Presentism and the poet’s rage

Presentism is a modern stain. It is vehement in denying all explanations of now that go back in time, wanting to start anew with such passion that the past becomes trivial. Forgetting becomes less an explicit act and more an implicit elision brought about by massive distraction.

(The social forces that compel presentism are the same that animate the modern assault on understanding, restricting the scope of vigorous debate to a limited spectrum (Chomsky1) creating the illusion of diversity.)

When we are robbed of the past, we have no choice but to project the image of the present onto the future (Galeano2). The assault on imagination is terrifying. When our language is robbed of historical consciousness, the sensibilities brought into play are dystopic.

If language is fossil poetry (Emerson), then the poet should be all the more outraged by such an appropriation of expression. Dylan Thomas rages against the dying of the light. If we accept Kundera when he says, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” then Dylan’s rage is sterile unless the dying light is cast in the light of the ever alive past.

rage is the new normal; night is
an interpretation; flip open the
valves and let the ink bleed the
catchments dry for a new version
of night, a variation on history

rage is the new normal; the long
machinery of myth, the stench of
an older order, more primal than
the scream of the new version of
night, permutating with mutation

rage is the new normal; delights
in the rediscovery of the ultra-
mundane, the hodgepodge factotum
and mishmashed equilibria - this
is no more primal, no more night

rage is the new normal; the fist
that dares to open, to ask, want
to dare to ask, to stamp its bit
on the new version of night, the
variation on theme, an older one

1. “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Noam Chomsky, “The Common Good”

2. “Incapable of recalling its origins, the present paints the future as a repetition of itself; tomorrow is just another name for today.” Eduardo Galeano, “Upside Down”

21 comments on “Presentism and the poet’s rage

  1. Melissa Shaw-Smith says:

    A poem which puts its finger on the pulse! Sadly, every day when I listen to the news this seems to be the truth. I pray that it’s not.

  2. Lola Elvy says:

    It seems this, too, touches on a vast spectrum of arguments and topics, and that there is much left unspoken (though attempting to further force the emotion and message that I believe you are trying to convey here into words may be futile). I would be inclined to agree with you about what you say here regarding the inaccuracies (many of which seem to be intentionally inflicted, in one way or another) of language and the ways we use language to misrepresent the world around us. The ways in which language is manipulated, exploited, limited even further, and then exploited again are numerous.What I find very interesting is that the way in which you are phrasing this here is somewhat convoluted and unspecific, but it makes sense in way that I cannot further explain or clarify. However, the one thing I may disagree on here would be that this is a ‘modern’ stain. I must admit, I have not read many of the philosophers you mention, and truthfully have very little experience other than my own in this matter, but I find it difficult to believe that such inaccuracies in language are *modern*, or even newly developed. I think these issues, whether negative, positive, or neither (for surely all can be argued at some level), have probably always been present in one way or another; however, they are perhaps more prominent now, when our global communication is broader than it ever has been before.

    I find it especially coincidental that you and I are having this discussion now, of all days, as I have recently been struggling with a handful of poems I am working on that are tied very closely with this topic of language and words (in my mind, at least). I often find when reading them, however, that though they, unlike my other poems, do slightly more than touch on the themes of articulation and limitation, they are too long and scattered, and, after a point, I begin to fear that they cease to make sense in any contained manner; they lack an overarching form to tie them together in a way that renders them, at the very least, decipherable, I worry. I get the feeling from reading this piece of yours that it (your piece here) is coherent and collected, but still only touches on what you really have to say. I wonder if, as such, you face a similar predicament here. Unless I am presuming too much; perhaps I am again inferring only what I can relate to myself. Either way, though, this was very interesting and compelling read. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    • huzaifazoom says:

      Thank you for the insightful and thoughtful note.

      With presentism, I have more the war on memory in mind than accuracy of expression. As you rightly point out, mass media has only recently assumed monstrous proportions due to technology. First radio, then TV and now the internet, each subsequent wave has notched up the propagative power of the printing press a few orders higher. That is one factor. The second factor is the need to suppress dissent. Before the advent of liberal democracy (as well as in the totalitarian societies of the last century), physical persecution achieved that aim. With liberal democracies, subtler means became necessary. For these two reasons, I feel the the war on memory is more poignant and insidious today than ever.

      What I am trying to do is to i) to tie it in with how it has affected poetry using my short (and grossly inadequate) prose introductions and ii) experiment with expressing this reality in verse. This topic has been extremely well researched and covered in the dissenting prose discourse of the past forty odd years, but for me verse and prose have radically separate domains of expression. Hence the need to experiment with this topic in verse.

      Putting this in relation to the terms you mention, articulation and limitation, both of these have to do primarily with communication. Whereas I am trying to get at the underlying ‘iceberg’ of language which is thought. And how thought itself is being compromised through the appropriation of language by dominance structures (in liberal democracies via mass media). Articulation and limitation, in this context, stand to get more acute and incisive by addressing these structures.

      At bottom there is a deeper human urge to get verse back to its vocation, which is joy. I feel the most evocative contemporary verse speaks of personal anguish, and that is not a coincidence as it dovetails with modern alienation and atomism.

      Hope I am making a little bit more sense. And thanks again for giving me the opportunity to clear my thoughts out through this dialogue.

      • Lola Elvy says:

        I apologize for my delayed response. I went offline later that day and began sailing to Tanzania, and had no Internet access to see your reply until now (now that I have arrived in Tanga, Tanzania).

        What you are saying does make sense, and I would be inclined to agree with you, though I must admit, you seem to have a more experienced understanding of this than I. I believe social media does skew perception, and I suppose, in turn, memory. Memory is a fluctuating inconstancy, and always subject to change, and social media provides an expansive means for misrepresentation and propagation. I think it is of upmost interest that you choose to take your argument and place it in the context of poetry. However, if I may be so bold as to so blatantly ask you, in what specific ways do you believe this has affected poetry? And what are you referring to as being the primary force affecting poetry?

        Thank you for indulging my queries and interpretations for as long as you have. I am greatly intrigued by what you are saying.

      • huzaifazoom says:

        Good to hear from you Lola. Tanzania is wonderful. Although my exposure was made somewhat mundane because of work (visited it a number of times from 2009 to 2012), I have great memories, especially of the people.

        I’ll answer your two queries, i. “in what specific ways do you believe this has affected poetry?”, and ii. “what are you referring to as being the primary force affecting poetry?”

        It is our oppressive system I have in mind. I spoke of it in terms of propaganda. It can also be understood in terms of the fear that all of us have to contend with and internalize (the fear that seeps in us through news, tv, movies and now social media; an irrational fear of the Other). Related to fear of the Other is the demonizing of the Other, i.e, racism and bigotry. This plays no small part in entitling the few to feel free in exploiting the many, and this has been a constant for roughly five thousand years. All of this works to sever the connections that bind human to human, to all sentient beings, and to nature. In other words, oppresion is actively busy in killing joy.

        Poetry is one of many ways of expressing joy. So it is under threat. By not coming to terms with the above, all forms of expression risk tunnel vision. Poetry more so because it has to do with language, and language is inextricably tied to thought.

        One of the ways of coming to terms with oppression and abuse of power is through dissent, the other constant in history; the unrelenting voice of the oppressed, or of those speaking on behalf of the oppressed. Ezra Pound exclaims, “make it new.” Making it new means breaking traditional forms of expression. That is also dissent, especially when traditional forms are oppressive.

        Thank you for indulging my answers and interpretations 🙂

      • Lola Elvy says:

        Sorry again for my delayed reply. I’ve been a little preoccupied with the end of year, and haven’t been doing as much with WordPress lately; I apologize.

        I am enjoying Tanzania, especially the people. Particularly first arriving in the country was an experience unlike any I have had before. I am currently in Zanzibar, though I believe I will be leaving to sail to Dar es Salam in the next few days.

        I believe I understand what you’re saying. And I understand what you mean in regards the ‘oppressive system’, though the one thing where I am disinclined to agree is that because of this, poetry is severely threatened. Perhaps poetry is under some form of threat, but as you say yourself, poetry is a means of expressing, and I believe poetry can and will always express what it needs to express. However inexperienced my opinion may be, I strongly believe that poetry is as much what the author has written as what the reader chooses to interpret, or what the reader needs to interpret. Poetry, as well as near any other form of art, is no more and no less than it what it has to be; it means no more and no less than what it must. And where there is oppression, negative or necessary (as I would imagine some must argue for both sides), there is always dissent. Whether poetry is a means of expressing this dissent, and how central or momentous poetry is in relation to this, or anything else, is a decision not of the oppressed, nor of the oppressing, but of the individual, being fundamentally part of neither, but in and of his or her self, and, even as arguably part of a larger whole, disparate still, despite the forces that may surround.

        I am glad to have had this discussion with you. It has been very stimulating, and I appreciate you entertaining my queries, responses, and opinions for as long as you have. Thank you.

        Enjoy the new year.


      • huzaifazoom says:

        And a happy new year to you Lola.

        Zanzibar is beautiful. It has a historical link to Oman, the country work has been taking me to these days, and I find the cultural correspondences intriguing.

        The link between Zanzibar and Oman is a colonial one, and that is tied to our discussion on oppression, forgetting, language and poetry. Colonialism is marginalized in mainstream liberal (BBC, New York Times, CNN etc.) discussions on why the global south (developing, or the more disparaging ‘third world’) nations are where they are.

        And that is a related but a separate thread of discussion 🙂

      • Lola Elvy says:

        Your work must take you to a variety of interesting places. Where are you most centrally living now?

        I must admit, my knowledge of mainstream liberal discussions is somewhat limited (I don’t really even have much access to any forms of mainstream media), but the connection between such discussions regarding global south nations and our discussion (regarding oppression, forgetting, language, and poetry) is certainly interesting to take into account. I find it interesting that you would also say colonialism is, in these mainstream liberal discussions, marginalized; again, I don’t have enough knowledge of such discussions to properly form my own strong opinion, but this does surprise me (though it may well be true).

      • huzaifazoom says:

        Karachi is home. I have just posted a collection of links here:

        They are basically a compilation of links on social justice which I have sent over the past few months to a couple of friends. The first article describes both my work and my recent opening of eyes in terms of social justice. Jason Hickel’s article on reparation talks of colonialism. It appeared in the Guardian which is technically mainstream but has a mixed record when it comes to objective coverage of social justice topics.

        More than enough of me. How does it work with all the travelling you do by sea? I cannot realistically fathom how that can be 🙂

      • Lola Elvy says:

        Thank you for sharing the links with me. It seems like you’ve gathered a variety of different sources here. I will be interested in taking a look at them.

        I’m not entirely sure of how to answer that question (whether you mean regarding going from country to country, or what specifically). It’s just another form of travelling, I suppose; sailing, instead of going over land. Border regulations still apply, but they’re different for every country.

      • huzaifazoom says:

        Glad to have you back online Lola. Yes, the whole travelling by sea on your own seems daunting in this age of regulations and (in)security. Must be something though.

      • Lola Elvy says:

        I am back now, yes; sorry.

        I would be inclined to think that the looming prospect of travelling by sea is more daunting than the actual act, as is often the case with many other things. It takes some negotiating place to place, as every country has some unique informalities of regulation, and I suppose travelling by sea one is that much closer to these informalities. It can be tedious, but it can also certainly be very entertaining.

        Do you travel mostly by plane, or over land? Or do travel by sea sometimes, as well?

      • huzaifazoom says:

        True (the prospect being more daunting than the actual act).
        My work travel is almost exclusively by air. De-personalized airports, solemn ticketing and immigration lines, synthetic flight announcements, cramped seats and meals requiring a minor in gymnastics, that is modern air travel. Just for that one should take up travel by land and/or sea 🙂

      • Lola Elvy says:

        Some modern air travel can be tricky, yes. At least you get to see a variety of different places in your work, though. That must be enjoyable.

      • huzaifazoom says:

        Once the airport part is over, it is a different story of course 🙂

      • Lola Elvy says:

        I can imagine that, yes.

  3. gspottedpen says:

    The past is just not casual memories but open to the chain of metaphoric significations. No reading is perfect there are only imperfect interpretations. Beautiful an evocative prose! Anand Bose from Kerala

  4. pscottier says:

    Chomsky’s quote which you reference struck me quite deeply; I sometimes get too caught up in ‘lively’ debate on various news sites, within the parameters that are permitted.

    Poetry can at times challenge that slick and easy use of language as a ‘filler’, through putting the emphasis on the elusive, or even through wordplay and humour. This is the case with the ‘rage’ above; it challenges easy categories and is unsettling.

    Very glad to have discovered this blog.

    • huzaifazoom says:

      We continue to be under the sway of both the ‘filler’ and the joyful aspects of language. Chomsky is brilliant in uncovering the systemic harm of the former, and in doing so, he reminds us of the urgency of the simple act of poetic dissent.

      Thanks for stopping by and your thoughtful comment.

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