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Friday, August 16, 2013

Notes on Gerald L. Bruns: The Material of Poetry

Obviously I made use of Bruns' concept of the ‘fictional poem’ in writing the poems of Rene Van Valckenborch in A Translated Man, and quote the following as a footnote, ironically refuted by my invented editor: ‘Bruns says, in a suggestive passage: ‘To be sure, the difference between a poem in a novel and a poem in an anthology is apt to be empirically indiscernible. To speak strictly, a fictional poem would be a poem held in place less by literary history than by one of the categories that the logical world keeps in supply: conceptual models, possible worlds, speculative systems, hypothetical constructions in all their infinite variation – or maybe just whatever finds itself caught between quotation marks, as (what we call) “reality” often is.’ (105-6)

The only thing I agree with my fiction is that this is ‘suggestive’. As are other parts of The Material of Poetry, in ways that I think will be useful to my critical work on the forms of poetics and the poetics of form, and may help to draw the two themes together and also to ‘deal with’ conceptual poetry as a phenomenon. (This is to ignore most of the book, the wonderful chapter on the materiality of sound poetry, with its enjoyable CD!) ‘My idea is that what is philosophically interesting is a poem that is not self-evidently a poem but something that requires an argument, theory, or conceptual context as a condition of being experienced as a poem (or of being experienced at all), as if poetry were, as I think it is, a species of conceptual art, where the relation between theory and practice is a / two-way street. In reading a poem, one might experience a theory of what poetry is.’ (16-17) Written just before conceptual writing appeared (though he quotes Dan Graham on the final pages) this is an evocation of poetics (as I define it as a speculative, writerly activity) refunctioned as readerly conceptualisation. As form is its content, so theory is the poem. The interinanimation of theory and practice embodied in poetics (an embodiment that also dissolves that opposition in my reading) turns poetry itself into a species of poetics. (I have always made the point that all poems are models for themselves, that poetics is inherent in the poem, even if not articulated.) I suppose I have trouble with the force of the word ‘requires’ there, but that disquiet is off-set a little (no, a lot) by the final sentence with its emphasis upon experience and thus discovery of the theory in the text. The reader is, as Muriel Rukeyser says he or she is: a witness.

He brings it home (for me, to British innovative practice) by referring to Allen Fisher’s poetics, which is in part a subject of my proposed book (twice, in its current projected form). He says: ‘As the British poet Allen Fisher has pointed out, poets do not mindlessly write poems; they develop … ‘project schemas’ and ‘conceptual programs’ that give their poems (even improvised or experimental ones) a kind of reason.’ (17) He’s quoting ‘The Poetics of the Complexity Manifold’ by Fisher, on which I have a long footnote in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry.) Bruns detects that philosophy (his problem not mine) will have to avoid the universal and embrace contingency in its engagement with poetry (and I’d say with poetics too). If these schema in poetry proffer a ‘reason’ to poetry (its conceptual core), Bruns asks: ‘What kind of reason exactly? Almost certainly it is one that appears historically from below rather than one that descends transcendentally from above – and one that arrives from the future and dovetails unexpectedly with what comes down to us from the past’. (This is strangely consonant with Derek Attridge’s notions of innovation.) The appearance of conceptual poetry might be one of those ‘reasons’, and one of the things that comes from the past; the Dan Graham piece is from the 1960s. (17) As Bruns says also: ‘The motto of art history is that anything is possible, but not everything is possible at every moment.’ (22) Could we substitute the word ‘poetics’ for ‘art history’ here? Possibly, because a few pages later he amplifies on this theme, with relation to the poetics of Steve McCaffery and quotes him: ‘ “Poetic research into the endless possibilities of language” means, anarchically, that anything goes. Nothing is forbidden or is to be stipulated in advance: The principles, rules, methods, or practices of writing (the ‘project schemas’ and ‘conceptual programs’) are to be invented as you go and discarded upon use.’ (24) After this little pronouncement, which sounds half-Paul Feyerabend and half-Lyotard on the Postmodern Condition, he quotes McCaffery himself; ‘I have no steady poetics’. (24) Of course, a poet like McCaffery may have a wobbling blancmange of a poetics, but no poetics is steady or it ceases to be poetics. After looking at Dan Graham’s ‘Schema March 1966’ – is the re-appearance of the word ‘schema’ coincidental? – which he calls ‘a poem machine’ for its schematic potentiality, he speaks of ‘poetry that reconceptualiszes itself in the process of being composed’; Fisher’s projects come to mind here in their process-showing more than some conceptual works which are often monolithic, but the point is: all poetry is conceptual poetry. More generally (and more usefully for my argument) he concludes: ‘The history of poetry is a history of the reconceptualization of poetry – and of language as well.’ This seems to be useful as a way of dealing with that qualified ‘anything goes’. ‘If poetry has a purpose, it is to keep history – and not just its own – from coming to an end.’ (all quotes here 113)

16th August 2013

Bruns, Gerald L. The Material of Poetry. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2005