Saturday, September 15, 2018

Weekend Challenge: Resistance


Tina Modotti, "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the May Day Parade, Mexico City, 1st May 1929"


Years ago I read a couple of lines of poetry by L.S. Asekoff which has lingered in my working mind, like tones of a darkly resonant bell:  "Avoid what tempts,/ move toward what threatens." 

As poetics go, it's a word to the wise: You are often fooled by what you think you know best. Resist such certainties in order to go deeper, to get to the heart of the truth.

Implicit in the notion of resistance is that the best—the pièce de résistance, so to speak—is yet to come. We must avoid the temptation of completion; our poems are ever only in their latest draft. There is always another room in that dream.

Temptation is an idea old as the hills, or at least the Garden of Eden with its serpent-woman conundrum. Humankind was perfect until tempted with that shiny sweet-looking apple in Eve's Venusian palm. Succumbing to the desire for immediate reward, we did the one thing we weren't supposed to do—taste of the tree of knowledge—and got ourselves evicted from Paradise. Original sin is the failure to resist. (And the temptation, patriarchs, comes from within.)

But what of poetic resistance? What aesthetic temptations do we indulge at our peril? I am at my creative worst when indulging in short cuts, old tropes and redundancies—easy solutions which usually wreck me offshore of the sublime. There's a rote voice in my ear, ticking off in iambic pentameter, dictating the old soundtrack by which I write the same poem every time—damn! How did I get back on that same old singsong bangagong Muzak track? I've become Swinburne, swimming naked in tidy couplets; Keats without the urning, pocket Ginsburg howls without untidy burning.

Mailer once said you should never fall in love with your own writing, because when that happens it means you're writing crap.  But how are we to resist the very lamp leading us through the labyrinth? That's quite a rub. In his poem "Man Carrying Thing," Wallace Stevens tells us that the poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully."  That "almost" is the qualifier: we are writing, right? We are chained to medium and imuse. Resist too much and you're blocked, silent, dead, turning to the TV or the daily Sudoku.  And however much you try, resist, revise, remake, remodel, you never know if your work is any good. Ever.

Resistance is a way of not going too easily or heedlessly into one's Voice. There's a sequence: first the apple of temptation with its immediate satisfying result, and then there's the greater thing which comes of refusal, patience, waiting, and cultivation. Then finding what's behind the found and the known. The secret country, the hidden paradise we can't see, can't sing, because our next sentences are too chained to their first.

Jack Gilbert lived and wrote this way, refusing the easy career for one largely of isolation and near-poverty, getting close and closer to the insides of his words. He published a book a decade in his 40 year career, taking all the time in the world to get to the truth.  This, from Gilbert's poem "Tear It Down":

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars...

Can resistance become a habit, a way of chasing words almost successfully?  Rilke wrote in one of his Letters to a Young Poet: "...If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience."  To Rilke, the very face of beauty can only be revealed in the shadow of its alternate, the one turned toward death. How else are we to fully appreciate the rose window, the blushed secretive smile, the angel singing above the grave?  In his late masterwork series "Sonnets to Orpheus" and "Duino Elegies," affirmation and triumph are found down a long road of resistance.

But here's the rub: Such an astringent is not readily or headily applied. Ever. I am constantly fooled by softer, easier ways of resistance—suburban approximations of Eden at best. The result is neither hallowed or harrowing.  You can liken it to the dialogue about resistance we've been hearing in American politics these past few years. Midterm elections are approaching, primary election results indicate that the #MeToo movement is mounting an effective resistance to the hard-right politics of Donald Trump. There has been a surge of women for office, and more than half of them running have won their primaries. If your sympathies go that way, your Facebook feed is garnished with Resistance memes.

Last week, an anonymous senior White House official penned a op-ed for the New York Times about a quiet internal resistance against an elected President of no moral and scant mental capacity. She or he wrote that the real business of the Republic was being carried on behind his back, keeping the country out of war and criminal debacle by diverting the nation's business from him. An immense flood of comment and critique has arisen from all sides. Is such resistance traitorous? False? The secret oath of every Republican in love with present policies despite the man? Cowardice? Pragmatics of the Fall? Et cetera.

The best thing I've read on the topic (and very germane to this challenge) came from Teju Cole, photography critic for the New York Times Magazine and Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. He compared our current cadres of Resistance on both the American left and right as carrying on too much in the disembodied squawkbox of social media. He compares that the legacy of the French Resistance during the Second World War, where the stakes were bloody, merciless and real:

... A dangerous commitment to resistance made by hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of whom died in France alone. For a spell in the early ’40s, whenever the members of the Resistance killed a Nazi, the Nazis would execute 50 innocent French; an unspeakable calculus, but it did not stop the Resistance (its Communist wing in particular) from killing Nazis. It was a terrible time. The Resistance recognized that what was as stake was not just political power but also human dignity, which, all question of tactical efficacy aside, the resisters saw as nonnegotiable.

This history looms each time the word “resistance” is evoked in the current American political crisis. It judges the triviality of our responses. The sacred word has been made banal, its intensity dulled. The triviality is not in the predicament — so many have died here already, and many more will die — nor is it in the serious work being undertaken by so many people far from the spotlight, but in the voices of those who set the public tone. How I long now, on behalf of America, for Beckett’s aridity, for Melville’s gloom, for Stéphane’s desire to bear witness, for a sobriety of affect that matches the enormity of the crime. How are we to live in this? How are we to inhabit the principle behind the word “resistance” when the meaning of the word itself has changed so much?

Refuse a resistance excised of courage? Refuse the conventional arena and take the fight elsewhere? Refuse to eat with the enemy, refuse to feed the enemy? Refuse to participate in the logic of the crisis, refuse to be reactive to its provocations? Refuse to forget last year’s offenses and last month’s and last week’s? Refuse the news cycle, refuse commentary? Refuse to place newsworthiness above human solidarity? Refuse to be intimidated by pragmatism? Refuse to be judged by cynics? Refuse to be too easily consoled? Refuse to admire mere political survival? Refuse to accept the calculation of the lesser evil? Refuse nostalgia? Refuse the binary of the terrible past and the atrocious present? Refuse to ignore the plight of the imprisoned, the tortured and the deported? Refuse to be mesmerized by shows of power? Refuse the mob? Refuse to play, refuse decorum, refuse accusation, refuse distraction, which is a tolerance of death-dealing by another name? And when told you can’t refuse, refuse that, too? (Teju Cole, "Resist, Refuse." New York Times Magazine, Sept. 8, 2018)

Sorry to belabor the quote, but Cole I think gets to the deepest sense of resistance. How much are we willing—no, adamant—to refuse in the name of living and loving more genuinely, more truthfully? Are we citizens not only of nations, but of a world with an ecology with vastly different purposes than suburban blight, than cities of night? And beyond politics, how does resistance inform our poetics? Resistance nails the crucial difference between a hobby and an art. It's the difference between today's revision and tomorrow's, between a hollow trope and a newly arrived truth. Do you write because you like to, or because your existence as a soul on earth depends upon it? What temptations bar the way, and how many of them are you willing to sacrifice?

In French tradition, the chief dish in a meal is the called the pièce de résistance—
"the best or most exciting thing," usually the last in a series. We have to work through the quotidian and stereotypical, the bland and the wrong to arrive at the heart inside the heart of the matter.

For this challenge, write about resistance. Resist the theme, struggle with it, go down with it, come back with what saves you. Resist your poetic, your politics, your body's politic in love, your failure and death. What temps you to say nothing, or worse, too little? Conversely, why does poetry matter? What can it alone say to the world? 

What is your pièce de résistance—the poem you can't live without? I mean for today ...

Viva la Resistance!



17 comments:

Margaret said...

...maybe I should write about resisting the "resistance" here in America. (It wouldn't be worth the headache, honestly). This will be fascinating (and frustrating for me to read, I'm sure, but I will - might not comment but I am sure I will learn something from it in style and technique. I have been avoiding such things as too much news and flipping through A LOT on Facebook - and am in a pretty good place and probably won't be writing to this prompt unless I can come up with a unique angle - gave it thought all morning and nothing came up yet.

I will read and thanks for the prompt. I realize a lot of poets LOVE writing in a "resistance" voice. :)

brudberg said...

This is a true challenge... and it will make me think a lot. Being a compromise type I realize that i have to go down to my core principles... those things that make me stand my ground and not move an inch... or can you resist in other ways... as a matter of fact since we just passed an election here with a very unclear result I decided to join a political party... after all if you never work from within, how can you complain about the result... but it's easier to find a party of my liking here... after all there are 8 to chose from.

Toni Spencer said...

Reistance isn't just about politics you know. There are all manner of resistances. As an engineer I learned about wind resistance, water resistance and of course, there is always poetry. I am resisting the cliched politics!!!

Brendan MacOdrum said...

Thanks all, you are certainly free to write poems about political resistance but my intention was to delve into the theme of poetic resistance. I thought the example from the political realm served to illustrate the limits one can go in their resistance to what's no longer working in poetry.

brudberg said...

Thanks for your clarification... yes that made it much clearer... I tried to put a piece together...

Margaret said...

Yes, I am aware of that and I'm trying to express "resistance" in a way that may or may not work - a non-political resistance - I just felt that most from this Garden who live in USA would write about politics - and I can certainly see why. My political leanings are varied - in my mind I consider myself a FDR gal - of which it is my opinion he would NOT fit into today's Rep or Dem party. FDR certainly had his faults - the whole Japanese internment was horrible. Anyway, I didn't mean to be obtuse about this challenge - it is just a hard one and that isn't a bad thing - I will read everyone's poems and critique or comment from a poetic viewpoint - not political. ;)

Sanaa Rizvi said...

Loved the challenge, Brendan😊 it's Sunday morning here.. just woke up and having tea☕ going to read and comment in a few minutes. Happy Weekend, everyone!💜

Anonymous said...

Thanks for hosting Brendan - certainly, you offer us so many avenues to consider - to distill and perhaps first, dig for the roots ...

I've taken this in a wholly unexpected direction, I suspect.

Margaret said...

I realize now I missed the point of this prompt most likely - not resistance as a verb so much ... I think we were to delve into what stops our flow of truth - how do we as poets resist a new path or what we might even really want to say... I have a feeling this is too deep for me. ;P

Anonymous said...

Margaret - maybe, you should consider that you've taken one aspect of it, interpreted it as you've thought, and used it, generally, as a point of inspiration. And in so doing, have offered us ideas to consider, in your response, to how we function and relate, in our world, and within certain frameworks. There is nothing wrong with considering this as a point of departure, yes? So your response was about how you've found someone else's courageous and bold story inspiring - because it meant choosing to say "no" - to persist and resist the "norms and standards" of the day - because they understood "the genius" within all differences. Seems to me, there's nothing wrong with this interpretation.

Kerry O'Connor said...

Hi All.. Glad to see the garden is budding with commentary. It is all very interesting to me, coming from South Africa where resistance to the powers that be is kind of genetically encoded and nothing much has changed.. just the powers.

I would truly love to write to this prompt, Brendan. my hope is that some words will come to me this morning.

Anmol (HA) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vivian Zems said...

Hi Brendan! Quite a thought-provoking prompt. I'm not so sure I stayed on-message. I wrote more about internal struggles and good vs bad thoughts ...hope it makes sense though. Have a great weekend! :)

Brendan MacOdrum said...

It has been great to read so many heartfelt responses to the challenge, including challenging the challenge itself. Great to see the work put in, because it counts. A fine sendoff for me as I will be taking a sabbatical from challenges at the Garden. I know you all will continue to knock them out of the park.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

Well, I went, as might be expected, straight for the political, lol. So those who are tired of it, and oh my goodness, am I ever tired of it, are welcome to skip mine. I wont mind. Smiles. I am late getting around as my vertigo is kicking my ass. Three weeks now. Sigh.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

Brendan, I just saw yu are taking a sabbatical....thank you for all of your prompts!!!!

peterfrankiswrites.wordpress.com said...

Thank you so much for this fantastic prompt - I've been chewing at it all weekend. A little late, but have posted my resistance poem. I'll get around and read everyone's later.