Wednesday, January 22, 2003

My dog is going to have to get booties. It's the final humiliation—he already looks like he wants to sink into the ground when I put his fleece on—but with the thermometer hovering around 0 degrees Fahrenheit and all the salt on the sidewalks he literally can't walk. Right now I have to pick him up, carry him over to some bushes, put him down, and hope he gets the idea. My dog's name is Bogie and he's a Boston Terrier and he's simply the best dog on the planet, but he's not winterized. I will post a picture of him if I figure out how.

At Cornell the last hurdle to jump through before you begin your dissertation is an exam called simply the 'A' exam (I think it stands for the A in Advancement to Candidacy). The exam consists of three 20+ page papers written on topics that will hopefully coalesce into a dissertation—the idea is to be already launched on that project by the time the A papers themselves have been written. Here is a little document I wrote and sent to my advisors about the areas I want to explore:

Areas of Inquiry for the ‘A’

My most basic questions are, what does poetry do and how? Where is its sphere of influence? How does it act? In order to get to these primordial questions, which boil down to the question of the being of poetry, I need to ask more tangible questions based upon various pre-understandings. How intrinsic is the act of self-fashioning to poetry? How well or ill-suited is poetry, particularly 20th century lyric, to negotiating the boundaries between self and other, individual and polis, artist and community? What special privileges can we grant to poetry, and why? Possible privileges: a more acute and accurate correspondence of signifier and signified; a phenomenological clearing that discloses the experience of authentic Being concealed by everyday language; a language that honors and acknowledges the Other without presuming to know/objectify/appropriate that other; a means of resisting the commodification and reification of language (restoring the aura to the artwork); a manifestation of the materiality and instrumentality of language as a direct attack on totalizing systems (destroying the aura and transforming works into texts).

My basic prejudice and desire is to find a way back to the poem as work (with the Heideggerian dwelling in and caring for the world that that implies) without yielding to a reactionary blindness that pretends poststructuralism didn’t happen. This is less out of a desire to be hip and more out of my fear that a poetry which depends upon a metaphysics of presence, or metaphysics, period (if language is in fact a means toward being and not an autonomous, indeterminate zone of perpetual play) will fall into the same ethical vacuum that philosophy itself did. Adorno’s dictum about poetry after Auschwitz is always on my mind. Another way of putting this is that I’m interested in the pursuit of Romantic goals (put most broadly, a quest for authenticity—though there is a radical difference between a poetry that fosters the authenticity of a speaking self and a poetry that seeks authenticity for its subject, as love poetry arguably does) under the conditions of modernity. What I’m unsure about is how to define the ethical pressure that that modernity puts upon poetry. What is the nature of this pressure, and how can I define it without erecting a straw man? Does it derive its force primarily from the debunking of metaphysics, the rejection of Cartesian binaries, and the imperative of openness to the Other? Or is it more specifically a Marxist-materialist critique that sees “authenticity” merely as one’s proximity to the dominant ideology, and all poems making claims for an “I” are inevitably commodities? This would make any poet who claims that he or she can disalienate language without resorting to Marxist dialectic either a fool or a liar. In some ways the former (the critique of logocentrism) would be the conditions of poetry under postmodernism, while the latter would be a more classically modernist situation (especially when put in terms of the critique of industrial capitalism found throughout the work of the high Modernists).

Here are the topic possibilities for my three ‘A’ questions as I currently see them, along with a preliminary list of relevant authors:

I. American Renaissance/Victorian

Whitman will be central to one of my questions, because I see him as setting the gold standard for poets who task themselves with the quest for authenticity while mindful of the pressures put upon him by history and by language (a language in Whitman’s case whose possibilities are rawly undiscovered insofar as it is American, and whose possibilities are reified and dessicated insofar as it is English). He is also perhaps unique in seeking authenticity both for himself as “poet of these States” and for the States themselves and their inhabitants—he is both celebrator and celebrant. In order to understand Whitman’s territory I will have to read his contemporary practitioners and theorists and see if and how they approach the same questions. I would also have to understand the roots of Romanticism, which might mean a return to the major English Romantics and also require the reading of some key German authors:

   * Whitman
   * Emerson
   * Dickinson
   * Melville
   * Wm. James
   * Poe
   * Hawthorne
   * Longfellow
   * Carlyle
   * Tennyson
   * Swinburne
   * Nietzsche
   * Hegel?
   * Goethe
   * Hölderlin
   * Heine
   * Wordsworth
   * Coleridge
   * Shelley
   * Keats

II. Aesthetics and Ethics

The more I read, the more interested I become in aesthetics, and the stronger my intuition that the realm of the aesthetic must be the ground for any claims I make about poetry’s ability to disclose authenticity and Being. It must also be the ground that I defend from the ethical imperatives of the Other. But I know comparatively little about aesthetics so my work is cut out for me, both in getting a handle on the subject and in seeing how it applies to my interests as I continue to define them.

   * Kant
   * Schiller
   * Burke
   * Nietzsche
   * Kierkegaard
   * Santayana
   * Heidegger
   * Benjamin
   * Adorno
   * Levinas
   * Raymond Williams
   * Terry Eagleton
   * de Man
   * Blanchot
   * Derrida

III. Modernism/20th Century

Perhaps the simplest way of defining the zone of 20th century writing that I want to explore would be to concentrate on writers who were following consciously in Whitman’s wake. But that would shut down other zones of inquiry. There are two shapes I can see this topic taking. One would be to focus only on poetry, in which case I might range throughout the 20th century, looking at poets who persist in the Romantic quest while resisting or accommodating themselves to modern ethical imperatives:

   * Stein
   * D.H. Lawrence
   * Rilke
   * Pound
   * Eliot
   * Stevens
   * Laura (Riding) Jackson
   * H.D.
   * Williams
   * Oppen
   * Zukofsky
   * Celan
   * Jabès
   * Olson
   * Spicer
   * Duncan
   * Ashbery
   * ?

The other would be to focus on Modernism, which would free me to examine prose writers, particularly those interested in discovering authentic being in unheroic everyday lives, and who achieve this uncovering primarily through the lyrical force of their language:

   * many of the above, plus
   * Lawrence (the fiction)
   * Stein (the prose)
   * Woolf
   * Djuna Barnes
   * Joyce
   * Forster


One of my committee members wrote "[O]n a brief look it appears to be about as ambitious a set of questions as I've seen. Whether too ambitious I'm not sure yet, but it does have a bit of the look of a life's work rather than a proposal for researching and writing three essays. I'd like to undertake each of these three projects myself, given world enough and time." She's right of course—it's way too much. But I figured I might as well open big and specialize later. One thing I haven't talked about here is my interest in the persistence of pastoral poetry, which I see as a continuing tradition of lyric that attempts to create a privileged space (there are no politics in Arcadia, only sex and death) in which an "authentic" self can emerge. This is obviously a hugely problematic formulation for poetry, and yet the attraction of poets whose work is implicated in this kind of schema (Stevens, my most inescapable influence, immediately comes to mind) remains strong.

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