That the various entries of various readers into actual texts is represented as its affirmative moment by such a theory points towards why the work of the reception theorists is only hinted at by Allen Fisher and others. The poets’ notions of readership are actual rather than ideal. When Harwood speaks of leaving an object (the poem) in the room for others to use, or when Roy Fisher similarly talks of the poem being used as a subversive catalyst by potential readers, they are thinking of a clear social authorization for their work, but not one that can be codified or regulated.
There is a clear difference here between a practice that sees a social dimension for poetry, embedded in its artifice, and a poetry that has as its chief dimension mimesis of a recognizable social world. In the first case the reader has to dialogue with the text; in the second the social is encoded in the empirical lyricism of the paraphrasable content, yet such writing runs the risk of becoming monologic, however accessible (a favoured term of approbation for the orthodoxy).
The implication of the former case is that no poem is more ‘social’ than any other since all poems are social facts open to social comprehension (or even completion in the case of open works). Indeed all utterances are social, in this sense. The accessibility of an utterance is not a determinant of this. A mathematical formula that will be understood only by three experts is no less so than a bald news headline broadcast to the nation via various media and abroad in several languages.
The sociality of all language derives from its essential dialogic nature, a determining factor of language and literature first noted by the Bakhtin circle of critics, and explicitly developed as a social theory in the work of Vološinov, who stated: ‘The utterance is a social phenomenon.’
The structure of utterance is precisely social and a description of language, such as Saussure’s, is an abstraction, a dead system. The individual speech act is likewise a contradiction in terms.
Life begins only at the point where utterance crosses utterance, i.e.,where verbal interaction begins, be it not even “face-to-face” verbal interaction, but the mediated, literary variety.
This crossing emphasises an essential instability and dynamism not accounted for by synchronic and static models of language.
There is no escape from this process of dialogue. ‘A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another,’ writes Vološinov;
Word is a two-sided act....As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addesser and addressee.
Even thinking, or inner speech, is conceived as a dialogue with the world. ‘There is no such thing as thinking outside orientation toward possible expression’ in the socio-ideological sphere. 19 Thought itself resembles ‘the alternating lines of a dialogue’. 20
While this is of the utmost importance, it is in the extension of these concepts that confirmation of the dialogic nature of literary practice is found.
But dialogue can also be understood in a broader sense, meaning not only direct, face-to-face, vocalized verbal communication between persons, but also verbal communication of any type whatsoever. A book, i.e., a verbal performance in print, is also an element of verbal communication.
This formulation also makes a text an event rather than an object, and one that engenders further social events.
It is something discussable in actual, real-life dialogue, but aside from that, it is calculated for active perception, involving attentive reading and inner responsiveness, and for organized, printed reaction in the various forms devised by the particular sphere of verbal communication in question (book reviews, critical surveys, defining influence on subsequent works and so on.)
That some of the poetry here has not been part of many such discussions of British poetry points to the timely nature of this study, and indeed to this book’s function in developing that alternative poetics. But, more importantly, the calculation of the active perception of a literary text is evidence of its dialogic intention. The potentiality of responsive is more important than the actual response which cannot be forced and cannot be calculated, as Fisher and Harwood realize. But as Bakhtin writes: ‘The living utterance ... cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads’ in the consciousnesses of actual readers, receptively positive or hostile. Vološinov states:
Moreover, a verbal performance of this kind also inevitably orients itself with respect to previous performances in the same sphere, both those by the same author and those by other authors. It inevitably takes its point of departure from some particular state of affairs involving a ... literary style. Thus the printed verbal performance engages, as it were, in ideological colloquy of large scale: it responds to something, objects to something, affirms something, anticipates possible responses and objections, seeks support, and so on.
At one level this shows a part of this poetics approaching a comprehension of the field of cultural production in a systemized way, akin to that of the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, and as such is a reminder of the value of the sociological mapping of poetries in Chapters One and Two, and Five and Six, both of the orthodoxy and of the discontents. ‘Any utterance...is only a moment in the continuous process of verbal communication.’
The insistence that ‘attentive reading’ is necessary reminds us that ‘to understand another person’s utterance means to orient oneself with respect to it.’ The comprehension of a literary text involves the kind of engaged reading described by Allen Fisher, as it demands focussed acts of participation from its readers.
With its technical resources of openness, indeterminacy and artificiality this poetry demands social completion:
Any true understanding is dialogic in nature. Understanding is to utterance as one line of a dialogue is to the next. Understanding strives to match a speaker’s word with a counter word.
The structures of these texts work in conformity with dialogic utterance, even if the works are not well received in the literary world and (this would follow) do not emphasize social realism and lyrical empiricism. The poetics described here refutes such comprehension, as a counterword itself, in favour of a comprehension of form in social terms. The techniques outlined in the previous section lead to the construction of a text that demands a receptive reading dialogue with its artifice.
This social dynamic has been described here in terms of Vološinov’s explicitly Marxist work, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, but this insistence upon the dialogic nature of all acts of language is famously present in the work of his colleague Bakhtin. His work on the polyphonic novel and the heteroglossic text might be said to be equivalent to the plurovocity Allen Fisher identifies in his poetics. They both agree that a text itself is a dialogue in which discourses clash and contest, even beyond the intentionality of its author, although Fisher favours techniques of creative linkage to achieve this.
However, at this point of the argument, it is interesting to note the more philosophical and ethical re-formulation of dialogue in Bakhtin’s work. Language ‘directed towards its object’, by which Bakhtin means towards its theme,
enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group; and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate the expression and influence its entire stylistic profile.
Not only is the alien word (an invasion of new or unusual material, which will steer language change) waiting there; the encounter with the counter word is anticipated. ‘Every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates.’ Linguistic exchange (and that must include performances in print) is a question of answerability, an encounter with an other, and one in which response entails responsibility. Hwa Yol Jung has identified ‘an affinity between the structural requirement of ‘answerability’ (‘response-ability’) in Bakhtin’s dialogical principle and Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of proximity, which privileges the face and epitomizes human co-presence and interhuman presence in terms of the structural primacy of the other.’
The third level of analysis, the ethical, may be read about here.
The third level of analysis, the ethical, may be read about here.