obscurity of modern poetry (II): An essay on intimate realism, The
Bruns, Gerald L
In Memory of John McCabe
Q. Mr. Williams, can you tell me, simply, what poetry is?
A. Well … I would say that poetry is language charged with emotion. It’s words, rhythmically organized . . . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is.
Q. All right, look at this part of a poem by E. E. Cummings, another great American poet: (im)c-a-t(mo) b,i;l:e
Is this poetry?
A. I would reject it as a poem. It may be, to him, a poem. But I would reject it. I can’t understand it. He’s a serious man. So I struggle very hard with it-and I get no meaning at all.
Q. You get no meaning? But here’s part of a poem you yourself have written: “2 partridges / 2 mallard ducks / a Dungeness crab / 24 hours out / of the Pacific / and 1 live-frozen / trout / from Denmark. . .” Now that sounds just like a fashionable grocery list.
A. It is a fashionable grocery list.
Q. Well-is it poetry?
A. We poets have to talk in a language which is not English. It is the American idiom. Rhythmically it’s organized as a sample of the American idiom. It has as much originality as jazz. If you say “2 partridges, 2 mallard ducks, a Dungeness crab”-if you treat that rhythmically, ignoring the practical sense, it forms a jagged pattern. It is, to my mind, poetry.
Q. But if you don’t “ignore the practical sense” . . . you agree that it is a fashionable grocery list.
A. Yes. Anything is good material for poetry. Anything. I’ve said it time and time again.
Q. Aren’t we supposed to understand it?
A. There is a difference of poetry and the sense. Sometimes modern poets ignore sense completely. That’s what makes some of the difficulty …. The audience is confused by the shape of the words.
Q. But shouldn’t a word mean something when you see it?
A. In prose, an English word means what it says. In poetry, you’re listening to two things… you’re listening to the sense, the common sense of what it says. But it says more. That is the difficulty.
-William Carlos Williams, Paterson
IN what follows I would like to return to a topic that I first took up in the 1950s as a student at Marquette University, and which later became the subject of the first critical essay of mine to find its way into print: “The Obscurity of Modern Poetry.” I’ve engaged this topic many times and in many different ways over the years, but have never been able to lay it to rest, mainly because so much of the poetry written in the last forty years has found new and unsettling ways to resist clarification, new ways to experience the materiality of language, and new ways to defeat the question of what counts as poetry in the first place. Of course, poetry has always been opaque. The ancients identified poetry as ainigma, the “dark saying,” and rhetorical tradition thought of it as the veiling of things with rich adornments of words. Recall the Baroque lyric and Samuel Johnson’s impatience with its density. But in our time poetry is aggressively, even philosophically difficult. American poets writing today– L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Steve McCaffery, for example, but also more generally familiar poets like John Ashbery-are as likely to draw their inspiration and even their poetics from Gertrude Stein as from Walt Whitman, which means that coming to terms with poetry now would mean getting clear about a text like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1913), which was, she says, an attempt to compose portraits of things while weighing the value of each individual word, “little words” as well as nouns, treating all words equally (“A Transatlantic Interview 1946” 17-18):
Colored hats are necessary to show that curls are worn by an addition of blank spaces, this makes the difference between single lines and broad stomachs, the least thing is lightening, the least thing means a little flower and a big delay a big delay that makes more nurses than little women really little women. So clean is a light that nearly all of it shows pearls and little ways. A large hat is tall and me and all custard whole. (Tender Buttons 24)
Tender Buttons is a poem or collection of poems concerning things close at hand in Gertrude Stein’s everyday world-objects, food, rooms. The critical question is whether we can recognize the peculiar way in which her relation to these things is mediated by language. For self-evidently it is not mediated in the way we usually understand the mediation of words and things. “I became more and more excited,” wrote Stein,
about how words which were the words that made whatever I looked at look like itself were not the words that had in them any quality of description …. And the thing that excited me so very much at that time and still does is that the word or words that make what I looked at be itself were always words that to me very exactly related themselves to that thing the thing at which I was looking, but as often as not had as I say nothing whatever to do with what my words would do that described that thing. (“Portraits and Repetition” 330)
How can a word make a thing be itself? As if there were a relation between words and things not captured by predication or description (which is to say: the mediation of propositional language). As if words were not just about things, or in the position of picturing them, but in some way behind or beneath them, or on their hither side, apart from where we stand. But we can’t understand words outside of predication, saying this as that (not even when we enlarge predication to include speech-acts theory, doing things with words). So what to do?
I want to argue something like this: it is precisely in virtue of its obscurity that modern-or modernist-poetry comes down on the side of things precisely because it abides with them differently than we do in modernity, where modernity is the rationalized world that can justify everything that exists by conceptualizing it, bringing it under familiar descriptions, putting it to use, getting a return on investments in it, finding a place for it in some scheme of means and ends. I want to argue that the obscurity of modern poetry constitutes a species of realism-I will call it an “intimate realism,” in contrast to formal or philosophical realisms that depend on correspondence theories, rules of reference, theories of description, or the conceptual logic of identity and difference. A risky argument, to be sure.
Of course it is easy, as it has always been, to finesse Gertrude Stein, who was, and still is for most people, a canonical figure of ridicule. (Once at the Behavioral Sciences Center at Stanford I read some of Stein’s Tender Buttons to a group of social scientists, who stared at one another in disbelief. Was she autistic, they wanted to know.) Forty years ago the assumption was that a religious young man seeking a university career in literary studies would specialize not in modern poetry but in medieval literature. The assumption still rules. But my passion was for poetry in all of its most recondite and esoteric forms. It is true that since the medieval imagination likes nothing so much as complexity of form I could have fed this passion by becoming a medievalist, but I was drawn to the extravagance and hyperbole of modern poetic language and in particular to the critical paradoxes entailed in the French poet Stephane Mallarme’s thesis that a poem is made of words, not of ideas; that is, a poem is made of language but not of any of the things that we use language to produce: meanings, concepts, image-worlds, propositions about the world, narratives, expressions of feeling.’ Not that the poem excludes these things, but it is no longer definable in such terms because poetry is no longer a genre-distinction, a way of speaking like any other. Here is a radical truth I was prepared to affirm: in poetry language is no longer a form of mediation. Poetry is a materialization of language, a thickening that transforms our relation to language in the sense that it ceases to be the kind of prosthetic device that, famously, Jean-Paul Sartre said it was when he proposed that language is meant not for poetry, in which words are treated as things, but is meant for grasping the world, bringing it under rational control and redeeming it by means of action (28-32).
Sartre was opposing himself directly to Mallarme and his champion, the poet Paul Valery. In an essay on “The Poet’s Rights Over Language,” Valery explained that “Ordinary spoken language is a practical tool. It is constantly resolving immediate problems. Its task is fulfilled when each sentence has been completely abolished, annulled, and replaced by the meaning. Comprehension is its end ….” But in poetry
language is no longer a transitive act, an expedient. On the contrary, it has its own value, which must remain intact in spite of the operations of the intellect on the given propositions. Poetic language must preserve itself, through itself, and remain the same, not to be altered by the act of intelligence that finds or gives it a meaning. (Valery 170-71)
The thesis that poetry is made of words but not of any of the things we use words to produce is not a thesis that poetry is meaningless (“I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible,” said Gertrude Stein [“A Transatlantic Interview 1946” 18]); it is rather a thesis that in poetry language cannot be replaced by its meaning. In an essay entitled “Is Mallarme’s Poetry Obscure?” (1943)
Maurice Blanchot writes:
The sense of the poem is inseparable from all the words, from all the movements, from all the accents of the poem. It exists only in this ensemble, and it disappears as soon as one seeks to separate it from the form it has taken. What the poem signifies coincides exactly with what it is; the mind that wants to understand it must take it as a whole, experience its complete reality, assimilate it materially and discern its power, when, having sought in vain to transform it the better to grasp it, the mind succeeds in attaining it by the docility with which it accepts and marries it. The first reflex when faced with some lines of verse that discursive reasoning would like to elucidate is to give them another form. But resistance allows no metamorphosis. (108)
Perhaps poetry just is this resistance of language to the mind’s effort to eliminate or appropriate it. At any rate, without stopping I sided with Valery and Blanchot against Sartre, poetry against philosophy, and inevitably became (quixotically) a defender of Gertrude Stein.
The question is whether I could do so in good faith, without a sense of internal contradiction or divided consciousness. It was then and still is the case that Christian scholars share with Marxist critics, philosophers in both the Anglo-American analytic and European phenomenological traditions, not to mention just about everyone except poets, a deep ontological commitment to Aristotle’s poetics, with its central idea that poetry, whatever else it is, is a form of mediation: it is another way of framing representations of how things are; it is a way of grasping them– recall Sartre’s prosthetics-but once having grasped them language is disposable, like Wittgenstein’s ladder. “It has lived, it has done its work,” as Valery said, as if the death of language were a sacrifice exacted by cognition. Some will remember the Chicago critic Elder Olson’s defense of this idea (in a footnote to “Outline of Poetic Theory”): “The chair is not wood but wooden; poetry is not words but verbal” (564 n.8). Poetry is a species of knowledge (mimesis) and a branch of consecutive reasoning (muthos, or plot). Lexis or diction is inessential and possibly obstructive to poetry’s definition, not to say its work. In a book that meant very much to me then, and still does, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), the philosopher Jacques Maritain affirmed Aristotle by arguing that poetry is a unique form of cognition: it is, in his words, unmediated or “connatural knowledge,” in which the poet engages the world by becoming what he knows (if “he” is the word). The difficulty of modern poetry is not a difficulty of language but the difficulty of poetic intuition, which is (says Maritain) “an obscure grasping [by the poet] of his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or connaturality”-knowledge mediated not by concepts but by emotion:
In this knowledge… the intellect is not at play alone but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will, and [is] guided and shaped by them. It is not rational knowledge, knowledge through the conceptual, logical, and discursive exercise of reason. But it is really and genuinely knowledge, though obscure and perhaps incapable of giving an account of itself. (Maritain 85)
To be sure, there are, Maritain said, poems that are obscure in their essence-“nocturnal” poems, he called them, in which “the poet is not concerned with the intellectual mystery of the significative and constructive power of the Word, but with the mysterious screen or obstacle that thwarts in every sign the function of signification” (194-95). What is this “mysterious screen or obstacle” to signification? It is for sure nothing less than language itself, language in its materiality or corporeality, its density or Dichtung (the German word for poetry derives from dicht, “impervious,” “dense,” “solid,” and Dichtigkeit, “compactness,” “thickness,” “density”). “Nocturnal” poetry, Maritain says, turns in upon itself in order to investigate its own “secret workings” (195). Nocturnal poetry breaks with the world (or with the light) in order to explore language as such. Interestingly, and plausibly, he gives as one of his nocturnal examples some lines from Dylan Thomas’ poem entitled “Poem”:
It was sweet to drown in the readymade handy water
With my cherry capped dangler green as seaweed
Summoning a child’s voice from a webfoot stone,
Never never oh never to regret the bugle I wore
On my cleaving are as I blasted in a wave
Now shown and mostly bare I would lie down,
Lie down, lie down and live
As quiet as a bone. (qtd. in Maritain 196-97)
One wonders what Maritain would have made of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (1932), in which a noun occurs at most once every seven or eight lines, the idea being to capture as much the rhythm as the furniture of reality:
It is not with them that they come
Or rather gather for it as not known
They could have pleasure as they change
Or leave it all for it as they can be
Not only left to them as restless
For which it is not only left and left alone
They will stop it as they like
Because they call it further mutinously
Coming as it did at one time only
For which they made it rather now
Coming as well when they come and can
For which they like it always
Or rather best so when they can be alert
Not only needed in nodding
But not only not very nervous
As they will willingly pass when they are restless
Just as they like it called for them
All who have been left in their sense
All should boisterous make it an attachment
For which they will not like what there is
More than enough and they can be thought
Always alike and mind do they come
Or should they care which it would be strange. (14-15)
Or this from the contemporary British poet Jeremy Prynne’s Word Order (1989)-Prynne for me is the most intransparent British poet ever:
Or the Canadian poet Steve McCaffery’s Theory of Sediment (1991):
Welked moons through portage flowing. Stone surged pestilence is singed. Foul thicket’s rabblement burnt in. There is a height felness would affray. Waste measures tolled or bleak cast-logs on ground. Stretched foot to seeming head-craig handiworks. Wine– wind trussed opened cleft from sea-deep angry leak. Root-stop in mood and mined-swart suture. Head-hinders shouldering a heaved on-nape. Down glow and pierce flank tributary fair. Flint-pan to ice. Shard cities sink. Each-other once as eye poised hill is set. Mustered by wile. (329)
Or Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory (1978):
Or these lines from Charles Bernstein’s “Rowing with One Oar,” a poem from Rough Trades (1991):
So the sieve is sifted, the spun attended to
A token of foreign charm, lost here among
The can of category, disdain of
Destination. You catch if only to amount
As cord-draped prongs befit of all
But tides are guided, a needle through
The Hey, or what’s about faces, our
Armenian friend who hopes to
Cure his ponies and put away the
Rest as hedge `gainst eschatology
Or moral ‘dolatry. Planes down
The view the better to begin to
Build it up. Snow bound or wind
Chapel. Here comes the premised
Glare-bowling over and then bowled. (23)
Or, finally, these lines from an early poem by John Ashbery, “The Tennis Court Oath” (1957):
What had you been thinking about
The face studiously bloodied
Heaven blotted region
I go on loving you like water but
There is a terrible breath in the way of all this
You were not elected president, yet won the race
All the way through fog and drizzle
When you read it was sincere the coasts
Stammered with unintentional villages the
Horse strains fatigued I guess … the calls…
I worry. (11)
It is far from clear how or whether any of this could be justified from an Aristotelian point of view. Words in these poems are put together not according to an organon or rule of discourse based on the logic of integration, but quite deliberately according to Gertrude Stein’s poetics in which words don’t build contexts or structures of parts and wholes but rather form a series of temporalities that are more like intervals rather than transitions. To borrow terms from performance art, such poetry has a compartmented rather than an information structure, meaning that words and lines of verse, instead of being folded into one another to form little narratives, are allowed to remain separate in spaces of their own, segmented or fragmentary. In an essay on the French poet Rene Char (author of, among other things, Poeme pulverised Maurice Blanchot says that poetic speech is an “archipelago”:
A new kind of arrangement not entailing harmony, concordance, or reconciliation, but that accepts disjunction or divergence as the infinite center from out of which, through speech, relation is to be created: an arrangement that does not compose but juxtaposes, that is to say, leaves each of the terms that come into relation outside one another, respecting and preserving this exteriority and this distance as the principle… of all signification. Juxtaposition and interruption here assume an extraordinary force of justice. (“The Fragment Word” 308)
Words don’t lead one to another but give one another room. For anyone who thinks that the existence of language can only be redeemed by knowledge, even if this means-witness Maritain-stretching the limits of knowledge beyond or beneath the reach of concepts, a poetry of intransitive or workless language is merely decadence, entropy, or, as Fredric Jameson diagnoses it, it is just schizophrenia, an instance of the schizophrenic logic of late capitalism (53-92).
In other words, poetry as word salad.
BUT perhaps we underestimate language or construe it in too narrowly a grammarian’s fashion.
For example, here is a paradox that is not easy to resolve: In an essay on “Language and Realism” Lyn Hejinian argues that Gertrude Stein is a realist whose writings disclose something essential about poetry as a way of abiding with things, letting them be themselves instead of subsuming them into categories or grasping them as objects of consciousness (86– 105). Donald Sutherland, Stein’s first academic champion, says that “[t]he great welter of what seem to be particularities and trivialities in Tender Buttons comes from a ‘religious’ attitude toward everything as simple existence” (73). The philosopher-novelist William Gass makes a similar point when he says that Stein “[creates] from her words real objects, valuable for themselves, capable of an independent existence, as physical as statuary” (90).2 In Tender Buttons Stein does not document the things around her; things are, so to speak, alongside of her as companions rather than in front of her as objects. Things are allowed to be just things, not parts of a whole (Stein thinks of herself as following Cezanne: “Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and that impressed me enormously” [“A Transatlantic Interview 1946” 15]). The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas points toward a realism of this sort when he distinguishes between cognition and sensibility as two ways of experiencing the world: in the one we grasp things by means of concepts, in the other we are exposed to them as the skin is exposed to touch. Philosophy knows only the language of concepts; it sees our relationship with things on the model of disengaged observers of the passing show, or again on the model of technology, converting things into power and production. The idea is to objectify things by enclosing them in propositions; having them in hand we can act on them and through them on other people. Poetry by contrast knows only the language of touch, where, Levinas says, “speech is contact,” as in prophetic experience when one is invaded by God’s voice and turned inside out like a cloak, or in ethical experience when one is addressed by another person. Poetry belongs to this level of experience, which Levinas calls “proximity”:
The proximity of things is poetry; in themselves the things are revealed before being approached. In stroking an animal already the hide hardens in the skin. But over the hands that have touched things, places trampled by beings, the things they have held, the images of those things, the fragments of those things, the contexts in which those fragments enter, the inflexions of the voice and the words that are articulated in them, the ever sensible signs of language, the letters traced, the vestiges, the relics-over all things, beginning with the human face and skin, tenderness spreads. Cognition turns into proximity, into the purely sensible. Matter, which is invested as a tool, and a tool in the world, is also, via the human, matter that obsesses me with its proximity. The poetry of the world is inseparable from proximity par excellence, or the proximity of a neighbor par excellence. (118-19)
Imagine things having a claim on us the way persons do: as if the things around us had proper names before becoming items in a dictionary. In Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language (Yale University Press, 1974) 1 tried to get at something like this by invoking the myth of Orpheus and saying that poetry does not turn things into meanings; rather it allows them their real or earthly existence as singular and irreducible entities on the hither side of the workings of a consciousness that seeks to assimilate them (imagine consciousness as carnivorous-as in fact it is in Hegel). Words and things have a mythical, magical, or mystical relationship that is deeper than any logical function of designation. I appealed then to Heidegger’s authority in his essay on “Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry” (1934), where he says that
The poet names the gods and names all things with respect to what they are. This naming does not merely come about when something previously known is furnished with a name; rather, by speaking the essential word, the poet’s naming first nominates the beings as what they are. Thus they become known as beings. Poetry is the founding of being in the word. (59)
Later Heidegger would drop the idea of poetry making things knowable in favor of the idea of making things “near,” closer to us than objects of consciousness, as if the task of poetry were to restore us to an intimacy with things that knowledge and technology destroy.
It’s not certain that modernity has all the conceptual resources it needs for clarifying this way of thinking about poetry and language. My thought was that the ancient story of Orpheus, whose power of song could summon things into being, testified to this intimacy of words and things. The materiality of language, whether of voice or of writing, is not dead weight but is “magical” in something like the sense in which Walter Benjamin uses this term when he tries to invoke a language that is very different from the system for framing representations that we find in logic, linguistics, and various philosophies of language. Benjamin, interestingly, takes recourse to the Bible rather than to myth. In “Language as Such and the Language of Man” (1916), Benjamin says that there is a language of things as well as of names, a “language as such” in which God creates things and a “language of man” in which this creation is brought to completion in Adam’s naming of things, where naming is not so much predication as a kind of “voicing” or “translation of the mute into the sonic” (68-70). Benjamin’s idea is that the “language of man” is a prelapsarian language in which there is a metaphysical unity of words and things. Say the word and the thing is there. Emphatically this is not– not-a language made of signs. It is, Benjamin says, only in “the bourgeois view of language.. that the word has an accidental relation to its object, that it is a sign for things (or knowledge of them) agreed by some convention. Language never gives mere signs” (Selected Writings, I 69). Signs belong to a restricted economy of contracted agreements and balanced accounts. Signs came into existence after the Fall when the language of man proliferated into multiple and heterogeneous tongues, in none of which can any name give us the thing itself. Brot and pain give us different ways of saying “bread” but bread itself remains speechless. Fallen language is “prattle” or “talk” (Geschwatz, Gerede). Only by translating from one language to another and from each into all can we begin to intimate that “pure language” in which words and things share the same ontology and which therefore allows things themselves to speak. In “The Task of the Translator” (1921), Benjamin writes:
Whereas in the various tongues that ultimate essence, the pure language, is tied only to linguistic elements and their changes, in linguistic creations it is weighted with a heavy, alien meaning. To relieve it of this, to turn the symbolizing into the symbolized itself, to regain pure language fully formed from the flux, is the tremendous and only capacity of translation. In this pure language-which no longer means or expresses anything but is an expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages-all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished. (Selected Writings, 1261)
The idea (which reverses philosophical tradition since Bacon and Locke) is that meanings, not words, get in the way of things.
Let us dwell on this for a moment: a pure language which no longer means or expresses anything but, as it were, creates. The language of Let there be …. In “Language as Such and the Language of Man” Benjamin suggests, all too briefly, that the languages of art and poetry mirror or echo this pure prelapsarian language:
There is a language of sculpture, of painting, of poetry. Just as the language of poetry is partly, if not solely, founded on the name language of man, it is very conceivable that the language of sculpture or painting is founded on certain kinds of thing– languages, that in them we find a translation of the language of things into a higher language, which may still be of the same sphere. (Selected Writings, 173)
When Adam gave names to things he did not merely designate them, rather he gave them speech, thus completing their creation, allowing them to articulate themselves in human language the way God allows them to reveal themselves in the divine. The word in this event is not a stand-in for the thing; the thing itself comes to stand in the word. We can hardly imagine it, but before the Fall names and things shared the same ontology, rather the way proper names still do. As Benjamin explains it:
By giving names, parents dedicate their children to God; the names they give do not correspond-in a metaphysical rather than etymological sense-to any knowledge, for they name newborn children. In a strict sense, no name ought (in its etymological meaning) to correspond to any person, for the proper name is the word of God in human sounds. By it each man is guaranteed his creation by God, and in this sense he is himself creative, as is expressed by the mythological wisdom in the idea (which doubtless not infrequently comes true) that a man’s name is his fate. The proper name is the communion of man with the creative word of God …. Through the word, man is bound to the language of things. The human word is the name of things. (Selected Writings, 169)
In the prelapsarian language of man, the name is not a sign but rather the signature of the thing, the testimony of its existence. In naming things Adam bears witness to them, and also bears responsibility for them. They enter not into his use but into his care. The relation between words and things in this event is ethical rather than logical; it is an unmediated relation, what Levinas would call a relation of proximity rather than one of cognition and representation. And the idea is that in poetry we have a residue, perhaps one could say a remembrance, of this original and originary pre-predicative relation of words and things. Poetic language is a recuperation, a recovery (as from an illness) of that “pure language” on the hither side of meanings and the transactions of discourse.
As Benjamin suggests when he cites Mallarme in “The Task of the Translator” (Selected Writings, I 259), this is exactly the language Mallarme tried to bring to earth by means of poetry, which is not a language of signs to be exchanged in the marketplace of communicative action but one in which things are restored to their purity precisely by absenting them from predication. “Je dis: une fleur! Et, hors de l’oubli oh ma voix relegue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se leve, idee meme et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets” (Mallarme 368). As Maurice Blanchot glosses this famous line, the task of poetry is to redeem the singularity of things from their subsumption into categories or transformation into fungible concepts (“Literature” 327-29). This redemption is the achievement of literary modernism, or what Benjamin, in his essay on the Surrealists, calls “the magical experiments with words… the passionate phonetic and transformational games that have run through the whole literature of the avant-garde …. whether it is called Futurism, Dadism, or Surrealism” (Selected Writings, I 212). But for Benjamin the literature of the avantgarde is only a late chapter in a vast unwritten “history of esoteric poetry,” which is a history that is inaccessible and doubtless unimaginable to academic scholars:
For written as it demands to be written-that is, not as a collection to which particular ‘specialists’ all contribute `what is most worth knowing’ from their fields, but as the deeply grounded composition of an individual who, from inner compulsion, portrays less a historical evolution than a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry-written in such a way, it would be one of those scholarly confessions that find their place in every century. (Selected Writings, II 212)
A “constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry”: as if poetry had never been modern although had always been modernist.
Esoteric in what sense, exactly?
Benjamin distinguishes between the scholar who engages his or her objects at a distance or from a theoretical attitude and the collector whose relation to things is tactile.3 Benjamin’s suggestion is that our relation to such poetry is not scholarly and critical-not a relation of exegesis or expert description-but is like the intimate relation of the collector to his or her treasures, which is to say things whose value is, as Benjamin puts it, magical rather than functional or utilitarian (Selected Writings, II 487). The true collector’s things are esoteric. They are set apart, etymologically sacred. Benjamin’s idea of the collector would not be Henry James’ Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl, who is looting Europe of its treasures to be housed in his museum in American City; it would be Henry James’ Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors, who surrounds herself with small, inexpensive objects that together create an intimate environment at once free from and deeply critical of the market culture of high capital that constitutes Adam Verver’s modernity. Maria Gostrey’s world of things cannot be exchanged for anything. It cannot be duplicated. Adam Verver would see nothing in it. It is in that sense poetic. Is it preposterous to see a kinship between Maria Gostrey and Gertrude Stein? Perhaps in the sense that one can see modes of redemption at work in the way they inhabit a world presided over by Adam Verver or Mrs. Newsome or Aunt Maud. One thinks of “huge heavy objects” that fill up Aunt Maud’s house in James’ The Wings of the Dove-Aunt Maud, whom Kate Croy calls “Brittania of the Marketplace.” Here is the way Morton Densher experiences Aunt Maud’s furnishings:
He [Morton Densher] couldn’t describe them collectively, call them either Mid-Victorian or Early-not being certain they were arrangeable under one rubric. It was only manifest they were splendid and were furthermore conclusively British. They constituted an order and abounded in rare material-precious woods, metals, stuffs. Stones. He had never dreamed of anything so fringed and scalloped, so buttoned and corded, drawn everywhere so tight and curled everywhere so thick. He had never dreamed of so much gilt and glass, so much satin and plush, so much rosewood and marble and malachite. But it was above all the solid forms, the wasted finish, the misguided cost, the general attestation of morality and money, a good conscience and a good balance. (106)
The collector’s relation to her treasures is one of reception rather than consumption: her economy is that of the gift rather than that of the exchange of merchandise and investment of profits. The collector shares her treasures, that is, to be more precise, she shares her treasuring of them with others, as Maria Gostrey does with Lambert Strether
Her compact and crowded little chambers, almost dusky, as they first struck him, with accumulations, represented a supreme general adjustment to opportunities and conditions. Wherever he looked he saw an old ivory or an old brocade, and he scarce knew where to sit for fear of a misappliance. The life of the occupant struck him of a sudden as more charged with possession even than Chad’s or than Miss Barrace’s; wide as his glimpse had lately become of the empire of “things,” what was before him still enlarged it: the lust of the eyes and the pride of life had indeed thus their temple. It was the innermost nook of the shrine-as brown as a pirate’s cave. In the brownness were glints of gold; patches of purple were in the gloom; objects all that caught, through the muslin, with their high rarity, the light of the low windows. Nothing was clear about them but they were precious . . . . (Ambassadors 141)
This is very different from the rhetoric of ostentation, that, as Thorstein Veblen showed, defines the culture of money, where the idea is to display wealth, not to share it. Maria Gostrey and Lambert Strether fall outside this culture, and therefore help us to see it for what it is-one could call it a culture in which the mere existence of things has been forgotten, their singular materiality having been transformed into a material economy in which they are only as real as property.
IMAGINE poetry as a form of collection, or the poet as someone whose relation to language is that of a collector in Benjamin’s sense of someone whose relation to the things she keeps is no longer utilitarian, even though the things may be, for all we know, utilitarian things-recall Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades like the snow shovel-anyhow the point would be that her relation to these things lifts them out of their utilitarian or functional space and inserts them into a different kind of space. The task then would be to develop some descriptions of this kind of space. For Henry James the space is aesthetic, but not in the sense that a museum space is aesthetic, museums having sometimes (or not just sometimes) a tomb-like quality; rather, as James puts it, “The circle in which they stood together was warm with life”: Benjamin would call the space “magical,” in the sense that the things and perhaps even the people that occupy this space enjoy a kind of redemption, using this word in perhaps both its theological and its economic senses-the collector, Benjamin says, restores aura to things that modernity has turned into commodities. There is an invisible aureole or halo surrounding Maria Gostrey’s precious things, using “precious” in the sense of sacred, since their value can’t be measured by money, meaning that the meaning they have for her-and thence for Strether-would be lost on the world, or at least on Mrs. Newsome, who for sure would experience Maria Gostrey’s digs as decadent.
I want to close with a double conclusion. The first concerns the difference between Maria Gostrey and Getrude Stein in their relation to things. I want to say that the difference is not in the relation but in the things-exquisite things in Maria Gostrey’s case, everyday things in Gertrude Stein’s. But perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, since in both cases the relation to what is at hand is one of intimacy, which means that what is at hand enjoys a mode of existence of irreducible singularity, of density and impermeability, which is the mode of existence of persons rather than of objects of knowledge in a conceptual scheme.
The second conclusion (following from the first) is that in poetry this irreducible singularity, this irreplaceability, is the mode of existence of words. In poetry words are closer to us than ideas in the head. Perhaps they are closer to us than the words we speak, which (as Heidegger has shown) is true of words we hear, or at least listen to. Listening presupposes an intimacy with language which Heidegger registers by means of a pun-the word “belonging” [gehoren] derives from “listening” [horen] (“The Way to Language” 123-24).4 In any case their density and impermeability are not defects to be overcome but conditions of an ontology that we share with them. Say that in poetry we share the world with language instead of using it up. We are, in this event, in one another’s charge.
1) See my discussion of this thesis in “`The Accomplishment of Inhabitation’: Danto, Cavell, and the Argument of American Poetry.”
2) Gass, William, “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language.” Protective language is language that keeps things from getting too close to us.
3) See Convolute H, “The Collector,” The Arcades Project, especially pages 206-07. The collector redeems things from their commodified state in a culture of commercial exchange, where things are discarded when no longer valuable in terms of the market. For the true collector money cannot be substituted for things. The collector preserves things from exhaustion and waste by creating a sacred space for them in which they simply exist in themselves and not just for us.
4) On the priority of listening as a principle of poetics, see Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Charles Bernstein, ed.
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