Frontiers, Series 3 No.11

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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Idea and image are kith and kin. An idea is seen. Perhaps we immediately imagine it, beautiful or ugly, in its practice, in its being done. Among lost causes there have been some very beautiful ideas. One was alive and doing quite well in France and Germany before the First World War. There would be no more wars. The workers of the world, in solidarity, would refuse to fight. The signal for the killing of that idea was the assassination of Jean Jaurès, a great internationalist and founder of L'Humanité, by a nationalist fanatic, 31 July 1914. Its death and burial (in the biggest mass grave so far) came the following week.

Médecins sans Frontières is a beautiful idea, eminently fit to be looked at in its acts. So are the International Court of Justice and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ideas of this kind have advanced so far and rooted so deeply in human consciousness that when a state closes borders, the better to punish a people and to keep out witnesses, it strikes humanity in the face with its ugliness.

This issue of MPT, having to do with frontiers, was conceived, compiled and is now published amid the wreckage of the global market, another Great Idea. These are the days of wreckage. Many experts have sprung up to describe and explain it to us, and the Captains themselves, a few of them, have appeared on television saying they are sorry we got wrecked.

Wrecked but not dead. Nobody dares think the market dead. Born of deregulation – in the Big Bang (the start of a brave new universe) – surely after busting the global market will rise and boom again. On and on, booming and busting. It is a mechanism, hard, perhaps impossible, to stop or even to manage. Some experts believed, and some perhaps still believe, that in 1989 humanity entered at last into its only fit and proper ordering: global capitalism. This is it. This is how we are meant to be. 

The frontiers considered in this issue are many and various. There are those between nations: some (for now) fixed and baleful, others that over the years have changed very often, drastically and bloodily. Frontiers people have crossed, places they have left behind, in the perennial hope of doing better elsewhere. And the walls, fences and wire behind which people hold on to what they have got. Then, very characteristic of poetry and translation, there is a good deal of pushing at the frontiers between the living and the dead, between ages and literatures, between species, between women and men, to test how permeable those bounds might be, what passage and exchange might be possible. And there are explorations out to the limits of language, towards what exceeds expression, perhaps because wholly and truthfully said it could not be borne. And more besides. We might say that frontiers and the crossing of frontiers are our business.

The global market is an internationalism of sorts. The idea of it, viewed as kindly as possible, is that by free trade, by the buying and selling of goods and services across all frontiers, the wealth of nations will increase and spread equally. Of course in practice it is not like that. Not quite. Not yet. Whose kids are stitching your trainers and what are their wages? Who gets your toxic waste? But give it time, and enough revulsion, the idea may shape up beautifully. Revulsion is growing. Time, however, is running out.

It may be worth considering the idea of translation and the idea of poetry in this context of the markets and their plight. Translation enables the free exchange of poetry across frontiers of time and space. Poems get across, even where the poets themselves cannot. In that sense they are rather like the prayer-flags on the cover of this issue. But why should we care whether poems get across or not? What is the value of poetry?

Poetry is unselfish. It exceeds the poet, who may be as selfish as anyone else. The poem may have a selfish origin, in some personal need, but in being written it exceeds that. Really a poem is always for someone else. How generously it gives itself across the frontiers of time and space, touching people the writer, briefly alive, will never know.

Poetry, like music, cannot be had. When we read a poem we live in it and it in us. Poetry is a way of being not a means of having. You can’t have the meaning of a poem. A poem is not there for that. It is not a means to an end. It refuses to be instrumentalized.

A poem’s beauty consists in and is engendered by the working together of all its parts. Like jazz, the organization of a poem is quintessentially democratic. No part seeks to tyrannize another, all co-operate, all differently.

A poem has autonomy. It is a free play of possibilities in which, as we read, we participate.

The liveliness of a poem, and so its power to enliven the reader, comes from its being rooted in real and particular circumstances. A poem is a realization. By its rhythms and imagery it makes one human consciousness real and palpable to another. And it extends beyond its real circumstances, touching people down the generations, only by virtue of its loyalty, in the first place, to the realities of here and now.

One striking thing about the Captains, apart from their greed, is their helplessness. Not in the matter of their own remuneration; in that they know exactly what they want and how to get it; but towards the business itself, the market, the thing for which they secure themselves remuneration, there they seem helpless. They say sorry as you might say sorry it rained on the cricket or the carnival. They express regret at occurrences over which they had no control. The business was beyond them. Sir Fred Goodwin, asked by the Parliamentary Committee did he personally understand derivatives (‘these vehicles that your clever young men were creating’), answered, as you would expect, ‘No, I didn’t.’ And he added: ‘That’s part of the secret of how you manage risk.’ The management of risk – gambling with other people’s money – is a secret of which incomprehension is a part. The market, actually a mechanism, has been developed by very clever people into something so complicated it might as well be a god – one you have to keep happy. But what keeps Him happy, what sacrifice He wants, you can never know. Today it might be a rainforest, tomorrow the employees of Woolworths. How can you know? He is inscrutable, He is beyond you.

Those young men in shirt sleeves, each clutching half a dozen phones and screaming into them and at one another over their computer screens, they will do very well as an image of Bedlam (we need images) but as a way of efficiently and fairly distributing the wealth of the world they will not do at all.

Another striking thing about the Captains, apart from their shamelessness, is their lack of loyalty to particular place. Their internationalism consists in not belonging anywhere. At the least whiff of a hint of a suggestion that they might be regulated (asked to get by on three million, say, instead of four), they threaten to take their fabled talents elsewhere. Towns, regions, countries are, like the workforce, there to be used. Places, like the workforce, can be put to more or less profitable use. The best place is the one you get taxed least in. Off-shore is good, virtual is bettter, the best is wherever they let you fatten most. 

Poetry helps. There can be no doubt about that. But the nature of the help, the exact nature of the good effect of a poem, is hard to define. Perhaps it varies according to our circumstances. In the personal life there may be moments of a corroborating and deeply encouraging consonance between the poem and the reader. A reader may feel answered by the poem, encouraged further in the life he or she is living. But in the wider circle of social and political life – which the personal life is concentrically rooted in – the shock of the poem may more often be one of dissonance. The polis rarely answers the citizens’ best ideas. Often it contradicts them flatly; degrades, abuses, strives hard to annihilate them. The poem then works through discrepancy and excites revulsion. Much social and political life at present is a more or less violent insult to the humanity of the men and women living it. Poems intrinsically say so, again and again. And translation spreads the word to the governors and the governed: this order of things in the world isn’t good enough.

We need beautiful ideas. Ideas whose practice, already being imagined, will excite revulsion at the ideas in practice now. Because when the markets ‘recover’ (when they have been electro-convulsed back into robot life) we shall only be where we were: in the old mechanism, the old dispiriting cycle. 

Two things about this cycle. First it demeans us. When the whole duty of man and the citizen is reduced to spending, getting, consuming, spending and getting, it demeans us. Effectively it commodifies us, we are dead material. And secondly, this system whose essential motor is competition and consumption will before long rub us and much of the living planet out. We shall go through boom and bust headlong into the Great Extinction. It is a matter of life and death that we imagine and realize something better. Something truly internationalist, across the frontiers of our nations and across the frontiers between us and everything else that lives. Poetry can’t do this. Politics – decisions taken and acted upon by people – will have to. But poetry, vitally aided by translation, can by its very self affect and alter consciousness. In these ugly times, which are times of enslavement to a mechanism, poetry by its beauty and freedom may excite revulsion. And from revulsion may come revolt.

David and Helen Constantine
April 2009

David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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Poetry is unselfish. It exceeds the poet, who may be as selfish as anyone else. The poem may have a selfish origin, in some personal need, but in being written it exceeds that. Really a poem is always for someone else. How generously it gives itself across the frontiers of time and space, touching people the writer, briefly alive, will never know. David and Helen Constantine

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