THE EDUCATION OF DESIRE
I have set out to write as simply as I can what I believe is happening in the kind of poetry I write and in the kinds of poetry I believe to be really important today.
Secondly I want to try and explain why I think this writing is revolutionary.
Today’s Poetry and Advertising
It is impossible for anybody who wants to write a poetry that is politically revolutionary to write in the way most poems in Britain are written.
This poetry no longer works, though it wins poetry competitions.
If you think of all the things that are said to make poetry what it is - things like rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, etc - then you will today find them on any list of tricks used by advertising agencies in making adverts.
What once belonged to poetry has been stolen.
Some poets don’t worry about this.
But it means that a lot of poetry today will look like adverts. It sells not a product (‘Right for baby; right for you’) but a moral (‘What survives of us is love’).
It is often in the form of a little story that moves towards its catch phrase. It may use flashy comparisons.
Think of adverts on the TV: so many of them are like that.
It is impossible to write revolutionary poetry like this.
The writer who wants to do something different has to write in new ways.
The poetry may seem strange. It may be difficult to understand.
There may seem to be bits of it missing. There may be problems in putting all its parts together; things may not seem to follow on.
It may be difficult to see who’s speaking.
It may seem as though there should be a story there, but there isn’t.
There are lots of other new ways of writing.
The kind of difficulty I’m not talking about are difficulties that can be solved with the dictionary or the encyclopaedia.
I’m talking about difficulties that stop the process of reading, or upset your reading habits.
The very use of all these odd ways of writing will be an attack on the simple ways of thinking you see in adverts, for example, but which seem to go on everywhere.
It is a way of criticising the way society uses language, the way it thinks.
This is not the same as writing a poem about pollution. The poem about pollution might end up looking like an advert by Greenpeace, full of ‘tricks’ of persuasion.
Not all advertising is bad. But the poem that tries to look like an advert is bad.
What the Reader Has To Do
Adverts are easy to read, even when they seem strange at first; a lot of poems written today are easy to read. But most of the poetry I am thinking of is not easy to read. You can’t consume it in one go.
This makes the reader work harder.
It does something else too: it makes the reader’s work as important as that of the writer.
It is the reader who makes the poem - or rather: each individual has to make the poem, to complete it, for his or herself.
The reader is no longer a passive consumer. (Again, think of adverts: although you can analyse them, you don’t usually have to work to understand their main message, which is usually: Buy this Product or Stop this Pollution.)
Some readers don’t like this.
They prefer a poetry that they can immediately understand, that exhausts itself in one go (or seems to). This sort of poetry wins poetry competitions.
Making a New World
Another result of the poem not being written in the language of advertising or the language of our society is that it is a thing apart from it.
It exists independently of the controls of our society. It must start out from the world, because that’s where the writer is, where language is. He or she must create with bits and pieces of the world.
But the writer will rearrange everything so that out of the bits and pieces of this world, he or she will make a new world.
This is not easy to explain but it’s as though the writer is breaking up a jigsaw puzzle and making a new pattern from it (but not the nice ordered picture on the box!).
This new world might not be a better world. It might only exist as a few disconnected words making a new combination.
But by saying something new, by making another world from out of the bits and pieces of language found in the real world, that is a way of criticising the way things are.
In a way it says, things must change.
Or perhaps it just says: things could be different.
This is also what the revolutionary says.
So therefore this way of writing will be a little bit revolutionary, although it will never tell you how things might change.
What Happens to the Reader
This poetry may be an attack on society as it is, on its ways of thinking.
But it can also have a positive aspect.
This is linked to the notion of a more active reader.
At first sight it may seem hard on the reader to make everything so difficult for him or her.
But I think it can also be a delightful thing to be allowed as much freedom as the writer, to read creatively, to fill in gaps, to be left to decide who is speaking, etc.
It is no longer just what a poem means that is important. It is also what a poem does to the reader.
The poem may tell you a lot, but it won’t tell you everything. It will leave you working.
Adverts and most poems try to tell you everything. This is important because what they are trying to do is to fulfil your inner desires. In the advert’s case you’ll have to buy the product of course. Such and such beauty product will make you perfect.
Romantic fiction tries to fulfil desire. So does pornography.
They leave you apparently satisfied and no longer needing to think. They are full of old ideas.
The new poetry doesn’t fulfil you. It leaves you with still a lot of thinking to be done. There will always be more and more to think about.
Poetry is the education of desire.
It might make you confused, mixed up. But that’s all right. When you’re trying to understand something difficult you do get confused for a bit. And people are all mixed up when they feel an emotion they’ve never experienced before: like sexual desire, for example.
At best, the poetry will change the reader, make him or her think in new ways, not simply what the society wants you to think.
Or even what the writer thinks.
Reading is no longer a guessing game to find out what the writer thinks; you do the thinking.
This is part of the positive, revolutionary function of this writing: let’s repeat it: the education of desire.
To change the wants and desires of the people of the world would be the beginning of a revolution of sorts.
Writing has its small, but significant, part to play.
11 September 1988 The Education of Desire (Ship of Fools, 1988)
My task in The Education of Desire was to re-present in popular form for students of A Level English Literature the poetics I had developed over some years, and which I had found relatively easy to reiterate, in my own intellectual shorthand. But I knew my audience; intelligent but unread. It would take at least an hour to explain and exemplify ‘defamiliarisation’ alone. It is easy to say that the reader of this poetry becomes an active co-producer of the final meaning of a text, as she or he is drawn into the invention of the poem and forget that this notion is an extremely unusual one for my students; and - it has been made clear to me - for more sophisticated readers. Reading a poem - and new writing in prose too - may well be an education of activated desire, but the need to explain this must, initially, avoid references to Lyotard’s essay, ‘The Critical Function of the Work of Art (Driftworks), from which this idea derives. For an extension of its argument see Christopher Beckett’s ‘Anxiety and Desire in the Poetic Machine’ (First Offense 5) and my own response to his comments on The Education of Desire, ‘Re-Working the Work: Pausing for Breath’ (First Offense 6).