A poem can fail in many ways. But to be a truly failed poem it must take care to fail in the right way.
There are failures of omission and failures of commission. Failures to fund the poem's vocabulary with the necessary depth of observation and experience and failures of overdetermination and ambition, These are failures of style and technique, of craft, and therefore minor.
True failure begins with the recognition that speech is always already crippled. That poetry itself is a species of disability and the struggle to pronounce its own condition from out of a deep aphasia. Whatever we say falls short of the mark. The mark itself, which draws its authority from putative degrees of fidelity, is often little more than a fetish for precision, a coded by-word for positivism.
To fall short of the mark, of course, is to acknowledge the possibility of failure and is a topos as old as poetry itself: the humility of the speaking subject before the immediacy of experience.
The kind of failure I have in mind encompasses some of this. But to fail poetically means more than merely writing poems that don't quite do justice to themselves; it means more than a lifetime's labor spent on work that goes unseen and unheard. Failure must be understood allegorically, as Benjamin meant it. At one level it involves the point of friction and potential breakdown between choice and multiplicity and the potential for unsaying in every form of saying.
At bottom, though, failure is about time. Hence, the need to understand it as allegory, as a telling otherwise about collapse and inanition. About writing in the ruins. About writing as ruins.
“In the world of allegory,” explains Paul de Man, “time is the originary constitutive category. The meaning constituted by the allegorical sign can consist only in the repetition of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority.”
The anxiety of poetic form is always an anxiety with respect to time. How can the poem articulate an image of time that includes the persistence of the human?
To fail is to perversely attain a sense of the limits of language. It is to engage the difficulty of time as such, the obdurate resistance by which my words reach out to you, reader, wherever you are and in so saying I have created you, ala Whitman, from nothing more than the rhetoric of distension and hope.
Failure is a kenotic value. It is apophatic; speech that erases speech in order to unburden itself of time. But besides a commitment to emptying out, or the insufficiency of language to forge a grammar of being, failure signifies the embrace of the broken, of the fragment. It names the desire for what Adorno calls "micrology," which is the desire for redemption in non-transcendental, non-teleological terms.
What saves history from the catastrophe of reification, Benjamin asserts, is an allegorical form of transmission that exhibits the fissures within it. The failed poem is the poem that commits to those fissures. A historian, he writes, or a poet, I might add:
"Stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the time of the now which is shot through with chips of Messianic time."