The Defence of Poetry: Ownership and the Co-operating Mind

Olivia McCannon

‘Poetry, a many-eyed absurd
Nature of manymouths
Found in many bodies at the same time
Having lived in many other bodies before that
And now lying in confinement
Like something about to be born

(But at any moment an expedition of archaeologists
a curious shepherd
a dozen students in shorts
might pull you from the earth,
prematurely, not carried to full term,
and stick their fingers in your toothless gob)

Judging by the phosphorus content in the bone
English-speaking poetry had a diet of fish.’

(Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale. From ‘The Body Returns’.)

There is the poem, which says what it likes, becomes the voice of whatever it chooses to be, and changes its mind and shape as often as the light changes. And there is a “Defence of Poetry,” in which the poet sets out a pitch, and stands by it. It feels counterintuitive to use polemic to defend something which is already its own best defence, by being protean, multiple, kinetically unpredictable.

What kind of a document is a “Defence of Poetry?” It is made of passion. It is a piece of eloquence and beauty. It is activism, it seeks to build the new republic of poetry. But is it, in the end, all about ownership? Who owns “poetry”? The poet, the poem, the reader? Or someone or something else.

Does history own poetry? ‘Judging by the phosphorus content in the bone | English-speaking poetry had a diet of fish’. Or the academy? Society? Does social media own poetry? Does the planet own poetry?

This defence of poetry does not so much defend poetry itself, as seek to show what poetry itself defends, and how. The Defence of Poetry, that is, the defence that poetry makes. Poetry has agency, it moves and grows: it is not an artefact.

Poetry is not most in danger of being incorrectly categorised or practised. It is endangered when conceived of as a resource that needs to be exploited, that requires outside help to realise its potential, that will only become visibly performative if converted into a product, or commodity, or training toolkit, or quantifiable outcome.    

There’s a poetry I have in mind which is owned by its question. When it asks, what am I for? it asks life, and creation, and being – the energies that generate its materials – what do you need me to be? And this no-name poetry listens, and opens.

No-name poetry permits the change and exchange of energies between humans, a pulse felt, a breath sensed, in the different dimensions of languages. Its hope and its risk is that it is multi-directional and metamorphic, opening onto the unprotected future: it is always ‘about to be born’. It does not know what it will be.

In her essay ‘Doubt’, Rebecca Solnit writes:

‘An extraordinary imaginative power to reinvent ourselves is at large in the world, though it is hard to say how it will counteract the dead weight of neoliberalism, fundamentalisms, environmental destructions, and well-marketed mindlessness. But hope is not about what we expect.’ (109)

What role for poetry, a poem, as part of this ‘extraordinary imaginative power to reinvent ourselves’? It is hard for a single human to say what poetry can be, what poetries it might become. I have come to expect hope, of poetry, but the hope it offers, I may not expect.

In Symbiotic Planet, Lynn Margulis describes how, ‘The tendency of “independent” life is to bind together and reemerge in a new wholeness at a higher, larger level of organization’ (11). Nothing living exists in isolation.

No-name poetry survives in the way that life does, through relationships, and through symbioses ‘like flashes of evolutionary lightning’ (Margulis 8). Through transmission, transformation, and translation.  

Poetry can inhabit humans the way that microbes do, often without the human realising.

Poetry, made of manypoems, made of life, made the way that life makes itself, by clustering, multiplying, meshing. Manypoems clustering together to form more complex life forms, bodies of poetry, embodied words, rolling, gathering, joining, meshing the neurally networked space of the poetic unconscious.

In his Defence, Shelley writes of poems – deemed greater or lesser according to the sensibility of the beholder – ‘as episodes to that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world’ (522).

Shelley’s gesture gathers in the poets he can’t yet see, the poets whose languages he doesn’t read. Two hundred years on, manywomen have spent manyyears expressing and asserting the variegated female presence and agency at work within that great creative mind. Along with many within/without-society- or within/without-empire- occulted voices speaking out and writing for change. All at work in the co-operating mind of poetry; the mind needs them all, to be itself.

To be an autonomous, generative force, accumulating new matter and dimensionality with each successive reimagining, or rejoining. If, as Shelley writes, it has existed forever, if he has creation itself in his sights, with poetry as a microcosmic speck of that greater principle, then his vision takes in pre-human incarnations of life going back to ‘the beginning of the world’. That is, the explosive, expansive, fusional and relational forces of the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, still ripple through the form of poetry as displaced relic radiation.

I am reading with twenty-first-century goggles, so this also leaps out at me:

‘We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.’ (Shelley 530)

We have eaten more than we can digest, in ways that no human could have fully envisaged two hundred years ago. Shelley’s speculative powers detect their logic, and their outcomes, in various seeds and sites of social non-evolution and injustice. 

We want as in “lack” – but we can also want this, the ‘poetry of life’. Better to own this than to own calculations, than to be owned by “the economy”. To stake  everything on the wrong question, or questionee. As the voice of reason from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future enquires: ‘Do you ask your calculator what to do with your life?’ (ch. 40). Your life, other lives.

For no-name poetry (a manymouthed shapeshifting matriarchal monster), human being-in-the-world is unthinkable without connecting what is within to what is beyond the fictional walls of a body or mind, more than, greater and more unexpected.

In the 2020s, this includes the machines and algorithms and systems to which humans have abdicated moral responsibility, and accountability. It also includes the unknowable-by-a-single-human hyperobjective (Morton) convulsions of a world which is pristine nowhere, not even at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, or in deepest Alaska.

Media coverage of the climate and biodiversity emergencies may stress the importance of the vast, the remote, the first, the last, because everyday language and convention flags such categories as significant, and headline-making. But the change is too small and incremental to see, too present-everywhere, as well as too fast, too unprecedented and complex for a shopkeeper’s language such as everyday English to keep up with.

All life forms, all bodies are porous, and implicated. Geopolitical and economic asymmetries and injustices make (already have made) some humans and beings on Earth more vulnerable than others. The global is nested in the local, the macro in the micro. US poet, translator, novelist and editor Joyelle McSweeney:

‘But what I’m trying to insist on is this: we are both the perpetrators and the victims in our smallest actions, taking a breath or a pill, exhaling or excreting, buying and wasting, ignoring the consequences of our consumption or ignorance.’

What role for poetry, when ‘Every instant, every cell is the site of the Anthropocene crisis’ (McSweeney)? McSweeney defends poetry from being lined up and shot down for what it can’t do, i.e. change the world in a single grand gesture, and instead draws attention, powerfully and movingly, to its strength, its capacity to ‘make change on a small immediate scale’, to its adequacy, as itself:

‘Just as this catastrophe consists of microactions, poems may radiate their effects on microscales. And it’s on this micro-scale on which change – or its more common manifestation, damage – occurs all the time, all around us.’

Damage, proliferating. Poetry, proliferating. Poetry, made of poems, owned by its own co-operating and corroding action of change.

There are languages within English that are islands. Not the mythical, virginal, or contemporary submergent kind, but co-opted islands, inaccessible centres of power defended by military-style misdirection and stealth-mode operations.

The language and effect of a poem moves slowly or quickly, there is no rule. But it’s clear that there is work to be done, to learn the many languages English is becoming all the time. Languages that may speak in my place, and shrink it, if I don’t learn them. I want my poetry to bristle with these languages.

In his Treatise on the Whole-World, Édouard Glissant, translated by Celia Britton, opposes the homogenising flatness of globalisation with what he calls ‘the Whole-World’:

‘…our universe as it changes and lives on through its exchanges and, at the same time, the “vision” that we have of it. The world-totality in its physical diversity and in the representations that it inspires in us: so that we are no longer able to sing, speak or work based on our place alone, without plunging into the imagination of this totality.’ (108)

So who or what owns poetry? Once a poem is written down or spoken, and read or heard, by whatever means, on whatever scale, it risks becoming property. But there’s a choice: there are different ways to own a resource. A custodian, an asset-stripper, and a gatekeeper do not own in the same way. None of these roles expresses interdependency, which is inescapable: whatever I own, also owns me.

Poetry, it is well known, is not the kind of resource that turns profit. In a world where commodities circulate freely across the globe, where money creates flow, poetry, the ultimate free and portable resource, is more likely to get stuck. No-name poetry, like water, finds its own channels, it is determined. But it may find that they have been blocked, or dredged. 

No-name likes to be passed hand to hand, mouth to ear to mouth, swapped, scrapbooked, grafted, re-embodied, remembered, re-voiced. Children who are taught grammar or vocab by means of a poem held at arm’s length, are taught not to own poetry. Who knows what kind of poem will be mine? And will it show itself, if ‘the possibilities of poetry’ have been shrunk by the national curriculum (Blake ii)?

Similarly, where does the motivation come from, to protect another abstracted resource, e.g. The Planet, if everything in daily life tells me it really belongs to the oil companies, the airlines, the loggers, or any number of corporate interests subsumed into political systems? How can I feel it is mine too, and that I belong to it?

Muriel Rukeyser, another great Defender, of the Life of Poetry, opens her chapter called ‘A Lightning Flash’, with this:

‘Exchange is creation.
In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions.’ (173)

‘Existing conditions’ are what the poet, the poem, and the reader/audience/witness – ­to adopt Rukeyser’s triad of poetic relation set out in the same chapter­ – have to work with. The work is problematic. It requires acknowledging co-ownership of a damaged planet, of what is contaminating as well as beautiful. And it requires me (whoever I am) to belong to the damage.

I find myself living with Ozymandias in the necropolitical ruins (I’d like to see an estate agent turn that into a sale). But not in a remote, cleansing desert of ‘lone and level sands’ where ‘nothing beside remains’. Living in the ruins, now, here, wherever we (multitudinously) are, whatever that looks like. Living in the ruins of the future, as well as of the past, and present.

A planet can be a ruin, or an economic system, or a literary canon, or an alternative literary canon. A palace can be a ruin, even while it still houses power.

So can shifting rainfall patterns and bleached coral reefs, whale carcasses and radioactive fallout from nuclear weapon testing, or failed democracies dictated to by dehumanising corporations, or collapsed ecosystems, contaminated food chains, overfished oceans…

Entropy is part of creation, and poetry. But the ruins made by power, by exceptionalist greed, by imperialisms, feed its toxic and brutalising products back into the systems that have both made and destroyed its structures. Which, for as long as they resist decay, are useless and dangerous to life.

Poetry that means to survive is generous: it makes space for other poetries, other ways of being, by ageing, rotting or reseeding, resprouting over time, but also, in its own moment, by entering into unexpected relationships with whatever else is there.

A ruin is porous, it lets in the wind, and rain, the ozone and carbon monoxide, the bryophytes and therophytes. It is a turning-point form, discovering what else it can be, letting in other life and death.

English itself, the language, is a ruin. And if I can, in such a language, only ever write a poem that has the form of ruin, this is not a sign of despair, or resignation. On the contrary. The ruin is where I start looking for honesty and its related hope of working with what is on the ground.

Translators of poetry practise such hope, with their optimism held open by their innovation, their activist belief that new conceptual space can always be made in a language where there was none before.

There is work for poetry, for translation, for “translational writing” that feels and makes felt the inescapable connections that bring together vital and lethal, healthgiving and toxic materials. Relational writing and reading practices are ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’ (Tsing, et al.). It is their fusing and clustering that create space, evolved capacity, for feeling, the damage, and the hope.

Rukeyser: ‘It is not that an art ‘reflects,’ as the schoolbooks say, an age. But in the relationship may be a possible answer, a possible direction. The illumination will lie in the relationship itself’ (11).

I look to the relationships of no-name poetry, to the manymouthed poem, to the pulse, passing itself on, the co-operating mind that co-owns the energy that calls itself human.

Works Cited

Blake, J. V. What did the national curriculum do for poetry? Doctoral thesis, 2020.

Glissant, Édouard, translated by Celia Britton. Treatise on the Whole-World. Liverpool University Press, 2020.

Margulis, Lynn. Symbiotic Planet: a new look at evolution. Basic Books, 1998.

Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Duke University Press, 2019.

McSweeney, Joyelle. ‘Every Poem an Escrache’. Matter, 17 Mar. 2015. Accessed 10.06.2021.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit, 2021.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry, Paris Press, 1996.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. Ed. by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Norton & Company, 2002.

Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Canongate Books, 2016.

Stepanova, Maria, translated by Sasha Dugdale. ‘The Body Returns’, in War of the Beasts and the Animals. Bloodaxe Books, 2021.

Tsing, Anna et al. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Olivia McCannon
’s poetry collection Exactly My Own Length won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. Beauty and Beast, with Clive-Hicks Jenkins, will appear in autumn 2021 (Design for Today). She is currently researching the renewable materials of poetry and translation at Newcastle University (Northern Bridge) and is part of the steering committee of the Anthropocene Research Group.