Poetry isolation and collective clumsiness

An antonymic exploration

Maria Damon

“Poetry Communities and THE Individual Talent” — if THE individual talent is that of T. S. Eliot, then why am I here? If including the definite article is not intended by the conference organizers to actually describe anyone or anything, I can be more comfortable, but in general the antonymic is my preferred mode: isolation instead of community, collectivity instead of individuality, and clumsiness instead of talent. But “collectivity” doesn’t quite do it; it’s too purposeful and suggests focused endeavor. It might be more interesting to consider a surround of creativity, or uncreative, haphazard, epiphenomenal creativity, an environmental aura of spasmodic restlessness without clear agency, as a model for a poetics that erodes any lingering traces of Eliotic attachment to talented individualism. Although, it must be conceded that his wistfulness for disappearance into a personality-less tradition — albeit because of his overwhelming sense of personality — resonates with Michel Foucault’s (and John Keats’s and Jack Spicer’s) observation that the writer disappears into writing.

“Tradition,” by which Eliot meant the Western literary canon, has been wisely reconceived here as the folksier and pluralized “poetry communities.” There are, indeed, traditions comprising paraliterary heritage, but they are largely anonymous and hence more interesting. But the individual talent? The invidious talon? The toxic infection? Talent’s etymology alone qualifies it for suspicion, as its travel from weight to currency to penchant to giftedness solidly implicates it in the world of commodities, while Eliot’s use of the word as metonymic for “person” or “poet” overdetermines its status as alienated labor, an extraction of one appealing and desired resource from the “standing-reserve” of the populace in exchange for prestige, professional advancement, reification as a name, and so forth. 

Why resurrect this embodiment of an outmoded literary ambition almost half a century after Foucault wonders whose multiple and anonymous murmurs waft him downstream on the history of discourse? Individual talent is the corpse of the dross — Shelley or Orpheus bobbing along in the celestial stream of anonymity — solidifying on the surface of molten metal. The corpse itself is a cenotaph, marking some deeper and more diffuse locus of creative activity, until itself sinks, a Lycidas body without a place and a place without a body: in other words, a poem? The poem/object, like the individual talent, floats on unfathomable oceanic murmurs. Foucault writes:

I would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne way beyond all possible beginnings. At the moment of speaking, I would like to have perceived a nameless voice, long preceding me, leaving me merely to enmesh myself in it, taking up its cadence, and to lodge myself, when no one was looking, in its interstices … I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; … I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open … All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck. 

Is he echoing Eliot’s desire to disappear into an institutionalized discourse — tradition — without having to reckon with it as a cultural formation? Or is he yearning for a greater anonymity? I would like to think so, given that his touchstone is consistently Beckett. “What does it matter who is speaking?” asks the happy wreck floating on the boundless poem of the sea. This drunken boat is first Rimbaud and then Foucault, linked by a queer outsiderhood that is still a subject of hysterical concern even though these two figures are safely crucial to the Western cultural canon. Foucault’s voice borne along by the murmur is the individual talent floating above his antecedents, but he and Rimbaud both disavowed their individual talents — the poet by abandoning poetry and disappearing from the poetry community, Foucault both by disappearing into the community of anonymous sex and through his radically anti-individualist writing.

What can be said about this intertextual dérive, the voice of the poet as flotation device suspended above the larger poem of anonymity? In the one case, the voice is the boat, tossed and torn, delirious with its abject power, borne along the surface of the oceanic poem. It is not the poem itself, but the poet who utters the poem transcribed for our reading pleasure, though indebted to the larger, inarticulable poem, the maternal sea, for its form-shattering impulses — regardless of the nature of the tamed-down lines traced on the page. Rimbaud revels in his insignificance, but not really; his voice is that brilliance that lives to tell the tale, or dies into the murmuring language that engulfs and speaks through him.

The word murmur, through its m’s, connects la mer, the sea, and la mère, the mother; the proto-sinaitic alphabet uses the glyph for “water” to indicate the “m” sound; the M’s humps represent waves visually even as the word “murmur” onomatopoetically performs water’s trickling, rushing, or lapping at the shore, the waves forming a skirt, or a mother’s lap overlapping with dry land. Both poets know they owe their stature to anonymous antecedents, to the vast communities of word-users who go unrecognized. Foucault was committed to the complexities of non-canonical historical actors and events; Rimbaud “liked absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naive rhythms” — in other words, bad and anonymous art. Both of them owe their creative lives to the primordial slime of collective clumsiness.


Clumsiness is by far the most interesting antonym put in play by the conference’s title (even more than isolation) so it’s worth spending a little more time on it than the other, less nuanced options. The incommensurability of one’s desires and ambitions when graphed against one’s abilities is one definition of “punk” — having strong aspirations that one lacks the competence to achieve. The punk aesthetic was known for its faux-stupid affect and its rejection of technical display, its affirmation of crudeness and dissonance as positive signifiers. Punks made clumsiness cool. Can there be a clumsy poetics? As many of you know, doggerel is a favored scholarly topic for me.

Charles Bernstein:

 So be a girly man

 & sing a gurly song

 Take a gurly stand

 & dance with a girly sarong

 Adeena Karasick:

 You are a militant Islamist

 Which makes the world really pissed.

 Iggy Pop:

 Can I come over — tonight? Can I come over — tonight?

 What do you think I want to do? That’s right.

 And we will have a real cool time tonight.


This, of course, is a knowing clumsiness, one used to great effect for pathos, humor, or teenaged lust. Nonetheless, studies of stupidity (Avital Ronell), failure (Judith Halberstam), and discomfort (Sianne Ngai) have valuable lessons for poetry scholarship.

Works by individual and talented poets (who were certainly part of poetry communities) like Jack Spicer’s “The Dancing Ape” and Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” thematize isolation as well as physical or verbal clumsiness; in Spicer’s poem, the poet/ape dances clumsily around happily entwined couples, who despite their comfort in each other’s arms “feel the terror in his gait of loneliness.” The second half of the almost-sonnet wonders what might happen if one of the other creatures were to reach out to him. The final word is “kiss,” a delayed off-ryme of “loneliness.” However, just as cross-stitching, once a beginner’s activity, is now considered a quaint and precious art, Spicer perceives his own elevation through poetry, remarking in a later poem, “an ape /
Is likely (presently) to be an angel.” However, “the Dancing Ape,” an early poem (1949), is far more “improved” and craft-conscious than his later sublime stutterings. He became a better poet as his work grew clumsier, lonelier, and less invested in redemption.

Clumsy: from a Scandinavian word meaning too numbed from the cold to be able to properly coordinate one’s movements. In other words, clumsiness isn’t inherent but circumstantial. Talent, too, could be disentangled from the notion of agential individuality, and reconceived as a diffuse environmental surround. Such a concept could provoke an ecopoetics that questions the necessity for human catalytic activity. Anthropologist Stuart McLean has proposed a non-human creativity that inheres in the interactions between organic and inorganic elements that includes both human and non-human movements and activities. An interviewer in an online supplement to the journal Cultural Anthropology characterizes McLean as “[w]orking outside the Western habit of binarization that locates creativity in a lively ‘culture’ distinct from a dead ‘nature.’” In contradistinction to this stark dualism, McLean points to an “experimental, multi-agentive and pluralistic” notion of creative processes centered on “the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations.” Tellingly, it is through imaginative literature — read as poetry and storytelling, including an account of literary attention to the city of Venice — that McLean hypothesizes “the participation of human acts of imagining and fabulation in the processes shaping and transforming the material universe.” And McLean in turn cites Tim Ingold, another anthropologist, whose book, Lines: A Brief History, has much to say to poets (as well as map makers, geographers, musicologists, walkers, talkers, and so forth). Ingold argues that “materiality can be more suggestively and less anthropocentrically engaged by focusing not on objects, which are always in some sense already culturally specified, but on substances and their transformations.” In other words, the slow decay or buildup of chemical incursions on materials, the repurposing of made objects and their eventual disintegration, their long lives, from pre- to post-object or commodity status, not only instantiates a poetics but leads me also to ask, “What would the long life of a poem be, beyond the banalities of a ‘publication history’?” The etymology of each word, the graphic history of each letter, the poem’s peregrinations in every volume, in every translation, the provenance of the rags or other plant matter from which the paper was made that it was first printed on and the recycling plant it ends up in after being deascensioned from a provincial library that once had one hip librarian, the dyestuffs of the inks and their histories, and so forth ad infinitum. Because such projects are impossibly vast, they work better when left as suggestions. Cecilia Vicuña’s short film from the 1980s, What is Poetry To You?, in which she asks this question of poets as well as a variety of street people in Bogota, must inspire further versions of itself; Darren Wershler’s concept of “findables,” poetic materials that are left in their raw state rather than be transfigured by “professional” poets, promises similar unboundedness.

Clumsy is also, of course, the Yiddish-based “klutzy” which, though almost homophonic and certainly homonymous, has a different etymology, that of “klots ‘clumsy person, blockhead,’ lit. ‘block, lump,’ from M.H.G. klotz ‘lump, ball.’ Cf. Ger. klotz ‘boor, clod,’ lit. ‘wooden block’ (cf. clot). From the insensate by external conditions to the putatively insensate by nature, the lumpen stays below the low, incapable of acting on its own behalf (i.e. unuseful for any ‘revolution’).” The klutz finds her apotheosis in Charles Bernstein’s long poem “The Klupzy Girl,” in which she is so lacking that she doesn’t even merit a proper spelling of her lack. But she is the muse, the Mona Lisa, of his prodigious output, and she is an artist in her own inadequacies. I should have called this “Collective Klutziness” for its Yiddish-bundt overtones — fingers numb’d from overwork in the needle-arts/shmatte trade, labor s/heroes who died in Triangle fire and rose to make eccentric verse — .

Clumsiness as beginner’s mind rather than expert talent (referencing here Kaia Sand’s Jacket2 blog entry on inexpert investigation) as well as our earlier observations about the letter M): In thinking about the alphabet as a starting place, and in particular the doggerel that accompanies primers (“a is for apple,” etc), there’s no better place to find a display of beginner’s clumsiness than the cross-stitch sampler, which for several hundred years in Euro-American history marked a girl’s entry into semi-literate domestic labor and religious obedience. I’m sure you’ve all seen these samplers: the alphabet, a set of single-digit Arabic numerals in a few different “fonts,” perhaps a religious rhyme, a couple of birds and/or a floral wreath with a patterned border, all executed in a series of tiny or gross crosses arranged pixel-like to form the images. Initially, samplers (from exemplum, an example to be followed) comprised a variety of stitches to be used for later reference. Often they were the first thing a girl-child learned to make, though the extant samplers we now have, dating at the earliest from 1598, were made at about ages eight to fourteen. The girls’ lessons then evolved to include not only stitchery but, as noted, basic alpha-numeric and religious subjectification à la Althusser. The cross-stitch is the simplest stitch to execute, and of course it repeatedly reinscribes, in crudest simplicity, the primary symbol of virtuous self-sacrifice that is the organizing trope of Western civilization. It’s made on open-weave linen or wool cloth that makes the stitching easier: counting threads — two per stitch — ensures that the crosses will be of uniform size and hence look less clumsy. The cross is made on the diagonal, athwart the standard Cartesian grid weave of the cloth, thus suggesting some tension working against the simple x/y duality. But clumsiness underwrites the entire enterprise: simplicity, lack of coordination, the stringency of the don’t-color-outside-the-lines discipline. In its increasing obsolescence in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the necessity to hand-make and decorate cloth declined, and counted cross-stitch became, on the one hand, a leisure pursuit for middle-class European women, and on the other, a merely disciplinary, non-utilitarian training for children in orphanages: genteel servitude or brutal servitude, ornamentation or abasement … The tradition of handwork is linked, through the sampler, to traditions of literacy as an interpellative discipline. As Pat Crain points out in The Story of A, “the cross secures the alphabet’s place in institutional power, helping to embody its regimes in the child through repetitive physical gestures” (22).

More recent, non-Christic iterations of the X have emphasized erasure rather than the raised presence of the martyr’s scar on the surface of the s(k)in-tissue. Malcolm X assumes a universality through repudiation of an identity, a gesture Kamau Brathwaite echoes in his X-Self, and which invokes the many literary, cultural, and personal projects that have worked to either performatively mask, eradicate, abandon, or only partially efface a standing textual (or otherwise embodied) entity to call attention to injustice, invisibility, incompleteness, etc. as a gesture of activism or antinominianism; of autonymism, of anonymity. Ex stands for expatriate or ex-partner, exposition, exhibition, exit. It’s a cartwheel across/pinned to a griddy surface, so wrong it’s write. X’s spikes get caught in M’s diaphanous caresses, trapped in her maybe-benign web, willy-nilly, the poet tipsied about on a smooth-turbulent surface-depth.

And so forth.

Once mastered, basic alphabetic literacy combined with the easiest stitch on the coarsest material can be soothing, subtly creative, satisfying, and occasionally defiant (see Hester Prynne, poet and artist). The current “subversive cross-stitch” trend, like the “stitch and bitch” trend, isn’t really subversive in any politically or culturally meaningful way, but as anonymous girly stuff of the first order, it is potentially poetic. Plus it’s a supremely sociable activity.

In an agonal chiasmus disguised as a happy ending, girls learning to make patriarchal Xs and boys happily drowning in maternal Ms find that their activities overlap in the expanse of Anonymous’s capacious body — in her lap, where they sit for hours absorbing the voice that is poetry to them.

Appendix I

The Dancing Ape
Jack Spicer

The dancing ape is whirling round the beds

 Of all the coupled animals; they, sleeping there

 In warmth of sex, observe his fur and fuss

 And feel the terror in his gait of loneliness.

 Quaint though the dancer is, his furry fists

 Are locked like lightning over all their heads.

 His legs are thrashing out in discontent

 As if they were the lightning’s strict embodiment.

 But let the dancing stop, the apish face go shut in sleep,

 The hands unclench, the trembling legs go loose —

 And let some curious animal bend and touch that face

 With nuzzling mouth, would not the storm break

 And that ape kiss?


Appendix II (from Online Etymology Dictionary)

lap (n.)
O.E. læppa (pl. læppan) “skirt or flap of a garment,” from P.Gmc. *lapp- (cf. O.Fris. lappa, O.S. lappo, M.Du. lappe, Du. lap, O.H.G. lappa, Ger. Lappen “rag, shred,” O.N. leppr “patch, rag”), from PIE root *leb- “be loose, hang down.” Sense of “lower part of a shirt” led to that of “upper legs of seated person” (c.1300). Used figuratively (“bosom, breast”) from late 14c.; e.g. lap of luxury, first recorded 1802. From 15c.–In 17c. the word (often in plural) was a euphemism for “female pudendum,” but this is not the source of lap dance, which is first recorded 1993.

lap (v.1)
“take up liquid with the tongue,” from O.E. lapian “to lap up, drink,” from P.Gmc. *lapajanan (cf. O.H.G. laffen “to lick,” O.S. lepil, Du. lepel, Ger. Löffel “spoon”), from PIE imitative base *lab- (cf. Gk. laptein “to sip, lick,” L. lambere “to lick”), indicative of licking, lapping, smacking lips. Meaning “splash gently” first recorded 1823, based on similarity of sound. Related: Lapped; lapping.

lap (v.2)
“to lay one part over another,” early 14c., “to surround (something with something else),” from lap (n.). Figurative use, “to envelop (in love, sin, desire, etc.)” is from mid-14c. The sense of “to get a lap ahead (of someone) on a track” is from 1847, on notion of “overlapping.” The noun in this sense is 1670s, originally “something coiled or wrapped up;” meaning “a turn around a track” (1861) also is from this sense. Related: Lapped; lapping; laps.