Manifesto: W.N. Herbert – “Seven Small Confessions to Ernesto Cardenal”

I keep a defrosting mammoth slumped on pallets in my mother’s asbestos-lined garage. It’s made of boxes of papers, and I think of it as my archive. Here you will find evidence of my brown paper bag fetish, hundreds of poems being catalogued by red spiders, and Ernesto Cardenal’s ‘Some Rules for Writing Poetry’, which begins, “Writing good poetry is easy, and the rules for doing so are few and simple.”

I must confess to the revolutionary Nicaraguan poet priest that, since I put his seven helpful hints in a box twenty years ago, I have become a curmudgeon of complexity. I don’t like PoBiz, bureaucrats, or divas of all genders. I don’t like agendas, and I don’t much like manifestos.

The manifesto’s relationship with authoritative utterance is a bit kinky. There’s a touch of the narcissist in declaring how it should be for everyone without admitting how much of that is just for you. “Should” is always a bit shouty. So here instead are seven small confessions to Cardenal.

1. Why isn’t it obvious that writing good poetry is easy? I confess I always get spatchcocked between contradictory principles, pulling me away from any simple act of writing.

On the one hand I am governed by story – that urge to narrativise our lives which led Cervantes to create Quixote, a character in a novel convinced that his life is a novel. On the other I am (more) compelled by symbol – that hovering significance Wordsworth felt in his stolen boat, unsettled by a trick of perspective.
What happens when our stories don’t map onto the divorce, the car crash, the diagnosis? Or when the symbolism of my dream/coincidence/hunch turns out to be trivial/opaque/self-justifying?

When my theory about British poetry won’t map onto what’s happened (history inexplicably omits to mention me)? Or when those ideas we thought were constant as things – love, European Unions, liberal values – turn out to be mere unexamined metaphors?
Usually, we simplify, but it turns out wrong. We subscribe to totalising theories; we assume failure isn’t part of the practice. Our categories contract to the defensive.

2. Contemporary poetry is particularly vulnerable to simplification by synecdoche, where complex groups are represented by a few symbolic figures. These groups, of course, tend to be other than metropolitan, mainstream, or media-friendly, and so I confess to the resentment of not belonging to this trinity.

When the movers feel shaky, they categorise us by opposed binaries: young/old, straight/queer, mad/sane, English/other, bourgeois/prole, mainstream/experimental – as though they were the grounds and figures of mad bureaucratic metaphors.

Naturally, these are not equals: one side always gets the rawer deal. The norm gets commissioned, reviewed, awarded, so the abnorm must also have prizes – only the discrimination is never positive enough, because that involves critical perspective. And money. So just the good ones. The synecdoches.

Cardenal, you know that when writers absorb the bureaucrats’ metaphor, even poetry, that profitless pursuit, begins to kowtow to a phantom of business-ness like those which, thanks to neoliberalism, haunt our institutions.

Such writing isn’t just influenced by previous writing, it conforms to it. Mainstreamers ossify their tradition, experimentalists embalm theirs. Two-party systems are easier thinkening for the orthopractic because the other party is always wrong, getting you where your ego wants to be: right?

As most of us are giant baby thinkers, our greatest exemplar is Trump, who inhabits a continuum of imbecile negative capability. Like a tangerine Whitman he perpetually yawps, “Do I contradict myself? Very well. I am bigly, I contain aporias.”

3. Only years of ignominious failure can save us from ourselves. It is more important to fail than to be famous.

Welcome to poetry’s Championship league, Ernesto: The Secondary, realm of Also-Ran Zarathustras, minor literatures which almost but don’t quite need a translation.

(‘Why is the Secondary third?’ Cardenal grumbles.)

Translation is the governing metaphor for the Secondary – those who resist or are rejected by the dominant modes of a period in which we are thrown back on distinctions of identity (race, nationality, gender, sexuality, class) only to find them so unsettled and troubling.

As a Scottish poet who translates, I confess we use two tactics which imply we treat ourselves as texts to be translated for a dominant standard English reader: either we domesticate, rendering ourselves front-runners for synecdoche, or we foreignise, self-deselecting in search of fewer, somehow truer, readers.

So we either use an English that, like first the Empire, then these islands, is being forced into acknowledging more and more Englishes within it, until ‘within’ ceases to mean; or we deploy a Scots that isn’t someone else’s idea of a Northern British working-class speech.

4. The dominant element in any binary feels under so little pressure to assay their privilege because (sing it, Ernesto), we’re all living in a self-reinforcing neurological and ideological Continuity.

In the narrative/symbol binary, we reveal ourselves by assuming ‘books’ refer to novels, and ‘writers’ are novelists. Poets and poetry books become, as our media demonstrates, peripheral. Here the synecdoches are that realism stands for reality, prose for language. We are, apparently, speaking prose as well as writing it; we all, it seems, think in it too. Prose is everywhere except in the other of the poem.

I know you disagree, Ernesto: you find the poetic interwoven throughout experience. Wordsworth notes that the emergence of metrical rhythm throughout prose indicates these are not opposites.

But I confess the thing which prevents us getting outside the cardboard box of Continuity is, unconsciously, poetic: the return of the symbolic in the form of universal and invisible metaphor.

Concepts are metaphors that don’t mean us harm but do it anyway, like mosquitoes. Capitalism isn’t a monolith we can move away from. Commodities aren’t symptoms we can treat. Money isn’t as indivisible from us as gut flora.

We are driven everywhere including mad by metaphors, mostly bad ones we didn’t notice.

5. I confess I’ve been obsessing again over a line by W.S. Graham. This time it’s from ‘The Nightfishing’, that great poem of 1955 which, overlooked in favour of the Movement, led to his long dark silence of the Secondary. It is: “The sea as metaphor of the sea”.

There is a sea-sickening undermining there – “soft sift” in the sensibility’s hourglass, as Hopkins says. Metaphor has become utterly fundamental, the means by which we believe that what we perceive is real: things appear to us as though they are themselves, and as metaphors before they are things.

Norman MacCaig was another Scot obsessed with how metaphor shaped perception. When, in ‘Summer Farm’, he compares his anxiety to a grasshopper which “unfolds his legs and finds himself in space”, I’m reminded of Frost castigating the surreal as “kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.

Frost directs us rather toward the contract between writer and reader – if one lacks surprise, so will the other: a binary which assumes shared narrative assumptions. But, as the West’s political and economic primacy begins slipping, so too does its cultural stability: common referential ground like this becomes as unstable as an ice shelf.

MacCaig anticipates this by translating such narratives into a succession of startlingly just images which reveal the poem’s sensibility. Like Graham, he is strung up between four points: on one axis, his symbols counterpoint his narrative, but on another, his metaphors challenge our perceptual frame, implying Frost’s contract with the reader needs rewriting.

6. Neuroscience tells us a tiny Trump of consciousness is bounced around in our brain as that great automaton, our body, goes about its business, belatedly claiming, “I did that!” We find the meal has been successfully digested, the car has marvellously driven itself miles down the motorway, our hand is trying out the wrong key, but for the right door.

The Quixote of the mind may be governed by the Panza of the gut brain. Like Wordsworth in his rowboat, something appears strange to us if it first appears strange to the body. The symbolic manifests itself by destabilising story; metaphor articulates this rupture by the split into ground and figure.

So when you approach metaphor’s ground and figure as equal partners, or consider ground as mind and figure as body, or vice versa, you slew away from things as they are supposed to be supposed.

When you consider the metrical pattern of a poem not as acquiescence to tradition, but as articulated resistance to the assumption prose completely represents writing and speech, you question whether poetry must be prose’s bitch.

How the hell do you do that? yells Cardenal. I confess: I don’t rightly know.

But I find myself in every poem trying to slew away from the certainties of form, tone, or discourse I discovered through drafting it. Wishing each poem would resist our ego’s urge toward authority and, momentarily, evade the Continuity. Hoping this slew will recalibrate Frost’s old metaphor: that the poem “ride[s] on its own melting”.

7. I confess that, after twenty years of ‘study’, I’m unable to speak more than Restaurant Greek. But, eventually, I do get the etymology. So it was with ‘??????????’ (newspapers), and the floating, indeed, melting world of the Ephemeral, a condition that contrasts with the old eternal verities.

Running a daily blog of political poems, as Andy Jackson and I did between the 2015 General Election and the one this June, made me think of this as the Secondary’s natural habitat.

After the usual white male rush, we had an increasingly various constituency of Pantisocratic losers. Ephemerality induced diversity, dialogues began between the days. Simply to keep going, we became editorially polystylist.

Some poems in New Boots and Pantisocracies were absolutely of their moment, and will represent it for years to come. Others had their whole meaningful life, like mayflies (or May-bots), in that day’s publication. Others still stood apart, testifying through their slewing away from expectation.

Here was the psychopathology of everyday poetry, exposing us in all our fixations and failings, our eloquence and interdependence. Here was poetry, not lauded by media nor pushed by funders; not aloof from the anxieties of these times, but fully invested in them.

It led me to imagine a poetics of the Englishes, subversively peripheral, alert to everything the authoritative dismisses as epiphenomenon, seeking in it solidarity and the incremental seeds of change.

Will it be good? Times will tell. Will it be easy? Enough of that. Will it be simple? What can I say, Ernesto? Forgive me.

The Poetry Review 1073 shadowW.N. Herbert is mostly published by Bloodaxe; recent collections include Omnesia and Murder Bear (Donut Press). This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 107:3, Autumn 2017, where it appears alongside ‘manifestos’ by Roger Robinson, Jay Bernard and Rita Ann Higgins. © The Poetry Review and the author.