Friday, October 12, 2012
David Herd on Dell Olsen's Punk Faun: The Patron and the Snare
The patron and the snare:
Punk Faun and the constraints of utterance
Where an artist takes a second job, a single person moves in both economies, but with patronage there is a division of labour – it is the patron who has entered the market and converted its wealth to gifts.
Hyde doesn’t dwell on patronage in his consideration of gifts and his remark is therefore something of a casual aside. What he proposes is a division of labour whereby in a system of patronage it is the patron who occupies the market economy, freeing the artist to articulate according to the logic of gifts. What this division amounts to, as Hyde presents it, is something like a creative firewall, the patron enabling creative agency to occur.
This is not a view poets have always shared. In ‘An Epistle to a Patron’, F.T. Prince, like Olsen, presents a dramatic monologue in which the demands of the patron have to be negotiated and met. The question on Prince’s mind, or on the mind of the artisan he voices, is how to adjust to the fact of the patron’s power. The answer is complicated:
Save me, noble sir, from the agony
Of starved and privy explorations such as those I stumble
From a hot bed to make, to follow lines to which the night-sky
Holds only faint contingencies. These flights with no end but failure,
And failure not to end them, these palliate or prevent.
I wish for liberty, let me then be tied
It is difficult to read the tone of Prince’s artisan’s remarks, and it is certainly by no means clear that the last phrase here – ‘I wish for liberty, let me then be tied’ – is in any simple sense an expression of ironic resentment. Prince’s subject, as he invokes a patron, is the relation of art to power, the degree to which art reflects the agencies that are the condition of its coming into being. Prince, in other words, like Olsen, is interested in the way art takes instruction. A crucial difference is that in Olsen’s text, as the cover sets it up, the patron figure, the agency of instruction, is more visibly implicated in the act of expression. Who is talking, we are invited to wonder, the putative artist, or the person who pays the bill?
The appearance of the patron is only one of a number of extraordinarily deft anachronisms in Punk Faun – the self cancelling title being a case in point. Consider also the word ‘snare’, which appears in the title of two sequences in ‘Punk Faun’. In the first place we are given, as title, ‘snares for silence in required voice’. The phrase puts one in mind of Cage, not just because of the mention of silence, but because the ‘required voice’ – somehow pre-instructed – is something like a prepared piano. The opening poem of the sequence enacts such constraints:
Snares for silence
Snares for noise
against its own
own extreme falls
In this short poem we are given two rhetorical figures, the parallelism of the opening couplet and the repeated chiasmus of the second and third couplets. In the context of poetry these are tangling manoeuvres, forms of expression that compel language back onto itself. In other words, we are snared, and so the ‘snare’ of the title, and of the ‘required voice’, is doing active work in the poem.
The second time the word ‘snare’ occurs, it also does substantial work. The sequence in question is titled ‘ballet snares industrielle’ and it opens by insisting on the term’s rhyming possibilities:
in lair snare
Again, in something like an exercise in chiasmus, the end of the poem reverses the terms:
snare in lair
Between times, between these iterations of the ‘snare’ rhyme, ‘Punk Faun’ is at its most conspicuously antique. It is never simply antique, but in this sequence we are in a ‘glade’, then ‘return to hunt’ and we are told that ‘distance is/ measured by/ horns sounding/ give tally’. Somewhere amid the snares, then, we are thrown back to an earlier moment of expression, a moment, without too much forcing (I think) that we might associate with Thomas Wyatt. Here’s the first verse of Wyatt’s ‘Tangled I was in Love’s Snare’:
Tangled I was in love’s snare,
Oppressed with pain, torment with care,
Of grief right sure, of joy full bare,
Clean in despair by cruelty
But ha! ha! ha! full well is me,
For I am now at liberty.
Wyatt’s rhyme words are of interest here: ‘snare’, ‘care’, ‘bare’, ‘cruelty’, ‘well is me’, ‘liberty’. We are not, it seems, far from ‘ballet snares industrielle’, and not just because of the vehemence with which the ‘snare’ rhyme is insisted upon, but because of the irony with which its apparent opposite, liberty, is presented. Or as Olsen’s poem elsewhere has it:
If unfettered her
I am not proposing that Olsen alludes to Wyatt here. What I do want to observe, through the association, is that like Prince in his ‘Epistle’, Olsen’s subject in Punk Faun is the relation of art to power. Wyatt is interesting because that relation was, relatively speaking, transparent. In the courtly condition in which he operated, he owed a debt of allegiance to his patron, Thomas Cromwell. When Cromwell died he was free, and therefore vulnerable. That framework of allegiance, with all its constraints and expectations, is mediated in poetry by a set of restrictive verse forms.
The value of glimpsing such a figure amid his operating conditions is that it – the glimpse – allows us to contextualize the contemporary moment of writing. What Olsen presents, across the sequences of Punk Faun, is a poetry no less framed by its relation to power. That power is less obviously focused, more difficult to bring into view, than in other settings; it exists in the chains of command that issue in the instruction to consume. In part, then, by contrast with other moments (one might also mention the several acts of homage that make up the sequence ‘as performed in our own person’), what Punk Faun sets out to do is inscribe the conditions (for which read constraints) of its own utterance. What Olsen gives us is a poetry in which power is constantly crossing the line, and through whose discourses we can only be offered the briefest sightings of other modes of life. The word snare, as a delicate loop, relates back ultimately to the Middle Dutch word ‘harp string’. What ‘Punk Faun’ presents is a language in which line by line, and to brilliantly stimulating effect, the two meanings are shown to converge.