Thursday, May 15, 2003

Some fine morning I'm going to get up and write something interesting on this blog again. But not this morning. Instead, I'm going to paste in the bulk of an e-mail I sent to one of my professors about my prospective dissertation project. Why am I doing this again? Because I'm hoping for ideas from you, my gentle readers. I'll get back to poetry soon, I promise.


Here is a rough sketch of the three topic areas I'd like to read in:

I) Aesthetics. In order to get a handle on the biggest questions (What is poetry for? How does it work?) I want to familiarize myself with the field of aesthetic theory in general and theories about poetry in particular. My list starts with Plato, Kant (Tracy McNulty in Romance Studies is doing a reading group for the Third Critique this summer, which will be helpful) and Schiller, goes on to include Burke, Arnold, Ruskin, and Pater, and finishes up with Lukacs, Heidegger, Benjamin, and Adorno. There might also be some supplementary reading of Marx and Marxist critics (Jameson, Raymond Williams) because the social function poetry might serve (especially as critique) is of particular interest to me.

II) Pastoral. Although my thinking about pastoral must necessarily include the _genre_ that starts with Theocritus and Virgil, I am much more interested in pastoral as a _mode_. There are a number of layers to this idea that don't yet gel, but for the time being I've put the complex of ideas and theories that will be the engine of my dissertation into the category of "pastoral":
- Pastoral dialectic: Here I want to consider the opposing views of pastoral: as a mode in which the individual withdraws from the larger society to contemplate the eternal verities of love/sex and death (classical pastoral); and the "proletarian fantasy" mode in which a convenient fiction of shepherds and nymphs serves to provide a simplified access to more complex modes of being. The latter is rooted in William Empson's book on pastoral, which if nothing else provides me with a model for moving the category "pastoral" away from a particular kind of verse and into a larger range of possibilities. In addition to reading his book more closely, this category will probably overlap somewhat with the Marxist criticism I mentioned above. And of course I'll (re)read some classical pastoral: the Idylls, the Eclogues, bits of Milton and the metaphysicals, etc.

- Pastoral of the drives: Some of the reading I've done in psychonalytic theory (Lacan and Kristeva) has suggested another way of thinking about pastoral: as a fantasy about how the organism's biological drives might find a "natural" home and "natural" objects, without there being any troubling remainder or excess. Lacan refers to the pastoral in this way in his Ethics seminar, and Kristeva describes something very similar to this in her book Revolution in Poetic Language when she talks about "a direct transcription of the genetic code" (50). My understanding of psychoanalysis is still rather tentative but I think this could be one of the most promising areas of research.

- Existential pastoral: This revolves around Heidgger and the suggestive parallels to pastoral as both a hyperindividualistic and as a political mode that I've found in his work. The Dasein who seeks to become authentic in Being and Time does so through its resolute Being-towards-death, which strikes me as resonant with the notion that death, too, is necessarily in Arcadia. This consciousness of death frees Dasein from its fallenness into the "they", taking it out of a world which is always already understood and making authentic individuality possible. There are also tantalizing suggestions of this brand of pastoral in Heidegger's imagery of the farmer in the Black Forest. But there is a tension in Heidegger's work which at least partially recuperates it from the charges of solipsism and fascism that naturally accrue to it: Heidegger's notion of the function of the art work in his later writings suggest that it can be art (and most especially poetry) which does the work that Being-towards-death does in Being and Time: it can "clear" the always already understood and make possible new relationships both among human beings (ethically, politically, religiously) and between humans and nature. I've already done much of the reading in this area but I will also want to look into some basic texts of phenomenology, as well as backward to Nietzsche and forward to Levinas and Sartre.
III) Objectivism. The poets and poems I'm most interested in reading this summer tend to cluster themselves around the second-generation Modernists often grouped together under the rubric, "The Objectivists." Williams is something of a senior member; the other poets I'm interested in reading include the core group of George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker, and Basil Bunting; there are then some contemporaries and fellow travelers of theirs who include Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson (the latter two are instructive for the ways in which they rejected Objectivism for a kind of revivified Symbolism), and Ronald Johnson; and there is at least one contemporary poet who has publicly declared her allegiance to Objectivist principles, Rachel Blau duPlessis. The Objectivists seem like a natural choice because of their insistence upon the concrete, musical qualities of language (Zukofsky: upper limit music, lower limit speech) which will help to ground me in the home of the poetic amidst all the theory I'll be reading. Their effacement of the "I" in favor of reimagining collectivity and collective experience ("Of Being Numerous") suggests their possible affiliation with the proletarian face of pastoral. And Charles Altieri has written an important essay about them in which he described their attempts to put objects into language in such a way that there would be no remainder that would tempt the poet to insert him- or herself into the poem in a Romantic way--which sounds strikingly similar to the Lacanian pastoral fantasy I described above. And there's one more vector: many if not most of the core Objectivists were Jewish, and I have a particular interest in Jewish ethics (as differently articulated by Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, and Emmaneul Levinas) and the ways in which it might inform their sometimes spare, sometimes baroque, but usually self-effacing and politically conscious poetry.

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