Inciting Poetics: Thinking and Writing Poetry 2018057618, 2019000952, 9780826360489, 9780826360465

The essays in Inciting Poetics provide provocative answers to the book's opening question, "What are poetics n

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Table of contents :
Book Cover
Half Title
Series Page
Table of Contents
Introduction by Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams
Chapter 1. An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return by Lyn Hejinian
Chapter 2. Statement on Poetics: Pleasures, Polemics, Practices, Stakes by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Chapter 3. From Late Arcade by Nathaniel Mackey
Chapter 4. Poetics Today by Charles Altieri
Chapter 5. The Material and Medium of Language by Jeanne Heuving
Chapter 6. Toward Transformation: The Contextual Turn in US Poetry by Elisabeth A. Frost
Chapter 7. “To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion”: Denise Levertov’s Bridge-Poetics of Eye-Witnessing in the Context of Her Friendship with Robert Duncan by Cynthia Hogue
Chapter 8. Ethnos and Graphos by Sarah Dowling
Chapter 9. White Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck, and White People by Aldon Nielsen
Chapter 10. Transcendental Tabby by Leonard Schwartz
Chapter 11.The Codex Is Broken by Ron Silliman
Chapter 12. Empire Aesthetics: It’s Not the Point, It’s the Platform—Detroit Model by Vanessa Place
Chapter 13. Now That’s a Poem: Vito Acconci, Conceptual Writing, and Poetic Nominalism by Brian Reed
Coda: The United Divisions of Poetry by Tyrone Williams
List of Contributors
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Inciting Poetics


This series stands at the intersection of critical investigation, historical documentation, and the preservation of cultural heritage. The series exists to illuminate the innovative poetics achievements of the recent past that remain relevant to the present. In addition to publishing monographs and edited volumes, it is also a venue for previously unpublished manuscripts, expanded reprints, and collections of major essays, letters, and interviews.

Also available in the Recencies Series: The Language Letters: Selected 1970s Correspondence of Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman edited by Matthew Hofer and Michael Golston Presences: A Text for Marisol, A Critical Edition by Robert Creeley and Marisol Escobar Why Should I Write a Poem Now: The Letters of Srinivas Rayaprol and William Carlos Williams, 1949–1958 edited by Graziano Krätli Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood by Sarah Hayden Robert Duncan and the Pragmatist Sublime by James Maynard An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Dale M. Smith Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan’s Lectures on Charles Olson edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Dale M. Smith The Collected Letters of Charles Olson and J. H. Prynne edited by Ryan Dobran The Olson Codex: Projective Verse and the Problem of Mayan Glyphs by Dennis Tedlock The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form by Bruce Holsapple For additional titles in the Recencies Series, please visit

Inciting Poetics Thinking and Writing Poetry

Edited by Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams

University of New Mexico Press  |  Albuquerque

© 2019 by the University of New Mexico Press All rights reserved. Published 2019 Printed in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Heuving, Jeanne, 1951– editor. | Williams, Tyrone, editor. Title: Inciting poetics: thinking and writing poetry / edited by Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams. Description: Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019. | Series: Recencies series: Research and recovery in twentieth-century American poetics | Includes index. | Identifiers: LCCN 2018057618 (print) | LCCN 2019000952 (e-book) | ISBN 9780826360489 (e-book) | ISBN 9780826360465 (printed case: alk. paper) Subjects: LCSH: Poetics. | Poetry—Authorship. Classification: LCC PN1042 (e-book) | LCC PN1042. I53 2019 (print) | DDC 808.1—dc23 LC record available at Cover illustration courtesy of Designed by Felicia Cedillos


Acknowledgments vii Introduction ix Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams

Part 1. What Is Poetics? Chapter 1. An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return  3 Lyn Hejinian Chapter 2. Statement on Poetics Pleasures, Polemics, Practices, Stakes 13 Rachel Blau DuPlessis Chapter 3. From Late Arcade 39 Nathaniel Mackey

Part 2. Critical Interventions Chapter 4. Poetics Today  53 Charles Altieri Chapter 5. The Material and Medium of Language  63 Jeanne Heuving Chapter 6. Toward Transformation The Contextual Turn in US Poetry 81 Elisabeth A. Frost


vi  Contents

Chapter 7. “To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion” Denise Levertov’s Bridge-Poetics of Eye-Witnessing in the Context of Her Friendship with Robert Duncan 101 Cynthia Hogue

Part 3. Cross-Cultural Imperatives Chapter 8. Ethnos and Graphos  121 Sarah Dowling Chapter 9. White Mischief Language, Life, Logic, Luck, and White People 137 Aldon Nielsen Chapter 10. Transcendental Tabby  155 Leonard Schwartz

Part 4. Digital, Capital, and Institutional Frames Chapter 11. The Codex Is Broken  179 Ron Silliman Chapter 12. Empire Aesthetics It’s Not the Point, It’s the Platform—Detroit Model 185 Vanessa Place Chapter 13. Now That’s a Poem Vito Acconci, Conceptual Writing, and Poetic Nominalism 197 Brian Reed Coda. The United Divisions of Poetry  225 Tyrone Williams Contributors 233 Index 237


We are grateful for the many essayists in Inciting Poetics: Thinking and Writing Poetry who brilliantly responded to the question, what is poetics now? Many of the essays were first given as presentations at the Convergence on Poetics, which commenced the MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics program at the University of Washington Bothell. Thanks for funding this opening event goes to the University of Washington Simpson Humanities Center and the University of Washington Bothell School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science. We express gratitude to Susan Jeffords, Vice Chancellor of UWB, who supported the vision and creation of an MFA program devoted to poetics. In addition, we extend our appreciation to others who participated in this opening event, including Marie Annharte Baker, Charles Bernstein, Amaranth Borsuk, Lee Ann Brown, Rebecca Brown, Tisa Bryant, Rebecca Cummins, Michael Davidson, Carla Harryman, Ted Hiebert, Clark Lunberry, Joe Milutis, Peter O’Leary, Candice Rai, Evie Shockley, Barrett Watten, and Lissa Wolsak. We thank Elise M. McHugh of the University of New Mexico Press for her excellent guidance, and Matthew Hofer, who steered us to the Recencies series We are grateful for the excellent editorial assistance by Denise Edwards and Alexandra Hoff and for the fine book design by Felicia Cedillos. We formally acknowledge permission to reprint Nathaniel Mackey’s piece in this volume, “from Late Arcade,” copyright 2017 Nathaniel Mackey, reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. Grateful acknowledgement is made to these writers and publishers to reprint work from the following volumes: Taha Muhammed, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story, Ibis Editions, translated by Peter Cole; Ibn Arabi, Stations of Desire, introduced and translated by Michael Sells, Ibis Editions; Gwendolyn Brooks, “I Love Those Little Booths at Benvenuti’s,” Annie Allen, Harper & Brothers; Joshua Clover, “Years of Analysis For a Day of Synthesis,” Red Epic, Commune Editions; Randall vii

viii  Acknowledgments

Dudley, “Black Poet, White Critic,” William Morrow and Company; Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy, Routledge; Jorie Graham, “Employment,” Place, Harper & Row; Cathy Park Hong, Dance Revolution, W. W. Norton & Company; Denise Levertov, “To Stay Alive,” reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation; Nathaniel Mackey, “Dearly Beloved,” Four For Trane, Golemics, “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun, Eroding Witness, University of Illinois Press, and “Song of the Andoumboulou: 34,” Whatsaid Serif, City Lights; Mark Nowak, Cold Mountain Elementary, Coffee House Press; Gershom Scholen, The Fullness of Time, Ibis Editions, translated by Richard Sieburth.

Introduction Jeanne Hueving and Tyrone Williams

What are poetics now? Traditionally, poetics and hermeneutics have been defined in opposition to each other: poetics explores how something works and hermeneutics engages what it means.1 The essays here refuse this division and related bifurcations between form and content, cultural contexts and material writing, technology and communication, platforms and discourse. Inciting Poetics gathers poets and critics who have already made substantial contributions to poetics in the preceding century as well as newer essayists in order to consider poetics presently. The essays collected in Inciting Poetics query poetics itself as well as engage changing poetic valuations and practices. The end of the twentieth century saw a surge in the writing and prestige of poetics, not only in the areas of literature and poetry but also in a broad range of fields and endeavors. Prompted by the “turn to language” and poststructuralism, questions of how discourses and texts are constituted were thought to be intrinsic to an understanding of what they were about. Multiple scholarly inquiries were produced, all including poetics in the title: Nancy K. Miller’s The Poetics of Gender; Houston A. Baker, Elizabeth Alexander, and Patricia Redmond’s Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing; James Elkins’s The Poetics of Perspective; Richard Harvey Brown’s A Poetic for Sociology: Toward a Logic of Discovery for the Human Sciences; and James Clifford’s Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. For poetry—long understood as a language art—the turn to language and the broad interest in questions of discourse formation brought with it the need for new definitions, understandings, and practices. What did it mean to write poetry with an orientation that understood language not only to reference but also to construct reality? And what did it mean that questions regarding the production of texts that had hitherto been largely a literary and poetry concern were now being engaged throughout the humanities, and sometimes also the ix

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social sciences and science. Indeed, the expanded realm of poetics introduced to the study of poetry a much larger range of questions, including those of social justice and parity in gender, race, and class, among other determinations. The Language Poetry movement brought with it a fresh and vivid set of assertions that poetics were far more than an accompanying discourse about poetry, but were, in fact, necessary for the ongoing creation of poetry. For some, poetics were just as important, if not more important, than poetry—and for some practitioners, not to be distinguished. The need to inquire into poetry and to write poetry differently lead to Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s groundbreaking L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine from 1978 to 1982 and Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten’s Poetics Journal from 1982 to 1998. Kathleen Fraser’s How(ever) from 1983 to 1991, committed to publishing experimental women writers, also insisted that each writer include a statement of her poetics. Nathaniel Mackey’s Hambone, initiated in 1974 and beginning regular publication in 1982, provided a mix of innovative writing and poetics commentary.2 Scores of monographs and essay collections were produced, including Aldon Nielsen’s Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism; Kathleen Fraser’s Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity; Charles Bernstein’s Content’s Dream; The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein; Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, edited by Christopher Beach, and We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, edited by Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue.3 Our epoch differs from the preceding century in that the turn to language has so permeated the understanding and practice of poetry and poetics as well as other fields of endeavor that it no longer serves as an urgent impetus or as an organizing question. Cole Swensen and David St. John’s claim in American Hybrid that the experimental and the traditional, the raw and the cooked, have now found a happy medium belies the way that almost all of the poetry in their anthology is languaged differently than in earlier times.4 Indeed, rather than the creation of a new middling ground, one might conclude that the turn to language by poets in the preceding decades so successfully initiated different poetic awarenesses and practices that it changed poetic practice itself. To see the previous time as unified and simplified around questions of language would be a great disservice to the range of poetics and poetic questions generated at this time as well as to the genuine debates, disagreements, and agreements that ensued.5 Yet the need to validate poetics as an important and worthy activity in its own right was significantly spurred and gained focus through urgent questions that the turn to language brought with it. Simply put, poetics now finds itself in a far more diversified and uncertain

Introduction  xi

terrain. Radical social and cultural change with respect to identity movements and their evolution continue as well as an accelerated technological and media revolution. While several of the essays offer definitive ways forward, other essays engage unassimilable “dark matter.” There is no resolution, no sublation, to be construed from these essays but rather a profound consideration of just what poetics can or might entail.6 While several of the essays chart new textual practices for the writing of poetry, others find a need to defend poetry on fairly traditional grounds. Several essays urge the value of poetry as uniquely able to disclose social and economic situations in all their affective and political dimensions and conclude the importance of poetry is in the response and responsiveness of its individual writers and readers. Others rue the emphasis placed on the individual in our society as caught up in troubling political, social, and media economies and answer these with hard-hitting critiques. Overall, the works in Inciting Poetics ask and answer quite differently basic questions about poetry and poetics: What is a poet? What is poetry? What is poetics? What does poetry do? What might it accomplish? Together these essays incite poetics because of their simultaneously profound commitment to poetry as well as their implicit and explicit disagreements. As Tyrone Williams writes in his essay: “That there should, or must be, a place for poetry in our ever-evolving culture is . . . the Holy Grail.” Despite the uneasy waters that poetry currently finds itself in, what remains is a remarkable and large body of work produced throughout the ages that makes its case for cultural meaning and relevance through the nomination of poetry and its formal attributes. Jonathan P. Eburne and Rita Felski comment in their special issue of New Literary History on “What Is an Avant-Garde?”: “Experimental aesthetic and political movements continue to form and develop throughout the world. What is the nature of this persistence—and what new demands does it levy upon contemporary critical practice and our presumptions about historical change?” 7 The essays gathered here seek to answer this question by close attention to the ongoing production of poetry with respect to its relationship to larger cultural and social institutions and practices as well as the exacting activity of poets themselves. ———— We begin the volume with the question, “What Is Poetics?” as answered by three poet-critics who wrote groundbreaking volumes on poetics in the preceding century: Lyn Hejinian and The Language of Inquiry, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing,

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and Rachel Blau DuPlessis and The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. All three volumes take on the task of addressing the “turn to language” as it crosses with specific political concerns with gender, race, and class. While all three writers in their early works engage both pressing sets of issues in deliberate and sometimes confrontational ways, they largely assumed the value and importance of poetics. Their essays here query poetics itself. In “An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return,” Lyn Hejinian notes that “not all periods invite ‘poetics,’ at least not as a major component of aesthetic activity or entailment,” and she comments that many of the poets and artists with whom she is involved are less engaged by poetics than their commitment to respond to political and environmental issues as efficaciously as possible, “without ambiguity.” Hejinian engages this chasm by exploring how poetics themselves are an art form and locates a parallel for her own commitment to poetics in a medieval Icelandic work, Snorri’s Edda, with Edda itself being glossed as poetics. Important for Hejinian is that Snorri’s Edda commanded centuries of interest as an art form in its own right before the poetic texts on which it is based were located. Further, Hejinian is taken by the order of composition of the Edda that scholars have tracked, beginning with specific inquiries into the poetry itself and only then in the end exploring Nordic mythology and history in order to locate the poetry’s “capacity to body forth the world of which and in which and for which and from which its audience is living.” Hejinian states that her own inquiries into poetics began with the poetry of her peers (not the other way around) and she defines poetics as an individualistic, if also collaborative, venture: “Poetics is always in an unbounded, excessive relationship to its art, which may in part account for the difficulty one has in defining the term. It is more than theory and more than practice; it is what identifies an artist’s largest aspirations and discovers the ways those become manifest.” DuPlessis, in “Statement on Poetics: Pleasures, Polemics, Practices, Stakes,” addresses the “totalizing temptations” of poetics itself. Entering into the age-old debate between philosophy and poetry, DuPlessis enacts in her essay the difference that poetry makes to truth telling since it occurs not as a set of propositions “baldly told” but as an “exfoliating in and through the resources of language.” She postulates that poetics may well be “a kind of philosophy that does not discount language” and argues for the “intricate, bottomless tangibility” of language when engaged poetically. DuPlessis suggests that the making of poetry or of any art may well exceed its poetics: “The desire to be making is startling and powerful, erotic really. Poetics frame this but is often flooded out by it.” And she also indicates that poetics are inextricably part of the creative process itself as poets frequently engage making and an understanding of this making within poetry

Introduction  xiii

and other writing as a dialectical exchange. Early on she states, “It is necessary to query whether the essay in your hands now is ‘about’ or on ‘on’ poetics in general, or whether it is ‘of ’ or ‘inside’ a specific poetics.” DuPlessis’s essay occupies all positions and is ultimately inside the poetics of the detail. For DuPlessis, it is the particularity of language, derived in large measure through its social usages, that at once disrupts declamatory logics and provides philosophical postulations with a necessary layering of interconnectedness and contingency. DuPlessis’s essay becomes a defense of poetry itself, which she describes as “hyper-saturated with its own evocativeness.” These poetics lead her to an enactment of them, ever alert to the contradictions that doing so entails: “A poem is an anti-totalizing text, in a totalizing situation filled with totalizing temptations—among these poetics itself.” She quotes Roman Jakobson, “Poeticalness is not a supplementation of discourse with rhetorical adornment but a total reevaluation of the discourse and all its components whatsoever.” In “From Late Arcade,” Nathaniel Mackey expresses ambivalence about poetics, and more generally, about legible explanations of works of art. Throughout Mackey’s writing on poetics, in critical works such as Discrepant Engagement as well as in the ars poetica passages of his multivolume epistolary fiction, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, Mackey confronts the aspirations of a poetics that would be adequate to its object. In his essay taken from Late Arcade, his most recent volume in From a Broken Bottle, Mackey muses on the ars poetica of an upstart jazz band, which has parallels with his concerns about poetry. Throughout this multivolume work, meditations on the music of a jazz band cross between earnestness and parody in almost indiscernible ways. In this piece, while the musicians take seriously the possibility of “provid[ing] terms for understanding one’s music,” and “develop[ing] a language listeners can learn from and deepen their listening thru,” most of the entry is taken up with the impossibility of doing so and pronounces that “legibility is an inflated claim.” One of the repeating events through this work is how when the jazz group’s music has been particularly intense, balloons emerge from the musicians’ horns bearing words that describe something of the music’s derivation. The words in their exacting bluntness are often ironical, especially given that they are inscribed on balloons (presumably actual balloons but reminding as well of comic strip balloons), often pointing to the music’s erotic inspiration, which the band does take seriously. Since the audience is often more taken with the emergence of these balloons, these explicit “poetics,” than the music itself, the band is highly ambivalent about them, albeit also intrigued by their effervescence and messages. In this episode, the band decides to pass out balloons as an “installation” to try to clear the air and to take command of the unpredictable

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balloons, only to have this action misunderstood in a review that appears in the Santa Monica Weakly, as one of the band members so nominates it. If legibility is an outsized claim, wrongful legibility triggers not only troubling emotional responses but also what Mackey calls elsewhere “articulacy,” a highly wrought letter to the newspaper making legible what the band’s poetics are not. The following group of essays, in “Critical Interventions,” focus on how poetics of the prior century have led to specific oversights in their proposed valuations and practices. Charles Altieri takes up the challenges and opportunities of a poetics by straying from his usual critical exegesis to write his “Poetics Today” as manifesto. Altieri takes aim with how throughout the twentieth century, and all the more so in the last decades, poets and their poetics have concerned themselves over much with the “site of the poem” rather than what he refers to here as the need for “rhetoric.” Altieri provides a fourfold criterion of what such a poetics must accomplish: it must address poetry’s purposiveness, its exemplarity, its affective offerings, and its civic consequences, even if these result in a responsibility that to be responsible must engage a mode of “civic irresponsibility.” Altieri praises poetry that tracks the “self ’s energies” as an unfolding set of constructions and relationships, a poetry exemplified differently by New York School poets as well as contemporarily by Jennifer Moxley, Julianna Spahr, and Joshua Clover. He commends the “capacious curiosity” of Charles Bernstein’s Content’s Dream, in contrast to the more limited formal concerns of his A Poetics, and he takes particular issue with the lack of theorization of New York School poetry since its critical coming of age corresponded with the advent of Language Poetry and its overemphasis on the site of the poem. Jeanne Heuving in “The Material and Medium of Language” reviews how the idea that language is a material has been most important for addressing avantgarde and innovative poetries since this concept brings to the forefront both language’s cultural and social embeddings as well as its aural and visual aspects. Yet the concept of language as a material has also limited knowledge and understanding of avant-garde poetries and language itself. In focusing on the concept of language as a medium, Heuving stresses different poetic operations: how language mediates the historically real conditions of our existence, as Marxists might put it, as well as serves as a transporting means by which poets address diverse realities afresh. Heuving claims that language as a medium has been important for poetries in which intense emotional states lead to transformed social orders, since heightened states of awareness create altered language use. As such these poetries are dependent on a projective practice in which one perception leads to the next, one language phrase to another; and the poet is understood to be the medium of the poem and not just its agent. She traces the

Introduction  xv

discovery and articulation of both poet and language as mediums in the work of Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan, and Nathaniel Mackey. The poet as medium mediates and is mediated by languages he or she would speak as with a new tongue. Refusing the emphasis on formal innovation theorized in her groundbreaking critical study, The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, Elisabeth A. Frost in “Toward Transformation: The Contextual Turn in US Poetry” calls for a new attention to context, in both attending to the positionality of the poet in writing her poetry as well as to the social and political occurrences that poetry presents. While the preceding formally innovative poetry was constructed to intervene within existing social and political situations, Frost claims that continued emphasis on formal innovation risks accomplishing little more than repeating the gestures of its avant-garde predecessors. She delineates the binary opposition that has attended criticism of political poetry—of a poetry of an accessible message and a poetics in which formal innovation through rupture is politically efficacious. Frost suggests that by privileging context over form we can “confound” this binary. She lauds two different contemporary examples in which contextual relations are defining: the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and Mark Nowak’s documentary poetics in Coal Mountain Elementary. In Beauty Is a Verb, each selection in the anthology is preceded by self-reflexive statements by poets and artists regarding relations among their formal choices, processes, and disability. In contrast, Nowak’s Coal Mountain, which deliberately excludes self-reflection, serves to witness disasters in coal mines in China and West Virginia through its meticulous presentations of documented evidence, including the recorded voices of its victims. For Frost these contextual turns enable the need for cultural transformation because of the potential influence of poetry on a reader. She comments, “A transformational critic seeks not to be smart but to be connected. A transformational critic—or poet—asks of a text not whether it’s good or new but why it needs to exist, how much courage its maker required, and what it can do.” Along with Frost, Cynthia Hogue claims that the potential political influence of poetry is based in individual response and responsibility. In “To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion”: Denise Levertov’s Bridge-Poetics of Eye-Witnessing in the Context of her Friendship with Robert Duncan,” she addresses the Duncan and Levertov debate about how poetry might best serve political purposes by showing the complex processes Levertov undertakes to write her political poetry, thereby expressing the falsity of the critical binary that has emerged with respect to Duncan’s “forged” poetry as opposed to Levertov’s “outraged immediacy.” Levertov engaged not only Duncan’s critique of her political poetry but also her own sense of how to give witness to events at

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a distance from herself that included both an exacting attention to these events and her own response to them. As such, Hogue claims that Levertov performed a double act of witness as outlined by the philosopher of witness Kelly Oliver— of the “performative and the constative”—glossed by Hogue as an attention to “both historical facts and psychological truth.” Hogue defines Levertov’s poetics as “a bridge-poetics of eye-witness,” emphasizing her attempts to see events at which she was not present as an act of responsibility at bringing these closer both for herself and for others because of how sight itself has the power “to touch” her readers. Hogue replicates Levertov’s endeavor in upholding the ethical responsibility of this double witness by her own concerted efforts to represent the facts of Levertov’s complex efforts to write her poem “Staying Alive” as well as to reveal her own complicated responses in teaching this poetry. For both Hogue and Frost, teaching poetry and creating poetry are inextricably related, both acts validating the responsiveness of the individual in a social context. In the third section of Inciting Poetics, “Cross-Cultural Imperatives,” poets and critics take up the challenge of focusing on multiple cultures, races, and ethnicities in relationship to each other. They draw attention to difficulties inherent in liberal solutions of diversity and tolerance given the indelibleness and complexity of culture itself, especially within already racialized and racist societies. One of the ways that white privilege has instantiated itself, while seeming to attend to racially and ethnically disempowered others, is through the practice of ethnography. Sarah Dowling, in “Ethnos and Graphos,” shows how poets othered through their racial and ethnic identifications take up the practice of ethnography in order to subvert this white gaze. Gwendolyn Brooks, Garry Thomas Morse, Cathy Park Hong, and the collaborative artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco problematize and satirize “ethnography’s promise to record the world from a perspective that is not the writer’s own,” thereby showing how objectivity “is imputed” by examining its “blank center.” Dowling notes that despite these writers’ efforts to control scrutiny by looking at and utilizing ethnographic methods critically and sometimes playfully on their white subjects, they remain caught in the crosshairs of dominant modes in which “certain subjects so easily become specimens,” while “others slide comfortably into the role of scientific observer, a detached spectator whose self-sufficiency is never in doubt.” Aldon Nielsen’s view of cross-cultural poetics as practiced by white people provides an outraged critique. In “White Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck, and White People,” Nielsen regards the unseeing vantages of white critics and educators as these cross over into blatant racism. He discusses how whites misuse theoretical and cultural concepts brought forward by blacks by

Introduction  xvii

decontextualizing them and thereby negating the fact that “racial context is indeed a part of the metalinguistic environment that constitutes and defines meaning.” Nielsen examines three different situations in which racism persists through unthinking actions by white people. He notes how, within critical appraisals of modernism and postmodernism, African American writers, while contributing to aesthetic innovations defining for these literary and arts movements, are rarely attributed the status of authors and creators. Rather they are considered for how they provide the subject matter for these aesthetics and ultimately serve as its “specimens.” He reviews the public disagreement between the poets Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine, in which Hoagland presumes to become a spokesman for race in America, while relegating the Jamaican-born Rankine to the rank of an outsider. And he discusses the racism of a high school teacher who insists that an African American student speak “blacker” when reading Langston Hughes’s poetry out loud to a classroom of students despite the fact this student’s everyday speech does not resemble how the teacher imagines black talk should sound. While Dowling and Nielsen address how privilege and power leave us with intractable forms of domination that poetry and poetics can address, but with often mixed success or failure, Leonard Schwartz in “Transcendental Tabby” turns to the seemingly unsolvable problem of warring Mideast states and peoples, claiming that poetry has the power to address these. In order to make his case, he develops the concept of a “contingent universal” that, while as changeable as language itself, makes possible a relative reference by which to address cultural differences. Moreover, he insists that the translation of poetry is a basis for recognizing and understanding cultural differences. For Schwartz poetry is best defined as a “flicker at the edge of things,” capable of holding, disclosing, and making strange a Heraclitan stream of constant change that moves outside and within the poem. Most important, poetry has the capacity of breaking down false dichotomies that enable the formation of empire and its warring states. In turning to the specifics of diverse cultures, Schwartz insists on the “imagination” of positionality, not its inevitable blinders, and provides examples of poems that are productive of this imagination: his own “Apple Anyone Sonnets” that combine English words derived from the Arabic with materials from Shakespeare’s sonnets; translations of poetries from “The Levant” with its diversity of cultures and languages, brought together under an appellation that has fallen into disuse; and a recounting of the vision of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou,” which respects the otherness of others while insisting on a relationship between ourselves and others. Although Schwartz’s essay presents the ways that poetry and the understandings and attitudes that it engenders are uniquely capable of intervening in warring relations, he concludes

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his essay with Walter Benjamin’s dark “angel of history” as a vantage from which to consider the poetry of Sumaiya el-Sousy as she in her poem “The City” evocatively describes, and thereby defamiliarizes, the Palestinian “ghetto” of Gaza. The essays in our fourth section, “Digital, Capital, and Institutional Frames,” focus on large-scale inhuman forces that exercise their powers somewhat indiscriminately of the peoples and societies they affect. Writers of these essays hold little truck with individual response or responsibility. Rather, given the dictates of capitalism as well as technological and institutional realities, they locate their poetics as an inevitable or necessary set of acts that must be taken. They respond to totalizing powers through strategic actions that have the power to intervene in these harrowing conditions. As such, they assume posthuman stances and elect iconoclasm and nominalism as the only appropriate responses to overweening conditions. Ron Silliman, in “The Codex Is Broken,” claims that we are at an unprecedented historical moment because of changes in technology having major consequences for form and genre, for distribution and careers—and, therefore, for the political consequences and social meanings of writing. He draws attention to how new media has brought about changes in national boundaries and shifted relationships between states and individuals as well as states and corporations, which have major consequences for literary distributions and careers—and therefore writing scenes and literary forms. As a response to these changes, Silliman calls for stripping one’s art down to essentials so that one can think through conditions that are fundamentally in transition. He questions in this brave new world whether works that complicate genres or mix them will have a happy future since they will be harder to locate in the larger cultural milieu—since by design they are uncategorizable—and therefore to read and to experience. Vanessa Place and Brian Reed turn to conceptual poetry and its context. Indeed, while much play has been given to Adorno’s contention that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, their essays ask in rather different ways whether after the onset of late capitalism poetry that places primary value on individualistic response isn’t barbaric. Both Place and Reed sustain the allure of the avant-garde by insisting that meaning within situations that make meaning difficult, if not impossible, should perform the impossibility of meaning itself. Attention has been put on how the literary turn to conceptualism in recent times is belated, since conceptualism first emerged in the 1960s within visual arts as a political response to the complicity between capitalism and visual art markets. While poetry itself has not found itself in this moneyed situation, except perhaps in the far more pallid crossover between poetry and salaried academic careers, conceptual poetry or writing is responding to the impossibility of meaning given the larger political and economic situation.

Introduction  xix

In “Empire Aesthetics: It’s Not the Point, It’s the Platform—Detroit Model,” Place, nominating herself as “CEO of Vanessa Place Inc., the world’s first transnational poetry corporation,” engages guerilla tactics that simultaneously are complicit with and disruptive of the conditions she deplores. She contends that capitalism today is dependent on “positivist models of power as networks of affiliation and self-defining identities” and quotes from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s definitions from Empire: “Today productivity, wealth and the creation of social surpluses take the form of cooperative interactivity through linguistic, communicational, and affective networks.” She cites Franco Berardi, “The soul itself is put to work.” Place notes the crossover in her own practices between literary and visual art, as she participates in the “frictionless” economy and aesthetics that consumes us. Much occurs, as Facebook and other social media have it, through sham demands for “individuation” and “personal responsibility.” Place draws parallels between the pop star Britney Spears and regaled poet Jorie Graham, with respect to Spear’s refrain, “You better work bitch,” as a shared ethos, with the elided comma before bitch revealing a great deal about work and employment presently. Place’s own art projects have included taking on Graham’s identity on Facebook, enabled to do so through Graham’s obligingly titled book Place, and creating a chapbook called $20 that consisted of twenty $1 bills, which she sold for $50. Place urges that if the author is dead so, in her practice, is the text. In today’s world you can “like” or “like” this text. She queries the stubborn intractableness of poetry itself in a “society of the surveilled” and asks, “Is it possible to make poetry that is punctum-free.” She concludes her piece with her re-interpellated version of “You better work bitch”—perhaps an unwanted but also sought-after punctum for her piece that places emotionally laden attention on her own labors and disaffiliations. In “Now That’s a Poem: Vito Acconci, Conceptual Writing, and Poetic Nominalism,” Reed takes on two large-scale frames, namely the digital revolution and institutional (or powerhouse) validations of art and poetry. He pursues this larger set of issues by recounting the production and reception of Vito Acconci, a poet who, in the 1960s, elected commitments resonant with cutting-edge practices of our own time—appropriating existing text and performing it. Acconci, however, then rejects the label of poet and poetry for what he regards as the wider opportunities provided by the fields of visual arts and performance. Reed notes that in our own time precisely the reverse nomination is taking place as conceptual artists with very similar practices to Acconci now elect to be called poets. Reed draws two conclusions: First, that in claiming itself to be poetry, conceptual poetry as it is understood and practiced will forever change the larger realm of poetry writing and poetics; and second, we may now be turning

xx  Heuving and Williams

away from poetry as language art to poetry as information art. He notes, “An Art of information . . . may be more invested in exploring institutional histories and large aggregates of data than the modernist and postmodernist art of language, but it does not, apparently, entail an obligatory, wholesale forgetting of the materiality of the word. . . . This sensuous dimension can become an occasion for artistry, albeit of a distinctly contemporary kind.” We conclude with Tyrone Williams’s jeremiad on “The United Divisions of Poetry,” which returns us to the scene of the many writing poetry today and the uneven waters of poetry evaluation, which Williams characterizes as “not only the public and private educational apparatus in general, but also the supporting bloc of media, libraries, bookstores (online and ground), mythologies and historiographies that constitute, transmit, and reinforce the very concept of poetry.” Williams draws attention to the contradictions between the flaunting of a “cultural hegemony that offers only certain poets, and certain kinds of poetry, as worthy of consideration and valorization,” and the need for evaluation, as evidenced by acrimonious debates that occur through book reviews about poetry, often read by only a few. Williams suggests that the vigor of the debates that have risen through this lowly form of cultural production, the book review, is actually a healthy sign of the vigor of American poetry, the sense that there is something at stake, something worth fighting over. Williams comments on the perennial return of the antiaesthetic as poets take to the streets, especially given any number of poetry scenes today that eschew attention that is not directly in service of actual politics—made all the more necessary since poetry is often converted within academic institutions into aesthetic practices dispossessed of historical understanding or social consequence. He queries the difference that digital media, including desktop publishing, makes for poetry, asking, “What might the Black Arts Movement have been had it had the technological resources available to us today.” Williams concludes that the uncertainty that surrounds poetry is in fact “the very premise of any ethical practice—aesthetic or political, cultural or social” and it is also “the very ground of responsibility, not only to our histories, but to our present positions, when and wherever those obtain.” The relationship between what poetry means and how it is constituted is more complex than ever before. While these essays offer little concerted agreement or singular direction, they provide much to go on, elaborating the terms and conditions, through and by which poetry exists today. They excite and incite poetics.

Introduction  xxi

Notes 1. Brian Reed draws this contrast in his overview of “Western Poetics” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 1059. 2. The first issue of Hambone was published in 1974, while Mackey was a graduate student at Stanford. In 1982, post graduate school, he began regular publication of this literary journal. 3. Many other important volumes could be mentioned here, including books that bridge twentieth-century poetics as they engage the twenty-first: Barrett Watten, The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003); and Michael Davidson, On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011). 4. Cole Swensen and David St. John, American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009). See especially Cole, “Introduction,” xvii–xxvi. 5. For a compendium of poetic essays produced during this time that shows the breadth and depth of the questions asked, see Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian, A Guide to Poetics Journal: Writing in the Expanded Field, 1982–1998 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013). 6. We are drawing on Watten’s discussion of negation and negativity in The Constructivist Moment and his engagement with Slavoj Zizek’s concept of “dark matter,” 245–53. 7. Jonathan P. Eburne and Rita Felski, New Literary History 41, no. 4 (2012): vii.

part 1

What Is Poetics?


An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return Lyn Hejinian


n his seminal 1968 book The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Renato Poggioli remarks, “We must not forget that poetics is one thing and art is another.” 1 Despite my admiration for and indebtedness to Poggioli’s theory of the avantgarde (which I do not think Peter Bürger’s later book of the same title entirely overturned), I must begin this brief essay by taking exception to that remark. My claim is that poetics is indeed an art, albeit one that never exists without the other art or arts to which it pertains. Poetics entails an artistic and also meta-artistic practice; its methodology is additive, and it is thereby expansive in effect. The practice of poetics, when it succeeds in paying due attention to a work of art, cannot help but find more in it. Poetics is preeminently the art of making connections—whether by discovering them where they already exist in and around the materials with which an artist is working or by inserting them into a scene or event amenable to creative connectivity. It is always participatory, functioning as a dynamic attribute of an artwork, which it simultaneously inhabits and exceeds. It may be a metadiscourse, but it is an artist’s own. One of the earliest surviving postclassical Western examples of poetics exists in the form of what is generally known as the Younger or Prose Edda, composed at least in part by Snorri Sturluson around 1220 in Iceland. It is also frequently called Snorri’s Edda, not least because, in the field of old English and early medieval studies, numerous scholars regard Snorri with astonishment and something akin to reverence. “There are Snorri groupies” all over the world, as one scholar put it to me—and, apparently, many of them want to attribute absolutely every great old Norse poem of the period in question to Snorri. 3

4  Hejinian

There are various interpretations as to what the word Edda means, but one credible, though by no means everywhere-accepted, possibility is that our term “poetics” adequately translates the word into English. In any case, poetics is what the Prose Edda undertakes, and in the course of doing so it can offer ideas as to what poetics is, as an activity, an act of poeisis, if not as a genre. Snorri’s Prose Edda was written after, and partly in defense of, first, a body of early poetry, almost certainly oral in origin but written down at some point, and, then, of subsequent poetry that couldn’t have existed without it. Both the Prose Edda and the early body of work were forgotten for a time and then rediscovered, Snorri’s first and then the poetry it addresses. We know the later Prose Edda via a manuscript that began to circulate in the mid-fifteenth century in Iceland; the manuscript containing many of the poetic passages quoted in the Prose Edda was discovered considerably later, in the seventeenth century, again in Iceland—far from the turbulence of the warring Viking world whose mythology and cultural lore it recounts. Since it contains verses that are quoted in the Prose or Younger Edda, this manuscript of poetry was retroactively named after it, and is known as the Older or Poetic Edda. The Prose Edda as we have it now is a fourfold composition, comprising a substantive and significant “Prologue” or “Foreword,” and three lengthy “books” whose old Norse titles are translated variously as (1) “The Deluding (or Fooling or Tricking or Beguiling) of Gylfi”; (2) “Poetic Diction” or “The Language of Poetry” or “Brage’s Talk” or “The Poesy of Skalds”; and (3) “Account of Meters” or “List of Verse Forms.” These four sections represent four distinct creative manifestations of the art of poetics, each representing a specific explanatory, descriptive, and justificatory (or even defensive) strategy. Each taken separately, and all four taken together, can provide us with something like a parable of the practice that poetics presents per se. I am not a scholar, nor even an aficionado, of old Norse, or Icelandic, or even early English literature, and I will not—not least because I dare not—prolong my discussion of the Prose Edda very much. But my friend and UC Berkeley colleague Emily V. Thornbury, who is a scholar in the field, has read my account and promises me that it isn’t wrong. So here it is. The “Prologue” to the Younger Edda takes on the task of situating early Nordic mythology, which is the subject matter of early Norse poetry, within the reach of historical credibility. It depicts the gods not as, in fact, gods but as veterans of the Trojan war who have returned home and brought with them weaponry, artifacts, and technical knowledge, all of which were deemed superior to those of northern Europe at the time. Revered as exemplary for their heroism

An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return 5

and their knowledge, these returning warriors, as Snorri explains, entered cultural memory first as heroes, around whom a cult formed, and then, eventually, as gods. The “Prologue” thus validates the continuing relevance of the stories, which present not distant but indigenous reality. And it adds poignancy and power to the stories in which these exemplary progenitors figure in the process. It explicates, in other words, what’s at stake in the poetry—namely its capacity to body forth the world of which and in which and for which and from which its audience is living. It is a poetics whose defense of poetry insists that poetry shows what, and how, and why things matter—how they subsist as eternally, but also actually and historically, meaningful. Snorri’s “Prologue” also offers a key literary and cultural insight—namely, that skaldic (or, in our context, one might say lyric) poetry, which is what Snorri is ultimately interested in, derives fundamentally from the older eddic (or, again in our terms, epic historical) poetry. As Emily Thornbury puts it, “The kennings of skaldic poetry depended on the world described in eddic poetry.” 2 That comment will make more sense in a minute. The next part of the Prose Edda (“The Tricking of Gylfi”) is a retelling of a variety of stories from old Norse mythology, organized—as The Arabian Nights, as well as key parts of the Homeric epics, are—within a backstory. It is a tale of the telling of tales, each of which is, in its specific way, instructive. In this section of the Edda, poetics explores the ways in which poetry serves a pedagogical function. In so doing, it gives its readers the world from which poetry originates. We cannot have poetry without a world—the given, reality—of which it tells, and it is a task of poetics to return that world to the readers of the poetry. “The Language of Poetry” section, which comes next in the manuscript, is structured as a dialogue between two gods, during which they talk about the craft of poetry. They share their knowledge of the origins of, and logics governing, the use of key lexical and metonymic devices whose presence virtually defines the poetic language of old Norse verse, producing the kennings that make it so remarkable. In one passage, for example, they consider the many ways in which gold may be referred to as “Aegar’s fire; the needles of Glaser; Sif ’s hair; Fulla’s head-gear; Freyja’s tears; the chatter, talk, or word of the giants; Draupner’s drop; Draupner’s rain or shower; Freyja’s eyes; the otter-ransom, or stroke-ransom, of the asas [gods]; the seed of Fyrisvold; Holge’s how-roof; the fire of all waters and of the hand; or the stone, rock, or gleam of the hand.” 3 Having compiled this list, the conversing gods proceed to recount the different incidents or situations through which gold acquired each of its names. I should add that what I’m giving in English translation—“the needles of Glaser,” “Sif ’s hair,” and so forth—are, in the language of the original, intensely alliterative

6  Hejinian

phrases. Lee M. Hollander’s translation of the Poetic Edda is able to render many of these kennings into English—as for example, in this line from “The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer”: “in the hall had ye / the grey heath-dweller”— wherein “grey heath-dweller” is a kenning for “wolf.” This renaming opens up the sonic, as well as conceptual, intensity of the full phrase (“in the hall had ye / the grey heath-dweller”) and carries out an unnerving transmutation of the hearth that warms “the hall” into the very thing it isn’t, a heath.4 In the “Language of Poetry” section of Snorri’s Edda, the strategic task of poetics is to discover and explore a language culture and the worldview that is both represented in and constructed by it. It calls attention to the link between, on the one hand, materials of poetry—lexical, but also syntactic—and, on the other, materials of perception and analysis of the world around us. The final section of the Prose Edda, titled “Account of Meters” or “List of Verse Forms,” is a tour de force, in which every conceivable metrical variation of skaldic poetry is enacted. It includes every one of the verse forms used in early old Norse poetry plus some new ones of Snorri’s own invention. Skaldic poetry was both rule-bound and supple—composed with intricate constraints on syllable count, and on degrees and patterns of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, to produce complex and condensed currents of multilayered sense. I have not found any translations of this part of the Prose Edda, presumably because translation would be impossible. This is poetics at its most immediate and intense, an ineradicable force everywhere identical to the poetry it constitutes. The Prose Edda represents, then, a complex foray into poetics, which it stages as a set of four feasible relationships to an extant and then expanded body of poetry. The four parts provide, respectively, historical contextualization (and a consequent intensification of relevance and meaning); cultural exegesis (and identification of poetry with its world); logical explanation (and a resulting recognition of commonality and shared consciousness); and full aesthetic realization (the production of poetry itself). Each of the relationships gets established at a different degree of distance from the poetry, until, in the last section, it achieves the zero degree of identity. It can be properly said that the Prose Edda is about the Poetic Edda, but it is so in such a way that, by the end of its sequence of exegetical moves, it has become a poetic work in its own right and has replicated the development of skaldic poetry out of that poetry’s own resources. And now we come to what seems to me to be a key item of information. The four elements of Snorri’s Edda were written in the reverse order from that in which they are now presented. Snorri first wrote the startlingly various compendium of skaldic verses; when they were received with only minimal comprehension and appreciation, he wrote his analysis of poetic language; when this didn’t

An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return 7

help matters sufficiently, he wrote out the collection of folk tales and myths to which those verses refer; and when even that wasn’t enough, he historicized and localized those myths to establish incontrovertibly their contemporary relevance to readers of his skaldic verses. But, to the extent that poetics, as distinct from criticism, is an art of an artist, it often and significantly unfolds from the interior of a work—and often may be that work’s substantive core, its intention as well as its engine. Certainly, one of the most important features of Snorri’s Edda in its final form is that it moves progressively from without to within the very cultural and literary practices it addresses, emerging ultimately as itself a site of poetry-making, poeisis. But in its history, it develops conversely. Poem and theory emerge in a relation of reciprocal presupposition, and the process in which this happens can be equally termed “poetics” and “praxis.” ———— Aesthetic self-reflexivity is, of course, very much a defining feature of modernist avant-garde art and, though with very different affective and cultural purport, of postmodern and contemporary art, too. Poetics, as the medium for this self-­ reflexivity and for the concomitant intensification of aesthetic awareness and even of aesthetic reality, has inevitably, and often assertively, been inserted into and integrated with artistic practice. For decades, in what has been termed “the turn to language”—which must include the foregrounding of the defining materials and materiality of each given art form with its peculiar medium (the paint of painting, the moving bodies of dance, the sprockets and montage and flickering light of film, the timbres as well as tones in music, etc.)—art has called attention to its making and hence its madeness. In this context, which is to some degree the context of contextuality itself, art opens itself to its own history—and to its own philosophy, whether aesthetic, cultural, metaphysical, or political. Indeed, poetics names the active, predominantly philosophical dynamic in the working of an artist. But that dynamic cannot be relegated solely to theory or principles. An aesthetic philosophy is never far from a philosophy of life, and the practices of art are rarely, if ever, definitively separate from the practices of life or the practicalities of reality. Poetics is always in an unbounded, excessive relationship to its art, which may in part account for the difficulty one has in defining the term. It is more than theory and more than practice; it is what identifies an artist’s largest aspirations and discovers the ways those become manifest—the ways they are activated and provided with the manner in which the artist applies him- or herself to realizing

8  Hejinian

those aspirations and, when lucky, something more besides—expanding, perhaps by virtue of their inherent contradictions, between affect and structure, materiality and sensibility, aspiration and patent failure, ostensibility and abstraction, assertion and silence. In The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Poggioli remarks that “the modern artist operates in a sphere other than that of praxis and, at any rate, works not at the center but at the margin of the society of which he is a part.” 5 Much has been said about the marginal status of poetry, and I lost interest in that issue long ago. I simply cannot equate the importance of anything whatsoever, and certainly not significant poetry, with the magnitude of its appeal or the number of its followers or the so-called centrality (or ideological stability) of its stylistics or ideas. Nor, of course, do I consider the “margin” an unhappy or unproductive site to inhabit. That said, however, it is certainly the case that many contemporary artists, including most of the writers whose works I myself consider currently important, feel pressed these days to respond to factors affecting political and environmental conditions of the current moment, and to do so efficaciously and therefore, to a large extent, without ambiguity. It is not only to its own history but to historical forces more broadly that contemporary art finds itself susceptible—though whether willingly or not, and whether the result is experienced as suffering from vulnerability or seizing (and critiquing) the day depends very much on the work of art and the artist at the moment she or he is making it. Not all cultural periods invite “poetics,” at least not as a major component of aesthetic activity or entailment. But for writers of my “scene” (writers whose works since the early 1970s have been generated in ongoing circuits of social as well as aesthetic inquiry), the notion of “the poet” underwent a radical (and for some of us radicalizing) paradigm shift—and perhaps it would be equally accurate to say that we put it through one. The writing of poems could no longer be regarded as the sole or sufficient work of the poet. Poetic labor had to address its social prospects along with its aesthetic possibilities. The social and the aesthetic have become more than merely contiguous, and their interrelationship a matter of more than mere contingencies. At the time, the horizon that was the future hovered, seemingly without history. Poetics became a medium in which to counter that erasure, in part so that the horizon could be reached. Poetic work became a radically expanded cultural undertaking, a project conscious of context. Poetry’s entailments pertained to more than the intensified personal life that is so central to conventional lyric practice.6 To attempt to track all the reasons for the extensively and energetically expanded notion of writing into contexts of its generation and reception are multiple, and discerning specific causes for the turn to poetics that evolved in

An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return 9

the course of doing so would be a generally inelegant exercise. Certainly I will not attempt to construct analogies between Iceland from 1179 to 1241 (the years from Snorri’s birth to his death) and the United States (or, say, the Bay Area and New York City) since 1968, though the opening sentence of Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur’s “Introduction” to his published translation of The Prose Edda (1916) could tempt one to do so: “The life of Snorri Sturluson fell in a great but contradictory age, when all that was noble and spiritual in men seemed to promise social regeneration, and when bloody crimes and sordid ambitions gave this hope the lie.” 7 I do not know anywhere near enough about Sturluson or his era to dare to describe the Prose Edda as a utopian project. But I can, with provisos, characterize the turn to poetics in my own time as that, at least initially, though that utopianism emerged more out of political and aesthetic negativity than out of optimism.8 Certainly optimism, manifest as an eager anticipation of entering upon possibilities and ardent determination to contribute to them, can generate energy. But so, too, can frustration, a sense of danger, or, from a different perspective, camaraderie, though “camaraderie” is a term more appropriate to the dynamics of political protest than to those of a literary scene. It speaks to a relationship that can fulfill certain social, emotional, and sometimes physical, requirements—assurances of mutuality that can, and often must, trump “philosophical differences” of the many kinds that litter the fields of the political. The polis is never empty of rubble. And poetry is never empty of particulars. Poetic particularity, it should be said, is not limited to the devices figured into a given work or body of work. Particularity emerges, too, out of its contextual configurations, even when those are, to a large extent, shared with other works of other writers or artists. The turn to poetics, as it occurred in the immediate wake of the almost-global events of 1968 and the appearance, in English translation, of (principally French, but also Russian) literary theory and metaphilosophy, sought to establish practices of particularity and the principles of difference that guarantee it—or that try to; it is impossible to imagine that anything can be said to be “guaranteed.” The poetry that ensued sought to develop syntaxes of connection, and to exercise them as formal aesthetic principles within poems and as a means of threading their materials into the tissue of history, or of the real world as constituted by all that has happened and is happening. The works of poetics that evolved in correspondence with that poetry argued analytically and inventively for a culturally productive semantics. One could say, but only with limited accuracy, that history called on poets to produce poetics. More to the point, they called on each other to do so. Bob Perelman has on several occasions said that he began his “Talks” series in San Francisco in the mid-1970s because he wasn’t sure he was understanding his

10  Hejinian

friends’ work. Many of the “talks” prompted by his invitation were themselves “works”—kennings, I’m tempted to say, phrases vastly expanded into hour-long experiences. Those experiences were aesthetic, but also they were intensely social—porous, open to interruption, and—to use a term that was in play for a while—fractal. Totalization was as impossible as erasure. It is not only a span of many centuries that separates contemporary poetics from Snorri’s Edda. Snorri undertook to renovate and expand a tradition; it was innovative, certainly, but not iconoclastic. Contemporary poetics, insofar as it has been intrinsically and vitally connected to avant-garde aesthetic and philosophical practices, is, on the other hand, very often iconoclastic in impulse, though generally in response to sociopolitical conditions. One speaks of motivations of a poem—the aesthetic (and sometimes nonaesthetic) principles and concerns that prompt its author to utilize the specific structural, lexical, tropic, and so forth devices that shape and propel the writing’s matter and materials. One could also speak about the motivations of a poetics. The motivations for poetics, as it emerged within the creative and critical milieu of Language writing, but also, for example, within that of the Black Mountain school, the Black Arts movement, or the San Francisco Renaissance, were preeminently social. The generation of poetics occurred as part of the dynamic relationships between groups of people deeply engaged with poetry in a milieu of ideas. Poetics allowed writers to develop (and invent) ideas for each other, laying them out for the others to see—and, often, to challenge. It is certain that Snorri Sturluson’s social world was vastly different from ours. But in his case, too, it seems, his motivations were expansively social. It is from a social world that the poet makes poetics, adding devices and dimensions, ideas and ideals, to the cultural span, extending the given world’s referential matrices and horizons of meaningfulness. Notes 1. Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968), 164. 2. E-mail from Emily V. Thornbury to the author, July 10, 2012. 3. The Younger Edda, trans., introduction, and annotations by Rasmus B. Anderson (Chicago: S. C. Griggs, 1880), 187. 4. The Poetic Edda, trans. Lee M. Hollander (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), 191. 5. Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, 168. 6. And, in fact, one of the early works in the field of poetics to come out of the Bay Area Language writing scene is addressed to the ideology subtending lyric self-expression (and self-aggrandizement). Titled “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry,” it was

An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return 11 originally published in Social Text (1988) and can be readily found on the web at www. among the “collaborative essays” under “resources.” Extensive discussion of the history, purport, and continuing work of Language writing, particularly as it developed in the San Francisco Bay Area, can be found in the ten volumes of The Grand Piano, collaboratively written by Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten (Detroit: Mode A, 2006–2010). 7. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation), ix. 8. Again, I would refer readers to The Grand Piano for more on this; for an extended study of productive trajectories of negativity, see Barrett Watten, The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).


Statement on Poetics Pleasures, Polemics, Practices, Stakes Rachel Blau DuPlessis Conjunctures of intensity play out as dispersion. So meant to make a poetics. The way people do. But it never included everything I wanted.1


Poetics is the “philosophy” or “theory” of poetry and other arts, found (conveniently) in material labeled poetics but also found tucked in essays, letters, interviews, manifestoes; in poems; in comments on other people’s work, in book reviews, in letters, in casual e-mails. It is clear that elements of poetics pulse into words whenever writers explain or outline their practices, feel polemical, justify their stakes, or propose the pleasures of poetry. One of the more interesting sites in which to stalk poetics is actually a double site—the meta-commentary in poetics that one sometimes finds in a poem, for a poem can occasionally produce an account of its own and the poet’s premises. In thinking of poetics, one oscillates between theory and practice. And “practice” may mean any individual item, any given poem, and/or it may mean poetry, the collective rubric, with all its historical and institutional conventions. “Practice” may also be evoked here by the word “praxis,” when the poetry and poetics feels socially charged, a literary act in a social space. A poetics (or even an a-poetics) cannot fully precede the text, nor can it only follow. The ongoing, active, even painful dialogue between the poem and a writer’s poetics—that is, between a writer’s thinking about the poem (as a grand category, or as a specific work) and her relation to the notions of “poetry”—are part of the constitution of writing.2 The combustion of writing. In the words of Robert Duncan: “Poetics is the contemplation of the meaning of form.” 3 You readers might like to query whether the essay in your hands is “about” or “on” poetics in general, or whether it is “of ” or “inside” a specific poetics. 13

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Whenever one talks about poetics, it’s quite easy to slide from “poetics as a general topic” to “my poetics” and then to “poetry,” as if these were all synonyms. Such a self-justifying move may get concealed by the noble goal of defining poetics in general. So I’m going at least to begin by not talking about my poetics. Definitions

Poetics discusses the assumptions behind the making of poems, and of other things not the topic here—visual art, symphonies, buildings. Incidentally, by poem I mean works of “writing” in the senses that William Carlos Williams used that term from the 1920s forward; “writing” points to the work of a poem in and as an expanded field. The main questions for analyzing poetics are all attempts to frame and prioritize the ideologies or values that animate aesthetic practices. I use the term “ideology” in Raymond Williams’s sense (not in Theodor Adorno’s); for R. Williams this is just a word for operable/active assumptions. It does not have the negative connotations of mystification. Sometimes these assumptions in poetics are tacit, implicit or unspoken. Hence they must be teased out by addressing some basic questions. To answer them, a reader must engage with primary documents, weighing how to answer these questions for each individual poet and perhaps also for groups of poets and other artists. • What is “The Poet” or “A Poet”? What are the roles of the poet, the vocation of the poet, the tasks of the poet, the subjectivity of the poet? (For example—a technician of the sacred? a technician of the secular?) How and why is poetic authority assumed and deployed, or avoided? Does the poet resist or embrace the idea of “the poet” and the authority of the poet? • What are the purposes or functions of poetry (or of any specific poetic text)? What is this poet’s answer to the question “why write poetry”? • What claims are made for the generation of the poem and for the meanings invested in the act of writing—for example, are there less or more useful genres, less or more useful language choices or themes, less or more useful prior poets or literary periods, less or more useful procedures? • Is there any identification of the poetic faculty or poetic sociality—what inside (or outside) people apparently causes them to write or to make up poetry? • What meanings or values or assumptions for this poet are invested in the term “poetry” or in the related term “the poetic”?

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• How does the poetics help to construct the poet’s own reception, audience, adherents? • What is the poet’s implicit or explicit reading list, or attitudes to fellow writers, either contemporary or in the past? • What are the life contexts and social contexts from which this poetics has emerged? What biographical issues are at stake? What affiliative networks, poetic groups and formations, friendships, aversions, love relations, mutual influence and abrading, consensus and dissensus are palpable—how do these function for the poetics? • Is there evidence that social locations and their intersections (race/ ethnicity, gender, national origin, social class, embodiments, religious culture, sexual preference or choices, age) have influenced this writer’s assumptions in poetics—and how? • What is wrong with “poetry” at any given moment in people’s critiques? What is right with it—what potential does it have? • What is the “outside” of poetry; what is beyond it according to this poet, if (according to the poet) anything is. Poetry is the enactment of an attitude in poetics (the theory, even when it is unarticulated and implicit), which is coupled with constant choice and making—intense, demanding, driven activities (acts within a practice). This is an utterly dialectical relationship, and poesis as a practice (the making of things) is in a feedback loop with its explicit or implicit theorizing, modifying the assumptions, testing them, even critiquing them. The desire to be making is startling and forceful, erotic, really: poetics frames this but is often flooded out by it. Some General Definitions

Here are some of my background assumptions about poetry and the poem. Poetry is a language practice conducted in line segments (or in other intentional segments) to make an artifact culturally/conventionally able to be seen as a poem (that is, a work in the realm of poetry).4 Such a work is hypersaturated with its own evocativeness. Poetry can be defined as saturated segmentivities in social-sensuous language. Poetry is that form of writing in segments (lines, mainly, sometimes sentences, but also fragments visually strewn on a page) that allows and encourages the largest possible place for excess of meanings and implications to enter any given word or phrase. Poetry is hypersaturated because of the multiplicity of filiated, but not completely speakable, impacts. Something is extra, a remainder,

16  Blau DuPlessis

an escapee, a concatenation of mixage.5 In poetry, language does not simply produce meaning—it is jiggered to prolong meaning. For instance, language may offer the pleasures of pitch and tune, of formal precision and its syntactic realization. The prolongation may be felt as an opening out of time, of space, or of both. This reverberating impact cannot be totally pinned down; indeed, such impacts may differ from reader to reader, person to person. The conservation of matter does not apply to language. That’s what’s uncanny about being asked to describe a process of revisions, or what’s odd about the self-scrutiny that occurs in evaluating the impact of any given phoneme or word choice or image or allusion or syntactic turn or timing or shift of argument—it would take all day to explain.6 This shows that a detail— any detail—is far more than a little thing sitting on the surface of a text. Poetry concerns the depth and breadth of the detail. How fast can the mind work? Too fast to follow and too multiple to track. That’s how fast and simultaneous the choices in writing are. Really fast. And really social as well as personal. Even if you try to take notes or write memoranda on why you are choosing, you can’t cover even half of what you do when you make something. It’s uncalibratable. This can be summarized in the writer’s deliberately slo-mo joke—“I spent all morning putting a semi-colon in and all afternoon taking it out.” Or, more seriously, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, in proposition 4.002 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where, briefly considering the social aspects of language, he says, “The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated.” 7 In another translation: “The tacit conventions on which the understanding of everyday language depends are enormously complicated” 8 Yeah—precisely. To say the least. And even more so for poetry. “The silent adjustments to understand language usages in and as poetry are enormously complicated.” When, in one of Jacques Derrida’s essays on Paul Celan, he posits the hypothesis “all responsible witnessing involves a poetic experience of language” [my emphasis], I take the word “poetic” not to mean something vague and airy, but rather to mean an in-depth understanding of the complexity and ethical resonance of a detail—a word, an inflection, a historical usage. To illustrate this, Derrida immediately embarks on an enriched philological and cultural reading of a specific poem. He analyzes the nuances of translations (from German into French and into English), proposes humility before the poem’s extreme ellipses, tries to understand Celan’s “kennings” in their etymological, allusion-laden and social depths, plumbs the historical reaches of a custom (swearing an oath, bearing witness), and finally engages with the multiple facets and meanings of a very simple word in Celan’s stanza: the word “für” or “for.” 9 By the elegance

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and precision of the analysis, Derrida proposes that every poem embodies acts of existential and ethical witnessing that occur through language itself, in the depth of poetic details. I might be tempted to say “every poem worth reading”— but I won’t. Why? Because I agree that EVERY poem does this—it’s just that the witnessing can be lazy, banal, boring, derisory—the language will tell you, the poetic detail will tell you this. If “the silent adjustments to understand language usages in and as poetry are enormously complicated,” this fact will also implicate ambiguities: The contradictory meaning of intransigent words. The complex meaning of complementary words. The opposing meaning of basic words. The dialectical meaning of simple words. The antithetical meaning of primal words. Couldn’t remember the right phrase for a while there. It is from the English translation (and the title phrase) of Sigmund Freud’s 1910 essay called, in German, “Uber den Gegensinn der Urworte.” Here are some examples: oversight, meaning to supervise and to neglect. Cleave, meaning to separate/split and to join. Sanction, meaning to permit and to punish. Between, meaning both joining and separation. Taboo, meaning sacred and cursed. Brian Teare recently pointed out to “take care of ’ can mean both caretaking and killing.10 There are also such words as impregnable (to impregnate and to have a strong fortress) and discursive (to meander in talking, or to speak logically and directly). While they are used variously, and are not necessarily noted, poets and poetry depend on these and similar kinds of doubleness and layerings in language. One might call these kinds of words semantic images, or even syntactic images—the littlest words (nothing prettied up, no “imagery” as commonly understood) that set up contradictory reverberations contained and represented in a poem. AS that poem. This is what Christopher Ricks showed with his several-page discussion of the word “between” in T. S. Eliot.11 Sometimes this is a question of double meanings, sometimes a question of tone, of specific usage, of local, linguistic nuance. Uncannily, poetry makes many words (not just antitheticals) act in the ways that the specific category of antithetical words acts on the reader. In every case the tiniest detail of language counts. Counts for a lot, even for everything. A poem or literary work frames and incites this “antithetical” quality, but it is only a very special version of the kinds of things we all experience every day. Poetry draws on and explores this social-sensuous generativity. Poetry works “the materiality of language.” 12 And a poetics honors and discusses that necessity—given all the layers of information, thought, bibliographic meanings (textual, visual, material, and historical), intertextuality, sonic pulse, cultural allusions, and social understandings that are prolonged by the work, evoked in the making of the work, and embedded in the practices of language.

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Poetics—sometimes like literary criticism—makes overt the bolus of language. A poetics may sound sublime and all-encompassing simply because it tries to acknowledge the importance of the inexplicable and unassimilable in language itself. The detail—the intransigent meaningful little—is also what ethics faces. The little specks of matter who should not be blown up—us. Poetry as the history of dust. This is why, in the popular imagination, one can find sentimental poems taken as the whole of poetry and the evocation of consoling sentiment taken as the goal of poetry. Thus observations like “not a sparrow falls” (without the knowledge of God, and so forth) are, baseline, what people mean by poetry and what they want from it. Sentimental appreciations of beauty, hope, and caring in “verse” are a coarsened version of the importance of the intransigent detail— including the generativity of language detail—to the poetic text. I mean my argument here to parallel an observation that I made a few years ago. When the general public is asked “What is poetry?”, people often say, “It rhymes.” This is not silly or simplistic or reductive, though it is incomplete: the statement points (if innocently) to the central importance of the line segment to poetry. Rhyme is simply one specific tactic for indicating line segment. Rhyme also creates a web of relationships that link and cross the lines and thereby bind the poem to itself. Similarly, to indicate that poetry is about the meaningfulness of the tiny in the “eyes of God” (or something like this) is an innocent/pious way of pointing to the detail.13 I might be paraphrasing Louis Zukofsky, so I will do so more explicitly. Intricate bottomless tangibility—these words are all from Zukofsky (they are also from the dictionary)—but I am not citing him. I’ve put these words together in my own phrase.14 That’s a description, in poetics, of the poem.15 Even if a poem is very short and very small, it has the potential to show intricate bottomless tangibility, a vast extent on the surface—this is because of the depth and breadth of the detail and its prolongation in sound, rhythm, and the pulse of the poem. Is this my “Test of Poetics”? A poetics is not really (or solely) a cookbook, a list of dos and don’ts, though it might (charmingly and importantly, as Ezra Pound’s does) offer these kinds of suggestions as a polemical intervention. A poetics is fundamentally a document in a discussion touching on ethics: intersubjectivity and connectedness and the relations of “everything. . . .” Any word is an intersubjective confrontation. Without the social, there is no language. A poetics will propose the particular (peculiar?) ethics of feeling the cultural potential of language, of presenting the actual play of language as thought, of acknowledging the generative making of language to evoke emotional and visceral impacts in oneself and in others. To evoke the sense of the veridical—truth

Statement on Poetics 19

is being told—not said (baldly) but told—exfoliating in and through the resources of language. Poetics acknowledges the phenomenological experience at the social-sensuous moment when word does evoke—even mean—world. A poetics points to/analyzes and is invested in the intricate bottomless tangibility of a poem, and it attempts to describe the praxis, the pleasures, the polemics, and the stakes involved. Poetics and Philosophy: The Challenge of the Detail

Poetics is the unstable rope bridge swaying between poems and philosophy. Poets are happy to say that poetry is a mode of thinking. Indeed, George Oppen said this often. As (all caps) in “THE POEM IS AN INSTRUMENT OF THOUGHT, OR IT IS A NUISANCE.” 16 Philosophers say this about their field, too, and they have more cultural claim to it. Philosophy has long been a synonym for—a symptom of—thought. Plato helped this claim considerably by the reasoned (and willfully motivated) exclusion of poetry from his ideal city. I am hardly the first person to be shocked into curiosity by this utopian exclusion in the utopian The Republic, nor the best informed to try to resist it. But I propose that the claim is willful because the reasoning that leads to it is sophistic, an amusing irony after all. In The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited, Susan Levin carefully examines the smaller exclusions on which this largest one is based.17 One is the thought that pleasure and the production of pleasure in listeners (one thing that poets do) do not necessarily lead to the good or the beneficial (although they might).18 Hard to quarrel with this, at least in a quick survey of poets and poetry. One might uncouple these—why should poetry, more than anything else, lead to the good? Why is that instigation the responsibility solely of poets? Another of the grounds for exclusion is the Platonic claim that poets know nothing specific in the way of subject matter and that nothing specific is offered in understanding or cognition by a poem. This proposition is far more dubious, given that poets are some of the key custodians of myths, stories, fables, cultural and social history, sometimes theology, even occasionally—see Virgil and Hesiod—crafts (such as farming, beekeeping, and raising animals)—and they may well offer these materials up when they write. They may also critique and remix such stories or findings, making new or variant stories for understanding or cognition. The beat goes on. This is exactly and precisely cultural work. For the purposes of argument, let us accept Levin’s account of Plato’s inside-out version of Keats’s negative capability and his “chameleon” sensibility—the ability to be in doubt, to waver ideologically and not settle on a fixed alternative, the ability to

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enter into a myriad of sensibilities and “subject positions.” That is—poets don’t teach “one” thing; they evoke perspectives, points of view, emotional investments as a variety of characters or subjectivities deploy them. But the third exclusion in Levin’s account of Plato is what is called meeting the “goodness requirement”; here Plato insists that the craft, skill, knowledge, and techne of philosophers constitute the only path to goodness—that is, to the ideal or the Form called “the Good itself.” 19 There is some logical flaw in awarding one’s own group both the definition of this benefit and the judgment of who has it. (Us! We do!) It’s called “holding all the cards,” in nonphilosophic thinking. Two other discussions of this point may inflect it. While they are differently sympathetic to this tension between poetry and philosophy, both understand it as a debate within the same field—loosely, ethics or ethical aesthetics. Martha Nussbaum, with an ennobling desire to examine apparent contradictions, proposes, quite justly, that this is a debate between two contenders for the education of people to a moral sense. In her words: “However much Plato and the [Greek dramatists and] poets disagreed, they agreed that the aim of their work was to provide illumination concerning how one should live. Of course they were at odds concerning what the ethical truth was, and also concerning the nature of understanding.” 20 But they do share versions of a single genre of question to which they offer “competing answers.” 21 Arthur Danto, taking an edgier position, notes that the exclusion of poetry (and related arts) from the highest cultural and moral claims actually helps to structure, to frame, to fence off the discipline of philosophy at the long moment of its founding. He calls this the “philosophical disenfranchisement of art” with at least two key moves: the first “to ephemeralize art by treating it as fit only for pleasure” (we just saw this narrowing of the terms), and the second to say that art is only a coarsened version of the thinking that would be better served and better defined if it simply acknowledged itself as philosophy.22 A good deal is at stake in Plato’s earnest and controlling claims: “Philosophy differs most fundamentally from other technai [crafts, skills, specific knowledge] with respect to its subject matter because it alone has the Form of the Good as part of its domain.” 23 Not only this, but the knowledge is totalizing (one doesn’t know only part of the Form of the Good; curiously, and even counterintuitively, it comes as one package) and such knowledge further allows a philosopher to understand the interconnections of Forms (ideal things), that is, to have “full knowledge of their interrelations.” 24 One might counterargue that the condensation of interrelations in particular poems are as good a way to visualize the interrelations of Ideal Forms (even accepting that these exist as such).

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A poem becomes a holographic-mini of total interrelations—but I am sure there are flaws with this self-serving argument. And even more strikingly, philosophers can “promote goodness in the spatiotemporal realm” [in the world as we know it] because they “have direct cognitive access to the paramount object of understanding, namely, the Good itself.” 25 Platonic satori, apparently. Insert emoticon “wink.” For it does not take much experience of the real world to see various gaps (fissures, cleavages, contradictions) between theoretical or spiritual knowledge of the Good and praxis of the Good. None of these outcomes (sense of interrelations, ability to achieve a practice of the Good) follows necessarily from the knowledge of Forms themselves, even assuming this was or is possible. Interrelations necessarily involve connections, priorities, slippages, judgments perhaps even contrasts. In short, understanding interrelationships involves contingency. The contingent is the last thing one wants in any idealism—the positions are mutually exclusive. Thus (to return to the level of poetry and practice), “poets will be prohibited from exploiting the resources of language to promote undesirable attitudes and emotional responses or based on the wrong conception of phusis [the physical world].” 26 “Prohibited” (Levin’s word) certainly does not have a positive ring to it, even assuming a writer could successfully predict how every reader might respond to her rhetorical choices. No verbal ambiguities, no words with etymologies that have larger pools of meaning than are used in one phrase, no contradictory meanings of simple words, no words with connotations and historical usages in texts, nothing with a double meaning, no irony (saying one thing on the surface and undercutting it underneath), no plots using evil as a contrast to good, no magical events not locatable in the “real” world, no character not a role model? Is this what is meant? Poetry for civic unity—praise songs, hymns, and no narrative or dramatic tension? But even Dante constructs some serious narrative tension and slippage, though his moral purpose in the Commedia is always clear. Yet even such poetry—and there are examples of it in the world at large—is a rhetoric, is an interpretive selection of the real, and is, in fact, even a censorship of what one knows about the real—that words have ambiguity. That tone is a social coding subject to interpretation. That powerful words do not necessarily mean one thing. That any text, even a hymn, emerges in a specific historical nexus and condenses the tensions and needs in that moment. That people are mixed and do not always act in “role model” fashion. That bad outcomes emerge from good goals; that unintended consequences rule; that good enough outcomes may (even if rarely) come from the worst conditions. That, as Nussbaum points out, irrational desire and the perverse probably cannot be rooted out of

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humans and therefore cannot be excluded from an ideal society, even a society (as Plato postulates it—with some quite interesting ideas about gender) made up of resocialized humans, raised up from infancy differently from the nuclear or extended family.27 In short, that real life in all its truths, and real language in all its nuances are fundamentally mixed. Given this problem of the downgrading and disparaging of art by a system wanting to offer an ideally stable society (or a conceptual system imaginatively/ aesthetically depicting such a society), one needs a defense of the usefulness of literature precisely to contribute to social good. This Nussbaum has also offered, with eloquent defenses of the role of literary and artistic work to overcome “refusals to imagine one another with empathy and compassion,” accomplished by a “mission of imagination, inclusion, sympathy and voice,” such as one finds (for example) in the work of Whitman.28 That is, literature’s sense of the contingencies and specificities of the human precisely leads to rational understanding and can infuse “justice” in a legal sense (her concern in this particular argument). But in a way, this noble argument plays into Plato’s hands. We might also need a defense of literature as something that saturates us in our human-ness, contributing to—maybe examining, maybe encouraging, maybe defusing—social bad. Or as contributing to social “uselessness.” Or layering down uncalibratable understandings that cannot be reduced to good/bad. Like pleasure. Or—and this is key—examining the nature of language: the poetic IS this sense of language—“punctuation is epistemology” (as George Steiner remarked); “words . . . press against the unspoken.” 29 Syntax is time. Language is the only rope up from the abyss of thought, because it is what allowed us to descend there in the first place. Or, again to echo George Steiner, who turns the defensiveness of poetry on its head, writing a brilliant brief for the deep interrelation of poetry and philosophy: “I am trying to clarify the extent to which all philosophy is style. No philosophic proposition outside formal logic is separable from its semantic means and context. Nor is it totally translatable”—indeed all “abstract and speculative thought” must be “‘bodied forth’” in language.30 Robin Blaser is always eloquent about the cost of such platonic absolutisms, or positions taken as absolute: “The cost of these Totalities—of Christianism, of Marxisms, of Capitalism—are on the public record.—forgiving themselves again and again for the terror of this century. [ . . . ] I have chosen a poetic practice of entangling discourses, including the running about of my lyric voice.” 31 Even phusis is impermanent, in motion. It is hard to treat this rationally because even thinking about this (much less living inside it) may lead to pain and loss. Metamorphosis (for better or worse) is a norm. Death is an end in

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sight. It is a difficult balancing act between the super-rational and the hyper-­ irrational on this topic (particularly if the suddenly irrupting volcano emerges in your front yard—your rationality and your mental clarity about permanent metamorphosis then may be buried under a mound of ash). The tertium quid is a very hard position to hold. Yet it is the only position (that was absolute, now, wasn’t it?), even if it needs to be struggled and restruggled for and even given that such a position remains difficult to achieve and difficult to sustain—because it too is always shifting. One might here argue that contingency, slippage, ironic or paradoxical gaps, and all sorts of tricky, ambiguous understandings are precisely what poetry is good at manifesting because of the oddity of language itself. And thus, far from being necessarily excluded, poetry and literary uses of language and plot are a useful, knowledge-bearing and pedagogic aspect of life in any place—in an ­idealized/ideal city, a utopia, or just in our place. I am hardly a philosopher in offering this rough and ready pragmatic critique. And I have hardly accounted for everything to be found in Plato. But I will simply echo Maurice Blanchot’s point when he says, “Philosophy, which puts everything into question, is tripped up by poetry, which is the question that eludes it.” 32 Why—beyond the riff on Plato, above—could poetry be the question that eludes philosophy? Judging from the overstatements and suggestive rhetorical generalizations of a lot of grand theory and the propositional clarity (or at least goal) of a lot of philosophy, the role of poetry as thinking when confronting philosophy is to acknowledge the undergeneralized detail, the social-sensuousness of language. The detail changes everything, because it speaks of the contingent, the intransigent, the odd, the potentially unaccounted, uncounted, unaccountable. “Dissonance/ [ . . . ]/ leads to discovery” said William Carlos Williams in Paterson IV, ii—extrapolating (accurately) from scientific to artistic experiment.33 For verification of his point, in all the psychological and intellectual dramas of extreme discomfort and urges to conformity before the breakthrough is made, see Thomas Kuhn’s great work in the poetics of thought, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Per Theodor Adorno, “Just as the greatest works of music may not be completely reduced to their structure but shoot out beyond it with a few superfluous notes or measures, so it is with the [word] ‘gar,’ a Goethean ‘residue of the absurd’ in which language escapes the subjective intention that occasioned the use of the word.” 34 Note again how analysis of the impact of poetry rests on the detail. For the detail is the situated, the historical, the fact now and not at some other time, tonalities of the current, sedimented and incipient. It’s the

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detail—the depth and breadth of the detail—which is and is in language, intricate bottomless tangibility. The singular anomaly is what trips up the systematizing and exciting and generalizing claims of philosophy. A poem is an antitotalizing text, in a totalizing situation filled with totalizing temptations—among these of poetics itself. Poetry—with its image-etymologies, historical uses, connotations, conventions—is the question that “eludes” philosophy possibly because of that initiating gesture of Plato—somehow to exclude rhetoric, personae and masking, propositional lushness, sociocultural adjustments, and discursive ambiguity. Yet philosophy is a rhetoric, after all; it is an artifact; it has style as well as substance. Style qualifies and reveals substance. “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” As Louis Armand justly points out, “[Poetry] itself constitutes a condition, an illicit possibility of the ‘philosophical’ and of the ‘political’ (Plato’s exclusion more than implies it).” 35 Poetics reveals via the poetic text that grand theory and philosophy cannot ever be fully adequate as thought. This realization has sometimes provoked a counterscreed by poets against abstraction, generalization, informed overview, or analysis—this variously by Pound and Charles Olson in the recent years of poetics. But I don’t think that analytic thinking is taboo in poetry—just that it must be informed by intricate bottomless tangibility—a lively sense of the social-sensuousness of language and of thinking as praxis inside the poem as practice. Why is such a sense of language “bottomless”? There is a “multiplicity that comes from betweenness.” (In that phrase, I am citing Paul Jaussen in an e-mail discussion of Drafts, with thanks.) This feeling about the depth and intricacy of language is theoretically very suggestive, because this sense of the “bottomlessness” of interesting art has something powerful to do with time, and us as humans inside time. I mean—we don’t have all the time in the world and, as humans, we have many responses to this absolute fact. In making interesting art products, we structure an inside and between-time that comes from our maneuvering the lucid complexity inside the language, inside forms that move from being potential to being realized. This multiplicity of engagements between things gives a sense of bottomlessness. Any poetics needs to be able to attend to this complexity, to comprehend in it the embodied suggestiveness of word, syntax, rhythm, the micro-scale of the poem, the force of the detail and the detail in motion, up and down to its “bottomlessness.” Bottomlessness, as I have just suggested, occurs in a relationship between time and making (that is, poesis in the enlarged sense). This is what poetry brings into or against the systematizing of philosophy—it constructs another branch of thought. It says—here is the little, here is the detail, here is the quirk and turn:

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here it is. The deictic IT and the IT in and of language. Here is the limit of the systematic, of the overgeneralization, of theory as such: it lies in the specificities of making thought presented evocatively through-and-in-language. Poetry therefore presents a challenge to philosophic thinking because the two modes deploy different senses of (theories of) language to achieve their individual propositional insistences. This is why poetics is in a contradictory, mediating, bridging, swinging relationship between these two uses of language and thought, and why I said that poetics is the unstable rope bridge between poems and philosophy. Because—of course this is comic—both poetry and philosophy are prone to claim universality, an ahistorical “for all timeness.” In this, both overstate the case. Poetics may well be a kind of philosophy that does not discount language, that has some command of language, that has a grasp of representation (which means rhythms, sensuousness, tone and opens to desire, urgency, mystery, complexity). Some philosophers are good at this—they understand that poetry is not to be excluded from the realm of the good, or the good enough (to modify antiplatonically). Among them are Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, Theodor Adorno, Giorgio Agamben. Here is Robin Blaser speaking about adequacy and what is “enough” in his great essay “The Fire.” To hold an image within the line by sound and heat is to have caught something that passed out there. The psychological accuracy of this perception is not enough; the sculptural imagistic quality is not enough; and the very aesthetic quality of taking the one image, or even three images as a whole, the beauty of the idea that you can write a single poem, is a lie. The processional aspect of the world has to be caught in the language also. (3–4) Blaser is clear: Nothing—no description and no analysis of this—is ever quite “enough” except the changing intricacy of language, changing as the world changes, creating this sense of a multidimensional “between.” It engages in linguistic, semantic, intellectual, musical, and emotional plethora (even, sometimes, overload). The multiplicity of effects, of captures can never be fully catalogued. But they might be hinted at. Deixis

Sometime between 1957 and 1959, Charles Olson sent Robert Creeley a tiny poem, elaborately titled “One Word as the Complete Poem.” 36 A one-word

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poem is always an intentional challenge to the norms of poems in general, since to call a word equal to a poem invests a good deal in that word, and manifests an elaborate resistance to the many, many words of many other poems, particularly of long poems. In Olson’s case—that would mean to his own poems, too. That one word, the one single word that comprises the whole poem is “dictic” (Collected Poems 425). The poem says: pointing, the pointing function, and illustrates itself simply by indicating itself as word. It is a thus an indexical poem. The Oxford English Dictionary, under the alternate spelling “deictic,” defines this word as “directly pointing out, demonstrative.” Making this word the whole thing—the whole idea, the whole poem—is shocking and amusing. It implies that a complete poem, by extension a necessary poem, and even a suggestive poetics can be found in this one minimalist summation. The contrast between the six-word title (with four capitals) and the lowercase one-word poem is also very pleasant, not to say gleeful in the editorial presentation. The minimal thereby becomes challengingly maximal. Titling this word as Olson does suggests that pointing to pointing is a fully adequate statement, a claim interesting enough to ponder as the content and message of a “complete” poem. By a glissade, the poem also presents the idea that a complete poem— any complete poem—is an extension or elaboration of the deictic function. (This poem may have served as one of Olson’s homages to Pound, a politically damaged and rejected figure, but a poetic inspiration.) Such a singular work points into its own pointedness. Its very limits offer it up as a mantra or epigram that claims the poetic functions are forms of knowledge. Poetic method, through selection and indication (plus combination), offers a knowledge as pertinent as argument or logic. Indeed, we thereby return to the origins of the word deictic—as a form of immediate argument in contrast to the more sophistical “elenctic.” Beyond this (this “poem,” this “one word”) you need nothing, it seems to say. Beyond what? Deixis comes (into Greek) from the Indo-European root “deik-” to show and pronounce solemnly. To teach. To make a sign or mark. To betoken, to say, tell, or proclaim—and the word “digit,” the indicator, finger (or toe). From the Latin version of this root, “dict,” there is not only “dicere” (to say, tell), but words like “interdict,” “dictate,” “contradict,” “edict,” “predict,” “addict,” “verdict.” And “veridical.” Expressing the truth. All the functions of poetry (except to please) are contained here, in the etymological aura of the word. Deixis in linguistics is a particular category of words: the shifters, precisely those that change in reference given the position in time and space of the speaker. They are words that can only be fully understood as particular statements about particular contexts; they point into this situation, Now. When we

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say “we” what we is meant? What is this today and that tomorrow? What is that when here is this? Where is there? When is recently? Deictic words acknowledge that my here is not your here; my tomorrow is not your tomorrow. They demand situated knowledge and contextual readings. They acknowledge differences between and among people, situations, temporalities, places. The words take on specified meaning spoken from and to a located situation. Deictic terms can only be understood by social understandings, by understanding intimate, particularized, historical and local sites, by intersubjectivity and even empathy. This is very striking to me. Why can the term “deictic” mean both the shifter and the pointer? Why can it be both situational and static, contextual and absolute? It must be—because only then will the full sociality of the deictic be acknowledged. Without the strange doubleness of deixis, one is left with an inadequate theory of language. Pointing needs to be accompanied by a sense of sociality, of the transaction, while speaking and understanding require abilities to decode and appreciate contexts and redundancies. Saying “just point” or “lo” underplays the way language represents. The differences in fanciness between the uncommon word “veridical” and the plainspoken words “truth telling” indicate what I mean. Which is everything— about the social discourses of language, about tone, status, usage, choices, dictions, syntax, address, position of audience, all learned and changing social conventions about address. Everything about language’s flexibility and its transactional functions seems ignored in the claim made for poetry in the whole poem: “dictic,” if this means simply to point, to show. There is perhaps a utopian message of immediate apprehension, epiphanic imprinting, a flash transferred via that pointing, but this is a utopia without sociality. This is the Poundean claim: I will point to what I see, and you will be treated to an immediate insight without passing via the turgid impediment of what Pound scoffed at as abstract thought. Pound’s much-touted rejection of abstraction allowed a system-building move without the problematic of system-building; it also helps the purveyor deny he is building any system whatsoever. The Poundean claim is followed by the less pleasant Poundean paradox: Pound thought that in that flash of insight, you would be treated to the truth, that is, to Pound’s immediate insight, the only true immediate insight. The test of the deictic for Pound was that you were to see what he saw. If you saw anything else, you didn’t really get it. Is this problematic imprint of an overtly unmediated, but covertly controlled worldview the only plausible reading of the deictic pointing? It is not clear that Olson means only a “Poundean” meaning, but such a meaning is necessarily evoked, in part by what we know of Maximus, a work that certainly plays with and into Poundean modes of instant apprehension,

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even if Olson’s poem does not completely buy into an aesthetic ethos like that of the Cantos: “simply show” (and the truth will appear). This desire for the flash is also expressed by Walter Benjamin: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” 37 To collect and set forth, Benjamin claimed, would allow a myriad of flashes to be generated over the whole texture of the collaged project. With cinematic imagination, Benjamin proposed a montage of images offering instantaneous meaning (458), but he also modified this desire for instant epiphany by a focus on the syntax between “intervals of reflection” or “distances lying between” (456). (Of course, it is hard to extrapolate a finished argument given the intense, spotty, antipositivist mode of presentation that Benjamin uses.) This famous passage, one that I continue to find infinitely suggestive, insists on the creation of structure by interactive space between the images (very much the theory of poetic seriality, as in Oppen, and cinematic montage, as in Eisenstein). The key word is “interactive,” and this undercarriage of the other meaning of the deictic is everywhere in evidence in this passage, apparently rejected, but palpable in image and rhetoric. Benjamin rejects the malign academic method of (in his view) stealing and appropriating the points of others— collecting and restating already existing theories and interpretive explanations. He refuses this option, and with it, a whole social apparatus of indebtedness and quarrels, positions, debates, sources and camps, career-making institutional practices from the university or journalism. He says that what he wants to present is (metaphorically) the socially despised debris, the cast-off stuff, the detritus. Of this material, a new analytic constellation will form. This last is the “Poundean” or “intuitive-flash” place, and the field poetics of pieces of juxtaposed plethora touching each other. But it is supported and surrounded by many acknowledgments of the sociality of knowledge. Thus, this famous passage in Benjamin brings in, covertly what it rejects overtly. By invoking interactional or transactional meanings resting on the social only to reject them, by isolating the pointing function of the deictic, nonetheless Benjamin embraces the social in claiming to find the debris and refuse of greatest value in his act of juxtaposing them. Contextually, in the unrolling serial sequence of Benjamin’s juxtapositions, this famous passage about the deictic showing forth comes next to a rejection of the base-superstructure relation of economy to culture. So all of his formal ideas here are involved with a desire to show how details are saturated in larger schemes (but never into totalities or grand history).

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Poetic experiences of language must account for the deep function of poetic rhythm and sound and structures. Deep and inexplicable. These—the poem, its sounds—somewhat tune you—the work timbres you, it vibrates you (“tune” in quotation marks—bringing to the same tone is only part of the panoply of forces). The poem is almost limbic in its appeal. “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course.” It creates pleasure in you. A poetics must be tested not only by its intellectual exactness but by its visceral engagement with poetry’s pleasures. A poetics should excite the same passion as a poem. Cuban artist Carmen Herrera—ninety-four years old in 2009, and finally getting art world recognition (according to the New York Times—which should know).38 She speaks about her practice: “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure.” Pleasure is a necessity. The desire to be making, thinking about making, bringing a new kind of object or newly made object into the world, the pleasure in doing, the pleasure in satisfying oneself with its quirks and peculiarities—this is vital and erotic. The pleasures and powers of choice and even self-satisfaction undergird the nature of making. Pulse of the object, the sound and look of the object, the startling ways it might be structured, its oddity, the different ways it offers for thinking about itself as form, as statement—how rich and resonant it is—and what to do now that it exists—all these give a personal delight to the maker, a sense of joy. Joy, pleasure, a sense of necessity are the tests of the poem, and a test of the adequacy of a poetics is to acknowledge this. This pleasure opens a door for the writer—clears a cluttered path, allows movement. Pleasure fundamentally animates poems. Reverie is what certain interesting poems create. A reader feels the thinking as feeling. Robert Duncan said something parallel in his 1979 lecture on Charles Olson (published in the Lost and Found series): [poetry] makes us feel presences because typically it follows a rhythm. . . . [giving] a feeling of a measure and a measure that’s different from speech and creates what Aristotle found in Parmenides—a sort of hypnagogic state—so he disqualified it as philosophy.39 Bizarrely, you are only half reading any work as such. You are in an echo chamber of you and it. Your memory, its findings, your world, its elaborations, your blockages, its penetrations, and it, its words, its statements, its being, your various desires for it or resistances to it compel an intersubjective relationship

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between the poem and the you. You don’t “create” the work (that is only one half of the intersubjective bond). It helps to create you, as you are confronted with making something of it. The dialogue can be intense, generative, and metamorphic. (The dialogue can also be bland and a dud.) The extreme strangeness of reading is constituted by your private relationship with a public document made in words that we mainly can parse or define. The extreme strangeness of reading is that your body is involved in response, even if we have been taught to repress or downplay that fact. Polemic

Poetics sometimes conducts fierce struggles over the meaning and practices of “the poetic” and its assumptions. These struggles have no beginning, and presumably no ending. The ancient Greek lyric poet Praxilla was disparaged by a later grammarian for her putting the sun and moon in a poem along with the lowly cucumber, for in his canon, things high and low must be kept apart; the cosmic and the domestic emphatically do not mix. In Virgil’s Eclogue VII, the singing contest between Thyrsis and Corydon turns on Thyrsis’s commitment to a poetics of the real, the ugly, the actual, the way things are, while Corydon writes highminded praise poems, pretty work, decorating his age. I cannot imagine you will have trouble surmising who won the prize. What is a poem, what is a poet, what is an oeuvre, what is “the poetic”—and why bother—all these are questions in the realm of poetics and all might lead to polemic. The stakes may be prizes and money—but they may also be some kind of fame and historical acknowledgment. That is serious; it is a high stakes gamble. Contestation and debate—polemics—fundamentally animate a poetics. To illustrate this, here’s a short course in Western mythology: Hermes is the god of poets. Apollo is the god of poetry. What’s up with that?40 One incident is key. Among his many useful inventions, Hermes invented the lyre. He also began a tricky career of stealing (beginning precisely with the cattle belonging to Apollo), accomplishing both almost simultaneously while he was a newborn infant, still in the cradle. Apollo forgave Hermes by appropriating the lyre and learning himself to play it. Allegory: The poet has priority—poetry is always trying to catch up. And Poetics is the road that poetry runs on, while it’s running after the poet.

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Another allegory? fundamentally, poetry steals from the poet (stealing the lyre). Or was that the poet steals from poetry (stealing the cattle/the goods). Is this a statement in poetics—these relationships are a rumpus of inventions, jealousy and stolen goods? Is this a statement that worldly goods with their techne are the equivalent in value with the evanescent techne of the sung poem? Or is it an explanation for the existence of poetics—to soften the blow of the disreputable word “steal”? In a striking essay on Robert Duncan, Stephen Collis applies the theoretical vocabulary of anarchist economic democracy—the question of the commons, of enclosure, of ownership and private property, of the management of abundance and sourcing—to the institutions of poetic practice. “Duncan, in [Collis’s] reading, is revealed to be a critic of intellectual property and a defender of the poetic commons.” 41 This “commons” takes in his “open source” poetics, his intense programmatic derivativeness, his ability to draw upon intellectually conflicting sources, his “‘citational economy,’” and his own self-image therefore as a “thief ” who gives back to the commons. So poets are then partially thieves who redistribute and partially squatters on the poetic commons. Just sayin’. Praxis—Doing

Here are activities of art making: making marks, choosing, judging, observing, comparing, reading, considering, asking how much is too much and how much is not enough. Consciously or semiconsciously choosing or barely choosing— falling into a style, a genre, a mode, a task. Feeling and refeeling emotion and focusing a variety of emotions. Staging the emotions, feeling how they might be felt. Ditto with language—feeling it, staging it, evaluating it, hearing and seeing it. Also, while some art activities are going on, you might feel envy, malice, spite, greed, despair, bitterness, minute calibrations (how much he got; how little I got). You might feel glee, joy, satisfaction, frustration, only intermittent sparks of pleasure. But essentially you are visualizing, projecting, making, choosing, and carrying out choices. Also “reading” the choices, throwing away, ripping up, rejoining in desperation . . . Any poetics needs to be able to attend to, to comprehend in it the embodied suggestiveness of word, syntax, rhythm, the microscale of the poem. Its practices. Including the griefs implicit in these practices and their essential (bountiful) stubbornness. The pleasures of sound, the pleasures of space and scale and ambition, the

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pleasures of exact—exacting—scrupulous word choices from lively lexicons of possibilities, the intensities of syntax as rhythm and intellection, and all of these pleasures are, together, the Writing as Praxis. An intervention with social force into the field called poetry. The pleasures of risk, the pleasures of weirdness, the pleasures of unease, where one calls on one’s memories and feelings about the world of others to gain the courage to go out onto one’s own particular limb, or verge . . . And there is always some part of writing that I have forgotten to talk about . . . This constant pulse of pleasure and judgment, making and reading, stating and figuring out what is known, unknown, and to be known, checking in, changing, rechanging, making every word, every turn generative, making every moment lively and eye-opening—this is the rich act—the practice—of writing. This is an account of the activity as a poem is written: figuring out when to kick in evaluative revision and when to let something be. Figuring out when to sketch in broad swathes of material, and when to go mini. When to do sculptural swathes and rigging and when to evaluate trajectory—the relationships among the parts. When to go little, go word by word, mark by mark, making miniscule alterations each to be evaluated, all of which could suddenly generate an enormous sense of statement. Both elements are, of course, necessary. And always, one brings one’s partial and active knowledge of the past, specific histories of poetry, of other arts, while at the same time refusing any idea of progress in the sense of art—that later than means better than. And there is always some part of writing that I have forgotten to talk about . . . It is a stream of energy in words and syntax pocked with the challenges of judging, which is also a form of energy. (And therefore, sometimes, forms of blockage, energy gone “bad.”) That act of judging comes in some measure from a poetics explicit or implicit, and some from the “intuition” (or veering or “clinamen”) that almost precedes codification in or as anything.42 Writing is choice, judgment, and risk pointed to pleasure and/or to polemic and position taking. This pleasure is sensuous, the polemic and the positions are culturally adept, and made of doing-thinking (analyzing or reconfiguring), and the praxis involves these elements as an artifact. One is inside the evaluative, pleasurable praxis of the “silent adjustments” to which Wittgenstein alludes. The praxis involves all sorts of social, lexical, historical, political knowing (perhaps identifiable in the terms that Bakhtin and Medvedev propose)—“social evaluations” about why this word or that one are chosen, how this word or that might be understood; the same with tone, inflection, syntactic types, idioms, diction.43 This is what it feels like to write poetry—one stands in a gigantic stream or storm of language and is channeling it, or flooded away by it (down the stream,

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torn apart [perhaps by those daimonic women we hear so much about], only your head still singing). Or to say it more quietly, there are “silent adjustments” within and about language that are “enormously complicated”—and those adjustments may issue in artifacts. Among these, works of poetry. “In other words,” to cite Roman Jakobson, “poeticalness is not a supplementation of discourse with rhetorical adornment but a total re-evaluation of the discourse and of all its components whatsoever.” 44 Poetics helps to organize and to codify the stakes of that reevaluation. Poetics explores and acknowledges that poetry is a mode of thinking, of theorizing that revels in the multiple implications and thrusts of words in combination, that saturates in the matted thickness of rhythm, denotation, social evocations, sounds, constructions of segments (like line and stanza)—it wants all this as multiple—intricate bottomless tangibility. And—thus, poetry has or offers knowledge. Its own kind—social-sensuous knowledge. Poetic thinking—which occurs via language richness, density, saturations—rides thru forms of rhythm to achieve purposeful temporality. Poetry as epistemology, as knowledge, as thinking, as consciousness are some terms for this. Before and after romanticism, this turned into—thinking about my feeling as consciousness. But it can be more. Poetry is a kind of speculative thought that counts on language, its ambiguities and resonance, its social specificity and evocativeness, does not discount it in favor of propositions. It grasps and holds onto the multiple nuances of its modes of representation.45 And that’s what poetics discusses. Stakes

And what are the stakes of these practices? The stakes have something to do with ethics: of seeing, saying, and understanding justly. To speak of the rhetoric of sincerity for a moment, if everything is suggested, but nothing is stated, the words lack responsibility. If everything is stated and nothing is suggested, the words also lack responsibility. I return once more to George Oppen’s existential dérive, “The image is encountered, not found.” 46 Poetry is a “test of truth” Oppen said—meaning situated truth, true to what you saw and felt at a particular juncture. This may be philosophically problematic (it is not a Platonic definition of “Truth”) but it may also be ethically inspiring. The whole passage is a serious credo: It is possible to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception, of the

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act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.47 It is an act of veridical perception and of thought in which one is implicated. One wants a truth, but not the law. Thus, even the truth of what you see is contingent. But this does not qualify (or disqualify) the ethical will at the heart of writing. This will is absolute but not absolutist. The best way I can sum this up is from a poem, “Draft 14: Conjunctions,” that discusses the remnant and the shard: 1. To write with the formidable consciousness of loss thus: repeatedly emphasized under cross-examination: skin, sky, fog, silence, and humility. To vow to write so that if, in some aftermath, a few shard words, chancily rendered, the potchkered scrap of the human speck washed up out of the torn debris, to write so that if your shard emerged from the shard pile people would cry, and cry aloud “look! look!”48 ———— Poesis is the blessing. The blessing is poesis. Notes 1. Rachel DuPlessis, “Draft 107: Meant to Say,” Surge: Drafts 96–114 (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2013), 88. 2. The historical, conventional institution of poetry itself and the institutions of literary production, dissemination, and reception may also incur comment in a poetics. One hopes so. Further, one might believe a writer of poetics who had never made a poem—or maybe not. Or that fact could simply mean that the theory (the poetics) is the practice (the poem). That the plan for the work is the work defines an active postulate of conceptual art and conceptual poetries. 3. Robert Duncan essay from 1947 to 1948, Collected Essays and Other Prose, ed. James Maynard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 30. 4. Codicil on performance, spoken word, rap, slam poetries—segmentivity is highly

Statement on Poetics 35 marked in these modes. Even if a work is “unwritten” (totally improv), it will show rhythmic segmentivity, often interlinked with gesture and rhyme. 5. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, The Violence of Language (London: Routledge, 1990), 47. 6. Cf. the dialogue between R. and “Pen” in “Draft 95: Erg,” Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (London: Salt Publishing, 2010), 166–72. 7. In the original: “Die stillschweigenden Abmachungen zum Verständnis der Umgangsspreche sind enorm kompliziert.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-­ Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922), 62. 8. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. David F. Pears and Brian McGuinness (New York: Routledge, 2001). Also available at psychology/wittgenstein/tractatus.shtml. 9. Jacques Derrida, “‘A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text’: Poetics and Politics of Witnessing,” in Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today, ed. Michael P. Clark, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 181, 199. 10. Brian Teare, “We map our way with only the bearing / of surrounding life.” Accessed July 13, 2013, 11. Christopher Ricks, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 208–15. 12. Robin Blaser, The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, ed. Miriam Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 97. 13. Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 198–99. 14. People interested in consulting the exact sentence that Zukofsky wrote are directed to the second paragraph, fourth sentence in the following citation: Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays, with additional prose, ed. Mark Scroggins (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 19. 15. Zukofsky’s strange manual A Test of Poetry and much of his literary criticism assembles, but does not codify, the plethora of diverse and semi-calibratable effects of the poetic medium. He joins this sense of richness with a concern with poetic form as a way of presenting, representing social materials, even of proposing social ideas and debates; he was trying for a tertium quid poetics—as I see this—between Thyrsis and Corydon (the realist and the sweetener). 16. George Oppen, “Selections from George Oppen’s ‘Daybook,’” The Iowa Review 18, no. 3 (Fall 1988): 17. 17. She proposes in a recuperative mode that Plato’s “exclusion” of poets from the ideal city is not so total as has been claimed. However, the place reserved for poets is quite reduced; the place for philosophers is as the judge of all of this. One goal of her chapter is to track the demotion of poetry from the overarching pedagogic arena to being a pedagogic tool solely for children’s (elementary) education—so long as it depicts heroes and good actions. To philosophy alone is given the right to claim effectiveness in the education of adults. Susan B. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited: Plato and the Greek Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 164–67. 18. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel, 132. 19. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel, 135, 142. 20. See also “Both the ethical philosophers and the tragic poets, then understood

36  Blau DuPlessis themselves to be engaging in forms of educational and communicative activity, in what the Greeks called psuchagogia (leading of the soul).” Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 16. 21. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, 23. 22. See also: “it is possible to view the entirety of platonic metaphysics as a cosmic labyrinth designed to keep art, like a minotaur, in logical quarantine” (165–66). Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), xiv–xx. 23. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel, 140. 24. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel, 140. 25. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel, 142. 26. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel, 162. 27. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, 121, 119. 28. Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon, 1995), xvii, 119. 29. Steiner’s own diagnosis—Plato’s “notorious quarrel with poets and poetry” (54)—is the symptom of Plato’s own psychological temptations precisely to dramaturgy and poetry, a daimon that he repudiates in favor of the goods of a doxa. George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought—from Hellenism to Celan (New York: New Directions, 2011), 37, 54–60. 30. Steiner, 52–53; interior citation from Shakespeare. 31. Blaser, The Fire, 97. 32. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 63. 33. Williams Carlos Williams, Paterson, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1992 [1958]), 175. 34. Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 53. 35. This is also particularly germane: “As [Alain] Badiou observes: ‘Words take on, in philosophy, a sense both imperious and troubling. They are at the same time made axiomatic by the effort to systematise and poeticised by the rhetorical energy of doing so [10].’ Armand is citing Badiou, Theoretical Writings. Louis Armand, “Poetry and the Unpoetic.” Available at 36. Charles Olson, The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, Excluding the Maximus Poems, ed. George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 660. I am assuming that Olson assigned this poem’s title. This section was published previously in 2002 in http:// 37. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 460. 38. This in the New York Times, circa December 19, 2009. 39. Robert Duncan, “Charles Olson Memorial Lecture,” Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative 2, no. 4 (Spring 2011): 19. 40. “Myth” is, of course, always an agglomerate. There are, for any mythic figure, genealogies (of both their parents and children), their symbols, their functions, their lovers and other escapades, their epithets, their cults and places. All this has to be encountered really to “interpret” a figure, beyond my jeu d’esprit here. 41. Stephen Collis, “Duncan Étude III: Intellectual Property or the Poetic Commons,” in

Statement on Poetics 37 (Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan, ed. James Maynard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 42. 42. This is a muted citation from Rosmarie Waldrop, picking up two important words. “While concepts, ideas, constraints, and procedures are an important part of my writing, I rarely make all the decisions beforehand, but allow clinamen/intuition at any point of the process, and exclusively during the sage of revising. The execution is exactly what matters to me; not the idea, but what I do with it.” Yet—[she goes on]—given the narrow definition of poetry “as emotion and perception only, the term ‘conceptual poetry’ begins to look very attractive, at least as a corrective.” Rosmarie Waldrop, “Some Ambivalence about the Term ‘Conceptual Poetry,’” in “I’ll Drown My Book”: Conceptual Writing by Women, ed. Laynie Browne, Vanessa Place, and Caroline Bergvall (Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2012), 323. 43. M. M. Bakhtin and P. N. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, trans. Albert J. Wehrle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 119–28. Citation on 119. 44. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics (1958),” in Modern Criticism and Theory, A Reader, ed. David Lodge (London: Longman, 1988), 55. 45. What part of poetry can indicate thinking? That would be any move in any position—the line break, the tone, the genre, the word choice (etc.)—anything analyzable that offers doubled, tripled, multiple messages. Form and structure make experience happen; in experience one is brought, as if by argument, to thinking and to responsiveness. 46. George Oppen, “The Mind’s Own Place (1962),” The Selected Poems of George Oppen, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 2003), 173–82, 173. 47. Oppen, “The Mind’s Own Place (1962),” 175. 48. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 92.


From Late Arcade Nathaniel Mackey


ate Arcade is volume 5 of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, a work of critical fiction poised on the horizon where performance and poetics, expression and reflection, theory and practice, and related antinomies meet. Volumes 1 through 4 are Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus’s Run, Atet A.D., and Bass Cathedral. The serial novel (or series of novels) takes the form of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band in Los Angeles known as the Molimo m’Atet, a band beset by text-bearing comic-strip balloons that occasionally emerge from their instruments and from their debut recording Orphic Bend. This excerpt follows a gig at the Come Back Inn in Venice, at which the band distributed actual rubber balloons to audience members prior to its encore number, instructing them to play the balloons, in whatever way they chose, as accompaniment to the music. ________________


Dear Angel of Dust, It turns out a writer for one of the local alternative papers, Santa Monica Weekly (Aunt Nancy calls it Santa Monica Weakly), was at the Come Back Inn the other night. He wrote it up and his review (I guess you’d call it) is in the issue that just came out. The balloons, not surprisingly, get most of the attention, beginning with the headline: “The Molimo M’Atet Makes Peace With Its Balloons.” He expands on this right away, opening with an assertion that he’s always sensed “a certain keeping of the balloons at bay” in our public statements as well 39

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as in comments acquaintances of his who happen to know us recount having heard us make in private conversation. Why this is, he goes on, he’s never quite been able to figure out, though his guess would be, he ventures to say, that what he would term “a confusion of artistry with austerity” wouldn’t let us come to terms with “the bid for attention the balloons can’t but be augurs of.” He allows that there might well be something noble about this, something valiant about our “holding out against easy acclaim, commercialism, sensationalism and the like.” He devotes a good deal of space to describing the décor at the Come Back Inn Sunday night, detailing the arrangement of the tables, the location and dimensions of the performing space, the lighting and so on, saving the balloons lining the door and strung along the walls for last. Referring to the balloons as “a foretaste of what was to come,” he notes the range and variety of their sizes, colors and shapes before announcing that Sunday night marked “an epochal transition point in the band’s career to date.” By this, he goes on to explain, he means that “on this particular gig, at this particular place, on this particular night,” we made peace with the balloons, “came not simply to bear but to embrace them.” He resorts to metaphor in his reiteration of this point, referring to our “détente” with the balloons, our “extending an olive branch” to them, our “smoking the peace pipe” with them. He delays going into exactly what he’s referring to by this even while admitting some readers may already, by way of the grapevine, have “gotten word of the goings-on” he’ll in a moment get to. He then proceeds to discuss the music we played, the music the two sets were comprised of, addressing it piece by piece, saying a little about each, on the whole positive, albeit not without the obligatory quibble (“Fossil Flow” could’ve been longer, “Bottomed Out” shorter and so on), but quickly and not with a great deal of detail, saving a more sustained, more lingering approach for the encore, the balloon-assisted version of “Some Sunday,” the “goings-on” he delays going into while being anxious to go into. Once he gets to that, that is, he takes his time, carefully narrating our return to the performing area, recounting the passing out of the balloons with great attentiveness to who covered what part of the room, repeating Lambert’s instructions verbatim. This, the passing out of the balloons, he announces, “the peace overture, the peace offensive,” was our epoch-making move. He goes on to spare no hyperbole, pull no rhetorical punches, peaking, I think, when he calls it our “come-to-Jesus moment.” He waxes patronizing, paternalistic and psychoanalytic rolled into one, praise notwithstanding, writing that it’s us coming to terms with our need for attention, “getting beyond a conflicted desire to reach a wider audience.” Having dwelt on this a while, he caps

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it off by saying “their nobility of abstention, their nobility of abeyance, is hereby moved on from in favor of a greater nobility, that of diving in, joining the fray, putting the hay on the ground where the horses can reach it.” He then turns to the encore itself, the music itself, the balloon-assisted “Some Sunday.” First off, he writes, he has to “confess to being one of said horses,” to “admit to having joined in and fully enjoyed it.” He goes from this to a detailed account of “Some Sunday”—Djamilaa’s long lead-in, Lambert’s, Penguin’s, Drennette’s and my solos, and especially the balloon choir’s participation. He’s happy, he writes, to have been “a participant-observer,” from which perspective, he admits, he “can’t but have experienced it all in a special way,” a special way he’s not sure, try as he will, he can do justice to. We next read a good deal about him choosing how to address the balloon (he decided to rub it), the challenges of hearing oneself while hearing the band and the other balloon players as well, his and the other balloon players’ “gains in confidence and competence” as the piece moved along, his and the other balloon players’ “delighted surprise” when the comic-strip balloons appeared. He has nothing but praise for our “decision to embrace the balloons and the audience both in one bold stroke,” calling the passing out of the balloons “not simply the turning of a corner but collectivity’s deep dream come true.” Not only did we open ourselves to the balloons “more wholeheartedly” than ever before, he writes, we “tapped a live, open vein of musicianship in the audience one wouldn’t otherwise have known was there.” He himself, he adds, despite having no prior musical experience, “discovered a resident, recondite prowess the band and the balloons apprised one of.” He crescendoes to this conclusion: “In making peace with their balloons the Molimo m’Atet made them our balloons. May they long let the balloons take us all higher.” It was Aunt Nancy who phoned and said, “We’ve got a problem.” She was the first to see the review and she quickly gave each of us a call to alert us to it. She didn’t elaborate, simply saying we should pick up a copy of the latest Santa Monica W-e-a-k-1-y (she spelled it out) and we’d see. We all did so and we took the matter up later at rehearsal today. Our feelings are mixed, as you can imagine, both individually and as a group. It is, after all, a positive, at points ecstatic review, lavishing praise upon us and the music in multiple ways, and we ourselves consider the experiment a success. The pitch of the praise, the assumptions underlying it and the framing of it, though, confirm our reservations about the balloons. Aunt Nancy was anxious to talk about it and brought it up as soon as we’d all arrived at rehearsal. Her being the one who came up with the idea of passing out the balloons may have had something to do with her sense of urgency but the

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review was something we all felt we needed to air our thoughts about. Queen of nothing if not irony, she spoke for all of us by saying, to kick things off, that what bothered her was the reviewer’s literal-mindedness, “a kind of tone-deaf earnestness that misses our mock literalness or mocking literalness, our mixed-emotional ‘embrace’ of the balloons.” This was a risk we knew we were running we reminded ourselves, Lambert going on to point out that the prophylaxis the literal balloons were to perform turned anaphylactic in the reviewer’s hands. “The balloons embody their own self-critique,” he said, “a hedge against what they otherwise embody, advancing legibility as an inflated claim. The reviewer misses that.” We went around on it for a while. Djamilaa, for example, said she resented “the condescension, the turning of something we did into a command or a mandate to do it, an after-the-fact mandate or an after-the-fact command, as though the reviewer were somehow in charge.” Drennette, for another, talked, as Aunt Nancy and Lambert did, about what the reviewer missed, taking up his trope only to qualify it, torque it, saying that “if it was an accord it was a sideways accord we came to with the balloons or they came to with us.” After a pause of only a beat she added, “It was, after all, No-Show Sunday’s throne they put us on.” Penguin, to give yet another, agreed. “Not to mention,” he said, “the horsecycle,” at which we all laughed. What we’ll do next we haven’t decided. Hold a press conference? Issue another press release? Never pass balloons out again? We don’t know. Yours, N. ———— ________________


Dear Angel of Dust, Djamilaa and I awoke with a balloon between us. It lay in the space between our pillows. She sat up and stretched, her light cotton nightie exposing her closeto-the-bone shoulders, her dimpled elbows and her elegant, outstretched fingers a true boon above her head. She yawned. I followed suit, yawning as I sat up and stretched. It was as we turned to each other, smiling, and said good morning that we noticed it, the balloon nestled between our pillows, a third head or an extra pillow bearing these words: I walked around inside a mall where I was to

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meet a certain someone, music deeper in my ear the longer I walked. The someone I’d come to see wasn’t there. A strong wind blew the roof off and the stores were suddenly booths. The music inside my ear visited booth after booth, a late arcade it kept me wandering in all night. The smile left Djamilaa’s face. “I see you’ve been at it again,” she said. “Been at what again?” I asked. “Dreaming about a certain someone,” she said. “Not necessarily,” I said, immediately noticing how weak it sounded and how weak it was but having said it before giving it any thought. Djamilaa got out of bed and stood up, her back to me. I couldn’t help looking at her ass, whose bottom half her nightie left exposed. I gave a thought to the workings of the carnal plan, the carnal setup, the carnal eye, her ass’s magnetic draw. I stared as though her pendant cheeks and the cleft between them proffered a magic exit from all that was fallen and profane, fallen and profane though they themselves were thought to be. “Denial makes it worse,” she said, sitting back down on the bed, looking over her shoulder, her ass no longer exposed. “I’m not denying,” I said, “I’m complicating. Didn’t you say it was Penguin’s dream, not mine?” “That only makes it worse. Your thing for a certain someone has to be pretty strong to have to go thru channels.” “A certain someone is no one,” I said, more confident now, “No-Show Sunday’s bequest.” The balloon disappeared as I spoke, an evaporative remit appearing to confirm the disendowment I noted, a certain someone’s inveterate nonchalance, chronic no-show, the someone one could only not know, nearly know. “I’d like to say, ‘Well, now that you put it that way,’” Djamilaa said, “but I won’t.” She stood up again, her ass’s redolent cleft exposed again, carnal provision posed, it seemed, against disendowment, an immaterial musk filling the air clouding my mind if not the air, an imagined musk where there was no musk, all the more intoxicant not being one. I wanted all the more, that is, to whiff the musk that was, press my nose to Djamilaa’s ass’s redolent cleft as to an actual rent in time (chronic rift, crack in the cosmic egg), the rending of time whose proffered exit took me out. “What if I were to swoon?” I said, syncope’s famous last words it turned out. I spoke them as I succumbed to a rush and fell forward Djamilaa told me a few seconds later when I came to. She was beside me now, in the middle of the bed, cradling my head in the crook of her arm, my head against her breast. My face was close to her cleavage, another cleft, my nostrils wide with the overnight smell on her skin, the morning musk I love so much.

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“I was teasing,” I said, nose between her breasts, nuzzling her cleavage, her close-to-the-bone beauty all over me, the cracked cosmic egg’s repair. The heady smell of her skin kept my nostrils dilated. “A certain someone,” I whispered, “is no one but you, you know. The balloon was right between your pillow and my pillow. It was no more my dream than yours.” The smell of Djamilaa’s honey-based lotion joined by overnight sweat suffused her nightie, a light, penetrant funk my nose filled with and would’ve followed to the end of the earth. I wanted its translation more than the musk itself perhaps but words fell teasingly short when it came to capturing it. I imagined a work of audiotactile sculpture that would, her light funk’s pheromonal embrace rendered equal parts haptic and sonic. I semiheard, semitouched an atomized, ambient advance one would apprehend as a cystic self-equation cut or carved out of capric dispatch. Djamilaa’s goatlike beauty, that is, assailed my inner eye, my inner ear and the fingertips of my inner hand, my overt nose’s introvert accomplices, her long-faced forbearance a boon given over to study, aesthetic remit. Djamilaa-the-Muse was in full effect, Djamilaa-the-Beautiful-One-HasCome in full effect. The sweat-accented, honey-based lotion smell took me in as much as out, a mustiness of cleft and contained space and a cystic attar opening a faintly beckoning realm. I whiffed and whiffed again and again a remote, redolent beacon broadcasting intimately from afar, a synaesthetic transfer tendering mustiness as light, light funk’s multiplied import. There was a deep inwardness, awayness, and nearness her smell reposited, inwardness, awayness and nearness rolled into one. It was a nearness as near as I’d ever know but somehow, nonetheless, not available, an everlasting no-show allure a certain someone or a certain no one was known for, not to be known otherwise, an awayness as near as any I’d ever know. The reticent, so-near-so-far sound of a French horn might be its aural analogue. “Well, now that you put it that way,” Djamilaa said, “I agree. Yes, here we are, two no-shows, erstwhile no-shows I’d say, two certain someones who might also be no ones, each the anyone the oneiric arcade parades all night.” Her voice was low-pitched and husky, a kind of catch in it as though lemon and honey might be in order. The faint suggestion of the latter, combined with the sweat-accented smell of her honey-based lotion, took my inner frenzy farther, a would-be match for her synaesthetic beacon’s far cry. I sat up, pulling away from Djamilaa’s cleavage, catching, as I did, a whiff that came up from farther down, a more pungent waft coming off her loins and what lay between them, a less light, more penetrant musk rising from the

From Late Arcade 45

hair that lay there and what lay under it. Oboe, English horn or bassoon to her sweat-accented honey-based lotion smell’s French horn, it pierced my nostrils and pervaded my thought to a degree that threw me farther atilt. Oboe, English horn, or bassoon, I wasn’t sure which, as it may have been all three blown as one or blown in unison, a chorusing call or cry of come-home or come-hither, home’s far reach and provenance, inner frenzy’s far reach and rule. I was nothing if not such reach’s vassal, low-lying musk the principality I swore love and loyalty to. “I’d like to write something,” I said as Djamilaa slid to the edge of the bed and stood up again, her ass’s redolent cleft synaesthetically broadcasting again, “not simply a musical piece but something that would be that plus what visual artists call an installation.” Djamilaa was standing and she turned around to face me. The carnal plan, the carnal provision, the carnal setup occurred to me again as the tuft of hair between her legs below her nightie’s hem caught my eye, so casually, nonchalantly there it furthered my inner frenzy a bit more. “Audiotactile sculpture I call it,” I went on. “I want the listener to be able to step into the piece. I want it to be a step taken off a ledge to be unexpectedly caught by a pocket the air offers, a pulverous nodule cut into empty space. I want it filled with streaming powder, uniformly blown powder perhaps, powder the listener leans into as it catches him or her, coming toward him or her like tactile, particulate wind. I want it to hit like a dry, particulate emission propelled from an enormous aerosol can. I want it to feel caressive and custom-fit, pointillistically tensile and precise, an enveloping provision of support. I’d like to call it ‘Copacetic Syncope.’” So I spoke at the time. If I had it to do over, I’d add that the streaming powder would have a rushlike quality to it, as though it were the inversion or, more exactly, the inverse mold of a swoon or a keeling over, convexity to the swoon’s or the keeling over’s concavity, concavity to the swoon’s or the keeling over’s convexity, the music’s haptic equivalent custom-fit. Djamilaa stood listening as I spoke, her pubic hair’s visibility incidental and moot if she were aware of it at all. She was attentive to what I was saying but she also seemed a bit distracted, as though on her way somewhere else or to something else. When I finished she said, “Sounds good.” Djamilaa sniffed the air a couple of times, having caught a whiff of something it seemed. She lifted her right arm, turned her head to her armpit and sniffed it. She then lifted the hem of her nightie to her nose and sniffed it, her belly and the full extent of her pubic hair visible as she did so, offhandedly, nothing if not blasé, me further atilt even so, especially so.

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After she let her nightie back down she looked at me and said, “I need a shower.” She turned around and headed for the bathroom. Sincerely, Dredj ———— ________________


Dear Angel of Dust, Yes, another cowrie shell attack. All the fuss about the balloons must have brought it on. The balloon-on-balloon visitation and valence at the Come Back Inn gave us lots to think about, the unpredictability of the comic-strip balloon appearances, the anaphylactic effect passing out the real balloons possibly had, the balloons’ apparent channeling of Drennette’s bicycle ride with Rick, their dystopian tweak of “Some Sunday’s” great-gettin’-up morning expectation not the least of it. Then there was the simpleminded review in Santa Monica Weekly, which not only gave us more to think about, more worry, but generated some controversy as well. This week’s issue carried a few letters to the editor that were written in response to the review, ranging from ringing endorsement to variously critical, the latter complaining that the reviewer “drank the Kool-Aid” at one end of the spectrum and that he got us all wrong, praised us for all the wrong reasons, at the other. Not to mention the queries, comments and opinions of friends and acquaintances. All the buzz, the balloons again upstaging the music, must’ve gotten to me. It was as Djamilaa and I sat in bed talking about the balloons the other morning that it hit. I’m not sure it was anything in particular she or I said that set it off so much as the overall strain of having to think and talk about them so much, simply that of having to think and talk about them at all perhaps. In any case, that’s what we were doing when I began to feel a tightening in my forehead, the usual sign of the onset of an attack. I had just said, “There can be no adequation,” but, as I’ve said, I’m not sure that’s what triggered it. Whatever the trigger, cumulative or momentary, the attack chose to assume what I’ve come to think of as its classic form—the shattered shells embedded in my brow, the packed or compacted transparency everything seemed encased in, Ornette’s “Embraceable You” piped into my head and so on—though not without some of its more recent features. Djamilaa says it was clear to her right away what was happening, that after

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announcing, “There can be no adequation,” I broke off speaking, went sort of blank and when I spoke again asked for pencil and paper, which she got up and got for me. For my part, I felt I sat at Dredj’s desk, Dredj’s hand had hold of mine. What I wrote was the letter you received a few days ago. The attack subsided, thanks to Djamilaa’s presence and care I think, a few hours later, with no need for a trip to the ER or a hospital stay. I like Dredj’s “Copacetic Syncope” idea. I can’t promise to deliver on the audiotactile sculpture part but I’d like to write something with that title, something along the lines suggested in the letter. For one, it put the sound of the French horn in my head so indelibly I haven’t been able to get it out. The ring it has or the reminder it gives of a faraway haunt, a faraway hunt, a faraway homing, won’t let me be. I’d want French horn to be a large part of the piece. Ideally there’d be three or four of them, a French horn choir chorusing the harmonic equivalent of “What but that solace, that but what other solace,” repeatedly plying that qualm, that claim. Going at it ourselves, we’d have to make do with Penguin on bassoon and me on flugelhorn (barring a crash course on French horn) chorusing behind Lambert’s tenor. The inflectional weave and the harmonic wrinkle that would encode “What but that solace, that but what other solace” of course remain to be worked out, as does pretty much, I’ll admit, everything else. But Dredj got me going and “Copacetic Syncope,” I guarantee, even if I do have to take a crash course on French horn, is on its way. Dredj’s evocation of Djamilaa’s exposed ass and pubic hair (just happening to be there, just happening to be devastating) keeps at me, a vulgar, vulnerable regard the French horn’s muted howl would harken back to, a retractive sound as of a world more near than far but not enough with us. I wonder if what he means by “a pulverous nodule cut into empty space” is a compensative step one takes wishing it were otherwise, a would-be, wished-for presence or plenum that, would and wish notwithstanding, conduces to dust—an aggressive, propelled, propellant dust fitting one like a glove. I see root people convening at water’s edge, low boat-hauling voices deep in their throats and lungs, “There can be no adequation’s” rejoinder. Or is it a reconvening, a round or return whose recursive charge obeys Dredj’s “enveloping provision of support’s” mandate? I see gopher holes eaten into atavistic ground. I hear “What but that solace, that but what other solace” beaded on a thread Penguin’s bassoon lets hang, lets dangle, love’s don’t-get-me-started reluctance and woo. As ever, N.

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———— ________________


Dear Angel of Dust, We couldn’t resist any longer. We’ve thought of issuing another press release following the Santa Monica Weekly review, but we kept deciding against it. We can’t respond every time someone gets the music wrong we’ve told ourselves ever since putting the first press release out. But Braxton’s advice or idea or insistence that one has to provide the terms for understanding one’s music, develop a language listeners can learn from and deepen their listening thru, has long spoken to us as well. The hubbub surrounding the balloons’ most recent appearance, given the spark the Santa Monica Weekly review gave it, finally got to us and we decided another press release, a second post-expectant press release, was in order. Enclosed you’ll find a copy. It was a group effort, everyone contributing input (you’ll notice we went with Aunt Nancy’s insistence we use her coinage Santa Monica Weakly), and I think it pretty much speaks for itself. We were a little surprised, in fact, to find ourselves speaking with such authority and, at points, so didactically about something we’re so bewildered by. It’s as if the review’s easy presumption of knowledge nudged us into knowing by not knowing, a position of knowing that would acknowledge not knowing. If you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them. As ever, N. Post-Expectant Press Release #2

Santa Monica Weakly got it all wrong. It wasn’t a matter of making peace with the balloons. No one knows them better than us—no one, that is, knows better than us that they’re not to be known—and our experience has been that no peace is to be made with them. Legibility, we know, is an inflated claim, the very claim, were it that simple, the balloons embody. But it’s not that simple. The balloons are a hedge against that which they otherwise embody, ostensibly embody. True self-critique or disingenuous dodge, they are not to be bargained with or bartered with, either way. We intended the literal balloons not as a peace pipe,

From Late Arcade 49

an olive branch or a peace offering but, as one of our members put it, a prophylactic. That they turned out to be anaphylactic proves our point. What Santa Monica Weakly fails to note (or only, at best, implicitly notes) is that the balloons are a blue-lit brigade freighted with our wildest wishes, a wildness or a wilderness of wish we sought to bring the audience abreast of at the Come Back Inn. It wasn’t so much about the balloons as about them, which is to say about us, our shared arraignment of a hope hoped against hope, the knock, hard albeit soft, of what would not (could not) be. Santa Monica Weakly fails to note that a low throb knocked at our door and we let it in, a faint beat that was nothing but anaphylactic willingness, wish and fulfillment, the fullness of which we knew to be fleeting, secret, discreet. We also notice no mention is made of the gig’s occasion, the Come Back Inn’s owner’s wife’s birthday, which seems to us infinitely more relevant than the peace accords the Weakly wants the gig to have been. It seems to us that what we had, what can be said to have summoned the balloons, was something of a return to initial premises, premises to which nothing speaks more resonantly than birth. We who make the music remember that the balloons’ inaugural appearance two years ago in Seattle burst with intimations of pregnant air, pregnant wind, pregnant swell, a ballooning remit lodged in alternate ground we term wouldly. What but the airiness of natal occasion’s commemorative occasion gets at wouldliness, the nothing-if-not-that-and-so-nothing event or eventuality the balloons not only announce and inure us to but are, thinly contained pockets of air that they are? Who remembers birth? What could be more wouldly than birthdays? One commemorates an event one can’t remember but at which one was present, the event with which being present began. The implications of “No-Show Sunday” need not be belabored we thought but the Weakly’s unalloyed jubilation makes us think otherwise. We still don’t mean to belabor them so much as point the main one out: Sunday never comes or, better, was there but not there. The Weakly’s Sunday might’ve been all there but ours both was and wasn’t, a tale of two Sundays, a tale of two sets of balloons. Literal meaning aside, “two” signifies noncontainment, a default on the very containment the Weakly’s read would have. We find the review wishful, painfully unaware of itself, not the arraignment or the ironic fulfillment of wish our passing out the balloons was intended for. We again stress that it was a birthday gig, a meditation on birth, wouldly pregnancy, wouldly wind, an endlessly blown wish to wrap walls around wouldly breath. Unimpatient expectancy, we’ve come to know, is a lesson one has to be long on learning. The Weakly would move into the mansion without a single brick being laid. The Weakly would have it all too quickly.

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This is what we must do, this is what we ever so slowly, ever so gradually, ever so painstakingly, all but asymptotically approach: 1) Commit to a fast of not reaching, commit as though fast and feast were the same. No easily presumed arrival will do, no easy applause. 2) See that it has to do with finitude, that “it all has to do with it,” as Trane said of something else, this wanting to have arrived once and for all, a wished-for arrival the band dallies with by way of the balloons but also knows the dangers of. See that dalliance and danger are the balloons’ two bodies, an escaped kingship or queenship whose throne would-be arrival seats us on. See too that wouldly breath keeps both at bay. 3) Come ever more deeply to know that shape is tactility at a distance, balloon curvature a boon at whose behest we bend away from capture, our own as well as theirs, which is both good news and bad. Good and bad apportion, as worth or negative worth, respectively, wouldly weave, wouldly welter. The balloons are dispossessed lungs, inspiration less objectively drawn than objectified, a fix or a fetish made of something we know to be fleet, fluid—“peace,” were such to be had, beyond any and all patness, which is nothing if not the balloons’ exact proffer. Bicycle and horse rolled into one, the balloons are the gift horse whose mouth we scrutinize, possibly a Trojan horse. We don’t trust them, never have, never will. We will continue to keep our distance, B’Loon’s ingenuous look notwithstanding.

part 2

Critical Interventions


Poetics Today Charles Altieri


f I had the disposition and incisive intelligence required, I would try to deliver this talk in manifesto style. In my imaginary life the subject of poetics shapes public discourse on “innovative poetry.” So, it requires of criticism a version of that public language, even if that language requires fudging concerns for accuracy that I pompously relegate to small-minded academics. The basic claim of my manifesto would be that poetics is too important for us to be content with what passes under that rubric in most of these conversations. This claim, of course, requires me to engage Charles Bernstein—not an easy task or a safe one for the ego. But I think I can acknowledge the intelligence and power of the arguments of A Poetics and still in effect prefer what I see exemplified in the address to a range of art practices in Content’s Dream.1 Or, to make my claim dialectical, the vein of attention focused on formal questions in A Poetics has had the opportunity to play itself out in a way that now calls our attention to how the capacious curiosity of Content’s Dream makes a different kind of contribution to the theory of poetry. My issue is simple. The Bernstein of A Poetics is generous and flexible in his arguments about the relation between “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” dimensions of texts. But his emphasis is completely on the site of the poem and so “how content emerges from composition and cannot be detached from it; or, to put it another way what is detachable is expendable to the poetic” (8).2 Even here I am tempted to agree, except for the apparent assumption that what is “detachable and expendable” can be clearly conceived concepts, especially by a poet who has taught us how omnivorous poetry is. My dissatisfaction will become clear if we imagine that there are two choices for a poetics—to concentrate on how 53

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composition defines sites for poetic experience or to concentrate on how poems can be considered actions testing the capacity of specific ways of imagining work (including formal modalities) that moves audiences to identify with authorial projects and to explore what difference they can make in their lives. My manifesto self would claim that by treating poems as purposive actions we take poetry beyond the domain of sites of language work to the rhetorical domain where we come to desire the provisional identifications afforded by manipulations of ethos, and the ways their language performs the task of helping audiences see in to the imaginative states the works make present, literally and figuratively. A theory adequate for a contemporary poetry may have to take on the burden of specifying how poets can make commitments by which their basic concerns as thinking and feeling agents become available for poetry. Poetics then becomes the articulation of defensible reasons why people might devote large parts of their lives to the reading and writing of poetry. And by keeping this question of devotion in focus it may be possible for poetry criticism to struggle against the moralism to which this appeal to rhetoric is subject. I do not think rhetoric makes good persons, or bad persons, for that matter. It produces perspectives by which to place imagined actions in real worlds. Alas this will not be the manifesto I fantasize. I need my academic demeanor for developing aspects of this contrast between site and action. And I have to use it to clarify what I mean by rhetoric so that I can proceed to two historical observations and a brief development of one and one-half exemplary cases. I do not yet have a definition of rhetoric. But I do know that any version of rhetoric adequate to the work poets do has to be capable of sustaining these four concerns.3 1. It must invite attention to the probable purposiveness of the texts that poetics purports to describe. Any discourse is narrow that cannot deal with what seem to be the ends involved in our makings. 2. It must deal with how works become exemplary, and it must project how exemplarity functions in society. In this regard we need a distinction between example of something that invokes the authority of the past and example as something that offers a concrete display of various states that we can engage and build on for our own work of sorting the world and shaping our desires. 3. It must be able to clarify how that exemplarity involves invitations to try on affective states so that an audience can modify how its dispositions, desires, and opinions orient it toward various actions. 4. This rhetoric must be able to have the subtlety to address the possible and probable civic consequences of that exemplarity without

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emphasizing acts of rational judgment. Situated irresponsibility can be a mode of civic responsibility. My first historical observation is a simple one: Aristotle’s Poetics is essentially an inquiry into how poetry can be the imitation of significant actions in order to produce powerful affective consequences in its audience. One obviously cannot ignore how language establishes the sites within which those imitations take form. But language remains a medium, albeit an especially charged and dynamic one. Its primary role for Aristotle, as for almost all premodernist theory, is to make a representation, or presentation, of action as vivid, engaging, and speculatively suggestive as possible. For me this involves treating poetics as a subfield of rhetoric, since poetics is the variable cultural instrument for determining which specific features of imagined actions most demand intervention and invention at any given time. In order to perform this task poetics has to examine and challenge each culture’s understanding of what rhetoric is. But I think we can agree on a relatively timeless understanding of the intentions driving theorizing about rhetoric—namely, to preserve the importance in cultural life of the techne involved in moving people and leading them to envision as intelligently as possible what may be involved in various kinds of actions. How can I maintain such universalizing in the face of contemporary documents such as Bernstein’s with their emphasis on how poems cannot be paraphrased least they lose their specificity? I have to treat those contemporary arguments as in part symptomatic expressions of distinctive and problematic needs imposed on poets by shifts in cultural values. In a sense their felt urgency is inseparable from their limitations. We have to realize that before the late nineteenth century the primary concern in aesthetics was the nature of judgment, not the analysis of the objective properties eliciting those judgments. Aesthetics was primarily a matter of examining the responses works of art elicited from their audiences. Aesthetics had to correlate modes of taking pleasure with modes of elaborating the possible significance of fictive states. Judgment then also required a sense of the purposiveness of the agent: audiences had to grasp what the maker was trying to do. If we turn back to canonical discussions of the theory of poetry like Sidney’s, Wordsworth’s, and even Coleridge’s, we find their primary concern is the nature of the imagination and how poets might best amplify that power. The question what a poet could be was far more important than how poems offered intricate linguistic structures. Even when Wordsworth discusses the language of poetry, his concern is less with artifice than with its social affiliations. Symptomatic analysis begins with the question why this kind of discourse lost

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power and was replaced by a disposition toward analyses much closer to what we now call poetics. Now I need manifesto style to make my case concisely. By the end of the nineteenth century there seemed too much of a gap between idealized talk of poets and the merchandizing of their labors. Yeats, Pound, Moore, Eliot, and Williams all condemned rhetoric for two basic reasons: it reinforced a righteousness inseparable from a given class of people exercising power without much self-awareness, and because, partially as a result of the desire to exercise power, it replaces concrete experience by generalizing exhortations or modes of highly imprecise feeling. So the Modernists had to try to say what kind of knowledge any cultural act could provide. And they had to make these issues vivid for a culture increasingly committed to empiricist models of value that dismissed anything not promising instrumental knowledge. So by the time of the New Critics, it seemed that poetry could only be defended as a form worthy of investing social resources if it could say why intricate linguistic play could produce something they called “non-discursive knowledge” established by the individual lyric event. But basing art on the conditions making the object distinctive severely confined the object to its material properties: authors’ ambitions and the imaginative testing of purposes came to seem evasions displacing the very possibility of the work exercising its powers in the objective world. Then a second factor entered that I think was largely responsible for our contemporary picture of the task of poetics. Painting became the dominant modernist art.4 If people wanted to know what modernism was in 1910 or 1920, their peers would be most likely to point them toward “innovative” painting. Ambitious poets then had to decide how to engage the dominant art without being manifestly dominated by it. Pound, for example, imagined in one of his rejected ur-Cantos as the project of “writing to paint.” Stevens, Loy, and Williams also wrote on both paintings and theory of painting. Modernist painting inspired an unprecedented attention to the material surface of verbal art. And it emphasized the role of the artist as the visible conductor of the forces dynamizing that surface. Think of how Stein and Williams channel Cézanne’s ideal of “realization.” Did this revolution have legs? Could it successfully orient writers and critics to such surfaces even after the Modernists had elaborated the principles of appropriating painterly consciousness? One could argue that the major Modernists themselves turned to very different projects, even though it was their relatively early work that displayed the kind of common concerns out of which a poetics could be constructed. Poets colluded with academics in attempting to foster this sense of the verbal object—at one pole through objectivism and at the other through the programs of the New Critics. But could an essentially verbal art be relegated for a century to the relational forces among objective properties?

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Hegel’s notion of poetry as the highest art because it could deal directly with the powers of language to characterize feelings and construct imagined resonances came to haunt the effort to confine the linguistic to material effects. ———— Fast forward to the revolution produced by Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Their interest in painting took a shape very different from modernist values and led them to question the authority of both the Objectivists and the New Critics, who now served as the guardians of what poetics had become. At the least, Ashbery and O’Hara turned to another tradition in painting, the work of Surrealism, in order to establish verbal strategies and forces that could be not be incorporated within the models of artifice developed by modernist painterly abstraction and refined by the Objectivists. The rubric that a poem had not to mean but to be seemed incomplete without an added concern for just what kind of being a poem could sustain and could project. Both poets asked for a writing that could replace the emphasis on metaphoric naming within Modernism by an emphasis on simile. A new name identifying what we know is very different from a new equation fleshing out what is involved in “as we know.” Where metaphor renames what remains of the objective world, simile releases names from tight fealty to the world in order to cultivate chains of loosely related analogical reflections. I will concentrate on O’Hara, but I want to mention their shared interest in how poetry could embody the concerns and the freedoms made possible by a highly generalized sense of the spirit of surrealism. They shared a vision of what the poet’s cultural role might be even though they differed substantially on how that surrealist reality might get embodied. Ashbery loves the ways surrealism composes “a plane where the subconscious and the concrete mingle on equal terms,” 5 as in his “Skaters.” Surrealism offers enigmatic figures marked by an incompleteness of being for which self-expression is an always present and always inadequate metaphor. For O’Hara, on the other hand, the way to a fully contemporary art had to run through Jackson Pollock’s way of extending the spirit of surrealism. But how could writing adapt Pollock’s collapsing of distinctions between foreground and background or his capacity to focus so intensely on the energies embodied in the varied material qualities a line could possess? O’Hara’s solution was to treat Pollock’s later work not as a rejection of his earlier explicit surrealism nor as Harold Rosenberg’s adventures in self-­making. Instead O’Hara called attention to Pollock’s capacity in his drip paintings to realize a surrealist spirit that could thrive by rejecting what had become tired surrealist imagery trying to express an ever-receding unconscious:

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Cubism was an innovation; Surrealism an evolution. The former dealt with technique, the latter with content. . . . Surrealism enjoined the duty, along with the liberation, of saying what you mean and meaning what you say beyond any fondness for saying or meaning.6 In pursuing this “evolution,” Pollock managed to achieve a completely literal understanding of the modernist distinction between an art of representation and an art of presentation. The space of painting could become “a field of incident” “exploring possibilities for discovery” by the artist as he or she elaborates an ongoing process of decision making. Art consisted in the adjustments artists make in tracking the self ’s energies and the relationships those energies were making possible.7 This version of surrealism would encompass those versions of modern art that refused to base their claims to be important on how they wielded the analytical powers that Cubism and non-iconic painting idealized from Cézanne’s example. Art would become the production of strange and intricate events often treating the analytical impulse as a misplaced wanderer unable to find any traction within the canvas. Surrealism might save poetry from “Art.” Viewing Pollock this way made a major difference in how the New York School represented their own modernity, since they could explore their capacities to replace scenic representation by the energies of line that provided an immediacy of saying what one means “beyond any fondness for saying and meaning.” These younger poets could write in the spirit of Pollock without simply copying Pollock’s project. More important, these poets could explore a version of Pollock’s freedom to foreground the self ’s energies without binding that self to scenes of confessional sincerity or the unfolding of imagistic logics. Instead one could see one’s art participating in what had become the major version of international modernism. Pursuing that freedom in “saying what you mean” then enabled even writers bound to the spirit of William Carlos Williams like Robert Creeley or to the spirit of Whitman like Allen Ginsberg to find allies and guides in a second generation of New York painters, such as Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers who had taken the enormous risk of returning from abstraction to figuration. Both writers and painters could treat the turn to figuration not as a conservative flight from the pressures of innovation but rather as a means to bring freedoms derived from abstract expressionism into conjunction with energies basic to quotidian life. I think the influence of this new sense of painterly worldliness is most evident in the way that poets used the painter’s sense of portraiture, especially in portraits of the poets themselves. All kinds of portraiture were affected, so that the first person could return to poetry in other than confessional ways, and style

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might reflect the urgencies of personal need rather than primarily the ideals of verbal artifice. The new art offered various models for self-portraiture that could refuse the imaginary satisfactions of the finished portrait that tells someone how he or she actually appears. And the pursuit of this immediacy could recast the entire social role portraits might play. The classical portrait cannot but remind audiences of the patronage system ultimately responsible for what status and freedom artists had achieved in Western society. But now the New York painters were responding to friendship, not to dependency on the whims of their financial masters. Therefore, portraits could take on a new intimacy—not by stressing psychological depth but rather as a record of how figuration might provide an expressive register of what the painter feels for and about the subject in the moment of the painting. Tone becomes as central in painting as it had been in literature because an entire tradition must be treated self-consciously and submitted to the interpretive power of a spontaneous and evocative use of color that makes abstract expressionist techniques responsive to quotidian life. Conversely that sense of stylizing the quotidian as a means of honoring its centrality for the artist would prove a vital provocation for poets attempting to clarify where their own dispositions were leading them—from James Schuyler to Ben Lerner. They need not be the objects of portraiture but could conceive their own art as versions of the same kind of self-portraiture, devoted to quiet intimate states rendered with considerable tonal complexity. This poetry would rely on the “I” for modulating its energies and registering the force of various kinds of feeling. But it would not seek any kind of depth psychology and not quest for dramatic forms of strenuous heroic identity. Such poetry now has a track record but not a single coherent poetics. So, I submit that it has become the victim of our current emphases on poetics.8 I know of no significant studies of how the New York School continues to influence contemporary work. If we were to characterize that influence, it would take elaborating rhetorical attitudes rather than as an analysis of verbal textures. Flash forward again to Joshua Clover’s recent poetry. I think this poetry offers an intriguing blend of tones and stances inspired by O’Hara with the social ambitions of high Modernist poetry, although those ambitions are projected now through Clover’s frustrated and angry Marxist commitments. For those ambitions a highly rhetorical mode of self-consciousness about the poem’s relations to society proves absolutely necessary. For Clover, it takes echoes of Modernist social ambitions to provide the necessary antidote to a range of postmodernist poetry largely constrained by emphases on intricate linguistic structures. Clover might say that poetics as contemporaries understand it can liberate and complicate the poet’s imagination but will do little to address the social malaise and

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duplicities that are the consequences of life under capitalism. He finds his most compelling alternative to postmodernism in the demands made by Modernist architecture to produce socially effective visual configurations of space. (Architecture, too, had its version of what I am calling poetics in how Learning from Las Vegas shifted the field from an emphasis on constructive intelligence to one stressing citational fancy. But this turn to poetics could not long escape matters of engineering, and so the need to make structures addressing the practical world quickly resurfaced.) And he finds in poetry versions of that architectural spirit in how the modernists sought to resist alienation. For Clover the modernists did not accurately represent the causes of their alienation; but they powerfully grappled with finding voices that could at least demonstrate the depth of the problems and the radical nature of what would have to serve as possible directions of poetic energy in order to address those problems. Listen, for example, to the poetry Clover creates in echoing Williams’s variable foot as a measure for the weight of efforts to speak a public language of pain and the consequent labor shaped by that articulated as in: “Years of Analysis For a Day of Synthesis” Real city! I am always arriving elsewhere having traversed the threshold of the century and still trapped in the approximations of the lyric or the post-lyric or the lyric with Chinese characteristics super-guanxi post ’78 period style for the vita nuovaesque situation that devised the rhizome and the chaebol and Paper Planes . . . and the century was shit but the acoustics were awesome . . . and you could hear the human poets sing economy of language while paring the poem down to an object oriented ontology subhed Parmenides

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among the Moderns but surely we are forgiven for hardening our strophes against the marketplace in an epoch whose novelty lies in the precise arrangement of its word On the basis of imitating several modernist voices and showing why he has to echo their pain, Clover comes to this conclusion about poetics: It must be made from everything including text—this is the minimum formula for realism— but it does not align itself with texts—it must align itself with work—meaning hatred of work—it must desire change so much it is accused of being in love with annihilation—must in fact love annihilation— the rest is sophism—9 I think the claim that poets must love annihilation is itself sophism. But that they must make visible their love of something, perhaps almost anything, this is wisdom worth going through many books of poetry to find. Notes 1. Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Charles Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1986). 2. Bernstein, A Poetics, 8. 3. Juliana Spahr has made a good beginning toward developing such a rhetoric. See her Everybody’s Autobiography (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001). I write at length about Spahr as a rhetorical poet in “The Place of Rhetoric in Contemporary American Poetics: Jennifer Moxley and Julianna Spahr,” Chicago Review 56, no. 2–3 (2011): 127–45. 4. There are now too many good books on modernist poetry and painting to cite, so I will just cite myself since the argument I make here depends in part on what I wrote in my Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). 5. John Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987 (New York: Knopf, 1989), 325. 6. Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicle 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 17–18. 7. O’Hara, Art Chronicle, 15. Andrew Epstein, in Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 88, calls this tracking

62  Altieri “experimental individualism.” Elsewhere, I emphasize how Pollock correlates responsibility with existential contingency. 8. I can offer a small example of how poetics swallows up this poetry by pointing to how Marjorie Perloff in her 1997 revision of her book Frank O’Hara Poet Among Painters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) argues that O’Hara has more affinities with the then-contemporary poetics shaped by Language writing than critics had noticed. 9. Joshua Clover, Red Epic (Oakland, CA: Commune, 2015), 5–9.


The Material and Medium of Language Jeanne Heuving


n the realm of poetics, seemingly descriptive terms become laden with valuation. Perhaps the most pervasive concept to both historicize and exonerate avant-garde and experimental poetries by poets and critics alike in the last decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century is the materiality of language. This concept placed attention on the material aspects of language, namely its visual and aural qualities. And it provided an important link with material practices and material histories as well as a bridge with such intellectual concepts as poststructuralism, postmodernism, and, more generally, the turn to language. And while sometimes the discussion that ensued brought with it new intellectual inquiries, such as the ways that attention to the decontextualized word and language disrupted processes of commodification or the ways that conceiving of language as material made way for inquiry into the historical palimpsest of language used in poetry, at other times the linkages were little more than assertions based in homology; the materiality of language and the materiality of history were one and the same.1 The emphasis on the materiality of language brought with it the poetry movements identified as Language Writing or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as well as a new emphasis on poetics. And while previously poetics had been a comparatively limited and even rarified domain within literary studies, it was now for many scholars a cause célèbre because of how language as discourse was understood to create objects and fields of knowledge, not only in the humanities but also in the social sciences and sciences.2 For poets, it created a new set of compositional possibilities and questions, and multiple debates ensued. One of the effects of this turn to language was that some innovative poets drew a line 63

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between themselves and their immediate predecessors, namely the Beats and New American or Black Mountain poets. By comparison, the preceding poets were seen to be naïve about how language constructed, rather than reflected, realities, including emotional response itself. Genealogies with poets of preceding epochs who were deemed to possess more insight into material writing practices, such as Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky, were created. By the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, language as material possessed the accumulated cache of serving to anoint entire ventures of writing, such that critics who had initially worked this terrain in far more rigorous ways could simply call on it as a form of validation. This assuredness is visible in such prominent critics as Marjorie Perloff and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who, while vigorously exploring this terrain throughout the 1980s and 1990s, used their previous findings to validate current endeavors. Marjorie Perloff in her 2002 book 21st-Century Modernism delineates a continuum of poetic endeavor beginning with T. S. Eliot and concluding with Lyn Hejinian on the basis that all of these writers have an “ambitious” “attitude to the materiality of the text.”3 And while her Poetics of Indeterminacy found a decisive fissure between Eliot and Pound on the basis of their different understandings of the symbolic and antisymbolic nature of language, in 21st Century Modernism she ignores this distinction.4 Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in her 2012 Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry, celebrates how Zukofsky creates a material poetics that bests Pound and ties it to his Jewish heritage of midrash, which she glosses as endless interpretability, as well as to a larger Jewish set of values in which “the spirit killeth but the letter giveth life.”5 While in the 1980s and 1990s DuPlessis had been at pains to consider the ways that Modernist and Language Writing both included and excluded women poets, in this new book she universalizes Zukofsky’s poetics.6 She claims that just as the New Testament supplanted the Old Testament in Biblical history, so too in the realm of literary politics and succession, Zukofsky supplanted Pound: [Zukofsky’s] “A” is a text of a secular Judaism invested with a Judaic hermeneutics and a Pauline attitude to fulfillment as supersession of a rival longpoem text. “Jewish hostility to the idea of fulfillment” suggests, in poetry, a resistance to epiphany or "the instantaneous unveiling of presence" in favor of a midrashic return and return again to the layers of meaning and allusion built into a text within a work so intricate that it is inexhaustible. . . . And thereby Zukofsky does supersede Pound’s totalitarian categories. The Cantos, as Bob Perelman argues, concern the light shining beyond the word, the image as a ball of light that does not even have to be read, scryed, or

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interpreted but is simply known (an epiphanic structure of feeling, a revelation) in “transverbal seeing.” . . . Zukofsky’s work supersedes this poetic ideology with one of permanent interpretability and verbal-textual plethora.7 I quote from DuPlessis at length to suggest the sets of values and poetics that have gained considerable ascendancy well into the twenty-first century. Indeed, while the concept of the materiality of language has been most effective in creating new poetic understandings and practices, it has also limited knowledge of avant-garde and experimental poetries and language itself. By focusing here on the concept of language as a medium, I wish to draw out qualities of language that have been suppressed through adherence to the concept of its materiality as well as consider how some poets whose practices have been validated in part through attention to the materiality of their texts find more robust articulation through the concept of language as a medium, namely Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan, and Nathaniel Mackey. It is not my intention to replace the concept of the materiality of language with the medium of language, for how could such a daunting history dependent on this terminology be replaced, nor is it my intention to divide poets into camps, but rather to investigate basic terminology itself as leading to certain kinds of understandings and evaluations. Indeed, poets who have validated their own enterprises largely through the idea of the concept of language as material also may find articulation through the concept of language as medium, since different aspects of their work are thereby made manifest. The concept of the medium of language is a capacious terminology that includes as one of its definitions, the material of a medium. However, I also suggest that it more readily lends itself to the exploration of irrational agency as well as inexpressible dimensions of poetry. Language as a medium brings with it the sense of language as a set of shifting valences and as changing over time. In the words of Hugh Kenner, language is an “intertextual cognate system of apprehension” that “has an organism’s power to mutate and adapt and survive.” 8 Robert Creeley has commended the silences in language itself: “Silence, as the thing from which—and against which—all speech plays, that thing if a man talked steadily his whole life long he’d only chip at it, it is so buried, so much as the earth out of which any stone comes, to be carved.” 9 Or as Brent Edwards in Epistrophies quotes from Wilson Harris’s 1965 novel The Eye of the Scarecrow: “Language is one’s medium of the vision of consciousness . . . Whatever sympathy one may feel for a concrete poetry . . . the original grain or grains of language cannot be trapped or proven. It is the sheer mystery—the impossibility of trapping its own grain—on which poetry lives and thrives.” 10 Indeed, implicit in this discussion are two different, if overlapping, sets of

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poetics that arise in mid-twentieth century, namely Objectivist and Projectivist orientations. While there is, in fact, considerable overlap in these poetics, the postulations that have predominated in each case ally closely with their basic names. Projectivist poetics are called on for their articulation of agency; objectivist poetics concern themselves with thingness, the actualities of world and word. Drawing on Zukofsky’s statements with respect to his objectivist poetics, Mark Scroggins summarizes, “‘Thinking with things as they exist’ demands a fidelity to both the objects of the poet’s perceptions and the words with which the poet deals.” 11 And while one can find pronouncements in Olson in his comments on “objectism” that overlap with Scroggins summation of objectivist poetics, his poetics are most often engaged with respect to poetic agency: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader” and “ONE PERCEPTION MUST . . . DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.” 12 Michael Davidson in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word succinctly indicates the doubleness of poetry by drawing attention to the “poem’s liminal status as a ghost—part material apparatus and part projection.” 13 It is my contention, as I will explore further, that the medium of language allies closely with Projectivist orientations that have received delimited and debased evaluations as narrowly “speech-based” poetics, when in fact they involve complex relationships to language production. By thinking of language as a medium rather than a material, at least three different orientations toward the poet and poetry pertain: (1) Language as materiality inclines us toward thinking of the poet as an agent acting on language, whereas language as a medium prompts us toward conceiving the poet as a medium on whom language acts. While the poet as a medium is not a new concept, it is newly engaged when aligned with avant-garde agendas, or a poetics in which the poet needs to subvert or alter traditional meanings. It makes way for Robin Blaser’s articulation of an “outside” and Jack Spicer’s “dictation.” 14 As Nathaniel Mackey writes, “Writing is a mix of saying what I mean to say and finding out what else the writing might say.” 15 (2) As a medium who mediates language, the poet also mediates diverse entities as formed by language, namely, myths, genres, tropes, thoughts. While indeed some poetries merely revere and allude to the past, poets who engage the past through an understanding of language as mediumistic in fact “make it new” by engaging this past and its multiple artifacts through their own present orientation. Thus, while Olson will accuse Duncan as being a proponent of “wisdom as such,” Duncan readily corrects for this misunderstanding: “Our wise is not more or less than our ways.” 16 (3) The concept of the medium of language more readily allows for affective relations, not

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only because it places attention on how language conveys emotions—language as conduit—but also how language has the capacity of altering emotion. In writing that is projectivist in which one perception must “directly lead” to the next, as described by Olson, the poet creates his or her poetic response through the impetus of an instigating projection and its introjection in an amplifying and concatenating signification. In counter distinction to DuPlessis’s description of Pound’s “epiphanic structure of feeling” or Perelman’s “light shining beyond the word,” feeling emerges through a paratactic poetic composition caught up in the ongoing energy of the poet as he or she composes a poem. While some might confuse projectivist with expressivist poetics, expressivist poetics conceive of emotional expression as emanating directly from the poetic speaker, whereas projective poetics presume a gap between the poet and his or her utterance in an ongoing poetic composition that makes intentional and libidinal leaps from one language phrase to the next. Theorists of poetry and language convey the ways that language as a medium is an important concept for poetry. Addressing what he regards in contemporary times as a problematic “theology of the signifier,” Giorgio Agamben is preoccupied with the moment of speech itself, of an inceptive speech in which event and utterance are inseparable—or what he calls the “primordial experience of the event of language.” 17 As such, he turns to dolce sil nuovo poetry as an emergent vernacular language in order to explore how a unification of language and referent occurs through an inceptive speech act: “What is lived and what is poeticized . . . is truly only what is made in speech” (81). Within such speech, Agamben emphasizes how “poetry and life are united . . . in a medium. This medium is language” (93). As a primary example of this speech, he draws attention to Dante’s poetics of dictation in the La Divina Commedia: “I am one who, when / Love inspires me, takes note, and / goes setting it forth after the fashion / which he dictates within me” (94). Agamben comments on how dolce stil nuovo poetry is a kind of “shamanism,” by which the poet experiences “the indissoluble unity of lived experience and what is poeticized.” He further claims, “Poetry matters because the individual who experiences [a] unity in the medium of language undergoes an anthropological change that is, in the context of the individual’s natural history . . . decisive” (94). Susan Stewart in “Lyric Possession” and Poetry and the Fate of the Senses draws attention to the ways that language as medium is a crucial concept for understanding poetry. Poetry involves not only will and intention but also mediumship and irrational contents. Stewart comments on how the poet is possessed of cultural inscriptions and voices that preexist her moment of writing and is both passive and active—possessed of prior formations and repossessing

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them through her own poetic creation. She writes, “On the threshold of the poem, subjectivity emerges and disappears, and is fulfilled only as it articulates our unfinished struggle toward fulfillment.” 18 For Stewart, the fact that the poet is a medium and language is itself mediumistic allows poetry to possess historical and somatic contents, often suppressed from consciousness. Stewart outlines a continuum of anxieties expressed by poets and critics alike with respect to poetry as written through too much will or insufficient will, beginning with the example of Plato who rejected poetry in The Republic because of how it unleashed what he regarded as wrongful emotions. Yet, poetry overly controlled by the poet vitiates what Stewart describes as its somatic content, which includes not only bodily but also suppressed psychic responses. Indeed, prior poetry as a set of available rhythms and figurative language enters into current poetry not as fixed imports from the past but rather as freshly received activations for writing poetry. She concludes, “By acknowledging the ways in which we are spoken through we are bound to hear more than we meant to say.” 19 One of the attractions that the nomination of language as material may have for poets and critics writing about poetry is that it draws attention to how the poet makes or crafts his “machine made of words,” to borrow from Williams.20 Yet, this activity occurs in and through a medium that is inherently unstable. The cultural critic Steve Shaviro has noted how the refusal to distinguish language from an empirical realm creates “a radical mutation in the space of our understanding.” 21 Shaviro is not drawing attention to the presumption that language constructs reality but rather is looking at a dispensation in the subject him- or herself in which language is inseparable from reference—a means of neither expression nor construction—but itself constitutive of reality. In making this point, Shaviro draws on Foucault’s The Order of Things regarding the double aspect of language as a cultural transcendent that preexists changing social configurations and as a mediator of what Marxists might call “the real conditions” of our existence: “Man is a strange empirical transcendental doublet since he is a being such that knowledge will be attained in him of what renders all knowledge possible.” 22 The very refusal to separate language from empirical existence is critical in poetic experiences of “dictation,” in which the poet receives his language as if from an “outside.” ———— I will now turn to consider three poets who have engaged the concept of language as a medium in order to define their poetics, namely Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan, and Nathaniel Mackey. Although all three have at times been critically

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acclaimed for what Perloff terms their “ambitious” “attitude to the materiality of the text,” each finds purpose and definition through conceiving of language as a medium. Indeed, as I will suggest here, each discovers his most advanced writing through engaging language as a medium. Initiating his search for a new poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pound entered a milieu in which artists practicing in different art forms sought to explore the medium of their art. Pound’s engagement with language as a medium brought with it a concomitant exploration of the medium of poetry itself as a set of inventions written within specific cultures and histories. Moreover, he did so at a time in which the dispensation of language was undergoing change within the society at large because of ever-increasing commodification that along with mass advertisement separated language from referent, thereby creating a changed dispensation for language as thing and object. Further, a bourgeoning set of global and transnational relationships brought to the fore comparative senses of culture and language and a corresponding commitment to translation, which also served to separate out language apart from what it communicated. While such concepts of language as signifier, signified and referent were not part of the intellectual currency of this time, Pound was alert to a changed sense of language, which eventually resulted in a broad-based understanding of these distinctions. For Pound, the activity of translation was on a par with the writing of poetry. He defined translation as a mediumistic endeavor, a “bringing over” or “leading across” of works from one time to another—to make them live, not through a scholastically correct translation, but through a wording that gave them the presence that he imagined they possessed for their own time and place.23 And while Pound was drawn to radical ideas regarding art forms surfacing during his time, he found Marinetti lacking on the basis of an insufficient involvement with his art as “a medium.” Pound claimed that there were poets of “conceiving” and “receiving,” and delineates these two types of artists: the artist who moves through his art, to whom it is truly a ‘medium’ or means of expression; and [ . . . ] the mediumistic artist, the one who can only exist in his art, who is passive to impulse, who approaches more or less nearly to the “sensitive” or to the somnambulistic medium. On the heels of this assertion, Pound corrects himself, stating that there are not two kinds of artists, but rather different “faculties” within artists, singling out being sensitive to the “somnambulistic medium” as a “most useful part of the artist’s equipment.” 24

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Important for Pound’s development of his ideas with respect to Imagism and Vorticism is an investigation into language as a medium and his concomitant commitment that he does not want language reduced to a set of “counters.” 25 Pound, who somewhat late in life credited his creation of Imagism to the example of Cavalcanti, in his early study of this poet, first isolates word from cadence but then recombines them: “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence” and “it is only, then, in perfect rhythm joined to the perfect word that the two-fold vision can be recorded.” Pound praises Cavalcanti for combining emotion with perception: “It is only when the emotions illumine the perceptive powers that we see the reality.” And he values him for his ability “to stand aside” and let intense “feeling” “surg[e] across something or being with which he is no longer identified.” 26 As does Agamben, Pound finds the emerging vernacular poetry of Cavalcanti superior to that of the later Petrarch. As Pound saw it, Petrarch wrote a poetry of “ornamentation.” 27 Agamben suggests that Petrarch aims only to produce “fragments” of a “vernacular” rather than a primordial speech: “There could be no clearer way to say that the poetic universe that gave rise to the Provencal and Dolce Stil Novo [sic] projects had by now been left behind forever. . . . With a definitive movement away from the troubadour dictation, life now stands on one side, and poetry, on the other side, is only literature, mourning the irremediable death of ‘Laura’” (85). In The Cantos, Pound attempts to reclaim this earlier orientation toward language. As he notes, words should be engaged such that they do not serve as preexisting “counters” but rather as mediumistic vehicles that as “radiant clusters” carry intellect, perception, and emotion beyond “formulated language.” 28 In order to see how Pound’s engagement with language as a medium comes to predominate in his Cantos, one only needs to compare writing in The Cantos with his Cathay poems. In Cathay, Pound’s poetic speaker acts as an agent who in seeing a world fixes it in clear-eyed acts of attention that cross over into nostalgia. In this early poetry, the poetic speaker is distanced from, not part of, the res itself.29 The poetic speaker in “The River Song” sees and then names: This boat is of shato-wood, and its gunwales are cut magnolia, Musicians with jeweled flutes and with pipes of gold Fill full the sides in rows, and our wine Is rich for a thousand cups. We carry singing girls. . . .30 In this poetic passage, each element is separate, and only through mention of “musicians with jeweled flutes” and “singing girls” does the ecstatic sense that

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Pound is after surface in the poem. In contrast, in Canto II, in a very similar scene, a sense of ecstasy is conveyed because the words combine in unexpected ways. The poetic speaker and the implied poet is not so much seer of the scene and deliberator of language as he is conveyor and medium. The aural, visual, and semantic elements of Pound’s medium combine to amplify emotion and sensation: Water cutting under the keel, Sea-break from stern forrards, wake running off from the bow, And where was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk, And tenthril where cordage had been, grape-leaves on the rowlocks, Heavy vine on the oarshafts31 In both passages, the ships are equipped with gunwale, which as the reinforced edge on warships where guns can be placed, are at odds with the ecstatic scenes presented. But whereas in “The River Song” the gunwales are beautified by being made of “cut magnolia,” in Canto II, they turn to “vine-trunk.” Moreover, in “The River Song,” while the sense of ecstasy or pleasure is delivered through the conventional presence of “singing girls,” in the later passage, it is derived from a metamorphosing scene dependent on the sound relations in the text itself. The unusual or antiquated word “forrards” with its double rr’s both stops the reader in her tracks and moves the poem past conventional wording, as gunwale turns to vine-trunk, punctuated by another, likely Pound coinage, of “tenthril” for tendril. The metamorphosis in this Dionysian scene of vine and grapes is brought about in part by the sounding of the words in combination with each other, a sounding and semantics so precise that they need to be conceived and received by the poet through a sense of moving forward and an inner ear that combines words as a transmogrifying medium. Of the three poets discussed here, Robert Duncan is the poet least associated with a poetry that attends to language as a material, so much so that his status as an avant-garde or experimental poet has been ignored or denied. Indeed, Duncan’s own assertion that he is a Romantic as well as romantic poet have further complicated his reception. Yet, Duncan’s contributions to fundamental change within and through poetry are highly significant. As I have argued elsewhere, Duncan alters the very modalities of gender and sexuality to make way for a homosexual love that is not an additive to a heteropatriarchal normativity but an alteration of it.32 Initiating his writing within a highly homophobic society, early

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on he writes, “Buggery stirs enmity, unguarded hatred / Cocksucking breeds self-humiliation,” but comes to inscribe “manhood is not something that’s there but is only there the way we then make love.” 33 This alteration was dependent on his changing poetic practice that involved briefly an engagement with language as a material but that subsequently arrived at an understanding of the poet and language as mediums. For Duncan, it is the sense of his own mediumship and mediumistic aspects of poetry that catapult him well beyond Olson’s charges that his approach to wisdom is as a static thing, “wisdom as such.” Beginning with The Opening of the Field and in his later volumes, he insists “that old orders [must] move to speak in the new” and we need be “used by things even as we use them.” 34 Moreover, he insists on a poetics of “total freedom in the interaction . . . by which the meaning of each term of the poem has been changed by the total composition.” 35 For Duncan, writing “bring[s] a foreign element into action.” He explains: The weaving or the painting of the writing is “subjective” . . . the “subject matter” is “objective,” is some thing or event . . . we reach out to capture to draw into a texture with ourselves. In the medium, our work and this thing become mixed, changed then. A ground appears as a new condition of what we are doing.36 Through writing the poet changes the “ground” that is himself and potentially the “ground” of his cultural and social reality. Duncan well conceives of the radical implication of what it means to merge subjective and objective orientations in language acts that refuse to distinguish a separate empirical realm as Shaviro, discussed above, delineates. In The Truth of Life & Myth, Duncan draws out the implications of this merger, suggesting a link among inspired poetry, shamanism, and psychosis, along with other outlier states of being: When a man’s life becomes totally so informed that every bird and leaf speaks to him and every happening has meaning, he is considered to be psychotic. The shaman and the inspired poet, who take the universe to be alive, are brothers germane of the mystic and the paranoiac. We at once seek a meaningful life and dread psychosis, “the principle of life.” 37 In linking paranoia and “a meaningful life” with “psychosis” and “’the principle of life,’” Duncan conveys how language as naming can cause reference itself to shift, in welcome and also troubling ways. By linking “psychosis” with “’the

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principle of life,’” Duncan conveys the extreme mobility between word and reference that creative response can enable—with the fate of whether the poet is a genius or a schizophrenic hanging on the thin thread of whether the shift in reality he or she presents is one others are willing to engage. Duncan’s writing can be divided into three separate phases, beginning with willful and universalizing poetic speakers, through a highly materialistic writing practice in Writing Writing and Letters, and finally to his most accomplished later works beginning with The Opening of the Field and Bending the Bow. After an initial writing in which the poetic speaker is himself the dramatic locus of the poem, Duncan turns to Gertrude Stein as a corrective exemplar in order to change not only his writing but also the self who writes. Ultimately finding a writing in which material properties of language determine the composition—in this case a Steinian attention to syntax and repetition—Duncan comes to develop a mediumistic poetic practice, one in which the poet is agent and medium and one in which aural and proprioceptive relations pertain to a much greater degree than in his preceding work In his 1951 Writing Writing, writing itself is its central subject and he mimics aspects of Stein: Beginning to write. Continuing finally to write. Writing finally to continue beginning. To overcome the beginning. To overcome the urgency. To overcome writing in writing.38 While Duncan finds alacrity and freedom in this writing, its unsatisfactory nature, given the writing that Duncan will come to write, is evident: Not in believing, but in pretending. Not in knowing, but in pretending. Not in undergoing, but in pretending. At last! At last! all of reality! We find we are only what we pretended to be. We realize.39 Duncan’s poetry in his 1960 The Opening of the Field and in his later poetry embraces a sense of the poet and writing itself as mediums. For Duncan as with Pound, this changed relationship to language allows for a set of concatenating semantics, visual, and aural aspects of language, and also a greater sense of physicality and proprioception. As Kathleen Fraser writes, for Duncan the

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page becomes a “graphically energetic site in which to manifest one’s physical alignment with the arrival of language in the mind.” 40 Important to this poetry is Duncan’s repeating series “The Structure of Rime,” in which his changed relationship to the sentence from his Steinian experiments is evident. Duncan notes the double nature of this enterprise: “I ask the unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the language as I make it // Speak!” But he also proclaims: “For I name myself your master, who come to serve. / Writing is first a search in obedience.” 41 While mediumship and proprioceptive relations are defining for many of the most known and revered poems in The Opening of the Field as well as in Duncan’s subsequent verse, these relations can also be observed in his changing relationship to the sentence itself as in “The Structure of Rime XI”: There are memories everywhere then. Remembered, we go out, as in the first poem, upon the sea at night—to the drifting. Of my first lover there is a boat drifting. The oars have been cast down into the shell. As if this were no water but a wall, there is a repeated knock as of hollow against hollow, wood against wood. Stooping to knock on wood against the traps of the nightfishers, I hear before my knocking the sound of a knock drifting. It goes without will through the perilous sound. . . .42 In this poem, Duncan moves with his writing as a “drifting.” It is marked by memories and sounds that come to him as if from close and far reaches. He himself becomes the receiver of the poem he is conceiving, and the words “knock” as if of their own accord. Nathaniel Mackey has been championed by contemporary avant-garde and experimental critics and poets alike that have touted his sense of the materiality of language and of history, while ignoring his overreaching commitment to the sense of the poem and language as mediumistic and the relationship to his cross-cultural poetics. Initiating his work at a time in which the critiques of race, class, and gender as well as coloniality and postcoloniality and the sense of material languages as being coincident with material histories were emergent, his profound commitment and insight into the medium of language as it intersects with the medium of music, most specifically world music and jazz, has been ignored, or not sufficiently heeded for its larger implications. To be sure, a strong sense of the materiality of language pronounces itself throughout Mackey’s work, present in his writing as intense aurality as well as in his sense

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of how language creates “noise” and “creak[s].” Yet, his astute awareness of the interrelationships among languages, cultures, histories, and art media turns him definitively toward the sense of the poet and language as mediums, responsive to “social othering” through what he calls “artistic othering.” 43 Two of Mackey’s most important early influences on which he has written at length are Duncan and Wilson Harris. For Mackey, it is precisely Duncan’s engaging the medium qua medium that draws him to Duncan, noting his “sense of susceptibility, of being subject-to,” a useful description for Mackey’s own writing (99). Moreover, he is drawn to the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris who he quotes in his essay “The Unruly Pivot: Wilson Harris’s The Eye of the Scarecrow”: “’The medium of language, the poet’s word (and this is essentially every man’s true expression), is much more than a question of emotional and intellectual usage or documentary coinage. In fact, to hint at a medium is to embrace a vision of patterns and capacities beneath and beyond every conventional game of one-sided meaning.” Mackey comments, “Language, Harris repeatedly insists, is the medium that allows [for] lightninglike leaps and . . . instantaneous bestowals of otherness (211).’” For Mackey, Wilson’s engagement with language as a medium is inseparable from his attempt “to free the Caribbean of a reductionist historiography” through his “spectral or phantom remembering of a dismembered past” that allows for “the possibility of fulfillment in the midst of presumed and even manifest deprivation” (165, 169). Marginalized by race and by nation, Harris turns away from what he terms a “protest novel” with its clear-cut representations to engage the act of signification itself. Mackey comments, for Harris “the protest novel perpetuates the same materialist assumptions as those that uphold the social order it seeks to reform” (195). He notes, “Reflexivity, metafictionality advances a warning the text issues to itself, a reminder that it not presume to have escaped the discourses it ostensibly critiques” (188). Early in his career, Mackey insists on the symbolic nature of language within an environment in which the materiality of language is just surfacing as the commanding intellectual and poetic paradigm of this era. This fact might be unremarkable; after all other theorists and critics also proclaimed the symbolic aspects of language in face of the perceived limitations that an exclusive emphasis on the materiality of language often entailed. However, these theorists were not also experimental poets. Moreover, Mackey’s contestation puts him at odds with one of the communities most receptive to his work, namely poets identified with “language writing” and other experimental scenes and the critics who championed them. In his much-anthologized essay “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” published first in Callaloo and included in Charles

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Bernstein’s The Politics of Poetic Form, he argues by way of analogy that language like music is symbolic by virtue of the fact that it does not exist solely as a set of material sounds. As a meaningful set of arranged sounds that connect us to the “invisible,” both music and poetry as material manifestations are cut off from what they express, a condition that intensifies their “speaking” of failed kinship (231–34). Mackey, alert to the traumatizing tolls of a “social othering” that leads to “social death,” finds in song “both a complaint and a consolation” (232). Poetry can approximate the most pained and intemperate song, but only when the poet “enter[s] language in such a way that one is into an area of implication, resonance and connotation that is manifold, many meaninged, polysemous. . . . It’s as if the language itself takes over. Something beyond the will, the conscious design or desire of the poet, is active, something which goes beyond univocal, unequivocal control.” 44 If both Pound and Duncan arrive at a changed relationship to language that brings with it a sense of the poet and language itself as a medium, Mackey initiates his writing career here. While Mackey is clearly drawing on their work as well as projectivist poetics more generally in the wake of New American and Black Mountain poetics, Mackey’s writing is also born of an attention to the African diaspora, and most significantly, African American music, including jazz. He establishes parallels between New American poetics and jazz in his essay “The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka” that bridges these two endeavors. Mackey comments that Baraka’s description of the music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, with its emphasis on “total area” as the determinant of form, is highly suggestive of the Projectivist notion of “composition by field.” 45 Mackey’s most material, perhaps most Stein-like gesture, is the lead poem in his first chapbook, Four for Trane, albeit as the title of this chapbook indicates is itself mediated. “Four for Trane” is Archie Shepp’s rendition of John Coltrane, which Mackey further mediates. In “Dearly Beloved,” the poetic speaker takes the place of the horn player as he Took between my lips Her cusp of tongue’s foretaste of Heaven (Heaven)46 Mackey replicates this verse three times, as if under the sway of Stein’s a “rose

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is a rose is a rose.” However, this is the first and the last time, he engages in an act of pure repetition as he comes to write all of his poetry through seriality and improvisation. Initially, Mackey’s mediumship depends on mediating jazz musicians, as in “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun,” his poetic speaker takes on the persona of John Coltrane, turning his own biographical appearance in this scene into a third person “the kid” who asks Coltrane to play “Equinox”: We play ‘Out of This World’ instead, the riff hits me like rain and like a leak in my throat it won’t quit. No reins whoa this ghost I‘m ridden by ....... Next I’m sipping wine while hearing my muse try to tell me which door I came in thru.47 As he continues to write his poetry, individual musicians cease to figure as mediating figures and he creates a new poetic métier combining blues and bebop along with other musical influences. In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 34,” he writes: Scratched voice the near side of silence, a writing before writing writing’s work was to announce, scorched air scoured, scuffed ........... So that hoarseness bore the Ahtt we were after, Ttha the most abstract ‘at’ we’d ever inhabit, tossed, low-throated


In these passages, Mackey is exploring the condition of Andoumboulou, or what he calls, a “rough draft” of humanity, as a set of sounds and noise, “the creaking of the word.” He comments on this “creaking” in Discrepant Engagement: “In

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its anti-foundational acknowledgement of founding noise, discrepant engagement sings ‘base,’ voicing reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positings of identity and meaning depend.” 49 Mackey is listening for exclusions as sound, as manifested in African American or other voices, as he writes earlier in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 34,” “gruff alterity rosining the cords / of our throats.” 50 “Rosin,” a resin derived from various pine trees, is used to increase friction on the bows of stringed instruments. It is also used in various products, including inks and perfumes. Rosin calls up “resonate” and sounds that are laden in such a way that their thick vibrations carry emotion. In Mackey’s “artistic othering,” he turns “hoarseness” into music, and associates it with “perfume.” By way of conclusion I wish to stress that it is not my intention to replace the concept of language as material with language as medium. Rather I wish to expand the sense of how language functions in poetry that aims to intervene in existing cultural and social orders but is inadequately discussed through an exclusive emphasis on language as material. Moreover, attention to the medium of language provides insight into poets and poetries who have been discussed primarily through language’s irreducible materiality. Elsewhere, for instance, I have discussed how different aspects of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s and Charles Bernstein’s poetry are made manifest through such attention, despite their professed commitments to objectivist poetics and the materiality of the text.51 The radicalness of poetries that have been directly influenced by New American and Black Mountain poetics or that aim to open up spaces for unacknowledged psychological and spiritual forces, such as by Will Alexander, Peter O’Leary, and Lissa Wolsak, are more aptly discussed by attending to language as a medium than as a material. Wolsak well captures the groundswell of these poetics in her “An Heuristic Prolusion”: “I question as if mine, separation, causation, otherness, placelessness, subjectivity, the unconscious .. proprioception, the generosity and violence of the entangled states, signature patterns of humans who are not explicitly acknowledged within the formalism of the everyday, in trans-anthropological mind-acts and their apartheids.”52 Wolsak’s expressed provisional possession, “as if mine,” and her emphasis on realities that would be either disappeared or flattened by adherence to the “everyday” are made manifest by listening for the poet and her languages as mediumistic. Notes 1. For disruption of processes of commodification, see Steve McCaffery, “Writing as a General Economy,” in An Anthology of New Poetics, ed. Christopher Beach (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 201–21; for historical palimpsests, see Rachel Blau DuPlessis,

The Material and Medium of Language 79 Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetries 1908–1934 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). 2. See introduction to this volume. 3. Marjorie Perloff, 21st Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 6. 4. Marjorie Perloff, Poetics of Indeterminacy: From Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981). Perloff makes this argument throughout this book. For her chapter on Pound, see 155–99. 5. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 84. 6. See, for instance, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990). 7. DuPlessis, Purple Passages, 85. 8. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 123. 9. Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, vol. 10 (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1996), 107. 10. Brent Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 152; Wilson Harris, The Eye of the Scarecrow (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 95. In presenting this paper at the 2017 Louisville Conference on Culture and Literature, Nathaniel Mackey initially drew my attention to this passage in Harris, which I cite from Edwards to show its ongoing contemporaneity. 11. Mark Scroggins, “From the Late Modernism of the ‘Objectivists’ to the Proto-­ postmodernism of ‘Projective Verse,’” in The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, ed. Jennifer Ashton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 17. 12. Charles Olson, Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966), 17, 16. 13. Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), xii. 14. Robin Blaser, “The Practice of Outside,” in The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, ed. Miriam Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 113–63; Jack Spicer, “Dictation and ‘A Textbook for Poetry,’” in The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 1–48. 15. Nathaniel Mackey, “Interview, Conducted by Jeanne Heuving,” Contemporary Literature 53, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 214. 16. Robert Duncan, The H. D. Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 205. 17. Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 55. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 18. Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 329. 19. Stewart, “Lyric Possession,” Critical Inquiry 22 (Autumn 1995): 63. 20. William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1954), 256. 21. Steven Shaviro, Connected, or What it Means to Live in the Network Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 186. 22. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1973), 318–22. 23. David Anderson, introduction to Pound’s Cavalcanti: An Edition of the Translations, Notes, and Essays, ed. David Anderson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), ix. 24. Ezra Pound, Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose: Contributions to Periodicals, vol. 2, ed. Lea Baechler, A. Walton Litz, and James Longenbach (New York: Garland, 1991), 14.

80  Heuving 25. “Counters” was a term used by T. E. Hulme to designate words used abstractly without “any sense of their relation to ‘actuality.’” Pound wrote in his notebooks, “Each word must be an image seen, not a counter”; “each sentence should be a lump, a piece of clay, a vision seen.” Jacob Korg, Winter Love: Ezra Pound and H. D. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 29. 26. Anderson, Pound’s Cavalcanti, 214, 12. 27. Anderson, Pound’s Cavalcanti, 214. 28. See n. 25. 29. Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1954), 473. 30. Ezra Pound, Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, rev. ed., ed. Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 132. 31. Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1983), 7–8. 32. Jeanne Heuving, The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016), 110–36. 33. Robert Duncan, The First Decade: Selected Poems, 1940–1950 (London: Fulcrum, 1968), 90; Duncan, “Interview with Robert Duncan, conducted by Steve Abbott and Aaron Shurin,” in Gay Sunshine Interviews, vol. 2, ed. Winston Leyland (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1982), 94. 34. Robert Duncan, The H. D. Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 94; Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties: Essays by Robert Duncan (New York: New Directions, 1985), 91. 35. Ekbert Faas, “Interview with Robert Duncan,” Boundary 28, no. 2 (Winter 1980): 4–5. 36. Duncan, The H. D. Book, 237. 37. Robert Duncan, The Truth of Life and Myth (Fremont: Sumac, 1968), 7. 38. Robert Duncan, Selected Poems, ed. Robert J. Berholf (New York: New Directions, 1997), 33. 39. Duncan, Selected Poems, 33, 34. 40. Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 186. 41. Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1960), 12. 42. Duncan, The Opening of the Field, 73. 43. Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 265. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 44. Nathaniel Mackey, Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 186. 45. Mackey, Discrepant Engagement, 31. 46. Nathaniel Mackey, Four for Trane (Los Angeles: Golemics, 1978), 1. 47. Nathaniel Mackey, Eroding Witness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 73. 48. Nathaniel Mackey, Whasaid Serif (San Francisco: City Lights, 1998), 104, 105. 49. Mackey, Discrepant Engagement, 19. 50. Mackey, Whatsaid Serif, 103. 51. See Heuving, The Transmutation of Love, 183, 184. 52. Lissa Wolsak, Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994–2005 (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 2010), 143.


Toward Transformation The Contextual Turn in US Poetry Elisabeth A. Frost The obligation of the poet is not necessarily to write “political” poems. . . . The obligation of the writer is: to take personal and active responsibility for his words, whatever they are, and to acknowledge their potential influence on the lives of others. —Denise Levertov 1


recently debated terms with a writer who questioned my use of the words “experimental” and “innovative.” Although on opposite sides of the aesthetic spectrum, both of us were wary of the term “avant-garde” as applied to the contemporary, not only because of its military origins but also because of its historical status, rooted in a political world whose boundaries have radically shifted. I conceded that “experimental” is only occasionally an apt label—for example, in the privileging of pure process or randomness. But what, I queried, was wrong with “innovative”? My friend took issue with the title of an anthology I coedited with Cynthia Hogue: Innovative Women Poets. One objection was that some of the poets had been writing for a good while, so to him their work did not seem to earn the label “innovative” (read: “new”). Even more fundamentally, he asked: isn’t all good poetry “innovative” (read: “inventive”)? I took issue with his self-evident “good.” I talked about canonicity and omissions. I struggled to describe the poetics I sought, one whose “innovation” could be seen as cultural intervention. In the end, despite my best efforts, I was left feeling I held a rhetorical zero.2 This sort of conceptual and terminological trouble has played out over at 81

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least the last fifteen years, as editors have created countercanons, and conferences have explored new poetries, while an increasingly diverse poetry scene has thrived in the United States.3 Rather than rehearsing those debates, I would like to argue that, as my poet-friend prompted me to consider, for an engaged cultural poetics of the sort I would like to explore, the term “innovative” does indeed rely too much on the idea of novelty on the one hand and formalism on the other. Instead, I would like to privilege what Denise Levertov called simply “the potential influence” of poetry on a reader—and how to prioritize such a process outside of a predominantly formalist set of assumptions. I believe there is a profound danger in fetishizing formal novelty at the expense of context and an analysis of circumstance and power. In her important essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Erica Hunt argued against such “fetishization of the new.” She pointed to issues that remain relevant today: One troubling aspect of privileging language as the primary site to torque new meaning and possibility is that it is severed from the political question of for whom new meaning is produced. The ideal reader is an endangered species, the committed reader has an ideological agenda both open and closed, flawed and acute, that we do not address directly. On one level the lack of address is a problem of the dispersed character of the social movements in this country at present; on another level it is the general difficulty of looking squarely at the roles we play as writers in forming social consciousness.4 Issues about form, ideology, address, and (most fundamental) “social consciousness,” all of which Hunt raised nearly two decades ago, are perhaps more relevant than ever in a post-Language age, when what is called “formally innovative” work risks accomplishing no more than repeating the received gestures of avantgarde predecessors without the social-political critique that defined these earlier radical poetics. Whether labeled as elliptical, hybrid, or conceptual,5 a poetics whose style or form alone breaks new ground does not necessarily accomplish what Rachel Blau DuPlessis and others have explored: the “cultural work” that poetry is capable of.6 I would also argue, with Hunt, that a critical framework that overemphasizes form—whether applied to traditional or “experimental” poetries—can be part of the problem. Instead, I would like to explore how we might identify and privilege the performative potential of a text, while cultivating a commitment to cross-aesthetic criticism. Without prescribing as to form, how might we name and draw attention to a range of works, using a range of aesthetic orientations—works that variously interrogate the structures of authority and power?

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I would like to name this poetry transformational—an aspirational, even utopic, descriptor. The particular means toward readerly transformation that I would like to explore lies in the cultivation, the theorization, of context (in a poetic text and/or its paratexts) and the self-conscious performance of subject positions. A contextualized, self-theorizing poetics, whether formally recognizable or formally disruptive, offers us a way to elide the historical battle lines between instrumental accessibility on the one hand and avant-gardist rupture on the other: the self-contextualization of a work and its methods can become a means of promoting cross-aesthetic practices, avoiding a reification of formal characteristics, and allowing greater access to new work for a maximum number of readers—which itself opens the possibility of readerly transformation. ———— Throughout the twentieth century, overtly “engaged” poetry of the left has embraced one of two approaches. In the first, typical of various “movement” writings, cultural activists assume that consciousness is transformed when people consume, and are moved by, the “message” of the work of art. It must be accessible; it must be direct; it must aspire toward transparency. Examples might be drawn from writing of the anti–Viet Nam War movement, some poetry from second-wave feminism, and the work of other identity-based movements.7 The now-familiar characterization of movement poetry includes the assumption that the traditional structures of narrative and lyric poetry best reach an audience, working in this way to inspire new awareness and, ultimately, political-­ social action. The other approach—that of the historical avant-gardes and their offspring— assumes “a link between radical form and political insurgency,” 8 privileging resistance to the conventions of “official culture,” as the situationists had it (and “official verse culture,” as Charles Bernstein later put it). The politics of poetic form assert that form is not neutral. The push against readerly complacency is evident in two poles: on the one hand, some draw extensively on a Barthesian “pleasure” and/or psychoanalytic approaches that focus on jouissance (enjoyment); on the other hand, an idiom about social change (often via the Frankfurt School, especially Adorno) privileges shaking up the reader. These approaches assume that a reader-listener can be freed of conventional engagements with language and, by extension, the norms of official culture, through prodding, even forcing, of a new perspective. Alternative forms clear the way as traditional ones cannot because, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis puts it, “rupture must reach into the places where ideology is stored”—including aesthetics itself.9

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I suggest that we can confound this binary between accessibility and rupture by privileging context and connection over form. Transformation begins, by necessity, within the response of a reader-listener. It requires a critical moment of contact, what Juliana Spahr has called “connectivity.” 10 In that connection comes the potential to cross (trans), to change—to make different, to discover the new (form). I am not implying that form be taken for granted—quite the contrary. But rather than focusing on a presumed requirement of either accessibility or disruption, transformational poetics assumes as its first priority an exploration of context. Specifically, a contextualized text situates a reader as to its own processes or sources, as well as its means of performing subject positions or viewpoints. In this way such a text—no matter its formal attributes—invites contact and reflection, a rejection of complacency, and a potential for changed awareness. Thus, to privilege transformation is to advocate (as such) neither transparency nor formal rupture, neither accessibility nor novelty. Rather, a commitment to transformation requires openness and an antidogmatic aesthetic stance. The discoveries of a transformational poetics are local. They are those of social change at the level of individual response, not of institutions or grand narratives.11 My call for this emphasis on transformation has, of course, its own contexts. It comes in the wake of an extraordinarily rich period of criticism that, over the past twenty years, has exposed the ways in which narrow aesthetic assumptions (including, sometimes, those rooted in identity politics) have shaped the reception of twentieth century and contemporary poetry, limiting canons and predetermining readerly expectations. The 1990s and after saw studies and anthologies introduce (or revive) work that had been excluded because of its theoretical assumptions or formal surfaces. In addition to retrieval of many radical modernist poetries, there were studies of Language writing, of “experimental,” “avant-garde,” or “innovative” writing by women, and critiques about poetics and race, all of which dramatically altered canons and reading practices. Virtually all of these efforts—including my own study The Feminist AvantGarde in American Poetry—assumed formal defamiliarization or rupture as a given of poetic “innovation.” DuPlessis theorized writing “otherhow.” Nathaniel Mackey called for a poetics of dissonance or “noise.” Charles Bernstein theorized and challenged the politics of poetic form. In this vein, Michael Davidson poses these questions in his more recent book On the Outskirts of Form: “How might it be possible to think outside the Subject, capital S, and its foundational role in projects of capitalist expansion? What forms of agency exist beyond the lyric ‘I’ but do not, in the process, jettison the collective?” 12 Like many of us who are committed to what we call the “experimental,” the “avant-garde,” or the

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“innovative,” Davidson rejects the traditional lyric “I,” assuming that the critique of the subject necessitates that we “move beyond” it. I would like to suggest that such a position cuts off important, indeed necessary, possibilities for cross-aesthetic poetics criticism. Further, in engaging in cultural poetics (or “socio-poesis,” as DuPlessis puts it,13 these critics have demonstrated brilliantly that the rejection of lyric and of existing poetic forms makes no sense outside of an analysis of context. As Davidson himself puts it, “It does no good to dismiss a given poetic practice for being retrograde or progressive without understanding the function that this operation has in a cultural setting”—or for a particular reader.14 To be specific, I would ask: What are we to make of the reality that for many readers, perhaps the majority, the lyric “I” still holds transformative potential and political efficacy? And that for many poets, the lyric “I” remains a means of engagement and connection to readers? In order to explore ways in which we can value the cultural work that poetry can accomplish, I would like to reframe Davidson’s question: what forms of agency, we might ask, are offered by the self-contextualization of aesthetically diverse poetic texts? Although superseded by many other frameworks, feminist standpoint theory is still useful in responding to this question. Beginning in the 1980s, standpoint theorists asserted that there exists “an epistemological as well as ethical obligation on the part of dominant groups to theorize as rigorously as possible their own position as socially situated subjects of knowledge.” It may also be helpful to revive Sandra Harding’s call for “strong reflexivity”: “a sense of the constitutive role of audience and reception [as] central.” Holding that “no single group enjoys a monopoly on literacy,” Harding suggested that “‘multiple competing literacies’” comprise US culture and that those with presumptive mastery of a given field are often “non-literate” in the crucial sense that “their own socially and historically situated positions remain inadequately theorized.” She argued that through reflection “the dominant position may itself become a positive resource in the production of a ‘more generally useful’ knowledge.” 15 Although formulated more than twenty years ago, Harding’s concept of strong reflexivity is still relevant and is especially useful today in poetry criticism. (Harding’s ideas undergird later approaches, including intersectionality, which shaped feminist critique in the 1990s, but I suggest that her work, which influences but often remains unacknowledged in literary criticism, is due for a revival.) How does a poetic text identify and theorize its contexts and communities, in its textual practices and/or its paratextual elements? What invitation is offered to a reader to become a self-generated subject of knowledge, assisted (instigated, welcomed) by the potent, experiential moment of the text? I argue

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that when context is self-consciously established, embodied, reflected on, theorized, framed, perhaps broken—then the text invites in the reader or listener, who is likewise enabled toward reflection and contextualization. By valorizing such a process, critics may attend to a range of poetics for their transformational potential—regardless of formal orientation.16 ———— What might such a poetics look like—a poetics capacious enough to embrace formal variety as it explores contexts and standpoints? It’s exemplified by what I call the “contextual turn” among a number of emerging and established poets in the United States. For many, this move away from either the presumed eternity of the lyric moment (which studiously avoids context) or a disembodied play with the “word as such” (which also risks universalizing) reveals a search to situate poet and reader, to provide connection through context in the interest of transforming individual consciousness and culture itself. This poetics at once acknowledges and critiques the workings of identity categories. As underappreciated precedent, consider the use of code switching among such writers as Gloria Anzaldúa, who pioneered a textual performance of shifting identities. Rarely acknowledged for her poetry, and almost never considered by critics championing “experimental” writing, Anzaldúa virtually created the field of border studies, and she did so as much through her radical, interlingual poetry as through her theorization of the mestizo/a or the hybrid writing practice she called autohistoria-teoría.17 In poetry, code switching—a concept borrowed from linguistics to refer to the alternation between two or more languages or registers—privileges context, acknowledging shifting identities and social situations, and it embraces multiple perspectives and knowledge bases. Culturally, code switching is emblematic of the ways marginalized groups function in positions of bothness: being bi- or multilingual results in new means of communication. Engaging with diverse languages (or other codes) recasts the issue of authority for a reader-listener. In the interlingual Borderlands, Anzaldúa combines theory with personal narrative, discursive prose with poetic reflection, and standard English with multiple other mestiza tongues. She takes the risk of reflecting on her own shifting subject positions and enables the reader to do so as well. As the reader moves among standard English into (and out of) “multiple Chicana/o languages,” 18 she comprehends (or not) as she goes along. Anzaldúa’s project was clearly both radical and transformational in its aspirations, but Anzaldúa’s interlingual poetry is rarely labeled “experimental” or “innovative.” In highlighting the complex

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relationships among language, class, religion, nation, gender, and sexuality, Anzaldúa makes subject positions both crucial and problematic in her work; she simultaneously affirms certain forms of group affiliation and challenges them. Readers of multiple standpoints—and speakers of more than one tongue—are thus invited in and invited to reflect, as a critical part of the book’s project. Later writers have developed their own poetics of code switching, from various formal and aesthetic vantage points—from Martín Espada to Harryette Mullen, from Bruce Andrews to Edwin Torres to Kimiko Hahn.19 Mullen, for one, explores extensively how our varying idioms and bodies of knowledge intersect, overlap, include, or inform those of others. Whether it includes lyric speakers or not, such work permits readers both to enter the text from multiple vantage points and to reflect on their own (shifting) standpoints. But code-switching is only one means of privileging context. In the remainder of this essay, I describe two books published in the United States in the last decade. They both exemplify the contextual turn in a contemporary poetics of transformation. I have deliberately chosen divergent works in terms of both publication type and aesthetic orientation: one is an anthology, while the other is a single-authored text; one is an apparently identity-based editorial project with mainly lyric orientation, while the other rejects the speaker-based assumptions of identity poetics and eschews lyric altogether. Yet both works have a goal of personal and social transformation; both works contextualize their poetic processes and offer diverse means of readerly entry into, and situation within, the text. In addition, both explicitly explore and problematize questions of identity and social position, using poetic and paratextual elements. In their divergences, these works illustrate the ways in which a cross-aesthetic poetics might be cultivated—one that privileges the ideal of transformation. ———— The anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability explores shifting and contextualized understandings of identity. It is based on the idea of self-­ representation, even as it complicates premises of “selfhood.” As Davidson and others have pointed out, artistic representations of physical and cognitive disability remain overwhelmingly symbolic rather than material, often marginalizing lived experiences of disabilities, even as they underwrite compulsory able-­bodiedness: “metaphoric treatments of impairment seldom confront the material conditions of actual disabled persons, permitting dominant social norms to be written on the body of a person who is politely asked to step offstage once the metaphoric exchange is made.” 20 Accordingly, how to represent personal, lived experience,

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as well as how to theorize notions of identity, remain urgent issues, especially in countering mainstream symbolic representations of disability with art by those actually living with disabilities. Seeking to do just this, the anthology Beauty Is a Verb (which includes an essay by Davidson, reprinted from Concerto for the Left Hand) embraces aesthetic diversity to reveal the ways in which a contextualized poetics may become transformational. Beauty Is a Verb is deliberately not arranged according to aesthetic rubrics. Instead, a given artist’s processes and formal choices are repeatedly acknowledged and reflected on. In addition to rejecting a formalist approach as principle of organization and selection of the works, the editors avoid essentialist assumptions about identity. Part of the reason is to underscore the awareness that “disability” must always be defined in and by a particular context. The disabled moment is one of continual flux, depending upon where and how a given subject, or body, is situated: this is the basis of the social model of disability.21 Although changes in our bodies can occur in an instant, thus altering our physical or cognitive abilities, far more decisive are the social structures through which both our public and our private lives are constituted. Accordingly, one may or may not consider oneself “disabled” at a given moment or in a given context.22 (Consider the now-classic example of a wheelchair user confronted by a set of stairs—a social setting that creates disability—as contrasted with that same individual facing a ramp, which allows access; in the latter scenario, the wheelchair user is nondisabled.) The editors of Beauty Is a Verb provide multiple contexts through which to encounter the diverse works collected. The very premise of the volume is that there is not—cannot ever be—“one” disability experience, interpretation, or identity, nor one aesthetic to represent it.23 The editors also explicitly privilege context by giving each poet space in the volume to reflect on their practice. The result is not only to contextualize each writer’s selected works but also to create an ongoing “strong reflexivity” of the type Harding advocates. The “poetics statement” has become (happily, in my view) far more common in recent poetry anthologies. But such contextualization and reflection are more urgent here, for the very reason that questions beyond the aesthetic or formal are at stake. Who calls whom “disabled”? To what extent and in what contexts is the term relevant or meaningful? How might a given writing practice engage someone who self-identifies as living with a disability and one who does not? What is the relationship between disability rights activism and the aesthetic? The social implications of such questions cannot be overestimated. The editors apparently did not dictate as to the style or form to be used in the writers’ statements. Some of the poets chose personal narratives, while others

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present more theoretical or abstract arguments about their work as poets and/or how (or whether) they identify themselves as living with a disability. (It is interesting to note the range of responses and tones that appears in the prose pieces; the category “poet” or “writer” is more stable in this volume than the category “disability.”) Some of the statements are many pages long, and the shortest—by Bernadette Mayer—is no more than a paragraph. All, however, are productively reflexive on multiple levels. In the ableist world, the “temporarily able-bodied” occupy a privileged position most often taken for granted. By contrast, the writers in this volume all acknowledge and theorize the conditions of contingency that govern not only their own daily experiences but also the very category “disabled” or “disability.” 24 As Davidson points out, “The very diversity and pervasiveness of disability argues for its centrality as an identity position that destabilizes identity categories altogether.” 25 This paradox—the very basis of Beauty Is a Verb—allows us to acknowledge the powerful workings of identity categories in experience, even as we also acknowledge their constructed or fictive nature. Evident in the repeated questions posed in the writers’ short essays, this self-consciousness makes the volume not only theoretically rich but also accessible from multiple vantage points. In a preface, Jennifer Bartlett reflects on attending a reading by Norma Cole, in which Cole performed a poem composed of words she could no longer enunciate following a stroke—a performance Bartlett describes as “alternately hilarious and devastating.” From this shared experience of humor and discomfort within the audience, from a moment of a profound shift in affect, Bartlett began to ask, “What did it mean to have a disability poetics? . . . What about poets, much like myself, who have a disability, but do not align themselves with identity poetry or the disability poetics movement?” 26 From the outset, Bartlett’s questions both acknowledge and problematize the identity politics approach that makes possible the shift from invisibility to greater access, even as it risks creating delimiting categories based on presumed experiences and like-mindedness among “everyone” living with a disability. As Bartlett explains, the anthology is arranged with a commitment to both aesthetic diversity and a range of standpoints. The sections of the book reflect both a rough chronology (beginning with “Early Voices,” including Larry Eigner and Josephine Miles) and an open-ended exploration of corporeal and linguistic questions in relation to shifting notions of disability experience (for example, two section headings are markedly suggestive and provisional: “Lyricism of the Body” and “Towards a New Language of Embodiment”). The prose statements, whether critical essays or personal narratives, also reflect on and complicate identity categories, even as they acknowledge the workings of such categories in the public and private spheres. Subtly exploring

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questions of race, class, region, and (dis)ability, C. S. Giscombe describes working as a railroad brakeman and engineer in central Pennsylvania. He asks of the on-the-job physical challenges he confronts and solves with low-tech fixes, “Is this disability?” (264–65). In a different vein, Jim Ferris asks what it might be like “To live in a world sensitized by a crip aesthetic,” but he goes on to state outright that “Bodies are not absolute” or “determinative” (90). Jillian Wiese resists Ferris’s term “crip poet”; she describes many such “first efforts” at launching/­ celebrating disability poetics as “essentializing, seeking to brand a common disabled experience” (139). At least twice in the volume, the frequently used metaphor of the phantom limb comes up for critique as a disembodied—and often ableist—symbol of otherness, which these writers refute by way of concrete, lived experience. Based on his own experience living with one arm, Giscombe calls the sentimental notion that “phantom pain is the body’s attempt to re-member itself ” “precious and tedious both”; Wiese finds the oft-used comparison of a lost loved one to a phantom limb “funny because my phantom limb is ticklish rather than painful” (144). In such moments, the category of experience is accorded authority, whether that experience be material or spiritual. Hogue describes rereading “Adrienne Rich’s poems and essays about having rheumatoid arthritis”: “I never took in the details until I was myself living them. Rich reported news I had no way to understand, because it was about a body’s experience I did not share. . . . Then her words became my guides to an expanded, although unasked-for, awareness” (307). The dialogues created in Beauty Is a Verb are grounded in corporeal experiences that are seen as always subject to reframing and change (Kenny Fries: “If there’s one thing those of us who live with disabilities understand, it is change” [104]). Accordingly, the debates both within and among these pieces offer a dynamic range of positions and convictions—in this way, the book explores what Lennard Davis describes as “the instability of the category of disability,” the idea that “disability presents us with a malleable view of the human body and identity.” 27 The strategies employed by these poets range significantly in stance and aesthetic, from narrative and lyric to more disjunctive forms. Virtually all of them complicate identity categories in ways that invite a reader to an instant of contact with subject positions and experiences that open the gates to mutuality— to a transformative knowledge. The poems are relational without necessarily employing a singular lyric “I” (although some do—notably Miller, Ferris, Fries, and Wiese, among others). In excerpts from a series called Autobiography, for example, Jennifer Bartlett engages with shifting subject positions through reflections on embodiment. The contextual turn in Bartlett’s work is present not in a narrative frame but rather in precisely rendered corporeal experiences.

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The title of the series—“Autobiography”—raises expectations of a “life story.” But we find none of the familiar features of autobiographical writing: narrative frame, chronology, the recounting of events. Still, Bartlett alerts us to the self-representation that she undertakes in this series—the title is far from ironic. She also affirms the importance of experience as a category from which to frame, or alter, knowledge itself. While not disavowing voice or testimony, Bartlett’s telling complicates the predictable versions of poetic confession that her title might evoke. In “Autobiography,” Bartlett continually defines things (“to walk means,” “to be crippled means . . .”)—because definition is the very basis of knowledge—and she mixes exacting descriptions of bodily movements with broad generalizations. But if definitions enable knowledge, then Bartlett’s definitions radically redefine it. Through what initially appears as paradox, the poet alters our understanding of terms too often taken for granted. The first excerpt from “Autobiography” begins: “to walk means to fall” (301). This apparent contradiction is immediately reframed: “to thrust forward // to fall and catch” (301; emphasis in the original). The next lines continue with assertions that perform authority, offering more complex definitions: “the seemingly random / is its own system of gestures // based on a series of neat errors // falling and catching” (301; emphasis in the original). The italicized text may suggest—like the word “gestures” itself—the performance of movement, just as the sibilance of “system” and “series” suggests likeness. Here, perception is changed, in that the “seemingly random” is its opposite, part of “its own system,” whose repeated “errors” comprise a process, one that moves forward even as it points us back to the first infinitive of the poem: “to walk.” Knowing—from her prose statement and bio in Beauty Is a Verb—that Bartlett has lived with cerebral palsy since birth provides an important (though hardly the only) context for reading this poem. As Bartlett explains in her statement, “As a poet with a disability, I have an ethical responsibility to challenge the norm of how society perceives disability: that it has been the most difficult thing in my life [hardly]! That I would prefer to be able-bodied [not really]. That I do not love my body or am less than.” Moving in a nonnormative manner may draw from the able-bodied words like “spastic” and “unwieldy.” But the poem informs us that such experience proffers a “particular knowledge” that is singularly beautiful: this movement “is its own lyric and / the able-bodied are // tone-deaf to this singing” (301). At once affirming lyric as the stuff of this off-beat “autobiographical” poem and asserting the beauty of a “different” body, these lines point to the lack of knowledge the able-bodied are privy to, reversing margin and center.

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The next poem pushes that knowledge from the aesthetic into affect itself: “to be crippled means to have / access to people’s fear // of their own eroding” (303). The crippled have “access” to bodily and cognitive knowledge that only nonnormative experiences can supply—“to translate / to record / to adapt” are all processes that reposition what is labeled “deviant” as sources of deep knowledge and, consequently, power. Just as significant, being crippled provides access to the “fear” the able-bodied involuntarily reveal. This insight into others’ emotional valences—through affects they (the temporarily able-bodied) are unable to control—ironically demonstrates connection, though one that the able-bodied strive to suppress or deny. Bartlett’s poem promotes awareness of such connection. Its form, that of lyric, is not especially disruptive. Still, while never essentializing identity, or reifying the category of experience, Bartlett claims and complicates positionalities for poet and reader alike. Beauty Is a Verb works through a predominantly lyric mode and a set of paratexts in order to establish and reflect on context and identity. Some recent examples of documentary poetics—a genre undergoing a rich revival—offer almost completely opposing strategies that nonetheless also create and sustain contextual readings, allowing for multiple standpoints. Engaging with issues critical to the present moment, Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary illustrates a very different transformational approach. One important precedent to Nowak’s activist work also serves as a useful contrast to his poetics. In her 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting, Carolyn Forché coined the phrase “poetry of witness” for writing emerging from situations of extremity, in particular political repression and mass violence, contexts in which the compact between individual and state has been shattered.28 The resulting writing functions as trace, evidence, a defiant voicing of trauma against oppression. There is no aesthetic agenda for Forché—a particular strength of the volume, in my view. Nor does the content of particular poems necessarily reflect violence. Forché’s criterion for the selection of poets in Against Forgetting is the biographical fact of the poet’s survival of political oppression. Hence the most fundamental meaning of “witness” is in play: the dual assertions I was there and this happened. By contrast, most documentary poetics do not privilege a poet’s personal experience. The impulse behind documentary poetics is in part to widen the idiom and points of reference for poetry—hence the frequent use of long poems, whether these record personal or political events. In both form and standpoint, then, the presence of evidence—of documentation—necessarily not only informs but transforms the work. Nowak is one of the most important recent practitioners. He argues that documentary poetics is “not so much a movement as a modality within poetry whose range I see along a continuum from the first

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person autoethnographic mode of inscription to a more objective third person documentarian tendency (with practitioners located at points all across that continuum).” 29 For many documentary poets, the influence of WPA-era art and photography is keen—especially Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznikoff, but also Richard Wright, Walker Evans and James Agee, and others. Poetic models often stem from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and Charles Olson’s Maximus poems.30 Naming Rukeyser, especially The Book of the Dead, as a point of departure, as do many who engage in or discuss the documentary impulse, Claudia Rankine considers the ways in which the documents of a given time and place might “allow the field of the poem to be open to all the ways we are domestically and globally intertwined.” 31 Significantly, Rankine’s “we” is inclusive—its subjects or speakers are not limited to those who have lived through a particular circumstance. Rather, the “we” Rankine names attempts to encompass new realities of global economy and traffic, offering multiple standpoints. Nowak’s several books are powerful examples of a documentary practice that refers to, and complicates, understandings of identities and standpoints. Coal Mountain Elementary owes an explicit debt to Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, in that Nowak documents mining disasters, sadly still very much in evidence more than half a century after Rukeyser’s project. Yet Nowak’s methods are closer to those of Reznikoff ’s Testimony, in that he eschews the poetic genre of dramatic monologue, never assuming the role of poetic speaker. As a polyvocal work, Coal Mountain Elementary invites engagement with a divergent set of discourses, whose authority the reader is invited to accept or challenge. It thus invites reflection—without directly offering such meditation or theorization in the work itself. Nowak’s content is completely culled from existing texts. In this respect, his book shares something with the New Conceptualisms, which similarly afford center stage to what Marjorie Perloff has called “unoriginal genius,” practices that rely on “appropriation, citation, copying, reproduction.” 32 Yet Nowak’s ethical emphasis, his contextual turn, does not allow us to mistake his book’s goal as primarily that of process-based or formal experiment. Coal Mountain Elementary positions the role of the poet not as “maker” but as researcher. This archival work, like Rukeyser’s and Reznikoff ’s, is the work of witness, giving space to the words of those who have been traumatized and exploited, and bringing this information to as wide a readership as possible. In this sense, Nowak returns to modernist forebears in a move that successfully extends Forché’s narrower definition of witness as based only in direct personal experience. He devises a poetics that allows him ethically to engage in what Shoshona Felman describes as “voluntary witness”—the work of one who, without lived experience, nonetheless seeks to testify.

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Coal Mountain Elementary is composed of multiple sources in often ironic juxtaposition. The central conceit of the title—its reference to “elementary” learning—comes from Nowak’s appropriation of lesson plans supplied on the website of the American Coal Foundation. Divided into three “lessons,” the volume begins each section with a portion of the Coal Foundation’s instructions to potential teachers of these activities: “Coal Flowers: A Historic Craft,” “Cookie Mining,” and finally “Coal Camps and Mining Towns.” Within the “lesson,” documentary prose and photos (the latter taken by Nowak and Ian Teh) derive from specific events: a series of mining disasters between 2005 and 2006 in China, and a single such disaster, an explosion in the Sago Mine of West Virginia, in January 2006. Sources are listed in an exhaustive works cited; those relating to the China incidents are journalistic, while those concerning the West Virginia disaster are “verbatim excerpts from over 6,300 pages of testimony” recorded in the weeks and months following the Sago Mine explosion.33 Juxtaposing photos, lesson plans, and excerpted accounts of each catastrophe, the book continually shifts voices and discourses. Yet we always know where we are located: as the works cited explains, italics denote the events in China, while boldface is used for the West Virginia disaster. With the various typefaces and fonts, as well as the alternation between verbal and visual information, Coal Mountain Elementary makes its strategies explicit, providing multiple voices even as it makes speakers and addressees clear throughout, firmly situating the reader in particular contexts. Alternating among sources, and among photographs, Nowak’s “unoriginal” text is a book-length set of code switches—codes whose meaning we may access through Nowak’s paratexts. The central irony lies in the perverse pedagogy of the Coal Foundation. Nowak presents, for example, an excerpt from a sanitized simulation of the mining process, addressed to classroom teachers: “Students will: / 1. participate in / a simulated ‘mining’ / of chocolate chips / from cookies, / using play money / to purchase / the necessary property, / tools, and labor” (69). This procedure not only puts students in the position of management (calculating profits) but also renders harmlessly sweet—literally—the deadly realities of mining. The juxtapositions in this section of the book are particularly jarring. One instance features a list of states (Montana, Pennsylvania, and so on) to be purchased for set dollar amounts by the students; this list parallels a West Virginia miner’s account of an “Excel spreadsheet” whose columns, created after the Sago Mine explosion, contain a list of “items.” 34 The word “item” is internal code for a dead body—a code that allows those in the company who are communicating by radio or print to hide the realities transpiring and to euphemize death itself. The miner explains the system used in the spreadsheet: there was “An item number,

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they just had more or less a code” (103). Names and numbers—like those of US states and sale prices in the students’ lesson—are itemized to hide the truth in a perverse accounting. Equally grotesque juxtapositions from the same section begin with the following page: A mine explosion left at least five miners dead in Xinjiang yesterday, one day after 34 workers were killed in a pit in Henan province. The accident came in the wake of a call from Premier Wen Jiabao for local governments to pay special attention to prevent industrial accidents. . . . Twenty-five workers were underground at the time of the blast. Only 11 escaped. (70) Ironically, this particular lesson plan is about not only profit but also reclamation—returning the land used for mining to its original state, a requirement rarely enforced, if it is even enforceable in the first place. Nonetheless, students calculate this fictionalized “expense”; as the instructions cheerfully point out, “Consumed chips / will eat into profits!” (112). Nearby in the text, a photo documents the experience on the ground. An aging “no trespassing” sign posted in a snowy patch of bare trees announces, “DUE TO ACTIVE COAL MINING, THIS AREA IS CLOSED TO ALL RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES” (100). Reclamation is nowhere in sight. As a reading experience, the text is not “disruptive.” The events documented from both parts of the globe proceed chronologically, providing a clear sequence against which the various juxtapositions unfold; the excerpted testimony and the news articles describe parallel scenes before, during, and after the explosions and the tallies of the dead. Throughout, the structure of each section relies on the page as unit of composition, likewise structuring a reader’s experience of the work: with the exception of the Coda, no segment of Coal Mountain Elementary (image or text) exceeds a page, and most consist of a brief paragraph or (in the case of the instructions for the lessons) itemized lists or short lines. The reader is situated in a recurring pattern, and the brevity of each page-long text or image lends it urgency, drawing attention to the alternation between the accounts based in China and those in the United States. The events are not simultaneous—but the similarity of one set of traumatic events to the other condemns the mining industry globally. Nowak respects the particularity of each context, refusing to alter or merge the sources in a way that would aestheticize them or erase the survivors’ accounts of their experiences. At the same time, he makes a case for global devastation—all in ironic dialogue with the mining industry’s own propaganda. Through the device of ironic juxtaposition, Nowak

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obviates further commentary; indeed, he obviates the role of poetic narration or lyric reflection altogether. Unconventional in form and voice, Coal Mountain Elementary relies on and also particularizes subject positions, just as it abides by traditional syntax and punctuation in its prose form. The series of speakers—in the case of the West Virginia site, actual recorded voices—provides a reminder of the power of personal narrative. These excerpts also reaffirm the importance of both speech and experience as categories in poetry (not to mention in a human rights context). Here, voice and memory provide a crucial means of connection with a potential reader. The very struggle to speak, transcribed verbatim, adds to the emotion and eloquence of these passages: I tried to check everybody’s—I checked everybody’s pulse. I felt for a pulse. And I think most of them had hemorrhaged, hemorrhaged out, and there was some physical evidence there that you could see. I mean, that I thought, you know, with the hemorrhaging, most of them had hemorrhaged and some of them, there was foam, a lot of foam, and a pulse. They were ice cold. And they appeared to be deceased. (127) This account captures, through the speaker’s halting repetitions, the difficulty of articulating trauma and the awful necessity of returning to the scene, remembering and recounting. It is critical to Nowak’s project that such witness not be aestheticized, even though it must, of necessity, be selected or edited by the poet. Nowak cites the words of those who survived, but, I would argue, he does not appropriate their language or their stories (for they are, indeed, “stories” in the traditional sense): rather, his quoted accounts bear witness without the violation that appropriation implies. This poetic document honors those whose survival provides an inviolate experience and a critical standpoint from which to recount the effects on individuals and communities of the devastations of the coal mining industry. Just as parallels exist between the cases in the United States and China, the potential for connection is forged between the text, with its many testimonies, and a reader. By paradoxically withholding authorial commentary, Nowak enables reflection and readerly affect. Nowak’s documentary poetics is certainly a poetry of witness. Its goal is transformation of the reader and of the communities addressed. It is a kind of witness that builds on, and also complicates, an identity-politics approach to testimony and to political poetry. Nowak refuses familiar poetic rhetoric, avoids lyric, and defies generic expectations. At the same time, he strongly affirms the need for reflection and standpoint, bringing the marginal into focus, and privileging context in the interest of connection.

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———— A while back, in my course The Body in Contemporary Women’s Art and Literature, a transgender student critiqued the way I led discussion during our unit on queer theory. I already knew that I had work to do to introduce queer issues more effectively to my overwhelmingly straight students. But I didn’t realize just how damaging my lack of awareness was until, in tears in my office, this student explained why so much about our discussion had devastated him—not just the lack of familiarity among his peers but also my struggle to define terms and to moderate insensitive comments about why anyone would “want to switch genders,” as one of his peers naïvely and devastatingly put it. I still need to learn how to notice and to transform such critical impasses into teaching moments, how to redirect sometimes well-intended but (at best) insensitive comments into useful discussion. I have a lot of work to do, because these class meetings weren’t abstract or academic—not for him, and not for an unknown number of his classmates. For this student, such discussions in class are about who he is and wants to become—they’re about his transformation. I need to think, and keep feeling through, how to become a transformational critic and teacher. A transformational critic examines contexts and communities, is inclusive, seeks to widen the circle of readers-listeners in the interest of instigating change. A transformational critic establishes standpoints, remembering Adrienne Rich’s concept of “re-vision”: it is transformative to reflect on and write about one’s practice, to position past work in new ways, to demystify criticism itself— not to change history (to “update” a past assertion), but to take responsibility. A transformational critic remains open to diverse aesthetics. A transformational critic seeks not to be smart but to be connected. A transformational critic—or poet—asks of a text not whether it’s good or new but why it needs to exist, how much courage its maker required, and what it can do. Notes 1. Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1973), 114. 2. The terms “experimental,” “innovative,” and “avant-garde” are often used interchangeably in a manner that suggests that each is no more than an imperfect placeholder. This tendency is evident in references to any of these terms in self-conscious quotation marks, suggesting they are used only as a qualified moniker, as in: “so-called innovative poetry.” See, for example, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 66–67. Peli Grietzer indirectly points to the same problem in his review of Against Expression: “It’s the latest news bulletin sent to the culture at

98  Frost large from the dense, hectic, vast, usually invisible sub-world of avant-garde (or ‘post-avant,’ ‘post-Language’ or ‘experimental’) poetics in America” (“The Aesthetics of Sufficiency: On Conceptual Writing,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 12, 2012, https://lareviewofbooks. org/review/the-aesthetics-of-sufficiency-on-conceptual-writing). Lynn Keller, among others, chooses a new word, perhaps to avoid existing, often fuzzy, delineations of “experimental” and “innovative”: see her volume Thinking Poetry: Readings in Contemporary Women’s Exploratory Poetics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010) for her use of “exploratory.” In my study The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004), I made a case for the specific, theorized use of the term “avant-garde,” extending from the period of the historical avant-gardes into the present. While I don’t disavow that argument, especially in the context of its writing (the late 1990s), I feel now that, like “innovative,” the term “avant-garde” places so much emphasis on formal defamiliarization that it risks rendering invisible the transformational potential of other aesthetic approaches. Hogue and I chose the term “innovative” for our anthology in part as a response to this formal divide—a line we wanted to cross. 3. By contrast, in “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” in The Boston Review (May 18, 2012),, Marjorie Perloff singles out Conceptual poetics, in distinction from what she claims is the otherwise “extraordinary uniformity” of contemporary practice—a description with which I disagree, given both the formal and the cultural diversity that recent decades have produced in the United States. Perloff describes that cultural range briefly thus, “Identity politics has produced a degree of variation, so that we have Latina poetry, Asian American poetry, queer poetry, the poetry of the disabled, and so on.” 4. Erica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, ed. Mary Margaret Sloan (New York: Talisman, 1998), 687. 5. See Stephanie Burt’s influential review of Smokes by Susan Wheeler in The Boston Review (Summer 1998), “Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-‘postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise.” See also American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, ed. David St. John and Cole Swensen (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009). The editors’ definition of hybrid, described on Norton’s website, is “a synthesis of traditional and experimental styles.” See also Craig Dworkin’s and Kenneth Goldsmith’s paired introductions to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011). 6. See “Manifests,” among DuPlessis’s numerous and invaluable essays in Blue Studios. 7. See Michael Bibby, Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996); and Kim Whitehead, The Feminist Poetry Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996) for excellent discussions of audience, aesthetics, and poetic form in various movement-based poetries. 8. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 6. 9. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 8. 10. See Juliana Spahr, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001). 11. What I’m proposing is indebted to the affective turn in critical theory and to some

Toward Transformation  99 of its roots in phenomenology. The anti-Cartesian direction of affect studies opens space to consider questions of embodiment and of reader response, while the related focus on biopolitics provides insight into the most vulnerable social positions. Disability studies has especially benefited from a phenomenological approach. See Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic (New York: Palgrave, 2011). Erevelles notes in her introduction that “the phenomenological argument—that the body is not just an objective, exterior institutionalized body or Korper (the body-in-­ itself), but is rather a living, animated, experiencing body or Lieb (the body-for-itself)” allows us to explore the “carnal property of knowing” (8). 12. Michael Davidson, On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 4. An exhaustive literature review here would be impossible, but noteworthy during the 1990s are writings by Perloff, DuPlessis, Keller, Mackey, Nielsen, Kathleen Fraser, Linda Kinnahan, Megan Simpson, Ann Vickery, Lorenzo Thomas, and many others. It is noteworthy that during this same period, there were relatively few studies of engaged poetics whose aesthetics and methods were more recognizable, more firmly based in identity politics. Works by Bibby and Whitehead are for this reason especially important. 13. DuPlessis, Blue Studios, 2. 14. Davidson, Outskirts, 6. 15. Elizabeth Hirsh and Gary A. Olson, “Starting from Marginalized Lives: A Conversation with Sandra Harding,” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 15, no. 2 (1995): 193–94. Although dramatically different in its theoretical origins and orientation, standpoint theory interestingly parallels certain Derridean and Deleuzian emphases on the epistemology of margins: positions of social marginality afford subjects greater levels and kinds of knowledge than those who occupy hegemonic positions. 16. My position extends DuPlessis’s observations concerning cultural poetics, specifically feminist poetics: “To call for, to notice, to gloss, to comment on the productive, generative presence of gender ideas of all sorts . . . in male and female writers is to be indebted to feminist cultural criticism and related modes of cultural poetics. . . . Feminism, gender curiosity, and related investigations of social location have changed the terrain of the possible” (51). 17. In this respect, I’d like to note that not all of the “old” identity politics poetry and/or activism was essentialist, naïve, or reductive; Anzaldúa helped launch both hybridity studies and queer theory. 18. Sonia Saldívar-Hull, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1999), 8. 19. See also Michael Davidson, Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008) for a discussion of codes and coding in performance art. 20. Davidson, Concerto, 1. 21. The editors clarify that throughout this collection, the social model of disability is assumed. The social model defines ability/disability in a given social context, in distinction from the medical model, which focuses only on an individual’s bodily or cognitive difference from an enforced normative standard. 22. Susan Schweik provides a useful summary of the history of the terms “disability,” “handicap,” and “impairment.” Most broadly, “impairment” continues to refer to a loss of function and/or an anatomical or psychological difference from a perceived normative

100  Frost model. By contrast, “disability” signifies “the range of social, cultural and environmental arrangements that stigmatize, isolate and oppress people whose bodies deviate from a supposed norm in form or function.” She cites Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997): “Disability ‘is an overarching and in some ways artificial category . . . The physical impairments that render someone “disabled” are almost never absolute or static.’ Rather, they are ‘dynamic, contingent conditions’” (Schweik in Beauty Is a Verb, 368, n. 1; citing Thomson, 15). 23. See Davidson’s concept of “siting disability”: the awareness that disability is in fact “a series of locations and spaces where political economy, bioregional differences, cultural representations, and medical bureaucracies converge” (Concerto, 25). Davidson emphasizes “local conditions” and the need to “situate a physical or cognitive impairment in a landscape larger than either the individual or the impairment” (Concerto, 32). 24. The editors focus on visible, physical disability, not cognitive or emotional disabilities or on neuro-diversity; this focus at once delimits the radical potential of the volume in terms of its construction of disability and allows special attention to embodiment and visuality. 25. Davidson, Concerto, 9. 26. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen, eds., Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos, 2011), 15. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 27. Lennard J. Davis, Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 25–26. 28. Carolyn Forché, ed., Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993). 29. Mark Nowak, “Documentary Poetics,” Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation, April 17, 2010, 30. Other practitioners include Giscombe, Brenda Coultas, Juliana Spahr, C. D. Wright, Jena Osman, Claudia Rankine, and Kristin Prevallet. 31. “An Interview with Claudia Rankine,” Jennifer Flescher and Robert N. Casper, Jubilat no. 12 (2006), 32. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 23. 33. Mark Nowak, Coal Mountain Elementary (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House, 2009), 179. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 34. In keeping with Nowak’s format, I preserve in my quotations the use of boldface and italics.


“To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion” Denise Levertov’s Bridge-Poetics of Eye-Witnessing in the Context of Her Friendship with Robert Duncan Cynthia Hogue

The poem opens to the war, with the war, which is distant, but “drags on.” Grimly the “soul” of a country “dwindles.” Language in that country is used by people with power to lie and manipulate in ways the poet identifies as both gendered and Western. A little boy in a laundromat tells a little girl to say yes when he asks her if she would like some gum. “Do you want some gum? Yes. Well, yes means no, so you can’t have any.” (I quote these words, but each time I type “gun” for “gum,” I think about leaving the error, but I correct it after all.) A major interviewed by reporters during the Tet Offensive explains and is quoted word for word to explain his explanation, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Repeating these words in quotation as poetic practice enacts Luce Irigaray’s revisionary understanding of mimesis as feminist cultural critique, although the poet herself would not have put it that way, perhaps would have denied that reading. Repeating such words in quotation in this and similar passages also links informal dialogues—child’s play, epistolary, and face-to-face conversations in the context of which the poet is writing her poem—with dissensus. Dissent and disagreement catalyze an exchange that helps to drive poesis. Dissent from the government and disagreement between friends. The poem repeats an aesthetic difference between poets who are friends and also engaged citizens in a country at war. The poet’s friend thinks her “soul” is in danger. The poet writes a poem that contains their dissenting views, which she considers, confronts, counters, which she worries until the terms of the words shift, until the poem’s conversation between friends has been converted into charged words, changed and transformed, the poem seeing one 101

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side, telling another, opening and open to response, responsive, responseable. The poem disagrees with itself, not to be disagreeable but so as not to be one-sided, opening to the other to whom it listens, attentively, respectfully, at the open-end of the line.1 ———— Reading Aaron Shurin’s trenchant memoir-essay on Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, both his teachers and “comrades” in poetry for the two decades prior to Duncan’s death in 1988, I pause at what he describes as “the feel of cultural seismology and the pressure of localized national events.” 2 He is recalling a particularly seismic moment in Berkeley in 1969, and I, a first-year at Oberlin College that fall, joined the marches on Washington in November 1969 and May 9, 1970, referred to by date in Levertov’s long poem, “Staying Alive,” written during the Vietnam War. Memories return as I take up this poem to prepare for class. My students and I embarked on a course titled Poetry in a Time of Crisis the week after the Tucson shootings in January 2011, in which six people were killed and many more shot. Among the dead was a nine-year-old girl getting her first civics lesson from a neighbor, who volunteered to take her to speak with her US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Tempe, where I teach, is one hundred miles north of Tucson. The proximity to the violence made it palpably present. I thought hard about whether I dared open the course with Dickinson’s “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” written at the height of the Civil War in 1863. Too soon, I thought. But, in the end, I decided, Just in time, and on that first day, I talked with nineteen young Arizonans, exactly the number shot in Tucson, about what in the world Dickinson meant when she ended that poem with the riddling lines, “For I have but the power to kill, / Without—the power to die—” (Fr767).3 We discussed the differences between reading the gun image metaphorically and literally, and between contemplating a distant and abstract war (Iraq, Afghanistan) and the violence in Tucson, the immediacy of which we could still feel. One of my students started crying; to my horror, I started crying, too. We were off to a dramatic start. We wrapped up the course discussing Levertov’s “Staying Alive,” in the very literal context of the Arizona legislature passing a bill to allow guns on Arizona campuses so that students and faculty might protect themselves should a Jared Loughner threaten us. To my students, by the end of that term, the exchanges in which poetry and poetics engage with real-world events were no longer onesided, irrelevant, or marginalized. But I’m jumping the gun.

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———— Flashback to Shurin’s neurological characterization of the era’s experiential contexts, as “those historical ganglia . . . waving, charged,” which gave to nervy, symbolic actions the sense of meaningful social empowerment. That charge, that gangliatic waving, that feel of the culturally seismic that catalyzed Levertov’s formal experimentation in a loosely documentary assemblage in “Staying Alive,” which includes the repetition-with-a-difference mulling over of a time-bound ultimatum, “Revolution or death.” 4 Round and round she goes, wheels could sing the words, because the slogan, made up of two anapests, actually lilts. She breaks them up, chooses “revolution,” but it’s no answer, for as her friend, the poet Robert Duncan reminds her, as she recounts in the following passage in the poem, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . revolution implies the circular: an exchange of position, the high brought low, the low ascending, a revolving, an endless rolling of the wheel. The wrong word. We use the wrong word. A new life isn’t the old life in reverse, negative of the same photo. But it’s the only word we have . . . (149, Levertov’s emphasis) As this passage indicates, for Levertov, the connotations of the word revolution are larger, or other, than the word’s etymological roots. The word gestures toward something for which we have no word, something that “has no blueprints” (137), no plans, no roads, and in fact, no stable definition. When Levertov ventures to define the word herself, in response to Duncan’s reminder, she constructs a circular phrase that seems at first tautological, too neat: Life that wants to live. (137, Levertov’s emphasis) But this riff, as it happens, is uncannily close to Adorno’s assessment of art’s mimetic capacity to offer us the “semblance” of experience in which meaning is not predetermined, what he calls “‘life that lives,’” as Robert Kaufman explains.5

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The notion of “revolution” for Levertov alludes to this sense of a living life, in which ethical and existential questions are intricated, such as those that Wallace Stevens raised in relation to art during the Depression, which Levertov quotes (and relineates) in “Staying Alive”: “How / to Live. What to Do” (139, Levertov’s emphasis).6 To think about “revolution” is not to answer these questions, but to ask them. In “Staying Alive,” Levertov thinks about the ubiquitous slogan, quoting it repeatedly so that it begins to change with each repetition, revealing a new facet, kaleidoscopic—say, the difference between “Revolution or death” (137) and “revolution or death” (140)—until we realize that for her the ultimatum is not one. Rather, it’s like the ultimatum in the Wife of Bath’s tale: it only seems to be so. Choose and everything shifts. “Revolution” is the wrong word. “Revolution” is a screen for revelation, two simple vowel shifts to transform the verbal energy, which then resonates with Duncan’s thinking, albeit at a different frequency. “Form is never more than a revelation of content,” Levertov writes him.7 “Revolution” is the wrong word, but it’s all we have, a paucity of language but not of the imagination. Over the course of the poem, the ultimatum of “Revolution or death” is transformed into an inclusionary vision, revolution and poetry (180–81). By the end of the poem, however, Levertov has chosen something less determinative, more open-ended: poetic praxis. The poem resolves simply, even bluntly, and in its un-song likeness, paradoxically: “the singing begins” (190). The Poet in the World

Reading parts of “Staying Alive” in drafts from 1967 to 1969, Robert Duncan begins to voice concern in his letters, as Paul A. Lacey recounts, about the erosion of Levertov’s personal life by her political activism, “the sacrifice” of her life as an individual to her “convictions” (Duncan, Letter 410).8 As Shurin explains, for Duncan, the concern he expressed about her poetry earlier in letters gelled at the historic “Poetry Reading for the People’s Park” in June 1969, at which both Levertov and Duncan read, and for which Levertov served as doyenne. Duncan watched appalled as Levertov expressed in moralizing outrage her frustration with being unable to control the audience at the raucous, Bay-area happening. He would come to see her not as sacrificing her life but her “soul” to becoming a demagogic political force (Letter 409, Duncan’s emphasis).9 He tried variously, gently, then insistently, as Albert Gelpi’s insightful introduction to the edition of the Duncan-Levertov letters thoroughly analyzes, to intervene. I am interested in this exchange about the disagreement between the two friends, and

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contemplate the distinction of Levertov’s project from Duncan’s, which I would like to approach by analyzing the particularities of their differing poetics of witness. Reading passages from the letters, I was first struck by Duncan’s frankness, and then, and this would be the thing, by his tenderness. In response, at first, Levertov was deeply, agonizingly thoughtful about his remarks having to do with her poetry, working through his reading of her.10 Shurin’s description of the Duncan-Levertov debate in the context of that long-ago poetry reading evokes the era’s charge, situates the clash of deeply felt, diverging social and aesthetic views in the world, and more specifically, in a culture and nation engaged in a war of choice. He specifies the complexity of the confluence of forces in play that evening, both the carnivalesque and the artist-activist, in order to cast light on Levertov’s dilemma. As doyenne, she is all seriousness of purpose, tone deaf to the evening’s performative camp, thwarted in her will to control the creative chaos. She desires a measurable outcome, for everyone, after all, had gathered to protest the paving over of the People’s Park. But there she is on stage, as Shurin describes it, with a giant pink sausage-like figure—he dubs it “the People’s Prick”—dancing around her as she threatens to close down the reading if it doesn’t exit the stage.11 Thus the poet in the world? ———— Thus, I would suggest, the female poet in the world: alert to the uses and abuses, the vagaries and conjuries of worldly—at-times phallogocentric—language. The flat rhetoric of militarized and political doublespeak, gender privilege, and rallying slogans meant for protest marches on Washington, not poems, alike are brought into her documentary poem’s frame for scrutiny as the poet reiterates the language, rendering audible and visible its secret agendas, its blind spots, and sometimes, also, its unlooked-for largesse of vision. In keeping records, recording, rehearsing, riffing, and amplifying, she discovers the poem’s form. As Donna Krolik Hollenberg notes, in an essay analyzing the importance of “witnessing” in Levertov’s poetry, the act of creating a documentary poetic was for Levertov “a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” 12 That is, she is less interested in righting the world, however moralizing she waxes on occasion, but writing it. As this definition of poetry suggests, for Levertov, a poem begins as “response,” responsive to the world and response-able to others (in the sense of the term theorized by the philosopher of witness, Kelly Oliver, of the ability to respond to another as a speaking subject as well).13 To get “the world right,”

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the poem must serve as a matrix in which text and world interact. In this way, poems that begin in the documentation of the outraged poet’s dissent, which track the poet’s own experiential and responsive process, formally contain the originating responsiveness, as well as the potential to move readers, the hope of opening their eyes. War against War

Toward the end of her life, the fierce cultural critic and writer Susan Sontag published a book titled Regarding the Pain of Others, which is an ethical inquiry into the visual aesthetics of violence and war, a meditation on war photography and war art, catalyzed by the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo (1992– 1996). She sadly observes—writing about a Weimar Republic–era German film, Krieg dem Kriege!, which included graphic film footage of combat and civilian injuries and deaths in WWI—that “artists believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” 14 To read the descriptions of Krieg dem Kriege! in the pages of Sontag’s book is viscerally uncomfortable, and engenders less the question Why war? than the one that Duncan posed to Levertov about her war poetry in the 1960s. Consider the much-debated passage from the poem “Life at War,” included in the collection To Stay Alive (1971), in which “delicate Man, whose flesh / responds to a caress,” still turns without surprise, with mere regret to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies, transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments, implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys. (121, 122) What drives her to include “the clotted mass” of such war imagery, Duncan asks her, which has neither been mediated nor transformed by art? (Letter 370).15 Sontag, like Duncan, raises questions about the intent of such imagery, questions that have haunted socially engaged poets of this era, too, who extend the documentary method of including graphically detailed imagery of violence in the rhetorical layering of their poetry. In Levertov’s case in “Staying Alive,” she creates a Williamsian assemblage courant constructed of letters and news, headlines and interviews, journal entries, portraits and poetic riffs, all seamed together by an engaged and critical investigation of language—“my one home, my Jerusalem,” as she calls it in the poem (142).16 Sontag observes that

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“reproaches made against images of atrocity” often sound like criticism of the act of looking itself, that since it is as “effortless” to look as it is to close one’s eyes, there’s little moral investment in the act (118). But Duncan isn’t criticizing Levertov for taking an artistically easy route. In fact, as Hollenberg notes, Duncan was initially sympathetic to Levertov’s first political poems, like “During the Eichmann Trial,” because he “recognized Levertov’s deep need to witness the Holocaust through her imagination as a condition of her own spiritual survival” after the war, which Levertov spent in her native England.17 He knows well the challenges of navigating the aesthetic terrain during the Vietnam War in which they are both trying, as he writes Levertov, to “bear constant (faithful and ever present) testimony to our grief for those suffering in the War” (Letter 383). It is Duncan’s aesthetic ethos that impels him to speak of their shared struggles to offer such testimony. But he does not define that ethos in relation to the public sphere, as Levertov does, balancing an engaged poetry with an antiwar activist’s agenda. For Duncan, poetic “testimony” is forged from an internal process that transcends the time-bound moment, in order to keep “alive the immediacy of the ideal and of the eternal” (Letter 383).18 But he appeals to a concern that both he and Levertov share: to feel for others “suffering in the War,” and he is exquisitely aware of the responsibilities associated with such a testimonial position. He urges Levertov to turn from too literal a self-regard, and to “‘alchemize’ that which is too-personal in her poem, her untransformed outrage, into ‘word-work’” (Letter 543). As Oliver reminds us, the terms “testimony” and “witnessing” convey “double” meanings, because they refer both to a legal definition, an eyewitness who testifies to what s/he has seen with her own eyes, and to the religious significance of bearing witness to that which cannot be seen with the naked eye.19 Oliver theorizes that the creative tension between the two positions—that is, between the acts of giving eyewitness testimony and bearing witness, in effect, “between the performative and the constative”—is productive of an alternative subjectivity: an ethical, testimonial subject characterized by “response-ability” to both historical facts and psychological truth (16).20 Levertov’s soul-searching response to Duncan’s concerns suggests that she is trying to create such an alternative subjectivity, which could bridge the divide between the eyewitness and the one bearing witness, between facts and truth. In order to do so, she forges a poetic bridge capacious enough to contain languages available to her in the public as well as private spheres in which she is engaged.21 As her explanation of her method to Duncan makes clear, she is trying literally to see what she cannot witness, in the historically situated position of an eye-­ witnessing citizen-artist. She describes her writing process to him as working

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to render a distant atrocity proximate, close, first and foremost in relation to her own sense of moral response-ability. Consider the final image in the passage quoted earlier from “Life at War,” which Duncan references as disturbing in their exemplary exchange: “implosions of skinned penises in carcass gulleys.” The line is not emphatically placed in the poem, falling as it does just past the middle of the poem, but its language underscores the shock of its meaning with hissing sibilants punctuated by hard c’s and k’s. Levertov has employed a lyric dissonance in order to contrast the striking musical elements with the poem’s horrific substance. This poem opens with the statement, “The disasters numb within us,” and thus, the poem’s later specificity works to bring feeling back to both the speaker and readers benumbed by the very abstraction that a distant war produces. Moral outrage surely charges her language in this instance, an aspect of the poem about which Duncan frankly cautioned her, on poetic grounds of diverging aesthetics and finally irresolvable differences that few dispute. As Duncan puts it memorably in a letter dated October 1971, “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it” (Letter 452).22 I want to suggest that the powerful effect of such graphic passages in Levertov’s poetry during the Vietnam War comprises her response to Duncan’s critique. The stanza discussed above is preceded and followed, to pursue this possibility, by a radically shifting tone to thoughtful reflection on the consequences of evil and its alternative, which she terms after Buddhism lovingkindness, in somber rhetorical measures: We are the humans, men who can make; whose language imagines mercy, lovingkindness; . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ........................... who do these acts, who convince ourselves it is necessary; these acts are done to our own flesh; burned human flesh is smelling in Vietnam as I write. (122) These stanzas annotate Levertov’s careful response to Duncan, that because of his questions, she has asked herself “in what way the horror at violence” has caused her to make herself “face it by writing it down in images” that force her to “see” (Letter 371, Levertov’s emphasis).23 The earlier, visually graphic stanza, which includes an image of blinding “witnessing eyes,” is a replication. As the passage suggests, for Levertov, one role a poet in a time of war fills is

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to see in the stead of blinded eyewitnesses, literally to see for those who have been blinded. In another sense, however, the stanza counters the willed blindness of a majority populace refusing to see, not only because the images are disturbing but also all-but-invisible, because the violence is perpetrated against a distant, othered people. Explaining to Duncan that she is not being “perverse” in her inclusion of graphic details of atrocities, she describes “wanting to get through one’s thick white middleclass skin what is really going on” (Letter 453).24 It is the white blind spot that drives the blindness that she wants the passage to counter—that which makes white privilege imperceptible to white people, and the privileges enjoyed by being white seem the most natural arrangement in the world. Rather than looking away, and rather than censoring images of violence against the Vietnamese population, Levertov makes them visible. She makes herself look at violence perpetrated by the US government in the name of all Americans. She faces it, lets it get in her face, rather than effacing it. At the same time, she is forcing her readers to face it, and compels our attention through the visceral words she chooses, precisely in order that the details not be mediated by beauty but remain immediate, ugly, and in a secondary connotation of “immediate,” close. She regards, views, pays attention, considers violence, as the OED defines “to look.” 25 Or, in her own more fraught words to Duncan: she “grieve[s], deplore[s], agonize[s], [but] without judging, because anguish doesn’t separate itself from compassion” (Letter 363, Levertov’s emphasis).26 To yoke “anguish” and “compassion,” in order not to judge but rather to feel with others who are suffering in that very instant in which she is writing, is the ethically engaged poetic that Levertov develops out of this act of not looking away, what I term her “bridge-poetics of eye-witnessing.” ———— Both Duncan and Levertov rise powerfully to the ethical, testimonial challenges of their times, but they do so on aesthetically diverging paths, as many scholars have thoroughly analyzed.27 In urging a poetics of vision, Duncan aligns his poetry more closely with the act of bearing witness,28 as Oliver has theorized it: to testify to that which cannot be seen (because the events are spiritual, internal, visionary). In contrast, Levertov practices what I am calling a bridge-­poetics of eye-witnessing, in a more literal understanding of seeing, akin to what Dominick LaCapra has theorized as the empathic “secondary witness,” the position of the artist-historian being present to events that s/he could not have witnessed (because they happened in the distant past or in a geographically distant

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place).29 As eye-witness, Levertov imagines seeing contemporaneous, actual events, which she might have seen had she been there, because they happened. Oliver contends that sight connects us, that we can think of it as constituting a “proximal sense like touch” (12). Like touch, the power of sight is sensory, “a circulation and exchange of social energy, which includes affective energy that moves between people” (14). Levertov’s will to see in her war poetry, the act of the imaginative eye-witness refusing to look away, exerts such affective energy from poet to page, and then, from page to reader.30 In this way, her poem contains the possibility of literally touching us. The War Comes Home to Us

The claim above would not have occurred to me, to be frank, except that I saw it with my own eyes in my class. The proximity to the violence in Tucson at the semester’s start made it palpably present to my students and me. By the end of term, as noted earlier, the Arizona legislature passed a bill to allow guns on college campuses (which, thankfully, the governor vetoed). By that time, I was teaching “Staying Alive,” a poem in which American pacifists and Vietnamese monks are memorialized for acts of self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War; the speaker includes, in passing, news about Bobby Seale’s trial specifically and the revolutionary Black Panthers generally; and a poetry class at Berkeley, depicted as joining the clean-up effort for a campus park, finds itself surrounded by police carrying clubs they will use, tear gas they will lob at students and faculty alike. To invoke Levertov, in a line that I had always considered melodramatic, but I want to suggest now is a line indicative of an eye-witnessing bridge-poetics in action, The War came home to us . . . (153). The imagination depends upon the ability to take itself literally.31 Our final class session on “Staying Alive” had to be held outside, as fate would have it, because a rat had inadvertently self-immolated in the campus’s main transformer and there was no electricity, no lights, no computers, nothing mediated at all. How many classrooms today, we realized, do not have windows or desks with space for real pens and paper because of computers! Most classes had to be cancelled, but a poetry class reading actual books could reconvene on the campus green, sit in a circle under a large tree, and talk. One of the students who had never spoken in class, who I wasn’t sure was doing the readings at all, talked at length about her volunteer work with orphaned children, her attempts to be socially engaged as a young poet, and her own soul-searching energized

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by reading Levertov. Others were compelled by the historical facts recorded in the poem. By happenstance, a political slogan from another era, which vividly evoked the zeitgeist of my youth to me, but was, in the classroom, utterly antiquated to my students (also to my young TA), rippled into life outside. Levertov’s charged current of waving gangliatic eye-witnessing poetry got in their faces. Imagine

I want to conclude by briefly returning to Robert Kaufman’s thinking on ethics and aesthetics, as a way to consider the ethical implications of Levertov’s bridge-­ poetics of eye-witnessing in “Staying Alive.” Kaufman theorizes that poetry provides occasions for ethical reflection, because poems create “the semblance of face-to-face encounters” between people, and also between people and art forms “that in their materials and making are imbued with others’ existences and intentions.” 32 Much like Levertovian eye-witnessing, I suggest, such a particularizing capacity—what Kaufman terms the “life-giving semblance-experience” that the lyric creates—enables the poet to make critically present that which is not, so we see it as if it were there, and feel it as if it were still happening.33 Kaufman works carefully through Adorno’s notion, in Negative Dialectics, that the lyric grants us “access to otherwise unavailable or unarticulable historical experience,” and that post-Holocaust, “art’s task [is] presencing suffering,” in order to approach Duncan’s poetics.34 It is, I suggest, an analogous task, the “presencing” of the suffering of a distant civilian populace brought on by Americans during the Vietnam War, that Levertov attempts through the bridge-poetic practice of eye-witnessing in “Staying Alive.” Consider the passage on the deaths of two pacifists who self-immolated in 1965 in protest of the escalation of the Vietnam War. Levertov represents their motivation as originating in divine or inspired outrage, but she does not otherwise rehearse their moral reasoning. Rather, the poem focuses on the signs of their embodied presence at the very moment it is attenuated: And the great savage saints of outrage— who have no lawyers, who have no interim in which to come and go, for whom there is no world left— their bodies rush upon the air in flames, sparks fly, fragments of charred rag spin in the whirlwind, a vacuum

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where there used to be this monk or that, Norman Morrison, Alice Hertz. (135) In this passage, the particular conflagration is transformed into a poetically multivalent image, just as the pacifists transform their outrage at the Vietnam War into a bold, symbolic act. What with the alliteration and consonance, the spun compression, music and image reanimate the fire, but not the dying pacifists. The poem makes real their annihilation, not creates the illusion or delusion that they transcended their deaths. The martyred pacifists are named, memorialized, if you will—Norman Morrison and Alice Hertz—but their physical bodies are turned to ash. What Levertov contemplates in such passages is poetry’s capacity to create a “semblance-experience” that precisely tracks what the pacifists eye-witnessed— the suffering of others, “the burned bodies / of other people’s children”—and protested with their dramatic self-annihilations. For Levertov, the poem is the occasion for ethical reflection upon such individual acts of protest, those who could, because of their imaginative empathy, no longer bear witness, for they could no longer bear to see at all: But we need the few who could bear no more, who would try anything, who would take the chance that their deaths among the uncountable masses of dead might be real to those who don’t dare imagine death. (135) Levertov portrays the deaths of the pacifists as a desperate staking of all on the possibility that one dramatically enacted death might make “the uncountable masses of dead” real to others for whom the deaths have remained removed. In a sense, the passage, too, functions as dramatically as the pacifists’ symbolic acts, for like the real deaths themselves, the absent-presence of their deaths in the poem comprises a moving semblance-experience that opens up a space in the text, the void where there had been a human being represented, for ethical reflection. Acknowledging that “I could never / bring myself to injure my own flesh, deliberately,” Levertov counterpoises another pacifist-activist, who offers an alternative model for reflection:

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . A. J. Muste did not burn himself but worked through a long life to make from outrage islands of compassion others could build on. (135) The lines characterize Levertov’s own struggle toward the transformative poesis that Duncan once urged of her, but on her own terms and out of her own lived-life. The “islands” are made from one powerful emotion, outrage, which has been traversed to make an equally powerful—and hard-won—sensibility, compassion, which I’ll define for this discussion as one person’s capacity to feel another’s suffering without claiming it as his own. The passage above is abstract but visually grounded. The image, “Islands of compassion,” recalls an earlier evocation of the “coral island” of language—­ “accrued from human comprehensions, / human dreams”—which war erodes “as war erodes us” (130). En-active “islands of compassion,” made up of words and deeds, do not erode; they accrue and grow. They are built by the efforts of the many into something more foundational and enduring than outrage. They function, as such, as eye-lands, for they dower a capacity to see. As “coral,” they are the visible—and living—sign of cumulative efforts. As choral—or, to put it another way, as semiotic chora(l)—they are audible in poetry, as Kristeva theorized about the revolutionary linguistic aspects of poetry,35 as it happens, around the time that “Staying Alive” was being written. As richly multivalent, the notion of “islands of compassion” enacts an imaginative resistance to the very closure they seem as image and symbol to embrace. ———— The lines, “to make from outrage / islands of compassion,” then, function as formal principle in the poem, wherein portraits of compassion accrue in a culturally seismic poetic environment. People and their actions form “islands of compassion,” bearing what the image holds out from the poem as a bridge into the world. If outrage charges the poem’s language, a compassion culled from the difficult act of not looking away, of eye-witnessing, sharpens its vision—in the hopes that, to quote Etheridge Knight’s signifying quip to Daniel Berrigan at the end of the poem, “’Maybe you see it all.’” Notes 1. Author’s Acknowledgment: I wish to thank two wonderful research assistants, Dr. Sarah Grieve and newly minted MFA and doctoral candidate Natasha Murdock, for

114  Hogue their expert and timely help in both the research and editing of this essay through many incarnations. 2. Aaron Shurin, “The People’s P***k: A Dialectical Tale,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, ed. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 73. 3. The abbreviation “Fr” is used to refer to Dickinson’s poems, followed by the poem number. Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). 4. See, for example, Denise Levertov, Poems 1968–1972 (New York: New Directions, 1987), 137–38, 140, 149. All poems quoted are from this edition, which collected To Stay Alive, the volume that included “Staying Alive.” Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 5. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, 1973; quoted in Robert Kaufman, “Poetry’s Ethics? Theodor W. Adorno and Robert Duncan on Aesthetic Illusion and Sociopolitical Delusion,” New German Critique 97, no. 33 (Winter 2006): 73–118. 6. “How to Live. What to Do.” is the title of a Depression-era poem by Wallace Stevens first collected in The Idea of Order (1935). As Adalaide Morris remarks, Stevens is referring to an existential as well as ethical conundrum that many modernist artists and scientists confronted in that heart-wrenching era. See Adalaide Morris, How to Live/What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 1. 7. Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1973), 13 (Levertov’s emphasis). Levertov also discusses this concept in Letter 453, written to Robert Duncan, and collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); hereafter cited by poet, followed by Letter and the number assigned in the Bertholf and Gelpi edition. 8. Quoted in Paul A. Lacey, “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, ed. Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 167–68. Lacey acknowledges his debt to Albert Gelpi’s “careful, detailed, and compassionate” analysis of the Duncan-­ Levertov friendship, including its demise, in Gelpi’s “Introduction: The ‘Aesthetic Ethics’ of the Visionary Imagination,'” Letters, ix–xxxi. For the present argument, drawn from my own feminist analysis of the exchange about the differences in the acts of poetic witnessing between the two friends, and the distinctiveness of Levertov’s project, the particularities of her poetics of witness, I am indebted to both Gelpi’s and Lacey’s superb works, on which I build. 9. Duncan is speaking specifically of a Public Broadcast Lab report on a Washington protest event held by the Rankin Brigade at which Levertov spoke: “Denny, you are splendid but it is a force that, coming on strong, sweeps away all the vital weaknesses of the living identity; the soul is sacrificed to the demotic persona that fires itself from spirit.” See also Lacey, “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” 168. 10. I take this opportunity to thank Paul Nelson for the link to his insightful essay on the epistolary exchanges about poetics during the Vietnam War between Levertov and Duncan. See Paul E. Nelson, “Evolving the Organic: The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov,” 11. I want to thank an important eyewitness, Ron Silliman, for an account that gestures not only toward a feminist, critical reading of this event but also offers trenchant

“To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion” 115 confirmation of Duncan’s compassionate friendship. He notes: “There is definitely a reading of that event that can see [Levertov] being threatened symbolically by this symbol of male power. Most of the people in the room—these were the days of the Angels of Light and the Cockettes with their cult of the rhinestone cock—saw it as a gay lib theater piece. She did more than try to shoo it off stage—she threatened to close down the entire event and was roundly, loudly booed for saying so—Duncan stepped forward and rescued her.” Ron Silliman, e-mail message to author, October 2, 2012. I’m grateful to Silliman for this crucial exchange. 12. Denise Levertov, from the epigraph to “A Cure of Souls” (Poetry Mss.); quoted in Donna Krolik Hollenberg, “Visions of the Field in Poetry and Painting: Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, and John Button,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, 43–59. Hollenberg contends that Levertov is a poet of witness whose “documentary impulse [was] central in the poetic sequences that marked her maturity as a social poet” (“Visions,” 44). 13. See Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 15–20. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 14. See Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 14. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 15. See also Lacey, “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” 164–65. 16. See Gelpi, who contends that among the significant differences between Duncan and Levertov are their approaches to language. He argues that Levertov was “linguistically referential,” a Romantic modernist, whereas Duncan was “linguistically self-reflexive,” a postmodernist (“Introduction,” Letters, xxv). 17. Hollenberg, “Visions,” 53. 18. See also Gelpi, “Introduction,” Letters, ix–xx; and Lacey, “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” 162–63. 19. See Oliver, 15–20 passim. 20. Oliver argues that what she terms “address-ability and response-ability” are the roots of subjectivity (7), and that people are othered, excluded from being speaking subjects, when they are not addressed as subjects who are fundamentally address-able and response-able, that is, not given the social space to address and respond themselves. Although beyond the scope of this essay, I would suggest that it is precisely such an insight that Levertov brings to her sense of what the United States perpetrated against the Vietnamese people during the war. It is important to note that Oliver theorizes an alternative subjectivity, one not formed by a dialectic of dominance: “We need to describe subjectivity in ways that support the normative force of ethical obligations to be responsible to others rather than exclude or kill them” (11). 21. For a discussion of “Staying Alive” as a poetic project comprising “a kind of Bakhtinian range of languages,” see Anne Dewey, “Poetic Authority and the Public Sphere of Politics in the Activist 1960s: The Duncan-Levertov Debate,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, 109–25. As Dewey contends, Levertov understands her engaged writing as an endeavor to counter “the greater authority of governmental rhetoric” by affirming the “power of the individual to shape public meaning” (116). 22. In this letter, Duncan famously cautions her on her moralizing poetic tendencies. For a nuanced analysis of Duncan’s complex and careful argument, see Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience,’” PN Review 112 (November–December 1996): 33–38. My thanks to Leonard Schwartz for discussing this aspect of the Duncan-Levertov debate with

116  Hogue me after I presented the earliest draft of this essay as a paper, a discussion that sent me back to the pertinent exchanges in the letters. See, for example, Leonard Schwartz, “Robert Duncan and His Literary Inheritors,” Talisman 23–26 (2001): 64–81. 23. See also Lacey, “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” 165–66. 24. Although Gelpi does not pursue the implications of this conscious breaking through the blind spot of white privilege on Levertov’s part, he is the first to quote this letter in the context of Levertov’s defense of her poetic methods. See Gelpi, “Introduction,” Letters, xxv– xxvi. 25. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., OED Online (Oxford University Press, 1989), accessed April 16, 2017, 26. See also Lacey, “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” 164. 27. See, for example, Lisa Narbeshuber, “Relearning Denise Levertov’s Alphabet: War, Flesh, and the Intimacy of Otherness,” Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études amémericaines 36, no. 2 (2006): 131–48; Michael Davidson, “Marginality in the Margins: Robert Duncan’s Textual Politics,” in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 171–95; and Tiffany Eberle Kriner, “Ascent, Continuance, Immersion: Hope in the Poetry of Denise Levertov,” Literature and Belief 27, no. 2 (January 2007): 83–110. Of the excellent essays in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, in addition to Shurin’s, Dewey’s, Hollenberg’s, and Lacey’s previously cited, I found especially helpful in sorting through my thinking about the poetics of witness in the context of these two poets’ historic debate Jose Rodriguez Herrera, “Revolution or Death: Levertov’s Poetry in Time of War,” 148–60. Herrera argues that it is in the ideological framework of relearning the alphabet and world through allegiance to change that Levertov’s slogan Revolution or Death can be best interpreted. He suggests that for her, “revolution [is] an evolution into new life beyond dead ends” (155). 28. See Lacey’s discussion of Duncan’s sense of the visionary, what he calls vision (166– 67). 29. On the “role of empathy and empathic unsettlement in the attentive secondary witness,” see Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 78–79; on the differing methodologies of writing history and writing literature about traumatic events, see 106–7. Hollenberg also touches on the relationship of LaCapra’s notion of the secondary witness to Levertov’s poetry of this era. See “Visions,” 56–58 passim. 30. As Hollenberg contends, a “penchant for emotional transformation and for synesthesia, the perception of one sense modality in terms of another, became important features of Levertov’s later poetics,” in Donna Krolik Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 30. 31. Probably a variant of a line from Wallace Stevens’s The Necessary Angel (“The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real”). But if I once had the source, I have lost it, for this note, written on my paper draft during the extraordinary, inaugural Convergence on Poetics symposium held at University of Washington at Bothell (September 27–30, 2012), could have been my own sudden insight or the momentary record of what one of the other speakers said during their talk. I wrote no credit line. The sentence floats by itself at the bottom of the page, waiting, as it happens, for the current repurposing. 32. Kaufman, “Poetry’s Ethics?,” 83. Kaufman is building here on Susan Stewart’s thinking about “how aesthetics and ethics are . . . processes of undetermined or reflective

“To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion” 117 judgment,” because literary forms enable us to put “a human countenance” on ethical, legal, and moral debates (Kaufman’s paraphrase, 83). See also Susan Stewart, “On the Art of the Future,” Chicago Review 50 (2004–2005): 298–315. 33. Kaufman, “Poetry’s Ethics?,” 114. 34. Kaufman, “Poetry’s Ethics?,” 102. Kaufman summarizes Duncan’s poetic project as follows: “Duncan’s commitment to lyric poetry and the aesthetic experience of it is, explicitly and repeatedly in his work . . . a commitment to the nothing [negativity] that is in fact the yet-to-be-determined: the poem’s commitment to the space of illusion or semblance that keeps determination and ethical possibility open for exploration, over against the delusion that the poem itself is already an ethical or political act” (118). In suggesting that his insights are also useful in discussing Levertov’s poetry, I should underscore that Kaufman is not arguing that Levertov is, in contrast to Duncan, under “the delusion that the poem itself is already an ethical or political act.” On the contrary, Kaufman focuses solely on Duncan’s poetry, and does not mention Levertov at all. 35. As Julia Kristeva argues in Revolution in Poetic Language, the “semiotic chora” is the archaic (and maternally connoted) linguistic register that underlies and unsettles the Symbolic (and paternally connoted) register, and is most evident in poetry, which contains in its prosodic elements traces of the “chora.” It is found most particularly in “the meaningful but nonsignifying elements” of the genre, like sound and rhythm (26, 27). For the full theoretical discussion, see Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

part 3

Cross-Cultural Imperatives


Ethnos and Graphos Sarah Dowling


wendolyn Brooks’s poem “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s,” published in her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Annie Allen (1949), rehearses the dramatic interplay of observation, performance, power, and consent that characterizes the ethnographic encounter. This poem is set in a cafe in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, and its speaker describes a group of white patrons who are clearly not regulars. Instead, they’ve traveled to Bronzeville to “observ[e] tropical truths / About this—dusky folk,” the other diners.1 “Boothed-in,” the speaker explains conspiratorially, “one can detect, / Dissect. // One knows and scarcely knows what to expect” (46). The intrepid observers anticipate “antics, knives . . . lurching dirt,” a “straining sexual soprano” and a “bass, partial, unpretty,” but they are disappointed by the regular patrons’ failure to provide an adequate show: “The colored people will not clown” (46). Instead of performing “antics,” the African American diners eat their “Express Spaghetti” and “T-bone steaks,” handling their silverware without “clatter” (46). They “laugh punily” under the gaze of the visitors and head home, leaving confusion and disappointment in their wake (46). Brooks’s poem turns on its doubled anthropological structure of observation, seeming at first to represent the aims and intentions of the tourists slumming at Benvenuti’s: “But how shall they tell people they have been / Out Bronzeville way? For all the nickels in / Have not bought savagery or defined a ‘folk’” (46). However, she also invites the reader to join in the speaker’s own observation of the interlopers. It’s clear from the outset that the speaker herself is studying and documenting the “boothed-in” white patrons, noting the dynamics among their group, their interaction with the unfamiliar environment, and their beliefs and 121

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values: “They stare. They tire. They feel refused, / Feel overwhelmed by subtle treasons,” she notes (47). The poem trains its own ethnographic gaze upon these visitors to Benvenuti’s; for the speaker, white anticipation and disappointment become curiosities and objects for study—we might even say that these sentiments “defined a ‘folk’” (47). As one might expect, then, Brooks (or her speaker, or the reader) gets the last laugh. Observation, performance, power, and consent have long been central to ethnographic writing and its attending debates, and have constituted pitfalls as well as opportunities in the importation of ethnographic methodologies and practices into innovative writing. Brooks’s poem stands as a classic example of one such importation; here the dynamics of observation and consent allow for a role reversal between observer and observed that makes whiteness an object of study and white tourists in Bronzeville representative specimens to be analyzed. The question that I would like to pursue in this essay is informed by Brooks’s reversal and implicit critique of ethnographic ways of knowing: what does it mean to draw connections between poetry and ethnography specifically—between poetry and the disciplinarily coded practice of participant observation, with its ethical rules, its history, its contemporary uses in market research, and so on? In this essay I want to examine several historical confluences between ethnography and poetry, in modernism, in the mid-twentieth century, and more recently. What I want to suggest is that the highly scripted roles of ethnographer and specimen, the practices of data collection, and the problem of consent have been taken up by various innovative writers representing a diverse range of artistic practices. In the works of Cathy Park Hong, Garry Thomas Morse, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, to name only a very few, ethnographic practices and structures have been called upon as textual strategies that lay bare sanctioned and unsanctioned ways of knowing, tracing the contours of who is allowed to be a creator of knowledge, and who is relegated to the position of specimen for study. In this essay I outline some historical and contemporary relationships between ethnography and poetry, and survey a variety of ways in which contemporary poets and artists have drawn upon the practices and methodologies of ethnography: structuring written texts according to ethnographic methods of data collection, appropriating from historical ethnographies that seek to describe and characterize the poet’s own group, and activating the roles of ethnographer and specimen in performance. In doing so, I hope to suggest that in drawing upon these disciplinarily specific practices of data collection, poets and artists undertake an examination of ethnography’s promise to record the world from a perspective that is not the writer’s own. In taking this proposition seriously, the writers I examine use ethnography to write the story of power,

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providing accounts of the apparently neutral position of documentarian. These accounts—whether serious or satirical—ask us to imagine where objectivity comes from and how it is imputed. The ways in which these texts “define the folk” exoticize the norm, bringing the blank center of objectivity under scrutiny, and offering trenchant critiques of the power of observation. Ethnographic Modernism

Ethnography takes its name from two Greek words: “ethnos,” meaning “folk” or “people,” and “grapho,” to write. Thinking etymologically, then, it would be difficult to isolate any non-ethnographic writing practice. But in a disciplinarily specific sense, ethnography is a qualitative research method whose purpose is to explore cultural phenomena. Usually taking the form of a field study or a case report, ethnographies are intended to reflect the knowledge system of a given cultural group. Employing the technique of participant observation, ethnographers follow an extensive code of ethics, and use forms, questionnaires, interviews, and their own insights to create a holistic study that can include a brief history, an analysis of the terrain, the climate, and the habitat. But ethnography is intended to present the world of the subject from the subjects’ own point of view; the ethnographer is supposed to record all behavior and symbol-meaning relations from a perspective that is not her own. Modern ethnography, as James Clifford argues, “cannot be separated from anthropology,” but “seen more generally it is simply diverse ways of thinking and writing about culture from a standpoint of participant observation.” 2 Although based in a specific discipline, then, ethnography is a widespread, capacious practice that crosses over into multiple disciplines, genres, and forms. Clifford suggests that because it is “constantly moving between cultures,” ethnography should not “aspire to survey the full range of human diversity or development” (13). For him, ethnography is “a hybrid activity . . . as writing, as collecting, as modernist collage, as imperial power, as subversive critique” (13). Clifford’s own first and best example of a modern/ist ethnographer is William Carlos Williams. The “doctor-poet-fieldworker, . . . watches and listens to New Jersey’s immigrants, workers, women giving birth, pimply-faced teenagers, mental cases” (6). He encounters their lives and worlds through a privileged participant observation, his position as a doctor, which is at once poetic and scientific. Moving freely into the homes and worlds of these others, Williams finds the material for his poetry. Indeed, many modernists were engaged in anthropological projects alongside or as key components of their artistic practices: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Story in Harlem Slang” includes scholarly apparatuses such as footnotes and a carefully compiled glossary; her short fiction was

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often based on her meticulous study of African American and Afro-Caribbean language practices and communities.3 Sterling Brown’s Southern Road attends to performances of racial alterity and the “forms of oppression that intervene to shape their reception.” 4 This work contributed to Brown receiving a leadership position at the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Collection and was informative of the strategies he innovated for documenting former slaves’ speech. As many scholars have demonstrated, the rise of modernism and the rise of anthropology are not only parallel in time but to a great extent also share their objects. If modernism sought to reconceive culture, so too did anthropology. Modernists and anthropologists alike were engaged in raging debates over culture: what counted as “culture,” or as “a culture.” Both flocked to sites where “culture” could be found, and more often than not to the same actual sites: Greenwich Village, the pueblos of the Southwest, and so on.5 Moreover, ethnography was a modernist enterprise insofar as it relied upon a decisive break with the past and with its systems of representation. The ethnographer, a scientific and heroic figure, professionally trained in the academy, struck out on a new horizon of culture and genre: “In addition to scientific sophistication and relativist sympathy, a variety of normative standards for the new form of research emerged: the fieldworker was to live in the native village, use the vernacular, stay a sufficient (but seldom specified) length of time, investigate certain classic subjects, and so on.” 6 Modernists and ethnographers imagined themselves as “off center among scattered traditions”; “the condition of rootlessness and mobility” that they each confronted came to be seem as an “increasingly common fate.” 7 More recent parallels can also be traced between ethnography and innovative writing practices, particularly following the crises of representation and legitimacy arising from the poststructuralist and postmodern turns in the 1990s. A “pervasive postcolonial crisis of ethnographic authority” has increasingly led researchers to question who holds the authority to speak for a group’s identity or authenticity. One answer to this crisis of authority has been to pursue a new mode of ethnographic documentation, what the anthropologist Ruth Behar has described as “blurred genres.” 8 As in the worlds of innovative literary writing, ethnographic or autoethnographic works incorporate a broader range of genres and styles, including memoir, fiction, and poetry, in order to avoid “the disingenuous literary techniques of positivist prose. Passive voice or declarative sentences, third-person constructions, and jargon as a talisman of authority, invocations of the royal ‘we’ or ‘they’—all abet magisterial, suspect approaches to authenticity.” 9 More recently, certain anthropologists and social scientists have even advocated the use of poetry as a means of collecting and representing

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data. This “ethnographic poetry” or “research poetry” takes a variety of forms, from well-crafted personal observations and direct, reportorial representations of subjects’ voices to adaptations of Oulipian Jacques Jouet’s “metropoem.” 10 Blurred genres, ethnographic poetry, and research poetry have gained a degree of legitimacy over the past decade or so and provide a counterarchive to my exploration here. What concerns me specifically, however, are the contemporaneous and parallel moves made within literary and artistic communities. Since the 1990s, artists and poets have made more overt and direct engagements with ethnographic methodologies, using these disciplinarily coded practices to raise crucial questions about observation, performance, power, and consent, particularly as they arise in cross-cultural encounters. Ethnographic Poetics

The disciplinarily specific practices of data collection employed by ethnographers—questionnaires, forms, audio and video recorded testimonials, interviews, and diaristic reflections—provide a wealth of nonliterary forms that can be incorporated into a literary text in order to dramatize the interplay among observation, performance, power, and consent. Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution draws upon such ethnographic practices and conventions: its foreword begins with a description of the linguistic practices of the speaker’s “people,” including a sample conversation with translations intended to acclimatize the audience to the nonstandard tongue and a brief history of the language’s unique development. Hong’s speaker also includes a description of her native informant’s specific and peculiar linguistic tendencies, as well as a description of the speaker’s own transcription practices and modes of data collection: “I . . . preserv[ed] her diction in certain sections while translating her words to proper English when I felt clarification was needed. I must also admit that some of her stories may be inexact due to technical glitches. During one unfortunate day, I left my cassette tapes out in my patio during a rainstorm. It has not caused irreparable damage but the static has obscured parts of the recording . . . I have marked such lapses with ellipses.” 11 This foreword directly echoes certain conventions of traditional ethnographic publications. If Hong’s speaker’s honesty seems to exceed the strictures of scholarly duty, this is because the language, the people, and the informant she describes are fictional. The language that the speaker has collected, and in which much of Dance Dance Revolution is written, is an invented argot called Desert Creole. The “native informant” figure, the Guide, is a former Korean dissident and the speaker in the poems. She conducts an idiosyncratic tour through a fantastical

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desert city comparable to Las Vegas or Dubai, explaining everything from the toilets in the St. Petersburg Hotel and her own childhood to the structure of the city and its various regions. The ethnographer figure, the Historian, is our guide to the Guide, and her framing prose texts (including the foreword) offer analysis, annotation, elaboration, and explanation, grounding the Guide’s difficult exuberance in moments of reflective meta-analysis, written in Standard English. The Historian’s prose is formal, even academic, whereas the Guide’s texts, always poems, are slangy and hilarious, and are written in a vibrant language that moves between English, Spanish, Korean, a variety of Anglophone Caribbean accents, Latin, and Middle English. The Historian explains that while Desert Creole borrows the structure of English grammar, it also incorporates “some three hundred languages and dialects” (19). It “morph[s] so quickly,” the Historian explains, that speakers’ accents reveal more about “who they talked to that day . . . than their cultural roots” (19). The Guide takes the Historian to all the most important cultural sites, from the dazzling hotels that take various world cities as their themes to the walled ghetto of New Town. The Historian, for her part, collects the cultural knowledge offered by her informant: “Dim call me voice o Kwangju / uprising’s danseur principal . . . but samsy, es funny, / I’s voice o Kwangju since dim multitudes who / cryim fo acceptance shun mine presence.” The Guide informs the Historian about her role in the historical Kwangju Uprising, and offers clues as to her role in the Dance Dance Revolution, a fictional event that Hong has named for a popular arcade game. Due to her political radicalism, the Guide is living in exile in the desert city, and thus is available as a tour guide for the Historian. When the Guide brings the Historian into New Town, she documents various speeches, as well as a variety of phenomena from the culturally mixed marketplace: hagglers, hula hoopers, songs from the dance hall, and an auctioneer selling copyrighted phrases. Although the Historian is ostensibly interested in meeting the Guide in order to learn more about her own family history, the poem “New Town” exemplifies Hong’s use of ethnographic conventions. This short prose poem contains twelve sections labeled with subheadings such as “Architecture,” “Language,” “Disease,” “Religion,” “Law” and “Resources.” The poems document the Historian’s observations about New Town, and clearly communicate the power and superiority that subtend her observer’s position, as in this exposition on "Landmark": The bridge spans from a coronary of streets to corpses white lime. The bridge spans over riverbed vanishing into riverbed. As exiled natives cross, they turn their heads so far back, their heads seem

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wired backwards, as if frozen in a paralytic fit. Tears trail down to the clefts of their asses. Even their sadness is absurd. (81) Although the subheading of this section, “Landmark,” suggests neutrality and objectivity in its description, Hong’s poetic prose makes clear that the Historian, in the position of observer, is at liberty to designate whose sadness is genuine and whose sadness is absurd. If the residents of New Town experience only “absurd” sadness, her own framing narrative, a quest to learn more about her family history, never receives such designation. While Hong allows us to view the Historian’s tale with a degree of distance and doubt, what is most notable about her experience is that so much of it conforms to recognizable, sympathetic tropes: a solitary childhood, the death of her parents, and so on. Crucially, this experience is never offered up for ethnographic scrutiny. Ethnographic Data

Thus far I have discussed the use of ethnographic structures and genres, and their particular uses in contemporary writing and performance. However, ethnography has also provided a rich archive of texts poets have contributed to and drawn upon in their writing. Perhaps the clearest example of this is ethnopoetics, which sought to reinvigorate poetry by radically expanding poets’ and readers’ senses of what counted as a poetic text. In journals such as Alcheringa and in collected volumes such as Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin, indigenous knowledge was collected and packaged under the sign of poetry, in hope that the linguistic structures and devices employed within these cultural documents would expand the techniques available to practicing poets. Many of the collection practices and research methods used by practitioners of ethnopoetics were similar to those used by ethnographers and anthropologists, but unlike ethnographers and anthropologists, the purpose of gathering ethnopoetic data was not to define the folk. Rather, the aims of ethnopoetics were aesthetic. Beyond ethnopoetics, however, the songs and lore collected by anthropologists, ethnographers, and practitioners of ethnopoetics have begun to make their way into contemporary texts by indigenous poets. Rather than returning to these archives as sources of tradition, or re-presenting the knowledge contained within them, or even offering a direct and simple critique of those who took their ancestors as specimens, poets such as James Thomas Stevens and Garry Thomas Morse are developing a poetics akin to Oswaldo de Andrade’s Brazilian modernist poetics of cannibalism.12 By appropriating from the works of earlier

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generations of ethnographers, whose studies aided in drawing indigenous peoples under colonial control, contemporary indigenous poets are returning to these archival texts in order to reactivate the dimensions of observation, performance, power, and consent. In Garry Thomas Morse’s recent book Discovery Passages, the author dedicates a poem, “Interpretative Dance,” to Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology. It begins, “Listen / (ethnographer of / bifurrrrrrrrrrrrrcate tongue) / listen nicely / & I will tell you / a tale so that you may know / of me / & my particular line,” taking on, if mockingly, the position of the native informant.13 This poem appropriates liberally from Boas’s writings on the Kwakwaka’wakw, in a kind of return gesture for Boas’s own appropriations from the Kwakwaka’wakw—he wrote shelves’ worth of anthropological work on this group. The poem is preceded by an archival image of Boas performing the Hamat’sa leap through a hoop; to remove this dance from its context is considered a kind of theft, the “loop- / hole in intellectual / properties” provided by the discipline of anthropology.14 The poem combines a traditional origin story with a narrative about salmon canning and the multicultural community that sustained the industry. The poem also documents the arrival of a butchering machine that came to be known as the “Iron Chink,” which replaced the duties of Chinese workers. As Lorraine Weir explains, both of these narratives explore “the interpenetrating worlds of land and water, and both tell of trickery though with different consequences.” 15 While the traditional origin story offers a narrative of healing in which the central figure, a young man, descends into the sea and becomes a forefather to a people, the salmon-canning story is a tale of theft, in which a way of life is lost. Like Hong’s shifts in voice between the Historian and the Guide, Morse’s poem juxtaposes the detached objective tone of the history of salmon canning with the seriousness of the mythological story. But he combines both with more tongue-in-cheek moments that seem to represent the myth-teller’s voice, or an authorial intrusion into the overly serious tone that frequently appears in textual renderings of such tales: “No one could see that sharpened bit of bark because the chief was rather fat. Although in the interim since time immemorial, First Nations’ diet has changed. Education abounds on the subject.” 16 Morse satirizes the social scientific will to know indigenous “populations” and the attribution of timelessness to preconquest indigenous histories. Later in the story, Morse writes, “the next morning, he was not / moving. Upon grey beach, his sister prodded / his deadness with a stick. Hey, people grieve in / different ways, eh.” 17 Preserving or reinserting the asides that an ethnographer would typically cut, Morse’s poem provides a more unstable, unruly account of Kwakwaka’wakw

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history, one that offers considerably more than the ethnographer’s appropriations. But, it is nevertheless based upon those same appropriations, and it seizes the role of observer and documenter and carries out its self-documentation from a position of true participation and informed consent. Ethnographic Role-Play

Perhaps the best example of an artist and poet who has substantively engaged with ethnographic methodologies is Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Like Brooks’s speaker in “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s,” Gómez-Peña studies the unmarked norm from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, Gómez-Peña describes himself as a “reverse anthropologist,” and has long used his artistic practice in poetry and performance as a means of exoticizing dominant cultures and of bringing them under ethnographic scrutiny. In his recent book Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy (2011), a collaboration with Roberto Sifuentes, the authors include an exercise called the “Poetic Ethnography,” which is described as “the most famous and risky” of the exercises created by their performance collective, Pocha Nostra.18 Paired participants, assigned the roles of “specimen” and “ethnographer” take turns multisensorially exploring each other’s bodies, and handling and manipulating each other while in performance mode (62). Specimens close their eyes while ethnographers begin to study them, one sense at a time. Beginning with sight, the ethnographers “examin[e] the specimen from different perspectives, angles, and distances . . . [trying] to find out as much cultural and social information as possible” (63). Proceeding through the senses of smell, hearing, and touch (but not taste), the ethnographers layer the senses into an exploration of “signs and symbols of specificity or difference” (64). “After about 15 minutes,” the authors explain, “the ethnographer returns the specimen to a neutral standing pose, and the specimen may open their eyes. The ethnographers should thank their specimens for ceding to their will” (64). The partners then reverse roles, preferably without discussion, and in the second part of the exercise, the ethnographer “begin[s] comparing [their] limbs, height, skin color, hair texture, scars, and clothing, the shape of your hands and feet with those of [their] partner . . . examin[ing] the bone and muscular structure of [the] specimen” (64). The questions the ethnographer is encouraged to consider evoke the practices of physical anthropology: “How do their shoulders, head and pelvis rotate? How does the torso move from side to side, twist, and bend?” (65). After the exercise has been reversed, “partners can share what they have ‘discovered’ about each other” (64). The well-articulated roles of ethnographer and specimen are crucial to

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Gómez-Peña’s own practice as well. Most famously, in a collaboration with the performance artist Coco Fusco, Gómez-Peña and Fusco installed themselves in a cage in various locations, from art museums to public squares to county fairs, presenting themselves as indigenous people from a previously undiscovered tribe, the Guátinau (“what now”). The two wore costumes including elements such as grass skirts, a luchador’s mask, feather headdresses, sunglasses, cowboy boots, studded leather bracelets, bone necklaces, breastplates, bikini tops, and face paint. Docents and public educators hired at the performance sites offered interpretation to viewers, explaining the location of the Guátinau’s island in the Gulf of Mexico, the meanings of the traditional stories told by Gómez-Peña in his “native language” (in fact an entirely nonsemantic sound poem), and the ritualistic elements of Fusco’s dance (which she performed casually, to rap music played on a boom box). These docents would even don rubber gloves in order to feed the “specimens” a banana, or for a small fee would allow audience members to do so. “Intrigued by [the] legacy of performing the identity of an Other for a white audience,” Gómez-Peña and Fusco created a work that radically challenges the audience’s ability and willingness to impute subjectivity to the “specimens” on display.19 Intended as “a satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other,” the two artists quickly discovered that “a substantial portion of the public” believed the fiction that they were presenting, taking the artists for real undiscovered Amerindians, really caged in the various museums and plazas in which the piece was installed (143). Drawing on Latin American traditions of satiric public spectacle in order to develop the piece and combining this with the proto-anthropological practice of exhibiting indigenous peoples in zoos, sideshows, galas, and museums throughout the West, Fusco and GómezPeña created an interactive piece in which, they hoped, audience members would be forced to confront their own notions of “discovery” and “Otherness” (148). Instead, the spectacle of Otherness the two artists presented retained a great deal of its sideshow character. For many audience members the role of the colonizer could be adopted quite easily: “The central position of the white spectator, the objective of these events as a confirmation of their position as global consumers of exotic cultures, and the stress on authenticity as an aesthetic value, all remain fundamental to the spectacle of Otherness many continue to enjoy” (152). Some tourists happily posed for pictures with the caged couple, while others reacted with outrage—one person, trying to protect the couple, placed a call to the Humane Society. In this respect, Gómez-Peña and Fusco’s performance was of a piece with Gómez-Peña’s wider practice of “reverse ethnography,” in which the artist

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observes and presents generalized conclusions about the audience through its interaction with a character played by the performer (143). Although apparently specimens themselves, performers in fact document and study audience members’ reactions to the spectacle. This becomes clear through the development of paratextual materials surrounding the performance: in addition to the documentary The Couple in the Cage: Guatinaui Odyssey (1993) by Fusco and Paula Heredia, which includes many interviews with audience members, Fusco and Gómez-Peña have both written extensively about the performance and about audience members’ responses. Rather than drawing attention to the bodily performance of ethnic otherness, the piece dramatizes the “colonial unconscious of American society”: “Our cage became a blank screen onto which audiences projected their fantasies of who and what we are,” Fusco writes (152). According to performance scholar Diana Taylor, the performance leaves the audience with no correct way to view the piece; rather than exposing a right and a wrong way, insider and outsider knowledge, the performances make the audience its specimen for study. The artists, as well as the viewers of the documentary and readers of the subsequent texts, learn a great deal about this other captive population. The highly scripted roles of ethnographer and specimen amplify and dramatize questions of power and consent. As caged performers, Fusco and GómezPeña were vulnerable to their audience: in their subsequent writings, the two describe being sexually harassed and groped, sprayed with irritating substances, verbally abused, and so on. Likewise, in the “poetic ethnography” the “specimen” is vulnerable to his or her partner and must “ced[e] to their will,” as the instructions specify. Gómez-Peña and his collaborators choose this risk in order to raise questions about or expose the ways in which certain subjects so easily become specimens (perhaps losing their subjectivity in the process) while others slide comfortably into the role of scientific observer, a detached spectator whose self-sufficiency is never in doubt. These highly structured roles provide ample possibilities for allegory, satire, appropriation, re-inscription, and reversal. Defining a Folk

Brooks’s biographers have frequently remarked upon the uncertain status of “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s” within Annie Allen. Brooks’s editor Elizabeth Lawrence initially recommended that the poem should be cut from the collection because it had “something reportorial about it.”20 Brooks freely acknowledged that the poem was reportorial—“poetically reportorial!” she said—and argued for its inclusion on poetic and sociological grounds.21 The poem stayed but was subsequently singled out for criticism. In his review of

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Annie Allen, “Bronze by Gold,” Stanley Kunitz complained that Brooks demonstrated “an uncertainty of taste and direction” and argued that “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s” displayed “a contest between decorum and indignation for the possession of her voice,” which characterized all of the poems in the collection “that touch more or less directly on problems of caste and prejudice.”22 It seems strange to imagine a critic arguing that any outside force should possess Brooks’s voice when so much of the discussion of her oeuvre has focused on her powerful use of apostrophe, and her use of this form of address to call into being otherwise impossible existences. But as Kunitz’s remarks indicate, when Brooks’s work turns to reporting whites’ actions and emotions, and especially to reporting or representing white entitlement, her white critics clearly chafed under the ethnographic gaze—as James D. Sullivan explains, “They had not yet, after all, learned to think of their own whiteness as a racial category.” 23 But Brooks’s poems insist upon the analysis of whiteness, and the representation of white people as a knowable, classifiable group, one that can be studied and analyzed, one whose characteristics can be known. In “downtown vaudeville,” another poem nearly excluded from Annie Allen (and actually excluded from the Selected Poems), Brooks again represents white reactions to a black performer: What was not pleasant was the hush that coughed When the Negro clown came on the stage and doffed His broken hat. The hush, first. Then the soft Concatenation of delight and lift, And loud. The decked dismissal of his gift, The sugared hoot and hauteur. Then, the rift Where is magnificent, and heirloom, and deft Leer at a Negro to the right, or left— So joined to personal bleach, and so bereft: Finding if that is locked, is blowed, or proud. And what that is at all, spotting the crowd.24 Like “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s,” this poem initially suggests that it will describe the Negro clown’s performance, and through its context we can infer that we will witness the performance through the young Annie’s eyes. Instead, “downtown vaudeville” represents the white audience’s “concatenation

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of delight and lift,” the “loud . . . dismissal” of the performer’s artistry, their “leer[ing]” at his “gift.” This poem represents an early introduction to white racism—sadly not the young Annie’s first, but thus far the most dramatic. The movement of the rhyming words across Brooks’s tercets, from the second stanza’s trio of “lift,” “gift” and “rift” to the third stanza’s “deft,” “left,” and “bereft,” tracks Annie’s response to the scene: initially her emotions rise, her anger (or the speaker’s) crescendos in parallel to the white audience’s growing excitement. Then, Annie’s emotions break with the crowd’s “personal bleach,” the sting and stain of their cruelty leaves her solitarily “bereft.” In spite of the solitary character of Annie’s experience, “downtown vaudeville” moves from the silence of the empty stage to focus on the horrible noise of the crowd’s response. Beginning with the unpleasant “hush” and the shock of the performer’s entrance, the poem transitions into a description of the crowd itself, which is “decked,” “sugared,” and finally “spott[ed]” with something. Unable to quantify it precisely, the speaker wonders “what that is at all.” The crowd’s “personal bleach” is an attribute or belief just beyond description, one that the speaker struggles to characterize. As the book progresses and as Annie Allen tells her life, she will have many opportunities to continue to study white people, to further develop her ethnographic understanding of this group, and to answer her own question. She will learn more about their “hoot and hauteur,” and about “what that is at all, spotting the crowd.” By the time she has progressed to “The Womanhood,” Annie’s ability to observe, document, and draw ethnographic conclusions about the white people she encounters has advanced to the point where she can “defin[e] a folk,” as she does while “boothed-in” at Benvenuti’s. By taking on the ethnographic practices typically used to classify, count, and pathologize people like herself, Annie, like Guillermo Gómez-Peña, becomes a reverse ethnographer, offering a study of what passes as the norm, the blank, bleached, unmarked, and unclassifiable standard against which all others will be measured. As James Clifford explains, ethnography’s promise is that it “is invaded by heteroglossia. This possibility suggests an alternate textual strategy, a utopia of plural authorship that accords to collaborators not merely the status of independent enunciators but that of writers.” 25 Its practices and genres of documentation, as well as the particular documents it collects and creates, build an archive of texts whose inclusion within a contemporary poetic project immediately calls up histories of domination, set roles of observer and performer, and the problem of consent. If the technique of participant observation is intended to blur the lines between specimen and observer, it seems nevertheless true that the question of who is studied by whom remains deeply fraught. The ethnographic

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poetics I have described—whether serious or satirical—begin from this question of observation, asking us to imagine where objectivity comes from and how it is imputed. These texts define the folk by exoticizing the norm, by bringing the blank center of objectivity under careful scrutiny and offering trenchant critiques of the power of observation. Notes 1. Gwendolyn Brooks, “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s,” in Annie Allen (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 46–47. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 2. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 9. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 3. Zora Neale Hurston, “Story in Harlem Slang,” in Rotten English: A Literary Anthology, ed. Dora Ahmad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007). 4. Todd Carmody, “Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism,” Callaloo 33, no. 3 (2010): 820–40. See also Beverly Skinner, “Sterling Brown’s Poetic Ethnography: A Black and Blues Anthology,” Callaloo 21, no. 4 (1998): 998–1011; 822. 5. Eric Aronoff, “Anthropologists, Indians, and New Critics: Culture and/as Poetic Form in Regional Modernism,” Modern Fiction Studies 55, no. 1 (2009): 92–118. 6. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 30. 7. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 3. 8. Ruth Behar, “Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres,” Anthropology and Humanisms 32, no. 2 (2007): 146–55. 9. Kent Maynard and Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, “Anthropology at the Edge of Words: Where Poetry and Ethnography Meet,” Anthropology & Humanism 35, no. 1 (2010): 2. 10. For more on the use of the metropoem in ethnographic research see Garance Maréchal and Stephen Linstead, “Metropoems: Poetic Method and Ethnographic Experience,” Qualitative Inquiry 16, no. 1 (2010): 66–77. 11. Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 20. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 12. I am indebted to Rachel Galvin for this insight. 13. Garry Thomas Morse, “Interpretative Dance,” in Discovery Passages (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011), 105. 14. Morse, “Interpretative Dance,” 105. 15. Weir, Lorraine, “Review of Discovery Passages,” Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 178–81. Accessed July 15, 2013, 16. Morse, “Interpretative Dance,” 108. 17. Morse, “Interpretative Dance,” 109. 18. Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy (London: Routledge, 2011), 62. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 19. Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” Drama Review 38, no. 1 (1994): 143. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically.

Ethnos and Graphos 135 20. George E. Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1993), 78. 21. Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, 78. 22. Stanley Kunitz, “Bronze by Gold,” Poetry 76, no. 1 (1950): 54. 23. James D. Sullivan, “Killing John Cabot and Publishing Black: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Rot,” African American Review 36, no. 4 (2002): 558. 24. Gwendolyn Brooks, “downtown vaudeville,” in Annie Allen, 9. 25. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 51.


White Mischief Language, Life, Logic, Luck, and White People Aldon Nielsen

A Proxy

“Proxy”—someone authorized to act on behalf of another; an authority or power to act for another; a document giving such authority. Those are the defining terms as most of us first learned the word, though we now live in a universe of proxy servers. A proxy is a sort of trope. All metaphors, composed of vehicle and tenor, are proxy enactments. A persona is a proxy. A life time spent reading Ralph Ellison might well leave us believing that there was no more powerful metaphor for the human condition than race in America, while life tells us race is a quite literal lived reality in the United States. For reasons we might well wonder about, reader response criticism, whether the phenomenological or the psychological versions, took little note of the pressures race might place on reading practices. “Post-racial” American English is a repository for proxy formations assuming the place of race without ever displacing it. Proxy is the title of a wonderful recent book by r. erica doyle, published by Belladonna Press.1 doyle’s book opens with an epigraph from a 1997 book titled A Tour of the Calculus, by David Berlinski.2 Other quotations from Berlinski’s volume frame sections of proxy, authorizing, as it were, the metaphorical explorations of American life doyle offers. But it’s an earlier Berlinski book that frames my reading of doyle’s framing. David Berlinski is a former colleague from early in my teaching career. Not long after I arrived at San Jose State, I was told of a new professor who might share my interests in philosophy and literature. So it was with that in mind that 137

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I picked up a then recent book of Berlinski’s on display in the San Jose State campus bookstore. Berlinski was not with us long at SJSU. I gather he was not entirely happy with his time at the university. Shortly after his departure he published a thinly veiled fiction in Heterodoxy, the squibulous, sometimes scurrilous paper launched by David Horowitz and company in their wars against America’s tenured radicals, a short, sort of story, titled, I seem to recall, “Old Hose.” 3 I had not seen Berlinski after his departure from San Jose State, but found him on my television set one day when the book channel broadcast a talk he was giving at the Discovery Institute, where he was now employed. Turns out he had taken to writing such works as The Deniable Darwin. But it was the earlier Black Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck that I have never forgotten. The subtitle had attracted my attention.4 I’d expected what Berlinski’s preface promised, “the moment in which various lines in an intellectual field of force collect themselves into a kind of dense knot” (xiii). You, like me, may read those words and think “charged detail,” or “objective correlative.” Here is an example of the sort of knot Berlinski ties for his readers. He is describing his visit to a restaurant: “Everyone ate rapidly, with the rather revolting headsdown posture that the Chinese adopt when alone, clicking their chopsticks as if they were castanets” (8). But it was Berlinski’s reflections upon his life as a teacher that burned the memory of this book into my mind. Take, for one example: “I had expected that my classes would be composed of sullen blacks, eager to offer me an act of racial revenge . . . but my students were New Jersey ethnics chiefly, and the blacks who came to my lectures treated me with sad, fuzzy softness” (27). I suspect those black students sensed something, something sorrowful they’d seen before. In another episode, Berlinski reports on a visit to the University of Puget Sound, where he was being considered for a position. On a tour of the campus with the Chair of the Department of Philosophy, the following conversation ensues: “Why do you want to leave New York?” Magee asked as we were walking toward Jones H. “No Schvugies,” I had said to a friend when asked precisely the same question. “You walk out in the street and there are no Schvugies walking around with one hundred pound radios glued to their ears.” For obvious reasons—Magee looked like the sort of man who might actually wish to clap some smoldering Black on the shoulder and exclaim moistly that he would be proud to think of LeRoy here as a friend—I elected not to pursue the theme of racial rawness. (42)

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But, of course, Berlinski did pursue the job, and did elect to pursue this racial rawness, right into the pages of this book and no doubt beyond. When I met him, Berlinski, like me, was teaching courses that San Jose State listed as satisfying the cultural pluralism requirements. Mind you, these quotations are not from some pre–Civil Rights Act era. This is the second edition of his book, dated 1988. I doubt that doyle knows any of this; she doesn’t strike me as the Deniable Darwin sort of poet. What interests me is the set of tensions that arise in a reader who has read those other Berlinski works and now reads them within and against doyle’s prose poems. “You hope to perform an autopsy. The dead and the nagging questions.” I think that reading doyle within the framing of Berlinski’s racial calculus brings us back to the thought-dead nagging questions. I think that reading Berlinski against the frame of doyle’s so much more thoughtful lines becomes an autopsy by proxy. “The entries are usually in black.” The Imus Effect A critic advises not to write on controversial subjects like freedom or murder but to treat universal themes and timeless symbols like the white unicorn. A white unicorn? —Dudley Randall 5

The late David Antin once wagered waggishly that from the modernism we choose we get the postmodernism we deserve.6 Kathy Lou Schultz has observed that the nature of Melvin B. Tolson’s relationship to modernism remains a subject of real contention some forty years after the poet’s death, and implied in that observation is the correlative that the subjects of African Americans’ relationships to both modernism and postmodernism are themselves equally fraught.7 In the shadowland between these observations we can remark the place where ignorant armies clash by night, where critical issues of race and racial issues of criticism have been brought to bear in such a way as

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to produce modernisms and postmodernisms that far too often re-inscribe all too familiar patterns. Tracing the histories of these contentions is fairly straightforward in the opening stretches. For the first decades of its existence as critical discourses, the study of modernism proceeded as if peoples of African ancestry were either subjects of or subject to forces of modernity; on hand to lend their art to the naming of the era (the jazz age), or to serve as the blank screen upon which a fabulous primitivism, much dissected in subsequent revisions, might be projected. Beyond that, scholars of modernity during the field’s long march to maturity conducted themselves for the most part as if black people had nothing to do with the modern, existed, as it were, in some atavistic Hegelian realm of history’s outside (see Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed). Poets such as Allen Tate and Louis Simpson routinely wielded the heavy cudgel of the universal against the efforts of black poets. Tate, for example, even as his own poetry featured the Confederate dead and “Negroes who cannot sing,” could manage only to commend Melvin B. Tolson for having assimilated the tradition, not for having produced or even contributed to it.8 Louis Simpson infamously remarked that Gwendolyn Brooks had no hope of becoming a serious contender in the ranks of modern verse so long as she took as her subject matter the purportedly parochial concerns of American Negroes.9 Brooks, in her turn, wrote, “The white troops had their orders, but the Negroes looked like men.”10 The timing of Simpson’s racially determined critique rendered it all the more remarkable, for it came on the heels of the Second World War, which had supposedly rendered us all more cognizant of the deadly outcome of racisms, and in the very midst of the revivifying Civil Rights Movement. (As is so often the case, what Tolson termed the “eighth ambiguity,” the ethnic, was to catch up to Simpson’s judgement when he later learned that he was himself part Negro.) What Tate persisted in overlooking, on display in the very poetry he was introducing when he spoke of Tolson’s assimilation of Western verse tradition, was Tolson’s insistence within the poem that African peoples had played a role in the bringing into being of central tenets of modernist aesthetics. It was Benin, writes Tolson, whose “ivory and gold figurines larked / space oneness on the shelf ice / of avant-garde Art.” 11 In the decades leading up to Tolson’s initial publications, black scholars, including Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, and C. L. R. James, had argued convincingly that the black New World presence had been the very condition of possibility for the rise of modernity, and yet their works were then found on no syllabi of modernism that any white scholars were likely to peruse. All of that began to yield with the advent of such phenomena as multiculturalism, African American Studies, and the growing globalization of literary studies. It is rare today to find a scholar of modernity who will not make at

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least a nodding gesture in the direction of inclusion, and yet the broad picture of modernism we find communicated to emerging ranks of young professors is one in which African American participation remains an attenuated and, there is no other way to put this, peculiar institution. This results from the ways, too many to count let alone delineate in a single essay, that race operates in contemporary criticism, both in the discussions of canonical white moderns and in the representations of any possible black modernism. On the former score, two quick examples will have to suffice. Some years ago, UCLA’s Christopher M. Mott made a presentation as part of the panel offered by the e. e. cummings Society at the meeting of the American Literature Association in San Diego, a version of which later appeared in the Society’s journal Spring. Introducing his talk on that occasion, Mott, who gave no sign of having consulted any relevant bibliography on the subject, announced that heretofore no one had seriously examined cummings’s work in relation to race and that he was there to fill that presumed lacuna. Mott’s project in this effort was to recuperate cummings’s racism by means of an analogy to, of all people, W. E. B. Du Bois. Mott argues of cummings, quite rightly, that “he too confronted the ‘problem’ of race,” oddly surrounding the word problem in scare quotes.12 Du Bois, according to Mott, set the terms of debate. Those terms were, by and large, the terms Cummings used in his investigation of race. Du Bois asserted the titular souls as the defining feature of black folk. Moreover, he defined soul and spirituality against the rationality and ingenuity of white folks. Cummings also represented soul, feeling, and spirituality as the defining features of black folk. At the same time, he foregrounded the exuberant spirits of black folk against a background of machinating whites. (71) This passage brings into full view what I have chosen to term anachronistically, “the Imus effect.” Don Imus and his defenders attempted to dismiss criticisms of his racist joking about the Rutgers women’s basketball team by ingeniously (perhaps demonstrating that ingenuity of white folk Mott points to) arguing that he was simply deploying the same terms that black hip hop artists have recorded. While I would never argue that race in and of itself is determinative of who can say what to whom, I would assert that racial context is indeed a part of the metalinguistic environment that constitutes and defines meanings. Which is simply to say that it is not true that Du Bois and cummings are in fact using the same terms. What Mott’s argument serves to obscure is the reality of passages in cummings’s work such as the following:

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some folks aint born somes born dead an somes born alive) but niggers Is all born so


While it is certainly the case that Du Bois wanted the soul and spirit of black America to be recognized on its own terms, one cannot imagine Du Bois writing anything remotely like this, and all a reader needs to do is to turn to the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk in which Du Bois is debating Washington on the subject of black access to liberal education, more precisely, to opportunities to exercise to the fullest extent the inherent powers of their own rationality and ingenuity, to see just how reductive Mott is being as he attempts to draw the two writers into a common line on race. While Mott, whose essay treats primarily of the novel The Enormous Room, is forced into a final acknowledgment that there is at least something of romantic racism in cummings’s work, he repeatedly attempts to ameliorate that acknowledgment and to recuperate cummings’s worst instincts. So, for example, Mott remarks that it is “an unfortunate historical coincidence” that “cummings’ emphasis on a playful, childlike spirit paralleled racist reductions of African Americans to children, to entertainment” (72). As any reader of cummings’s play Him can readily attest, it is far more than a coincidence; it is at the very heart of cummings’s thoughts on race. Rather than come to grips with what cummings is doing in any productive way that might further the crucial work of producing what David Theo Goldberg might term an “anatomy of racism,” Mott calls upon us to, in fact insists that “we must,” “assume that Cummings was fully aware of these racist overtones” but that he was engaged in a “project to reinflect the conventional, proper, reductive meanings of words and concepts” (72). And Mott again insists that in this project cummings “seems to parallel the (African) American tradition and the African American political agenda” (72). One wonders just what part of the African American political agenda is paralleled in the poem that reads: Clamored Clever Rusefelt to Theodore Odysseus Graren’t

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We couldn’t free the negro because he ant14 Even more to the point, one might think it incumbent upon critics who insist that seemingly racist language is, in fact, a subtly subversive deployment of racist tropes against themselves in the interests of ending racism to demonstrate at some point that such efforts at subversion actually subverted something, in the author’s own writings if nowhere else. While it may seem too much to expect that cummings might have, by means of subversive poetics, gone a long ways toward undoing the virulent racism infecting America in the modernist era, it shouldn’t be too much to hope that he could at least reinflect the conventional meanings of racist language in his own life; but as shocked readers of cummings’s letters and other casual writings are far too aware, he was given throughout his life to the most disturbing racism, even as he often wrote in favor of greater human understanding. It is that confluence of ameliorative stabs in the political dark with continued racist insult that we need to study and understand if we are fully to comprehend the role race has played in modernism, not some imagined antiracist long-term program that operates by means of repeated instances of hateful representations. But it would seem that many critics have been up to just such mischief as Mott makes in his essay. At another meeting of the American Literature Association, as part of a panel sponsored by the Wallace Stevens Society, Notre Dame’s Jacqueline Brogan offered to, as she put it at the time, redeem Stevens from charges of racism. Her primary challenge in the short version of her work that she presented that day was responding to comments registered by Adrienne Rich but, replicating a tendency seen in Mott’s presentation, Brogan did not bother to look past Rich’s immediate commentary to the critical sources that Rich herself had identified. Even in the far more thoroughly documented version of her essay that appears as the final chapter of her book The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics, published by the same press as the earlier critical work referenced by Rich, Brogan shows a remarkable disinclination to consult the broad corpus of extant critical work on race and discourse. In the preface to her book, Brogan speaks of critics who have “rejected” Stevens because of his purported racism and opposes herself to those critics as one who has “described Stevens as an ethically responsible poet.” 15 In Brogan’s reading, Stevens is an evolving poet who, in his later years, offered “a critique of the unfortunate remnants and prevalence of actual racism in American life, despite that earlier ‘violence’ in the form of the Civil War” (viii). We might pause

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to recall here that this is the poet who, in the gathering racist storm of Nazi and Fascist assault, wrote in one poem that the Fatal Ananke “sees the angel in the nigger’s mind / And hears the nigger’s prayers in motets,” the same poet who showed his level of ethical concern in a letter to Richard Latimer by writing that the Italians had “as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors.” 16 As part of her redemption of Stevens in her public presentation of this work, Brogan spoke dismissively of Rich’s remarks on the frequent appearance of the word “nigger” in Stevens’s works, counting up the precise number of times the word appears in the published poetry and finding, apparently, that it doesn’t appear with enough frequency to justify Rich’s outrage. Contrary to Rich’s assertion that Stevens fell back upon the usage “compulsively,” Brogan finds that “he has done so not compulsively, but deliberately and with an ethical perspective” that we should all finally recognize. This is an odd enough defense on its face, but it is odder still if one looks at the broader range not only of Stevens’s writings in both prose and verse but also the broader range of his racist epithets (148). (Is “coon” not coupled with “nigger,” “darky” with “pickaninny”?) In responding to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s discussions of Stevens and race in an essay that appeared in my edited collection Reading Race in American Poetry, Brogan takes DuPlessis to task for not having included in her exegesis on Stevens and Africa any discussion of the World War II–era poem “The Greenest Continent,” which Brogan sees as evidencing, contra DuPlessis’s conclusions, the evolution of “a poetics increasingly open to ethical presentations of African Americans in poetry and in the actual world,” though it would seem, given the passage concerning Ananke that I have quoted above, that any such ethical openness was not to be extended to actual Africans (144). Further, it is worthy of note that even when Brogan addresses herself to the passages of Stevens’s poem that treat of Ananke, she never quotes that passage or remarks upon it. And it is after the war, after Stevens’s assumed evolution to a state of ethical openness to the actualities of African American life, that he writes in another letter that “to lose faith in the existence of the first rate would put one in the situation of the colored man at a church picnic losing his bottle of whiskey.” 17 Stevens, and presumably his interlocutor, have a faith in the first rate; in his version of an aesthetic meritocracy, the black American has faith in liquor. What this indicates is that even in the later Stevens, there is a violence directed without, a violence precisely of unethical representation. Much as Mott felt compelled to acknowledge that there was at least something not quite right about the racial representations in The Enormous Room, Brogan is willing to concede that some might be troubled by the title of the

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much anthologized Stevens poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” though her concession winds up sounding much like those nonapology apologies we’ve grown used to hearing from politicians, or from Imus, which do not really apologize for the individual’s racism so much as apologize for the fact that someone might have been offended by it. Brogan writes, “Admittedly, in the title of the 1935 poem ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” the racist epithet seems problematic” (147, emphasis added.) She hastens to add that we must remember “that Stevens is comparing the spontaneously proffered ‘decorations’ there to his own seemingly unstructured series of poetic epigrams, which constitute the actual body of the poem” (147). (As a side note, it is intriguing to track the frequent references to the actual in this chapter; to the actual black people in an actual America; to the actual poem; all without confronting in any meaningful way the actual racial ideology of the poet.) But this does little to unproblematize things; the “there” there, the site of the spontaneously proffered decorations, remains the unredeemed “nigger cemetery.” Further, even as Brogan is reminding readers of the critical context of the poem, she suppresses a part of that same critical context. In the same letter in which Stevens explains that he is comparing the cemetery to his collection of epigrams, he repeats the very problematic term Brogan wishes to cleanse, writing that the title “refers to the litter that one usually finds in a Nigger Cemetery.” 18 Brogan must suppress this extra-poetic explanation because it conflicts so baldly with her thesis. She rushes from the problematic title to the poem “Prelude to Objects,” arguing that there the “objectionable word once again is being criticized by Stevens for demonstrating the kind of unethical and monolithic thinking that accompanies war” (147). It is harder to argue that Stevens is deliberately using the word “nigger” to criticize unethical, monolithic thinking if, as in the case of cummings, he continues to use it unproblematically himself, even when explaining himself. There is something ethically challenged about the very critique that Brogan brings to bear on her colleagues. She is dismissive of some among DuPlessis’s interpretations, noting of herself that she does “not think that every instance of Stevens’s use of the words ‘dark’ and ‘black’ has racial (or racist) connotations,” but neither does DuPlessis (178). On the other hand, what does Brogan think has racist connotations? She notes that in the poem “Contrary Theses (II)” Stevens writes “that the ‘negroes were playing football in the park’ with no more derision than he notes the ‘wide-moving swans’ or the ‘leaves’ that ‘were falling like notes from a piano’” (148). We might in our turn note the lower case “n” in “negroes,” the subject of a longstanding campaign by Du Bois, if not by cummings. We might note, too, that the “negroes” playing football are, as Brogan underscores without herself noticing, presented simply as a fact of nature like

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leaves and swans. All of this might well trouble the ethics of critics as well as general readers who are not bent on bending Stevens to a racial ethics he did not, in fact, profess. It is true that Stevens commented on the fact that millions of Americans had been able to contemplate actual slavery without emotion, even as Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought tears to the eyes of millions; but it is also true that Stevens was able to have that realization without, so far as I can discover, ever concerning himself overmuch with the actually existing segregation of his own beloved Florida Keys. This sort of rear-guard revisionism, this white mischief, has, I believe, an inevitable effect upon our critical engagements with race and modernism now. Phenomena such as Tim Redman’s appearing on National Public Radio, insisting that while, yes, Ezra Pound did have some funny ideas about Jews, Pound cordoned off his work into separate spheres and kept the antisemitism away from the actual verse, phenomena such as these can only make us shake our heads in sheer wonderment. But we need also to think about the fact that so fine a scholar otherwise as Redman appears unable to do what Melvin B. Tolson did, continue reading Pound, cummings, and Stevens while contending in all honesty and contending ethically with those poets’ racism, in part, at least, for the very purpose of comprehending the vexed relationships between race and modernity. “Can You See Me?” —Jimi Hendrix Preamble

We should regard the text as the only source of meaning, argued Wimsatt and Beardsley in 1946. The details of the author’s life are extrinsic, irrelevant to the task of interpretation.19 “What does it matter who is speaking, someone said.” Michel Foucault said that Samuel Beckett said that, without really establishing why that mattered.20 Jean Genet, more than a half century ago, asked, in a preamble to The Blacks, “What is a black? First of all, what’s his color?” 21 Recitative: “How You Sound”

In March 2012, a mother contacted the administrators of George C. Marshall High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a complaint about one of her son’s teachers. “We take these allegations very seriously, and we’re investigating,” the principal of the school would later report, responding to an inquiry from

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a journalist for the Washington Post.22 The source of the complaint, unusual in this day, was a poetry lesson in the son’s ninth grade English class. The teacher, identified as a veteran educator named Marilyn Bart, who had taught in the Fairfax schools for more than two decades, had asked the student to read aloud in class the Langston Hughes poem “Ballad of the Landlord.” A seemingly innocent exercise, indeed a commonplace in our post–canon wars era of English instruction, the problem had not been the poem’s content but rather a disagreement about the proper way to realize the poem aloud. According to the complaint, the teacher expressed dissatisfaction with the level of “blackness” in the student’s reading of the poem. According to a fellow student who witnessed the exchange, “He was just sitting there reading normally like any person would,” when the teacher instructed him to read “blacker.” Permit me to underscore certain phrasing in this eye- and ear-witness account: “reading normally,” “like any person would,” “blacker.” The student who was the source of the complaint refused to continue in the voice he was being admonished to adopt, at which point the teacher read the piece herself to demonstrate what she had in mind. Presumably her reading was not normal, not like any person, and more “black,” at least to her own hearing. What might that mean? According to the fourteenyear-old who had been singled out in class, “She sounded like a maid in the 1960s. She read the poem like a slave, basically.” One well might ask why this student thinks maids in the 1960s sounded like slaves and wonder at the previous scenes of instruction that brought him to these historical understandings of race and sound, but far more pressing is the question of the teacher’s own prior assumptions in the matter. Just what does “black” sound like to her, and what does it mean that it doesn’t sound like her black students’ “normal” reading? Does she believe that a poem written in 1940 requires a contemporary reading in keeping with her suppositions about what black people might have sounded like then? “She told me, ‘Blacker, Jordan,” according to the student. “C’mon, blacker. I thought you were black.” Here we might pause to ask why the Washington Post feels compelled at this point to provide an orthographic representation of young Jordan’s speech, “c’mon,” when they do so for no other speaker quoted in the article. We might also pause to consider how it is that everyone reading this report assumes, correctly as it turns out, that the teacher is white, despite the fact that her race is never identified in the piece. Perhaps because of something else included near the end of the report. On another occasion, attempting to speak of ethnic stereotypes, this same teacher showed a picture of a grape soda and asked Jordan to explain its meaning. “I do know the stereotypes,” the student explained to the reporter, but “she could change the questions so I’m not like the king of black people.”

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Well she might, but in contemplating the racial rhetoric operating in this episode, we should probably note as well something said by the complaining mother. “If the teacher thought the poem should be delivered in a Southern dialect, she could have said so without referring to race.” The Langston Hughes poem makes no reference whatsoever to the geographical region in which it takes place. By 1940, Hughes had been living in New York for many years, and many readers assume the poem is set in Harlem. But again, there is nothing in the poem to root such an assumption. Hughes himself was born in Missouri and the Midwest never really left his accent. Who among us, post–New Criticism, post-deconstruction, believes that a poem need be read in the accents of its authors, or of its time? In our putatively post–racial world, what does it mean that a ninth-grade English teacher has absorbed a set of conventions about what “black” sounds like that she would impose upon her black students, or at least those students she thought were black? I will admit that while I recoil from discussions that frame these issues in terms of sensitivities, I have a certain sensitivity growing out of my own educational background to just this issue of in-class recitation. I attended a predominantly black undergraduate institution in which my fine teachers, as I do to this day, asked students to take turns reading poems aloud. It somehow fell out that when my turn rolled around, I was often faced with a dialect poem, but I quickly learned that if I simply read what was on the page, without adopting any voice not my own, the rest of the class was fine with my rendering. None of my black professors ever demanded that I try to read a poem “blacker,” nor did they insist that my African American fellow students attempt to sound like Fitzgerald when we were studying modernisms. The other students did on occasion expect me to serve as their native informant: I was, for instance, while we were discussing a Chesnutt story, expected to pronounce on the question of how white people regard the issue of miscegenation. That, of course, was then: pre-canon wars, pre-post-racial, almost pre-poststructuralism. I don’t know how the Fairfax County Schools have adjudicated this student’s complaints, as there have not been follow-up stories in the Post. (DC’s NBC affiliate, on their website, carried the unfortunately worded headline “Fairfax Teacher Probed over Racial Insensitivity Allegations,” wording that itself sets a benchmark for insensitivity at a time when Virginia politicians were in fact proposing to probe women.) What is of importance to discussions of cross-cultural poetics in this episode is something far weightier. It is clearly not enough that we have all agreed that race is a social construction. One job for cross-cultural poetics is to examine the mechanisms of this construction. How does the present-day rhetoric of race

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reproduce race for a postracial nation? How does the very term “postracial,” with its presupposition of race, operate to silence exactly the mode of analysis I am here calling for? Where do our assumptions about how poems sound racially come from, how do they evolve, and how does “sensitivity” rhetoric serve to cloak their operations? Even after more than a decade of “whiteness studies,” these questions remain largely unaddressed. When young Jordan, responding to his teacher’s imprecations to read the Hughes poem as she thought a black poem of its day should be read, asked her if she thought all black people speak that way, she “reprimanded him for speaking out of turn . . . and told him to take his seat.” A student, asked to read, is out of turn when asking a question about that reading. A student, “thought to be black,” does not bring sufficient historic, perhaps histrionic, blackness to his reading, is out of turn, is told to return to his seat. We might do well to recall that as Stephen Henderson set out to define black poetics in his Black Arts–era book Understanding the New Black Poetry, he defined Black English straightforwardly enough as English as spoken by any black person. What is it that must already be in place for a Fairfax teacher to assume that the English spoken by her black student is in some ways inadequate to the realization of a Langston Hughes poem? How is it that a ninth grade English teacher, arbiter of so much in her students’ approaches to poetics, is the arbiter of how black sounds? “It’s Not About You,” or “Beating that Boy”

Here is one place to begin looking for answers, a poem published in a widely read book from 2003, a poem that was read by Garrison Keillor during his Writer’s Almanac segment on National Public Radio on January 11, 2008, one of what Keillor likes to term “pretty good poems,” a poem whose persona speaks of a tennis player he is watching as “one of my kind, my tribe.” 23 This might strike an audience as something right out of the Black Arts era, a time when many African American poets wrote directly to a black audience and expressed open disinterest in what any white reader might have to say about their poems. In an e-mail to one reader, the author of this poem, who in that same e-mail states that he doesn’t “believe in explaining [his] poems to other poets,” asks, apparently rhetorically, “can you believe for a moment that many many poems written by black Americans, from past to the extreme present, have been written for African Americans, from James Weldon Johnson to Amiri Baraka?” 24 It’s an odd question on many fronts, from the peculiarity of the term “extreme present” to the grammatical slippage at the end that would seem to suggest Johnson and Baraka were the people to whom the poems were written, rather than the writers

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of poems (though it is a fact that many, many poems have been addressed to each artist). Now, of course the poet was speaking of a metaphorical tribalism when his persona thought of the tennis player, just as he is being metaphorical in his e-mail when he speaks of poets as being his tribe. A tribe is a social construction. It is a construction that posits an inside and an outside. What I find worthy of lingering over is the many ways in which this poet constructs an inside and an outside of reading, a racially striated space that calls upon certain modes of operation on the part of his implied readers. The poem that Keillor read is, what with being “pretty good” and all, not a product of the Black Arts, nor is it a poem by a black writer celebrating the prowess of the Williams sisters. It is a poem titled “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland, from his collection What Narcissism Means to Me. The e-mail I have been citing was sent from Hoagland to fellow poet and putative metaphorical tribe member Claudia Rankine, as she prepared to speak of her reactions to Hoagland’s poem at a session of the AWP in Washington, DC, in 2011. In the controversy following Rankine’s AWP presentation, few recalled that Hoagland had returned to this territory in a poem from his 2009 collection Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, a poem titled “The Story of White People.” 25 When the two Hoagland poems are read in tandem, it seems fairly clear that they are, intentional fallacies aside, poems that attempt to chart transformations in the racial galaxy of American life, what might have seemed a noble task. The later poem, too, delineates a racial inside and outside, but with a curious difference. Both poems are in the first person, and yet the persona of “The Story of White People” describes his subject people in the third person plural, as if he is observing them from some poetic distance. Thus, the reader is placed in the position of seeing white people as “a little / deficient,” as “being too far and too long / removed from the original source / of whiteness.” The speaker, albeit at one remove from the people he describes, characterizes their feelings about the change, portrays them as somewhat befuddled by it all, by this “mysterious” change in status. White people are metaphorically seen as long-term “visitors / from the galaxy Caucasia,” raising the obvious questions of which galaxy the speaker is from and what planet this poet is writing from. The poem’s first person widens to plurality at poem’s end. This not so “dramatic or perceptible” change in whiteness “feels different,” none-the-less, and it feels so “to all of us.” At this point a critic might well put to the poem’s persona the question so pertinently put to the Lone Ranger by Tonto so many years ago: “What you mean ‘we,’ white man.” The change that “The Story of White People” attempts to limn is “The Change” that has seemingly passed by the speaker of Hoagland’s “The Change.” In his responses to Rankine’s questions about this poem, Hoagland seems to think that

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readers have confused persona and poet, a problem he posits is especially acute “in contemporary poetry,” though he offers no explanation of why this would be truer in a reading of “The Change” than in a reading of “My Last Duchess.” One central problem confronting readers of Hoagland’s poem is its level of sheer incoherence. At one point the black tennis player is portrayed as “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation / down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,” though I’m sure I am not the only reader who wonders why an African American would want to treat the Great Emancipator this way, and why that image comes to mind as this “black girl from Alabama” faces off with “some tough little European blonde,” who presumably has little connection to our racial history, apart from growing up a tad closer to the Caucasus Mountains, ground zero of the galaxy Caucasia in one ancient theory of racial origins. It’s worth pondering the similarities between “The Change” and “The Story of White People.” Both present the shifts in racial history that have shaken our nation to its core as a seasonal thing, as something that has simply happened to us when we were attending to something else, perhaps tennis. Both poems, too, deploy the first-person plural in a way that renders readers complicit with the personae’s insufferable speculations about race. In “The Change,” “we” are the speaker’s friend. We watched that championship tennis match with him on a big screen in a lounge, though why anybody other than perhaps Bill Cosby would remain friends with someone who makes jokes about black people’s names eludes my powers of empathy. At least Hoagland puts the reader in the position of the person watching the game who loved Vondella Aphrodite’s “complicated hair” and her “to-hell-with-everybody stare.” “The Change” places us in the position of sharing a history with the speaker, but again, that history seems something that has simply crept up on us without our noticing. In the end, we were just there. The twentieth century was past us “and we were changed,” note the passive voice. Clearly, though, what bothered Rankine so much in her reading of this poem, and what has bothered so many about Hoagland’s defense of it, is that neither the persona nor the poet really seems to have changed at all, and the rhetorical vectors of the two poems would leave readers mired in the same stasis. Hoagland’s follow-up letter to Rankine, after thanking her for the invitation to respond to what he calls her “AWP report,” starts out by condescending to Rankine in a breathtakingly offensive manner: To start off, let me say that I thought, back when we were colleagues, and I still think, that, to me, you are naïve when it comes to the subject of American racism, naïve not to believe that it permeates the psychic collective

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consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly.26 While it is not impossible to imagine a black person who is naïve on the subject of race, such a person must be rarer than visitors from the galaxy Caucasia, and the presumption of this sentence, hedged only marginally by such phrases as “to me,” is itself mostly ugly. Like his poems, Hoagland’s e-mail is setting up an inside and an outside. Rankine, born in Jamaica, is naïve on the subject of American racism, this despite the fact that nowhere in any of Rankine’s writings can be found anything remotely justifying the charge. Similarly, when Hoagland says that “it is foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans,” he is absolutely as right as he is irrelevant. Rankine has never held any such costly opinion. Hoagland claims that “many poets and readers think that,” without providing a single instance of any poet or reader who in fact does think that. Given the history of white people’s involvement in the evolution of racial ideology, most of us would think them particularly well suited to reflect upon the topic. But then Hoagland is not really one for reflection. Turning again to the same rhetorical gesture of using first person plural to enlist us on his side of the lists, he writes, “We drank racism with our mother’s milk, and we relearn it every day.” Well, no, many of us did not, and while we may learn something new about racism every day, as I did on the day I read this correspondence, we do not every one of us relearn racism every day. This is a very old bit of sophistry that Hoagland relies upon. “Of course I am racist,” he writes, “and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate, a drop-out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker . . .”and his list goes on. This is the sort of insincere, white apologia that gives whiteness studies a sometimes bad name. By the time “racist” is placed on the same level as “a lover of women” the term has become meaningless. These are all subject positions Hoagland might occupy imaginatively in the writing of poems, but in his writing it seems a dilettantish visitation. The claim that everyone is racist has the effect of rendering racism unworthy of comment. In the end, Hoagland remarks that his poem is not “racist,” but “racially complex.” Where in the centuries since the commencement of the Atlantic Slave trade is the thinker who ever wrote that racism was anything less than complex. This, like the insinuation that everybody is racist at least a little bit, perhaps especially those “oversensitive,” “politically correct” (and yes, Hoagland does reanimate that hoary term) black poets, is a move to dismiss precisely discussions of the complexities of race in our history and in our “extreme present.” In her AWP presentation, Claudia Rankine tells of asking Hoagland about

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his poem and about his thinking while he was working on it. His reply was, “this poem is for white people.” I truly wish it were the case that these two poems taken together seemed to be doing the work of deconstructing racism in white readers. Whether that was Hoagland’s intent I cannot say. But we must attend to the structuring effects of his writing. In one portion of his e-mail to Rankine, Hoagland claims poets as his tribe and goes on to express his hope that “they” will “figure things out.” The one thing that comes across most clearly in his e-mail is his belief that Claudia Rankine has not figured things out. What his poems and his response say most loudly to many of us is, “It’s not about you.” Notes 1. r. erica doyle, proxy (New York: Belladonna, 2013). 2. David Berlinsky, A Tour of the Calculus (New York: Vintage, 1997). 3. David Berlinski, “Old Hose,” Heterodoxy 1, no. 3 (1992): 8–9. 4. David Berlinski, Black Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988). Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 5. Dudley Randall, “Black Poet, White Critic,” in The New Black Poetry, ed. Stephen Henderson (New York: William Morrow, 1973), 234. 6. David Antin, “Modernism and Postmodernism,” Boundary 21, no. 1 (Autumn 1972): 98–133. 7. Kathy Lou Schultz, The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). 8. Allen Tate, Poems (Chicago: Swallow, 1961), 53; Tate, preface to Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, by Melvin B. Tolson (New York: Twayne, 1953), vii–ix. 9. Louis Simpson, “Taking the Poem by the Horns,” in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation, ed. Stephen Caldwell Wright (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 23. 10. Gwendolyn Brooks, Blacks (Chicago: The David Company, 1987), 70. 11. Melvin B. Tolson, “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson, ed. Raymond Nelson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), 184. 12. Christopher Mott, “The Cummings Line on Race,” Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society 4 (1995): 71–75. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 13. e. e. cummings, Complete Poems 1913–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 426. 14. cummings, Complete Poems, 321. 15. Jacqueline Brogan, The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003), vii. 16. Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose by Wallace Stevens, ed. Samuel French Morse (New York: Knopf, 1957), 59; Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1966), 289–90. 17. Stevens, Letters, 844. 18. Stevens, Letters, 272.

154  Nielsen 19. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: Norton, 2001). 20. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1622–36. 21. Jean Genet, The Blacks: A Clown Show (New York: Grove, 1994). 22. Emma Brown, “Fairfax Investigates Allegation of Racially Insensitive Behavior by a High School Teacher,” Washington Post, March 16, 2012, local/education/fairfax-investigates-allegation-of-racially-insensitive-behavior-by-high-­ school-teacher/2012/03/15/gIQA6IyGHS_story.html. 23. Tony Hoagland, “The Change,” Writer’s Almanac, https://writersalmanac.publicradio. org/index.php%3Fdate=2008%252F01%252F11.html. 24. Tony Hoagland, “The Hoagland AWP Email Transcript,” http://jjgallaher.blogspot. com/2011/02/hoagland-awp-email-transcript.html. 25. Tony Hoagland, “The Story of White People,” Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2009). 26. Tony Hoagland, “Dear Claudia: A Letter in Response,”, http://www.poets. org/poetsorg/text/dear-claudia-letter-response.


Transcendental Tabby Leonard Schwartz To say that the transcendental is historically constituted amounts to saying that universality cannot be assigned to it; it is necessary to think of a particular transcendental. But after all, there is nothing more mysterious than what is collectively called a culture. —Guy Lardreau, L’histoire comme nuit de Walpurgis1


n such manner Guy Lardeau invites us to contemplate a contradiction—the particular transcendental. Contradiction, because one of the attributes of the transcendental is held to be its universal grounds. Contemplation, because that is what the mind does, at least one committed to both a cognitive process and a mode of thought that goes beyond the simply analytical. One concept that may occur to us here is “strategic transcendentalism”: one holds a condition to be transcendental or necessary to perception itself for specific political or tactical purposes. Another phenomenon that may come to mind here is that of the lyric poem: the lyric poem is a construct capable of maintaining equilibrium among contradictions and as such is singly able to accommodate the needs of such a slippery imperative (“negative capability”). Surely the allure of the poem is partly this, and the concomitant promise of mystery without belief. Our texts are the living evidence of an ethics of ambiguity. Gayatri Spivak, in a recent conversation with me in her offices at Columbia, referred to “the trace of the transcendental,” without which global thought becomes impossible. I positioned the transcendental lyric in like manner in my essay from the 1990s “A Flicker at the Edge of Things.” Things here—“here” variously meaning in what passes for my mind, the room in which I sit and write, America, 155

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the shifting continents—flicker, and poetry is still the flicker at the edge. Some edges are as eternal as the need for a center, others are as ephemeral as perspective. What the language needs at any given moment shifts. The more things change, the more things change. You can never put your river into the same flume twice, because that would already be water under the bridge, and so on and so forth. The transcendental signifier, floating downstream, over flumes and under bridges, is like the spindle or seed of some plant, waiting to be thrown to the bank by a particularly violent movement of the water, where it might take root. A fluid foundationalism is always sensitive. Now the particularly violent movement that has provoked a necessary literary response in its aftermath is the Western recoil against the Arab and Islamic worlds. “Orientalism,” so utterly exploited by European colonial powers and so carefully dissected and exposed by the late Edward Said, found a new bloom of its own in the George W. Bush administration’s version of what we are at war against in the Islamic world. Paid pundits speak of a “clash of civilizations.” The white man’s burden, which was to civilize the native, is reconstituted as the necessity to bring democracy to those in the Middle East, too primitive to know this sacred form of government. We know all too well what violence has been unleashed in our names on the basis of these and other related ideological precepts. At the edge of things, we watch with horror, demonstrate with desperation, and write vociferously. In 2001 Andrew Joron wrote in his “The Emergency of Poetry”: “What good is poetry at a time like this? It feels right to ask this question, and at the same time to resist the range of predictable answers, such as: Poetry is useless, therein lies its freedom. Or, poetry has the power to expose ideology; gives a voice to that which has been denied a voice; serves as a call to action; consoles and counsels; keeps the spirit alive.” For Joron, none of these functions suffice. There is only one function that is efficacious. That is the lament: “The lament, no less than anger, refuses to accept the fact of suffering. But while anger must possess the stimulus of a proximate cause—or else it eventually fades away—the lament has a universal cause and rises undiminished through millennia of cultural mediation. Unlike anger, the lament survives translation into silence, into ruins.” 2 For me Joron’s lament is resonant, at least of one phase of our writing under the current imperative. The other phase has involved a working with language that might undermine the nauseating dichotomies that underpin the justification of Empire, the clash of civilizations, and the erosion of civil liberties. Poetry is language, and in poetry false dichotomies can best be dissolved, since the false dichotomies themselves are only frozen language. Thus, I set out to write a series of poems using only English words derived

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from Arabic. Later that seemed a further segregation, and I collaged those materials with Shakespeare cut ups and rewrites—the name “Shakespeare” conjuring up the conservative pride and core of “English”—and I kept doing this until I had the “Apple Anyone Sonnets.” Apple Anyone 1 Shall I portray you as a blazing afternoon? The freaking almanac didn’t forecast amber rain. Wind whipped to shreds ballyhooed Doppler readings as your typhoon tongue lashed my latest wants. So the sun’s golden boasts are bested by bullying clouds, each of our arsenals costing us our alchemy. Yet no cloud shall dim my love’s manic barbs. Neither will my eyes become gauze, or ghouls; no Nothingness shall brag of drowning me in Styx. A single whiff from the carafe of years suggests there is more to speech, a crocus thrusts at the barbarian of description As long as it’s a carob for a carob, a copt for a copt, bedouins lead us far into an arch-alcohol we’re the ones to ferment. almanac typhoon arsenal alchemy gauze ghoul carafe crocus barbarian carob Copt Bedouin alcohol3 Languages are interdependent, as are cultures. The texture of one can be raised up and felt in another. Some of the words I used later were discovered to be of Persian origin, or of contested origin. (As, for example, the word “mulatto”: of course, the word “mulatto” would be of contested origin.) That isn’t the point. The point is the one Lardeau makes: there is nothing more mysterious than what is collectively called a culture. Robert Duncan’s observation (since confirmed by many medieval scholars) that the figure of Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy, presumably the very pinnacle of Christian literary art, is in fact drawn from Islamic Sufi sources, might also be offered as a particular material evidence of the strangely synthetic nature of all culture. Or else Ron Silliman, who writes, “The words are never our own. Rather, they are our own usages of a determinate coding passed down to us like all other products of civilization, organized into a single, capitalist, world economy. Questions of national language and those of genre parallel one another in that they primarily reflect positionality within the total, historical, social fact.” 4

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Apple Anyone 3 As big waves flip out onto rocky coast so our days finish abruptly. The ocean’s tributaries show their dhows: appearance is a cipher. As childhood, that deep alembic, in floods of light crawls to maturity, where which to crouch, calling itself a King. And as we change positions with what was finishing at our birth hope builds its harem in serif, like rice collecting saffron. A guitar-shaped bench trembles to its own rhythm! Light wants to fix in place the flourish it dabs on things— this great esplanade of sesame, magazines wide, something wished for, made of marabout and lime. As names of fruit nourish unusual bits of unconscious truth. Nothing is born but for the sword to assassinate and still, in their hiddenness, from red shift to red shift I praise your alcoves, and the oceans wildest dilations. dhows cipher alembic harem serif saffron guitar sesame magazine marabout lime assassinate alcove5 If it is a privilege to be able to allow one’s brain to travel in thousands of directions all at once (and it is), then part of the responsibility of that privilege remains the imagination of positionality in relation to a proposed total grid, just as Silliman argues. Of course, this move is dangerous, because it bears a structural resemblance to the imagination of Empire, in which all points are united or yoked into a single system, around a center. This danger is only heightened by the circumstance that “English” is the imperial language. Yet there is no backing away. Consider, then, the direction Kamau Brathwaite takes when exploring the possibilities of Caribbean poetry: “Nation language is the language that is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/ Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of its lexicon, but it is not English in terms of its syntax. And English it certainly is not in terms of its rhythm and timbre, its own sound explosions. In its contours, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, would be English to a greater or lesser degree.” 6 Thus, the work remains a question of defamiliarizing language as a natural condition, of allowing poetry, a language within a language, to open like a sluice, of changing the language from the inside, of being aware of the silence within words that allows for such liberating motion, of arriving at a new language by way of an exploration of the old. That is to say, American is a postcolonial

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language too. Individual consciousness liberates itself from the colonies English establishes within it by burning a new language within those very social cities so established by history. If the idea of the transcendental, which implies a detachment from the immediacy of the social, and the idea of the lyric, which implies an ecstatic upswell, still speak to us, it is because they allow us not a greater social mobility (obviously not!) but a mobility in the preconditions that make what is to follow possible—some kind of society. Let us resolve to think of transcendental mobility—as a mobile. The poem as a mobile of words and signs, dangled over the crib of the culture, as to stimulate the mind to imagine new combinations. Patriarchal poetry? Perhaps. Matriarchal intentionality? No doubt. Childhood, that deep alembic, crawls to maturity in floods of light. Names of fruit nourish unusual bits of unconscious truth. Attabi was a neighborhood in Baghdad where a certain kind of patterned tapestry was made. The word that named that neighborhood traveled to English as “tabby,” which became a kind of cat that bore a similar pattern in its fur. A tabby has wandered into the room just now. It is the ghost of my former pet. It stares at me blankly, its black nose still black, its expression as empty as when it was alive. That gaze is without meaning until I begin to write. Quite suddenly a real being is gazing back, not a ghost, not a cat either, but a being that overflows its name. Not Jabès, not Celan, not Weil, not Darwish. Not Dante or Ibn Arabi. But not uninformed by those names either. Amid the bounty of midsummer a pair of eyes fill with signature and lament: broken, silent, resolute, voiced. At the fading ruins, they anticipate suns. Sediment is splendid. The dead and our living gaze are locked in love—and make for a third. The words are never just our own. Apple Anyone 5 Why is it my words always touch this particular? I stay afloat on language I’ve plucked from Sufi summer, my trysts with words the same one wooed, mascaraed, talced. Though the lute of a genii is as outdated as last year’s atlas, though a belated troubadour sings of checkmate move by move, yet no monumental rock shall outlast these our silly constructs: that which glints brightly in such tariffed compositions is a gazelle among orange groves, a mecca in the mouth. Here comes a tabby whose scratch will leave a lasting mark, or else a taffeta from a quarter of town recently hit by bombs, or all the cotton ever picked, the laborious wizard enslaved inside you. Why is it my words always touch this one particular?

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As the sun is daily both bouncy and flat so we transact only what we can minaret, darting among damasked ruins.

Sufi mascara talc genii atlas troubadour checkmate tariff gazelle orange mecca tabby taffeta cotton wizard minaret damask7 A Poetics of Mid-East Crises

A poetics of the Middle East, or a poetics of “The Levant,” that older and broader geographical term, from “levare” (to raise), applied to the East for the rising of the sun? Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, French, Aramaic, Ladino, and Greek all figure, among others, as the rising sun’s languages, a list that bespeaks an endless co-mingling, parallel conversation, cross conversation, and confusion—but also a bygone era. For “The Middle East,” a modern political term, is most associated for us with political realities far less polyglot, where languages and the groups that speak them vie with one another, and often kill each other, as opposed to speaking or assuming their place in the collage. Yet languages do supplement each other, even as political realities tear asunder the people that talk. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas defined language as a responsibility, because to speak always implies the presence of an other; by speaking we subconsciously affirm a presence outside ourselves, to whom we stand in relation. It might also be said that to speak a language also implies the presence of other languages, apparently beyond one’s ken, and that the responsibility of one language to another is met through translation. That in the United States fewer books per year are translated into English than are translated into any Western European language by the publishing worlds in those countries speaks to a failure of responsibility, a failure that directly feeds into the political expedient of dehumanizing the other. Meanwhile, the very concept of “The Levant” would seem to have sunk into the sublime inane, to borrow a phrase Annette Michelson uses elsewhere, or else to be rendered obsolete altogether. Or almost obsolete. Ibis Editions, based in Jerusalem, is an example of a countertendency in English-language culture that paradoxically affirms the possibility of a Mid East beyond the Mid East. Since 1998 Ibis has published ten books in English translation that in their unlikely juxtaposition provide a glimpse into a Levantine reality that offers something other than the images from Baghdad we see televised for our benefit on a daily basis: explosions, technical gadgetry, the eclipsing of one flag by another, war as the basic standard of communication

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and expression. For the very reason that English is the triumphant language on the world stage—as well as the language hijacked by the warmongers in the Bush administration—these Ibis juxtapositions become crucial. Their list is impressive. (Revealment and Concealment: Five Essays by Haim Bialik, the first great poet in modern Hebrew, is, for example, an important book.) The three founding publishers—Peter Cole (a poet and award-winning translator of Ibn Gabirol and Shmuel Hanagid), Adina Hoffman (author and film critic for the Jerusalem Post), and Gabriel Levin (poet and translator)—have accomplished something that compares to The Evergreen Review and Grove Press in the 1950s in New York—in the midst of a far more conflicted political landscape. The fact that Cole and Hoffman are Jewish American writers transplanted to Israel is also of interest. What do the great thirteenth-century Arabic poet Ibn Arabi, the influential twentieth-century Jewish scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and the contemporary Palestinian poet Taha Muhammed Ali have in common, other than all being published by Ibis in the last three years? It is the sharpness of the contrast that makes the articulation of each newly possible, at the very moment that “shock and awe” would otherwise render us speechless. ———— Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn Arabi and New Poems, translated by Michael Sells, offers a selection of the poems of Ibn Arabi. Born in the twelfth century in Andalusia and known as a master of Sufism, that Islamic form of mysticism, a subject on which he wrote many books, Ibn Arabi looms large in the canon of Arabic poetry. This little volume consists of twenty-four poems from Ibn Arabi’s book of love elegies, The Translator of Desires, as well as a selection of translator Sells’s own poems offered in homage to Ibn Arabi. “The Translator of Desires,” or “Turkuman,” takes the qasida—an ancient Arabic form of poetry dealing with the separation of lovers—and transforms it into an allegory for humanity’s relation to divinity and the distance between the two that somehow must be bridged through poetry. In his introduction Sells glosses the poetics of it this way: “For Ibn Arabi translation is no word-for-word mechanistic rendition from one system into another. It is a simultaneous process of ‘bringing across’ and transformation. In every moment, the heart must change to receive the new form of the constantly changing beloved.” 8 This formulation is in turn prefaced on Sells’s suggestions concerning the mystical dimension of the poetry: “For a Sufi and poet like Ibn Arabi, such a passing away and union with the beloved, though eternal, is also—within our world of space and time—ephemeral.

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It is a valid manifestation of the real. But it cannot be possessed. To try to keep the image of the beloved known in the union is to freeze it into an idol. The worship of such frozen idols, which are constructed as “gods of belief ” within theologies, philosophies, and religions leads to a world of mutual intolerance. Each person or group worships the god of one belief and denies the god of the other. For Ibn Arabi . . . such denial is a form of unbelief. The only true affirmation of oneness is the affirmation of the one reality in each of its manifestations along with the refusal to confine it to any one of them.” (14). Thus, what was sacred yesterday is not necessarily sacred today, since the sensation that provokes the sacred can never be frozen, being sensation and not creed. The political utility of such a tolerant and dynamic notion of the spiritual life hardly needs to be glossed. But how is this awareness activated or made present in the poems? In “As Cool as Life” a few lines read: At the way stations stay. Grieve over the ruins. Ask the meadow grounds, desolate, this question: Where are those we loved, where have their red roans gone? Over there, cutting through the desert haze. (56) The beauty of these lines is self-evident. Since the beloved is ever-changing we must constantly experience loss. Hence the attraction to ruins, hence the hazy apparitions, hence the new blaze, the violent contrasts between sorrow and ecstatic expectation, water and fire, all at work in the single poem. Indeed, playing off these extremes, Sells own poems in this volume occupy a section titled “Between the Music and the Graves.” (In his “Orisha” “Will you bear these voices / They find you out and are saying // they are your tongue / bluesback echoes of longing” (63). We view fresh ruins with equanimity only should we believe in our missionary rightness in making something better out of those ruins; otherwise they are received in grief, should we intuitively realize that “better” is a euphemism, a phantasm, and that parts of ourselves have just been destroyed. We all live in Baghdad now, more or less, witnesses to a roving destruction we can only fail to distance ourselves from. So too in Ibn Arabi’s poetry everything that is solid melts not so much into air as into spirit, which for the reader of the poems caught in his own history means into the memory

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of things sensed but not yet known. Another kind of detachment is experienced too, as if by the translation of desire through the poems one is released from an original belief, which one now realizes was a fetish. Of course, only desire without object would be liberation from the trap. In Ibn Arabi’s “Stay Now at the Ruins Fading”: I asked her— when I saw her meadows now fields of the four scouring, twisting winds— Did they tell you where they’d take their noonday rest? Yes, she said, at Sand Hill, Where the white tents gleam with what they hold— from all those rising suns—of splendor. (66) “Awe” was originally a religious term, a word one might have previously called upon to suggest the quality of sensation in Ibn Arabi’s poetry. More recently it was transposed by former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld into a term that refers to the fear that overcomes us in the face of invincible weaponry and prosthetic gods. And “shock”? What was regarded by the early avant-garde as an aesthetic value now denotes a silence, a pacification. Can we still use the phrase “the shock of recognition”? Ibn Arabi’s poems serve to remind us, with a kind of frisson, that there are many rising suns. Poetry—so many words, not a single plastic image—performs its most important feat when it reminds us of the possible. ———— The revelation that Gershom Scholem was a poet comes as something of a surprise. Scholem, of course, was a hugely influential scholar. His Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism established the field of the modern study of Kabbalah, and his Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship remains a secret and surprising book. Cynthia Ozick famously quipped in the New Yorker: “He was not a man

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penetrating a field of learning; he was a field of learning penetrating the world,” while George Steiner, in that same magazine, wrote, “Scholem is the rarest of spirits . . . He is at once a philosopher, a social historian, a wise and forceful essayist, and one whose conscience this tormented, devious and murderous world has, alas, heard a great deal from, but also has too often ignored.” Scholem’s name is inextricably linked with Hebrew University, where he was University Professor for many years and where he became associated with the proudest traditions of Zionism. And yet during most of these years in Israel, he continued to write poems in his native German (he was born in Berlin in 1897 and settled in Jerusalem in 1923) on the basis of which German too, I suppose, passes into the lexicon of the Levant, Zionism itself a German-Jewish ideal. These poems, along with two originally written in Hebrew, are all collected in The Fullness of Time, translated by the renowned Richard Sieburth, and introduced and annotated by Steven M. Wasserman. The poems are as interesting for what they reveal about Scholem’s thought as for what they are, in and of themselves. The great scholar of mysticism is himself no mystic. In form, Scholem’s poems read like old fashioned nineteenth-century European verses; in tone, they are often either caustic or comic, but never truly ecstatic. Scholem’s admiration for a Moses-like Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism, is palpable in the 1915 poem “To Theodor Herzl” and constitutes perhaps the nearest thing to the ecstatic in this book: We shall never forget what it was he meant, Who gave us this dream so rich, so glowing, And who restored what we had once possessed And what we had lost—without our knowing! He shouted of a world that rose, amazed At his words, the words of our own distress. He held the flag high while the enemy raged, And the flag was bloody red.9 What is surprising about this body of poetry, however, is how quickly in Scholem the dream of Zionism seems to sour. Perhaps one should be less surprised. The vision of Zionism supported by the most renowned of the intellectuals associated with Hebrew University—Martin Buber most especially, with whom Scholem’s scholarly work stands in a relation of both indebtedness and contestation—all identified themselves with a leftist Kibbutzim movement that called for a binational socialist state of Jewish and Arab workers united in a

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single political organism. Such was not to be the case, as 1948 bifurcated into the birth of Israel on the one hand and the Nakbah (Catastrophe) on the other, a partition (though only one state was formed) that has proven to be a nightmare for all peoples involved. Consider the mood of Scholem’s poem “Jerusalem,” written in that city in the summer of 1948, in the midst of the War of Independence: you sense that all the age-old life pent up in this city now draws to an end, and you know: she is now spent, expended on the Real, and commences to detach herself from the present. Poor, dethroned, stark in her nakedness, she stands there, whom enemies could not sway, and is once again what she always was: a mere memory of a former greatness and a waiting for the Final Day. (46) Does this poem bemoan and anticipate the fate of a divided city, or imagine, messianically, some future end to history, or simply capture a mood of anxiety and dread? I would suggest there is a grand disappointment here concerning the very notions of return that had been so passionately embraced in the 1915 poem “For Herzl.” After all, in 1948 the Levant was on the verge of being split. A third horror, following the Holocaust and the Nakbah, was about to follow: the mass expulsion of Arab Jews from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Arab world, in retaliation for the expulsion of the Palestinians from the new Israel (in many of these places five hundred years of Jewish community and cultural life almost entirely obliterated). As early as 1921 Scholem had written, in a letter from Munich, of “the fatal modern conflation of religious and political categories that desecrates both, turning them into a game that someday is bound to turn violent.” Perhaps Scholem, scholar and witness to history, in this poem plays upon the classical Jewish posture of waiting for redemption from history in a mystical future, after history has ended. Certainly, he participates in the proudest Jewish prophetic traditions in refusing to compromise with the golden calf, to buy into the new fetish of the tribe—vulgar nationalism, the secular posturing as sacred, with the pat solutions nationalism offers to all the contradictions of history. In his 1967 “To Ingeborg Bachmann, After Her Visit to the Ghetto of Rome,”

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Scholem writes: Zion’s messengers speak to us of elation, but we can never quite return back home. Though we once were filled with anticipation, this call to homecoming cannot be restored. The message that called us home reached the ghetto far too late. The hour of redemption is over, the final day’s decline—too plain. (56) If Ibn Arabi, in his age, had plumbed the flux of sensation in which total loss transforms into divinity, in order to relocate the beloved instant by instant in the flux of alienation, then it is tempting to suggest that Scholem, at a critical distance from the mystical tradition he was the elucidator of, nonetheless employed that mysticism to gently suggest not only the inadequacy of the real, but the betrayal of the dream. What horror to suggest that this particular dream has soured, since redemption sours with it, which is to say all those who died in Europe also died in vain. This Scholem never said: publicly he maintained the possibility of a redemptive “left” Zionism. But there is an equal horror whenever those who died in the Holocaust have their names invoked as justification for the next violation, and of this Scholem was also keenly aware. In every moment, the heart must change, wrote Ibn Arabi, or the beloved is lost. Scholem died in Israel in 1982. ———— Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story is the first collection in English translation of the poetry of Taha Muhammed Ali, an Arabic language poet living in Nazareth. Ali was born in 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriya. As with other Palestinian poets the constant refrain of his work is the lost paradise of his youth. In his introduction to the poems Gabriel Levin writes: Saffuriya, or at least the village of the childhood, where myth and reality converged, shone in the poet’s mind as a place of prelapsarian innocence and embodied, in Palestinian terms, that period before the “great catastrophe” an-nakba, brought about by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the consequent shattering and exodus of the Palestinian community. In July of

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that year, Ali’s village, which had sheltered local militiamen, was hit by artillery and then bombed by Israeli aircraft. Most of the villagers fled into the surrounding wadis and orchards, believing that the Arab Liberation Army would come to their defense. But the ALA was not forthcoming, and the inhabitants of Saffuriya dispersed. Some made their way northward, to Lebanon, while others found temporary refuge in the neighboring villages . . . The poet and his family chose the northern route to Lebanon, where they spent a year in a refugee camp before managing to infiltrate back into Israel. By then, however, the IDF had leveled Saffuriya to the ground, and the Israeli authorities had handed over to local kibbutzim thousands of dunams of fertile village land. Like many other former inhabitants of Saffuriya, Ali and his family settled in Nazareth, where he has remained for the last fifty years.10 Ali’s poems are direct, unpretentious, and disarming, translated into a fluent colloquial English by Levin, Yaha Hijazi, and Cole, working in tandem. These poems are not ideological or nationalistic in bent, nor are they learned; the recurring figure of Abd El-Hadi the Fool, a kind of innocent dreamer, undercuts any kind of heroic inflation, intellectual pretension or fetish. Yet the history is real and realized in the poems. In “Ambergis” the anger and admonishment against history is cast in terms of an outcry against the bitchiness of the earth itself. The disenchantment/enchantment with the desired land that is home echoes interestingly (in an entirely different register) Scholem’s “Jerusalem” (1948): This land is a traitor and can’t be trusted. This land doesn’t remember love. This land is a whore holding out a hand to the years, as it manages a ballroom on the harbor pier— it laughs in every language and bit by bit, with its hip, feeds all who come to it. (73) The colloquial quality of the writing is important too. As translator Levin points out in his introduction readers of Arabic will surely find Ali unusual for his insistence on a specific Palestinian vernacular, over and against a more highflown, windy modality often preferred in Arabic poetry, the kind of modality

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much more susceptible to an escalating rhetoric (as, for example, in French poetry). In “Three Qasidas,” for example, Ali adopts the traditional Arabic form to his own particular needs and arrives at, in section 1, “Imprisonment”: When I was free, my fear was wrapped around my neck like a viper! And you were the sole spring of my sadness. But now . . . the bread of my fear has been depleted and the wine of my sorrow pours forth from every fountain. (87) The qasida, adapted to express the distance between matter and spirit in Ibn Arabi, here becomes the distance between the speaker and the land to which he speaks, as if the ground of the poem were also the ground in which one’s feet ought to be planted—but never are. Thus “ground” is colored as wine, both intoxicating and sad, and words only know the ground’s absence. “Postoperative Complications Following the Extraction of Memory” reads the title of another poem. The irony of course is that this poetics of loss, accompanied by or only borne on the basis of a sense of humor, so closely resembles a Jewish one. The last stanza of “Never Mind,” the title poem, is unremitting not only in terms of poet and ground, the particular and the absent, but also about the necessity of address, in Levinas’s sense, however bitter that address may be: Let me stroll within range of your rifle, among these deserted gardens and ruined stone walls; allow me to greet this fig tree! Let me draw near to that particular cactus. And then, after the harvest, catch me and slaughter me

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with the fine threads that dangle from your sleeves and pack like the guts from a chicken’s belly! (90) Again, the bitterness of the circumstance of address does not exhaust the speaker entire. In “Abd El-Hadi the Fool”: my great apostasy is this: no sooner does the laughter of a child reach me, or I happen upon a sobbing stream, no sooner do I see a flower wilting, or notice a fine-looking woman, then I’m stunned and abandoned by everything, and nothing of me remains except Abd El-Hadi the Fool! (99) Perhaps these lines, in the simplicity of their declaration, serve as well as emblem for Ibis Editions quixotic pursuit of a Levant that, at the very least, still exists within the pages of its books, a Levant in which English too finds its place as a literary middle man, a zone of cross-pollination. Ibis co-publisher, co-translator, and poet Peter Cole is quoted in the New York Sun as saying, “The Levant is at one and the same time a realm of the imagination and a concrete, if rather messy, melding of cultures, ethnic groups, tribes, religious sects, schisms, heterodoxies, with porous boundaries.” Today in the Middle East the talk is of building walls, not of porous boundaries. If they build, they build. But in every moment, the very chambers of the heart must change. I and Thou

Perhaps the greatest moral philosopher to arise from European Jewish culture was the Austrian-born Martin Buber, later a citizen of Israel. Buber was a Zionist. His seminal theological text I and Thou remains relevant today, a powerful

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work in its devotion to encounter, to the recognition of the Stranger, to dialogue. Buber’s political writings—over a forty-four-year period—are also very instructive. In a 1929 piece, “The National Home and The National Riots in Palestine,” delivered as a speech in Berlin two months after the Palestine Riots resulted in the deaths of more than 125 Jews, Buber wrote: Every responsible relationship between an individual and his fellow begins through the power of genuine imagination, as if we were the residents of Palestine and the other were the immigrants who were coming into the country in increasing numbers, year by year, taking it away from us. How can we react to events? Only if we know this will it be possible to minimize the injustice we must do in order to survive and to live the life which we are not only entitled but obliged to live, since we live for the eternal mission, which has been imbedded within us since our creation.11 The passage is suggestive of Buber’s “I-Thou” conception in that it calls for one group to imagine itself in the position of the other. At the same time, it is very clear in this passage that Buber, as a Zionist, does not shrink from describing Jewish immigration to the Holy Land in 1929 as an eschatological and moral calling, a historical coming-to-pass in the name of which injustices may have to be committed. With this quote in mind, it becomes doubly instructive, in view of the contemporary situation, to remind ourselves of a text Buber wrote in 1947, “The Bi-National Approach to Zionism.” In this extraordinary essay Buber offers the following: We describe our program as that of a bi-national state—that is, we aim at a social structure based on the reality of two peoples living together. The foundations of this structure cannot be the traditional ones of majority and minority, but must be different. We do not mean just any bi-national state, but this particular one, with its particular conditions, i.e. a bi-national state which embodies in its basic principle a Magna Charta Reservationum, the indispensable postulate of the rescue of the Jewish people. This is what we need and not a “Jewish State.” 12 What a prescient statement to have made in 1947! Although Buber’s was not the vision of Zionism that triumphed in 1948, we can on its basis assert there was no consensus within Zionism itself in 1947 that a Jewish majority state was

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a necessary outcome for Zionism and speculate about how a nation in which Buber’s view had triumphed might have instead functioned. What is incontestable is that Buber, a Zionist, calls for a bi-national state. Only this guarantees Jewish survival and justice for the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. As we watch the two ultra-nationalisms of the current moment battle it out with more than 1,350 Gazans and 13 Israeli dead in the aftermath of the fighting, allegations of war crimes and deaths multiplying, isn’t it possible we should take up again Buber’s call for a single bi-national state? I ask this in the spirit of questioning oneself first, an imperative of self-critique that has been a principle of Jewish survival for millennia. If ultra-nationalisms depend on one another to justify their own deadliness, then it is also true that Buber knew that in Palestine/Israel only bi-nationalism could prevent these events. If such violence as we have seen in Gaza is necessary to preserve the Jewish State as we know it, then Israel’s actions in and of themselves have proven that only Buber’s vision of a bi-national state can save all parties. The German-language Jewish poet Paul Celan, the great poet of the Holocaust and a fervent admirer of Buber’s, wrote of the “Breathturn,” that figure in which one breathes in air and breathes out language. Celan spoke of “Breathturn” on his return to Germany in the late 1940s, where it could be said he was literally breathing in the molecules of his incinerated people and breathing out poetry, an act fraught with responsibility to the very air he was surviving on and transforming. The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died on August 9, 2008, a little more than four and a half months before the latest tragedy of his people, the attack on Gaza. Both Celan’s and Darwish’s writings bear a similar kind of existential urgency, a related kind of presence in air. Darwish’s poems, given his importance to his people and his translatability into other languages, breathe witness to the catastrophe of a particular history. In “The Death of the Phoenix” Darwish wrote: In the hymns that we sing, there’s a flute In the flute that shelters us fire In the fire that we feed a green phoenix In its elegy I couldn’t tell my ashes from your dust13

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So Darwish affirms the intermingling of our very molecules, even as elsewhere in the poem he can evoke two figures like Achilles and Priam briefly taking pause from the carnage to admire one another’s nobility. For those who read Darwish’s poems, language is breath, in the sense rooted in the etymology of the word “spirit.” “Phoenix” is a green oasis in burned-out times. In its elegy I can’t at first tell my ashes from your dust. But then I must: 1,350 Palestinian and 13 Israeli dead—these are numbers that should horrify us if one believes, as we do, that every individual matters. In the names of the poets, let us once again keep in mind Buber’s very precise call to our imaginations. The Ghetto of Gaza and the Angel of History

Normally a city opens up to other cities, infinite in itself because infinitely open to the world; one moves with a certain freedom through space and imagination. What is it like instead to live and write from inside a ghetto, or an open-air prison, or a city closed to other cities, one in which nearly every act of resistance is taken as a pretext by the wardens to tighten that very straightjacket? A famous example of such writing comes to us from the great German-Jewish litterateur Walter Benjamin, in his essays written after Hitler’s rise to power. Fleeing the Nazis Benjamin committed suicide near the closed Spanish border rather than risk being sent to a camp the next day. It was in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” however, that Benjamin wrote of “The Angel of History.” The figure of “The Angel of History” has been much discussed ever since. Benjamin wrote: His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread . . . His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he (the angel of history) sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been crushed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.14 In our century it is the Palestinians of Gaza who are experiencing mass incarceration of the kind the Venetian word “ghetto” once meant for the Jews of Europe. We can see this dilemma embodied in the prose poetry of Sumaiya

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el-Sousy, a poet living and writing in Gaza City, active internationally but rooted in her city. In her recent prose poem “The City,” el-Sousy writes: What will this sad, silent, fallen city by the old sea oppressed by time give you? It will give you a lot if you listen to its nightly voice strewn amongst the rustling of the trees and the lapping of the waves. No one tries to listen to that angelic voice emanating from it. Everyone only hears his own voice and strives to search for himself among the city’s heaps . . . Often I think if only geography wasn’t so clever, if only it bestowed the city with a few more coastal kilometers and released it from its existing borders; how would your seashore look, oh Gaza? Which ships would reach you? What would be the State of your residents, teeming with feelings of exile, cries, and fear? Perhaps it is the constant thought of escaping the city’s boundaries weighing on me, or at least the idea that my city is without borders, drowning in isolation. A city where whoever enters is lost, and whoever leaves writes himself a new life story. Now there is no leaving and no entering. A city of imprisonment that consumes its own inhabitants and which everyone wants to escape.15 Sumaiya el-Sousy’s prose poem “The City” comes to us not from the eye of the storm but from the eye of something other—stranger, harder to define, more every day, though just as unstable as a storm, both more bereft and more hopeful and alive. If it is a storm after all perhaps it is the one Benjamin writes of in his passage on “The Angel of History.” Certainly, the angelic voice el-Sousy writes of is beautiful and grim. It tells of a city of infinite possibilities—reduced to a flat surface. It tells of a place in which one must struggle to hear the rustling of the trees. Yes, the Angel of History is certainly here, facing backward, contemplating the past in all its bloody injustices as they call out to be righted, or to be avenged. But the Angel is already in flight. And there is something else here too, something other than vengeance or righteous indignation. The difference between Benjamin’s text and el-Sousy’s lies not only in its perspective on “the Angel of History” itself—in his text it is an image, in her text it is a voice—but also in the “Never Again” inscribed into the situation of language after Benjamin. When uttered in its authentic meaning, this phrase does not mean “never again” the ethnic cleansing of the Jews, but “never again” ethnic cleansing at all. Will the voice of such an awareness yet prevent one specific people from continuing to permit itself to seek such ethnic cleansing under other

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names? The poet el-Sousy’s haunting words press up against the glass walls of the cyber-ghetto, and the veiled walls of dream, and the actual guns enforcing incarceration and limiting speech and movement in the actual ghetto. As Jewish people we cannot but help recognizing ourselves or our ancestors. All ages are contemporaneous. Let it not be said Gaza City is not without a human—or an angelic—voice. John Brown’s Body There is so little that is individual and just. You would think we had never been bees and beekeepers collaborating on honey. In the hive of the subway we glimpse guitar players singing sadly in Spanish. Together on the couch the daughter laughs and, outfitted in maiden speech, playfully speaks the line: “read ‘to be or not to be’ not the right way.” At her father’s behest she will squirt the curvaceous woman in the playground who isn’t yet wet enough. Already she mouths the word “moldering,” munches banana chips on the 2 train, meditates on colors. The first guitar and the one not yet strung tune themselves together, preparing a next song. Like chinchillas, nipping mischievously at fingers extended through the cage, highly American. As in provoke something. Fight for the familiar things the patriots only pretend to stand for. In Thoreau’s words Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. There is so little that is individual and just.16 Notes 1. Guy Lardreau, L’Histoire Comme Nuit de Walpurgis [S. I., 1981]. 2. Andrew Joron, “The Emergency of Poetry,” The Cry at Zero (Denver: Counterpath, 2007), 72. 3. Leonard Schwartz, The New Babel (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016), 56. 4. Ron Silliman, Talisman 9 (2000): 26. 5. Schwartz, The New Babel, 58. 6. Kamau Brathwaite, “History of the Voice,” Roots (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 171.

Transcendental Tabby 175 7. Schwartz, The New Babel, 60. 8. Ibn Arabi, Stations of Desire, intro. and trans. Michael Sells (Jerusalem: Ibis, 2000), 96. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 9. Gershom Scholem, The Fullness of Time, trans. Richard Sieburth (Jerusalem: Ibis, 2003), 47. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 10. Taha Muhammed Ali, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story, trans. Peter Cole (Jerusalem: Ibis, 2000), 21. Hereafter, page numbers are cited parenthetically. 11. Martin Buber, A Land of Two Peoples, intro. and trans. Paul Mendez-Flohr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 87. 12. Buber, A Land of Two Peoples, 208. 13. Mahmoud Darwish, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, trans. Jeffrey Sachs (New York: Archipelago, 2006), 100. 14. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 257. 15. El-Sousi, “Somayo,” manuscript. 16. Schwartz, The New Babel, 104.

part 4

Digital, Capital, and Institutional Frames


The Codex Is Broken Ron Silliman


here is a scene in the original Men in Black in which K, played by Tommy Lee Jones, shows J, Will Smith’s character, a small metallic ball that K swears will be the music distribution format of the future, alien technology that the US government will secretly reverse engineer and push out as entrepreneurial innovation. “I’m going to have to buy The White Album all over again,” K sighs. That didn’t happen. In the nineteen years since the film appeared, the physical technology for music storage has all but evaporated. That film’s vision of the future turns out to have been sluggish. On August 11, 2012, Paul Greenberg of the New York Times got an entire column out of this question from his then five-year-old son: “Do the Beatles have any other playlists besides Sgt. Pepper?” We are positioned at an unprecedented historical moment. Every form, every art, every genre is in transition, not always by choice. For writers, the situation could not be more complex. The codex is broken. This has consequences for form and genre, for distribution and careers, for the political consequences and social meaning of writing. In the 26 years since CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, first launched a page for its own website on Hiroshima Day, 1991, the role of the book as the end-all and be-all of writing has been eroding. But, when we consider that the template of the bound-at-the-spine, front-to-back-printed, random-access-by-simply-thumbing-through, waiting-to-be-pulped chunk of tree is itself just 665 years old, and especially when we remember that the first bookstore to foreground its stock of paperback, as distinct from hardbound, product, City Lights in San Francisco, predates the CERN’s web page by just 38 years, we are forced to concede that the book never was a fixed vessel for the 179

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written word. Thirty-eight years is roughly the same time it took in the fifteenth century to go from the original Gutenberg Bible to Caxton’s Missal, the first English volume printed in two colors of ink, and also the first volume to bear Caxton’s printer’s mark or logo. In 1991, the publishing industry was already starting to feel the impact of computerization—for example, with the disappearance of all but a few highend typesetters. The subsequent impact of the net—on newspapers, the record industry, film and TV, indie and even chain bookstores—track an accelerating “creative destruction” of the world as we knew it. Consider the task confronting any new would-be e-publisher, particularly one operating as a small press: there are currently at least 13 different e-book publishing formats and 28 competing e-readers on the market, 364 different combinations that need to be negotiated. Even if we presume that only a few of these have any serious market future, the underlying reality remains that the only format that can now be read by every existing e-reader is plain text, the format least capable of handling poetry or any sort of textual complexity. For example, Robert Majzel’s 2006 novel, Apikoros Sleuth, a murder mystery in the form of a Talmudic inquiry, uses different alphabets, columns, sidebars, and imagery that is both embedded and layered.1 Not all that atypical in 2017. Second, even if you decide on the right platform going forward, “figuring out how to portray consistency between a 4-inch screen that you can touch with a finger, and a 60-inch screen that comes with a clunky remote control, is not so simple,” to quote from Nick Bilton’s New York Times blog, “Designing for Multiple Screen Sizes Is About Consistency,” of September 20, 2012. Consider, for example, the history of Robert Grenier’s Sentences, which Michael Waltuch’s Whale Cloth Press originally issued as a limited edition of five hundred 5-by-8-inch cards in a cardboard-and-cloth “Chinese box” in 1978, a visually stunning project that has become iconic in the history of language writing over the past three decades, but which has almost certainly been seen by more people in its online form that duplicates the fact that no two boxes presented the cards in the same order by using a program that proceeds through them randomly so that clicking through never repeats—a different experience from, say, spreading cards out upon a table, and one which in any event doesn’t permit reader-based organization of the cards, a stack of this and a pile of that.2 The elegance of the original card format is also transformed into smallish gray rectangles as visually unimpressive as the box itself was awesome. Which ultimately is the better, if not “more real,” edition? Eventually, there will be as many of these kinds of stories and questions as there are “books in print” for the literature of today—I’m not even thinking about that of tomorrow for

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the moment—presuming of course that we could agree on just what “in print” might mean in twenty or fifty years. This is not the Gutenberg Revolution on steroids so much as it is the Gutenberg Revolution on PCP, faster, more powerful and violent than we can imagine. I want to just list three levels of consequence. The first, the social or global, may appear to be the most removed from the question of the blank page, but ultimately, it’s the most important. New modes of communication are reconfiguring national boundaries, shifting the balance between state and individual as well as state and corporation. These modes are not easily controlled by traditional forces of domination. When we see an artist such as Ai Weiwei literally give the finger to the People’s Republic of China, the global outcry at the arrest of members of Pussy Riot, the role of smart phones and the web in the so-called Arab Spring or in the Occupy movement, we are witnessing disparate regimes struggling with their ability to contain individual and collective agency. The second level is the impact of these pulsating, permeable borders on distribution and careers. We have already arrived at the moment when any writer in English who has some sort of decent distribution of their work can be expected to be read worldwide without having to be translated first. More than 20 percent of the readers of my weblog—I had 4 million visits in the first twelve years, starting in 2002—came from outside of the United States. Four of the top ten nations reading my blog were countries where I had never given a reading: Australia, Germany, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan.3 We need to complicate this more permeable global infrastructure with the stunning rise in the number of practicing English language poets—there are no published estimates for this from the 1950s that even put the number above one hundred, although that is obviously low. Contemporary estimates start at twenty thousand, and some more than double that figure. Unsurprisingly, we are seeing a parallel explosion in the number of genres of poetry being written— at least five identifiable modes of conceptualism (flarf; second-wave feminist documenta; third-wave neo ironic documenta; Canadian conceptualism; and uncreative writing or conceptualism as shtick); a resurgent hybridism that has popped up repeatedly since Alfred Kreymborg first identified it in his anthologies in the 1930s; vispo; performance; asemic writing (a contradiction in terms), MFA programs like Stone Coast at the University of Maine with eight different genre concentrations (but not including vispo, performance, or conceptual poetry). While technology per se did not cause such expansions, it does enable transnational networks of the like-minded to arrive at levels of sustainability in ways previously not possible.

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Finally, to understand what the formal implications of a post-codex literary world might be, we must answer two sets of questions: first, what did the form of the book make possible, plausible, inevitable? How might that change under different technical conditions? I’m not thinking short-term here as I am the larger sweep of history, for example, in the way the codex form, its reproducibility, and its portability made the novel inevitable, what the typewriter did to the role of spacing for poetry, or how the whole history of logos and corporate identity programs lies implicit within Caxton’s printer’s imprint, or with Gutenberg’s twenty years earlier. Second: we need to choose between one of several major scenarios. Scenario one: the evolution of the e-reader settles on a new format that is widely adopted and becomes a new standard for literary consumption. This is the scenario that perceives the future as essentially a mirror of the past and for that reason alone I distrust it. Scenario two: the evolution of the e-reader does not settle but rather continually evolves, most likely at an accelerating pace, spewing out a future that is unstable in terms of the presumptions writers can make about the presentation and consumption of literary forms, and in which the archivists among us will forever be playing catch-up. The third scenario looks much like the second, but with one radical difference—the past is carried forward, not merely as habit but because it will become more valuable. E-readers evolve, but books never precisely go away. Books are much more likely to become art objects. Alongside these we may see a widening of the genres of writing that build in obsolescence, decay, and disappearance, much the way a lot of ballet and modern dance have. My own gut feel is that the last of these scenarios is the most likely. One question that follows, at least for me, is how much new work will be produced for the book form as such? Increasingly over time, the answer to that question is apt to be: not much. I don’t think any among us is apt to know the “right” answers to these questions even thirty-two years from now. But we are being asked to place our wagers today, each time we press a key or touchscreen, the moment we pick up a pen. My advice is that we would be wisest to look closely at those writers who built their work from the ground up, with the least reference to received literary traditions: Grenier, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Mary Ellen Solt, Bob Cobbing, Gertrude Stein, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Jackson Mac Low, Bern Porter, Hugo Ball, several of the Russian futurists. But what this is not is a call for permanent avant-gardism. Rather it is that only by stripping one’s art down to essentials that one can start to think through conditions that are fundamentally in transition. There is a corollary to this: works that complicate genres, that mix them, that cross boundaries, will carry inherently greater risks. This doesn’t make these

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projects “wrong,” but it might make them harder to find, read, or experience in ways that the author might have intended. Consider for example the complex history of Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes and the degree to which they do or do not figure a fundamental disruptive aspect to her writing, and what those have meant at different intervals since her death in 1886. I would further suggest that the changed parameters between artist and audience need to be considered when looking at all modes of folk literature, from fan fiction to slam poetics, from haiku to the fisherman poets of Oregon. All of these worlds are likewise in motion, some focusing on formal dimensions that will cause them to have impacts well beyond their supposed borders. Fan fiction, for example, is crowd-sourced fiction not entirely alien from the ways in which The Grand Piano can be read as a crowd-sourced memoir.4 Mash-ups, which we glimpse just getting underway with Victorian novels bringing on zombies, represent social formalism way beyond what Baudelaire once envisioned for the prose poem in his letter to Arsene Houssaye. I could tell you that we are approaching that moment when some agent K holds up something akin to a cellphone smart chip and claims that the whole of literature is embedded thereon. But I won’t because I know that such change wouldn’t even begin to scratch at the future of writing. Bizarrely perhaps, the words that ring in my imagination when I try to contemplate this are my own, the first two paragraphs of my book, Tjanting: Not this. What then?5 Notes 1. Robert Majzels, Apikoros Sleuth (Toronto: Mercury, 2005). 2. Robert Grenier, Sentences (Cambridge, MA: Whale Cloth, 1978). 3. Ron Silliman’s blog, 4. Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, and Ronald Silliman, The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco 1975–1980 (Detroit: Mode A/This Press, 2007–2010). 5. Ron Silliman, Tjanting (London: Salt, 2002 [1981]).


Empire Aesthetics It’s Not the Point, It’s the Platform—Detroit Model Vanessa Place


s you know, an aphorism is a pithy saying that, once said, seems so perfectly concentrated as to cause all hearers to smack their foreheads in recognition and regret. Recognition in instant comprehension, regret in the shame felt at not thinking of it first, or at least sooner. I am a poet, a writer, an artist, all of sorts, and, until recently, CEO of Vanessa Place, the world’s first transnational poetry corporation. My aphorism for the contemporary imaginary, for today, is simply this: “Your affect is our product.” I will try to sprinkle my talk with other aphorisms for your contemplation and, possibly, pleasure. The aphoristic form, which may include bumper stickers, soundbites, slogans, and licks of lyric poetry, is particularly suited to a talk about the contemporary imaginary, by which I mean to include both visual art practices and literary art practices, and all that lies between. For the contemporary smooths away such genre distinctions, not the least in terms of pleasure. What I promise you today is the joy of this frictionlessness. And all its dangers. Such as the fact that the very title of my talk is too neat, too much of a meme. Whenever something is a meme, you can be sure that it is something suitable for swallowing. It is the essence of frictionlessness. In today’s capitalism, language is considered suspect as the primary mover of product, or, more accurately, language is product. Thus, the authors of the prescient Empire (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) argue that capitalism now knows no borders but only frontiers—the model for the global empire is not the imperial colonialist practices of the monarch, but the democratic constitution of 185

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the United States, with its positivist model of power as networks of affiliation and self-redefining identities. Ergo, in empire capitalism, language orders subjectivities and that “the legitimation of the imperial machine is born at least in part of the communication industries. . . . it is a subject that produces its own image of authority.”1 For the moment, it is enough for me to note this image is you—and we will return to that in a moment. Again, from Empire, “Today productivity, wealth, and the creation of social surpluses take the form of cooperative interactivity through linguistic, communicational, and affective networks.” 2 And fair enough. But let’s add, for aesthetic purposes, that contemporary capitalism is also what has been termed “semiocapitalism,” in which what is traded are signs and signifiers, a technology-based enterprise whereby “the soul itself is put to work” 3 in a “new affective/cognitive/project-form capitalism.” 4 Both rubrics work within a system that works, 24/7, a time outside or within all time, during which, frowns another critic, “the demand for mandatory 24/7 immersion in visual content effectively becomes a new form of institutional super-ego.” 5 Where the “individual becomes “a permanent site of data-harvesting and surveillance” leading to creation of “inanimate impersonations rather than extensions of self . . . a simulated release from the hindrances of being alive.” 6 This last bit is rather silly, however, as it is predicated on an old idea of life and self, a postmodern notion of passivity in the face of the spectacle rather than what I would call a properly conceptualist concept of complicity in the society of the surveilled. For the contemporary imaginary is, above all else, a participatory project. I would like to quote at some length what seems to me the perfect anthem for the ideological present, now somewhat dated. From Britney Spears’s 2013 hit single, “Work Bitch”: You wanna hot body You want a Bugatti You want a Maserati You better work bitch You want a Lamborghini Sip martinis Look hot in a bikini You better work bitch You wanna live fancy Live in a big mansion Party in France You better work bitch

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I would like to note there is no written comma in the lyric “work bitch,” though one is implied in her video performance (“work, bitch”). It is also important to note that the motivational injunctive to (or to be a) “work bitch” is followed by Spears’s inspirational: So hold your head high Fingers to the sky Now they don’t believe ya But they gonna need ya Keep it building higher and higher Keep it building higher and higher The video, which you must watch immediately—those in the back can easily do so, those in the front can do so discretely—and, this will be another moment of our shared surveilling—is a perfect pastiche of soft domination-subordination scenarios, vague lesbianism, large sharks, and champagne. We can think about what these things have in common in terms of liquidity, openness, consumption, acquisition, and the insatiable, relative to the death drive, which is most easily imagined as the thing that propels the cartoon character to continue running, remaining temporarily aloft, after he’s gone off the cliff. Now let’s compare this to an excerpt of contemporary American lyric by the institutionally rewarded (Pulitzer Prize, chair at Harvard, etc.) Jorie Graham, from a poem titled “Employment”:7 waiting all day again in line till your number is called it will be called which means exactly nothing as no one will say to you as was promised by all eternity “ah son, do you know where you came from, tell me, tell me your story as you have come to this Station”—no, they did away with the stations and the jobs the way of life “Employment” ends with the exhortation: The thing to do right

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away is to start counting, to say it is my turn, mine to step into the stream of blood for the interview, to say I can do it, to say I am not one, and then say two, three, four, and feel the blood take you in from above, a legion single file heading out in formation across a desert that will not count So you see how what used to be separately called high and low culture, or visual/video and lingual/poetic aesthetic products perfectly complement and conserve today’s semiotic economy: both promise freedom, one through the constancy and self-reward of work, the other through the working persistence of individuation, though individuation and reward in both cases occurs collectively, in formation—single-file, so to speak—which is the only proper form of individuation today. Spears promises liberation via voluntary enslavement, using an “I” that is entirely undifferentiated and unidentified (or, more properly, identified only via the “you” who are all the other “I”s, which then gives one the power of the purse, and here’s where a pun works well—purchasing power, meaning the equation of the power of capital with the power of purchase, of having a firm place, a good foothold, a spot for climbing, for leveraging. Graham’s call to arms is dissociative, advocating a liberatory nostalgia for the many little “I”s that one imagines one is that also assures one is the master of one’s own mentality. Spears’s call is for the young, who believe themselves strong; Graham’s is aimed at the middling ages, who believe themselves wise. Both Spears and Graham champion all individual “I”s to band together and insist on “my turn,” that clarion call to nothing less than self-esteem through self-regard, that is to say, the purity of self-interest. Self-interest, it should be remembered, is a form of self-regard. And like all motivational speakers, both Spears and Graham hold themselves out as exemplars of all they promise is possible for you. For, today, the revolution will be, must be, personalized. Now let’s compare these gestures to the first book of poems by my own Vanessa Place Inc., a chapbook of 20 one-dollar bills, titled $20, which was sold—and sold out—at $50 a copy. A book no one can now buy. Though, of course, almost anyone can have. Perfectly transparent, perfectly liquid. Or, as described in my

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corporate launch address, a duly modified version of Steve Jobs’s iPhone launch, something “where art is life and life is art, where it’s all fantasy and all reality.” Cultural capital “you can spend.” This is not about globalization or even globalism. This is about currency. We live, meaning those of us marginally interested in the topic at hand, in a fluid society—sharks and champagne, lesbianism, and the flow of communal blood. Some relevant aphorisms: Information is architecture. Navigation is content. This is most easily seen in social media, such as Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. The unit is the individual subject, the “I,” personalized. The information creates an infrastructure that is so custom-made that the uniformity of the meta-structure is unimportant. Happily, I am always surrounded by friends, however I define them, and my language clipped to fit a certain template, numeric, as it turns out, in any event, digestible. As with my content—for in Facebook, I am always content—I “like.” My like is a smooth pure linguistic surface—frictionless. But for those who know, they know. One “like” is sorrow as the passing of a parent or the loss of job, another pure pleasure at yet another cat video. I am a sometime poet. Poets put their public appearances on Facebook, as well as their moods. Given that poetry has a tradition of aestheticized marketing of the individual soul, caught, since the Romantics, in its moment of self-regard— turned outward, plated for contemplation and identification by all the other souls. And how is this different from the artist as author? Sometimes I appropriate their status updates—all appearances are the same, whether emotional or promotional. Sometimes this makes me very unpopular: I was the topic of criticism after reposting the status update of a successful poet-professor announcing the upcoming publication of her latest collection by a large New York publisher. Criticized primarily for what was seen as my mocking her with my reframing. My mantra here is “never apologize, never explain.” For, I would like to note, on Facebook, as in other aestheticized environments (as the police are sometimes understood as a pseudo-military organization, particularly in times of domestic unrest, perhaps social media could be called today’s pseudo-art market), all language is the same. Equally fluid, equally mobile, equally tailor-made to suit your self-interests, to move easily from affinity to affinity, from shopping for a sofa to seeing that sofa pop up above my mailbox. Everything is what I will it to be because everything is like (as if) I would have it.

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Céline said, “There is no escaping American business.” I say, “There is no escaping American English.” I am a constant American. One trait of Americans is that Americans identify themselves as Americans. This is because we believe in the synecdoche (a Mexican is not American, they are Mexican, but an American could well be a Mexican) as well as the universal specifier (“all men are created equal,” etc.). We absorb what comes our way, we expand our definitions as easily as our market shares. There are no genres, no genders, no games but common rules for playing. Like grammar, which, as Wittgenstein knew, always shimmers in the tension between the rules of logic, which cannot recognize nonsense, and the rules of ordinary use, which accepts it as a constituent boundary. For example: A rose is a rose is a rose. This is an American masterpiece because a fully logical sentence whose ordinary grammar perfectly coincides with its comprehension. It also demonstrates the American love of violence. For Americans are violent in the way of fundamental violence: that which understands that history is wrenched in the present and is thus always a victory story. In other words, our today is always written in and with the cool violence of our contemporary, our ordinary, our casual, ordinary logics of what is likeable, what is to be liked, what is fluid, what is to be, in a difficult word, liquidated. This, too, is a trait of empire aesthetics. So, we have three notions of empire aesthetics, then: first, the work must work fluidly, with a certain overt frictionlessness. Second, the work permits a continual self-regard. Not a subjective self-regard, but the self-regard of what I have called the sobject—that perfect amalgam of subject and object that we all are and that we see ourselves as. Just as in social media, where we present ourselves cut as we would have others see us. This is to be distinguished from the narcissistic self-regard found in 1970s video art by critic Rosalind Krauss, which was predicated on a concept of video as using the human body as its primary instrument, where, as Kraus puts it, “the body or psyche” acts “as its own surround, and the video’s mirror-reflection (the product of video’s dual ability to record and transmit), creates a “collapsed present,” “illusionistically erasing the difference between subject and object.” 8 But video is tape, which is physical, and video is postmodern, which maintains the illusion of illusion, and the now-quaint separation of time and space. Put another way, in the digital age, the bios that was the basis of biography has been supplemented by the cogito that would create a cogitography. Unlike postmodernism, there is no sense of a meta, that is, an outside from which we can indicate the imaginary or the illusion, just an experiential present that is already imagined. Too, there is no presumption that the cogito be embodied. It may be

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materialized in some fashion (via primate or another database), but mostly it’s a moment, a process in play. Which brings us to our third feature of empire aesthetics: that the work exists simultaneously. Not ahistorically, but fully contemporary, like the mind that makes itself up as its ongoing occupation. Because of the digital, poetry now has the donnée of painting (—the condition of space), and visual art that of poetry (—the condition of time). I can wallpaper anything with image/language sorted via algorithms of attention market cache, not bound by time or place, though certainly found in time and place. Which then brings us, finally, to the contemporary avant-garde, and a little bit of the work of Vanessa Place. Another aphorism: The platform is the message. For poetry, this means that for the first time we must consider the properties of the platform as well as the form when assessing content. What poem is properly spat onto a block of paper, then bound, what lyric incorporates the open yet hermetic aesthetics of a YouTube video, and should Jorie Graham’s affirmations be printed on soft buttermilk biscuits? A poem may appear as a vial of dirt, such as Vanessa Place’s Poetry Pays, a small vial of earth taken from our groundbreaking ceremony dedicating the Museum of Language, just behind New York’s Metropolitan Museum—finally a multimillion dollar institution dedicated to the language that underlies, and now trumps, art—or a QR code, readable via the camera icon on your smart phone. Vanessa Place also had a poem consisting of twenty-four QR codes, and we were very excited about that. We can think a little here on how little difference there may be between the measure and kind of capital required to read a poem on a page and that required to read a poem on a phone. I know a Mexican poet who was for some time building an opera from chatroom discussions of the Mexican drug murders. While this engages the more specifically Mexican literary tradition of the baroque, it also calls into play the Romantic ideal of the opera as melodrama, as universal spectacle, not language-dependent, but language-transcendent. Not dependent on puns or les jeux de mots but on the understanding common to us: murder is murder, just as the condemned man speaks for himself. In other words, whereas postwar concrete poetry aimed at thick cross-lingual legibility, contemporary work is readable because it is so thin. Put another way (and I say this often for a reason), when we now think of “virtual reality” the stress falls not on “reality” as compared to or as modified by “virtuality” but on virtuality as a measure of the real—appearance, like the sun, is the thing itself. Here is an aphorism by Wallace Stevens, apropos of the sun: “What it seems it is and in such seeming all things are.”

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The problem, of course, being that the concrete poem was praised for its apolitical ambitions, the conceptual poem damned for its amoral affect. This is one little difference between art and poetry: poetry trades on sincerity, even in irony. Art trades on itself, which is always sincere. So, poetry is now art, art poetry. It is the state of art, and has been for some time now, that anything can be art. As recently pointed out by art historian Thierry de Duve, this does not mean that everything is art, but rather that it is the condition of all art that anything can be art. This is the predicate that all artists begin with.9 As noted, I have been a conceptual poet; conceptual poetry, as I define it, is poetry that is not self-referential. It does not direct its interpretation. Its surface may be as dumbly reflective as glass, as terribly ordinary as a traffic report, or as banally terrible as a report of rape. Much of my work engages in appropriation. It is my belief and suggestion that authorship, as such, is arbitrary. It’s ownership that counts, which I may have stolen from Richard Prince. I forget. The point is, I used to be an artist. Conceptualism is allegorical. It is not allegorical of this or that, for that was the job of postmodernism, of Language poetry, to point to its allegories, to direct its lively arguments, even if casually dressed. Conceptualism insists that the text is as dead as the author, and it is entirely left to you to determine what to make of it. You can like it, or you can not like it. You tell me. Though there is still a question, in some cases, whether there is an “it” to make something of. Such as in my book Die Dichtkunst (The Art of Lyric Poetry) 383 pages of the letter U, with 11 pages of U’s crossed out in the middle. A work that, on the one hand, reads as entirely a work of lyric poetry when read in English (“you, you, you”), on the other hand, may be as obviously written in German, given the title, where it means something else altogether (visual shorthand for “und, und, und,” which would not be said, or, as the simple letter u, pronounced like a ooh, ooh, ooh, the sounds of satisfaction or a slight kick in the gut). Thus, moreover absolutely failing as any kind of translation though it is absolutely limpid, absolutely frictionless, absolutely inert. Dumb as a dummy, the thing ventriloquists use. For in this game of voice-throwing, I play the part of the dummy, the mouthpiece for you, you, you. And note that this is absolutely also an engagement with what Joyce called the “verbicovisual.” To understand Die Dichtkunst, one may know something of language, something of writing, something of art. Or know nothing at all but its pure platform properties: paper, image, sound. Similarly, Marjorie Perloff has pointed out that Christian Marclay’s The Clock is an exemplar of verbicovisual conceptual art. The Clock is, as you perhaps know, a twenty-four-hour durational montage work that, as you probably know, collages sound and image clips

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featuring films in which a clock is shown or the time otherwise referenced. The Clock is shown “on time.” If it is 9:49 on screen, it is 9:49 where you sit. In other words, the work is not “about” time because, strictly speaking, it is time. The Clock is a clock. It is also an allegory of, possibly, a clock. Meaning that: All art is now site-contingent. The critical inquiry was once how to properly interpret a work as a work within its genre or medium-specificity. Thus, the Graham poem would traditionally be read as an example of a kind of postwar lyric, commonly called postmodern. Discursive, as multifaceted as the polished treasures within. The back cover of Place, the book that contains Graham’s “Employment,” and how could I resist stealing this, says that she explores the devaluation of “‘mere’ subjectivity,” and calls for “rejoicing in” “a more responsive and responsible place of the human in the world.” First, note that “she” explores. Not the poems. The author lives, which is good news to all of you. Second, that the call for responsibility is a call to “rejoice” in the poetic labor of meaning-making. But a fully contemporary critique of “Employment” considers Graham’s employment as attested to in the content and production of the book (who put it out, who pimped it, who now pampers it), and how the binding of a book provides the ballast weighing reader to writer, giving the former a literal purchase on the latter. Versus the book of dollar bills, which may mean nothing to you, or quite a lot, depending on your purse, which is also slang for another kind of money-maker, depending on your country of origin, depending on whether you treat it as an artifact or as something to spend. How do you feel about the coolness of cash, a Jackson lying along your thigh? Or that these twenty-dollar bills have, by virtue of my authorship, and the shareholding Vanessa Place, been segregated into a very small (a limited edition) group of dollar bills, worth far more than a mere $20. And while it may be very important to me as a matter of the role of cultural capital in empire aesthetics to use my own work as exemplar, in terms of affect as aesthetic product, it’s all about you, as art is, as poetry must be. Duchamp once wondered if it was possible to make nonretinal art. And while I am positively sure it is possible to make nonretinal poetry, I wonder if it is possible to make poetry that is punctum-free. How do you feel about that? For this is the platform predicate of poetry today—we make you matter. For in this, Toi la verite, tu parles. Paul Valéry said that art is the “passage from the arbitrary to the necessary,” evoking the modernist idea of the “esse” in aesthetics. Postmodernism shucked the esse while retaining a meta-move that argued for allegorical specificity—a directed reading, discursive, perhaps, but directed. Another form of

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essentialism. Which, by the way, is what maddens my critics: if they don’t know from the thing what they are to make of it, then they demand that I clarify. Are my intentions good? Are they instructive? Am I criticizing the topic at hand or simply replicating the problem? Should they be we, for purposes of our mutual public performance, or should they stay away, keep themselves—and poetry—in the preserve of potential purity or the purity of potential? To which I can only respond, “yes.” Always respond “yes.” That is my advice. One of the critiques of contemporary art is that if it is anything, how do we critique? Which is another way of asking how can one control the interpretation? Here I would point out that we only fear those we consider lower than ourselves: our nightmares concern snakes and random marauders, not committee chairs and debt collectors. We do not subconsciously fear our betters—ideologically or otherwise. What does my work mean? You tell me. Poets post anticapitalism messages on Facebook. Poets post images taken from international art exhibitions of art that protest capitalism on Facebook. Artist post antiglobalization messages on Facebook. Artists post language taken from international pundits decrying globalization on Facebook. Everyone posts various posts that demonstrate their own authenticity, and the authenticity of those they valorize, the valorization being based on the fair market value, in semiotic terms, of authenticity. Or what seems authentic. In the criminal defense game, we have a saying: It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it only matters if it’s believable. I have a series of poems called “Self Portraits” taken from other’s impressionistic selfies, as posted on Facebook. To the degree it offends, it calls into question who, that is to say what, has been offended. It is the thing-itself that comes to pass, in all its platform variations, and, to paraphrase Jung on Dada, we’re too schizophrenic to be idiotic. And so, we, meaning me, meaning you, meaning this site that is temporarily us, are no longer talking about an ethics of ambiguity, but an ethics if ambiguity. When I first wrote this, there was an article online, or at least a link posted on Facebook, to the effect that more people are watching Banksy’s Syrian war video than videos of actual Syrian war footage. My non-ironic question at the time was, what is the difference, which was borne out by the article itself, in which the commentator wondered, “What will be the impact of Banksy wading into the Syrian Civil War?” 10 This was also not an ironic question. My question now is, you wish. You better work bitch.

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Notes 1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 33. 2. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 294. 3. Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 116. 4. Martin Saar, introduction to “New Spirit of Criticism? The Biopolitical Turn in Perspective,” Texte zur Kunst 81 (2011): 132. 5. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 47. 6. Crary, 24/7, 104–5. 7. Jorie Graham, Place: New Poems (New York: Ecco, 2012). 8. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October 1, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 53–54, 57. 9. Thierry De Duve, “Pardon My French,” Artforum, October 2013, 249. 10. Hrag Vataranian, “Banksy’s Busy Weekend NYC Projects: Diorama, Heart, Syrian War,” Hyperallergic, October 7, 2013,


Now That’s a Poem Vito Acconci, Conceptual Writing, and Poetic Nominalism Brian Reed

First Try

Q. Is this a poem? A. Who is asking? Try Again

Charles Bernstein, the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings of Vito Acconci (2006) soon after its publication. Aside from the “fine editing job and introduction” by the poet-critic Craig Dworkin, he finds little to praise about the collection. “This book is not going to change literary history,” he announces. Initially at least, he also hesitates over what exactly to call the texts included in Language to Cover a Page. He compares them to poetry but teasingly withholds the label, referring to them instead as “material” and “works”: Acconci’s “early writings” are mostly from the late 60s. The material here is published, mostly, for the first time. His work with process and linguistic data organization . . . has an affinity with his immediate contemporaries, Aram Saroyan, Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, and Bernadette Mayer, without ever having the preternatural élan of Saroyan or the sustaining poetic brilliance of Coolidge, Mayer (with whom Acconci edited the important art/ poetry crossover magazine 0–9), or Howe (who switched from visual art to 197

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poetry just as Acconci was going in the other direction). The closest poetic match for this work is David Antin’s process-oriented works collected in his Selected Poems: 1963–1973 and also Hannah Weiner’s early works. “Acconci was going in the other direction”: Bernstein alludes to the fact that, while Acconci might have graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1964, today he is best known for his conceptual, video, and performance art. His long-unpublished late 1960s writings, Bernstein implies, were transitional, records of a time when a poet was fast reinventing himself as a visual artist. If “process-oriented works” from the same years such as Antin’s “Novel Poem” and Weiner’s “Code Poems” are described as “poetic matches” for Acconci’s “work with process and linguistic data organization,” then, one might conclude, Acconci’s “process-oriented” experiments must not count as “poetic,” or at least not fully so. Halfway through his review, however, Bernstein mysteriously switches tacks and accuses the MIT Press series that published Language to Cover a Page of “poetry phobia,” “a prissy caution against using the ‘p’ word in their titles, lest the target art-world audience be put off.” Why this change of heart? It’s not immediately apparent, and the introduction of the “’p’ word” does not appreciably improve his opinion of the collection: “Much of Acconci’s poetry on display here veers to the pat or inert, like the discarded plans they in some ways are.” He ends his review on what seems a sarcastic note. “I liked best,” he reports, “a few of the pieces in the final two sections of the collection . . . [T]ake, for example, the witty parody of a poetry of place, ‘REMOVAL, MOVE (LINE OF EVIDENCE): the grid location of streets, alphabetized, Hagstrom’s maps of the boroughs: 3. Manhattan.’ The piece begins ‘J12 G13 G12 B11’ and goes on for five large-format pages. Man, oh, man: that’s poetry!” 1 Acconci’s wordy title is hardly redolent of wit, and if its selective extraction and re-presentation (“Removal, Move”) of data from a tourist’s map of Manhattan is intended as a parody of loco-descriptive poems such as Alexander Pope’s “Windsor Forest” (1713) and W. H. Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” (1948), the humor quickly evaporates. Bernstein stops after four “grid locations.” Here are the next fifty: “K9 B11 F11 F14 D13 C6 C14 F2 A9 A9 B10 A9 C14 J9 B12 B12 C12 C12 C12 C12 C12 C12 D13 D13 D13 D13 D13 D13 D14 D14 C5 C14 C14 C14 H13 G2 B6 F14 G2 J9 F3 F6 F6 J7 H14 D14 K12 G4 B10 C12.” 2 This quotation ends in the middle of the piece’s third line. There are forty-nine more lines to go before the conclusion of the first page. And then, after that, there still remain four more letter-sized pages for a reader to traverse. “Man, oh man: that’s poetry”: one can almost hear Bernstein’s voice dripping with disdain. Who would ever choose to read a monotonous work such as “Removal, Move”

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when they could read real poetry by real poets instead? “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.” 3 Try, Try Again

Bernstein is a writer who delights in tonal ambiguity. When reading him, one always has to be alert to the possibility that more is going on than is immediately apparent. Before discussing “Removal, Move” for instance, he also mentions Acconci’s “Act 3, Scene 4,” which “divides what we would now call a weather feed into 350 numbered lines (yes, something like Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather, avant la lettre).” And both these pieces, he tells us, “bear a close relation to the more realized contemporary conceptual poetry Dworkin champions.” Bernstein here echoes and condenses an argument made in the book’s introduction. After liberally using “the ‘p’ word” in his survey of Acconci’s early writings, Dworkin admits that they have, until now, played little or no role in literary history, but such a vanishing from view, he contends, constitutes a “tactic of delay,” a “means by which the avant-garde survives its inhospitable cultural environment.” He goes on to claim that “work too radical to be assimilated, diluted, absorbed, or even recognized in its own moment of composition disappears to lie dormant, but not before provoking a few subsequent experiments that will eventually develop the context in which those original strains can finally be read.” He believes, too, that the appropriate “context” for appreciating Acconci’s poetry has now at long last asserted itself, after more than a generation of subterranean development and “delay”: In the early 1970s, a few of Acconci’s published poems were a spur to Bruce Andrews, a young poet actively seeking out evidence of a radical poetic avant-garde. Like the poetry that in part inspired it, Andrews’ quite different but equally difficult writing has yet to be fully recognized, although it in turn gave license—two decades after its own composition—to yet again quite different and exacting writing by Kenneth Goldsmith. Which returns us . . . to Acconci’s poetry. Reframing text from the New York Times and the New York City weather report respectively, Goldsmith’s books Day and The Weather were written with complete inscience of Acconci’s own newspaper and weather forecast poems from thirty-five years earlier.4 Dworkin here connects the dots between three historical moments and movements. First is New York conceptual art during the 1960s and 1970s, the milieu with which Acconci is most often associated. Second is 1970s and 1980s

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language poetry, the highest profile North American literary avant-garde of the post–Vietnam War era. Andrews coedited the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978–1982) that gives the movement its name, and he is the author of such central texts in the language poetry canon as Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1987) and I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) (1992). Third is what Bernstein refers to as “conceptual poetry,” a twenty-first-century transnational literary movement known for appropriating large amounts of found text and then transcribing, reprinting, remediating, or otherwise reproducing them in new formats. Goldsmith’s Day (2003) and The Weather (2005) are among the best-known examples. Not coincidentally, so too is Dworkin’s own Parse (2008), a book-length attempt to identify the syntax of every sentence in a grammar textbook. The introduction to Language to Cover a Page is, among other things, a manifesto, a declaration that Dworkin, Goldsmith, and other like-minded poets have a solid literary historical justification for their formal experiments. Acconci-­ Andrews-Goldsmith: this pedigree potentially grants legitimacy and seriousness to a range of contemporary avant-garde efforts, including Yedda Morrison’s Darkness (2012), which whites out everything in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) except references to the natural world; Simon Morris’s Re-Writing Freud (2005), which reorders all the words that appear in an English translation of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899); and Chris Alexander’s Panda (2012), which assembles thousands of fan responses to the animated film Kung Fu Panda (2008). Bernstein is surely aware of the polemical dimension to Dworkin’s introduction. After all, he coedited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Andrews, and his essays, collected in volumes such as Content’s Dream (1986) and A Poetics (1992), have played a central role in defining language poetry for outsiders interested in the movement. In his review, he is, among other things, commenting on a younger writer who has the temerity, first, to press-gang him into the role of precursor and, second, to assign him a new literary “parent.” It must be disconcerting to discover yourself included in an unfamiliar family tree. At first withholding the label poetry from Acconci’s writings, then complaining that MIT Press is at fault for doing the same thing, and finally casting doubt on the value of those poems, he responds to Dworkin’s literary-historical intervention by raising concerns about the kind and quality of the texts gathered in Language to Cover a Page. He manages to sound both supportive of Goldsmith and Dworkin and evasive about this particular project’s value. “Man, oh, man: that’s poetry!” His false enthusiasm is damning. One hears an unstated “not really” before the p-word in that exclamation.

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Try Harder

And yet . . . that “not” is only implied. Denotatively, taken strictly at his word, Bernstein affirms, not denies, the classification of “Removal, Move” as a poem. Indeed, he has already gone on record in the review defending that label against “poetry phobia” and “prissy caution.” Longtime readers of Bernstein know to expect this sort of dilemma. Jacob Edmond has observed that his prose typically proceeds via a “spin cycle” in which “the assertion of one totalizing whole in opposition to another totalizing whole” rapidly gives way to another such, often wholly contradictory, assertion. These quick-changes are disorienting, to say the least. He neither straightforwardly “perpetuates” nor “dismantles the structures” and “frames of thinking he puts into play.” The ultimate goal, Edmond concludes, is clarification. Bernstein “draws attention to the paradoxes and inevitable exclusions” involved whenever one attempts to draw or enforce boundaries and distinctions.5 At the end of this review, in other words, he wants readers to be left thinking about what counts as poetry. Do they look at the large rectangular blocks of letters and numbers that make up “Removal, Move” and see a poem, or something else? Do they instinctively say to themselves “yes, that’s a poem” or “there’s no way that’s a poem”? This question is especially pertinent in Acconci’s case because of the author's early on and publicly registered ambivalence about the genre status of his writings from the late 1960s. In a 1972 issue of the journal Avalanche, he advances a storyline that subsequently circulated among critics, with minimal challenge, for almost thirty years. He presents himself as an erstwhile writer who has successfully and completely reinvented himself as an artist: Background: early work: writing: until 1964—short stories, parts of a novel, some isolated poems; then a concentration on poetry, until 1968–9. My involvement with poetry was with movement on a page, the page as a field for action. My aim was to find a language that went with the page rather than against it: use language to cover a space rather than to uncover a meaning. (I can consider that work now, in some ways, as a series of scores for more current work: I can consider my use of the page as a model space, a performance area in miniature or abstract form.)6 While admitting that he did write poetry for a few years, Acconci characterizes those texts as mere “early work,” just “background” to his later, more mature endeavors as a performance artist. Indeed, he feels that the poems matter mostly as foreshadowing, “a series of scores” and “miniature” experiments that find

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their fulfillment in “more current work.” He then goes on to quote excerpts from eight longer pieces and two short “untitled poems,” explaining concisely how each operates spatially by “narrow[ing] in on” the page “as a chamber space separated from its surroundings”; by using “the page as the start of an event that keeps going, off the page”; by treating the page “as a stopping-place—a place to regroup forces—for an outside event”; and so forth. He ends his survey of his career as a poet by recounting two “performances . . . in the context of poetry readings”—an improvised list of phrases in alphabetical order and live commentary while playing a recording of himself reading aloud from the dictionary—that he dismisses as “a back-track” because they were overly fixated on “ways to stay on” the page as opposed to providing “ways off.” 7 For nearly a generation, these two pages in Avalanche remained one of the very few places an interested reader could go if she wanted to learn more about Acconci’s page-based experiments.8 For instance, Catherine Quéloz’s article “Vito Acconci: Language in situ,” which surveys the generative role played by ordinary language-use in the artist’s oeuvre from his 1960s poems to his 1990s architectural projects, includes only two samples of his poetry, both taken from the Avalanche feature. She repeats his description of these works as transitional and preliminary. Moreover, she observes that in Avalanche, while he may use the words “poem” and “poetry,” he nonetheless also “évite tout vocabulaire faisant référence à la spécificité d’un médium ou à une discipline artistique conventionnelle” (avoids all vocabulary making reference to the specificity of the medium or a conventional artistic discipline), preferring instead to use “des termes qui soulignent le mouvement, le déplacement, l’évasion, la migration” (terms that emphasize movement, displacement, evasion, migration).9 He does not defend his writings qua poetry, she claims, because poetry, “définie comme une pratique limitée et autonome” (defined as a limited and autonomous practice), was, for him, tainted by its association with “l’héritage moderniste réductiviste, formel et universel” (the reductivist modernist heritage, formal, and universal). Even when still working within the constraints of that tradition, he intuited that “le mot est directement en relation avec l’environnement” (the word is directly related to its surroundings), and after he concluded that the proper arena for aesthetic inquiry was “l’espace réel” (real space), he promptly ceased any residual vocational self-understanding as a poet.10 Acconci’s 1972 dismissive, cursory overview of his then almost wholly unpublished work as a poet almost guaranteed that art critics would consider it, insofar as they deigned to notice it, as proto-art instead of literature. Moreover, he also managed to “disappear” himself from literary histories of the era, despite the fact that he had belonged to, and actively participated in, a network of

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now-well-known poets such as Robert Grenier, Jackson Mac Low, Bernadette Mayer, and Hannah Weiner. Even quite narrowly focused studies have essentially omitted him. For instance, Stephen Clay and Rodney Phillips’s A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980 (1998) refers to Acconci in passing simply as a “body artist” and “a prime example of an artist who experiments on himself and his own life” (207), and Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (2003) awards him only the briefest of cameos, stating that Mayer coedited the journal 0 to 9 with “her brother-in-law (performance artist, filmmaker, and writer Vito Hannibal Acconci)” (198). When Dworkin talks about Acconci’s poetry as having lain “dormant” for several decades, he is slightly fudging. The writer himself declared it an in-between thing, caught mid-metamorphosis between poetry and performance, and he pretty decisively buried it. His one abortive attempt at revival, a manuscript with the p-word-averse subtitle “Works for a Poetry Context,” was scheduled for publication by Out of London Press in 1981 but never made it to press.11 The situation began to change in 2001, when Dworkin’s article “Fugitive Signs” appeared in the journal October.12 Anne Wagner, at the time a professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, had recommended that he research Acconci; Dworkin, who had just earned his doctorate from the Berkeley English department, naturally approached the subject with a different set of disciplinary biases than earlier commentators such as Quéloz, Kate Linker, and Wagner herself. Although he had access only to the same few published poems that art critics had already consulted, he reacted strongly against the “de rigueur” but perfunctory treatment of the poetry in the art-historical scholarship. More specifically, he judged that the available “readings” did “not take seriously enough—or literally enough—the literary model.” He felt compelled, too, to reverse the art criticism’s teleology. Instead of construing the poetry as a stage quickly superseded, he set about arguing that “most of Acconci’s early performances constitute . . . the continuation of poetry by other means.” 13 These responses are not too surprising. Faced with the case of a man who worked in multiple media, an art critic could be expected to emphasize art, a poetry critic poetry. Also predictable (albeit welcome!) are Dworkin’s attentive, extended analyses of the ins and outs of the diction, lineation, and word spacing in Acconci’s poems. After all, that is how poetry critics since the days of Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom have typically advanced an argument. His discussion of Acconci’s “My Performance of Ezra Pound’s ‘Alba,’” for instance, is both brilliant and, at base, business-as-usual (he argues that the poem’s “parentheticals work to unsettle and loosen the joints of Pound’s

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tightly wrought imagist lyric by referencing larger rhetorical structures in which it might be embedded”).14 What does come as a big surprise, given the publication date, is his claim that the “most innovative poetry of the 1970s and 80s . . . emerged directly from the climate documented by the Dwan shows”—the four annual “language” exhibitions at the Dwan Gallery (1967–1971)—“and fostered by Acconci’s own exactly contemporaneous editorial activity” (98). In other words, he argues that New York conceptual art in general, and Acconci’s work with 0 to 9 in particular, was “directly” responsible for the most important new developments in American avant-garde poetics in the period. He may leave the causal connection here vague (“emerged . . . from the climate,” “fostered”), but he intuits that something momentous must have occurred, given the promiscuous mixing of poets and artists in these circles. There were “contemporary ‘New York’ poets (Mayer, Kenneth Koch, John Giorno, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan)”; “Fluxus poets (Jackson Mac Low, Dick Higgins, Bern Porter, Emmett Williams)”; and “visual artists” such as “Jasper Johns . . . and Sol LeWitt . . . as well as . . . Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, Yvonne Rainer, Les Levine, Michael Heizer, and Adrian Piper” (98). In 2001 assertions of historical ties between American conceptual art and 1970s and 1980s “innovative poetry” were still uncommon in the secondary literature.15 Far in the future lay important statements such as Carla Harryman’s account of conceptual art’s impact on the Poets Theater16 and Lytle Shaw’s investigations of Smithson’s influence on writers in Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics (2013). True, George Hartley had broached the subject in his monograph Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989), but in the decade plus afterward there had been little or no uptake of his argument among critics.17 Indeed, at the time, peer reviewers for journals such as Contemporary Literature or Textual Practice might well have refused to let Dworkin slip this literary-historical bombshell into an article, especially since it comes across here as a bit of a digression. It does not so much help readers to understand Acconci’s work as it by-the-by shoe-horns it into a new context, the academic history of the poetic avant-garde. He informs us, for example, that “Acconci helped open the way for the ‘new sentence’ championed by poet Ron Silliman and one hallmark of the subsequent generation of experimental poets who would come to be known under the rubric ‘Language,’” and he praises the “extraordinary issue of Toothpick, Lisbon, & the Orcas Islands edited by Bruce Andrews,” in which “Acconci’s writing appeared alongside the work of those who were, or would soon come to be, associated with Conceptual art, Minimalism, Fluxus, and Language Writing.” 18 In October, a journal devoted to art criticism, these generalizations, and

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their possible literary-historical ramifications, were likely to go unnoticed or underappreciated. Tellingly, when a study finally appeared that inquired at length into both the poetic and artistic aspects of the milieu that Dworkin describes—Liz Kotz’s Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (2007)—it acknowledged his intervention and his disciplinary location but downplayed the significance of his literary-historical speculations. Kotz recapitulates the essentials of the Avalanche plotline, tracing Acconci’s development from poetry to performance. The first ten pages freely use the p-word, albeit interspersed with references to his “fragmented writing through projects,” “word transfers,” and “magazine projects.” 19 Kotz then quotes Dworkin’s article “Fugitive Signs” and agrees that a “profound continuity” exists “between Acconci’s poetic and performance work.” The reference to performance, though, marks a shift in her discourse radius. As she moves on to present his video art, photography, and architecture, she banishes the p-word in favor of formulae such as “text-based works” and “text-based projects.” 20 The readiness with which she discards what Dworkin calls “the literary model” reflects her underlying thesis, shared with art critics such as Quéloz, that Acconci is only incidentally interested in poetry and poetics. His true constant concern, they believe, is language itself, in all its semiotic and performative complexity. Kotz contends that herein lies the superiority of his oeuvre to 1970s and 1980s language poetry, which by “remaining with the orbit of poetry” undercut the impact of such “radical poetic practices” as syntactical disjunction and a rejection of lyric subjectivity. Those practices could only function as either poetic or antipoetic insofar as they initially “reaffirm a set of conventions”; otherwise there would be nothing to “throw into question.” She maintains that Acconci, not the likes of Andrews or Bernstein, is successfully able to “follow through on the implications” of pioneering 1950s linguistic experiments by Mac Low, John Ashbery, and John Cage because he exits the realm of the literary altogether.21 Significantly, Kotz does not cite Language to Cover a Page. While writing her book she does not appear to have had the benefit of Dworkin’s later discoveries nor of his reformulation of his earlier position. And she did not, of course, have access to the full range of Acconci’s poetry from the late 1960s. Her thesis—that Acconci, after his foray into poetry, could remain authentically avant-garde only by abandoning the art form—is an implicit but specific response to Dworkin’s 2001 argument. In the years between “Fugitive Signs” and Language to Cover a Page, however, Dworkin himself had also perceived, and wrestled with, that possibility. He did so, moreover, less as a university-based humanities professor (the

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hat he wears in 2001) than as a practicing poet, the author of a chapbook titled Signature-Effects (2002). He was friendly, too, with a group of other poets just beginning to make names for themselves, among them Goldsmith, Christian Bök, and Darren Wershler-Henry. For Goldsmith’s website he undertook an editorial project, The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2003), that was intended as a defense of, and vehicle for marketing, this circle’s shared poetics. In many respects, this anthology represents a sequel to “Fugitive Signs,” not least in its inclusion of four pieces by Acconci. Its stance, granted, is more in-your-face polemical. Its introduction begins by announcing a new direction in poetics: Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. A craft honed by especially sensitive individuals, it puts metaphor and image in the service of song. Or at least that’s the story we’ve inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos—and as if it still made sense after two centuries of radical social change . . . But what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? The advocacy here of a “poetry of intellect rather than emotion” recalls, of course, assorted modernist and avant-garde precedents, from T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) to Bernstein’s “Emotions of Normal People” (1994). Dworkin’s defense of “non-expressive poetry” takes a curious turn, though. The examples that he cites are drawn almost entirely from outside literature, from the art world. He also abruptly abandons the p-word in favor of “writing,” which serves as a capacious and flexible category permitting him to elide distinctions between genres and media: The majority of the writers here were participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as “Conceptual Art.” I want to stress, however, that this anthology is not meant to be a collection of writings by conceptual artists but a collection of distinctly conceptual writing . . . Such works . . . negotiate between the modernist emphasis on the material of art (in many cases here that means the materiality of language itself) and a

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post-modernist understanding of a theoretically based art that is independent of genre, so that a particular poem might have more in common with a particular musical score, or film, or sculpture than with another lyric . . . the conceptual writing collected here is not so much writing in which the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture. Dropping the p-word can initially seem a liberating gesture, an escape from the deadening weight of obsolete categories. And if he stopped here, Dworkin might have written himself out of the domain of the poetic altogether as Acconci did in Avalanche, and as Kotz will a few years later depict as the only meaningful path forward after the breakthroughs of the midcentury. Conceptual writing: the next step in aesthetic evolution! He is not, however, 100 percent willing to commit himself to that leap. He goes on to argue that “far from being a relic of the period Lucy Lippard documented in her invaluable Six Years (1966 to 1972),” the sensibility on display in text-based work by Acconci, Smithson, John Baldessari, Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner has also “characterized some of the most rigorous and exciting work from twenty-first century writers such as Dan Farrell and Mónica de la Torre.” The wobble here concerns Farrell and de la Torre. These “twenty-first century writers” are, and were then, almost exclusively known as poets.22 In the absence of a battery of examples drawn from contemporary music, film, and visual art, words such as “writer,” “writing,” and “work” suddenly seem not exits from genre but a means of expanding one genre’s purview. You may have thought Adrian Piper’s Here and Now (1968)—eight-byeight grids containing occasional statements such as “HERE: the square area in 3rd row from bottom 3rd from right side” that self-reflexively identify where they are located—was conceptual art. Surprise! It’s not art, it’s writing. And now look over here, elsewhere in the anthology, at the poet Christian Bök’s anagramatic and lineated “Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit” (2001). He, like Piper, calls attention to the material space that language occupies on the page or screen (each line is the same length however the letters in the title “ten maps of sardonic wit” are redistributed and however the sense changes). Whether or not Dworkin intended it, such comparisons harness the authority and achievement of New York–based 1960s and 1970s conceptual art to promote a twenty-first-century “non-expressive poetry.” He also preempts possible objections from specialists in both the visual arts and poetry. Piper’s participation in the art world and in art-historical traditions

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becomes moot once her work is reframed as “writing.” Similarly, Dworkin sets himself up to evade potentially awkward questions about pieces such as Farrell’s “Avail” (1999): I feel anxious when I think about my health. I have the ability to take care of any health problems that I may encounter. I am very aware of how healthy my body feels. I do not feel angry. I do things that keep me from becoming physically unhealthy. I feel angry. I am pretty angry about things these days. The status of my physical health is mostly determined by chance happenings. I think about my physical health all the time. I’m very assertive when it comes to looking out for my own physical health. (23) If an irate poetry critic were to accuse “Avail” of being slack, prosaic, or pointlessly self-contradictory (“I do not feel angry . . . I feel angry”), Dworkin has given himself an out. He can reject the relevance of the evaluative criteria informing such a judgment. “Avail,” he might say, is, above all, “writing,” not a conventional lyric that should be placed alongside precedents and analogues ranging from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVVII (“My love is a fever, longing still”) to Dana Levin’s “In the Surgical Theatre” (1999). “Non-expressive poetry,” as introduced here, has the option of ceasing to be poetry when and if it fails to live up to an audience’s expectations. Bernstein’s ambiguous declarations that Acconci’s writings are (not) poetry should by now have begun to sound like a particularly observant response to Dworkin’s efforts in the introduction to Language to Cover a Page to claim an avant-garde descent line Acconci-Andrews-Goldsmith. The in-between, is-itain’t-it status of Acconci’s (non)poems had persisted for more than thirty years, and the problem of whether the term “poetry” really, truly applies only intensifies as Dworkin tries to connect the dots between a largely unknown body of work from the late 1960s and contemporary texts by his colleagues Bök and Goldsmith. Bernstein was not going to let pass unchallenged Dworkin’s latest iteration of this literary-historical vision in Language to Cover a Page. However, genially and humorously, the senior poet draws attention to a prior history of disagreements, disciplinary and otherwise, concerning a tag-team plotline, conceptual art > language poetry > conceptual-writing-that-is-occasionally-poetry-too. Once More

The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing is today regularly cited as the first use of the label conceptual writing to designate an aesthetic, and a body of work,

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that has subsequently become known as a controversial but key new development in twenty-first-century poetics.23 In the interim, a curious thing has happened. While the phrase “conceptual writing” continues to be used, especially by self-identified conceptualists, the phenomenon has become increasingly identified with poetry, full stop. Bernstein, you might recall, refers not to conceptual writing but “conceptual poetry” in his 2008 review, and in the years since the phrase has become an increasingly popular alternative label. It is the term currently used, for example, by the Poetry Foundation’s online glossary and by the “Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry” on the website Dworkin may have been hesitant about fully embracing the p-word in 2003, but a decade later even Harvard University’s Stephanie Burt, a poet-critic who is decidedly not an enthusiastic proponent of avant-garde writing, will casually refer to conceptual poetry without expressing doubts whether such a thing exists or merits ­literary-critical attention.24 One way to explain this shift might be to echo Kotz and say that institutional, disciplinary, and generic inertia have carried the day and that waywardly transgressive writing has been firmly brought back within the “orbit of poetry” (134). A document that could be cited in support of this position is Dworkin’s “The Fate of Echo,” his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2010), a collection he coedited with Goldsmith. He looks back on the UbuWeb gathering of texts and recollects why he coined the phrase “conceptual writing”: “The basic curatorial premise of the online collection was that by looking beyond received histories and commonplace affiliations one could more clearly see textual elements that otherwise remained obscured or implicit. The simple act of reframing seemed to refresh one’s view of even familiar works, which appear significantly different by virtue of their new context” (xxiv). He then states that this new, longer, more diverse, printbased anthology, while it might again refer to its contents as conceptual writing, is framed differently: Posited as literature, these works take their part in an open dialogue with the cultures, conventions, and traditions of literary institutions, speaking to other literary works in a loud and lively discussion filled with arguments, refusals, corroborations, flirtations, proposals, rejections, and affirmations. Many of the very same texts included here might just as easily have been framed in a gallery or recorded in an Internet video or included as part of a psychiatric evaluation, but then their cultural dialogues would have been quite different, and they would have functioned in a different way . . . [A]ll of the texts included are presented here . . . as literary. (xxiv)

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“The Fate of Echo” proceeds to argue, in a sustained and rigorous fashion, for thematic and formal parallels between the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and early 1970s and the transnational conceptual writing of the ­twenty-first century. It also grounds this argument in a larger narrative about the history of the European and New World avant-gardes and their mixed media endeavors from Marcel Duchamp onward. The narrative that Dworkin proposed via a digression in “Fugitive Signs” and then tested again in the UbuWeb Anthology here reaches its fully developed form. He has also, it seems, ceased worrying about an underlying teleology in which the historical end-product is a poetic renaissance. As we’ve already seen, though, one should not be too hasty to read the situation as an episode of subversion that leads to a reactionary moment of containment and backtracking. The 2003 anthology was already in the “orbit of poetry.” It begins with the p-word and ends by lauding contemporary poets. Its invocation along the way of an outside to disciplines and genres was half utopian gesture and half evasion. Moreover, what would have happened if that run for the hills had succeeded? As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari teach, “Deterritorialization . . . always occurs in relation to a complementary reterritorialization.” 25 In other words, to position writing as external to poetry is only an escape viewed from the standpoint of the conventions and institutions of the literature establishment. As Dworkin’s use of the word écriture in his 2003 introduction signals, that escape also points to, is indistinguishable from, a loss of freedom on another front. Écriture is French for “writing” but is also a jargon term within American humanities departments. He is alluding to Roland Barthes’s Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero) (1953) and its argument, as Susan Sontag summarizes it in her preface to the 1968 English translation, that écriture “cannot be permanently stabilized or held in check by any particular strategy,” and that literature, as a social practice that enables writers to write (écrire), therefore “aims inexorably at its own self-transcendence—at the abolition of literature” (xvii). In short: in espousing “the idea of Writing,” Dworkin was advocating the abandonment of poetry, but he did so drawing on poststructuralist theory. Such rhetoric recaptures the work in a different but no less fraught disciplinary context. Acconci’s earlier flight from poetry offers an instructive parallel. In Avalanche he might have left behind one set of expectations only to shackle himself with a new set, those of the New York art world. And as Arthur Danto had already observed back in 1964, “museums, connoisseurs, and others are makeweights in the Artworld,” and their evaluative decisions delimit what counts as “artistically relevant,” whether it be through adhering to or rejecting those standards.26 Instead of romanticizing an instant of near-but-not-quite transgression in

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2003, one could present the story of the last decade plus as a success. A recent interview with Goldsmith offers an instructive spin on these issues. When asked by the Paris Review why he persists in calling appropriation-based prose works such as Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2013) poetry, he responded that the poetry world had from the beginning provided a welcoming context for his work. He also attributed this support to its relative openness to linguistic experimentation in the wake of language poetry: When I started down this path some twenty years ago, it was only the poets and the poetry world that could accept what I did. So I hung out with them. You take your love where you get it . . . There’s some sort of openness in the poetry world concerning writing that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. Some of the Language poets, in particular, sort of blew apart notions of prescriptive lineation in favor of margin-to-margin madness. I’m thinking of works like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting.27 Described in this manner, conceptual writing faintly resembles an orphaned child that wanders into a home and stays put because she receives “love” and attention from a family that has had prior experience with handling difficult adventurous offspring. The genealogical tree that Dworkin defends and elaborates in “Fugitive Signs,” the UbuWeb anthology, Language to Cover a Page, and “The Fate of Echo,” through force of restatement and uptake by others, may have come to seem obvious and valid, but that process of reiteration is a willed act, a way of turning accidents of affiliation into settled truths. He has helped make poetry into a secure home for conceptual writing and placed it in a legible, respectable kinship network. Danto is again apropos. His classic article “The Artworld” was a response to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) and Pop Art more generally. Having seen a stack of stenciled cardboard boxes in a gallery that were outwardly identical to ones you could find out back of any grocery store, he wonders whether quite literally anything whatsoever can now be stuck in a museum and called art. Had craft, tradition, and taste become utterly irrelevant? He concludes that no, patrons, institutions, universities, “theories and histories,” and other factors continue to provide a “matrix” of options that determine whether something counts as art. “Fashion” may favor “one row” in that matrix over another, but all positions in it are “legitimate.” This matrix, he explains, is also mutable over time. “An artistic breakthrough . . . consists in adding the possibility of a column to this matrix. Artists then, with greater or less alacrity, occupy the positions thus opened up.” The peculiar character of the contemporary art world,

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he decides, lies in the rapidity with which the domain of “artistically relevant” positions are being generated and colonized.28 Announcing a “non-expressive poetry” in 2003, Dworkin locates his polemic within a field of previously recognized rhetorical moves. He evokes the high modernists and their cult of impersonality. By claiming precedents in the musical and visual arts, he invokes, too, an array of prior claims for poetry’s inter- and multimedia bent. Creating a new category, conceptual writing, that transcends literature-as-we-have-known-it in the name of a higher, transgeneric version of poetry, he echoes another set of figures, among them Percy Bysshe Shelley, who belittled “what is called poetry in a restricted sense” in favor of poetry “in a universal sense,” the “source” of “all forms of order and of beauty according to which the materials of human life are susceptible of being arranged.” 29 To rephrase Danto, Dworkin plays the poetry world game, delimiting why this particular set of texts should be recognized as poetically significant. Where Danto erred in 1964 was his assumption that we had entered an era of permanently accelerated, frictionless expansion of what counts as serious art. The “weightmakers of the Artworld” are not removed from but thoroughly enmeshed in much larger, complex circuits of production, distribution, reception, and marketing. The last several decades have seen repeated contests over whether feminist, queer, antiracist, and other marginalized forms of artistic expression are meaningful. There have also been challenges from outsider art, relational aesthetics, and other artistic modalities that at times proceed in oblivious indifference to the art world and its authorities. Similarly, conceptual writing’s acceptance as poetry has hardly been an instant or unopposed process. Bernstein’s skepticism concerning whether Acconci’s poems truly are poems reflects a moment when the lines of inclusion and exclusion remained somewhat indefinite. Consider the case of Marjorie Perloff. Although she has long been a vocal and visible champion of the poetic avant-garde, she was unsure what to make of Language to Cover a Page. In her 2006 review she flatly declines to call its contents poems: “I place ‘poetry’ in quotes here because, strictly speaking, Acconci’s word texts—constraint-based lists, dictionary games, performance scores, or parodic translations—are not so much poems as they are, in the Wittgensteinian sense, complex language games, in which the page has not yet been replaced by the video screen, the tape length, or the gallery space.” 30 This scare-quoting of the p-word, significantly, is not a harbinger of a negative review. She goes on to call the collection “timely and intriguing,” and, echoing the rhetoric of the UbuWeb anthology’s introduction, she praises it for providing “the missing link between the first forays into a non-representational, non-expressivist poetics and current incarnations.” 31 In other words, she largely assents to Dworkin’s

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literary-historical intervention. She acknowledges that Acconci’s writings clarify how today’s conceptual writers such as Goldsmith connect back genealogically to the historical avant-gardes such as dada, futurism, and surrealism. She also, however, carefully chooses the word “poetics” instead of “poetry” or “poems” to talk about this “non-expressivist” tradition. This distinction matters. Poetics, like Shelley’s definition of poetry, has both a narrower and more expansive sense. On the one hand, it can designate the compositional principles to which a particular poet subscribes . . . On the other hand, poetics may be used as a label for any formal or informal survey of the structures, devices, and norms that enable a discourse, genre, or a cultural system to produce particular effects. Prominent examples would include Gaston Bachelard’s La Poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space, 1958), Linda Hutcheon’s The Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), and Tzvetan Todorov’s Poétique de la prose (The Poetics of Prose, 1971), none of which places poetry at the center of its argument.32 One could, for example, as Perloff did in 2000, talk about the “poetics” of Goldsmith’s “verbal/visual experiment” Fidget in its afterword without ever once straightforwardly calling the book a poem or ascribing to it traits or devices associated specifically with poetry.33 Similarly, in 2005, in a special issue of Open Letter titled “Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics,” she reads closely The Weather (2003), but she introduces it as a “constraint-based, constructed composition” and never refers to it as a poem.34 In these essays, while she does not object to conceptual writing’s status as an avant-garde form of literature, she does subtly indicate that she remains undecided whether the individual texts belong firmly under the heading of poetry. When asked by Hélène Aji in a 2008 interview about Dworkin’s ongoing editorial work on what would later become the anthology Against Expression, Perloff more openly expressed her reservations about using the p-word when discussing conceptual writing: These texts—like those by Vito Acconci which Craig Dworkin has edited, and which are odd, little, experimental texts in the Fluxus vein—are they really poetry? And if so, what is “poetry” anyway? There’s a lot of that material, conceptual poetry from the 1960s or 1970s, that they will have in that book about which many people will say that’s not poetry at all! You can find the first version on UbuWeb as well. These anthologies are best understood as manifestoes.35

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She acknowledges that a gauntlet has been thrown down, that she and others have been told “this is poetry,” and she conveys her ambivalence about committing herself fully. By 2010 she had edged closer to making that leap—but she still had lingering doubts. In the first chapter to Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means, she writes that “nothing quite prepared the poetry world for the claim, now being made by conceptual poets from Kenneth Goldsmith to Leevi Lehto, Craig Dworkin to Caroline Bergvall, that it is possible to write ‘poetry’ that is entirely ‘unoriginal’ and nevertheless qualifies as poetry.” 36 This statement is a declaration of support, yes, but a qualified one. It oscillates between talking about poetry-in-quotes and poetry-the-real-thing. The book’s subtitle, “poetry by other means,” is equally cautious. Poetry, yes, but, then again, different poetry, or poetry otherwise, not poetry as you knew it, and perhaps not via the same familiar processes of composition and dissemination. Perloff implicitly includes herself in “the poetry world” that was not entirely “prepared” for this new development, and, despite her reputation for always standing at the very forefront of poetic innovation, continues to betray at least some hesitation over this particular insurgent. When in the preface to Language to Cover a Page Dworkin brings up the topic of delay and deferral in relation to the avant-garde, he is broaching a question of temporality that is also pertinent to the reception history of conceptual writing. In 2006, connecting the dots Acconci-Andrews-Goldsmith was a proleptic gesture, a looking-forward to a time after the poetry world had arrived at a consensus concerning its proper genre-home and poetic significance. Fall Back

What’s the big deal here? Who cares if you call a piece of conceptual writing a poem? Isn’t that just semantics? Writers will continue writing (or transcribing or downloading) it, and readers will continue encountering it. If you want to kick the stuff out of your treehouse and say that only post-confessional morally unimpeachable lineated free verse need apply, who is going to stop you? You might have a rumble with the conceptualist gang down the street, you might have a Facebook flame war, but really, isn’t it all Tom Sawyer and the pirates? Up Hill

Thierry de Duve has argued on behalf of what he calls “pictorial nominalism,” a way of looking at the history of the visual arts that he derives from close study of Duchamp’s transition from painting oil-on-canvas works such as Nude

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Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912) to the creation of his famous ready-mades such as Bottle Rack (1914) and the snow shovel In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915). In the third chapter of Kant After Duchamp (1996), de Duve argues that, for the artist, the onset of the industrial manufacture of premixed paints represents a fundamental shift in a painter’s relationship to the means of production. Instead of creating, in near-god-like fashion, an image out of raw materials, a painter now purchases pigments, selects from among them, and applies them directly to the canvas. An artist’s labor is no longer special; it is just another step in the production of high-priced objects for the capitalist marketplace. If any magic remains, if the mass-produced contents of paint tubes are still capable of being transubstantiated into art, then that transformation occurs otherwise than through genius handling of paint. In his ready-mades Duchamp pushes this train of thought as far as it will go. He locates the moment when manufactured nonart becomes art at the instant the artist announces that henceforward it is to be understood as art. This nigh-Copernican revolution—a redescription of art creation not as labor and craft but as labeling and framing—was, de Duve claims, made possible by Duchamp’s nominalism, his insight that the “ideas” that allow us at a time and place to classify things as pictorial are open to problematizing events and are not fixed by an essential nature. The aesthetic of such nominalism is the aesthetic that opens these ideas to our judgment. It is an aesthetic not of taste or beautiful appearance (or of the antiaesthetic or the tasteless), but the invention of new sensibilities, new concepts, new techniques and ideas of technique in response to the incommensurabilities that question our practices and eventualize our relation to them.37 In other words, Duchamp’s breakthrough was catalyzed by his realization that everything that a given “time and place” takes for granted as defining art as art is subject to change. Consequently, any criteria that one might devise to differentiate good from bad, “taste” from “tasteless,” and so forth, is going to be historically specific and lacking in portability and durability. Instead of trying to live up to immortal standards—which do not exist—the job of the artist is to seize on “incommensurabilities” such as the conflicting imperatives for artists to be both romantic geniuses and skilled alienated labor and find in such conflicts the occasion for innovation, “the invention of new sensibilities, new concepts, new techniques.” De Duve, it is important to note, differentiates between pictorial nominalism,

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a theory of how the history of art operates, and the specific new sensibility that Duchamp advocates, what he occasionally referred to as “non-retinal art.” The proposition that to create art means to designate something as art had to undergo a period of trial and contestation before it became received wisdom. In the second chapter of Kant After Duchamp, de Duve reconstructs in step-by-step fashion Duchamp’s submission of Fountain, a signed porcelain urinal, to the 1917 exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists. After the organizing committee ruled that Fountain did not qualify as art, Duchamp engaged in various tactics, including writing about the controversy and disseminating photos of Fountain that, in the long run, effectively reversed the original verdict in the opinion of the wider art world. And once accepted as art, Fountain became proof-positive that Duchamp’s more general views about art-designation were correct. Other people, too, were then free to operate under the new dispensation. I would like to propose a poetic nominalism on the model of de Duve’s pictorial version. What constitutes poetry is subject to change over time. It has no transhistorical essence. It could, in the abstract, become anything at all. That does not mean, however, that at any given moment it could drastically, instantly transform itself into something wholly other. Alternatives, expansions, and revisions can be put forward, just as Duchamp did with the ready-made, and they can then be judged as admissible, or not. One person asks, is this poetry? Some say yes, others say no, and the process works itself out. Institutions, politics, economics, history, theory, and other factors all play a role. Struggles over whether X or Y counts as poetry are not trivial or incidental spats over mere words. They are disagreements concerning deeply held beliefs concerning what poetry is, can, and should be. The disputes are all the more passionate because no one is objectively or for-all-time correct. Anyone, in short, could lose. In a 2012 interview, Perloff states that “the value—or even the possibility—of Conceptualist poetry is now hotly debated,” and she comments that “there is no escape” from a series of relevant questions: What sound repetitions occur and what do they accomplish? What is the “dominant” (Jakobson’s term) of this particular poetic formation and how do we differentiate it from an earlier aesthetic like that of Language Poetry? What claims are made by the new poets and why must they be taken with a grain of salt? What is the specific relationship of the “poetry” to its digital culture? And can a citational poetry be better than that which is cited? What, finally, makes the text before us poetry?38 This “final” question is partly answered, for her at least, by those that precede it.

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Poetry has something to do with “sound repetitions” and literary tradition (the link to language poetry). It emerges within and responds to a media ecology (“digital culture”) but is still somehow separate from and superior to that cultural surround (“better than that which is cited”). In other words, Perloff may believe that art forms ought to change to suit their historical moment, but she is not a full-fledged poetic nominalist. She once told Robert von Hallberg, for instance, that her “definition of poetry is quite conventional and classical.” She believes that “a poem differs from routine or normal discourse . . . by being the art form that foregrounds language, in its complexity, intensity, and, especially, relatedness. My criterion here is what Aristotle called to prepon or fitness. In the poetic text, everything is related to everything else—or should be—the whole being a construct of sameness and difference in pleasing proportions” (181–82). To be unpoetic, from this perspective, is to be monotonous, predictable, and arbitrary. Or one disrespects language’s manifold potential by employing it instrumentally. In the preface to her book Poetics in a New Key (2013), Perloff endorses a quotation from the poet Frank O’Hara: “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial . . . The slightest loss of attention leads to death” (xiv). Later she also repeats part of that quotation, after invoking both Duchamp and conceptual writing: “Even if ours is, as Vanessa Place and Craig Dworkin have argued, a new ‘non-retinal’ poetry, it remains just as true as it was for the O’Hara of the early 1960s that the slightest loss of attention leads to death.” 39 “Even if ”: she is still asking herself that “final” question, namely, what makes these texts poetry, and she holds onto what still matters to her most, the requirement that the language in a poem possesses sufficient complexity, intensity, and inevitability that it engrosses a reader. A non-retinal poetry—one in which words and their sensuous properties are subordinate to a governing “concept”—might be where the art form is headed, but it is not a future that she can welcome with delight. One cannot imagine her sharing, for example, Goldsmith’s enthusiasm for Andy Sterling’s Supergroup (2013), which lifts from the website Discogs the names of thousands of session players from mostly forgotten LPs and CDs. A representative page reads: Joni-Ayanna Portee—backing vocals Billy Joel—piano on “You Get What You Want” Mike Sobieski—violin Robert Ameen—drums Johnny Knowles—horns

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Uwe Nettelbeck—producer, cover artwork Brian Gardner—mastering Chris Mercer—tenor sax (n.p.) After time spent with Wikipedia, one can conjecture where these individual lines originated. Joni-Ayanna Portee sang backing vocals on Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo (2004). Billy Joel played piano on “You Get What You Want,” a track from Julian Lennon’s The Secret Value of Daydreaming (1986). Mike Sobieski played violin on Jackson’s Velvet Rope (1997). Robert Ameen played drums on Kirsty MacColl’s Electric Landlady (1991). Etc. Each page of Supergroup features eight attribution lines in two bunches of four. The names appear to have been randomly selected and ordered, a parody of how musical “supergroups” such as the Highwaymen, the Traveling Wilburys, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were created by bringing together individuals who were already stars in their own right. Goldsmith enthuses, “While [Supergroup] might be far from traditional notions of poetry, it’s right in line with much of the conceptual writing that’s been happening over the past decade in which writers, exploiting the cut and paste function of the computer, have been harvesting the internet for material, making books that are more about the act of collecting the information than the reading of them.” 40 In contrast, Perloff would likely ignore or speak negatively of such a work, and she would probably use the p-word, if at all, inside a thicket of scare quotes. The intensity level in Supergroup only varies when you hit on a name, such as Billy Joel, that you actually recognize. There is no complexity, either. The uniformity of format, the total randomness of who appears when, and the lack of sound-play make the book tedious to read through. Indeed, since it lacks pagination, there is no feel of advancing through a work at all, and since these names could occur anywhere in any order, there is no sense of an overall arc or progression. “The slightest loss of attention leads to death”: Perloff, one suspects, would be ready to delete the PDF of Supergroup after a minute or two. “Even if ours is, as Vanessa Place and Craig Dworkin have argued, a new ‘non-retinal’ poetry”: we can detect here hints of concession and regret. The acceptance of “‘non-retinal’ poetry” as poetry within the poetry world opens the door to the kind of mass appropriation of banal pop cultural materials and semi-illiterate social media posts that characterizes not only Supergroup but such other recent works as Chris Alexander’s McNugget (2013), Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves (2013), Angela Genusa’s onlinedating. teenadultdating / Adult-Dating (2012), and Chris Sylvester’s Still Life with Pokémon Yellow Version Text Dump (2013). In Bernstein’s review of Language to Cover a Page, I have

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underscored that one hears an implied “not” before the word “poetry” in “Man, oh man: that’s poetry!” Also audible as an option is the word “now.” “Man, oh man,” the rules they are a-changing, now that “Removal, Move” may be a poem. What are we going to do next? Home Run

Before the publication of Language to Cover a Page, no one, besides Acconci himself, ever had to confront the possibility that “Removal, Move” might be a poem. After Dworkin declared it to be a poem, the pronouncement could have vanished into the ether. He could have been ignored. Instead, the poetry world’s ongoing debates over whether conceptual writing counts as poetry have provided a context within which “Removal, Move” could fully enter the golden circle of poetically significant texts. One of the tasks of a critic who is a poetic nominalist is to ask: now that X is a poem, what does that entail? How might it extend, constrain, or transform what poetry is or can be? As a text that has been prominently inserted into the conceptual writing canon, “Removal, Move” suggests that Perloff ’s language-art may be in transition to an information-art. In their headnote to the poem in Against Expression, Dworkin and Goldsmith first present it as a poem concerned with how and why data are organized into particular patterns: “Removal” . . . continues Acconci’s work with found texts and reference works, . . . as well as his investigations into the literal space of the page, including: a series of dictionary pages with all of the text removed except for a line of single letters framing the erased text block; various margins from sequential pages of an edition of Roget’s Thesaurus; or a poem that self-­ reflexively describes itself in minute detail, from the margins and spacing to the dimensions and format of the sheet of typing paper on which it is written.41 They then present it as a text that encourages readers to think about efforts to impose order and clarity (grid-space) onto messy social and geographical realities. What is gained and what is lost when we employ conceptual schema that make it easier to map and navigate the external world but also render invisible everyday variation and nuance? “Removal” is also one of a suite of cartographic works extending those practices into socially marked space . . . With a dizzying density, the locator

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numbers constitute an inverse projection of Manhattan roadways, itself largely a grid, in which the roughly regular series of frequently numerical names (streets and avenues)—along with their exceptions and irregular edges—encode a geographic and social account of the island’s historical development. (22) An art of information, we also learn, may be more invested in exploring institutional histories and large aggregates of data than the modernist and postmodernist art of language, but it does not, apparently, entail an obligatory, wholesale forgetting of the materiality of the word. All data comes to us in an embodied form, that is, via a medium or media. This sensuous dimension can become an occasion for artistry, albeit of a distinctly contemporary kind: Those cartographic parameters also give Acconci’s text a set of terms sufficiently restricted and diverse to create a rich sonic facture of rhyme and variation. In “Removal,” the ghostly scaffolding of Manhattan’s infrastructure is palpable but never quite predictable, and with the rhythmic repetition of series slipping in and out of phase, the result is not unlike the contemporaneous minimalist music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. (22) If this presentation of Acconci’s piece as a sound poem strains credulity, one should listen to the 2004 recording of Dworkin reading “Removal, Move” on the PennSound website. He does indeed begin to recall Reich and Glass as he neutrally runs through its letters and numbers. One hears chains of assonance and consonance emerging and vanishing with alacrity in a predominantly dactylic and iambic meter: B2 C2 C2 G2 H2 D3 D2 G13 B2 C2 C2 F2 G2 C2 G2 H2 G13 C2 C2 F2 G2 H2 C2 C2 G2 H2 A4 B2 B3 D4 F2 G2 C2 E3 C3 G2 A4 B3 C2 D3 F2 G2 H2 J2 B2 B2 C2 C3 E3 J2 A4 A5 B2 B3 B2 B2 D3 G2 J2 B2 B2 C3 D3 E3 G2 H2 A4 B4 C2 B2 C3 D3 F2 G2 G2 B2 F2 G2 A5 B2 C3 F2 G2 K2 B3 E3 C2 B2 C3 E3 F2 H3 F2 H3 J2 K2 B3 A5 B3 A5 B3 B5 C2 B3 C3 F3 G3 B3 G3 J2 B3 B4 (27) Dworkin’s reading is also impressive because it requires stamina and an almost perverse devotion to performing the poem no matter what. Indeed, if you have the original text handy, you will catch him making a few mistakes, and he stumbles at least once. No progression, no arc, no easy way of keeping track of where one is on the page: “Removal, Move” is extraordinarily difficult to read aloud accurately for any length of time.42

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More precisely, it is difficult for a human to read aloud. Text-to-voice software of the kind that comes with a Kindle e-reader could easily handle the task. The human body, conceptual writing teaches, is not an ideal vehicle for the collecting, gathering, and remediating of information. As an example of information-art, “Removal, Move” designedly strains, or exceeds, the limits of what is humanly achievable. Supergroup, as we have already seen, is a comparable work. It will disorient any normal reader, quickly losing her in its pell-mell, unceasing delivery of names. Its poetry is unreadable, not because it eludes comprehension, but because it is physically unreadable, beyond the tolerance of eyes and ears. Asked about performing “Removal, Move” in a 2012 interview with Jared Wells, Dworkin responded that “one thing performance can underscore” is how “poetic” Acconci’s text is, “even in the most traditional sense,” involving “measure—a counting of some kind—and a rhythm and an assonance. What Pound would have called “melopoeia.” Not to mention a clear formal logic.” 43 This moment is worth pausing over. “Removal, Move” had become sufficiently a poem to be readily assimilated, with nary a peep from the interviewer, into the Poundian tradition. There is no irony or archness here, no Bernstein-like troubling of categories, nor even a shadow of Dworkin’s one-time preference for writing over poetry. Didn’t Pound, though, famously enjoin poets “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” 44 Wouldn’t he hate to have the drone of “Removal, Move” cited as an example of melopoeia? Wouldn’t he, like Perloff, albeit more vociferously, refuse to grace it with the p-word? The time for such objections is over, for better or worse. Man, oh man: now “Removal, Move” is poetry. And poetry will never be the same. Notes 1. Charles Bernstein, Review of Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings of Vito Acconci, ed. Craig Dworkin, Weblog, Electronic Poetry Center, August 13, 2008, accessed November 7, 2012. 2. Vito Acconci, Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings, ed. Craig Dworkin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 368. 3. William Butler Yeats, The Collected Works, vol. 1, 2nd rev. ed., ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 39. 4. Craig Dworkin, “Introduction: Delay in Verse,” in Language to Cover a Page, xvi. 5. Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 190–91. 6. Vito Acconci, “Early Work: Movement Over a Page,” Avalanche no. 6 (Fall 1972): 4. 7. Acconci, “Early Work,” 4–5. 8. For a complete bibliography of Acconci’s early publications, see Acconci, Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings, ed. Craig Dworkin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006),

222  Reed 409–11. He did have two poems appear in the Summer 1968 issue of the Paris Review, as well as three in Paul Carroll’s anthology The Young American Poets (1968), but most of his other work appeared in ephemeral or hard-to-find little magazines. The primary venue was 0 to 9, the journal that he coedited with Bernadette Mayer. As a press, 0 to 9 also printed two volumes, Four Books (1968) and Transference: Roget’s Thesaurus (1969). For the centrality of the Avalanche excerpts in Acconci criticism prior to 2006, see Dworkin, “Introduction,” xi. 9. Catherine Queloz, “Vito Acconci: Langage in situ,” Cahiers du musée d’art moderne 48 (Summer 1994): 101. 10. Queloz, “Vito Acconci,” 102. 11. For the story of Acconci’s unpublished manuscript “Kay Price and Stella Pajunas: Works for a Poetry Context 1967–1969,” see Dworkin, “Introduction,” in The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing,, 2003, xii, accessed August 24, 2013. 12. Craig Dworkin, “Fugitive Signs,” October 95 (Winter 2001): 90–113. 13. Dworkin, “Fugitive Signs,” 100, 101. 14. Dworkin, “Fugitive Signs,” 103. 15. For a partial exception, see Perloff, “Introduction,” in Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), xxi–xxviii. She connects Frank O’Hara with the “conceptualism” of Jasper Johns and John Cage and contends that this cluster of figures and their overlapping aesthetic agenda helps one to understand the emergence of Language writing in the 1970s. See also Sianne Ngai, “Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics,” Postmodern Culture 10, no. 2 (2000), accessed August 18, 2013, who connects the “textual tradition” of conceptual art to the “poetic experimentalism” of Goldsmith, Dan Farrell, and Judith Goldman. 16. Carla Harryman, “Reflections on the Incomplete Project of Poets Theatre,” Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, ed. Barret Watten (Detroit: Mode A/This Press, 2008), 7, 28–49. 17. See George Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 84–86, for his account of how conceptual art influenced language poetry. 18. Hartley, Textual Politics, 98. 19. Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 154–64. 20. Kotz, Words to Be Looked At, 160. 21. Kotz, Words to Be Looked At, 170, 174. 22. For Farrell, see, for example, Ngai, “Stuplimity,” who in 2000 refers to him as a poet and discusses his prose poem “366, 1996” (1997). As of 2003 he had published two books of poetry, Last Instance (Krupskaya, 1999) and The Inkblot Record (Coach House, 2000). For de la Torre, see Mary Jo Bang’s praise of her poetry, “Emerging Poet: On Mónica de la Torre,” American Poet 23 (Fall 2002), accessed August 24, 2013, a biannual published by the American Academy of Poetry. De la Torre would have been best known in 2003 for her translations of Spanish-language verse and for coediting Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (2002). She had, however, coauthored with conceptual artist Terence Gower a work titled Appendices, Illustrations & Notes (1999) that was back then promoted as an artist’s book, but it is archived on Goldsmith’s, and, in retrospect, it deserves to be considered an important early example of conceptual writing. 23. See, for example, Goldsmith, “Conceptual Writing: A World View,” Harriet, Poetry

Now That’s a Poem 223 Foundation, April 30, 2012, accessed August 19, 2013; Karla Kelsey, “Review of Notes on Conceptualisms, by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman,” Octopus no. 12 (n.d.), accessed August 19, 2013; and John Douglas Millar, “Conceptual Writing,” Art Monthly no. 361 (November 2012): 12. Compare, however, Ngai on the “conceptual work” of Goldsmith and Farrell in “Stuplimity.” 24. See, for example, Stephen Burt, “Games about Frames,” Review of Motes by Craig Dworkin and Avenue by Michael O’Brien, Boston Review (January–February 2013): 68. 25. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (New York: Continuum, 2004), 60. 26. Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” Journal of Philosophy 61, no. 19 (October 1964): 584. 27. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Interview with Christopher Higgs,” Paris Review Daily, April 2, 2013, accessed August 20, 2013. 28. Goldsmith, “Interview with Christopher Higgs,” 583. 29. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, ed. Albert S. Cook (Boston: Ginn, 1903), 45. 30. Marjorie Perloff, “Vito Acconci: Conceptual Poetry: Old and New,” Parkett 78 (2006): 168. 31. Perloff, “Vito Acconci,” 176. 32. Brian Reed, “Western Poetics,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 1058–59. 33. Marjorie Perloff, “‘Vocabel Scriptsigns’: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget and John Kinsella’s Kangaroo Virus,” in Poetry and Contemporary Culture: The Question of Value, ed. Andrew Michael Roberts and Allison Jonathan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 90. 34. Marjorie Perloff, “‘Moving Information’: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather,” Open Letter 12, no.7 (Fall 2005): 76. 35. Marjorie Perloff, Poetics in a New Key: Interviews and Essays, ed. David Jonathan Y. Bayot (Manila: De La Salle University Publishing House, 2013), 45–46. 36. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 12. 37. John Rajchman, forward to Pictorial Nominalism: On Marchel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, by Thierry de Duve, trans. Dana Polan and Thierry de Duve (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), xxii. 38. Perloff, Poetics in a New Key, 26. 39. Perloff, Poetics in a New Key, xvii. 40. Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Wild World of Lulu,” Columbia University Press Blog, April 10, 2013, accessed August 21, 2013. 41. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds., Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011). 42. In his introduction to Language to Cover a Page, Dworkin thanks Anne Jamison for “heroically proof[ing] the grid locations of ‘Removal, Move (Line of Evidence)” (xvii). Such heroism is akin to Alice B. Toklas’s typing up the whole Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925). Conceptual writing not infrequently places inhuman demands on its producers as well as its audience, including labor that may not be visible on a title page. 43. Craig Dworkin, “Interview by Jared Wells,” Spratts Medium, Blogger, n.d., November 8, 2012. 44. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays (New York: New Directions, 1935), 3.


The United Divisions of Poetry Tyrone Williams


tephanie Burt and Seth Abramson are correct; there are too many books, never mind chapbooks, of poetry and, presumably, too many poets for any one reader to notice, much less follow.1 This is a source of anxiety, of course, for those who still desire a world in which a critic or critics might be able to take in the broad expanse of writing that goes under the name of poetry and offer sweeping judgments concerning tendencies, probable ascensions and declines, and perhaps even cultural significance. The dream of mastery that perhaps once belonged to a cultural elite, one often, though not always, lorded over a less literate, less publicized, world, has been jarred awake by the advent of any number of cultural (to say nothing of political, social, and economic) modes of literacy among readers and writers in general, much of which has specifically inflated the visibility of readers and writers of poetry. It would appear that we are no longer cowed by the authority of a cultural hegemony that offers only certain poets, and certain kinds of poetry, as worthy of consideration and valorization.2 I take these developments to be generally good for their culturally democratizing and aesthetically differential effects. However, as one who grew up and was educated under certain forms of mastery associated in particular with the educational system and an emergent array of media at large, that is, as a child of the Civil Rights Movement and New Criticism, I understand all too well that there are those still entranced by the lingering traces of this dream of a broad, deep, and unimpeachable mode of cultural literacy.3 Were this not the case, even among those whose protestations would seem to suggest the opposite, our interminable cultural wars could be reduced to the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave. 225

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One of the remaining traces of this dream is the book review, both literary and general. The distinction is itself an index of the divide between an academic elite and general public, a kind of pecking order that belies the dream of mastery permeating the culture in general.4 In this regard it might be useful to consider a comparison between the general functions of the poetry book review and the record album review that, under the aegis of “serious” popular music magazines like Creem, Rolling Stone, and Crawdaddy throughout the1970s, became itself an art form, a journalistic supplement—in the Derridean sense—to the record album. Although it was a mode of what was then called “The New Journalism,” this kind of subjective, often meandering, occasionally self-indulgent, reviewing was, in part, a return to the modes of journalism that flourished until the professionalization of the media throughout the first half of the last century. As for the record review, it is important to remember that the very notion of arbitrating taste in popular music, implied by the review as such, was anathema for some counterculture advocates since it seemed to violate the heady dream of democratization and individualism—it’s your thing, do what you wanna do, and so on—that defined the endless summers of love promised by the Beach Boys and others. Yet the popularity of these reviews (impossible without the apotheosis of the record album as a form worthy of aesthetic and cultural consideration) is indisputable; that the most prized, because they were contentious, reviews tended to be written by critics associated with rock ’n’ roll is a matter of record.5 Opposing themselves in general to the overtly commercial aspirations of pop music, encapsulated in the .45 single, rock ’n’ roll critics tended to read the somewhat less popular albums of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and occasionally blues and jazz, as intrinsically more worthy of pontification than the descendants of Tin Pan Alley.6 We have an analogous situation with regards to narrative and lyric poetry and poetics, the lyric in particular serving as the equivalent to the pop single while the serial poem, by now a formal reflex within certain spheres of innovative writing, functions as the equivalent to the old “concept” album. Although microscopic by comparison, a similar analogy holds in terms of literary commercial success. Like popular music albums vis-à-vis jazz, blues, or folk albums, mainstream books of poetry do better commercially, on the whole, than books of innovative, experimental writing. Still, given the expanse of a base that threatens to render obsolete the pyramid model of poetics endorsed by the educational system at almost every level, the poetry book review, mainstream or experimental, much like the music review, popular or cultish, may now be, for all intents and purposes, culturally irrelevant. But the persistence and popularity of such reviews in paper and online

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magazines and fanzines suggests that irrelevance may be less the issue than the dream of cultural arbitration and mastery. Commercial success may go on its happy way to the bank, indifferent to, if not ignorant of, critical acclaim or denigration. Yet critical approbation apparently still matters for some, perhaps most for those who loudly declaim reviews as such. It’s not only that some want their particular prejudices reinforced. Some people, perhaps most people, still want to know that their favorite poet or pop star is significant, has a cultural presence extending as long, if not beyond, a life span, theirs as well as the artist’s. In short, some of us still want to believe in the value of values that, if not eternal, are at least significant within the horizons of modernity and postmodernity. Aside from their didactic functions, the album and book review also serve to inform listeners and readers of what’s “out there” for consumption. In short, they presuppose that the number of albums or books far exceeds any one consumer’s ability to know everything, or even most things, firsthand. For example, in a situation where the glut of poetry books and chapbooks is overwhelming, reviews of books of poetry tend to fall indifferently into oblivion or flash into temporary significance, unleashing cutthroat rebuttals or gushing affirmations. I doubt it matters to most poets what a particular reviewer may or may not say about his or her book; as the old Hollywood adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. On the other hand, some poets tend to overreact to reviews—good or bad—as though they realize, however unconsciously, that in a field littered with books DOA, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or hand-over-mouth suffocation are more or less the same since both gestures imply signs of life, however waning. On the whole, however, I’d say that the acrimony that often accompanies or develops out of book reviews and essays is actually a healthy sign of the vigor of American poetry, the sense that there is something at stake, something worth fighting over. Yes, I know, sometimes these literary battles are merely indices of jostling career moves, a matter of shoving aside, kicking down, and grabbing at, the prepositions of spatial relations that define a schema obviously in concert with late capitalism. So, money, fame, jobs, and so forth, however Lilliputian in regard to the larger culture, are often the only spoils of war as far as the poetry business is concerned. Yet that many of the skirmishes, battles, and outright wars that have defined American poetry movements have also been driven by formal—that is, aesthetic—concerns as well suggests that there is more at stake than simply another book award or tenured teaching position. That there is, should, or must be, a purpose, a place for poetry in our ever-evolving culture is still the Holy Grail pursued in poetry movement after poetry movement. To the extent this pursuit bears the traces of Matthew Arnold’s dream and nightmare—culture or anarchy—the history of poetry always resembles, at any given

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moment, The Raft of the Medusa, Theodore Gericault’s gargantuan 1818–1819 painting. Aptly named, the Medusa was a ship that began taking on water, sinking into the sea, and so crew and officers desperately constructed a raft. However, as the British novelist and short-story writer Julian Barnes points out in his reading of the historical record, another raft was constructed from materials aboard the first raft after in-fighting broke out among those who’d manage to escape the Medusa. For Barnes the story and fate of the Medusa and the ensuing gestures of salvation are collectively a metaphor, specifically, a conceit, for human history in general (in his collection of stories The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Barnes begins and ends with the myth of Noah’s Ark, adrift during the Flood of Genesis and, later, lodged somewhere on Mt. Ararat).7 I think of Gericault’s painting as an elaborate metaphor for the history of poetry movements in the United States, each prior movement serving as a kind of mini-Medusa from which those who dare not look at its face must flee. Thus, as in some versions of the Greek story, the Medusa of poetry has many faces: Shakespeare, modernism, academia, flarf, conceptualism, confessionalism, deep image, and others. Whatever immobilizes, a rigor poetica, whatever seems to bring time, and thus history, to an end—think of the very concept, to say nothing of the various caricatures, of the “canon”—may be construed as a figure, or disfiguration, of the Medusa. Let me conclude by pointing out one implication of these views of our histories of poetics and poetry. As a whole, the mainstream and the tributarial constitute a virtual Occupation Everywhere of poetics. Indeed, the insurgency of outsider, experimental, innovative, spoken word, and other poetics against the perceived hegemony of the traditions of the narrative and the lyric has, for someone like Michael Magee, meant the capture and retooling of the term “mainstream.” His book, titled Mainstream, constitutes in toto an argument that those poetic practices deemed marginal actually constitute the mainstream of writing practices in the United States insofar as they have become a part of every facet of American culture.8 Insofar as postmodern poetics permeate expressivity in general in this country, especially in advertising and popular culture, these practices assert not only a quantitative but also a qualitative advantage over the outflanked but still entrenched minority of what had heretofore been known as the literary mainstream. Thus, the question of the central versus the marginal is largely, if not only, a matter of institutional power. By institutional I mean not only the public and private educational apparatus in general but also the supporting bloc of media, libraries, bookstores (online and ground), mythologies, and historiographies that constitute, transmit, and reinforce the very

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concept of poetry. No doubt these remaining links, however tenuous, between the most outlandish writing and speaking experiments and the immense history of poetics and poetry is why many have abandoned the moniker entirely. That many writers and artists bristle when “poetry” is used to describe their language experiments is understandable even if their impatience with generic pigeonholing may reflect either or both a determinate commitment to the mash-up and innovative and a cultivated ignorance regarding the history of experimentation within poetry and poetics. These scenarios and issues are probably all too familiar for those who have been paying attention to the implications of the various poetry skirmishes and wars. I simply want to mark the place and moment where and when poetry longs to become what it is not. It is here, now, between retention and protention, at the eternal, and thus indeterminate, border between the experimental and inscrutable, that poetry imagines itself as a god or goddess refusing the solipsism of immortality for the ethical trappings of mortal responsibility, or as some marine or landlocked behemoth moving “forward” or turning “back” to an amphibian existence, in short, a creature comfortable in the skies and on earth, on land and at sea, a monstrosity that wants to claim and occupy everywhere as its home. As our histories teach us, however, the dream of occupation, like the dream of mastery, is “older” than the dream of liberation, the dream of exodus, and thus freedom, from the temples that enthrall us. Thus, the Occupation Movements appear to be precisely what poetry longs for: a blurring, if not erasure, of the private and public, an existence out in the “street,” inhaling fresh air among the “people.” Nothing new here, either, as our history tells us, yet each new iteration of this desire to close the chasm between the “poetic” and the language of “the street” or “the people” takes on different social and aesthetic formations whose efficacies writ large, however, are both directly and indirectly proportional to their institutionalization. This paradox is intrinsic to the history of poetry in the United States, a reflection of the general ambiguity of efficacy vis-à-vis aesthetic practices. Here, the antiaesthetic serves the purposes of poetics insofar as it rejuvenates poetry when it is converted via institutionalization into another aesthetic practice. At the same time those antiaesthetic practices immune to academicization often serve as the matrices for later generations of antiaesthetic practices that often derive from or inspire broader countercultural movements. Hence the advent of the human microphone of Occupy Everywhere, a mode of street theater—and, more narrowly, street poetry—that has a long history documented without and within academia. We can thus expect that just as the citation in academia is an index of

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consensus concerning the modes of consent and dissent within a historical and contemporary community, so too the advent of desktop publishing means that the arena of contestation between academic and nonacademic institutions has taken on a different and, from the perspective of academic propriety, more menacing, form. Whether or not the proportion of innovative writing practices in relation to mainstream, generic writing practices has increased or decreased, there is no question that the Internet and desktop publication have given these practices—innovative and conservative—much greater visibility across the cultural landscape. One wonders, for example, what might the Black Arts Movement have been had it had the technological resources available to us today.9 I ask this question because of the expressly political and social impetus behind a great deal of the creative materials of some sectors of innovative poetics, some of which is meant to support the Occupation Movements. Still, the fact is, we don’t know how to measure the effects—we don’t know what counts as efficacy—in regard to either general aesthetic or long-term political practices. Yet insofar as this uncertainty is the very premise of any ethical practice—aesthetic or political, cultural or social—it is also the very ground of responsibility, not only to our histories but also to our present positions, when and wherever those obtain. Notes 1. See Stephen Burt, “It’s Too Much,” Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation April 22, 2011,; and Seth Abramson’s blog, The Suburban Ecstasies, “On the Power of Positive Poetry-Reviewing (part 1),” https://, where he discusses his and Burt’s use of positive poetry reviews as another way to draw distinctions and affirm the importance of taste. The Boston Review has also been an important site for these discussions. See, for example, Hank Lazer, “The People’s Poetry” (April–May 2004), Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink” (May–June 2012), and the conversation between Mike Chasar and Jed Rasula, “Glut Reactions” (November 2012). My all-too-general overview should be taken in the spirit, as well as summary, of the historical and ongoing complexities of the “po’ biz’” so thoroughly engaged by Lazer and, in particular, Jed Rasula and Mike Chasar. 2. The proliferation of traditional MFA programs does not, in itself, contradict this point since the borders between “mainstream” narrative and lyric poetry and innovative modes of writing, always porous, have become even more so in the last twenty years due, in part, to the influx of women, LBGT, Hispanic, Latin, and Asian poets into both the mainstream and marginal spheres. The subsequent focus on biological, psychological, social, and cultural differences have had the cumulative effect of undermining aesthetic differences. 3. The favorite whipping boy for this was E. D. Hirsch whose book, Cultural Literacy (New York: Random House, 1988), is a kind of town crier, but certainly, more narrowly, William Logan qualifies for the title. As one of the few critics of poetry publishing his reviews

The United Divisions of Poetry 231 in a major newspaper, Logan is not unlike a black mayor of a northern Midwestern city like Detroit; he has prestige without power since poetry’s small share of cultural cachet has dwindled in the last century. At the same time, as Burt, Abramson, and others have noted, the number of people writing and publishing poetry has grown exponentially. These two tendencies are not coincidental. 4. Indeed, the explosion of book reviews, primarily, though not exclusively via online outlets, resembles nineteenth-century American culture when academia was in its infancy and thus the assessment of literary distinction was still in the hands of literary societies, book clubs, and so forth. Then, as now, the reference point for literary excellence for all concerned, layman and professional, was primarily European cultural values. 5. I refer here to the paradox that though the influence of African and African American music defined American popular music until the “backlash” of punk in the mid-1970s, black music magazines had very little influence on the taste-making discussions and arguments that went on in venues like Creem, Rolling Stone, and Crawdaddy. 6. Unlike the American roots of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues, jazz, a fusion of European classical music and American blues, presented problems for rock critics extolling the virtues of music with its origins in blues and country music. And even though Broadway music had long drawn on blues and jazz (Porgy and Bess, for example) the hostility to popular Tin pan-derived music was palpable. 7. In his collection of stories, The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (London: Vintage, 1989), Barnes begins and ends with the myth of Noah’s Ark; the story to which I refer, “Shipwreck,” is the center, and central theme, of the book. 8. Michael Magee, Mainstream (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2006). 9. This question is implicit in a chapter in Lorenzo Thomas’s critical assessment of black modernism, Extraordinary Measures (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), where he worries about the obstacles awaiting the historical recovery of the artists who created posters, broadsides, and postcards in support of readings and performances inspired by the black aesthetic during the Black Arts Movement.


Charles Altieri teaches in the English Department at UC Berkeley and is still grateful for that opportunity. His most recent books are Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity and Reckoning with Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience. He is finishing a book on Hegel’s concept of inner sensuousness and how constructivist art and writing teaches us to identify with the powers of making. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, poet, critic, and collagist, is the author of the multivolume long poem Drafts (written 1986 through 2012). Post-Drafts poetry includes Interstices (2014), Graphic Novella (2015), Days and Works (2017), as well as Numbers (a collage poem from Materialist Press) and Around the Day in 80 Worlds (BlazeVOX), both slated for 2018. Among her critical books are a trilogy on gender, poetry, and poetics: The Pink Guitar, Blue Studios, and Purple Passages, as well as Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry. She has edited the Selected Letters of George Oppen and The Oppens Remembered and coedited The Objectivist Nexus. She has had books of poetry translated into both Italian and French. DuPlessis is Professor Emerita at Temple University. Sarah Dowling is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. She has just published the book Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism. She is the author of two books of poetry, DOWN and Security Posture, and two chapbooks, Entering Sappho and Birds and Bees. She has published numerous critical articles in journals such as American Quarterly, Canadian Literature, GLQ, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Dowling is the recipient of the American Comparative Literature Association’s Helen Tartar First Book Subvention Award (2016) and the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (2009). 233

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Elisabeth A. Frost is the author of All of Us: Poems, Rumor, A Theory of the Vowel, Bindle (a collaboration with artist Dianne Kornberg), and the monograph The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry. She is also coeditor of Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews. Frost has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation–Bellagio Center, MacDowell, Yaddo, and others. She is a professor of English and Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies at Fordham University, where she edits the Poets Out Loud book series from Fordham Press. Lyn Hejinian teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, where her academic work is addressed principally to modernist, postmodern, and contemporary poetry and poetics, with a particular interest in avant-garde movements and the social practices they entail. She is the author of more than twenty-five volumes of poetry and critical prose, the most recent of which is The Unfollowing (2016). With Barrett Watten, she is the coeditor of A Guide to Poetics Journal: Writing in the Expanded Field 1982–1998, and the related Poetics Journal Digital Archive (2013–2015). She is the codirector (with Travis Ortiz) of Atelos, a literary project commissioning and publishing cross-genre work by poets, and coeditor (with Jane Gregory and Claire Marie Stancek) of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. In addition to her other academic work, she has in recent years been involved in antiprivatization activism at the University of California, Berkeley. Jeanne Heuving recently published The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics with the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series at the University of Alabama Press. Her cross-genre book Incapacity won a 2004 Book of the Year Award from Small Press Traffic. Other books include Transducer, Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore, and the forthcoming Mood Indigo. Heuving initiated and served as the first director for the MFA program in Creative Writing & Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell and is on the graduate faculty in the English Department at the University of Washington Seattle. In 2017 she received the Distinguished Creativity, Research and Scholarship Award at the University of Washington Bothell. She is the recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Simpson Humanities Center, and the Beinecke Library at Yale. Cynthia Hogue published her ninth collection of poetry, In June the Labyrinth, in 2017. Her scholarship includes the coedited edition, We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Feminist Poetics and Performance Art (2001) and the first edition of H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia

Contributors  235

Alton (2007). Also a noted translator, she co-translated Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem), by poet Virginie Lalucq and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, which won the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. Hogue is the Marshall Chair in Poetry at Arizona State University. Nathaniel Mackey has published two works of poetics, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing and Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews, and multiple volumes of poetry and epistolary fiction, which crosses multiple genres, including forays into poetics. Most recently, he has published the poetry volumes, Nod House and Blue Fasa, and the fifth volume to his ongoing project From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, Last Arcade. Mackey has won multiple awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry (2006), the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society (2008), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2010), the Ruth Lilly Life-Time Achievement Award from the Poetry Foundation (2014) and Yale’s Bollingen Prize for American Poetry (2015). He is the Reynolds Price Professor of English at Duke University. Aldon Nielsen is the Kelly Professor of American Literature at the Pennsylvania State University and Visiting Professor at Central China Normal University. With Lauri Ramey, he is the coeditor of two anthologies of innovative works by African American poets, Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone and What I Say. His works of scholarship include Reading Race, Writing between the Lines, C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction, Black Chant, and Integral Music. Nielsen’s many awards include the Larry Neal Award, the Josephine Miles Award, and American Book Award, the Kayden Prize and the Darwin Turner Award. His books of poetry include Heat Strings, Evacuation Routes, Stepping Razor, Vext, Mixage, Mantic Semantic, A Brand New Beggar, and Tray. Vanessa Place was the first poet to perform as part of the Whitney Biennial. Her exhibition work has appeared at MAK Center/Schindler House; Denver Museum of Contemporary Art; Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; Power Plant, Toronto; Broad Museum, East Lansing; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles; and Cage 83 Gallery, New York. Performance venues include Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art; Mestno Musej, Ljubljana; Swiss Institute, New York; the Kitchen, New York; Garage Museum, Moscow; New Holland, Saint Petersburg; Kunstverein, Cologne; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Silencio,

236  Contributors

Paris. Books include Boycott; Statement of Facts; La Medusa; Dies: A Sentence; The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law; Notes on Conceptualisms (with Robert Fitterman); her translations from the French of Guantanamo (poetry, Frank Smith) and Image-Material (art theory, Dominique Peysson); and her art-audio book, Last Words. Place also works as a criminal defense attorney. Brian Reed is the dean of the humanities and the Milliman Endowed Chair at the University of Washington Seattle. He is the author of three books—most recently Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)— and more than forty essays and articles on modern and contemporary poetry. He has three books forthcoming, among them Out of the Pen: Essays on Poetry at Its Limits. Leonard Schwartz is the author of numerous books of poetry and essays, including Salamander: A Bestiary, The New Babel, and IF. He hosts and produces the radio program Cross Cultural Poetics. Schwartz’s readings and performances can be found at Ron Silliman is the author of forty books, mostly of poetry, most recently You from Vie Paralleles in Brussels, and BART from Ediciones Caudro de Tiza in Santiago, Chile. El Cuaderno Chino is forthcoming from Plaza Italia, also in Chile. Tyrone Williams is a professor of English, Gender and Diversity Studies, and Africana Studies at Xavier University and the director of the Graduate Program in English. He is the author of multiple books of poetry and essays on contemporary poetry and poetics, including “Notes Toward an American Avant-Garde” in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion (2014); “The Uncertainties of Michael Heller” in The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory; “The Authenticity of Difference as ‘curious thing[s],’ Boundary 2 (2015). His website is at


Andrade, Oswaldo de, 127 Andrews, Bruce, 87, 199, 204, 205; Give ’Em Enough Rope, 200; I don’t have any Paper, 200; L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, x, 200 Antin, David: “Modernism and Postmodernism,” 139; “Novel Poem,” 198 Anzaldúa, Gloria, 86, 99n17; Borderlands, 86–87 Aristotle: Poetics, 55, 217 Armand, Louis: “Poetry and the Unpoetic,” 24, 36n35 Armantrout, Rae: The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183 Ashbery, John, 57, 205; “Skaters,” 57 Auden, W. H.: “In Praise of Limestone,” 198

Abramson, Seth: “On the Power of Positive Poetry-Reviewing,” 225, 230n1, 231n3 Acconci, Vito, xix, 197–208, 214; “Act 3, Scene 4,” 199; Avalanche, 201–2, 210, 222n8; “Kay Price and Stella Pajunas,” 222n11; Language to Cover a Page, 197–201, 205, 212–14, 218–19, 222n8; “Removal, Move,” 198–99, 201, 219–21; “Works for a Poetry Context,” 203; 0 to 9, 197, 203, 204, 222n8 Adorno, Theodor, 23, 83; Negative Dialectics, 103, 111; Notes to Literature, 23 “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry,” 10n6 Agamben, Giorgio, 25; The End of the Poem, 67, 70 Agee, James, 93 Alcheringa, 127 Alexander, Chris: McNugget, 218; Panda, 200 Alexander, Elizabeth: Workings of the Spirit, ix Alexander, Will, 78 Ali, Taha Muhammed, 161; “Abd El-Hadi,” 169; “Ambergis,” 169; “Imprisonment,” 168; “Never Mind,” 168–69; Never Mind, 166–69 Altieri, Charles, xiv; “Poetics Today,” xiv, 53–62 Anderson, David: Pound’s Cavalcanti, 79n23

Badiou, Alain: Theoretical Writings, 36 Baker, Houston A.: Workings of the Spirit, ix Bakhtin, Mikhail: The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, 32 Ball, Hugo, 182 Baraka, Amiri, 76, 149 Barber, Stephanie: Night Moves, 218 Barnes, Julian: The History of the World, 228 Barthes, Roland: Le degré zero, 210 Bartlett, Jennifer: Autobiography, 90–92; Beauty Is a Verb, xv, 87–92 Beach, Christopher: An Anthology of New Poetics, 78n1; Artifice and Indeterminacy, x


238  Index Beardsley, Monroe C.: “The Intentional Fallacy,” 146 Behar, Ruth: “Ethnography in a Time of Blurred Genres,” 124 Benjamin, Walter, xviii, 172; The Arcades Project, 25, 28; “The Angel of History,” 172–73 Benson, Steve: The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183 Berardi, Franco, xix; The Soul at Work, 208 Berlinski, David, 137–38; Black Mischief, 138–39; The Deniable Darwin, 138; “Old Hose,” 138; A Tour of the Calculus, 137 Bernstein, Charles, 55, 78, 83, 84, 201, 205; A Poetics, 53–54, 200; Content’s Dream, x, xiv, 53, 200; “Emotions of Normal People,” 206; L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, x, 200; The Politics of Poetic Form, x, 75–76; Review of Language to Cover a Page, 197–201, 208–9, 212, 218–19 Berrigan, Daniel, 113 Bibby, Michael: Hearts and Minds, 98n7, 99n12 Bialik, Haim, Revealment and Concealment, 161 Black, Sheila: Beauty Is a Verb, xv, 87–92 Blanchot, Maurice, 25; The Writing of the Disaster, 23 Blaser, Robin: “The Fire,” 22, 25; “The Practice Outside,” 66 Blau DuPlessis, Rachel, 78, 82, 84, 99n12, 99n16, 144, 145; Blue Studios, 83, 85, 97n2; Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetries, 78–79n1; The Pink Guitar, xii; Purple Passages, 64–65, 67; “Statement on Poetics,” xii–xiii, 13–37. Bök, Christian, 206–8; “Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit,” 207 Brathwaite, Kamau: “History of the Voice,” 158 Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist: The Prose Edda, 9 Brogan, Jacqueline: The Violence Within/ The Violence Without, 143–46 Brooks, Cleanth, 203

Brooks, Gwendolyn, xvi; Annie Allen, 121, 131–33; Blacks, 140; “downtown vaudeville,” 132–33; “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s,” 121–22, 129, 131–32 Brown, Richard Harvey: A Poetic for Sociology, ix Brown, Sterling: Southern Road, 124 Buber, Martin, 164; “The Bi-National Approach to Zionism,” 170–72; “I and Thou,” xvii, 169–70; “The National Home and The National Riots in Palestine,” 170–71 Bürger, Peter: The Theory of the AvantGarde, 3 Burt, Stephanie, 209; “It’s Too Much,” 225, 230n1, 231n3; “Review: Smokes,” 98n5 Cage, John, 205, 222n15 Cahnmann-Taylor, Melisa: “Anthropology at the Edge of Words,” 124 Cavalcanti, Guido, 70 Celan, Paul, 16, 159, 171 Cézanne, Paul, 56, 58 Chasar, Mike: “Glut Reactions,” 230n1 Clay, Stephen: A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, 203 Clifford, James: The Predicament of Culture, 123–24, 133–34; Writing Culture, ix Clover, Joshua, xiv, 59–60; “Years of Analysis for a Day of Synthesis,” 60–61 Cobbing, Bob, 182 Cole, Norma, 89 Cole, Peter, 161, 169 Coleman, Ornette, 76 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 55 Collis, Stephen: “Duncan Étude III,” 31 Coltrane, John, 76–77; “Equinox,” 77; “Out of This World,” 77 Coolidge, Clark, 197 Coultas, Brenda, 100n30 Crary, Jonathan: 24/7, 186 Creeley, Robert, 25, 58, 65 cummings, e. e., 141–43, 145, 146; The Enormous Room, 142, 144; Him, 142 Dante: La Divina Commedia, 21, 67, 157, 159

Index 239 Danto, Arthur, 20, 36n22, 210; “The Artworld,” 211–12 Darwish, Mahmoud, 159, 171; “The Death of the Phoenix,” 171–72 Davidson, Michael, 87–88, 89; Concerto for the Left Hand, 99n19, 100n23; Ghostlier Demarcations, 66, 116n27; On the Outskirts of Form, xxin3, 84–5 Davis, Lennard: Bending over Backwards, 90 Deleuze, Gilles: A Thousand Plateaus, 210 Derrida, Jacques, 25; “‘A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text,’” 16–17 Dewey, Anne: “Poetic Authority and the Public Sphere of Politics,” 115n21 Dickinson, Emily, 183; “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” 102 Dowling, Sarah: “Ethnos and Graphos,” xvi, xvii, 121–35 doyle, erica r.: proxy, 137, 139 Du Bois, W. E. B., 140, 141–42, 145; The Souls of Black Folk, 142 Duchamp, Marcel, 193, 214–16 Duncan, Robert, xv, 13, 29, 31, 65, 66, 68–69, 71–75, 76, 101–9, 113, 114nn7–10, 115n11, 115n16, 115n22, 116n28, 117n34, 157; Bending the Bow, 73; The Opening of the Field, 72, 73–74; “The Structure of Rime,” 74; The Truth of Life & Myth, 72–73; Writing Writing, 73 Duve, Thierry De: Kant after Duchamp, 215–16; “Pardon My French,” 192; Pictorial Nominalism, 214–16 Dworkin, Craig, 214, 217, 221; Against Expression, 97–99n2, 98n5, 209, 219–20; “The Fate of Echo,” 209–11; “Fugitive Signs,” 203–6, 210–11; Introduction to Language to Cover a Page, 197, 199–200, 203, 205, 208, 212–14, 219, 222n42; Introduction to The UbuWeb Anthology, 206–12, 222n11; Parse, 200; Signature-Effects, 206 Eburne, Jonathan P.: “What is an AvantGarde?” xi Edmond, Jacob: A Common Strangeness, 201 Edwards, Brent: Epistrophies, 65, 79n10

Eigner, Larry, 89 Eliot, T. S., 17, 56, 64; “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 206 Elkins, James: The Poetics of Perspective, ix Ellison, Ralph, 137, 140 Epstein, Andrew: Beautiful Enemies, 61–62n7 Erevelles, Nirmala: Disability and Difference in Global Contexts, 99 Espada, Martín, 87 Etheridge, Knight, 113 Evans, Walker, 93 Farrell, Dan, 207, 222n15, 222n22; “Avail,” 208 Felman, Shoshona, 93 Ferris, Jim, 90 Finlay, Ian Hamilton, 182 Forché, Carolyn: Against Forgetting, 92, 93 Foucault, Michel: The Order of Things, 68; “What Is an Author?,” 146 Fraser, Kathleen, 99n12; How(ever), x; Translating the Unspeakable, x, 73–74 Freud, Sigmund: The Interpretation of Dreams, 200; “Uber den Gegensinn der Urworte,” 17 Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa von, 182 Fries, Kenny: Beauty is a Verb, 90 Frost, Elisabeth A.: The Feminist AvantGarde in American Poetry, xv, 84, 98n2; Innovative Women Poets, 81, 98n2; “Toward Transformation,” xv, xvi, 81–100 Fusco, Coco, xvi; The Couple in the Cage, 131; “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” 130–31 Gelpi, Albert: “Introduction: The ‘Aesthetic Ethics of the Visionary Imagination,’” 104, 114n8, 114n16, 116n24 Genet, Jean: The Blacks, 146 Genusa, Angela: onlinedating, 218 Gericault, Theodore: The Raft of the Medusa, 228 Ginsberg, Allen, 58 Giscombe, C. S., 90, 100n30

240  Index Goldberg, David Theo, 142 Goldsmith, Kenneth, 206, 208, 211, 213–14, 222n15; Against Expression, 97–99n2, 98n5, 209, 219–20; Day, 199, 200; Fidget, 213; Seven American Deaths, 211; The UbuWeb Anthology, 206, 208–9; The Weather, 199, 200, 213; “The Wild World of Lulu,” 217–18 Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, xvi, 122, 129–31; The Couple in the Cage, 131; Exercises for Rebel Artists, 129; “Poetic Ethnography,” 129, 131 Graham, Jorie, xix, 189, 191; “Employment,” 187–88, 193; Place, xix, 193 Grenier, Robert: Sentences, 180, 182, 202 Grietzer, Peli: “The Aesthetics of Sufficiency,” 97–98n2 Guattari, Félix: A Thousand Plateaus, 210 Hahn, Kimiko, 87 Hanagid, Shmuel, 161 Harding, Sandra, 85, 88 Hardt, Michael: Empire, xix, 185–86 Harris, Wilson, 75; The Eye of the Scarecrow, 65, 75, 79n10 Harryman, Carla: The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183; “Reflections on the Incomplete Project of the Poets Theatre,” 204 Hartigan, Grace, 58 Hartley, George: Textual Politics and the Language Poets, 204 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 57 Hejinian, Lyn, 64; “An Art of Addition, an Eddic Return,” xii, 3–11; The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183; A Guide to Poetics Journal, xxin5; The Language of Inquiry, xi; Poetics Journal, x Henderson, Stephen: Understanding New Black Poetry, 149 Heredia, Paula: The Couple in the Cage, 131 Herrera, Carmen, 29 Herrera, Jose Rodriguez: “Revolution or Death,” 116n27 Hesiod, 19 Heuving, Jeanne: “The Material and

Medium of Language,” xiv, 63–80; The Transmutation of Love and AvantGarde Poetics, 80n32 Hinton, Laura: We Who Love to Be Astonished, x Hirsch, E. D.: Cultural Literacy, 230n3 Hoagland, Tony, xvii, 149–53; “The Change,” 149–53; “The Story of White People,” 150–51 Hoffman, Adina, 161 Hogue, Cynthia, 90; Innovative Women Poets, 81, 98n2; “To Make from Outrage Islands of Compassion,” xv–xvi, 101–17; We Who Love to Be Astonished, x Hollander, Lee M.: Poetic Edda, 6 Hollenberg, Donna Krolik: “Visions of the Field in Poetry and Painting,” 105, 107, 115n12, 116nn29–30 Hong, Cathy Park, xvi, 122; Dance Dance Revolution, 125–27, 128 Howe, Susan, 197–98 Hughes, Langston, xvii; “Ballad of the Landlord,” 147–49 Hulme, T. E., 80n25 Hunt, Erica: “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” 82 Hurston, Zora Neale, 124; “Story in Harlem Slang,” 123–24 Ibn Arabi, 159, 166, 168; “As Cool as Life,” 162; Stations of Desire, 161–63; “Stay Now at the Ruins Fading,” 163 Ibn Gabirol, 161 Irigaray, Luce, 101 Izenour, Steven: Learning from Las Vegas, 60 Jabès, Edmond, 159 Jakobson, Roman, xiii, 216; “Linguistics and Poetics,” 33 James, C. L. R., 140 Jaussen, Paul, 24 Johns, Jasper, 204, 205, 222n15 Joron, Andrew: “The Emergence of Poetry,” 156 Jouet, Oulipian Jacques: “metropoem,” 125

Index 241 Joyce, James, 192 Kane, Daniel: All Poets Welcome, 203 Kaufman, Robert: “Poetry Ethics?,” 103, 111, 116–17n32, 117n34 Keller, Lynn: Thinking Poetry, 98n2, 99n12 Kenner, Hugh: The Pound Era, 65 Kent, George E.: A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, 131 Kinnahan, Linda, 99n12 Korg, Jacob: Winter Love, 80n25 Kotz, Liz: Words to Be Looked At, 205, 207, 209 Krauss, Rosalind: “Video,” 190 Kreymborg, Alfred, 181 Kriner, Tiffany Eberle: “Ascent, Continuance, Immersion,” 116n27 Kristeva, Julia: Revolution in Poetic Language, 113, 117n35 Kuhn, Thomas: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 23 Kunitz, Stanley: “Bronze by Gold,” 132 LaCapra, Dominick: Writing History, Writing Trauma, 109, 116n29 Lacey, Paul A.: “The Vision of the Burning Babe,” 104, 114n8, 116n28 Lardreau, Guy: L’histoire comme nuit de Walpurgis, 155 Lazer, Hank: “The People’s Poetry,” 230n1 Lerner, Ben, 59 Levertov, Denise, xv–xvi, 101–11, 114nn7– 10, 115nn11–12, 115n16, 115nn20–22, 116n24, 116n27, 116nn29–30, 117n34; “During the Eichmann Trial,” 107; “Life at War,” 106, 108–9; The Poet in the World, 81, 82, 104, 114n7; “Staying Alive,” 102–4, 106, 110–13, 115n21 Levin, Dana: “In the Surgical Theatre,” 208 Levin, Gabriel, 161; Never Mind, 166–67 Levin, Susan: The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry, 19–20, 21, 35n17 Levinas, Emmanuel, 160 Linker, Kate, 203 Linstead, Maréchal: “Metropoems,” 134n10 Linstead, Stephen: “Metropoems,” 134n10

Lippard, Lucy: Six Years, 207 Locke, Alain, 140 Logan, William, 230–31n3 Loy, Mina, 56 Mackey, Nathaniel, xiii–xiv, xv, 65, 66, 68–69, 74–78, 79n10, 84, 99n12; “The Changing Same,” 76; “Dearly Beloved,” 76–77; Discrepant Engagement, xi, xiii, 77–78; Four for Trane, 76–77; From a Broken Bottle, xiii, 39–50; Hambone, x, xxin2; Late Arcade, xiii–xiv, 39–50; “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun,” 77; “Song of the Andoumboulou: 34,” 77–78, “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” 75–76; “The Unruly Pivot,” 75 Mac Low, Jackson, 182, 202, 204, 205 Magee, Michael: Mainstream, 228 Majzel, Robert: Apikoros Sleuth, 180 Mandel, Tom: The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183 Marclay, Christian: The Clock, 192–93 Marinetti, F. T., 69 Mayer, Bernadette, 89, 197; 0 to 9, 197, 202, 203, 204, 222n8 Maynard, Kent: “Anthropology at the Edge of Words,” 124 McCaffery, Steve: “Writing as a General Economy,” 78n1 Michelson, Annette, 160 Miles, Josephine, 89 Miller, Nancy K.: The Poetics of Gender, ix Moore, Mary Ann, 56 Morris, Adalaide: How to Live/What to Do, 114n6 Morris, Simon: Re-Writing Freud, 200 Morrison, Yedda: Darkness, 200 Morse, Garry Thomas, xvi, 122, 127; “Interpretive Dance,” 128–29 Mott, Christopher M.: “The Cummings Line on Race,” 141–44 Moxley, Jennifer, xiv Mullen, Harryette, 87 Narbeshuber, “Relearning Denise Levertov’s Alphabet,” 116n27

242  Index Negri, Antonio: Empire, xix, 185–86 Ngai, Sianne: “Stuplimity,” 222n15, 222n22 Nielsen, Aldon, 99n12; Black Chant, x; Reading Race in American Poetry, 144; “White Mischief,” xvi–xvii, 137–54 Northen, Michael: Beauty Is a Verb, xv, 87–92 Nowak, Mark: Coal Mountain Elementary, xv, 92–96 Nussbaum, Martha: Love’s Knowledge, 20, 21, 35n20; Poetic Justice, 22 October, 195n8, 203, 204 O’Hara, Frank, 57–59, 61n7, 62n8, 217, 222n15 O’Leary, Peter, 78 Oliver, Kelly: Witnessing Beyond Recognition, 105, 107, 109–10, 115n20 Olson, Charles, 24, 26, 29, 66–67, 72; Maximus, 93; “One Word as the Complete Poem,” 25–28 Oppen, George, 19, 28; “The Mind’s Own Place,” 33 Osman, Jena, 100n30 Pearson, Ted: The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183 Perelman, Bob, 9–10, 64–65, 67; The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183 Perloff, Marjorie, 99n12, 192, 218–19; Frank O’Hara Poet Among Painters, 62n8, 222n15; “Moving Information,” 213; Poetics in a New Key, 213–214, 216–18; Poetics of Indeterminacy, 64; “Poetry on the Brink,” 98n3, 230n1; “Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience,’” 115n22; 21st-Century Modernism, 64; Unoriginal Genius, 93, 214; “Vocabel Scriptsigns,” 213; “Vito Acconci,” 212–13 Petrarch, 70 Phillips, Rodney: A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, 203 Piper, Adrian: Here and Now, 207–8 Place, Vanessa, 217; Die Dichtkunst, 192; “Empire Aesthetics,” xviii–xix, 185–95; $20, xix, 188–89; “Self Portraits,” 194

Plato: The Republic, 19–23, 24, 68 Poggioli, Renato: The Theory of the AvantGarde, 3, 8 Pollock, Jackson, 57–58, 61–62n7 Pope, Alexander: “Windsor Forest,” 198 Porter, Bern, 182 Pound, Ezra, xv, 18, 24, 26, 27–28, 56, 64–65, 68–71, 73, 76, 80n25, 146; “Alba,” 203; Cantos, 28, 64, 70–71, 221; Canto II, 71; Cathay, 70–71; “The River Song,” 70–71 Praxilla, 30 Prevallet, Kristin, 100n30 Quéloz, Catherine: “Vito Acconci,” 201, 203, 205 Randall, Dudley: “Black Poet, White Critic,” 139 Rankine, Claudia, xvii, 93, 100n30, 150–53 Ransom, John Crowe, 203 Rasula, Jed: “Glut Reactions,” 230n1 Redman, Tim, 146 Redmond, Patricia: Workings of the Spirit, ix Reed, Brian: “Now That’s a Poem,” xviii, xix–xx, 197–223; “Western Poetics” xxin1 Reed, Ishmael, 140 Reznikoff, Charles: Testimony, 93 Rich, Adrienne, 90, 97, 143–44 Ricks, Christopher: T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, 17 Robinson, Kit: The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183 Rothenberg, Jerome: Shaking the Pumpkin, 127; Technicians of the Sacred, 127 Rukeyser, Muriel, 93; The Book of the Dead, 93 Saar, Martin: “New Spirit of Criticism,” 186 Said, Edward, 156 Saroyan, Aram, 197 Schepp, Archie 76 Scholem, Gershom, 161, 163–64; The Fullness of Time, 164–66; “Jerusalem,” 165,

Index 243 167; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 163; “To Ingeborg Bachmann,” 165–66; “To Theodor Herzl,” 164–65; Walter Benjamin, 163 Schultz, Kathy Lou: The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History, 139 Schuyler, James, 59 Schwartz, Leonard: “Apple Anyone Sonnets,” xvii, 157–60; “A Flicker at the Edge of Things,” 155–56; “John Brown’s Body,” 174; “Robert Duncan and His Literary Inheritors,” 115–16n22; “Transcendental Tabby,” xvii–xviii, 155–75 Schweik, Susan: Beauty is a Verb, 99–100n22 Scott Brown, Denise: Learning from Las Vegas, 60 Scroggins, Mark: “From the Late Modernism of the ‘Objectivists,’” 66 Sells, Michael: “Orisha,” 162; Stations of Desire, 161–63 Shakespeare, William, 228; Sonnets, xvii, 157, 208, 228 Shaviro, Steve: Connected, 68, 72 Shaw, Lyle: Fieldworks, 204 Shelley, Percy Bysshe, 212, 213 Shepp, Archie: “Four for Trane,” 76 Shurin, Aaron: “The People’s P***k,” 102, 103–5 Sidney, Phillip, 55 Sifuentes, Roberto: Exercises for Rebel Artists, 129; “Poetic Ethnography,” 129, 131 Silliman, Ron, 114–15n11, 204; “The Codex is Broken,” xviii, 179–83; The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183; Talisman, 157–8; Tjanting, 183, 211 Simpson, Louis, 140; “Taking the Poem by the Horns,” 140 Simpson, Megan, 99n12 Smithson, Robert, 204, 207 Snorri’s Edda. See Sturluson, Snorri Solt, Mary Ellen, 182 Sontag, Susan: Regarding the Pain of Others, 106–7; Le degré zero, 210 Sousy, Sumaiya el-: “The City,” xviii, 172–73 Spahr, Julianna, xiv, 84, 100n30

Spears, Britney, xix; “Work Bitch,” 186–88 Spicer, Jack: “Dictation and ‘A Textbook for Poetry,’” 66 Spivak, Gayatri, 155 Stein, Gertrude, 56, 64, 73, 76–77, 182, 190; The Making of Americans, 222n42 Steiner, George, 164; The Poetry of Thought, 22, 36n 29 Sterling, Andy: Supergroup, 217–18, 221 Stevens, James Thomas, 127 Stevens, Wallace, 56, 80n29, 143–46, 191; “Contrary Theses (II),” 145–46; “How to Live. What to do,” 104, 114n6; “The Greenest Continent,” 144; “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” 145; The Necessary Angel, 116n31; “Prelude to Objects,” 145 Stewart, Susan: “Lyric Possession,” 67–68; “On the Art of the Future,” 116–17n32; Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, 67–68 St. John’s, David: American Hybrid, x, 98n5 Sturluson, Snorri; Poetic Edda, 4; Prose Edda, xii, 3–7, 9–10 Sullivan, James D.: “Killing John Cabot and Publishing Black,” 132 Swenson, Cole: American Hybrid, x, 98n5 Sylvester, Chris: Still Life with Pokémon, 218 Tate, Allen, 140, 203 Taylor, Cecil, 76 Taylor, Diana, 131 Teare, Brian: “We map our way with only the bearing / of surrounding life,” 17 Thomas, Lorenzo, 99n12; Extraordinary Measures, 231n9 Thomson, Rosemarie Garland: Extraordinary Bodies, 100n22 Thornbury, Emily, 4, 5 Tolson, Melvin B., 139–40, 146; “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems, 140 Torre, Mónica de la, 207, 222n22; Reversible Monuments, 222n22 Torres, Edwin, 87 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 146

244  Index Valéry, Paul, 193 Vataranian, Hrag: “Banksy’s Busy Weekend NYC Projects,” 194 Venturi, Robert: Learning from Las Vegas, 60 Vickery, Ann, 99n12 Virgil, 19; Eclogue VII, 30 Wagner, Anne, 203 Waldrop, Rosmarie: “Some Ambivalence about the Term ‘Conceptual Poetry,’” 36–37n42 Watten, Barrett: The Constructivist Moment, xxin3, xxin6, 11n8; The Grand Piano, 11n6, 11n8, 183; A Guide to Poetics Journal, xxin5; Poetics Journal, x Weil, Simone, 159 Weiner, Hannah, 202; “Code Poems,” 198 Weir, Lorraine: “Review of Discovery Passages,” 128 Whitehead, Kim: The Feminist Poetry Movement, 98n7, 99n12

Whitman, Walt, 22, 58 Wiese, Jillian, 90 Williams, Raymond, 14 Williams, Tyrone, xi; “The United Divisions of Poetry,” xx, 225–31 Williams, William Carlos, 14, 56, 123; Paterson, 23, 58, 60, 93 Wimsatt, William K.: “The Intentional Fallacy,” 146 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 190; Tractatus Logico-­Philosophicus, 16, 31 Wolsak, Lissa: “An Heuristic Prolusion,” 78 Wordsworth, William, 55 Wright, C. D., 100n30 Wright, Richard, 93 Yeats, William Butler, 56; “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” 199 Žižek, Slavoj, xxin6 Zukofsky, Louis, 18, 35nn14–15, 64–66