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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Inaugural Lecture PART 2: Measuring Experience (on Christopher Middleton)

(Part one may be read here)

Measuring Experience


I am going to treat Christopher Middleton’s ‘A Nocturnal Journal’ as a series of provocations to my own habitual ways of thinking about poetry and to demonstrate  how its conjectural exploration of literariness - its poetics - differs from literary theory or literary criticism.

            ‘A Nocturnal Journal’ is a 40 page notebook assembled over about a year – 1997-8 - written in various locations, and, in addition to poetics, it considers whether animals have memory; the nature of various artists - work seen in Delacroix’s studio, for example - and various European and Turkish histories. There is one septuagenarian sexual epiphany and a récit upon bottoms in Berlin.[1]

            As ever, this pan-European US resident, bemoans British artistic insularity, and the ‘failure of English poets, by and large, to risk, question, challenge, subvert, conventional ways of measuring experience’, a remark that motivates his attempts throughout the notebook. (P 142) Our greatest failures are failures of the imagination in Middleton’s view, and his self-disgust at his momentary ‘speculation’ that a litter-strewn platform might be an art installation, for example, comes from being momentarily hoodwinked by conceptual art’s impoverishment of the aesthetic dimension.[2] Indeed, while his concern with aesthetics – which is the ancient theoretical twin of poetics – seems old-fashioned, it does accord with the ‘aesthetic turn’ in literary studies of the last few years, a ‘turn’ which might prove another of the avenues for poetics to be particularised for study.[3]

            His refusal to use the language of literary theory and criticism much, though he borrows freely from philosophy, is one of the notable and fresh features of the journal and it gives it an urgency, as when he examines anew the conventional distinction between writers oriented towards phenomena and those (post-twentieth century) artists, like his experimentalist Oulipo friend, Oskar Pastior, who have treated the word itself as a phenomenon - those whose experience is of the world and those whose experience is the word, those who work to reach out into the mute world and those who dig deeply into the spoken word to find its ‘latent innermosts’  - and Middleton calls each disposition a niche (a biological term indicating a self-sustaining environment). (P 121)

            I want to concentrate on these conjectures about the role of experience in poetry. Middleton is no enthusiast for self-expressive art (he mocks ‘the self-juicing artist’ here) (P 131), and has argued for a poetry of artifice against one of ‘anecdote’ elsewhere and often, the ‘configural’ against the ‘confessional’, in Middleton’s terms, [4] the latter a version of a ‘poetry of panic and egomaniacal delirium’.[5] At a less extreme level he distrusts poetry that hangs ‘an edict from an anecdote’, one version of the workshop poem I mentioned earlier.[6] Although I agree with this, as a writer who perhaps has justified his practices more in the ‘word’ niche than the ‘world’ niche, I am provoked – that doesn’t mean convinced - by his conjectures about experience.     

Although Middleton’s poetics is tinged with aesthetics, it emerges from his writerly concern for his own experiences; he conjectures: ‘Tacit criteria for poems read: can they compete with, can they outweigh, certain experiences (aesthetic or not) which one has had?…’ (P 103) He lists a sequence of his most profound experiences, both positive and negative. It’s a heavy burden to put upon other poems, and an incalculable weight with which to balance one’s own creative work. Perhaps all the writer can do is ensure that ‘the poem should be full of events (linguistic or vital)’. (P 106) These two ‘events’ correspond to the two ‘niches’ of contemporary writing: linguistic experience and lived experience. ‘Event’ is taken as intrinsic to the life of the poem, to its artifice, not to its pre-existent life ‘anecdote’. I take the point here, but wonder how experience can be rendered without some narrational function that at least risks anecdote.[7] We can, however, appreciate that the artificial antidote to self-expressive anecdote lies in aesthetic transformation, as when we attend to the strange self-ordering of the most impressive bits and pieces of our recalled and un-ignorable experience, which is what Middleton is describing when he argues that  

The ‘aesthetic’ (keen perception) preserves in memory small ensembles, of feelings and objects, which have undecideable values, opalescent ensembles.   But they have presence, intricacy, and from them, as stored images, flows an ordering power, a transitive power to order diffuse and scattered particles of experience in a here-and-now. The liberating transitivity, thus, of the image, in memory, in ‘art’, counters the entrapment of the ego in circumstance and selfhood. (P 103-4)  


The role of the aesthetic in this passage is more than that of ‘keen perception’, and later in the journal Middleton proffers a traditional definition: ‘I mean by aesthetic … a certain deep-down urge to make (not impose) order and beauty from what you experience as chaos or horror.’ (P 114) I’m not sure what Middleton would finally intend here (if there is an end to speculative conjecture), because one of his conjectures here has experience ordering itself, while the other makes ‘order’ a part of writerly poesis. Perhaps the ‘orderings’ are of different kinds, of aesthetic experience and of aesthetic making, but he doesn’t say so. (‘Aesthetic’ as a term can, after all, relate both to keen sensory perception and to art.)

            Middleton hopes of this transformative aesthetic experience: ‘To come through, at least, with a piece of Paradise stuck to your boot.’ (P 114) After my not-so youthful absorptions of Herbert Marcuse’s and TW Adorno’s socialist readings of the aesthetic dimension and aesthetic theory (to allude to the titles of their influential volumes), any piece of Paradise will always be imaged as stuck to a boot that has necessarily waded through the blood of history. As Adorno reminds us: ‘Even in a legendary better future, art could not disavow remembrance of accumulated horror.’[8] But Middleton doesn’t take that negative turn here; indeed, elsewhere he states that Adorno’s ‘conceptual system … exists to house despair, not to defeat it’, which at least implies that his own aim is to defeat despair.[9] In any case, vigorous aesthetic transformation, the traditional urge to create, is political enough in what I call our ‘September 12’ world. ‘The violence of the urge, in Delacroix, say, or Picasso, is utterly other than that of the Sultans, Despots, or calculating terrorists: theirs only leads to more violence, or to schemes which exploit, absorb, and jellify the aesthetic.’ (P 114) (This 1997-8 notebook is prescient in naming Osama Bin Laden at one point.) Middleton expresses how he conjectures jellification to occur: ‘Fundamentalisms, Islamic, Judaic, or Christian are divisive and their (undialectical) intolerance of the other is what art … is not. Art … isn’t from another world, it isn’t superhuman, but it arouses the feeling that alternative worlds could be as congenial as this one at its rare best moments.’ (P 133) This reversal of metaphysical otherness, in favour of the otherness that art always brings into being through its innovations, is important to bear in mind when Middleton describes the event of that otherness coming into being in quasi-spiritual language:


            It is poetry happening when language rises to the challenge to connect a sense  of the historical world as an obstacle and a sense of the numinous as a power levitating the obstacle. (P 108)


This carefully constructed sentence alone deserves more consideration than I can give it tonight. The active verbs, ‘happen’, ‘rise’ and ‘levitate’, grant to literary language the agency to ‘connect’ the two senses he intuits – history as an obdurate mass and the numinous as its transcendence: the event of the poem transforming the event of history into the eventless eternality of the near-divine aesthetic dimension. The two ‘senses’ cooperate like the parts of a musical fugue: ‘There is “augmentation through contrary motion” ….’, he says (P 108).  Middleton attempts to describe the ‘process’ and the images that arise, although it is clear that imagination (of the writer? of the reader? – he doesn’t say) is the unifying principle of this ‘happening’ as poetry: ‘The poem … is a “picture” - of process – which an individual imagination composes and decomposes, volatile, streaming, inexplicable.’ (P 108)

            Literary language is obliged to be the engine that rises to the challenge of connecting history and the transcendent, releasing the historical from its determinants, the more luminously to see it. Here, where Middleton becomes technical, he also becomes tentative, and self-questioning:
In so doing, language gives full and sufficient (which?) play to its own often opposing functions: to represent exactly and to suggest mysteriously; to fix the  isolable specific, and to resonate with vibrant universal process. Hence the anguish embedded in aesthetic delight…. (P 108)

I baulk at any talk of ‘universal process’ until it is further defined (as it won’t be in this conjectural poetics); I wonder whether it is any kind of universality at all that causes the agony and the ecstasy of art, in its dialectic with the ‘the isolable specific’. However, I take joy in Middleton’s multiple and suggestive account of the objects of the poet’s keen perception. This is where he fires me! His poetics revitalises a sense long-lost to literary criticism that art is good for us, that ‘imagination is also a source of well-being’ against atavistic misappropriations by bigots and commerce (or global terror – fundamentalism - and global capital, we might say now). [10] He again qualifies the status of the ‘order’ that emerges from chaos, in an account of how artists select art’s contents:
 The ‘isolable specific’ is selected, of course. It is picked out of the junk: a   firefly rescued among rotting vegetables; no, real gypsy music which starts a wild dance in the sedatest tea-room. (P 108)
I wish I had Middleton’s eye to pick specifics out of the junk, to approach this ‘poetics of difference’ which he begins to sketch here. (P 108)

Indeed, this whole poetics is curiously full-blooded and skeletal at once; it is exact and suggestive in equal measure. But perhaps this is just to detect the presence of poetics as I follow the trace of Middleton’s mind moving through its speculations, scattering conjectures like spring blossom, experiencing it arriving at thoughts as though for the first time. It is unlike reading most literary theory. It cuts across my politicised sense of the aesthetic dimension, as it may cut across Middleton’s own, of course (he is not an unpolitical poet).[11] His feeling for the necessary transformation of experience rather than my own sense that the transformation of language is the experience of the poem, taunts me as I question myself in the noisy niche of the word poet with his ‘linguistic innovation’. I have long thought that writing should provide an experience for the reader in the reading; that is obviously important. This supplementary view is not that poetry should merely be about what happens to us, though both we and the writing should be worthy of happens to us, a theme to which I will return. It is rather that experience – not reduced to anecdote, but disclosed as a psychic, social and environmental complex - can be transfigured into the energy we call poetry, by the energy we call poetry. The insistence in Middleton’s poetics that both experiences are necessary - of world as well as word - provokes me towards dialogic change. [12]

(There is more on Middleton on this blog here and here and here and here.)

Part three is here!
Part four FOLLOWS tomorrow.


[1] There is also much poetics to engage with in the journal with which I do not deal here. For example, one finds one of Middleton’s old contentions that poetry is too rich aurally to be actually heard in performance, that the ‘inner ear is capable of an auditory complexity which exceeds almost any audible vocalizing’, that the poem can best exist as a wordless gestalt in our memories. (Middleton, op. cit., 92.) It is a conjecture which partly contests my enthusiasm for the poetry reading as one of poetry’s provisional institutions.
[2] ‘How tormented the present century has been by the decay of imagination into paranoia and mass hysteria’. Middleton , C. (1998) Jackdaws Jiving , Manchester: Carcanet, 2.
[3] The aesthetic turn may be demonstrated by volumes such as Attridge, op.cit., and Joughin, J.J. and Malpas, S., eds, (2003) The New Aestheticism, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
[4] Ibid, 28
[5] Ibid, 30
[6] Ibid, 25. He most forcefully expresses his case in ‘Reflections on a Viking Prow’, which begins: ‘To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the “contents” of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where “self-expression” has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being. We experience them as we experience nothing else.’ Ibid, 24. 
[7] Even in Middleton’s own splendid poem ‘Wild Horse’, he includes anecdotal asides: ‘Thinking of you Ann Alberto Caroline/ And you Tsëpë Romanian clown my friend’, though he adds: ‘And someone else I’ll put no name to’.  Middleton, C. (2001) The Word Pavilion and Selected Poems, Manchester: Carcanet, 209.
[8] Adorno, T.W. (2002) Aesthetic Theory, London and New York: Continuum, 324.  Marcuse’s volume is Marcuse, H. (1978) The Aesthetic Dimension, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan. 
[9] Middleton, Jackdaws Jiving, 5.
[10] Ibid, 4.
[11] I am here alluding to his poem ‘How to Listen to Birds’. which appears to be instructions to do just that, but which ends, with masterly enjambement: ‘This /is not unpolitical’. Middleton, The Word Pavilion and Selected Poems, 201-2.
[12] Indeed, this is the very balance Middleton’s friend Zulfikar Ghose finds in the work: ‘Christopher’s poetry is not so much about so-called ‘human experience’ as it is experience itself or an instant of revelation when a fragment of experience is comprehended by the imagination receptive to specially constructed nuances of language.’ in his ‘Christopher Middleton and The Bare Bone of Creation’, in Chicago Review, 51:1/2, Spring 2005, 49-58, at 54.