Essay

Dmitri Golynko: Poetry and Prose

by Dmitri Golynko, translated by Marijeta Bozovic and Maksim Hanukai

This essay was first published in Russian in the St. Petersburg journal Translit.

Applied Social Poetry: Inventing the Political Subject

In his programmatic manifesto “Applied social art,” Artur Zmijewski writes about the “possibility of using art for the most diverse goals: as an instrument of receiving and disseminating knowledge, as a factory of cognitive procedures, based on intuition and imagination, as an occasion for learning and for political action.” Paraphrasing this definition by Zmijewski, it is possible to suggest and legitimize the term “applied social poetry.” It is meant to denote that sphere of contemporary poetry which serves the production and dissemination of knowledge; which is included in the global cognitive industry; and which calls for the study of reality and its political reorganization. At first, this term may appear questionable and somewhat paradoxical, given that in the second half of the twentieth century poetry has become a marginal and practically unfinanceable occupation, cultivated by a small number of professional communities or closed academic elites.

The contemporary poet wages image politics, which presupposes that he follows either the romantic myth of the solitary genius, reproducing the otherworldly voice of the Muse; or the heroic assertion of aesthetic autonomy and the hermetic closedness of his creations; or that he enters the system of specialized literary events (such as local or international festivals, artist residencies, award competitions financed by rich or poor prize funds). At times the role-playing strategy of the poet depends on the combination of all three, and also a number of other factors. The point of view, expressed by the contemporary poet, even when critical and hostile to the existing social order, nevertheless remains the expression of an individual view. Others may pay attention to his private opinion, but the latter is unlikely to grow into a step-by-step guide for action, into an instrument for the practical transformation of society and the correction of social troubles.

In order to give the poetic utterance an applied character, the poet with a radical gesture renounces the principle of aesthetic autonomy, as well as the use of the stereotypical (Romantic and modernist) postures of the poet-prophet, demon or eccentric. At the same time, he is compelled to free himself from the illusion of artistic independence and to admit his absolute dependence on antagonistic social codes, and on a number of contradictory social voices. Applied social poetry arises in that moment when the poet delegates his unique authorial voice to that mass of the disenfranchised and the oppressed, which has been stripped of the possibility to speak in the field of the contemporary culture industry.

At the same time the poet not only speaks from the point of view of those who are destitute and cast aside, but also allows their segregated and often clumsy, unpleasant (to the ear) voices to sound and be transmitted through his verses, through the politicized form of his protest statements. In order to transform text into applied social reality, the poet must renounce the habitual and traditional aesthetic categories, from the Kantian dichotomy of the sublime and the beautiful, and in general from value judgments about the beautiful and the ugly, the authentic and the imaginary. His texts distinctly express that ethico-political measure of the current day, which can be accurately described only in the language of direct and immediate intervention in current events (when those current events cannot leave one indifferent and do not allow for non-action at an ironic distance).

My personal interest in “applied social poetry” is motivated by the fact that I grew up and was educated in the late Soviet epoch. At that time nearly every written poem was treated not as a self-forgetful linguistic game, but as a dangerous, risky, and yet necessary, social act (this was true also of seemingly abstract lyrical-metaphysical utterances). To be sure, we are talking about, first of all, unofficial culture, about the Petersburg underground with its solemn imperial-classical rhetoric, or about the literary flank of Moscow Conceptualism with its imitations of down-to-earth, quasi-middle-brow speech, riddled with ideological clichés. But even official Soviet poetry recognized and propagandized (at times with excessive pathos) its intention to become the optimal means of improving social reality.

In the post-Soviet period, the poet can reproduce nationwide resentment in response to inflation, poverty, and catastrophic social inequality; he can give voice to collective traumas tied to the loss of the imperial historical perspective; he can adopt a civic pose, bursting out with angry sarcastic attacks or even extremist appeals. At the same time, he has the option of reacting to current events, to pass moral or legal judgment on them, to expose them to severe criticism, etc. What he categorically does not possess any more is that function of active and effective social intervention in which both official and unofficial Soviet poets once took such pride. It is notable that the perception of poetic labor as urgent transformative activity was accompanied by the ideological and philosophical complexity of the entire antagonistic literary field. In the two decades following the collapse of the USSR that world-contemplative complexity has been slowly, but inexorably, transformed into its opposite, into “simplicity” of marketing and advertising. Evidently, contemporary culture’s loss of this high complexity and ambiguity partly explains the interest shown by today’s leftist intellectual community in the universalism of the Soviet civilizing project.

Of course, political regimes with totalitarian or authoritarian forms of government are prone to see in the written word a concrete physical danger for the ideological stability of society. The liberal-democratic government, in turn, equates the written word with private self-expression, granting ideological power to commercially profitable media culture. It is possible that the global financial crisis, which has called into question both the infrastructure and the media rhetoric of post-industrial capitalism, is creating the conditions for the re-actualization of social poetry that carries within itself a revolutionary avant-garde impulse and presents a calculated political program.

It is unlikely that such poetry will conform to any of the stable clichés of the civic lyric; even if it does include an agitational component or two-dimensional “poster truths,” these will be accompanied by attentive intellectual reflection, taking into account their historical genesis, their class identity, their role in the system of social differentiation. The poetic gesture becomes a social act thanks namely to a fast, if not instantaneous, response to а significant social event. Thanks to the emotional immersion in that event and readiness for active inclusion in its configuration, as well as to sober and attentive intellectual comprehension of the reasons and consequences that form the essence of the social process in a given unique moment in time. Social poetry forces the poet to be a bit of an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a political thinker, to conduct journalistic investigations, and, if need be, to become a fighter on the barricades, whether imaginary or real.

What distinguishes applied social poetry is its particular relationship to poetic language, which does not belong to anyone and at the same time belongs to all, which is not subject even to the one who writes and at the same time is handed over for ownership to the millions of the voiceless and suffering. The experience of such poetry is the experience of the defamiliarization of language from itself: language ceases to be a modernist “house of Being,” a postmodernist stream of floating signifiers or a virtual “cozy Live-Journalese.” Language becomes a space of ongoing battle, battle that is ideological or class-based, developing within the inter-subjective field or within the plane of individual psychology.

In such a space of battle you see the collision of elements of varied forms of social languages, professional slang, computer or criminal jargon, urban Volapük, national dialects, etc. They are all pushed out or struck out of the habitual contexts of everyday or public language usage. They all interact as disparate fragments of social discourse, which become objects not of private but collective language ownership, those little bricks out of which a new explosive and unpredictable social reality is amassed within the text.

Aside from that, from the point of view of applied social poetry, any private history (be it facts from the poet’s own biography, aggrandized to the scale of heroic myth, or the twists and turns in the life of a character invented by him) can be retold only in terms of social experience, more often negative than positive, the experience of habitual disorder and class inequality. In other words, the structure of individual experience (put simply, “nightingales and roses”) unfolds exclusively with the help of a precisely accurate social analysis; thereby the private and the intimate appear as projections of the social. Only the categorical understanding of the fact that “there is nothing outside of the social” allows the poet to carry out a severe political diagnosis of contemporary man—his longing for social justice and simultaneous lack of faith in the possibility of its realization, his syndromes of melancholy and existential reverie, his atrophied desires and total deficit of futurity.

In order for social poetry to really be considered applied and, functionally applicable to a concrete social context, it must create a narrative within the poem about the means and stages of building subjectivity under the conditions of global capitalism. A narrative about the ways that the bourgeois subjectivity reigning throughout the last half-century, with its complexes of hedonistic consumption, conformism and apathy, is at first transformed primarily into a subjectivity that searches and doubts (ready for countercultural work against the bourgeois consensus), and then into a revolutionary subjectivity, incapable of making peace with the existing status quo. The practical result of the development of social poetry must be the literal “cultivation” of a new revolutionary subjectivity, adequately expressed in a textual format. Which brings along with it the creation of new parameters of social experience, the experience of ethical striving and political non-compromise, the experience of labor solidarity and conscious mass resistance.

It is worth noting that in place of the postmodernist orientation towards the profanation and reduction of the poetic utterance, towards the transformation of the poetic text into an entertaining eccentric show, applied social poetry (once more) demands of the poet expansive intellectual preparation, and equates the work itself of writing poetry to intensive intellectual searching. The effectiveness of social poetry, that is the success of its applied character, depends on how much the poet is able to masterfully unite the intellectual search with detailed fieldwork on contemporary social dispositions. Applied social poetry translates the utopian drives and liberating tendencies of the revolutionary avant-garde into the language of the epoch of failing cognitive capitalism. It thereby becomes an intellectual industry for the production of a new man,” a new political subject and a new subject of study.

May 1, 2011. Berlin

Translated by Marijeta Bozovic with Maksim Hanukai

 

 

Not the first anniversary

1

the first anniversary is followed by neither

the first nor one much anticipated, let down

by taste receptors, outside neither donetsk

nor the kuznetsk basin, but the fucking adriatic,

the inflated IQ of, the window not flung open on,

extratextual reality reigns, a cricket crushed

behind the hearth, drown your sorrows,

go on, аn expelled student no longer

says hi, assets siphoned off abroad

include loot from the treasury, broke

the informer’s jaw, an online forum raises

awareness about contraception, split his take

 

2

not the first anniversary or perhaps still

the first, once again the unforgettable dates draw near

accursed by all the participants of the transition

process from а unified view on things

to different points of view on emotional

terror, deployed against each other

by people who were once familiar

intelligent, decent, willing to come to

a consensus or to recant, but to endure

not the first anniversary of co-

habitation incapable, the tablecloth is stained

with the remains of a meal, don’t choke

 

3

not the first anniversary of dodging that

which neither large piles of cash nor

powerful connections can help dodge, the slot

is jam-packed, bragged about the horns

she gave him in the south, a xxx rating

assigned to a film for blatant propaganda

of same-sex love, a tourist crouches to piss

under a rosemary bush, a special ops man

gravely sharpens his machete, toasting

not the first anniversary of the attack

on the TV center, а bum is taken

to a clinic, а classic is plundered for quotes

 

4

not the first anniversary of graduation in the bygone

watershed years, the people sweep up foodstuffs

from shop counters, power falls into the hands of

piratizers, the long-awaited APCs

get stuck who the fuck knows where

waiting for orders, an oilskin trolley bag

stuffed with blue jeans from Turkey

is left behind at a rag fair, once part

of a crime racket the market passes over

to the cops and is paved with something

that resembles stiffs, inclined toward

strikes off dangerous dates, the calendar lies

 

5

right in the middle of a massive brainstorm

again announces itself not the first

anniversary of giving ground, chairs

overturned in defensive position against

unwelcome guests set on breaking into

the locked tavern, occupying a position of power

a dynamic politician cracks down

on the decline of morals in the petroleum capital,

scourging opponents with judicial bodies,

down on all fours an overripe lolita

suffers a moment of disappointment

and resentment toward, too tired to argue

 

6

not the first anniversary of the town-planning

error which resulted in the collapse of a building

that had historical significance, for which

no one was held accountable, not the committee

for the preservation of monuments, not the designated

institutions of oversight, not the municipal

bureaucrat placed in charge of protecting

architectural heritage, the remains of the façade

are taken to the woods, the reinforced fiberglass mesh

stretched over the graffiti with the date of not the first

anniversary of the fusion of the m and w

who once lived in this house is coming undone

 

7

the fifth anniversary of meeting a woman at one

of the cultural events, at a concert gala

of classical music or at a presentation at the center

of contemporary literature, over red wine

mutual interests were immediately discovered

in the sphere of computer science, in the collection of

imported fiction, in the rare trips out of town, in schmoo-

zing with show business elites, their relationship

was cemented by the chair-bed, aggressive blowjobs

did not cause any problems, they celebrated their second

anniversary together and, it would seem, the third, but

defense mechanisms tore them apart, the mattress sags

 

8

not the first anniversary of the soirée that culminated

in getting stoned on bad hydroponic, afterwards

dropped by a queer night club with a mangy

transsexual at the door, and candy appeared

out of thin air, brought to compassionate

metanoia, brought to weep into the silk

vest on a mannered faggot, who reflected

on “the last days” of gus van sant with terrible

lip-smacking, the traditional shot of zubrowka

was a doze of reality, two lesbos were making out

on the pouffe, the hairy birthmark on the exposed

shoulder of one of them was sobering, the seed is sown

 

9

not the first anniversary of a brief war

between a superpower and a republic

that had just gained independence, both sides

have filthy hands, the renewal of previous

agreements is unthinkable, а roadblock

is set up to gun down illegal

loot collectors, to organize a response

to drug trafficking, though not a single smuggler

or pusher has set foot here, the hour

arrives when the guard goes to sleep, the plan

is not up for debate, a bug in the commanding

officer’s tent catches only “fuck off”

 

10

not the first anniversary of the retirement

of a military leader, the one who ordered the start

of the humanitarian intervention, the entry

of a limited military force into a village

occupied by separatists, the carpet bombing

of a ravine, where the head of the rebel underground

was said to be hiding and where seven shepherds,

a special correspondent and а woman in labor

became the unintended victims of mass

airstrikes, he is absolutely certain there were

no good old days, only sclerotic debility and

utter incompetence, could have been otherwise

 

11

not the first anniversary of flunking the foundations

of something-or-other, the mode of expressing

displeasure has changed from open threats

to apparent indifference, a pile of dough

blown in a miserable pay-off

for a rather miserable whore, but having a gift

for anticipating where a big fish might bite

for a take exceeding a thousand, the framed man

takes comfort from the thought that the framing

was done properly, according to the time-

worn classical scheme, the role of the underdog

is rather popular, tarred and feathered

 

12

the twentieth anniversary of a moment of affection

prepared by an initial acquaintance

candid and questionable in a dormitory

inhabited by transients from different

corners of an enormous country, its imminent collapse

was on the horizon in blurry perspective,

almost incredible, it seemed it would always

be so, and the sense of complete independence

from the mental vomit of the fading great

epoch became more powerful in the moment

of affection procured, in compliance with

passport control, at the appointed visiting hour

 

13

not the first anniversary of the burn-out

at the unpaid gig, the tendering process

is won for the shrinkage also spillage

results of the gas war in the rebellious

province, rich in bauxite, drunkenness

and precarity destroyed the creative professional’s

liver, the agreed upon reform project

has been scrapped, the screws are tightened

as the oil industry is carved up, a girl is tripple-

teamed on the adult website, seized with fear

over the rising cost of public services, sailor’s

humor is congenial to the present moment

 

14

not the first anniversary of miscalculating

the ovulation period, resulting in the appearance

of progeny, far from the first anniversary

of purchasing a boombox, which stood on the kitchen

sideboard, then moved to the provincial

dacha and cracked open with a bbq

grille in the course of wild celebrations

marking the conferment of а graduate degree,

not the first anniversary of staining a stylish

new pair of jeans with a drop of mayonnaise

from a greasy shawarma, that was the end of them,

not the first anniversary approaching a milestone

 

Translated by Maksim Hanukai

 

 

 

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