One of those tall ultrabright electrical fixtures used to illuminate the walls and surrounding area at night casts a direct beam of light into my cell at night. (I moved to a different cell last week). Consequently I have enough light, even after the usual twelve o’clock lights out, to read or study by. I don’t really have to sleep now if I choose not to. The early hours of the morning are the only time of day that one can find any respite from the pandemonium caused by these most uncultured of San Quentin inmates. I don’t let the noise bother me even in the evenings when it rises to maddening intensity, because I try to understand my surroundings.
George Jackson works to understand the truth content of his invisibility - the cell as the defining molecule of the official world, which, to quote Marcuse quoting Hegel, is “a strange world governed by inexorable laws, a dead world in which human life is frustrated”. Or rather, a dead world in which Jackson has suddenly come to life, and now must gauge what is comprehensible and alive within its noise and maddening intensity. From his cell in San Quentin, Jackson is writing from the centre of the position that some of the greatest moments in western poetry have only ever been reaching towards, and it is through this awareness that we can begin to understand what Genet might mean by insisting on his sense that Jackson’s writing is poetry. It is telling that Jackson calls the prison world Pandemonium, for Milton talks about the same impossible situation. When, in the tenth book of Paradise Lost, Satan and the rest of Pandemonium’s citizenry are transformed into serpents that transformation is registered primarily by the loss of language, communication and thought: “dreadful was the din / of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now with complicated monsters” - the rebel angels are forced into a “maddening intensity” of noise, where thought and speech become impossible. Attempts to deal with the necessities of speech and cognition from within a place where they are made impossible is a defining theme throughout revolutionary poetics, from Milton through Blake and Shelley, and via Marx into the radical avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. Blake’s Urizen, in The Four Zoas, tries to but cannot communicate with the “horrid shapes and sights of torment” he sees within the Abyss - ie prison, factory, slum - because his language, whether “soothing” or “furious”, is “but an inarticulate thunder”. Shelley’s poetry is full of a sense of a liberated language which comes from a place so distanced from the official world that it can barely, if at all, be heard: in The Revolt of Islam the spirit of Liberty speaks in a “strange melody / that might not belong on earth”, while in Prometheus Unbound we are told that we cannot speak at all if we cannot already speak “the language of the dead”. That language of the dead is, in Marxist terms, the voice of dead labour, capital itself. Most contemporary poetry, both “avant-garde” and “mainstream”, is allergic to those voices, and would like to pretend that poetic time lives separately to the dominant time of capitalism. It isn’t true. Poetry has to pretend it can’t communicate “ideas” because the cargo it carries - to once again use Benjamin’s metaphor - is the collective voice of the victims of those ideas. The carefully put together exercises that pass themselves off as poems can only ever be polite facsimiles of the exterior of cells like that of George Jackson, but it can only ever be the flaws and cracks in the surface that really speak. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), in 1964, his own poetry beginning to crack apart under the pressure of the increasingly obvious contradictions between his aesthetic and political commitments, wrote that “poetry aims at difficult meanings. Meanings not already catered to”. Poetry doesn’t talk about the world, nor does it create meaning, but rather aims at meanings not yet articulated, meanings not catered to in the currently available aesthetic and social networks. This pushes poetry to a critical edge-condition which risks its destruction as poetry in a way that is far more serious than any silly corporate nihilism claiming to have “killed” “poetry”. Meanings are communicated which risk tearing the poem apart. Edouard Glissant describes this same process, taken out of the framework of the history of poetry and into actually lived time:
Since speech was forbidden, slaves camouflaged the word under the provocative intensity of the scream. No one could translate the meaning of what seemed to be nothing but a shout. It was taken to be nothing but the call of a wild animal. This is how the dispossessed organised their speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of pure noise.
The organisation of speech provokes the communication of meanings that had previously been impossible: it goes without saying that this organisation has yet to be achieved. The poetics of the enemy has not ceased to be victorious, its own “meaningless texture of pure noise” all too readily comprehensible. On August 21 1971, three days before his trial was due to begin, George Jackson was shot dead by a prison guard. If the internal secret of bourgeois poetics is the voice of the oppressed and dispossessed, its silencing perimeter is the bullet of a cop.
to be continued