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Monday, March 13, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Inaugural Lecture PART 1: Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation

Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation

an inaugural lecture delivered on 13th March 2007 at Edge Hill University (that's ten years ago today, so it seems right to post it up, from today, one post for each of its four parts, daily!)
That's me delivering the lecture; you'll see why there's a suit in part 4; and my Sony machine was there to play the Sarah Vaughan track I refer to as well.

I do remember, when I was a barber, the boss, after having shorn the heads of some particularly long-haired customers, used to say to them: ‘Now you look like a gentleman, sir.’
                                To which, once, one of them said:
                                ‘And what did I look like before?’
                                ‘Before?’ the boss said, ‘before you looked like a professor, sir.’
                                ‘But I am a professor,’ the man said.

                                                                        Stefan Themerson[1]


Writing as Inaugural [2] 

In a citation of my book Far Language, Marjorie Perloff, in the introduction to an essay upon contemporary poetic innovation, refers to me as a ‘poet-critic’.[3] The assignation surprised me on first seeing it. Its hyphen appears to announce an uneasy hybrid that looks dangerously as though it has yoked by violence together two incompatibilities. It suggests that unity is achieved by pressurised co-habitation, force of will. And yet, it is unity of purpose and project – but not of product – I would like to emphasise in this presentation of my work. The unity is achieved by introducing a third term, poetics, not just as mediator between the scholarly research of the critic and the practice-led research creative writing of the poet, although it is also that.

            Poetics has been open to a variety of misunderstandings. The first, and apparently most obvious, is that it has something to do with poetry. Or with poetry alone. I’m not going to help that impression tonight by almost exclusively referring to poetry, but that’s because I am a ‘poet-critic’. But I’d like to stress that while poetry and poetics share etymological roots – they both derive from the Greek verb ‘to make’ – poetics, as the thinking about how something is made, can be used with reference to all kinds of writing (and not just writing, and not even just art). Poetics is as relevant to the writer of supposedly formulaic writing, like the crime novel, as it is to the most experimental writing which involves the setting up of systems to produce unforeseen textual effects. On the one hand you’ve Raymond Chandler’s crisply written article ‘The Simple Art of Murder’; on the other John Cage’s performative ‘Lecture on Nothing’.[4]

            While I have offered a sketchy history as well as definitions of poetics elsewhere – indeed 79 of them, and I’ve written another one since, you’ll be horrified to learn – I want to come at the concept from a slightly different angle tonight. [5]

            I want to tell you what I think poetics is; I want to show how we might begin to read one writer’s poetics; I want to share my poetics; and I want to read some of my poetry that relates to it. I also want to suggest how poetics might become part of the English Literature curriculum.

I now most commonly call poetics a ‘speculative writerly discourse’. ‘Speculative’ because I define it against modes of ‘reflection’ on works already written; its orientation is towards the next ‘job’. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reflective component, but that poetics is primarily, in a definition of American poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis that is often picked up by my students, ‘a permission to continue’, beyond the self-evident and the already achieved.[6] It is ‘writerly’ because it is not a critical activity. Critics may speak of constructing a ‘theory of poetry’ – Harold Bloom uses this term – but that is distinct from ‘writerly’ poetics which will remain the concern of writers or of groups of writers. It’s not impossible for critics and writers to discuss the same issues, but for writers, the questions will be as practical as they are theoretical. Poetics is a paradoxical theory of practice and practice of theory. It asks not just what kind of text is this, but how do I write one like it – or, more probably - one not like it? Thirdly it is a ‘discourse’. By this I don’t simply mean that it is spoken or written, but that – after Foucault – it is a discursive practice with a history and rules of its own. The history is demonstrable. The ‘rules’ are less so, because the discourse is mercurial. Writers do not often sit down and inscribe ‘Poetics’ at the top of a sheet of paper and then enumerate an orderly blueprint for writing a particular named text. Indeed, it is the history that shows us this. Writers’ speculations appear in a variety of guises. The poetics of American poet Wallace Stevens manifests in a number of different ‘genres’: from formal essays, lectures and published aphorisms, in reviews of other writers’ works, in his (private) correspondence, in introductions to his work and – here is the most paradoxical – in the poetry itself. Readers of poems, not just Stevens’ poems, not just modern poems, will have noticed how many poems are about poetry itself – they are metapoems - and sometimes they speculate their own existence and future into being. Given this heterogeneity it follows that the discourse of poetics can also appear in hybrid forms between these recognisable genres: something I encourage students to explore, although it has its own danger of authorising obfuscation in lyrical afflatus or collage ‘theory buzz’.

Poetics is the working out of difficult ideas about how writing is (to be) made, without necessary recourse to logical argument. As Richard Rorty says, ‘A talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.’[7] Without ever explaining the creative writing it precedes, accompanies and (occasionally) ante-dates, poetics can serve a number of functions, one of which might be to deliberately confuse the writer about his or her intentions, rather than to evaluate them, itemise them, convert them into a programme. Meanwhile the work can generate itself as the writer is scratching his or her head. Poetics may be an elaborate game of self-deception, rather than a deliberate manifesto. Poetics is not explication or interpretation, which are the proper jobs of a reader. Equally it might be that poetics is to come upon that which one already knows, but with the force of revelation as if discovered for the first time. (If you’re interested: that’s my recent 80th definition!) 

    How can I be sure that poetics exists, as a ‘discourse’, if its intermittent and mercurial nature cause it to take such strange forms and to hide in so many genres including creative work itself? One is simply that I recognise the impulse in my own practice. Indeed, many of the innovations I claim in the name of poetics here at Edge Hill University are little more than transferences of my own experiences and experiments into generalised exercises. Neither is this a professing of my uniqueness and perspicacity. It was simply what many of the avant-garde London poets who emerged during the 1980s under the ugly banner ‘linguistically innovative’, did as a matter of course: Allen Fisher or Adrian Clarke, for example. This may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with our predecessor generation, the poets of the British Poetry Revival, Tom Raworth or Lee Harwood, for example, since they are (still) notoriously averse to little more than thumbnail indices of poetics. It is a commonplace for them that the work speaks for itself. What happened in the 1980s was a threefold influencing. One was the influx of continental critical theory which promised philosophical definitions of some of the techniques we were applying. Lyotard’s definitions of postmodern knowledge  - ‘The artist and the writer … are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done[8] - seemed to speak to us as practitioners. A trip to the theory basement of Compendium Books was an obligatory Saturday afternoon enthrallment. Secondly, the influence of a generation of American poets who also fed off this theoretical moment, the language poets, cannot be overestimated. Their theoretical musings, particularly from 1978 in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, encouraged poetics in hybrid forms: reviews of books that were collages of its contents, collage poems that were also reviews of books. Thirdly, this British poetry itself was beginning to be studied, by myself amongst (a very few) others, in my PhD which resurfaced in my 2005 volume The Poetry of Saying.[9] But all the time I was keeping my own poetics discourse alive outside of the academy: in reviews, in my magazine Pages, in the editing of an anthology, in the poetry itself, and in the simple keeping of a notebook, something that continues, as I shall show. It seemed natural, therefore, to encourage others to do similarly, when I arrived at Edge Hill University in 1996.

What is not on my list of influences (you might think oddly) is the rapid development of Creative Writing as an academic subject. This occurred when my back was turned and I was outside the academy. Let me confess openly, that I was sceptical about Creative Writing, since my taking the subject on the pioneering MA at the University of East Anglia in the late 1970s. Once I had begun my PhD, I ceased to mention the ‘Creative Writing’ component of my MA much (whose only lesson, I thought, at the time, was that I could not write fiction, which I have recently unlearned). I see now, and wish to acknowledge, that I am as much a grateful product of UEA as of the British Poetry Revival. Nevertheless, I regarded Creative Writing with some suspicion, because it seemed antithetical to the kinds of explorative poetry and poetics I was writing and writing about, in favour of what is known in the US as the ‘workshop poem’, a neat formulaic and formalist lozenge of experience, lightly spiced with epiphany or leavened with moral. This has since changed, although my setting up of the Network of Experimental Writing Tutors (the glorious sounding NEWT) was both an acknowledgement of the entry into the academy of other like-minded writers, and of the fear that we still need to stick together as potentially endangered amphibians. But, more importantly to my current exploration, early Creative Writing also seemed to downplay the function of poetics. To a great extent this was an unfair pre-judgement, and my recent research for the English Subject Centre on what I call supplementary discourses – all the parts of Creative Writing teaching which are not creative: commentaries, reading as a writer exercises and so forth – revealed a variety of reflective and speculative practices, some of which I happily call poetics. [10] But the research strengthened my sense of its specificity and I argued as such in a pamphlet I entitled The Necessity of Poetics. [11]

            Another effect of the comparatively obscured or hybrid nature of poetics is the misreading of it as though it were a variety of literary theory or literary criticism. If you still think they are the same, consult Jon Cook’s excellent anthology Poetry In Theory – another product of UEA by the way -  the contents of which fall into three broad (sometimes overlapping) categories: literary theory (written by philosophers and theorists, which is constructed at a high level of generality and, it has to be confessed, a low level of specific textual reference; it is alarming how much Lacan seems to squeeze from one line of Mallarm√©); literary criticism (which is usually textually specific around themes or authors, such as Barbara Hernstein Smith’s ‘Closure and anti-closure in Modern Poetry’ or excerpts from Thomas Yingling’s Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text); and poetics, an altogether tattier affair written by creative writers themselves, often in forms which evade formal academic discourse, such as Charles Olson’s seminal and expressive ‘Objective Verse’ essay.[12]

            But this still begs a question: if poetics is so specific a writerly response, what is the purpose of reading it, both for other writers, and non-writers? Who is its audience? And how might this discourse impact upon Creative Writing as an academic discipline and upon English Studies generally. In short: why read poetics and how to read it?

It’s a sorry confession, but I think I have wasted time and energy reading poetics in the hope that it would tell me how to write. There is a whole species of Creative Writing handbook and textbook and workbook that claim to tell you how to write, while usually coyly disavowing such an intention. I am sceptical of these, even as I’ve contributed to one, and they seldom rise to poetics.[13] To misread Charles Olson’s essay ‘Projective Verse’ as a ‘how to’ guide – to fixate on its emphasis on the line as breath, the use of the typewriter as a scoring device, for example – can work only if one is content to remain a second or third generation Olsonian. Fortunately, much poetics (including Olson’s essay) resist being read in this way. Part of the attraction of poetics to fragmentary and hybrid form is to evade the totalising certainty of a manifesto.[14]

One exemplary work of poetics is the notebook kept by the senior and - in my opinion –major, British poet, Christopher Middleton, entitled ‘A Nocturnal Journal’.[15] A journal is one of the more obvious modes of poetics, an easy way for a writer to dialogue with his or her practice, and one we encourage in all our writing students. It can particularly accommodate ‘speculation’, though Middleton favours a term he uses of his polished essays as well: ‘conjecture’. This suggests that every utterance is in inverted commas. Each statement can be read as a question; it’s like a reversible skirt or jacket. For example, musing upon Benjamin Fondane’s discriminations between philosophy and poetry, Middleton asks, ‘What he certainly doesn’t consider is a rather odd fact: no, a question – Don’t some poets selectively breed only those ideas which promise poems?’ (P 127) It may matter less that the idea is true (or false) than that the idea is rephrased as a question. [16] ‘The activity of writing,’ Middleton continues, ‘may tend less to father ideas than to other them, and to gainsay their power.’ (P 127) The poem as an arena for the estrangement of the violating power of ideation is itself a powerful idea and reminds us that much poetics – and Middleton’s journal entries hover around the theme as its irresistible honeypot – concerns a situated definition of poetry itself. 

Defining poetry is a tricky business even for a conjectural poetics. On the one hand, you have Douglas Oliver, in his book Whisper ‘Louise’, in which poetics arises periodically, offering an essentialist definition: ‘Poetry is not summed up by poems…. A poem taps into poetry, a primordial form of knowing emanating from the “one life” that we share with animals… Poetry is a fundamental aspect of mind.’[17] In this view, an individual poem affords access to the basic life force of the universe, here defined as a mode of thinking. But the individual poem disappears under a welter of obligations to the cosmos. Another view, that of Middleton in his journal, takes on board the ‘concept’ – his word - of poetry as ‘an extrapolation from an infinitely heterogeneous range of possible poems. Brecht’s graphic poems are no less poems than Mallarm√©’s enigmatically involuted logocentric charms’. (P 119) In one view the nature of poetry must be fixed √† priori; in the second the nature of poetry is open to modification, that is, to history. Both views constitute poetics (though I favour the latter).

We overhear Middleton in his notes asking himself (again), after half a century of practice, to define poetry. It may be possible that the journal was kept during a period of creative fallowness; poetics is often born of moments of crisis (which might be constant) and of the perpetual need to change, in Middleton’s case, as he entered his eighth decade. In short, his poetics was a provocation to himself. It speaks differently. If we are writers we read it with a related sense of provocation to move towards (or beyond) our own conjectures and speculations to enable our own art, our own ‘ideas which promise poems’.

It is this sense of provocation I would wish Creative Writing students (or any writer) to read out of poetics, to educate them away from the expectations of the answers and models of ‘how to’ books, to the questioning of conjectures, which requires an active response, and which could either be further poetics or creative work itself.[18]

            It follows from this that much poetics is read wrongly, and not just by writers looking for knack and wheeze, but by critics who are looking at it as though it is a theory of writing similar to their own, or as an interpretive tool, or even – more basely – for actual authoritative interpretations of particular texts, which they can never be, by my definitions. Critics are often slightly incredulous at the indirection, the incoherences and inconsistencies of writerly poetics.[19] But I would like to wear the glint on this badge of shame as my beacon of faith! I think that the greatest apologia for Creative Writing as an academic study is not that it produces writers and writing, but that it poses questions of literariness in this conjectural way, through both the production and reading of poetics, which is neither blueprint nor theory.

            Poetics can heal the creative-critical split of some Creative Writing programmes, render the boundaries between them porous, or – most radically – erase the distinction entirely.

            It follows that, in addition to teaching writing students how to write poetics, poetics should be studied in the academy, and that we must learn to read and use it in ways not yet developed, or only partially developed. This is miles away from calls for Creative Writing to be regarded as an adjunct to English literature teaching, to promote conventional reading through so-called ‘creative’ exercises. As English Studies becomes more affected by the presence of Creative Writing, with a growing student body alert to the potential mobility of text and to speculative ideas about textuality, then it will have – perhaps unforeseen – effects. Poetics should be at the heart of Creative Writing, which in turn should be at the heart of a reoriented English Literature, which might rediscover questions of literary value and resistances to what Derek Attridge calls ‘instrumentalist’ readings of literature.[20] We need poetics journals, centres, conferences, networks, poetics research groups, teaching modules and further academic study to explore poetics and how to write it and to read it. Practice-based research in poetics and academic research into poetics (both of which are in their infancy under those designations) need to acquire a language to talk to one another.

Part two follows here.
Part three may be read here.
Part four (the last part) follows tomorrow. What a week!


[1] Themerson, S. (1967) Tom Harris, London: Gaberbocchus. Watch out for the re-appearance of this neglected and brilliant novelist, poet and thinker later in this piece.
[2] ‘It is because writing is inaugural … that it is dangerous and anguishing. It does not know where it is going, no knowledge can keep it from the essential precipitation toward the meaning that it constitutes and that is, primarily, its future.’ Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference, London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 11
[3] Perloff, Marjorie, new book LRC
[4] In Chandler, R., 1980,  Pearls are a Nuisance, London: Pan Books, 173-190; and in eds., Joris and Rothenberg, Poems for the Millennium, California: University of California Press, 1998, …. .
[5] See my The Necessity of Poetics, Liverpool: Ship of Fools, published in 2002.
[6]DuPlessis, R.B. (1990) The Pink Guitar, Writing as Feminist Practice, New York and London: Routledge, 156.
[7] Rorty, R., quoted in Spahr, J. () , ,
[8] J-F Lyotard, J-F, (1984) The Postmodern Condition, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 60.
[9] Sheppard, R. (2005) The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
[10] The full report, Supplementary Discourses in Creative Writing Teaching in Higher Education, which was written by myself with research assistance from Dr Scott Thurston, may be found in full on the English Subject Centre website, at: www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/archive/projects/reports/supdisc_cwrit.doc. Sometimes this link doesn't work it's best to Google: it IS still out there.
[11] I also followed another example of linguistically innovative poetry, which I pass onto my students: I published it from my own small press Ship of Fools.
[12] Cook, J. (2004) Poetry as Theory, Oxford: Blackwell.
[13] ‘Try Something Different’ (with Scott Thurston), in eds., Graham et. al, The Road to Somewhere: A Creative Writing Companion, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 207-16.
[14] I remain sceptical about the role of manifestos as poetics, though they often contain it.
[15] Middleton, C. (2004) Palavers & A Noctural Journey, Exeter: Shearsman Books. Future references to this text will be indicated as P.
[16] Of course, such ‘selective breeding’ may be yet another definition of poetics itself.
[17] Oliver, D. (2005) Whisper ‘Louise’, Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 162. Future references to this text will be marked WL.
[18] I would like to acknowledge Cliff Yates, a member of the Poetry and Poetics Research Group that has met here at Edge Hill since 1999, for emphasising the term ‘provocation’ in his poetry and poetics PhD
[19] Ian Gregson is one critic who see this. Indeed, he writes of Middleton: ‘Throughout his career he has formulated theories about how a poet should ideally write but has also been aware that what actually gets written is different.’ Gregson, I. (1996) Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan, 152. His excellent chapter 9, ‘Christopher Middleton: Journeys Broken at the Threshold’, is one of the best pieces about the poet.
[20] Attridge, D. (2004) The Singularity of Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 6-10.