What we need are voices that are singular, distinct, and that do not properly understand one another, voices that call to one another, that provoke one another. —Jean-Luc Nancy
A rather unprecedented comment by peterkiernan to my post on Nontology prompts the current text. It sparked multiple pages of hand written notes for me, which I will flesh out in this post. I will try to frame things so that readers ignorant of that whole post can follow along; but since I am basing my discussion on specific inquiries that Peter has posed (I hope he doesn’t mind that I call him by his first name), hopefully other readers will bear with me. Before beginning, let me say how thankful that I am. I sincerely hope that the tone I take in what follows does not put off. Such thoughtful comments are not run across everyday. I feel I owe him the seriousness of this response, and then some. In any case, I cherish his salute and salute him. With all that in mind, I proceed assuming my rhetorical freedom, since this is precisely what’s at issue.
(1), Peter writes that I “implicitly accept a representational account of language,” and yet it is precisely this acceptation that I am trying to call into question under the heading “theory.” To do so, I created a fictional theory called “Nontology,” taking steps to neither define nor mention this word in the body of the text. My primary endeavor was not to make “claims” about poetry; were I to do so, I would be falling into the very trap that I denounce, namely, the theoretician’s trap: the illusion that I can make a word mean (or represent) what I want it to mean, that I can inject something into the word that will make its sense remain permanent. But we cannot claim our words, not in any way: we do not have them. In my eyes, this is what explains the proliferation of repetitions and reformulations at work in the text, because if you begin with an awareness that your term can’t set up any field of validation you might intend for it, then whole field you set up has to register this quake. I borrow the phrase “the trembling of sense” from Jean-Luc Nancy to represent this “impermanence.” But I do not employ these phrases to evoke anything like a “flawed representation.” I assume no lack of sense. I “assume” that I’m torn from all my assumptions, which is not to say I have no assumptions, not at all… But that tear is like a desire: it produces the life, producing the work.
Theories are not limited because they are flawed, but because they rely on a paradigm of term-transmission that is simply not possible: they ignore the tremble. This is just a complicated way of saying that the theory has to change if it is to be theoretically sound. To evoke the trembling of sense is to evoke the excess over sense that sense is. I assume the infinite relay and rebound of sense and subject-sounds. In a certain way, it is arbitrary that I choose “poetry” to name this excess, this “one-plus,” or this movement. I do not mean to crown any word as metaphysical or metaphorical king. Nor am I interested in understanding poems in the context of the “theory” I lay out — wouldn’t this be plainly contradictory? Thus, when I am accused for beating myself at my own game (“the basis for your distinctions completely disappears”), all that I can say is, yes, of course, guilty as charged. I have tried to inscribe this impossibility right in or on the edge of the text. I believe that a close reading bears this out– I mean I hope.
Whatever seems to be “represented” under the words theory and poetry is a fiction, a hoax. But that does not mean I am just playing footsy, even if my attempt is manifestly ironic. I’m simply not looking for anyone to “adopt” my terms, and I explicitly denounce “theoretical transmission” to bring this out. I’m designating poetry as that which does not set up its own field of validation, that which does not strike a terminology on its own terms. I try to put into play no politic. There is no basis for the distinction because it is an act of rhetorical freedom, an act of joy and thought. To employ the adjectival versions of the contentious terms, this is not a theoretical joy, but a poetic one. I realize this says, shows, and proves nothing. I know the burden rests on the whole of the text to bring this out. But at the same time, this is how I use these words. The whole of ((y)our) language-existence is the field of validation; and when something sets up its own terms, I say it ought to do so with this whole field taken, as much as possible for us, into account.
(2), I have to admit that the tone of the text in question makes it hard not to accuse me of “pushing a poetic sensibility.” It is also no secret that “I am stretching out the poetic until it looses its form.” In my eyes, this paranoia about form is yet another bias of theories and representations (call it “history,” call it “poetics,” if you like). I’m accused of being unfaithful to “poetry,” whose contours are thus assumed. This seems to establish it as a metaphysical category, set to regulate the poetic discourse and therefore limit it. I take seriously Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophy ought to be written as a form of poetry. I think that he did that, and it is what I am trying to do. I don’t see how a normative view of poetry has any place in such an attempt. In fact, the aim of Nontology was to craft a tentative but poetic theory of poetic theories. To that end, I admit, I may have failed miserably, but neither am I finished.
(Peter, I know that I am partially exaggerating your claim about the boundaries of poetry; I realize that this is a serious area of inquiry for you. Perhaps what’s being articulated here is a difference of approach.)
But let’s take the charge that I am ignoring the historical form of poetry seriously. While that may be true of that text, insofar as no examples are cited, it is not true of my life. I follow Paul Celan, who did not leave it up to history to define what poetry was for him, when he defines poetry as “shape, direction, breath,” the question of where-to and where-from. I once studied his Meridian materials quiet extensively, which was essentially his attempt to arrive at a theory of poetry that didn’t thereby abandon poetry itself. I have tried to do the exact same thing, from the angle of inclination of my own existence.
As to the suggestion that I analyze poems one at a time, I’m afraid that this strategy would be hard pressed to discover a thoroughly encompassing, poetic theory (not one that circumscribed its boundaries, cataloged its episodes, or found a satisfactory meaning, but one that tried to resonate with the call-and-address that poetry is). For example, it would be quite difficult for me to read an Ashbery poem isolated from the totality of my engagement with his poetry, which began many years ago with “Fragment” and flowered with “The New Spirit.” In his poem “The Ecclesiast” (pg. 68 here), Ashbery refers to a “new dimension of truth” that both bursts on us and is immediately condemned. For me, this is a cipher for the above mentioned trembling of sense, if not the very poetic discourse that takes note of it. Either way, once I know about the New Spirit, this passage about the “new dimension of truth” cannot be appraised without it. I am interested in the oak forest (of words? of trees? of beings?), where the sad key to everything lies (fragilekeys); the perfectly-fit-but-pinching “shoe” (poems, pieces); the “forgetting all about me” (life, writing); the being together despite being far apart (ontology, communication); the chime somehow still unheard (call to poetry). And above all, the empty hands (personhood). Ashbery advises:
There was no life you could live out to its end
No attitude which, in the end, could save you.
It is my personal conviction that to take this as something stylistic, structural, or really, as having anything to do with “poetry” or “poems,” is an evasion of what is really at stake in the reading: you. I’ve been accused of being “obsessed” because of this argument, but I find its theoretical basis in Paul Celan, and I pray forge a handshake with him. While I find Peter’s analysis of “The Ecclesiast” very intriguing, it is ultimately rather theoretical for my tastes as a writer (however, I’d like to respond to it in full, another time). As a reader, I have much to learn.
After all this, I don’t intend to be normative as to what is poetic and what is not. But if the inquiry is simply into “the nature of poetry,” it would not be enough for me. The truth is, it could never be just that. And yet, let’s at the very least insist upon the heightened economy of the poetic; Littré: “everything that elevates and touches in a work of art, in the character or beauty of a person, and even in a natural production, is called poetry.” I’d like to get inside of everything I study and live; or rather, I am inside everything, inside the roundness of the bell and tumble. This prevents me from taking an outsider’s perspective, the distance of the analyst, critic, or theoretician. When Ashbery writes, “You see how honey crumbles your universe/ Which seems like an institution– how many walls?” this is a powerful inquiry into the very foundations of our own existence, all the givens of my universe, and how the honey of true “poetry” might bring them all crashing down. Poetry makes an accuracy out of this difficulty, nothing less. Here, I’d like to quote my favorite American poet, Jack Spicer, from his book “After Lorca”:
A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.
I yell “Shit” down a cliff at an ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fade. It will be dead as “Alas.” But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word “Shit” will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.
(3), I am a bit confused as to how my thought processes are “mired in Nietzsche-Heidegger repudiation of metaphysics.” I also totally disagree that either of these philosophers thought that knowledge was “doomed to failure.” Why would they write if they thought this, why would they read? I am afraid that such a reading willfully forgets quite a few nuances in these texts (it seems to be a ready-made interpretation, to be blunt, ready to be mobilized by a critique). As I see it, Nietzsche opened knowledge to its exuberant excess, which Georges Bataille pursued to the point where knowledge had to always be open to its outside. He used non-knowledge to designate this need for knowledge to constantly be making contact with its not-known; the unknown was the object of his knowledge, which is why his texts pass from sexuality, to mysticism, to death, to poetry. As the same time, these two make a pleasure of unknowing, find themselves in it.
As for Heidegger, he, more cautiously, crafted an extended meditation on the “trembling of sense,” i.e., ontological difference (please, don’t make too much of this conflation, as this is a whole separate conversation), the differance between any being and itself, any being and other beings, etc. Heidegger’s fundamental claim is that “Being is not,” and I follow Nancy when he tries, following H., to think of being as relating, being as being-with, being as “to,” being in the active-transitive sense, against being as substance, something given, or something that “is” at all. Famously, we “ek-sist.” I am not sure how else to understand the repudiation of metaphysics except as the “deconstruction of ontology” as I have just briefly construed it. It amounts to the difference between the “am” and itself, the caesura between the “I” and the “am,” or between two or multiple “am’s,” etc. But Heidegger is not my area, to be quite honest, so who knows. In any case, Nietzsche said to write with your blood, and I take him quite seriously.
In conclusion, there is and there isn’t an element of arbitrariness in the distinction between poetry and theory. As my thought progresses, I might replace these with “acting” and “ontology,” or “economy” and “theology.” When the time comes, those vocabularies will have to be set and then abandoned; they must burst and be condemned. Jack Spicer writes that a perfect poem would have an infinitely small vocabulary; but setting up a provocative, evocative, or poetic vocabulary is not the same thing as establishing a field of validation that relies on those set-up terms. Poetry relies on the “outside” of the terms: you. I do not mean to exclude theory or theoretical consciousness, nor to demote it. I am, by choice, a theoretician who refuses to establish a consistent terminology, or at least not to impose one; but equally, this “choice” stems from a sense of the trembling in sense, or an engagement with “death” (in relation to which I “am”). Something freely “assumed” in any case. Each piece sets up its tentative web of associations and vibrates therewithin. You could say that I’m working up a cogent theory of eternal life, grounded in the virtuality of freedom, the leeway between pieces. Freedom, virtue, beatitude. And yet it’s only justification is in you.
Theoretically, or ideally, everything takes its charge from the poetic — that which touches and moves — and we are on its trail. Like Spicer, “I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” A tough balance has to be struck between setting up an infinitely small vocabulary (pointer) for each piece and seeing to it that each poem resonates with the whole of the oeuvre. This “setting up” and “seeing to” is not merely a matter of intention or skill, but of life, “spirit,” and poetry: “shape, direction, breath,” person become language, language become voice, the question of where-from and where-to (Celan). This means writing with what we are– (y)our blood, (y)our life, (y)our word. Without that, it’s just a political device, something lazy and old (I don’t accuse anyone of this, primarily intending to launch cautions at myself). And yet it seems to me that the “theoretical game” is implicated in all speaking, in the very movement of any “voice.” This is what I alluded to in a parenthesis, when I hid the admission:
(This is complicated: this naivety [e.g. believing wholeheartedly in the subsistence of the self-edifice] is there whenever I assume the existence of my own voice. Whenever I assume I’ve surmounted my original state of infans.)
And elsewhere, more bluntly:
12. The theoretician assumes he has a voice. Quite to the contrary, the poet’s whole life is structured by the desire to find his voice. The poet knows that this desire is not his own, for it always comes strangely upon him. And even when he vocalizes or writes, he knows that the voice is not his “own.” If it were his own, poetry would no longer be the medium of resonant existence, but the imposition of ontological order.
I think there’s quite a bit of risk involved here, hopefully, at the limit of the “poetic” — or, why not, the nontological. You might call nontology the effort to found a cogent theory of eternal life in the virtuality of freedom. It takes only baby steps, sensing and affirming in “constant vigil” that the nontological work of love — “attentiveness to beings and things” — has never yet properly begun (see my post on Agamben’s work on infancy). This is what is at stake in the trembling of sense, in differance, in ontological difference: infinite return of square one, of nothing.
I leave you with a fragment of mine from another piece of writing, which I hope may serve as a closing fable:
By then, the object of my study had become mockingly opaque. I’d watch the snowflakes fall in January and lament my growing tummy in June. I’d think about the old days, though you could hardly say I had memories. Cotton candy was the metaphor, a candy I hated. And still I loved those days.
Addendum: For another take on all this, my previous post Liturgy was also composed in response to the issues raised in Nontology. There, an entirely different terminological field is set up, where the axis is between young-old. These recent projects and Peter’s truly helpful inquiry has really got me thinking about how a text gets charged with sense — or at least how I (consciously or not) structure my texts accord to an undefinable point of tension unique to each, yet participating in a harmony or economy with each other. The point of tension in each gives rise to a field of energy or verification whose original charge lies elsewhere: in other readers, other pieces, other worlds. This implies, on a basic level, that once the text has exhausted itself in articulating its unique tensional point, which exists according to the discourse it supports, then the tensional point itself changes axis, “differs.” This change is made explicit in the “next” piece, insofar as it responds to a new time, a new inquiry, finding a new tensional points and new terms– seeking, above all, new returns.