Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Poetry and Philosophy (no. 1)

I started this blog partly because I wanted a formal self-encouragement to write about poetry and philosophy. It was particularly reading Lyn Hejinian’s The Fatalist, being utterly floored by it, and feeling like it would be a real waste if I didn’t write about and study that book, that got me to begin posting in the first place, but that project has been deferred for a long time (for one thing, my copy of the book was on loan for the last six or seven months). This post will begin a (hopefully) regular series of investigations into poetry that I think of as genuinely philosophical, by which I mean poetry that does original philosophical work. The tautological aspect of that definition is fine as a starting point, though I’m sure it’ll be refined and particularized as this project goes on.

After some initial considerations here, I’ll start with The Fatalist, which should take some time—it’s an astoundingly rich book—and then hopefully examine the work of Rosmarie Waldrop, Leslie Scalapino, and others (Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson… a school essay on Heidegger and Silliman may get revised and posted as well).

Some general questions I’ll be thinking about during this project (these are just starting points; there will be countless others, many of them specific to the work under consideration):

1) What is the relation of expression (of some thought that can be considered as existing independently of what happens in the poem itself—discursivity is one kind of expression), example (where a particular piece of poetic language stands in for a more general concept or conceptual nexus), and enactment (where the philosophical work is first produced or performed by the writing—it need not be directly stated, but can come about through juxtapositions, etc.)? These three factors are, of course, always operating in any poem (what’s expressed, exemplified or enacted needn’t be philosophical—that’s just my focus here), and can slide into one another. In a given work, which, if any, is primary, and when?
This is a question about the function of language at any point in the work.

2) Given these relations, what do they do to each other?

3) What’s the relation of general & particular, concept & object, abstract & concrete in the writing? One reason “doing philosophy” in poetry is attractive to me is that poetic writing isn’t stuck with the discursive and abstract approach that even the best philosophy seems to end up with (on the other hand, I want a philosophical poetry that’s “philosophically rigorous,” not a watered-down or merely “poeticized” version of philosophical thinking, in which the matter of thought isn’t really thought through).

4) What is the philosophy of a given work of “philosophical poetry?”

5) Is the language/ style/ vocabulary/ logic of the work “philosophical,” in the sense of quoting or parodying a genre (or genuinely becoming a more-or-less discursive work), or does it do its philosophical work without “sounding like philosophy?” If both, then how does it negotiate between kinds of language?
Actually, that deserves its own point:

6) How does the work negotiate between different kinds of language?
A subquestion here bears on the status of the sentence.

It's also going to be important, in specifying what "philosophy" means in a given instance, to distinguish between fundamental philosophical approaches. One such distinction is that between a primarily "presentative" mode of philosophizing (where we're given the results of thinking) and an "investigative" mode that focuses on the "path" or process of thinking (Heidegger is the most prominent example of the latter--late Wittgenstein, too, to a great extent--but they're both usually operating in a given philosopher's work, at least when that philosophy is of any interest whatsoever).

Back soon with first stabs at The Fatalist.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

I'm flipping a coin, trying to decide whether this or the other. The coin is in the air, spinning, doubly out of circulation. At any given moment, you could say, the coin is in an absolute position... but "moment" is infinitely divisible, and so we're back to experience and choice--the choice of which scale to adopt when viewing this, how small or large, how short or long, the choice of which kinds of relations between the coin and/or its spinning to which subset of what else there is. Somewhere in this complex of possible middles is a poetics. The coin lands. Heads. A decision. I spend it.

I missed it.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

David Raphael Israel has dedicated unto me a lovely little "boomerang" poem based on a line I highlighted of his from (in?) a comment in a comment box. Eek, my syntax has run amok.

Anyway, some truly absurd rhyming, which is a compliment.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Farewell to Gyorgy Ligeti.

Monday, June 05, 2006

There's a type of poetic gesture I love very much, enough to want to call it a type of gesture, because of the similar, elating effect that disparate examples of it have on me. In fact, it's almost at work in the conceptual movement of that sentence, which loops back in on itself--somewhat. And maybe all the examples here are "somewhats." In any case, I don't know what to call it... "looping back?" "self-rewriting?" Maybe by the end of the post I'll think of something... or you, dear reader, can play the game: NAME THAT GESTURE.


He thrives himself
naked to the sungod, knows
those others in their rubbery ways
mere sunbathers, disintegrate in it--

it's an old truth known here & there he tells,
becoming Lawrence, among

--David Bromige, from Tight Corners and What's Around Them

An odd summer poem. Probably this is about D.H. Lawrence, at least in some sense.

The strongest example of the gesture I'm looking at happens right at the end; "everyone" ("those others") becomes the individual who sets himself apart from the others, always among everyone. The obvious "irritation" is at those mere "sunbathers" (as opposed to sun worshippers like Lawrence), but perhaps the major irritation comes from the dizziness that results when the latter are seen to be (or, rather to "become") the former, that the rugged individual isn't so individual after all. And not so rugged either: if everyone becomes Lawrence, then Lawrence becomes everyone, and disintegrates in "it" (where "it" can now mean "everyone" as well as "the sungod"--this possibility is strengthened by the fact that "disintegrating in the sungod" doesn't make sense in the way that "disintegrating in the sun" would; a similarly off-kilter character is present in the use of "thrives" as an active, transitive verb, emphasizing the distancing of Lawrence from himself--not a negative alienation but that which causes that self to flourish). Lawrence, too, is "rubbery," flexible, stretchable into what he's not. The "it" might ultimately be this whole process of the two poles, a vague and casual generality and an ecstatic individuality, each coming apart, stretching, becoming the other and coming back to itself. (This reminds me of Heidegger's observation that a self is never first an isolated self, but is always primarily a "coming-back-to-itself" from somewhere else). The poem enacts this process of becoming, and becoming of a particular sort: not simply change from one state into the next, but a constant turning of one thing back into itself through the other, and into the other through itself, and the two becoming intermingled in a very odd way. All this is possible due to the retroactive "dizziness" of the poetic construction.

What is of more interest, however, from the point of view of a junkyard
of mangled signs heaped up in silent protest against a century devoted
to the material possession of form, is when a person eludes any simple
formulation relative to that interest.

--Kit Robinson, from "The Person," in Democracy Boulevard

This one makes me really dizzy. The place from which what's going on here is perceived changes at least three or four times. The initial gesture is that of the author making a claim: "What is of more interest, however, from the point of view of trade between host and microsymbionts, is the growing list of nodule-induced plant genes encoding transporters." But that changes quickly in the next few words. And it's a complex change; it's not just the POV of some "mangled signs," but of a junkyard of them. It's specifically that singular noun treated as the totality of its parts that makes this so unstable, with a strangeness we tend to miss when we see sentences like "a nation goes to war" or "a city in crisis." Of course, the other possibility is that the POV is of a person, standing atop this heap, in which case the initial speaker has moved from an omniscient position "outside" the text (on a larger scale than that of its operations) to the realm of what the text is about--or has split into these two. And then the strangest part: the end refers us back to the beginning, but in a way that transcends even the initial "omniscient" scale. This sentence bursts out of itself at all points, enacting exactly what its conclusion describes. The interest, from the junkyard POV (the "interior" scale), is in something that can never happen on the scale of that POV, because it's always ending up on a scale higher than the "exterior, omniscient" scale in which the "interior" is contained.

Further investigations into this will require the author's ability to write sentences that are less convoluted than the ones under examination. This is just meant to scratch a surface, even if the surface turns out to be the very possibility of surface. Pardon me.

If this were a silent movie, the part where I get to make this speech
would be reduced merely to the clothes I happened to be wearing,
the background, the look of the room that I was in,
and how I operated in the frame. Arms engaged, glance connected, face projecting,
the song stops and says, It's not the way
you own your hair, or the car you drive in limbo every day,
but the way you can, not quite leap tall buildings, or convert wide factories
with a single word, not that either, not that easy.

--Bob Perelman, from "Motion," in Face Value