Bogman’s Cannon asked Graham Allen about a recent line in his on-going epoem holesbygrahamallen.org which reads “I have no elders and no juniors”.
Our question was do you think there can or should be leadership in intellectual and artistic life?
Graham Allen’s answer was as follows:
My point was about me alone really, in that in terms of poetry I’m only at the early stages and yet no one in their right mind would call me junior. I am and yet I am not an elder and a junior. So it was a line about being a bit of an outlier in the present poetry scene. A position I do not mind occupying at all, I should add. I take your point about leadership, and have always argued that the faux radical critique of all varieties of leadership you get in, for example, academic environments is both absurd and pathetic. What we need politically and socially is, obviously, more enlightened leadership. So yes, I agree. But then I am skeptical about bringing influence into it, as if they were synonymous, leadership and influence that is. They seem very different categories to me. Influence seems a much less intentional concept, one which involves much more chance. You can decide to become a leader and if you’re serious make a reasonable job at it. You cannot decide to become an influence in cultural terms. That happens mainly because of things outside your own control. You can decide as an artist to be relevant or decadent or even subversive, but you can’t meaningfully decide to be an influence. To put it simply, influence is what happens, and none of us are in control of that! To declaim that one is an influence is, therefore, not really something one can do with good faith. It would be tantamount to announcing that one was a maverick or a legend!
Take any example of a canonical influence, say Wordsworth, a poet you’ve written so interestingly about recently. You can clearly see he is striving to be a leader through his art and his role as an exponent of a new kind of aesthetic. The ‘Preface’ to The Lyrical Ballads, the ‘Prospectus’ to The Recluse, sonnets on national political and civic issues, the whole ambition to be the epic recorder of the new post-revolutionary age. The ambition is incredible and fascinating because of its sheer scope. And it’s easy to confuse that ambition with influence. Now clearly Wordsworth desires to be an influence. All would-be leaders desire that. There is obviously a link between leadership and the desire for influence, to be an influence. But the desire to be an influence is something very different to the fact of being one. In Wordsworth’s case, of course, desire and reality converged, but ask yourself, did Wordsworth wish to morph into the radical idealism of Shelley, or the agonising modernity of Keats, or the hopeless nostalgia of Tennyson, or the delicate minimalism of Dickinson? One can go on and on. Each example of Wordsworth’s influence, each example of the fact of that influence, leads us to other poets who have transformed that influence into something Wordsworth himself would not want to or be able to recognise.
This is the true nature of influence, it proves itself by radically swerving from itself. It betrays itself into new existence. This is why Shelley calls poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Not because power is somehow secreted away in cultural enclaves of art and avant-gardism. But more simply because those who influence can never really know that influence. It is out of their hands and their cognition. It will not surprise you to hear me saying that the great poet of this phenomenon, this life blood of all culture, is the ever unfashionable Harold Bloom. If you want to know both what influence is and how wonderful and surprising and above all unpredictable and unintentional its journeys are read Bloom’s work of the seventies and early eighties, perhaps beginning with the superb little book, The Breaking of the Vessels. In that book he reads the history in terms of the influence of Homer’s figure of the leaves and it’s an amazingly condensed journey which takes us from classical Greece through to Beckett’s Endgame.
So, yes, we need more enlightened leaders. We desperately need that. The clamour in the UK at present over Jeremy Corbyn’s threatened revival of true Socialist values is all about the possibility of leadership breaking through its near total strangulation by the media. The media loves scandal, it distrusts all signs of leadership. We need leadership from our artists as well. I think particularly in the sense of the creation of new forms of authentic expression and in the on-going refusal to succumb to the dominant media driven modes of cultural and social being. But influence, well that’s something we can only hope for, and, given the manner in which it will distort and misfigure those to whom it does arrive, maybe more properly dread.
Info on Holes
Holes by Graham Allen is a digital poem which presents a new approach to autobiographical writing. Holes is a ten syllable one line per day poem which offers something less and something more than a window on the author’s life. Holes began on December 23rd, 2006 and is now in its sixth year of composition. Holes is a poetic vehicle for the exploration of chance, meaning, juxtaposition and language.
About the Author
Graham Allen, University College CorkGraham Allen is Professor at University College Cork, Ireland. His books include Harold Bloom: Towards a Poetics of Conflict (1994); Intertextuality (2000 and 2011); Roland Barthes (2003); The Salt Companion to Harold Bloom, co-editor with Roy Sellars (2007); Mary Shelley (2008) and The Reader’s Guide to Frankenstein (2008). His work has been translated into Japanese, Korean, and Persian.
His poems have previously been published in Southword; Other Poetry; The Stinging Fly; The Rialto; Poetry Ireland Review; Revival; La Questione Romantica; The Shop; Theory and Event; Cultural Politics; Transmission Annual; Cyphers. His texts for stage have been performed by Gatekrash Theatre Company at the Stack Theatre, Cork School of Music, at the Comedy Club, Cork, and at the Cork Midsummer Festival in 2008. He was the winner of the Listowel Single Poem Prize in 2010. His poetry was shortlisted for The Crashaw Prize in 2013, and the Fool for Poetry Prize in 2014. His collection, The One That Got Away, was published by New Binary Press in 2014.
About the Project
Holes is produced by James O’Sullivan, a Ph.D. candidate at University College Cork, studying Digital Arts & Humanities under Graham Allen and Órla Murphy. More information on James and his interests can be found at josullivan.org.