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Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 5: The Flavour of Poetics

The Flavour of Poetics

 (an earlier version of this was published here in the original The Necessity of Poetics)

I want to focus on three well-known texts to give a flavour of poetics and to suggest that it is not the preserve of the avant-garde (although I will add some flavours from that area too). The first is an example of the revelation of poetics in literary criticism. TS Eliot’s essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921) contains this memorable passage that describes the multifaceted complexity he located in John Donne, but in terms which are obviously constructing the poetics of The Waste Land, which he was then composing. The slippage from Donne to typewriter is a giveaway.

A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (Eliot 1975: 64)

This is only one revealing example in Eliot’s work, as JCC Mays has pointed out: ‘When he writes about tradition and the individual talent, he described how his allusive method works; when he wrote about a dissociation of sensibility taking place in the seventeenth-century mind he described the subject of his own poetry; when he wrote of the objective correlative in Hamlet, he defined its method.’ (Mays: 115)

While my critical and writerly focus is upon the poetics of poetry, the existence of poetics for other genres may be exemplified by my next two examples. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Three Dialogues’ (1949) looks like a carefully orchestrated Socratic exchange on aesthetics, apparently on visual art, but it contains what looks more like a credo for the rest of Beckett’s novelistic, dramatic and poetic career – he was already writing the trilogy – a new art premised upon ‘the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express’. (Esslin 1965: 17). 

Salman Rushdie’s speech (originally delivered ventrioloquially by Pinter) ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ (1990) carves out a space for the novel in terms reminiscent of Henry James’ poetics of the house of fiction, as well as Bakhtin’s sense of polyphony, whilst integrating Lyotard, Foucault and Rorty into his poetics, all delivered with the brio of Lawrence: ‘Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way’. (Rushdie 1991: 429)

Two prominent examples of poetics in my own research area of American language poetry and British linguistically innovative poetry are Allen Fisher’s Necessary Business (1985) and Charles Bernstein’s ‘The Artifice of Absorption’ (1986) (Bernstein 1992: 9-89). Without repeating a comparative analysis available elsewhere (Sheppard 1999b, and on this blog, here), these two formally hybrid texts constitute exemplary poetics. Fisher’s text is an essay collaged into interviews with poets. In it, or rather, through it, he manufactures a poetics for himself, one that others may use and develop (See Sheppard 1999a and the long account in Thurston 2002). Similarly Bernstein, who presents a verse-essay, plays off the conventions of the essay (footnotes and quotations) against the conventions of poetry (chiefly line breaks) to produce an oddly associational and playful ‘patapoetics’. It refuses to settle the arguments it presents, chiefly through a monstrous proliferation of new critical terms and manifold examples. It is also comic! Both documents keep the arguments open by their dispositions in form. They refuse the essay discourse they approximate and, most importantly, they demonstrate and embody their two authors’ poetic practices, the collage of Fisher and the playful mixture of discourses found in most poems by Bernstein.

Bernstein himself provides a further model that it is worth acknowledging. After two decades of consciously producing poetics outside of the academy he fronted the Poetics Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo for a number of years, which favours an ‘interdisciplinary approach to literary, cultural and textual studies’. (‘Poetics’ 1999: 1)  It focuses upon poetics as ‘an unruly, multisubjective activity’. (‘Poetics’ 1999: 3) Reference to the massive Electronic Poetry Center website the program administers ( reveals it as a model institution, for its many poetics documents. This site inevitably includes links with what has been called Cyberpoetics: how the now not so new technologies may be used in literary creation. Documents relating to cyberpoetics may also be found in the two volume Poems for the Millennium which Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris edited. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 871-829. See also Sheppard 2002.) That the experience of compiling these volumes was itself an act of poetics is evidenced by Pierre Joris’ Towards a Nomadic Poetics which, like Necessary Business, was published by Allen Fisher’s own Spanner press. Its millennial appeal to a nomadic sense of ‘moving & connecting all contents, languages, bodies, machines’ (Joris 1999: 29) has provoked comment, both for and against. Whatever the arguments for a nomadic poetics, it is clear that poetics, as I have defined it, has always been nomadic.


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