Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
Strange Affinities: A Partial Return to Wordsworthian Poetics After Modernism
Charles Altieri, University of California, Berkeley
Almost thirty years ago I made what I thought was a convincing argument contrasting Wordsworth's aesthetics of immanence with Coleridge's "symbolist" poetics. 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 right—if 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 orientations—all 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 it embodies:
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 more—Farewell! 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 truth—to 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 men—for 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 label—if 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 falters—quintessentially 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 nadir—the 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 egos.
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 imaginary identifications. 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 on negativity.
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 domestic life.
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 aboutness—not 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:
One is happy in one's susceptibility to chance, accident, hazard
So a descriptive sentence (being an account of what unfolds
to sensibility) may be precarious and must be careful
As something's happening
The sentence says so with felicity — that's what one might
get when writing in sight with happy exactitude
In the realm of death, too
Each thing, no matter how happy in its word, is ('only')
In the realm of life, too
A 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 brings.
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 work—one 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 being.
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 'only' there
'accident' of birds [that are] being in space. — singing too
only floating in the realm of life too — are they at [their]
present and past (at the same time) — and separately
which is the space [them]
— the figures the same as space, no other phenomena —
'something's happening' is this too
these 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:
The 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 in nature.
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 anchored—in nature and in the mind's appreciation of the kinds of composure self-awareness can bring:
Still the air sustains the sensation of relevance — that this isHere 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 go
to one side
Then the tree acts as an 'anchoring point' so the garden has
'top' and 'bottom'
The hummingbird makes a 'correction' — backs
"I" am still, so this is a still — in motion, blooming, and
fringed, in continuation
While 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.
Altieri, Charles. "From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Logic of Post-Poetics," Boundary 2, I (Spring 1973), 605-641.
---. Painterly Abstraction in Modern Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
---. "Reading for Affect in the Lyric: From Modern to Contemporary." Forthcoming in a collection edited by Joan Retallack and Julianna Spahr.
---. "The Theory of Emotions in Eliot’s Poetics." Forthcoming in a collection on Eliot edited by Cassandra Laity and Nancy Gish.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
---, and Leslie Scalapino. Sight. Washington D.C.: Edge Books, 1999.
Williams, Willam Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Vol 1. Ed. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986.
1"From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Logic of Post-Modernist Poetics." Since I am invoking my own past I should also evoke my own future since the readings and theory in this paper, but not the relation to romanticism will be coming out in my "Reading for Affect in the Lyric: From Modern to Contemporary."
2 Eliot has a more complex model of feeling linked to sensation and association rather than construction. I explore the issue of affect in Eliot in my "The Theory of Emotions in Eliot’s Poetics," forthcoming in a collection on Eliot edited by Cassandra Laity and Nancy Gish.
3 In my Painterly Abstraction in Modern Poetry, pp. 342-55, I offer an elaborate discussion of three functions of the "as" in Stevens’s late poetry. One is the "as" of equivalence that links phenomena as occupying the same temporal or spatial framework: this happens as that happens. A second "as" is modal, connecting various qualities to each other: "this is as kind as I get." And the final "as" is aspectual. This "as" allows us to make distinctions among kinds of identifications or degrees of involvement: "he speaks by sight and insight, as they are." Hejinian adds a fourth function, the sense of "as" as "because." And she relies on a much plainer, less theatrical sense of these forces than does Stevens.