Constellations, Contemporaneity, and Coltrane: A Conversation with Tres Pyle

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In his latest book Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism (Fordham University Press, 2013), Forest (Tres) Pyle asserts that certain poetic texts “produce a radical engagement with the very processes by which we conceive of the aesthetic, those processes by which the world is not merely known, but felt—and felt as an effect of representation” (5). This model for a poetics of history draws on a rich web of sources, from Shelley, Benjamin, and de Man to John Coltrane, Todd Haynes, and Cy Twombly, in which constellations of aesthetic experience, not unlike signs and flowers, are self-originating. They “flash up” like flares in a night sky whose apprehension, always possible but never determined, is felt with something of a shiver. In this conversation, Tres and I discuss the poetry, music, painting, cinema, and scholarship that make him shiver, focusing on how this constellation of art, artists, philosophy, and criticism, which spans two centuries, has shaped his approach to understanding and teaching Romanticism. That which makes the Romantic poem particular, Tres says, those characteristics around which we have organized a canon and a name, are precisely what challenge periodization in the first place. If Ian Curtis exhibits a sense of possession that summons up Coleridge, then how are we to reconcile historical specificity with aesthetic continuity? What are the “strange subterranean force[s]” that exert themselves in “adventurous poetic forms, musical examples, cinematic forms, or the visual arts?” Since this conversation, Tres and co-editor Jacques Khalip have assembled a collection of essays that addresses these questions. With essays by Ian Balfour, Sara Guyer, and Gayatri Spivak, among many notable others, Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism (Fordham University Press, 2016) inquires into the implications of Agamben’s notion of contemporaneity, as an adherence to one’s own time through disjunction and anachronism, for studies of Romanticism. As a constellation itself, the book not only illuminates certain shadows, or future anteriors, of Romanticism as they irrupt in Benjaminian now-time, but it also postulates Romanticism itself as a trope that dramatizes—or “detonates”—such now-time by forcing an experience precisely with that which has been passively deposited into the archives of historical time. It is this sense of Romanticism “with its tentacles extended into the future” that drives our conversation.

Constellations, Contemporaneity, and Coltrane: A Conversation with Tres Pyle

Forest Pyle in conversation with Chet Lisiecki
University of Oregon and Colorado College


We would have a fine time living in the night. - Ian Curtis, “Transmission”

Chet Lisiecki: Who taught you about Romanticism and how has this influenced your own pedagogy?

Tres Pyle: I remember, as an undergraduate, already being drawn to Keats and Shelley and Romantic poetry in general. Even in high school I remember reading “Ode to the West Wind.” And I grew up on a cattle ranch in west Texas. There the west wind usually brought either dust, or cold, or storms. So I remember reading this exquisite poem and thinking “what a strange ode,” you know, “what a strange thing.” It was as if I were in a radically different ecosystem than the romantic poets. There was always a kind of weird resonance that I felt with them, and I was really drawn to poems such as “Ode to the West Wind” or “The Prelude.” Then in college at UT Austin I had a teacher named Charles Sherry, who’s still teaching now at the University of Arizona, who taught a course on Romanticism. And it felt as if, when we were reading the Defence of Poetry, when we were reading Shelley, that it was speaking a language I already knew and felt. And at the time I didn’t notice that he was a student of de Man’s, had studied with de Man at Cornell, so that there were inflections of a kind of deconstructive and phenomenological reading already happening there. And in some ways it felt like a second skin. I remember reading, as a freshman, the Signet edition of Keats’s poems, which was introduced by Paul de Man, and I remember finding it both incredibly difficult but also exhilarating to think about the poems in this way. So those were my earliest models, but of course I worked with Gayatri Spivak, who we don’t often think of as a Romanticist. But when I was working with her, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, she was still writing essays on Coleridge and Wordsworth and regularly teaching and thinking about Romantic poetics and Kantian philosophical aesthetics as manifest in Romanticism. So I felt like my education in Romanticism started early and never stopped; it just found different avenues and conduits.

Chet: So what to you constitutes an introduction to Romanticism, and what contemporary cultural artifacts do you draw on when you’re teaching?

Tres: Some of the things that have been really important to me in trying to think about a fundamental Romantic interest certainly are the question of aesthetic experience and the Romantic concern with the nature of aesthetic experience, poetics that are devoted to the aesthetic, whether they are ekphrastic poems or poems in which nature itself takes on an aesthetic dimension, an aestheticized dimension. The questions of the sublime and the beautiful are really interesting pedagogically for getting students to think about Romanticism. And for that I’ve always liked to go back to Kant, even if I’m teaching a lower-level Romantic poetry class or introduction to Romanticism. We’ll read “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” or “Mont Blanc” alongside passages or extracts from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to think about how refined and interesting and distinct the thinking about aesthetics is, from Kant through the Romantics, and to sharpen my students’ own critical and aesthetic attentions. So to do that I try to help them read the poems in such a way that certain poems not only want to represent these aesthetic judgments (the sublime and beautiful), but also become them, become examples of them.

I often find it helpful to look at contemporary instances of this and, depending on the historical moment, I’ve had students listen to Patti Smith’s Horses as an example of a kind of sublime experience and put that alongside a song by Nick Drake that always strikes me as a kind of popular example of sheer beauty. One of my favorite examples is John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” We listen to standard versions of it and then listen to Coltrane’s own versions where he goes off on that soprano sax and you don’t quite know where you’re going, in the sense of the circumferences of our comprehension being shattered by these sounds. I think of this as one way of trying to get students to recognize concretely what that might feel like or look like. So it’s often contemporary pop or jazz or musical examples, and then visual examples as well. I try to bring in contemporary paintings and representations of paintings that seem to either function within a kind of harmoniousness of beauty or push an apprehension that seems to break the boundaries or frames of comprehension.

Chet: Which artists?

Tres: Cy Twombly is someone who I’m interested in, in part because he’s so interested in Romantic poets. He’s a painter who has always interested me in part because of the sheer scale of his work and his ability to work within moments of delicacy and beauty in his canvases, on the one hand, but also with a kind of energy that seems to push beyond, into the realm of the sublime. I feel with Twombly I can move back and forth between those registers. I’m also interested in the poetry of Frank O’Hara in part because he seems the modern poet most engaged with Keats but also engaged with ekphrastic tradition, linking this back to the romantics. So it’s his own interest with the visual, or poetic representations of the visual, that has led me to think about him and his thinking about paintings as well.

Chet: Do you have any specific assignments or activities for students that help facilitate analysis of a painting by Twombly or a Nick Drake song?

Tres: I taught a course called “The Romanticism of Contemporary Culture” in which I presented case study examples, pairing a moment in music and a poet. For instance, one example that I’ve been drawn to is to have students read “Kubla Khan” and try to think about that iconic poem and its willingness to immerse into the strange experience that Coleridge himself seems to be afraid of, terrified by. We think about the connections between this poem and some performances by Ian Curtis from Joy Division—not only the songs, like “Transmission” or “Shadow Play,” but some of the televised versions we have that display the strange sense of possession that he seems to exhibit in these performances, the sense that he’s being overtaken by something. And what I ask students to do is find their own analogue or moment, making it clear that this isn’t a canonical body of the contemporary Romantic sublime or contemporary Romantic beautiful but my own attempt to find these constellations or connections. So the task for them is to find their own and find ways of trying to form those.

Chet: I wanted to ask you now about a class that you haven’t yet mentioned, your class on the image, which has had a profound effect on my own work on modernist aesthetics and politics. Could you speak some about the genesis of this class, its evolution, how you see it changing the next time you teach it?

Tres: The Romantic Image is a book by Frank Kermode, written in 1957, and this was a really important book for me early on. What I found interesting was how the notion of the image disappeared from Romantic studies, substituted by probably more precise notions of figures, rhetorical analysis more closely linguistically attuned than the notion of the image. But I was also interested in some early work by de Man on the image and emblem in Yeats and thinking about how this fascination with the image might in fact connect us back to more contemporary understandings of the circulation of the image in a post-Baudrillardian world where the image seems to circulate without anything that it necessarily represents. This free-floating circulation of the image. So these two things fascinated me. One is this very contemporary interest in the image, this older slightly outmoded notion of the Romantic image, which interestingly for both Kermode and de Man extended into Yeats. So it wasn’t simply the Romantics as such but Romanticism with its tentacles extended into the future, so that now suddenly it challenged the notion of periodization. The image is not something that just belongs to Romanticism; it clearly belonged to modernism. And imagism, as much as it wanted to distinguish itself from Romanticism, I felt still had this Romantic subterranean dimension to it that might then be connecting with our new fascination with the circulation of images. So I wrote an essay on de Man and the image, the central reading of which was “Kubla Khan,” as a way of thinking about images as self-originating, things that just emerge and irrupt, and both the seductions and the perceived dangers of the image functioning with its own agency. And that was the impetus for the course and beginning to think about the image now and then and in the future, how those would tie together Romanticism, modernism, and a contemporary way of understanding why the image is at the core of so much contemporary theoretical discussion.

Chet: In that vein, following up on the article you wrote on de Man and “Kubla Khan,” how has your own research informed your pedagogy?

Tres: You know it’s such a truism to say that our pedagogy is informed by our research and vice versa, this mutual interplay, but I do find that the poems I find myself feeling solicited to address or come back to are those that have these fascinating pedagogical moments or questions that emerge around them, whether it’s voice or tone or the preposterousness of when Shelley says to the west wind, “Be thou me.” Students can sometimes roll their eyes at the extravagance of that apostrophe or the strangeness of “Kubla Khan.” So these moments of interest or resistance become the sites of a way of thinking about revisiting them. I often have found myself writing about poems that raise these interesting questions in the classroom. And then I found in some ways that the examples that I want to use in order to explain or develop this thinking about Romanticism is often for me a way of really pushing at ways of seeing contemporary culture itself . . .

At this moment a student came to the door to drop off an honors thesis. Placing the thesis on his desk and pointing at it, Tres continued . . .

Tres: That’s an honors thesis that she’s turning in on the relationship between Keats’s poetics and Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and the project grew out of this course on Romanticism and contemporary culture. In fact an early version of this was to think about Owen’s early interest in romanticism and how his version of it takes on—even as he increasingly becomes an antiwar poet—it continues a version of Keats’s negative capability and fascination with fragmentation.

Chet: I’m going to be looking a lot at Wilfred Owen for my next book project, Lyric and Trauma, which will place discussions that scholars like you and Sara Guyer are having about Romanticism, and how it’s continued “living on,” in the context of trauma studies, covering the period from World War I through the Holocaust and focusing on lyric moments in mixed-genre holocaust narratives but also texts like Mrs Dalloway.

Tres: You know Sara has an article coming out on Gerhard Richter and Romanticism in which she thinks about Richter’s own embrace of Romanticism and what it means now to revisit it. Not to disavow it but to revisit it in that particular political context. She reads the whole series of the Baader-Meinhof stills as well as his other abstract paintings. And it’s funny, you know, because I was first introduced to Richter by Sonic Youth, by Daydream Nation. The cover is a Gerhard Richter still. It was one of those moments that was so exquisite: Sonic Youth introduced me to Richter and then Richter’s own work has taken on this fascinating dimension of Romantic revisitation.

Chet: You’ve already answered this question in part, but I still want to ask it in case there is anything you want to add. To what extent does literary theory, and deconstruction in particular, figure in your teaching of Romanticism?

Tres: For me the remarkable thing about deconstruction is not that it was a theoretical agenda or program but rather a practice of reading. It was a practice of pushing at the assumptions and implications of reading and trying to read as closely as possible not to determine what texts mean but rather how they mean and how they perform. And I find that it perhaps sounds sort of new critical, but I always found that to be a way, pedagogically, of liberating the classroom as this site of mutual shared investigation of how texts are working. It’s certainly the case that many of the deconstructive theorists who are most important to me read these Romantic poems and read them really closely, and that’s important for my own research and thinking, but it’s really the shared practice of reading that I find most exciting about that. Not as an invitation to theoretical arguments but really as a practice that students can come away with whether they know they’re reading deconstructively or not.

Chet: On a related note, how do you see the “project” of Romanticism persisting into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

Tres: Defence of Poetry is such an important text for me. I remember first reading it, not understanding it entirely, but from the beginning it always struck me that it’s a poetics of history. It’s a defense of poetry in some sense but it really is a way of imagining poetry as a kind of non-chronological, historical force that—you know, for Shelley, one feels poetry irrupt, and there are these historical irruptions of poetry and that irruptive force of poetry, which lends to poetry its own agency, the spirit of its own age as a moment of irruption, strikes me as a way of thinking about a poetics of history. I remember reading Benjamin and thinking, these theses on the concept of history, this is Shelley, this is Shelley’s argument, that these moments or events sometimes gestate and wait until the moment in which they can be read. Like stars in the night need appropriate times to be seen and flash up. So I think that that model—the model of Romanticism not as something overlooked or missed or as something that persists as a kind of dominant, but as a strange subterranean force that continues to exert itself often in what I think of as adventurous poetic forms or musical examples or cinematic forms—is a way that it continues to “persist.” Not as Raymond Williams would call the dominant, but not simply as a residual either, in the sense of something in the past, but something that continues to exert an emergent force even if it belongs to the past.

There’s an example that I often use. Todd Haynes has this great film called Velvet Goldmine, and the beginning of the film has always struck me as an outtake from “Theses on the Concept of History.” In this scene he imagines this world in which Oscar Wilde has come from one of these constellations in space, landed at a doorstep in Dublin in 1854, and appears as a kind of dandy with a green broach. Oscar Wilde disappears entirely from the film, but the broach itself is discovered by this boy being bullied in a schoolyard fight. He finds the green broach and in this gorgeous moment, his lips are bloodied, he looks in the mirror and transforms the bloody lip into lipstick as he’s looking at himself and smiling, imagining that one day the “whole stinking world” would be his. And it’s this redemption of this moment that irrupts, as the next scene is the irruption of glam rock in the streets of London. As if that possibility, that irruptive possibility of something buried and hidden, can suddenly, in an impossible but beautiful utopian fantasy, take place. And the poetry is there in the streets. And that model, that cinematic representation of Oscar Wilde connects to Benjamin and to Shelley and to Wilde himself as a kind of model of a poetics of history, as a kind of redemptive moment not always available but always possible. And that’s the way I see Romanticism continuing to work in the twenty-first century.

Chet: Do you see resonances of this understanding of Romanticism, or poetry, in Adorno’s essay “Lyric Poetry and Society?”

Tres: I do, and I think that’s a really interesting example. He doesn’t invoke Benjamin, as they’re still having arguments at this moment, but he in some sense does seem to be invoking that kind of moment as something not assigned to a reactionary past but part of something to be a kind of, for him, dialectical moment that is irruptive and resistant.

Chet: If you were teaching a course on romanticism and the contemporary—and maybe you could think of a couple courses, both a lower-division course and an upper-division or a grad seminar—what do you think would have to be on the syllabus?

Tres: I think Velvet Goldmine would have to be on the syllabus for either as a really exquisite film for thinking about culture in this way. Certainly at the lower-division I’m really interested in the film Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch, in which William Blake is a gunfighter. The way it models history, thinking about poetry and the western, is a fascinating undoing and rethinking of that whole project. When I teach lower-division, I really try to think about these poets and form those constellations. So I would read for instance “Kubla Khan” alongside the Joy Division example I was referring to, and think perhaps both of them in terms of Bataille, particularly Visions of Excess and his notion of expenditure and the privileged instance.

Chet: I’ve tried to teach Bataille several times at the undergraduate level, and it hasn’t really worked. What do you teach by him, and do you have any tips for this?

Tres: I teach “The Notion of Expenditure,” which, again, I teach not to think of as a kind of theory of something but as having a performative element. I teach “The Sacred” and “Sacrifice,” both very brief essays that develop the notion of the privileged instance. And that notion of the privileged instance can dovetail with Wordsworthian notions of spots of time and these lyrical bursts that take place. So I try to think of these irruptive moments as “captured in images” but also that the true history of the past is an image, so what is the nature of that truth as image, and in this way we try to think about these irruptive moments. So once they get over the thought of, “oh my God, what are we reading,” these texts can really be productive. And these are texts that I would teach at undergraduate and graduate levels.

I think that at the graduate level it’s interesting to teach Badiou and Rancière alongside each other. Rancière in part because of the attempt to reclaim in the aesthetic regime a Romantic notion, one that I find a little too easy and democratic. But it’s interesting to read him alongside Badiou who seems . . . desperate isn’t the word, but vigilant in his attempt to rid all forms of philosophical thinking from its dangerous intimacy with Romanticism, particularly the intimacy with poetic language that he sees as forming. So it’s interesting to see this contemporary theoretical debate, which may be the last major debate of the master thinkers in France, still orbiting around problems in romanticism. So that’s something I would do at a graduate level. But I think a lot of the examples work in helping graduate and undergraduate students begin thinking about visual as well as literary representations and how those function. I would read more Roland Barthes in that model because I think in his late work in particular the notion of the punctum or the third meaning continue to resonate with that model of Romantic experience, aesthetics, and judgment.