Last week Meri and I went to see Diamanda Galás. Her music is wild, like nothing I've ever heard. Her voice sounds like wild banshees dying horrible deaths, then just as quickly becomes beautiful, operatic. The songs she's doing are often old blues standards, or Edith Piaf. Generally old and very familiar songs. You can get some sense of her music here, but I fear she is one of those performers you have to see live, with just her and her piano on stage, to get a true feel for how completely primal her songs are.
At first I was not into her at all. I thought she was just kind of screaming and making noise. Then, by the second or third song, I started to get it. What she's doing is updating these songs emotionally, completely twisting them and reinterpreting them to try and bring out (back?) their original ecstatic-state of emotional intensity. She reinfuses them with darkness and terror and fury by completely defamiliarizing them, retaining (recapturing?) their emotional core by presenting it in an altogether different light.
Watching her, I started thinking that, while we commonly understand much art as going further toward some point, or if not that, then further away from some original point--in painting we go from the figure to landscape to total abstraction and beyond; in poetry we go from narrative to imagist to confessional to deep image to surrealism to--what?--flarf--but that's not necessarily the case. I began thinking that what we (or at least I) understand as movement forward can also be understood as just going in circles. We go around and around, trying to find different ways to do the same thing, ways to make the same old, tired thing (poetry) sound relevant to our emotional and intellectual states in the 21st century. Stevens said as much in 1942. Poetry, he says,
has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.
Lately I've been thinking of poetry as a dead art, or at least a dying one. It's a dying art we are practicing because there is nowhere left to go. We use google to write poems, or write computer programs to write poems. How much further than that can we go (not to judge any of these practices one way or the other)? Watching Galás, it seemed that further was no longer the issue, but wider is: how many different ways can we come up with to keep going in circles and expand, make each circle look as if it had never been drawn before but somehow was?