Friday, October 17, 2014

Poetry and Phonocentric Communism

In the British Library today reading up on Jack Lindsay, a Popular Front poet. In his 'Plea for Mass Declamation' in Left Review (October 1937), he links the revival of poetry as an oral form to the Communist transformation of society.

‘Poetry has always found its vitalisation in a socially valuable relation to the speaking voice...
Only when capitalism started coming into its own was there driven a wedge between poetry and the speaking voice. Wordsworth tried to rediscover the poetically potent relationship in theoretical terms, thereby enabling a partially successful renaissance to appear. But this outburst failed; the impetus towards a fresh realisation of the living intonation (expression of the human potential in the great economic advance) was smothered by the discords of capitalism.
The wedge driven between consumer and producer had drastic effects in poetry and the criticism of poetry. The ‘literary product’ became the subject of consideration, quite apart from social process. The result could only be a poetry losing content and reality, whatever virtuosities its obsession with formal elements might induce at each spasm of the death throes.’

And as he puts it in a footnote:

‘The invention of printing, of course, had much to do with the deflection of poetry from the living voice. But printing did not arise in a social void. As a spreader of knowledge, it has a concrete good-effect; as a part of the capitalist forces, it intensified the forms of abstraction arising from bourgeois individualism. To analyse the way that these two aspects of the printed book—its uniting and dividing powers—operated, we would need to go into much detail. It is enough here to note how the book helped the severing of poetry from its communal basis.’ 

Perturbed by the 'dividing powers' of the book, Lindsay looked forward to a version of what Walter Ong would later term a 'secondary orality', associating this with the Communist dawn. To this end he wrote poems for 'mass declamation', which were recited by groups of workers at political meetings. 

(Ben Harker has written about this in his excellent article ‘Communism is English’: Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front. You can hear Ben Harker discussing his recent research on Jack Lindsay at the next reading group of the Anglo-Russian Research Network, at Pushkin House on 21st November.) 

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