Almost thirty years ago I made what I thought was a convincing argument
contrasting Wordsworth's aesthetics of immanence with Coleridge's
In doing this I hoped to show how many aspects of what then seemed
postmodern had a very different lineage from the symbolist values
that had shaped modernism. Now I have to recognize several problems
with that argument, but, as is the way of thirty year retrospects,
I remain convinced that at core I got something rightif not
about sixties postmodernism than about a strand of contemporary poetics
that I find given exemplary articulation in Lyn Hejinian and Leslie
Scalapino's collaborative text Sight.
My major mistake was in treating Wordsworth as only a poet of immanence.
I did so in order to evade criticisms of Wordsworth's egotistical
sublime, and so also to evade the heritage of confessional writing
against which my postmoderns were attempting to define themselves.
But I got two things wrong. First, there is no evading the egotistical
sublime in Wordsworth: being able to exult in the "I" and
so to feel its expansiveness was for him a central aspect of immanence.
As we see in the great crescendo at the center of "Tintern Abbey,"
immanence for Wordsworth consisted in being able to feel paratactic
syntax expand to include within lyric celebration the furthest reaches
of the poet's exalted speech. Immanence meant that even this reach
of spirit could be as grounded in natural process as the meanest thing
that blows. Second, I was wrong, or at least terribly limited, about
why it might matter to pursue immanence. I was driven by the need
to find conceptual structures that could simultaneously justify what
poets pursued and be justified by what they accomplished. Now I think
one has to handle concepts like poetic immanence somewhat differently.
The crucial fact is not what the poets thought but how their thinking
made possible certain ways that language could be charged with affective
intensity and so take on exemplary affective resonance.
Now I hope that by addressing these mistakes I can provide a more
accurate and more consequential picture of why Wordsworth matters
for the study of twentieth-century poetry in general and especially
for contemporary concerns with how twentieth-century poets could use
language to establish and celebrate new ways of realizing immanent
values. Wordsworth matters first because of the curse that the egotistical
sublime was to become. High Victorian poets could not be content unless
their speakers could take on personal stances dignified by Wordsworthian
high eloquence. But they could no longer marry that eloquence to processes
of sensation or to modes of symbol making. So the affective basis
for self-projection came increasingly to have little but the poet's
imaginary identification with the role of poet as sustenance for lyric
eloquence. Here I will use a short poem by Matthew Arnold to illustrate
features of self-projection that become even more striking in overtly
Wordsworthian poems like "The Scholar Gypsy." Then I will
show how modernist rejections of romanticism might better be seen
as repudiations of Victorian versions of the romantic subject that
had lost the possibility of keeping the ego continuous with sensation.
My second mistake now has to enter this story. If we deal with immanence
primarily as a structure of ideas we simply cannot get back beyond
the modernist rejection of Victorian versions of the Wordsworthian
ego (which also all too often after 1815 became the actual Wordsworthian
ego). Arnold's versions of Wordsworth may have destroyed for the foreseeable
future the possibility of a poetry based on explicit value schemes
(in contrast to a poetry that composes values by how it inhabits particular
ways of attending to and composing experience). But if we treat the
poetics of immanence as primarily an emphasis on particular ways of
getting as much of mind as possible made continuous with the senses,
we can see that the anti-symbolist moderns and their heirs had to
reinvent, sans egotistical sublime, what Wordsworth sought as his
means of resisting the corrupt modes of feeling basic to social life.
Wordsworth is the godfather of at least one strand of contemporary
radical poetics because of how he enables us to escape the lyric heritage
that Victorian poetics imposed upon him.
Wordsworth can directly speak to contemporary imaginations because
he so tightly weaves the ego into elaborate textures of sensation,
then treats language as itself so affectively charged that it simply
continues sensation by other means. Moreover, by stressing sensation
as one locus of self-consciousness, Wordsworth also made it possible
to imagine at the other end of the ego, in effect, how poetry might
move beyond the individual subject to the direct modeling of interpersonal
subjective states. If the sensations can be rendered so as to be shared,
and if language is woven into the sensations, then the affects built
out of that weaving become available for anyone who can fully assume
the role of speaker of that specific linguistic formulation. By showing
how our affective intensities are grounded by the modes of attention
we adapt, Wordsworth also gives poetry a powerful social agenda that
need not be connected to any specific political one.
In order to develop this story, I will have to presuppose an audience
willing at least to entertain my description of Wordsworth without
demanding further elaboration. I want to put all my emphasis on the
path leading from Victorian versions of the lyrical speaking ego to
contemporary fascinations with the entirely embodied authorial sensibility.
Therefore, I will rest my case on three examples that I hope get to
the structural core of how our intimate psychological energies can
be differently distributed. Other poets, and other poems by my authors,
obviously will distribute these investments somewhat differently,
but I hope my examples provide the basic terms for characterizing
these differences. For Arnold I concentrate on his "Isolation.
To Marguerite" because this poem concisely makes visible both
the power and the problems involved in seeking Wordsworthian affective
satisfactions for the lyrical ego without Wordsworthian grounds. In
this poem Arnold tries to build a plausible lyrical self by substituting
for a failed love a projected identification with a nature now reduced
to analogues for the poet's own loneliness. Ultimately even that projected
affinity collapses into self-defensive fantasy as poetry yields itself
entirely to shoring up ego-defenses under the guise of lyrical sensitivity.
Then, once we see how slippery the lyrical ego can be, we are in a
position to appreciate why modernists were so leery of "emotion"
and so eager to replace that emphasis with the lyric exploration of
"feeling," an exploration whose fundamental possibilities
I think took shape in Wordsworth's Prelude. To exemplify what
modernists tried to make of this turn from emotion to feeling I will
turn to two short lyrics by William Carlos Williams.
Finally, I will take as my representative contemporary text a brief
section of Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino's Sight because
this text implicitly argues that Williams severely limits the domain
of feeling by subordinating its fluid aspects to the powerful objectifying
will of the artist as composer-antagonist (see Williams 186). From
the perspective of contemporary radical or investigative poetry, composition
is not so much a lonely forming of nature as it is a means of exploring
transitional sites intensifying complex interrelationships between
sensation and imagination. In effect Hejinian and Scalapino reexamine
the nature of feelings and find there resources for a model of authorship
quite different from Williams's. They present composition not as the
lonely giving shape to formed structures of sensations but as a reflexive
means of intensifying complex interrelationships between sensation
and imagination. My argument then takes the form of a historical progression.
For each model depends on its predecessor for its urgency and for
its self-definition. Yet it is also quite possible for each of the
models to be isolated as one possibly representative rendering of
affects important for contemporary life.
We need a few fundamental rough definitions in order to create a
working vocabulary for dealing with affective energies within lyrics.
Affect is for me the most general category for talking about how we
find ourselves caring about our involvement in particular situations.
Affects can be defined as states of the body experienced as inseparable
from the presence of imaginary projection. This distinguishes them
on the one side from sensations, which involve simple awareness of
bodily states, and on the other from beliefs, which can be articulated
without relation to bodily states at all. Sensations can trigger imaginary
projections, but imagination is not central to their modes of appearing
for us. Consider the difference between noticing a bird and noticing
that the bird's way of pecking reminds one of a certain person or
state of mind. Then think of making some argument about the bird,
for example that it is a finch, not a hummingbird. Here imaginings
might be present, but the discipline involved requires framing and
testing them, not exploring where they come from and how those energies
might generate additional connections. Affects often involve reasoning,
but we do not expect reasoning either to cause them or to direct them.
Even when reasoning controls our actions, it might not control the
affects. I may believe on rational grounds that I should not hit a
person a lot bigger than I am, but I may well stay angry and resentfully
plot another form of revenge, now the more elaborate because my anger
is mixed with shame at my weakness.
Once we establish a general link between sensation and imagination
at the core of affectivity, we can then distinguish two basic kinds
of imaginary projection, and hence between two basis structures of
affect, which I will call feelings and emotions. Each mode of imagining
in turn involves a different approach to agency, differences that
prove central in making the historical claims I will propose. With
emotions the imagination is synthetic. It projects causes, attaches
itself to objects, and projects courses of action or structures of
desire in relation to those objects. That is why emotions tend to
take place in terms of plots and to be correlated with the work of
cognitive inquiry. When I am angry with someone, I imagine performing
an action in relation to the person. More important, this practical
orientation positions me toward two kinds of possible knowings. I
have the potential of understanding something about myself because
of how I plot the anger, and I am likely to recognize certain features
of the person that I might not were I not invested in what might fuel
or diminish the anger. (But my investment can also lead me to distort
the importance of those traits I do see because emotions want to be
fed as much as they want to find resolution.)
Feelings can occur as aspects of emotions. But their fundamental
structure is quite different. With feelings, the imagination is participatory,
not synthetic. Feelings are much more a matter of the moment than
are emotions. Rather than seek their cause we simply attend to the
qualities of appearance that they make possible. Consequently feelings
appear usually as if they simply were extensions of the sensation.
They are not parts of plots but of processes set in motion by the
energies that metaphors bring into relation with the sensation. Even
the simplest feelings, like hunger, are projections into sensation.
Feelings come closer to the aesthetic when sensation tilts toward
some kind of fascination and partial identification for which no plot
seems plausible. Think of kinetic art, where simple magnetic charges
affecting filament-like tentacles seem inseparable from minimal but
fundamental desire. Or we might note the transition between watching
the bird I referred to earlier and recognizing with Elizabeth Bishop's
"Sandpiper" how the bird's activities take on anthromorphic qualities.
These two directions of the imagination also enable us to make useful
distinctions between moods and passions, the other two basic types
of affect. Moods are not quite feelings but they establish conditions
in which feeling tone becomes a pervasive force. Here feelings are
no longer attached to objects. Instead they seem continuous with some
overall state of the subject. But the continuity is insistently not
one for which we can provide a narrative, perhaps because moods seem
pervasive and so have no clear beginning and ending, only extension
and duration. Passions on the other hand are something close to super-emotions.
They are affective states circulating around plots within which the
status of the I is put substantially at stake. Love is a passion because
it defines who I am or who I want to be. Similarly civic emotions
like pride and consideration are usually passions, while emotions
exhausted in particular situations clearly are not passions. Momentary
anger for example can be distinguished from the passion of abiding
hatred; lust from love.
Making these distinctions has its ultimate payoff in showing us how
different emphases among the affects emphasize substantially different
orientations toward subjective agency, and hence toward how values
get constructed and pursued. And it is the differences in agency that
will underlie the historical tale I want to tell about poetry. On
the most general level we can say that emotions and passions invite
Lacanian analysis, since their objects are constructed for the imagination,
and the stakes involved shape what kinds of identities we can postulate
and pursue. Moreover this mode of imagining cannot be easily reconciled
with those who want to treat emotions as allied with reason. Emotions
do establish salience and do help us make perceptions relevant to
our actions and plans. But they do so always with an urgency and sense
of significance bringing to bear representations that are not quite
subject to reason, at least not without destroying the very affective
charge that reason seeks as its supplement. Feelings and moods on
the other hand tend not to rely on projections about ourselves as
having specific identities. They stress dependencies on what we respond
to, and they provide investments that bypass epistemic culture's usual
ways of establishing meaning and importance. If emotions invite Lacanian
analysis, feelings invite Levinasian ones in which we are aware that
we are not the source of consciousness but are in a response mode,
open to an otherness that exercises influence upon us.
We can build upon these general differences to isolate three particular
arenas in which these contrasts play themselves out by creating a
complex variety of psychological orientationsall of which become
resources for poetic experiments. For example we have to keep in mind
the relevance of classical oppositions between the passive and the
active dimensions of affective life. At one pole we treat the expressive
action as fundamentally symptomatic, at best a passive response to
forces from beyond the self and at worst a drastic displacement or
evasion of what observers might conclude that one is actually feeling.
At the other pole expression becomes a triumphant articulation, getting
clear on something that has been bothering a person or breaking through
so that the agent manages to participate actively in complex sets
of emotions. Affects can dominate agency and affects can enhance an
agent's sense of power and commitment. Second, we can cast the active-passive
distinction in spatial terms to characterize how borders of the subject
are constantly being negotiated. Some affects create states of intense
concentration: the self becomes the only active force in an indifferent
environment. Other affects distribute energies and investments so
that personality seems almost irrelevant: what matters is how one
experiences appearances taking on fresh vitality leading one to dwell
imaginatively beyond the self. Finally, it is often crucial to distinguish
different kinds of borders or passages among agents. Some affects
are presented as entirely specific to the subject: in experiencing
this way I recognize only my own distinctive commitments. But many
others have a very different structure. Think of religious emotions,
or the feelings we experience in crowds or audiences, or those around
natural scenes that move us because what they offer seems available
for everyone. Part of the power of art is its capacity to explore
the degree to which we can participate intensely in emotions not by
sympathizing with characters but by our direct awareness of the site
of emotion as itself public, and perhaps more stable and enduring
than any of the agents who experience it in given moments. Making
that sense of transpersonal affective site a basic source for artistic
experiment seems to me one of the great accomplishments of modernist
abstraction, although the emphasis has always existed in music.
I present this abstract picture as a tentative grammar for appreciating
the range for experiment that our affective lives afford artists and
writers. Once we know where to look, we can shift much of the energy
we have been putting into interpretation, the postulating of meaning
and purpose for actions, into the exploration of who texts ask us
to become if we participate in their particular ways of fusing sensation
and imagination. Now then I can turn to exploring how that participation
might take place in three quite distinct poems, the sequence of which
I hope has some metaphorical force as literary history.
Arnold's "Isolation. To Marguerite" is to me the quintessential
Victorian poem, intensely moving in its self-evasions and depressingly
challenging to Modernists eager to escape the processes of self-absorption
We were apart; yet, day by day
I bade my heart more constant be.
I bade it keep the world away,
And grow a home for only thee;
Nor fear'd but thy love likewise grew,
Like mine, each day, more tried, more true.
The fault was grave! I might have known,
What far too soon, alas! I learn'd
The heart can bind itself alone,
And faith may oft be unreturn'd.
Self-sway'd our feelings ebb and swell
Thou lov'st no moreFarewell! Farewell!
Farewell! and thou, thou lonely heart,
Which never yet without remorse
Even for a moment didst depart
From thy remote and spheréd course
To haunt the place where passions reign
Back to thy solitude again!
Back! with the conscious thrill of shame
Which Luna felt, that summer night,
Flash through her pure immortal frame,
When she forsook the starry height
To hang over Endymion's sleep
Upon the pine-grown Latmian steep.
Yet she, chaste queen, had never proved
How vain a thing is mortal love,
Wandering in Heaven, far removed.
But thou hast long had place to prove
This truthto prove, and make thine own:
"Thou hast been, shall be, art, alone."
Or, if not quite alone, yet they
Which touch thee are unmating things
Ocean and clouds and night and day;
Lorn autumns and triumphant springs;
And life, and others' joy and pain,
And love, if love, of happier men.
Of happier menfor they, at least,
Have dream'd two human hearts might blend
In one, and were through faith released
From isolation without end
Prolong'd; nor knew, although not less
Alone than thou, their loneliness.
We cannot summarize this emotion by any one labelif we could,
there would be no point in writing the poem. Self-pity is probably
the best general description, but we have to see the self-pity as
also purposive, as an attempt to come to terms with the pain of being
rejected as a lover. From my theoretical position then this poem invites
us to participate self-reflexively in a process of negotiating the
pain of rejection by the seductive ennobling promised by self-pity.
Expressing such elaborate symptomatic self-absorption is no easy task.
Yet Arnold accomplishes it magnificently, in the process establishing
a paradigm for how the Victorian age used a theater of nobility as
its means of managing the pains of the failures of nobility inseparable
from that dream. But self-reflection is a dangerous instrument. Arnold
may be Eliot's Hamlet, unable quite to get a grip on an emotion he
is doomed to keep repeating precisely because his sense of self-worth
depends on achieving closure. So an analysis of the affects in this
poem helps us appreciate from the inside how a Victorian ego tries
to build up its sense of identity through affect, and how in the process
it reveals serious problems with the imaginary projections of agency
inherent in that process. This analysis also shows us why Modernism
had to pursue very different affective priorities, priorities that
in turn require contemporary recastings of that modernist heritage.
In my view Arnold's is a great poem because it does not hide the
raw pain and desperation underlying the text's effort to achieve resignation
in self-pity. Even the basic structuring devices seem shaped by that
pain. The poem opens with a remembered "we" instantly displaced
into a needy "I" who has to serve as his own interlocutor.
The poem is the mind's dialogue with itself trying to convince itself
that this is nature's law for man. There are also two quite different
past tenses, one caught up in the life now only remembered, and one,
entering in the second stanza, that presents the speaker haunted by
subjunctive possibilities that he has to fight off. Confronting those
pasts is a bleak present threatening to swallow the future within
it: "Thou hast been, shall be, art, alone." Being true to
himself is inseparable from utter loneliness.
Yet Arnold's poem cannot stop with that absolute condemnation. Why?
One reason is structural. The poem's first three stanzas move from
the initial memory of a relationship to the pure acceptance of solitude,
now having learned not to "haunt the place where passions reign."
The last three stanzas go in the opposite direction, as if Arnold
could not be content with the personal resolution without also universalizing
the significance of his emotional state. Where stanza three ends by
encountering the apparent truth of his personal plight, stanza five
ends with an abstract generalization about that solitude. And even
then the poem remains restless. It may have arrived at the truth but
it has not yet contextualized that truth in a way that the ego can
accommodate. So Arnold adds two compensatory complications. He can
reach some connection with the unmating things that accompany his
loneliness. And, more important, he can position himself by an elaborate
contrast with those who though unmating still dream of two hearts
blending into one. His dazzling play on the boundaries of what can
and cannot be shared in loneliness makes his disappointment seem to
him ultimately ennobling. After all he learns from his suffering.
In fact he not only learns abstract truths, he also masters a new
position for himself in relation to nature. He in effect learns to
occupy its core, the one truly disillusioned person willing to accept
fully the loneliness to which we are all condemned.
My students find this final self-congratulatory move appalling. But,
older and lonelier, I want to keep sympathy for Arnold while recognizing
just how deeply self-deluding this bid for an ennobling lucidity is.
In effect we have now to read the poem backwards, recognizing how
much he works to secure a self-image and tracing the moves that in
seeming to make this possible also make it almost reprehensible. We
have to appreciate how a sense of pathos seems to haunt this particular
self-expressive process. So rather than see the situation entirely
through the speaker's interpretations we will shift to how the speaker
goes about constructing the self that for him seems capable of providing
a satisfying resolution to his pain. For that we should turn to those
moments when the expressive activity tries too hard or faltersquintessentially
in the poem's repetitions and in the central fourth stanza which I
passed over in discussing the structure.
Why the repetitions? The first one is pretty easy to handle. Our
speaker wants simply to say "farewell" to love, but he cannot
because something important would not be resolved by that gesture.
The obvious candidate for non-resolution is the state of his ego.
The "might have known" is not a sufficient ego position
from which to walk away. So he has to keep reworking the situation
until it seems that it was not she who chose to leave so much as it
was he who was helped to realize that he had given into illusion.
She tested and brought to the fore his ability to live with a full
grasp of loneliness as an absolute condition. So "farewell"
opens a condition of dialogue with himself and enables him to relegate
to a mistake his leaving his solitude for the life of passion. From
this new perspective her act of breaking their bond becomes almost
irrelevant. The important romance is with himself.
But there is not yet a self sufficient for him to cathect to in the
way that he had cathected to her. To get to that lovable self he needs
another, this time quite revealing repetition generating the fourth
stanza. Here he moves beyond recognition to fantasy, so that he participates
in the romance imagination at the core of passion, but only insofar
as he becomes the focus for those romance energies. To accomplish
this he recasts his shame at being rejected into shame at having given
way to this very way of imagining in romance terms. Yet we also realize
that the shame he postulates is not all the shame that he feels. For
his mistake was less in yielding to passion than in putting himself
in a situation where he could be rejected, where his own strange sense
that one can treat the heart as duty bound might not be sufficient
grounds for securing another's passion.
I cannot tell whether Arnold intended this level of exposure for
his speaker. I suspect he did not. But his third repetition offers
perhaps the most brilliant and most touching moment in this occluded
drama. For at the end of the fifth stanza the speaker reaches his
ultimate nadirthe realization of loneliness in past, present,
and future. No wonder that this repetition seems somewhat different.
Rather than simply echoing the previous expression this one seeks
a slight escape: some companionship is possible. For this speaker,
however, even that glimpse of weakness seems vulnerability, so we
get a fourth repetition which uses the figure of happier men as his
contrast to his own freedom from illusion. Partial concession makes
possible absolute repudiation. And here absolute repudiation turns
out to be both true for the speaker and false as an analysis of his
situation. At his most intense acceptance of loneliness, the speaker
is in fact desperately crying out for some kind of pity, or at least
some recognition of a nobility that depends on his pain over these
flimsy and needy contrasts. The poem's expressive intensity enables
the speaker to assert an independence entirely belied by the rhetorical
manipulations showing how badly he needs not only the posture but
someone to convince of the posture. The I produced by passion
seems an I desperately seeking a reflection, while in the process
undermining the possibility of getting mirrored back what it wants
to have seen.
History enters our story when we realize that our own readings quite
likely echo those for whom struggle against Victorian poetry was necessary
for survival. As readers become familiar with the poem they have to
experience the speaker's pathos along with his power. They are allowed
the gestures of nobility only with an accompanying consciousness of
all of the dependencies and pains such gestures must try to ignore.
From this perspective then it is not surprising that Arnold's speaker
becomes Eliot's Prufrock, forced to confront the displacing force
of his own need for passions which might produce desired imaginary
identities. Nor should it be surprising that one of Eliot's basic
theoretical concerns was to make sharp distinctions between emotions
and feelings, the former dependent on self-staging plots while the
latter afford affects more closely woven into the rendering of sensations.
In that concreteness one can hope for intensities and attachments
much less bound to the illusory project of constructing individual
For heuristic purposes, the best quick way to indicate what this
cultural shift involves is to turn to the lyrics of William Carlos
Williams. For much of the power of these poems consists in their knowing
how to resist becoming vehicles of emotion, and hence of plots involving
In Williams readers have to learn to accept what the moment gives,
and to have the discipline to engage the moment without attempting
to build upon it. Correspondingly, Williams shows how and why modernist
constructivism tries to keep the focus on how the art composes the
event rather than on how selves interpret and transform affect into
"meanings" and roles. The idealized imaginary individual
self has to give way to the floating modes of consciousness that can
be composed by an impersonal constructivist intelligence.
I will concentrate on two short poems, one stressing how the composition
of feeling thrives in its refusal of emotional build-up and the other
articulating Williams's very unArnoldian rendering of personal identity
within the lyric. "The Young Housewife" opens with the speaker
alone in his car passing a housewife who "moves about in negligee
behind/ the wooden walls of her husband's house." The poem ends:
Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling. (Williams 57)
On the most general level the poem's energies are gathered in a contrast
between what leads him to compare the wife to a fallen leaf and the
sound of dried leaves marking his departure and somehow contributing
to his smile. But I don't think we are intended to dwell much on this
general level. The poem's energies are focused on the possibility
of establishing concrete affective relations that depend on not letting
the scene become metaphoric. Instead we have to let the juxtaposition
of details do all of the work, without our irritable reaching for
dramatic or thematic models.
Mention of "her husband's house" somewhat melodramatically
sets the stage. In the first stanza everything is arranged, almost
ceremonious. The second stanza then shifts to quite particular feelings
gathering around the ways that her body contrasts with that order.
Each detail complicates the picture. Her shyness defines an attitude;
her uncorseted fleshiness indicates a simple voluptuousness; and her
stray ends of hair mark a minimal rebelliousness or at least freedom
to be something other than her husband's possession. Yet her freedom
is severely limited and not internalized at all, the freedom one might
say of a fallen leaf, attractive in its pure contingency and marginality.
It is crucial in developing this picture not to let the details add
up into some kind of traditional snap photograph rendered in words.
The details can be made to cohere. But we honor them best by keeping
a distance between them so that all seem stray hair momentarily taking
a particular pattern. Each detail then peeks out at us like an aspect
of the woman's spirit, unpossessed but also undirected and unable
to reach out to passers-by or to return whatever desire the watching
generates. And the watcher knows that the desire cannot be returned.
Accepting that is part of the texture of feeling preparing for the
speaker's final return to his own version of contingent and frustrated
freedom. We have to ask why the speaker smiles as he goes away. But
we also have to be satisfied with an explanation as partial as the
speaker's knowledge of the woman he watches.
In some respects the smile is ironic, or at least ruefully accepting.
Whatever elicits the metaphor of a fallen leaf turns out to be reduced
to the actual dead leaves filling the street. Contingency reigns.
But the smile also has a self-reflective dimension. The speaker finds
satisfaction I think in recognizing the pure momentariness of his
vision. His glimpse is not unlike her uncorseted presence, a slight
escape from being possessed. Yet one can trust that freedom, just
as one trusts the smile, so long as nothing more is asked of it. Any
effort to base meaning on the scene or to expand the self's role would
destroy this minimal freedom and reimpose the order in which husbands
own houses and others comply with the rules of ownership. Any effort
to make an emotion of this feeling would destroy what freedom is possible
and put in its place a problematic self having to play out a doomed
Arnoldian project of self-construction.
Williams's "Danse Russe" offers a more pronounced version
of this effort to redistribute affective energies so that self is
much less burdened than Arnold's by the need to rely on elaborate
imaginative constructions. The speaker hypothesizes dancing naked
in front of a mirror while everyone else in the household sleeps,
singing to himself: "I am lonely, lonely,/ I was born to be lonely,/
I am best so!" "Danse Russe" ends:
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household? (Williams 87)
I will confine myself to two observations about this marvelously
intricate poem. One involves how the poem empties out the form of
traditional emotions, the other how it focuses energy instead on something
like the immediacy of feelings won by holding off the demands of the
imaginary ego. Our speaker is clearly a solipsist, not unlike Eliot's
Prufrock. Yet he has found an intriguing way of living with that solipsism.
When he turns to himself in the conventional lyric space of self-possession,
the only self he cares about is the one that manages not to be beholden
to some examining eye or possessing spouse. Williams stresses the
"not" because he is more interested in freedom or unsponsoredness
than he is in attributing any clear judgment or even identity to his
activity. This morning ritual is in the service of anti-identity,
of being able to play out a momentary self precisely because he is
beholden to no judges. And, as Gertrude Stein might say, perhaps sheer
commitment to one's impulse without fear of judgment is precisely
what it means to be a genius. But it cannot suffice to base genius
Hence the importance of my second observation. Williams's lineation
is called upon to play a fundamental role in the poem. It has to provide
affective intensity for a series of gestures that have little significant
symbolic or imaginary force. These acts, qua acts, will not
sustain a rhetoric of genius or even of lyric significance. But this
lineation holds them over against pure banality just enough to let
them emerge as capable of bearing attention and hence of becoming
fascinating in their own right. What merely passes has the capacities
to behave as if it composed a picture, to invite dwelling on different
rhythms of attention, and to give the body a passing delight in its
own ordinariness. Making all of that possible, without a plot or deep
psychology or promise of consequence, may be just what genius has
to do in our secular century and in the speaker's otherwise orderly
Contemporary American radical poetics has obviously learned a good
deal from Williams about resisting the culture's primary modes of
symbolic and imaginary identification. Yet the various orientations
within this poetic also have to establish substantial differences
from his characteristic lyric gestures. From those perspectives Williams
is far too scenic. The sensations basic to his poems are organized
by a dramatic sense of the world, with insufficient attention paid
to the affects organized within the activity of writing. We are asked
to identify with phenomenological stances by embodied characters rather
than with the authorial activity, even though the constructive force
of that activity is quite pronounced. We feel the effects of lineation,
but as an intensifying of the scene rather than as a presentation
of authorial engagement. Correspondingly, radical poetics is not quite
satisfied with how authorship is represented in Williams. He turns
out to be at least as impersonal as the poet Eliot fantasized, with
the author somewhat aloof from the perspectival energies organized
within the work. No wonder that Williams projects the poet as composer-antagonist,
standing out as a vertical force in a horizontal landscape. A new
poetry would have to explore authorial subject positions more committed
to challenging boundaries between subject and object as well as between
subjects. The poet could not rest in the safety of the composer position
but would have to risk the range of sensual attachments available
for the medium of writing. In taking those risks it might be possible
to stage writing as an activity with exemplary social force because
it can envision a version of affect capable of organizing shareable
resistance to dominant cultural habits for orienting affective engagement.
I cannot here survey various styles within the poetic position I
am characterizing in such general terms. Instead I am going to focus
on one particular example of work that foregrounds its own self-conscious
responsiveness to the concerns about affect and authorship that I
have been summarizing. On the topic of affects elicited by self-consciousness
about writing there is no contemporary work more suggestive than Sight,
a collaboration between Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino. For the
collaboration itself takes on all sorts of exemplary qualities. Most
collaborations try to fuse authorial energies, and so in effect pursue
a synthetic version of the Arnoldian ego. But by taking turns responding
to one another's brief units of two or three paragraphs based on some
aspect of sight, Hejinian and Scalapino take turns insisting on the
pressure of differences that arise as each disposition expresses itself
and as each contribution reorganizes the imaginative field the writing
has to enter.
All the major LANGUAGE writers share this concern for foregrounding
the activity of writing over the illusionary worlds it manages to
project. Writing seems the thing in itself behind the appearances
being reflected on the surface of our cave. But substantial differences
emerge when we examine how this focus on writerly presence can fold
affect into sensation and give the compositional energies exemplary
social force. Poets like Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, for example,
take what we might call a fundamentally ironic attitude toward all
expressivist ideals. They do not dismiss affect, but they also are
very careful not to let ideals of intensity or depth seduce them into
postures that lose sight of the irreducible writtenness, literal or
figurative, of all our affective identifications. So they emphasize
writerly engagement with and against the modes of affect inscribed
in the social registers of our language. Instead of the mind's dialogue
with itself, these poets stage writing as dialogue with those registers
of language. Lyric energy resides in the efforts of intelligence to
hear its situatedness and to develop a little freedom for itself and
the community it addresses, usually in the form of ironic play ranging
from fierce opposition to reluctant complicity.
Hejinian and Scalapino have other ambitions. While they share Bernstein's
and Perelman's suspicions about the rhetorics of sensibility, their
work has been more phenomenological, more attentive to writing as
a direct engagement with the dynamics of sensation and the projection
of intimate desire. With Sight I think they have discovered
a marvelous vehicle for foregrounding these differences, primarily
because the dialogue form gives the writing a literal stage on which
to play out through textual time complexities pervading the personal
and transpersonal aspects of expressive activity. To frame these differences
I will begin with an extended passage from the "Introduction"
to Hejinian's collection of essays, The Language of Inquiry:
This is not to say that poetry is about transitions but
that "aboutness" (in poetry, but, I would argue, also in
life) is transitional, transitory; indeed poetry (and perhaps life)
calls conventional notions of "aboutness" into question.
. . . The language of poetry is a language of inquiry, not the language
of a genre. It is that language in which a writer (or a reader) both
perceives and is conscious of the perception. Poetry, therefore, takes
as its premise that language is a medium for experiencing experience.
. . . It is at points of linkage . . . that one discovers the reality
of being in time, of taking one's chance, of becoming another,
all with the implicit understanding that this is happening
(The Language of Inquiry 2-3)
There are here three concepts at the core of a poetics that Hejinian
and Scalapino share, even though their particular projects usually
pursue quite different emphases and tones. The most fundamental belief
is this insistence on a pervasive critique of conventional ideas of
aboutnessnot only in relation to how fictions portray worlds
but also to how persons engage one another. Traditionally aboutness
is conceived in terms of representations. Language pictures events
and agents provide accounts of themselves. But if one emphasizes writing
as the locus of affective events, then the feelings become literal
states. Writing does not comment about what one is feeling but makes
articulate the actual event of feeling as it takes place, or makes
a place for itself.
Radical as this claim sounds, I think all the great modernists would
sympathize with it, if not subscribe to it. Hejinian pushes the resistance
to aboutness in fresh directions when she adds a second claim insisting
that the event becomes a vehicle for the experience of experience.
Here all descriptive and dramatic and ironic notions of writing yield
entirely to phenomenological ones. Writing does not so much present
a world as present the sensation of sensation or the experience of
experience. This shift substantially alters what we can say about
affect in poetry. For where Williams still locates affect in the rendering
of a scene, and where Bernstein and Perelman tend to locate affect
in various kinds of resistance to the public textures of language,
Hejinian projects affect as itself the most fundamental of phenomenological
states. Indeed one cannot imitate or describe the affects basic to
lyric because the affects are inseparable from the qualities of self-consciousness
one brings to the events taking place within the writing.
Finally, Hejinian suggests that this particular kind of affect has
a distinctive social and ethical force because as event, as happening,
the writing so involves the self that what appears is to some degree
or another different even from the intentions that got one going in
the first place. The logic of event is inseparable from the logic
that bases the possibility of ethical thinking on an irreducible responsiveness
to the otherness of the other. For then we have no basis for imposing
our own preconceptions. We are left only with the options of feeling
our own emptiness or attempting to attune ourselves to the very processes
by which that otherness emerges and takes on its own directions.
Sight seems to me a superb realization of all these possibilities
because the affective texture is entirely woven into the structure
of call and response. There are no imaginary selves invoked to explain
emotions, since the affects only emerge at the intersection of selves.
And there are no affects that the text gestures toward while keeping
its aloofness. Hejinian and Scalapino share Williams's concern to
keep the affects from taking on some separate reality apart from the
specific modalities of perception and expression. But now the reality
they do compose is not in some world over against the author but in
the author's own articulated processes of sensation. Here the author
is always already audience. Writing becomes a constant process of
recognizing the presence of others, of positioning oneself simultaneously
in relation to another person and to various topics that arise, and
of working constantly at the boundary between understanding and misunderstanding
or sympathy and turning away toward the recesses of private obsession.
Moreover because this process controls an entire volume, the poets
manage also to capture the importance of repetition as a concrete
index of those feelings which seem fundamental or unresolved or obsessive
to the individuals.
However the individual is not asked to explain or interpret those
feelings, nor is the interlocutor invited to play therapist. Feelings
are not expressed to be interpreted so much as to be pursued so that
one finds where they lead and tests what transitions their articulation
makes possible. In fact the text suggests that we most fully respond
to others not when we try to find words for what has been said but
when we treat the other's expression as a provocation enabling us
to change directions and try other routes of engagement. This enables
us to avoid attributing the kinds of causes that turn feelings into
emotions and dialogue into therapy. Stressing writing as the locus
of affect keeps the entire affective field fluid so that we are constantly
aware of how our own self-reflection depends on what the presence
of the other opens up for us. Friendship becomes a structure based
on a dance of difference and realignment.
I have space only for one example, so I can illustrate only a very
limited range of the complex play of writerly effects and affects
made present within the text as a whole. The relevant sequence begins
when Hejinian takes up an anxiety about the aesthetic being a means
of evading the fact of actual wrecks. She tries to convince herself
that instead of being an evasion this focusing of consciousness serves
as a means of evaluation. But the two poets do not easily rest with
that formulation. Memories of pain and fears of death occupy the text,
until Hejinian turns from their dream-laden abstraction to the following
passage, the only one in this section rendered as verse:
is happy in one's susceptibility to chance, accident, hazard
a descriptive sentence (being an account of what unfolds
to sensibility) may be precarious and must be careful
sentence says so with felicity that's what one might
get when writing in sight with happy exactitude
the realm of death, too
thing, no matter how happy in its word, is ('only')
the realm of life, too
hummingbird in the morning flies right up to me at the
door and stays in the air (97)
I am moved in part by the ways that this passage resists my efforts
to cite it as somehow a privileged example for the text. Each gesture
here toward lyric closure suddenly lapses into something like prose,
with its resistant wordly flatness and its utter openness to contingency.
Hejinian probably wants us to feel how fleeting and ineffective our
capacity for aestheticizing is in relation to the world of fact and
disaster. Yet at the same time she wants that concern with aestheticizing
to pervade the entire reflection so that we find ourselves strangely
empowered by this particular overall attitude toward our own contingency
and impotence. We sense the sensation of impotence and fear made articulate,
so that we cannot rest simply in those all too standard states, but
we have to explore the complexity of feeling which the self-consciousness
Hejinian's refusal of elaborate metaphor keeps her close to Williams.
But that proximity serves primarily to set off basic differences between
his subtle play of dramatic affect and her concern for the sensation
of sensation as itself affectively charged. In one respect she is
even more respectful than Williams of the limitations fact imposes
on imagination. Not only is there no synthetic work of the interpretive
imagination, there is not even the faith that particular feelings
provide moments of attention satisfying the speaker's desires. All
the details up to the emergence of the hummingbird lead consciousness
back to death and to chance. But the mind's play upon, or, better,
within, those sensations opens a quite different space for feeling.
(Relations between inside and outside are fundamental motifs in the
volume as a whole.) We are asked to experience strange investments
in the very process of recognizing the problems of chance, accident,
and hazard. For "happening," "hap," and "happiness"
become here closely allied. This effect is not mere linguistic accident,
but neither is it a Heideggerean attempt to put authority in etymology.
Hejinian wants to earn the connection by making the feeling for the
one merge with the feeling for the other, as if the very conditions
generating fear were inseparable from what makes for happiness. More
important, one cannot read the poem carefully without experiencing
the sense of constant movement between the registers of "happening"
and "happiness," as if recognizing this fluidity could provide
a basis for pursuing the satisfaction the poem seeks. Then we can
speak of happiness without any need to speculate about moving from
facts to values. Satisfaction comes not in what we believe but in
how we go about processing our sense of what those facts involve.
Once we stress the feeling for feelings in the passage, many of its
details begin to resonate, again without in any way being metaphorically
transfigured. Notice how the second sentence has to bring some kind
of concreteness to the initially vague and intuitively silly opening
statement. Why is one happy in such susceptibility? Wouldn't one be
much happier if there were no such problems? The resulting "so"
has a lot of work to do in establishing an answer. But our grasp of
the difficulties can lead directly to an appreciation of how the specific
choices here respond to the pressure. The contrast between "may"
and "must" echoes and reverses the syntax at the end of
Stevens's "Of Modern Poetry": "It must/ Be the finding
of a satisfaction, and may/ Be of a man skating, a woman dancing,
a woman/ Combing." For Hejinian the specific permissions do not
matter. Everything rides on the imperative to be "careful."
In my view this imperative both describes and enacts the overall
texture of feeling that the poem sets against its fears concerning
contingencies of all sorts. "Careful" refers to all those
fears. The poem bears the weight of cares that constantly resist aestheticization.
Yet "careful" also refers self-reflexively to the poem's
efforts to embody a mode of activity that can be responsive to such
weight. And this doubling of meaning prepares a specific model of
reflexive action soon to be further elaborated when the relation of
"happening" to "happiness" becomes explicit. That
doubling in turn is framed by a more complex invocation of the way
feelings or framing can pervade the effort at self-description. For
Hejinian relies on the Stevensian resources of the "as,"
in order to show just what care can bring about.
At first this "as" seems consumed simply in its temporal
function: when something significant is happening pay attention to
it. But my paraphrase seems to miss the mark on many levels. One might
also say that the care is necessary because something is happening.
But this reading also keeps the care simply as something parallel
to the happening. I think we also have to see care as continuous with
the happening, perhaps an adverb modifying the very conditions that
allow the happening entrance to consciousness. "As" here
thickens the sense of two orders at workone descriptive and
one involving the ways that the mind finds itself an invested participant
in the very possibilities of description.
It is not a large leap then to the next line, where self-reflection
becomes explicit and the sentences become visible actors on the scene.
But here Hejinian produces another surprise. She is not willing to
let the self-reference flow smoothly into the practical situation
or have its realization constitute a moment of triumph. The sentence's
power to abstract itself from the particulars returns consciousness
to all the fears circulating around death. It too shares with these
multiple meanings a frightening weightlessness. The very doubling
of meanings linking hap to happiness and fear to concern also keeps
present something like an awareness of the unbearable lightness of
And so we get our hummingbird. On one level, or better on all levels,
this is just a moment of happenstance. Certainly no guardian spirit
sends the bird and its hovering is not a symbol of grace. Yet the
bird does take on many of the properties of grace simply because its
concreteness brings all the strands of the poem into momentary coexistence.
And that coexistence is insistently concrete. The bird's most important
action is simply its manifesting its power to stay in the air. This
cannot provide a thematic resolution except for something clunky and
moralistic. Yet the bird does bring back the motif of care and establishes
a situation where we see that not only words float in the air. And
not all things that stay in the air need remind us (only) of death.
The hummingbird offers a parallel to the poem's own effort to keep
reflective distance while hovering very close to worlds exhausted
by description. So its hovering participates in the same basic forces
as the double meanings that prevent key terms like "happening"
from being reduced to the world of pure contingencies. In fact this
hovering so perfectly matches what the mind has been doing that it
allows author and readers to engage in self-reflexiveness without
postulating any kind of empirical subject. The hovering itself constitutes
a version of engagement that all subjects can take as their own, without
the mediation of personal plots.
Satisfying as it is, this moment too must immediately pass, here
into Scalapino's reply with its intense questioning of the effort
to let the hummingbird serve any kind of resolving function:
even if she wasn't [past] where at dawn on gorges burning
the tar migratory labor on roads as it being at dawn
of birds [that are] being in space. singing too
floating in the realm of life too are they at [their]
present and past (at the same time) and separately
is the space [them]
the figures the same as space, no other phenomena
'something's happening' is this too
blossoms purple-white-fringed blooming in the time
away from them and before at the same time as 'one'
is happy (97-8)
The abstractness that had existed only in affect organized by the
doubleness of meaning now takes on something like an existence of
its own. In fact the feeling of space as an abstracted floating becomes
so intense that it works its effects on the very form of the sentence.
This mode of consciousness seems to need these brackets because all
claims about existence and identification have to be bracketed. Just
as one hummingbird must become many, one moment of satisfaction must
be placed in a larger context where even the realm of life begins
to float. Even the hummingbird gets abstracted into the bird song
that dissipates into the atmosphere.
However even this level of abstraction generates a countermovement.
The text modulates back to an awareness that in this space too "something's
happening." For one is prepared to return to appreciate how blossoming
flowers themselves offer something like a parallel to verbal abstraction,
anchoring its ways of organizing sensation while itself taking on
force as an overall field of relations. But Hejinian is not content.
Her response repudiates all this abstractness for this prosaic passage:
hummingbird is busy with the mass of sensations, 'up'
and 'down,' advancing and receding, among cascades of accidental
purple morning glories hanging (where they weren't meant to be)
from a tree. (98)
Perhaps it is better to say what seems repudiation is really an effort
to right a balance and to use abstractness as a frame for bringing
the aesthetic back into the world, ironically where it too is not
meant to be but where it melds perfectly with strange contingencies
On the basis of this new concreteness, now charged with affect, Hejinian's
passage returns to abstraction, but this time with all the sensations
of floating beautifully anchoredin nature and in the mind's
appreciation of the kinds of composure self-awareness can bring:
the air sustains the sensation of relevance that this is
Here anchoring is inseparable from adjusting to how fluid movement creates
a range of stills, each allowing for correction and readjustment.
' meant to be' but the hummingbird flying about in it seems
to one side
the tree acts as an 'anchoring point' so the garden has
'top' and 'bottom'
hummingbird makes a 'correction' backs
am still, so this is a still in motion, blooming, and
fringed, in continuation
this vocabulary, which is still, for seeing another at
the same time we pass (98)
Wordsworth haunts this passage, since it seems desperate for a resolution
of the mind's needs in natural process. But Hejinian uses this dependency
to keep the mind foregrounded and to re-appropriate nature into mind.
What matters is not so much the scene as the sense of activity it
rewards and returns as an emblem for what can be involved in the sensation
of sensation. Wordsworth's glorious "I am still" in "Tintern
Abbey" is followed by a long list of predicates, all there establishing
credentials for the self as poet and interpreter of nature. For Hejinian
the "I" appears only momentarily, to be quickly subsumed
into a care for how the self's stillness provides a concrete focus
for the use of a vocabulary of photography. The "I" manages
a point of rest that is compatible with constant change. Contingency
need not provoke the same anxieties as it did in the earlier passages
because it is inseparable from the formation of a vocabulary for seeing
and appreciating what engages our care. The fact that this scene must
pass proves inseparable from an eagerness to go beyond it to other
possible scenes and, most important, to other configurations of consciousness
in which both the "we" and the fact of passing seem entirely
acceptable conditions. And yet nothing has changed at all except how
the writing comes to a different sense of its own sensations and grounds
its thinking about that sense in its awareness of its own resources.
The steps are simple ones. But the world we come to inhabit is a
long way from the one oppressing Arnold's efforts to give individual
meanings to what has to pass.