Why “you can’t teach writing”

“We never hear that music cannot be taught, painting cannot be taught, filmmaking cannot be taught. Writing is fraught with more industrial insecurities, I fear, than some of the other disciplines.”

Paul Vermeersch writes these two sentences in a passing response to “The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory”. The distinction that troubles him between “writing [and] some of the other disciplines” may be accounted for by some arts being more mediate than writing. Music, painting, filmmaking, photography, and sculpture, for that matter, all demand acquaintance with an instrument:  obviously in the case of music; brush, pigments, palette and other implements in the case of painting; and so on. Writing, however, appears to the layperson to require only literacy or in the case of oral language arts even only the voice. It might be objected singing and dancing are as immediate as the voice and body, but both seem special occasions of each, speaking and writing more basic, as thinking, the dialogue of the soul with itself or what one attempts to merely attend in meditation, appears to intimate. Of course the writer and writing teacher beg to differ:  the poem or story are not just thinking or talking; creative writing is an art or craft where language is the medium worked. No matter how spontaneous or plain spoken a poem, say, may appear—and even if it is in fact spontaneous or improvised—its language is organized in an artificial manner.

The very words “creative writing workshop” imply—and its practice is premised upon the assumption—that creative writing is a teachable, learnable craft. If the master is to teach the apprentice, they must share a metalanguage, a discourse that articulates the materials and practices of that art and that expresses value judgments. This discourse may be called a “poetics”, not of the theoretical kind typified by Aristotle’s Poetics—a description, analysis, and evaluation of the art by a non-practitioner—but more akin to Horace’s Ars Poetica, practical guidance of an acknowledged master offered to an aspiring neophyte. Ironically, while creative writing teachers will vehemently defend the artificiality of literary language, too often (in my experience, at least) they assume the language of their poetics is somehow natural and its value system intuitive. Worse, too often, precisely because the terms of their poetics is assumed to be natural, they assume it is as unproblematically shared with the apprentice.

Despite the distinction between theoretical and practical poetics, the practical language of the workshop is heavily indebted to the theoretical language of the English class, i.e., literary criticism. Of course, the corollary is also true:  the language of the master informs that of the teacher:  the poetics of Horace, Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Henry James are fed back in to the merely scholarly study of literature. But creators learn their terms in the classroom. Neither scholarly nor creative discourse can claim priority; they are mixed at the source, because the art of writing assumes what the ancients called grammar, literacy, and one’s taught reading and writing in school. Not only are the languages of criticism and creation impossible to disentwine, they are also diverse and relative. The notion of poetry as craft was energetically applied by the Russian Futurists before the Great War, for example, with their doctrine of “the self-sufficient word” and their emulation of the factory worker or craftsman, an approach summed up neatly by the painter Dmitriev:  “the artist is now simply a constructor and technician.” Their poetic, as articulated by their scholarly co-workers the Russian Formalist critics, spoke of “materials” and “devices” with a dispassionate, scientific technicality and precision that makes the terminology of most criticism or poetics seem quaint. This approach to the craft of poetry finds analogues in anglophone poetics, in the “bald statement” William Carlos Williams makes in his introduction to The Wedge (1944),  “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” and in creative writing pedagogy where the Russian Formalist concepts of “defamiliarization” and “device” are used alongside exercises in proceduralist composition in the manner of the OULIPO or present-day Conceptualism. That such poetics also find inspiration and conceptual resources in literary theory should not go unremarked.

Regardless of the impossibility of a purely practical poetics, the knotiness of poetics, criticism, and theory being snarled together, or debates about the merits of competing creative writing pedagogies, doubts remain whether writing can be taught. Such skepticism cannot be dismissed as easily as pointing out it depends upon an outmoded, questionable notion of genius. Who can deny that the increasing plethora of creative writing programs results in an increasing homogenization of literary practice? My own experience is telling:  every year I teach the latest Journey Prize Stories and invariably I find the creative-writing-school-trained jury members award first prize to the story worthy an A+ in a creative writing class while the edgy, lively work, worthy an A for Art, is overlooked, precisely because of the prejudices inculcated in the course of the jurors’ educations. What can be taught is technique, but technique without the natural gift of talent is merely mechanical or at best competent. The art of writing (or music, or painting, etc.) can be taught, but not what might make it Art.

The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Psychotherapeutics of Poetry: two questions on some remarks by Sean Haldane

In an interview that resurfaced from the collective unconscious of the internet’s servers, Sean Haldane, poet and clinical thneuropsychologist, makes two remarks that raise some questions for me.

Reflecting on his lifelong psychotherapeutic practice, Haldane says he thinks “poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy. If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so.” Does this—can this—reflection hold for poetry that radically suspends reference or defamiliarizes the language? I can see it holding for Dante’s Commedia, but does it for Bruce AndrewsLip Service or the work of Nick Piombino, a practising psychoanalyst associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school? The aesthetic ideology that underwrites Haldane’s use of ‘perspective’ here is perhaps crucial in this matter.

Haldane sums up some of his findings on poetry’s workings on the brain thus:  “Neuropsychology can help to explain poetry, to demystify the impulse. There has been work done on why poetry can send shivers down our spine. The poem activates the same parts of the brain that react when a child is separated from its mother. A deep sense of separation and longing.” Anyone engaged with Theory in the Twentieth Century must wonder what Freud or Lacan would have to say about that “deep sense of separation and longing” and its consequences for reading if not writing poetry!

I pose these questions as sincere—not merely rhetorical—questions:  they open doors for speculation and research and perhaps even tentative conclusions I haven’t time to pursue here and now.

Baraka in 2010: a final interview

Baraka-Buescher-Newark-09-23-2010Dennis Büscher-Ulbricht, a crackerjack Amerikanistik scholar, interviews Amiri Baraka in an informed, engaged, and compelling way–a must-read for anyone concerned with “engaged” art. Read it, at Jacket2, here

Barbarian benefits

Those who know will know the English word barbarian comes from the ancient Greek for foreigner, barbaros, one who speaks a foreign tongue so other it resembles a dog’s barking, bar bar! Presently, I’m in Würzburg, Germany to participate in a workshop at an academic conference, and, although I do speak some German, my fluency places me outside the community of those for whom German and its local dialect(s) are their mother tongue, which (along with a taste of the local, famous vintage) gives rise to the fragmentary notes that follow on this experience of being a linguistic outsider.

1. A while back Johannes Göransson posted on Montevidayo a short quotation from Yoko Tawada that made me impatient, as it seemed to draw too neat a contrast between the reflexive transparency of the mother tongue and the relative opacities of a foreign language. Those of us who have ever had to take a “critical” or “hermeneutic” stance toward a poem in our mother tongue, or one informed by linguistics, know that such a stance distances, renders foreign or other, the mother tongue, such that its strangeness and materiality come into view. One need think only of Roman Jakobson’s (in)famous analysis of the linguistics and consequent aesthetics of “I like Ike” to understand that all discourse is always susceptible to a “defamiliarizing” gaze. However, it struck me as I ordered this evening’s dinner that when I speak German I hear my voice as if it were someone else’s, very differently from how I hear myself speak my mother tongue, which speaking I identify with my thinking, my stream-of-consciousness, and hence with myself. Though I can readily function in German, in a very pedestrian manner, when I speak in German I don’t exactly hear myself speaking German but another, “me-speaking-German.” This effect arises in part due to the relative opacity of the German I speak and hear:  I may know (or believe I know) what I’m saying, but I still hear the sound of words more than their meanings, a kind of phonic residue that hangs in the air, the opposite of what happens when I speak English, where the sound of the words is muted by their meaning. Happily, there are moments of sufficient immersion, excitement or engagement, that are self-forgetful, when I do arrive at an immediate fluency, an identification. Of course, in such an instance, as the multilingual will know, when I speak German I am different from myself when I speak my mother-tongue. Fluent or not, the foreign tongue distances the speaker from (in this case) himself….

2. A tremendous benefit of abiding in a place alone where one is hardly fluent in the local dialect(s) is that one ends up talking to oneself, i.e., as Plato would have it at least, thinking, and, therefore, for a writer, in the best of all possible worlds, writing.

Comrade Kots: A Poem by Kirill Medvedev

Comrade Kots: A Poem by Kirill Medvedev

If you didn’t snag this link somewhere else on the web, here it is!

On the anniversary of massive protests in Moscow ahead of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential inauguration, the writer and labor activist Kirill Medvedev shares a poem whose title derives from a nickname he was given by Russia’s secret police agency, the FSB.

Critical Issues: an essay on the work of Robert Bringhurst

In what follows I want to attempt, from the point of view of a poeta doctus, a learned poet, to critically assess the achievements and what I discern as some of the limitations of Robert Bringhurst’s poetry, translations, essays, and talks. Such an attempt must mix humility with hubris. Bringhurst is rightly a highly-regarded creative mind, but one I’d like to argue not taken seriously enough. His admirers seem to me too easily impressed and dazzled by what they correctly perceive as a tremendous poetic talent and wide-ranging, profound intelligence. What is required, especially for those of us who share his poetic and more general cultural concerns, is to dare to submit his works to a kind of acid test, charitable and respectful at every point, but no less stringent in its aesthetic and intellectual demands. To do less would be to do a disservice to both the man and those cultural activities he has devoted his life to, poetry and thought.

It would be too easy to present a strictly personal appreciation of Robert Bringhurst’s oeuvre. I fell under the spell of his poetry when he recited “Bone Flute Breathing” at my high school. My neophyte poetic fumblings from the time found guidance in his own engagements with the tradition, Hellenic, Biblical, European, and Asian. During my graduate studies, which wrestled with the fraternal strife between poetry and philosophy, his versions of the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers The Old in Their Knowing provided both a model and matter for thought. In fact, for a time, I read his rendering of Sophocles, “Of the Snaring of Birds,” to open readings of my own poems. His monumental translations from the Haida appeared just at the time my own pedagogical activities involved themselves with the more general movement of ethnopoetics. And which poet, critic, or scholar, awake to the centrality of the ecological crisis, cannot help but participate with him in his own ecopoetic labours?

These individual experiences that left their impress on my poetry and thinking arguably possess a more public, objective significance and worth. From his first poem, “The Beauty of the Weapons,” Bringhurst’s innate musical gift and artistic, technical conscientiousness, coupled with his insistence on reciting rather than reading his work, have been exemplary. Consistent with the mainstream of poetic modernism and postmodernism in the Twentieth century, Bringhurst’s poems and translations “paw over the ancients” and “make new” voices from the inherited European canon and expand this tradition globally. This contribution to what Goethe was the first to call Weltliteratur along with its attunement to the philosophical tradition line his poetry, essays, and talks up with that vital and on-going dialogue between poetry and philosophy inaugurated in the modern period by the Jena Romantics, a dialogue of continuing pertinence, if the conclusions of philosophers such as Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Andrew Bowie, and Jason Wirth are anything to go by, not to mention those of a more widely-renowned figure, Theodor Adorno. The pertinence of Bringhurst’s ecopoetic concerns demands no justification.

Bringhurst’s prosody is remarkable on several counts. Since High Modernism “broke the pentameter,” poetry might be said to have lost its metrical bearings, resulting in a continuing if perverse struggle between traditionally-minded formalists, Neo- and otherwise, and practitioners of a wide range of free verse. Tone deafness is detectable at both extremes: practitioners of (what they see as) traditional metrics too often produce lines that are “rhythmic” in purely numeric terms, the count of syllables and their barely discernible relative stresses, while the garden-variety writer of free verse does in fact too often produce little more than the proverbial “prose chopped into lines.” Poetry composed by someone with an ear is well-defined by Louis Zukofksy’s famous function: lower limit speech, upper limit music. Anyone with ears to hear will affirm that often Bringhurst’s poems are scored to a marked, often easily-definable rhythm. The index of his natural talent and assiduous practice is readable in the way his poems’ speech-based syntax easily steps up to and in time with their more artificially musical rhythms. Indeed, Bringhurst’s achievement in this respect is so consistently polished it must surely surprise anyone familiar with currents in contemporary North American English-language poetry that those self-professed tyros of Formalism (whose manner August Kleinzahler has deliciously christened “Nobelese”) haven’t lionized Bringhurst’s obvious metrical prowess. Where Bringhurst’s prosodic gift might be said to have led him astray is in his polyphonic works, beginning with The Blue Roofs of Japan. If anything, these compositions for multiple voices make the difference between language or speech and music loud and clear: the former possesses an essential semantic dimension that the latter does not, at least not in the same way. Where the voices of a fugue complement each other, simultaneous speeches create a frustrating cacophony precisely because the listener has to attend to and untwine two or more semantic chains that interfere with each other’s reception in way that concurrent instrumental or even singing voices do not. Ironically, these polyphonic works are easier to read than hear. Although a much more extended study is necessary to come to any conclusions concerning the manner and success of these compositions, one might argue that it is precisely the power and achievement of Bringhurst’s poetic-musical abilities that suggest and tempt him to experiment in this way and contribute to the repertoire of poetic forms.

A more successful if more ordinary kind of polyphony is found in Bringhurst’s engagement with world literature. Bringhurst’s oeuvre emerges from the matrix of the Twentieth century’s dilation of tradition. Where Pound went back to Homer, the Troubadours, and (as T. S. Eliot at least would have it) invented Chinese poetry for English, Charles Olson went back to the earliest literature, that of Sumer, a limit overstepped by Gary Snyder, who has described the roots of his poetry as extending back to the Paleolithic, a temporal limit expanded spatially to include the poetries of all the peoples on the surface of the globe in Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics, a project pursued in his many anthologies or assemblages over many decades, commencing with the first edition of Technicians of the Sacred in 1967. Beginning with Deuteronomy, Bringhurst’s poetry adopts personae from the Bible, ancient Greece, India, China, and relates myths of his own making that echo those of Turtle Island. A quick survey of Selected Poems (2009) turns up translations from or references to Egyptian, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese, Danish, German,  French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian. The most concentrated and monumental of his efforts in this regard is his translations of the classical Haida mythtellers, primarily Ghandl and Skaay. One would be hard-pressed to name a Canadian poet whose corpus incarnates that imagining of Goethe’s whose reality blossomed this past century. On the one hand Bringhurst’s efforts have introduced or “made new” or conversed with an impressively vast amount of non-English-language material. On the other, a working poet might be tempted to reflect on the promise of this contribution: what of it lends new potentialities to poetic composition rather than merely adding another exhibit or further commentary to the museum of Weltliteratur? Of more promise than his retelling a myth, for example, in his “Leda and the Swan,” is what he seems to discover in the compositions of Ghandl and Skaay, the most condensed statement of which is perhaps at the beginning of the fifth chapter of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Bringhurst writes that he calls Skaay’s stories poetry

because they are dense, crisp and full of lucid images whose power is not confined by cultural fences—and because they are richly patterned. But the patterns are syntactic and thematic more than rhythmical or phonemic. For all the acoustic beauty of these poems, that is not where there obvious formal order resides. They are distinguishable by a thinkable prosody of meaning more than by an audible prosody of sound. (111)

That Bringhurst often places such great emphasis and value on such syntactic and thematic patterning in his appreciations of the verbal art of Skaay and Ghandl and often that of other art, as well, must strike anyone acquainted with the tradition of Structuralist literary analysis as a little de trop. The studies of Roman Jakobson and Michel Riffaterre, for example, are characterized by their detailed and exhaustive analyses of just such syntactic and thematic symmetries as well as phonemic and prosodic patterning. Indeed, given the inescapability of just such a “prosody of meaning” in a literary text one can’t help but wonder how any poet or story teller worth study can not produce texts possessed of just such structures. One is left wondering, then, how to put to use what Bringhurst’s tremendous labours have imported into the English language. The profound and prevalent influence of Pound’s “invention of Chinese poetry” and his ideogrammic method or the way many Twentieth century avant garde poets have turned the poetics of the Western hemisphere’s autochthonous cultures to their own absolutely modern ends (e.g., Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman” based on the syntactic symmetries of the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina’s chants) exemplify how the work of translation can vitalize a target culture’s language. Nevertheless, regardless of what Bringhurst himself or other poets have been able to make of his vast importations, the cosmopolitanism of his oeuvre remains unquestionably impressive.

Bringhurst’s translations also feed that aspect of his work that touches on and converses with thinking, a thinking that increasingly mulls over matters of ecological urgency. The philosophical content of his writings calls for and could doubtlessly sustain a painstaking study, but I want to reflect on an essential theme of that thinking, language. As a polyglot, translator, and recognized and respected authority on typography, Bringhurst in his poems, essays, and talks returns endlessly to the nature and function of language. In this fascination, his ruminations chew over a matter central to Western thought since the Eighteenth century and one painfully familiar to any graduate student in the humanities. Bringhurst’s theses on language demand a scrutiny both because of their centrality to his own work and to that of the culture at large. Bringhurst, like the post-structuralist postmodernists he disdains, participates in the general inflation of language characteristic of much of the humanities in the Twentieth century in the wake of Structuralism. In The Solid Form of Language, consistent with archaic wisdom and contemporary zoosemiotics, he first reminds us of those other, nonhuman languages, “the calls of leopard frogs and whales, the rituals of mating sandhill cranes” (11). Then, in A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he expands the linguistic beyond the communicative circuit, writing

We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs. We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens…We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. (14)

To which we might add (as Bringhurst does) that language includes even “the chemical messages coming and going day and night within the brain” and all that is “chemically written into our genes.” As remarked, Bringhurst is hardly the first to be inspired by the compelling charm of this vision of universal semiosis. Hölderlin famously writes “Ein Zeichen sind wir” (we are a sign) in harmony with Novalis’ thoughts on the hieroglyphs of The Book of Nature, a metaphor that itself originates in the Latin Middle Ages and that Bringhurst himself affirms in his talk “The Voice in the Mirror” collected in The Tree of Meaning (2008): “The original book is, of course, the world itself” (132). However imaginatively appealing and prima facie ecologically sane this positing of nature as a book, the inflation of the linguistic that underwrites it also conflates certain conceptual distinctions whose erasure is fateful. Among others, what is lost is the genus-species distinction between understanding in general and understanding language. Whenever I perceive something as something, I understand, I interpret, as would happen whenever I “read” an ecosystem or “the tracks and scats of animals”. However, specifically linguistic understanding necessarily involves an address, a conversation. What happens when I take a non-linguistic (albeit interpretable) phenomenon as a linguistic address? I must posit a speaker, an interlocutor. In the world order that originally imagined the Book of Nature, that speaker or writer is God. But who, in the absence of God, writes what is “chemically written into our genes” for instance? The metaphor of the genetic code was criticized at the moment of its inception precisely on these grounds, that it was an inappropriate application of linguistic or information theoretical concepts. Lily E. Kay sums up these criticisms nicely in her Who Wrote the Book of Life? (2000):

Information theorists, cryptologists, linguists, and life scientists criticized the difficulties (some would say inappropriateness) of these borrowings in molecular biology, arguing that the genome’s information content cannot be assessed since the key parameters (e.g., signal, noise, message channel) cannot be properly quantified. DNA is not a natural language: it lacks phonemic features, semantics, punctuation marks, and intersymbol restrictions. So unlike any language, “letter” frequency analyses of amino acids yield only random statistical distributions. Furthermore, no natural language consists solely of three-letter words. Finally, if it were purely a formal language, then it would possess syntax only but no semantics. Thus the informational representations of the genome do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (2)

However much “reading” natural phenomena does “not stand up to rigorous scrutiny,” it enables a grasp of what is read that empowers the reader, as present-day genetic technology undeniably demonstrates. Attributing a message or intentionality to non-linguistic, spontaneous things is an extension of the Platonic metaphysics that conceived of all things as if they were products made according to a plan or Form. This productionist metaphysics is the first chapter of the story that leads to our present technological society. The presupposition that Nature possesses a plan, whether written out in hieroglyphs or mathematics, enables us to articulate that plan and thereby order Nature to our own ends. The disastrous consequences of this instrumentalization of Nature are too-well known. Even and especially those “hunter-gatherers, who study the great book day after day, night after night (Tree, 132) do so for the sake of their own survival and flourishing, to bring the natural world under enough of their own control so they may, at least, feed themselves. The contemporary, ecologically-motivated desire to transcend the Adamic monologue that imperiously names natural things, to imagine instead what it would mean to hear, understand, and converse with Nature, gets caught up in a dialectic that reveals the character such well-intentioned listening shares with the worst excesses of scientific-technological interrogation and literally murderous exploitation.

In the preceding, I have tried to come to terms with Bringhurst’s impressive oeuvre from a “dialectical” perspective, registering only a very few of its undeniable accomplishments while simultaneously probing what I perceive to be some of their inescapable limitations. Admittedly, I have proceeded at neither the length nor detail the work calls for. Nor has the approach been sufficiently immanent, applying standards that might arguably find their orientation outside Bringhurst’s own. But what I do want to argue, finally, is for the pertinence and profound challenge of the work, one that calls upon lay readers, poets, thinkers, and scholars—citizens of the earth, all—to enter into all that Bringhurst lays before us, to take up the challenges of the work and to at the same time challenge it for the sake of those values it has sought to speak to and at best sing.

 

Works Cited
Bringhurst, Robert. A Story Sharp as a Knife. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
The Solid Form of Language. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2004.
The Tree of Meaning. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.
Selected Poems. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2009.
Kay, Lily. Who Wrote the Book of Life? Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

 

An irritable gloss on the nearly Baroque

I’d been eavesdropping on the recent kerfuffle around Stephen Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” mainly via the Montevidayo blog and had been provoked to compose a far-reaching, involved, learned response, but then I read the definition that opens Burt’s essay:

The twenty-first-century poets of the nearly Baroque want art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first. It is art that cannot be reduced to its own explanation, that shows off its material textures, its artificiality, its descent from prior art, its location in history. These poets want an art that can always give, or could always show, more.

That “art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first” is the point of contention engaged at Montevidayo, not impertinently. But the points that follow strike me as stale and suffocating (an impression that could be articulated and defended at tiresome length).

First, no poem, no matter how close to pedestrian speech, no matter how prosaic, no matter how close to “writing degree zero” it may be is ever reducible “to its own explanation”: no discourse is even reducible to its own repetition, since no word let alone any utterance is ever reducible to a single meaning.

The concerns over the fore- or backgrounding of material texture, artificiality, descent from prior art, or location in history are much more complex and interesting and would lend themselves to lengthy excursus were I tempted to be more self-indulgent and less respectful of my reader’s learning and patience. Briefly, all poems possess a graphic or phonic dimension, an artificiality (being an artefact), a relation to if not descent from prior art (poetry or otherwise), and relation to a given constellation of historical conditions, the visibility of which is dependent on the perceiver’s sensibilities. The poem by itself cannot flaunt or foreground any of its possible aesthetic dimensions because their perceptibility is itself contingent. (This play of presence and absence and its historical contingency became the principle of late Formalist literary history, as in the work of Mukarovsky.)

At work here is a reified opposition variously expressed by pairs such as work/text, symbolic/semiotic, word/world, absorptive/antiabsorptive, readership/thinkership, etc, which are all arguably subsumable under the opposition between the Classic and Mannered (an opposition not itself undeconstructable…)—but that was the topic of the aforementioned long-winded response I here eschew for the sake of the sanity of all concerned.

In brief, every poem always gives more and can be made to show more because of the very nature of the poem as a linguistic artefact. As an example I offer a brief study of the sonic qualities of a most non-Baroque poem, here.

Call and response: community and collaboration

When T. S. Eliot died, Ezra Pound famously and bitterly quipped:  “Who is there to share a joke with?”

I’ve been in a similar funk for some time now. This sense of acute isolation was recently aggravated by a friend’s lauding the sense of collaborative community she felt working with her publisher. Ironically, this same publisher recently despaired over getting any interesting conversations going given the hermetic nature of most social circles that are too often made up of like-minded, nodding heads.

That’s why it’s  heart-warming and somewhat heartening to escape this dilemma and collaborate by chance. Yesterday, Bruce Rice, a poet I knew when I resided in Saskatchewan, posted a picture of a chickadee feeding from his hand at a writer’s retreat where he’s staying. The picture reminded me of a little ditty from March End Prill, which I shared with him. My lines, in turn, prompted him to compose a pantoum and put the picture, my poem, and his together as a spontaneous, e-broadsheet, which I share here, thankful for the ephemeral community that enabled the collaboration (including the chickadee!).

Chickadee 1; poets O

“the haven from sophistications and contentions”–a translation of George Slobodzian’s “Happy Hour”

Today, I read on Facebook a friend rightfully take to task a new anthology of Canadian poetry for its lack of translations. Later, I read how one poet tweeted squibs over a retrograde and self-indulgent column that riled a friend of the columnist to snark back via his own blog while everyone ignores the column’s sentiment was preemptively taken down by happy synchronicity days before. A poet-publisher laments the roadblocks to conversation and posits turning his back on the futility of finding the like-minded to work it all out in private in his journal instead. Meanwhile, the work goes on, here, a translation, from English to French, of a fine, understated lyric, “Happy Hour”.

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