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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Robert Sheppard: Poetics 2

Poetics through and after Modernism: Some Texts

Given the range of forms and functions, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive survey of post-1900 world poetics (even limiting itself to poetry), but such a survey might include some of the following documents (arranged here mostly in chronological order and excluding those from the North Atlantic Anglophone world, to be touched on in the next posting on this subject). They are drawn from four representative anthologies containing poetics amongst other kinds of writing; I attempt to describe the form as well as the function of each. (footnote 1) (I mostly limit myself to one item per writer for the sake of economy and they may not be the most famous examples of his or her poetics. For example, the letters of Rilke referred to next do not come from Rilke’s celebrated Letters to a Young Poet (written 1903-08) but from disparate sources.)

The high modernist period offers a rich range of poetics. Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Three Letters’ (1903, 1907, 1925) meditate on lessons he learnt from Rodin, the role of imagery in his verse, and on his particular modernity. (Cook 2004: 35-40) On the other hand, with manifestic ferocity, Filippo Marinetti’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature (1912) offers a vectoral and energised poetics adequate to the coming century of total war. (Cook 2004: 56-60) Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘The New Spirit and the Poets’ (1917) similarly bristles with confidence for a modernity that would embrace technology. (Cook 2004: 69-74) Tristan Tzara’s ‘Note on Poetry’ (1919) mimes, in its non-rational style, in its jumps from polemic to poetry, the irrational poetics that is gestured towards in the ‘note’ itself, in favour of unbridled, non-academic creative imaginative force. (Cook 2004: 91-3) Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Toward Explaining Heteronymy’ (1915-1935) is a composite text of manuscript fragments and an abandoned ‘preface’, which explains not only his use of heteronyms – a word he coined to account for his invention of authors – but his sense of essential selflessness that enabled him to single-handedly concoct a modernist Portuguese literature. (Gibbons 1989: 5-15)

In Russia, Velimir Klebnikov’s ‘On Poetry’ and ‘On Contemporary Poetry’ (1919, 1920) offer accounts of the symbolic sonic qualities possible in non-semantic poetry (Cook 2004: 94-6), while Vladimir Mayakovsky’s How Are Verses Made? (1926) sketches the poetics of the industrialised post-Revolutionary free verse poetry that he was exploring. (Cook 2004: 144-151) Against this, Osip Mandelstam, in ‘The Word & Culture’ (1921), specifically rejects the ‘invention’ of a poetics, recognising instead the radicality of classical and Christian tradition, while paradoxically taking the unlikely model of Verlaine as the modern synthetic poet. (Gibbons 2004: 16-22) Boris Pasternak’s blandly entitled ‘Some Statements’ (1922) is a collection of seven autonomous vignettes, ranging from reflections on art as an absorptive sponge not as an effusive fountain, through to thoughts on the miraculous trans-historical transference of experience effected via literary translation. (Gibbons: 23-27) Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ (1935) compares lyric poets who evolve and those who do not. (Cook 2004: 215-222)

Away from its famous ‘loud’ manifestos - manifestos may contain poetics but there are not in themselves poetics - Surrealism’s poets were still vocal about their practice. Paul Éluard’s ‘Poetry’s Evidence’ (1932) argues for Surrealist imagery as evidence of an irrational imagination; André Breton’s ‘The Automatic Message’ (1933) is more polemical and attempts to define the central Surrealist technique of automatic writing. (Cook 2004: 182-191) Federico García Lorca’s ‘Play and Theory of the Duende’ (1933) is his famous account of the indefinable quality and performative attitude found in spirited flamenco song and dance which is not one of technique but of primal creativity, not to be feigned or counterfeited, taught or learned. (Cook 2004: 201-7) Antonio Machado’s ‘Notes on Poetry’, is an assemblage of notes, probably made in 1924, to which he appends an introduction that confirms their conjectural and tentative nature, before he considers issues such as his distrust of the use of metaphor and the deceptions and illuminations of ‘images’ in poetry to define a poet’s inner state, as well as arguments for the abolition of the anecdotal in favour of the necessary inter-subjectivity of lyric. (Gibbons 1989: 161-9) Luis Cernuda’s public pronouncement, ‘Words Before a Reading’ (1935) sees poetry as fixing the ephemerality of beauty but this does not preclude the exercise of the daemonic, the very power that called Lorca called ‘duende’. (Gibbons 1989: 42-7)

Paul Valéry, late in his career, was elected a Professor of Poetics; his misleadingly entitled ‘Poetry and Abstract Thought’ (1939) actually contrasts poetic language and ordinary language, the pedestrian qualities of prose, the Terpsichorean qualities of verse. (Cook 2004: 237-243) Fellow Frenchman, René Char’s ‘The Formal Share’ (1943-4) is a series of elliptical numbered paragraphs that it is not possible to paraphrase, since they (deliberately) approach the condition of poetry, perhaps even reach the condition of prose poetry, although it is clear that writing is an anxious activity that nevertheless causes joy. (Gibbons 1989: 59-64)

Post war stirrings in the Francophone West Indies produced not only Aimé Césaire’s ‘Poetry and Knowledge’ (1945), which exceeded his earlier apologia for the poetry of ‘negritude’, and argues for poetry as a particular form of knowledge in contrast to scientific knowledge, but whose vocabulary is still tinged with the vocabulary of surrealism (Cook 2004: 275-287), but also Edouard Glissant’s ‘Earth’ (late 1950s), which argues for an oppositional post-negritude poetry. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 416-17) However, Derek Walcott’s ‘The Muse of History’ (1974) rejects the oppositional stance of earlier Caribbean writers, in favour of using the literary resources of the great traditions of the colonisers. (Cook 2004: 420-436)

Eugenio Montale’s ‘Intentions’ (1946) is an ‘Imaginary Interview’, a form that risks insincerity, but is actually a free-ranging enquiry into the development of this Italian poet, which he sees as an escape from a ‘bell-jar’ into a poetry of contingency, with a restrained, even inelegant, diction, a quest precisely to find what the subject of poetry might be. (Gibbons 1989: 65-70) Written in the shadow of the Second World War, as was Montale’s piece, the Greek poet George Seferis’ ‘A Poet’s Journal’, written in 1946 and 47, traces his resurgence, after long wartime silence, to re-engage the contract between the human body and nature. In part a recounting of the writing of his poem ‘Thrush’, he emphasises what he calls leaving the poem to dry, a strategy to avoid over-editing. (Gibbons 1989: 71-81) Paul Celan’s ‘The Meridian Speech’ (1960) considers the spectral human presence that there might be in a difficult Jewish post-Holocaust poetry, i.e., Celan’s own, as a lonely turning of the breath of utterance towards otherness and newness, as Celan effected within his adopted language German. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 408-9; Celan 1999: 37-55) Nicanor Parra’s ‘Test’ (c.1964-66) considers the anti-poem written by the revolutionary anti-poet. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 423-24)

French poet Henri Chopin’s ‘Poésie Sonore’ (1969) is an appropriately slender statement about sound poetry, predicting the triumph of a non-semantic poetry of pure sound, (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 427), while Denis Roche’s ‘Le Mécrit’ (1972) articulates the experimentalism of the Tel Quel group in an obscene contention of the world of convention. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 429-430)

The East German poet Günter Kunert wrote a short piece ‘Why Write’ (1972) which answered its own question (although the title lacks a question mark): ‘to bear the world as it steadily crumbles into nothingness’. (Gibbons 1989: 136-8; 138) West German Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s ‘A Modest Proposal for the Protection of Young People from the Products of Poetry’ (1976) is a Swiftian attack upon the standardised school and university curricula that teach correct interpretations of poetry to the young. (Cook 2004: 447-455) Czeslaw Milosz’ ‘On Hope’ (1983) builds out of an apocalyptic literary history an unfashionable theory about the possibility of poetry as part of a developing positive human consciousness. (Cook 2004: 494-502)

Recent non-European perspectives are evinced in Jeremy Cronin’s ‘“Even under the Rine of Terror…”: Insurgent South African Poetry’ (1988) which is a study of oral poetics under South African apartied. (Cook 2004: 523-532) Sujata Bhatt’s ‘Search for My Tongue’ (1988) is a bilingual poem about inter-linguistic identity. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 443-446) On the other hand, Adonis’ ‘Preface’ (1992) expounds his sense of exile within his own language, Arabic, but nevertheless argues for an Arabic modernism. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 441-443) If these examples are supplemented by the fin-de-siècle statements collected in 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium, a special issue of Boundary 2, edited by Charles Bernstein, which features poets domiciled variously at locations ranging from Martinique to China, Finland to Argentina, Croatia to Morocco, one can acquire a general sense of the international impact of poetics since modernism. It includes one of the documents of Pierre Joris’ millennial ‘nomadic’ poetics.

However, the prolific Australian poet John Kinsella’s ‘Almost a Dialogue with Lyn Hejinian: Quotations and Phantom Limbs…’ (2000), while drawn from another source, serves as a reminder of the limitations even of inclusive but straightforward multi-nationalism and of the advantages of a trans-nationalist approach, which is to be expected of a poet who divides his time between Australia, Britain and the USA (a nomadic poetics in its own right). This hybrid prose document quotes a poem he sent to American poet Lyn Hejinian which he describes as ‘a kind of poetics’ itself, a re-membering of Hejinian’s account of her visit to an autopsy. (Herbert and Matthews 2000: 204) Kinsella’s obsession with the corporeal and the psychosomatic is textual (‘I know that the field of the page is the map of my body, of our bodies’) but the lasting impression is of his commitment to dialogic hybridity, exemplified by the ‘almost dialogue’ of his title, his various ‘quotations’ throughout, his excerpts from email discussion lists and statements, and of his instigating and collecting collaborative post-national creative writing over the world wide web: a perspective that leads from body to world, but by-passes the boundaries of both genre and geo-political territories. (Herbert and Matthews 2000: 206) This recent example of deterritorialised transnational cyberpoetics demonstrates how poetics as a mode of speculative thought is moving into new kinds of territory in the twenty-first century. Kinsella’s fascinating MUP volume of 2007, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism is a book-length collection of Kinsella’s poetics.




1. The anthologies used for this posting are: Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’ Poems from the Millennium, Volume Two: Post-War to Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, which contains a short section called ‘The Art of the Manifesto’; Jon Cook’s Poetry in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004; Reginald Gibbons’ The Poet’s Work. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, a useful book of writerly descriptions of poetics and process, and I'd like to thank my colleague Daniele Pantano for introducing it to me (and to our students), and W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis’ Strong Words. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2000, which is also one of my core books for my third poetics posting. The emphasis upon representative anthologies necessarily means the exclusion of important works of poetics, such as Vicente Huidobro’s collection of statements and essays, Manifesto Manifest. København and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999, or Jacques Roubaud’s playful Poetry, etcetera: Cleaning House. København and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006, but I felt it important to concentrate not only on readily-available volumes, but upon volumes which collect a range of poetics and demonstrate thereby its many forms in one collegiate publication.