Monday, June 09, 2003

An Erotics 1

I have been embroiled in a fierce argument stemming from my speculative suggestion that an erotics of poetry might be a fruitful way to read poems. If it can be dignified with the term "argument", since the abuse I've attracted has been, to my mind, the reverse of argument: incurious, ungenerous (my insistence on speculation, for example, being read as my not really having thought about anything) and carelessly aggressive, misreading and in some cases totally inverting what I have said.

However, the outrage the idea of an erotics has poetry has generated of itself suggests it may be more fruitful than I originally imagined: it clearly challenges some dearly held received ideas about the necessary "judgments" that must be made about a work of literature. So over the next few entries I thought I might try to outline what I mean by the term "an erotics of poetry", if I can do so without being too awol from the novel. Because of the nature of blogging, it will inevitably be partial, but I might be able to develop it in a way which is impossible under fire. Here I just wish to sketch an introductory outline of how this idea has evolved, which perhaps I can discuss and deepen as I continue.

I have borrowed the term "an erotics" from Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Against Interpretation, which ends famously with the statement: "In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art". By an erotics, Sontag meant a way of responding to art which attempted to bypass a certain kind of critical interpretation that interrogated art solely for its "meaning", and valued art for the "meaning" which the critic could uniquely reveal within it, thereby bypassing the sensuous and formal properties of the work itself.

Here's a scrap I wrote five or six years ago, in which I attempted to express something of my experience of reading poems:

I have this image of every poem as a musical instrument, the silences functioning as resonant spaces, like the space inside a violin or a drum or a flute, with the words behaving like the animal hide or wood or metal an instrument is made of. The reader comes to the poem and breathes into it, or touches it, with her own consciouness, - an immediate act which exists in time, transiently, and isn't atemporal, or ahistorical, or impersonal.

This analogy falls down in several crucial places, because I'm imagining a musical instrument that partly behaves as if it was a score as well. Words and musical notation do not behave in the same ways, and I'm not even entering the question of "meaning", although that is part of the complex shape of the instrument. But it's how I imagine the active aspects of reading, the way a poem is transformed from a lifeless artefact into the dynamic of lived experience. The shape of the instrument remains constant, but the dynamic between the reader and the poem is governed by an infinity of variables. And I like the importance it places on physical presence and interaction, because poetic language is for me inescapably carnal.

So I imagine translation is something like rebuilding the instrument with different materials. Somehow a translator is attempting to build a trumpet out of wood. And if the translator is crafty and intuitive and enough of a poet, the wooden trumpet will be the same shape as the brass trumpet, and the reader will breathe into the trumpet and release the noise it was built to make, which will never be exactly the same as the brass trumpet but will have the same, or parallel, ... co-ordinates, the "truth of feeling" Rukeyser talks about.

Probably the place where I have most articulated this notion so far is in the poem/essay On Lyric, which is in my collection Attempts at Being (Salt Publishing). The poem/essay is in 11 parts; these are parts 6- 9:


lyric is a metaphor for feeling

the truth of lyric is particular to each poem and resides in the accuracy of its relationship to feeling

this truth may only be evaluated in the present in which lyric is encountered

it impossible to predict or control

feeling is our vibrational responses to our relatednesses to our world

it is as incorrigible as pain and encompasses the totality of our responses moment to moment

it is the consequence of the corporeality of each of us and as complex and mortal as our corporeality

a poem seeks to inhabit our corporeality but knows it cannot express it


lyric is indefensible

it neither seeks nor answers an argument but exists in the vibrationary exchange of feeling

the incorrigibility of feeling within lyric breathes unease into all totalities

even if all a person’s thoughts were legible to another that other would still not understand the felt world of that person

the felt world of that person is secret

lyric does not disclose its secret its secret is enclosed and retreats as lyric is interrogated

it exists as a resonance which may resonate in the present in which it is read or heard

a poem may not be paraphrased or explained it may only be read again

it is the dimension of lyric which cannot be paraphrased

its meanings reside acutely in the relationships of the parts of lyric each to each other

lyric is the same question as “I am”

lyric is neither rational nor irrational as the rational has no ability to explain the incorrigibility of feeling

feeling is not irrational although its consequences are sometimes expressed in irrationalities

it has this in common with reason: that reason is forever without ground


the I of a lyric is neither a self nor a not-self

the I is lyric’s protection against totalities for the I is aware of its incompletion

the illusion of the totality of the self was always a misunderstanding

it is the mistake of those made uneasy by the lyric’s assertion of feeling

the I is what a person makes when translated into feeling which is released from the constraints of exterior gaze

lyric is made when that feeling is translated into language

the relationship of words within lyric are the means by which it mimics the reality of feeling, which is how we know our relatedness to the world

the translations of lyric are always made in the humility of approximation

the metaphor is the most precise means of approximation

to unite two different things in one metaphor is to make a third thing which is at once neither and both of those things

a metaphor can resonate across probabilities in a directed way which mitigates the self’s control in either the writer or the reader

each lyric has negations which are particular to itself

a lyric’s negation is simultaneously an assertion

the existence of what is negated is felt in the present of the one whom lyric’s presence inhabits

the gaps or the silences in the lyric are as important as the words

they notate the relationships between the words and indicate the lyric’s relationship to reality

reality is what always lies beyond the lyric

it is the corporeality of the people who encounter the poem and the details of their relationships to their worlds

reality is what the lyric encounters when it enters the present of another person in another time or when it emerges in the present of the poet

the reality of a particular poem is always changing

lyric is not reality

it is real


lyric is the eroticism of language

the consciousness of lyric is the consciousness of love

in lyric the subject and object relate equally

the subject is a consequence of the object and the object is a consequence of the subject

as the distinction between subject and object is dissolved in the embrace of lovers whose discrete selves dissolve on a tide of sensation

in love the self embraces the otherness of the other but the other remains unknown

in lyric the poem embraces the feelingness of feeling but the feeling remains unknown

the feeling is the secret of the poem just as the otherness of the other is the other’s secret

feeling may only exist in its other presents when it resonates within the present of the person who reads the poem

this resonance occurs independently of the conscious desire of the reader or the writer of the poem

a relationship of power is negated in the lyric

being negated it is simultaneously asserted

the assertion of power in a lyric is the assertion of the power of feeling

it is a tautology, just as the statement “I love you” is a tautology

lyric is radically redundant

Clearly what most concerns me is what "feeling", that experience so often and easily dismissed as sentiment or primitive corporeality, might be in poetry.

This will do for today. The novel calls!

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