Ode on the Absence of Real Poetry
Here This Afternoon

— A Poem in Dialectical Prose —


Poetry, as poets are fond of relating, originated from religious or magical incantations. The respect for the bard was due to the fact that his words mattered. Supposedly, the precise phrases and refrains were necessary to keep the crops growing, etc.

Literary poetry has lost this significance, and its most advanced creators know it. Rimbaud is the archetypal example of the attempt to recover the magical. He failed. And this failure was and is inevitable. The poem form precludes the possibility of the realization of poetry, that is, of the effective realization of the imagination in the world. The institution of poetry is itself a social relationship inimical to that project. It inherits the specialization of creativity, of authentic utterance, from its origin with the priestly classes, and it returns there. Even such a one as Rimbaud, for all his passion for freedom and the marvelous, ends by developing the conception of the poet as a new priest or shaman, a new mediator of communication. But the realization of poetry entails the direct creative activity of everyone, and hence cannot tolerate such mediation. “The problem is to really possess the community of dialogue and the game with time which have been represented in poetico-artistic works” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).

* * *

“Divide and rule” may be said to be the essential tactic of the social system that dominates us, but only if it is understood that this applies not only to separation between individuals, but equally to the division between various aspects of daily life. This enforced separation has attained its realization in the spectacle, the incarnation of the seemingly lived. The spectacle takes the truth of this society, namely its falseness and separation, and presents it as real, as reality, life to be contemplated by passive spectators who have no real life of their own. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people mediated by images” (Debord). But in spite of all the images of satisfaction it presents, modern capitalism cannot hide the fact that it does not allow the fulfillment of real human desires. As the poverty of passive consumership (of commodities or culture) becomes more obvious, the spectacle provides a whole range of cultural activities which offer the illusion of “participation”: Happenings, encounter groups, open readings, the World Game, be-ins, mixed-media festivals — anything that will take the passionate radicality, the ever-more-widespread poetry of revolt, and channel it into “constructive solutions” or fragmentary opposition, both of which equally reinforce the system they think they are overcoming. “The last hope of the rulers is to make everyone the organizer of their own passivity” (Raoul Vaneigem, Treatise on Living).

As with the spectacle in general, the communication of a poem is unilateral. The passive spectator or reader is presented with an image of what was lived by the poet. An open reading only apparently overcomes this criticism; it democratizes the role of poet, it shares access to the top of a hierarchical relation. It does not overcome that relation.

Of course, a certain degree of communication does take place, but it is communication in isolation, it is not directly tied to the real daily activities of the men and women involved. Since our daily activities are, in general, constrained and alienated, it is natural that poetic creativity (if it is not conscious of the project that supersedes separation, and hence literary poetry) in its own defense tends to retreat from daily life. It accepts an isolated realm where its partial game can play itself with a consoling illusion of wholeness. “Poetry rarely becomes a poem. Most works of art betray poetry. . . . At best, the creativity of the artist imprisons itself, it cloisters itself, waiting its hour, in a work which has not said its last word; but however much the author expects of this last word — the word preceding perfect communication — it will never be spoken until the revolt of creativity has taken art to its realization” (Vaneigem).

Poetry that is conscious of its own fulfillment in its own supersession never leaves daily life, for it is itself the project of the uninterrupted transformation of daily life.

* * *

The necessity for the total destruction of hierarchical power and the commodity economy remains with us. The traditional revolutionary workers movement failed to bring about this transformation of the world. At its most advanced moments (Russia 1905, Kronstadt 1921, Spain 1936, and Hungary 1956), however, it did outline the form that the revolution to come will take: the absolute power of workers councils. This antihierarchical form of organization begins from the direct democracy of the popular assembly and federates internationally by means of strictly mandated, immediately revocable delegates. In this way it avoids the possibility of the emergence of a new ruling class of bureaucrats or specialists.

The Leninist-type “vanguard party,” so widely acclaimed at present, was one of the major reasons for the defeat of the classical workers movement. Consciously or not, by setting itself up as a separate, independent force, it prepares the way for its own “revolutionary” power over the people, as in the state-capitalist regimes of Russia, China, Cuba, etc. Any organization aiming to bring about the destruction of class society must begin by refusing to emulate this example of revolutionary “success.” A revolutionary organization must abolish commodity relations and hierarchy within itself. It must effect the direct fusion of critical theory and practical activity, precluding any possibility of petrification into ideology. Just as the councils will control and transform all aspects of liberated life, the revolutionary organization must embody a critique of all aspects of presently alienated life. At the revolutionary moment of the dissolution of social separation, it must dissolve itself as a separate power.

The last revolution in human prehistory will realize the unity of the rational and the passionate; the unity of work and play in the free construction of daily life; the game of the fulfillment of the desires of everyone: what LautrĂ©amont called “poetry made by all, not just by one.”

Read by Ken Knabb at an open poetry reading in Berkeley, 27 October 1970. Reprinted in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.

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