presented, in a slightly earlier version, in March 1998 at a Conference
on Postmodern Poetry organized by Tony Lopez and Philip Terry; first
published in Shark 1, 1998, Emilie Clark and Lytle Shaw, eds.
Subsequently collected in The Language of Inquiry (University
of California Press, 2001): 337-54.
comes something -- launched in context.
do we understand this boundary?
begin by proposing it as a dilemma.
comes from the Greek, dilemmatos, and means ‘involving two assumptions,’
and so we begin by proposing that the boundary is not an edge but a
conjunction -- that the dilemma bears the meaning of conjunction: encounter,
possible confusion, alteration exerted through reciprocal influence,
etc. -- the kind of situation that is typical, I might add, along borders
between nations, between speakers of different languages, between neighboring
my phrase presents more than a dilemma, perhaps it’s a dilemma to excess,
since the boundary or border of which I want to speak and the problem
of understanding it entail multiple sets of paired assumptions. I could,
alternatively, use the term aporia, but to do so (especially since the
publication of his book, Aporias) would be to invoke Derrida
more definitively than I'm willing to do, lest it predetermine the outcome
of my reasoning. But, of course, the dilemma in and of itself (the dilemma
which the phrase ‘in and of itself’ so aptly describes) is very much
a feature of the poststructuralist postmodernist deconstructionist condition
which we -- or which I, as a person and writer -- experience as exerting
enormous pressure on our social and aesthetic situation -- which is
to say, on our poetics -- a pressure which makes palpable the demand
that we have a poetics.
that poetics itself a dilemma -- or it has sense, dilemma (as a border
under pressure of doubt, as a border in question) as one of its central
features. Dilemma, in this sense, constitutes that part of a poetics
which we could call its prepoetics -- a prepoetics functioning not as
a condition either logically or chronologically prior to the formulation
of a poetics but as a conditon necessary and simultaneous to it -- a
current running through it.
is a responsible prepoetics -- that is, one that vigorously questions
assumptions, including, or especially, its own -- this current includes,
among other things, swarms of contradiction and ambivalence. Perhaps
these are inevitable effects of the famous (or notorious) postmodern
(or postpostmodern) negativity to which so much thought has been given
-- thought directed toward the unthinkable and reflecting an obsession
with the unknown, the meaningless, the unspeakable, the unapproachable,
the unbearable, the impasse, or, as here, the dilemma -- leaving poetics
(and poetry) to be practised in a gap of meaning (a gap produced originally,
I would add, by the atrocities of war and social and economic injustice),
a gap which extends into the current which I’ calling prepoetics but
which one could also call reason.
itself operates in the border between concepts -- and again between
several interdependent pairs of concepts. Reason may even constitute
such a border zone. The term names simultaneously two lines of causation,
an efficient cause (one thing happened and that’s the reason the other
thing happened) and a final cause, or telos (the other thing needs to
happen and that’s the reason the first thing was made to happen). These
reasons are often related: “because I love you I did this to make you
happy,” etc. But there are situations in which the two line of causation
are completely unconnected, of which the most readily described motivate
the events that we dream. Say I happen one rainy evening to watch a
documentary about rodeo cowboys and bronc-busting on the television.
There are lots of scenes of horses throwing themselves and cowboys into
the air, and scenes of horses and, more often, cowboys falling to the
ground. That night I dream that I am riding horseback through a dry
arroyo when a sudden torrential rainstorm occurs. Within seconds a flash
flood is sweeping down the arroyo -- I am knocked from the horse and
fall to the ground and the horse falls on top of me. I'm being crushed,
and I wake to discover that the pillow has fallen on my face.
we have two narratives, a dream narrative and a waking life narrative.
The denouement of the dream narrative (dream event B, being crushed
by a horse) is, in the dream, a reasonable outcome of my riding a horse
through an arroyo and encountering a flash flood (dream event A). In
waking life, this same outcome is a reasonable response to having a
heavy pillow fall on my head (waking reality event X). The same experience,
then, or sensation of an experience, has two unconnected starting points,
A and X, initiating two distinct lines of causation.
comes something -- launched in context.
almost automatic to us to assume that this something (on the one hand)
and we (on the other) exist independently -- that something was independently
elsewhere (out of sight and mind) prior to coming into the zone in which
we perceive it and which we, at the moment of this perceptual encounter,
designate as context. Furthermore, it is at the moment that we perceive
this something that we ourselves come into that context -- into our
coinciding (by chance?) with something. The context, in other words,
is the medium of our encounter, the ground of our becoming (i.e., happening
to be) present at the same place at the same time. By this reasoning,
one would also have to say that context too is launched -- or at least
that it comes into existence qua context when something is launched
in such a way as to become perceptible to us and thereby to involve
us -- whomever we are -- strangers (even if, perhaps, only momentarily
strangers) to each other previously and now inseparable components of
(foreigners), it is hard for us to find the ‘right words’ (themselves
simultaneously demanding context and serving as it) for what we experience
in that perception and involvement.
comparisons are the first things foreigners make. “The dark castle on
the hill is like a cormorant on a rock stretching its crooked wings
in the sun” or “The pink wet light in Saint Petersburg on a winter day
is like a summer San Francisco fog,” etc. Such comparisons, reaching
out of the present situation to another, previously experienced, recollected
one, may appear to constitute the ‘making of a context’ for the current
context, but a context made in such a way is a transported one, acquired
by way of metaphor. And such metaphors, cast in the form of similes
and intended to smooth over differences, deny incipience, and to the
degree that they succeed, they thereby forestall the acquisition of
phrase or sentence with which I’ve become obsessed, “Along comes something
-- launched in context,” announces a moment of incipience; one could
even say that it is itself, as a phrase or utterance, a moment of incipience
-- an appearing, a being born -- coming into what Hannah Arendt calls
“the condition of natality,” the condition we all have in common.
which wasn’t here before is here now; it appears and it appeared to
us, and it is acknowledge by the sensation this is happening. And as
such, as a moment of incipience or point of natality, it constitutes,
in a very particular and crucial sense, an action -- since (to continue
Hannah Arendt’s argument) it is “engaged in founding and preserving”
something, which “creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for
history” and it thereby undertakes “the task to provide and preserve
the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers
who are born into the world as strangers.” This “new beginning . . .
can make itself felt in the world . . . because [it] possesses the capacity
of [itself] beginning something anew."
the new was, of course, a widely held and explicit tenent of modernist
aesthetics, as in Pound’s often cited commandment, “Make it new.” Viktor
Shklovsky’s more thoughtful, more self-reflexive, and better-analyzed
aphorism, “In order to restore to us the perception of life, to make
a stone stony, there exists that which we call art” takes the behest
further, making newness not an end in itself but a strategy employed
for the sake of the enhancement of experience --and as an affirmation
of life. “Only the creation of new forms of art can restore to man sensation
of the world, can resurrect things and kill pessimism.” Shklovsky goes
on, of course, to elaborate a now familiar set of devices intended to
restore palpability to things -- retardation, roughening, etc. -- that
are major elements (and, in ways that can be taken as troubling, even
the stock in trade) of so-called innovative poetry to this day (82 years
later)). Contemporary poets -- myself among them -- have embraced this
project. Comments variously repeating or attempting to extend Shklovsky’s
proposition appear throughout my teaching notebooks:
is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes.
of poetry is a language of inquiry.
takes as its premise that language (all language) is a medium for experiencing
experience. It provides us with the consciousness of consciousness.
is to go through or over the limit (the word comes from the Greek peras
(term, limit)); or, to experience is to go beyond where one is, which
is to say to be beyond where one was (re. the prepositional form, peran
saying that at one stage of life, one’s artistic goal is to provide
experience (new or revivified, restored to palpability) and at another
(later) it is to provide the joy of that experience.
how much experience can one feel free of the fear that one hasn’t lived
(the fear of an unlived life)?
a degree what I am attempting to say here is also an extension of the
poetics implied in Shklovsky’s aphorism.
the task of poetry to produce the phrase this is happening and thereby
to provoke the sensation that corresponds to it -- a sensation of newness,
yes, and of renewedness -- an experience of the revitalization of things
in the world, an acknowledgment of the liveliness of the world, the
restoration of the experience of our experience -- a sense of living
our life. But I want to argue that to produce such a sensation is not
necessarily to produce knowledge nor even a unit of cognition but rather
to discover context and, therein, reason.
several obvious (and boringly persistent) problems arise when experience
is assigned primacy of place in an aesthetics and its accompanying discourse
of value -- when it is given the status of final cause and taken as
an undisputed good. First, giving preeminence to experience would seem
to demand what gets termed 'authenticity.'
one can debunk this on the same basis that one can debunk a second problem,
which I could describe as anti-intellectual and ultimately philistine.
In assuming a positive value to experience for its own sake, and in
advocating thereby an art which heightens perceptibility, one risks
appearing to privilege sensation over cogitation, to promote immediacy
and disdain critique. There is a danger that one implies that the questioning
of experience may serve to distance and thereby diminish at least aspects
of it, and that this is antithetical to ‘real’ artistic practice. This
is the basis of art’s supposed hostility to criticism, theory (thought),
and occasional hostility even to examination of its own history. Or,
to put it another way, on these grounds, the philistine romantic attempts
to ground his or her rejection of context.
is the basis for a dismissal of these two related problems. One cannot
meaningfully say “This is happening” out of context. At the very moment
of uttering the phrase, ‘natality’ occurs. And from that moment of incipience,
which occurs with the recognition of the experience of and presented
by the phrase along comes something -- launched in context through the
phrase this is happening, we are in context, which is to say, in thought
(in theory and with critique) and in history.
is no context without thought and history. They exist through reciprocation
of their reason. Otherwise there is no sensation, no experience, no
consciousness of living. And, to quote Tolstoi just as Shklovsky does:
"If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level
of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been."
As I have
said, the recognition acknowledged and sensation produced by the phrase
(along comes something -- launched in context) produces another phrase
of recognition and sensation, this is happening. It is a phrase with
a referent (something -- launched in context), and with an array of
particular and important senses. First among them is the implicit but
definitive sense that ‘this is real’ -- although, paradoxically, that
part of its context which we would term its referent is not necessarily
verifiable. For example, were I to claim now to be writing/have written
this under conditions of enormous duress or, alternatively, in the spirit
of just clowning around, it would be verifiable that I said so but not
that I did so. And yet, at least in my imagination as I pictured writing
under duress and clowning, I did do so. The realty of the imagined also
needs to be affirmed. A second sense accrues to the first one. To the
affirmation that ‘this is real’ is added, through the act of recognition
and acknowledgment, a sense of one’s own reality -- and this realization
-- of a co-reality consisting of correlation and coexistence -- occurs
not through the Cartesian logical operation (cogito ergo sum) but by
virtue of our context -- a shared context, although it is important
to note that it is not the basis or substance of any determinate commonality,
and one about which there is something more to be said.
extent, I have let the term history stand as a near synonym to the term
context. This is something which, depending on how I would define history,
might prove to have some legitimacy, but it shouldn’t, if it is to be
a central element in the constituting of a poetics, go unexamined. But
if one sees history as, at the very least, a set of relations -- or,
to be more precise, of active correlations (co-relations) -- then that
seems not too far from a workable characterization of the context of
something. And it not only allows one to situate that something within
history as a descriptive and explanatory account of what has happened,
but it also gives something a history with a future. Context is a past
with a future. That is the sense of the phrase this is happening. That
is what gives us a sense of reason.
We live among 'and to see them
Is to know ourselves.'
George Oppen’s famous poem “Of Being Numerous,” a poem which I read
as a testing of the same context, the same reason, that I, perhaps with
less clarity and certainly with more verbosity, have been engaged with
here. I had not been consciously thinking about Oppen’s poem (nor, by
the way, about this essay) when I first wrote and then began to study
the phrase which initiated this essay: along comes something -- launched
in context. But certainly it has a parallel in the lines that follow
those of Oppen’s that I just quoted: “Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite
series . . .”
argue that Oppen (who, as you know, stopped writing poetry for a number
of years and instead devoted himself to political activism) separated
practical politics from poetry, but this is not identical with separating
theoretical politics and ethics from poetry; it is not the same as doing
away with a poetics.
poem reflects (on) deep ambivalences over issues which have resurfaced
with some sense of urgency in recent discussions about poetic practice,
particularly in several recent papers that Barrett Watten has presented
and in what turned out to be a controversial talk presented by Bob Perelman
at the August 1996 poetry conference organized by Romana Huk in New
Hampshire. There, if I read them correctly, Perelman implicitly and
Watten explicitly take contemporary “innovative” poetry to task for
its withdrawal into numerousness. This is not to say that they reject
“numerousness”; on the contrary, they espouse it vigorously both in
their politics and in their aesthetics. Nor is it to say that a poetics
of possibility is wrongheaded. But if we stop there, we risk a directionless
pluralism, one we may claim as a politics but which stops short of activating
relationships within that plurality -- and lacking participation in
that forming of relationships, “possibility” is likely to turn into
what I believe to be a dangerous immanentism.
to substantiate possibility as an absolute or to offer it as the telos
of a totalizing vision was very much not Oppen’s aim in writing “Of
Nicholls, in a recent essay entitled "Of Being Ethical: Reflections
on George Oppen," points to a resonant relationship between Oppen’s
concept of the ‘numerous’ and characteristics of what is being explored
under the rubric of ‘community’ in recent books by Jean Luc Nancy (in
The Inoperative Community), Giorgio Agamben (in The Coming
Community), and Jean-François Lyotard (in The Differend),
among others. As Nicholls points out, disturbed both by the totalizing
mythos exemplified in Ezra Pound’s writing and by what he termed “the
closed universe, the closed self,” Oppen sought, “a poetics founded
on the (philosophically) simple recognition of actuality -- ‘That it
is’ -- [which] would ultimately concern itself with an equally ‘simple’
and non-agonistic perception of social relationships. Viewed in these
terms, poetry might offer a way of acknowledging the world and others
without seeking to reduce them to objects of knowledge.” Poetry would
sustain “the relationship between things -- the relationship between
people; What it is rather than That it is,” as Oppen put it.”
say that a poetics is “founded on the . . . simple recognition of actuality”
is not to say that it ends there. The concluding section of “Of Being
Numerous” consists entirely of a passage from a letter Walt Whitman
wrote to his mother, a passage describing a public monument seen in
dying light. It is the Capital Building in Washington, DC, which is
surmounted by an idealized figure of an American Indian in full feathered
headdress -- a monument whose intended symbolism must have been of dubious
merit to Oppen. The last word of the passage, “curious,” is separated
from the text, placed the distance of a stanza break away.
April 19, 1864
capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got the great
figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It is a great
bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks wonderful
toward sundown. I love to go and look at it. The sun when it is nearly
down shines on the headpiece and it dazzles and glistens like a big
star: it looks quite
writing about this passage (in a letter to John Crawford), commented:
" . . . the poem ends with the word 'curious.' I had set myself once
before to say forthrightly "We want to be here," and the long poem ends
almost jokingly with 'curious'. But it is not a joke entirely. If I
were asked, Why do we want to be here--I would say: it is curious--the
thing is curious--Which may be referred to, briefly, as O's Affirmation."
affirmation’s operative term -- curious -- is situated in yet another
of the multivalent phrases which constitute the reason of (and for)
my title: it is curious -- the thing is curious. One reading of this
phrase could lead to a paraphrase that says something like, “the thing
is odd, the thing provokes curiosity,” but another paraphrase could
be that “the thing itself exercises curiosity”. The latter interpretation
may push Oppen’s intended sense, but not, I believe, with a result that
he would dislike.
curious, just as it names both a subjective condition (“marked by desire
to investigate and learn” or by “inquisitive interest in others’ concerns,”
nosiness) and a condition of some object (“exciting attention as strange,
novel, or unexpected”), it also names an interaction between curious
subject and curious object, an interaction within the terms of curiosity.
As Oppen says in another letter, “I ended with the word ‘curious,’ of
which the root is curia: care, concern[.]"
so aptly calls an “affirmation,” though it concludes his poem, has a
place at the start of it as well, since “affirmation” is what substantiates
the phrase “There are things,” and since it is curiosity -- “care, concern”
-- which makes that phrase and those things count. But there is another
way in which this “affirmation” is not conclusive; “O’s Affirmation,”
like the affirmation which is a feature of the poetics I am describing
-- one that constantly questions assumptions, especially its own --
is lodged in a dilemma, and therefore in that activity of mind which
we term doubt. This doubt is not entirely unlike what Keats called ‘negative
capability,’ but what is at stake is affirmation of our deepest reason,
the one that tells us that things and our experiences of them count.
That is what it means to be in history and in a history with a future
-- to be in reason.
we don’t want, of course, is a reason that plows its way to authority.
Human Condition, Hannah Arendt elaborates a notion of a community
of reason (in my sense of the term) constituted through action, creating
new and hopefully ever better dilemmas for itself. Such a community
of reason is boundless, according to Arendt, “boundless because action,
though it may proceed from nowhere . . . acts into a medium where every
reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause
of new processes . . . This boundlessness is characteristic not of political
action alone, . . . the smallest act in the most limited circumstances
bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes
one word, suffices to change every constellation. Action, moreover,
no matter what its specific content, always establishes relationships
and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations
and cut across all boundaries."
over being is thus dispersed, not because of the boundlessness but in
the boundlessness. We don’t -- as writers or as persons -- go beyond
“all limitations” and “all boundaries” -- we enter and inhabit them.
Faced with the notorious gap in meaning, we may ask What should we do?
But we already know what to do. And this knowing what to do is neither
derived from nor does it produce guidelines -- either prescriptive,
proscriptive or even descriptive. It is, rather, intrinsic to living
in context. Not to totalize, not to pre or proscribe -- we know that
this is some of what we must do. And we know that this is something
we must do because we are alert to the context in which it must be done
-- in history and in reason.