Friday, September 28, 2012

Hounds of Love

"I have always been a coward."

"Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake."

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Prose is a discipline, poetry a liberation. You're a fool to think you need one and not the other.

Contradiction, Seduction, Humor

Wittgenstein said that "the civil status of a contradiction" constitutes the philosophical problem. Deleuze and Guattari said there are no contradictions, "only degrees of humor." I have said that the poet's problem is "the civil status of seduction". But what if there are no seductions? Only degrees of...

(Suggestions for a pangrammatical supplement for "humor" are welcome. Humor is to knowledge as ____________ is to power.)

UPDATE: Here's a really good hint.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


C. W. Eckersberg, ca. 1815
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Martinus Rørbye, 1835
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Giorgio de Chirico, 1911-1912

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Comparative Playground Reform

Here's an exercise we might do. Take Alan Hammond's "Playground Injuries: Statistics and Prevention" and compare it to the "poem" that appears on page 3 of Invisible Bride, which appeared in the journal No.

What makes Hammond's piece prose and Tony's piece poetry? Does it make sense to say that the difference is that Tony "versifies"? If so, what do we mean by that? The answer is going to be, I think, that Hammond writes with a kind of institutional earnestness that Tony does not. The poem "writhes", as I recently said, in its institutional constraints. But how does it manage this act of turning against the immediacy of the playground, and the obviousness of the need for playground reform?


"...the failure of the poem to reach the objective right margin of the page is for me one of the almost definitional ways poetry makes absence felt as a presence." (Ben Lerner)

"[Poetry is] lineated. It’s just that. A three-hour class on what is a prose poem is? A waste of time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be prose, or that prose can’t be poetry—but for all practical, speaking purposes, it’s right-flush margin or it’s lineated. It’s so simple. What is all this postmodern complicated bullshit?" (Mary Ruefle, HT Andrew Shields)

It can't be lineation. I'm not sure what Ben Lerner means by "the objective right margin" (the edge of the page? i.e., not the imaginary line where the text "returns" to the left margin.) In any case, there are too many examples of poetry, as distinct from prose, that does not depend on lineation. (At least lineation conceived of as a line return that stops short of the right margin.)

There's a difference between what Tony Tost did in Invisible Bride and what he did in Johnny Cash's American Recordings. And also a difference between the non-lineated passages of Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw and what he did in Leaving the Atocha Station. That difference is the prose/poetry distinction, though all these works have right-flush margins.

Or here's an easy case: the introduction to Waldrop's Curves to the Apple vs. the actual pieces in The Reproduction of Profiles. Again, all right-flush margins but no question about what is prose and what is poetry. Much of Kate Greenstreet's "56 Days" has right-flush margins and is clearly poetry, not prose. Or compare Lisa Robertson's Seven Walks with Nilling: all the margins are flush but the former is poetry the latter is not. (The distinction is probably most subtle and most interesting in Nilling's "Time in the Codex" and "Lastingness", which might easily be confused with prose poems if it did not say "prose essays" on the cover.)

More and more I think Robertson is right that poetry is writing that "innovates its receivers". Prose is writing that does not. (This is also what Merleau-Ponty probably meant when he talked about "founding a new universality" with a "poetry of human relations".)

Another great example: Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations vs. Heidegger's Being and Time. Wittgenstein himself said philosophy should be written like poetry. And I think if we take a moment to seriously consider the "implied reader" in those two books, one of them is clearly being innovated while the other is merely being "convened", if you will, i.e., addressed as conventional academic subject.

The difference between poetry and prose is one thing. The difference between poetry and philosophy is another. As a contrast to prose, real philosophy is on the same side page as poetry. That's an important clue to what poetry is.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Strong View of Poetry

I've compared Lisa Robertson's poetics to Irving Layton's before. Here is a paragraph from Layton's "Poets: The Conscience of Mankind" that is worth comparing to the paragraph I quoted from Robertson's "Prosody of the Citizen" in my last post.

Poetry opposes the totality of the self to the creeping totalitarianism of the twentieth century. The pressures on the individual to simplify and abstract, to deaden his senses, and to live either in his brains or in his loins, are becoming more and more difficult to withstand and resist. In the face of these pressures, poetry affirms that life must be enjoyed in all its delicious complexity. It says to the harassed men and women of today: you must live fully and experience all that you can; only in that way will you be living humanly. A great poet said it a long time ago: we must all be born again. Modern life, with its specialization and division of labour, is turning each of into anatomical and physiological fragments — a brain, an eye, a nose, an arm or a leg. We must somehow find a way to re-assemble these into a human being. I believe that the reading and writing of poetry is a necessary start in the process of reassembling.

Layton's essay is from 1963, which offers us an interesting (if of course entirely constructed) line of historical development from Ezra Pound's "The Serious Artist" (1913) to Robertson's "Prosody of the Citizen" almost a hundred years later, with Layton right in the middle. We go from poetry's foundational role in the ethics, to its opposition to totalitarianism, to its "urgent social abjection". It is important to notice that Robertson and Layton agree on poetry as the "beginning" of something, and both I think mean the beginning of being human. (Layton seems to be quoting Jesus on the need to be "born again"; Robertson gets her concept of "natality" from Arendt.) But isn't it curious that they all (including Pound) have such high hopes (and desperate needs) for poetry? Why should it be so important to write verse? Does our ability to "live humanly" really depend on writing down lines of words that form strophes and then arranging these into poems? Is our humanity threatened, these days, by the palpable absence of poetry in public life? Or are our needs, along with our humanity, changing?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Shapely Urgency?

In his comment to my last post, Andrew asks what role verse plays in my definition of poetry. How important is prosody in our understanding of whether an "emotional notation" is a poem? How important, indeed, is the actual writing of lines of words on the pages of books and magazines? In answering it, let me turn to an essay by Lisa Robertson that has occupied my attention since I read it this summer in her collection Nilling. Here's a key passage:

What do poems have to do with an ethics of conviviality? The urgent social abjection of poetry might act as shelter to a gestured vernacular. Covertly the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution. In poems and through vernaculars citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, which is anybody’s. Here my use of the word poem parts from the conventions of aesthetic autonomy that have resulted from commodity culture’s limits and heroisms, to propose that the poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers. The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics. ("Prosody of the Citizen")

It is still unclear to me whether Robertson is here trying to open the word "poem" to a meaning that goes beyond the "mere" arrangement of words. That is, I don't know if she wants to make citizens capable of some sort of general poetry, implicit in their speech and gestures, requiring no specific act of "writing emotions down". But it does seem clear that, as the title of the essay suggests (leave aside the fact that she un-titled it for the collection), she believes that this "shapely urgency" is in fact a form of verse.

But what is "verse"? Do we not just move the question "What is poetry?" to this new question by tying it explicitly to the art of versification? I prefer to think of versification (the "turning" of phrase, also the root meaning of "strophe") as essential to the art of "writing emotions down". That is, as I said on Monday, you can't bring to presence how institutions make us feel without turning, bending, or twisting experience. When we writhe, if you will, in the grip of institutions we are, willy-nilly, making poems.

A poem is simply a confrontation of feeling with emotion, a confrontation of how we actually feel with how we are supposed to feel. Any such confrontation is a poem. But it is only possible in verse. It may be that, given "the prose of the world", only poetry, i.e., lines of verse literally written down on the page and read silently to ourselves, allows us to experience freedom. All other forms of communication (or even community) are impositions of feeling on experience.

That's my long answer to Andrew's question. Still thinking it through, though. So comments are more than welcome.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What is a Poem?

Poems are what poets make. This may seem trivial, but it means much more than "philosophies are what philosophers make". On days when I feel like my intellectual life has been wasted, I remind myself that I'm much closer than I was a decade ago (and perhaps even very close) to having a good answer to the question, What is a poem? Also, these days, I'm even approaching an understanding of why poetry is important, i.e., why knowing what a poem is is a real accomplishment. That makes me feel better, which, not incidentally, is exactly what poetry is supposed to do.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Poetry and Politics, Strophes and Institutions

Let's say, following Kant, that intuition is the way things are given to us in experience, perhaps the fact that things are given immediately to us, or that we know some things immediately. And let's then call institution the way people are captivated by experience, the act of capturing them immediately, or the way some people have power immediately. And since remarks are the compositional atoms of philosophy, through which intuitions are brought to our notice through marks on the page, i.e., "philosophy is the art of writing concepts down", we can think of a strophe as the means by which the poet brings institutions to presence.

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. The purpose of this is to "turn, bend, twist" experience, and thus to notice the grip of institutions on experience. Institutions are the way we are captured before we even begin to feel and act. Poetry cannot liberate us as such (only a revolutionary politics can do that, if anything can), but it can make the emotion present to us. It can extricate the feeling from the grip of the emotion that the institution imposes on us.

When Lisa Robertson talks about "the prosody of the citizen", I imagine this versification of institutional prose is what she has in mind.

The Agents of Destruction are Many

I'm still reading Irving Layton's Engagements. It's sometimes refreshing to read a straightforward invocation of art as the fight against everything that is deadening to life and experience. To wit:

The agents of destruction are many. Here are the names of several that modern poets have observed: trivialization, mindlessness, conformity, the loss of self in a civilization that grows increasingly purposeless and routine. Mental breakdowns are becoming more frequent and Western civilization seems to be enveloped in a Freudian sadness that assumes the world has become one vast sanitarium or hospital.

For a large number of people life has lost its savour and zest. The joy of living has gone out of them. They are weighed down by inexpressible cares and worries; they are repressed, anxious, and suffer from feelings of unreality. (47-8)

And poetry is the answer, Layton suggests: it "opposes the totality of the self to the creeping totalitarianism of the twentieth century." (I like that way of putting it a lot.) "It says to the harassed men and women of today: you must live fully and experience all that you can; only in the that way will you be living humanly." (48) It reminds me of that passage in Lorca's essay on the duende that gave me pause last year.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Darkness over the Surface of the Deep

"Poems should not produce enthusiasm," I said recently. "Likewise, philosophy should eschew profundity." But this conflicts with something I said seven years ago:

Truth is the first virtue of belief; justice is the first virtue of desire; perspicuity is the first virtue of thought; intensity is the first virtue of feeling. The precision of objects fosters (but does not guarantee) truth; the precision of subjects fosters justice; the precision of concepts fosters clarity in suffering (perspicuity); the precision of emotions foster enthusiasm in suffering (intensity).

Most of that still holds. It doesn't matter here, but I'd rather talk about the precision of concepts and emotions today than the precision of objects and subjects. In any case, I had pretended there is a substantive distinction to be made between clarity and perspicuity, one that parallels the difference between enthusiasm and intensity. My recent discovery suggests a different likeness: profundity is to perspicuity as enthusiasm is to intensity. (Clarity finds its complement in something like tension, tightness, like the string of a lyre or bow.)

This allows us, perhaps, to recover some of the "depth" of philosophy, along with some of the "raptures" of poetry. Consider: we can see the bottom of a lake if the water is clear and the surface is still. The depth of philosophy does not depend on having "gotten to the bottom of it" but of "seeing through" it, all the way down. That can certainly seem like a kind of profundity.

How would that work in poetry. Well, the surface is to poetry as the appearance is to philosophy. Notice that the mind appears ("seems") deep precisely when it is still and clear, like water (sages everywhere agree). So, too, might the heart surface enthusiastically when it is stirred and tight. (In Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises people "get tight", i.e., drunk.) Philosophy stills the mind. Poetry moves the heart.

When you arrive, by way of a sophisticated pangrammatical computation, at a juxtaposition of platitudes, you know you've done it right.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Thesis XI (b)

(for Andrew Shields)

The poets have only ever obeyed history more precisely; the point is precision in our understanding of the world.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Thesis XI

The philosophers have only understood the world more precisely; the point is precision in our obedience to history.