Archive for the ‘Praise and Polemics’ Category

Reflections on James Dunnigan’s ‘The Stained Glass Sequence’

I had the chance recently to discuss how James Dunnigan’s The Stained Glass Sequence sequence-thumbjust out from Frog Hollow Press might be received. It’s a weird poem in the context of present-day English-language poetry, with gestures and stances more reminiscent of High Modernism, intricate and allusive, than anything you might read on a visit to, say, the Poetry website….

It was the refractory complexities of just the suite’s title that made me think “How someone who reads poetry can review it is just beyond me….” which I posted on social media, which, in turn, received (among others) a telling reply:  “It is a form of reading, at best.”

Taken by itself (the thread did wind on…), this response can be taken to be representative in several ways. First, it assumes the spontaneous authority of the vulgar usage of the verb ‘to read’, an authority that in certain regards is beyond reproach but which is also constantly in danger of asymptoting to the thoughtless. More significantly it enacts precisely what my original post found problematic, since it seems either to refuse or fail to register the stress on ‘reads‘ indicated by the italics (to suggest the word twists in some way from the ordinary sense) and the claim made in the predicate (which further torques the notion of reading from its accepted sense); that is, it doesn’t read or try to understand the original post, seeming more concerned to leave everything the way it is, its complacency disturbed just enough to defend the status quo and defer reflection.

In the same way, many readers will no doubt pass over the implications of the title. If there’s one dogged misperception that has persisted since the late Eighteenth Century it’s the Baconian idea that the word is or should function as a transparent medium, a window onto the world, a notion the title troubles doubly, for stained, unlike transparent, glass, though translucent, colours what might be viewed through it, and, more importantly, its pieces are a medium to compose a design or picture the window frames rather than a view through it. To borrow a two centuries’ old terminology, the title suggests the sequence’s language not so much represents but presents. Any reading, let alone evaluation, of the sequence that fails to assiduously and consistently treat the language as refractory rather than transparent will fail to appreciate it in the first place.

Of course, such reflexivity, a gesture that goes back to Homer, is only a start to the title’s formal sophistication. Its grammar, likewise, throws light on the poem: it is composed of a substantive (‘sequence’) preceded by three modifiers (‘The Stained Glass’…). If one considers the middle two words in themselves, in the etymology that roots their adjectival function, they, too, possess the same syntax, a substantive ‘glass’ modified by ‘stained’. This is to say, the syntax of the title, in a way, is nested, or, better, framed, the way the implications of the title arguably frame, or should, the reception of the poem.

And reading the sequence, the attentive reader will remark how little stained glass or stained-glass windows actually appear in the poem. The sequence opens ekphrastically, describing a painting by Chagall, stained glass is mentioned as such in the second part, the fourth section is in four “panels”, and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel are remarked in the fifth. That the poem makes far more consistent reference to painting than stained glass suggests all the more the formal reflexivity of the title than its naming “an important theme” that the sequence takes up and develops.

A careful, thoughtful reader may well mark, too, another complication. The title is, in a way, paradoxical, modifying a temporal noun (‘sequence’, a pattern than unfolds linearly in time) with a spatial modifier (‘stained glass’, a translucent medium that either colours light or is itself used in the composition of a design or picture, a work of art perceived spatially). There is then a tension, as the sequence is, perhaps, a series of spaces arranged in time, though the title names the sequence as a sequence, as a temporal form, as language itself is.

Any reading of Dunnigan’s book that fails to read (in the most emphatic sense) even the title will likewise falter in understanding the sequence the title frames and thereby governs. And if so much is at work even before the first word of the poem is read, let alone on every line, if this reader is a reviewer, how little weight will their judgement carry if they fail to register these first—preliminary, guiding, essential—aspects of the poem?

“To praise–that’s it!”

Canadian poet Patrick Lane passed away today at the relatively young age of 79.

Though I never knew him personally, he was an eminent figure in Saskatchewan during my years as an apprentice poet, along with his partner Lorna Crozier, John Newlove, Andrew Suknaski (all three of whom I was lucky enough to learn from personally), Barbara Sapergia, and Geoff Ursell, among others, and I heard him read on a number of occasions.

What strikes me now is how quickly many have expressed their shock, grief, and appreciation for the man and his writing, which is as it should be. However, it seems to me that such praise shouldn’t have waited until it was too late for him to have heard or read it and appreciated it (though he did receive many accolades during his lifetime).

If you read a poem that knocks your socks off, or a book of poems, or a book-length poem, these days you can tell the poet how much you appreciate their work at the speed of light (depending on your data package). I’d encourage you to do so. The poet will appreciate it more, now, than wreaths of belated praise heaped upon their legacy once they’re gone.

Patrick Lane 1939 - 2019

 

“The poetry wars never ended.”

DftPWChicago Review has just posted a lively, provocative conversation with Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn about the motivations driving that equally lively web-journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.

At a time when Instapoets are lionized as The Big New Thing (because of their sales numbers) and the art is otherwise domesticated (in the MFA program and English class), I know of few more vital, critical, and necessary sites of resistance than Dispatches.

“…voices / …heard / …as revelations”

Interested parties can read a talk I gave at the Spirituality in Contemporary Canadian and Québécois Literature Panel at the annual meeting of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures, Regina, Saskatchewan, 27 May 2018.

“…voices / …heard / …as revelations”:  Peter Dale Scott’s Contribution to the Discourse of the Postsecular in his Seculum Trilogy and Mosaic Orpheus

 

“Ahi, quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura…”: a note on the postmodern Dante

Any visitor curious enough to view the reading that launched March End Prill might have selva oscurabeen in equal parts mystified and amused by my describing Cervantes and Homer as “avant garde, reflexive, or postmodern”. If so, then they’d be equally quizzical  of my describing Dante as postmodern.

I’ve made it a ritual to read through Dante’s Commedia every Easter Week “in real time”, The Inferno Good Friday and Holy Saturday, The Purgatorio Easter Sunday through to Wednesday, and The Paradiso as I will, as, having left the earth, terrestrial time no longer applies to the Pilgrim Dante or, in this case, his reader.

One of the things that makes Dante’s epic a classic is that even returning to it annually in this way, even the most familiar passages give up hitherto unnoticed features and meanings. Such was my experience this year, rereading the opening lines of The Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh —
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

A simpler, more literal rendering of line four would be “Ah, how to say what was is a hard thing…”.

Arguably the most immediate way to take this line is that the Pilgrim-Poet Dante, recounting his experience relives the fear he felt lost in that wild wood (delightfully, in the Italian, esta selva selvaggia), which causes a moment of reflection wherein he (reflexively) writes, not about the wood or his fear, but about his writing about the wood and his fear. That is, “it is difficult to write about so fearful an experience, because writing about it requires I in a way relive that fear”.

But, of course, the persona of the Pilgrim is a mask worn by the poet Dante. Considered from this angle, the poet is writing about writing his poem. This admission of the challenge of the epic task the poet has set for himself and the demands that this project place upon the poet’s talent is a pattern that recurs throughout the Commedia, most immediately and movingly in the next canto, where the Pilgrim questions his worthiness to follow Virgil through Hell and Purgatory and receives so tremendously a moving, eloquent pep talk in reply that, in all sincerity, it never fails to move me to tears. However much such an admission of humility is a rhetorical ornament common in Latin literature, it is no less moving, such is Dante’s genius. It is as if, then, the poet were admitting, “Ah, how hard it is to write this epic poem in this noble style I invented just for this purpose.”

The rich complexity of this line, however, is hardly exhausted in this near cliché example of the “postmodern” text’s referring to itself in however a sly, metapoetic manner. A quick glance back at the English translation of this line and its tercet reveals a curious pattern:  as the tercet progresses the translation becomes more literal. The Italian grammar of the line is, or so I have it on relatively good authority, somewhat counter intuitive to an English speaker, for ‘qual‘ that I translate as ‘what’ is a word that can function as either a relative pronoun or an interrogative, closer to English ‘which’. Moreover, the line conjugates the copula in both the past and present tenses:  “era è“, “was is”. Why various English versions of the line depart from the Italian as the syntactic demands of the remainder of the tercet demand is understandable. But it strikes me, perhaps only because of my depending on English translations and a casual commentary on the Italian grammar, that the line, describing difficulty, is, itself, linguistically difficult, a stylistic device that recurs in The Inferno. Here, then, the artistic awareness of the poet extends into the very syntax of his language.

Nevertheless, there is no small irony in the progression of the tercet. On the one hand, the Pilgrim-Poet admits to the emotional and poetic difficulty of presenting what he wants to present, but that “hard thing” (cosa dura) is, in a sense, dispensed rather too easily with three conjoined adjectives selvaggia e aspra e forte, savage and dense and harsh, followed by the simple, frank admission that remembering it renews his fear. For something so dura, hard, it is performed with a strikingly easy fluency. On the other hand, though, it could be that the remainder of the canto that deals with the Pilgrim’s encounter with its famous three beasts, the Leopard, Lion, and Wolf, and his being forced by them into darkness and despair is just that “hard thing” whose memory so frightens him (and fear is an important theme in these two cantos and throughout the Inferno), or it might be the Pilgrim-Poet rushes over that memory to pass through it and leave it behind to get to that more heartening good his being lost and finding his way through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise provides.

That Dante’s poem should display such deft and complex linguistic self-consciousness, a metapoetic dimension literary scholars have pegged as characteristic of postmodern literature, really shouldn’t be a surprise, for the work of literature that is at the same time about itself and literature was first theorized and intentionally explored over two centuries ago by the German Early Romantics, die Frühromantiker, in their journal The Athenaeum (1798-1800) and in their criticism, letters, poems and novels. Indeed, the three characteristically “modern” writers for the Jena romantics were Goethe, Shakespeare, and Dante.

News that stays news: On the Verbal Art of the Plain-spoken Poem

IMG_2521Recently, I’ve found myself caught up in a couple of on-line discussions where the topic turned to the reception of the “accessible” poem, one whose language is self-effacing and limpid.

One of my interlocutors, Chris Banks, put the matter quite well:

People are either terrified of being accessible, or terrified of meaning itself, leaving nothing for critics to puzzle out, or else are more interested in the surprise, the bizarre, the magic trick ahhhhh….

Problem is we need more perceptive readers of poetry who can establish what a poem is trying to do without equating sincerity with shortcomings, accessibility with simplicity, etc. I long for a day when we don’t have to announce a book has formalist elements on the jacket copy of books in this country. However, if you don’t, no one looks for such elements.

At a time in English-language poetry in North America when the poem that draws attention to its artfulness in various ways for various reasons is arguably in the ascendant, perhaps it’s time reconsider à rebours the innate and intricate artfulness of the poem that doesn’t parade its poeticity in “a coat / Covered with embroideries” but that takes up the challenge that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.”

To wit, I direct the interested reader to an intentionally perverse close analysis of the prosody of a brief poem by Elaine Equi, “Prescription”.

 

A Class of One’s Own: an all-too-brief appreciation of the poetry of John Newlove

[Just over five years back, I heard tell that a collection of criticism on the work of John Newlove was in the works. I contacted the editor to offer what I could, as I had first started writing poetry under Newlove’s influence and tutelage. What follows was the result. It seems now that that collection is not forthcoming, so I share these cursory reflections here, now.]

The status of John Newlove’s poetry in Canada is curious. The consistent admiration and acclaim it received over nearly four decades, from even before the publication of his Governor General’s Award winning Lies (1972) up to and including the appearance of his latest volume of selected poems A Long Continual Argument (2007), would seem to suggest that his work would be more widely and closely studied, both by scholars and poets. His publishing only one trade edition after Lies, The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), and that the only one before his death in 2003, is surely in part to blame. Moreover, changes in taste and tendencies in academic criticism during this time, anathema to the singular pathos of his polished and laconic lyrics, surely served to only further marginalize the work of a man already famously a loner. It is perhaps reason for optimism in this regard that Jeff Derksen, a poet associated with Canada’s avant-garde, essays a postmodern sociological reading of Newlove’s poetry in his afterword to A Long Continual Argument (237ff.). As bracing as it would be to make a case for a more sustained and scrupulous critical attention to Newlove’s work, I will here follow Newlove’s own example, the one he provides at the end of Derksen’s afterword, where he invites Derksen in to show him “the careful syllabics of an Irish writer…, literally counting the syllables per line…” (245).

As is probably well-known, Newlove’s poetry first appears on the West Coast during that flowering of Canadian poetry that occurred during the Sixties and Seventies, a milieu famously (or infamously, depending on your critical predilections) in contact with what came to be called the New American Poetry, a relation most dramatically exemplified by the University of British Columbia Poetry Conference (1963) attended by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen. The New American Poetry and its poetics were profoundly influenced by Ezra Pound, whose criticism provides useful, basic concepts for an appreciation of Newlove’s art, as well. Pound distinguishes three “kinds of poetry”: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (25), or, as Louis Zukofsky was to reword it, the uses poetry makes of sight, sound, and intellection (Test vii). Newlove’s writing excels at all of these. On the back cover of The Fatman (1977), Frank Davey’s blurb stands out bold:  Newlove’s is “[o]ne of the most direct and visually precise styles in twentieth-century poetry.” Among Newlove’s own saws is to “Read with your ears, not just your eyes.” And his enjambments and the sly suggestiveness of his (under)statements take up and hand down powers inherent in English poetry from its beginnings.

However acute a critic Davey is, it is difficult to find many examples of “visually precise” passages, if what he refers to is what Longinus termed phantasia (Russell and Winterbottom 159), that “casting of images upon the visual imagination” (Pound 25). Nevertheless, the first two stanzas of the title poem from Black Night Window (1968) present, arguably, an image, “an intellectual and emotional complex” (Pound 4):

Black night window—

rain running down

the fogged glass,

 

a blanched leaf

hanging outside

on a dead twig (11)

Rigorously and economically phanopoetic, every line but the fifth (“hanging outside”) frames a concrete noun, and all but the last adjective (“dead”) are immediately sensuous. None of the poem’s four tercets comments or states: lacking a verb, each is a phrase whose sense hangs on what each depicts. Taking the poem’s images together, Pound would say the poem is an ideogram, communicating by means of “images juxtaposed” (Ginsberg, Howl 74).

One especially intellectually complex image is found in “The Green Plain”, a long poem first published as a chapbook and later included in The Night the Dog Smiled. At the centre of the poem is the question at the heart of philosophy “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that Newlove reworks, wondering whether there is “reason / in the galaxies—Or is this all glass, / a block bubbled in a fire…?” (21). To expand on the aptness of this metaphor would demand an excursus all its own, involving, among other things, the juxtaposition of the stars and bubbles, the contrast between the solidity of glass and the emptiness of space, the condensation of mythopoetic and cosmological speculation that fuses Fire with the Big Bang, and so forth.

Newlove’s prosodic gift and mastery are discernable throughout his oeuvre. “Public Library” (in Black Night Window) is, for example, an exemplary, inimitable performance. Sitting “half in a dreamed trance  half listening / to the people around” (4-5), the poet hears the library’s forced silence amplify sounds normally unnoticed, shuffling feet, shaken newspapers, and

books crackling as their backs [are] broken

the flick/flick of fingertips

and fingernails on the corners of pages

snap of shutting decisively

or accidentally   plump lackadaisically

muted thump of being tossed on low tables (13-18)

The technique here—onomatopoeia—is familiar enough, but the poem goes on, by means of a deft phonemic mix, to recreate the reading room’s soundscape over an enviably easy sixty-four lines!

More subtle and sophisticated pleasures are to be gleaned between that “Lower limit speech” and “Upper limit music” (Zukofsky, “A”-12 138), where the language as spoken is moved by emotion to a rhythm and dance of the syllables that approaches song. A tender instance is “For Judith, Now About 10 Years Old” from Moving in Alone (1965). The poem edges forward hesitantly, often only three to five syllables at a time, the lines turning from completing the thoughts they would compose, that would remember a niece’s traumatic scalding and wonder about the future of her scarred body,

welt ridges also

on the not even yet

about to be

 

womanly posterior

from where

the failing grafts

were taken… (8-14)

Only in the penultimate stanza can the speaker bring himself to ask “What will [she] do / when [her] breasts come?” (30-31). The poem ends with the uncle remembering “the feel of [her] tough / rubber-laced skin / as [he] spread salve on it” (32-35). The poem’s final two lines are striking in their simple economy of presentation, mimetic to a degree that eludes full, precise explanation: the enjambment that separates the adjective “tough” from “rubber-laced”, the isolation of “rubber-laced skin” on a single line that seems to render its referent palpable to the imagination’s fingertips, the play of sibilants over the last two lines softened by that one labiodental /v/ mimics the sound of the hands salving the girl’s “red / welted scars” (1-2).

The drawing out of sense, plying syntax over a number of verses, framing a clause or phrase on a line to focus attention on associations over and above those the completed thought of the sentence demands, is a characteristic power of English blank verse, from Chaucer, through Marlowe, Milton, and Wordsworth, to Wallace Stevens and Newlove. His prosody in this regard, how he harmonizes metre and expression to build up larger musical and syntactic structures, is a study. “Doukhobor” from The Cave (1970) is exemplary, a single, 188-word question articulated over twenty-six lines, asking a farmer, a member of an immigrant Saskatchewan prairie utopian religious community, “who will ever be able to say for” him what he had thought and seen in his life, when he “lies on the chipped kitchen table / … / dumb as an ox, unable to love, / while [his] women sob and offer the visitors tea” (2, 25-26). Despite this hyper-periodic style, the questioner’s wonderings are easy to follow. The poem’s being a question, moreover, secures it from any simple-minded accusation of appropriation. In its imagination, prosodic and syntactical construction, and rhetoric the poem is a tour de force.

Who reads Newlove with an appreciative pleasure will likely agree with Margaret Atwood, too-often quoted out of context (as I quote her, here, too!), who says Newlove “is indeed a master builder”; capable of writing in “something like a grand manner, his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done” (Second Words, p.?). Newlove’s grand manner not only exhibits stylistic excellence but suits that excellence to the presentation of certain grand themes, what Dante calls those “‘splendidly great things’ which should be written about using the best available means,…which are prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will” (Dante 35). In his 1989 Caroline Heath Lecture, Newlove defines his thematic concerns along similar lines. He says, “I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance” (2). Though Newlove’s order differs from Dante’s, desire (what Dante elsewhere paraphrases as “the enjoyment of love”), right and wrong (“virtue”), and endurance (“self-preservation”) are his transformation of age-old topoi into present, vital concerns. In a word, Newlove is a classic.

These all-too cursory remarks only begin an attempt at an appreciation that would venture more complex matters, beginning with “the classic”. The literary critical use of this term goes back at least to the third century C.E. and is bound up with the notions of class, “model”, and correctness and clarity. Reflections on clarity play into theoretical concerns at least a century old, ostraneniye (Shklovsky, cf. Lemon and Reis) and the distinctions between the lisible and the scriptible (Barthes) and between the “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” (Bernstein). To develop these considerations uncovers Newlove’s linguistic rigor: his “baring the device” (Shklovsky) in his “anti-lyrics” (Barbour), his deft and unbalancing deployment of allusion and citation, and his scrutiny of semantic complexity in his fugal poems that play out the possibilities of a set of words or a phrase, as in “The Double-headed Snake” or “The Cave”. The study of Newlove’s oeuvre in this direction would not canonize him among Canada’s post-Tish post-modern poets, as Bowering would in the introduction to his 1984 anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry:  undermining and overturning such an attempted classification, Newlove’s poems elude and encompass such judgements that are at once both too general and too narrow for his world, wherein “one thing is not like another” (“Heath” 6), where “[n]ot to lose the feel of the mountains / while still retaining the prairies / is a difficult thing” (“The Double-headed Snake” 1-3).

Newlove names that “difficult thing” at the heart of his poetic labour. In his Caroline Heath lecture, he goes on to explain, “What I’m trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means” (7). Here is an endlessly open-ended theme, whose horizon swallows polemics against “Humanism”. Here, Newlove takes up a question not a doctrine, and though he may seem, at times, to “say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that [he is] speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human” (9), who hears or overhears him, by virtue of the dialogue understanding demands, becomes his interlocutor, which is, as it were, the last word:

All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you. (10)

 

 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller, Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 1973.

Atwood, Margaret. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric / Anti-lyric:  Some Notes About a Concept” in Line, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1984, Burnaby:  Simon Fraser University, 45-63.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York:  Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption, Philadelphia, Singing Horse, 1987.

Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology, Toronto: Couch House Press, 1984.

Dyck, Ed, ed. Essays on Saskatchewan Writing, Regina:  SWG, 1986.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl:  original draft facsimile, transcript & variant versions, fully annotated by the author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography, ed. Barry Miles, New York:  Harper Perennial, 1986.

Lemon, Lee T. and Ries, Marion J. Russian Formalist Essays, Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 1965.

Newlove, John. Black Night Window, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

—, ed. Canadian Poetry:  The Modern Era, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Cave, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart,1970.

The Fatman: Selected Poems 1962 – 1972, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Green Plain, Lantzville:  Oolichan, 1981.

Lies, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Moving in Alone. Lantzville:  Oolichan, 1965.

—“Moving in Alone”, Caroline Heath Lecture, 18 November 1989.

The Night the Dog Smiled, Toronto:  ECW, 1986.

A Long Continual Argument:  The Selected Poems of John Newlove, ed. Robert McTavish, Ottawa:  Chaudiere, 2007.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays, New York:  New Directions, 1968.

Russell, D. A. and Winterbottom, Dr. M., Classical Literary Criticism, Oxford:  OUP, 1989.

Zukofsky, Louis. “A”, Berkeley: UCP, 1978.

—A Test of Poetry, New York:  Jargon / Corinth, 1964.

Nine Provocations to a Sympoetics

The Analytic and Synthetic Writer. “The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments 112, (1797-1801).

Christian Wolff, difference, and Saussure. “Wolff’s importance for philosophy generally and for the philosophy of language in particular tends to be underestimated today. For example, staying within the philosophy of language, he seems to have been a prime source, not only for the doctrine in question here [thought’s dependence on language], but also for the revolutionary idea in the Herder-Hegel tradition that language and hence conceptualization and thought are fundamentally social, as well as for the idea, later fundamental to Saussurean linguistics, that difference is at least as important for the constitution of concepts as similarity.”—Michael N Forster, After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford, 2012, 79.

“semiotics cannot generate semantics” and related matters. “…there is a crucial homology in modern European philosophy between the constitution of metaphysical systems in ‘Spinozist’ terms via the principle of determination as negation, the structuralist idea of language as a system of differences with no positive terms, and the commodity-based economy of negatively related exchange values. In all these cases the question arises as to the ground upon which the differentially constituted system relies:  the system of ‘conditioned conditions’ leads in Jacobi’s terms to the question of being; meaning cannot be explained in differential terms because mere differentiality requires a ground of identity (semiotics cannot generate semantics); and the notion of value itself makes no sense in purely relational terms because exchange values are grounded in use values.” —Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (New York:  Routledge, 1997), p. 169.

Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) on speech as writing. “Tell me, how do we transform the thought, the idea, into the word; and do we ever have a thought or an idea without its hieroglyph, its letter, its script? Truly, it is so:  but we do not usually think of it. But once, when human nature was more powerful, it really was more extensively thought about; and this is proved by the existence of word and script. The original, and absolute, simultaneity was rooted in the fact that the organ of speech itself writes in order to speak. The letter alone speaks, or rather; word and script are, at source, one, and neither is possible without the other…”—in Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (New York:  Verso, 1977), pp. 213-14.

Duncan on Language. “‘What was it like in the late 1940s if you were concerned about language?’ And then you found that language itself was a process, in Whorf and Sapir. And along with this, Olson wanted to reject the symbolic role of language. I was also interested in Cassirer’s approach to language as a total system of symbols. But it’s a process, you see; it’s not a system.” —Robert Duncan, 1983 interview, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012, 89-90.

On Poetic Form.

“Form is never more than an extension of content”—Robert Creeley, quoted by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse” (1950).

“[Ron] Silliman wrote Revelator according to a simple procedural concept: a long poem with exactly five words per line, and exactly enough lines to fill one notebook.”—Sam Rowe’s review of Revelator (2013) at Full Stop.

“…there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has a form, some as water poured into a vase.”—Ezra Pound, “Credo” (1912), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (9).

Against Expression. “…it’s meanings I’m after, not expression. I’m anti-expressionist. But I don’t think expressionism is disorder. I’m anti-expressionist because I dislike personality and I dislike integration. And in general, I have a double play between meaning and feeling, which keeps me quite busy.”—Robert Duncan, in an interview with David Ossman, 1960, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012.

The Reader as Producer. The thesis of Benjamin’s “The Writer as Producer” might be cast as “the reader should not be a consumer but a producer alongside the writer.” This demand echoes later formulations that turn on oppositions analogous to consumer/producer:  Bernstein’s absorptive/anti-absorptive or Goldsmith’s readership/thinkership. However, such demands that the reader labour along with the writer are already met in the the Jena Romantics’ opposition of the analytic/synthetic writer and their practice of the fragment that require of the reader active collaboration in a “sympoetry”. Theoretically, the opposition between the passive reader and active writer collapses in Barthes’ work/text, which he thoroughly deconstructs in S/Z:  reading is a kind of writing. What power, then, can Benjamin’s demand have if in practice it was met a century before he made it and in theory it is always already met?

On our “romantic” unconscious.  “A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our ‘modernity’ [or ‘postmodernity’]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.

…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.”—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute (trans. Barnard and Lester), Albany:  SUNY, 1988 (original French, 1978), 15-16.

Concerning Instant Delight

Maybe I’m just irritable, but Craig Raine’s recent review of Seamus Heaney’s two-volume selected poems rubs me the wrong way. It’s hardly that I take exception to Raine’s high estimation of Heaney’s poetry. My concern is with the aesthetic doctrine that underwrites Raine’s laudation and its overbearing triumphal tone.

Raine holds up what might be termed Heaney’s gift for mimesis as the poet’s singular virtue:  “He can describe things.” The “ready pleasure” and “obvious likeness” of  “A rowan like a lipsticked girl” is one example of the poet’s deft descriptions “pleasurable because they are accurate and irrefutable.” Heaney’s work displays other achievements—”an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music”—but, “[u]nless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight …, the poetry is automatically of the second order.”

short ciliary nerveRaine opens his review remarking how one kind of latter-day mime, “the impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience” that results in a “release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins,” of a kind with that “drench of dopamine” produced by the “ungainsayable instant delight” that is the sine qua non of poetry.

However rhetorical the appeal to the brain’s  “primitive pleasure centre” might be here, it is one with Raine’s consistent affirmation of the immediacy of the well-wrought poetic image: where the description is “obvious” the delight is “ready,” “instant,” and “ungainsayable.” Happily, one need not right away allude to two centuries or so of philosophical reflection on the untenability of Raine’s assumptions here as the review itself can’t toe the line it draws.

However much “Heaney records things as they come, democratically, unaware of hierarchy” not all such things are democratically given. Raine has to expend over a quarter of the review glossing Heaney’s poems that deal with Irish or Greek myth in order to make clear how they expose what is “immovably rooted in us.” This example of overt intertextuality reveals that Heaney not so much “gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark / As he pulls it to’”—how could I appreciate the description if I hadn’t already heard such a gate being opened or closed?—but rather represents things whose representation is striking only if I’m already acquainted with them. Raine himself refers to how Heaney’s poetry “can describe things in a phrase…the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped / but it sang too, / a kind of dry, ringing / foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?”

It’s not just that the instant delight of poetry’s descriptions arrives only by means of a detour through other texts or experiences. Raine calls the endorphins unconsciously released by our perception of imitation “brandies of the brain,” a variety of spirit, like any, whose appreciation is hardly reflexive but must be conscientiously cultured, unless Raine is likening the pleasures of poetry to sheer inebriation. Indeed, our brains are “flooded with endorphins” only through our “connivance,” imaginably what Coleridge termed the suspension of disbelief, the mental process that mediates the seemingly natural, reflexive immediacy of the kind of poetic mimesis Raine values so highly.

It’s a moribund, simplistic empiricism that underwrites Raine’s aesthetics here and that leads him to disparage so roundly the kind of poetry that to his mind is only

an endless marathon of ambiguity, a joyless game of patience for adepts. The Cambridge School of Poetry, in fact, turning its back on pleasure, snubbing the audience, withholding the endorphins, proffering perpetual difficulty, disparaging ‘descriptive decadence’.

His own review bears witness to the schooling, shared experience, and connivance that admit one to a cognoscenti, that club of connoisseurs capable of appreciating the refined delicacy of Heaney’s phanopoeia. Indeed, this sneering dismissal of others’ pleasures tears the mask from the undisputed naturalness of his own and shows the logic of his review to be little more than an argumentum ad nauseum.

One could continue the dispute, along various lines. Leaving aside for the moment the reflections that might imaginably be offered in support or explanation of the poetic pleasures of the Cambridge School and its audience, one might wonder what value Raine’s aesthetic would place on the “endless marathon of ambiguity, [and] joyless game of patience for adepts” that is Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. (The briefest research turns up Raine’s high regard for Hill’s poetry, too). More pointedly:  is one to infer from Raine’s assumptions that the much more discursive and clearly less musically sophisticated poetry of Emily Dickinson is “second order”?

There remains, nevertheless, as there must be, an arguably truer value remarked in Raine’s review, albeit the one he esteems lower than imagery, “an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music.” The irrefutable charm of poetry’s music transcends even understanding a poem’s words. Another poet whose work can often seem a game for adepts is Dante, whose Canzone “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” testifies to the eminence of sound over sense, concluding famously

Canzone, io credo che saranno radi
color che tua ragione intendan bene,
tanto la parli faticosa e forte.
Onde, se per ventura elli adivene
che tu dinanzi da persone vadi
che non ti paian d’essa bene acorte,
allor ti priego che ti riconforte,
dicendo lor, diletta mia novella:
“Ponete mente almen com’io son bella!”

My song, I think they will be few indeed
Who’ll rightly understand your sense,
So difficult and complex is your speech.
So if by chance it comes to pass
That you should find yourself with some
Who do not grasp it well at all,
I pray you then, dear newborn song,
Take courage again and say to them:
“Consider at least how fair I am!”

Here, Dante, the learned poet he is, knows what the ancient Greeks meant by mimesis: “not only the portrayal or description of visible and tangible things, but more especially the expression of a mood or feeling, hence the (to a modern) paradox that music is the most imitative of the arts.”

The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory

Readying the week’s classes, the radio in the background, I overheard a snippet of an interview with Clive James that gave me pause for thought. Around the 18 minute mark he observes—prompted by the interviewer’s interest in James’ “scathing” judgement of contemporary academe—that “encouraged by European theorists usually French or German” the university sought “to raise or supposedly raise the study of culture to the level of philosophy” at the expense of  “plain spoken good sense.” Of course, he is referring to the advent of Literary Theory in the 1970s, but the way he words his opinion brings to mind a much older dispute whose roots still cause rifts in contemporary Anglo-Saxon poetic culture, especially in Canada.

That older dispute is the debate between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis.  Wellek had reviewed Leavis’ Revaluation in the March, 1937 number of Scrutiny, a review which prompted Leavis’ “Literary Criticism and Philosophy”, a title which, here, speaks for itself. Wellek, no slouch of a literary scholar (perhaps, tellingly, later the founder of the comparative literature department at Yale) wishes in his review that Leavis “had stated [his] assumptions more explicitly and defended them systematically.” Leavis, in his reply, suggests that Wellek makes this wish “because Dr Wellek is a philosopher” and that he himself is no philosopher but a literary critic, “[l]iterary criticism and philosophy [being] quite distinct and different kinds of discipline.” The virulence of Leavis’ distinction is summed up in the title of a later collection of essays The Critic as Anti-Philosopher. It may well be James’ opinion was formed during his studies at Cambridge, as his deployment of ‘philosophy’ to denote abstract or conceptual thought in general would suggest.

Such a distaste for or distrust of Theory, philosophy, or conceptual labour persists in certain poets and critics in Canada, the United States, and abroad. I would argue, however, that if ‘philosophy’ is used in the way I take it be used here, then James, Leavis, and the like-minded are guilty of a wilful blindness or disingenuousness. Paul de Man was hardly the first or last to observe (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”) that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” this list of concepts varying from writer to writer. That is, there is no reading of or reflecting on literature that is not more or less explicitly guided by and expressed in concepts and conceptual ratiocination. It does not follow, mind you, that every reader methodically follows a fully-articulated system of said concepts or that he or she need develop such a system; indeed, whether such a system can in fact be developed and applied consistently is an open question. As early as 1798 Friedrich Schlegel remarked that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all. It will therefore be necessary to join the two” (Athenäum fragment 53).

Now, before I get automatically placed on team “Theory” let me register my agreement that much of what came to be termed Theory was and remains nonsense. The reception of especially structuralist discourse in the English-speaking world, from Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975) onwards is a study in perverse misunderstanding. Despite Saussure’s emphasis that language is not a lexicon, for example, many continued to assume that language is essentially a wordhoard of names. It is hardly surprising that the attempt to assimilate technical vocabularies as diverse as those of structuralist linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, hermeneutics, and, yes, even philosophy, especially while these discourses were in the process of articulating new insights, essaying new methods, and undergoing constant revision, all in questionable translation where the articulation of this new thinking was even translatable, should have led to a garbled articulation and application. The conflation of “word” and “sign” or “signifier/signified” with “word/meaning,” monstrous expressions, such as “chain of signifiers” or “deconstructionist poetry,” or the perversely Idealistic misunderstandings of Derrida’s maxim “Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte” are cases in point. The on-going controversy about “the subject” inspires winces among those whose reading is a little broader than the run-of-the-mill  grad school syllabus. The problem was compounded by the dilution and further distortion of these discourses as they were passed down by successive generations of professors and teaching assistants, few of whom seemed motivated to search out the primary texts and the context of their initial articulation and to come to terms with them for themselves. In the case of structuralism, semiology or semiotics, the problem was compounded by the incoherence of the movement’s founding text, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, an incoherence hardly lost on the master himself or diligent scholars of Saussure, such as Boris Gasparov.  Little wonder then that intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature or even those critics who became embroiled in the the Theory Wars from the beginning, such as Harold Bloom or Christopher Norris, should express virulent impatience with the nonsense of the Schools of Resentment or certain strains of Postmodernism.

However, to dismiss conceptual reflections on poetry, recent or not-so recent, because of the muddle that most scholars make of it is analogous to dismissing poetry because of the legions of tepid versifiers whose work floods the publishers’ lists, periodicals, and internet. On the one hand, Theory (here understood as a conceptually articulated reflection on poetry, whether informed by philosophy or other disciplines), if pursued with curiosity, some solid background, and no little brow furrowing is bracing, eye-opening, and vitalizing. One quickly learns, for example, that American Deconstruction is the logical outcome of New Critical close reading, stripped of certain of its ideological underpinnings, as the critical practice of William Empson demonstrated. Less well-known is that Literature as we know it and Theory as a kind of philosophical reflection upon it are twins born at the end of the Eighteenth Century. The proof of this birth certificate and its consequences for criticism have been matters of serious research and speculation for over a generation, as the work of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in French, Dieter Henrich or Manfred Frank in German, or that of Andrew Bowie and others in English attests.

Anyone who would sneer at such reflection on poetry as a waste of time would do well to hunker down with the work of Friedrich Hölderlin for while and see how far their “plain spoken good sense” gets them with a poet whose deserved canonicity is beyond question and a philosopher whose thinking arguably surpasses at points that of his two room mates at the Tübingen Stift, Hegel and Schelling. And just here is no little irony. One of James’s great achievements is his translating Dante’s Commedia, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with The Divine Comedy or Dante’s corpus will know the absolutely essential importance Lady Philosophy had for Dante, how the soaring, Gothic, and technical complexities of Scholastic philosophy were his sole study for years and how that philosophy both underwrites and appears on the pages of his great poem and others of his works. With the undoubted achievements of Dante and Hölderlin testifying to the relevance and value of philosophical reflection on and for poetry how one could use ‘philosophy’ so disparagingly is difficult to understand.

Of course the accusation of Theory’s being “nonsense” springs from its breaching the decorum of  “plain spoken good sense.” The absolute value accorded “plain spoken good sense” is, as those on the Continent would say, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon tic. This staid dogma that identifies what Wittgenstein writes in his Tractatus, that “what can be said can be said clearly,” with “plain spoken good sense” would appear blind to the fact that clarity is always contextual (think of jokes that depend upon a knowledge of chemistry or binary code for their humour) and that to obfuscate this radical contingency of clarity is also an ideological gesture that reserves “good sense” and its attendant clear-eyed perception of truth and value to one group that is then justified in ignoring all competing claims as nonsense. This division of “plain spoken good sense” from “nonsense” is the intralinguistic version of the ancient Athenians’ characterizing speakers of foreign languages as sounding like dogs barking, hoi barbaroi. Indeed, one can hardly miss the xenophobia that accents suspicious dismissals of those “European theorists usually French or German.” Such foreigners, such as Roland Barthes (in Writing Degree Zero) or Theodor Adorno (in many places), have written most trenchantly on just such “plain spoken good sense.”

Transparency occurs where understanding has become reflexive, where questions are cut and dried and the dust of controversy or that raised in the trail of exploration has long since settled. New thoughts and the process of thinking that leads to their initial expression is necessarily only ever semi-articulate. What’s new, even when it appears fully formed, is strange. The task then is perhaps to eschew the settled clarities of all existing schools and their varieties of moribund, perspicacious nonsense, to risk the anxious uncertainty that always accompanies learning or, for that matter, creating, to enter on a nomadic way whereon one is always a foreigner, never quite understanding or being understood, living by one’s wits, alive to what the next, new moment brings.