Poetics and the manifesto
On Pierre Joris and Adrian Clarke
The writings writers write about writing have been curiously misread.
Battling the impossibility of being their own readers, writers are drawn to fuzzy logic when it comes to thinking and externalizing their thinking about the purpose, activity, outcomes, and future of writing that results in text that can be unstable in a variety of ways, and is sometimes difficult to read. However, there is enough commonality among these writings to group them as members of a discourse, one called ‘poetics,’ and a prospective study of poetics is most revealingly conducted using examples that orient themselves in form, towards form, and that reveal themselves as hybrid and playful, fragmented or highly formal.
I want to draw a distinction between poetics and manifestos, to crystallize the nature of each. Manifestos may contain poetics, but poetics itself is a more mercurial discourse: speculative, conjectural, and provocative, suggestive of formal possibilities for the art practice concerned. Mary Ann Caws helps to clarify this discrimination: “As if defining a moment of crisis, the manifesto generally proclaims what it wants to oppose, to leave, to defend, to change. Its oppositional tone is constructed of againstness.” This ‘tone’ is absent from poetics, where, as Stephen Romer reminds us, “we find … a profound reserve before the fact of poetry, and a refusal to be dogmatic.” There may be, of course, provocation in its exhortations; poetics provokes artistic innovation or progression.
Donald Wesling, on the other hand, asserts that “poetics resides largely in the more strident form of the manifesto.” However, his characterization of manifesto poetics since modernism is illustrative, in that he balances what I call the conjectural and speculative nature of poetics against what Caws particularizes as the combative tone of the manifesto:
The manifestos are histrionic and heuristic. They dare and supplicate the reader as they project into the future a schedule and strategy for personal work. And if, for the writer, they define a field of action, for the reader they afford a gesture of solidarity, suggesting what lenses are necessary for appreciation of the work. Thus to read these productions in a univocal way, to be insulted by them, or to disregard them completely as oversimplifications, is to misunderstand their nature. (104)
Misreading poetics as a unified or simple discourse (as underdeveloped literary criticism, for example) is to miscomprehend the complexity and doubleness of the discourse, its incompleteness, its mercurial nature, its often teasing relationship to the originating writer’s (or writers’) literary productions. But Wesling strikes a false note, despite his nuanced description, when he considers the role of the reader. Manifestos, he says, “are in fact clues, historical and methodological study guides to aid us in our task of reading” (104). This attitude colludes with what Jerome J. McGann calls the “ideological imaginary,” the process by which “literary criticism too often likes to transform the critical illusions of poetry into the worshipped truths of culture.” By analogy or extension, the speculations of poetics fall prey to a similar petrifying assimilation in Wesling’s description: it is utilized as a “lens” to “appreciate” the resultant work, not seen as cultural work in its own right.
I will proceed with the premise that the only good reasons to show and share a poetics are if it assists in the definition of literariness or if it is of any practico-theoretical use for other practitioners. Readers will perhaps one day read poetics in its own right as a performative discourse, but poetics must never become simply a ‘study guide.’ My ‘episode’ on Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetics in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, “Talk,” ends with a string of unanswered questions:
May one contest a poetics? Crudely put, can we say a poetics is wrong? … What would it mean to challenge O’Sullivan’s shamanistic borrowings as essentialist or partial? Would it matter that her “sources” date from the 1940s? … Put another way, if, as Charles Bernstein says, “The test of a poetics is the poetry and the poetic thinking that results,” are these questions pertinent at all?
I wish to address these questions by looking at Pierre Joris’s “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” (before turning to Adrian Clarke’s angry reaction to it). I will be citing chiefly the text mysteriously numbered “version 2.0b,” which was first published as an issue of Allen Fisher’s Spanner magazine in 1999. Version 4.00 is found in Joris’s 2003 collection of essays A Nomad Poetics, which differs by including interpolations by Brian Massumi. This mutating document is fully congruent with its theme, of course, but I wish to remain largely with the earlier version (the one contested by Clarke). A Nomad Poetics as a whole might be seen as an extension of this text as poetic thinking that results from the poetics.
Joris, who hails from Luxembourg, spent several years in London beginning in 1971, when he formed friendships with poets such as Lee Harwood and Allen Fisher. He edited the ambitious journal Sixpack and continued to write original poems and translations between his four languages: Lëtzebuergesch, French, German, and English. He lived in Algeria for three years before a long-term return to the US, where he had already lived in 1967 and where he is currently domiciled. When he coedited the two-volume Poems for the Millennium anthologies in the late 1990s with Jerome Rothenberg, he was jointly responsible for the fact that at least J. H. Prynne, Bob Cobbing, Allen Fisher, John Cayley, and Maggie O’Sullivan from the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry movements appear in the second volume of this transnational anthology. (I have praised this anthology in a poetics essay of my own, “The End of the Twentieth Century,” as “a loose-leaf anti-canon of World Wide investigative poetries”; I also comment that “Anthologizing is poetics,” emphasizing the constitutive value of the process and its product.)
Joris’s own remarks in “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” on the editorial process with the veteran anthologist Rothenberg make it clear that the anthology is at the heart of a nomadic poetics and should be seen as “a nomadology in action, an event authored by us, which means the two multitudes that Jerry & I are, plus the multiplicities the poets in the book make” (17). He quotes Deleuze and Guattari’s remark in A Thousand Plateaus that those two authors were, like Rothenberg and Joris, “Each of us … several, there was already quite a crowd” (17). The famous “treatise” on nomadology in that book is the source for Joris’s assertion that “A nomadic poetics is a war machine, always on the move, always changing, morphing, moving through languages, cultures, terrains, times without stopping” (17). Deleuze and Guattari argue that, unlike the migrant, the nomad (who operates at both a literal and metaphorical level in their argument) deterritorializes, holds to a purely relational sense of the earth as ground, as passage. As opposed to the static military bodies of the State, the nomad (and his mobile war machine) is “itinerant, ambulant,” following (rather than representing) “a flow in a vectoral field” (372); “they are vectors of deterritorialization” that refuse to reterritorialize, unlike the migrant who simply settles elsewhere (382). The spaces they traverse are therefore “smooth,” while the geopolitical divisions of the state result in borders, striations. Deleuze had earlier written of nomadology: “There is no longer a division of that which is distributed but rather a division among those who distribute themselves in an open space — a space that is unlimited, or at least without precise limits.” Many of the US and British poets in the Millennium anthology have often had to organize themselves, operating with a self-distributive sense of literary function — arranging their own networks of publication, for example — against the readymade distributed literary tradition or canon. They perhaps are the “nomads-by-choice” mentioned in Joris’s epigraph in “Notes” from Allen Fisher (2). To these notions, as Joris freely adapts Deleuzoguattarian concepts, he adds qualities of mutability that extend into one of his own poetic concerns: translation.
There is no doubting the stridency of Joris’s ambitions for his twenty-nine-page “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics.” It takes on many of the characteristics of the manifesto and echoes one major art manifesto of modernism. Caws reminds us that “The manifesto is by nature a loud genre, immodest and forceful, exuberant and vivid, attention-grabbing” (xx). She adds: “Immediate and urgent, it never mumbles, is always in overdose and overdrive” (xxi). But Joris also assimilates quieter deterritorialized modes of contemporary poetics, ones that often mime or merge into the poetry that is envisaged. Indeed, Joris has invented the hybrid category of the “manifessay” to describe his text, to reflect his deflection of the manifestic impulse into the poetics essay form. It is indeed made up of “notes,” a form which suggests provisionality, and the “towards” of the title suggests nomadic preference for events of becoming over states of being. Often aphoristic and elliptically allusive, with quotations from poems and other documents, its final pages present a translation from a pre-Islamic ode by Tarafah, “the most modern, rebel of the nomad poets, an early Rimbaud,” according to Joris. Joris’s interest in Arabic and Maghrebian poetry concretises the metaphor of nomadism, makes it literal as well as theoretical. Like much poetics, his hybrid text borrows, steals, and distorts his sources and influences. At times this can be vertiginous, even obfuscating, as when he grafts onto nomadism the Situationist concept of drift, the willed pointlessness of the dérive, so beloved of the psychogeographer, although the point he is making — the “ever more displaced drifting” of language itself — is a pertinent one (3). There is a world of difference between the lines of flight of actual nomads — say, the purposeful, economical tracking between oases — and the deliberate and often delirious abandon of the psychogeographer.
The proliferation of concepts is a Deleuzoguattarian technique — indeed, this activity defines their philosophy — and the development of novel borrowings and neologisms can be observed in many poetics documents. Joris’s “manifessay” does not disappoint, indeed may be largely read through them. To call the nomadic poet a “Noet” is not just a neologistic contraction. It implies a rejection of the place-bound poetics in favour of a space-determined sense of nomadic movement. “There is no difference between inside & outside at the poem’s warp speed,” Joris promises, though it is difficult to relate this to specific textual practices (6). However, this is generally congruent with the views of one contemporary geographer, Doreen Massey, who conceives of space narratively and dynamically as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far,” or as communal Deleuzoguattarian “co-eval becomings,” as she puts it, although Joris does not refer to her work. In fact, he prefers to develop the associative implications of his neologism. “NOET: NO stands for play, for no-saying & guerrilla war techniques,” he writes in a grand refusal, eliding the Deleuzoguattarian war machine with a distantly romanticized sense of guerrilla warfare (“Notes,” 7). Ancient knowledges are hinted at in “gNOsis” and modern ones in “Noetics,” but again, the collocations are vitiated by lack of detail (“noetic” operates also as an adjective from the Greek, nous).
However, there is one citable example: John Cayley’s Indra’s Net. “The nomad poet, the NOET, gives allegiance to INDRA the warrior god,” Joris states, quoting Deleuze and Guattari on Hindu deity Indra as a “pure and immeasurable multiplicity” before he presents Cayley’s description of his cyberpoem: it is mediated through an ever-changing screen of words morphing between languages (13). In essence, the technological advances in cybernetics are applauded by Joris and embraced by Cayley because of programmable media’s ability to generate a mutating textual entity that the reader may operate and — more radically — enter in order to change, so that one copy of the text eventually will be quite different from any other, a true “plastic literary object,” in Cayley’s words (14). Here we have a literal example of “the nomadic poem as ongoing & open-ended chart of the turbulent fluxes the dispersive nature of our realities make inevitable,” though it is worth questioning whether this does not simply amount to a close representation of chaotic and fractal reality rather than an intervention in it (14).
Joris, of course, is not offering cyberpoetics as the only mode for the noet. Elsewhere, he becomes relatively specific about the process of becoming a noet: “The NOET learns & then writes in foreign languages (real or made-up ones) in order to come to the realization that all languages are foreign” (16). As “mother tongue” morphs into “other tongue” through yet more wordplay, language becomes a drifting substance, “consonants” like “continents,” he says. Everything is flux, it seems.
However, Joris does develop a principle of rest and pause: ‘poasis.’ Collocated from the words poem and oasis, and hinting at the poesis from which we name poetics itself, poases are the “refuelling halts” that are necessary for the paths of flight of nomadic writing to be achieved: “They last a night or a day, the time of the poem, & then move on” (3). Joris has ancient authority for this neologism. The tenth-century Sufi term mawqif is modulated through the poetics of the contemporary Tunisian poet Abdelwahab Meddeb, whom Joris has translated, and Joris refashions the term in “his poetics in order to define what the poem is: The mawqif is the pause, the stop-over, the rest, the stay of the wanderer between two moments of movement, two runs, two sites, two places, two states” (17). Thus formulated, the term implies “between-ness as essential nomadic condition,” a condition of not digging down into the territory, but of being strung above it between two points, paradoxically at rest and in transit (6). Thus the poem is not written at rest, but is itself that restless rest, as Olson realized decades ago when he asked: “How to dance / sitting down” (and which Joris quotes approvingly; 18). It is a moment of simultaneous recreation and creation, an exfoliation of poetic potentiality without having roots or taking root. It is “en route.” It is a “moving placement on a smooth space,” to quote Joris in Deleuzoguattarian mode; “it is a (momentary) stance in relation to & with space,” precisely part of the rhizomatic potential of lines of nomadic flight, which, as always, hovers between the literal and the metaphorical. In Nomadic Poetics,Joris reminds us about ancient forms of flight: “This hajara is an exile, but not an exodus, that is to say it is not a flight in search of a goal, a promised land, a telos that would reinscribe all the more forcefully all the lost identities, the unities of the individual, group or state.” In a related essay in the 2003 volume, we find a description of one technique of nomadic poetics. He notes of Picasso’s poetry its
complete obliteration of punctuation marks. This gives his poems the feel of a wide open field, a smooth, non-striated space, or blocks of space, through or along which one can travel unchecked, free to choose one’s own moment of rest, free to create one’s own rhythms of reading. (118)
Effects similar to those achieved by Cayley’s morphing screen are visible on Picasso’s page.
It might seem odd that the central historical figure of European twentieth-century modernism is taken as exemplar of the nomadic “poetics for today and open on tomorrow,” but one of the ironies of poetics is that it has to predicate the future upon the examples of the past. Indeed, Joris inventories what he refuses to jettison from twentieth-century art as he embraces futurity. Among others he wants to keep Burroughs’s exploration of inner states, Dorn’s and Olson’s explorations of space (rather than place), Nathaniel Mackey’s sense of “the imperfect fit of word and world,” Pound’s inclusion of history in the poem, the syntactical play of Gertrude Stein, and the drawing-poems of Henri Michaux, all of which may be found in Poems for the Millennium (31). Version 4.00 of the “notes” includes a passage on Allen Fisher. Joris comments: “We will take the whole of the new century to finally read Allen Fisher’s vast investigation into all our knowledges, the great serial constructive dérive hecalls Gravity as a Consequence of Shape.” When Joris informs us — though latterly Joris has informed me that this is a joke — that “59 pages of commentaries have been deleted” we might feel thankful for this (!) and for his 1999 summary: “From the 20C we will retain everything — in memory. We will forget nothing and we will forgive nothing.” This ethical note, Joris’s refusal of Christian forgiveness, emerges from the sense of our having passed through an era about which one might say, with Muriel Rukeyser, “I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane.”
“Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” opens with a bold but generalized statement, in which we can read both Deleuzoguattarian intent and political judgement:
The days of anything static, form, content, state are over. The past century has shown that anything not involved in continuous transformation hardens and dies. All revolutions have done just that: those that tried to deal with the state as much as the state of poetry.
While the equivalence of the “state of poetry” and the political state may seem rhetorical, the political and ethical imperative is strongly felt if not sharply delineated. The implications of this are far-reaching into the political realm; if the “two major modes of poesis” in the twentieth century involved “love (eros) & strife (nike),” then in the future they will operate as elements of the “stasis that makes movement,” as minor deviations (Joris introduces the Lucretian-Oulipean term ‘clinamen’) in “a world where accident is rule,” as Joris puts it in a poem of his own which he includes here (4–5). We need continuous transformation.
But his final word — he calls it “the fin mot” — incongruously occurs on page 6 rather than at the end of the document and is a quotation from Paul Celan. Joris is one of Celan’s distinguished translators, and it is almost inevitable that any ethical understanding of utterance should turn to this austere and subtle poetic thinker. Joris’s central borrowing from Celan is the umambiguous assertion “Reality is not. It has to be searched for and won.” “Replace ‘reality’ with ‘poetry’ or ‘millennium,’” Joris suggests: “Poetry is not. It has to be searched for and won” by the very nomadic poetic war machine that is described throughout this poetics. “Celan’s phrase,” Joris remarks, “is the quest, as it includes the critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ — & of the whole specular natures of our mis-takes on the real.” This, like other parts of the document, attempts to synthesize too much, but it suggests that Celan’s thinking is a site of resistance to late global capitalism as theorized by Guy Debord and others; that it offers hope of discovering an alternative “reality” (and alternative “poetry,” and new “millennium,” through Joris’s suggested substitutions.)
The millennium has to be searched for and won, and perhaps it is too early to see whether Joris’s millennial poetics will become — as it clearly intends to be — more than simply the thinking behind his own poetic practice or as part of his translation theory, and become part of a zeitgeist poetics. (As we shall see, it is this latter ambition that causes some disquiet.) Certainly in the era after September 11, Joris, as one who translates from Arabic, is well placed “where we have to start to think a new cultural constellation that will, finally, have to include the heritage of the excluded third — Islam & Arab culture.”
Such poetics needs to be searched for and won, too. Joris’s bold attempt to synthesize twentieth-century modernisms, his neologistic play, his playing off of rhetorics of movement against rhetorics of interruption and rest, his ethical appropriations of Celan, and finally his attempt to produce a poetics in serial and branching versions, point to the vitality of his speculative discourse, which situates itself neither within the confines of criticism nor within the extensions of artistic practice (for which they may prove of variable utility).
Adrian Clarke is a British Linguistically Innovative poet who emerged, in many ways, under the sign of Allen Fisher, whose poetics essay Necessary Business laid the groundwork for more general poetic experiment in the post-1978 era. I have written about Clarke’s work elsewhere, and about his poetics, which largely consists of papers (often delivered to the SubVoicive Colloquia of the early 1990s) that he provocatively published in single volumes with his poetry in a refusal to separate his poetics from poems.Most noteworthy is his adoption of a poetics of the phrase, derived from a reading of Lyotard, whereby abutted phrases avoid grammatical and syntactic cohesion and semantic coherence in a way that keeps the discourse open; on the other hand he adopts modes of word count (derived from the example of Louis Zukofsky) that create stanza shapes of great formal austerity, so that he can play floating phrases against mathematical form, utilizing enjambment to the full. Difficult to demonstrate in excerpt, Clarke’s Skeleton Sonnets (2002, revised and republished in Possession: Poems 1996–2006) evince a combative approach to the global that represents capitalist media and power as obsessed with speed rather than mawqif, a world of threatening connections rather than one of cross-cultural fertilization (or “mated frames”):
global eroded celebrity spells it
out with a black
and white Head
Office module in close
choice of auto
once on the running
board at the speed of receipts
One of Clarke’s poetics documents contains a partial critique of Joris’s “Notes,” and is published in Skeleton Sonnets. It is entitled “Introduction in the Form of an Open Letter to Robert Sheppard on Exile, Nomads & the Demon”; the appearance of my name requires an explanation. The occasion of Clarke’s “letter” was my poetics prose poem “The End of the Twentieth Century,” which is one of the core poetics documents of my millennial project Twentieth Century Blues. Much of Clarke’s letter speaks from his projects (the sonnets particularly and his own millennial sequence “Millennial Shades”) to my project, but at various points he strays into potting a shot or two over the bows of Joris’s millennial poetics, and it is largely towards these remarks I direct my attention.
As noted earlier, “The End of the Twentieth Century” praises the anthology Joris coedited, Poems for the Millennium, as poetics in selective action. By making of it “a prospectus of reading,” I say, “I have constructed a twentieth century more generous than that given to me, to give to others, into the next” (346). Severer than I, Clarke will have none of it, and he tells me why:
I have difficulty both with “ethnopoetics” as copyrighted by Messrs Rothenberg and Joris, inasfar as I grasp its rationale, and with your enthusiasm for their anthology … if not for some of the work collected there. My problem is that the translations … lose much of the strangeness we might value in the source texts as they are accommodated on a plateautude of AGIT-PROP strung with dead International Surrealist light-bulbs.
Clarke suspects that the Deleuzoguattarian planarity operates in order to level the work presented until it flattens out into an unproblematic and homogenized international avant-garde mode; ethnopoetic oral texts are presented as the equivalent of Dada sound poetry, for example. Rather than being released nomadically, these texts are de- and recontextualized, losing their otherness, their formal power. “To translate is, of course, to welcome the work as an other into the same, to transform it from the foreign to the familiar,” Derek Attridge says; “but in doing so, if its otherness and singularity are respected — if, that is, the translation is inventive — the field into which it is welcomed is also transformed in the process.” Clarke suspects that otherness and singularity are suppressed in favour of vampiric assimilation of the other in the service of a single line of argument.
Clarke attacks Joris’s poetics head on: “Facile notions like … nomadic (cyber)poetics … fill me with rage and despair … Or at times a reluctant cynicism” (3). After praising the direct action of the demonstrators at the Seattle World Trade talks, Clarke will have no truck with what he sees as an easy utopianism of connectivity in nomadic poetics. He sees “circulation” as a “key term” in debates about political power, rather than “drift” (2). He tells me:
Joris’s appropriation of the dérive subjects it to an accelerating and “ever more displaced drifting.” Noting the [Situationist] movement’s immediate preference for backstreet labyrinths, underground passageways and houses due for demolition … Vincent Kaufmann remarks of the project Situationist hanging city above its ground-level transportation systems: “Circulation is to take place below the space of everyday life. …” (6)
Thus it seems to Clarke that possibilities of guerrilla action in the sewers of culture, as it were, beneath the level of “everyday life” eulogized by Henri Lefebvre and others, are denied by Joris’s apparent sunny armchair dérive and its faith in technology. Joris, we are told, “waits for the caravan (No more oasis stops needed, boys — metaphoric or otherwise!) to a mathematical plurality in the Electronic Millennium” represented in part by John Cayley’s e-poetry (5). Clarke’s bad-tempered charges expose a danger that the free synthesizing of Joris’s poetics may end up entangled in its own complexity, the mawqif swiftly swapped for the latest poetic fashion.
Joris is no less uncivil in his “Open Letter in Response to Adrian Clarke’s,” which is included in his 2003 book A Nomad Poetics. He tellingly flings the same term of abuse back at Clarke: “facile” (139). He responds to Clarke’s poetics as “your rather facile strictures re ‘dematerialized is immaterial’ which you tease out of Bruce Andrews’s reflections on materiality and graphic immediacy” — which is an accurate description of Clarke’s own poetics, but he adds that this is “maybe pointing out the sleek anorexia of his/your signifieds” (139). It is odd that he says “signifieds,” where one might expect the word signifiers, since Joris is referring to what he describes elsewhere in “Open Letter” as the “trap” of US Language poetry that “runs the risk of remaining stuck exactly … in linguistic auto-referentiality”; he assumes Clarke’s slavish adherence to this poetics or to this simplified critique of its poetics (100). Clarke’s practice, while estranged and difficult, is nevertheless referential, however much it dematerializes its substance and makes its materials immaterial. One of his “Eurochants” of 2010, a sequence which displays a plurilingual internationalism to rival Joris’s, opens with a line which clearly equates the emptiness of New Labour/business school rhetoric with Joris’s central concept, which he presents in scare quotes: “blue skies thinking ‘nomadic.’”
In fact, Clarke’s probing makes Joris more specific about the ethics of his position. Sensing that Clarke suspects him of complicity with theories of postmodernity that demand ever-accelerated speed instead of finding a fixed position from which to mount critique — the mawqif might serve this function — Joris declares that there is no home to return to in language, and that “being” and “dwelling,” Heideggerian terms seemingly valorized by Clarke, are tainted with the fascism his “manifessay” warns us is capable of a strange and powerful return in the new millennium; “being” itself can dangerously serve to aggrandize the self and belittle the other. We are condemned to this unethical position “until we become nomadic, until ‘becoming’ is what we want.” Joris admits that “the enemy (late global capitalism) has been thinking nomadically for a long time,” an assertion that could damage his claims for nomadology as it elides with Clarke’s loathed “blue skies thinking,” but as his attitude to the uses of the internet and e-poetry demonstrates, he envisages using that techno-power against itself (137). Clarke’s stridency on this point in his piece allows Joris to regard him, wrongly, as a technophobe; “simply tuning out is not a solution” (137). Joris suspects “sedentariness” might be an affliction of the British, and assumes a native poetics resistant to poetry’s true “desire to feel everywhere estranged, out of touch/in reach with the other — out of house and home” (140). Clarke is one of the most adventurous and self-estranged of British poets and writers of poetics, but taking sides at this point does not enrich our understanding of conflictual poetics.
Neither of these poets reaches out to the other. Their mutual “perplexity,” an account of which Joris uses to open his letter, is more telling than the actual exchanges, the incomprehension more eloquent than any connection one might elaborate in an attempt to show a relationship of poetics, let alone a fellowship of poets. Neither sees the other’s position, but this is not just a lack of clarity or charity but something that reveals a fundamental characteristic of poetics itself.
The hybrid forms of poetics, its mercurial qualities, militate against it being considered fully a discourse in the specific sense intended by Foucault, although there are enough shared characteristics for it to be regarded as a weak form of discourse. Poetics lacks what Foucault claims as necessary conditions, or effects, for strong forms of discourse: institutions, founding figures of discursivity, originating concepts, principles of recognition and validation — and especially principles of verification and falsification. This lack of conditions, in the case of poetics, I would argue, is fundamentally productive. The nature, or natures, of poetics, in the present examples, seems to support the case that it desires to resist finality of statement: Clarke is gnomically aphoristic, where Joris is expansive and manifestic, but he still claims the provisional status of “notes.” Indeed, it is this combination that makes me uneasy when I consider Joris’s text as a whole. When I think about its parts I am less concerned; for example, his notion of the ‘poasis’ speaks to both my criticism and my poetics. The document teems with good ideas and beneficent attitudes for the contemporary poet but, despite its fragmentary and deterritorializing forms, it approaches the assumed authority of the manifesto; as a fractured totality it is still loud, as Caws would say (even when it is loud with self-deprecating laughter).
Poets, eternal optimists in this sense, trust that poetics might prove the last word (if only to themselves); they treat a provisional position as though it were a theoretical absolute (if only to produce the latest text or brave a creative crisis). But deep inside they know that the fixity is — to borrow Joris’s vocabulary — but an oasis on a long journey of continual transformation: compulsive nomadism, a compulsory “becoming” that steers “continuous transformation.” Joris’s global assertion — itself a deliberate echo of Breton’s rhetorical final sentence in his surrealist novel-manifesto Nadja — that “the millennium will be nomadic or it will not be” is predictive and absolute. It leaves little room for dissent, or possibly even for poetics as a developing practice of paradigm-breaking “becoming,” an unintended consequence of its manifestic “overdose and overdrive.” Already as the twenty-first century crashes on, the irruptive poetics of conceptual writing offers a resistance to many cherished notions of literary postmodernity. It will be interesting to see if nomadic poetics can encompass its assaults on originality, aesthetic facility, and readerly fascination (through work which is breezily derivative, deliberately repetitive and excruciatingly and/or exquisitely boring). One of its central characteristics is also to reverse the relationship between poetics and product: its poetics is often more important than its work; the poetics in a sense is the work. Conceptual writing may offer a victory for poetics that it might have to resist.
The dispute between Joris and Clarke suggests that while there may be debate over some of the terms of poetics, while one poetics may wholly or partly contradict another, or for that matter partly or wholly confirm another (where its terms are expressed propositionally), a poetics as a whole cannot be successfully contested (the more so it includes aesthetic, hybrid, formally nonpropositional or gestural moments) because there is uncertainty about the grounds of the contest. Poetics’ purposes may be practical as well as theoretical; it might provoke or conjecture as much as it argues, and it may gesture or demonstrate as much as propose, leaving epistemological indeterminacy. “Statements” in poetics often have contextual, fiduciary currency. Poetics’ terms are provisional, modified by experience (or influenced by the practice of art-making that is beyond its own terms or scope, but which it provokes). Formally it might defamiliarize content. I am not trying to exalt the discourse of poetics, to position it on an inviolable plane of expression, like a starlet hoisted above the chorus girls at the climax of a musical. This is not a question of discursive purity but of the various impurities found in what is best thought of, pace Foucault, as a weak form of discourse. It is a jostling crowd rather than a debating society, let alone a legislature.
Lyotard developed the concept of the differend to account partly for the situation of incommunicability between two arguments, conducted in two different language games, a contest for which there is no final, higher tribunal. Perhaps something like this — I emphasise my simile — pertains between examples and modalities of poetics (though I do not wish to push the discourse too far into Lyotard’s specific arguments). Because of its forms and functions, overstating cases, understating cases, not stating cases at all, offering thumbnails rather than blueprints, and often demonstrating through formal means, it is rare to find an actual argument between poetics, but not unknown to find mutual incompatibility that verges on incommunicability between artists. The mutual incomprehension of Joris and Clarke may be the effect of their attempting to answer poetics (in all its formal and contentual variety) with argument. In Lyotard’s post-Wittgensteinian terms, they are playing incommensurable language games. It may be possible now to see why it is difficult to contest, or impossible to refute, a poetics. (One is always free to choose whether to use it or not, of course, but that is a different, probably more important, question relating to praxis and poesis.) Refutation is what Clarke is attempting in his “Open Letter,” as is Joris, to a lesser extent, in his response. Joris’s exasperation at Clarke at one point breaks down into his simple request that Clarke reread the original document; it is as though he possessed no new terms to persuade Clarke further, could offer no new moves in the language games of poetics. Stalemate! They are left “to register a differend,” an admirable term used by Clarke himself elsewhere in his poetics. If we remind ourselves, in the words of Richard Rorty, that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change,” we shall see that the survival of poetics depends upon the registering of differences, on paradigm-breaking, not upon the provision of paradigmatic organizing principles, the accumulation of universals or discursive legislation. All poetics is nomadic.
1. See an early version of my The Necessity of Poetics in Pores here.
9. In addition to published sources by Joris, see his ongoing Nomadic Poetics blog.
10. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, Poems for the Millennium: Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Robert Sheppard, Complete Twentieth Century Blues (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008), 345–46.
23. Adrian Clarke, Millennial Shades and Three Papers (London: Writers Forum, 1998). See the chapter “Creative Linkage in the Work of Allen Fisher, Adrian Clarke, and Ulli Freer in the 1980s and 1990s” in Robert Sheppard, The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), 203–8; and the similar “Colossal Fragments: the Work of Adrian Clarke” in Robert Sheppard, Far Language (Exeter: Stride Research Document, 1999), 45–50.
30. Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,” 1 and 29. The quotation is “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”: Andre Breton, Nadja (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 160. See Caws, Manifesto, xxi.
31. Lyotard’s The Differend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) is a troubling volume whose central concept is illuminating and useful at times. The book is suggestive — Adrian Clarke has found it so, even as he misread ‘phrase’ literally in his concoction of a constructivist poetics — more than it is coherent.