The paradox Riding came to after she renounced poetry was this: she realized how poets could learn that the public, too, were gifted with the powers of language, that the poets were not the exclusive “inside” bearers of “linguistic expression.”

I have learned … that poets, to be poets, must function as if  they were people who were on the inside track of linguistic  expression, people endowed with the highest language-  powers; that, in functioning so, they not only block the discovery that everyone is on this inside track, but confuse themselves and others as to the value of their linguistic performance.

(“Introduction for a Broadcast,” p. 4-5)

To broach the gap between the poet who is on “the inside track of linguistic expression” and everyone else who could be on this track is to discover for oneself the double meaning in Mallarmé’s task for the poet: “to give a pure sense or meaning to the words of the tribe.” I recently discovered this for myself when I read Kai Krienke’s translation of and commentary on Jean Sénac, a poet of the Algerian revolution, protégé of Camus until they parted in their views over the Algerian war against French colonialism (1954 – 62). I learned that Mallarmé’s phrase cuts both ways, and in this cutting opens a possible vision of a poetry which can answer to itself and to something/someone outside of itself. Read one way, the phrase points to the progressive poet ahead of her conservative audience, purifying the dross, turning so-called “primitive” dialects into “civilized” languages, where “the poet,” in Riding’s words, “is called upon again to remind people what the universe really looks and feels like, that is, what language means … [so that] he must use language in a fresh way or even … invent new language.” Read another way, Mallarmé’s line asks the poet to listen to the knowing audience—it is the people who want the poet to give himself up and source their language to recover poetry’s ancient roots and to give it contemporary meaning through his eyes. The people may have something to teach him if he, in Riding’s task for the poet, does not “block the discovery that everyone is on this inside track” of linguistic expression, when poetry can be “written by all,” be openly resistant to commodification and still answer to its own needs to stretch the art, to invent a new language. Here is Jean Sénac, translated by Krienke, from his manifesto The Sun under the Weapons:

Resistance and poetry appear as a single blade where man relentlessly sharpens his dignity. Because poetry is conceived as dynamic, because it is “written by all,” an “ignition key” with which the community moves and exalts itself, it is, in its fury, as in its serene transparency, in its mysteries as in its shamelessness, openly resistant. As long as the individual is hindered in his claim of total freedom, poetry will guard the outposts and brandish the torches. And Mallarmé himself affirmed our allegiance to the world of blue and lava when we assigned to us this rallying cry: ”Give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe.” (Sénac 9)

The rallying cry here, given the context of the revolution, may in fact be the chants and songs of the Algerian tribes. The poet can represent their ultimate outsiderness (Riding’s anti-social entity), guarding the outposts of freedom, at the same time as the poet and her poetry takes in something beyond herself.

Few imagine the correspondences between Riding’s and Sénac’s work, primarily because of the categories developed around each of them: the elitist, anti-social poet pitted against the poet of the people—the revolutionary poet. But what they both understood was “the revolutionary potential for language” which could stay true to the poet’s need to embrace and re-invent what came to it from the outside. About Sénac, Krienke writes:

In the context of current events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Turkey, it is worth noting the silence of a giant North-African neighbor that fought one of the most brutal and symbolic wars against colonial oppression, from 1954 – 1962. [Senac’s] The Sun Under the Weapons is a clear example of the revolutionary potential of language and the role it can have in voicing a common cause. (Warscapes)

Krienke extends the comparison between Sénac and Riding:

Sénac sees the language as emanating from the people as the source of politics, meaning deep and rooted aspirations that do not yet have language. “Giving language” in terms of the “words of the tribe” is not putting one’s self in place of the people as voice, but putting the people [the Algerians] in one’s self or Self as Laura Riding would say …. and this was not, for Sénac, a rhetorical exercise. His body was quite concretely with the people, and not just in terms of his homosexuality but the physical closeness to the popular voice he gave to. It is not the reaching for the audience but for the possibility to be reached, touched by the audience through poetry.
(e-mail correspondence with author)

 Can we put Sénac’s poetic perspective next to Riding’s and find the correspondences or the radical middle ground where not only poetry’s difficult clarity can serve multiple purposes at the same time, but where “the revolutionary potential of language” comes from both the poet and the people in relation to each other? Can the poet occupy this ground and be “touched by the audience through poetry?” (Krienke) Can his poetry answer to itself at the same time as the poet abandons himself to Self (Islam-“self-surrender”), becoming “a self conscious of ourselves,” as Riding wrote in The Telling?

first published in The Brooklyn Rail
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