Resistance of Poetry

Resistance of Poetry
by Jean-Luc Nancy

If we understand, if in one way or another we reach a threshold of sense, it happens poetically. This doesn’t mean that poetry constitutes some type of means or medium of access. It means – and this is almost the opposite – that just this access defines poetry, and that it only takes place when it takes place.

This is why the word “poetry” can designate a type of discourse, one genre among the arts, or a quality that presents itself outside of this type or genre, and may very well be absent from works of this type or genre. According to Littré, the word taken in an absolute sense means: “Qualities that characterize good verse, which can be found outside of verse. […] Poetic brilliance and richness, even in prose. Plato is full of poetry.” Poetry is therefore the indeterminate unity of a set of qualities that are not restricted to a type of composition named “poetry,” and which can only be designated by attributing the adjective “poetic” to terms such as richness, brilliance, boldness, color, depth, etc.

Littré also says, in a figurative sense, “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.” When one takes leave of its literary use, this word takes on a figurative sense; nonetheless, this sense is but the extension of an absolute sense, that is, of this indeterminate unity of qualities whose general characteristics are given by the terms “elevated” and “touching.” Poetry as such is therefore always properly identical to itself, from a piece of verse to a natural thing, and at the same time, it is always only a figure of this propriety, which cannot be assigned any proper, properly proper sense. “Poetry” is not exactly a sense, but rather the sense of access to a sense that is each time absent, and transferred ever further. The sense of “poetry” is a sense always to be made.

In essence, poetry is something more and something other than poetry itself. Or rather: poetry itself might be found better where there isn’t any poetry at all. It might even be the contrary or the refusal of poetry, and of all poetry. Poetry does not coincide with itself: perhaps this non-coincidence, this substantial impropriety, makes it, properly, poetry.

Poetry will therefore be what it is only insofar as it’s capable of negating itself: of renouncing, denying, or doing away with itself. In negating itself, poetry prevents the access to sense from being confounded with any mode of expression or figuration whatsoever. It denies that what is “elevated” could be placed in our hands, and that what is “touching” could ever get rid of the reserve from out of which, precisely, it touches.

Poetry is therefore the negativity wherein access becomes what it is: that which must give way, and so is initially evasive, refused. Access is difficult, but this is not an accidental quality, and it means that difficulty makes access. Difficult is what does not let itself be done, and this is properly what makes poetry. It makes difficult. Because it does so, it seems easy, and this is why, for a long time now, poetry has been called a “slight thing.” And this is not only how it seems. Poetry makes the difficult, the absolutely difficult easy. In facility, difficulty cedes. But this doesn’t mean that it can be made easier. It means that it is posed and presented for what it is, and that we are engaged in it. Suddenly, easily, we are in access, that is, in absolute difficulty, “elevated” and “touching.”

We can see here the difference between poetry’s negativity and that of its twin, dialectic discourse. The latter puts to work, identically, the refusal of access as the truth of access. But in doing so, it makes up a problem to be resolved and a task whose infinite character engenders both an extreme difficulty and the promise, always present and always regulative, of a resolution,  and consequently an extreme facility. Poetry, for its part, is not into problems: it makes difficult.

(This difference, nevertheless, cannot be resolved by the distinction between poetry and philosophy, because poetry cannot let itself be limited to a genre of discourse and because “Plato” can be “full of poetry.” Philosophy versus poetry does not constitute an opposition. Each makes the other difficult. Together, they are difficulty as such: the making of sense.)

It follows that poetry is also negativity in the sense that it denies, in the access to sense, whatever would determine this access as a passage, a way, or a path, and it affirms itself as a presence, an invasion. More than an access to sense, it is an access of sense. Suddenly (easily), being or truth, heart or reason, cede their sense, and difficulty is there, strikingly.


In a correlated way, poetry denies that any access could be determined as one among others, or one relative to others. Philosophy admits that poetry is another path (and sometimes, religion). Thus, Descartes can write: “There are seeds of truth in us: philosophers extract them through reason, poets uproot them through imagination, and thus they shine with a greater brilliance” (recited from memory). Poetry admits of no reciprocity. It affirms an access that is absolute and exclusive, immediately present, concrete, and as such inexchangeable. (Not being on the order of problems, there’s no longer a diversity of solutions.)

It affirms access, therefore, not according to the regime of precision – susceptible to more and less, to infinite approximation and tiny adjustments –, but to that of exactitude. It is finished, complete: the infinite is actual.

In this way, the history of poetry is the history of a persistent refusal to let poetry be identified with any genre or poetic mode – not, however, so as to invent one more precise than the others, and not even to dissolve them into prose as though into their truth, but so as to determine, incessantly, another new exactitude. It is always newly necessary, for the infinite is actual an infinite number of times. Poetry is the praxis of the eternal return of the same: the same difficulty, difficulty itself.

In this sense, the “infinite poetry” of the Romantics is a presentation that’s just as determined as Mallarme’s chiseling, Pound’s opus incertum, or Bataille’s hatred of poetry. This does not mean that these presentations are all the same, or that they’re only figurations of one unique, unfigurable Poesy, and that, because of this, all the battles between “genres,” “schools” or “thoughts” of poetry would be unfounded. It means that there are only such differences: access is made, each time, only once, and it is always to be remade, not because it’s imperfect, but on the contrary, because it is, when it is (when it yields), each time perfect. Eternal return and the sharing of voices.

Poetry teaches nothing other than this perfection.

To that extent, poetic negativity is also a position rigorously determined by the unity and the unicity that is unique to access, its absolutely simple truth: the poem, or the line. (We could also call it: strophe, stanza, phrase, word, song.)

The poem or the line, it’s all one: the poem is a whole whose every part is a poem, that is to say, a finished “making,” and the line is a part of a whole that is still a line, that is to say, a turning, an overturning, or a reversal of sense.

The poem or the line designates the elocutive unity of an exactitude. This elocution is intransitive: it doesn’t refer to sense as a content, and it doesn’t communicate one, but makes it, being exactly and literally the truth.

It pronounces, thus, nothing but what makes up the office of language, at once its structure and its responsibility: to articulate sense, it being understood that there is only sense in an articulation. But poetry articulates the sense, exactly, absolutely (not an approximation, image, or evocation).

That articulation is not uniquely verbal, and that language infinitely surpasses language, is another affair – or rather, it’s the same thing: “everything that is elevated and touching” is called “poetry.” In language or elsewhere, poetry does not produce significations; it makes an objective, concrete, and exactly determined identity between the “elevated” and the “touching” and a thing.

Exactitude is integral completion: ex-actum, this is made, this is acted upon up to the end. Poetry is the integral action of a disposition to sense. Every time it takes place, it’s an exaction of sense. Exaction is the action that demands something due, and then one that demands more than what is due. What’s demanded by speech is sense. But sense is more than anything that could be due. Sense is not a debt, it’s not required, and one can do without it. One can live without poetry. One can always ask, “What good are poets”? Sense is extra, an excess: the excess of being over being itself. It’s a matter of acceding to this excess, yielding to it.

This is also why “poetry” says more than what “poetry” means. And more precisely – or better yet, exactly: “poetry” says the more-than-saying as such, says so insofar as it structures speech. “Poetry” says the saying-more of a more-than-saying. And it also says, consequently, the no-longer-saying-it. But saying this. To sing also, then, to stamp it out, to intone it, to beat or pound it out.

The particular semantics of the word “poetry,” its perpetual exaction and exaggeration, its way of saying-beyond-speech, is congenital to it. Plato (him again, the greatest challenger of poetry) points out that poesis is a word in which one takes the whole for the part: the whole of productive action is in the solely metrical production of scanned speech. The latter exhausts the essence and the excellence of the former. Everything made is concentrated in the making of the poem, as if the poem made everything that could be made. Littré (him again, poet of the ode to the Enlightenment) records this concentration: “poem… from poiein, to do: the thing made (par excellence).”

Why would poetry be the excellence of the made thing? Because nothing can be more complete than the access to sense. It is entirely, if it is, an absolute exactitude, or else it is not (not even approximately). When it is, it’s perfect, and more than perfect. When access takes place, one knows that it has always been there, and that likewise it will always return (even if you, yourself, know nothing about it: but one has to believe that in each instant someone, somewhere, accedes). The poem draws access from an immemorial seniority, which has nothing to do with the remembrance of an ideal, but which is the exact, actual existence of infinity, its eternal return.

The made thing is finished. Its finishing is the perfect actuality of infinite sense. In this, poetry is represented as being more ancient than every distinction between prose and poetry, between genres or modes of the art of making, that is to say, of art, absolutely. “Poetry” means: the first making, or rather, making insofar as it’s always first, each time original.

What does making do? It poses in being. What’s made exhausts itself in its positioning as in its end. This end it took to be its goal is here its end as its negation, because what’s made undoes itself in its own perfection. But what is undone is identical with what is posited, perfected and more than perfect. Making accomplishes, each time, something and itself. Its end is its finishing: in this, it’s posed infinitely, infinitely beyond its work, each time.

The poem is what’s made by making itself.

This same thing that is abolished and posited is the access to sense. Access is unmade as passage, process, aim and transportation, as approach and approximation. It is positioned as exactitude and disposition, as presentation.

This is why the poem or the line is a sense that is abolished as intention (as wanting-to-say), and posed as finishing: it’s doesn’t revolve around its will, but its phrasing. No longer a problem, but access. Not to be commented upon, but to be recited. It’s not that poetry is written to be learned by heart, but that recitation by heart gives every recited phrase at least an inkling of a poem. Mechanical finishing gives access to the infinity of sense. Here, there is no antinomy between mechanic legality and the legislation of freedom: but the first liberates the second.

Presentation must be made, sense must be made, and perfected. This doesn’t mean: produced, operated, realized, created, acted upon, engendered. To be exact, it has nothing to do with any of this. It is nothing less than what is firstly, in all this, what making wants to say: what making makes in language when it perfects it in its being, which is the access to sense. When it speaks, it’s made, and when it makes, it’s speaking. As when one says: to make love, which is nothing made, but makes an access be. To make or to let be: to pose simply, to depose exactly.

Nothing is made (no art or technique, no gesture, no work) that is not more or less covertly wrought through with this disposition.

Poetry is to make everything speak – and to depose, in return, everything spoken in things, itself being like a thing made and more than perfect.

A recitation from childhood:

Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen,
die da träumen fort und fort,
und die Welt hebt an zu singen,
triffst du nur das Zauberwort.

[There slumbers a song in all things
As they dream on and on,
And the world commences to sing,
If only you find the magic word.[1]]

This poetic affair, so old and so heavy, cumbersome and sticky, resists most strongly our boredom and our distaste for all poetic lies, for pretentiousness and sublimity. Even if it doesn’t interest us, it brings us to a halt, necessarily. Today just as much as in the time of Horace, Scève, Eichendorff, Eliot or Ponge, although in different ways. And if it was said that after Auschwitz poetry was impossible, and then the opposite, that poetry after Auschwitz was necessary, it is precisely because it appears necessary to say both things about poetry. The exigency of the access of sense – its exaction, its exorbitant demand – cannot cease to bring discourse and history, knowledge and philosophy, action and law, to a halt.

Let no one speak to us about an ethics or aesthetics of poetry. It is well in advance of them, in their immemorial plus-que-parfait, that the making called “poetry” is upheld. It stands crouched like a beast, stretched like a spring, and thus in action, already.


[This is a translation of Jean-Luc Nancy, Résistance de la Poésie, Bordeaux, William Blake & Co., 1997.]

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3 Responses to Resistance of Poetry

  1. Dalva says:

    Reblogged this on Curious and commented:
    …what is made by making itself.

  2. Philippe says:

    Who can we credit for this translation? Thanks.

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