Essaying / Poetrying


Poetic utilitarianism is nothing new. I’ve returned to this thought by way of the phrase “to do history,” my recent reading of Jed Rasula’s Syncopations, and a recent rereading of Pound’s The Pisan Cantos, about which Pound wrote in an explanatory note to the base censor in Pisa, “citations from Homer or Sophocles or Confucius are brief, and serve to remind the ready reader that we were not born yesterday.” Either to do history, or to do laundry—both phrases tend to privilege pragmatism over idealism, purpose over chance, product over process. Such dichotomies are tentative, but if taken as assumptions, then what does it mean “to do” poetry? Was Pound “doing history” while, at the same time, “doing poetry”? There are many ways to think through the question, but it seems to me that the poem itself would become a relatively fixed, purposeful object. In other words, the poem becomes “meant for” something outside of its own being.

Is it either desirable, or necessary (or both, perhaps, dialectically speaking...) to do poetry? Is poetry something that’s done? The ambiguity of the question is both silly and daunting: yes, ladies and gentlemen, poetry is dead—we’ve killed it. Of course poetry isn’t dead, just as the author isn’t dead (well, all this depends upon how we’re theorizing “death”—sorry, Roland), but what’s the status of poetry if one continually conceives of it as doable? Why think of poetry as that which one does or engages in? I’d much rather “poetry,” than “do poetry.” Consider poetry as a verb: to poetry.


We do have verbs that suggest “poetic action,” so to speak. Poetize and poetrize both come to mind. The former leaves us wanting, for it suggests feigning; in other words, one plays the old role of The Poet. Fakery. Poser and poseur. Poetrize means to compose verse, which leaves us trapped inside a utilitarian object-machine; in Deleuzean terms, we are still on the plane of transcendence. If poetry itself is a verb, though, it immediately becomes suggestive of process or flow, as well as actions or movements that engage, rather than that which is engaged to produce an object or product—in short, “to poetry” suggests a process of becoming, of which every poetic mark (observable and unobservable) is a trace of creation. To run: the runner. To fly: the flier. And therefore, to poetry: the poetryer


“The world compels our attentions in familiarly structured ways,” writes Jed Rasula, “so why develop a hyperbolic focus on just one of the structures and compel it to change?” Good question. Such an inquiry leads Rasula into the realm or, perhaps, the regime of material pragmatism: “To put it this way, of course, reverts to the tool model: poem as utilitarian artifact, communication device, or broadcast transmitter. As poets have commonly remarked (or complained), poetry makes nothing happen. Is the tool, then, dysfunctional? Might it not be the case that this says something, instead, about functionality, attesting to the scope of functional requirements permeating even the deepest levels of subjectivity?” There’s quite a bit to chew here, so permit me to begin by recalling Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice, in which one finds an extended treatment of “transparency.” I’m thinking in particular of “The Changing Face of Common Intercourse: Talk Poetry, Talk Show, and the Scene of Writing,” and “Against Transparency: From the Radiant Cluster to the Word as Such,” both of which discuss the assumptions that underscore utilitarian language use in poetry. The idea to glean here is that linguistic transparency and linguistic utilitarianism don’t always equal one another. See David Antin’s poetry as just one example of many. What’s called into question, really, is a catholic (that is, universal) conceptualization of the poem as a product that carries a unified “message.” The poem itself, as a “communication device” or “broadcast transmitter,” is as objectified as a radio, a television, or a cell phone. Through objects of communication, which are also objets d’art, the singular and transcendental poet speaks a message of timely wisdom in a tidily formed anecdotal pseudo-lyric. Poetic utilitarianism is nothing new, and this critique likewise is nothing new; in light of our verb “to poetry,” however, what happens to the poem that is no longer a product, no longer an object, no longer a vessel for a poet’s “message”?

Well, the poem becomes a reified matrix of traces. I may split hairs here, but reification and objectification are not the same animal. Reification—which means to regard the abstract as a material thing—suggests that poetry is always already ephemeral. The poem that is literally under one’s nose, in some real form, is just a trace of poetical ephemerality. A real book of poems, then, is the material iteration of such traces. In other words, the process of literary creation itself (leaving the problematic of “literary” aside for the moment) is poetrying—present participle and all—and the “product” is what’s left behind. Tracks. Or, as I’ve been saying, traces. An answer to the complaint that “poetry makes nothing happen” is to question the expectations placed upon the notion of the “message.” Of course, a message is supposed to somehow change the reader or listener in an intended way. When we poetry, however, we create. When we encounter the poem, we experience traces of creation that are open to a multiplicity of reading experiences. Functionality no longer carries utilitarian overtones.


And now for my next rhetorical shtick, I’d like to directly address all of the materialists in the audience. For a moment, I’d like for you to recall that, to Marx, the transformation of labor into a ruling power is termed “alienation,” which finds its source in commodity fetishism, or the belief that inanimate objects are valued due to their supposed power over human activity. In this light, consider Rasula’s comments on fetishism: “But poetry is nothing without matter and mutter, utterance and exigence. Its fetishism defines its utopian truth.” Again, to critique poetry as a form of fetish is nothing new, but if we conceptualize poetry as a verb, and the poem as a matrix of creatal traces, then the poem is no longer a functional object proper; thus, the poem no longer commands power over human activity; to recall Deleuze, the poem is no longer a “product” on the plane of transcendence. So much for the problematic of commodity fetishism. “The form of wood, for instance, is altered,” writes Marx, “by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.” Likewise, words are altered by making a poem out of them, whereby the “every-day thing” of “common” language is transformed “into something transcendent.” If we conceptualize poetry as a verb, then to read or to listen becomes an activity that empowers, that allows essaying (poet-trying, so to speak) through an encounter with traces of creation. When we are in the midst of a poem, we are in the midst of becoming and, thus, we are no longer bound to the plane of transcendence.