The discussion of poetry, the unconscious &
spirituality continues to generate interesting responses. Today, Michael McColl invokes the work and thinking of Julia Kristeva.
I've often wondered why more poets have not spoken of the
work of Julia Kristeva as influencing or validating their practice. Her account
of the way the unconscious disrupts the symbolic order and the
"transcendent ego" is persuasive theoretically – if you credit the
thought of Freud and Lacan – and provides a model for imaginative writing which
ties signification to the body, partly through her account of the
"chora," a pre-linguistic yet semiotic order of the drive energies of
the body (one example of such order would be the family structure).
With entry into the Symbolic Order - the law, the father,
the oedipus complex, etc. –
most of the drive energy is bound into these structures but traces of the chora
remain inscribed in the body.
"Whether in the realm of metalanguage (mathematics,
for example) or literature, what remodels ["tears open" she says
earlier in the same paragraph] the symbolic order is always the influx of the
semiotic." (from Revolution in Poetic Language).
Perhaps a tendency to keep at a distance whatever seems to
emphasize the individual rather than the community (the bourgeois self, or
bourgeois individualism, has been heavily critiqued) might account for the
relative lack of interest in the part of Kristeva's thought which locates
de-stabilization of Order in individual bodily energies.
Kristeva says that "the signifying process joins
social revolution" in transgressing boundaries of the "thetic" (stage where hypothetical subject splits off
in order to be able to denote an object) and the theological. On a certain
level of abstraction, might this connection to the social (or political) would
resemble what Language influenced poetries often posit as their political
This may (or may not) be “persuasive
theoretically,” but my own sense is that the argument carries me away from,
rather than toward, poetry & poetics. In that sense, my own reaction to Kristeva’s
work is (has always been) rather close to what it is when I read Chomsky’s
linguistic writings: that they may be addressing topics of great interest to
me, but from a perspective that is at all usable
from my own position as practicing poet. I don’t want a “chora” reducible to “drives,”
but rather to explore the complex social terrain figured there – in social
However, to continue the
analogy, I’ve found both pre-Chomsky linguists, such as Jacobson, and
post-Chomsky linguists, such as Lakoff & the cognitive folks generally, to
be of considerable value from the perspective of poetry. Maybe the question isn’t
Chomsky or Kristeva at all, but simply the fact that I have yet to find the
text(s) that connect their respective discourses to my own concerns.
Labels: Julia Kristeva
“Free association in poetry facilitates connection
with others.” So says Nick Piombino.
Do Poindexter & Ashcroft know about this?
Mrs. Freud, it is said, objected to Sigmund's practice of
psychoanalysis and considered it a form of "pornography." A more
contemporary form of repugnance – by, say an "innovative" poetry
writer – to a psychoanalytic approach finds objections perhaps more to its
confessional aspects or focus on the self. In a discussion I had about
psychoanalysis with a poet recently she said "Who wouldn't enjoy going to
someone just to hear yourself talking about
yourself?" The interest on the part of poets in psychoanalysis and related
careers appears to be growing. Kimberly Lyons, Joel Lewis and Kim Rosenfield are psychotherapists and John Godfrey is a
nurse. There are many others. More than one poet has asked me about the
suitability of social work and psychotherapy as careers for a poet and my quick
answer is that I feel that it is a very good combination. These professions,
like teaching, get you out there working with other people employing language
and ideas in a direct fashion which I find helpful in addressing some of the
emotional pitfalls of being a poet. But, unlike teaching, you actually have
less time to think and worry about whether anyone reads or understands what you
are writing or anybody else is writing.
What excited me about the poetry centered around such
poets as Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan, Frank Kuenstler, Joseph Ceravolo, John Ashbery, John Cage, Alice
Notley, David Shapiro, Hannah Weiner, Armand Schwerner, Vito Acconci, and
Jackson Mac Low, all of whom I read avidly in the 60's, I found also and more
in the circle of poets including you publishing in Barrett Watten's This magazine back in the 70's and a little bit later in the 70's L=A=N=G=U=G=E here. This had everything
to do not so much with completely getting away from the personal or
confessional in writing but from getting away from doing it in a boring, corny
or unproductive way. The central technique Freud advocated in experimenting
with the unconscious had to do with free association. Confessional writing per
se is not free association but is autobiography which is not at all the same
thing. Barrett Watten discusses this in a way that
incorporates the associational process itself which may be challenging to some
readers but is the most valuable way to discuss this issue, in his book Total Syntax (Southern Illinois, 1985).
The typical academic gloss on L=A=N=G=U=G=E writing puts the spotlight on its
contribution to social and political philosophy which is apropos, but there is
another side that has to do with its origins in German romantic poetics like
Novalis and Schlegel, Russian Formalism, psychoanalysis, Dada and surrealism
all of which Watten addresses in Total
Syntax and elsewhere. In the debate between Andre Breton and Freud, Freud
was wrong and probably knew it. Freud was a control freak when it came to his world
wide movement, as leaders often are, until they learn it is not that easy or
perhaps even possible. Like Breton and others he had his secret committees,
American writing and American politics have been running
away from European influences since the ink was drying on the Declaration of
Independence. It's this very fleeing that brings on the later relentless
obsession we saw, for example, in the 70's and 80's with the work of Derrida
and his cohorts. The more academics embrace a philosophical approach the more
American poets in the field feel the need to define themselves in contrast to
it. Nobody wants to leave school and talk about the same things they did in
classes, with the exception of nerdy types who are so immersed in texts they
don't feel any need or desire to escape them. This does not characterize your
average American poet who is plagued by rock dreams. The first reading I ever
gave was with Patti Smith, but I was told when I went to the center for
translation in Marseilles not long ago that all she did
when she got there was "talk about Rimbaud, Rimbaud, Rimbaud."
Not at all to disparage Patti whose contribution to the growing anti-war
movement makes her one clear possible replacement for the role the late Allen
Ginsberg formerly played. But listening to Ann Lauterbach speaking on WNYC
today with Sam Hamill and Andre Gregory it is very clear that Ann L has a lot
of strong ideas to contribute in this discussion as well.
The so-called "language" poets had the curious quality
of actually being interested in writing about language. Where confessional
poets put the focus on being understood or understanding themselves, L=A poets
wanted the culture to be understood or to understand itself. But they weren't
adverse, in places, to any one technique or set of techniques in achieving that
goal. L=A writers often employed and still employ defamliarization
techniques. This term, from Russian Formalism, encompasses covertly the idea of
getting away from over-focusing on family. When I was judging a couple of
poetry awards a few years ago I read hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts. It
got to a point when I would intone aloud, "mother, sister, father,
brother" and toss the manuscript into the reject
box. Americans – specifically psychotherapists, for that matter – are obsessed
with talking about family to the point of nausea. This contributes indirectly
to some of the destructive forms of xenophobia we are witnessing throughout our
country today. Language poets get vilified for resisting this. L=A poets and
L=A writing may have been unconsciously bringing poetry closer to music, the
universal language of art. The issue is not only about proactively associating
with language to become free, but with proactively associating with all kinds
of other people to become free, even people who don't happen to live in the
USA! Working together closely on so many issues, as well as encouraging each
other not only by agreeing with each other but by energetically disagreeing
with each other these innovative poets helped move the poetry community towards
a new paradigm for poetic group formation, as opposed to poetic style. The core
group is still working together closely almost 30 years later. Is there a
precedent for this in American poetics culture? This has upset countless
writers and has energized countless writers as well.
Free association encourages conscious and unconscious
collaboration. L=A poets work as if they were each making music comparable to
the sounds of an individual instrument in an orchestra instead of trying to be
the whole orchestra. This may be why some readers find it hard to understand
how to track the voicing in L=A poetry. The reader has to imagine and supply
some of the associations and therefore some of the undertones and overtones.
These are often only suggested by consciously or unconsciously associating
related texts (which are often the only effective way to interpret complex
films, a similar process far more familiar to most people). Free association
can be "played" alone but very comfortably can be practiced in overt
or covert fashion with any number of other writers. This is one of the reasons
why so many American writers employ these techniques so comfortably now, and
why the numbers keep growing. As in psychoanalysis, free association in poetry
facilitates connection with others by emphasizing shared communicational
dynamics including avowing the limitations of language, the surfacing of which
might be curtailed, paradoxically, by over-focusing on the specific personal
details of one's daily or past life. In the work of other L=A poets what is
emphasized is the universal quality of such everyday details, as in much of
your own work, Ron. The very term free association has the latent meaning of
associating freely with other people. One of the primary goals of
psychoanalysis is to enable the analysand to understand the unconscious pull
towards interpreting current experience from the point of view of the
powerfully deterministic transferential dynamics latent in their early family
experiences. This is why one has to work so hard to surface and remember these
experiences in psychoanalysis – so these memories will not be so latent in
everything we think, say, feel and do. Freud said that "neurotics suffer
from reminiscences." So does inept poetry!
International group formation, philosophy, experimenting
with language – sounds too French for me – thinks your average American poet or
reader. But maybe this is about to change – as an outgrowth of many factors,
including desk top publishing, the internet – and a world wide antiwar movement
emerging at lightning speed.
Labels: American Poetry, European Poetry, Free Association, Nick Piombino
Consider the first ten
sections of Complete Thought by Barrett Watten, first published in 1982, available now in Frame (1971-1990) (Sun & Moon,
Things fall down to create drama.
Daylight accumulates in photos.
Bright hands substitute for sun.
Crumbling supports undermine houses.
Connoisseurs locate stress.
Work breaks down to devices.
Necessary commonplaces form a word.
The elements of art are fixed.
A mountain cannot be a picture.
Rapture stands in for style.
Worn-out words are invented.
We read daylight in books.
Construction turns back in on itself.
Eyes open wide to see spots.
Explanations are given on command.
The poem continues this
spare, riveting process for a total of 50 sections.
Like all the best works that
I’ve quoted in the blog that are already 20 or more years old – Grenier’s Sentences, Faville’s “Aubade,” Stanley’s
“Pompeii” – “Complete Thought” is as stunning today as it was when it was first
published. For me, reading Watten is a good amount like listening to early Bob Dylan:
an experience so powerful that I have to ration it judiciously. Otherwise I’m
apt to find myself sounding like a poor imitation days, if not weeks, later.
“Complete Thought” is a poem very close to the center of my own experience of
what it means to be a poet. I can’t imagine reading it as anything less than a
Thinking specifically of Rodney
Koeneke’s questions Sunday concerning language poetry, the unconscious
& the spiritual, “Complete Thought” strikes me as a text aimed almost
directly at the unconscious. At one level, Watten is the first poet since
Spicer to really get the power of
overdetermination & render it not merely palpable, but unmistakable in a
Part of this is accomplished
through a classic deployment of new sentences – the image schemas enveloping
each first sentence is sufficiently remote from any schema surrounding the
second sentence in its pair that the structurally implicit “causal” relation
between them is felt for what it déjà
toujours is: the reader’s superimposition, a form of violence acted on the
text by the reading process itself.
By themselves, the sentences
of “Complete Thought” are unexceptional – so much so that they stand out with a
sheen one associates with neomodern design, a functionalism so bare it almost
hurts, casting every individual element into a high-contrast relief. An
important part of Watten’s genius here lies in the recognition that the form of
the direct sentence, by itself, carries its own psychic & socio-political
baggage. The aggressiveness of the piece, indeed its emotional tone, is
governed precisely by our experience of syntax as force – in every sense of that
Koeneke links language
poetry to mysticism through apophasis, a term with both rhetorical &
theological meanings. From the Greek for “to speak” (phasis) “away” (apo), the term is a primary device of
critical negation – the standard rhetorical example is a single sentence that
asserts negativity while claiming not to speak of it, as in “I won’t discuss
George W’s incompetence.” The little I know of negative theology* suggests that
apophasis proposes the idea that God is “absence,” “difference” or “otherness.”
Framed as apophatic discourse, it becomes evident that the privileged moment in
the new sentence lies between the period of one sentence and the capital letter
that initiates the next – the same terrain rendered so vividly in “Complete Thought.”
Koeneke’s paragraph on the
apophatic is worth repeating:
The apophatic tradition in mysticism, however -
approaching the divine by what it's not - shares a lot of (perhaps superficial)
parallels with Language writing. The subject, or ego, comes into question as an
external construct; language is inadequate to apprehend reality; ideas are an
arm of the secular, external social institutions that seek to limit freedom. I
could imagine an apophatic spiritual poetry that looked very much like Language
writing, one that didn't raid the poetics for nifty effects, but took a similar
orientation towards writing out of a shared sense of what's at stake with
words. I wonder if Spicer was one of them.
It would be possible to pick
apart each of these sentences, phrase by phrase: the idea that “language is
inadequate to apprehend reality” is a considerable leap, given the diversity of
writing that gets typed as langpo**. But it seems evident that what Koeneke
most usefully is after is the link here between Spicer’s use of
overdetermination in his writing and that gap between sentences at the heart of
Does this make Barrett Watten a spiritual writer? Only if he
wants to be. Rather, I think the question more important to pose here is
really occurs in that gap between sentences that a generation of
writers would begin to explore this all-but-invisible terrain in such
significant numbers. To frame a response in terms of psychology, spirituality
or even linguistics is to freeze the discussion into the constraints of an
already existing discipline. Yet it is exactly the inability of any inherited
intellectual or social tradition to – and I’m choosing my words deliberately
here – “nail down” this space that has given it just such potency for our time.
So in this sense I would
agree with one aspect of Koeneke’s initial argument – that there are a lot of
relatively younger writers today who adopt some of the surface features of
langpo in order to rehabilitate it back into an already canned psychology of
the person, say the way Carol Maso’s Ava tames Beckett when what we really need is a
writing that explodes & explores that which is most wild there. Watten, in
contrast, is not a poet of compromise. Which is precisely a mark of his
Koeneke’s reductive tendency to collapse language writing to a single (if
transpersonal) agency – as in “can Language writing address X” type statements
– I’ve simply ignored here in order to chase more valuable avenues of response.
My usual reply to Can-language-poetry-address type questions is “only if it has
an envelope and some stamps.”
Labels: Barrett Watten, Rodney Koeneke