by JOHN NYMAN
The Ashes of Movement: Shane Neilson’s The Fervourist Manifesto
The Manifesto of Fervourism
by Shane Neilson
[A Ryga Chapbook, Okanagan College, 2015.]
Fire burns out. But that’s no reason not to start one.
Fire and its blood cousins (the hearth, the heart, heat) are indeed the heroes of Shane Neilson’s The Manifesto of Fervourism, whose central aim is to assert the sovereignty of living emotion—fervour—against those who treat poetry as the cold, technical mastery of metaphor for metaphor’s sake. In this pursuit, the manifesto’s blunt strength and urgent closeness are worthy of its goals. Nevertheless, its nuances force us to understand that fire expects to turn to ash, and that fire’s power is bound to this very expectation. Neilson’s essay is more complex than a direct assault on metaphor; taking its premises at their word, we find both a renewed depiction of the emotional element in poetry and a convincing proposal to reorganize our priorities as writers and readers.
Let’s start with Neilson’s opening gambit:
Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor. It rises from the morass like a Swamp Thing, some terrible beauty waiting to be born. It forces a connection, a juxtaposition of idea, an interaction. There is applause. Under the applause is the actual heartbeat, the real metre of poetry, the real language of men. The pulse beats in the ear, the tinnitus under the floorboards of empty form. The heart says, “This is all lies.”
There is an easy reading of The Fervourist Manifesto, and it can be summed up in this allegory: poetry draws its essence from the heart (read: truth, emotion, heat, life, fervour), not from the hands (artifice, technique, cold, death, metaphor). A poetry obsessed with metaphor—that is, with stockpiling the commodities of language and their merely incidental effects—forgets that its art must strike home with real human experience. Metaphor can be no more than the slave of fervour; it is emotion for which we read and for which we write.
But what is emotion? By picking at this burn, we find that Neilson’s intention is not just to crown fervour the legitimate king of the poetic art, but to reimagine the entire kingdom. Neither the sentiment nor the feelings with which a poem may be constructed, emotion is a “shattering power” that comes before language, before composition, and even before thought. It is not a solid bedrock but instead the “deepest vein” of poetry or, better still, the electrons revolving around a poem’s nucleus. Fervour is not a magic key or hidden object, it is not a commodity to be sold. Fervour is action; as says the second chamber of Fervourism, “Emotion must be dynamic.” It is not so much fire, then, as combustion, not so much “Love” and “Pain” themselves as the intensities with which we love or are hurt.
In short, emotion is movement. In the sense, for instance, that I can be moved to tears. “Pain and Love must age in lines in order to develop,” Neilson says, and so, “Our poems scaffold emotion, allowing emotion to extend or collapse.” In poetry, this movement can manifest between souls (as an “energy” or “contagion,” kindling emotion through sympathetic response) as much as within ourselves.
Overall, the great triumph of Neilson’s manifesto is not the subordination of metaphor to emotion, but the reversal of an old understanding that grants metaphor privileged access to movement. Metaphors do offer us (as readers) the means to migrate from one figure to another, but for the metaphor-maker they are no more than fixed architectures, elaborate playgrounds whose construction necessitates no act of communication or mutuality. True movement sweeps us up completely because it is a movement of the mind and the soul, not just signification. Neilson writes:
A reader of poetry looks to the poem not for intellectual play (though that is fine) nor the pure hybridization of signs (though that is fine) nor for allegory (though that is fine) nor, and follow me on this sacrilege, for a quest along the highway of sound (though that, too, is fine). 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.
Or again, more concisely:
We are not getting from point A to B, nor are we comparing A to B. We are making whole cosmologies.
In the movement of emotion, everything is remade—including emotion itself. Heat cools, fire burns to ash. Metaphor, then, cannot help but become part of emotion’s movement, a realization which may account for what Jeffery Donaldson calls the wink in Neilson’s poker face. “[E]very word in the English language is inherently metaphoric,” Neilson admits. Since poetry happens in words, fervour is destined to find itself turncoat in the camp of its cold adversary, metaphor.
Yet fervour is no weaker for this fate; what value would fire have if we’d never seen it snuffed? Donaldson attributes this duality to the inherent hubris of the manifesto form, which by nature must fail its own criteria, or else go too far in its quest to move or to begin a movement. But we might also refer Fervourism’s betrayal—the becoming-metaphor of even the most passionate poetic impulse—to the most simple, if ineffable principle of an uncanny realism: that a poet must have her head in the air at the same time as she keeps her feet on the ground. This principle is only paradoxical if one attempts to conceptualize it—in other words, to subjugate it to the war machine of metaphor. In real life, such things happen every day.
True emotion moves, extending and collapsing without our ever losing the power to kindle its flame. If speech is all lies, then to speak from the heart is also to lie. No matter; the heart is true.
John Nyman’s verse, visual, and conceptual poems and poetics have appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Rampike, (parenthetical), Cordite Poetry Review, and Hamilton Arts and Letters. His first full-length collection, Players, was released with Palimpsest Press in April 2016. Originally from Toronto, he is currently completing a PhD in Theory and Criticism at Western University in London, Ontario.