Aspects of Poetics (Part Two)

This piece was originally presented as a talk to the Chicago Poetics Seminar. Part One appeared in last month’s update. Click here to read Part One.

    Bloch’s “the unfated,” Musil’s “anticipatory scent,” these are suggestive rather than prescriptive terms. How might they help in thinking through a new poetics? As David Kellogg reminds us in his essay, “Perloff’s Wittgenstein: W(h)ither Poetic Theory?,” the poet is often inscribed in a “contemporary circle of belief,” (in his discussion, especially the belief system fostered by postmodern theory). Such “belief” systems, patrolled by critics and poetic cliques, are not benign. They produce an anxiety of acceptability, of correctness and righteousness which dictates to practicing poets forms, groupings, restrictions on the self, on subject matter. At any moment, a poetics, one of our many “circles of belief,” can exist as a kind of malevolent sclerosis. Gillian Rose, in many regards a student of Benjamin, talks about the “trauma in reason,” its quest for certainty by severing what she calls “existential eros” from “philosophical logos.” Philosophical “certainty,” she claims, “does not empower, it subjugates — for only thinking which has the ability to tolerate uncertainty is powerful, that is, nonviolent.” Rose’s “uncertainty” seems to me sympathetically aligned with Deleuze’s and Guttari’s call for a “minor literature,” one that does not seek out, to use their words, “a major function in language,” or try to become a “state” or “official language.”

    In the past, there have been methods that work against the hegemonic reductive logic of a missionary poetics, indeed, against a whole project of a rational utilitarian world-view. These methods, in the service of an imaginative or speculative view of poetry, put literary versions of reality up for grabs. I’m thinking of the constant re-imagining, discursive breakdown, and personal wanderings of impressionist and surrealist gambits. A new anti-reductive poetics might simply propound a litany of advisories something like this: phantom world of the future, phantom native land, phantom North America, phantom this, phantom that, most importantly, our phantom self! A bit of mantra to be sure, but from the poet’s perspective, this string of invocations is perhaps more reflective of our fluxual state of mind and is in a sense less fantastic than the more hardened methodologies of poetic predications and codifications.

    That is, for the poet, this “phantoming,” this making a phantasmagoria of reality can be what amounts to a new poetic real, perhaps closer to the essayistic assay or try-out than putative distance or objectivity or reading the zeitgeist. Otherwise, the poet is in danger of being reduced to the role of voice-box for the status quo or becoming one of the cheering squad for the way things are in which the poet might as well be a government official, speaking unironically in the dulcet, often hegemonic, poesy of bureaucracy.

    So let’s say that my sense of a possible poetics is based on a proto-science of or at least a receptivity to what we might call “phantomology.” A poetics which, to borrow Gershom Sholem’s words, “descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born.” A receptivity which recognizes that behind word-facts and thing-facts, phantoms are loose, or as George Oppen put it in “The Language of New York,” words are “ghosts which have run mad/In the subways?And of course the institutions/And the banks.”

    In poetics, in the mode of phantomology that I envision here, then, two terms, slightly modified, become important: “precision” and “uncertainty.” Precision is operant here not only to register or document fact and object but, by a technique of intense concentration on and investigation of appearance, on what is, to release the phantoms behind things. I am thinking, of course, of an unarmed phenomenology, or at least — in terms of a poet’s self-work — the hope of one. Freud speaks of an “evenly-suspended attention” without which one is “in danger of never finding anything but what one already knows.” That is, precision can have a style of interrogation in seeing what is and rendering it accurately.

    Its discipline might be construed as the mixing of experience with patience. Precision in this sense becomes a pressure on the object-world, something like a phenomenological reduction or even an electron microscope uncovering the seed-syllable of poetry in thing and event. It may reveal how much interpretation (substitute the word “mind-phantoms”) comprises our so-called objectivities. In this interrogative mode, through its powers of representation and figuration, through its capacity to isolate and disjoin and to suggest recombination, precision becomes correlative with the possibilities of the poetic medium, a medium which I would maintain is only partially language, even on the page. (Intention and longing constitute at least two other elements of the poetic act.)

    Uncertainty produced by such precision, far from consuming one in doubt, becomes a registration, even an acceptance of one’s phantom-like existence. I’m not referring here to the indeterminacy or undecideability induced in some contemporary practice by chance operations or by the prepared effects of textual manipulations. Rather, I’m thinking of a condition induced by knowledge of our unreliability, our deference, if you will, before the limitations and understanding of language and of otherness. Uncertainty, in effect, is already an aspect of an utterance, of saying and affirming. It advocates a kind of lightening up about our purported certainties and the hopes and fears in which most of those certainties are lodged.

    Clearly, in this mode, value-labels such as “natural” and “authentic” (among the more highly politicized words in discussions of contemporary poetry) will also be rethought, not because, as Hugh Kenner suggests, they are “inventions,” but because they are sites of desiring. In other words, lying between the categories of the natural or authentic and the invented is another realm, that of unsaying or, to use a term from C.S. Pierce, abduction. As I understand it, abduction is language in its refusal to play the game of systematic power. Unwilling too to go along with conventionalized format or “commonsensical” meaningfulness. It is, poetically speaking, lyrical anti-logic which obtrudes against the repressiveness of a state-speech or discourse. And its method is not necessarily to rely on the disjunctive or fragmentary but to place the imaginative or as if object in juxtaposition or apposition with norms or logic. As I wrote in “Avant Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words,” “perhaps the aesthetic/social theory of discontinuities ought to be replaced by a theory of counter-continuities… producing writings which, even as they construe new networks, brush up against and deconstruct the old mind-forged manacles of formerly held continuities.” Here a phantomology would exist to register the alternative reality of the unsaid, to highlight the ghost-like functioning of language as it uncontrollably expands our notions of idea, limit, and time.

    The western model of the poet committed to such use of language would be someone (again) along the line of Keats’ poet of “negative capability,” aching after neither fact nor reason but rather for a virtual construction of desire in words. Buddhist notions such as shunyata, of a life-world wrapped in human projections and concepts, or of the Hindu Maya, where appearance is perceived as dream-screen or illusion, allude to the perspective I am seeking here.

    An ethics of otherness belongs to this perspective. Clearly, poets are already Other to themselves; they have an anthropology and a structure that is opaque, and which becomes available to articulation only by the trial and error of composition. For poetry, like other disciplines, is almost always looking two ways at once. It is always reading its own graphemes and seeing, in the handwriting of its gestures, the potential of consequences arising out of antecedents (tradition), and the reverse, seeing antecedents in consequences (ghostings, hauntings, voices of the dead; that is, phantomology).

    Let me briefly sketch out a provisional, open-ended architecture of an “unfated” poetics, one in which I try to apply the two terms of precision and uncertainty, not to create another battery of techniques but to suggest an attitude toward the components of this architecture. By architecture, I’m thinking of relatively simple guidelines, codes of behavior or thought, a set of boundary markers that arouse socio-spatial responses such as “here’s a wall; don’t walk into it” and as well “here’s a wall; what would it be like if it wasn’t here?”

    One component of the architecture consists of the congeries of imaginable existences in any one so-called individual. Whitman’s “I am multitudes” or Robert Duncan’s participatory mythopoesis are models of a self embodying or dancing with other selves, with texts and masks of selves and the attendant cosmological machinery of those dances. Such multitudes are embedded in the sympathetic magic of language, in the sense that the employment of a signifier creates or arouses the specter of the signified, thus always producing an environment of interpretation. An interrogative cliché-destroying precision is needed to map the psychic traceries of a situation, of a human encounter, and thus rescue it from sentimentality or false identifications. Such a poetics seeks to free a culture from its entrapments rather than propel them, in the secret biases of language, into a preconceived future.

    A corresponding component would be the imagining of the Other as neither a monolith nor a collective. The Other, like the self, is a slate of potentials, representations, evasions, disguises, and as yet unlabeled complexities. These complexities, too, though the perceiver often sees some bits of the data as more objective than others, are also given as occulations of language which have been meditated by one’s provisional self.

    Before the complexity, the psychic and physical distance of the Other, uncertainty, induced by the potentials for these fictions and distortions, becomes a form of humility. Or, as Bakhtin instructed, carrying this discussion beyond the poetic sphere and into our own backyards, we are to regard no other person as finished, as fully understood. This way, admittedly, lies open to the contingency of being foolish or wrong, but isn’t such risk-taking the real task of poetry in an over-mediated and discourse-ridden culture?

The poet lives best in the land of as-if, in the space of that “storm of paradise” where neither certainty nor uncertainty rule. Instead of fixity, there is “anticipatory scent.” Everything then becomes a matter of accepting the weightlessness of situations, perhaps becoming something like the Buddhist adept who lives, as the sage referred to it, in the “fourth moment” beyond past, present, and future.

    If culture and self are now understood as variables, coexisting in fluxual and recombinant phases, if the millennial is acknowledged as all emptiness, then the repeatability of either the experimental setup (theory) or the recorded result (imagism, testimony, etc.) are best seen as poetic will-of-the-wisps, as merely other branches of phantomology. A new poetics would have as its primary goal the unsettling of conceptualization and of identity, the constant transforming and renewing of our image of the world.

    Such a poetics offers us, above all else, the possibility of play and freedom, what Matthew Arnold, in his essay “On the Modern Element in Literature,” called “an intellectual deliverance.”

Michael Heller (© 2002)