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Sunday, April 03, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 3: Poetics as Discourse

Poetics as Discourse

 (This more recent part of this essay was not contained in the first online publication of this work here).

But the world we share, & our interplay with it, calls again & again for discourse: in the case of Poets, the setting forth of a poetics.

Jerome Rothenberg (Rothenberg, 1981: 3)

In the preceding definitions, I have adopted an unacknowledged Foucauldian vocabulary in describing poetics as a ‘discourse’, which requires further exposition. Whereas followers of Michel Foucault conceive of discourse as ‘a type of language associated with an institution, and [which] includes the ideas and statements which express an institution’s values’, I argue that the ordering and categorising of poetics is something that has barely begun, and that its elements have been located in different categories rather than in any single institution. (Danaher 2000: x) It ranges historically from treatises for gentlemen on the composition of verses, through literary criticism (even as it developed as an autonomous discourse); or even in bland bibliographical designations such as ‘authors’ miscellaneous prose’ or the ‘literary interview’. Poetics is not necessarily a shared form of writing; it has an ambivalent social location. ‘Poetics’ is not (yet) a unifying principle to structure and arrange a discourse; although an often-used term, it has seldom been defined. (In the volume entitled The Poetics of the New American Poetry, for example, the meaning of poetics is taken for granted by the editors.) I use poetics as a central principle in a method to constellate various writings that only constitute a discourse if viewed perspectivally, and retrospectively.

            The effect of this indetermination is that there has been little historical consciousness in both the writing and the reading of the discourse to date, little evidence of a ‘tradition’ of poetics in the traditional sense, even though one can trace a loose history of its proto-forms and development, as I shall show. One has to admit there is also a refreshing lack of a need for discursive legitimation. Unlike the body of knowledge built up in the social sciences, for example, where references to the theories of Weber or Kuhn (or Foucault, of course) are almost obligatory if the discourse is to be legitimate, it is not thought necessary to refer (back) to the poetics of Alexander Pope or Ezra Pound, S.T. Coleridge or Clark Coolidge as ‘authorities’ in quite the same way, in order to demonstrate that the discourse is legitimate – part of the discourse rather than outside of it, professional rather than amateur – amongst the fraternity of its users. This is not to say that, in specific local circumstances, in focussed works of poetics, amongst groups of poets, these figures do not carry authority as writers of previous poetics; think of Pound’s position as a provider of poetic strategies and categories amongst the North American avant-garde. But in other groups, say, among the Movement Orthodoxy in Great Britain, his influence is less and his name often a by-word for incoherent thinking. In other words, these names – and many others – do not operate as what Foucault dubs ‘founders of discursivity’ for poetics – in the same way that he says Marx dominates the ‘ism’ to which he gave his name, or Freud, who spread his foundation-ness over an entire discipline: those ‘figures who provide a paradigmatic set of terms, images, and concepts which organize thinking’ across an entire field of cultural production. (Rabinow 1986: 25) Not even Aristotle, who wrote the first ‘Poetics’, operates in quite this way now, although he did, as part of the general reverence in Western thinking towards classical models in the proto-poetics of the past; in the works of Horace, Dante and Ben Jonson, he is quoted as an authority, but as the founder of categorising philosophy as a whole rather than as a founder of the specific discourse of poetics (which he never practiced if we strictly refer to ‘writerly’ poetics). The mercurial nature of poetics since modernism at least – the magpie nature of its inspiration, the piebald gathering of its writings, its discontinuous discursivity – make this foundation-ness difficult to maintain. When all this is combined with more individualised aspects of its practice, such as the necessary distance a writer might want to preserve between creativity and conceptualisation, for fear of fixing his or her own image as a writer through an authoritative poetics which he or she cannot escape with ease, we can imagine that few writers would care to identify so completely with the activity of poetics that their own ‘creative’ work would become eclipsed. It would be as though Pound were willing to become known solely as the theorist and master of ceremonies of Imagism and not as the author of The Cantos. More practically speaking, writing poetics cannot be a full-time occupation since it implies another occupation, or is best thought of as an integral part of literary authorship as that has developed into the modern era. Perhaps most writers also know that they can seldom provide, or would want to provide, ‘paradigmatic’ terms and concepts through their poetics, and that poetics tends to be paradigm-breaking rather than paradigm-shifting, permissive rather than dismissive, locally organising rather than globally organising (either for a group or individually).

            Whether or not poetics can (or would want to) claim founders for its discursivity, Foucault writes that

To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open it to a certain number of applications …. In addition, one does not declare certain propositions in the work of these founders to be false: instead … one sets aside those statements that are not pertinent …. Reexamining Freud’s texts modifies psychoanalysis itself. (Rabinow 1986: 25)

‘Opening up’ parts of poetics may be thought of as an exemplary strategy for those wishing to build a new poetics using elements of older thinking, but such an activity lacks the emphasis in Foucault’s last clause on whether the discourse and its practices will be ‘modified’ in any definitive sense.

Of course, apprehension of that ‘modification’ may become visible if poetics is seen through time, via something like a Foucauldian framework. It would seem more a discursive practice, at least in its thinking about poetics – metapoetics as I define it  – if not in the writing of the discourse itself, which, I suspect, may of necessity remain too intermittent and wild for such discursive decorum. On the other hand, Foucault’s rejection of ‘proving’ the falsity of earlier statements of a discourse is in accord with my thinking here about how poetics develops. Re-examination of Coleridge or Coolidge can further poetics itself, modifying without permanently re-modelling, ‘trying on a paradigm’ as Bernstein experimentally and experientially puts it, rather than providing paradigmatic sets of organising principles. (Bernstein 1992: 161) Previous poetics can usefully be ‘set aside’ if they do not provoke writing or thinking that results in creative writing.

            If we follow Foucault in declaring that ‘such discourses as economics, medicine, grammar, the science of living beings give rise to certain organizations of concepts, certain regroupings of objects, certain types of enunciation, which form, according to their degree of coherence, rigour, and stability, themes or theories,’ may we effortlessly add ‘poetics’ to his list? (Foucault 2002: 71) While my task is not Foucault’s – ‘to discover how such [themes and theories] are distributed in history’ – it is not impossible to discern the presence and persistence of concepts, objects and so on in poetics. (Foucault 2002: 71) Certain weak themes can be detected, for example, in the theories of rhythm during the age of free verse – Pound, Lawrence, Zukofsky and Mayakovsky can be found testing their theories – but they offer conjecture rather than definition. Even Pound with his ‘brusque practicality’ cannot claim to adjudicate the whole field of poetic production, although it is important to remember the level of factional antagonism inherent in avant-garde formations, particularly where poetics finds its functions compromised by the more territorial claims of the ‘manifesto’. Indeed, Foucault’s conception of discourse is not monolithic: he writes of finding a paradoxical ‘system of dispersion’, in accord with both my sense of situated constellations and the position-taking of avant-gardes.

Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation…. (Foucault 2002: 41)

He argues that it is ‘a space of multiple dissensions’ and his analysis must ‘maintain discourse in all its many irregularities’, a formulation that looks not unlike poetics as I have defined it with a care I hope is commensurate with its possible forms. (Foucault 2002: 173)  

            Another of the components of Foucault’s theory of discourse, touched on but not commented on above, complicates this dispersion: that is, a discourse’s reliance upon institutions to mediate and propagate it. ‘In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers,’ Foucault says, procedures that rely on ‘institutional support: it is both reinforced and accomplished by whole strata of practices such as pedagogy – naturally – the book system, publishing, libraries’. (quoted in Golding 2006: 24) While the discourses Foucault analyses are more universal in their impact than poetics as I have defined it, it is true that its procedures are not institutionalised in this way (as a recognisable discourse), and indeed in the areas of contemporary poetry they often barely exist, limited to what Charles Bernstein calls the ‘provisional institutions’ of marginalized poetries, (Bernstein 1999: 145) such as fugitive publishing of magazines and books, readings and – importantly for poetics – talks series; indeed, non- or anti-institutionalization might be part of its strategy, as Bernstein suggests (in a passage quoted in one of the preceding definitions). The antagonistic landscape of recent poetries (on both sides of the Atlantic) affects poetics, in that energy is spent (wasted, even) on defining poetic activity against another group (or individual) but it is also true that the lack of institutional reinforcement keeps poetics relatively free of forces that might avert its powers and danger, and precisely institutionalise it. (However, the poetics of any ‘mainstream’ poetry can be said to have one identifiable institution, in Britain at least, the school and higher education syllabus, but that is a subject beyond the scope of this essay.)         

            Poetics, as I have defined it, at this stage of its development, is a weak case of a Foucauldian discursive formation, but one still deserving of the name. The lesson remains: poetics must be read differentially, not deferentially.


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.