This paper is an attempt to give content to some intuitions about what I will call “ease” in poetry. The state or condition of ease, I will define provisionally as a fit of person to world, a relation to experience that is uncrossed, unchecked, undarkened by some more familiar alternative states of mind or conditions of life: skepticism, anxiety, alienation, repression, bad faith. The poetry of ease (should such a thing exist) would be poetry that does not speak of that state as one speaks of an unknown country we might wish one day to visit—Cockaigne, Bensalem, Innisfree—but rather a poetry that expresses ease as we express our native air: stirring it with our living presence, not exhausting it with our efforts. In a more technical idiom, a poetry that expresses ease would be expressive in the same unpressured and oddly passive sense of the word “express” that we use when we say that our genetic material is expressed in our phenotype, or when we say that a natural language expresses the grammar that makes it possible. This as-yet-hypothetical mode of expression is one of the things that could distinguish ease from its poetic siblings and semblables, and from other, more haunted pictures of satisfaction: the costumed rusticity of pastoral otium; the sentimental vitalism of Romantic “indolence”; the ferocious atavism of the highest High Moderns, desperate for rest “at the still point of the turning world”; the tranquilizing yet still polemical drone of our contemporary conceptual and ambient poetries.1
I should say at the outset that ease is a topic that I’ve found, with predictable irony, very difficult— both to conceptualize and to exemplify. The difficulty of conceptualization is, I think, overdetermined. Part of it is no doubt temperamental; for the state I’m after—a state not just of relief from anxiety, but of release into life— is one that I find hard to lay hold of experientially. My own stance toward the idea of ease is something like Horace’s Ode 2.16: “Otium divos rogat in patenti/ prensus Aegaeo” [“Peace, the sailor prays, caught in a storm on the open Aegean.”]. I am, however, for reasons I hope to explain, theoretically (which is perhaps to say, thoroughly unnaturally) committed to it as a thought worth having.
Jean Paulhan, in a remark that Wallace Stevens admired (admiring that which he most certainly did not possess) spoke of “la confiance que le poète fait naturellement—et nous invite à faire—au monde.”2 The privileged naturalness of the poet is a traditional vanity. The concept of ease, as a natural fitness for the world, does not in and of itself demand peculiar experts or expressive geniuses.3 Paulhan’s idea of an invitation to ease, however, does seem to require some idea of expressive felicity; it is thus readily available as a poetic idea or an ideal of poetry. The constellation of the state of confident ease with the act of invitation may be discovered in the opening lines of Leaves of Grass:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.4
Whitman’s poem thematizes the confidence that Paulhan has in mind. Does he also express that confidence, invite us to it? I don’t think so. For here, even at the commencement of the most daringly presumptuous celebration and song in the tradition, we can hear the note of mortal fear sounding in the poet’s thought that the apparent perfection of his health and the manifest vitality of his sentences exist only to mark the time between the present moment (“in perfect health begin”) and the death that will bring him not to a deeper ease but to utter “cease.” We can intuit, too, the shaping presence of encroaching conflict—conflict without which Whitman’s insistence upon warding off the hazard of “[c]reeds and schools” would be nonsensical. What cannot be forgotten or abolished must be actively held “in abeyance;” what cannot be credibly argued (that being two is “as good” as being one, that there is no material distance between persons or qualitative difference between posessions) must be boldly, willfully “assume[d]”—as one assumes a premise, or a pose, or a feigned and bombastic persona. The provocation to Whitman’s particular invitation to ease is not a confident consubstantiality but rather a separation of self and soul; indeed, the very idea of an invitation seems on its face to require the thought that ease lies at some distance away; separated from us by a gulf that is at once temporal and conceptual. Perhaps “ease” is always “Là,” as Baudelaire suggests in “L’invitation au Voyage”:
Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
[My sister, my child
Imagine how sweet
To live there as lovers do!
To kiss as we choose
To love and to die
In that land resembling you!
The misty suns
Of shifting skies
To my spirit are as dear
As the evasions
Of your eyes
That shine behind their tears.
There, all is order and leisure,
Luxury, beauty, and pleasure.]5
Paulhan’s sentence denies the implied geography of such invitations. Or perhaps “denies” is the wrong word; like Whitman’s pressured affirmations, like Baudelaire’s wishful exclamations, a denial is at once too easy and plausibly self refuting. Denial exacerbates the conflict that “confiance au monde” is meant to dispel (self-skepticism, world-skepticism) by preserving antagonism inviolate under the sign of negation. The force of Paulhan’s confidence is not to be found in the stridency of his rhetoric, nor in the truth of his propositions. It is, rather, the scoring of his sentence that abolishes, to the best of its ability, the boundless distance and endless futurity of luxury and calm. Note, for example, the way the interpolated clause (“et nous invite à faire”) separates an intentional state (“confiance”) from its object (“le monde”) without interpolation signifying an interruption or a deformation. Here, it is Paulhan’s syntax that raises compelling questions about the form and nature of ease not just as a thought, but as an achievable style. More specifically, it intimates the possibility of an expressive achievement—non-justificatory, non-explanatory, and therefore non-agonistic—that lies within his idea of “invitation.”
In thinking about how—or whether— poetry might issue such an invitation to others or to one’s own soul, much will depend on where an “invitation” lies on the continuum that connects any number of speech acts. Most centrally, it depends on whether we take poems to consist in acts of description or assertion (propositions about what is the case, verifiable or falsifiable as the evidence allows, as in the Whitman case); acts of intimation (of something evermore about to be, as in the Baudelaire case), or, as I prefer to think, and will try to argue, acts of exemplification like Paulhan’s syntax, bodying forth what is.6 The verdict on that question will in turn have some bearing on the question of where ease itself lies within the conceptual field that contains the actual, the possible, and the merely imagined or hoped-for.7
I’ve already admitted to a personal resistance to the idea that idea that ease is ready to hand in experience. But part of the difficulty of exemplifying ease as a term of art describing a species of artwork—or perhaps more precisely, a species of art without work—may be a result of a generic resistance. By this I mean to note the persistent appeal of a description of poetry as constitutively committed to or originating in varieties of doubt or dissatisfaction. Allen Grossman has argued that “valid poetry comes to be only when the man or woman with work to do has exhausted all means other than poetic for doing the work that needs to be done.”8 Such difficulties and doubts may even be seen as constitutive of the medium or the act of representation altogether (c.f. Nietzsche on the Origins of Language in The Gay Science, for example, or Freud on the origins of representation in Totem and Taboo).
At present, however, the uneasy account of poetry is most likely to be presented, not as a quirk of temperament, a feature of genre, or a quality of medium, but as a historical claim. Really, as two interrelated historical claims—a claim about the special difficulties of modern poetry predicated upon a claim about the special difficulties faced by the subject in modernity. The canonical example of this mounting of formal crisis upon civilizational crisis is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s proclamation, in “The Metaphysical Poets”: “it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.”9 This hypothesis is rendered more than merely aesthetic by its relation to Eliot’s equally notorious account of the “dissociation of sensibility” that sundered ratiocination from emotion sometime in the seventeenth century, with the unfortunate aesthetic-existential result that poets “thought and felt by fits, unbalanced.”10 If Eliot’s account of difficulty and “dissociation” presided over the first half of the twentieth century, it is Adorno’s insistence that lyric’s song be heard in the key of negation that sits astride the second. As he puts the case in “Lyric Poetry and Society,” “The lyric spirit’s idiosyncratic opposition to the superior power of material things is a form of reaction to the reification of the world, to the domination of human beings by commodities that has developed since the beginning of the modern era, since the industrial revolution became the dominant force in life.”11 To the degree that Adorno’s argument has any consequences for practical criticism, we might say that it is expressly devoted to ferreting out those aspects of modern lyric most fully charged with expression of ease, of a subject’s suitedness for existence (The “unfathomable beauty” of Goethe’s “Wanderers Nachtlied) and reversing their polarity: “Their pure subjectivity, the aspect of them that appears seamless and harmonious, bears witness to its opposite, to suffering in an existence alien to the subject and to love for it as well—-indeed their harmoniousness is actually nothing but the mutual accord of this suffering and this love.”12 For Adorno, lyric’s apparent access to “the thought of a free humanity” is expressed as an epigram of unease: “lyric work is always the expression of social antagonism.”13 Here is how he puts it an aesthetic theory Aesthetic Theory: “Art’s promesse du bonheur means not only that hitherto praxis has blocked happiness, but that happiness is beyond praxis. The force of negativity in the artwork gives the measure of the chasm separating praxis from happiness.” (12)14
The same commitment to hearing the historical antagonism in the sweetest song underwrites contemporary versions of the claim to lyric’s resistance to ease. But just as we might note the way Adorno’s epigram on lyric work slides with little friction from modernity (the industrial revolution and commodity capitalism) to eternity (the “always” present character of social antagonism), so to we can observe the elasticity of a range of putatively historicist explanations that always seem to result in the same claim—whether the claim is about the British seventeenth century, the German nineteenth century, the advent of postmodernism, and the avant-garde’s reaction to 9-11.15 The mind is driven out of nature; the subject is homeless in the world; all poetry is elegy. The failure of historical difference to make all the difference (or even much of a difference at all) in the story we tell, suggests that it may not be some particular account of history—anti-modernist, Marxist, or otherwise— that is to blame for the fact that Paulhan’s claim that the poet has and invites confidence in the world seems strange rather than natural. Such strangeness may be dreamt of in our philosophy.
In his recent work, Richard Eldridge makes an historicist case for poetry’s difficulty in familiar terms, citing what he calls the “commonplaces of modernity” (“the growth of scientific and technological knowledge, increasing urbanization, and expanding market economies,” along with the ideology of the Germans in the last decades of the 18th century) to explain the triumph of “subjective particularity” as a result of which “[i]ndividuals begin to have to make a way of life, more and more by skill and will and less and less by necessity and tradition.16 But what is distinctive about Eldridge’s otherwise familiar reiteration of the commonplaces of modernity is the explicitness with which he acknowledges that his history of subjectivity is underwritten by a set of metaphysical claims even as it relegates the causal structure of what he calls “ontological fact” to a distant second: “the ontological fact of the exteriority of discursive consciousness to nature…has not always and everywhere been prominent in consciousness or culture. It has not always and everywhere been thought to be worthwhile to dwell on it.”17 But the force of calling this condition one of “ontological fact” is surely that whether one finds it worthwhile to dwell upon it or not, the subject of this sort of “discursive consciousness” must nonetheless dwell within it. Sometimes that dwelling will be a conscious process; the mind must act to “find what will suffice,” as Stevens has it in “Of Modern Poetry”; sometimes it will be a passive acceptance of traditional forms of life (“It has not always had/ To find: the scene was set; it repeated what/ Was in the script.”). But both active seeking and passive repetition are forms of negotiation with ontological fact; with the existential lack that harrows the homeless mind into acceptance of traditional consolations or that drives the will toward new solutions. And negotiation, Derrida reminds us, has at its root “neg-otium, not-ease, not-quiet,” before going on to draw out the consequences: “If you would like to translate this philosophically, the impossibility of stopping, this means: no thesis, no position, no theme, no station, no substance, no stability, a perpetual suspension, a suspension without rest.”18
Ultimately, I am less interested in criticizing the tension between historicism and its philosophical roots that marks our institutional culture, than I am in thinking about the consequences of that tension for the making of poems. As I see it, the ontological conception of “discursive consciousness” as exterior to nature places upon poetry a limit of expressive variation. That limit is the poet’s knowledge of the apparent requirement of subjective unease, borne into speech.
Here are two instances of such limit or constraint:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.19
Things come and go. Then let them. Having to— what do I think to say now. Nothing but comes and goes in a moment. * Cup. Bowl. Saucer. Full.20
Two cups—one empty and one full. Two evocations of the transient moment that comes and goes—one ecstatically full, the other a zenlike emptiness. On their surfaces these poems seem to invite nothing but contrast: the verbal music and discursive fluency of W.B. Yeats’s recollection of past happiness with the pressured staccato reticence of Robert Creeley’s attempt to achieve satisfaction with and in the present; the well-furnished world of shops and tabletops in which Yeats finds himself with the stark “things” and abstract obligations of Creeley’s placeless meditation; the parsing intelligence of Yeatsian rhyme (where “gone” and “man” stand locked in their defining mortal hostility) with the verbal atomism of Creeley’s world in moments and pieces. But for all their differences, what the poems share in my ear is not exactly a tone, but a performed constriction upon achievable tone; a ratio between aspiration and achievement. Yeats’s evocation of ecstasy—figured here as the blaze of the body—is hemmed in by a duration that is comically precise and approximate at once. Creeley quenches the blaze, affects a low affect equanimity, and instructs himself to will nothing but for things to act as they will; but the arrival of adjectival fullness at the nominal feast betrays a descriptive vehemence that belies satieity.21
As crucial moments within poems that are themselves sequences (each stanza comes at roughly the halfway point in its longer series, each poem stands at a revisionary moment in a poetic career), these passages represent or project an internal limit to the poem’s understanding of what constitutes an available style. In the same way, these overtly philosophical poems stand in predictive relation to a whole range of contemporary poetries that situate themselves and their problems more explicitly in history, but perform similarly straitened emotional ranges. If I were to produce paradigmatic examples of what I mean here—poetry of immense ambition and scope that nevertheless denies itself the fullest imaginable range of tonal variety on what I take to be philosophic grounds, I might point to Canadian Poet Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, for its explicitly punitive relation to the pastoral tradition of ease:
I needed to pry loose liberty from an impacted marriage to the soil. I needed a genre to gloss my ancestress’ complicity with a socially expedient code; to invade my own illusions of historical innocence. The proud trees, the proud rocks, the proud sky, the proud fields, the proud poor have been held before my glazed face for centuries. I believed they were reflections. The trees leaned masochistically into my absence of satisfaction….The nasty hours brim with the refinements of felicity.22
Or else to the British poet Keston Sutherland’s tour de force poem of love immersed in the acid bath of politicized negativity, “Hot White Andy”:
Lavrov and the Stock Wizard levitate over to the blackened dogmatic catwalk and you eat them. Now swap buy for eat, then fuck for buy, then ruminate for fuck, phlegmophrenic, want to go to the windfarm, Your • kids menu lips swinging in the Cathex-Wizz monoplex; Your • face lifting triple its age in Wuhan die-cut peel lids; ng pick Your out the reregulated loner PAT to to screw white chocolate to the bone. The tension in an unsprung r trap co → The tension in an unsprung trap. ck QUANT unpruned wing: sdeigne of JOCK of how I together grateful anyway I was Its sacked glass, Punto → What is be done on the sly is manic gargling, to to blacken the air in hot manic recitative from a storm throat, WLa-15 types to Tungsten electrodes Aaron Zhong, feazing that throat into fire / under its hot life the rope light thrashes I in its suds, [is] Your chichi news noose / Dr. Unicef Cheng budget slasher movie hype on Late Review I keep dreaming about you every single night last night I you making love Stan, I didn’t know him then it hurts, and I disappear but the nights stick. Abner Jon Louima Burge Cheng.23
But such examples would be misleading precisely because by their strength and distinctiveness they misrepresent the generality of a virtually exceptionless state of affairs. The reader of ambitious contemporary poetry will find an anger scale on which the negative emotions are broadly represented—by many flavors of rage and indignation, passionate bewilderment, ecstatic mourning and even flatness in response to loss. There are also many shades of humor to enjoy—broad, sophisticated, sly, wry, campy, brutal. Both of these spectra of feeling– the rageful and the comic– belong, by and large, to the humiliated person, or to what Adorno calls “degraded humanity”24 —the person whose occasions for speaking are instances of the world’s failure either to accommodate her existence or to provide a justification for his desire to exist. For our poets, such ease that poetry may achieve will always suspect itself of denying reality (“an illusion of historical innocence”) or else it will use fugitive and fragile moments of ease to register pain through the force of its cancellation. (“Hot White Andy” moves toward it’s ending thus: “you are impossible to forget/ the face ecstasy screams under, / lighting the world you damage and repossess.”)
What one will not find is an assay at the question that Yeats’s asks at the outset of “Vacillation”:
But if these be right
What is joy?
Nor will there be anything to sustain Creeley’s conviction in Pieces, that
One way to imagine an alternative to the infinite nuances of negativity that fill our reading and making in the present is as not so much as a challenge to the history that frames us, (what Eldridge describes as the acute spin that a cultural moment places on an ontological fact) but as a challenge to the metaphysics that lies beneath that history.25 I’d like to begin the project of putting the concept of ease on different philosophical footing by making a connection between the expressive problem of poetic ease that I’ve been discussing, with an expressive problem that has determined the reception of one of the most important works of philosophy of mind in the last twenty-five years.
In Mind and World, an expanded volume of the 1991 John Locke Lectures at Oxford, John McDowell sets out to address what he calls a “philosophical anxiety” central to the whole enterprise of thinking. How, the question goes, can we make sense of the idea that persons can both be natural—which is to say material beings, subject to the laws of material, and also be spontaneous and meaningful, which is to say beings who give themselves reasons and who act on the reasons they give?26
This anxiety, McDowell explains, is the product of two philosophical views, both widely held—indeed versions of them are held by McDowell himself. First, is the idea of “minimal empiricism.” Minimal empiricism asserts, against any lingering Platonism or transcendentalism, that it is our “cognitive predicament” to confront the world in and through the lens of experience and the scrim of our senses.27 But minimal empiricism is also the idea that in order for our thinking to be in any sense directed at the world (as in the case of making judgments about it, or even just of fixing beliefs that the world is some particular way) then experience must be more than a passive receptivity. To put it in the terms that McDowell borrows from Quine, experience must stand in relation to thought as a “tribunal,” rendering verdicts from the world on our judgments or beliefs about the world.
The second view is what McDowell calls the “dichotomy of logical spaces.”28 In order for a mental state to count as having “content”—indeed in order for it to count as thought at all—it must have a normative aspect, “standing in rational relations to what we should think, not just in causal relations to what we do think.”29 This is obviously true in the case of judgments; the word itself bears with it normative freight. But this normative character is equally present in belief. Even a minimal belief about what lies in front of me is not just mute fact, but part of a logical picture. It can be the basis for other, more complex beliefs, or be entailed by other, more basic ones. Wilfrid Sellars has termed this normative framework—in which some mental state can be taken to be warranted by or provide warrant for another—the “logical space of reasons.” The problem is that “experience,” conceived as the impact of the world on the human sensorium, is not generally understood to belong to the logical space of reasons. It belongs rather to what McDowell is willing to call “the logical space of nature.” Experience, on McDowell’s account, has a different kind of intelligibility: “the kind we find in a phenomenon when we see it governed by a natural law,” by cause and effect, by the senseless movement of particles.30 “Empirical content” then, would seem to be an impossible animal. Experience, subject to the laws of nature, could serve as a cause of belief, as a thrown rock causes the expanding ripples in a pond. Or, as McDowell puts it, experience might serve as an “exculpation” of belief: we do not hold people fully responsible just for seeing what they cannot help but see. But it is not at all clear how experience, conceived of as a bare getting of impressions, could count as a reason for belief. Nor is easy to see how a natural process governed by strict causal laws could be compatible with the normative relations necessary for experience to serve as a tribunal for thought. The alternatives would seem to be on the one hand the bare getting of experience, but without thinking, and on the other the human faculty of reason and spontaneity unbound from the world: a “frictionless spinning in the void.”31
The result is a conflict that will be familiar to readers of poetry. It is Wordsworth’s impasse at Simplon Pass “when the light of sense goes out/ but in a flash” leaving the imagination to supplement the eye’s failure. It is Shelley’s terror at Mont Blanc that “to the human minds imaginings / silence and solitude were vacancy.” It is Stevens’s Ordinary Evening in New Haven, in which the “eyes plain version” is both “the vulgate of experience” and also “part of the never-ending meditation.”
For McDowell, as for Eldridge, such anxieties are understood to be a historical problem—what he calls “characteristic anxieties of modern philosophy” (my emphasis). And the conceptual force of the claim to the problem’s modernity is familiar. The source of a perceived disjunction between mind and world is the result of the purely nomothetic description of the natural given by modern science. But for McDowell, crucially unlike Eldridge, what makes the modern anxiety anxiety is not the degree to which the problem of thinking has finally, at long last manifested itself in thought; it is, rather, the degree to which our impoverished conception of nature has concealed something about the nature of thought. McDowell seeks to exorcise modern philosophical anxiety by pointing out that it is our nature as the kinds of beings we are to give and respond to reasons, speak in justification or explanation. In the ordinary course of living a human life, entering into language and culture, achieving maturity in a fully social world we actualize natural potentialities for normative life. “The demands of reason are essentially such that a human upbringing can open a human being’s eyes to them.”32 This opening of the eyes, McDowell calls, traditionally enough, Bildung.
This account has the virtue of holding onto the distinction between the space of reasons and the space of laws and causes, but with the priviso that we revise a conception of nature reductively mischaracterized as belonging exclusively to the latter. With an expanded sense of the natural (one that is “partially reenchanted”) experience can seem to be, perceptually, a reason and not just causes. Impressions (the impact of the world on perception) can already be the appearance that something is the case to a suitable subject to “one who possesses the relevant concepts.”33 They can have a normative character without ceasing to be impressions. The reason why we possess the relevant concepts is because we are beings in whose nature it is to do so. McDowell refers to this potential as our “second nature,” though the term can be misleading: second nature may be temporally second, a product of maturation as well as education and socialization, but it is not second in naturalness. The whole complex thought is contained in a slogan, or what McDowell calls a reminder: “nature includes second nature.”34 There is much more that could be said about McDowell’s particular solution—for and against it, and about the complex philosophical culture in which it signifies; much of that is relevant to poetry. (In particular, his argument against the idea of non-conceptual content is, or ought to be, important to debates in literary aesthetics.) There is also a case to be made for McDowell’s immediate relevance to the accounts of poetic modernity that I have already cited: Most specifically, I might note that McDowell’s partially reenchanted nature directly addresses the Eliotic account of dissociation, albeit in reverse. For Eliot’s Donne, “[a] thought…was an experience; it modified his sensibility,”35 for McDowell, an experience is for us a thought; it modifies our thinking. Likewise, McDowell’s wish to provide for an account of human thinking that would be compatible with human freedom answers to the same pressures as Adorno’s celebration of poetic negativity.
For present purposes, however, I want to focus somewhat myopically on a peculiar rhetorical feature of McDowell’s argument. Indeed, it is precisely the mode of argument (or non-argument) that many of McDowell’s critics have found most difficult or troubling. McDowell, in issuing his reminder, deliberately refrains from what he calls “constructive philosophy”—the giving of arguments, the casting of theories, the answering of what he calls “how possible” questions. McDowell’s mode of argument—his rhetoric of reminder—is motivated by the belief that anyone not in the grips of a reflection-induced delusion already knows that nature is not brute, that it contains “second nature”—that our capacities to develop into reason-involving beings is a part of our natural way of being, and that a mere reminder is adequate to allow us to “achieve a way of seeing things.”36
This philosophical quietism is provoking. In a representative objection, Crispin Wright has insisted that “some massive unstated assumption would seem to be at work in McDowell’s suggestion…that our initiation into such discourses is a matter of perfectly ordinary human upbringing which our nature equips us to receive.”37 With characteristic verve, Jerry Fodor says of the proposition that second nature is natural, “It’s not enough for McDowell to say that it is and that you can get some down at the Bildung store: he has to say how it could be short of spooks.”38 Robert Pippin, on the other hand, reads McDowell as an agonist in spite of himself, (“grappling with” the question of a conceptualized experience “if not answering” it, as though any discourse on the matter served to undermine the aspiration to quietism.39
By McDowell’s lights, however, the very thinness of the concept of second nature is a feature rather than a bug:
[t]he reminder that the idea of second nature is at our disposal is just that, a reminder— not a piece of news, not a report of a substantial achievement in philosophical theory. What we are reminded of should be something that we knew all along, but were intelligibly induced to forget under the stress of philosophical reflection. What we are reminded of should be in itself—that is, considered in abstraction from the feeling of being confronted by deep and difficult intellectual problems that it is supposed to liberate us from—thin and obvious.40
If this thin obviousness has contestable merits as a philosophical strategy, it has considerable promise as a poetic one. Stevens argues for the particular felicity of “confidence” by distinguishing it from other “words”: “words of understanding, words of reconciliation, of enchantment, even of forgetfulness. But none of them would have penetrated to our needs more surely than the word confidence.”41 This is a semantic judgement shared by Ernst Bloch: “Hope is not confidence. Hope is surrounded by dangers, and it is the consciousness of danger and at the same time the determined negation of that which continually makes the opposite of the hoped-for object possible.”42
Just as confidence is hope cut free from its surrounding dangers, so too a “reminder” is an invitation cut free from a discursive environment of argument and persuasion. It is a performance of knowledge that causes anxiety to lapse, that opens our eyes to the obvious without insisting upon it. Or to put the point slightly differently, the idea of a reminder is the idea of a poetry of ease.
What difference might it make for poetry if we were to conceive of its work, not as the historically changeful wrestling with an ontological condition of exteriority to the world—a condition that we might realize more or less explicitly (indeed, the virtue of much modern poetry is supposed to reside in the degree to which it comes to live with this condition with the highest degree of explicitness)— but rather as a series of reminders, testing our capacity to live out our natures as natural beings? What would this enable us, as critics, to hear? What would it allow us, as poets, to write? What would it enable us, as inhabitants of the world, to say?43 This far along, I can only sketch a framework which answers might fall. The first promise would be a loosening of the prohibitions on range that I discussed above with reference to Modernist and contemporary poetry. We might think of this as the achievement of what Keats called “full-throated ease.” Or, as McDowell seeks a partially re-enchanted nature, we could call it the reenchantment of song. Such a song would not be an elegantly tuneful proclamation of substantive doctrine, of the kind we find in Wordsworth’s famous McDowellian argument in the Excursion:
My voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:–and how exquisitely, too,
Theme this but little heard of among Men,
The external World is fitted to the Mind.
(note here Wordsworth’s stridency, his insistence upon the rarity of the news, how impressed he is with the force of his own geius at penetrating to the truth). It would be something else—something altogether more inviting. George Peele is surely an unlikely candidate for a poet of ease (considering his possible status as collaborator in the brutalities of Titus Andronicus) but his short lyric “A Summer Song,” combines the thematic of desire satisfied with an utterly satisfying verbal music in a way that I find difficult to resist. Which is to say, I hear in it none of the difficulty of resistance that I have elsewhere been describing:
When as the rye reach to the chin,
And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,
Strawberries swimming in the cream,
And school-boys playing in the stream;
Then O, then O, then O my true love said,
Till that time come again,
She could not live a maid.44
This is a poem of wit. It anticipates a knowing audience; one that would have a learned grasp on the conventions of carpe diem, and a knowing appreciation of play upon them. But there is no irony in the play of this poetic argument: this moment of ripeness, the poem confidently proclaims, will certainly recur—because love is serial and nothing new under the sun is to be expected. But one would have to wait for another such moment to come round again—and why wait when ecstasy is ready to hand? There is no friction in such an interpretation, just as there is none in its formal vehicle. The poem redoubles fulfillment with fulfillment, meeting an expectation so artfully and gracefully that there is no mystery; nothing to dissent from. So if it is the case that I do not have revelatory interpretation of this poem, such critical failure (if that is what it is) seems just right: one critical corollary to full-throated ease should be the lapsing of the puzzlement and need that drives us to articulate even ease as an arguable proposition. [Yeats: “You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence”; Karl Shapiro: “"The meaning of poetry, as far as language is concerned, is the meaning of hey-nonny-nonny.”]
At the same time, I do want more to say. Implicit in the idea that perception itself is already conceptual, already available for thought, is the idea that we might do more than merely bask in beauty, we might seek its content without thereby imposing ourselves upon it and destroying it in the process. We need a more fully developed vocabulary for articulating the content in such experience. We might call this the reconceptualization of song.45
At the opposite limit of the integral that defines poetry, we find talk. Talk is, perhaps an unlikely style in which to seek out ease, given its imbrications in social life with all its anxieties and complications. But McDowell’s argument suggests the compatibility of ease and sociability. Here I might point to the most urbane of poets, so immersed in second nature that he famously declared “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”46
In “Having a Coke with You,” Frank O’Hara rediscovers a familiar truth: that in the right company, even the most ordinary action
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles47
In this poem, the judgment that having a coke with his beloved is “fun” accomplishes much the same expressive work that I am ascribing to ease. To say that O’Hara’s “fun” is rigorous is, I hope, not to spoil its fun. I have argued elsewhere that “Fun” in O’Hara is not a form of mere exquisite sensibility, but rather a way of judging and sorting the world.48 Indeed, it is a judgment of complex and capacious determination. O’Hara’s capacity to consider under one measure things that would ordinarily be considered fun and things that are not at all obviously “fun” (going to San Sebastian, being sick to your stomach) is something like grace in its capacity to elevate the fine and to redeem even regrettable aspects of experience. But the philosophy of O’Hara’s fun improves upon the theology of grace (from the perspective of a desire for ease) by imagining a potentially infinite number of experiences contributing rationally to a judgment of the world. Thus, resemblance to religious icons, gustatory pleasures, natural beauties, and even personal affections can all contribute rationally to the work of thinking, and give rise to an experience of belonging to the world whose legibility is a necessary condition of its existence. As O’Hara proclaims of those afflicted with a more straitened range in art and in life:
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it
Some final thoughts. Whenever I have presented this material, I have often encountered—in myself as much as in others—a resistance one might call moral. Ease is easy. That is, I feel obligated—professionally, as it were—to acknowledge the degree to which this way of approaching the problem of ease could seem to be abandoning some of the hard questions that animate us as readers and teachers; and not just critically, but ethically and politically. I take this resistance seriously, even as I try to argue that such anxieties are not wholly obligatory. McDowell is hard on the philosophy that would not take the difficulties we think we face seriously, that does not, as he puts it, respect that “real insight is operative in seeming to be faced with that obligation.”49 To put the thought most starkly, “It matters that the illusion is capable of gripping us.”50 To say that it matters is to say that there is at least a felt obligation to distinguish between impressions and reasons, between the way things appear to us unreflectively and the considered and critical judgments we form with great labor of thought. There is no question that history of poetry is in large part the record of the lived experience of a dichotomy between the “logical space of nature”—brute nature with its blind causality—and the “logical space of reasons” with its intentions and reason involving agency.
So two questions remain. First, how to think about poetry in a way that might respect the grip of the illusion—that respects the psychological pressures upon lives as real—without taking that respect to be the same thing as being wrapped up in the illusion. And second, how to think about the lived difference between an “anxiety” sponsored by a metaphysics of unease, and all the other sorts of “anxiety” that would be consistent with a philosophical embrace of ease. (which is to say, all the anxieties that a person might rationally feel in a complex and troubling historical moment.)
I would like to believe that a poetry of ethical or even political concern could achieve different effects and better thought if it were to begin with a metaphysics that did not doom it to wandering in advance, and forever. But here, perhaps tellingly, I have no ready example. And that uneasy note seems as good a one as any to end upon.
Sutherland’s recent essay, “Happiness in Writing,” in Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (London: Seagull Books, 2011), attests to the powerful powerful role that ontological claims play in setting—more polemically, constraining; most provocatively (and tentatively), deforming—the horizon of much contemporary poetry’s expressive (affective and conceptual) possibility. The essay reads Adorno’s punitive insistence upon the requirement of doubt for thought into the minutest revisions of Wordsworth’s claims about happiness. But Sutherland’s most significant quarrel (somewhat compressed in the essay) is with Husserl’s certainty in his perceptions under the epoche and ultimately with Descartes foundational certainty. In contrast, for Sutherland “Happiness in writing is found in the trial of enduring, intense and ineliminable doubt or not at all” (242).
This is an eloquent voicing of what I might call somewhat unhappily, an insistence upon ontological humiliation. Sutherland, by contrast, calls it “ontological fidelity” (251)—a dramatic difference in temperament, at the least. Such fidelity founds the work of style (making and reading) in an account of the person who is required as a matter of good faith and good theory to doubt everything: first and most crucially to doubt his or her own experience: our best sense, our best loves. Such doubt, adequately respected, is, for Sutherland, the determining ground of a responsible or even a necessary style. The occasion of doubt may be in general or specific ways political (which is in part to say, lived) and the temptations to certainty are often politicized (such was often the case for Wordsworth and his claims about happiness and where it is to be found) but the obligation to doubt is prior. I take Sutherland’s claim about happiness to be an entirely plausible psychological claim given his premises.↑