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Friday, August 30, 2013

Notes on the Poetics of Rosmarie Waldrop: Form

Rosmarie Waldrop, in her poetics, seldom mentions form, or rather, she is more likely to mention language as the determining obsession of her work. As she confesses of one poetics piece, ‘Language had taken the place of God’, though it is a central and absent place. (D, 183) The title of her early PhD thesis, Against Language? and the title of her mid-career selected poems, Another Language ¸both attest to a lasting conviction that language is her poetic focus, and to two complementary aspects of her poetics. Firstly, being ‘against language’ means that formal manipulation is paramount, as she argues of European experimental writers like Helmut Heissenbüttel to whom she is heir. It secondly means being dedicated to techniques of collage (‘the splice of life’ as she wittily calls it (D, 211)) and to processes of palimpsest-like ‘writing through’ or ‘writing back’ to master and mistress texts, as it were, that can only be conceptualised as formal actions, as simultaneous acts of finding form and losing form, as my work (after Derek Attridge) puts it. These processes result, quite precisely, in ‘another language’.

She has an amusing anecdote about content and form, derived from her own early practice. Finding that all her poems were ‘about’ her mother, she decided to embrace collage, only to find that the poems produced by such a formal process still seemed to be about her mother.  She quotes Tristan Tzara’s teasingly enigmatic conclusion to his instructions for making a Dada cut-up poem: ‘The poem will resemble you.’ (D, 173) She interpreted this inevitable thematic resemblance as permission for operational freedom: ‘This frees us to work on form, which is what one can work on.’ (D, 211) Content is either unavoidable, as unavoidable as a mother, or it emerges from formal manipulation and experimental processes.

She is clear about this in her poetics, but form often appears as a minor chord in her theoretical voicings, as though perhaps the argument had already been fought and won or that it is, in some sense, obvious. Yet it is still axiomatic. In her sceptical, self-questioning contribution to a colloquium on the ‘politics of form’ her tenth ‘thesis’ reads: ‘The poem will not work through its content, not through a message, which in any case would speak only to the already converted, but through its form.’ (173) It is not surprising that the ‘excursion’ that follows this ‘thesis’ quotes both Brecht on alienation techniques and defamiliarisation and Adorno on art’s formal separation from reality. (Note also that she is experimenting with the forms of poetics as she develops her poetics of form to keep it speculative and conjectural via ‘theses’ that are questioned or complicated by ‘excursions’.)

More surprising, are the literary exemplars displayed in her second ‘excursion’ to thesis 10, for she quotes a passage by Reznikoff from Testimony and (less surprisingly) Heissenbüttel’s ‘Final Solution’, a text that (other than its title) doesn’t offer its theme, reflecting, in Waldrop’s interpretation, post-War West Germany’s quiestist ignoring of the horrors of the Holocaust. The content works through its form: ‘Its power lies in the fact that the text does not state what it was “they”’ – the poem uses this pronoun for the unspeakable Nazis which implies the false division with ‘us’ – ‘thought of what it was they could get the people to be against’, i.e., the absent Jews. (D, 177) Perhaps to avoid an obsessiveness of theme, she does not use Reznikoff’s Holocaust is her Reznikoff exhibit, where the dry language of reportage is arranged, lineated and offered as an aesthetic text. She instead refers to Testimony, Reznikoff’s earlier work that adopts the same approach to documentary texts about the violence of nineteenth century America (notably, industrial accidents). This work, which will re-appear in my discussion of John Seed, is praised for the way ‘Reznikoff goes against our ex/pectation of empathy. He lets the flat language of the news note stand as is, but accumulates the instances into a testimony’. (D, 175-6) Although Waldrop does not draw out the formalist implications of these techniques, offering them as examples in which a Brechtian defamiliarisation is effected through an Adornoesque autonomy from social reality (thus operating as a critique of it), both texts work through form; indeed they are instances of where forms are made out of meanings. As she concludes of Heissenbüttel’s text: ‘Nothing but this circling around an unnamed middle,’ in this case the Holocaust, or rather complicit Germans’ suppressed or unspeakable reaction to it, ‘could convey so much ambivalence’. (D, 177) Formal circling (or textual deformation and/or transformation) leads to a new meaning (characteristically for Waldrop one of semantic and affective complexity: not a message but ambivalence). Forms made out of meaning then constitute a new meaning. Being ‘against language’ indeed suggests, and leads to, ‘another language’.

In ‘Form and Discontent’ Waldrop comments both on ‘form’ as we’ve traced it thus far and on ‘forms’, i.e., particularly usages. (I make much of this distinction in my on-going work on form, as you will see.) She speaks of ‘wild forms’ as an antidote to ‘organic’ form, and of contemporary formally investigative poetry ‘reversing’ the movement towards the organic. (D, 199) She traces a Romantic interest in form, much as my work elsewhere sketches out a history, though she prefers to concentrate on Goethe, say, rather than Schiller, and argues that in that broad aestheticist tradition ‘the form of the work’ came to be seen as ‘determined by its conception, is an “inner” form, which lies behind the surface of the actual work and must be felt rather than measured.’ (D, 199) For Waldrop, ‘form’ is suspect as a term because allied to such organicism, suggesting some power growing and hidden in the work. I have some sympathy with this caution but prefer to ally conceptions of ‘form’ with identifications of actual ‘forms’, wild or otherwise, to maintain a sense of the materiality of the text, while still being able to work with a more generalised notion of form. While I think she is wrong to believe that the notion that ‘The cluster of conception/ content/ meaning became primary and determined the form, the expression’ was as universal as she claims (D, 199), of course, the similar notorious remark, ‘Form is never more than an extension of content’ was central to mid-century New American Poetics (and 1960-70s British open field writing). It carried the joint imprimatur of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, exponents of accelerated free verse. They were definitely thinking of improvisatory composition, perhaps in analogy with music or art where it might be appropriate to say that form is what results from activity during a performance or mark-making event, though the ‘translation’ into literary application adds a semantic element that relieves such a formulation of its radicality. The most coherent expression of ‘organic form’ as a free verse poetics is contained in Denise Levertov’s essay of that title, though Waldrop doesn’t tackle it head on (which I might at some point).

For Waldrop the worst aspects of this version of ‘organic’ form involve the elevation of metaphor as ‘the dominant rhetorical device’ (which I do not see as necessarily essential to an emphasis upon form, but then I do not take the ‘organic’ very seriously and never have). (D, 199) ‘Wild forms’ are her counter-examples to this tradition, since they ‘stress … the horizontal, the axis of composition’ rather than the metaphorical. (D, 196) She lists contemporary wild forms: an emphasis on the visual, as in Susan Howe’s work; an emphasis upon the mathematical, as in Jacques Roubaud’s Oulipean work; and an emphasis upon ‘discontinuity, leaps on the level of syntax, of logic, of grammar,’ as in writers as varied as Carla Harryman and Mei-mei Bersenbrugge. (D, 197) And, of course, in her own work. But ‘wild forms’ still involve formal (if transformational) manipulations, if only in their rejection of (development beyond) free verse.

Waldrop’s (and others’) attraction to prose forms involves a move away from organic form, this time not in terms of its content dictating form, or even of its supposed drive towards rhetorics of metaphor, but due to its dissociation with ‘voice’: ‘When “free verse” took a step away from meter, it was a step away from the oral’, she says (in contradiction to the ‘organic’ theories that tied it to voice). ‘The prose poem moves yet farther in this direction. Its sound and rhythm are subtler, less immediate, less “memorable”. If it counts, it counts words or sentences rather than stresses or syllables.’ (D, 264)

 Work Cited

Waldrop, Rosmarie. Dissonance (if you are interested). Tuscalosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005.    

Work Recommended

 Nikolai Duffy’s new Shearsman volume Relative Strangeness: Reading Rosmarie Waldrop is an excellent short exposition of Waldrop’s life and work as publisher, translator and writer. 

See all the links to The Meaning of Form here.  


Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places