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 (epc.buffalo.edu), while the gateway for sound recordings of poets on the web is PennSound (writing.upenn.edu/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.
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