Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Punctum, Punctuation and the Poetics of Space in John Seed’s Objectivism

John Seed doesn’t often offer his poetics for perusal, if by poetics we mean (and I mean, to the point of obsession) a speculative writerly discourse on the present (and future) forms of writing; indeed, he can be read as adhering fairly strictly to the central tenets of Objectivism, as contained in the soundbites critics extract from Zukofsky. In ‘Sincerity and Objectification’ (‘An Objective’ in its revised form), he defines the former by saying "Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody", (Zukofsky 1981: 12), while objectification relates to "the appearance of the art form as an object". (13) Objectification is the formal process that allows sincerity to appear in the poem itself; it is not a mental state, or not just a mental state, outside of the aesthetic object. ‘Technique,’ says Pound in the original formulation of this idea, ‘is the test of a man’s sincerity.’ ‘Thinking with the things as they exist’ is a recasting of William Carlos Williams’ mantra: ‘Say it: No ideas but in things’, as that in turn was a recasting of Pound’s imagist plea for a ‘direct treatment of the thing’. 

I still like William Carlos Williams’ dictionary definition of the Objectivist movement, because it reflects this: ‘It recognises the poem, apart from its meaning, to be an object to be dealt with as such. O. looks at the poem with a special eye to its structural aspect, how it has been constructed.’ The ocular metaphor suggests that the form as seen on the page might be of some significance. But Williams ends with an appeal to the intellect. ‘It arose as an aftermath of imagism … which the Objectivists felt was not specific enough, and applied to any image that might be conceived. O. concerned itself with an image more particularized yet broadened in its significance. The mind rather than the unsupported eye entered the picture.’ (Williams 1974: 582) The confusion between the eye and the mind reflects the tension in the poetics between the ‘thing’ itself (which Imagism was content with) and the form of the poem-object that treats of this ‘objective – rays of the object brought to a focus’ (Zukofsky 1981: 14), this ‘historical and contemporary particular’ (Zukofksy 1981: 12), this novel way of treating content and form.

Tim Woods recasts the objectification and sincerity binary thus: ‘What this Objectivist poetics calls for, on the one hand, is a phenomenological concentration in its insistence that poetry must get at the object, at the thing itself, while on the other hand, it must remain “true” to the object without any interference from the imperialist ego, dismissing any essentialism and calling for the “wisdom” of love or sincerity.’ (Woods 2002: 5) As he later explains, the first involves an ‘ontological poetics’ while the second involves an ‘ethical relation to the world’. (Woods 2002: 133; it is a Levinasian reading.) Or again: ‘Sincerity is that aspect of aesthetic action that respects the particulars of an object,’ reminding us again that ‘sincerity’ is not detached, in this context, from the text and text-production, (my italics: 146), while ‘Objectification … is the “formal” aspect, the poem as object-in-the-world.’ (146) Only objectification can body forth ‘sincerity’.  

Seed’s poetics hovers around the practice of two Objectivist writers, Oppen for his lyric writing, and Reznikoff for his ‘conceptual’ pieces, but that sense of the separation (but relationship) of historical particulars as being ‘sincerity’, and objectification being achieved through a series of formal manipulations of those particulars is notably strong in his conceptual works (from the newly re-discovered Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819 to the two recent volumes of Pictures from Mayhew, and not forgetting ‘Transit Depots’ in between, which is another story). See my posts on Manchester here and on Mayhew here. 

Interestingly, Seed doesn’t go back to Zukofsky’s binary but, in the ‘Afterword’, reaches out to the master of binaries, Roland Barthes (and he is such a master of them he knows how to break them, as did Zukofsky). Searching for a way of describing that ‘something else’ that Seed seeks by his framing of historical particulars, to create ‘the sense of / another reality filtering through the language of historical documents,’ (Seed 2013: 52-3) he reaches for Barthes’ distinction between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ which he makes in Camera Lucida, but Seed only cites the latter, and indeed returns to the slippery notion of the elusive ‘something’ when he summarises Barthes’ theory: ‘Through the individual photograph something shoots out at the perceiver like an arrow, pierces and wounds him. This he calls the punctum.’ (Seed 2013: 55) He then quotes Barthes: ‘A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’. (Seed 2013: 55; also at Barthes 1984: 27) Seed’s question, ‘Can a poem have a punctum?’ is rendered rhetorical by two impressive fragments of Reznikoff. (55) Yes, we might agree. 

It is worth examining this source in some detail (and it suggests all kinds of usage as poetics for writers now, including myself; perhaps it helps explain, or offers complexities to a poetics of multiform unfinish that I have been constructing, the crane defiantly swinging above the construction site).

Seed says nothing about ‘studium’. Barthes defines it as a quality of reception (or perception of) photographs, one which is culturally determined, and may even be responsible for one’s first interest in them, but this may ‘require the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture. What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training.’ (Barthes 1984: 26) Never ‘delight or pain’, (28) it is a polite interest, the name studium (which auto-correct wishes to change to stadium every time I type it) suggests ‘study’, which Barthes doesn’t completely dismiss with his sense that this is cultured acquisition, an education even, but more properly it indicates a ‘taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment … but without special acuity’. (Barthes 1984: 26) It is not, as might be supposed, indifference, and neither (we shall see) is its opposite shock and awe. Barthes is offering a binary of ‘interests’ within the circle of appreciation, a range from liking to loving. ‘Studium’ is the feeling we have when we declare a film, play, poetry reading, musical performance ‘all right’. It doesn’t hit the spot that gets you hot. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, we might say. It’s not even ‘worthy but dull’. It’s better than that: it’s worthy and … yes, we say: it was worthy. Full stop. We’re pleased but mildly disappointed at the same time. Over to you Roland:

Punctum’ (‘Punk-tum’ I can’t help hearing) is defined as ‘the second element’ that ‘will break (or punctuate) the studium.’ (26) It is ‘sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of a die’. (27) It is impolite, uncivil, but it is not necessarily surprise, (not punk, despite the pun). In terms of photography, it goes beyond a coded visuality, and beyond naming; it may involve a detail that manifests itself in an image, ‘a detail’ that ‘overwhelms the entirety of my reading’. (49) He uses the same generality as Seed: ‘This something has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock,’ (49) but ironically, ‘whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.’ (55) Cognition becomes recognition in a moment that feels both inventive and inevitable; Barthes relates it to the non-developmental quiddity of the instantaneous poetics of the haiku, a poetic form with a clear relationship to the imagism-objectivist tradition in which Seed both stands and stands out.

Barthes, by the time he wrote Camera Lucida was pretty much an aesthete, and he is content to deal with his responses to certain photographic details (in a given photograph) that puncture and punctuate his ‘reading’ (the folded arms of a black servant or the co-presence of nuns and soldiers in a war photo, for example) without feeling the need to generalise (and, to be fair, we don’t want him to). However, I feel it might be useful to think of the abrupt enjambments of Seed’s poems (which I have examined here, with reference to his ‘treatment’ of Mayhew’s  documentary voices) as a punctuational punctum, as a way of forcing the material to offer up its ghosts and their voices, as the trigger that motivates that something into something else. (The original material, interesting enough to attract Reznikoff or Seed, is purely the studium; the punctum is the call to form, to transformation.)

If, as Agamben says, ‘Poetry lives only in the tension and difference (and hence in the virtual interference) between sound and sense’ (109)  then ‘enjambement is the only criterion which allows one to distinguish poetry from prose’, (100) which is especially crucial when the process of composition is – as in Seed’s conceptual pieces – to transform prose (or even speech) into poetry. It’s the only tool and used well it is capable of rising to the imagistic and majestic intensity of the punctum. As a very different writer with a very different rhetoric, Frederike Mayröcker, puts it:

flesh of the poem, the

torments severe, I vanish in the

line-break (54).

(This was part of the poetics of René Van Valckenborch, at least in his Walloon poems.)

Tucked away in the footnotes of Seed’s Manchester, there is another piece of poetics, that discusses this very formal device, the line break, into which the writer might vanish. It’s an odd source too. The end of Seed’s ‘Afterword’ becomes both a slightly nervous defence of his use of prose (never apologise!) and also an opening out towards conceptual poetry of the Goldsmith and Place varieties (interesting, because I had already compared him favourably to them before this new book was published, favourably, in terms of his transformative poetics. (See here and here and here.) But: back to the footnote.

Perhaps also with Pound’s dictum against breaking prose into line-lengths ringing in our ears (how we let the Old Fascist bully us in our youths, John!), Seed cautiously asserts (if you can do such a thing): ‘It could be argued that merely breaking prose up into lines does something significant, whether we call it poetry or not.’ (Seed 2013: 63) He then quotes the sociologist and educationalist Basil Bernstein (as staple a read for Seed as the student teacher he was in 1973 as was EP Thompson for him as a Marxist historian) about a classroom experiment (not too different from Seed’s own as outlined in my last post, here) to break up ‘continuous writing’ into sentences ‘like a poem. The piece took on a new and vital life.’ (quoted in Seed 2013: 63) Bernstein too apologises and says that this was ‘bad aesthetics’ but calling this ‘the symbolic nature of space’ is a gift to the kinds of thinking many of us have been trying to do with spatial elements of poetic artifice. Like Pound and the Objectivists, Bernstein ‘became fascinated by condensation; by the implicit’. (64) What happened? At length:

‘The space between the lines, the interval, allowed the symbols to reverberate against each other. The space between the lines was the listener or reader’s space out of which he (sic) created a unique, unspoken, personal meaning.’ (64) So:

The space
between the lines, the
allowed the symbols to
against each other. The space
between the lines was
the listener or reader’s space
out of which he
created a unique,
personal meaning.

Or even:

the space

between the lines the


allowed the symbols to


against each other the space

between the lines was

the listener or reader’s space

out of which he

created a unique


personal meaning

See? This strikes me as very good aesthetics indeed, and Seed has been carrying this quote (from Bernstein’s masterpiece, Class, Codes and Control) around since 1971 when it was published. It was, he said, ‘enthusiastically marked’ in his own copy. (64) The writer may vanish in the line-break, but this is where the poem is born as the reader is born as a reader, in the reading experience; it may result at least in the studium of the educative, but at most in the punctum of delight. This is what I would argue of the abrupt enjambments of Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ work (it is less evident in the juvenilia of Manchester). What is interesting is that, while Seed alerts us to both Barthes and Bernstein, he doesn’t make this connection. Barthes himself likes the mild suggestion of the word ‘punctuation’ in punctum, so the connection, if we think of enjambment as the metrical equivalent of punctuation in syntactic and semantic structures – Agamben’s speaks of ‘the opposition between metrical segmentation and semantic segmentation’ in poetry (109) – is apposite, even accurate. Two cheers for binaries!


Works Cited

Agamben, Georgio

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. London: Flamingo, 1984.

Mayrocker, Feidereke,

Seed, John. (2013) Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819. London: Intercapillary Space.

Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Williams, William Carlos, (1974): ‘Objectivism’, entry in Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1974.

Woods, Tim. The Poetics of Limit. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

More recent Seed posts here and here