Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Frank Samperi

Frank Samperi occupies a special place in late modernist poetry – a Catholic Objectivist, as much steeped in Dante as Zukofsky – and possessed of a sweetness and light that is dazzling in its clarity and painful in its simplicity: inasmuch as pain erases itself into light and light is the final erasure and confirmation: a word that speaks everything, once and for all, a wing covering the night in itself, and wholeness begins.

To me, he has always been a bridge figure – quite forgotten, it’s true – someone who links the ardor of modernism’s love of the new with the ancient rhythms of belief, confession, testament, and vision. “All things that are are light,” writes Pound, quoting Duns Scotus.

But this is not a light of dissolution. It is the light of solid objects, seen as if for the first time, drenched in the aura that is the angelic failure of the material, its holy signal flare, anointing the drowned souls and the burning of our bodies as they climb the westward road through collapse and ruin, gathering the grains of the lonely. To be a poet of ruined light is to be completely devotional (pace John Taggart).

Frank Samperi’s daughter, Claudia Samperi-Warren, has recently set up a website devoted to her father’s work. It is well worth a visit:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Defending Theory or, The Death of Frank Kermode

At this late date, what's loosely referred to in the press as "theory" should need no defense. And yet the death of Frank Kermode, at least as reported by the NY Times, has brought out the grumbling resentniks of the Old Guard, still sore about how liberal humanism and the so-called "freedom of the reader," as Verlyn Klinkenborg put it today in the Op-Ed page, have acquired a kind of asterisk, a spot of shame, which is of course nothing more than the taxonomic structure they already possessed.

Kermode had a healthy disregard for the "deformed prose," as he called it, of many second-rate theorists striving to emulate the first generation of mostly French masters. But it's odd, to say the least, that someone who revered Eliot and Joyce, for instance, two of the major exemplars of modernist difficulty, would take such an issue with a similar evolution in the complexity of critical writing.

This complexity, which necessarily produces awkward or convoluted writing, is a sign of language thinking in a new way, of moving from interpretation to decoding, from the hermeneutic to the semiotic, as Paul de Man puts it in "Resistance to Theory." This turn to language requires a new form. But, as de Man notes, the resistance to theory, which persists, will always persist, is a resistance to "the use of language about language." It removes language from its unmarked center as an unquestioned arbiter of meaning and sees it as a contingent, culturally constructed phenomenon.

The Times obit carries the headline "wrote with style." The implication is that style is always the marker of clarity and concision, that it is transparent, that it carries meaning across from writer to reader without the need to question the mode of conveyance. But true style is predicated on difficulty. It is the force of originality bending language, doing violence to it, re-inventing and exploiting its full resources. It as much as about endarkenment as enlightenment.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Poetics of Failure, Part 2

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."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Matter & Spirit

For the spiritual tradition of the west, matter has largely been viewed as something to be contained and regulated; dangerous, shifty, unstable, and prone to regressive tendencies. It is to be infused and uplifted by spirit, transformed and made over till it glows. But this top-down, Platonist approach is also responsible for much of the hostile and oppositional attitudes that have everywhere degraded both the bodies of others, especially women, as well as the environment. Its legitimacy is summed up by the proto-Enlightenment pronouncement of Bacon that Nature is to be subdued.

Following Foucault’s remark that it’s been the body that’s been trapped inside the soul all this time and not the other way around, we might ask ourselves: what if the real goal of spirit is not, as we have for so long imagined, to descend into and animate an intransigent material world? What if instead it is matter that must come to the aid of spirit? What if spirit is that which stands in need of being redeemed?

It is not enough, of course, merely to reverse the binary. Any provocations on behalf of matter must be made with a view toward locating what is oppositional within its own logic while at the same time holding the idea of spirit, that is to say, form, in tension; not collapsing it into a straw man.

Such a shift stands behind Tim Morton’s bold notion of an “ecology without nature.” A liberating dissolution of binaries that would free us from the tyranny of the mind/nature split. The turn toward immanence is a call to re-envision the role earth and the body play in making a sense of the sacred possible. And what is the sacred, in this sense, if not the ever renewable potential of that-which-is-possible. I often think of Swift’s wry quatrain, which Yeats quotes in his preface to A Vision:

Matter, wise logicians say,
Cannot without a form subsist.
But form, say I as well as they,
Must fail if matter bring no grist.

It is that delightful and untranslatable English word, “grist,” which provides the hinge here. Spirit’s grist, to be effectual at all, must become embodied. It must come down to earth, as DH Lawrence knew, and be enflamed by the eros of matter. Enter Marcuse and all the angels of the poor, singing.