Commentaries - August 2012

Poetics: further reading

from Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures

ed.  David Nicholls, published by the MLA
3d edition, 2007

This is the "Further Reading" supplement to my "Poetics" essay in the volume. The main part of my contribution is collected in
Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions as "Professing Poetics. 

I wrote this in 2006 and have not updated or revised it. The history and bibliography are highly condensed due to the space restrictions of the printed volume; so what I  was able offer was no more than a brief sketch of possibilities and directions, with  much elided. 

For the long history of Western poetics any short list is bound to be reductive and misleading; still, anthologies such as Hazard Adams’s Critical Theory Since Plato offer a good start, though, for poetics, it would be better to begin not with Plato but with  Heraklitus, who already offers a response to Plato’s banishment of poetics from the ideal republic. Even the quickest tour of the Western canon of poetics would include stops for Longinus and Lucretius, apologies for poetry by Philip Sydney and Percy Shelley, William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s William Blake, William Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, alongside Lautréamont’s Les chants de Maldoror and that still-burning torch, Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying. On the American side, Edgar Allen Poe’s Philosophy of Literary Composition and Emily Dickinson’s letters[i] complement Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
            The long twentieth century, begins, for poetics, in France, with Stephane Mallarmé’s “Crisis in Verse” and “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument,” but at the same time, for the Americas, in Cuba, with Jose Marti’s “Our America.” This is not the place to map out the vibrant field of European or Latin American, much less a global poetics, apart from noting the extraordinary significance for American poetics of works by Paul Valéry, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Danielle Collbert, and Edmond Jabés in France; Paul Celan, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin, in whatever country of the mind we want to claim for them; Velimir Khlebnikov in Russia; Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, and Allen Fisher in Great Britain; Nicholas Guillén and José Lezama Lima in Cuba;  Haroldo de Campos in Brazil; Alejandra Pizarnik and Oliverio Girondo in Argentina; César Vallejo in Perú; Aimé Césaire, Eduard Glissant, and Kamau Brathwaite in the Caribbean; and Leopold Senghor in Senegal.[ii]
            Considering just North America, and the United States in particular, fundamental contributions to poetics were made by a number of modernists, including Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T. S.  Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein, whose “Composition as Explanation” is a foundational work of  modernist poetics. Somewhat later, consider also Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Anarchism Is Not Enough and The Telling; Louis Zukofksy’s Prepositions, and the essays of Langston Hughes and Mina Loy. The context for this work is provided by two very useful collections, not of poetics, but of artists’ writings and manifestos, Art in Theory, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, and Manifesto: A Century of Isms, edited by Mary Ann Caws. Melissa Kwasny’s new anthology Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800-1950 also provides many key texts.  
            During the years following the second world war, there was a great outpouring of poetics by American poets, including Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” and “Proprioception,”  Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, and Robert Creeley’s A Quick Graph. Much of the spirit of the time is captured in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Don Allen and Warren Tallman, which should be read alongside full collections of essays by Olson, Rich, and Creeley, Jack Spicer, Larry Eigner, Barbara Guest, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robin Blaser, and Jerome Rothenberg. Meanwhile, David Antin invented a new form of talking poetics – a mixed genre involving improvisation, philosophy, and autobiography, that he both performs live and subsequently transforms into work that extends the possibilities of both the essay and the poem.
            The proliferation of politically engaged, socially informed, and aesthetically radical poetics in the period from 1975 to the present is charted by several anthologies, edited by Christopher Beach, Mark Wallace and Stephen Marks, Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, and Peter Baker, in addition to Bruce Andrews and my The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Collections edited by James McCorkle, Molly McQuade, and Donald Hall provide other overviews of the poetics of the period, while Susan Bee and Mira Schor offer a highly relevant collection of writings by visual artists.
            This period since 1975 has been marked by a profound shift from the dominance of male writers of poetics; by the turn of the twenty-first century, poetics was no longer a boy’s club. A feminist approach to poetics is charted not only by Adrienne Rich, but also by Kathleen Fraser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Nicole Brossard. The provocative and transformative poetics of Amiri Baraka have yet to be collected in a book, but both Nathaniel Mackey and Lorenzo Thomas have published groundbreaking collections of essays on African-American poetics and Erica Hunt’s “"Notes for an Oppositional Poetics" in The Politics of Poetic Form offers a crucial intervention into the dialog. The connection between politics and form is at the heart of Bruce Andews’s formally uncompromising essays, just as it informs Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence. Hank Lazer undertakes the task of negotiating between the many audiences, and ideologies for poetry, while Leslie Scalapino pushes to eras the difference between her poetry and poetics, while articulating a distinct need for each. Probably the most philosophical and theoretically sophisticated approach to poetics is represented by Steve McCaffery’s two, often mind-bogglingly comic, essay collection. Christian Bök picks up on McCaffery’s “pataphysics” (Alfred Jarry’s science of imaginary answers to imaginary questions), with a tour-de-force work of poetics written with a number of severe constraints, including using the same number of words and sentences in each chapter; while Joan Retallack, taking up themes of John Cage, has made an eloquent case for “poethics.”  Related to poethics is ecopoetics – the way in which poetry reflects and refracts the environment which is its habitat, the focus of essays by Jed Rasula and the magazine, Ecopoetics, edited by Jonathan Skinner. Pierre Joris orients his poetics to wandering, to the nomad inside our poetic selves; Nick Piombiono’s poetics are both psychoanalytic and aphoristic; and Alan Davies is enigmatic in the pursuit of nothing less than the imaginary of everyday life.  In his essays, Bob Perelman has interrogated many of the assumption governing the poetics of the period, while Ben Friedlander has invented a new mode of doing poetics by transforming essays by Poe and others into contemporary commentaries. Johanna Drucker has explored, with wit and philosophical rigor, the visual dimensions of poetry and the book. Susan Stewart’s study Poetry and the Fate of the Senses is an impassioned plea for the value of poetry in the fullness of its sentiences. Lyn Hejinian is perhaps best known for her essay against closure, but her poetics provides wide-ranging accounts of the relation of poetry to consciousness, narrative, travel, and, knowledge. Meanwhile, Susan Howe has undertaken the monumental work of undermining monumental histories, speaking of and for the cracks between victories in a style that merges historical scholarship and song.
            Over the past ten years, the Internet has become as homing ground both for poetry and poetics. The best gateway to innovative poetry and poetics on the web is the Electronic Poetry Center (, while the gateway for sound recordings of poets on the web is PennSound ( To experience poetics in the making, there is no better place to start than Ron Silliman’s blog, which is updated daily; while Joel Kuszai’s collection Poetics@ is a carefully shaped selection from a web poetics forum, that keeps the dialog at the center of the action. The importance of the web for poetry and poetics is explored in Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality and Loss Pequeño Glazier’s Digital Poetics.
            Recent critical accounts of twentieth century poetics worth noting here include those by Peter Quartermain, Michael Davidson, Charles Altieri, Maria Damon, Craig Dworken, Charles Altieri, Gerald Bruns, Susan Vanderborg, Hank Lazer, Christopher Beach, Barrett Watten, Juliana Spahr, Michael Magee, Stephen Fredman, Aldon Nielsen, James Longenbach, and, above all, Marjorie Perloff, whose many illuminating books have championed poets and poetics.

[i] Dickinson’s textual fragments are sometimes typed as letters, but Marta Werner, in her two editions, casts Dickinson as the progenitor of contemporary poetics. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson is the key text for reading Dickinson within the context of poetics.
[ii] For further information on international poetics, see a special issue of boundary 2 that I edited, entitled 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium. Ernesto Grosman was instrumental in my suggestions here regarding Latin American poetics.
Works Cited (for entire essay, including the concluding section reprinted here:
Works Cited
Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato, Rev. Edn. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.1992
Allen, Donald and Warren Tallman. Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove P, 1973.
Altieri, Charles. Postmodernisms Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP. 1998.
Andrews, Bruce. Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996
Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein, eds.  The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Antin, David. A Conversation with Charles Bernstein. New York: Granary Books, 2002.
________. What It Means to Be Avant-Garde. New York: New Directions. 1993.
Baker, Peter, ed. Contemporary Poetry & Poetics. New York: Peter Lang, 1996
Beach, Christopher. Poetic Culture: Contemporary American Poetry Between Community and Institution. Evanston: Northwestern UP. 1999
Beach, Christopher, ed. Artifice & Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998.
Bee, Susan and Mira Schor, eds. M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists' Writings, Theory, and Criticism. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2000.
Bernstein, Charles, ed., Close Listening; Poetry and the Performed Word. New York: Oxford UP. 1998.
__________, ed. 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium. boundary 2 26:1 (1999).
__________, ed., The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York: Roof, 1990.
Bök, Christian. 'Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2002.
Brossard, Nicole. Tr. Barbara Goddard. New York: Roof Books. 1990.
Bruns, Gerald. The Material of Poetry: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics. Athens: U of Georgia Press. 2005.
Burke, Kenneth. “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
________. A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950.
C. Wright Mills, "Mass Society and Liberal Education.”  Power, Politics and People. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. p. 368.
Cavell, Stanley. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
___________. Senses of Walden. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1992.
____________. This New Yet Unapproachable America: Essays after Emerson after Wittgenstein. Albuquerque: Living Batch Books. 1988.
Caws, Mary Ann, ed.  Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Lincoln, U of Nebraska P, 2001.
Creeley, Robert. Collected Essays. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.
Damon, Maria. The Dark End of the Street:Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1993.
Davidson, Michael. Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word. Berkeley: U of California P. 1997.__________. Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics.  Berkeley: U of California P. 2003.
Davis, Alan. Signage. New York: Roof Books. 1987.
Dickinson, Emily, ed. Marta L. Werner.  Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson's Fragments and Related Texts, 1870-1886. Electronic edn. U Michigan P. 2000
________. Emily Dickinson's Open Folios : Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1995.
Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. New York: Granary Books. 1998.
Duncan, Robert. Fictive Certainties. New York: New Directions. 1985.
DuPlessis, Rachel. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Dworkin, Craig. Reading the Illegible. Evanston: Northwestern UP. 2003.
Eigner, Larry. Ben Friedlander, ed. Areas Lights Heights:Writings 1954-1989. New York: Roof. 1990.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays: Second Series. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1858.Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature; Addresses, and Lectures. Boston: J. Munroe, 1849.
Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry. Manchester [Eng.]: Manchester University P,  1978.
Fraser, Kathleen. Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity: Essays.  Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 2000.
Fredman, Stephen. The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Friedlander, Ben. Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004.
Ginsberg, Allen, Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995. New York: HarperCollins. 2000.
Glazier, Loss. Digital Poetics. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2001.
Guest, Barbara. Forces of Imagination: Writings on Writings. Berkeley: Kelsey Street, 2003.
Hall, Donald, ed. Claims for Poetry. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1983.
________. Donald Hall,  Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry, 1970-76. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1978.
Harrison, Charles and  Paul Wood.  Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. U of California P. 2000.
Howe, Susan. The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP. 1993.
________. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. 1988.
________. Peirce-Arrow. New York: New Directions. 1999.
Hurlbert, Mark, et al. Beyond English, Inc. Portsmith, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 2002.
Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University P, 2003.
Kwasny, Melissa, ed. Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800-1950. Middletown. CT.: Wesleyan University P, 2004.
Kuszai, Joel, ed.  Poetics@. New York: Roof Books, 1999.
Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservative Think. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.
Lazer, Hank. Opposing Poetics, vol. 1 and 2. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.
Longenbach, James. The Resistance to Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago Press. 2004
Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagements: Dissonance, Cross-culturality, and Experimental Writing. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993.
McCaffery, Steve. North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York: Roof Books. 1986
__________Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2001.
McCorkle James.  Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry. Detroit : Wayne State University. 1990.
McGann, Jerome. Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style. Oxford: Oxford UP. 1996.
_______. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave. 2001.
McGann, Jerome and Lisa Samuels. “Deformance and Interpretation.” Accessed 10/11/04.
McGee, Michael. Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P., 2004.
McQuade, Molly, ed. By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. St. Paul: Graywolf P. 2000.
Nielsen, Aldon. Integral Music: Languages of African American Innovation. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P.  2004
_______. Black Chant : Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP. 1997.
Olson, Charles, ed. Donald Allen and Ben Friedlander. Collected Prose. Los Angeles: U of California P. 1997.
Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.
Perloff, Marjorie. 21st Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics. Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell. 2001
________.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton. Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1999.
________.  Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1992
________. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
Piombino, Nick. Boundary of Blur. New York: Roof Books. 1993.
________. Theoretical Objects. Los Angeles: Green Integer. 1999.
Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Rankine, Claudia, and Juliana Spahr, eds.  American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University P, 2002.
Rasula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
Retallack, Joan. Poethical Wager. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.
Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
_________. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Pre-Faces & Other Writings. New York: New Directions, 1981.
Scalapino, Leslie. How Phenomena Appear to Unfold. Elmwood, Conn.: Potes & Poets, 1989.
_________. The Public World / Syntictically Impermanence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP. 1999.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books. 1987.
_________. Silliman’s Blog. Accessed 10/11/04.
Spahr, Juliana. Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. U of Alabama P. 2001
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Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago: U of Chicago P,  2001.
Tedlock, Dennis. Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices & Visions of the Living Maya. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and 20th-Century American Poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama P, 2000.
Vanderborg, Susan. Paratextual Communities: American Avant-Garde Poetry Since 1950. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP. 2001.
Waldman, Ann and Andrew Schelling, eds. Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico P. 1994
Wallace, Mark and Steven Marks, eds. Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama P,  2002.
Watten, Barrett. The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP. 2003.
Williams, William  Carlos. The Embodiment of Knowledge. New York: New Directions, 1974.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Berkeley: University of California P, 1972.

'Eye of Witness' (2): 'From a Shaman’s Notebook'

[As a preliminary to what would later become Technicians of the Sacred, I gathered as a section of my then magazine, Poems from the Floating World (1962-1963), a series of poems that were workings on my own grounds of poems that I had begun to assemble from a range of largely tribal/oral cultures. There was no real claim here to any kind of neo-shamanism on my own part except perhaps for the intuition, already there, that a crucial tool of historical shamanism was a relation to a form of languaging that, if not poetry in our sense, was as close to poetry as we were likely to get. I would be less than honest as well if I didn’t allow that the move herein to an experimental ethnopoetics grew out of my earlier infatuation with “deep image” & the surrealisms, Dadaisms, & romanticisms that came before it. In the book I’m now preparing with Heriberto Yépez, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, that progression in my own work, with much found but little abandoned along the way, has played a crucial role. (J.R.)]

          Perhaps the art which we are seeking is the key 
          to every former art: a solomonic key that will 
          open all the mysteries.
                  Hugo Ball

Mighty magic is a mother.
                  Robert Creeley

          We are all the same man.
                  Paul Cezanne


Dad a da da
Dad a da da
Dad a da da
Da kata kai

Ded o ded o
Ded o ded o
Ded o ded o
Da kata kai



They are 7 in number, just 7
In the terrible depths they are 7
Bow down, in the sky they are 7

In the terrible depths, the dark houses
They swell, they grow tall

They are neither female nor male
They are a silence heavy with seastorms
They bear off no women their loins are empty of children
They are strangers to pity, compassion is far from them
They are deaf to men’s prayers, entreaties can’t reach them
They are horses that grow to great size that feed on mountains
They are the enemies of our friends
They feed on the gods
They tear up the faces of evil they are the faces of evil

They are 7 they are 7 they are 7 times 7
In the name of Heaven let them be torn from our sight
In the name of the Earth let them be torn from our sight



                                    The soul is a dark forest.
                                             D.H. Lawrence

Ghosts in this forest, shadows
thrown back by the night
Or in daylight
like bats that drink from our veins
And hang from moist walls, in deep caves
Behind this green moss, these awful white stones
We pray to know who has seen them
Shadows thrown back by the night
We pray to know who has seen them.



Careful: my knife drills your soul
           listen, whatever-your-name-is
           One of the wolf people
listen, I’ll grind your saliva into the earth
listen, I’ll cover your bones with black flint
listen, " " " " " " feathers
listen, " " " " " " rocks
Because you’re going where it’s empty
           Black coffin out on the hill
listen, the black earth will hide you,
           will find you a black hut
           Out where it’s dark, in that country
listen, I’m bringing a box for your bones
           A black box
           A grave with black pebbles
listen, your soul’s spilling out
listen, it’s blue

                  (Cherokee Indian)


Enough poison to make
your head spin, and chains
to pin you down, and once
they’ve shot the arrow
and once it lands, well
it’s just like the fly and the horse:
I mean a fly that’s bitten one horse
will damn sure go after another
And I mean too that this arrow’s
like a pregnant woman
           Hungry for some meat
And even if it doesn’t break your skin
           You die
And if it breaks it just a little bit
           You die
And if it gets in and does its stuff
           You die
And if it sort of touches you and drops right out
           You die
     And as long as you stay out of my blood
    what do I care whose blood you get in
           Kill him
     I won’t stand in the way

This is a fire that I’m setting off
And this is a fire that I’m lifting up
And this is a shadow that’s burning
And this is the sun that’s burning
Because the poison I’ve got is stronger than bullets
           And it’s louder than thunder
           And it’s hotter than fire
And what do I care who it gets, kill him!
           I won’t stand in the way
As long as you stay out of my blood

                  (Nigeria, Hausa)


To be beyond you now, to feel
joy burning inside me when the sun
burns through the terrible sky
To feel joy in the new sun, aie!
in the sky’s curved belly

But restless more likely, restless
These flies swarm around me, dropping
eggs in the rotting collarbone,
into my eyes, their cold mouths moving
I choke on such horrors

And remembering the last fear, I remember
a dark rim of ocean, remembering
the last fear, the broken boat drifting,
drawing me into that darkness, aie!
Now the other side holds me

And I remember men’s fear in the boats
I see the snow forced into my door, fear’s
shadow over the hut, while my body
hung in the air, the door hidden, aie!
When I cried in fear of the snow

Horror stuck in my throat, the hut
walled me in, slowly the ice-floe broke
Horror choked me, the thin sky
quivered with sound, the voice
of the dark ice cracking, cold mornings

                  (Copper Eskimo)


For we are the stars. For we sing.
For we sing with our light.
For we are birds made of fire.
For we spread our wings over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We cut a road for the soul
for its journey through death.
For three of our number are hunters.
For these three hunt a bear.
For there never yet was a time
when these three didn’t hunt.
For we face the hills with disdain.
This is the song of the stars.

                  (Algonquin Indian)

101 Poetry

Last week in the Williams class we encountered not just modernist difficulty but the discomfort of difficult content: our discussions centered on the medical gaze and the American idiom, and on our encounters with Williams’s attitudes toward difference. I was left wondering what kind of space we need to create in our classrooms to address material that is triggering. We ended class with a too-brief discussion of the troubling scene in “The Use of Force,” in which Williams’s speaker gives a diphtheria test to a young girl, overcoming her resistance to his treatment with brutal and sexualized force. The story has been widely discussed as a case study of medical ethics as well as a text that dramatizes the crossing of boundaries between literature and medicine; as Brian Bremen puts it in William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture, “For Williams an act of diagnosis is as much a poetic act as it is a medical  practice.” In his efforts to resist scientific reduction, as critics like Bremen argue, Williams frames anecdotes that are dialectical, nonironic, even open-ended. We hate the doctor’s brutality even as we appreciate that he achieves the diagnosis.

Still. As one of my students put it, “I liked the other Williams better.” Stories such as “The Use of Force” or “The Colored Girls of Passenack” upend the other Williams of “Smell!” or “The Catholic Bells.” Both kinds of texts revel sensorily in the object, but it is difficult to reconcile the naturalization of women’s bodies (and their violent sexualization, and their racialized exoticization, and their misogynist objectification) with the other things the poetic object can do. It is difficult to reconcile these poetic operations also with the affective forces in the poem, with the work of feeling the poem can do.

There are more than two Williams, yes, and the course is organized as such: the doctor, the imagist, the epic poet, the art critic, the Americanist, the transatlanticist, and so on. This is the first in many weeks of reversals, which may be a hallmark of the single-author course: not Poetry 101 but 101 Poetry, to cite the unusual classroom placard, above. Even if we leave biography aside, we frequently teach texts in ways that fix the figure of their authors: Williams writes X, argues Y. Less frequently do we get to teach a work in relationship to many other works and to confront the impossibility of reconciling a writer’s many opposites. I hope it’s a productively uncomfortable place to occupy.