Aspects of Poetics (Part One)

Originally presented as a talk to the Chicago Poetics Seminar, we will be posting this article in two parts, the second of which will appear in the following update.

    (By “poetics,” I’m thinking of one of the basic ways we take this word when applied to poetry, a proposal, a manifesto, a theory….)

    Proust sets the tone for these meditations with his comment that “a work in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price tag on it.” To the extent that a poetics is a theory and that the poetry it generates shows forth theory or method through key tropes such as foregrounding the device or making strange or via programmatic or formalistic procedures, including so-called traditionalist ones — choose your implement — then price tags are pretty ubiquitous. They tell poetry consumers, before the fact, what it is they are about to read and poetry writers what it is they are about to write.

    Admittedly, poetics is a beclouded field. Responding to an earlier version of this paper, the poet Devin Johnston asked about the “slippage of the term ‘poetics’ between a statement or reflection on the generating principles of one’s poetry” and “something like ideology.” Johnston says “plenty of poets do not write a poetics but only write poems.” About the slippage, I’d say my emphasis here is more on poetics as ideology. As to Johnston’s referring to poets who “only write poems,” my response is that underlying his phrase is the difficulty, even pain, and uncertainty of poetic composition. I don’t believe we can say with any surety that poets “only write poems,” for such a notion of innocent composition flies in the face of what we do know: that each of us are products of traditions, of wars with traditions, impulses and hopes, and that we are informed, inhabited, guided, even unconsciously, by such traditions and psychologies.

    But I am not arguing determinism here. I’m only saying that if we look back we will see that there is a place or places we come from, and that by this looking back, seeing the traditions that inform us rather than being unconsciously driven by them, we will have achieved the first act of poetic freedom.

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    Walter Benjamin, in his Charles Baudelaire, makes a severe attack on the doctrine of l’art pour l’art. ” This doctrine and its corresponding practice,” he maintains, “for the first time gives taste a dominant position in poetry…. In l’art pour l’art the poet for the first time faces language the way the buyer faces the commodity in the open market.” Such poets, he writes, “have nothing to formulate with such urgency that it could determine the coining of their words. Rather they have to choose their words… the poet’s taste guides him in his choice of words. But the choice is made only among words which have not already been coined by the object itself — that is, which have not been included in the process of production.”

    Benjamin’s thought here is close to Coleridge’s distinction between”imagination” and “fancy.” Coleridge’s “imagination” embodies notions of “immediate presence” or recognition, something which, because it is not totally self-willed, is close to Benjamin’s “urgency” and the act of “coining.” Coleridge’s “fancy” resembles Benjamin’s “commodity” and “taste.” Benjamin is playing off the idea of the lost sacred bond between word and object. His “urgency” fuses that bond, a bond he contrasts with the more modern tendency, in the poetics of l’art pour l’art, to accept the divorce of word and referent and treat language from the side of its manipulable surface effect.

    Another unintended aspect of poetics is that it sets up a hidden opposition between dogma and craft. As a rule-driven guide to composition, poetics may in fact dilute the poetic impulse even as it strives to maintain poetry’s timeliness (sometimes fashionable timeliness). Alice Notley, for example, complains: “I want to stand face to face with whatever reality there is and I feel that all the friendly theoreticians in my neighborhood are keeping me from doing this by proclaiming that there is no such reality as is made evident in the works of so and so philosopher or poet.” Notley, with some humor, is echoing Derrida’s call for “the freedom to schematize without concept.” To the extent that a poetics is primarily dictatorial by invoking rules and strictures on what constitutes a poem, it modifies or even attenuates the powers of the imagination, at least in its Coleridgian formulation of “intuitive knowledge” or ” immediate presence.” Poetics in this fashion is occult: the poet buys the Lotto ticket of occulted dogma with its promise of poetic riches and potential for recognition by the clerisy (academe).

    To embrace a poetics is to embrace a future-looking dynamic. I am referring here to the a priori nature of most poetics. As with the mystical blank page of the writing workshop, a theory about how to construct a poem beckons to the poet like an unappeased hunger demanding satisfaction, demanding that its conception of poetic activity be filled or demonstrated with words and images.

    In this sense, a poetics has the power to stop the flow of time, to draw the individual into a new mode of contemplation or even action. It momentarily cuts off day-to-day life and delivers the poet into another kind of space-time continuum, subject to a different set of laws and considerations. Poetics, in effect, prefigures or sets up reality.

    Poetics has created a gap, one in which forces and vectors are occluded. Yet unlike Pound’s image or vortex, that “emotional image or complex in a moment of time,” the as-yet-to-be-written-out page of a new poetics has already read the time and space before it, has already coined it. Pound’s images read the past and present “reality,” and, in many instances, have a pedagogic relationship with the future. By contrast, the future is still undifferentiated open time and space waiting to be filled, and so any poetics of or for the future may only be the ‘reading’ of an illusion.

    In literary history, the future appears to generate at least two types of images of the poet. One is of the poet peering into the future, discerning the possibilities of the race. Shelley, in a somewhat hopeful vein, is exemplary, seeing the poet of time to come as a hierophant, a priest of “an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadow which futurity casts upon the present.” There is a joy and daring, and wishful thinking, to this image, especially in the key word “inspiration.” The poet is breathing in the future and will utter out its promise. And, indeed, such a possibility defines a poetic constant across time: the activity of poetry and of the arts as inspiriting the future. If the ends of poetic tradition are auguries of humankind’s progress, of life constantly enriched and illuminated, this Shelleyan mode is part of the road map.

    In stark contrast to the optimism of a Shelley, we might ponder the peculiar nexus invoked by Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, as he derived it from Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus. Benjamin’s angel is a well-known, almost clichéd construct in contemporary critical thinking, but like all well-known and familiar constructs, it has many powerful contemplative uses. Here, I’m thinking of its role as a harbinger. The angel, an image created in a critico-poetic mode of thinking, is intended to show forth Benjamin’s sense of historical process. As Benjamin imagines it, the angel of history does not face forward to the future but is always gazing backwards into time past. Meanwhile, a storm “emanating from Paradise,” as Benjamin constructs it, propels the angel toward the future. The angel, gazing back, transfixed, sees history not as a series of events, but as a catastrophe, a pile-up of man-made wreckage, political failures, wars, oppressions and famines. This storm, pushing the angel into the future, Benjamin ironically calls “progress.” Dark pessimism and futility burden this image, for if “progress” means only an unfolding trail of further ruination — consider Benjamin’s experience of the twentieth century — what hope is there? It is difficult to imagine the angel having the wish or courage to face forward, to turn around and cast its gaze on the disaster-filled landscape looming ahead.

    Here, now, is the rather anxious poetic angel of our present, functioning like some dark muse, uncertain, more than mildly depressed, aware of time not as fulfillment but as ominous inevitability. The Benjaminian poet, in the throes of composition, sometimes unaware of where he or she or the poem under hand will go, is riding on this angel’s back. (And, yes, even that Shelley-like poet of promise who insists on facing forward might sit astride this angel as long as he or she wears thick rose-tinted glasses to ward off the bleak light of oncoming catastrophes.)

    Which brings up another image or, at least, a sense of the future, one briefly alluded to by the late philosopher, Gillian Rose, in her book, Mourning Becomes the Law. The future, as she puts it, is the “supreme anachronism.” Since we are thinking the future now, in the present, and since what will be cannot include us, all predictive thought generates only anachronistic material. While we are dreaming, time or death overtakes us and denies us the power to see our dreams or fears realized. Literary activity with respect to the future embodies the dynamics found in Rose’s thought.

    Let us throw in a bit of crude Freudianism: some traditionalist-minded writers fixated on the past, with tradition, repress uncertainty about the future. They go about reconstructing pre-existing artifacts, trying to make the present and future conform to the past or to at least allay their fears of the future by emulating the tradition into which they have been inscribed. The repetition compulsion? On the other side, there are avant-gardist or experimental writers imbued with certainty about the future, who try to make the future happen by replacing the traditionalist’s manufactured anachronisms with the production of objects that can only be understood at a later time. The work of these avant-gardists is directed toward being appreciated in, and to being completed by the future. Yet this work too is already a gamble — how the future turns out is yet to be seen.

    We generally think of anachronisms pejoratively, as artistic embarrassments or failures. The writer of the historical novel has his medieval heroine take a shower. Or the playwright puts a twentieth century streetwise word in the mouth of a nineteenth century character. But what is cast into the future, out of time, out of time’s place, can be viewed, from a futurist’s perspective, more positively. By a curious logic, the anachronisms of both the traditionalist and the avant-gardist writer provide us with unique interpretative material: an image of a defamiliarized future. Art, we know, defamiliarizes by plucking something out of its utilitarian mode of existence — Duchamp’s wine racks and urinals, for example — not merely to place it in a category called art (whatever that means) but to refresh it for our senses. We see it again, but out of context and in a strange new light. The object embedded in the thought of the future does not necessarily make itself strange in this way — it is already too familiar.

    But what it can do potentially is make strange the space of the future around it, complicating this “supreme anachronism” and thereby breaking the mental chains of inevitability which possess both the Shelley-like poets and the ones somberly hooked on Benjamin’s angel of history. The anachronism, normally an ungainly part of a temporal pastiche, when projected into the future, transmits ungainliness to a time and a space yet to be predicated. We normally ask of an anachronism, “what are you doing here?” But the anachronistic object lodged in the future makes us ask a different question: “what future could possibly contain this?” You may remember Robert Heinlein’s science fiction story of the butterfly that the time-traveler, eons in the past, accidentally crushes and so alters all of the future. The anachronism posted ahead is like that butterfly given a new life and is thus quite capable of revising the future. Of course, everything we write about the future continues to be, following Rose, an anachronism.

    While there is thought, nothing is inevitable. If a new poetics signals closures, and thereby new openings, we might meditate on Ernest Bloch’s words in The Spirit of Utopia. There Bloch maintains that “the sign of an authentic end opens into emptiness.” If we posit a poetics as an “authentic end,” that is, if we desire that it be significant and create the opportunity to remake human time, we are required, according to Bloch, to address it toward emptiness, without overlaying it with preconceptions. Against our usual psychologizing, we would have to think of a new poetics without the kind of Golden Ageism that we normally apply both forward and backward to our historical thinking. In this regard, Rose’s notion of the future as anachronism is helpful. For if the future which we carry in our minds is bound already to be an anachronism, beyond our power to control, then it stands to reason that only by freeing ourselves from a heavy-handed premising of that future can we be led into what Bloch calls “the unfated, or at least into a fate that can be modified.”

    “The unfated” is in itself a remarkable idea, worthy of further contemplation from both the literary and philosophical-historical perspective. As a potential for poetics, the idea is already prefigured in Keats’ poet of “negative capability” or, closer to Bloch’s time, in Robert Musil’s comments in Precision and Soul on the poet Rilke. “Rilke,” he says, “leads us into the future;” he gives us, “not prophecy,” but an “anticipatory scent.” For we are not, Musil insists, “to be called again to this or that ideological fixity, but to the unfolding of the creation and possibilities of the spirit.”

Michael Heller (© 2002)