To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (9): Some Outsider Poets

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

Is there for honest poverty / That hings his head, an a' that? / The coward slave, we pass him by - / We dare be poor for a' that! / For a' that, an a' that! / Our toils obscure, an a' that, / The rank is but the guinea's stamp, / The man's the gowd for a' that. (Robert Burns)

While the idea of a poetry outside-of-literature insinuated itself into the thinking of many within the nineteenth-century literary world, an actual but largely undervalued outsider poetry (many such poetries in fact) maintained its own semi-autonomous existence. With this split in the fabric of nineteenth-century consciousness (never wholly repaired up to the present) we enter the domain of the “self-taught poet,” separated from acknowledged literature by the accidents of class & region. Yet it was here where the bulk of poetry was written – or spoken & memorized – or where other works of language were created that did what poetry does but without a claim to being poetry as such. Though much of this – like most literature & poetry – was markedly derivative, there were also notable outcroppings of otherness & innovation, & in many instances a class-oriented political poetry that matched the workings of more established forerunners & contemporaries.

In the cluster of poems that follows we present a range of such works as written – with one notable exception – in English. That exception, who called himself “Raifteiri the Poet,” descended (not uniquely) from a line of bards outside the politically dominant English tradition but with autochthonous (Irish/Gaelic) sources of its own. Others, similarly situated, wrote in variants of English (dialects & creoles) that were themselves a challenge to the linguistic hegemonies around them. Yet something of that self-assertion also colored the writings of as purely English a poet as John Clare (too often taken as the stereotypical “outsider”), whose declaration of linguistic & grammatical independence is covered elsewhere in these pages. But the deeper incursions of outsider poets are exemplified here by the excerpts from Ernest Jones (1819-1869) &Thomas Cooper (1805-1892) – both of them political radicals but engaged concurrently in an attempt to participate in or to capture the high ground of literature as normatively practiced. For this their context was the mid-century Chartist movement of British laborers & artisans, that drew as well from the poetry & poetics of canonical figures such as Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, & most notably Shelley. (The Chartists’ publication of Shelley’s Queen Mab & its accompanying notes & essays led to its later reputation as “the Chartists’ Bible.”)

Still others, whom we might now think of as outsiders if not outsider poets, are represented here by the anonymous author of an American Revolutionary tract in Old Testament style; by the Nez Percé author of an 1880 history of his nation deposited in the cornerstone of a local tribal school & only recovered much later; & by “Uncle Jake” Carpenter who composed a series of beautifully lineated “obituaries” to celebrate deaths in the town of Three-Mile Creek, Avery county, in the western mountains of North Carolina (a kind of outsider’s Spoon River Anthology, as one of us once described them). In a more familiar mode, “The Boasting Drunk in Dodge” is a further example of anonymous, essentially oral/musical poems, while “The Honest Farmer’s Declaration” (1853) shows a divergent impulse toward typographical composition as practiced in a place far removed from any avant-garde pressures. And finally, the brief selection from Joanna Southcott’s prophetic writings – her poetry a vehicle for propehcy – gives a sense of the highly charged religious basis for what has come in our time to be named or misnamed “outsider art.”

[Three poems from this section follow]:

Antoine ó Reachtabhra (Blind Raftery) 1784-1835

Mise Raifteirí, an file, lán dóchais is grál
le súile gan solas, ciúineas gan crá,
ag dul síos ar m'aistear le solas mo chroí,
fann agus tuirseach go deireach mo shlí;
féach anois me lem aghaidh ar Bhalla
ag seinm cheoil do phócaí falamh'

I am Raiftieri, the poet, full of courage and love,
my eyes without light, in calmness serene,
taking my way to the light of my heart,
feeble and tired to the end of the road:
look at me now, my face toward Balla,
playing my music to empty pockets!

Translation from Irish by Thomas Kinsella

Ernest Jones 1819-1869

We plow and sow, we're so very, very low,
That we delve in the dirty clay;
Till we bless the plain with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know, we're so very, very low,
'Tis down at the landlord's feet;
We're not too low the grain to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.
Down, down we go, we're so very, very ow,
To the hell of the deep-sunk mines;
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of the despot shines;
And when'er he lacks, upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We're far too low to vote the tax
But not too low to pay.
We're low, we're low -- we're very, very low --
And yet from our fingers glide
The silken floss and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride;
And what we get, and what we give,
We know, and we know our share;
We're not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear.
We're low, we're low, we're very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man's arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king.
We're low, we're low -- mere rabble, we know --
We're only the rank and the file;
We're not too low to kill the foe,
But too low to share the spoil.

Joanna Southcott 1750-1814

"But now I will come to Pilate's question, 'Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you?' the serpent, or the woman? Here is as just an inquiry as Pilate made. One of the two must be cast, before your full redemption can be accomplished. Now answer for thyself, O man! and I will for the woman. Did I not bear all the blame man cast on ME? (This refers to the Fall: 'The woman thou gavest to be with me, she tempted me and I did eat.') And is it not just, the serpent should bear the blame the woman cast on him? If ye judge this simple, read back, your Bibles, and ye will find all as simple. Simple was My coming into the world, and My manner through the world, and My going out of the world; all was as simple to the Jews as this appears to the Gentiles. Was I not born of simple parents, laid in a manger, and simply warned the wise men to return another way for fear of Herod, when I could have destroyed him? Did I not simply fly into Egypt, and full as simply returned again? For a God to be afraid of man, you must confess a simple thing."

And now in verse I shall begin
To echo back the lines to men.
Of simple parents I was born,
And worldly wise men did Me scorn;
Simply to Egypt I did fly,
And simply all was done,
And simply another way
I did turn back again;
Simply I oft Myself did hide
When man I could destroy;
Simply the manger made My bed,
While mankind did enjoy
Their beds of down, and wore their crown,
While I was forced to flee;
And simply shall their pride come down,
That every soul shall see.
Simple among the sons of men
I always did appear;
And simple in the woman's form
I've surely acted here.
Simple as these appear to be,
So simply all was done,
When on the Cross at Calvary
I gave My life for man.
For oh! how few regard My love,
Or to the manger go,
Just like the shepherds you have heard,
To know if it be true.
The manger here doth now appear
As much despised by man;
They cannot see the mystery clear -
The servant cannot come
No greater here for to appear -
Than was her Lord before;
And like the Jews the Gentiles are,
And open every pore.
Do I not see as well as thee
Thy poverty despised?
For like the Jews the Gentiles be,
And pride hath dimmed their eyes.
So now take care, I warn you here,
The natural branch did fall;
Then the wild olive sure must fear,
If none can judge the call.

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, & August 7.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Article on an Australian "outsider" poet - of the contemporary misnomer variety.