Are transgressions productive? Do they contribute to widening our field of understanding, or are they merely a persistent annoyance, destructive to relationships and stable communities? I have had experiences that would suggest that neither answer is adequate; that some transgressions are productive, while others really serve no purpose but to separate people, drive them more deeply into cliques and/or solitude. The question that follows from this is simple: what is the right way to transgress? The best answer I can give is that positive transgressions are transgressions that actually happen in poems, rather than between people. Lord knows this can get thorny, too: poets since Alexander Pope (remember the Dunciad?) and before have been deprecating others in verse. While Pope’s genius elevated his creations into canonical greatness (though whether or not we want to posit a canon, in a multi-cultural milieu such as this festival, is contentious), most nasty poems do not succeed in being anything but nasty. Nevertheless, I’d rather hear about a nasty poem than hear about two poets who got in a fist-fight, or a screaming argument, or who won’t talk to each other because of some petty dispute. I still haven’t answered my own question, but I’m getting closer.
It seems to me that all of us are, in one way or another, rebelling against something when we sit down to write. This is true because all of us bear the burden of many different levels of history: our own personal history, our history as artists, and the history of the art-form itself. We are all familiar with the voices that tell us what we can and cannot do (whether they are interior or exterior voices does not particularly matter in this context). Many of us have had the experience (some of us several times) of joining a community of poets, expecting affirmation, recognition, and sustenance, and finding instead a Master Narrative of We-are-right-and-all-others-are-wrong, or Our-way-or-the-highway, or We’re-not-going-to-tell-you-what-we-think-of-you. Poets are people; people are often full of shit. If one is going to transgress, it stands to reason that one should commit transgressions against these full-of-shit people. Yet, direct combat is pointless; poetry may, as Auden said, make nothing happen, but direct combat creates only bruises, bloated responses, the manifestation of ugly defense mechanisms and never-ending battles. I think that the best way to fight is by creating work that speaks in a new, unclassifiable, vital voice. This is trickier than it sounds; so many of us are caught up in imitation (conscious or unconscious), rote expression (saying what has been said), and pretense (believing we are creating something new as we fall all over ourselves in unintelligibility or obviousness). So, it would seem that the only good way to transgress is to be a genius. But this is obviously inadequate; there must be a better way.
I think positive transgression, ultimately, is a matter of having guts and doing what you want. Any artist worth his or her salt know that conformity (aesthetic and otherwise) is a constant temptation, and that conformity often offers more immediate (and sometimes even more substantial) rewards than individuality does. How was Blake rewarded for Los and Urizen and Golgonooza? He was not rewarded, period. Yet he obviously was able to find the fire he needed to continue to create the way he wanted to create. I am not in London, so it is hard for me to say how this festival is unfolding (nicely, if this blog is any indication); still, I would wager that even when the backdrop is near-Utopian, some will feel that they are being hemmed in. When we do feel hemmed in, we have two choices: to pick up the party-line (whatever the particular party-line happens to be), aping capitulation, or to go our own way, resigning ourselves to a certain amount of privation so that we might create the way we want to create. The best transgressions happen in private, far from the madding crowd; they are initiated by individuals who have given up the ideas of fame and glory, who create only because they must, and who count on absolutely no response from the outside world. “The transgressions of saints” seems like a contradictory idea, but I believe that in literature it is a reality. I am not claiming sainthood for myself; far from it. I’m blogging right now for a specific audience and with that audience in mind. What I hope is that, in the midst of the festival, everyone could take a moment here and there to remember that many of our greatest dreams are dreamed alone. And then knock back another glass.