Will Harris on poetry and the moral subject
‘Perspective’ makes me think of the art class in which we were taught to draw a tree-lined path. I had to pick a point on the horizon and then draw a series of wonky lines radiating off it, in between which I fitted my stick trees. The path was pyramid-shaped, which seemed wrong, but I followed instructions. As the trees got smaller, they looked further away.
I can see that, in hindsight, we were being made to enact one of the major shifts in Western art – being drilled in a certain aesthetic logic. Karsten Harries argues that, with the popular growth of linear perspective in fifteenth-century Italy, a ‘God-centred art gives way to a human-centred art’. Or you could say, human perspective in art becomes God-like.
In earlier tapestries and altarpieces, heaven nestles in the crook of a bishop’s arm, or several scenes – crucifixion and ascension, birth and death – occur at once. A two-dimensional plate holds a 3-D fish. Medieval art is full of multiple, impossible perspectives.
Art conceived under the sign of linear perspective is different, and not just because it makes things seem more real. Its shock derives from the viewer’s sudden awareness of themselves as a seeing subject, an ‘I’. Look at the background – a row of pine trees, a mountain range – and space takes on a magical depth. The world is transforming itself around the viewer’s gaze.
‘You said “I” has so much power; it’s insane,’ writes Claudia Rankine in Citizen. Even as I write ‘I’, I feel its power. I’m arranging the world around a point of view. These thoughts, without meaning to, trace out the radial lines of my experience. I might quote other writers, echo different voices, splinter my text, avoid saying ‘I’ (using ‘you’, ‘we’, concrete images only), but something coheres. That expectation of coherence changes what I see. In the chaos of the stars, the plume of milk in my coffee, a unifying shape emerges. A reflection. An implicated ‘I’.
There’s a tradition that sees the poet, in Emerson’s terms, as ‘the sayer, the namer’. This amplifies the role of nouns and adjectives – naming words. It also feeds into the Adamic idea of the poet as someone who points at a green fuzzy blob and says tree, thereby coming ‘nearer to it than any other’ (Emerson again). Maybe this is what’s led to the popular but mistaken idea that the poem’s job is just to describe things well – an idea that lurks behind the meme, ‘We get it poets: things are like other things.’
I imagine poems arising not out of an effort to describe the world but to communicate with a person. Rather than asserting control over an object – the imperial fantasy of ownership through naming – poems express a relationship between subjects.
In ‘The Constructed Space’, the Scottish poet W S Graham presents a landscape uncluttered by description: ‘I say / This silence here for in it I might hear you.’ These lines have always felt sad and true to me. For all the poet says, they say nothing. Or paradoxically, they say silence, unrolling it like a prayer mat to sit down on and wait for the impossible ‘you’ to respond. ‘I’ has so much power, up to a point. It can’t compel a response.
Pronouns (‘I’ and ‘you’) may map out the co-ordinates of a relationship but are useless to traverse the silent space between two real persons. Worse still, the ‘I’ in a poem is not like a window. ‘I’ and ‘you’ bear a complicated relationship to the poet’s biography, to the society in which that poet’s biography was formed, to the historical forces which formed that society. The ‘I’ is a marked, scarred object.
In thinking about how to discuss this, three things come to mind:
1) I once watched a documentary that explained the way large planets distort the gravitational field around them. A presenter placed a heavy ball at the centre of a trampoline and took out a small cork ball, rolling it across the surface of the trampoline several times. Either it bent its path around the heavy ball and continued to the other side, or it rolled too near and was sucked into its orbit.
2) Gwendolyn Brooks wrote that black poets in America are ‘twice-tried’. ‘They have to write poetry,’ she said, ‘and they have to remember that they are Negroes.’ They might write sonnets and villanelles about ‘the transience of a raindrop or the gold stuff of the sun’, which seem beautiful and consoling to white readers. To the poet themselves, the ‘golden sun might remind them that they are burning’.
3) Friedrich Engels wrote a letter to Franz Mehring on 14 July 1893: ‘Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.’
The ‘I’ through which we see the world is partial, violently constricted by forces of race, class and history. But though none of us are capable of fully construing the motive forces that impel us, we can acknowledge their existence. The golden sun, beautiful to you, might be burning someone else.
The work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, a mixed-race poet born in Beijing and raised in the US, can seem coldly serene. ‘The Reservoir’ and ‘Alakanak Break-Up’ revolve around images of freezing tundra and ice floes. In ‘Forms of Politeness’, the ice abates, but the language is purposely frozen. This has the effect, as in ‘The Constructed Space’, of drawing attention to little words like pronouns and to the poem’s subtler shifts in syntax.
Where Graham works with a stable ‘I’ and ‘you’, Berssenbrugge often switches between perspectives in the same line, or over the same attenuated sentence. Desire, for example, is described as ‘the landscape in which herself and what she expected from you in the way of support coincide, / so that I and you resemble each other, now.’ To me, what’s confusing about these lines is also what’s so beautiful about them. Confused speech often lapses into a series of pronouns – ‘I – no, we – didn’t it? – yes, she – I did!’ – signalling intimacy as much as awkwardness. Language garbles itself in the presence of desire. And in Berssenbrugge’s attempt to merge the first with the second person, to make them ‘resemble’ each other, language is charged with awkward desire.
Beneath the languid surface of her syntax, there’s a recurrent sense of suppressed hurt or an urge to unify the split self. But hostile to any critical impulse that would connect her life and work in a linear fashion, she writes:
To live another person’s biography is not the same as to live his or her life. She constructs a story line or cluster of anecdotal details, like clothes around the body, instruments of both defense and expansion […]
Instead of the constructed ‘biography’ or the life exposed, she gives the strained relationship between the two. Anecdotal details are ‘instruments of both defense and expansion’. They guard against deeper intrusion into the life, while building something new (Philip Sidney: the poet ‘doth grow, in effect, into another nature’).
As with much of Berssenbrugge’s work, I feel like I understand ‘Forms of Politeness’ less in the manner of a bucket – Seamus Heaney’s poems, however mysterious, make good buckets – than a spray of ‘yellow light’ (an image from the poem). It makes me think about perspective – my own and hers. Both of us are racialised subjects, our views on the world distorted by the way the world sees us. Her distorted use of perspective flows naturally from this experience.
The artist, wrote Flaubert in a letter of 1857, ‘must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful’. Though invisible, I’d guess that most people have a broadly similar idea of what God looks like: burly, white, very much He/Him. Likewise the writer, though expected to be invisible in Flaubert’s formula, invariably assumes a white, masculine form too. In how many poems can we follow the lines of perspective back to the same ‘I’ – the same disappointed, desiring, white male gaze?
Writers of colour who display their difference commit two sins: they corrupt the sacred image of the writer-as-white-father, and they show the threads, which should remain invisible, between the writer and their work. This second argument comes up more often; the first, more shameful to the touch, simmers angrily beneath the surface.
Attacks on writers of colour are likely to adopt a defensive posture. Art, and the imaginative freedom it represents, must be defended at all costs. To align the perspective of the writer with that of their work – to show the threads – risks sacrificing imagination to experience. It limits possibilities, turns art into reportage. Such work, say critics, can’t be judged by the usual aesthetic measure, only by authenticity or virtue – where virtue signals the level of trauma disclosed.
William Logan’s review of the US-Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong is a case in point. Logan attacks Vuong for making the ‘still-raw oppressions of biography […] the whole sales-pitch’ and also for not fully conveying ‘the immigrant’s wrenching dislocation or permanent sense of loss’. He compares Vuong’s ‘still-raw’ poems to the ‘fraught psychology’ of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell – the main difference being, as far as I can tell, that those poets are white. They were able to make art out of their ‘fraught’ biography.
‘I don’t have a problem with the identity or the politics,’ says Logan, ‘but a lot of bad poetry has been written in the name of putting them together.’ Rather than getting fully into this – what does it mean to divide identity from politics? What does it mean to put them together? – maybe I should just say: the idea that art is, or can be, anything other than identity is ridiculous. The imagination, so far from being opposed to identity, is the sum of our experiences, recollected and rendered in legible form – it is identity. This should be self-evident, tautological.
I had this realisation three or four years ago. I’d spent most of my conscious life trying to avoid my reflection in the mirror. From a young age I wanted to write. Writing, like reading, was a form of escape. It let me occupy a place outside of myself which, though brittle, was less exposed. It kept me from myself.
In 2011, after working as a teaching assistant at a comprehensive school in Hounslow, a time during which I wrote nothing, I decided to enrol on a Masters course in poetry at St Andrews, on the east coast of Fife. I’d have been too embarrassed to say it, but here was where I hoped to find myself as a writer. At the edge of a new town – one which, unlike London, had an edge – was endless coastline. I imagined walking for hours and returning inspired, exhausted, to a large desk where I would pen my masterpieces.
When I arrived at my flat share, the downstairs corridor was lined with empty packets of thrush tablets and mangled bicycles. Upstairs, the kitchen windows were piled high with pizza boxes so that only a monastic slit of light made it through. My room, as it turned out, was desk-less, and my laptop broke within a week.
About a month into the course, I was struggling with an unfinished poem when I came upon this advice from Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing will be a form of deceit.’ It rung in my head for days, but however true it sounded I had no idea what to do with it. Not who you are, but what you are… What was I? Did that mean I had to choose one thing and run with it? I decided Wittgenstein was an idiot.
After St Andrews, I moved back to London more confused than ever. Most of the poets I’d read and been taught were old and white. At times I thought I could imitate their voice and authority, ignoring my own background – picturing instead the shifting columns of T S Eliot’s ‘ideal order’ – but even the best stuff I wrote felt thin and insubstantial. I stopped writing altogether.
In between shifts at a call centre near Oxford Circus, less burdened with a sense of what I should be doing, I started reading more widely. Over lunch, I sat in a nearby McDonalds and read books on politics, economics and race – stuff I’d previously deemed irrelevant to being a poet. Looking into Indonesia’s bloody colonial history and post-independence years, I began to question my mum about her – my – family for the first time.
I found out that my granddad, who died when my mum was in her late teens, had been caught up in the events of 1965. After the failure of a supposed communist coup, General Suharto had seized control of the government and, in a bid to consolidate power, launched a countrywide purge. Chinese Indonesians, ghettoised and persecuted for hundreds of years, became the main target. They were slaughtered in the thousands – some say hundreds of thousands. My mum, living in a small city in Sumatra, was about five years old when her dad was arrested on suspicion of anti-government activities. Sometimes my grandma would say he was in jail for six months, sometimes two years. She took him fruit and clean water every day, and my mum says she screamed at the guards if they hurried her.
It was hard to think of my grandma living like that. I grew up in London, where I don’t stand out and rarely feel threatened. Sometimes a drunk guy at a bar will tell me to fuck off back home, or I’ll get called a ‘chink’ and asked if my ‘slitty’ eyes make it harder to see, but these are insults I can put aside. Talking to my mum, I realised why she’d been so worried about my education, about doing well. Education was a way out of the swirl of terror that had engulfed her early life. It was no coincidence, I realised, that in my early twenties I wanted to disappear, to have no reflection: it was how I’d been taught to survive.
In St Andrews, on the few occasions I walked along the coast, I’d stare out at the sea’s many layers of grey and try to work out where the sky began. I imagined myself flying out into that view, refining myself out of existence. I wanted a voice at once voiceless and authoritative. What would my subject be? Everything. What would I be? Nothing.
I’d read Edward Said’s critique of imperial thinking where he says: ‘no one can be purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American, are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.’ This seemed like a command for me to leave behind the labels which others might try to pin to me: male, Indonesian, Chinese, English.
I couldn’t see that Said’s argument was about more than that. Rejecting labels wasn’t the point. How can you reject a culture of masculinity which, so long as you’ve been conscious, has shaped the way you see (and are seen in) the world? Likewise, the East Asian features that condition how shop owners talk to me and how strangers hear me. But, as Said says, these are only ‘starting-points’. When followed into ‘actual experience’ – into conversations and friendships – they blur.
Poetry is not mere experience or ‘biography’. Maybe, instead, it’s an attempt to convey actual experience. This means doing justice to those relationships that construct the self, and to the world as seen through the blundering, blinding haze of a particular ‘I’. In one poem, Edmond Jabès writes:
the basic racist is the man who refuses himself as he is. Being oneself means being alone. Getting used to this solitude. Growing, working within one’s natural contradictions. ‘I’ is not the other. He is ‘I’. To explore this ‘I’ is our task.
‘I’ has so much power; it’s insane. But it’s also weak. Or else why would it need the buttress of the other – a ‘you’ or ‘them’ to love or hate? For Jabès, as for Graham and Berssenbrugge, the ‘I’ is alone and contradictory. It’s never whole.
‘You look into someone’s eyes as if you were seeing through the face,’ writes Berssenbrugge. I wish I could have read and understood a line like that when I was teaching myself to write, or learning how to draw. If she’d written ‘their face’ it would suggest looking through someone, struggling to connect with them. That definite article turns it into a line about the difficulty of connecting with yourself. How do you connect with others when you can’t – or don’t want to – recognise your own face in the mirror? You’re never just looking at another human, but looking through ‘the face’.
In a similar manner, Vahni Capildeo writes about being ‘too accustomed to people who varied between unseeing and unseen’. I used to think I was the vanishing point on that tree-lined path. If I mastered technique and craft, I could be as ‘unseeing and unseen’ as my white friends. But whether on the page or out on the street, each of us sees the world through a different face, from a different perspective. History has its limits. And however hard I’ve tried to rub myself out, my perspective is implicated in everything I do. Even when I’ve said nothing, when I’ve sat silently and waited, or imagined us surrounded by white fields, I’ve been myself. ‘Whether you speak up or scarcely whisper,’ writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘you speak with all you are.’
Will Harris is a London-based poet, editor and critic. He is the author of Mixed-Race Superman (Peninsula Press, 2018) and a poetry pamphlet, All this is implied (HappenStance, 2017).