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The disenchanted romanticism of James Brown.

In 1965 Kendrick Smithyman published a book on New Zealand poetics in which he noted the influence of romanticism; indeed, so obvious seemed the relationship to romanticism he labeled the observation 'pat'. (2) Beyond this, however, Smithyman noticed that within the 'romantic strain' of New Zealand poetry an "antiromantic writing, an inverse romanticism which [...] is the other side of the romantic medal' existed (italics in the original; p. 3). In effect, Smithyman was making a rather romantic point about the nature of romanticism--a point that was then, and certainly remains today, something of a trope of the mode: its antinomic structure. As Justin Clemens, among others, has pointed out, romanticism can thus be thought of as a name for a constituting antagonism, a structure we might loosely refer to as the romantic paradox. (3) This antinomy emerges most clearly, it seems, in attempts to define romanticism. Thus, romanticism is defined by the impossibility of its definition; its strength lies in its weakness; its power to create is its power to destroy; its disenchantments enchant. Such has been the appeal of this antinomic structure that it has come to feature as a local tradition for readers and writers in New Zealand who, as Bill Manhire has observed,
   are doubtful in an entirely pragmatic way. They want to
   give most things, including poems, a bit of a kick to find
   out just what they're for. And then, if they can, they'll
   say something fairly laconic. Another way of putting it
   would be to say that New Zealand's poets have always
   been skilled at practicing enchantment and
   disenchantment. Once upon a time they kept
   enchantment for one kind of poem and disenchantment
   for another. Now they set them down together on a
   single page. (4)

This is still the case, I argue, for much of James Brown's poetry. Indeed, I am going to suggest that for all its disenchantment with poetry--indeed, because of this disenchantment--Brown's poetry requires a romantic reading. To provide such a reading is not only to suggest a romantic continuity in the reading and writing of contemporary New Zealand poetry, it is also to identify as romantic a constituting crux in the scene of contemporary writing, one that might also explain why so much of this writing is met with critical silence. Moreover, to consider the extent and qualities of the romantic in Brown's work--the post-romantic romanticism to which so many of his personae give voice--is also to reflect on the silence the poems themselves seem to value and request. Broadly speaking, and perhaps most significantly, reading for romanticism provides a context for reading poetry against a globalised modernity that has never relinquished the romantic tropes it continues to appeal to in support of its power to enchant.

Such a romantic inheritance is apparent in a poem like 'Museums and Murals', and especially because of its appeal to both enchantment and disenchantment:
   Because it is so hard
   to react against
   the subtle indifference
   that we hardly notice

          I take the song of myself
          --which is stolen--
          cork it up and
          hurl it out to sea. (5)

If the intention is still romantic--'to react against a subtle indifference'--the performance is conspicuously post-romantic. If this is the enchanted intervention of some Shelleyan 'unacknowledged legislator' targeting the 'hard-to-notice' orthodoxy of a culture's regard for history or poetry, it is an intervention encompassed by a disenchantment with poetry itself. That is, of course, Whitman, the great American romantic, being tossed out to sea. But what makes this an important moment in Brown's oeuvre is this sense of 'paradoxical torsion', the poem's intervention as non-intervention, its romantic post-romanticism. (6)

Despite all those disenchanting gestures--the hurling away of poetry, the casting out of a poetic self ('the song of myself'), and with this the excesses of romanticism (the poem was 'stolen anyway')--poetry itself is preserved a place in enchanted wonder. But at what cost? In such an imagining poetry becomes a secret, a kind of silence: it becomes, precisely, a message-in-a-bottle estranged from the tricky business of authority' (that confessional-sounding 'I', the appeal to autobiography or authorial intention a reader might make), as well as audience: the bottled poem represents an indefinite deferral of reading. All of which perhaps comes as a relief for the anxious post-romantic concerned with the ways in which a poem might be used, appropriated, or otherwise consumed by an audience. On the one hand the poem charms with its references: Whitman, of course, but the glass bottle could also be Stevens's jar placed in Tennessee, or just as easily Keats's 'bride of quietness'. In this last reading Brown's 'unread' poem--that 'song' unsung--swells with the enchantment of Keats's 'unheard melodies'. On the other hand though, and crucially so, the process of invoking such charms is contingent on a symbolic relegation of the poem to flotsam and jetsam.

What becomes apparent as one reads through Brown's first four volumes is that where the poems express disenchantment with poetry--and with the legacy of romanticism's exaltation of the form--they do so in the context of an on-going engagement with the structures--symbolic and economic--of global capitalism. (7) In poems such as 'Identifying New Zealand Birdsong', 'Waterford II', 'Disempower Structures of the New World', 'Welfare', 'The Cost of Living', 'Silent Night' or 'Capitalism Explained', for example, Brown engages directly with the systems and structures, institutional and ideological, that influence even the most private aspects of our lives. Disenchantment is Brown's mode, and capitalism's 'systems of exchange', as he has referred to them, are often his concern. (8) And yet, in a kind of transference continually performed by the personae of his poems, these concerns are most commonly directed at poetry itself rather than at anything poetry might be used to reveal or critique. Poetry, it seems, stands in for the commodity form or, at the very least, becomes a vehicle for the expression and exercising of concerns about the way poetry-- and with this, the imprimatur of the author--might be appropriated and consumed. This is, as I've already suggested, a poetry marked by a self-consciousness about its own consumption.

Not surprisingly, warnings about poetry are apparent in the very' titles of many of Brown's poems. Often indexed to resignation, the titles proleptically disclose their disenchantments: 'From Today Personal Poetry is Dead' and 'The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry' are two of the more obvious examples. Other titles similarly evince anxieties about consumption: 'Vanishing Point', 'A New Position' and 'Second Person' all suggest authorial extraction points; 'learning to read', 'I do not know' and 'Secretly You Like Poetry" similarly offer notes of naivete, self-consciousness and playful humility', but to the effect of a kind of exemption of poet and poem from readings that might settle or reify. Fair enough, one might say, but to what extent? Anxieties about poetry, particularly in relation to the power associated with representation and composition, provide for titles like 'Form and Content', 'Creation' and 'Translation', which very soon become caveats and cavils: 'Responsibility', 'Betrayal', 'Guilty Spaces'. The inevitable postmodern tropes of ironic withdrawal follow. In 'University Open Day' the persona escapes the English Department 'before the poetry start[s]'; (9) the persona in 'Maintenance' halts mid-poem to ask: 'Don't you hate that sort of simile?', (10) while 'Turning Brown and Torn in Two' plays on the poet's name, anticipating a kind of degradation of both poet and poetic form to accompany the ever-present romantic topoi of separation, loneliness and exile--in this case, from one's authorial self. This poem's title suggests a persona well on the path towards becoming the ultimate romantic figure--the yet-living ruin. The process is completed in 'James Brown is Dead', which becomes one of the many 'impossible' poems written against the fact of their composition, authored by little more than a revenant, the mythical poet-self having long been 'hurled to sea'. In such an imagining the subject/poet escapes, leaving only an object-self, a ruined or exilic proxy.

The disenchantment of the author function, along with this disenchantment of the poem, perhaps offers the poet and reader the chance to exempt their text, their production and consumption of it, from the systems of commodity' exchange of which Brown is so wary. Poetry appeals, then, as Brown has said, precisely because it is 'divorced from the normal systems of exchange; it's sort of outside of them in a way. And that's its strength and its weakness. [...] I rather like the fact that poetry is kind of ineffectual'. (11) In many respects this is the governing conceit of Brown's poetic. It is because poetry is ineffectual (ruined, in a sense) that it can offer a critical perspective on those 'systems of exchange'. Brown evokes the spirit of romanticism when he insists on poetry's status as an 'exceptional outsider', and yet his personae so often voice positions of post-romantic disenchantment. This combination of the romantic and postromantic is evident in a poem like 'The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry'. Befitting the 'paradoxical torsion' of romanticism I've been describing, the poem starts with the cessation of poetry, and with a 'serenity' we might read as silence:
   The day I stopped writing poetry
   I felt strangely serene.
   Back when I first started, I had no idea
   what I was trying to do: get something out, perhaps,
   and I suppose 'art' had something
   to do with it. There's a tempting simplicity
   about poetry; you don't necessarily need
   the room, the desk, the glowing typewriter
   --a scrap of paper and a pencil will suffice.
   Some of my tidier lines often came to me
   on the bus or while I was just lumping along;[...]

   But of course the passing world passes by,
   and poetry isn't prose, or Java, and in the end
   the time/money equations just don't add up.
   Poetry's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness.
   Remember I said how poetry doesn't need
   the desk, the 2000-words-before-breakfast, etc?
   Well, I lied (something else poetry's good at). [...]

   the point is you haven't finished a novel
   or a short story, or got anywhere near Java,
   and there are bills to pay, children to feed, etc.
   So the day I stopped writing poetry
   I felt strangely serene.

   3.44 a.m., Wednesday, November the 3rd, 1999.
   That was it--finished.

   (Favourite Monsters, pp. 13-14).

As the title suggests, the poem is an experiment with authority: the major drive in the poem--an act of escape--centres around the engagement of that T with the anxiety-generating prospect of 'Writing Poetry'. The first-person narration and the attention to day, date, and time are all enlisted to historicise something definite, a simple truth perhaps, so as to create the illusion of authorial stability by association with the power to name and identify. The reader is invited into what seems a familiar and secure arrangement: we are asked to bear witness to the remembrance of a secure sense of the 'I' and of a nostalgia for a moment of serenity. This moment is 'strangely serene'; the adverbial phrase in fact qualifies an ideal poetry, a poetry beyond the debasement of representation--unrepresentable, neither quantifiable nor qualifiable, and so not subject to the commerce of the world. This 'strangely serene' feeling is the experience the poem refuses to represent, and so it remains mystified, enchanted and silent. The poet is making a case about the important and signifying 'weakness' (the 'biggest strength') of poetry', hence the cliche, that trope of disenchantment commonly featured in many of Brown's poems, is apparent in the almost automatic coupling of 'strangely' with 'serene'. Simply put, a contract is evident here: in order to write the poem, to even suggest that Wordsworthian 'spot of time' marked as the poem's unwritten serenity ('recollected in tranquility' (?)), the poem must be disenchanted; this poetic feeling becomes conditional on a no-nonsense ('bills to pay, children to feed, etc'.) consciousness willing to strip back the too-poetic extravagances of verse. In this respect the poet is drawing on a history of ironic composition, specifically a romantic history in which poetry' is 'at once self-creation and self-destruction'. (12)

The poem is clearly and playfully false: despite the poet's concluding statement ('That was it--finished'), the poem remains. In fact, it is never finished. The poet's honest dishonesty makes for a poem as mystical as ever, as romantic as ever, and as distant from the real world of work and capital as we (as romantics) would like to imagine poetry is. Underneath all this 'tempting simplicity' an enchantment is being employed: an unrepresentable ideal is presented, but only by the most disenchanted skein of words that, like a shucked carapace, reminds us of something lost or absent. The ruined poem asks us to remember the lost whole, and by the end of the poem, despite all the prosy language--those etcs, the litotes ('my tidier lines'), the cliches ('the point is'), and all that humble conversationalism--we still know nothing about how the poem got written; it remains a secret, a message in a bottle carefully addressed to no one. What we do know is that after November the 3rd poetry happened again. So, poetry is preserved a place among the unwritten, unrecorded, 'unheard melodies'.

The post-romantic voice of such a poem seeks to ruin its form, to extract itself from the scene of writing for the threat it offers: appropriation. The location of the ideal (but impossible) poem--the serene-moment-poem--can now be recognised as the impossible address of the disappeared poet, the poet who cannot, to take the poem at its word, have written this poem, but who might have authored the poem we will never read. This spectral poem, along with its absent 'dead author', resides in enchantment, removed from a 'real world' in which systems of exchange boil down to the way language exerts authority over a poet who ends up putting words on a page for readers to consume. In contrast with such a reality7, the poem evokes a mystified world whose co-ordinates can only be gestured at by the disavowed romantic ruins of a poem whose ontological presence is, as the poem's persona puts it, at best, 'by the by'.

These anxieties collect around the issue of what readers (critical or otherwise) might do with the poem. In particular, the core anxiety and focal point of this poetics of disenchantment is 'you'. To this end, as we've seen, 'you', the reader, is invited in such a poem to witness the disappearance of the 'I', and with this, the authority7 (the 'real' James Brown) a reader might appeal to in their consumption of the poem. But if 'you' provides us with a way of thinking about the reader or consumer, it also reminds us of perhaps the source of Brown's personae's greatest concern--the agency of language, that system of exchange in which this 'you' becomes a place-holder for the symbolic order and the overwhelming force of the Other. (13) So it is, then, that the unwritten and enchanted space a poem like 'The Day 1 Stopped Writing Poetry' leaves its reader represents a hiatus from language, from readings, interpretations, appropriations and authority'. 'You', in contrast, describes a space of betrayal.

In a poem like '12XU' betrayal shades into paranoia limned by a now typically romantic sense of disenchantment. The poem begins, as it seems it must, with the originating crime, but here the scene is not that of a lover's desertion but rather a scene of composition. 'The jilted male is writing / a sorrowful poem / about his condition' (Go Round Power Please, p. 25). The jilted speaker's sensibility' is not simply directed at another person. There is no mention of another in the poem; there is no 'you' but for that pitifully euphemised offering, 'U', that follows the equally euphemised obscenity, ('X'), because the 'you' cannot be confronted. (14) And there is a good reason for this: language itself marks the spot of the unfaithful lover. Indeed, in Brown's oeuvre betrayal is granted its own poem, and, unsurprisingly, it again begins with a scene of composition. More specifically, this is a scene in which the act of poetic composition connects, in however illicit a manner, the apparently private and discrete thoughts of the persona with the vast and public signifying system of language.

   Easy to watch the words
   as they slip out.
   They could just be popping round to a friend's
   or taking out the rubbish. [...]

   But once out, they're free,
   free as you might only hope to be
   --meeting, greeting, in a plunge pool
   of coincidental collisions.

   Oh the company they keep,
   the combinations they assume
   presume positions you would not
   have thought physically possible. [...]

   (...) You had given
   your word--so they say.
   But now outside a voice
   with your signature on it
   declaims the most unspeakable
   arrangement of terms.
   And your silence lies there
   hearing the screwed up letters
   unfolding themselves in the rubbish bin
   --the way your heart unfastens
   and moves out through your chest
   into the night sky.

   (Go Round Power Please, p. 28).

'Easy to watch the words / as they slip out' says the poet, the passive observing persona, as s/he witnesses the 'unspeakable' spectacle of language's agency. If anything takes an action here, it is the sign. A 'signature' 'declaims' the 'unspeakable'; the subject is stripped of speech; writing is all, being the only thing able to manage this paradox. In contrast to the symbolic order, the self is reduced to a personified 'silence', passive and alienated. Yes, language is seductive; language lies, it betrays, and it pursues a promiscuous existence. Language begets language. But the real problem here is language's agency: words become corporeal, 'presuming positions [...] physically [im]possible'.

Anxiety magnifies in the pronouns: the 'you' and the 'they' of the poem, but also that 'outside [...] voice with your signature on it'. We slip here from the second person as self-referential, to the 'you' as other, to the 'you' as reader, and more broadly to the you of that anonymous collectivity that describes the culture and its symbolic system, the 'they' perhaps. And what the persona finds here is that its own voice is always the voice of the other, and thus that its own intentions and determinations exist in alienating autonomy. The poet-persona is in exile from him/herself, exilic of intention, self-betraying and betrayed by that signature that exists outside and which, like other signs, may or may not signify their singularity. By the poem's close the alienating agency of the symbolic leaves the subject heartless and helpless to watch 'letters / unfolding themselves in the rubbish bin /--the way your heart unfastens / and moves out through your chest'.

But if poetry is to be seen as a form authorised by a betraying language, what then of the work of the poet, and what also of that realm of readers and readings--the realm of the other--to which poets themselves necessarily belong? What remains for poets and readers to do? An answer is suggested by the poem's association of poetry and language with waste. At the beginning of the poem we find words 'taking out the rubbish', and towards the end of the poem we witness letters 'unfolding themselves in the rubbish bin'. Language's autonomy is envisaged here as a kind of infinity loop, a closed circuit in which words dispose of rubbish that is language. The language-loop model is both enchantment and disenchantment--on the one hand it alienates the subject, but on the other it also offers the subject exemption from the business of authorship and responsibility, and it is in this part of the cycle that language and poetry are sped past the moment of their consumption. In this moment, the event of the poem is hastened through to the state of waste ('letters / unfolding themselves in the [...] bin') and the possibility of its unknowable reconfiguration as recycled matter: the moment of reading, of interpretation and consumption by an other, is neatly skirted. The persona and poem have both already been read (and written) by the Other--this agent, language. (15)

While this may seem an unambiguously disenchanting dereliction of poetry, it is an action indexed to a particularly romantic redemption: as ruined objects, as artifacts removed from the circuit of commodity exchange, the poem is resacralised. The ruined poem (perhaps illegible, like something 'damaged by water' (Lemon, p. 11), retrieved from some public domain) has been hastened into its own afterlife, as if the readings have been done for us. In effect, such poetry offers a reader a particular proposal: enchantment in exchange for the forgiving of exegetical desire. By such an impossible deal--this forgiven space granted via negativa by the signifying ruin--it becomes once again possible for a poet's 'heart [to] unfasten [...] / and move [...] out [...] / into the night sky' in utter (albeit recycled) romantic credulity. Yes, the sentiment is unmistakably romantic, as is the language, but such expression is only possible by way of a disenchantment that in a first instance, advocates for the poem's reception in semiotic silence so that it may 'declaim' the 'unspeakable', which is, precisely, an impossible poetry no other can read, interpret or appropriate.

Together, the disenchantment of form and the appearance of an enchanted ideal engender the antinomic heart of the romantic ideology. Both readings work towards the same end: the exemption of the poem--and perhaps, even, the disappearance of the poet--from that nexus of exchange where poetry becomes one more commodity, one further appropriation or act of semiotic settlement, one further occasion for ideological interpellation. Such a consciousness, an anxiety-generating awareness, produces a poetry of self-critique and prolepsis, of disenchanted forms that seek to ruin and mortify themselves and that feature motifs of betrayal. This post-romantic disenchantment is there to read in the work of many contemporary New Zealand poets whose writing appears to refuse certain romantic imperatives of composition for a kind of formalism. This is a poetry that is both generated by and organised around lists and litanies, is based on principles of bricolage, quotation and sampling (usually from popular culture), and appears to favour structures--the pantoum or sestina, found poetry, overheard utterance--in wary avoidance of what we might call the tricky business of authority. This is the poetry of not-writing-poetry, a form that seems self-conscious about its disenchantment of the capitalised virtues of romanticism: originality', intuition, spontaneity', and feeling. This wariness promotes a different affect perhaps--something like the self-ironising humour found so often in Brown's poems as well as the work of other poets. In his introduction to Great Sporting Moments: The Best of Sport Magazine 1988-2004 Damien Wilkins makes reference to a New Zealand poetic invested in 'pretending we're not writing poetry'. This is a poetry, he says, of 'scepticism' and jokes, 'always jokes'. (16) Such a disenchantment with poetry' stems from the way the 'posts' (postmodernism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism, etc.) have made poets aware of the perils of peroration, that concluding is dangerous, that meaning is all-too-easily overdetermined, and that an aesthetics of translation and interpretation can easily resemble a poetics of colonisation, homosocialisation, and nationalism.

As we have seen, such a series of concerns may very' well help explain a poetry' we could describe as conspicuous for its secondhand qualities, resembling the dejected structures of performances we've just missed. We might also expect such concerns to valorise the apparently anti-commodity' values of naivete, wonder and silence, if not also the ruin, as the virtues of such a poetic. These are, however, the virtues of a romantic tradition. What is notable, then, is the way in which romanticism has become a screen for the critique of the systems of exchange we associate with global capitalism. This is to the point in a poem like 'Cashpoint: A Pantoum', a poem that represents well the tendency in Brown's work for disenchantment to manifest as a formalist concern, to the point where such poems declare their complicity' with that of which they are critical. A poem like 'Cashpoint: A Pantoum' offers an obvious and fairly immediate registration of this sort of attention. It is, of course, an automated poem, a product of structure and process that playfully reminds us of the withdrawal of the author:
   Welcome to Cashpoint
   Open 7 days
   Please insert your card
   To begin transaction
   (Go Round Power Please, p. 74).

And so the poem goes. This is one of the most frequently reproduced of Brown's poems--it has a high exchange value, we might say--and to such a degree that one cannot help but wonder at how successful the union of ruined form with poetry has been. In the most relative of terms 'Cashpoint' is one of Brown's most consumed commodities. And why shouldn't it be? Even Brown's most automated poems still signify poetry; they still trace the privilege the romantics afforded poetry--as exception, as anti-commodity, as dissendng form--but through a process of disenchantment that offers (the illusion of) an alleviation of responsibility for their inevitable consumption.

There is, then, a certain trend to be found in Brown's poetic towards what might be considered a certain automation: the auto (the self) replaced with something found, an object, a list or structure. 'Cashpoint' and the later 'Spamtoum' (The Year of the Bigcle, p. 56) exemplify Brown's development of a kind of formalist poetics in which poetic templates like the pantoum, the use of cliches and quotations, a reliance on the materiality of language, puns and jokes, all invite an attention to the surface of language, while serving to point to the poet's disappearance. In Marxian terms we would call this prosthetic poetic a fetish. What results is a poetry that becomes more machine-like in the later volumes, or to borrow one of Brown's poem titles, it is a poetry 'that [takes] the place of a computer'. (17) If this is in some sense obvious in the anti-romantic anti-poetics of 'Spamtoum' and 'Cashpoint', the notion of the machine-like poem is further developed by Brown's treatment of metaphor in 'The Bicycle'. Here the anxieties of composition and consumption, noted earlier, are transferred to metaphor, which becomes a machine for safely recycling language and poetry. 'When I was seven' the persona narrates, 'my parents gave me / a red bicycle. / / I rode it every day until / it became a part of me' (p. 11):
   I loved that bicycle.

   Lying in bed listening
   to rain sheet against the window
   and knowing that tomorrow
   it was Monday,

   I would get up and go
   into the hall and stare at it,
   consoled by the standing
   of its beautiful silence.

   (The Year of the Bicycle, p. 11).

Metaphor, as we know, comes from the Greek word for transfer. But what we also see here is the transference of those anxieties, triggered by thoughts of consumption, onto a structure, a machine in place of, or grafted on ('it became part of me'), a poem and poet. With the bicycle Brown has found the perfect vehicle for poetry--a machine by which to safely measure the possibilities of metaphor as available to the reading and writing of poetry, but also to settle anxieties about a symbolic order poetry cannot help but invite.

The speaker and the bicycle merge as do poem and bike: the beauty of the bike is a poetic concern. Everything depends, one might say, upon a red bicycle, standing in beautiful silence. But not complete silence--poems and bikes generate sound and rhythm, and both are employed like a bicycle's bell to help make a poem's 'delivery] more noticeable'--the joking half-rhyme of 'bell' and 'noticeable' making the point, well, more noticeable. The bike is also a vehicle for translation, of getting from one place to another in the imagination or process of reading, turning the world into a 'many-coloured bird soaring into flight' (p. 11). Importantly, though, the bike/poetic is discipline-engendering: on the bike the poet is able to gauge the perils of a too-poetic or a too-introverted response to the world. And if the 'pedaling' of another poetic conceit 'pushe[s him] [...] so far inside [his] head', the bike is there to manage a descent that will 'bring [him] back out' again. Brown's personae seem always to have been warning us not to take poetry too seriously.

In its very banality, its totemic ordinariness, the bicycle is indeed 'beautiful', and so is an apt metaphor for much of Brown's poetry. In its antinomic romantic fashion it attests to the grandeur of what it, and what poetry' itself in this analysis, can never represent or sign for. This is, at least, the romantic ideology at work in the poem and not in spite of, but because of its anti-poetic post-romanticism. This sense of fructifying ruin is captured in the poem's insistent placement of present- continuous gerunds (reaching, pedaling, listening, knowing, standing) that beckon towards the reanimation of something preserved in the poem's dominant past tense. The bike, like the poem for which it stands (in 'beautiful silence'), is an object of wonder, of beauty', but at the same time, a lost object and so merely a trace of something else, just beyond us. So what is it that depends so much upon this red bicycle? A few things perhaps: a certain nostalgia--the bike is an emblem of romantic loss, and so utopian in a sense, but there is also an idea here about poetry' itself as a silent consolation, a 'beautiful silence', a moment 'strangely serene' ('The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry"), in contrast to that Monday-world of systems of exchange. In this scenario, this pleasing and consoling silence is the desired effect of the poem. The bike--in contradistinction to the real world--remains an enchantment, a silent wonder. As beautiful as the poem is, it is also its own quiet protest against the too-poetic, if not also, the way's in which we might too readily consume this beauty.

Such a post-romantic romantic poetry as Brown's reminds us that romanticism never achieves final definition but remains a structure elaborated in debates about (the impossibility of) defining romanticism, which enable, as Justin Clemens sees it, 'certain disavowed regularities to continue to pass under cover of irreducible dissension'. (18) In this argument, for all its restless and internal antagonisms, romanticism enables, 'under cover' of disenchantment, the transmission of enchanted regularities, doxa, and cultural dominants into governance. These regularities--responsible, one might say, for the maintenance of a 'hard-to-notice' 'indifference' ('Museums and Murals' (19))--are what naturalise ideas about poetry, particular readings (or non- readings as the case may be), but also a poetics of ostensibly post-romantic disenchantment. It is this 'process' that romanticism can be said to name; it is also the process that Brown's personae insistently elaborate and explore.

As various scholars have illustrated, however, this process ensures romanticism a certain pre-eminence within the symbolic exchanges of so-called late capitalism. The habituation of the romantic crux is apparent in David Harvey's assessment of capitalism as 'a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history'. (20) This interplay of enchantment and disenchantment is the very dynamic structure of romanticism itself--its strength is its weakness, one might say, and vice versa. Moreover, Clemens suggests the powerful concordance of capital, ideology and romanticism in his reading of Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989). In the following Clemens evocatively replaces Zizek's 'capitalism' with 'Romanticism' and, by doing so, suggests the ease with which romanticism may be promoted as the governing metaphor of Western modernity:
   The 'normal state of [Romanticism] is the permanent
   revolutionizing of its own conditions of existence: from
   the very beginning [Romanticism] 'putrefies', it is
   branded by a crippling contradiction, discord, by an
   immanent want of balance: this is exactly why it changes,
   develops incessantly--incessant development is the only
   way for it to resolve again and again, come to terms with,
   its own fundamental, constitutive imbalance,
   'contradiction'. (21)

Disenchanting putrefaction begets enchanting regeneration. The constituting antagonism is unmistakable, and in so far as it pertains to the context of global systems of capital, it pertains to the lives of the poets in the South Pacific. As 'cover' for the continual passage of certain 'regularities', romanticism has become that Western fiction Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and jean-Luc Nancy situate at the heart of modernity:
   [...] what interests us in romanticism is that we still
   belong to the era it opened up. [...] A veritable romantic
   unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central
   motifs of our 'modernity'- Not the least result of
   romanticism's indefinable character is the way it has
   allowed this so-called modernity to use romanticism as a
   foil, without ever recognizing--or in order not to
   recognize--that it has done little more that rehash
   romanticism's discoveries. (22)

It is this 'romantic unconscious', then, that may be 'hard to notice', but this is because of the naturalisation of an antagonistic process that passes for critical (disenchanted) consciousness. As Jerome McGann has pointed out, romanticism's pre-eminence as structure of critical consciousness or as cultural metaphor is the result of the 'process of reification' the 'ideology of romanticism' has undergone. (23) The transhistorical nature of such romanticism can be attributed to romanticism's tendency to be employed as 'another illusion raised up to hold back an awareness of the contradictions inherent in contemporary social structures and the relations they support', even as romanticism's 'greatest moments usually occur when it pursues its last and final illusion: that it can expose or even that it has uncovered its illusions and false consciousness'. (24) This uncovering of illusion, this disenchantment is, however, that 'foil' or 'cover' under which the enchantments of doxa and ideology pass silently into consent.

Disenchantment is then perhaps never as easily recuperable as when this romantic 'paradoxical torsion' is also the torsion of the 'commodity symbolic', (25) and when one's response to this conjunction is to see poetry as outside this symbolic, as a romantic exile. Poetry's status as 'exceptional outsider' affords it a deeply romantic position of protest beyond the defiles of consumption. But is this withdrawal from those 'systems of exchange' perhaps merely a reformulation of romantic naivete--in fact, a kind of self-enchantment? For all the advantages such a deeply romantic position of protest and withdrawal may afford, we must also consider how this notion of the ineffectual, along with its romantic companion conceits--the appropriation of exilic status, a preference for naivete over authority, wonder over judgment--may impoverish our ability to engage with poetry and blind us to those shared histories of influence in which, as subjects of language, we are all immersed. Moreover, the desired removal of poetry from such 'systems of exchange'--especially if we name these systems for what they are: institutional, ideological, cultural, historical, and economic--would leave us with a poetry none of us could talk about, a poetry we could only appreciate in naivete, and for qualities of enchantment that invite--in fact, depend on--no further explication. To employ a disenchanted poetic is to inhabit the very symbolic, the very systems of exchange Brown's personae would seem to protest against, but this is precisely what makes Brown's poetry such an exemplary contemporary and romantic provocation.


(1) This essay is a version of a paper presented to the Department of English, Cinema and Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury in 2011. Thanks to James Brown for his permission to quote from his work.

(2) Kendrick Smithyman, A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry (Auckland and London: Collins, 1965), p. 58.

(3) Justin Clemens describes as romantic a 'logic which proceeds precisely by dissimulating its own characteristic traits--and whose self-dissimulation is therefore amongst the foremost of these traits'. The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory: Institution, Aesthetics, Nihilism. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p. xv. See also, for example, Simon Critchley, '[R]omanticism's naivete is rooted in the self- consciousness of its unworking, the exploration of its lack of final synthesis in a continual process of self-creation and self- destruction', in Very Little ... Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), p. 117.

(4) Bill Manhire, 'Cream Torpedoes: Recent Poetry in New Zealand', World Literature Today < september/cream-torpedoes-recent-poetry-new-zealand-bill- manhire#.UtM-WNe43yA> [Accessed 13 Jan 2014].

(5) James Brown, Go Round Power Please (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995), p. 78.

(6) Clemens, The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory, p. xiv.

(7) James Brown's first four volumes of poetry are Go Round Power Please (1995), Lemon (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999), Favourite Monsters (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002), and The Year of the Bicycle (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005).

(8) 'James Brown', Poetic Brandscapes, <http://poeticbrandscapes.> [Accessed 13 Jan 2014].

(9) The Year of the Bicycle, p. 11.

(10) The Year of the Bicycle, p. 43.

(11) <http: //>

(12) Claire Colebrook, Irony in the Work of Philosophy (Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press, 2002), p. 132.

(13) I'm indebted here to the analysis presented by John Newton in 'The Old Man's Example: Manhire in the Seventies', Opening the Book: New Essays On New Zealand Writing, ed. by Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995), pp. 162-187.

(14) '12XU' (Pink Flag, 1977) is the title of a song by the English punk band Wire. The title is usually seen as a censored-for-recording version of the line 'one two fuck you'. Like Brown's poem, the song treats the idea of infidelity.

(15) I must acknowledge a debt here to the reading Jesse Kavadlo makes in his treatment of DeLillo's Underworld in 'Recycling Authority: Don DeLillo's Waste Management', Critique, 42.4 (Summer 2001), 384-401.

(16) Great Sporting Moments: The Best of Sport Magazine 1988-2004 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005), p. 23.

(17) 'The Poem that Took the Place of a Computer', Lemon, p. 72.

(18) Clemens, The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory, p. xiv.

(19) Go Round Power Please, p. 78.

(20) David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990), p. 107.

(21) See Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 52, cited and modified by Justin Clemens in The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory, p. 9.

(22) Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, trans. by Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (Albany, NY: State University Press, 1988), p. 15.

(23) Jerome McGann, 'Romanticism and its Ideologies', Studies in Romanticism, 21.4 (Winter 1982), 573-99 (p. 592).

(24) McGann, 'Romanticism and its Ideologies', p. 592.

(25) The phrase 'commodity symbolic' comes from Molly Wallace's '"Venerated Emblems": DeLillo's Underworld and the History of Commodity', Critique, 42.4 (Summer 2001), 367-383 (p. 377).
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Author:Wright, Nicholas
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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