MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Poetry’s “Thereness”

William Carlos Williams: passport photo, 1921

William Carlos Williams: passport photo, 1921

In “Reading the Difficult: A new critique of the New Criticism” – an article in this month’s Poetry magazine – Peter Quartermain reflects on the confounding “simplicity” of the kinds of poems that the New Critics disdained. With all their armory of explication de texte, interpretive analysis, and scansion exercises, they were at a loss when confronted with poems that don’t “care whether you are puzzled or not” but simply exist as “an event, and you can join it, take part in, or not.”

Especially in the case of the short poems of William Carlos Williams, there is an “implacability in the language that resists both paraphrase and explication. The language is so spare, the details so sparse, the statement so stubbornly there before the reader, uncompromising, that the reader’s knowledge cannot intervene, cannot interfere with the poem; indeed it renders that knowledge irrelevant, the poem open.”

Quartermain goes on to discuss the paradox of poets who “demand that we respond to the poem, to the language of the poem, as a what is, a thereness, a something outside.”

They ask us to recognize in the poem’s facticity what Giorgio Agamben calls the irreparable: “that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being.” Yet once we have read the poem, indeed as we read it, it inescapably moves within us, is within us, and in this the poem is like the world in which we move, which moves us, and is in us whether we are conscious of that or not. Our condition in language, our condition as language animals, is irremediable, irreparable. It is beyond “repair,” and doesn’t permit (presuming we want it) the perfect reading [the New Critics] sought, in which we all acquiesce and are of one mind, “completely” understanding one another. We are inside and outside at the same time, irreparably.

This opens up a rich perspective for thinking about the Modernist preoccupation with originality, with making it new (“Kinder, schafft Neues!”) – and not just in poetry, but in theater, music, the visual arts. Each of the poets Quartermain considers “posits language as a condition of the human, as 
constitutive of it, constitutive of meaning and hence necessarily of experience, inextricably part and parcel of apperception and conduct and understanding. Language is not, then, a means, nor is it, certainly, a precondition.”

And the poem? Maurice Blanchot, perhaps echoing Celan, thinks that the poem comes from that inexpressible place before words, from that gap between what might be the world and what might be words for what we find. Perhaps the poem comes from that odd cusp between the two sides of language, the outside and the inside that, mostly unknowingly, we inhabit. What is clear is that the poem brings into being what it says, and does not know ahead of time.

Filed under: aesthetics, poetry


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