[Text of a rather miserable paper given at the University of Plymouth last May. This was the starting point for the recently published essay in Chicago Review, and stumbles around a bit, as usual. Still, it says things that the larger essay didn’t get round to, so I thought it worth posting here. I seem never to have written down the references, but they’re hardly obscure]
What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?
Despite the unedifying vacuity of most assertions about the “power of poetry,” poems remain something of an affront. The best contemporary poetry, at least, is that which speaks in tones of powerfully unstable intransigence, which unfolds in damaged antagonism in relation to the conditions of its production, which refuses to allow those conditions to confer upon the poetry an a priori sense of autonomous resistance, but which compels its readers to confront the questions it poses as the means by which that resistance could itself be forged in the gift or trial of expression, and which by its gift or trial, or by the gift of its trial, is an object worth living with at least until the powers of its expressive mobility become otherwise than absolutely essential to the survival of our atrophied and melancholy imaginations. These criteria are not arbitrary or fantastic, but the vital characteristics of the poetry now most in need of our attention and support, and most often also the poetry lost among the grandiose and airy claims about the “power” of the genre more generally, whenever those claims are made in the facile culture columns of the mainstream press, literary or otherwise. A just and committed analysis of poetry’s “power” would cease the meaningless assertions of violently affirmative transformation that the vocabulary connotes, as if poetry were an essential force which acted upon the world through its strength of moral fiber and high-minded ideals. If poetry has “power” it does not consist in these reflexive character-traits of the kind of historical subject for whom the world is indeed something to be acted upon, influenced and transformed at will. It would instead consist in the negative image of such a subject: in the body of one trampled beneath the various forms of real material power – state, economic, sexual and racial – in the service of which we are most disastrously animated. In relation to this body and those like it, the affirmative sense of poetry’s “power” can only speak – and critically ventriloquize its poetic objects – in tones of charitable or tragic pity, in the voice of universal lament that reminds us of the existence of inequality and injustice (or worse, of “death” or “tragedy” in general) but which is content to identify this fact and rest assured that we have noticed it too, perhaps on the way to the reading or the gallery opening. Lots of poetry is written purely in order to provide for the model of poetic affirmation the Duplo blocks of subjective whimsy that it requires to maintain a kind of contemporary structural coherence (criticism may pluck its historical object-examples with great freedom and alacrity – there will always be succour available in the form of a classic). It is written, in other words, to be praised by its blurb-writers for having identified precisely the tone of our contemporary moment, or the touching manner in which distant suffering is trapped behind our iPad screens, or the commoditization of everyday life that has still, miraculously, left slivers of everyday life un-commoditized so that New York or South London gallery poets and Brighton performance poets can notice them, the slivers, and then write poems about their commoditization. This kind of poetry will not be amenable to the criticism of poetry’s negative powers because it has none: it is, even in its most depressive positions, all thumbs up.
One way in which we might approach what I am calling, perhaps after Keats but not really, poetry’s negative powers, is through the identity and peculiar grammatical purchase of unanswerable questions. The best and most compelling contemporary poetry is a fit of unanswerable questions; that is to say, it is sustained by an attachment to the world that is made from an impossible address to a subject who cannot answer. Unanswerable questions should be distinguished from, though they may at times be coterminous with, the category of apostrophe as its most famous modern theorists define it: the figure which “makes its point by troping not on the meaning of a word but on the circuit or situation of communication itself,” and which thereby figures the “temporality of writing” in scenes of either completed or frustrated reconciliation between poet-author and the natural or inanimate world. It is the optative character of apostrophic verse, its “impossible imperatives” in Johnathan Culler’s sense, that is most closely related to unanswerable questions, except the questions that I am interested in – whether posed directly in the language of poetry as questions or expressed by some textual or metatextual demand, however complex – do not point towards “reconciliation” as such but towards the consummate experience of its suspension. Unanswerable questions do not figure the fictional harmony of subject and object but the experience – intense, interminable, prosaic, or parodic – of their incompatibility. They are the hallmark of a radical art of non-constructive criticism. They do not offer to heal damaged life, to find alternative means of succour or sustainability, or to rhetorically present an intersubjective encounter with an absent other as the model for an ethical ideal. To read unanswerable questions closely is to ask with Anne Boyer, in her essay ‘Questions for Poets,’
Is the trial of today that if there is no answer in and as poetry then all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions? Or is it that all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions and the answer to them is almost always ‘no’? Is it to keep as a counter-poetry a record of each answer ‘no’?
Boyer’s essay, itself composed entirely of questions, reads Whitman’s injunction that the “direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today” ironically, as a form of collective interrogation of the contemporary through an address to the tribe. These are questions for poets, both addressed to them and for them to ask, questions the logical and speculative power of which is to be found in their grammar of persistent negativity. Each new question threatens to cancel its precedent by the urgency of address all exude. The very form of the essay asks, not altogether pessimistically, whether “the trial of the poet that is today [is] an arena in which we perform only in fidelity to the tradition of what is unanswerable?” What are the forms of attachment, relation, intransigence or antagonism that such a trial would effect?
The first line of Lisa Robertson’s book-length poem Cinema of the Present (2014) with which I began, “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?,” is in one sense performative, jovial and benign: it opens a poem of one-hundred and six pages with an invocation designed to unsettle its reader, but the reader need not be unsettled for long: the poem contains hundreds of other lines, each content to lean patiently against the left margin in splendid, double-line-broken isolation from its neighbours. There is no narrative logic to the poem; or at least, narrative per enjambment dissolves as each new line is built not from the semantic coordinates of the previous, but from the futural presence of the line’s lexical, semantic and grammatical companions elsewhere in the poem. Each line reads like the beginning of a poem that could become Cinema of the Present. The lines of the poem do not so much break as replace each other. Thus the reason for the first line’s capacity for insouciance also bears upon the quality of its terminal unanswerability. The poem’s opening page dramatizes the pleasurable ease with which any self-interruption of your “condition” is erased, overridden or simply forgotten; it continues:
You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.
A bunch of uncanniness emerges.
At 20 hertz it becomes touch.
A concomitant gate.
At the middle of your life on a Sunday.
A dove, a crowned warbler in redwood, an alarm, it stops.
You set out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.
A downtown tree, the old sky, and still you want an inventory.
You were an intuition without a concept.
A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis.
To pose the question “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?” at the very tip of the long poem Cinema of the Present is to identify a “problem” of constitution and to keep it, gently but insistently and firmly, in the possession of the second-person subject around whom the entire poem orbits. For “me” to answer this question would be a legitimate but catastrophically self-involved gesture of affirmation. There is no limit to what or whom “you” are or what it is that “you” do, but “you” are always potentially the problem for which there is an unidentifiable “condition,” and it is that “condition” that remains the inscrutable and universal motor of the entire work. The poem’s seemingly endless iterations of possibility are themselves universally in train to the endless arbitrariness of their determination. How is it possible for this subject to identify the condition of their own problematic? As the poem continues, the questions begin to accumulate. Here is another excerpt from the middle section of the poem, the opening gambit now pluralized:
What are the conditions of a problem, if you are the problem?
It was a kind of dance music from the plains you hear at nighttime from far above.
What city are you seeing?
Ah, the true and fluent beauty of mass protest!
What do you believe about form?
And yet incomplete.
What if there were a life that sustains life?
You had drunk only half of the wine.
What if your only witness were an animal?
The problem of solitude, what was it to you?
What is a pronoun but a metaphor?
You’re bent to a book as the uprising unfurls.
What will you be, then?
You’re absolutely in love with trees.
What will you do next?
Each has a horoscope.
What will you do when you’re human?
At this point in the poem the roving address incorporates the abstract, even cliché extremes of proximal solitary endeavor on the one hand, and distant collective insurrectionary activity on the other. Taken on their own, the questions herein do not always appear to be unanswerable. The question, “What will you do next?,” for example, does not exert a particularly onerous pressure on any environment of possible activity. But read in the form in which they appear together on the page inflects even the most innocent of these questions with a desperate tension between their utterance and any possible context of their answerability. The various conditions of a problem that “you” are has by this point in the poem taken on the affective dimensions of the material conditions that maintain the greatest possible distance between “you” and the “fluent beauty” of the “mass protest” witnessed with a whimsical sigh of romantic spectatorship. It is beautiful because you are drunk, despite your sensible conservation of “half of the wine.” The “uprising unfurls” as a condition of this separation, which is not a separation the abolition of which the poem can propose, condone or even gesture towards. But neither does the poem’s proposition of the relative scale of “you” and “distant mass protest” allow those two objects to exist in lamentable and comfortable isolation from one another. It at once objectivizes and internalizes that distance as the very “problem” that “you” are. It makes of “protest” itself the object of a scopophilic cathexis reminiscent of the enthusiasm with which the uprisings of the Arab Spring were greeted, with staggering technological sycophancy, as the “Twitter revolution.” If Boyer’s formulation of the question, “Is the trial of today that if there is no answer in and as poetry then all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions?,” then what the questions in Cinema of the Present do, and the list of questions that Cinema of the Present is, figure that trial, at least in part, as the ironic exhaustive recapitulation of human powers in the midst of their terminal and inalienable solitude. The negative universalism of the question “What will you do when you’re human?,” to which no answer can be given that does not divest the interlocutor of their humanity, and therefore their ability to constitute themselves as a political subject, is the emblematic caricature of this trial. But it is also the gruesome truth of the global inhumanity implicated in the question’s rhetorical backdraft. The lesson here is that such unanswerable questions nevertheless seem constantly to invite, in the face of their refusal to provide a constructive alternative to the conditions to which they appeal, something like the radical substitution of the world in which those conditions continue to make such appalling and predictable sense.