I’m going to risk showing my ignorance and open myself to mockery at the hands of people who have studied cultural phenomena far more than I have by plunging once again head first into the (most recent) furore over the poetry of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. It’s too fascinating and important not to.
One irony of the controversy is that so many of Martinez de las Rivas’s critics seem to be most angered over his work being given a platform by the Poetry Foundation, and yet by expressing this anger quite so angrily and publicly on social media (as opposed to, say, writing an email or direct tweet of complaint to Don Share) they are significantly increasing the visibility of this platform. This is an observation rather than a criticism in itself, public expressions of anger are now part of the world we live in – what is often called a ‘Twitterstorm’ or given as evidence of ‘groupthink’ is actually closer in kind to a public street protest, which would not (unless it became violent) cause dismay. But it is also, perhaps, a sign of the times that my pointing out the above irony is itself likely to irritate some of these critics on the basis that it appears to turn the argument around and, significantly, away from the object of their fury, i.e. the fascist poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who has mendaciously and cynically used fascist symbols (and here I have to stretch) to send out a message signalling his sympathy with far-right ideology. In other words, it misses the point, and worse than that it contributes to the general atmosphere in society of receptivity to the ascendant far-right which is a fact to anyone who watches the news. And it’s not even a new observation!
By expressing what I (a white, male, middle-class poetry reviewer – and not unlike the poet in that respect) see as a helpful observation which might make the poet’s critics pause and reflect, I am not only patronising those on the left I disagree with, I am also revealing that my own world outlook is at best lazy-liberal, possibly ‘post-liberal’* and at worst alt-right and maybe even fascist itself; none of which plays well with many of the very people I would like to engage in discussing the poetry of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. And then there’s that grating faux-academic tone I use. It’s so infuriating!
As with so many areas of public debate at this beleaguered point in the history of the western democracies, we reach an impasse before we’ve even got going.
Suddenly the world of contemporary poetry appears to be composed of two groups of people who are angry with each other about things which must fundamentally come prior to our reading of the words Toby Martinez de las Rivas has written in his books Terror and Black Sun, and the poem ‘Titan/All Is Still’. To put it plainly, there are things we need to talk about before we can start talking about this specific poet and his poetry.
So, I’m going to suggest a way forward. I will try to set out below a case for why it is important that we as readers do not cause institutions like the Poetry Foundation to refuse platforms for work, like that of Martinez de las Rivas, which may offend our political sensibilities. And then I’ll invite anyone who disagrees with anything I have written to post a rebuttal in the comments below.
All poetry is political to the extent that everything is political. Poets and poetry critics cannot step out of the world that made them and so the work they produce must reflect (or give away, perhaps) their political leanings, whether they are purposefully expressed or not. But the cultural space in which poetry exists is artistic, not political. In political spaces you must be as sure as you possibly can about a thing before you express it, lives might depend on it. But while art may be utilised in political spaces, artistic spaces do not require such certainty. Artistic expressions are not, or at least there is no imperative for them to be, reflections of a fully-formed set of beliefs. They are expressions of people working towards understanding, towards some personal truth.
Anyone who is driven to write poetry knows that the moment you have finished one poem to your satisfaction, an empty feeling ensues which can only be filled by writing another, a different one, aiming to express some kind of understanding about something else, or aiming to express a different kind of understanding about the same thing. And it may be that words in their correct syntactical arrangement, the conventional deployment of imagery, obvious or satisfying rhythms, or easily fathomable uses of symbolism will not be sufficient to express the understanding you are aiming towards. And sometimes this will work, and sometimes it will not; and sometimes you will think for a while that it works and then decide later it does not (possibly, if you are lucky or already well-known, having had it published in the meantime). But there is nothing in poetry’s artistic space which requires either consistency, logic, good sense, or even morality – if these elements are present (and this is key) then it is at the poet’s/artist’s discretion, as is the extent to which they are present. This is a free space where thoughts and ideas can have room to bounce off each other, fly free or be reined in, tested and tried out, accepted and rejected as the poet searches for an understanding which, until the right form of words arrives, remains elusive.
I think that if Martinez de las Rivas is deliberately (despite his admission of ignorance, which may or may not be entirely truthful) using fascist symbols in his poems, then it is surely likely he is doing so with a mind to moving towards some form of personal understanding of the world. Otherwise, I can’t see why he would be using them. Can it really be his intention to send a message of sympathy to his fascist brethren via poetry, of all things? I’m venturing too close here to flippancy perhaps, but if he is guilty of the ‘bad faith’ he’s been accused of, what is his overall game plan?
But anyway, for all the reasons above, the cultural artistic space in which poetry is written, written about and discussed on social media, is an enormously important one for our freedom within the wider political space that none of us can avoid. Any call to restrict artistic freedom (within legal limits) impoverishes this cultural space.
If there is a main fault line between factions in this debate, it is likely to lie in the view that as totalitarian-leaning thought gains increasing currency in society, defending the freedom of the artist within our cultural spaces is more important than seeking esoteric evidence of totalitarian sympathies in a single poet. Which is not to say that we should not be alert to the growth of far-right mindsets in the arts, there are of course famous examples of intolerable intolerance. But the fascism and anti-Semitism of someone like Ezra Pound was of an entirely different order, and if there were anything in Martinez de las Rivas which suggested incitement to hatred or intolerance, I would swap sides in the debate immediately. But what I actually find in his work is a poet using the ideas of authority and power inherent in political authoritarianism, and some of its symbolism, metaphorically to investigate his own position in relation to his God, his family, his country etc. He may also have been using authoritarian motifs to be deliberately controversial and gain notoriety, and if so, he has been very successful – but it seems unlikely to me that this was his purpose. Whether he was wise to use them, and even whether it is legitimate to use, say, Nazi or Holocaust motifs to express a personal issue, is another matter, but one we must see and read the poetry (as we can with Sylvia Plath’s Daddy) in order to debate. Cutting the poetry off from a public will prevent these important matters space to be discussed.
In our place, we readers also bring our own meanings to his poems, as we do to anything we read. If I ‘want’ to see ABC then I will be more likely to see it, if you would prefer to find XYZ then it may be there for you while I struggle to see it. There are different ways of reading any poem, and it is worth remembering that we are complicit in the meaning making process, so while we can argue about whether the black sun symbolises Nazism, an eclipse at the crucifixion, or (as one insightful poet pointed out to me) dissolution and breakdown in the Alchemical system of thought, it is a simple fact that on different levels we are all right. Fundamentally, this is the point isn’t it? In poetry, we don’t have to agree. And having a cultural space where we can all think different things at the same time without shouting at each other is valuable.
One last thought to put out there: if we are going to judge Martinez de las Rivas on his poem ‘Elegy for a Young Hitler’, we should also weigh this against his more recent collaboration with bookbinder Simona Noli, 12, which appears to be a sensitive contemplation on God and the Holocaust.
Well, I think that just about winds up my argument FOR Martinez de las Rivas; I look forward to reading the argument AGAINST in the comments below.
Another irony of all this for me is that I don’t enormously care for Martinez de las Rivas’s work – it fascinates me and opens a world of questions, but it leaves me cold. Like Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, I would liken it to an intricate and skilfully wrought museum piece at which I stand in awe before happily leaving it in the museum and returning home to the trinkets on my own shelves, which I actively want to look at because of the way they make me feel. My feelings about Terror, Black Sun and ‘Titan/All Is Still’ bring Voltaire to mind, although it’s a little strong: “I detest what you say but I would defend to the death your right to say it”. However, I recognise that Martinez de las Rivas’s critics could come back with another equally famous and pertinent quote, also from Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme!” Crush the infamy!
I guess there are different ways of reading Voltaire too.
*‘Post-liberal’ is a label which was new to me until I read it in a blog post here; if it’s new to you too, read more here.