Thursday, December 15, 2005

What Is "Poetic"?

This is (part of) a question Mendi L O asked on the CC listserve. Specifically she asked "a musing, a question" (which I quote below):

i've been teaching a course in intermedia art in which half of the students are poets and we've been throwing around the word "poetic" as we talk about what we desire in and for our work. i'm wondering what you all think it means to say that something is poetic.

someone asked toni morrison about people calling her work poetic when she gave the keynote at the romare bearden conference in new york a while ago. she said she didn't like it because there was an inherent assumption that prose wasn't supposed to be beautiful. there was more to it than that, but i've been mulling over the idea that the 'poetic' doesn't really say what you like or want from something even as i have the desire to use it. so, like when bell hooks used to have to say "the diverse black community" every time she (or someone else) might have just said "the black community", i've started to write and say "if you'll allow me to overuse the word, poetic" in places where people might just write or say "poetic", but that's really just a temporary strategy, and not a true landing place.

i think when i say that something is "poetic", i mean to get at a certain kind of clarity, elegance, simplicity (and at the same time complexity, directness, fogginess) that i find hard to name.

what is poetic to you all?
There were a lot of great answers. Two I want to highlight were by R Erica D, who wrote:

what is important about this question? useful? why do we care about the answers? are we trying to explain or work to others or to ourselves when we do this? are we trying to talk/think about other people's work?

Mendi wrote (was it in advance of or response to Erica's comment--I think it came just before):

i'm trying to figure out what it is i'm doing when i'm writing a poem, whether it's always the same thing (say, when i write a narrative poem and when i make a concrete one), and whether my making poems is connected to what i'm saying when i'm saying something that is not poetry is poetic.

My response(s):

I'd add, what about poetry that isn't "poetic"? What does that kind of poetry look like? Why is certain kinds of poetry (in general, as we saw with the critique of June Jordan) called non-poetic or less poetic than other kinds? Or what about poetry that conversely is criticized for being excessively poetic (that was used against Derek Walcott in that same rag.) What role does the lyric play in the poetic? What is "the lyric" or "the lyrical"? Whose definition of these terms matters? Is any universal, non-material understanding of "the poetic" possible? Is the poetic "violence done to everyday language" as Jakobson said, or "the asseveration of being," as Howard suggests, or are these understandings of poetry obsolete or were they never valid? Does it depend upon language--phonemic relations and play, aspects of rhetoric, particular categorically grounded forms or modes of expression, etc.--or is it something broader, such as social and political contexts, and ultimately is it possible to reduce "the poetic" to either? Must "the poetic" be special or beautiful? Does the poetic always create a surplus, or contain condensation of meaning? Does the poetic have to be memorable, as some critics have suggested? Must it provoke some emotion, whether delight or disgust? How does it differ from "the prosaic"?

Does Morrison's reaction to the idea of her work being "poetic" depend in part on a longstanding Anglo-American criticism of and sometimes disdain for those elements of the poetic, particularly beyond a certain limit, in literary prose, whether fictional or nonfictional? What about when we say that oral, nontextual forms and modes are "poetic"--that African/American/Diasporic speech and expressivity are inherently "poetic"? (I'm thinking of Erica's performance our first year at CC--the narrative that was "poetic" on so many levels. Or the stories that other CC people would tell. Or our conversations outdoors and in the hallways and dining hall at Mt. Esopus. Etc.) Like when we hear our grandmother just talking about what happened yesterday, or just consider it (as Elizabeth did with her poem that was on the New York subway and always brought a smile to my lips) and we think, "That's poetry."

What is "poetic" to you? What is important about this question? What is poetry? Why does it matter?


  1. can i get on this list-serve? this sounds like the most productive email discussion forum i've ever heard of!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I suppose for me poetry and poetics are verbs; critical "doings"---movements not rooted or anchored in epistemology (ways of knowing) but in performativity (ways of doing, showing, positioning): it is running, dancing, breathing, dying. The ACT of writing rather than the product. Moreover, I would say that "poetry”, in its most divine incarnation, is located in that space of affective surplus and excess that exists just beyond the boundaries of language. Thus poetry exists in the space of the Real (in a Lacanian sense). For me then, the practice of poetry is an embodiment of a politics of the impossible. It is a reach towards the horizon, a movement towards the point just beyond our eye’s gaze. I think this is where C.L.R. James’ Marxist critique of Utopia as being all about the “not-as-yet” is really appropriate. Utopia, at least in the Marxist sense vis-à-vis the Frankfurt school, etc. is never about arriving at some sort of “paradise.” Utopia is never “Eden.” Instead, utopia is above all a critique of the present, a critique of what we know, and a gesture towards what might be. I like to think of poetry as a similar critical apparatus—an endless nod towards Tomorrow, the not-quite-there-just-yet. Poetry is the glimpse of what could be, not what is. At its boil, poetry is the necessary failure of the Body.

  4. My take on the poetic is a little more . . . prosaic. It seems to me that humans have two basic forms of cognition: rational and emotional. Prose is writing which appeals primarily to the rational cognition of the reader, and poetry foremost to the emotional.

    Kai in NYC

  5. "Poetry is the glimpse of what could be, not what is. At its boil, poetry is the necessary failure of the Body."

    Why this reach toward the ineffable? Maurice Wallace, Ron Silliman, Walter Kalaidjian, and, at times, it seems the entire male school of the Language poets so privilege the ungraspable--as utopic, resistant to capitalism (via Adorno and Benjamin). Lacanian queers, Bersani and Dean, perform the same violence.

    Why must the Body be what fails-as that written and created by discourse-so that Poetry does what, recovers the "flesh," the racialized Real (Spillers would insist, rightly so, that racialization refuses the Real)? I am impatient with such claims, with the worlds they inhabit, and especially the worlds they ignore.

    I was drawn to Hejinian's My Life and most of Rosmarie Waldrop and, simultaneously, to Dixon's Love's Instruments by their attention to the quotidian. Not the escape from the body/Body-as though that were possible-but the realization of the body. As John writes so eloquently, "the very phenomenon of our lives [is] a boundless source of poetry" (Annotations 70).

    My deconstructive impulses (still not killed by historicism) would disturb the distinction between the quotidian and the Real/real and the cognitive/emotional (Spivak discusses this split as a misreading).

    To specify the quotidian is to ground the utopian, as Lorde puts it, "if we win / there is no telling." But such futures must inhabit the world of the symbolic-let's not forget that the Lacanian Real is a vast cave of silence.

    So my definition finally ends up as vulgar-in the original sense of the term. Poetry as vulgar. Yes, I like that very much.

  6. You know, this is all very interesting to me, as the person who posed (this version, moment) of this question, in part because when I was thinking of the way one student located a moment (a light going off in the head of another student) when I said, in order to guide his work towards a (dare I say "real"? "embodied") performance: "It's got to be simple and poetic." I have wanted to know, what did this statement do for this student and/or: what did the other student think this meant for his colleague? On the one hand, I liked very much where the project went and the ways in which the simplicity & openness of the finished project pointed in many directions without seeming messy, but on the other I'm left with two questions. 1) (How) Did "poetic" open this door? and 2) Did we miss the beauty of the messy work?

  7. Not to belabor Keats, but "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

    DuBois says: "What has this beauty to do with the world? What has beauty to do with truth and goodness - with the facts of the world and the right actions of men? "Nothing," the artists rush to answer. They may be right. I am but an humble disciple of art and cannot presume to say. I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with beauty and for beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect beauty sits above truth and right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable."

    As problematic and defective the above context is, I feel poetry is at its most powerful when it brings beauty to truth and truth to beauty. So simple yet so elusive.

  8. But if we want to approach the word poetic in a more practical sense, to understand what we, very concretely, when call a text, or exhort a text to be, "poetic", is it all helpful to think the poetic sidesteps easy ration tracking and, instead, speaks to us emotionally, intuitively?
    Kai in NYC

  9. Context matters, no?

    Because I teach poetry (interpretation, not being talented enough to do the other stuff) I'm wary, and honestly don't know how, to teach the poetic as "emotional" or "intuitive." In fact, I can't teach poetry that way, because it then negates the whole concept of pedagogy: some of you will get it, some won't.

    Institutionally, I think we in English, Languages more generally, still feel the need to defend what we do as scholarship, as "scientific" to use that dreaded Russian formalist designation. (And seeing as the English grad program at Tulane was a "necessary" casualty of cutbacks, at the expense of the sciences, it's a fight we still need to wage: how to (re)value the humanities in the world of corporate Universities.)

    More personally, I guess I react to all language emotionally and rationally. Hence, every now and then I stop reading news to save myself from high blood pressure.

    My formalist tendencies lead me to say: the division between the aesthetic and the political, the rational and the intuitive, must be related to form *in some way*

    But we are so scared to talk about form or about poetic practices as being intrinsically formalist-hence the reach for the ineffable, the tomorrow, I think, when what we really want to discuss is form, how it shapes us, moves us, structures and de-structures us, forces us to create new languages, even new emotions.

  10. (If you can read swahili, yet another answer to the initial question)

    Nitokavyo leo kwa maneno Ufasaha kwa kutumia Fasihi..

    Mara nyingi mwanadamu amekuwa akishindwa kukabiliana na mambo mbalimbali yanayomzunguka katika jamii kutokana kukosa kuhimili mikiki anuai ya maisha.

    Lakini iwapo utatengeneza mambo yako kiufasaha ni matarajio kwamba hakuna tatizo lolote ambalo linaweza kukukabili ambalo linatokana na uwezo wa kibinadamu isipokuwa lile linalotegemea kudra za Mwenyezi Mungu.

    Ni matumaini yangu kwamba kila mmoja anahitaji maisha bora yenye kila aina ya raha na starehe jambo ambalo aghalabu huwakuta wale wenye ukwasi wa maisha ilhali wenye ukta wakiishi katika dhiki na matarajio yasiyotimilivu.

    Kwa kulijua hilo ni wajibu wa kila mwanadamu kujijengea mazingira fasaha ambayo yatamnufaisha katika dunia na kesho akhera kwa kujiandalia maisha yake hapa duniani ikiwa ni pamoja na kuishi vyema na jamii inayomzunguka.


  11. Well if it helps to think more formally about the problem, then you might say the "poetic" text, whether dance or poetry, admits sufficient ambiguity such that its "signficance units" (phrases, gestures, stanzas, etc.) are not easily (or at all, maybe) parsed by straightforward logic or reason. So you could say, when exhorting someone that their work ought to be "more poetic," that more ambiguity--more interpretive possibilities--need to be admitted, but that this ambiguity or multiplicity of interpretive possibilities nonetheless must maintain an emotional coherence. To give a more concrete example of what I'm taking about, in the Japanese art of renga, which is linked-verse written by more than one poet, the successive verses must incorporate imagery and words which evoke the passage of seasons (cherry blossoms, snow, colored leaves, etc.; but also certain birds and phases of the moon: more culturally specific imagery)so that a seeming abstract or emotionless juxtaposition of imagery in fact, in the culturally clued in reader, invokes a definite emotional/aesthetic response, and appreciation for the dexterity with which the codified language has been manipulated. In most of our art-traditions the "poetic lexicon" is not so codified or readily stated in its entirety, but I think we are undertaking a similar process when shatter the easily parsed text to inject the "poetic."