H.L. Hix

Issue #
February 28, 2015

Limitless Poetry, Open Poetics

New world, new world view.

       The need for the latter follows from the fact of the former. This principle applies in any domain. Kwame Anthony Appiah applies it, for example, in the domain of ethics, asserting that we are obliged by it to a position he calls cosmopolitanism. It is a new world, he contends. “For most of human history, we were born into small societies,” closed groups in which we “would see, on a typical day, only people we had known most of our lives” (xi). The closure of the group shaped the lives of those in the group: “Everything our long-ago ancestors ate or wore, every tool they used, every shrine at which they worshipped, was made within that group.” Now, Appiah observes, our groups are no longer closed: “if I walk down New York’s Fifth Avenue on an ordinary day, I will have within sight more human beings than most of those prehistoric hunter-gatherers saw in a lifetime,” and “every human community has gradually been drawn into a single web of trade and a global network of information” so extensive that “each of us can realistically imagine contacting any other of our six billion conspecifics and sending that person something worth having: a radio, an antibiotic, a good idea” (xii). But if (as is always true) “each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities” (xiii), and if now I can affect anyone on the planet, then at least the extent of my responsibilities has changed, such that “no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilities to every other” (xvi). Tribalism and sectarianism and nationalism cannot be just in the world as it is organized today; in the new world, we need the new worldview Appiah calls “cosmopolitanism.” Only on the basis of cosmopolitanism, he contends, can I rightly ascertain my responsibilities.

       The principle applies in the domain of poetry no less than in ethics. New poetic world, new poetic worldview. In poetry, as in ethics, the movement is from closure toward openness. Here, I would like to address that movement, starting not, as Appiah starts, with prehistory, but with a more recent historical moment, to ask what follows for poetry, and for me as a poet and reader of poetry, from the fact that the kind of closure we call comprehensiveness once appeared possible, but today is manifestly impossible. For Appiah, the limitlessness of who I affect by my decisions and actions demands of me a kind of openness. I propose that something analogous holds in regard to poetry: in it, too, limitlessness calls for openness.

       To see the old poetic world with which the new one contrasts, one need not reach back, as Appiah does, to prehistory. The old world appears even in recent exemplars. Consider, for example, Richard Howard’s ambitious and substantial essay collection Alone with America, first published in 1969. It must have seemed possible to Howard then (and still in 1980, when the revised edition was published) to survey contemporary American poetry comprehensively. The very first sentence of his Foreword to the first edition delicately leaves out an implicit “all”: “In the forty-one studies which follow, an accounting is made of [all] American poets who, with the publication of at least two volumes, have come into a characteristic and — as I see it — consequential identity since the time, say, of the Korean War” (xi). Since then, enough has changed in critical understanding that no scholar could read that sentence without questioning its accuracy in relation to its own time: in other words, any scholar today, any actively engaged reader of poetry, would say that Howard missed some of the “consequential” poets at work in that time period. But, more to the point, enough has changed in the poetry world that no one could write that sentence with reference to American poetry now, not yet half a century after Howard’s book. No one attentive to contemporary poetry could believe that, of the countless poets at work today, forty-one and only forty-one are “consequential.”

       Alone with America vividly manifests certain premises of the old poetic world: it projects a perceived transparency about and continuity with a singular tradition, implies a sense of clarity about uniform standards of quality applicable to all poetry, and assumes uncompromised correspondence between the quality of a body of work and the mechanisms that establish a poet’s reputation (prestige of publisher and of university affiliation, connection to others with similarly prestigious publishers and universities, prizes and awards received, and so on). It contains not a single name of a poet who was not at the time widely represented in anthologies and by reviews. The thoroughness of its norming (that it has no surprising names) indicates that Howard was recording a consensus. To choose only one exact contemporary, James Dickey’s Babel to Byzantium, published the year before Alone with America, has an almost identical ratio of male to female poets, 58 of 67, 87% compared to Howard’s 85%, and the same totality of whiteness. Howard’s book looks now, forty-five years after its first publication, like a period piece, by today’s standards wrong in the most obvious ways: e.g., its table of contents includes 41 poets, of whom 35 are male, and all 41 white. (This in 1969, with women’s liberation and the civil rights movement in full swing, twenty years after Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer. Never mind that the enlarged edition came out in 1980.)

       Howard thought it possible to identify and consider all the poets who were poets in his time and place: “these poets,” he says in his Foreword, of the forty-one he considers in the book, “are, simply, what is there” (xi). Poetry for him is a strictly limited domain, so a synoptic vision entails seeing everything in the domain. Now, though, it is impossible even to identify, much less to consider, all the poets who are poets. The domain has no limits, so attaining a synoptic vision now must mean seeing inclusively. The difference is radical: “to see everything” offers its verb a direct object; “to see inclusively” qualifies its verb with an adverb. From the former, it would follow that one’s vision becomes synoptic based on what one sees; from the latter, that one’s vision becomes synoptic based on how one sees. In the former, poetics is closed; in the latter, it is open. In the former, the purpose is mastery of the material; in the latter, transformation of self. In the former, the purpose is to know all; in the latter, to revise my life. In the former, the works are exposed by the synoptic vision; in the latter, I am exposed.

       One might survey the landscape in our poetic world, as Howard did in his, but now one must recognize that it is not possible to complete the task. A metaphor for Howard’s sense of “survey” would be that of standing on a promontory, looking down on a domain, all of it visible at once; in the new poetic world, to “survey” will be much more like wandering through a landscape, accumulating a record of what is seen at various moments, but without the ability to see the whole at any given time. Any “whole” will have to be an assembled and provisional rather than a perceived and final whole. The differences in perspective also create differences of scale. From the hilltop vista, what will engage one’s attention are hills, trees, and other large-scale (“consequential”) objects, but in the valley it will be birds’ nests and animal tracks and fallen logs, smaller (“inconsequential”) items. From the hilltop, the likely result will be a map: the viewer will assume the role of a scanner, a cartographer, Lewis and Clark. From below, the likely result will be a collection: the viewer will act as taxonomist, an Audubon or Darwin.

       Perplexed as poets and scholars have been by the changing cultural role of poetry (as manifest among poets themselves in recurring worries about audience, for example, and even visible occasionally in broader public consciousness, as when Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” appeared in The Atlantic), we have seldom acknowledged any interconnection between the increasing quantity and availability of poetry (typically treated as a nearly unqualified good) and the diminishing audience (typically viewed by those concerned as bad). But in at least one practical way, they are interconnected. If I live in a small-scale oral society relatively isolated from other societies — a society with no books, no poetry anthologies, no libraries, no internet — I do not see myself as choosing what poetry to listen to. But if I live in the contemporary United States, with instant access to countless poems, new and old, on the web, the ability instantly to purchase any poetry book, any instance of the reading of poetry will be preceded by choice: am I going to read poetry instead of watching the Celtics? am I going to read Keats today, or Susan Howe? and so on.

       Of all one might observe about that circumstance, I want to note two things. First, the intercession of choice between myself and the reading of poetry alters the distribution of power: poetry is now altogether at my mercy. If I like a poem, I may continue to read it; if not, I need not. Secondly, the interposition of choice gives emphasis to evaluation as the mode of the interaction between myself and poetry. I see myself, first and foremost, as assessing the worth of the poem: the first question is whether the poem is good or not. Though often taken for granted, these typical features of contemporary readers’ relationship to poetry are neither innocent nor necessary.

       Nor are they without consequence for the writing of poetry. Learning to write poetry most typically takes the form of trying to figure out how to make one’s efforts recognizable as poetry, to make one’s poems, in other words, look like poems. This impulse stands behind the workshop as a pedagogical methodology for creative writing: a town hall meeting can tell me whether or not my work is good, whether, that is, it meets community standards. (So blaming the proliferation of MFA programs and poetry workshops for the diminished audience for poetry reverses cause and effect. Since we encounter poems in their natural habitats no more often than we encounter bison in theirs, we must first create the community and the standards, before we can fulfill those standards. I.e. we must first find out what a poem looks like before we can make our own poems look like that. Hence workshops, which pursue the former under the guise of the latter.)

       But there are alternatives. What if, for instance, rather than attempting to make something another person might recognize as a poem, one attempted to make something in which another might recognize a previously unacknowledged aspect of him- or herself? Then the criterion for, and the question about, the resulting work shifts from How good is it? (i.e. How well does it fulfil the conditions of poetry?) to Who is present/recognizable there? (asked in such a way that the “who” may be or represent the reader no less than the poet). Among other results of such a change, issues of identity would go from being fully repressed (ineligible for discussion in regard to the poem, as in new criticism) to fully conscious (at least implicitly present in any consideration).

       Gerald Bruns registers “the possibility that anything, under certain conditions, may be made to count as a poem: The conceptual task is to spell out these enabling conditions” (4). Such a conceptual task might be matched by a practical task: to learn to receive poetry, not primarily by testing it against pre-given criteria imposed on the work, but through attentively registering the criteria the work itself embodies. In other words, the primary question ceases to be Does this poem live up to the criteria for a good poem? and becomes instead According to what criteria is this poem best understood? In this approach, I no longer assume that I know what a good poem is, and then check to see if this poem is a good poem, if it matches the standard; instead, I assume that I may learn at any time something new about what a poem might be or do, that any encounter with a poem might expand the range of potentially applicable criteria, might re-set the bounds of what a poem may be. Instead of my testing the poem, the poem tests me. Instead of approximating mastery, acquiring ever more authority from, and over, poetry, when I stand before poetry I stand in danger always of having my dictatoriality undermined, my prejudices exposed.

       One might distinguish, then, between two modes of reading poetry. One is more often practiced, but here I claim that the other is called by the new poetic world. The categories will not be exhaustive and mutually exclusive, as would be true of a “clean” distinction, but I believe the distinction will show itself useful nonetheless. I call the modes “singular adequation” and “plural adequation.” By “singular adequation” I mean that the evaluative aspect of reading is unidirectional, and applies to only one term, the poem. What questions are (implicitly or explicitly) asked sum to a single question such as “Is the poem adequate to the criterion that distinguishes poetry from prose?” or “Is the poem adequate to the criterion that distinguishes great poetry from mediocre or bad poetry?” By “plural adequation” I mean that the evaluative aspect of reading applies in more than one direction, and to more than one term. The poem is evaluated by the reader, but so is the reader by the poem. The poem’s purposes are evaluated by the poem and the reader, and in turn evaluate the evaluators. The interrogation is reciprocal: in asking whether the poem lives up to my criteria for poetry, I am also alert to being asked by the poem whether I live up to its standards for humans.

       The difference that leads me to affirm plural adequation as preferable to singular adequation is that singular adequation can only be self-fulfilling. It begs the question, by including as valid all — but only —poems that confirm its presuppositions, rejecting as invalid all that do not. Thus it can be “edifying” for the reader only in the way in which all fundamentalisms are edifying: by screening all objects of inquiry such that one accepts as evidence only what confirms the premise. Plural adequation, in contrast, tests each term by the others. I may enter the process with a particular assumption about what makes a poem a poem, or what makes a poem good, but that assumption is always at risk, susceptible to a counterexample in which a poem pursues other purposes than those I previously accepted as valid, and fulfills those purposes.

       Early in the film Dead Poets’ Society, there occurs a nascent call to plural adequation. After having one of his students read aloud a small portion of the introduction to the class’s textbook, the teacher Mr. Keating, the Robin Williams character, calls the introduction — by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. — “excrement” and has the students tear it out of their texts and throw it away. The part read aloud, before the teacher’s instruction to tear out the pages, recommended a graphing method for measuring the greatness of a poem. The screenwriter’s point is clear enough that even the high-school boys depicted in the film can get it, as can the vast popular audience that saw the movie. It requires no Ivy League learning to grasp that J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., was asking the wrong question.

       Yet the way the fictional Dr. Pritchard addresses poetry — by testing it for “greatness” — exerts a strong pull. The scene could not work so effectively had not we all of us asked on our own, or been compelled in a literature class to ask, the question of greatness. Inexperienced readers new to poetry, such as the students in the film and, one imagines, many of the film’s viewers, have found that question interposed between themselves and poetry, but so have those of us who care deeply about poetry, who read it voluntarily and often. The movie’s positive assertions are unsatisfying: Mr. Keating portrays poetry as essentially hortatory, teaching the reader to make his life — in the movie, set in an elite prep school for boys, it’s always his life — exceptional. A lightweight positive conception of poetry, though, does not diminish the force of the film’s critical stance that calculation of “greatness” is not a robust basis for engagement with poetry, nor is the question of “greatness” the most important one to pose.

       The critical stance in Dead Poets’ Society — that measuring “greatness” is not a sound approach to poetry — finds articulation not only in Hollywood film and from the reader’s perspective, but also within poetry itself and from the writer’s perspective. For example, W. S. Merwin closes his poem “Berryman” with stanzas reporting an exchange between himself as a student and the then more established (already “consequential”) poet and teacher John Berryman, in which Berryman warns the aspiring younger poet away from the same question: “I asked how can you ever be sure / that what you write is really / any good at all and he said you can’t // you can’t you can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write” (66). The rationale for Berryman’s imperative is that one does not and cannot know whether what one writes is great. Nothing will — or could — provide reliable confirmation that “anything you wrote was any good.” Receiving anything that looks like confirmation (a Pulitzer, a Guggenheim) is potentially deceptive, as is not receiving anything that looks like confirmation. Any assurance would be deceptive, so seeking assurance (trying to determine whether one’s writing is great) could only be misleading.

       In an encounter with literature or art, one asks (for) something, explicitly or implicitly. Singular adequation asks: How good is it? (Is it poetry? How well is poetry doing its job? How well is this poem doing poetry’s job?). Plural adequation asks: What is it doing? (What is it for? What is poetry capable of? What all can poetry do? What is this poem out to do?). “What is it doing?” differs from “How good is it?” not only in how I am to answer the question but also in how I am to ask it. (Zizek: “‘Fundamentalism’… concerns neither belief as such nor its content; what distinguishes a ‘fundamentalist’ is the way he relates to his beliefs; its most elementary definition should focus on the formal status of belief” (350).) “How good is it?” asks what my standard for goodness tells me about the poem; “What is it doing?” asks whether my standard for goodness applies in this case, and by implication whether my standard for goodness wants modification. “How good is it?” pretends to be categorical; my relationship to the object of inquiry is authoritative. “What is it doing?” acts hypothetically; my relationship with the object of inquiry is reciprocal. “How good is it?” assesses any poetry by the same terms. “What is it doing?” addresses this poetry, and is obliged by such particularity to assess more comprehensively: to include in the assessment not only object but also subject and even (especially) the terms of assessment.

       The new poetic world demands plural rather than singular adequation, but the worth of plural adequation is not confined to poetry. It is worth maintaining in any inquiry (and, I want to say, in any human enterprise), at least two critical agendas: evaluating how well I am answering what question(s) I am asking, and also investigating whether I am asking the right question(s). A familiar example of the difference is the philosophical debate documented in G. E. Moore’s “A Defence of Common Sense” and Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Moore attempts to show that many responses to the challenge of skepticism do not answer well the question whether I can achieve certainty; Wittgenstein attempts to show that the question of certainty as Moore tries to answer it is not well-framed, is in other words not the right question to ask. “If you do know that here is one hand,” Wittgenstein begins, “we’ll grant you all the rest” (2e). I.e., if you want to address this question, well, go ahead. But the question, Wittgenstein goes on to argue, is ill-framed: “certainty,” he argues at length, has to do with matters such as whether one can satisfy oneself that something is the case, and whether something could turn out to be false, rather than with whether I have secure access to how things are in the world. That second critical agenda — investigating whether we are asking the right questions — is, I contend, the more urgent of the two agendas in regard to poetry, at least here (in the United States) and now (early in the twenty-first century). It is more urgent, in other words, to ask whether the question of greatness is the right one to pose, than whether we have answered well the question of greatness.

       In an essay defending oracularity as a quality of philosophical discourse, Jan Zwicky asks us to imagine a mystery story in which a murder has occurred during the night, and in which one relevant particular is that the dog did nothing. The Great Detective pronounces “with no other overt indications, beside the muddy corpse: ‘Dogs bark at those they do not recognize’” (503). Zwicky invites us to note that, regarding the two possibilities (that the murder was an inside job, that it was the work of an anonymous intruder), “The Shocked Relatives’ refusal to countenance the first possibility will be reflected in their rejection of the Great Detective” (503). The Great Detective does not offer the Shocked Relatives more information. Instead, she draws attention indirectly to the motives and preconceptions that are preventing the Shocked Relatives from recognizing the implications of the information they already have. In “Oracularity,” Zwicky uses this illustration to defend the validity and usefulness of the Great Detective’s (oracular) utterance; her central point is that the Shocked Relatives cannot see what they need to see until they come to see as they need to see. For my purposes here, the point is that toward poetry we play the role of the Shocked Relatives, perpetually in need of reorienting our vision. How the question is posed sets limits to the possible answers, and the J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. question about poetry will result in answers that all stay within the limits imposed by the question.

       New world, new worldview. The limits that governed Alone with America no longer apply. Where poetry is limitless, poetics must be open. It is surveying rather than a survey that is called for by the new poetic world, plural rather than singular adequation that will prepare me to fulfill Rilke’s imperative to revise my life.

Works Cited

Bruns, Gerald. The Material of Poetry: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics. Univ. of Georgia Press, 2005.
Howard, Richard. Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. Enlarged Edition. Atheneum, 1980.
Merwin, W. S. “Berryman.” In Opening the Hand. Atheneum, 1983. 65-66.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. Harper & Row, 1972.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. MIT Press, 2006.
Zwicky, Jan. “Oracularity.” Metaphilosophy 34:4 (July 2003): 488-509.

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