[Just over five years back, I heard tell that a collection of criticism on the work of John Newlove was in the works. I contacted the editor to offer what I could, as I had first started writing poetry under Newlove’s influence and tutelage. What follows was the result. It seems now that that collection is not forthcoming, so I share these cursory reflections here, now.]
The status of John Newlove’s poetry in Canada is curious. The consistent admiration and acclaim it received over nearly four decades, from even before the publication of his Governor General’s Award winning Lies (1972) up to and including the appearance of his latest volume of selected poems A Long Continual Argument (2007), would seem to suggest that his work would be more widely and closely studied, both by scholars and poets. His publishing only one trade edition after Lies, The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), and that the only one before his death in 2003, is surely in part to blame. Moreover, changes in taste and tendencies in academic criticism during this time, anathema to the singular pathos of his polished and laconic lyrics, surely served to only further marginalize the work of a man already famously a loner. It is perhaps reason for optimism in this regard that Jeff Derksen, a poet associated with Canada’s avant-garde, essays a postmodern sociological reading of Newlove’s poetry in his afterword to A Long Continual Argument (237ff.). As bracing as it would be to make a case for a more sustained and scrupulous critical attention to Newlove’s work, I will here follow Newlove’s own example, the one he provides at the end of Derksen’s afterword, where he invites Derksen in to show him “the careful syllabics of an Irish writer…, literally counting the syllables per line…” (245).
As is probably well-known, Newlove’s poetry first appears on the West Coast during that flowering of Canadian poetry that occurred during the Sixties and Seventies, a milieu famously (or infamously, depending on your critical predilections) in contact with what came to be called the New American Poetry, a relation most dramatically exemplified by the University of British Columbia Poetry Conference (1963) attended by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen. The New American Poetry and its poetics were profoundly influenced by Ezra Pound, whose criticism provides useful, basic concepts for an appreciation of Newlove’s art, as well. Pound distinguishes three “kinds of poetry”: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (25), or, as Louis Zukofsky was to reword it, the uses poetry makes of sight, sound, and intellection (Test vii). Newlove’s writing excels at all of these. On the back cover of The Fatman (1977), Frank Davey’s blurb stands out bold: Newlove’s is “[o]ne of the most direct and visually precise styles in twentieth-century poetry.” Among Newlove’s own saws is to “Read with your ears, not just your eyes.” And his enjambments and the sly suggestiveness of his (under)statements take up and hand down powers inherent in English poetry from its beginnings.
However acute a critic Davey is, it is difficult to find many examples of “visually precise” passages, if what he refers to is what Longinus termed phantasia (Russell and Winterbottom 159), that “casting of images upon the visual imagination” (Pound 25). Nevertheless, the first two stanzas of the title poem from Black Night Window (1968) present, arguably, an image, “an intellectual and emotional complex” (Pound 4):
Black night window—
rain running down
the fogged glass,
a blanched leaf
on a dead twig (11)
Rigorously and economically phanopoetic, every line but the fifth (“hanging outside”) frames a concrete noun, and all but the last adjective (“dead”) are immediately sensuous. None of the poem’s four tercets comments or states: lacking a verb, each is a phrase whose sense hangs on what each depicts. Taking the poem’s images together, Pound would say the poem is an ideogram, communicating by means of “images juxtaposed” (Ginsberg, Howl 74).
One especially intellectually complex image is found in “The Green Plain”, a long poem first published as a chapbook and later included in The Night the Dog Smiled. At the centre of the poem is the question at the heart of philosophy “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that Newlove reworks, wondering whether there is “reason / in the galaxies—Or is this all glass, / a block bubbled in a fire…?” (21). To expand on the aptness of this metaphor would demand an excursus all its own, involving, among other things, the juxtaposition of the stars and bubbles, the contrast between the solidity of glass and the emptiness of space, the condensation of mythopoetic and cosmological speculation that fuses Fire with the Big Bang, and so forth.
Newlove’s prosodic gift and mastery are discernable throughout his oeuvre. “Public Library” (in Black Night Window) is, for example, an exemplary, inimitable performance. Sitting “half in a dreamed trance half listening / to the people around” (4-5), the poet hears the library’s forced silence amplify sounds normally unnoticed, shuffling feet, shaken newspapers, and
books crackling as their backs [are] broken
the flick/flick of fingertips
and fingernails on the corners of pages
snap of shutting decisively
or accidentally plump lackadaisically
muted thump of being tossed on low tables (13-18)
The technique here—onomatopoeia—is familiar enough, but the poem goes on, by means of a deft phonemic mix, to recreate the reading room’s soundscape over an enviably easy sixty-four lines!
More subtle and sophisticated pleasures are to be gleaned between that “Lower limit speech” and “Upper limit music” (Zukofsky, “A”-12 138), where the language as spoken is moved by emotion to a rhythm and dance of the syllables that approaches song. A tender instance is “For Judith, Now About 10 Years Old” from Moving in Alone (1965). The poem edges forward hesitantly, often only three to five syllables at a time, the lines turning from completing the thoughts they would compose, that would remember a niece’s traumatic scalding and wonder about the future of her scarred body,
welt ridges also
on the not even yet
about to be
the failing grafts
were taken… (8-14)
Only in the penultimate stanza can the speaker bring himself to ask “What will [she] do / when [her] breasts come?” (30-31). The poem ends with the uncle remembering “the feel of [her] tough / rubber-laced skin / as [he] spread salve on it” (32-35). The poem’s final two lines are striking in their simple economy of presentation, mimetic to a degree that eludes full, precise explanation: the enjambment that separates the adjective “tough” from “rubber-laced”, the isolation of “rubber-laced skin” on a single line that seems to render its referent palpable to the imagination’s fingertips, the play of sibilants over the last two lines softened by that one labiodental /v/ mimics the sound of the hands salving the girl’s “red / welted scars” (1-2).
The drawing out of sense, plying syntax over a number of verses, framing a clause or phrase on a line to focus attention on associations over and above those the completed thought of the sentence demands, is a characteristic power of English blank verse, from Chaucer, through Marlowe, Milton, and Wordsworth, to Wallace Stevens and Newlove. His prosody in this regard, how he harmonizes metre and expression to build up larger musical and syntactic structures, is a study. “Doukhobor” from The Cave (1970) is exemplary, a single, 188-word question articulated over twenty-six lines, asking a farmer, a member of an immigrant Saskatchewan prairie utopian religious community, “who will ever be able to say for” him what he had thought and seen in his life, when he “lies on the chipped kitchen table / … / dumb as an ox, unable to love, / while [his] women sob and offer the visitors tea” (2, 25-26). Despite this hyper-periodic style, the questioner’s wonderings are easy to follow. The poem’s being a question, moreover, secures it from any simple-minded accusation of appropriation. In its imagination, prosodic and syntactical construction, and rhetoric the poem is a tour de force.
Who reads Newlove with an appreciative pleasure will likely agree with Margaret Atwood, too-often quoted out of context (as I quote her, here, too!), who says Newlove “is indeed a master builder”; capable of writing in “something like a grand manner, his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done” (Second Words, p.?). Newlove’s grand manner not only exhibits stylistic excellence but suits that excellence to the presentation of certain grand themes, what Dante calls those “‘splendidly great things’ which should be written about using the best available means,…which are prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will” (Dante 35). In his 1989 Caroline Heath Lecture, Newlove defines his thematic concerns along similar lines. He says, “I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance” (2). Though Newlove’s order differs from Dante’s, desire (what Dante elsewhere paraphrases as “the enjoyment of love”), right and wrong (“virtue”), and endurance (“self-preservation”) are his transformation of age-old topoi into present, vital concerns. In a word, Newlove is a classic.
These all-too cursory remarks only begin an attempt at an appreciation that would venture more complex matters, beginning with “the classic”. The literary critical use of this term goes back at least to the third century C.E. and is bound up with the notions of class, “model”, and correctness and clarity. Reflections on clarity play into theoretical concerns at least a century old, ostraneniye (Shklovsky, cf. Lemon and Reis) and the distinctions between the lisible and the scriptible (Barthes) and between the “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” (Bernstein). To develop these considerations uncovers Newlove’s linguistic rigor: his “baring the device” (Shklovsky) in his “anti-lyrics” (Barbour), his deft and unbalancing deployment of allusion and citation, and his scrutiny of semantic complexity in his fugal poems that play out the possibilities of a set of words or a phrase, as in “The Double-headed Snake” or “The Cave”. The study of Newlove’s oeuvre in this direction would not canonize him among Canada’s post-Tish post-modern poets, as Bowering would in the introduction to his 1984 anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry: undermining and overturning such an attempted classification, Newlove’s poems elude and encompass such judgements that are at once both too general and too narrow for his world, wherein “one thing is not like another” (“Heath” 6), where “[n]ot to lose the feel of the mountains / while still retaining the prairies / is a difficult thing” (“The Double-headed Snake” 1-3).
Newlove names that “difficult thing” at the heart of his poetic labour. In his Caroline Heath lecture, he goes on to explain, “What I’m trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means” (7). Here is an endlessly open-ended theme, whose horizon swallows polemics against “Humanism”. Here, Newlove takes up a question not a doctrine, and though he may seem, at times, to “say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that [he is] speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human” (9), who hears or overhears him, by virtue of the dialogue understanding demands, becomes his interlocutor, which is, as it were, the last word:
All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you. (10)
Alighieri, Dante. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1973.
Atwood, Margaret. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Toronto: Anansi, 1982.
Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric / Anti-lyric: Some Notes About a Concept” in Line, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1984, Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 45-63.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption, Philadelphia, Singing Horse, 1987.
Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology, Toronto: Couch House Press, 1984.
Dyck, Ed, ed. Essays on Saskatchewan Writing, Regina: SWG, 1986.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: original draft facsimile, transcript & variant versions, fully annotated by the author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography, ed. Barry Miles, New York: Harper Perennial, 1986.
Lemon, Lee T. and Ries, Marion J. Russian Formalist Essays, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1965.
Newlove, John. Black Night Window, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.
—, ed. Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
—The Cave, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1970.
—The Fatman: Selected Poems 1962 – 1972, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
—The Green Plain, Lantzville: Oolichan, 1981.
—Lies, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.
—Moving in Alone. Lantzville: Oolichan, 1965.
—“Moving in Alone”, Caroline Heath Lecture, 18 November 1989.
—The Night the Dog Smiled, Toronto: ECW, 1986.
—A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove, ed. Robert McTavish, Ottawa: Chaudiere, 2007.
Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays, New York: New Directions, 1968.
Russell, D. A. and Winterbottom, Dr. M., Classical Literary Criticism, Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Zukofsky, Louis. “A”, Berkeley: UCP, 1978.
—A Test of Poetry, New York: Jargon / Corinth, 1964.
The Analytic and Synthetic Writer. “The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments 112, (1797-1801).
Christian Wolff, difference, and Saussure. “Wolff’s importance for philosophy generally and for the philosophy of language in particular tends to be underestimated today. For example, staying within the philosophy of language, he seems to have been a prime source, not only for the doctrine in question here [thought’s dependence on language], but also for the revolutionary idea in the Herder-Hegel tradition that language and hence conceptualization and thought are fundamentally social, as well as for the idea, later fundamental to Saussurean linguistics, that difference is at least as important for the constitution of concepts as similarity.”—Michael N Forster, After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford, 2012, 79.
“semiotics cannot generate semantics” and related matters. “…there is a crucial homology in modern European philosophy between the constitution of metaphysical systems in ‘Spinozist’ terms via the principle of determination as negation, the structuralist idea of language as a system of differences with no positive terms, and the commodity-based economy of negatively related exchange values. In all these cases the question arises as to the ground upon which the differentially constituted system relies: the system of ‘conditioned conditions’ leads in Jacobi’s terms to the question of being; meaning cannot be explained in differential terms because mere differentiality requires a ground of identity (semiotics cannot generate semantics); and the notion of value itself makes no sense in purely relational terms because exchange values are grounded in use values.” —Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 169.
Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) on speech as writing. “Tell me, how do we transform the thought, the idea, into the word; and do we ever have a thought or an idea without its hieroglyph, its letter, its script? Truly, it is so: but we do not usually think of it. But once, when human nature was more powerful, it really was more extensively thought about; and this is proved by the existence of word and script. The original, and absolute, simultaneity was rooted in the fact that the organ of speech itself writes in order to speak. The letter alone speaks, or rather; word and script are, at source, one, and neither is possible without the other…”—in Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (New York: Verso, 1977), pp. 213-14.
Duncan on Language. “‘What was it like in the late 1940s if you were concerned about language?’ And then you found that language itself was a process, in Whorf and Sapir. And along with this, Olson wanted to reject the symbolic role of language. I was also interested in Cassirer’s approach to language as a total system of symbols. But it’s a process, you see; it’s not a system.” —Robert Duncan, 1983 interview, in A Poet’s Mind: collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2012, 89-90.
On Poetic Form.
“Form is never more than an extension of content”—Robert Creeley, quoted by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse” (1950).
“[Ron] Silliman wrote Revelator according to a simple procedural concept: a long poem with exactly five words per line, and exactly enough lines to fill one notebook.”—Sam Rowe’s review of Revelator (2013) at Full Stop.
“…there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has a form, some as water poured into a vase.”—Ezra Pound, “Credo” (1912), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (9).
Against Expression. “…it’s meanings I’m after, not expression. I’m anti-expressionist. But I don’t think expressionism is disorder. I’m anti-expressionist because I dislike personality and I dislike integration. And in general, I have a double play between meaning and feeling, which keeps me quite busy.”—Robert Duncan, in an interview with David Ossman, 1960, in A Poet’s Mind: collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2012.
The Reader as Producer. The thesis of Benjamin’s “The Writer as Producer” might be cast as “the reader should not be a consumer but a producer alongside the writer.” This demand echoes later formulations that turn on oppositions analogous to consumer/producer: Bernstein’s absorptive/anti-absorptive or Goldsmith’s readership/thinkership. However, such demands that the reader labour along with the writer are already met in the the Jena Romantics’ opposition of the analytic/synthetic writer and their practice of the fragment that require of the reader active collaboration in a “sympoetry”. Theoretically, the opposition between the passive reader and active writer collapses in Barthes’ work/text, which he thoroughly deconstructs in S/Z: reading is a kind of writing. What power, then, can Benjamin’s demand have if in practice it was met a century before he made it and in theory it is always already met?
On our “romantic” unconscious. “A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our ‘modernity’ [or ‘postmodernity’]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.
…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.”—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute (trans. Barnard and Lester), Albany: SUNY, 1988 (original French, 1978), 15-16.
The Véhicule Press blog recently highlighted one aspect of Daryl Hines’ poetry picked out for praise by James Pollock, who just edited The Essential Daryl Hines for Porcupine’s Quill here in Canada. Writing of what so impresses him, Pollock remarks that Hines’
knowledge of and engagement with such a wide range of poetic traditions—ancient Greek and Latin, Spanish baroque, Elizabethan, French, American—revealed him as a true cosmopolitan, a perfect antidote to the literary provincialism I’d winced at in so much Canadian poetry.
I share Pollock’s impatient dissatisfaction with artistic and critical parochialism, and Hines’ technique surely evidences a comprehensiveness worthy of respect, but I’d press for a more truly “cosmopolitan” poetics.
Poets have often looked beyond their own borders to refresh and expand their art. Examples are too many: the importation of forms and themes from Moorish poetry into French and Italian in the Middle Ages, French and Italian forms into England in the Renaissance, etc. However, perhaps it was Goethe who first pronounced and praised that literary production is global, a realization later developed in the context of international trade by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.
Even the limited perspective of the academic history of poetic Modernism tells a story of complementary, temporal extension of poetic tradition and resources. Ezra Pound not only pawed after the ancients of his own Western tradition, but worked to import that of China and Japan. Charles Olson opened the back door of poetry and stepped back to the beginnings of writing and written literature, that of Sumer and the ancient Near East. Gary Snyder went a step further, to include not only the poetry and poetics of Indian, Japan, and China but that of the non-literate peoples of the earth, claiming a poetics that extends to the appearance of homo sapiens. In this project he is joined by among many others Canada’s Robert Bringhurst.
To show and explore concretely that poetry is as universal as language and that it opens itself to include other media, such as dance, painting, and theatre, has been the lifelong task of Jerome Rothenberg. His Technicians of the Sacred, first published in 1968, revised, expanded and reissued in 1984, and due to undergo the same process soon, expands our inherited poetic resources to include in principal all times and places on earth. Rothenberg’s consequent assemblages gather the poetry of the Jewish Diaspora (Big Jewish Book, 1978), American First Nations (Shaking the Pumpkin, 1986 & 2014), poetries of the Americas (America: A Prophecy, 1975 & 2012), revisionings of modernist, postmodernist, and romantic poetries, and, most recently, outsider poetries.
Weltpoesie on this scale radically decentres and contextualizes literate, Eurocentric poetics. Disputes over “meter” are revealed to be only one small conversation within a wildly-diverse, species-wide symposium concerned with poetic technique. Questions about subject matter become laughable in view of everything that has inspired humankind to artfully shape language. Within such a Symposium of the Whole provincialisms that cause some to wince inspire little more than a bemused chuckle, a shake of the head, and a return to the real work.
An index of the state of certain suburbs of American poetic culture is Charles Simic’s reading Charles Reznikoff’s monumental work Testimony “for the first time” (!) on the occasion of Black Sparrow’s reissuing it in one volume. However belated, his praise is testimony itself to his acuity and the work’s enduring power.
Black Sparrow is to be lauded for making Reznikoff’s Objectivist epic poem-including-history available again. Order it direct from the publisher by clicking on the cover:
Peter Dale Scott is a poet of singular accomplishment, engaging the political poetically in, among other works, his magisterial Seculum trilogy. He is, as well, a tireless scholar and perspicacious political and social thinker of the American Left, who as good as coined the terms “deep state” and “deep politics” for the Western mind. Now, in advance of a forthcoming book on politics and poetics, appears his latest investigative analysis of the Kennedy assassination Dallas ’63: The First Deep State Revolt Against the White House. Click on the cover for more information!
Languages, the wild things they are, have always mixed it up, as the parentage and biography of that mongrel tongue, English, attests. And the literati, too, such as James Joyce or Russell Hoban (among many others) have reimagined and reconfigured the vulgar tongue. Now, to this list, Jonathan C Stalling must be added, with his Sinophonic poetry and poetics of Yíngēlìshī.
Click on the cover of Stalling’s new book for an introduction at Jerome Rothenberg’s inimitable Poetry and Poetics site.
I’ve often said I have a hard time discussing poetry seriously with anyone unacquainted with Jerome Rothenberg’s groundbreaking assemblage Technicians of the Sacred. Though it is still available, for too long the companion volume of poetics, Symposium of the Whole, has been out of print, and now happy word comes that these two volumes will soon be reissued in updated form.
Read Rothenberg’s original Pre-face and announcement of reissue here.
Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.
Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.
In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory: the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.
It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.
The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also on the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose
consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)
The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language: from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.
The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology: Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.
The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes
We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)
Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.
Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.
Maybe I’m just irritable, but Craig Raine’s recent review of Seamus Heaney’s two-volume selected poems rubs me the wrong way. It’s hardly that I take exception to Raine’s high estimation of Heaney’s poetry. My concern is with the aesthetic doctrine that underwrites Raine’s laudation and its overbearing triumphal tone.
Raine holds up what might be termed Heaney’s gift for mimesis as the poet’s singular virtue: “He can describe things.” The “ready pleasure” and “obvious likeness” of “A rowan like a lipsticked girl” is one example of the poet’s deft descriptions “pleasurable because they are accurate and irrefutable.” Heaney’s work displays other achievements—”an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music”—but, “[u]nless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight …, the poetry is automatically of the second order.”
Raine opens his review remarking how one kind of latter-day mime, “the impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience” that results in a “release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins,” of a kind with that “drench of dopamine” produced by the “ungainsayable instant delight” that is the sine qua non of poetry.
However rhetorical the appeal to the brain’s “primitive pleasure centre” might be here, it is one with Raine’s consistent affirmation of the immediacy of the well-wrought poetic image: where the description is “obvious” the delight is “ready,” “instant,” and “ungainsayable.” Happily, one need not right away allude to two centuries or so of philosophical reflection on the untenability of Raine’s assumptions here as the review itself can’t toe the line it draws.
However much “Heaney records things as they come, democratically, unaware of hierarchy” not all such things are democratically given. Raine has to expend over a quarter of the review glossing Heaney’s poems that deal with Irish or Greek myth in order to make clear how they expose what is “immovably rooted in us.” This example of overt intertextuality reveals that Heaney not so much “gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark / As he pulls it to’”—how could I appreciate the description if I hadn’t already heard such a gate being opened or closed?—but rather represents things whose representation is striking only if I’m already acquainted with them. Raine himself refers to how Heaney’s poetry “can describe things in a phrase…the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped / but it sang too, / a kind of dry, ringing / foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?”
It’s not just that the instant delight of poetry’s descriptions arrives only by means of a detour through other texts or experiences. Raine calls the endorphins unconsciously released by our perception of imitation “brandies of the brain,” a variety of spirit, like any, whose appreciation is hardly reflexive but must be conscientiously cultured, unless Raine is likening the pleasures of poetry to sheer inebriation. Indeed, our brains are “flooded with endorphins” only through our “connivance,” imaginably what Coleridge termed the suspension of disbelief, the mental process that mediates the seemingly natural, reflexive immediacy of the kind of poetic mimesis Raine values so highly.
It’s a moribund, simplistic empiricism that underwrites Raine’s aesthetics here and that leads him to disparage so roundly the kind of poetry that to his mind is only
an endless marathon of ambiguity, a joyless game of patience for adepts. The Cambridge School of Poetry, in fact, turning its back on pleasure, snubbing the audience, withholding the endorphins, proffering perpetual difficulty, disparaging ‘descriptive decadence’.
His own review bears witness to the schooling, shared experience, and connivance that admit one to a cognoscenti, that club of connoisseurs capable of appreciating the refined delicacy of Heaney’s phanopoeia. Indeed, this sneering dismissal of others’ pleasures tears the mask from the undisputed naturalness of his own and shows the logic of his review to be little more than an argumentum ad nauseum.
One could continue the dispute, along various lines. Leaving aside for the moment the reflections that might imaginably be offered in support or explanation of the poetic pleasures of the Cambridge School and its audience, one might wonder what value Raine’s aesthetic would place on the “endless marathon of ambiguity, [and] joyless game of patience for adepts” that is Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. (The briefest research turns up Raine’s high regard for Hill’s poetry, too). More pointedly: is one to infer from Raine’s assumptions that the much more discursive and clearly less musically sophisticated poetry of Emily Dickinson is “second order”?
There remains, nevertheless, as there must be, an arguably truer value remarked in Raine’s review, albeit the one he esteems lower than imagery, “an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music.” The irrefutable charm of poetry’s music transcends even understanding a poem’s words. Another poet whose work can often seem a game for adepts is Dante, whose Canzone “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” testifies to the eminence of sound over sense, concluding famously
Canzone, io credo che saranno radi
color che tua ragione intendan bene,
tanto la parli faticosa e forte.
Onde, se per ventura elli adivene
che tu dinanzi da persone vadi
che non ti paian d’essa bene acorte,
allor ti priego che ti riconforte,
dicendo lor, diletta mia novella:
“Ponete mente almen com’io son bella!”
My song, I think they will be few indeed
Who’ll rightly understand your sense,
So difficult and complex is your speech.
So if by chance it comes to pass
That you should find yourself with some
Who do not grasp it well at all,
I pray you then, dear newborn song,
Take courage again and say to them:
“Consider at least how fair I am!”
Here, Dante, the learned poet he is, knows what the ancient Greeks meant by mimesis: “not only the portrayal or description of visible and tangible things, but more especially the expression of a mood or feeling, hence the (to a modern) paradox that music is the most imitative of the arts.”
When Christianity began to collapse in Europe in the Nineteenth Century, cultural critics such as Matthew Arnold looked to art to reorient society. Given that religions arguably originate in the experience and attendant creativity around shamanism, Arnold’s notion, knowingly or not, goes back to archaic roots. Here’s a contemporary example of the art spirit inspiring religion, again, the Church of St. John Coltrane.