Archive for the ‘poetry criticism’ Tag
Despite its being the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Sunday, I had decided to, here, pass over the event in silence. Then, The Griffin Trust website posted Fanny Howe’s “9/11”.
I was struck—as I often am—by the commentary accompanying the poem:
Is it virtually impossible to write about certain events that are too immense, too devastating, too charged on so many levels? To go into the specifics, one risks being maudlin, self-absorbed, short-sighted, too emotional. To try to broaden the discussion and perhaps recklessly try to scale something to the universal, one risks being too political, polarizing or simply missing the mark.
Howe’s poem, of course, avoids being too “self-absorbed” and “too political”—by “suggesting the heart of the event’s impact, is how it affects who and what we love.” I wonder what the commentator thinks of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony or Holocaust.
By way of contrast and to broaden and concretize the discussion, let me offer these two poetic texts that both fail to escape the commentator’s extremes: “The Tao of 9/11” by Peter Dale Scott (that both goes “into specifics” and is “too political”) and one of my own, excerpted from a longer work, that, too, is “too specific,” composed, as it was, in real time.
Writing a poetry including history is no easy matter, and the question how far the “heart of the matter” escapes history’s particulars and the machinations of power no less demanding.
McGill-Queen’s University Press has just issued a collection of criticism on the work of Robert Bringhurst, Listening for the Heartbeat of Being: The Arts of Robert Bringhurst, edited by Brent Wood of the University of Toronto and Mark Dickinson of OCAD University.
I therefore seems timely to repost a link to a short essay on Robert Bringhurst’s poetry, which can be read here.
The Véhicule Press Blog has posted a short extract from Jeremy Noel-Tod’s upcoming book of criticism The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into British Poetry that’s woven a snarling thread on Facebook where it was shared. It’s a thread I don’t want to get caught up in, as what concerns me, the extract’s main rhetorical ploy, comparing William Cowper’s reputation to Seamus Heaney’s, has so far gone unreflected, and to remark the ironic ahistoricism of Noel-Tod’s gesture requires more space than a Facebook comment thread.
Noel-Tod’s point is that, because Cowper and Heaney are both “rural, reflective” poets who ironise “poetry’s grand manner with conversational self-consciousness and modest domesticity,” it is imaginable that just as Cowper’s reputation has waned, so might Heaney’s. Noel-Tod seems to present as evidence of Cowper’s status, either naively or tongue-in-cheek, the passionate enthusiasm of Jane Austen’s character from Sense and Sensibility (1811), Marianne Dashwood, almost “driven wild” by Cowper’s “beautiful lines.”
Noel-Tod’s historical comparison is risibly insensitive to history. It is two very different things to be a “rural, reflective” poet in early Nineteenth Century England and in modern Northern Ireland, as the relation between country and city and the nature of that country-side itself undergo radical changes over the course of the hundred-and-fifty years the comparison elides. It is equally two different poetic gestures to ironise the grand manner of England’s Augustan poets and to write in the aftermath of Yeats, whose cold, hard late poetry had already brought to earth the self-confessed Romanticism of his early verse. Finally, to imagine that a poet’s “reputation” in 1811 is comparable to a poet’s “reputation” in 2015 is to overlook among many, many changes the crisis of High Art thematized by literary Modernism. The problem with Noel-Tod’s comparison is that it seems to assume that history, temporal distance and the difference in context this distance registers, doesn’t exist: his “Authors are in Eternity.”
The converse to Noel-Tod’s abstraction are those schools of criticism that would explain an author’s reputation in purely sociological or ideological terms, an approach that is no more true to its object than Noel-Tod’s. Marx, famously, raised the question of how art from historically and socially distant cultures, e.g. Greek tragedy, can still possess undeniable aesthetic power. Neither appeals to some transcendent human condition nor the workings of ideology satisfactorily extract us from Marx’s quandary or the claims that art can make on us. What is interesting is precisely this curious power of art in and over time, a question of perhaps more value and promise than that of “reputation.”
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.”
Recently, a friend shared a link to an interview with Australian poet Robert Adamson citing this remark on craft as a teaser: “Poetry is song, every word in every line must work, each word transcribed like a note, each line connected to a breath.”
Whatever the merits of Adamson’s poetry, this observation on the art of poetry is just plain hokey. The identification of poetry with song is threadbare and, in a sense, disingenuous, unless he really is setting words to music. Likewise, that “every word in every line must work” (though clearly intended prescriptively) states little more than the principle of parsimony, an element of literary competence, the assumption that no element of a work of art is nonfunctional. When he goes on to equate words with notes in a song, he departs from the identification or metaphor he starts with (or, more charitably, develops it along his own lines for his own purposes) as songs notate, more or less, the syllables of their words. And to “connect” each line to a breath is belated at best, questionably phonocentric at worst. Sadly, such homespun poetics appear more the rule than the exception.
Instead of equating poetry with song one could as easily characterize the recitation of a poem as a dance, not of the whole body but, at a minimum, the vocal apparatus. After all, reciting a poem demands the articulation of the phonemes that constitute its utterance by means of the complex but no less describable movement of the vocal organs and their parts. The written text of a poem imagined this way is not a musical score but a choreography. Of course, reciting a poem demands more than just speaking its words: posture (standing or sitting, for example), facial expression, and gesture, all bodily movements, are included, all aspects of the poem’s performance here conceived as dance.
The connection between poetry and dance is at least as time-honoured as that of poetry with song. The traditional manner of describing a poem’s prosody is scansion, the analysis of the line into its constituent feet and their stresses. The study of scansion is inherited from the days when education included the parsing of Greek and Latin verses both in terms of their grammar and their meter. The study of poetry in school finds an important precursor in the memorization of the Homeric epics in antique Athens, where schoolboys would learn the poems through a combination of stamping their feet and gesturing. This seated dance mimicked the more recognizable one of the tragic chorus whose dance steps were timed to its chanted lines, a performance descended from the ritualistic origins of classical drama. Those imitators of Greek culture, the Romans, not only adopted the pedagogical practices of their models, but also integrated it into their military training, wherein the legionnaires, wielding weapons and wearing armour twice the weight of the usual, drilled chanting and stepping in time, a performance in line with the diction of The Iliad that describes the fighting of its heroes as a war dance. This relation of scansion to archaic rite doubtless prompted Ezra Pound’s observation that “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”
However illuminating these reflections on the poetic foot may be, that scansion past and present pupils sweated through and rolled their eyes over was already outmoded in the 1920s when the Russian Formalists began to apply the powerfully precise methods of modern linguistic analysis to the meter and rhythm of poetry, rising to the challenges of establishing a “science” of literary study and of finding a way to appreciate and meaningfully discuss the radically novel Zaum poetry their friends the Futurist poets had just started composing. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with an introductory linguistics textbook or the application of linguistic methodology to the acoustics of poetry will likely wince at well-meaning but ponderously quaint pronouncements on the poetic art, such as that by Adamson.
But even “scientifically” precise descriptions of a poem’s sound can never escape the abstractness that lends them their power of articulation. What opened my ears to poetic meter was hearing Yeats recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Regardless of the merits of Yeats’ performance, one can’t help but discern the “tune” (as Yeats called it) that orchestrates his recitation. Metrical systems are only the faintly waling ghosts of the melody a poem is sung to. When one combines this understanding with Carlyle’s observation that “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it: not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent;—the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say” then by a constant, arduous practice of “close listening” the music of poetry and even everyday speech fills the ear and refines and quickens the appreciation of poetry. As Pound admonishes in his Treatise on Metre: “LISTEN to the sound it makes.”
(An application of the notions sketched here can be read in my appreciation of the sound of a short poem by Elaine Equi.)
“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.
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 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.
In an interview that resurfaced from the collective unconscious of the internet’s servers, Sean Haldane, poet and clinical neuropsychologist, 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 Andrews‘ Lip 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.
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.