Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Shapely Urgency?

In his comment to my last post, Andrew asks what role verse plays in my definition of poetry. How important is prosody in our understanding of whether an "emotional notation" is a poem? How important, indeed, is the actual writing of lines of words on the pages of books and magazines? In answering it, let me turn to an essay by Lisa Robertson that has occupied my attention since I read it this summer in her collection Nilling. Here's a key passage:

What do poems have to do with an ethics of conviviality? The urgent social abjection of poetry might act as shelter to a gestured vernacular. Covertly the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution. In poems and through vernaculars citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, which is anybody’s. Here my use of the word poem parts from the conventions of aesthetic autonomy that have resulted from commodity culture’s limits and heroisms, to propose that the poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers. The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics. ("Prosody of the Citizen")

It is still unclear to me whether Robertson is here trying to open the word "poem" to a meaning that goes beyond the "mere" arrangement of words. That is, I don't know if she wants to make citizens capable of some sort of general poetry, implicit in their speech and gestures, requiring no specific act of "writing emotions down". But it does seem clear that, as the title of the essay suggests (leave aside the fact that she un-titled it for the collection), she believes that this "shapely urgency" is in fact a form of verse.

But what is "verse"? Do we not just move the question "What is poetry?" to this new question by tying it explicitly to the art of versification? I prefer to think of versification (the "turning" of phrase, also the root meaning of "strophe") as essential to the art of "writing emotions down". That is, as I said on Monday, you can't bring to presence how institutions make us feel without turning, bending, or twisting experience. When we writhe, if you will, in the grip of institutions we are, willy-nilly, making poems.

A poem is simply a confrontation of feeling with emotion, a confrontation of how we actually feel with how we are supposed to feel. Any such confrontation is a poem. But it is only possible in verse. It may be that, given "the prose of the world", only poetry, i.e., lines of verse literally written down on the page and read silently to ourselves, allows us to experience freedom. All other forms of communication (or even community) are impositions of feeling on experience.

That's my long answer to Andrew's question. Still thinking it through, though. So comments are more than welcome.


Andrew Shields said...

Verse as that which generates and/or follows from "the shapely urgency"; verse as the form that "shaped speaking" takes.

A few years ago, a woman was shot to death by her estranged husband not far from my house. In fact, the murder took place at the tram stop I used to use every day in my old apartment. The flowers and candles laid out for the woman were accompanied by poems, some original, some famous, some obscure, almost all handwritten. A now-retired colleague who also lives in this neighborhood said something like, "It is interesting how people reach for verse in moments of trauma." Verse gives shape to urgency, to put it in Robertson's words.

And perhaps it does so *even when* its "desiring vernacular" does *not* "innovate its receivers."

Andrew Shields said...

Here's a quick comment from Mary Ruefle:

"for all practical, speaking purposes, it’s right-flush margin or it’s lineated."

Perhaps this comes up more in her new book of essays, I'll keep you posted if/when I get back to it. (Semester starts today.)

Thomas said...

I'm going to insist that there's a difference between what Tony Tost did in Invisible Bride and what he did in Johnny Cash's American Recordings. And also a difference between the non-lineated passages of Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw and his novel Leaving the Atocha Station. That difference is the prose/poetry distinction, though all these works have right-flush margins.

Or here's an easy case: the introduction to Waldrop's Curves to the Apple vs., say, The Reproduction of Profiles. Again, all right-flush margins but no question about what is prose and what is poetry.

More and more I think Robertson is right that poetry is writing that "innovates its receivers". Prose is writing that does not.

Another great example just occurred to me: Wittgenstein's Investigations vs. Heidegger's Being and Time. Wittgenstein himself said philosophy should be written like poetry. And I think if we take a moment to seriously consider the "implied reader" in those two books, one of them is clearly being innovated while the other merely being "convened", if you will, i.e., addressed as conventional academic subject.