We all know what a random-mutation is in the field of biology, but for those who don't, here's what Wikipedia says about it. "In genetics, a mutation is a change of the nucleotide sequence of the genome of an organism, virus, or extra-chromosomal genetic element. Mutations result from unrepaired damage to DNA or to RNA genomes (typically caused by radiation or chemical mutagens), from errors in the process of replication, or from the insertion or deletion of segments of DNA by mobile genetic elements. Mutations may or may not produce discernible changes in the observable characteristics (phenotype) of an organism. Mutations play a part in both normal and abnormal biological processes, including evolution, cancer, and the development of the immune system." Of course, not all of us like to be blinded by science, so in a few simple words, a random-mutation is a change which occurs on a genetic level which may (or may not) result in an observable change in an organism. The mutation which occurs is always random and therefore, one would suppose, completely unpredictable as to its consequences for the future organism in question. That's probably not any clearer, but that's science for you. I want to introduce another biological term here - gene-pool. Here's what Wikipedia says about it. (Don't run away; it's comparatively short and sweet.) "The gene-pool is the set of all genes, or genetic information, in any population, usually of a particular species." My take on that is that a gene-pool consists of the average genes of a species. Random-mutations are obviously grounded in gene-pools, but they can also produce changes which may prove either beneficial or harmful to the survival of the individual member of the species, and its subsequent offspring and that, in turn, alters the gene-pool, depending of course on a whole lot of other factors. The cheetah getting progressively faster due to random-mutations at a genetic level is one case in point. Other random-mutations, of course, may have much more negative consequences than that - cancer, or certain deformities and handicaps which impact negatively on an organism's survival chances. Obviously, much also depends on the environment, the behaviour and capabilities of other plants or animal species - not to mention asteroids as big as Mount Everest - in short, natural selection. But natural selection is only an external pruning mechanism. Without the creative influence of random-mutations, there'd be nothing to prune and therefore evolution wouldn't take place. In other words, evolution has to risk negative consequences to get positive ones.
So far so good. But what's all this stuff doing in a blog about poetry. 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. Richard Dawkins has spoken about 'memes', which might have some relevance here. I don't know whether he uses the concept in literal ways or whether it is just a harmless metaphor; certainly, as far as I am concerned, any application of such biologically inspired terms to the field of poetry can only be metaphorical, which doesn't mean to say it can't have some value. I want to add another 'metaphorical layer' to this discussion about poetry and advance 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 embody what's at work to produce the phenotype or the organism in question, while the content of a poem is what's at work in a poem to produce its form. I'll elaborate on these ideas as I proceed.
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, et cetera. 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, et cetera, but is usually a fixed entity once it is established. That is to say that its behaviour endures through time and becomes characteristic of itself and its nature as 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’ – however risky that is - 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 average 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 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 what emerges at the 'genetic' level. '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' in their own right - 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, 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 like a midwife. The question of form - and its relation to content - 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 – if you are lucky - 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 - ex nihilo. 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. It's not so much a question of what he aimed for, but rather of what he was. 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 all the difference. 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, theorists and arts-administrators who entertain the illusion that they have it all neatly wrapped up. What's to wrap up if it keeps breaking out or coming apart at the seams? 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 default 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 usually emerges. Your average academic, editor or critic does not want poetry to get the better of him or her. It's something that 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. Yet, as we have seen, 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', whereby a new poetry emerges as a result of random-mutations which are favoured by the cultural equivalent of natural selection.