POETIC RANDOM MUTATIONS
So far so good. But what's all this stuff doing in a magazine about "poetry and ideas - not necessarily in that order"? Well, it could just be that the concept of the random mutation growing out of some kind of gene-pool can be applied to the evolution of poetry as well. I mean this in both literal and metaphorical ways, talking of which, I want to add another 'metaphorical layer' to this discussion by advancing the idea that the content and form of a poem are as intimately connected as the genes and ultimate phenotype or external form of the organism. The genes are what's at work to produce the phenotype in the organism, while the content of a poem is what's at work in a poem to produce its external form.
The 'random mutation' does not take place at the level of the poem, but the poet. An organism which is the result of certain random mutations becomes a plant or animal that survives (or not) through time, give or take the typical transformations it goes through in life - eg, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death and so on, or caterpillars becoming pupae becoming butterflies, to use another example. Discounting these typical transformations, an organism remains the same organism throughout its life. A dog’s good or bad nature, for instance, may depend on its upbringing, genes, environment, handling, but is usually a fixed entity once it is established. That is to say that its behaviour endures through time and becomes characteristic of that individual dog rather than any other dog. A poet, let’s say Shelley, produces Shelleyan poetry throughout his mature writing life as a poet, because his poetry is not something which has created itself, but rather something which he as a poet has created. The characteristic features which make up a Shelley poem shine through his work as a whole and lies at the heart of his oeuvre; it expresses itself through everything that he writes, marking it out from the work of every other poet who ever existed. That’s why it is never a complement for poet to be told that his or her work is like somebody else’s. Always better to be a ‘random mutation’ than a typical example of the poetic 'gene-pool'. Of course, influences, echoes, traces are another matter, but what would it be like NEVER to escape the curse of the 'gene-pool' and in the process get clear of the mainstream?
The 'self' from which the 'phenotype' of the poem emerges, let's be clear about this, is not a 'self' that can be consciously cultivated. It exists very much on the level of the 'random mutation' and what it produces emerges spontaneously, not in the sense of without conscious thought, or critical nous, but in the sense that whatever is conscious or critical about it is secondary, and appears on the level of the 'phenotype' rather than that of the 'gene' itself. It does not emerge at that inchoate level of basic impulse, but at the level of grappling with the end-product. 'Genetic' is clearly related to 'genesis' here, and it applies to the emergence of poetry no less than to the emergence of universes, which could be said to have been 'random mutations', possibly out of a 'gene-pool' of universes. (We are getting carried away by this metaphor, methinx!) When I am writing a poem, I am concerned with the poem, the poem is, if you like, the object which comes to the fore while I'm writing. What lies behind it does not become conscious in the way that the poem itself does, but it does seem to impel what I'm doing, leaving me little choice but to do it in the way that I'm doing it. It is a unifying act with two poles, one of which will always be hidden. The hidden pole shapes the visible pole, and consciousness intervenes only as a kind of midwife. The question of form is shaped by the invisible pole. It is not something I ever make a decision about before it actually emerges, so that if I use 'free-verse' forms or 'non free-verse' forms, the process of actual creation remains the same. I am not in complete control. It's like a tornado which picks you up and puts you down somewhere else. You remain conscious throughout, but only to help you make a safe landing. That's why I said earlier that the real genesis of the poem is to be found in the poet, not the poem. And what is characteristic of the poet, comes through in the poem, so that, for example, Rimbaud's poetry will never be the poetry of anyone else but Rimbaud and this will come across loud and clear in everything that he wrote, say, from the age of 16. Keats's mature work will never be confused with anyone else's but Keats's. It's not so much a question of what they aimed for, but rather of what they were - which, of course, may also explain some people's deep antipathy towards certain poets - it's personal! I could name any number of poets whose work's abiding characteristic is that it stands out from the background of what I call "gene-pool poets", that a 'personality' comes through in everything that they've written which sets them apart. True to his own conservative instincts, TS Eliot was adamant that it was the tradition which mattered, in other words the 'gene-pool', but my own view is that this is just not the case. The 'gene-pool' constitutes the 'soil' in which 'random mutations' occur, but it is the 'random mutation' which makes the difference, not the 'gene-pool'. Notwithstanding the deleterious effect 'random mutations' can have on an organism and its genes' chances of survival, without 'random mutations' no evolution would be possible, either in nature or poetry.
So let's talk briefly about the 'random' aspects of poetic 'random mutations'. This, of course, is the 'wild card' in poetry; it is the aspect of poetic evolution which makes a fool of all those academics, editors, reviewers, media-people, cultural theorists and arts administrators who entertain the illusion that they can have it all neatly wrapped up. What's to wrap up if it keeps breaking out or coming apart at the seams? I am not talking about the poetry itself, but its relation to the ideas people entertain regarding it. I have come to the conclusion that if you think deeply about poetry, you will probably struggle to find words to express what you think about it. It won't come pat for the very good reason that any new line of development within poetry will have a random aspect to it. It will not conform to pre-existing ideas about poetry, which are derived from familiarity with the poetic 'gene-pool', which the poetic 'random mutation' has broken away from. Therefore, it will emerge as a surprise that will baffle people's ideas about poetry which, are invariably rooted in the already familiar. Of course, this is precisely the point at which evasive condescension begins to emerge. Your average academic, editor or critic does not want poetry to get the better of him or her. It's something that by profession they must feel they are in control of. They must have a professional handle on it. It's their living, you see. They can't respond to it in any other way. Any randomness confounds them and leaves them without answers, answers which it is their job to provide. The poetic 'gene-pool' is therefore a much safer bet than the poetic 'random mutation'. Yet, as we have scene, even if not all 'random mutations' impact positively on the future evolution of poetry, the future evolution of poetry will always be based on poetic 'random mutations'. There is no escaping it; it's what you might call the logic of 'poetic Darwinism'. I am not talking here of certain technical developments within poetry, such as occur at certain points in its evolution - eg modernism, surrealism et cetera - but of the whole background of concerns from which poetry emerges quite randomly and spontaneously, without any fanfares preceding it. In just the way a new species emerges as a result of random mutations which are favoured by natural selection, so new kinds of poetry emerge and implant themselves in a culture because they themselves are part of a movement within that culture which precipitates the cultural changes by means of which they in time come to be favoured - always in retrospect. Often many decades pass before adequate critical responses emerge, and that, I believe, is in the nature of things. Beware of poets who become established while they are living. They are invariably 'gene-pool poets', rather than 'random mutation poets'. Often, they are also academics. Academia creates a false environment for poetry, an environment which encourages forms of poetry which would never survive outside that environment.
So in a sense, we are not just dealing with poetry here; we are also dealing with poets. Genetics are almost certainly at work here. A 'born poet' is the product of a 'random mutation' on a genetic level. I don't think there's any escaping that. Poets are born, not made. However, one only becomes a 'born poet' after passing through many other stages which turn the 'born poet' into a manifest one, just as a caterpillar does not become a butterfly without first passing through the intermediate stage of being a pupa. In the case of the poet, the stages one has to pass through may be determined by one's social, economic, historical and biographical background. Be that as it may, what sets the 'born poet' apart, is the individuality of his or her 'voice' in the poem, such that one can say, "That is a poem by so and so and nobody else." Textuality and Intertextuality from this point of view only occur on a secondary level. Academics, of course, would like to make them primary, since it is texts rather than poets as such that they study, but, of course, they have their vested interests as well. What I'd like to see happen is people returning to the idea that poetry is written by poets. Poetry, of course, is the end-product, and every care should be taken over it, but it is not the means to that end. The means to that end is the poet and whatever 'random mutation' it is that the poet comes to embody in his or her work.