Reconfiguring Romanticism (54): Jeffrey C. Robinson, 'Occupy Romanticism,' 27 May 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE. The following was Jeffrey Robinson’s contribution to the recent Poetry & Revolution conference at Birkbeck College of the University of London. As with other of Robinson’s recent writings, it presents an ongoingly radical view of Romanticism in the spirit of Poems for the Millennium, volmue 3, which he and I constructed in the first decade of the current millennium. For my part, the collaboration with Robinson opened me to areas of poetry that had long been hidden from me and honed my own practice in ways that had only been latent until then. If I wrote A Book of Concealments in the process – & I did – the sense of “Romantic Dadas” that appears there was also part of our work in common, for which I remain forever grateful. (J.R.)

[N.B.—This prefatory remark was written just before giving the talk in response to comments about “Romanticism” made in other previous presentations in the conference. The term “Romanticism” has been used almost exclusively by members of the conference in a pejorative way, usually implying some sort of escapist abstraction or transcendence of the real; it was used this way casually but also emphatically by Allen Fisher in reference to the “Romanticism” that led to Fascism. This characterization of Romanticism, coupled with what below I will call “institutional Romanticism,” doubly degrades the radical Romanticism that is the subject of this paper and contributes to the pervasive resistance that poets and literary historians have in noting the vital continuity between a radical Romanticism and modern and contemporary innovative poetry and poetics.

Upon receiving the announcement of this conference, I felt challenged to articulate the pertinence and usefulness of the anthology of 19th-century Romantic poetry Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (hereafter called PM3) to the topic of poetry and revolution. This topic conjoins two terms that pitch value emphatically into the present, and at some point advocates action over what we often associate with Romanticism, contemplation and consolation. The editors of PM3, Jerome Rothenberg and I, believed that a radical re-configuring of what has long been accepted as the body of Romantic poetry and the recovery of the radical dynamic of Romantic poetics, perpetually obscured in traditional accounts of Romanticism, would constitute on the level of culture and language a significant response to the increasing conditions of human and natural destruction on a global scale, as Shelley would say, it would constitute an “awakening,” in the present.

There are not only important parallels but genuine continuities between contemporary and Romantic poets seeking to find ways for poetry to intervene poetically in social crisis. Indeed, crises of democracy, beginning roughly with the French Revolution and occasioning versions of radical Romantic poetry and poetics, could be said to define a form of Romanticism that can spring up at any moment. As the surrealist André Breton said: “Romanticism asserts itself as a continuum.” A radical Romantic poetry proliferated across time (with no regard for the period distinctions insisted upon by scholars) and across geographies. Contrary to repeated and vigorous assertions from the nineteenth century to this morning, the Romanticism we bring forward in PM3 never came to an end, nor did it flourish, as the editor of a leading university textbook of Romanticism says, “just for a brief period,” but has continually reemerged over the past two centuries by poets whose political concerns drive them towards poetic experiment.

Moreover, the full range of Romantic poetry, whether labeled that or not, although honoring regional and geographical specificity, has never been solely an English-language phenomenon, nor, as comparatists would have it, a phenomenon claimed by a cluster of nation-states; this Romanticism spread and found its home literally across many locales, a reverberation, whether stated or not, to Goethe’s call for a Weltliteratur. PM3 presents this proliferation of not so much a movement as an historically grounded vision of poetry’s unpredictable and myriad interventions from the late-eighteenth to the early twentieth century, at which point, by the way, it joins with two previously published volumes of Poems for the Millennium. These insist that the most vital elements of twentieth-century poetry appear in the works of experimental and innovative writers, poetry that PM3 asserts stems from the vitality of Romanticism.

Just as this Romanticism, I am arguing, embraces literary/political occasions from the French Revolution to the present, so my talk crosses and recrosses Romantic poetry and poetics with its reconfiguration, or reclamation, in PM3. “Reclamation” suggests the activity of the Occupy movements; the talk in this regard could be called “Occupy Romanticism.” Thus I will speak first about Romantic poetry as a radical practice recovered by and reconfigured in PM3 from an oppressive institutional Romanticism that has systematically sought to control and destroy Romanticism’s fundamentally interventionist, defamiliarizing, and self-regenerating impulse across time and geographies. Second, I will consider a single instance of poetry as it appears in the medium of prose, foregrounded in our anthology, an example of Romantic genre mixing, as a formal response to the vision of democratic pluralism. Finally I will show how PM3 “occupies” the venerated but reactionary icon of Romanticism, the so-called “Romantic self,” (or as it was called yesterday, the “sovereign I”) in order to transform it into a subjective agent of poetic innovation in the service of social critique.

As the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine said in 1833, in contrasting the poetry of one Romantic poet of the French Revolution Friedrich Schiller to the poetry of Goethe, Schiller’s Romantic poetry seeks to transform “the word” into “the deed,” This is in one sense a truism about politically progressive poetry but here it is keyed specifically to the post-revolutionary engagement with newly liberated and acknowledged classes of the 1790s. A democratic art, moreover, according to what Jacques Rancière says about Schiller, mixes art, as the inherited and assumed materials and traditions of art, with what he calls “non-art,” or materials newly incorporated into art from recovered, previously invisible members of society, their voices and language, and the objects of their world. Such transformations and expansions express themselves not only in poetic content but as transformations of form and language. Wordsworth’s “Advertisement” to the 1798 Lyrical Ballads addresses the juxtaposition of “art” and “non-art” in that book’s democratic “experiment” to “ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” A Romantic poetics of democracy thus “occupies” the traditional domains of poetry and its sentences.

Just as the Occupy Movement having recently called for the need to “Occupy Language,” demonstrates how quickly its participants are associating the misuse of language by those in power, so earlier generations found the need to question inherited genres, forms, and language in oppressive structures of control. As Theodor Adorno declared in Minima Moralia: “Not without reason was the epoch of free rhythms that of the French Revolution, the solemn entrance of human dignity and equality.” The same interanimation of social revolution in the 1790s and poetic innovation is crystallized in Blake’s contemporary comprehensive formalist aphorism for early Romantic poetics: “Poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race,” a grim chiastic sequence in which poetry and language in chains predicts the same outcome in the space of the living, and which challenges poets to unfetter the forms and language of poetry from their ideologically restrictive inheritance and convention in order to storm, in Heine’s phrase, the “Bastilles of the intellectual and spiritual world.”

But we need first to summarize the old space of what we might call institutional Romanticism, a space that I strongly suspect, most of us here entered as students. My summary comes from Duncan Wu’s and Stephen Pritchett’s textbook anthologies of Romantic poetry. I refer to a textbook, as opposed to the work of Romantic scholars, because here is where and how institutional Romanticism—a system of exclusion and distortion--gets disseminated to the public, to the degree that school and university students constitute “the public.” Wu’s characterization of Romanticism includes nothing about form; it is all about its content which, to be sure, means its “unquenchable aspiration for human betterment, the reclaiming of paradise.” However, Wu deflates that potential when he writes: “today, when the world seems so inexorably drawn to global destruction of various kinds, such hopes may seem ludicrous.” He implies that such hopes are naïve, indicative of a failure of a poet’s reality testing, and thus existed, as I quoted earlier, “just for a brief period. . . .” So, as beautifully compelling as romantic poetry can be, it produces a kind of nostalgia, almost an antiquarian’s pleasure. Not only is there the brevity and idiosyncrasy but also an implied hopelessness in the Romantic enterprise, registered in the Romantic “self” or poet from whom the account of Romanticism gets its character as a tragic or pathetic adventure. Shelley is a paradigm: “doomed and neglected,” as is Keats who from his early death didn’t have time to mature as a poet.

Textbooks like this form the space that PM3 has sought to occupy. You have before you one section of the Table of Contents. With its aid, I will characterize the book, demonstrating that “to occupy” means: to introduce the new or unfamiliar, to defamiliarize by means of contiguity, what sits next to what, the previously known and often canonical, to develop poet by poet a sense of an ongoing radical Romantic poetics, and to define this Romanticism as one that spreads horizontally across geographies and vertically across decades and so-called historical periods. The constant sense of movement between and across, the kaleidoscopic shiftings of perspectives and categories produces exactly the opposite effect from that of the text-books. The reader in PM3 stands before a poem not so much to know and identify it as part of a poet’s career as to occupy a continually changing understanding of poetry itself. Through the commentaries that follow the selections of each poet along with poets’ manifesto statements scattered throughout the volume, the reader develops a growing critical consciousness about the substantive and formal choices that poets have made and will make under the sign of Romanticism; Romantic poetry according to PM3 is a critical poetry.

[What follows suggests the beginnings of a model for a radical pedagogy spoken of several times in this conference.] So, for example, the reader of PM3 encounters a famous poem by Coleridge called Kubla Khan next to which is a first-person poem of the self, “Dejection: An Ode,” and will presumably feel in more or less familiar Romantic territory. But next to “Dejection” is a third piece, a short notebook entry:

What a beautiful Thing urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous, the
Image, diamond shaped of the Candle in it, especially, as it now appeared,
I having emptied the Snuffers into it, & the Snuff floating about, & paint-
ing all-shaped Shadows on the Bottom.

And the reader might well wonder, what has this to do with poetry? a poetry of the self? And how can it even be called poetry? Romantic poems aren’t in prose and poems don’t talk about urine, particularly poems of the author of “Dejection.” But then one notices that it does what many wonderful poems do: it praises its subject. And then that it uses quite beautiful, quite poetic language (such as “all-shaped Shadows), and that it carries a strong, quite musical rhythm. And slowly the sense of Coleridge as well as of the possibilities for Romantic poetry begins to shift, to expand from “verse” to poetic prose. Cruising around in PM3, the reader realizes that “Urine” only reinforces the growing impression that poetry in the medium of prose has been popping up throughout the book, from the opening Reverie of Rousseau, to a feminist manifesto by Mary Robinson, to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals and Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, to poems with long prose footnotes that seem to leap out of their properly subordinate position to become genuine contenders for primary interest. See Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants or Dionysius Solomos’ The Woman of Zante. Then upon further perusal the reader can discover in the “Manifestos and Poetics” conclusion to the book that the Romantics themselves theorize poetry in the medium of prose, most famously by Friedrich Schlegel: “Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. Its mission is not merely to reunite all separate genres of poetry and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetorics. It will, and should, now mingle and now amalgamate poetry and prose, genius and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature, render poetry living and social, and life and society poetic . . . .” We then turn to Baudelaire who dreams of a poetic prose responsive to “being in crowded towns, from the criss-cross of their numerous ways."

At this point the reader may then recall that somewhere beyond the bindings of PM3 both William Hazlitt (1778-1830) and his near-contemporary and sometime friend Stendhal thought that a poetic prose suited better than did verse the newly expanded world of democratic pluralism, and that this blurred or mixed genre seemed to find its way into representation of previously repressed parts of society, but also into the unconscious forces of individual life, such as the dream state found in Nerval’s Schlegelian prose Aurelia who, by the way, translated some of Heine’s German poetry into beautiful French prose. To continue the thread, sometimes the poetic prose seems to travel on its own accord, emulating music in Thomas DeQuincey’s Dream Fugue and leading eventually to the so-called automatic writing of the early 20th-century surrealists.

Mentioning automatic writing brings me back again to Schlegel—where liberal democracy shapes the sentence: “Poetry,” he said, “is republican speech, a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote.” In this telling, a sentence is not a syntax under the control of and fully ordered by an invisible, abstract power and utilizing a homogeneous language sanctioned by that power, but occupies a syntax full of independent subjectivities. To return further to the beginning of this prose poetry journey, Coleridge’s glimmering, apparently innocent notebook entry on urine contributes silently, through the constantly expanding web of connections in PM3, to the larger political critique of genre and language that these radical Romantic poets set for themselves.

Finally let us ask: who is the agent of the turbulent innovative poetics we describe in PM3? This recovered poetics of Romanticism reconfigures the traditional notions of the Romantic self, so prominent in institutional Romanticism. In 1820 Shelley summarized the standoff: “Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God & Mammon of the world.” As he sees it and anticipating the view of PM3, poetry is incompatible with the principle of self associated with what he and his Cockney poets considered the ego’s hunger after “fame” in bourgeois capitalist society.

In standard readings valorization of “self” seems to occur as a basic inclination and endpoint. Claims Stephen Prickett in his 2010 anthology European Romanticism: A Reader, radical politics only impedes the process of the “creation of ‘self’.” As a “direct consequence of revolutionary activity” or of “sexual and social transgression,” the poets’ creation of a sense of self somewhat mournfully resulted from their having been exiled. Such a figure is beset by failure and by pathos and inactivity, or ineffective activity.

How different is this rather static version of self from Blake’s “I must create a System or be enslaved by another mans.” The “I” comes into focus as a self only as it absorbs itself, with difficulty, into an activity outside itself. It is not being but, as Blake says, action that counts: “the most sublime act is to set another before you.” In spite of institutional Romanticism insisting upon the centrality of self as being, which means finally the self as ego-consciousness, the Romantic poets themselves emphatically say otherwise as they look towards the world. To name but a few famous instances, there is Keats’s “chameleon poet” who “has no identity but who is continually informing other bodies and characters”; Shelley’s love, the “great secret of morals,” a “going out of one’s own nature,” a poet being one who “participates in the eternal, the infinite and the one”; Emily Dickinson’s remarking to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person”; Charles Baudelaire’s “I” with its “irresistible appetite for the non-I”; and of course Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre,” I is the other. These ideas become central to modern and contemporary innovative poetics, all the way from a modern version of the “vatic,” to instances of the “diasporic” imagination of persons as exiles, subalterns, women, and laborers, to forms of total immersion into text itself.

In all of these examples, Adorno’s definition of lyric applies: “the subjective expression of a social antagonism.” Self comes into being as a critical consciousness prepared to create by, as Sean Bonney says, “interrupting” a controlled space, or occupying it. Bonney summarizes Rimbaud’s meaning of “I” and following Rimbaud, his own in his excellent book of poems Happiness: “The long systematic derangement of the senses,” the “I is an other,” he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s clear, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is. Obviously you could read this as a simple recipe for personal excess, but only from the perspective of police reality. . . . The systematic derangement of the senses” is the social senses, ok, and the “I” becomes an “other” as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. . . seeing as language is probably the chief of the social senses, we have to derange that.” This account of the poetic seems to follow the form of Romanticism we describe in PM3, in its dissolution of that bourgeois subjectivity, which strives for serenity, autonomy, and control. Rimbaud’s and Bonney’s “I,” on the other hand, acts and occupies outside of itself, in order to “engage with ideas that have been erased from the official account.” Hardly disinterested or serene, it feels the pressure of “police reality” and “the sound of the collective I being pushed back into its individuality.”

The poetic “I” comes into being at moments of intense pressure and conflict in order to act, interrupt, derange and reveal what has been repressed or erased in the official account. This “I” interrupts police reality through derangements of official form and syntax: the “I” a dangerous agent of formal experiment and innovation. With this view of Romantic poetry and poetics, no wonder that institutional Romanticism wants to promote a nostalgic fantasy Romantic poem of transcendent selfhood, a consoling monument to bourgeois subjectivity and identity and to the social status quo. No wonder it wants pastness to be one of Romanticism’s attributes when in fact Romanticism provides a vibrant historical groundwork for poetry’s participation in social change. No wonder it discourages the ideal reader of PM3, as well as contemporary radical poets looking for a usable past, to open themselves to a vibrant global poetry that envisions a genuine plurality of voices speaking in unanticipated forms to, as Thoreau said, wake its neighbors up.