Poetics Journal Reprised
What after all is “poetics? This question Is raised by Barrett Watten in his introduction to the recently published A Guide to Poetics Journal: Writing in the Expanded Field, 1982-1998 (Wesleyan 2013). Here’s my effort to handle the query: poetics is the study of form in that which identifies itself as poetry. Often, in print culture, it’s simply the arrangement of marks on the page that identifies a work as poetry. Earlier it may have been the beat or rhyme. There’s a relation to dance that subsists in the written text. Dance derived-devices are also precious and various: “formal” versus “open.” It is time to both celebrate and query the theoretical work associated with language-centered writing. This collection serves as an “active anthology” and provides some retrospective salve.
Lyn Hejinian makes two statements of particular interest to me in her essay, “Rejection of Closure.” First, “Form is not a fixture but an activity” (91). This represents a reconfiguration of processural poetics as understood to be a central feature of language-centered writing. This understanding stems from a range of glosses on Creeley’s “form is never more than an extension of content” as understood by Olson and extended into analogies with performance by Olson himself and by others including Nate Mackie in his theorization of “othering” in “Other: From Noun to Verb,” not reprinted here, but to be found in Discrepant Engagement (Cambridge UP 1993). Hejinian’s second statement that attracts me comes earlier and serves as her thesis, “the conjuncture of form with radical openness may be a version of the “paradise” for which the poem yearns (87). Key words, whose meaning will be resolved or has as of this date already been resolved are presented here in italics and quotation marks. I am drawn to the particular notion, that the poem “yearns.” That yearning would be the subject of poetics as I understand the discipline (and poetics is a discipline and an art much like medicine). I understand this with reference to the philosophy of Giles Deleuze, among others, we live then in a world of “desiring production.” Prosody then occupies an extended space. It is the mapping yearning as it subsists in structure, open or closed.
In another of the reprinted essays, Bruce Andrews, recognizing that “all experience is socially constructed” speaks to the need for language to recognize that fact and participate then in social practices. Less theoretical than an engagement in poetics or the poetics of envisagement (Ron Silliman), this activism, I am reminded, was, in its time, the most compelling force of language-centered writing, its mobilization of desire. Were those times, inconceivably, more innocent than ours?
Silliman’s “Migratory Meaning: The Parsimony Principle in the Poem” is helpfully reprinted here, along with a variety of now classic material. In “Hey Man, My Wave! The Authority of Private Language,” Michael Davidson investigates how it is that private language subverts public discourse. After presenting a range of examples, including intriguingly, from sociolinguistics, the case of the private language used by the Kennedy twins in San Diego to subvert the authority of their father, he concludes with an analysis of the use of private language in lyric poetry. He queries “the individual’s presumed access to a language of unmediated expressivity” (208). While the lyric may be an unredeemed instance of monologic utterance (as followers of Adorno or Bakhtin might have it), mobilizing a no longer relevant ethos of self-expression, lyrics that deploy socially conventional rhetorics against themselves, like those of Emily Dickinson, may create breathing room for desires like those expressed famously in her poem, “My Life It Stood an Empty Gun. Happily, Susan Howe’s discussion of that poem is also included here. For me A Guide to Poetics Journal provides both moments of theoretical nostalgia and the flashes of insight that follow upon rereading already presumably “known” texts.