JG Ballard on the modern experience of flight:
Before take-off the cabin crew perform a strange folkloric rite that involves synchronised arm movements and warnings of fire and our possible immersion in water, all presumably part of an appeasement ritual whose origins lie back in the pre-history of the propeller age.
The success of human flight presents a trajectory of unfathomable bathos: beginning impossible, aviation moves quite swiftly through the exhilaratingly dangerous before settling inexorably into the banal. That my life has been punctuated by family Journeys between England and New Zealand has ensured that air travel for me conjures solely endless and excruciating cramping of limbs, parching of skin and eventual jetlag. It was only when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano wafted out its great clouds of ash in 2010 and grounded Europe’s aeroplanes that I experienced a glimmering of the poetic possibilities of aviation.
The combination of the boring, the sacred and the ritualistically troubling that Ballard ascribes to the modern flight reminds me of my childhood relationship with poetry. Although its joys and grandeur were glimpsable through the classroom’s assorted mires, it was an as distant and exam-related topic for me as any other. A literature degree later I am employed once a week to help ignite a passion for literature in an eight year old and a twelve year old boy. They attend one of London’s most creative and expensive primary schools and whilst both are astute, artistic and enjoy school, their mother had noticed that both tend to see literature as more of a daft chore than the inspirational seat of all human passion and achievement that she herself perceives. Poetic attempts to render flight’s thrills are often similarly laboured, coming off romanticised and unmagical (Google aviation and poetry for a look). These were my favourite lines:
…penetrate the last
redoubts of nature, make space
retreat, make death retreat.
- Romain Rolland, 1912
I like how this most deathly and spatial of pastimes is modelled as postponing both space and death. Rather than approaching the exhilaration of people in flight, it extends the unnaturalness of the activity into a distilled moment of godlike atemporality. Language’s inadequacy to emulate precisely the thrills of humankind taking to the skies is superseded by its excellence at spatial and temporal distortions.
To my small protégés I attempt to present poetry as just this kind of nebulous layering of estrangements. Perhaps the medium lends itself so tenuously to early aviation (even in Robert Wohl’s chapter on ‘Poets of Space’ most literary reference is to prose) just because of this curious distortionary similarity. Both are, to quote Ballard again, exquisitely tailored relations of ‘line and function’. My students’ professed mounting dread and pre-emptive boredom is something I try to harness rather than deny.
The functions of the poetic line is to create something akin to that moment in 2010 where emptied skies created in me the excitement of aviation. If their dreaded poem can be seen as this kind of vessel to be guided into some kind of revelation of meaning, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the underwhelming experience of modern air travel can yet be shown to contain some of the dreadful awe of the first human flights.
By Emily McCarthy
Writer, tutor and research student of the Wellcome Trust’s utopias, built and unbuilt, at the London Consortium.