There are two ways to view the idea of the poetics of failure. The first is in the material sense: the life and career of the poet as a disappointment of ambition or achievement, marked by a history of neglect or indifference from the reading public, critics and publishers Poets who might be thought of this way include Oppen, Bunting, and Niedecker. Yet all of them managed to acquire well-deserved second acts late in life. Failure was redeemed, and became part of their myth, encoded as a perversely positive value, part of the larger trope of poetic privation.
The second category of failure is more difficult to define. It involves a willed aesthetic of the failed poem, built around a form of writing that incorporates the logic of failure, that writing can never be adequate to itself. As Beckett puts it: “Fail again. Fail better.” This is a familiar enough trope, outlined most thoroughly by Blanchot, but in certain writers it becomes not only ascendant, but comes to stand for the kernel of the writer’s accomplishment. Kafka and Beckett are perhaps the primary examples, while Baudelaire is failure’s patron saint. Benjamin belongs to both groups, and because he recognized the poetics of failure early on in both Baudelaire, Kafka and himself, is the exemplary diagnostician of failure.
But if failure means recognizing the limits of the poem, it also represents a stubborn persistence in the ability to signify even after the hermetic mode of poetry has contaminated the Orphic.
(More on this later, after our move to Amherst).