THE POETICS OF PERCEPTION

I was just reading Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, and was thinking about how that text seems to be bleeding through into the other huge tome I’ve been reading, Slavoj Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes. Somehow the flow of ideas in both books compliment each other. The combination of the two thought streams (thought rivers) set in motion some arcane series of mental associations in my mind. I suddenly had an insight about my own poetic practice.

The key was what I had just read in Lipstick Traces, in reference to Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind: “But if everyday life in Communist Poland was a play, then Solidarity, the clandestine Polish publisher Czeslaw Bielecki wrote in an essay smuggled out of prison in 1985, was ‘antitheater.’ For the first time, countless men and women spoke in public, for themselves, and were listened to; they acted, and found themselves changed into new men and women, unwilling to go on as before.”

The image these words immediately conjured in my mind was the Montreal spoken word scene of 1994 and 1995, when poets spoke from multiple stages in multiple languages, and people flocked to hear them. My experience of that moment in time was the giddy joy of being heard; in the instant that the word leaves the mouth of the poet and enters the consciousness of the listener, something new might be born. The circle of awareness might widen, or shift, if only temporarily. The world itself takes on new colours, new dimensions. Momentarily, the intitative has been seized from the television stations, the newspapers, the advertising industry, the endless cornucopia of information that rains down on us all day every day – ads in metro stations, spam email messages, ‘free’ papers, the latest pop sensation, the humdrum ‘discourse’ of last-night’s-television everyday refried / rehashed during coffee break or over dinner.

This was the door that opened onto the bedrock fact of my poetics: that it is all about perception. It has been from the beginning, from those first tentative stabs at free verse writing in the Cable Wharf parking lot booth of the Waterfront Development Corporation Limited, Halifax. Can it be a coincidence that it was that year that my small circle of friends had instituted our own private Psychedelic Revolution? We’d become such big fans of dropping LSD that we had started pooling our resources to buy sheets of blotter acid at the wholesale price of $2 a hit. Weekends were, more often than not, a trip.

I can’t speak for my friends, but my recollection of this year of living hallucinogenically is of the enthusiasm engendered by the discovery of a way to get somewhat behind the curtain, backstage, so to speak – the backstage area of consensus reality. I’d had the itch for a long time – the itch which kept me restless, unable to slide easily into the straitjacket of normal conformity that seems to suit most people … the university, for instance, that automated abattoir of the imagination … and jobs, just the idea of jobs, never mind what job … I mean, I didn’t even get it. Didn’t get the point of it at all. I was always elsewhere, or else I was always looking elsewhere for whatever it was I found missing in whatever was in front of me.

The tragedy of drugs is this: I had to take LSD in order to rediscover what it meant to be normal. Suddenly, for a chemically-determined, magical window of time, the crushing weight of past and future was lifted, and I was set loose and fancy free in the playground of the present. The crap LSD of the early 80s, bathtub-quality acid cooked up in biker labs, didn’t make me hallucinate in any significant way … it did create an achingly beautiful aura, an almost teeth-grinding intensity of vision, the colours and textures of everything so saturated, so real.

I didn’t know what it was I was getting into, but I knew what I liked, and I liked it. It was a way to get at the bad programming, a way to deconstruct the counterintuitive way my emotional ground had been set up by circumstances … and, perhaps most importantly for future poetics musings, it created a gaping, gasping appetite for information with which to form conscious structures to describe the chemically-enhanced truth I was experiencing. That’s why LSD remains illegal, while smashing your brains out with booze or flattening your affect with prescription ‘mood-smoothing’ pills is legal – because that acid (acid-like, it melts away all the psycho-social constructs of your mind) truth is antithetical to the current cheap brand of ‘reality’ sold by the broadloom length every second of every day of our post-modern ‘lives’.

(Please understand, dear reader, that this essay is not precisely an advertising supplement for the little-known LEGALIZE LSD lobby … had my earlier formative experiences been more sensitively stage-managed, there might have been no need of this species of brutal, after-the-fact personal reclamation project, instituted at a moment in my life when the alternative would have been self-destruction.)

So … at ground zero of my poetic career, the question was – just what is going on?

Just what, exactly, is going on here?

This question burned hot, very hot, and pretty much vapourized anything I could find to throw into it. I was ill-equipped to start with, having mainly punk-pop based bromides kicking around the nearly vacant spaces of my intellect. The best of these carried the germ of a political analysis; the worst offered blistering, all-consuming nihilism, the kind of out-of-control irony that would make a joke out of the assassination of John Lennon. Both of these early conceptual frameworks made for very bad poetry indeed. But we all have to start somewhere.

Next came religion – I was compelled by circumstance to resurrect the medieval morality matrix of Roman Catholicism. It was an ill-fitting thing, but better than complete nakedness I suppose … I have always believed there must be a moral dimension to reality. I was not always aware that I believed this, but I remember viscerally reacting against certain games of logic which presupposed an innate human amorality and selfishness. As you can see (I’m assuming you can see), my basic approach even at this early stage was to seek a moral, metaphysical, sociopolitical framework that would support my basic emotional responses to reality. Whereas the rest of the world continues to pursue the Procrustean formula of shoehorning basic emotional responses (never mind the damage done) into whatever moral, metaphysical, sociopolitical framework happens to be dominant.

Over the course of a couple of years, my artist friend Hugh and I came up with a sort of loose anarcho-Christian-Rastafarian approach that eventually led to the overt jettisoning (at least on my part) of formal religiosity of any sort. In other words, demystify Christ; approach Christ as a human being, a philosopher. What was of interest was what Christ might actually have said, and whatever advice he had to offer us in the actual living of our lives. Don’t try to imitate Christ – rather, study him as a kind of map, as a means of becoming more fully oneself. By personal fiat, issues of sex were no longer an issue, as they had been for millenia of church history. Sex, like eating or shitting, was a given of human existence, and so should be accepted as such. Much forgiveness was posited in this period of self-discovery …

It was during this phase that I began to write a few poems that I thought actually ‘worked’. Some of the more ‘spiritual’ poems were stylistically reminiscent of Roman Catholic liturgy, and expressed a yearning for ‘The Light’. ‘The Light’ being enlightenment, simply put. Just what, exactly, is going on here? Other pieces spoke of the gnomic quality of everyday reality, and of its innately tragic nature – mortality, suffering and all that. I gradually learned not to assert anything I didn’t really know anything about. I wrote more closely to what I was experiencing, and in this way, I began to hone my everyday perceptions of reality. It’s an important ingredient to poetry, this ‘everyday perception’. Otherwise, one can become too easily tangled up in one’s own, inevitably imperfect ideas about just what, exactly, is going on.

Ideas. Besides Christian Rasta Anarchy, which was more Hugh’s invention, he and I also collaborated on the concept of Randomness. We cooked this one up in the late summer and early fall of 1985, I think … certainly the concept was well in place by the time we inaugurated our radio show, Harsh Realities of the Random Generation in October. ‘Random’ was one of those words that Hugh liked to use, and as is the case in most intense friendships, what was a favourite word of one became the bon mot of both … one then has the flavour of that word on one’s tongue often, even constantly – because we also delighted in the perversity of repetition. One day I remembered something from my first year university courses in Basic and Fortran. “There’s a computer program called ‘random generation’ that was developed, but it isn’t random.”

“What do you mean?” Hugh asked.

“I mean the computer is inherently incapable of producing an actually random series of numbers. Because it’s a computer, it’s all programs, and programs are never random, it’s all zeroes and ones, nothing’s unpredictable about that … so they came up with a program that ‘simulates’ randomness, and they called it ‘random generation.’”

And then Hugh probably said something like, “I am a member of the Random Generation.”

This bit of apocrypha about computer programs – I didn’t even know if it was true or not, at the time (and frankly, I still don’t really know today) – was immensely appealing to me because it seemed to indicate a dividing line between the man-made world of modernity, and the rest of the universe. The rest of the universe had no problem with generating randomness … in fact, generating randomness was one of its underlying principles, or so it seemed to me. And if computers – which in a pinch could stand in as symbols of the entire human project of ‘rational’ civilization – could not produce truly random sequences of numbers, then we had located a bit of conceptual ground on which to make our stand.

From that point on, everything became random. ‘Random’ was the true nature of the universe, the unifying principle, and we went on from there to posit dual poles of ‘harshness’ and ‘whimsy’ to divide this otherwise uniformly random universe into a kind of yin and yang. These principles were arrived at through observation, or a combination of observation with free thought, a willingness to free associate. We had discovered another entirely neglected field of activity in our existence, that of laziness, loafing around, doing nothing – put more genteely, ‘the contemplative life’. It is in these empty spaces of ‘doing nothing at all’ that one begins to really see (and feel and smell and touch) one’s world.

Perhaps it was a kind of existentialism that we were indulging in … I can’t say for sure because I don’t recall much of anything from my reading of Sartre’s Nausea in my ‘Philosophy in Literature’ university option. At any rate, Randomness went beyond a simple schoolboy code word – we began to explore ‘being random’ in all its facets. First, all concepts of excellence, of ‘Quality’ went by the board. Because in order to be fully aware of the Randomness of the universe, one had to stop judging … one could not discriminate along the usual lines any more. Hence the naming of the Harsh and the Whimsical … we still had emotional responses to certain things, we still felt drawn to some and repelled by others, but now there was a sense of the arbitrariness of many of these preferences.

This is all like a back-door exploration of Buddhism, and other Eastern philosophies. Certainly, it wasn’t hard to soak up all that Yin and Yang vibe from the ubiquitous conceptual detritus of the long-superceded Sixties Generation. The drug subculture carried a heavy freight of all that jazz, it’s embedded in the language. But it isn’t wrong to go about one’s philosophical pursuits in this way, as opposed to pursuing it through the usual channels. Going about it this way, one will arrive at conclusions which might never be reached in an institutional setting … or which might only be arrived at decades later.

So, the principle of Randomness, along with the Jungian notion of synchronicity (delivered via The Police), The Tarot, and other bits and pieces of esoterica, finally led to a profound loosening of my approach to writing in general. I’d picked up the notion of ‘stream of consciousness’ somewhere or other … various students of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design transmitted all kinds of information about the Twentieth Century European Avante-Garde Tradition … and spending long winter evenings with a typewriter in a parking lot booth, using the unsubtle velvet hammer of copious pot smoking, I began to explore what I called ‘stream of unconscious’ writing – trying to get around, or under, or over the usual conscious barricades of ‘quality’ and ‘originality’ and ‘what to write about’ and ‘plot’ and ‘form’ and such, instead becoming ‘blank’ and just typing. I wanted to try to type as fast as I could think. I wanted to marry thinking to typing, without a pause between the image, the impulse and the transmission of the image to the page.

In this writing process, all barriers were being lost. All form was lost, even and up to and including the actual form of words, where a line would suddenly decay into shfadnfoadvn … I had created a kind of short-circuit in my linear accumulation of learned experience, and found myself returning, with my vocabulary and convoluted concepts intact, back to the playfulness of childhood. Where sexual fantasy was mapped onto everyday waking reality, where murder and madness were transfixed in a clear white light, where these feelings I’d always had, anguish and joy and rage and bliss, could live. In fact, the feelings were running the show.

It was at this point that I ‘really’ began to write – at the point where it wasn’t even poetry or prose yet, it was a kind of magma of unconscious language spew. I could read pages produced in that booth in the summer and amaze myself – or terrify myself, at times – but primarily, I knew that I had ‘arrived’ at a voice. It was merely a matter of allowing the voice that had always been there to speak freely.

Since then, my writing practice has always been an attempt to shape that flow in a way that made it accessible to the reader. I don’t know if it’s a betrayal, to impose form on that freedom … but certainly my ‘poetry practice’ retains the original injunction to write freely, without constraint of any kind, get it out on paper first and foremost – one can always edit or self-censor later, on sober second thought.

It might have been inevitable that I’d eventually arrive at a terminal point in this exploration of reality. One sign of my arrive was the sudden realization that the ongoing subvocal skein of conscious thought that had been like the mutter of an internal combustion engine, the background noise of thinking in and of itself, had vanished. And with the loss of this inner cop mind, this self-critical daemon of linear thought, I became much more aware of what was going on in the present tense. Human behavior in itself displayed the craziness of the social and political systems within which it had been shaped.

The longer I dwelt in this silence, this dead zone, the eternal present, the more desperate and lost I felt. Lost, not because I had lost touch with reality, but precisely because I had finally made contact with reality, only to find that our collective, consensus ‘reality’ was in itself, fundamentally out of touch with the ‘really real’. It created the epitome of confusion in my mind. My spiritual convictions mutated rapidly, from an adapted monotheism to pantheism to floundering incoherence – I began to retreat from any and all spiritual concepts because nothing could keep pace with what I was experiencing.

My poetry reflected this. Having reached this Ground Zero, I kept trying to re-establish reality by poetic fiat, by declaring first this ‘self-evident’ truth, and then that. I wandered far away from the safe ground of writing about what I knew, since I really seemed to know nothing at all. How could I insist on my personal construction of reality, against the overarching reality of our post-modern, capitalist zeitgeist? How could I possibly pretend that it was wrong, and I was right? Surely I had failed miserably at this juncture. I couldn’t distinguish truth from fantasy.

Nevertheless, when I roused myself to take action, to take arms against this sea of misfortunes, my approach was indeed to set about proving (at least to myself) that my personal understanding of reality was the truth. My method was simple. I read voraciously: psychology, economics, the occult, feminism, literature – anything was grist for the mill. Fundamental to this process was my own subjectivity. The question was always, does this help illuminate, illustrate, reinforce, expand my personal concept of just what, exactly, is going on here?

Somehow, perhaps by reading Jung, I had arrived at the notion that there was an underlying fallacy in our Western ‘way of seeing’ … that, in fact, we were in a process of constantly hoodwinking ourselves with words, with concepts, with ideas, to the point of adopting obvious falsehoods as our collective ‘truths’. Such as, “In the beginning was The Word.” This, despite the clear evidence that we are animals, mammals, which have evolved over millions of years, and that our peculiar facility of language-making and language use was a relatively recent evolutionary innovation. It begs the question, “In the beginning of what was The Word?”

I hadn’t yet begun to deal with the fact of language itself. Not when I wrote poems, that is. Intellectually, I had already run up against that wall, and I simply tried to ignore the problem. Because, as a writer, a poet, how can one abrogate language itself? No, I had to run through all the possibilities I could find, first. It would only be in utter defeat, self-defeat, that I would ‘find the words’ to express what was essentially something beyond language.

Everybody seemed to be running around convinced that this tinker toy construction, ‘the mind’, consciousness, was the self; all else was Darkness. The Jungle Line. Whereas my experience, consciously lived, was that our self, our being, is there at birth, before language acquisition, and that consciousness, language is an articulation of this being. Certainly, without language, we’re diminished, fallen back among the other beasts of field and forest, trapped in the narrow circle of the present moment. Less certainly, but probably, if deprived somehow of language, the first thing we’d do, in a social situation, is set about re-inventing it. But to claim that there is nothing but language … isn’t that a sort of solipsicm? A tautology, perhaps? A retreat into the sooty medieval banquet hall of Christian Western Civilization, without being so explicitly Christian? Who or what could this serve, to perpetuate a machine that was a miscegenation from the start? What point is there in knocking off the head, and retaining the monstrous body of a bad idea?

It took time … there was a certain amount of ‘living’ to be done in the midst of all these changes and discoveries … or perhaps ‘a series of attempts to live’ would be a better description … eventually, I arrived at the question of the language on the page in front of me. The form(s) of the poetry I was writing. If language, and consciousness itself, was no more than a tool for the self to put to use – which was what I told myself – then my poems, which had continued to work within the modernist mold, narrative poems, beginning middle and end poems, allegory poems, parable poems, prayer poems, song poems, poems that harked back to the roots of the English canon – then, there was no reason to remain within the white picket fence of modernism, was there?

I’ve never been a poet concerned with form, with meter, rhythm, rhyme, all the formal tchotchkas of poetic obsessiveness. I mean, not consciously concerned. I prefer to allow the innate sense or ‘consciousness’ of the language itself lead the way … (Of course language is conscious! As conscious as a pair of trousers. You throw the trousers on the bed, they’ll fall a certain way, they won’t fall like a sweater or a pair of socks because they are not those things, they are trousers. They bear a form, they exhibit a consciousness.) I start with the idea. Or, if it isn’t quite an idea, then it is a sense, a sensibility, a notion, a question, a plea, a prayer, a cry, a protest … I drop this into the pool of my ‘unconscious’ – and like a precipitate in a supersaturated solution, if I am fortunate, the poem will ‘crystallize’, and find its own best form.

And so my poetry exploded, broadened, lengthened, deepened. It came into its own. And it reached its audience.

Now, there is something disturbing about the poet wanting to seize control of his own reality, and make sense of it himself, never mind all these store-bought brand-name concepts and ideologies for sale in the intellectual marketplace. To cobble it all together out of thrift store paperbacks and second hand popular songs. But there’s something to the notion … the idea of ‘as above, so below’ comes into play, the idea that after all, my universe is just as real and finite or infinite as anyone’s, and if I can deconstruct capitalism in the workings of a parking lot, if I can encounter the godhead on the deck of a ferry or on the streets of a city, surely I can find the key to the world within my reach.

But to get back to the original impulse of this essay, which was the idea that my poetry is all about perception … by this I’m not referring to the scientific meaning of the word; I meant to resonate with Huxley’s famous Doors of Perception … poetry as a means of achieving an altered state of consciousness.

(Mind you … like any drug, poetry can have unintended or unanticipated consequences … there’s some trips you never come back from.)

I began to groove on my own poetry – began to feel like I could air it in public, get it in print and on stage – when it began to read like something someone else had written. When the consciousness created on the page before me seemed somehow to be written by someone else – Rimbaud’s famous “je est un autre” comes to mind. (In the same letter of May 13, 1871, he wrote “C’est faux de dire : Je pense : on devrait dire on me pense – Pardon du jeu de mots.”) At its peak, this sense of dissociation from what it was I was producing became so intense that, when I returned to these manscripts after an eventful two-year hiatus, I fully was convinced that some interloper had written these formless prose poetry flows on my typewriter and left them to baffle me. Only slowly, over hours, did the memory of their composition reconstitute itself, arising from the page, and allowing me to reconstruct an entire visionary epoch of my life that had been blown out of my conscious mind.

This trauma – the trauma of perception, one might call it, the point in time when the poet’s hapless fumbling with words has almost inadvertently rolled the stone away from the interred world of being – led me on a wild chase over the years for material to throw into the blast furnace of my enormous ignorance. The unconscious is vast, it is as illimitable as the universe itself, and as dark. Over the years I ran through a wide array of concepts, which came from sometimes jarringly different ideological directions. For instance, the copy of Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations that I found in a snowbank one day, spoke to me on the level of revelation. Specifically, it illuminated nagging questions concerning the economic vortex that seemed to be sucking everybody and everything toward specific centers like Toronto, and more remotely, New York … and more importantly, revealed the weird gravity that always seems to slowly tear apart whatever aggregate of friends might momentarily form.

Then, one fine day I heard the dry voice of Noam Chomsky on campus radio, as he matter-of-factly outlined a world view that made sense of the seemingly senseless chaos of global politics. There are ideological aspects of Jane Jacobs’ ideas about the function of city economies that clash with Chomsky’s anarchist concepts concerning the intricacies of American foreign policy. That doesn’t concern me in the least, because I am neither a scholar nor a political scientist. I have always latched onto ideas simply through the overriding desire to see – to bring clarity to what was unclear, to bring light to what was dark (or perhaps to bring darkness to what is too bright), to find an clearer, saner perspective, in opposition to the glib, thin and amnesiac veneer of ‘sense’ that merely masks the inherent incoherence and toxic contradictions of mainstream consensus reality.

It is this quality of illumination, of revelation, of finding an underlying reality principle, that has led me to enthusiasms for the least self-censored works of Henry Miller (The Tropics and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy) and Anais Nin (the unexpurgated diaries); the theories of the psychologist R.D. Laing; the writing strategies of Kathy Acker; the postmodern musings of Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Roland Barthes, Avital Ronell; Barbara G. Walker’s The Women’s Book of Myths and Secrets and Starhawk’s New Age wiccan revival text Dreaming the Dark; Atonin Artaud; elements of Gnostic Christianity, the mythic psychic terrain of Languedoc, and the most practical aspects of Buddhist thought; the Situationists, especially the extraordinary insights of Guy Debord; the Beat poetic tradition; Richard Dindo’s documentary on Che Guevara’s Bolivian campaign; music that speaks, implicitly or explicitly, of transformation, of spiritual transformation, of revolution … and the people, all the friends who came with their freight of feminist, anarchist, socialist, humanist, postmodern artistic, queer and New Age yogic hopes and dreams for the future.

Interestingly, my relationship with drugs began to wane during this time when ideas became my new ‘fix’. The thrill was gone, and indeed, over the next couple of decades, ideas came and went as well, each idea momentarily exciting my mind, galvanizing my thoughts, broadening my horizon, then fading into the fabric of my world, the world that it had reshaped. I almost immediately lost the specifics of most of these ideas. For instance, the title of one of R.D. Laing’s books is The Politics of Experience. I have no recollection of what that book is about, actually … I must’ve read it over 20 years ago … but the idea at the root of that phrase, ‘the politics of experience’ certainly intersected with the text flow of my poetry practice; intersected, spliced, integrated with my construction of a personal vision. As did a zillion other memes from a zillion other sources. The poetic consciousness is a busy midnight switching yard, under the bright northern stars …

I hope in some way that my poems serve as ‘antipropaganda’, in the way that Solidarity’s straightforwardness in the byzantine, coded behavioral landscape of Soviet Poland was ‘antitheatre’ … I hope that they cut through what Chomsky calls “the mists of carefully contrived illusion” the way LSD cut through the haze of my lost and wasted youth.

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