Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Tuesday at the Bookery, reading around in Alain Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics, where I find a defense of what is wrongly termed the "hermeticism" of modern poetry (which for Badiou begins with Mallarme) that resonates with Ron's defense of Clark Coolidge yesterday:
As for the enigma of the poem's surface, it should really serve to seduce our desire to enter into the operations of the poem. If we give up on this desire, if we are repelled by the obscure scintillation of verse, it is because we have let a different and suspect wish triumph over us—the wish, as Mallarme writes, "to flaunt things all in the foreground, imperturably, like street vendors, animated by the pressure of the instant." (30)
The poem performs an operation on its reader but first you have to let yourself be seduced by it, the "what's in front of you" that cannot be bypassed; you must follow what Heidegger calls "the arduous path of appearances" (Oppen uses this phrase as an epigraph to one of his books).

Why are some of us seduced by enigmatic surfaces while others rush to denounce them as fraud? I myself don't really "get" a lot of Coolidge—he was the first poet that came to mind when I was looking at Jonathan's questionnaire when he asks, "Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?" But my first impulse is not to shout, "The emperor has no clothes!" (some emperor!) but to try again, to see if I can make sense of what someone called Coolidge's purist adaptation of Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody." Maybe that makes me a sucker. But for me, books like Coolidge's The Crystal Text or At Egypt have a kind of aura (I almost typed "awe-ra," a singularly appropriate neologism for the latter book), so that the distance they establish from more transparent texts inspires a kind of wonder, and a desire not to violently pierce the mystery but to accept its invitations. Not the least of such poetry's demands and pleasures is a slowness that most of us feel we can ill afford in a time where efficiency is elevated to an ideal. Not to feel like we already understand everything is the gift of a difficult poem. Which is not to say that I don't respond more viscerally to poems whose pleasures are at least partially attuned to my own eye, ear, and education—but if that's all they cater to they will be quickly exhausted.

Yet I'm coming to feel that sheer indeterminacy, the infinite play of the signifier, and the postmodern sublime have also exhausted themselves. I am searching and searching right now, through all this philosophy and in my own writing, for what might follow the negative—for the recovery of subjectivity—for the ends of elegy. Bob Baker ends his book with a brief consideration of George Oppen and the English poet Geoffrey Hill as poets who construct a moral vision in full knowledge of shipwreck. There must be others. Bob writes of two colliding imperatives in Romantic and Modernist poetry: the longing for freedom, to shatter the iron cage; and the longing for expressive wholeness—a longing that Zizek confirms as a legitimate one in spite of its association with blood-and-soil nationalism. I am trying in my dissertation to describe how these two impulses might traverse each other, but in pastoral, the emphasis is surely going to fall on the latter, on nostos. Outward bound, or a circle? Or is there some paradoxical alternative to these vectors? Still looking.

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