Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some Thoughts on John Ashbery's "Some Trees"

John Ashbery's wonderful "Some Trees" seems in many ways a response to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” In both poems, an object or group of objects in the material world, arbitrarily chosen and yet significant because of that choice, is the occasion for a med­itation on how to live in that world, how to make one’s way through a world not of one’s making. In Stevens’s poem, one “must” have a winter’s mind, the mind of a man made of snow (which is to say, a man who is not a man at all), to look out on the winter landscape and perceive no misery there, in the sound of the wind and the leaves in the wind. But what does “must” mean? That one should have such a mind, that one should turn such a colder eye upon the world, declining to invest it with feeling and meaning? Or that only an actual snow man, “nothing himself,” at one with his wintry land­scape (indeed, a feature of that landscape), could so see the world, perceiving “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Given how much of something the poem presents us (nothing is nothing to see), asks us to behold, I would settle on the latter point of view.

“Some Trees” presents a friendlier landscape, although an equally contingent one. These are, after all, only “some” trees: there is no guarantee that any other trees will offer such muted epiphanies, or even that these trees would do so on a different morning. “These are amazing.” These and no other trees? Or would any group of trees so amaze, if looked at properly? (I am reminded that for William Carlos Williams, poetry was a mode of attention, and anything could be­come a poem if paid the right sort of attention.) These trees are amaz­ing in part because they are in relation, “each / Joining a neighbor.” As Nietzsche wrote, before there can be one, there must be two: that everything connects is a never-ceasing source of wonder. And these mute trees speak, their “still performance” a silent analogue of speech. In his sonnet “Correspondences,” another poem about rela­tion, Baudelaire wrote that nature is a living temple from whose pillars confused words issue forth. Are not these trees, some trees at least, such pillars in nature’s temple?

And we have arranged to meet by accident (a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarmé has reminded us) far from the world and yet wholly within it, agreeing with its speaking picture, its silent discourse. As far from the world as agreeing with it is very close indeed, though never fully there (can we ever be fully there, fully present?), on this morning that seems full of possibility, as beginnings always seem to be. And suddenly we are “what the trees try // to tell us we are,” though the poem never tells us what that is (to do so might shut down possibility), or even who “we” are. The poem is intimate (every reader is invited to be part of this “we,” like these trees, each joining its neighbor) and yet distant, from the world, from any reader (who is this we of whom we are not only invited but assumed to be part?). The trees, after all, are together yet apart: rooted in place, they cannot move any closer to one another or, for that matter, any further apart.

But these trees mean something, or so that is what they try to tell us, whoever we are. But how do we know what they are trying to tell us, or that they are trying to tell us anything? It is in this way that the poem responds to “The Snow Man”: it is, after all, “a winter morning,” and the days are “Placed in a puzzling light” not unlike Stevens’s “distant glitter // Of the January sun,” cold light in which one sees “the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough” in that distant glitter. More trees seen in winter light, some trees and not other trees (pine trees, junipers, spruces). The trees in Ashbery’s win­ter morning are probably bare too, perhaps also crusted with snow, shagged with ice. And maybe it is morning in Stevens’s poem, the sun not rising far above the horizon all day.

We behold some trees and they mean to us, we hear some wind and it means to us. We are not snow men. In Stevens’s poem, what we see is the burden the bare trees bear, but also the beauty of that burden: cold pastoral. What we hear in the wind’s sound, in the sound of the leaves the wind carries and drops, carries and drops, is misery. One must have a mind of winter not to hear it, and who has such a mind? Not the speaker of this poem. In Ashbery’s, we see those trees and somehow hear them too. They mean, but what they mean is the possibility of joy: “soon / We may touch, love, explain.” Not now, and not certainly, but we may, and we may soon. (This seems a bright and sunny winter morning, cold but invigorating.) The words that issue from nature’s pillars are after all confused, but that’s to be expected when speech has become a still performance, or rather, when it is as though a still performance were speech, as though speech had become such a tableau vivant.

We have not invented such loveliness (the loveliness of hope, the beauty of potential), and we are glad not to have. It is some­thing beyond us, an outside that confirms and consoles us. It sur­rounds us, a comfort but also a constraint: contra Schopenhauer, the world is not all will and idea. As Stevens writes in his “Adagia,” “All of our ideas come from the natural world: Trees = umbrellas.” Or at least some trees do, a shelter from the rain or even from the snow.

The silence is already filled with noises (the noise of the wind, per­haps, of a few leaves in the wind, some leaves). The world around us, this little piece of it, this place in which we have arranged to find ourselves, to meet one another and our world by chance, is “A canvas on which emerges / A chorus of smiles” (the synesthesia is, I think, deliberate, the speech of a still performance, some trees’ soundless urgings). It is “a winter morning, / Placed in puzzling light”: we can experience but never wholly understand the world; the light discloses but does not explain. And it is moving: we are moved, whoever we are this morning, but the world is moving too, life is all motion. “Minute by minute they change,” writes Yeats; and Stevens reminds us that the blackbird whirling in the autumn winds (so close to winter, yet so far) is just a small part of the pan­tomime. The days are reticent, at least our days are reticent—or rather, our days have put on such reticence (the reticence that tells us so much once we choose to really listen, so much we have not invented but we have definitely interpreted). We may soon touch, love, explain (all these things that trees can’t do, not some trees, not any trees), but when we don’t know, or even if these things will happen at all. Right here, right now, these implications, innuendos, inflections of morning light seem sufficient: “These accents seem their own defense.” What else can be expected of the world but hints? That the world should speak at all, however reticently, in however puzzling a winter morning light, is enough, is amazing indeed.

Those sure are some trees.

This is an excerpt from my essay "Only in the Light of Lost Words Can We Imagine Our Rewards," which appears in the special section of Conjunctions issue 49 celebrating John Ashbery's eightieth birthday and also here on the Conjunctions web site.

Friday, December 21, 2007

On Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) is one of my favorite operas, and though it is a complex work, I am nonetheless struck by how insistently even intelligent commentators misunderstand it. In his otherwise excellent A Song of Love & Death: The Meaning of Opera, Peter Conrad writes calls it “a top-heavy treatise on cosmic biology”; he writes that “the subject of…Die Frau is continuity, the extension of human life through childbearing.” In [Wagner’s] Ring the world’s salvation lay in love. In Die Frau Ohne Schatten, it can be replenished and saved only by procreation.” In his also excellent Opera in the Twentieth Century, Ethan Mordden explicitly equates the shadow that the Empress lacks with fertility, completely missing its obvious role as a symbol for or manifestation of the soul (a common association around the world) and thus for the true humanity that she lacks and must earn. To reduce the opera to a story about the necessity to bear children is completely to miss its deeper meanings (which are not so obscure or obscurely presented). In Die Frau, as much as or more than in Der Ring (in which, after all, the world is neither saved nor redeemed, simply destroyed in the hope of a better new beginning), love (not just eros, selfish sexual love, but agape, selfless love for and compassion for one’s fellow creature) is the means to salvation. The ever-insightful Paul Griffiths, in one of his two chapters on twentieth-century opera in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, gets it right when he calls the opera a “fairy-tale of quest and self-discovery.”

Die Frau Ohne Schatten is the story of two couples, the Emperor and the Empress, who live in a realm above the human but beneath the heavenly, and Barak the Dyer and his Wife, who live very much mired in the human and the material world. That Barak is the only character in the opera with a personal name (the others simply have titles indicating their roles or positions) is significant, for he is the representative of true humanity, a humanity toward which the other characters strive, should strive, or fail to strive, and are variously rewarded or punished for their ability or unwillingness to achieve it.

But though he is a person of virtue, Barak does not change over the course of the opera, and indeed, there is no room for him to do so. Beginning as a paragon of patient goodness, what else could he become? As for the Emperor, he is hardly a character at all. As the Nurse sings to the Spirit Messenger who has come to warn her that the Empress must acquire a shadow within three days or he will be turned to stone, the Emperor is a hunter and a lover, and for the rest, nothing. He is noble and regal, and that is all. Even his love for the Empress is abstract, since we never see the couple interact. He has two scenes and participates in the final ensemble, but spends most of the opera either out of sight or turning to stone.

It is the opera’s women who change, and by so doing they not keep the plot moving but undergo the transformations that are its meaning, each in her own way learning the meaning of love. If to be human is to change and to be capable of change, to be capable of willing oneself to change, then they are the opera’s true embodiments of humanity, as opposed to its static, unchanging heroes. It is the women who act; the men either respond to or are affected, positively or negatively, by their actions.

Both couples are childless, but their childless state is an indication that in neither case has their love been truly fulfilled. More significantly, the Empress has no shadow, which is to say, she has no soul. She is the daughter of Keikobad, the king of the spirit world, who in his absence is a portentous presence throughout the opera, the judge who sets the plot in motion in order to test the characters and see if they are to be found worthy. The Empress formerly had the power to transform herself into whatever shape she chose (which is perhaps an indication that she had no real identity in our terms), but then was captured by the Emperor when she took the form of a gazelle. The two married, but she still lives between two realms, no longer part of the spirit world, but not fully human either. In Conrad’s words, “the Emperor and the Empress are infertile because [they are] too loftily inhuman.” The Dyer’s Wife is a younger woman married to an older man, who dreams of a life beyond their modest hut. As Conrad writes, “the dyer Barak is denied offspring because his wife is disgusted by natural functions and the servitude of the body.” But she is disgusted by servitude in general: despite or perhaps because of her namelessness, she’s doesn’t just want to be someone’s wife, to live a life wholly circumscribed by others’ definitions. As director Paul Curran points out, the Dyer’s Wife is “surrounded by color but has no color in her own life at all.” She can almost be read as a proto-feminist: her rejection of motherhood is a rejection of social roles and expectations.

In Paul Curran’s words, the opera “centers on women and their consciences.…Strauss’s operas nearly all deal with the female state. It’s a fascinating mix of the fantastical elements of the Emperor and the Empress with the more earthy level of Barak and his wife. But both women have the same crisis of conscience—one’s about buying, and the other’s about selling. It’s about selling your faith and your fecundity.” The story of the opera is the story of the two women. As in most of Strauss’s operas, the male characters, especially the Emperor, are somewhat peripheral. Barak has a good amount of stage time, much more than the Emperor does, who has two big scenes and then the ensemble finale, but he is rather static, an embodiment of goodness and patience and love. Some of his music is very lovely and moving, but the character is a bit two-dimensional. It is the women who are genuine characters, because it is they who change.

The Empress discovers that if she does not acquire a shadow within three days, the Emperor will turn to stone and she will be returned to her stern father. Her Nurse (another nameless character identified only by her position and role, which is to serve), who accompanied her from her father’s court, finds this a delightful outcome. She despises even the elevated human realm the Emperor inhabits, and longs to return to the spirit world. But the Empress begs her aid in finding a shadow, and out of love for her charge and against her own desires the Nurse agrees to help her. But because the Nurse is utterly alien to humanity, she can only imagine stealing a shadow. The Dyer’s Wife, dissatisfied and discontented with her lot, seems the ideal candidate. She can easily be persuaded to sell her shadow for riches and a sexual liaison with a handsome youth the Nurse conjures up (a liaison the Dyer’s Wife finally rejects).

But in the end the Empress realizes that she cannot and will not save her beloved husband at someone else’s expense; she will not steal the Dyer’s Wife’s shadow, that is, her soul. The Dyer’s Wife realizes that Barak’s love is a treasure in itself, and that all he asks is her love in return. She realizes that her shadow, her soul, is not a possession that can be sold; she has earned the right to what was hers all along. The Empress knows love, but it is a selfish love—the Emperor makes her happy, and thus she wants to save him. When she discovers an altruistic love, one that demands that she give up what she wants for the sake of another—when she moves from eros to agape—then she is saved, and then she can save her beloved. It is at that moment, when she renounces the Dyer’s Wife’s soul even as her husband turns to stone, that her shadow suddenly appears and the Emperor is restored to life. “Keikobad pardons all [except the unrepentant Nurse who, having failed the test of empathy, is punished to live among humans forever] in a happy apotheosis, for his daughter has thus earned not the surface identity of humanity—the shadow—but its true shape, self-conquest” (Mordden). She has earned her own soul.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Do Some Good Today (And Every Day)

I've just started chemotherapy today (one day down, two to go--three days in a row, every two weeks for the next six months). So far it's not so bad, though it already burns my throat to drink anything cold. Once again, I appreciate all the supprt and good wishes readers of this blog have sent my way. It helps give me strength in this difficult time.

Speaking of giving, since this is the time of year of giving (as if there should be only one), I'd like again to post this list of web sites on which one can make free donations simply by clicking. It only takes a couple of minutes to do them all.

Ecology Fund

These six sites are all linked to one another:

The Hunger Site
The Breast Cancer Site
The Child Health Site
The Literacy Site
The Rainforest Site
The Animal Rescue Site
(this site features rescue stories with photographs of cute animals)

Please try to visit all these sites on a daily basis (one click per computer is counted each day). It's a quick and easy way to make the world just a tiny bit better. Which is better than making it worse, which so many with power I seem to want to do these days.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Impossibility of Representation

It's been pointed out to me that on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog Major Jackson lists this blog as being both "In" and "Out." I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, as people have often responded ambivalently to me. On the other hand, I rarely have the opportunity to be "In" under any circumstances, so I suppose I should be pleased. As Oscar Wilde didn't quite say, it's better to be talked about ambivalently than not at all.

I am still not up to writing new blog entries, especially after having had to go the emergency room again with complications from my cancer surgery, but I did want to post something, so I am putting up this older piece which I was pleased still seems to hold up to scrutiny. I hope that you agree.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is, in critic Denis Donoghue’s terms, and despite his spiritual preoccupations, an erotic rather than a sacramental poet. The sacramental poet lets the object be, celebrating it in its own terms, whereas the erotic poet can never let the object be: for him, it is an occasion for the definition of his own powers, "and he is tender toward it for that reason" (Donoghue, William Butler Yeats). This has something to do with the nature of Hopkins's language in particular, and something more generally to do with the possibilities of carrying the thing-in-itself into language without transforming it into something else: something rich and strange, perhaps even something more wonderful than the object it was before it was taken up into language, but nonetheless, something always no longer itself.

This is the nature of the aesthetic act. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse defines art as that which effects a transformation upon the natural and the phenomenal. But this can present a grave conundrum or even contradiction for the poet who claims a primary allegiance to “the thing itself.” Such an avowed allegiance or desire is the basis of much of twentieth century American poetics.

The aesthetic transubstantiation of the object is particularly clear in an 1871 passage in Hopkins’s journals describing the processes of steam-rising and evaporation over a cup of hot chocolate. I will quote only the first portion of the rather lengthy entry here:

“I have been watching clouds this spring and evaporation, for instance over our Lenten chocolate. It seems as if the heat by aestus, throes/one after another threw films of vapour off as boiling water throws off steam under films of water, that is bubbles. One query then is whether these films contain gas or no. The film seems to be set with tiny bubbles which gives it a grey and grained look. By throes perhaps which represent the moments at which the evener stress of the heat has overcome the resistance of the surface or of the whole liquid. It would be reasonable then to consider the films as the shell of gas-bubbles and the grain on them as a network of bubbles condenses by the air as the gas rises.”

Hopkins’s effort to accurately observe what is before him, and to precisely notate what he observes, is palpable. Yet the passage abounds in such qualifications as “seems,” “can be perceived like,” “perhaps,” “represent,” “as,” “may look,” “I think,” “possibly,” and “It would be reasonable to consider,” all of which indicate an approximation rather than an exactness of re-presentation as well as a scrupulousness about the lack of “fit” between object and description. These are the words and phrases we use when we are not certain either that we have seen rightly or that we are capable of properly representing in language what we have seen. But is it ever possible to adequately embody the object-in-itself in language, or is such an idea as “adequacy” of word to thing itself a product of language? Hopkins clearly aims at such adequacy, such a justness of relation; he seeks, as it were, to make the flesh word. But in all his efforts to celebrate the object in, of, and for itself, and even against his own will (though not against the will of language), Hopkins finally celebrates only his own recreation of the object.

Hopkins sets himself the task of communicating the incommunicable in visual terms: yet, because language is not mimetic, he is attempting to name that which cannot be named, if we take a name to be a word to which its bearer responds when called. (Though language induces visual images in the mind, there is no necessary relation between those images and the language which has prompted them, nor between those images and the referent which may be considered their final cause if not source.

Poetry has often been considered the calling of things by their true names, the renewal of Adam’s task, but things do not have names, except insofar as we bestow them. Hopkins searches for essences in the realm of contingent entities; locating the transcendent in the immanent in an almost pantheistic manner (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), he sees the visible as the evidence of things unseen. Confident that the divine inheres in the created world (whatever his professed religion may tell him about the fallenness of that world, or about the absolute difference between creature and creator), Hopkins is free to locate his faith there: like Stevens, Hopkins makes the phenomenal world an item or at least a postulate of belief.

For one with such a worldview, observation of the visible world becomes a variety of spiritual exercise. Yet to approach an object from such a standpoint is to approach the object wanting something from it: it is to decide beforehand the nature of the object and to require that it disclose itself as of such a nature. Herein lies the advantage of language to the pantheist: if the object will not cooperate sufficiently, in and by means of language it can be transformed into whatever is required of it. A splendor of language may magically (Aldous Huxley asserted that magic is always a species of poetry) become the splendor of the object spoken of in such language.

Unlike Stevens, who seeks at least to “postpone the metaphysical pine” (though the very phrasing admits the impossibility of banishing it forever: the summer will be anatomized, whether we so choose or not), Hopkins does not mistrust metaphor, for by means of metaphor he may “carry over,” or at least to seem (that word again!) to carry over, the object into his language. The fact that the language is so very much his, however, shakes one’s credence in the object-in-itself which he claims to (re-)present. For Hopkins, what appear to be transformations of the object enacted in language (“Stars like gold tufts. Stars like golden bees. Stars like golden rowels,” et cetera) are actually attempts to bring one closer to the object’s quiddity. Things can only be described in terms of other things (language is a tissue of relations without substances: or rather, the relations are language’s substance). If one can find exactly the right things to which to relate the thing in question, then one can successfully carry over the unique particularity, the acceity, of the thing into language. As Jack Spicer hopefully claimed, things correspond.

But things do not correspond: or rather, things-in-themselves relate to other things-in-themselves but can never be conflated with or assimilated to those other things-in-themselves. How can a rock be like another rock? In language I can say it is, but what is the meaning of this “likeness”? Furthermore, the relations among things are not the relations between the words by means of which we speak of those things. Only in language do things correspond. In this view, simile (“seems,” “like,” “as”) is the admission of the inadequacy of all comparison or speaking in terms of; while metaphor attempts to conceal this failure, or will not concede it at all, simile admits that in language one can speak of things in no other way.

Language is system, and the function of system is to place things in relation. In itself every object is absolutely unique; language works against this absolute uniqueness, must work against it if language is to be possible at all. How can we call both this and this “rock”? Yet how could we communicate verbally if we were to call each thing by an absolutely unique name corresponding, or so we hope, to its absolute and individual uniqueness? You will note that there are no rocks in this essay, although there are “rocks.”

In any act of verbal description or representation there is a tension between words as corresponding to things in some concrete fashion (the immemorial search for the absolute language Pound thought he had found in the Chinese ideogram) and the arbitrariness of any relation between a word and an object (which have nothing in common save that they are both objects of the sensible world). Can one truly represent the thing or can one only concatenate a series of words-in-relation that one presents as analogous in the universe of verbal discourse to the object in the wordless multiverse of the “book of nature”? And how is one to decide whether this series of words is analogous, let alone adequate, to that toward which it gestures? In the language of Hopkins’s journals and poems this tension is reflected in the coexistence of bafflement and charm: the alterity, the utter otherness, of the object exists in tension with its apparent amenability to being appropriated into language and thus into the familiar. Hopkins addresses this in his distinction between the true and false instress of the thing. But if we cannot know what the thing is, then how are we to know what it is not?

What one first notices about Hopkins’s language is its extreme oddity: of vocabulary, of syntax, and of rhythm. This verbal idiosyncrasy, what amounts almost to a private language, is the product of the tension between absorption into the thing observed and the contrary determination to carry over the object intact into language, to represent silence by means of speech: which latter task makes it impossible for one to treat language as if it were a transparent medium. The claims of language are chastised by the deformation of language, which both highlights and utilizes the incommensurability of language and object.

When Hopkins describes tiny icicles in the frost covering the ground of a winter garden as “like a little Stonehenge,” the understated hyperbole ironically indicates the impossibility of a verbal simulacrum which would be adequate to the natural object. Similarly, the length at which Hopkins describes the steam over a cup of hot chocolate and the extravagance of his comparisons (the steam is implicitly equated with clouds in the sky, for example), through the very incongruity of the juxtaposition of such a tiny event to such elaborate description, undermines the idea that anything can be described at all. The passage on Lenten chocolate both embodies and confesses the paradox of representation in the course of its representational project.

The strain under which the language is put in Hopkins’s writings demonstrates both the attempt to match the absolutely unique quality of any given object and the resistance of language to any such matching. What one remembers from these passages is not the object ostensibly under description, but the language. The oddity of language betrays the object, for the object is neither odd nor familiar, known nor unknown: it simply is, and that dasein is impermeable to words. In Hopkins’s language we read not the object seen by Hopkins but language trying to persuade that it is the object. And indeed it is, for the original object has vanished, and what we are left with is language.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Writing Is a Language Problem: A Bagatelle

Given the seriousness of recent events, including my diagnosis and surgery for colon cancer, my anticipation of my upcoming chemotherapy, and the death of my partner Robert's grandmother a couple of days ago, I thought that it might be appropriate to post something a bit light-hearted. As its subtitle indicates (the word bagatelle literally means "trifle," and refers to a short, light piece of music), this piece, modeled after some of William H. Gass's essays in his wonderful collection Fiction and the Figures of Life, is not meant wholly seriously, but I don't think that it's without substance. I hope that you enjoy it.

In his essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” Raymond Roussel tells us that books are made out of words, and we are shocked. As William H. Gass writes of one’s discovery that one’s favorite character is mere literature, it is as if one were to discover that his lover were made out of rubber. Yet one has spent all these years living with this man made out of words, just as the unfortunate lover has spent years living with his rubber-made man. And they were happy together, were they not? A literary character does not one day turn into mere words, one’s lover does not one day turn into rubber: he has always subsisted in this medium, and to know this need change nothing about the relationship, which has been going along so well under these conditions. (And of course it has been going well, or one would have closed the book, found another lover.) Why, new vistas of possibility for the relationship are opened up, if one is imaginative. (And we are all imaginative, are we not?)

Roussel writes as if, in certain of his books (hoping perhaps that the qualification will mitigate the audaciousness of the claim), he has invented a new kind of book: the book made out of words. He implicitly tells us (or his interpreters tell us on his behalf) that there is nothing in his books but words. (That is, in certain of his books, as if books could be divided into those made of words and those made out of Something Else, Something More Important: and if Roussel did not say that, you may be assured that someone did.) But words are all that any book contains: words, and the reader’s mind. Yet the mind of the reader is exterior and posterior to the work itself (which is what it is, like Yahweh), just as the mind of the author is exterior and anterior. Otherwise the author would be pestering one day and night with intentions, his intentions, as if readers had none, when the only intention the text itself recognizes is the intention of language to form phrases, sentences, paragraphs.

As Alain Robbe-Grillet writes, language is, it does not function. That is to say (maintaining a wary distance from totalization), language does not function as anything other than language: essence and existence are one and the same, neither preceding or following the other. Sentences do not emerge from the “creative mind,” they emerge from sentences: as anyone who has ever faced a blank page or screen with the intention of filling it with the riches of his “creative mind” well knows. Works of literature do not spring from the joys and sorrows of the artist, though these may serve as an extremely useful pretext and alibi, even as justification (why is one wasting one’s time playing with words?). Works of literature spring from other works of literature. How could one write a poem if one had never read a poem, if the idea of “the poem” had never been presented to one in the form of actually existing poems? (There are, hélas, fountain-penned, word-processing hordes attempting at this very moment to answer, all too prolifically, that very question.) For once Harold Bloom did not take a dictum far enough: it is true that the only proper response to poetry is more poetry, but poetry itself (the “original” poem, the one to which one responds by means of a poem) is only the proper response to other poetry. The literary art is the play with words; the literary pleasure is the pleasure of that play, of witnessing and participating (as a writer and as a reader/rewriter) in such play of and with words.

Roussel became for Robbe-Grillet and his compatriots at the Café Nouveau Roman the very type of the pure writer not because this knowledge was unique to him but because he claimed this linguistic play as the only motive of his writing, eschewing other pretexts. (Though he undoubtedly had other, less “pure,” motives—his “feeling of universal glory” sounds suspiciously like something Shelley might have rhapsodized about—they are of no concern to literary discourse, being part of that nothing which Derrida has helpfully informed us exists outside the text.) Roussel’s works were read as texts which, uniquely, said only what they said: writing as an intransitive verb, an example of Roland Barthes’ zero degree of writing. Viewed in the proper, clarifying but not harsh light, all texts, as texts, say only themselves. What the author “says” or the reader “hears” between, around, beneath, or above the lines need be of no concern to anyone besides the parties concerned. The text is an innocent bystander to such accidents.

There are those who would deny the seriousness of Roussel’s texts: he is simply playing linguistic games, “he does not deal with the Human Condition.” (Even Robbe-Grillet finds that phrase oozing from the tip of his pen, when he defends the nouveau roman as a more “true” reflection of la condition humaine.) Need it be said that there is no Human Condition? There is my condition and your condition and Robbe-Grillet’s condition and Roussel’s condition (no doubt rather decayed by now). To the extent that such an abstraction may be said to exist, it exists in the medium without which, like all abstractions, it could not have come into being: language. Man (as opposed to you and to me and to Robbe-Grillet: and presumably as opposed to any individual of the female gender) is not conceivable without language, though one can’t blame language for conceiving of him (or should I rather write, Him?). That is what language keeps itself busy at: making words, making phrases. What we make of those words and phrases is our own affair, though habitually neglected, attended to in a haphazard and slipshod fashion, as if we did not live (and, too often, die) in language.

Roussel plays language games: so do all true writers. It is the definition of the vocation, and even of the trade. Let us neither bury Roussel nor praise him. I don’t personally care to be a spectator to or participant in Roussel’s games, but either to condemn or to praise writing because it is a game of and in language would be like condemning baseball because one’s favorite team has lost every game this season or praising it because one’s favorite team always wins. In neither case is it to see the thing for what it is. Let those who dislike literature say so and be unashamed, just as those of us bored by baseball say so. There are other diversions in either case.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

On this day on which we are traditionally expected to enumerate the things for which we are thankful, I'm thankful most of all for being alive and functional (physically and mentally) and able to write these words.

From my childhood in the tenements and housing projects of the Bronx, including the abuse (physical, verbal, and emotional) my mother and I endured at the hands of my stepfather, through my mother's death just before my fifteenth birthday, through dropping out of college at age twenty (I did eventually go back), through being diagnosed HIV positive in 1994, and most recently through being unexpectedly diagnosed with colon cancer, it sometimes feels as if my life has been an uninterrupted succession of blows. But I have weathered them and am still standing, and have realized that I am a much stronger person than I had ever imagined I could be. I have even achieved my adolescent dreams of being a writer and being loved, so I suppose I could even count myself lucky. I definitely count myself as grateful.

I'm also grateful to everyone who sent their good wishes for my speedy recovery and return to health, both privately and via this blog. The outpouring of support has been very heartening and moving. I still have a long road to travel--although the removal of the tumor from my colon was successful, the cancer has spread to my liver, so once I recover from my colon surgery (which they tell me I am doing much more quickly than expected), I will need to start chemotherapy, which is a very frightening prospect. But this ordeal has reminded me that many people care about me, and the knowledge that I am not alone will help me stay strong.

Thank you all, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Aaron Shurin and the Paradise of Forms

While I am in the hospital recovering from the removal of a tumor from my colon (along with a portion of the colon itself), I have asked my partner Robert Philen to post this excerpt from my forthcoming book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx.

Aaron Shurin and the Paradise of Forms

Aaron Shurin’s poetry has been formed within the dual matrix of gay liberation culture and avant-garde poetry (as he writes, “I was born, as it were, into Projective Verse, theories of ‘organic form’ and ‘composition by field’”), with Robert Duncan as the crucial linking figure. Indeed, he and Duncan were close friends, a relationship, in Shurin’s words, “built around mutual poetic concerns: the vitality of lyric writing situated within a framework of postmodern investigations of form and language.” Love and language, sexuality and textuality, have been central themes and central modes in Aaron Shurin’s poetry since the beginning of his career, and for him these two things have been keys to liberation both personal and social. His has never been a poetry of uncomplicated self-expression, but a poetry that seeks both to embody and to incite transformation; the linguistic transformations of the poetry are the model (and hopefully the catalyst) for the larger transformations it proposes and points toward. (Denise Levertov was an early mentor for many years and, as a deeply lyric poet with strong political commitments, was a model for Shurin’s “emerging sense of lyric mission and social activism.”)

In this way he is very much the inheritor of poets like Shelley, and he has written that his goal has always been “to sustain and remake” the Romantic tradition. As he puts it, he has struggled to articulate a cultural political ethos with “an intuited position” on the Romantic continuum.

In the shape of his poetic career that becomes clear in his selections for his 1999 selected poems volume, The Paradise of Forms (a retrospective shape that begins with 1980’s Giving Up the Ghost, since he excludes selections from his previous books), questions of intersubjectivity, the barriers separating persons (and kinds of persons) and the possibility of overcoming those barriers—of different selves intertwining, interpenetrating, and even merging—have always been central to Shurin’s work. In “Raving #25, Vernal Equinox,” which even in its title evokes liminality, the equinox being the point at which winter and spring hinge on and melt into one another, he writes of the body lying down with the bicameral mind “in the split field of/darkness &light/half of each over blackland/half over white.” Even as he lays out the divisions, the poet leaps over them, starting with the image of the body reuniting with the split mind (enacting two unions in one, mind with mind and body with reintegrated mind), and continuing into the image of black and white overlapping, which may have not only a temporal and metaphysical but also a social valence, evoking an image of racial harmony and the dissolution of racial boundaries. The poem ends with an invocation to both god (Shiva, who in Hinduism is both destroyer and renewer) and goddess to “Let all things equal their fearful/opposites!,” to “let earth/be where Heaven & Hell give up!” (Paradise, 10).

Several pieces in the prose sequence “Multiple Heart” (from The Graces, a book which in Shurin’s words “charts a movement from verse, through ever-longer lines, into prose-poems”) enact the intercourse of sexuality and textuality that is so central to Shurin’s poetry, for example “O that river song came through again body beautiful,” which calls up the ghost of Spenser’s epithalamium in an image of song flowing through the body like a river (the poem is literally in the blood here), and of the speaker and his beloved swimming through this river as an analogue of sexual union, fluids flowing and merging: song is sex, the poem is a wedding of writer and reader. Similarly, in “foregone and in conclusion the most,” the page of the poem is the sheet of the bed where the lovers meet: “I leap upon you on the bed right now, pull up the page.” The meeting of minds becomes the meeting of bodies: “How I am lost and how adore the music of your sphere” (Paradise, 25).

In the early Nineteen Eighties, Shurin began working almost exclusively in the prose poem, a mode that by its nature straddles and crosses borders and definitions, of prose and verse, of narrative and lyric, a mode that undermines certainties of literary knowledge (“this is poetry,” “this is prose”). This formal in-betweeness embodies Shurin’s ambition of combining what he calls lyric interjection and narrative tension “in a way that reflects in its complexities and contradictions the tension between individual perception and social control; a poetry simultaneously of praise and dislocation.” Exploring assorted shapes and crossing prescribed boundaries of identity and self-hood have always been integral parts of Aaron Shurin’s poetry, so it is not surprising that, soon after beginning to work in the prose poem (anti-)genre, he took the incorporation of various voices and subject positions in his poetry to one logical extreme of composing poems made up entirely of borrowed or appropriated voices, constructing his texts out of other texts.

As Shurin has written, the collage technique “encouraged me to break away from a centralized lyric voice, and [to] radiate that lyricism through and among the narrative elements.” It breaks down the sense of language as the possession of any individual, foregrounding it as a collective creation, placing the author as a Foucauldian nexus of overlapping, colliding, and competing discourses that find tentative, contingent shape in the text itself, not in the presiding genius of the omnipotent author. Whereas in such Modernist predecessors as Eliot and Pound, montage is a way of mastering the fragmented, overwhelming flux of experience and history, for Shurin it is a mode of surrender to the play of discourses, an abandonment of the drive toward mastery. As he writes of the prose poem format, in words that apply equally well to the collage technique, such modes can “better hold the narrative of events…essential to depict social relations—the relationships among hierarchies of power, the authoritarian and the dispossessed, the desirer and desired—as well as the interweaving of conflicting perceptions [we understand] as personal or subjective experience.”

The long prose poem “City of Men,” from A’s Dream (a poem that the poet refers to as an “erotic rampage”), is one of Shurin’s major accomplishments, and an important addition to and revision of the canon of American poetry. The piece is made up entirely of phrases by Walt Whitman, culled from the Children of Adam and Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass, melding and interspersing the two to create a montage of what Whitman called adhesiveness with a more bodily (homo)sexuality. As Shurin writes, “Calamus is his collection of homoerotic love poems, emotional, tender, idealistic, radically political, prophetic, obliquely erotic, but—alas—not sexual. If you want sex, go to the grouping Children of Adam, Whitman’s putative heterosexual songs. They are filled with body and body parts, physical material catalogues, paeans to the sex act—but—alas—no love. The body is electric but it is not affectionate” (Unbound 11). In “City of Men,” Shurin turns to both sets of poems at once to retrieve a language and a world that unites sex and love, eros and agape, body and soul, intercourse and adhesiveness, to “write my eros out of spirit and body, shamelessly, and perhaps for the first time in history from a completely integrated viewpoint” (Unbound 12). The textual intercourse he sets in motion between these two sets of poems celebrating apparently polar opposite sexualities and eroticisms is an image and model of the sexual/spiritual intercourse the poem proposes as not only possible but realizable, on the page and in the world, sharing subjectivities and mingling subject positions: “all men carry men…I glow spontaneous, know what he is dreaming. the same content, airs intimate that fill my place with him” (A’s Dream, 40). The end of the poem is at once an injunction and an invocation of the union of man with man the poem both evokes and enacts, asking the reader to participate in this union and simultaneously asserting that (by the act of reading) the reader is already a participant: “full of you and become you. any number could be me. read these and become a comrade. with you I am one” (A’s Dream, 43). The lack of a period to close the final phrase can be taken as a gesture of the open-endedness of the poem’s project: it is still in process, no more fixed and finalized than the texts out of which Shurin has rewritten a new world and a new word.

All of the poems in his books A’s Dream, Into Distances, and A Door utilize what Shurin calls “derived language” in the prose poem format, but recently Shurin has shifted modes again, writing once more in lineated verse, while still exploring methods that undermine traditional notions of authorial ownership of the words of the poem, as the very title of his most recent book indicates. As Shurin writes, “After a saturated period of writing poetic prose, and fifteen years of prose poetry, I began to re-imagine the possibilities of the poetic line. In 1996 I began a book-length series of verse poems called Involuntary Lyrics. [These were published in book form in 2005.] These ‘line-heavy’ poems try to intensely utilize the torque of line-breaks just as those breaks fall across conventional syntax, to create an interruptive but suspended measure that is both notational, like shorthand, and also largely colloquial.” Shurin has written a poem corresponding to each of Shakespeare’s sonnets, although the book Involuntary Lyrics does not include all of them. (Shurin says that he had to decide whether to approach it as a project, including all 154 pieces, or as a book, including only those pieces that held up as poems in themselves.) Each numbered, untitled “semi-“ or “meta-sonnet” takes its end words from the numerically corresponding sonnet of Shakespeare’s, though the order of the words has been rearranged prior to composition “to test the ear’s ability to hear rhymes across odd distances in the poem and through widely varying line lengths.” Shurin also intends the serial nature of the project to, in his words, “privilege the daily….The right-hand words are fixed by Shakespeare, brought into new contexts by the preceding and following language that comes, as it were, from the left side, which is open to ‘my’ world: personal events, friends, lovers, negotiations of economic reality, social circumstance, restless eros, mortality, and age.” Here again we see the confrontation and overcoming of boundaries—of different times and places, of various discourses and modes of expression, of literary tradition and literary experimentation, of ‘literature’ and daily life, of fixity and contingency—that are so central to Shurin’s work. As he writes in the beautifully self-reflexive and proleptically retrospective Involuntary Lyric CLIV (corresponding to Shakespeare’s sonnet 154, the last of the sequence):

Attention’s the remedy
for what it attends,…
of pure syntax contiguity face to face on fire
to prove
each line warmed
by particulars fore and aft. Love
’s the art imagined by desire (Paradise 142).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Homage to Jon Anderson, 1940-2007

The wonderful poet Jon Anderson recently died at the age of 67. Though he had a high reputation from the Nineteen Sixties until the early Nineteen Eighties, and was widely anthologized throughout that period, from Paul Carroll’s The New Young American Poets to Daniel Halpern’s The American Poetry Anthology to David Bottoms and Dave Smith’s The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets to Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten's New American Poets of the 80s (rather oddly, since his first book, Looking for Jonathan, was published in 1968), he seems to have been largely forgotten today. His neglect is perhaps partly because he didn’t publish a book between 1983, when Ecco Press published his new and selected poems volume The Milky Way: Poems 1967-1982 (a collection that I still treasure, though now sadly out of print), and 2001, when Carnegie Mellon University Press published his fifth book, Day Moon.

Jon Anderson’s poetry was immensely influential on me as a young poet. His poems exhibit a kind of domestic surrealism, a mythologization of the everyday that opens the door to new imaginative realms rooted in the here and now of quotidian experience. Though it is far from ponderous, there is an utter seriousness in Anderson’s poetry. The poems are highly intelligent, thoughtful, often meditative, but there is no undercutting irony or self-consciousness, but rather a sense of total commitment not to any poetic persona but to the verbal worlds they create: “Clarity, I think I am/coming toward you, I bear/myself with such indifference” (“The History of Psychotherapy”).

Anderson’s poetry is concerned with memory not as reminiscence but as the material of identity, as the mode of reflection by which we constitute ourselves. Mirrors abound in his work:

But if all our losses are a mirror
In which we see ourselves advance,
I believe in its terrible, empty reflection,
Its progress from judgment toward compassion.

(“A Commitment”)

The self is not a given, the already defined subject of preconstituted “experiences”, but a fragile and malleable construct. Representation is not merely the technical means of narrative but the problematic of self and world and their interpenetration. As he writes in “Death’s Only Son,” “Memory, we grow/restless, you & I,/and accidental.” In a poem like “Homage to Robert Bresson” the reader is given the materials out of which a story, or a number of stories, may be constructed, but to relate the events of such a story, or to privilege one potential story over another, is not Anderson’s primary concern. There is no explicit speaker at all in this poem; neither the pronoun nor the concept I makes any appearance.

Anderson’s poem is a meditative description: objects are enumerated and possible or potential significances are rehearsed for them. (Bresson said of his film Un condamné à mort s'est échappé [A Man Escaped] that “I was hoping to make a film about objects which would at the same time have a soul. That is to say, to reach the latter through the former.”) Objects such as the “row of public urinals” (perhaps in the men’s room of the theater in which one views one of Bresson’s films) are implicitly ascribed significance by such laden though visually accurate adjectives as “alabaster,” emphasizing not simply their color but a quality of purity, perhaps because they are as yet unused, still in waiting. Objects such as the “single plate” (set at the place of an eventual diner, but metaphorically also a photographic plate) are assigned both immediate significance (the plate is like a “day-moon” or a “lidless eye,” with connotations of continual light, omniscience, sleeplessness and, more implicitly, madness: all concerns of Bresson’s films) and future significance: matters for which talk is either inadequate or irrelevant, “because the soul is speechless,” will be, may be, or simply are “Better revealed in this single plate,” which holds and preserves the image The plate will or may serve the soul as a mirror in which its visage is reflected, much as the face was traditionally thought to reveal the lineaments of the soul. This sentence which begins with that pregnant adverb “Now” enacts an intricate infolding of present and future, actual and potential time.

People are absent from the poem’s first three stanzas except as potential or future presences, but their absence is a strong presence in itself. The scene is one from which we glean instruction as how to proceed within it; we are given questions (“& who/Shall enter, already lost forever//In their lives?”) rather than answers. The search for the answers is, in one sense, the plot of the poem. On another level, this paysage moralisé sets the terms of the work which is the poem’s occasion, a nondiscursive statement of the concerns of Bresson’s films.

When people enter the poem (after the film has begun), we are given their actions (heavily adverbalized, as befitting the simultaneity of action and interpretation in Bresson), we are informed (by way of a question regarding it) of their anguish, and we are indirectly told that it is not proper that they should suffer. The young, here implicitly compared to Christ on the cross crying out in despair (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”), should be happy: “Why are these/Forsaken, too long in anguish?” If the following questions are taken as a reply, then we are told the answer is “because” (which may be taken as equivalent to “It is God’s will”), or perhaps that the question is simply unanswerable: “Why does the tree bear leaves,/The water bear downward into the earth?” Or the questions may simply be in series, equating human experience (here defined as suffering) and natural process. Does the tree suffer as well? Is the water also in anguish? “This is the law, the rest/A commentary.” The words, these speculations, are commentary on the image; the image is commentary on the words, by means of which “the world” exists in human terms. Or perhaps the endless questioning is itself the law, and any possible answer is only the scribbled marginalia. Nonetheless, one questions, these characters question: “Though nothing can be done,//They are not resigned.”

Bresson is a director very concerned with pattern and fate, with “spiritual style,” in Susan Sontag’s phrase. “All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty…. The plots all have to do with incarnation and its sequel” (“Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Against Interpretation, 186). Anderson’s poem seems to be an oblique reflection on and of Bresson’s Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest], in which we see not a series of events but reflections on those events. “The drama of confinement is in the priest’s confinement, his despair, his weakness, his mortal body….He is liberated by accepting his senseless and agonizing death from stomach cancer” (ibid.). Whatever the relation of “Homage” to any particular film of Bresson’s (the suicidal, too-young girl is from Mouchette), these are obviously concerns of the poem. Yet I would like to go beyond the poem’s subject matter to its methods, a deeper level of kinship between Anderson and Bresson.

One may read “Homage to Robert Bresson” as a semiosis (to use Kristeva and Riffatere's term, as distinct from a mimesis) of a “Bressonian” film, a representation of a mode of representation. The poem’s concerns are not only spiritual but aesthetic, or rather, the poem’s concerns are spiritual because aesthetic, the aesthetic being that realm to which the spiritual is relegated in contemporary life. The reader enters the poem as a camera panning over the scene, while “Spaces await their people.” “An empty theater” may be a “shot” in the film, but it may also be a commentary on the film and on the poem: the audience have not taken their seats, the action has not yet begun. One can read stanza one as the audience (unseen because the reader occupies their subject position) entering the theater, and stanza two as the inception of the images the audience encounters. The reader is thus both audience and audience of the audience. The only characters are the actors, the only “voice” is that of the narration within the film, as much an element of the mise en scène as the “brass knob turning.” That “voice” is a constituent element of the total address of the film, no more or less privileged a source of meaning than the lighting or the decor.

Whoever enters this room (the room in the film, the room the film creates of itself, the room in which we watch the film), furnished with “a table,/Chairs, an oak door, heavily grained”, is “already lost forever//In their lives.” The film’s perpetual present tense is also a perpetual past tense: everything that will happen has already happened, can be rewound or fast-forwarded at any moment. Every frame of the film is a still-life, a frozen moment; the speed with which the frames pass gives the illusion of motion.

In this regard, film differs from the verbal media, for the beginning of a sentence leads inexorably to its conclusion. Words mean only in relation: no phoneme, morpheme, or lexeme stands alone. But Bresson asserted that in a film “each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at.” The “endless movement” is the soul’s and the film’s. Whoever enters the theater has already surrendered to the conventions of the film, “lost forever” in the cinematic dreaming. Whoever enters this shot is fixed forever in celluloid.

Who asks the questions in this poem? Perhaps the narrator of the film. “Who/Shall enter?” is a bit of suspense-building in this poem in which nothing happens, in which we watch nothingness unfold. Sarah Jane Gorlitz notes that “In Bresson’s films, first-person narration in the form of voice-over replaces dialogue as the primary means of relaying the story. But interestingly enough, what the narration tells us is nothing that we don’t already know or are [not] about to learn” (“Robert Bresson: Depth Behind Simplicity”). Mostly, I suspect, the audience asks. Is it that the characters are not resigned (they simply act, entering rooms, preparing to drown) or that the audience is not? “Nothing can be done” because it has already been done, is constantly being done. The choices in a film, in a poem, have (for the viewer, for the reader) always already been made. The rest is commentary: the meaning of the film, the meaning of the events. The poem, in this case, in all cases, is both comment and event.

Homage to Robert Bresson

Spaces await their people.
An alabaster row of public urinals.
An empty theater. A table,
Chairs, an oak door, heavily grained,
Brass knob turning & who
Shall enter, already lost forever

In their lives? Now
Will a soul reveal its human face,
Secret luminous flesh,
& because the soul is speechless
There will be little talk,
Better revealed in this single plate

Set like a day-moon or
Lidless eye before its chair.
Who sits shall eat, because
It is important to stay alive, to
Bear the soul’s countenance
Down into the streets, their traffic,

Its endless movement. Here
A young priest, shaken, prays to give
False solace to the dying;
A girl, too young, casually prepares
To drown. Why are these
Forsaken, too long in anguish?

Why does the tree bear leaves,
The water bear downward into the earth?
This is the law, the rest
A commentary. She take off her clothes,
Folding them. He enters
A room. Though nothing can be done,

They are not resigned.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany is a prolific science fiction writer, memoirist, self-described pornographer, literary critic, and social commentator. Since the publication in 1962 (when he was twenty) of his first book, The Jewels of Aptor, he has published numerous novels, short stories, essays, interviews, cultural commentary, and memoirs. What's most remarkable about this prodigious output is its consistent quality, wide range, and continual development. Delany has never been one to repeat himself or rest on his laurels. Unlike some writers who, beginning in the genre and subsequently seeking literary respectability, and despite his numerous works in other genres, Delany has always strongly identified himself as a science fiction writer. But his work has always pushed at and expanded the boundaries and conventions of the field, constantly seeking out new forms, ideas, and themes. Indeed, his work has become more challenging and complex over the course of his career.

Though I am a poet and he is a prose writer (a prose writer with an active and insightful interest in contemporary poetry, one no doubt encouraged by his previous marriage to and continuing friendship with the marvelous poet Marilyn Hacker), Delany has been a crucial influence on the way I write and think about writing. Among other things, his work is a constant reminder that reading is a form of writing oneself into a text and that writing is a form of reading a potential text.

Delany has frequently acknowledged his debts to poetry. He has also written an extended and wide-ranging meditation on Hart Crane’s The Bridge (“Atlantis Rose…,” in Longer Views), as well as “Atlantis: Model 1924” (published in Atlantis: Three Tales), a vividly imagined meeting between Delany’s father and the poet on the Brooklyn Bridge, an encounter which revolves around misunderstandings and miscommunications: the two, occupying the same space at the same time, never meet at all.

At their best, science fiction and poetry have in common the production and presentation of alternative worlds in which the rules, restrictions, and categories of our world don’t apply. It was this freedom from the tyranny of what is, from the domination of the actually existing, that attracted me to both, first science fiction and then poetry.

Delany has also been an important figure in opening up the once almost exclusively white male world of science fiction to more diverse voices, both by being one of the first black science fiction writers and by writing about the experiences of nonwhite characters of all hues and backgrounds, of women, and of gay and bisexual characters. Almost none of his protagonists are heterosexual white men, but the racial identity of his characters is not an issue in his books. He creates worlds in which race as we understand it is not a significant category, and thus implicitly critiques our society’s obsession with race and racial categorization. Delany has been a trailblazer for later black writers like Octavia Butler and Steve Barnes, who have used science fiction as an arena in which to explore questions of race and identity in a speculative and imaginative manner, unrestricted by current preconceptions.

Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 and raised among Harlem’s black middle class. His position as both marginal (as a black man and a gay man) and privileged (in the economic and social opportunities available to him) has been a major influence on his work, as has been his liminal position as a black man who could often pass for white. His autobiographical writings address the way that his early experiences of moving between different social, racial, and geographical worlds affected his worldview and his writing.

The power of language to shape human reality has been a strong theme of Delany’s work since the beginning of his career. Much of his later work explicitly refers to literary and cultural theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, who sought to uncover and undo assumptions about language, representation, and communication. For them, language is not a passive tool but an active social, psychological, and intellectual force. But Delany’s work has always demonstrated a strong literary and linguistic awareness and even self-consciousness, both in its style and in its subject matter. He has always been fascinated by language’s influence on the way we perceive and conceive of the world and ourselves. This may be related to his dyslexia, which he has said heightened his sense of the material reality of language.

Babel-17 (1966), inspired by the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determnism (that our language controls our thought), centers on the efforts of the poet Rydra Wong to crack what is believed to be a military code used by an alien race with whom Earth is at war. What she finally discovers is that this code is a highly exact and analytical language which has no word for “I,” and thus no concept of individual identity. The novel examines the capacity of culture and language not only to control the way people see and act in the world but to determine who they are as persons. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously wrote. Two different words imply two different worlds.

Dhalgren (1974), which is simultaneously Delany’s most “difficult” and his most popular novel, is about the efforts of a nameless (or many named: Kid/Kidd/The Kid) bisexual amnesiac to find his identity in the course of his wanderings through the post-apocalyptic Midwestern American city of Bellona. He can only find such an identity by constructing one, and one of the ways he does so is through writing: he becomes a poet. By the end of the book (whose final phrase loops back to its opening words), the reader is left with the strong sense that the protagonist himself has written the novel that we have just finished reading about him. The novel enacts the ways in which we create ourselves through our language and our ideas.

Delany earlier explored this idea of self-creation through self-narration in The Einstein Intersection (1967), a retelling of the myth of Orpheus set in the far distant future. In the original story, Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to life by the power of his song, only to lose her again because of his own doubts. Delany’s protagonist, Lo Lobey, is a member of an alien race that has come to earth long after humanity has departed. These aliens live out human myths and stories in an attempt to understand what it meant to be human, trying to make sense of the world that they have inherited. By the end of his quest, Lo Lobey realizes that he and his people must create their own stories, rather than live out second-hand versions of someone else’s. He must become a new Orpheus, one who no longer sings the dead songs. “We came, took their bodies, their souls—both husks abandoned here for any wanderer’s taking…You may be Orpheus; you may be someone else, who dares death and succeeds.” Thus the novel is also an allegory about the power of art to create new realities.

Delany’s work argues against the notion of a single, unified human nature. Instead, it celebrates difference, exploring the wide range of human possibilities that different languages and cultures can produce. However, Delany’s work also delves into the complications and difficulties (up to and including war) that can result from such differences, especially when they are not acknowledged or recognized. His novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is largely about a clash of cultures, the conflict of incompatible assumptions about the universe and about people—including who and what (in a universe occupied by many different intelligent species) gets to be defined as “people.” In this book, the conflict between the Family, a social ideal based on exclusion and hierarchy, and the Sygn, an ideal based on inclusion and free choice, almost ends with the destruction of a planet. The implication is that differences, even or especially the most radical differences, must be accepted if humanity is to survive, let alone to thrive. On a smaller scale, Bron Helstrom, the anti-hero of Trouble on Triton (originally published in 1976 under the title Triton) makes himself and those around him miserable because he cannot reconcile his rigid, sexist ideas of the ways in which people should live and think with the variety and openness of his society's "ambiguous heterotopia." (Even utopia is plural.)

Delany’s celebration of difference particularly focuses on the celebration of sexual difference. Many of his protagonists are women, and most of his male protagonists are gay or bisexual. In his fiction, he not only presents universes in which homosexuality is completely accepted and women are fully equal members of society, but also presents universes in which our familiar sexual categories do not apply at all. In his Nebula Award winning short story “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967), spacers, those people who are physically capable of deep space travel, are neither male nor female, and are eagerly sought after as sexual partners. In Trouble on Triton, it's as easy to change one’s gender or one’s sexual orientation as it is to change one’s hair color.

Delany further explores the various ways and means of sexuality in the four volume “Return to Nevèrÿon” series, which includes Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979), Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and Return to Nevèrÿon (originally published in 1987 under the title The Bridge of Lost Desire). Rather than being set in the future, these books are set in the distant past, in a world in which the civilized rulers are dark-skinned and the barbarian lower classes are blonde and blue-eyed. These books are a deliberate revision of the sword and sorcery genre of which the Conan the Barbarian series is the most famous example. (I always preferred Kull the Conquerer.) In them, Delany investigates the complex and contradictory realities of such a fantasized primitive world, examining the development of civilization in order to uncover the historical roots of our own culture. Among the topics these ambitious books address are the origins and development of language, the family, sexuality, gender roles, private property, commerce, social hierarchy, and the interconnections of sex and power and of language and power.

Slavery is a major theme of the series, with clear references to American history. Gorgik, the protagonist of the series, is a former slave who rises to power and abolishes slavery. He is also a gay man whose sexual desires are all sadomasochistic, based on submission and domination. This is an example of the difficulty of separating sexuality and power in a hierarchical society in which, like our own, all people are not equal or equally free: slavery is both a socio-political phenomenon and a state of mind. But by making a mutually consenting game out of the power some people exercise over others (he can only achieve sexual fulfillment while wearing his slave collar), Gorgik is able to defuse it to an extent, and to create pleasure out of pain. In the third book of the series, Delany makes explicit the parallels between the ancient world he has created and our contemporary world by juxtaposing a plague which affects only homosexuals in his fictional world with the AIDS epidemic in nineteen-eighties New York City. In so doing, he directly addresses questions of homophobia and social stigma.

Beginning and continuing as a practitioner of a fringe literary genre, what he calls paraliterature, Delany has gained recognition and acclaim not only in the field of science fiction, but in those of literary theory and gay and lesbian literature. Despite controversies regarding the intellectual and stylistic challenges of some of his work (controversies which seem to exercise critics more than fans), and the graphic, deliberately (and polymorphously) perverse sexual content of novels such as The Mad Man (1994) and Hogg (1998) (novels I admit to having trouble reading), his reputation as an important writer and thinker is secure and growing.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why I Write revised

This is a highly revised amalgamation of two earlier posts.


I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me. Part of this derives from my sense of my own insignificance in the universe. My life and death are a barely momentary flicker. I would like to become more than that. That the people and things I love will die wounds me as well. I seek to immortalize the world I have found and made for myself, even knowing that I won’t be there to witness that immortality, mine or my work’s, that by definition I will never know whether my endeavor has been successful. But when has impossibility ever deterred anyone from a cherished goal? As the brilliant poet and teacher Alvin Feinman once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?”

My aim is to rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including always myself. For a long time my poetry emerged from and was fueled by an impulse to rescue my mother from her own death and from the wreckage of her life, out of which I emerged, in both senses of the word. That wreckage made me who I am, but also I escaped that wreckage, which she, by dying, did not. So I had a certain survivor guilt toward the person who both made my escape possible and represented that from which I had escaped. Many of the poems in my first book, Some Are Drowning, centered around an absent, speechless other, an inaccessible beloved who frequently stood in for my mother, though she’s an explicit presence in very few of my poems. But her absence was always palpable, a ghostly presence haunting the text. My poems were an attempt to speak to her, to get her to speak back to me, and above all to redeem her suffering: that is, to redeem her life. “Danger invites/rescue—I call it loving,” as James Tate wrote in his early poem “Rescue.” That project is over, not completed but abandoned (as Paul Valéry said all poems are), but the attempt to rescue my mother through poetry was a major motivation for many years.

The possibility of suffering being redeemed by art, being made meaningful and thus real (as opposed to merely actual, something that happens to exist, happens to occur), is still vital to me. Art reminds us of the uniqueness, particularity, and intrinsic value of things, including ourselves. I sometimes have little sense of myself as existing in the world in any significant way outside of my poetry. That’s where my real life is, the only life that’s actually mine. So there’s also the wish to rescue myself from my own quotidian existence, which is me but is at the same time not me at all. I am its, but it’s not mine. For most of us most of the time, life is a succession of empty moments. You’re born, you go through x experiences, you die, and then you’re gone. No one always burns with Pater’s hard, gem-like flame. There’s a certain emptiness to existence that I look to poetry, my own poetry and the poetry of others, to fulfill or transcend. I have a strong sense of things going out of existence at every second, fading away at the very moment of their coming into bloom: in the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us.

In that sense everyone is drowning, everything is drowning, every moment of living is a moment of drowning. I have a strong sense of the fragility of the things we shore up against the ruin which is life: the fragility of natural beauty but also of artistic beauty, which is meant to arrest death, but embodies death in that very arrest. Goethe’s Faust is damned when he says, “Oh moment, stay.” At last he finds a moment he longs to preserve, but the moment dissipates when it’s halted. The moment is defined by its transience; to fix it is to kill it. “Art works…kill what they objectify, tearing it away from its context of immediacy and real life. They survive because they bring death” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 193). Art is a simulacrum of life that embodies and operates by means of death. The aesthetic impulse is the enemy of the lived moment: it attempts both to preserve and to transcend that moment, to be as deeply in the moment as possible and also to rise beyond it. “Wanting to immortalize the transitory—life—art in fact kills it” (op. cit. 194). This is the inescapable aporia of art, that its creation is a form of destruction. “One has to be downright naive to think that art can restore to the world the fragrance it has lost, according to a line by Baudelaire” (op. cit. 59). Art itself is so vulnerable, to time, to indifference, especially in a society like ours that cares nothing for the potentials art offers, that if anything seeks to repress them in the name of profit or proper order. I have an intense desire to rescue these things that have touched me and place them somewhere for safekeeping, which is both impossible and utterly necessary.

What we take out of life is the luminous moment, which can be a bare branch against a morning sky so overcast it’s in whiteface, seen through a window that warps the view because the glass has begun to melt with age. Or it can be the face of a beautiful man seen in passing on a crowded street, because beauty is always passing, and you see it but it doesn’t see you. It’s the promise that beauty is possible and the threat that it’s only momentary: if someone doesn’t write it down it’s gone. The moment vanishes without a trace and then the person who experiences that moment vanishes and then there’s nothing. Except perhaps the poem, which can’t change anything. As Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen, which also implies the possibility of making “nothing” an event rather than a mere vacancy. Poetry rescues nothing and no one, but it embodies that helpless, necessary will to rescue, which is a kind of love, my love for the world and the things and people in the world.

In a graduate contemporary poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. One is deluded if one believes that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try.

The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. To save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As Yeats wrote, “Minute by minute they change;/….The stone’s in the midst of all” (“Easter 1916”). Poet and critic Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (Grossman, The Sighted Singer 71).

But elements of the world can be and have been saved. Thus the history of art. Each artwork that has endured through time is a piece of the world that has survived, and carries with it other pieces of a world, of worlds, otherwise gone. That we are able today to admire the sculpture of Praxiteles, to gaze upon a Rembrandt painting, to read of Keats’s fears that he shall cease to be, is evidence that something does remain, something can be carried over, rescued from oblivion. The artwork is evidence of its own survival. Allen Grossman writes: “My most fundamental impulses are toward recovery, the securing once again of selfhood in something that lies invulnerably beyond history, something which promises enormous, inhuman felicity” (The Sighted Singer 41). I would add that, for me, the impulse is not just for the conservation of personhood, but of worldhood. I seek to save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world.


I write not to be bored. I hate being bored, and I don’t want to bore others. Unlike Zelda Fitzgerald, I can’t say that I’m never bored because I’m never being boring. I am often bored, and undoubtedly I am sometimes boring. But I try not to be boring in poems, and in turn I don’t want poems to bore me. Poems should be interesting, should engage and hold the interest. The most basic level of interest is the sensual, the aural, the texture and feel of words and phrases: the poem in the ear, the poem in the mouth. Helen Vendler has called the poem a musical composition scored for the human voice. The poem is a palpable sensuous entity or it is nothing.

What is it that I seek when I read a poem, when I write a poem? Above all, I desire an experience, a mode of experience available to me only through poetry. “The reading of a poem should be an experience [like experiencing an act]. Its writing must be all the more so” (Stevens, “Adagia,” Collected Poetry and Prose 905, 909). A true poetic experience is worth more than a thousand oppositional critiques, most of which tend to be rather predictable in any case.

My interest can be defined by at least part of Charles Reznikoff’s characterization of his poetry: “images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse.” As a reader, I look for such clarity of image and phrase, for a rhythmic pulse and a rich verbal texture, for a sense of shape and coherence even in the midst of apparent fracture. As a writer, I try to provide these things. But an overall “meaning” or “interpretation” isn’t the first or the main thing I seek, as either reader or writer. “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have one” (Stevens, “Adagia,” op. cit. 914). Attend to the senses and sense will often attend to itself.

I respond to urgency, to a sense of felt necessity, to passion. The word passion derives from the Greek for “suffering, experience, emotion.” The word itself summons up the poem as an experience undergone by the writer and the reader alike. Passion is not just a passion for my lover or for botany or for history, but a passion for words, a passionate struggle to try to create verbal experience that would be as real as the rest of the world. “In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (Stevens, “Adagia,” op. cit. 902). Like any object of love, that also means that the poem will resist its creator, just as the world resists us. The struggle such passion entails is both joyous and painful. “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” (Stevens, "Adagia," op. cit., 910). Of course, that presumes both an intelligence to be resisted and an intelligence that resists. The poet, the poem, and the reader must all be as intelligent as possible.

I desire variety in my poems and the poems of others because the expansion of my poetic territories is the expansion of my world. The poem expands the world as I find it, it makes more world available to me. Works of art are (or should be) like people: no person is new, but every person is unique. To encounter a work of art is to enter into a new relationship, with the work and with the world to which it is an addition.

If art really is some kind of compensation or restitution for what we lack in our lives, and I believe that among many other things it is, it can be so only by providing something different from what we already have, not merely by reflecting or reflecting upon those lives and those myriad lacks.

I want to write good poems (and I still believe that there is such a thing, that aesthetic judgment is not merely a mystification), but not the same good poems that I’ve already written. I’d like to do what I haven’t done before. This has proven to be an impediment to my poetic reputation: I don’t have a trademark style that I repeat from book to book, I haven’t commodified myself and my work into a brand. Critic Vernon Shetley describes the contemporary American poetry world “where each poet seems compelled to enhance his or her brand recognition with an easily recognizable gimmick” (“America’s Big Heart,” Metre 10, 79). A reader too often knows exactly what he or she is getting, whether from a “mainstream” poet or an “avant-garde” one. Philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto concurs that “There is an overwhelming tendency in America to brand artists, so that the well informed can identify an example of an artist’s work in a single act of instant recognition” (“Surface Appeal,” The Nation, 1/29/07, 33). Not to so brand or trademark one’s work puts one at a distinct disadvantage.

To attempt something new and fail is much more interesting than to attempt something that’s already been done and fail. I don’t want to write something just because I know I can, just to reaffirm what I already know. Of course, to say that I don’t want to do the same thing twice is to assume that I’ve done something in the first place. I not only don’t know what I can do, I don’t know what I’ve done. How could one, not having access to the vantage point of posterity? With every poem I’m trying to do something that I can’t achieve, to get somewhere I’ll never get. If I were able to do it, if I were able to get there, I’d have no reason to continue writing. As Allen Grossman suggests, poetry aims at the end of poetry, which is unattainable (the ends of poetry are the end of poetry). Thus poetry continues, despite the frequent reports of its death.

I would like my poetry to bring into existence something which did not previously exist, including in my mind or my intention. I want to surprise myself, to do something I didn’t plan to do or even that’s not immediately recognizable to me as something I did. (Though poet Donald Morrill, on a panel we were both on about difficulty in poetry, reminded me that not all surprises are good.) For the writer as well as for the reader, poetry should shake one out of one’s habitual ways of seeing and thinking, conceiving and perceiving. As Hemingway said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the writer “should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed.” The goal is to achieve the higher level of “mastery” that permits the medium to do things of its own accord, out of its own internal logic, in which the writer participates but which the writer doesn’t determine.

I think of the poem the way that I think of a painting or a sculpture: a new entity in the world, not just a comment on the world. While meaning is hardly insignificant, it’s not what defines the poem as a poem. I seek out the specificity of the poem as an event in language (“language as the material of poetry, not its mere medium or instrument,” in Stevens’s formulation), and not a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, though of course such events enter into poems. The poem is not hermetically sealed off from the world, but encounters and engages the world as an independent element.

The forms that these things which have not previously existed, these events that have not previously occurred, take are not predetermined. If one is sufficiently lucky and open to possibility, they can be found, they will happen, in the villanelle as well as in the most self-consciously avant-garde poem. Among others, Karen Volkman demonstrates the continuing vitality of the sonnet as a field of exploration and experimentation. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his “Materia Poetica, “All poetry is experimental poetry” (op. cit. 918). To maintain and expand the formal capacities of the medium is also to conserve and preserve those capacities. In Susan Stewart's words, “the disappearance of any aesthetic form from human memory is a disaster not unlike the extinction of a species, since a realm of possible actions is now precluded and not necessarily provided with a compensatory analogue” (“The State of Cultural Theory and the Future of Literary Form,” Profession 93, edited by Phyllis Franklin).

As many poets have done, I look back, to the High Modernists and to the poets of the English Renaissance, to move forward. Eliot looked back to the English Metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists, Pound looked back to Sappho and Catullus and to the Provençal troubadours, Stevens looked back to what M.H. Abrams calls the major Romantic lyric, and Paul Celan looked back to medieval German mysticism and the Hebrew Bible. Louis Zukofsky’s anti-capitalist "A 9" is modeled after Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone “Donna Mi Prega” (a poem highly recommended by Pound in his ABC of Reading).

Thus I prefer words like “distinctive,” “different,” or “unique” to a word like “new,” with all its connotations of novelty and fashion, of doing the not-yet-done for its own sake. Or perhaps, even better, the word “original,” which means both “of the first instance” and “of the origin, of the source.” To be original is at once to do what has not previously been done, to produce something which did not exist before, and to draw on the beginnings of one’s practice, to move forward by casting back.

I don’t write a poem and ask, “Is this new?” I ask, “Is this individual, distinctive, unique?” Of course, for a poem to be completely unique, for it to have no relationship to anything that’s come before, would be for it not to be a poem at all. As would be the case for the completely new poem.

Forms, styles, modes, and genres don’t have intrinsic meanings or values. A self-consciously avant-garde poem can be as rote as the most bland pseudo-autobiographical anecdote, if its writing is not approached in a true spirit of adventuring into possibility. Simply to seek the new for its own sake is a shallow and pointless affair, like chasing after the latest fashions. As Talk Talk sang, mocking such a dedicated follower of fashion, “She’ll wear anything you can’t recognize.” And too often, of course, one does recognize it.

One is always setting out in search of the new, as Baudelaire wrote, seeking out what does not yet exist. But I would rather write a good poem than a new poem. And many of the varieties of “the new” now on offer seem rather worn and agèd at this point. Rimbaud wrote that it is necessary to be absolutely modern (il faut être absolument moderne). As if in response, Wallace Stevens wrote that “One cannot spend one’s time in being modern when there are so many more important things to be” (“Adagia,” op. cit. 912).

Of course, Stevens also wrote that “Newness (not novelty) may be the highest individual value in poetry. Even in the meretricious sense of newness a new poem has value” (“Adagia,” op. cit. 914). Too many poets confuse novelty with genuine newness. “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover” (Stevens, “Materia Poetica,” op. cit. 919). This is a fault shared by too much of the contemporary American poetic avant-garde: it is filled with entirely too many accordion-playing clams, and the clams rarely play well.


Any artistic medium calls forth into being a self and a world which exist specifically in their relationship to that medium, a self which did not exist prior to that engagement. As Yeats wrote, the self who writes is not the self who sits down to dinner or reads the evening paper. Contrary to Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that the lyric is monologic (as opposed to the novel’s “dialogized heteroglossia”), the lyric problematizes and decenters the univocal speaking subject. The self in the most determinedly confessional poem is still a mask, a construct. Eliot writes that “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes” (“The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, 64). Eliot’s statement needs to be amended to acknowledge that such a perfectly receptive state (for it is receptivity and attention of which he is writing) is always an asymptote, striven for but never achieved, and that the poet’s mundane experience as an ordinary individual is no less chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary than anyone else’s. As Eliot points out in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It is not in his personal emotions…that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting” (op. cit. 43). The difference is what one makes of those fragments of experience, what and what kind of order, however tenuous and contingent, one brings to the chaos of quotidian life.

I would like each poem of mine to be as close to perfection as possible, and I think that good poems are much more rare than some believe them to be. I would also like my work to be more than just an accumulation of good poems, as hard as even a single good poem is to achieve. I would like the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Eliot said that this is one test of a major poet (his example was George Herbert): “a major poet is one the whole of whose work we ought to read, in order fully to appreciate any part of it” (“What Is Minor Poetry?,” On Poetry and Poets 44). Each individual part illuminates and is illuminated by both every other part and the corpus as a whole. To produce such a body of work is one of my goals as a writer.

Obviously one can’t predict this about one’s own work or about the work of one’s contemporaries. But Wallace Stevens was able in his late poems “The Planet on the Table” and “As You Leave the Room” to look back on his life’s work and know that he had accomplished something that mattered: “his poems, although makings of his self,/Were no less makings of the sun.” And Pound could look back at The Cantos, his failed epic, and realize that, though he had tried to write paradise, he could not make it cohere.

I won’t live to know whether my work has outlived me. But one can’t predict the future in general, and this doesn’t prevent us from making decisions that influence, change, and often determine that future. The future isn’t wholly unknowable, and the future doesn’t just happen: in large part we make it. This works no differently in poetry than in any other field of endeavor. There is no guarantee that one will reach any of one’s goals in this life. But not to struggle toward those goals is to guarantee that they won’t be achieved. I choose, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


And never to forget beauty, however strange or difficult.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A Note on Poetry and Politics

Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, a prominent academic leftist, values art instrumentally, as a critique of or counter-ideology to bourgeois ideology. For him, art is useful as a mode of oppositionality, social struggle conducted by other means. But art’s critique is precisely the critique of usefulness, of means-end rationality. For Immanuel Kant, freedom was the kingdom of ends, in which all entities, including people, existed for their own sakes and not as the means to some other end. Octavio Paz writes that “The poetic experience…does not teach us or tell us anything about freedom: it is freedom itself unfurling itself.” The poem presents a world in which every word, every phrase, exists both as an integral and indispensable part of a larger whole and as something significant (in both senses) in itself and for itself.

The independent existence of art is the product of the rise of what Theodor Adorno calls instrumental reason and what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls performativity: if everything has to be good for something, then art is good for itself. Art’s importance is that it has no place in our culture. As Paz acutely puts it, “poems have no value: they are not products susceptible to commercial exchange….Commercial circulation is the most active and total form of exchange our society knows and the only one that produces value. As poetry is not a thing that can enter into the exchange of mercantile goods, it is not really a value. And if it is not a value, it has no real existence in our world.”

Poetry is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In this sense, the drive to make poetry “relevant” is a concession or a surrender to instrumental values, to the imperative of use and functionality: poetry had better be good for something. And poetry simply isn’t politically efficacious; as W.H. Auden so perceptively noted, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The conflation of the existence of social, political, and economic elites with muddled notions of intellectual or aesthetic “elitism” is sheer obfuscation. The power elite in this country care nothing for art or culture; they care about money and power and the means to acquire and retain them. Art is not among those means.

Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual. (Identity politics can be a useful organizing tool of social activism, though it can also lend itself to a group solipsism that blinds people to structural, systemic issues.) To blame literature, or culture as a whole, for social, economic, and political woes (or even to see it as central to their perpetuation) is evasive at best, dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as politics, in social commentator Adolph Reed’s trenchant phrase. But such posturing is much easier than doing the hard work of trying to change the world. “Cultural activism” is a poor substitute for real political activity, although we live in an era in which cultural matters are up for debate while fundamental economic and political questions are not, except on the often loud but frequently incoherent and usually ignored fringes.

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

Poetry’s preservation of mystery is its preservation of a space not colonized by capitalism’s totalizing impulse. This is also the preservation of a space not colonized by instrumental reason. The poem embodies this space in its specificity as an event in language: a good poem is not simply a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, but an occasion of its own. The poem is a new thing in the world (or better: it is a new event), not simply a copy or an account of an already existing thing: it cannot be reduced to its “meaning” or its “content.” Part of what poetry does is remind us that things and events, including language, including ourselves, aren’t as accessible or as apprehensible as we think they are. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky described art as a mode of defamiliarization, making the familiar strange, or perhaps revealing it to have been strange all along when not seen through the smudged and blurred lens of habit and routine.

The encounter that poetry can provide with a realm of experience not defined by or limited to the social (however much it may engage and interrogate that realm--certainly, politics can be the subject matter of a poem) is the most valuable and liberatory thing poetry has to offer in our over-determined world. I wouldn’t want to surrender that freedom to an agenda or a program, however well-intentioned.