poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Douglas Oliver

The following is a repost from an earlier, now defunct, “Code Poetics” blog. It was written in March 2003. The occasion of its reposting here is the Douglas Oliver Radial Symposium, over at Intercapillary Space.

Re-reading Douglas Oliver (three variations on the theme of harm) today. Oliver is a great poet, not especially difficult to read but decidedly difficult to pin down, and this is due to something rather paradoxically particular and defining about his poetry: its adherence to poverty.

I mean “poverty” as one might say, “the poverty of theory” or “the poverty of historicism”: poverty as a lack or weakness at the heart of some system, be it social or intellectual. This lack appears as a sign of the system’s limitations, its inability to systematize absolutely everything.

Oliver calls the place where the lack is, or rather where whatever is lacking isn’t, a zone of “harmlessness”. It is a place where ambition, arrogance and desire for increase cannot reach, a place where the ego falters. It gives out onto the preconscious self, the pre-self of self, which for the dreamer of Oliver’s “The Infant and the Pearl” is represented by the person of his “stupid”, “mongol”, “idiot” child, a baby with Down’s Syndrome.

All of this may seem unpromising, but I think that Oliver is absolutely on to something. It is important to note that he does not regard money, intelligence, ambition or “higher” consciousness as a curse to be thrown off; and he does not romanticise in the least the lives of those who are denied access to such things. However, he does seem to argue that neither a proper love of oneself nor a proper love of others can be satisfied with the consciously known or knowable, the measurable comforts, possessions and achievements that he accuses the people of Thatcher’s England of seeing as “the aim of their living at all”.

The definition given in “The Infant and the Pearl” of “Socialism”,

that our soul and our selves are unknown

yet unconsciously known in the union between


might escape recognition by most political theorists, but it approaches a strictly unsentimental “socialism of the heart” (Rosine’s observation that

The warm heart, when weak, is politically unsound

and even Conservative Christian courage

like that of your father is sounder.

serves a rebuke to the other kind). Poverty is no less neglected by the leftist thaumaturge who plans its eradication through the mechanisms of an ideal state than it is by the Thatcherite thaumaturge who promises to release the industrious from the shackles imposed upon them by the idle. Neither has any time for poverty as such; whereas Oliver insists on the centrality of the “mongol infant” in any responsible image of the world.

I have said far less than I ought to about the poetry as poetry, and do not have time to remedy that here. I would like to add however that Oliver’s stance as a writer seems to be centrally informed by the themes he is writing about. His poetry manifests an uncertainty about meaning even - and sometimes most strikingly - when it comes closest to the literal exposition of ideas. “The Infant and the Pearl” is a dream poem, and its dream world has the shifting, chaotic, arbitrary qualities of its literary precursors (“The Dream of the Rood”, “Piers Plowman” et al). To say, as Rosine does in the poem, that “the highest human intelligence is a near / relation of ignorance” is also to imply that a form of poetic intelligence that does not admit of some disorder is both faulty and false.