghetti: “The world is a beautiful place/to be born into/if you don't mind people dying/all the time/or maybe only starving some of the time” which is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

I have also of course basked in Allen Ginsberg’s pieces which commingle the political and the spritual.

Of course, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and their ilk are obvious picks for a discussion on political poetry. Less obvious is e.e. cummings. cummings is well known as a relentless innovator, and his inscrutable style teems with witty wordplay, punctuation rule-transgressions and inventive grammar games; his poems are eloquent riddles that are impenetrable at first read, but begin to unfold dazzlingly upon subsequent readings.
cummings' poetry also covers a vast variety of themes, and he is not necessarily seen as political poet. However, for me, one of the most starkly sociopolitical poems is cummings’ “pity this busy monster,manunkind.” The poem deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
pity this busy monster,manunkind,
not.  Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim(death and life safely beyond)
plays with the bigness of his littleness
-electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange;lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen until unwish
returns on its unself.
                                         A world of made
is not a world of born-pity poor flesh
and trees,poor stars and stones,but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence.  We doctors know
a hopeless case if-listen:there's a hell
of a good universe next door;let's go
                        e. e. cummings
For the virgin reader, the gist of this poem is that humans must counteract their “smallness” in the universe by aggrandizing themselves. They aggrandize themselves through “progress” – technological, and otherwise. And yet these ill-implemented programs of “progress” paradoxically cause regressive injury to the universe.
Obviously there are more layers to the poem, and if anyone is interested, I have written a more detailed deconstruction of it that I will be glad to share with you.
But anyway, this poem, to me, says it all: humans are egomaniacs. Our titanic egos, the poem seems to imply (or maybe I simply impose my own inference onto the piece), are the genesis of the world’s problems.
And yet the poem lays out this otherwise pedestrian theme in such a dynamically puzzling way, that it does not reek of preachiness, and it is certainly sans cliché.
I realize there are cummings detractors, those who feel that his style is intentionally unintelligible and bloated with tiresome enigmas. That’s fine, and I can certainly see their point. For me, cummings’ impish imagination is refreshing. cummings is the pre-eminent Cubist poet.
The point I am making is that one can write a political poem without disintegrating into platitudes, and in a style that is both challenging and entertaining.
This issue of Clockwise Cat bursts with sociopolitical poetry and fiction of the challenging and entertaining variety. Meditative musings share space with graphic polemical pieces which nestle up against nursey rhyme-style pieces which knock up against spoken word rants, and so on and so forth. You’ll see when you crack open the issue and take a gander. We are quite pleased with the variety of styles presented here.

Our featured poem is one that is not explicitly political, but glistens with social concern nonetheless, and was penned by a politically progressive activist and poet, Ronnog Seaburg. She recently lost her life to a battle with cancer, and so this issue is dedicated to Ronnog in order to preserve her vibrant memory. Ronnog is survived by her husband Steve, a multi-talented artistic maverick. May Ronnog rest in peace.

Of course, we also serve up polemics, plus a review of Anya Achtenberg’s monumental work, The Stone of Language, itself an artful tome exuding a keen sociopolitical conscience. And, finally, we give you picture poems, pretty paintings, and anti-Bush cartoons. Of course, Bush himself is a cartoon, a creepy caricature, really, but that’s another story for another time.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue of Clockwise Cat as much as we enjoyed putting it together. May you fritter and waste the hours in an offhand, politically incorrect way.

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