poetry theory apparatchiks

All art forms have their theory, revisited when the public is faced with something unusual, or when the usual bases of criticism seem to founder. But though recent years have seen an explosion in publications in this field — books, journals, magazine articles, references in poetry reviews — starting perhaps in the late 1960s, when it took over from literary criticism in many university departments — theory has always been with us. What is different today is its fragmented and strident nature, and its use in justifying work that would have seemed thin or incompetent to earlier generations.

What Is Literary Theory?

Literary theories are exactly what they call themselves: theories, intellectual suppositions, philosophic positions. They are not 'proved', any more than are scientific theories. More importantly, and unlike scientific theories, they do not rest on evidence, but on closely-reasoned argument: that if we hold certain things to be true then certain consequences follow. Or in an ideal world they should. The Anglo-Saxon schools in fact prize logic more, aiming at statements that are inescapably true regardless of context or circumstance. The continental schools of thought are happier with linguistics, history, aesthetics, etc. and aim for illumination rather than demonstration. Literary theory is naturally more sympathetic to the continental approach, but — and this needs stressing — sometimes fails to base itself on any argument at all, or even to understand the authorities it quotes. It becomes a self-justifying assertion, adopted to protect something — often honourable: need for experimentation in the arts, but sometimes less so: status or university tenure.

How do theories justify themselves? By making the world, or at least the narrow field of literature, seem clearer, more fascinating and meaningful. Yes, but do the theories have to be 'true in themselves'? Well, that depends on what is meant by 'true', unfortunately, which can be agreeing with the facts, making a coherent picture, or having some practical utility: all quite different. And truth in logic is not the same as truth in science or mathematics or religion.

Do philosophers believe in their theories, and do they carry them into everyday life? Not entirely. Philosophers may argue that power corrupts, and that all government is an evil that should be resisted, but they pay their taxes like anyone else. And on the mundane level of university examinations, lecturers who write books on Derrida and colonial theory expect their students to answer the questions as set, and not deconstruct the questions in the manner by which they have made their own reputations.

So what is the point of having theory? Because it's inescapable, something abstracted from the natural activity of reading a poem, enjoying it, thinking about it, or discussing it with friends. Philosophy does not settle anything finally, but it does make us more aware of what's entailed in our response and beliefs — which may not lead to relativism, a cynical view that 'anything goes'. On the contrary, extended thought can lead us to more sensible and generous views, or show that we were not too far out to begin with. "Democracy," said Winston Churchill, "is the worst possible form of government, until you look at the alternatives."

But theory is also secondary, just as is literary criticism. Criticism organizes our responses, probes and justifies them at some deeper or more general level. And if there's no response — we can't understand the poem, or why it was written — then criticism falls silent or has only negatives to work on. Of course, if we come across a critique of the poem in question, praising certain features, we can say, 'I don't see that', or 'I don't agree', or 'that misses the point'. But we have to eventually feel something in the poem, which goes beyond intellectual assent.

In summary, therefore, literary theory can be judged by whether a. whether it ultimately makes sense to itself, i.e. is internally coherent, b. it illuminates what is really in the poem, and c. answers to our experience of reading a particular poem.

Does Theory Make Sense?

Literary theory is as varied as the philosophical approaches it represents, but a rather grim summing up of radical theory can be found in the Theory section, with links to take reading further. Some theory makes admirable sense, and some does not.

Does Theory Illuminate the Poem?

To say anything useful on the relationship between poetry and literary theory, we have to specify what theory and what poetry. The distinguished critic Helen Vendler, {1} for example, dealing with mainstream poetry, generally uses close reading, presenting her findings in a serious and scholarly manner, though not without the odd rhetorical flourish. {2} As befits an exponent of the New Criticism, the social and political dimensions do not concern her: "Lyric is not narrative or drama; it is not primarily concerned to relate events, or to reify contesting issues. Rather, its act is to present, adequately and truthfully, through the means of temporally prolonged symbolic form, the private mind and heart caught in the changing events of a geographical place and a historical epoch." {3}

Though Helen Vendler's views are familiar to us, some critical theory is present all the same, if only somewhat submerged in truisms. The New Criticism's aesthetic is important, and we should want to know in what way literature has autonomy, and why its statements cannot be judged as any other statements in the world. Marjorie Perloff, for example, in her own writings and those of writers she champions, questions these assumptions, expecting them to be squarely faced. Because her arguments are spelled out, and because her articles are readily available on the Internet, {4} with those of commentators {5} I will look in some detail at one of her expositions.

First, we should note the many perceptive and sensibly-argued articles on her site: notably those on John Ashbery, {6} Tom Raworth {7} and Language Poetry {8}. But if little explanation is needed for these entertaining and undemanding pieces, the same can't be said for the work of Kenneth Goldsmith and John Kinsella. {9}. First an example of Goldsmith's work:


Walks. Left foot. Head raises. Walk. Forward. Forward. Forward. Bend at knees. Forward. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Stop. Left hand tucks at pubic area. Extracts testicles and penis using thumb and forefinger. Left hand grasps penis. Pelvis pushes on bladder, releasing urine. Stream emerges from within buttocks. Stomach and buttocks push outward. Stream of urine increases. Buttocks push. Sphincter tightens. Buttocks tighten. Thumb and forefinger shake penis. Thumb pulls. Left hand reaches. Tip of forefinger and index finger extend to grasp as body sways to left. Feet pigeon-toed. Move to left. Hand raises to hairline and pushes hair. Arm raises above head. Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head. Eyes see face. Mouth moves. Small bits of saliva cling to inside of lips. Swallow. Lips form words.

From Fidget, Chapter 2 by Kenneth Goldsmith (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1999)

"Why is this description of the most ordinary and trivial of human acts so unsettling?" asks Perloff. {9} Her response is to invoke Swift ("the inherent hideousness of the human body by means of gigantism") and Wittgenstein ("Goldsmith defamiliarizes the everyday in ways that recall such Wittgensteinian questions as 'Why can't the right hand give the left hand money?'") Well, yes, anything pressed so closely against us can be unsettling — peer at an insect through a magnifying glass — and language can be defamiliarized easily enough. But the human body is not inherently threatening, and Wittgenstein is not celebrated for elaborating difficulties but for showing how to sort them out. Then comes Whitehead: "the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose famous Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (e.g., if a tree falls in the forest when no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?) is apropos to Goldsmith's narrative." And then Joyce and Beckett: "Here, then, in Beckett's words about Finnegans Wake, "form is content, content is form. [The] writing is not about something; it is that something itself."

I find the poem interesting, up to a point, but wonder if the parade of names is necessary. Whitehead is known for many things, {10} but his Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness relates to degrees of abstraction, to the dangers of taking the words about something for the object itself. {11} I suspect Perloff is thinking in her tree in the forest example of the 'God in the quad' limerick {12} on Berkeley's philosophy. {13} But she may well be right in believing that the poet wants us to understand his work through Wittgenstein and Whitehead's philosophy, and certainly any responsible critic must follow up the pointers left for readers.

Perloff's articles are notable for their close attention to the text of poems, and she is prepared to work at an understanding where many reviewers will not. David Zauhar, in his review of her books, remarks: "Perloff's guiding assumption in Radical Artifice is that poetry most suitable in an age dominated by the mass media is the radical artifice of avant-garde poetics, as opposed to the reactionary artifice of neo-formalist poets and the cataleptic artifice of workshop lyricism (neither of which is overtly conscious of itself in relation to a larger social and political world). This radical poetry foregrounds its production on the workings of syntax and diction rather than on the fabrication of the image and creation of the personality of the poet (the "voice" in other words). Such poetry requires its readers to explore the language on the page immediately in front of them, and to contemplate the relation of language in general to the world. Thus, such poetry simultaneously invites the reader's participation in the construction of meaning, while also alienating readers who are (not unreasonably) put off by the violation of conventional modes of communication." {5}

Perloff indeed notes in Goldsmith's poem: "The more the language of description breaks down into non-sense and neologism, the greater, ironically enough, the need to make value judgements. The hand is now unaccountably "sad," the "eye," missing, the "crease" (between fingers?) "unnaturally lumpy." One cannot, it seems, remain detached from one's body, from one's own reactions. "Slight pleasure gained from dig into finger and then pleasured by sharpness," remarks the narrator (Fidget 59), now wanting to put his stamp on events as they occur. The language becomes his language."

So far, so good. We can see why, of Whitehead's many contributions, the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness will be interesting to Perloff. Initially the poet's body is presented in matter-of-fact detail, and now that presentation is undermined by a breakdown of language. That could be unsettling to Postmodernists who believe that language is the primary reality. Zauhar on Perloff's books again: "There are three main ways in which this [critique of the image] has occurred: (1) the image, in all its concretion and specificity, continues to be foregrounded, but it is now presented as inherently deceptive, as that which must be bracketed, parodied, and submitted to scrutiny - this is the mode of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, more recently of Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino and Ron Silliman; (2) the Image as referring to something in external reality is replaced by the word as Image, but concern with morphology and the visualization of the word's constituent parts: this is the mode of Concrete Poetry extending from such pioneers as Eugen Gomringer and Steve McCaffery, Susan Howe, and Johanna Drucker; and (3) Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. "Making strange" now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media: this is the mode of Clark Coolidge...and of Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, and Bruce Andrews among others; it comes to us from Gertrude Stein, from whom image was never the central concern, via Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen."

More heroes of contemporary Modernism, but we do learn how poetry has moved on from Pound's imagism. Before commenting further, however, let's look at the second work Perloff is reviewing: John Kinsella's Kangaroo Virus. {9} Two snippets:

Kangaroo Virus

They might call it Śrail country'
as the tell-tale signs are there
immediately ­ the skin deeply
scraped, the bones grey and strewn about. (KV 20)

Imprint: like they've seen it before,
these old-timers, cast in plaster,
referencing the direction of a roo,
even so, the forest thinner, shrinking. (kV 62)

From Kangaroo Virus by John Kinsella and Ron Sims (South Freemantle: Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998)

Perloff introduces this section with: "If literature is defined as the exploration and exercise of tolerable linguistic deviance," write Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery in the introduction to their new anthology Imagining Language , "the institutional custodianship of literature serves mainly to protect the literary work from language, shielding it from the disruptive force of linguistic slippage. Such slippage has increasingly become a poetic norm, creating a poetry that serves as a new conduit for communication. My second example of what Joyce referred to as the verbovisivocal or "vocable scriptsigns" is a recent collaboration between two Australians, the poet John Kinsella and the sound artist/ photographer Ron Sims, called Kangaroo Virus. Like Fidget, Kangaroo Virus exists in electronic form, like Fidget , it has a performance score this time on a CD that accompanies the book and, like Fidget, it is a documentary, informational poem that relies heavily on empirical observation. But unlike Fidget's reliance on the tape recorder, Kangaroo Virus is made up of short free-verse lyrics by Kinsella , each of which has an accompanying photograph by Sims."

Yes, but is "literature defined as the exploration and exercise of tolerable linguistic deviance"? Some poetry by some poets does use language in unusual ways, but much does not, even that by great poets. We can't define poetry by a feature that is not invariably present, and doing so would make literature of any 'tolerable linguistic deviance' whatever — an intolerably easy thing to achieve.

It's also difficult to see how if "the institutional custodianship of literature serves mainly to protect the literary work from language, shielding it from the disruptive force of linguistic slippage" how "such slippage" has become a "conduit for communication". For non-communication, it might be thought, since private languages are unworkable. The malicious may even feel that "the institutional custodianship of literature" has become invested in theorists, who shield it from the disruptive need to say something intelligible.

The plain truth is that Kinsella's work doesn't need such treatment. The poem is perfectly understandable, if somewhat prosaic. Why such critical erudition that doesn't actually describe what is going on? Perhaps Zauhar and Perloff have done their best with the review assignments given them, but there must also be the suspicion that poetry is becoming the plaything of its theorists. Rather than state the obvious and say that the poem is experimental, something that has deliberately distanced itself from 'discredited' styles of poetry — and show what's been achieved as a consequence — Perloff has mounted a defence with an impressive display of erudition. If language were the prime reality, and if it were inherently deceptive, then such poems might be more interesting than they are. But with the claims of Postmodernism so overblown — see the theory sections on Derrida, Barthes, Davidson, etc. — there are more sensible approaches to fall back on, by which the poem does not fare too well.

And this is a great pity. We would welcome poems with more depth and intellectual bite. Suppose, instead of Kinsella's teasing allusion to Whitehead, we had the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness followed through. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia entry: {10}

"Whitehead's basic idea was that we obtain the abstract idea of a spatial point by considering the limit of a real-life series of volumes extending over each other, for example, a nested series of Russian dolls or a nested series of pots and pans. However, it would be a mistake to think of a spatial point as being anything more than an abstraction; instead, real positions involve the entire series of extended volumes. As Whitehead himself puts it, "In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world."

"Further, according to Whitehead, every real-life object may be understood as a similarly constructed series of events and processes. It is this latter idea that Whitehead later systematically elaborates in his imposing Process and Reality (1929), going so far as to suggest that process, rather than substance, should be taken as the fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world. Underlying this work was also the basic idea that, if philosophy is to be successful, it must explain the connection between objective, scientific and logical descriptions of the world and the more everyday world of subjective experience."

Whitehead is not making a simple point about language. He is wondering how we arrive at a sense of external reality, the abstractions we make to conceive of space and time, and how objects we place in that space/time framework have a reality outside those abstractions. How do we avoid chasing our tails — the hermeneutic circle — and what is the nature of reality itself — questions Kant and Heidegger came to very different conclusions about. Whitehead's solution was not to have Berkeley's God {13} enabling reality, nor even a substratum of substance, but something living and evolving: process, he called it. Whitehead's enduring work was Principia Mathematica, which he wrote with Russell, and Process and Reality {14} may be now more of interest to theologians and philosophers of religion. But the attempt to unify space, matter, time and purpose is surely a more fruitful approach than Postmodernism's despair with language, which it declares only to be deceptive. Whitehead tried to accommodate a new view of science with traditional human needs, and his 'permanence amid change' has affinities with Chinese poetry that continues to be read.

Whitehead's philosophy is not for bed-time reading, but if we take just one of his paragraphs:

"Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality. Consciousness is only the last and greatest of such elements by which the selective character of the individual obscures the external totality from which it originates and which it embodies. An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection. It replaces in rational experience what has been submerged in the higher sensitive experience and has been sunk yet deeper by the initial operations of consciousness itself. The selectiveness of individual experience is moral so far as it conforms to the balance of importance disclosed in the rational vision; and conversely the conversion of the intellectual insight into an emotional force corrects the sensitive experience in the direction of morality. The correction is in proportion to the rationality of the insight. Morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook. The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good, thus exemplifying the loss of the minor intensities in order to find them again with finer composition in a wider sweep of interest." {15}

we can see just how much more interesting Goldsmith's poem might have been if it incorporated such ideas. Confucians would particularly enjoy the first sentence. {16} and the second is not far from Pound's objective in the Cantos. Even the last points out the difference between the perfection of minor art and the wider effect of great art.

Unless he is mischievously sprinkling his poems with names by which to lead critics by the nose, we can only speculate why Goldsmith does not follow up his own suggestions. Some hard reading would be required, but it's worth noting that Wallace Stevens' best poem is a paraphrase of Santayana's philosophy — when the poet for once found something to say.

Does Theory Answer to Our Experience?

Of course I may be doing poet and critic a grave injustice. Fidget may be more than novelty, a meticulous reportage of the trivial. The poem may be more engrossing in total than the extracts suggest, and critics will often dress up preferences in abstract argument.

But are poems more interesting today as a result of the critical scaffolding? Intellectually, yes. And to our fuller natures, to what poetry traditionally appealed to? Not to me. I could read many things into the poems here, but they would remain adventitious, something my emotional nature does not absorb. What I read into these poems I could read with much greater pleasure into rather different poems, ones that seem admirable on less dubious ground.

Ground that is nebulous, changing, hard to pin down, moreover. And watched over by critics, who provide a patent, a license to the first user. Goldsmith's approach is all too easy to copy, and unless we want to be deluged by thousands of similar poems, the originating concept has to be made the defining point of excellence, something that cannot be reproduced without charges of plagiarism. We're in the realm of conceptual art, {17} where ideas precede technique, and the critic's task is to create a freedom to experiment, with authority to outlaw dumb remarks like ' I could do as well as that myself'.

References and Resources

1. Helen Vendler: The Poem Unfolded: An Appreciation. Henri Cole. May-Jun. 2004. http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2004-05/poemunfolded.html.
2. The Queen V Of Poetry Criticism: Helen Vendler’s Reign Of Mediocrity (to be generous). Dan Schneider, Sep. 2003. http://www.cosmoetica.com/D29-DES20.htm.
3. Mrs. Vendler's Profession. Wen Stephenson. Feb. 2001. http://www.prospect.org/print/V12/12/stephenson-w.html. An extended article in The American Prospect discussing Vendler's non-political criticism of a Frost poem. NNA
4. Marjorie Perloff. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff. Homepage at the Electronic Poetry Center.
5. Perloff in the Nineties. David Zauhar. Winter 2001. http://altx.com/ebr/reviews/rev9/r9zau.htm. A generous but perceptive review of three Perloff publications in Threads.
6. Normalizing John Ashbery. Marjorie Perloff. 1998. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/ashbery.html.
7. Tom Raworth: Collected Poems. Marjorie Perloff. May 2003. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/articles/raworth.pdf A Times Literary Review of 30 May 2003.
8. Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman's Albany, Susan Howe's Buffalo. Marjorie Perloff. 1998. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/langpo.html. 9. Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget and John Kinsells' Kangaroo Virus. Marjorie Perloff. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/differential_poetries.html.
10. Alfred North Whitehead. May 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/. Stanford Encyclopedia entry.
11. Borderline Case. Nov 2004. http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Borderline_case. A Wikimedia entry introducing the fallacy of misplaced consciousness.
12. Modern Philosophy. David Banach. Fall 2004. http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/ph13.htm. Articles and texts, including the famous limerick by Ronald Knox.
13. George Berkeley (1685—1753): http://www.iep.utm.edu/berkeley/. Detailed introduction.
14. Alfred North Whitehead. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/. Brief but clear account.
15. Process and Reality: Actual Occasions, p.15. http://pweb.cc.sophia.ac.jp/~yutaka-t/process/actoc.htm NNA.
16. The T’ang Dynasty and the Tao. A.S. Kline. Feb. 2000. http://www.tonykline.co.uk/PITBR/Chinese/AllwaterTang.htm. Extended essay on Chinese thought and poetry.
17. Conceptual art has a large literature. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conceptual_art or http://www.biddingtons.com/content/pedigreeconceptual.html.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.