When poems change

Carla Harryman’s Artifact of Hope (Kenning Editions, 2017) is a creative/critical encounter with the work of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch. Through a variety of forms — daydreams, letters, meditations, quotations, classroom assignments, and even a conference paper — she engages with Bloch’s key concept of “hope.” These too are transpositions, insofar as they expand the meaning of translation beyond issues of linguistic or cultural equivalence.

Bloch devoted his life to the study of utopia. In his three-volume magnum opus Das Prinzip Hoffnug, published in West Germany in the late 1950s and in the US (translation by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight) in 1986, he linked the intellectual emotion of hope to the human desire for a better life. Bloch found this utopian impulse on all levels of human experience. He saw it in religious beliefs, ethical guidelines, revolutionary struggles, and designs for ideal societies (both actual and fictional). He saw it in architecture and the arts, in medical and technological advances, in everyday pursuits like fashion, entertainment, travel, and sports. As he put it, “to limit the utopian to the Thomas More variety, or simply to orientate it in that direction, would be like trying to reduce electricity to the amber from which it gets its Greek name and in which it was first noticed.” Since the utopian impulse concentrates on the future, Bloch proposed shifting attention from the “unconscious,” the organizing concept for thinkers like Freud and Jung, to what he called the “not-yet-conscious,” which manifests itself in dreams and desires and motivates human beings to action.

Bloch had little to say about poetry specifically, but plenty to say about literature in general; and he could write with as much interest about The Divine Comedy and Faust as about fairy tales, folk tales, and daydreams, all of which he regarded as channels to the philosophical principle of hope. Indeed, Bloch argued that hope permeates all forms of artistic endeavor, whether literature, painting, theater and film, or music (especially opera). Even if they do not literally depict images of a better life, they contain a utopian element simply by being products of human creativity rather than necessity. Contrary to mainstream Marxist theory, Bloch did not automatically link cultural production to ideology whose purpose it was to manipulate the masses. Rather, he viewed it as a manifestation of the utopian impulse, what he called “Vor-Schein” (translated as “anticipatory consciousness,” “anticipatory illumination,” or “preappearance”). When reading The Principle of Hope, it is not unusual to come across passages like this: “the whole of art shows itself to be full of appearances which are driven to become symbols of perfection, to a utopianly essential end.”  

Harryman’s thirty-five-page volume (part of a larger ongoing project) bills itself as an “epistolary essay combined with the documentary remains of a post-Occupy project.” However, its attention to language, formal variety (prose and verse), self-reflexivity (to the point of self-erasure), juxtapositional method, and fusion of appropriated and expressive material bring it closer to what for many today is synonymous with “poetry.” (It is also listed under “poetry” on the Kenning Editions website.) Artifact of Hope is also the product of a teaching experiment. Not only does it begin with a daydream about the idea of “school,” but it contains a series of reflections on Harryman’s “collective dialogue” about Bloch’s philosophy with her fellow readers and writers at the Bay Area Public School in Oakland and the Pratt Institute of the Arts in New York. The pedagogical setting suggests a level of optimism, a sense of possibility, a focus on becoming. As Harryman notes: “the improvisatory and performative aspects of writing that can enable transgression of categories and boundaries of thought and genre seem to me, potentially or provisionally, to be emerging from or agents of such processes.”

Still, attraction as well as antagonism marks Harryman’s “importing” (to use her own word) of Bloch’s philosophy. Such ambivalence is inevitable considering the genuine difficulty of his thought system, with all its encyclopedic extravagance, and his opaque writing style. It is also due, no doubt, to the distorting effect of translation and commentary that has accrued around Bloch’s work in the English-speaking world. Harryman and her fellow readers are put off by “many dated qualities of his writing ... [his] stilted references to gender, his patriarchal subjectivity embedded in philosophy.” Indeed, a great deal separates the male German philosopher, who in the darkest decades of the twentieth century never gave up on hope (or on Soviet-style communism, at least not until the 1950s), and the female US poet, who in the past few years has found herself losing her “feeling for the future” while she confronts “[t]he accelerated destructiveness of global capitalism, climate change, and the intensified cognition of the Anthropocene as out-of-control actuality.”

Harryman’s reflections on Bloch are thus also refractions. As she turns philosophy into poetry, “thinking” into “making,” she crosses many boundaries: linguistic, cultural, national, ideological, generic, disciplinary. The point for her is to retrieve something useful, even provisionally so, from the work, to make the encounter active, dialogic, even dialectical (as she notes, “Bloch’s theory of hope, paradoxically, significantly contributed to my own feminist poetics.”) This too is a feature of reading, writing, as well as teaching. Not all participants of Harryman’s seminars at the Public School and the Pratt Institute were “traditional,” i.e. young, but it is fitting that the book opens with this passage from The Principle of Hope: “There is in young people and in erotic personalities throughout their lives a kind of intransitive mental feeling of being-in-love, which its objects enter retrospectively ... This temperament can extend far beyond the mere state of mind ... the more sensation contents and imaginative contents are added to this, the more clearly these intransitive mental processes will also become related to objects and transitive: just as vague craving passes over into wishful contents by imagining its something, so the emotional world is now all the more governed by love of something, hope for something, pleasure in something.”


This series aimed to document how poems travel and, in the process, change (in the intransitive sense). I wanted to draw attention to the complexity and richness of translation, but also to show that, especially in poetry, translation is not always a matter of seeking equivalence; rather, it can produce meaningful forms of divergence and difference. Translation, so understood, makes us reconsider the relation between reading and writing, the nature of interpretation, and the place of poetry in the social world. It is therefore equally about texts and contexts; in this respect, converting a text from one language to another is the least interesting aspect of the operation. Harryman transposes Bloch by turning his “principle” of hope into an “artifact” of hope. In doing so, she bridges the gap between philosophy and poetry, blurs the distinction between reader and author, combines creative and critical approaches, invents a way of reading Bloch not separately but “together.” 

Perhaps poems, as works of art focused on language, are best suited to produce such relational effects. Perhaps poems, as forms of pedagogy based in emotion as much as intellect, can create such propensity toward “something.” Perhaps poems can also change in the transitive sense.