by JEFFERY DONALDSON
Shane Neilson’s Poker Face: The Manifesto of Fervourism
The Manifesto of Fervourism
by Shane Neilson
[A Ryga Chapbook, Okanagan College, 2015.]
Shane Neilson’s The Manifesto of Fervourism left me with one preoccupying question: At what point does a poker face become a form of disguised tongue-in-cheek? In short, is Neilson’s Fervourism a manifesto or a parody of one? Or both? Neilson’s proclamation of Fervourism as the hitherto ignored formula for genuine poetic accomplishment gives every sign of being serious, feisty, and (above all) heartfelt. His treatise masters the manifesto form. It is brief and aphoristic. It goes in circles, repeats its central tenets, gathers its tonal momentums to itself and runs with them. It favours rhetorical energy over reasoned argument. At the same time, it appears to be so self-conscious of its own bag of tricks and returns so often to the obviousness of its central theme — that poems ought to evoke strong emotion — that you sense it making light of its own exhortation. Is there such a thing as an Unmanifesto?
The form of the manifesto traditionally straddles the grey line between conceptual and rhetorical uses of language. A manifesto wants its argument to carry clout: an argument to act on, as it were. While reasons are presented, they give way to the writer’s obvious desire to grab readers by their shirt fronts and shake them from their torpor. Manifestos are usually about waking up. Their message lies as much in the form as in the content. The fact that it is a manifesto often speaks louder than the actual platform it would manifest. For crying out loud, let’s do something! This is what distinguishes it from other essays in poetics, which in their presumed objectivity tend to skirt around or bracket the question of their actual suasion. Put it this way: essays sway by being reasonable; a manifesto sways by being unrelenting. The manifesto is very much at home in a climate where choices of any kind are readily politicized and tested for their social implication. In the literary domain, it carries poetic practice into the marketplace and makes it stand to account: you’re either with it or against it.
The actual content of Neilson’s argument — with its appeal to strong emotion in writing — lends itself readily to the manifesto initiative. The undiluted manifesto can be fun to read; whether it can change behaviour is another question. We live in an age where the cry for change is more or less constant. Where digital culture automatically includes the deafening din of various opinion, can manifestos help? “No! We really do need to change, honest!” Do we even have a reset button in poetic culture any longer? What would it look like? One of the strategies of Fervourism is to include a disavowal of its manifest intention: “This is not a political manifesto. The dead Futurists and syphilitic Surrealists hoped to change society. They met their corporate fates. Poets of Metaphor vend Breton T-shirts in flea markets. The Manifesto of Fervourism is an aesthetic-humanist manifesto.” I’m not sure that the quality of being “aesthetic humanist” makes it an exception in any way: Art for Art’s Sake runs on comparable lines, is still entertained as a viable poetic option, and comes now with its own sea of commentary. But again, I think Neilson knows this. No crack in his poker face.
Well, let’s play the hand Neilson has dealt us. “A poem needs to have fervour in order to be a poem.” To be fervourous — from L. fervere — is to be hot. The language of poetry as the warming hearth abounds throughout. Draw near and be comforted:
A reader looks to the poem for the strange condition of emotion—emotion embodied, enacted as revenant state that vicariously possesses the reader to bury her head in the cosmos of genuine feeling. The poem is a device of fervour…. Yet poetry written today does not possess an emotional register. The poetry of today does not register. Contemporary poetry prefers to avoid emotion altogether, rushing to the faux-frontier of metaphor, abandoning emotion at the hearth of home.
While the style is largely paratactic — and and and and and — the outline of an argument comes clear. Fervourism has its crosshairs centred on exploiters of egregious metaphor, metaphor for its own sake. Fair enough: using my own bias, I could stir up a few names of the guilty, if not enough to warrant an uprising. Over and against the numbing properties of metaphoric excess stands an emotional intensity that accomplishes itself in a unity of effect:
We say that metaphor is the husk of an erroneous tradition, a venerated baby that has become a tyrant. Metaphors are disciplined by fervour, and emotion requires metaphor to be subservient to a unified effect. Metaphors must be organized and have a sum. The sum is their effect. Effect is, always, understood in terms of emotion. This unified effect must overwhelm sense.
It isn’t easy to follow the logic here. Like Ahab caught up and then dragged off by his own harpoon rope, the essay runs afoul of its own line of argument in the heat of the hunt (if I may venture a metaphor). But again, the style may be martyr to its own cause. Hubris ought to be the genuine risk of any self-respecting manifesto. If it doesn’t go too far, it hasn’t gone far enough.
And how might this essay go too far? By making light of the very principle it espouses. Is that a wink in Neilson’s poker face? Oscar Wilde’s adage that one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell might apply here. If Neilson’s playful gambit is meant to be seen through, one might point to the fact that the essay on Fervourism is so … fervourous. A further clue may lie in the obviousness of the proclamation. More fervour! Old wine, new bottle: Fervourism is a new word for an exhortation that is at least as old as the ancient Greek Longinus’s On the Sublime, where some of Neilson’s central tenets are anticipated (“the proper antidote for a multitude of daring metaphors,” writes Longinus, “is strong and timely emotion and genuine sublimity”). Neilson would certainly know this. He goes further still in making light of other manifestos, raising questions about how exactly a manifesto might strive to be itself. Crying for action, it looks down at its own navel. Half the essay seems as much about the history and faltering legacy of the manifesto form — pace Wordsworth, paceEliot, viva Pound — as it is about its own precepts. The entire essays rings of high-modernist bel canto, a masterful and self-conscious reincarnation.
This isn’t to say that new movements aren’t often heralded by a bracing verbal salvo announcing first principles, even forgotten ones. The trick is knowing when to call a bluff. In our age of irony, where bluffs abound, one ought be careful. The Unmanifesto Manifesto: that’s all I got. Two pairs, ace high. Is it possible that Shane Neilson has both nothing at all and a straight flush?
Jeffery Donaldson was born in Toronto and educated at Victoria College, University of Toronto. He teaches poetry and poetics, American literature, and Inquiry in the English Department at McMaster University. His study of metaphor, Missing Link: the Evolution of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Evolution, appeared with McGill-Queen’s in April, 2015. He is author of five volumes of poetry, most recently Slack Action (Porcupine’s Quill, 2013). A collection of essays on poetry and poetics, Echo Soundings, was published by Palimpsest Press in the fall of 2014. Donaldson is also co-editor of Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye, U of T Press, 2004.