Welcome to the opening of the Tank, into which we drop a published work or a work-in-progress (or some piece of one or the other) and see what happens when the water starts churning.
The point of the “Tank” is to provoke, by making visible both the terms of a given debate and the commitments that are (or are not) available with it. We begin with Oren Izenberg’s Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life, and specifically its opening salvo: the call to replace our critical interest in poems as discrete works of art with a critical interest in poetry as a social project. The project, Izenberg declares, is the occasion for “reestablishing or revealing the most basic unit of social life,” namely, the “person.”
While we offer the following opening pages of the book as a sort of prompt (the same offering we presented to our respondents) we welcome continued discussion and engagement with any of the book’s or the respondents’ claims.
We extend our thanks to the five respondents who agreed to dive in first—Michael Clune, Paul Grimstad, Virginia Jackson, Simon Jarvis, Aaron Kunin—and to Geoffrey G. O’Brien, for his permission to reprint his poem as a sixth response.
Introduction: Poems, Poetry, Personhood
It is time to explain myself. Let us stand up.
Being Numerous addresses a set of interdependent problems in the history, theory, and politics of recent Anglo-American poetry. In it, I offer a challenge and an alternative to a nearly unanimous literary-historical consensus that would divide poetry into two warring camps—post-Romantic and postmodern; symbolist and constructivist; traditionalist and avant-garde—camps that would pit form against form on grounds at once aesthetic and ethical. Rather than choosing sides in this conflict or re-sorting the poems upon its field of battle, I argue that a more compelling history might begin by offering a revisionary account of what poetry is or can be. Poetry is not always and everywhere understood as a literary project aiming to produce a special kind of verbal artifact distinguished by its particular formal qualities or by its distinctive uses of language.1 Nor is it always understood as an aesthetic project seeking to provoke or promote a special kind of experience—of transformative beauty, for example, or of imaginative freedom—in its readers. 2 Among the possible alternative ways of understanding poetry, I focus on the one that seems to me at once the most urgent and the one most fully obscured by our current taxonomies. For a certain type of modern poet, I will argue, “poetry” names an ontological project: a civilizational wish to reground the concept and the value of the person.
This shift of emphasis, from “poems” as objects or occasions for experience to “poetry” as an occasion for reestablishing or revealing the most basic unit of social life and for securing the most fundamental object of moral regard, has precedents and justifications in the long history of the theory of poetry:3 in the ancient association of song with the most important forms of social recognition (Homer’s “immortal fame,” for example); or in the Romantic idea that the play of poetic imagination is constitutive of what it means to be human (Friedrich Schiller’s “[der Mensch] ist nur da ganz Mensch, wo er spielt”).4 But the modern versions of these claims are altered and intensified to the extent that the need to reground personhood responds to history on another scale: to a set of civilizational crises that are at once theoretical (the desacralization or critique of the concept of the person) and devastatingly real. These include the upheavals of decolonization and nation formation, the levelings of consumer culture, “the end of history,” and above all, genocide and the specter of total annihilation. In discussions centered on writers from a range of historical moments, formal traditions, and political orientations (William Butler Yeats, George Oppen, Frank O’Hara, and the Language Poets), I identify a tradition of poets for whom our century’s extreme failures to value persons adequately—or even to perceive persons as persons—issue to poetry a reconstructive philosophical imperative that is greater than any imperative to art; indeed, it is hostile to art as such.
But why should art and personhood come to seem opposed to each other? As both Classical and Romantic examples attest, it would seem rather more common to regard them as two moments in the project of self-fashioning or soulmaking (what might, in a more technical or skeptical idiom, be called “subject formation”). When we describe a poem as having a “speaker,” or as giving “voice” to a person, we are not assuming anything about what a person is. Rather, we are taking the artifice of voice in the poem to offer something like a model or a theory of the person, or even a pedagogy of personhood. In its orchestrations of perception, conception, and affect, a poem elaborates upon or expands the possibilities of what a person can see, think, and feel. Through its constructive work with the sound and matter of language, the poem gives shape to the concept of the person who can think, say, and make these things.5 Likewise, it has often seemed intuitive to see poems as fostering recognition and solidarity between persons. As public objects, poems strive to make their ideas or conceptions of personhood perceptible and durable—if not always immediately legible—to others. In their scoring of the voice, or in their stretching of the word beyond or beneath the horizons of ordinary speech, they produce opportunities for readers and hearers to extend and expand their sympathies, and to identify even the most baroque utterance or repulsive sentiment as the testimony of a fellow mind.
But if poetry has seemed well—even powerfully—suited to redress failures of human sociability, it has also been understood to be profoundly implicated in them. The accounts of personhood made available to sense by poetry’s vivid presence are burdened with art’s limits. The work of art in John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” may be the means by which “[t]he soul establishes itself”; but the “secret” of the soul made manifest in art is “that the soul is not a soul / Has no secret, is small, and it fits / Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.” In their economy of means and their requirements of closure, even the most expansive poems can be felt to reproduce—and to make palatable or attractive—the bounded scope and restricted application of the concepts that they make available.
Similar problems accrue to the poem conceived as an occasion for sympathy. As objectifications of thought or voice destined for the eyes and ears of others, poems are dependent on the capacities of their readers for attention and perception, interest or pleasure. As a result of this dependency, works of verbal art may seem to emphasize, not the autonomy or dignity of the other of whom they tell, but rather the sense in which persons themselves are dependent upon the perceptions and inclinations of others for survival. Hannah Arendt begins The Life of the Mind with this very thought: “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator.” 6 Not to be beheld is not to exist; thus, when Sappho declares poetry’s cultural function to supply the privilege of value-bearing personhood in the form of eternal perceptibility, she does so precisely by way of withdrawing that privilege in contempt:
When you lie dead there will be no memory of you,
No one missing you afterward, for you have no part
in the roses of Pieria. Unnoticed in the house of Hades too,
you’ll wander, flittering after faded corpses. 7
For Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” it is not just the immortalization of life but life itself that is afflicted with a dependency upon the attention of another: “I have / Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live. . . . Everything / Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.” In some serious sense, we are all animated figures, for whom much (perhaps it is everything) depends upon whether we seem sufficiently like “somebody” to be worthy of having our claims credited or to be granted justice.
In the face of a century of emergencies, some poets come to see the relation between art’s power and its limits, not as a simple fact, as Arendt sees it; not as a point of privilege, as Sappho understands it; and not as an occasion for the witty performance of regret and evasion, as Ashbery treats it; rather, they see the requirements of closure and perceptibility as an intolerable burden and an affront to human dignity. For such poets, the poetic response to crises of human value entails reimagining the object of the art—a task that they perform as a sort of sacrifice.
The effort to evade the limits and dependencies of the person—once they are understood to be inseparable from the form and substance of the poem itself— results in a conception of art with a conflicted and attenuated relation to both substance and form. The poets I am most interested to describe throughout this book will thus resist their own will to formal mastery, shy away from the sensory richness of their own strongest work, and undermine the conceptual particularity and moral exemplarity of their poetic vision. At the extremes, they long, threaten, or enjoin themselves to do away with poetry altogether. More precisely, they strive to conceive of or even produce a “poetry” without poems; as though the problems with what philosophy calls “person-concepts”—our definitions of and attempts to give an account of personhood—could be addressed by subverting or destroying the very medium that bears them.
Thus, what begins as an argument about the contours of recent literary history opens into a reconsideration of the nature or status of the literary artifact and of the role that poetry can play in social thought. The poets I will discuss here cannot be recruited into the war of kinds I describe at the outset without obscuring their deepest commitments. Nor can their choice of styles be understood to be part of an ethical or political project aimed at expanding the sphere of attention or social sympathy. For these poets, and for others of their kind, no style could be adequately capacious to convey the limitless value of the person; no poem that had to be perceived in order to live could produce confidence, beyond skepticism or error, that a valued life was present.
But what is the alternative—in poetry, for personhood—to style and to perceptibility, to appearance and phenomenology? Against a poetics of poems that enters deeply into the texture of the experience of persons (whether as representation of that experience or occasion for it), the poets I will describe here seek ways to make their poetic thinking yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal—placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take—and universal—tolerating no exemptions or exclusions. Finally, they will also demand that our concepts of personhood identify something real: not political fictions we could come to inhabit together, or pragmatic ways of speaking we might come to share, but a ground on which the idea of a “we” might stand. This poetry, I argue, is an important site for the articulation of a new humanism: it seeks a reconstructive response to the great crises of social agreement and recognition in the twentieth century.
Michael Clune writes:
The kind of writing about poetry Izenberg criticizes is ubiquitous; the essay I happened to be reading when asked to respond to Being Numerous contains a good example. Robert Mitchell’s “Suspended Animation, Slow Time, and the Poetics of Trance” (2011) describes early attempts at cryogenic suspension as a fascinating context for what he calls “Romantic-era techniques of poetic suspension” (PMLA, Jan 2011,116). He argues that several formal features of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”—especially irregular rhyme—make the poem “a technology for producing trances in readers” (113). Mitchell believes that Shelley intends to project a certain kind of experience—in this case, a “trance”—and that he crafts a poetic form to create this experience in his audience. I have read “Mont Blanc” and can testify that if it put me in a trance, it was of an exceptionally weak variety. At most I experienced a mild sleepiness in the middle. As a technology for producing trances, Shelley’s poetry seems far less effective than flashing lights and droning music. It is possible that your experience might vary; you may be literally hypnotized by “Mont Blanc’s” irregular rhyme scheme. But I doubt it.
Mitchell’s procedure in this passage of his otherwise excellent essay illustrates a tendency that Izenberg refers to as the “fetishism” of form: our compulsion to trace everything valuable about poetry to the effects of particular formal features (12). He calls on us to move past “poems as objects or occasions for experience to poetry as an occasion for reestablishing or revealing the most basic unit of social life” (1).
Mitchell’s example is particularly useful because it enables me to identify two elements of Izenberg’s argument I wish to keep separate. The first is Izenberg’s claim that our most ambitious poetry does not try to create experiences, but to produce “accounts of personhood” (4). The second is that poetry’s work should not be identified with the poetic artifact’s empirical effects on readers. I agree with the second part of his argument. It strikes me as a powerful and liberating articulation of the claims of poetry’s virtual—as opposed to actual—capacities. I disagree, however, with the first claim—that poetry, or at any rate important poetry, is unconcerned with experience. Even the particular poetic tradition analyzed in Being Numerous—the attempt to free the value of persons from dependence on recognition and public visibility—relies, as I will attempt to show, on an experience, albeit a virtual one.
For Izenberg, poems and persons share the same problem: they depend on people’s attention. Because of this, poems are of no help in imagining different kinds of personhood. The form by which the lyric poem represents the person inevitably circumscribes it. “The artifice of voice in the poem,” Izenberg writes, “offers something like a model or theory of the person.” What form does this artifactual voice take? That of an object oriented to the experience of a reader. Without the reader’s attention, the poem is nothing.
This dependence of the lyric speaker on the reader dramatizes “the sense in which persons themselves are dependent upon the perceptions and inclinations of others for survival.” Izenberg argues that people grow to think of this as a humiliating dependence, an “affront to human dignity” (3). This intuition, while it might seem to go against the grain of what Nancy Fraser has called the postwar conceptual shift of social justice from “redistribution to recognition” (Redistribution or Recognition? 2003), is abundantly verified by the cultural productions of that era. As I have written elsewhere, poets from Sylvia Plath to Jay-Z desire a state in which who I am does not depend on how you see me.
But if poetry wants a model of personhood not abjectly subject to the other, where can it turn? For Izenberg, it must turn away from its commitment to artifactual realization and towards conceptual abstraction. Poetry must free itself of its entombment in the forms of recognition, and “reground the concept of the value of the person” in philosophy. Poetry must become an “account,” a theoretical “ground.”
But is it the case that the form of lyric poetry is bound up with the dynamic of recognition? And is it true that an appeal to the experience of the reader is incompatible with the ambition to create a different model of the person?
Consider an alternate account of the “artifice of voice” in lyric poetry. J.S. Mill, in a celebrated formulation, describes the lyric as “overheard” speech. He explicitly distinguishes lyric speech—and lyric reading—from the dramatic address to an audience. This latter mode does indeed have the qualities Izenberg associates with artworks as such—orientation to an audience, dependence on recognition. But to overhear speech is to be invited to participate in a subjectivity that does not depend on my recognition, is not sustained by it, and does not mark or acknowledge the border between us. Whose voice do I hear when I read a poem to myself? As Allen Grossman writes, in reading a poem I discover a “previously unknown possibility” of my voice (True Love 2009,149). Thus the form of the lyric seems to instantiate a kind of subjectivity free of the limits of recognition. This formal freedom can then be given a wide range of contents, making it a flexible vehicle for imagining and indeed exemplifying new models of personhood.
Lyric’s capacity to remake personhood is thus founded on the reader’s experience—the experience of overhearing. But note: this experience is fictional. We do not actually overhear anyone. We are actually reading an artfully composed artifact, and we know this. But we pretend we overhear, and our experience of the poem is framed by this pretense. This virtual experience of overhearing differs from actual overhearing in a number of ways, not least in the necessity of interpretation. We interpret the artifact as a lyric poem; we interpret the marks as intended to represent words, the lines as intended to represent a breath’s-length of speech, etc. But, if we agree with Mill, the poem is intended to make us pretend to have a certain experience: the experience of overhearing someone talking to himself. Lyric form is the scaffold of this imaginary experience, the spinal column of the virtual reader who, overhearing another’s thoughts, participates in a kind of subjectivity otherwise unreachable.
Being Numerous is without question one of the most provocative and powerful recent works of poetry criticism. But I would like to qualify Izenberg’s hostility to the phenomenal dimensions of poetry, and suggest that virtual forms of phenomenality are central to modern lyric’s effort to create new forms of personhood. Nor do I think these virtual forms are exhausted by Mill’s “overhearing.” Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” You don’t need to lose your actual head to think there might be a place for Dickinson’s exploded persons beside Mill’s borderless persons, Yeats’ ideal persons, and Language Poetry’s linguistic persons.
Paul Grimstad writes:
In the Introduction to his study Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life [from now on BN], Oren Izenberg offers nothing less than an attempt to “reground the concept and value of the person.” This is undertaken through analyses of poetry thought of, not as individual poems instancing the “texture of the experience of persons” [BN, 4] (what Izenberg calls “poetry in the restricted sense”), but as a faculty or capacity; what he calls “poetry in the general sense” [BN, 12]. Poetry in the general sense is appealed to with the hope that it might “yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal—placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take—and universal—tolerating no exceptions or exclusions [so that they] demand that our concepts of personhood identify something real [rather than mere] pragmatic ways of speaking we might come to share” [BN, 4]. And this “something real” is to serve as a “ground on which the idea of a ‘we’ might stand” [BN, 4].
A first question that leaps to mind is why a “pragmatic way of speaking we might come to share” would not be real. But I am guessing Izenberg would respond that persons understood in relation to shared ways of speaking does not offer a “foundational” enough account of what a person is; that mere pragmatics just isn’t ontological enough. But what does “poetry in the general sense” give us in the way of descriptive power that a word like “sapience” does not? Isn’t sapience—understood as a basic capacity for making claims and taking responsibility for what they commit us to—something like a “real ground” for shared ways of speaking?8 And doesn’t sapience, as a name for the basic capacity to say things, offer a thinner, more minimally universal, account of the person? I want here to look in some detail at the relative explanatory yield of “poetry in the general sense” as it compares with sapience, as alternative accounts of what minimally distinguishes personhood.
That sapience names a capacity constitutive of personhood at least as capacious as “poetry in the general sense” seems especially suggestive given that Izenberg aligns what he’s doing with a kind of rationalism [BN, 17; 22]. To claim that a person is a creature that can, in principle, say things and recognize others as saying things is indeed to claim that personhood involves some form of rationality. But Izenberg is also concerned to put forth a form of rationalism “that cannot be a commitment to reason as such” [BN, 22]. The concern not to conflate rationalism and reason stems from (at least) three related points: 1) a distinction borrowed most immediately Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” between making [poeisis ; fabrication] and reasoning [logos ; analysis], such that “poetry in a general sense [understood as a capacity or a faculty] is connate with the origin of man” [BN, 17]; 2) that looking to “poetry in the general sense” as the source for what distinguishes personhood, rather than to reason, is due in part to the way “as a person concept, reason has…a reality problem, having been declared…incapable of grounding claims on its behalf, [of being] multiple, [or] historical…or merely fictional” [BN, 22]; and 3) an effort to come to grips with what Izenberg calls the “uncertain and variable relation between the substantive and the normative” [BN, 19] in our accounts of personhood. Izenberg finds in “poetry in the general sense” the difference that makes a difference in specifying what makes a person a person, and one that, while gaining the part of rationalism that is committed to normativity, avoids the pitfalls of a rationalism too closely associated with reason.
If Izenberg’s concern to separate rationalism from reason is in part an effort to deal with the “uncertain and variable relation between the substantive and the normative,” then this will involve coming up with an account of personhood that is both rational in the sense that there ought to be a way to tell what does and does not count as a person, and at the same time offer a description of what exactly that distinguishing feature is. And he is right, I think, to link this effort with the claim that “the general problem of criteria in our thinking is prior to the problem of evidence in our legislating [since] criteria are the means by which we subsume the objects of our experience under concepts” [BN, 19]. I take this to mean that the basic ability to subsume experienced particulars under general concepts (what I would call sapience) is the condition under which “evidence in our legislating” (what I would call our pragmatically shared ways of speaking) can occur. But again: why wouldn’t a sufficiently exhaustive description of this capacity itself in principle offer a “foundational (rather than relational) concept of personhood” [BN, 22]? I think the slavery example from Stanley Cavell’s Claim of Reason, in which the owner of slaves “can’t really mean his own skeptical words about the personhood of slaves” [BN, 20; CR 372-373], is illuminating here. The reason the slaveholder’s words “can’t really be meant” is because the basic capacity to subsume the particulars of experience under general concepts is present in both the slave and the slave-owner, and so the master’s willful refusal of recognition can’t efface a deep affinity between them: they are both persons. Again, if the problem of squaring normative and substantive accounts of personhood comes down to the discovery that what is ineffaceable about us is the way we’re able to subsume the objects of our experience under concepts, then why not just say that the minimally universal feature of personhood is sapience?
A version of this tension between the normative and the substantive also plays out in relation to the issue of intention. Oren writes that “what the poet intends and means by poetry is not always the poem,” [BN, 12] but “something through or by poetry” [BN, 15]; that “considered in the general sense, ‘poetry’ is not so much the expression of the imagination as a revelation that imagination is the fundamental value-bearing aspect of our nature. To ‘intend’ this kind of poetry is to intend not something that we make or something that we mean, but something that we are” [BN, 17]; and “what the poet of poetry in the general sense intends—insofar as he intends poetry—is not to produce that class of objects we call poems, but to reveal, exemplify, or to make manifest a potential or ‘power’ that minimally distinguishes what a person is” [BN, 17]. So to intend “poetry in the general sense” is to intend what we are. But what does it mean to say that one intends what one is? Can you intend your being? One way to understand this is to say that the thing that gives persons their ability to subsume particular features of experience under general concepts—sapience—is made manifest any time a normative ability like intending is exercised; and so when you intend something you are exercising the capacities that make you a person. But now think of it the other way around: are those who live their lives never intending to partake in an activity called “poetry in the general sense” never to have an occasion to manifest what it is that makes them persons? And are we not, insofar as we are persons, just constantly exercising our capacity to subsume the particulars of experience under general criteria? And wouldn’t sapience be a name for what it is about us that makes this possible? My point is not that “poetry in the general sense” isn’t a fruitful approach to the problem of finding out what makes a person a person, but that sapience does more explanatory work—casts a thinner, wider net—in our effort to arrive at a minimally universal account of what a person is.
Another way Izenberg wants to finesse the idea of intention so that it need not be hamstrung by a rationalism narrowly understood as reason, is to appeal to Edmund Husserl’s notion of “indication signs” [Anzeichen]. Indication signs, Izenberg writes “motivate belief in the reality of some state of affairs without itself expressing that state of affairs ” [BN, 30; italics in original]. While related to Charles Peirce’s idea of “index” (an inference from smoke to fire marks out an indexical relation), the Husserlian notion of “indication sign” is more particularly a matter of “motivating our confidence in the existence of an intending mind. The sign is not a communication but it tells. More like smoke signals than smoke, but finally more like the syntax of a signal than its message, the indication sign tells of the person who stands behind the signs as principle of origin by which they might be taken as signs at all” [BN, 30]. This is key to Izenberg’s thinking, not only about the relation of poetry and personhood, but also to what he calls, in a nice phrase, the “social relation that we are imagining taking place by means of poems.” [BN, 30] Izenberg’s appeal to “indication signs” is designed, if not exactly to critique, then at least to voice a caution about the way “in the case of reading poetry, to ‘see’ the poem and to ‘project’ the person behind it are… identical acts [but] the relation to another conducted by means of such seeing and projecting is, because ungrounded…in principle fallible, reversible, even refusable.” [BN, 30] Avoiding the mistake of thinking there is a sound analogy between the “identity” that holds between our seeing the poem (in the restricted sense) and our reading it, and the way we encounter persons, Izenberg looks for a poetics premised on a “structural law” [BN, 31]; that is, one immune to the contingencies that might sever the bond of identity between seeing and projecting in the mutual recognition (or failed recognition) of persons. But whether we’re talking about “indication signs” or an ability to say things such that saying amounts to a claiming (as opposed to a simple registering of causal events; what we might in the context of this discussion call “sentience,” a capacity persons share with, say, fish and heliotropic plants), in both cases detecting the presence of the person behind the telling is a normative matter. Reading, of course, is not at all the same kind of thing as seeing; it is a normative practice in which certain kinds of marks and utterances count as objects to be “read” while others do not (when you see a random pattern in the bark of a tree that looks like the word “hello” you are by no means reading it, and the tree isn’t intending anything). Analogously, our relation to those we call “persons” is also normative in this sense, whether taking the form of unexpressed “hints” or “tellings,” or robustly expressed in a game of giving and asking for reasons (like sayings, hints and tellings either hint and tell or they don’t). So I don’t think we ought to be too worried over a false analogy between how we read poetry in the “restricted sense” and how we recognize personhood, since sapience (as the ground of the ability to say things at all) is not narrowly synonymous with “expressing,” nor would it exclude under its purview indication signs.
If the worry for Izenberg in appealing for accounts of personhood to “pragmatically shared ways of speaking” is that such ways of speaking are just unmoored, relational networks with no purchase on what really makes us persons, I have claimed that when we think of sapience as the condition under which we are able say things at all, we are led to see our shared ways of speaking as making manifest a minimally universal feature of personhood. I want to conclude by briefly considering the importance of continuing to think of poetry as, to borrow Izenberg’s description of something he rejects, “a poetics of poems that enters deeply into the texture of the experience of persons…whether as representation of that experience of occasion for it” [BN, 4]. If we treat sapience as the ground of the person, then poems as instances of experience—either of the person who made them or of the person reading them—become so many experiments in intelligibility; so many ways of testing out new formations that might play a role, or even wholly reform, our shared ways of saying things.
Virginia Jackson writes:
Please Don’t Call It History
Oren Izenberg’s Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life joins a large list of large claims for a large idea of poetry as the large vehicle for a new humanism. Like Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, Sidney, Goethe, Shelley, Mill, Hegel, Emerson, Whitman, Arnold, Pound, and Alan Grossman before him, Izenberg is interested in what Shelley called “the general idea of poetry.” He grounds that idea in “a tradition” (comprised of Yeats, Oppen, O’Hara, and one group of Language poets) of twentieth-century poetics that responds to the century’s “extreme failures to value persons adequately.” That elective humanism is (and always has been) a compelling project for poetry, but what does that word mean for Izenberg? If for Aristotle it meant tragedy, for Longinus the sublime, for Mill the lyric, then it seems that for Izenberg “poetry” means almost all modern practices of verse writing—or really, it means the ideas attached to those practices. Such a capacious definition is conventional in modern poetics, but the large abstraction of poetry doesn’t help to support the suggestive historical aspects of Izenberg’s provocative argument. The notion that Poetry with a capital P is a character in his own critical drama leads Izenberg to make very abstract claims for “the poetic response” and “the poetic world.” What Izenberg is so smart about in his readings—the tendency of modern poetics to imagine “poetry without persons”—he tends to repeat or mirror in his own theoretical terms. In this book, the large ambitions of Poetry itself exceed the grasp of any particular poem, poet, or critic.
Izenberg is certainly right to point out that “the history of poetry’s self-idealizations is not necessarily itself idealist,” but he would be wrong to claim that his is not an idealist account. I for one wish that he would claim the courage of his convictions, but I also understand that doing so would be difficult if Izenberg also wants to lay claim to the discourse of literary criticism. We are in the habit of allowing our critics considerable latitude when it comes to definitions of poetry, but we tend to draw the disciplinary line when a critic embraces the idea of poetry at the expense of some historical understanding of genre. This book also joins a long and distinguished (if seldom acknowledged) history in its treatment of an idea of poetry as if it were a genre, but by 2011, that as if is wearing very thin indeed. Izenberg of course knows this, but perhaps he doesn’t know that this as if is the real subject of his book.
Izenberg is surely right to say that there is a binarism in our contemporary thinking about Anglo-American poetics. Yet by describing received ideas of poetry, and especially received ideas about the modern and the post-modern, the traditional and the avant-garde, the lyric and the constructed, etc., as if they were practical histories, Izenberg tends to repeat the mistake that his book so admirably seeks to correct. He is right that other critics make highly problematic assumptions about “the two-tradition narrative,” but by holding the term “poetry” stable throughout his book, he makes those assumptions seem like differences of opinion about one thing (“poetry”) rather than like the different definitions of the term “poetry” itself that conflict in such spectacular ways throughout the modern period. Granted that some summary is necessary in any introduction, to condense New Criticism into Wimsatt and Beardsley and then to move from 1947 to Adorno’s 1957 radio address “On Lyric Poetry and Society” in the space of half a page is not a responsible history of twentieth-century poetics. One of these things is not like the other, though Izenberg is right that they can look the same. But any serious student of poetics should be able to tell the difference—just as any serious student of poetics knows that to move from Sappho to Ashbery to a revisionary narrative about twentieth-century poetics is to repeat a standard protocol of historical error. In fact, the drive to erase the differences between poets and verse genres and their histories takes over the introduction, so we move from Yeats to Keats to Williams to Moore so quickly that Izenberg can conclude that “the poet intends something through or by poetry.” Such a whirlwind tour can only lead to such tautologies, and that is a shame. It seems to me indefensible to use Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” to defend such a tautology. René Wellek described this sort of Erlebnis theory of romanticism as outmoded over fifty years ago. Of course, theories of “poetry in the general sense” arose in the eighteenth century and merged into the romantic theory that Izenberg finds in Shelley and Whitman, but the history of that general idea of poetry deserves much more attention in these pages. In place of such a history, Izenberg offers a theoretical proposition that “what the poet of poetry in the general sense intends—insofar as he intends poetry—is not to produce that class of objects we call poems, but to reveal, exemplify, or make manifest a potential or ‘power’—that minimally distinguishes what a person is.” The poets that Izenberg identifies as such poets do not make up a history (social or intellectual), but an idea. It is the most general of ideas, and so not verifiable; it is also not speculative; it is a fiction.
This is my strongest objection to the frame argument of this book: it is not a history of poetics but a fabricated tradition of poetics, a fiction (partially rehearsed, partially original) of what poetry does or can do. Yet such arguments for the good of poetry have their place. If Izenberg called his book a philosophy rather than a history, that description would be closer to the truth. Yet at the end of his introduction, Izenberg writes that
Being Numerous is a historical book. It seeks to retell a portion of the history of twentieth-century poetry on changed conceptual grounds, and to explain the consequences for poetry of a philosophical concern with personhood that emerges with a new intensity and a heightened self-consciousness in an era of unprecedented historical violence.
This is in fact not a historical book, unless history means that the four case studies that make up the book are chronologically arranged. It is a book that thinks through some traditional problems in poetics “on changed conceptual grounds.” I would prefer that the book be grounded in a history of poetics, but if Izenberg chooses to ground it in an abstract, purely conceptual thesis, he should at least say so. But I should also admit that I have a dog in this fight. At one point in his introduction, Izenberg cites a passage from my first book as an example of “historical poetics,” and distinguishes his own work from “an account of poetic making so fully particularized that only description will do it justice.” If the particularities of actual poems and actual social relations did preclude resort to the big ideas in which Izenberg is invested, he would have a point. But his strategic mischaracterization of the project of historical poetics leaves out the punch line. What my book attempted to describe (on the example of Dickinson) was one version of the historical process of lyricization, the gradual collapse of various verse genres that had specific social functions into an idea of poetry as a genre. By the turn into the twentieth century, the abstraction of poetry as genre did in fact work hand in hand with the abstraction of social relations, but that is a different story. The shift in social relations and social theory would of course be a matter for social history (very little of which is in evidence in Izenberg’s book), and the progressive abstraction of poetic address is the story of the gradual and uneven blurring of verse genres that stipulated modes of addressing particular persons and publics. Versions of these stories surface here and there in Izenberg’s account of poetry and “the idea of the person,” but since it is the fully lyricized idea of poetry and the fully abstracted idea of the person that are the subjects of Izenberg’s book, he begins with concepts that are themselves the products of a long historical process, at the end of a history that remains inaccessible to his argument. It’s as if he is trying to write the last book in a series without mentioning the first six volumes. If he had, the project of historical poetics might make more sense to him.
In the book’s first chapter on Yeats, for example, it seems to me untrue or unmotivated to say that Yeats is the starting point for a history of modern poetry and poetics, though he might be plausibly claimed as a touchstone for modern critical misapprehensions of that history. When Izenberg writes, then, that “to begin with Yeats. . .is to return to the primal scene of poetry’s division into ‘two kinds,’ each projecting its own canon and its own ideology of style” he describes a critical construction (itself the basis for Vendler’s and Perloff’s first books) rather than the history of poetry and poetics itself. But Izenberg consistently confuses that critical construction with the poets’ own views. If that confusion were cleared away, the Yeats chapter would give quite an interesting account of “why such an account of poetic agency might have appeared necessary in Yeats’s historical situation.” Although the chapter consists primarily of close readings of Yeats’s poems in place of that history, they are good readings; still, close readings cannot possibly justify the proposition that Yeats was “the inventor of a new technology for the creation and consolidation of identity as such in which poetry would play a vital role.” The relation between the collective and the individual, poetic form and personal experience was the stuff of such a broad range of nineteenth-century poetics that it is difficult to know where to begin to correct Izenberg’s claim that Yeats’s twist on that vast literature was an invention. Gummere and Saintsbury might be places to start to at least inflect the false notion that such preoccupations begin in the twentieth century. Yeats is part of a much longer history, but in order to note that, Izenberg would need to understand poetics as history rather than as concept.
One measure of the distance between this book and an account of “a singular poetic history” is the incommensurable distance that separates chapters one and two, the chapter on Yeats and the chapter on Oppen. To its credit, chapter two does not really try to account for that distance. The stylistic feint at the beginning of the chapter cannot disguise the jarring shift from Yeat’s post-revolutionary and post-colonial Ireland to 1930s—and then 1960s—American left-wing debate. It is also a jump from Yeats’s elaborate versification (on which Izenberg does not comment) to Oppen’s irregular lines (on which Izenberg does not comment). Yet Izenberg is actually a good practical reader, and his skill can make up for some of the disorientation in his method. The point that a generalized notion of Poetry is clearly at stake in Oppen is well taken—but why, specifically, in Oppen? Izenberg has such a wonderful opportunity to answer that question historically in the gap between 1934 and 1968 that he so provocatively ‘reads’ in Oppen, but he does not read history in that interval. Instead, he reads—or asserts that he can discern—“such knowledge as poems need.” Izenberg’s discussion of the poetics of silence in Oppen is provocative, but the idea that this silence or his reading of it can stand for a “change in our account of poetry” as such does not follow. Such an account cannot be made of close readings of a few poems, interesting as those readings may be. I very much like the readings of Bishop’s and Oppen’s Crusoes, for example, but the move from those contemporaries to Wittgenstein seems opportunistic, or insufficiently motivated. This may be a way of saying that I do not think that the best way through Oppen is via Wittgenstein via Kripke, at least as substitute for a more historical account of Oppen. I like the conclusion of the Oppen chapter, that “Oppen’s lesson to twentieth-century poetry is that a poetry sufficiently abstract to provide social hope will appear to be ’anti-aesthetic’,” but I am not sure from the evidence presented in the chapter how that abstraction—much less that social hope—might work (could the same thing be said, for example, of Whitman’s silence during the war, which was a sign not of hope but of despair?).
Both the Yeats and Oppen chapters have many particular virtues, but the larger argument about “poetry in the general sense” that makes (or does not make) a bridge between them is abstract and ahistorical. That argument thus cannot make a bridge between Oppen and O’Hara, either. Why O’Hara after Oppen? One might as well ask, Why not? As an example of “poetic thinking of a certain kind,” that is an account that eventuates in “a conception of the person,” one can see the interest of O’Hara, but surely “person” meant something very different for O’Hara than it did for Oppen, just as “poetry” meant different things to these two very different poets. Simon Jarvis has made similar claims about “poetic thinking of a certain kind” in Wordsworth, but those claims are grounded in one poet in a particular historical period. Izenberg, on the other hand, considers O’Hara exemplary of the sort of “poetic thinking” also exemplified by Yeats and Oppen, a version of the poetic and of thinking that can’t touch ground in any particular place long enough to take root. I don’t think that O’Hara thought much about “poetic history,” but he did think about twentieth-century poetics in some important ways, so it would help if Izenberg were willing to be more specific about those ways. I like Izenberg’s account of O’Hara’s stylish style, and the book’s general thesis that the general idea of Poetry was more important for O’Hara than the poem seems to hold here, but I do not understand what abstractions like “the poetic world” might mean when applied to OHara’s mid-century New York. And how can one give an account of “love” in O’Hara without at least considering queer culture in New York in the 1950s and 60s?
But this is not a book that worries too much about how one gets from one culture or chapter or decade (or century) to another. In its own terms, the chapter on the Language poets seems to me by far the best chapter in this book. I read this chapter when it first appeared in Critical Inquiry, and I am no less impressed with it in the context of the book. In fact, this chapter seems to me to do all of the things I wish that the book would do all along: it grounds very smart abstract claims in sound historical analysis, and it places that history beside critical movements in poetics that issue from it. Here, Izenberg’s argument that an idea of poetry that is in excess of poems makes sense historically. It is also the place where the argument against the “two-tradition narrative” makes the most sense, since that narrative largely springs from Language and post-Language poetics. The substance and clarity of this chapter may also be traced to Izenberg’s description of a particular historical moment in the formation of a movement—not a poet, but an ideology. That ideology is not, for once, Izenberg’s, but a well documented ideology that in fact closely resembles the ideas the Izenberg himself espouses in the frame of his argument. This is a strange mirroring indeed, since Izenberg can allow himself to be skeptical of the Language poets’ overarching proclamations in ways that he cannot be skeptical of his own. If “Language poets. . .tend to treat their art—poems—as epiphenomenal evidence of a constitutively human capacity for free and creative agency which is the real object of their interest,” they appear to be interested in what Izenberg has said he is interested in all along—but in the case of the Language movement, Izenberg’s account makes this interest make historical sense for the first time in the book. The history of Leningrad is brilliant; the Language poets’ representation of “verse culture” as culture tout court is a refreshingly explicit and historically grounded form of the book’s argument. That difference makes all the difference. Here, it is not Izenberg’s assertions about the general idea of poetry but the Language poets’ own extravagant self-description that makes the book’s point. The focus is much more sustained and the analysis much deeper in this chapter as well: the long focus on Silliman and “Corporate Voice,” the long story of Leningrad—this is just better reading and analysis of the material in every way. Provocative as the claims in these pages are, they earn their provocations. I am genuinely moved by the claim that for the Language poets, “’poet’ is synonymous with person.” That claim is a world away from the claim that Poetry is synonymous with the idea of persons. The fact that Chapter four makes the former claim rather than the latter makes this chapter an example of what this book does at its best.
Chapter five snaps out of that historically and textually precise focus back to a zoomed-out view of big ideas rather dramatically. After the triumph of the Language chapter, it is quite disarming to find Izenberg footnoting the most conventional definition of the lyric available (Vendler’s) as his working definition of poetic reading in his conclusion’s autobiographical turn. That turn is a risky business. When Izenberg writes of his reading of an Ammons poem, “I hear in the poem’s argument with the conventional practices of its own genre. . .an argument that my fellow reader and I have had many times about the conventional habits of our respective minds,” critical judgment and reserve have opted instead for identification. There are some recent examples of readers of poetry who are able to pull this move off (one thinks of Max Cavitch, Susan Stewart, Anne Carson), but it’s a high-wire act. Ammons, Whitman, Dickinson join Yeats and O’Hara and Oppen and the Language poets as characters in what by the end of the book is a personal fantasy in place of a poetics. At the end of his book, Izenberg writes, “The particular account I have given here suggests that poetry is the genre that knows only by knowing worse.” Is poetry a genre? Can a genre know? There can’t be an answer to that question in this book’s own terms, since for Izenberg, poetry is not a genre (or better, a set of genres) but an idea. My distinction depends on what you think a genre is, of course, and Izenberg and I clearly disagree about the ways in which one might go about approaching that question. I do not think that historical poetics excludes hermeneutics, but I do think that the hermeneutic approach to poetics can end by spinning castles in the air. This book is one such castle. Oren Izenberg is a philosopher who thinks about poetry as a general idea. It is a subject many philosophers before him have thought about to great effect, and he aspires to join their ranks. He deserves to do so. Can literary criticism make room for literary philosophy? Maybe, but please don’t call it history.
Simon Jarvis writes:
Izenberg is asking his readers to reconsider many received ideas. The first of these is “a nearly unanimous literary-historical consensus that would divide poetry into two warring camps—post-Romantic and postmodern; symbolist and constructivist; traditionalist and avant-garde—camps that would pit form against form on grounds at once aesthetic and ethical.” Even if no single critic has ever put the matter in precisely these terms, we can probably all recognize that a division into reciprocally disdainful alliances has indeed marked “Anglo-American poetry” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Izenberg suggests that poets who seem to occupy antagonistic positions on all available maps (e.g. Yeats and Oppen) may nevertheless share something more important. This common denominator is “an ontological project : a civilizational wish to reground the concept and the value of the person.”
Izenberg introduces this “civilizational wish” by contrasting it with ideas that poetry might be an “aesthetic” or a “literary” project, but this contrast produces further questions. Aren’t we likely to make more headway by consulting actual ontologists, rather than poets? If poetry is not an aesthetic or literary project, then what does distinguish it: what does it peculiarly have to bring to the project of regrounding the concept and the value of the person? Izenberg’s answer to this question produces one of the most arresting and persuasive passages of his opening pages. “In its orchestrations of perception, conception, and affect, a poem elaborates upon or expands the possibilities of what a person can see, think, and feel. Through its constructive work with the sound and matter of language, the poem gives shape to the concept of the person who can think, say and make these things.” Something like this, of course, could be included within some kinds of accounts of poetry as an aesthetic or as a literary project, but Izenberg seems to mean something stronger than that. It is not only that, refreshingly, Izenberg refuses to assume that poetry must be a sub-species of fiction. It is, further, that when we respond to what is in poems, we cannot help imagining the person who can think, say, and make these things.
This begins to give us an answer to the question what poetry, distinctively, has to bring to the ontological project of regrounding personhood. There is a thinking-through-making which happens in the composition of poems which prompts us to expand our idea of what persons can do and can be. At the end of this opening statement Izenberg calls this the poets’ “poetic thinking” : “the poets I will describe here seek ways to make their poetic thinking yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal—placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person can take—and universal—tolerating no exemptions or exclusions.”
I do not really believe that this describes a particular kind of poet, as Izenberg at one point seems to suggest (“[f]or these poets, and others of their kind, no style could be adequately capacious to convey the limitless value of the person”). I do not really believe that there is “a tradition [emphasis mine] of poets for whom our century’s extreme failures to value persons adequately—or even to perceive persons as persons—issue to poetry a reconstructive philosophical imperative that is greater than any imperative to art; indeed it is hostile to art as such.” What is described as a kind or as a tradition is really Izenberg’s desideratum for poetry : poets who do make their poetic thinking yield this kind of account of personhood are the ones he most values.
Here some tensions in the argument begin to emerge. Sometimes Izenberg writes as though poems expand our sense of what persons can be and can do by all the means available; but at other times he writes as though poems can contribute to the project of grounding personhood only by specifically setting aside those features which might risk being associated with some other kind of project, a literary or an aesthetic one, for example: “The poets I am most interested to describe throughout this book will thus resist their own will to formal mastery, shy away from the sensory richness of their own strongest work, and undermine the conceptual particularity and moral exemplarity of their own poetic vision.” The idea is sacrificial : they give these things up so that they can instead attest to the limitless value of the person. But what reason is there to think that giving those things up should secure this one? Izenberg’s earlier remarks have suggested a contrary possibility, even though it is not quite clear whether that contrary possibility is one that he endorses: the possibility that it is just in its “orchestrations of perception, conception and affect” that a poem can expand our sense of possible personhood. Readers’ involuntary imaginations of the kind of person who might conceivably have made the kind of thing they are now reading are not the same thing as an “account of personhood.” I believe that readers of poems can’t help but think about the persons who made them, but not that it is essential to poems to offer accounts of personhood.
Here, I think, lies a problem with Izenberg’s approach. Poetic thinking, or thinking in verse, is always also a thinking through making. So the tiniest little details of technique are just as much where poetic thinking happens as any larger or grander “project.” Poets are deeply invested in the significance of the least little paralinguistic deformations of language. To the ontologist, these can seem trivial small change, badges for ‘warring camps’ in a battle above which we are to rise. Yet these details are essential to whatever part poetry might play in changing our conception of anything—including “personhood.” Art’s “rational irrationality” (Adorno) testifies to the human, not by deleting itself in favour of something less contradictory (“At the extremes, they long, threaten, or enjoin themselves to do away with poetry altogether”) but precisely by its own non-communicative element, its perverse investment of thought and feeling in details whose significance may at first seem arbitrary or illegible. Although art’s fetish-aspect—that it proceeds as though there could be true artefacts, not only true propositions—often makes people want to break it in the service of all sorts of transparency, hostility to art, even on the part of artists, won’t help persons one bit, nor make them more valued. Izenberg’s arresting, clever and bold argument wants to recruit poets to the service of just that “new humanism” to whose limitations poetry might instead alert us.
Aaron Kunin writes:
“I’ve stopped writing, but keep reading, reader. Open your vessel and keep reading”
But imagine for a moment that Tjanting goes on for more than one hundred pages in the same deliberately hobbled mode (because it does). Imagine, too, that the poem is only a single part of its author’s projected life work: one that includes The Alphabet and projects a Universe; one that explicitly subordinates the unit of the poem to the abstract and unfolding category of “poetry” (because it is). And now imagine that there are thousands upon thousands of other poems by other poets that bear more than a passing resemblance to this poem — not in their precise technique of ongoing, idiosyncratic diction or autobiographical detail, but in paratactic structure, low affect, quizzical tone, and theoretical orientation (because there are). (Izenberg, 141)
This is one of my favorite passages in literary criticism. The argument follows the expansion of an object of analysis in several stages: sentence becomes page; page becomes book; book becomes corpus; corpus becomes form-class. As in the film by Charles and Ray Eames, Izenberg expresses this progression in powers of ten: one page, one hundred pages, thousands of pages, and finally “thousands upon thousands” of pages.
The masterstroke is to frame the gradual expansion of sizes from extra-small to extra-large in an oscillating movement between levels of reality, imaginary and actual. “Imagine for a moment . . . because it does.” “Imagine, too . . . because it is.” “And now imagine . . . because there are.” Each outlandish thought experiment finally reveals itself to be a fact of literary history. Imagine something that would never happen. Now recall that it did happen. The whole thing unfolds with the precise timing of a well-told joke.
The effect is partly comic, like the joke. Another part of the effect is the implication of a quiet sublimity: actuality outstrips imagination, daring it to keep up. The passage that you read from Tjanting dissolves in a field of thousands of pages that you have not read, some of which have yet to be written. There is also a faint flavor of confession. As though I came to you for advice regarding a problem that “my friend” was having, only to break down a few sentences later and admit that I had been talking about my own problem.
Isn’t this what close reading is supposed to do? A pattern emerges from a small sample. Izenberg’s readers test the sample against his description, find the pattern he asks us to see, and apply it to the whole from which it was taken.
But the method that Izenberg calls analytical rather than critical is not close analysis. In a later chapter, he offers a modest description of the movement between levels of reality that distinguishes his method: “Mine is a formulation that oscillates uncertainly between interpretation and speculation, constructing an object of analysis by adding consequences” (169). Responding to Tjanting, he mainly dismisses the remarkable formal features of Silliman’s poem and uses it to project “the existence of something fundamentally human on which the very possibility of social life can be predicated” (142).
Understandably, then, those readers who object to this analysis do so in defense of actual works of art. Some of the living poets whose work Izenberg studies are outraged by a method that does not make particular features of poems its ultimate object of analysis. For Silliman, it’s a problem, it’s “intellectually dishonest,” that this method can’t seem to distinguish between one of his poems and another, or between any of his poems and any poem by Susan Howe (220n32).
Compare an old debate between two readers. Leo Spitzer once complained that the method of his colleague Georges Poulet was essentially destructive to works of literature. When Poulet wrote about Marivaux, for example, he based his interpretation on bits and snippets of language collected from many different plays, novels, and periodical essays. He derived this patchwork of phrases from Marivaux originally, but in an important sense he composed it himself, inventing a new literary work which he then studied. Spitzer tried to show what was wrong with this procedure by restoring the phrases that Poulet excerpted from La vie de Marianne to their original positions in Marivaux’s novel and by identifying themes internal to the novel that Poulet’s reading had misplaced.
In response, Poulet did not deny his indifference to the formal closure of works of art. The first step in his analysis, he affirmed, was to disintegrate Marivaux’s writing. He made this sacrifice in order to identify “a thought that is always particular, always anterior and posterior to any object” (Poulet 1959, viii) that he sometimes called the author’s “cogito.” Something like a worldview, the cogito illuminates the whole corpus and expresses itself fully in each piece. Reading any play, novel, or essay by Marivaux, I am able to think Marivaux’s thoughts using my own head. (Note that this approach is not automatically destructive to artworks. Sharon Cameron, for example, is able to trace Henry James’s project without reading across different novels.)
For Spitzer, a philological critic, style inheres in the work of art, which is irreducible. Poulet, a phenomenological critic, locates style in the author’s thought. Izenberg works on a different scale altogether. He is on the lookout for a style that would pertain to all persons. Although Being Numerous divides into studies of a few authors, the argument consistently violates the integrity of both poem and corpus out of a concern for “poetry in the general sense.” Izenberg looks for the ground of social life neither in actual poems nor in their imaginative projections, but in an abstraction from the latter. Unlike Poulet, he does not have to destroy the objects he studies, because his canon favors poems whose general ambitions are fundamentally at odds with their particular realization.
The innovation here is not the expansion of the scale (from poems to poetry in general) so much as the oscillation between levels of reality (the ascription of “functional motives” to poems). Izenberg appears as a “critic of abstractions” (Whitehead’s definition of a philosopher) or perhaps imaginations. Like a historical philosopher of poetry, he disregards actual statements of poetic ambition, and instead tries to supply the strongest argument for the positions that poems occupy in history. To poets, he issues a challenge: to be as imaginative as a critic, at least.
What if “person” is not the basic social unit? What if society has no basic unit?
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy, pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys, and sour prentices,
Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Donne opens “The Sun Rising” by dividing the social universe into two unequal parts, inside and outside. In bed, there are lovers. Out of bed, institutions: school, work, play, farms, bugs (“country ants,” social insects), and all “the rags of time” woven together by the addressee, the sun, which institutes time. You might think that the smallest social unit in the poem would be the couple in bed. But the small size of the bed is misleading, because the poem ends in a counter-Copernican revolution: “This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.” The bed, with all that it contains, actually has the greatest mass of any object.
I can think of a few ways to explain this. The bed-world might turn out not to be opposed to the world ruled by time. Is it true that the experience of love can’t be measured by clocks and calendars? Love pretends to know “no season . . . nor clime” but it knows how to say the words well enough. Maybe love relationships are components of a world made only of politics, or a mirror of such a world: “She’s all States, and all Princes, I.” How do you express your love if not in terms of sovereignty?
Or maybe “both th’ Indias of spice and mine” and the world’s heads of state, all “those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,” all the pieces of a shared world of commerce and politics that the speaker banished, end up involved in a massive orgy in the lovers’s bed — “All here in one bed lay” — because the social universe never was a series of nested enclosures in which society was larger than and included the kingdom which was larger than and included the household which was larger than and included the individual. (See Latour’s response to the Eames’s film Powers of Ten.) The lovers never tried to make society solely out of their human bodies; they needed a bed to keep their relationship together.
Spahr’s poem This connection of everyone with lungs tells a similar story.
Beloveds, I’ve said it before, our bed is a few square feet, our apartment is six
hundred square feet, our city is eighty-two square miles, and we live on land that
is seven hundred square miles.
We walk less than a mile to the sixty-four billion square miles of the Pacific. (2005, 27)
Bed, apartment, city, state, planet. Powers of ten. The lovers awaken to a demoralized awareness of their inescapable relation to a planet that also includes flocks of wild parrots, celebrity gossip, and preparations for and protests against war. The most massive objects in this society appear to be the armies, weapons, ships, and planes that cross oceans while the lovers lie together in bed. The lovers would like to enjoy the sovereign power of the speaker in “The Sun Rising”: “How can the power of our intimacy and isolation have so little power outside the space of our bed?” (26). But the bed, although enclosed in the outside world, remains a world unto itself, “small and isolated” (25), and having “no relevance to the rest of the world” (26).
Spahr’s poem, like Donne’s, separates the bed from the outside world. But both poems are finally concerned to get the entire world into bed. The movement of the book to funnel the outside world into the bed-world suggests that the original image of a world ordered as a series of nested enclosures was a beautiful lie. Spahr has already undermined this image by introducing a figure that crosses the boundaries of every enclosure; for her, the medium is not the sun’s light but the air that connects “everyone with lungs.”
The poem ends with a figure that is harder to interpret:
In bed, when I stroke the down on yours cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle
group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the guided missile destroyers.
When I reach for yours waists, I reach for bombers, cargo, helicopters, and special
The lovers acknowledge an element of bloodthirstiness in the otherwise pastoralized sexual play of the bed-world. The tone is melancholy, entirely lacking the aggression and bravado of Donne’s plan to rule the world from bed. Nonetheless, this passage eroticizes weaponry: while continuing to worry, the lovers have learned to love the bomb. (This is not a question of repression or hypocrisy. Longing for the arsenal is the explicit meaning of the poem.) In order to be viable as a society, the bed may need an army and a navy. The bed should have a way to defend its borders.
“The Sun Rising” and This connection of everyone with lungs are alike in describing societies that lack a key ingredient. For although both poems include products of human civilization in their catalogues of the world’s wealth — in fact, both poems privilege the same piece of furniture, the bed — neither includes poetry or works of art of any sort. As Spahr puts it, “all the art is in the quiet” (2005, 34).
For a concept of society that makes art but not personhood special, consider the work of Jack Spicer. Izenberg confronts the peculiar meaning that the word “society” has in Spicer’s writing in a brief discussion of the act of translation in After Lorca. For Spicer, Izenberg writes, “perfect translation” occurs “between the living poet and the companion who stands at the discourteous remove of death” (165-66). Does translation imply a concept of personhood capacious enough to include both living and dead examples? On the contrary, I would argue, a medium connecting life and death implies a concept of society in which “person” is not an atomic fact.
Spicer’s source in After Lorca is a dead poet. In his other dictated books, he describes his sources vaguely as Martians or ghosts. “Martians” means two things: Spicer is not curious to identify the sources of his poems precisely, and those sources are definitely not persons. (Such a source in classical poetics would be understood as demonic.) The status of persons in Spicer’s social world is roughly equivalent to that of the beds in Donne and Spahr. Spicer views the person as a medium that holds society together by receiving and transmitting messages. Sometimes he uses the radio, another piece of furniture, as a figure for the role of the person; more often than not, he simply calls the attributes of personhood “furniture” that the Martian arranges.
In Admonitions, Spicer argues that “there is really no single poem. . . . Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can” (Collected Poetry 2008, 163). Spicer can’t imagine a society that included only persons, but he can imagine a society that included only poems. Izenberg has the opposite problem. Being Numerous uses poetry to account for the numerousness of persons, but lacks an account of the numerousness of poems. The “wish to reground the concept and value of the person” might conceivably motivate the production of a single poem. However, the desirability of even one additional poem remains an aesthetic problem, and will have to wait for an aesthetic solution.
Donne, John. Poems. Ed. Hugh Fausset. London: Everyman, 1947.
Izenberg, Oren. Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Poulet, Georges. The Interior Distance. Trans. Elliot Coleman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959.
Silliman, Ron. Tjanting. Great Barrington: The Figures, 1981.
Spahr, Juliana. This connection of everyone with lungs: poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Spicer, Jack. Collected Lectures. Ed. Peter Gizzi. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
— Collected Poetry. Ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Spitzer, Leo. Representative Essays. Ed. Alban Forcione, Herbert Linderberger, and Madeline Sutherland. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
Geoffrey G. O’Brien writes:
The Names of Production
This poem was written at a time when the choice
Was between no choices and one other,
Both repeating daily, as day or in it.
In Spain they were voting to sleep outside,
Talking about their future as though
They could invite it to come be with them.
This poem was written in that time at it,
As though it could invite itself to
Be otherwise. It has the form of a square.
At that time it was raining while Manning
Received letters in his cell. Microloans
Allowed lenders to imagine minor happiness,
Joplin changed. A friend described its
Having sour cherry notes initially
But entirely different when returned to
A few hours later. And the poem was
Similar, it had begun in response
To a book about empty persons in poems
Retreating from themselves towards poetry
In the general sense, which makes them
Against the day, in Pynchon’s phrase.
It was similar to wine because one had to
Have the privilege of inviting time
To do it, opening its crossings to Gaza
Despite being unfit for trial. It is
An embarrassing poem that chooses words
To stage intentions and the other choice
Just pushes the poem into the stormfront
Of future time, its Spains and Arizonas.
A proper name may be the only word
That can embarrass the poem in the future
As well as the present. It has a life
Of six hundred years before decaying
Into the final broadcast. The choice is thus
Not between no words and words
But the thing between them, a person.
Yet I find it very hard to get up
In the morning (before 8), especially
If it’s summer and the tea tree glows
Like a book you can’t buy
By any other means. It seems more
And more likely Wilpon will have to
Sell the team, but that’s an inside thought
Shared in a false square. The distinction
However is lost on me, sunlight in a book
I failed to finish (not the Izenberg,
The other one), in a time where I
And failed are synonyms one can’t
Choose between so much as move through
Elbowing the others out of my way
To get a better view. But I is also
The others, though not in Ashbery’s
Translation—motion may not even be motion
So much as a chain of equivalencies
Posing as bodies, what in poetry
We would call a sight rhyme like that
Between bury and fury, minor differences,
Those between reading and speaking,
Sleeping and waking, talking while asleep, etc.
But the distinction is lost on me
Because of the late May cold in the East
And the summer started so casually
Long before they say it does—it was
45 degrees in Chicago during the game
Last night, at the time it was fated
To be, and the game matched this contingency
With its own, which I watched part of
On pirated internet as though I had to.
I hear her upstairs singing this
While exercising, which she’s taken back up
Like air traffic over Northern Germany.
The poem begins to choose admitting this
Present over refusing to, both does
And doesn’t go to the wedding in Kansas,
Accepts what he says about the pomes
Of the quince and redbud while they walk
Through a late Midwestern spring, a loan
Repaid over time. She goes longer and longer,
Mastering her fear of being out of breath,
Falling asleep as the plane takes off,
Unsurprised at the physics, the early hour
With its threats of stagflation and victim
Laws. What I means to say by this is
Each subscription set is 40 dollars
But part of what you get is the sense
They’re free by the time they come because
You’ve forgotten paying for them
And it doesn’t hurt that they’re slim
Volumes of poetry whose cover never changes
Only the colors of it, a choice within
No choice that mimics the present in a way
I can be upset with or excited by depending
On what time I woke up in what season.
I wanted to do it right this time, a rhyme
Between headline and deadline in a poem
With no endwords but June 1st
Approaches through my best I-intentions,
Which mistook bad faith for a real dream
Of falling in love with the not yet
Made as though it were close by,
On the other side of a square you reach
When closing your eyes, invited in
Without having been outside, still
In that grave where anything rhymes.
To be the doom of that effort like
A wheel in the air over Yemen,
Shot again without feeling it for years.
The few readers we promised ourselves
Are us, waiting for time in the general sense.
But days come and the character
With which to measure them unfit
To stand trial. Such that the poem
Is now believed to be the most distant
Object ever seen, a porchlight.
Before he could get there they took
Strauss-Kahn off the plane, no doubt
Alarming other passengers in the process
Of resenting the long trip they had chosen
Freely. Reyes, Wright, and Beltran
Were all classy about it but it isn’t summer
Yet, and there is no chance the story will
Wander away—that’s why they play the games.
Then one of the volumes comes, by a poet
Who had gone out of her way to be cruel
To me once, but despite this I loved the poem
For its honesty about how little poetry can do
And loved an emptied version of her
For having admitted that in the lonely square
Of a book. I can’t even remember whether
This was covered by the last subscription
Or given to me as a gift by the publishers
Because I am just old enough, 42
At the time of this writing, to function
As a minimal uncle to the words of the young,
The new breath in the pages falling over
Bremen, which actually only sight rhymes
With Yemen and has 12 sister cities
Including Durban, Gdansk, and Haifa.
She is upstairs which means I have no choice
But be downstairs in the present-past
Which is the difference between affect and effect
Before pronunciation lets you know
Whether either is not the other or a verb
Cleared for takeoff but second in line.
By the time speaking comes you can’t remember
Having paid for it so it feels like a gift.
The same holds for waking up in May
On the 25th expecting a fair hearing
From the other Is despite their being pre-
Occupied with a search for the missing.
It’s like having to do two interviews
At the same time with one of them
Already late and the other barely started
Though it’s now not due till June 10th.
No, it is that but with the simile still real
As a sister city. All the little others
Who live there like each other does,
Waking up to find that after
Surviving the morning they were faced with
The afternoon is unabated terraces
Already over far to the right. It’s undeniable,
More than forty years of collaboration
Both before and during which the body
Was the genius and the life at best
Talented at moving that body around
In time, the poem of the unchosen
Written with the left hand. And previously
This would have been the end, a wan
Gesture designed to melt into air
While May dies, the anticipation
Of freedom rather than its solid world.
But that has come to seem an exercise
In futurity, less an ending than a surrender
To the belief time restarts where a poem
Stops making choices. I’d like simply
To be done with them as at the end of a list
Of proper names—Corinto, Dalian,
Maracaibo, and the rest of Bremen’s twins—
That move too would be pale and cold,
The underside of a stone by the Proxy Falls
On a trail through the Three Sisters Wilderness
I couldn’t find again without help
From the people still minimally there.
It was after the third such accidental strike
That we came out into sunshine which delayed
The trial from starting, melting through
Four minutes of chaos as he tried to resign.
Oren Izenberg responds to his respondents:
I had two major hopes for Being Numerous. First, that it would provoke conversation among those—readers, scholars, critics, theorists, literary historians—who share a concern for poetry. I’m grateful to Michael Clune, Paul Grimstad, Virginia Jackson, Simon Jarvis and Aaron Kunin —all critics I admire—for consenting to be provoked; I hope others will join in the conversation as well, whether to discuss Being Numerous itself, or to pursue any of the related issues about historicism, aesthetics, and personhood that my commentators have raised.
I also hoped Being Numerous might be of some use to poets as they consider the future possibilities contained within the history of the art. Thus, I take special pleasure in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s contribution to the Tank, the poem “The Names of Production.” O’Brien’s thought, that a poem written “Against the day” might also have designs against its own nature (“As though it could invite itself to/Be otherwise.”) is an elegant torquing of one the book’s central ideas. It is quite possible that I should hear a rebuke to that idea in the fact that it is housed in a poem so fully committed to its own realization. In the end, “The Names of Production” belongs to experience, both as a beautiful thing, and as a worldly thing; it “begins to choose admitting this/Present over refusing to.” But if it is a rebuke, it is one that I am very happy to receive.
The Defense of History
In arguing that Being Numerous is “not a history,” Virginia Jackson registers a wish for one (or, better, two) of two things: more attention to social and political context (e.g. more about the tensions and polemics of leftist politics in the interwar US, the social and sexual dynamics of queer New York at midcentury); but more importantly, more attention to the plural and diverse tributaries and microhistories of poetics (e.g. more about Gummere and Saintsbury in relation to Yeats, more about Oppen in relation to O’Hara). On the face of it, neither of these is an objectionable wish. Even taken together, though, they don’t quite seem to add up to Jackson’s final plea, “please don’t call it history.” What do you have to believe in order to believe that Being Numerous is not, as I have asserted, “a historical book”?
Some hints at an answer may be found in Jackson’s description of what makes her own book count as “historical poetics.” As she explains, the central point of Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading was to record the “gradual collapse of various verse genres that had specific social functions into an idea of poetry as a genre.” I’m struck by the way that all of the terms here point to the vindication of difference as a crucial desideratum of history itself. Not only because she is concerned to register the multiplicity of “genres” and “functions”; not only because of her sense that the move from the plural genres of nineteenth-century poetics to the singular genre of “lyric” in the 20th constitutes a “collapse” of many into one, or an annihilating ascent from something as concrete as “social functions” to something as “general” and “not verifiable” as an idea; and not only because her characterization of the rate of change as “gradual” makes differentiation itself into an internally differentiated process. (“Gradual” will appear again in “the gradual and uneven blurring,” with “uneven” morcellating and clarifying what the “blurring” smooths and obscures). But all of these taken together, along with the specifics of her objections to Being Numerous, suggest that what makes a history count as history is the conviction that if you look at any two things (genres, publics, social functions) closely enough, their differences will reveal themselves; and above all, your account of the process by which any apparent sameness came to be will itself become the difference you seek.9 This is what makes “the historical process of lyricization” the “punch line” to the joke that is my “fully lyricized account of poetry.” And it is from this version of a historicist perspective that Jackson encourages me either to choose “more history,” or else to embrace the idea that my argument is not historical at all but a “fiction” (“not even speculative”!)—of poetry and poetics.
I do not actually think these are my only choices. Just as a poet’s ontological theories are not necessarily transcendental theories, so too my own account of poets’ recurrent interest in the ontology of persons—an interest that manifests itself in parallel (though not identical) moments of historical and ideological crisis, and with identifiably similar (if never precisely repeated) formal consequences—can cross distinct strands that make up the history of verse practice without ceasing to be historical. To take up a representative objection, I absolutely agree with Jackson that Wimsatt and Beardsley in 1947 and Adorno in 1957 make very different aesthetic arguments about poetry, and in very different political contexts (how could one not!). But I also mean to point out that for all their differences, there is at least one way in which they do not differ—both make the poetic object central to their interpretive projects. By the same token, two poets, or five, or many, might inherit quite different microhistories of the lyric and inhabit social-historical moments that differ in a host of ways, and nonetheless produce a poetic that has some crucial aspect in common— in this case, a “formalist” intention that moves the poetic object to the periphery in order to make room for a different central concern: the ontology of the person. That shared intention may be “an idea,” but it is as historical as anything.
Likewise, I cannot agree that a reading of Oppen that situates itself amongst contemporaneous arguments about meaning and its basis in social agreement in Wittgenstein and Kripke—rather than amidst contemporaneous arguments about meaning and agreement in leftist politics—is somehow not a historical reading. Nor can I quite agree that pointing out the conceptual commonalities between different poetic projects “erase[s] the differences between poets and verse genres.” I’d say, rather, what I do say:
The poets I discuss are deeply and variously immersed in the idioms of their personal lives, local concerns, generic histories, and yet from within these “overlapping and incongruous” contexts, they each confront broadly shared cultural phenomena—the unprecedented historical threats to personhood that begin to be felt even before World War I combining with and exacerbating a secular and skeptical philosophical culture that emphasizes the contingency of human value. The radically different barriers to acceptance that these poets present to their readers…are not indicators of incommensurable projects, but rather indexes of convergence, out of idiosyncrasy, upon a shared account of poetry and of personhood. (34)
Can more be said about those phenomena than I have said? I have no doubt that it can, and I hope that anyone interested might consider it. Although Jackson overlooks what makes “Yeats’s twist” on “the relation between the collective and the individual, poetic form and personal experience” inventive (his suggestion that that individuals could be rendered fit for an improved collective at the biological level through the experience of well formed works of art), I nonetheless agree that he is “part of a much longer history”—in this case, a history of literary reactions to “conditions of extremity” that begin to twist the strands of verse practice into a singularly radical shape in the 18th century. That one can sensibly place Peterloo and the Easter Rising side by side without thereby positing modernity as a unified or unbroken condition begins to suggest a defense of Yeats’s “indefensible” identification of his own account of cultural transformation through poetry with Shelley’s uneasy poetic combination of skepticism and revolutionary idealism.10
But what Jackson is saying by calling any prospective argument for this kind of continuity “indefensible,” “tautological” and “unverifiable” is that no amount of saying more could do the trick. From her historicist perspective, my argument will inevitably “leave out the punch line” because the idea of a history of convergences and similarities presents a logical impossibility rather than a practical difficulty. From my own historicist prospective, Jackson has missed the punch line of my book: that there exists “a tradition of poetic thinking in which the insistence on difference (between poets, verse genres, as indeed between one person and another) is the very problem in need of a solution” (34). And she has forcefully restated three of the positions I set out to argue with: the pluralist position I acknowledge in the introduction; the materialist account of form I contest in the Oppen chapter; and the sociological account of poetry’s relation to context that I argue is insufficient in the O’Hara chapter.
I should end, however, by acknowledging some truth in Virginia Jackson’s claim that “[Being Numerous] is not a book that worries too much about how one gets from one culture or chapter or decade (or century) to another” (emphasis mine). It seems to me that entirely too much criticism has suffered from worrying about it entirely too much, and I’d venture to say that nonsite.org was founded in part out of the desire to make room for work that worries this particular view of the historical problem less, that refuses the wedge that Jackson seeks to drive between “literary philosophy” and the (properly historical) work of “literary criticism.” The real question is how much worry is enough—and that seems to me a discussion worth having.
The Defense of Poetry
Both Aaron Kunin and Simon Jarvis rise to the defense of the particularity and distinctiveness of “actual works of art” on the basis of actual artistic motives. For Jarvis, the poet is distinguished, not by what he has elsewhere called “top quality ratiocination”11—thinking conducted through the broad strokes of an overarching philosophical argument—but rather by a form of “thinking through making” conducted through “the tiniest little details of technique.” It is out of a similar insistence upon art’s granularity that Kunin suggests that Being Numerous “lacks an account of the numerousness of poems”—lacks, indeed, an account of the motivation to any particular poem. While I don’t agree that Being Numerous lacks such an account (indeed, it explicitly admits the possibility of as many motives to art as could be imagined, even as it argues that sometimes aesthetic motives to art are crossed or cancelled by motives of another kind), I can understand why both of these writers—inventive poets as well as sensitive critics—could worry that my claim that “what the poet intends by means of poetry is not always the poem” (12) might be, at the very least, a covert effort to minimize the importance of what Kunin terms the “aesthetic problem”—the poem’s task of producing (whatever else it produces) its own particular “desirability” (Kunin) or even its “truth” (Jarvis) as an object.
Reading the opening of Kunin’s response, I first feel the satisfaction of watching someone get a joke you were immensely pleased to have told, but were worried might have been too abstruse to be funny. Alas, that happy feeling is quickly replaced by the sinking feeling of having someone call you on your next joke—the one that may not have come off. After the immensely gratifying account of how the argument in Chapter 4 of Being Numerous was meant to work, Kunin goes on to point out what he charitably describes as the “imaginative” features of my method: “[H]e disregards actual statements of poetic ambition, and instead tries to supply the strongest argument for the positions that poems occupy in history.” In fact, I suppose the situation is worse than that. Sometimes I do disregard actual statements of poetic ambition (such is surely the case when I try to provide Language Poets with a motive different than the motives that they provide for themselves); sometimes, when they support my argument, I cite statements of intent. And sometimes, I privilege some statements over others. Jarvis describes my apparent inconsistency this way: “Sometimes Izenberg writes as though poems expand our sense of what persons can be and can do by all the means available; but at other times he writes as though poems can contribute to the project of grounding personhood only by specifically setting aside those features which might risk being associated with some other kind of project, a literary or an aesthetic one, for example.”
I don’t think there is a theoretical problem with the idea that some poets could seek to expand their sense of persons by “all the means available,” while others might seek to reduce the means available to them; nor with the idea that one poet might seek to do both at different moments or in different poems; nor even with the notion that a single poem might register a conflict between these two desires. (On my reading, Yeats’s “Cuchulain Comforted” is an example of just such a poem). Such diversity or instability (or even “irrationality”) of motive is surely consistent with Jarvis’s account of “thinking through making.” Nor do I see a problem with the idea that poets’ accounts of their own ambitions might not always be the best account—not just of their artistic achievements but of their actual motivations—so that those accounts might need some judicious disregarding, or regarding in another light. (Though it is certainly fair enough to demand some apparatus to justify this recasting of motive).12
In the particular case of “the functional motive” underwriting Language poetry, however, I do have to acknowledge playing a sort of double game: When I claim that “deep structure” linguistics provides a “better” account of Language poetry than the actual accounts that Language poets are inclined to give, I mean several things. I mean that it seeks to give a fuller account of the complex set of practices that make up Language poetry as a movement: it explains the way the poems actually look and feel, for example, but also the poets’ tendency to perform solidarity while resisting any particular account of it. [Here, the mechanism is something like “implicature”—in which the shape of a particular ensemble of practices (artistic, intellectual, social) suggests that another set of commitments belongs to that ensemble, even if they are not strictly entailed as a matter of logic]. But I also mean that it gives a more desirable account—both because the idea of “deep structure” gets us closer to fulfilling what I take to be the Language poets’ desire to reconcile an unrelenting critique of linguistic and behavioral norms with the possibility of a universally applicable normative ethics, and also because I think that desire is laudable in principle, whether or not it is possible or even coherent. It is this coincidence of descriptive and normative judgments that gives rise to what Ron Silliman has called “intellectual dishonesty,” but which I think is better described as my (infuriating to many) belief that it would be better for Language poetry if I were right about it. Likewise, it is Jarvis’s intuition that the normative sense of the word “better” lies behind my claim that the poetic project I set out to describe in Being Numerous is the “most urgent” of those I could imagine undertaking that gives rise to another charge of dishonesty: Jarvis’s insistence that what I am proposing is not a kind of poetry, but my “desideratum for poetry”; and that the poets I discuss do not constitute a tradition but rather “are the ones [Izenberg] most values.”
Leaving aside for the moment any semantic quibble (is “most urgent” really the same as “best”?) I do have to wonder if my admixture of explanation and advocacy in Being Numerous is really so very far off the standard in literary criticism, or simply more transparent. While I do acknowledge the evidentiary difficulties I face in making argument that some poets’ deep investment in “the tiniest little details of technique” are consistent with a “larger or grander” sense that the made thing is undesirable or even false, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious difficulty in thinking that one has got something descriptively right, and at the same time maintaining that the thing that one has gotten right is “urgent” or important—or perhaps even good. It would seem to me hard—as a purely practical matter, not a theoretical one—to understand the motivation behind much literary scholarship if one didn’t think so, even if only secretly, somewhere, and on some account of the good.
And indeed—as a practical matter, if not a theoretical one— Jarvis himself would seem to share my sense that any account of art worth taking the time to work out ought to seem worth something to you. How else to understand the pathos in his own strict parceling out of roles between poets who, on his account “are deeply invested in the significance of the least little paralinguistic deformations of language” (a claim at least as categorical as any I make in Being Numerous) and “actual ontologists” who, longing for “transparency” and repelled by the contradictions and irrationality of human experience, dismiss such details as “trivial small change?” Surely the same doubleness of meaning that afflicts my claim to having a “better account” can also be heard in Jarvis’s valedictory conclusion that poetry “might…alert us” to the limitations of any new humanism such as the one I describe. But while I confess that I can’t quite tell if Jarvis thinks that all poetry worth the name must be critical of any humanistic project, I certainly don’t think that his evident wish that it should be should count in any way against his claim that some poetry is.
Finally, I’d also like to acknowledge that Kunin’s engagement with the particulars of Donne’s, Spicer’s and Spahr’s poems leads him to describe a “concept of society” different from that on offer in Being Numerous, specifically in that it refuses to privilege the concept of the person that I have called “the ground of social life.” On his reading, these poets (and no doubt he has others in mind) imagine society as something like a medium (a bed, air, poetry) that could admit anything and everything (persons and states, living and dead) into the circle of attentional and ethical regard without requiring something so substantive as a definition or a criterion of inclusion. I find this a compelling idea, but one that is sufficiently far from my own intuitions that I am not confident I fully grasp it; I’d like to invite more conversation about its contours and implications.
The Defense of Experience
Michael Clune is pleased to grant my argument that whatever effects poetry may cause, they are not “empirical” (by which he means that they are not directly caused by the poem’s impact on human sensorium, as in the souped-up of version of the fallacy of expressive form he identifies in Robert Mitchell’s PMLA essay). But he wishes to hold on to the idea that there is another kind of artifact, which he calls a “fiction,” that gives rise to another kind of experience, which he calls “virtual,” that underwrites the renovating work that poetry can do.
Clune’s alternative proposal, (framed in relation to a conceptually enhanced version of Mill’s account of lyric as speech “overheard,” and thus not formed or deformed by awareness of an audience), suggests that “to overhear speech is to be invited to participate in a subjectivity that does not depend upon my recognition, is not sustained by it[.]” How is this “participation” supposed to work? Clune seems in fact to offer two slightly different accounts: The first emphasizes the fact that that the voice overheard in a poem is literally my own. That is, I am the one doing the talking (whether I read out loud or to myself); but, because my voice is taking up words that I did not author, that articulate desires that I do not feel, or beliefs that I do not hold, I encounter a version or “possibility” of my voice that I do not recognize. (I discuss a version of this very scenario in Chapter 5 of Being Numerous). With that shock of unrecognition comes the possibility of being “host” to thoughts and feelings other than those I have previously understood myself to think or feel; or, more radically, in counting some structure of sound or movement of mind as thinking that I had previously not considered as such, simply because I have now encountered it as mine.13 (I should note that on this account, it doesn’t much matter if the poem I encounter is one that I have authored. The force of Rimbaud’s famous insistence “Je est un autre” rests on precisely our ability to discover unknown possibilities of ourselves even in our own words).
Clune’s second account emphasizes that the voice “overheard” in the poem is, literally, not a voice. That is, when we pretend that seeing a collection of marks on paper is anything like hearing another person speaking, we are participating in a fiction. Clune points to “the necessity of interpretation” as the crucial difference between real and fictive overhearing; for him, it seems that what “fiction” purchases is something like the opposite of negative capability, a reaching after significance that we might call knowingness (“We are actually reading an artfully composed artifact, and we know this”). It is knowingness that allows us to construct a “virtual” subject, to turn a mere “scaffold” (the experience of the poem) into a “spinal column” (a virtual person). But if it is clear why knowingness might help us to transform the experience of an artifact into a thought about persons or model of personhood, it is not completely clear why these thoughts and models are “otherwise unreachable” except through fictions, or what the importance of the fictiveness of the fictive is supposed to be.
For one thing, it seems plausible to me that actually overhearing another person speaking can require imaginative or interpretive work similar to the work of pretending to: not just the necessity of understanding what is said, but the necessity of “taking the marks” (graphemes, phonemes) to represent words, etc. (One could imagine extreme scenarios where that interpretive “taking” with respect to persons seems like a potentially unwarranted leap of faith, as when a sea-Yahoo meets a land Yahoo, or Richard Powers meets Galatea 2.2). But even if I allow that my recognition of the presence of another plausibly human mind in a body allows me (in the standard case) to overleap that interpretive step in the case of actual overhearing—still, there is interpretive work to be done. In both standard and fictive cases, I am trying to make sense of what it means to imagine another person on the model of some particular marks, thoughts, desires and actions—the ones limned by something that I take to be a particular utterance—and even to reconfigure my account of the world to accommodate that model. (“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”). If knowingness is a stance that can be taken toward poems and persons alike—if our experience of encountering persons is, as I have suggested, not so very different from the experience of reading poems— then the problem isn’t so much that “virtual” subjects are multiply accessible; it is just that they no longer seem very virtual. Experience with interpretation added is as actual as anything.
To draw this back to Being Numerous for a moment; I can’t quite agree with Clune’s characterization of me as holding the view that “poems are of no help in imagining different kinds of personhood.” In fact, both of Clune’s accounts actually seem to me be plausible and important accounts of how poets and poetry can help generate new experiences of and thoughts about subjectivity. Are these experiences and thoughts, as Clune suggests, “new models of personhood”? Perhaps. There are certainly poems that have allowed me to give new accounts of the person I understand myself to be, by just the means of self-estranging encounter that he describes. And—though much more rarely—with the aid of great geniuses of reimagination like Emily Dickinson (whom Clune mentions) or (in another idiom) Derek Parfit—I have experienced and perhaps even participated in fictions that seem to me to offer new accounts of what a person is altogether.
The problem that troubles Being Numerous, however, isn’t so much the problem of novelty. (It is worth noting, for example, that the definition of the person in terms of the capacity to use language—despite having received a certain terminological upgrade in Chomsky’s linguistics—is quite old. Yeats’s Platonism with respect to persons—despite having received a technological upgrade in Cattell’s eugenics—is even older). Novelty is, without a doubt, a deeply interesting category when it comes to poems, and arguably important when it comes to our inventiveness in thinking about persons. But the point of my argument for the actuality of the virtual was to raise the question of whether any “new kind” could be different enough so as to evade a problem intrinsic to experience itself, of whatever variety. While it may be the case that the knowingness built into my experience of any of a fictive subject makes for a certain “borderlessness” between my experience and the pretended experience of a virtual person, it does not make the experience borderless—nor the account of the person that arises from it. A model of the person, however new, and however capacious, is built upon everything that it excludes. Let’s call this a problem, not with insufficient novelty, but with modeling. And here, it seems to me, virtuality offers no help. It is not out of “unconcern with experience” but out of deep recognition of the limits of even the extreme experiences licensed by fictions that the poets I discuss in Being Numerous turn against their own commitments to “artifactual realization” and towards “conceptual abstraction.”
Paul Grimstad seeks to defend experience from a slightly different angle. While willing to grant the interest of the foundational accounts of personhood of the kind that Being Numerous seeks to explore, he thinks there is a more effective way to purchase foundational accounts than by an appeal to what I call “poetry in the general sense”—one that does not come with the need to turn against what I have called “the texture of the experience of persons.” Grimstad begins by noting that the accounts of personhood offered by the poets I consider in Being Numerous might be mapped on two axes: that of minimalism/universality, and that of realism. For Yeats, the right form of the person is the one that bears the right relation to the transcendental sources of being he calls “Great Mind” or “Great Memory.” That Yeats conceives of personhood as something like an aristocratic privilege should surely be understood to limit its scope, but this failure of universality is somewhat mitigated by his euthenic belief that the power of symbols embedded in works of art could extend the privilege of personhood (“perfection of the life”) to anyone fortunate enough to encounter the right work. The Language poets point to an innate language faculty (like universal grammar) as the ground of personhood that has a stronger claim to realism than Great Mind (perhaps ironically, Yeats’s efforts to buttress his mysticism with the pseudo-science of eugenics was driven by his concern to find a way to make his Platonism seem more real), but its claim to universality is troubled by some epistemic difficulties—perhaps most obviously, the challenge of identifying the competence for language in the absence of a linguistic performance we already credit. On this account, it might be all too easy to exclude morally relevant beings from the category of personhood.
On Grimstad’s view, “sapience”—“the basic ability to subsume experienced particulars under general concepts”—does better by both measures. First, it better meets the criteria of minimalism and universality (“casts a thinner, wider net”) because sapience is more widely distributed than language. Second, it meets the reality criterion in a way that inoculates it from some of problems of judgment (and dependency upon judgment) faced by language. Whereas a capacity for language is manifest only in our speaking, sapience would seem to be manifest in all our activities: speaking, certainly, but also in not speaking; intending to do one rather than the other, or on choosing one over the other as the thing to do (let’s call that “valuing”). As Grimstad asks: “are we not, insofar as we are persons, just constantly exercising our capacity to subsume the particulars of experience under general criteria?” And sapience does better in another way as well: for where the capacity for language does not bear within it the idea of value (see my discussion of this point on 162), the idea of sapience does—if only because the capacity to subsume particulars under general criteria is what makes a normative category like value possible.
For all these reasons, I agree that sapience looks pretty good as a marker of personhood.14 Some of the poets I discuss in Being Numerous would probably agree too, if you could get them to sit still for the discussion. My argument about Frank O’Hara, for example, is that his commitment to what he called “abstraction in poetry” was an attempt to make his art unusually transparent, courting ephemerality in order to allow something very much like sapience to shine through it. How better to describe what Grimstad means by celebrating the sapience manifest in all our practices than to point to O’Hara’s celebration of his own normative capacities: to like Melville rather than James, to do “this” rather than “that”, to choose one beloved rather than (or along with) another? For O’Hara, to joyfully enact one’s values is precisely what makes one “susceptible to valuing” (137).
Doing one thing and then another, or even one thing rather than another, of course, should not necessarily be identified with sapience. Action, even seemingly self-guided action, can be mere reactive behavior resulting from external stimulus. Grimstad acknowledges precisely this when he distinguishes “sapience” from “sentience,” which he defines as the “simple registering of causal events…a capacity persons share with, say, fish and heliotropic plants.” Here, though, I would note that while Grimstad’s account of sapience was a familiar one, his definition of sentience is idiosyncratic. Though there is certainly debate about what ought to be enfolded within the latter term, almost every account of sentience that I can think of either explicitly or implicitly contains some notion of subjective awareness. To be sentient, that is, it is not enough that a being “register” stimuli in the sense of responding to them; it must respond to stimuli consciously. It is the demand for this particular form of “registration” that explains why it is very unusual for anyone to call plants sentient, while most would be willing to grant sentience to mammals, some attribute sentience to fish, and even a few would allow it to the occasional insect (bees, for example). My point in trying to get this right is more than merely terminological. Rather, it is to call attention to the present urgency of a set of arguments claiming that sapience—however wide and thin the net it casts—is not wide and thin enough to capture and hold all morally relevant beings. Drawing on thinkers ranging from Jeremy Bentham to Gary L. Francione, defenders of animal rights would expand the franchise of personhood to animals—not on the ground of their capacity to form concepts, but on the ground of their being sentient “subjects of a life”—a life that could be made better or worse for that particular being. (Bentham: “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” Francione: “A sentient being is a being with an interest in continuing to live, who desires, prefers or wants to continue to live”). And my point in emphasizing the currency of arguments from sentience is not to express a preference for one “net” over the other, so much as it is to show that the attempt to move from sapience to sentience sketches a vector of change—an ongoing effort to push the boundaries of personhood ever outward, lest some crucial being be left outside the range of our regard.
It is the force and persistence of this vector, along with its proximity to and consequences for poetry, that Being Numerous seeks to describe. Thus, Grimstad’s worry: “are those who live their lives never intending to partake in an activity called “poetry” never to have an occasion to manifest what it is that makes them persons?” is not quite to the point. When I suggest that “poetry in the general sense” is best understood “not as a form of writing, not as a practice at all, but rather as the problematic of coming to know something real about persons and their capacities through their contingent intentions and actions” (emphasis not in the original)—this, for all its abstraction, gets at something important that distinguishes “poetry in the general sense” from sapience, or even from sentience. For poetry, in Being Numerous occupies the ground of a problem in accounting of persons under conditions of extremity, rather than a solution to that problem.
This is perhaps clearest in the case of George Oppen. Oppen, I suggest, though deeply invested in the problems of recognizing persons, never quite gets to the point of proposing a criterion for personhood. Rather, he enjoins an attitude of extreme receptivity toward the possibility of personhood: a non-specifying stance toward persons past, present and future that he calls curiosity. What curiosity sacrifices in rigor on the axes of universality and realism, it gains in its openness to the idea that we cannot predict when, where, or in what form persons will manifest themselves, and thus cannot rest easy in our judgments of what Grimstad calls “the relative explanatory yield” of one account of personhood or another.