from 'The Premises of Poetry'

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s handwriting, inscribed in a first-edition copy of ‘Éloge de la philosophie.’ Image courtesy of Librairie le Feu Follet.

Editorial note: The excerpts below are from Michael Heller’s decades-long endeavor, “The Premises of Poetry.” They are drawn from Heller’s notes and entries from the 1980s through 2018. Heller describes the work as follows: “‘The Premises of Poetry,’ an ongoing project of prose and citation going back nearly fifty years, is derived from my notebooks and informal observations on readings in poetry, philosophy, history, and current affairs. Selections from across this work are clustered around various topics concerning both the placing and enhousing of poetry as well as considerations of the poesis of the literary act. The excerpts here are part of a series of meditations on the phenomenology of poetry and the poetic image.”

Is it certain a true poet occupies a place? Is the poet not that which, in the eminent sense of the term, loses its place, ceases occupation, precisely, and is thus the very opening of space, neither the transparency nor the emptiness which (no more than night, nor the volume of beings) yet displays the bottomlessness or the excellence, the heaven that is possible[…]? 

Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names 

Levinas’s words have haunted me for years, informing my poetry and infiltrating all I’ve written about contemporary poetry. The questions they raise concern the very premises of poetry, what place or places the poem inhabits, the rules or guides by which poetry is written — and in another sense (perhaps the most important sense), the question of these very questions.  “The Premises of Poetry” has become a catch-all for these thoughts, my model based somewhat on Wallace Stevens’s Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects and his Adagia, forms (or non-forms) that allow random readings and thoughts to abide in themselves and yet allow me as mediator to imagine a relation, one of association or disassociation, one that, if it has any focus at all, is a testing of Levinas’s questions, i.e., are the premises of poetry suggestive of a non-place, a non-premise? 

My inclination: the impossibility of conceptually imagining a resting place for poetry.  Hence my disinclination for aligning myself with schools or genres.


“There is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor. To hate all languages of masters.”[1]

Deleuze and Guattari examples of minor language: Kafka, Celine … something made up of “deterritorialized sounds” … “an escape for language”: also, pop music, pop philosophy, and polylingualism.[2]

And this is perhaps their most political/cultural/literary idea: 

How many styles or genres or literary movements, even very small ones, have only one single dream: to assume a major function in language, to offer themselves as a sort of state language, an official language (for example, psychoanalysis today, which would like to be master of the signifier, of metaphor, of word-play). Create the opposite dream: know how to create a becoming-minor. (Is there hope for philosophy, which for a long time has been an official, referential genre? Let us profit from this moment in which antiphilosophy is trying to be a language of power.)[3]


In their chapter on content and expression, Deleuze and Guatarri write about the distinction between states of desire, illustrating it with these two formulations, which immediately led me elsewhere. Here are the formulae: 

bent head= a blocked, oppressed or oppressing, neutralized desire, with minimum
portrait-photo of connection, childhood memory, territoriality or reterritorialization.

straightened head = a desire that straightens up or moves forward, and opens up to 
musical sound new connections, childhood block or animal block, deterritorialization.[4

The elsewhere: Did my dear friend Armand Schwerner read this book? The formulae could be prompts for constructing the hieroglyphs for his “Mind/Texture/Determinatives” in the late Tablets which were, as he writes in “Tablet XXVII,” focused on “Otherness — the intensity of separation” and depict (among many other qualifying emotional states) “the reader’s Dream-Generation of Body Declensions.” He enumerates these in “Tablet XXVII,” among them: “CROUCHED-DYING,” say, or “LYING-DOWN-SICK.”[5] Schwerner hints at the philosophical, biological, and sociopolitical realms embodied in his designs — at one point, he insists that their “spiritual inscape [is] terror,” surely conceived in the knowledge of the cancer that finally killed him.[6]


The physical manifests in language. Sometime in the early 1980s (maybe earlier?), prior to the complete academic success of the “Linguistic Turn” in critical thinking, Robert Creeley invited me to give a talk and reading to the Poetics Program at Buffalo. My presentation began with a poem (which also was the title of the talk): 


This man must bend.
He must bend so that he becomes a figure
and be written by a force
external to himself.

He must bend, not as though in submission
but head held erect, even if it makes a crook
in his neck and flares his nostrils.

This man must bend to body forth
the thing written into him,
not for the chair and not for the desk,
not for the wood nor the plaster.

The man, and the manuscript,
over which he must bend —
as an act of inscription
and not of submission —
must allow that his body
has been written.

Written by the world’s things,
so he must not bend in submission,
but show forth writing
that he and the world make
and then his bending is like a line bent
as one curves the line to begin a word


In the 1960s and 1970s (about the same time I came to know and began writing about the Objectivist poets), I was also reading deeply in phenomenology, in particular Merleau-Ponty’s works such as the Phenomenology of Perception and The Visible and the Invisible. I began writing an as yet unpublished study, “The Body’s Witness,” concerning phenomenology and the image, a study which raised more questions than it answered. Here is the preface, which sets up the discussion:

I validate myself in the world by an action such as writing or art that returns to me some effect of my action. I transfer my carnality to the words on a page or to the sounds that I utter. But the human body, my body, and the body of the poem appear visibly to have nothing in common. Nowhere do I see anything resembling the footsteps of a walker on the sands; nowhere, in the abstract shapes of letters and words, do I find the knotted strings of a psyche nor do I see the patterns which have filtrated beyond the membranes of my skin, evoking movements of emotion and physiology which the poem aroused and was their very cause. Therefore, when I speak of carnality and of its being transferred, I must mean something beyond the physical appearance of the work, something which undergirds the physical presence of a work of art or a poem which relates to it in some mysterious way, like an iron filing to the magnet, like the ghost, like Hamlet’s father who can say in death what he could not say in life.     

As I write, as I look at my writing as though it were a window into my body. I am aware that I retrace my thoughts to come to a beginning, to something I can label primary or originary. If I could begin, if I could claim for myself my own origin, I could believe that what I write is true. I would be free of the parent, most of all the parent to myself who was, only yesterday, myself. I think that I retrace, only to discover that the thought of my retracing has now been added. It is not that I am no longer who I was, but that my every attempt complicates, as the measuring instrument complicates in the Heisenbergian sense, the retracing. As soon as I take up the thought, I am no longer involved in an inquiry for which an object of knowledge will suffice, I am instead part of an embodied dialectic. I will never know where my quest and myself begin and end, only that this need to retrace is bound up, not with understanding myself, but with the contingencies which have formed me.       

I am reminded that Merleau‑Ponty’s phenomenology is a call to an incarnated knowledge, that in The Structure of Behavior, one of his earliest works, he argued that behavior, from a phenomenological perspective, cannot be examined as a “thing in itself,” rather, one must see behavior “dialectically”[7] The thought I wanted to “retrace” is no “thing in itself,” but has entered into a compact with my intention. Together, I receive them both again, as Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception as a “nascent logos,”[8] a word about to be born. I have folded my intention, like a body hugging a child, over what I take to be yesterday’s thought.


Merleau-Ponty is mentioned at least four times in my Conviction’s Net of Branches. Two that stick with me as imperatives:

In the first chapter, where I introduce the Objectivists and what I see to be the project and motivation of their poetics, I place their intentions in terms of these words of Merleau-Ponty: “the decisive moment of perception: the upsurge of a true and accurate world.”[9]

I discuss Oppen’s remark in his interview with L. S. Dembo that he seeks a poetry that “cannot not be understood.”[10] I cite Merleau-Ponty’s “the other miracle.” “It is easy,” he writes in Sense and Non-Sense, “to strip language and action of all meaning and make them seem absurd. … But that other miracle, the fact that in an absurd world language and behavior do have meaning for those who speak and act, remains to be understood.”[11]

Zukofsky’s integral sign, lower limit speech, upper limit poetry. One of my own integrals: lower limit absurdity, upper limit, that which cannot not be understood. When it is also a commonplace that absurdity is, especially in this moment, entirely communicative. 

Seeking to cognize “the other miracle,” the moment of conviction as both linguistic and (in the sense that it is a pursuit in culture after culture) sacred in quality. 

Readdressing carnality not as a paean to the body as a temple but, as I have written and also expressed in interviews as the site of impingement, the world beating upon the body and mind of the poet.


I will find what I call to myself a phenomenological poetics, yet, in truth, nothing is new here. I seek only how to establish some notion of what language and the body together might express, to confirm Merleau‑Ponty’s claim that “every technique … is a technique of the body.”[12]        

My thought reaches back to the ancients, to the participatory feeling ancient cultures experienced in their oral poetries and dance. Language, in the view held by preliterate and tribal societies, is a reenactment of the cosmological, which by its various configurations spells out in each human its logos or song. The contemporary sense of the poem’s phenomenology, its linkage with a world, will lack the confidence of that older view, and so arises more often as a question as, for example, in this passage by Charles Olson:

In what sense is
what happens before the eye
so very different from
what actually goes on within …

When the field of focus
is not admitted as the point is,
what loss! Who loves
without an object, who dreams
without an incubus, who fears
without cause?[13]      

Olson, his practice deeply rooted in archaic concerns, acknowledges the phenomenological linkage as a given, but rather than take it as an unstated assumption of poetic practice, inverts and thereby suggests its obverse, a phenomenological demand placed by world and language on the poet. If the poet is the joiner of “inner” and “outer,” what is the articulation of that joining? Where are things or ideas but in a dialectic (or logos) which has unified them inseparably? Robert Von Hallberg notes in his essay on Olson, “Olson, Whitehead, and the Objectivists” in boundary 2, that this poem is very likely derived from Whitehead’s remark that “the things experienced and the cognisant subject enter into the world on equal terms.”[14] It is worth noting, parenthetically, that Olson was an in‑depth reader of phenomenology, a subject he studied along with his contemplations of Whitehead and other “organismists.” His copies of Merleau‑Ponty’s works are among the most heavily annotated in his personal library.


The phenomenological demand.  From my unpublished essay “The Body’s Witness”:

Paul Ricoeur, in his essay entitled “Phenomenology and Hermenuetics,” claims that “what is to be interpreted in the text is a proposed world which I could inhabit and in which I could project my inmost possibilities.”[15] Ricoeur posits here the possibility of the intersubjective realm, not as a structure but as a place of structuring, an arena of mental or psychic activity which on the level of the text, and consequently of the poetic image, can be likened to the phenomenological field. The text or image‑in‑language is now a place inhabited by consciousnesses and can no longer be reduced to a fixed sign or a scientific datum. The image is instead a place of tensions and resistances, of antipathies and sympathies. In such a scheme, problems of referentiality and simple mimesis take a second place to the as‑if quality, the viability and possibility of the world proposed by the image. Certainly “representativeness” comes in by the back door, so to speak, because every image, while being a concretion of language and sight, is also a fulcrum for idealization and universalization. But the very power of the image is in its ability to drive the wedge between our conceptions of the real and the ideal.

This wedge power is explored in Ricoeur’s study of meaning, The Rule of Metaphor, in particular the two adjacent sections entitled respectively “The Work of Resemblance” and “Metaphor and Reference.” Here, Ricoeur proceeds by radically inverting the usual direction of literary interpretation. Normative interpretation takes the image as a source of critical production. Since the image, although made of words, is mute or occasions a nearly infinite multiplicity of resonances (which amounts to the same thing), the interpreter must take the image in hand and generate explanations. Instead of moving (or ruling out moving) from the imaginal to the discursive, Ricoeur suggests that “the question remains whether one ought to or cannot attempt the reverse, and proclaim the image to be the final moment of a semantic theory.”[16] Ricoeur borrows here on Marcus Hester’s definition of poetic language as presenting a fusion between sense or meaning and the senses. This fusion, never totally explicable because it occurs within the incarnated body of writer and reader, nevertheless produces an object closed in on itself. The sign, according to both Ricoeur and Hester, is “looked at, not through,” transforming language from a transparent medium to an object closed in on itself, to what Ricoeur calls simply “stuff.” This “stuff” or closure of poetic language in upon itself, such that it exhibits the “object” properties of opacity rather than the transparency of instrumental language, is what allows it to articulate a fictional experience (what Susanne Langer, in her depiction of poetic language, calls an experience of “virtual life”[17]). Ricoeur carries the notion further in the section of The Rule of Metaphor entitled “Metaphor and Reference.” Joining the idea derived from linguistic and semantic philosophy of the text as work with the considerations drawn above, he states that “My whole aim is to do away with [this] restriction of reference to scientific statements. … Just as the metaphorical statement captures its sense as metaphorical midst the ruins of the literal sense, it also achieves its reference upon the ruins of what might be called (in symmetrical fashion) its literal reference.”[18]


The mystery and open secret of poetic conviction. “That other miracle,” which Merleau‑Ponty speaks of above. An open secret too: few of us would read poems, possibly treasure poems simply because of the interesting syntax or sonic patterns they exhibit. When I speak of poetic conviction, I mean that entry, that suspension of disbelief by which we are drawn into the world of the poem, the same conviction that animates, that ingathers the poet in the act of composition.  Zukofsky in talking about Shakespeare in Bottom: On Shakespeare refers to this as “the inexpressible trust in expression,”[19] a trust taken up by reader, by poet, and by poet‑as‑reader.

Behind the poem as an expression is the “inexpressible trust,” a trust that cannot be formulated a priori.


Norman Malcolm in Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, writes of the philosopher: “He liked to draw an analogy between philosophical thinking and swimming: just as one’s body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom — so it is with thinking.”[20] The poet, like the philosopher, is someone who must resist the seductive buoyancies and certainties of already existing conceptual systems. Like an aquanaut, the poet is ballasted with thoughts and emotions aswim in the dangerous watery medium of language. We know the seductiveness of language, of poets who are “full of the language” and, like certain frogmen, develop rapture of the deep, rip off their face masks, and drown in words.




The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole

Has exposed us naked
To the world

And will not close.

Blankly the world
Looks in

And we compose

And the sense

Of home
And there are those

In it so violent
And so alone

They cannot rest.[21]


Oppen’s poem is about impingement, a recognition of impingement as vulnerability. (This is akin to Schwerner’s “spiritual inscape is terror,” mentioned above). Impingement is not a condition limited to literature or its practitioners, but, as we have recently seen, pervades the entire spectrum, far left to far right, of the body politic, the mass of individuals whose modes of expression are political passion and action, a sign of a public’s receptivity to rhetoric (the psychodynamics of our political movements, our elections, etc. — the mechanisms of which have been barely explored, hence taken for granted as givens). But this vulnerability is also poetry and literature’s doorway, its entryway for investigation, seeing otherwise, and, perhaps most important, compassion.  


According to Merleau‑Ponty, the “deformation” of objects in perception is the source of communication between individual subjects, and indeed leads directly to language and hence to poetry and its images:

Just as my body, as the system of all my holds on the world, founds the unity of the objects which I perceive, in the same way, the body of the other — as the bearer of symbolic behaviors and of the behavior of true reality — tears itself away from being one of my phenomena, and confers on my objects the new dimension of intersubjective being or, in other words, of objectivity.[22

Subjectivity in objectivity. Objectivist. Poetry. 

1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, first published 1975), 26. 

2. Deleuze and Guattari, 26.

3. Deleuze and Guattari, 27.

4. Deleuze and Guattari, 5.

5. Armand Schwerner, The Tablets (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1999), 107.

6. Schwerner, Tablets, 141.

7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, trans. Alden S. Fisher, foreword by John Wild (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 161.

8. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), xv.

9. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 53.

10. L. S. Dembo and George Oppen, “George Oppen,” Contemporary Literature 10, no. 2 (1969): 159–77.

11. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), xvi.

12. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 168.

13. Charles Olson, Archaeologist of Morning (London: Cape Goliard Press, 1970), 101.

14. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 84–85, qtd. in Robert von Hallberg, “Olson, Whitehead, and the Objectivists,” boundary 2  2, no. 1/2 (Autumn 1973–Winter 1974): 85.

15. Paul Ricoeur, “Phenomenology and Hermenuetics,” Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 112.

16. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny, Kathleen McLaughlin, and John Costello (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 207 (emphasis in original).

17. See Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953).

18. Ricoeur, Metaphor, 221.

19. Louis Zukofsky, Bottom: On Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 91. 

20. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 92.

21. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 101–2.

22. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 18.