Vancouver poet Stephen Collis offers us a wonderful meditation on commons as both anti-capitalist and beyond politics in a wonderful essay, “On Blackberries and the Poetic Commons.” Noting that the culture of private property is pervasive and suffocating in modern life, Collis sets out to identify what makes an already existing commons a commons.
He concludes that it is somewhat a fiction that we make up. If the idea of “the market” is something that we must dream up and sustain together -- a “social imaginary” that organizes our physical and social realities – then surely we need to dream up the commons in the same way, as “imaginary alternatives.” That is the only way to summon the commons into reality.
To this task, Collis recommends the lowly blackberry:
"Blackberry brambles are the marginalia of the urban and suburban city/text. Occupying unused or underused spaces, they hold forth common abundance where private property is ambiguous or in disuse, decline or abeyance. We troll through our neighborhoods and even into the center of the city. Along easements and the sides of highways, at the ends of cul-de-sacs and in vacant lots, along open ditches and decrepit fencing, in the deteriorating zones of post-industrial wastes, the ramble entangles and marks the very edges and gaps in the regime of private property. They mark lulls and failures in capital, the moments of decay and depreciation after industrial production and before gentrification. In taking to our fences, the brambles even appears to be attempting to stand between properties, on their margins, on that thin line that is neither mine nor thine.
"….We assume blackberries to be a common resource – no one in his or her right mind would pay for blackberries, though I have seen them, and scoffed, in a supermarket. Like the historical English commons, the ‘patriomony of the poor’ (Neeson, 55), the blackberry bramble is governed by certain customary rules of use. Take only what you need and leave enough for others. Those in a neighborhood have first dibs on the neighborhood patch (you don’t drive in from the outside) – unless the patch is in parkland or other non-residential spaces. The berries high up or deep in a patch are for the birds and the soil and next year’s fruit – you don’t damage the brambles to get at the difficult to reach berries.
"The blackberry thus offers a succulent critique of private property and capital. It is a small reminder of another way – of what is free and shared (how few examples of this are left to us), of what seems accessible to all and any, of what flowers, seemingly without purpose, at the very heart of neglect. Yet the blackberry is also an aggressive and prolific colonizer….It occupies the spaces capital has used-up or forgotten or left as underdeveloped pockets as it aggressively ‘builds and rebuilds a geography in its own image.’ (David Harvey, 54)."
Collis goes on to point out that language and poetry are inherently commons, too. Poetry resembles the blackberry as something that lies outside the grasp of capital, something that no one pays for: “It is abundant and free, springing organically out of neglect, filling the margins or gaps left by other more productive genres.”
Just as Homer was not so much a single author as a consolidator and synthesizer of the stories of many others, so poetry is something that does not belong to the individual. It is a shared community resource. The poet Shelly describes “that great poem, which all poets like the cooperating thoughts of one great mind have built up since the beginning of the world.”
Poetry is about commoning. It uses language that is necessarily social and evolving, and beyond the control of any single individual. Language is unownable. And meanings themselves are collective in nature even if a talented individual is the one writing a poem.
Collis cites the American poet Robert Duncan, who openly declared that his work was “derivative” – a “declaration of dependence,” as Collis puts it. “Language cannot be enclosed, but only used and shared.” Duncan confirms this when he writes: “The goods of the intellect are communal; there is a virtu or power that flows from the language itself, a fountain of man’s meanings, and the poet seeking the help of this source awakens first to the guidance of those who have gone before in the art, then the guidance of the meanings and dreams that all who have ever stored the honey of the invisible in the hive they have prepared.”
The honey of the invisible!
When I browsed the web for some background on Collis' poetry, he explained his general approach this way:
My theoretical concerns revolve around a series of political questions: what is the self’s relationship to others? How is language a part of this articulation or interface of the social? What resources remain—in language—from the history of liberation movements and class struggles? In what sense are we able to act—socially—in language? We are living in fraught, dangerous times. Much that has been won, historically, is being rolled back by aggressive powers. So I’m interested in the tradition of protest poetry, and I want the old Situationist adage—that poetry is the revolutionary act par excellence—to be true, but I fear it is not, that that’s just as naïve as it sounds, so I test it again and again. I’m trying on a poetry of revolution, seeing what it might do, how far it can be pushed, both into the past and, from there, into as yet unrealized futures. Fundamentally I’m interested in the other and the future, and I think these things are at the heart of language, and revealed in poetry.
Collis – a professor of American literature, poetry, and poetics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. – has done a lot of thinking about the commons. You may want to chase down his 2008 book, The Commons – or his more recent collection of essays, Dispatches from the Occupation, which is a meditation on the Occupy movement and its place in the history of recent social movements.
You can read Collis’ entire “blackberries” essay here. Recommended!