Monday, 20 April 2015

Poetry and the Work of Sabotage

Writing poetry necessitates acts of sabotage. Sabotage sustains the labour of composition by encouraging in the line of verse an agency capable of offering definition to the previous line by deliberately withholding it. Writing verse can do this not because it is not prose, or because the fantasy of composition involves an inherently contradictory process of abstraction, but because the “prosodic gift” is something which compels the temporal signature of living thought to register the traffic of its combination by re-creating the conditions for its survival. Poetic work must involve the sabotage of its mechanisms of production in order to emerge as poem. The phrase “prosodic gift” is Lisa Robertson’s, from the last 'Untitled Essay' in her Nilling: “Covertly the poem transforms [the] vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion.” Such a gift must be taken from the prosodic lab by the labour of composition in order to be freely available for giving; its value emerges from the impossibility of its final determination as thought or thinking. No free lunches, either. Giorgio Agamben is wrong about the “end of the poem” because the “poetic institution” he defines as such can never “[trespass] into prose” since to do so would be to keep the poem shut forever. What the “end of the poem” in fact necessitates is a theory of the possibility of the poem beginning to be a poem in the first place, that is, a theory of prosody defined by the structural incoherency of “prosody” itself to account for the comings and goings of each line in relation to every other. The poem sabotages prosody by appearing to present a finished product, when really what it proves is that the product of poetic thinking is always infinitely defective. Prosody constitutes the poem by covertly evading itself. All good poems are damaged goods. To coin a tautology in prose: the conditions for the survival of living thought are poems.

When I had written that paragraph it was late at night. I was in the middle of writing what I thought was going to be a much longer poem than it turned out, in fact, to be. I think what I was trying to articulate was something like the fear that writing the poem would not be able to carry on forever, which of course it duly didn’t. That’s a fear anyone can live with. But the twist point of risk and sustain seems to me at the moment to be something like this: writing a poem involves the need to continually discover the possibility of being able to continue to do so, and to do that it needs to prevent itself from securing the kind of survival it would otherwise continue, uninterrupted, to enjoy. Another way of saying this, or of perhaps saying something similar, is that there has to be a way that the poem can begin to unravel so that it feels like it can really begin. I’m paraphrasing, or para-reading, Lisa Robertson’s untitled Nilling essay again. Robertson’s incredible sentence I quoted above is followed by this, equally incredible one: “Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution.” Robertson is too much of a poet to allow this sentence to remain purely propositional: sequestered into its supposition is the whiff of final “determination,” of the security of ending up, of an odious somewhere. The somewhere that Agamben’s essay ‘The End of the Poem’ gets to, quite explicitly, is that “poetry should really only be philosophized.” The end of the poem “reveals the goal of its proud strategy: to let language finally communicate itself, without remaining unsaid in what is said.” Agamben’s intuition is to treat the threatening excess of tension and thought that he identifies at the of end the poem as potentially figuring what he calls the “mystical marriage of sound and sense.” This is because of what he thinks poetry is: the name given to the discourse in which the possibility of enjambment exists.

Agamben’s thesis would only really work, or apply, if it were possible to read a poem only from beginning to end, and only once. It relies on the distinction that poetry needs to be conceptually promoted to an object to be thought of, and not a thing to be read, in order to be amenable to the rigours of Heideggerian disclosure. The difference between Agamben and Robertson’s definition of what poetry consists of, and in, is instructive: whereas for Agamben: in poetry language can finally communicate itself; for Robertson: in poetry language listens, since in poems “speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, towards natality, which is anybody’s.” Robertson’s definition of a poem does not reside in the lines and ligaments of prosodic movement per se, but in a kind of roving co-embodiment: “the poem,” she says, “is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers.” The possibility of enjambment is emphatically lacking from Robertson’s recent long poem Cinema of the Present. It is a work in which every line attempts to start again – to begin the poem – and thus in some sense to sabotage the opportunity of its completion. That this opportunity is continually suspended is the condition for the poem’s capacity to keep going. All of its questions are the titles of its unanswered interior cartography. The poem sustains itself by the exponential accumulation of irresolution.

The question of what to sustain has been an enabling element in some recent correspondence I’ve shared with poets. Sustain seems related to two questions that are deeply interconnected: why write poems? And, how can I write the next word in any poem? These questions have seemed to me lately to be of roughly the same significance. The answers I can try to find for them may not be causally or structurally related; that is, the next word in the poem will not provide an answer to the question of why I write poems, although it may help me to answer the question of why I am writing this particular poem. The thicket of relationships the two questions together throw up – as well as the relationship between both questions and the question, or predicament, of sustain – enables something to come into focus which is the real subject of Robertson’s essay in Nilling, and that is the kinds of politics that only poems have the capability to present, promise or predict. Robertson’s poetic, as I understand it, is centrally concerned with the relationship between embodied social life and the distribution of that life, which is anybody’s, through the desiring speech of lyric utterance. The poem starts by refusing to determine the limits to the social life that its politics begins. Composition is the sabotage of poetry to account for the existence of poems.

All quotations from Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: University of California Press, 1999), and Lisa Robertson, Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012).

[Delivered at Work, Performance, Poetry, the Fourth Annual Northumbria Poetry Symposium, University of Thumbprint, 16th April 2015.]

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