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The Motive for Metonymy (A Parochial Theme in Two Parts)

Part 1

The Toronto Research Group, founded by Steve McCaffery and Canadian avant-garde poet bpNichol, issued a number of reports on its poetic investigations in the early 1970s, among them a report on translation, which they defined as “an activity upon a source text and a transportation of selected material into a new context.”1 One of the major findings of the reports was, as Nichol and McCaffery explain, the range of poetic possibilities that can be produced through a particular translative protocol, namely that of the “homolinguistic translation.”   “If we no longer consider translation as being necessarily an informational service — the one tongue’s access to another –” they write,

then it can become a creative endeavor in its own right.  Moreover, it is no longer necessarily dependent on a heterolinguistic context.  In a homolinguistic situation, the translative act need not involve the subjective formulations of verbal, notational equivalents, for the vocabulary is settled as an objective phenomenon before any creative departure.  The shift of notational systems (with its attendant problems) are eliminated at the outset. (Rational Geomancy 32)

The research experiment consists, then, in figuring out what is required to abandon “informational service,” and it’s in this pressure to relinquish information that homolinguistic translation emerges as a key protocol.  This protocol is one that McCaffery has adopted in a number of experimental projects including his recently reissued Every Way Oakly, a homolinguistic translation of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

As we’ll see, Every Way Oakly is a work that in fact involves a great deal of “activity upon the source text.” What doesn’t change between the source text and the text of the translation, however, is the language in which each text is written. As McCaffery himself explains in his introduction, the poems of Every Way Oakly are to be understood as

initial investigations in the concept of homolinguistic translation (i.e., translation within the same language) and the use of such translation to generate contentually new texts that, nonetheless, obey certain of the basic tenets of translation (the passage from a source to a target language and the preservation, in that passage, of some trace of the source elements).2

Having a “source language” that is the same as the “target language,” we find ourselves with a further question, in this case, about the very object of translation: what “trace of the source elements” is being preserved, if it’s the words but not the language they’re part of that is being changed?  If (to recall McCaffery and Nichol’s report) “one tongue’s access to another” is not a matter of access between languages, what is being accessed?

But if it’s the words but not the language that are being changed in homolinguistic translation, one could ask, isn’t homolinguistic translation just the same thing as paraphrase? Why isn’t every paraphrase a homolinguistic translation? We can begin to feel the force being exerted on the separation of homolinguistic translation and “informational service” in McCaffery and Nichol’s report, since in fact there’s no requirement that homolinguistic translation absolve itself of the duty to perform informational service.  And as long as it doesn’t, it would seem as though there’s nothing to save a project like Every Way Oakly from, if not the heresy of paraphrase, then the banality of paraphrase.  But as we’ll see by looking at one of the translated poems, the theory of translation under which it operates enacts a heresy of paraphrase and in doing so performs a sort of ingenious solution to the heresy of paraphrase.

Before we turn to McCaffery’s text, it will be useful to see what Stein’s poems look like in a more conventional “heterolinguistic” translation. Here is Stein’s original poem, “A Purse”:

A purse was not green, it was not straw color, it was hardly seen and it had a long use and the chain, the chain was never missing, it was not misplaced, it showed that it was open, that is all that it showed.3

And here is its translation into French as “La Bourse,” from Jacques Demarcq’s 2005 Tendres Boutons:

Une bourse n’était pas verte ni couleur paille, elle était à peine visible et avait servi servi longtemps et la chaîne, la chaîne ne manquait jamais, elle n’était pas mal placée, elle montrait que c’était ouvert, c’est tout ce qu’on voyait.4

Demarcq’s translation of the first two clauses — “Une bourse n’était pas verte ni couleur paille” for “A purse was not green, it was not straw color” — seems close enough to Stein’s on the semantic level: any English-French dictionary will give us “vert” for “green,” “couleur,” for “color,” and “paille” for “straw.” And the translation is even closer on the syntactical level:  in the French we find nouns, negating particles, adjectives, etc., pretty much equivalent to and exactly in the place and order we find them in the English.

But certain liberties emerge as the translation continues.  Demarcq gives us “avait servi servi longtemps” for Stein’s “had a long use.” Perhaps “longtemps” seems insufficiently “long,” so we need the insistence of “servi servi” to get the force of “long use.”  Or maybe Demarcq doesn’t want us to lose the fact that there’s a rhyme in Stein’s poem (“it was not green…it was hardly seen”), so he gives us “n’était pas verte ni…avait servi,” but that doesn’t help explain the repetition. And we can see a certain liberty taken as well where “misplaced” is rendered as “mal placée.” On the one hand there’s a semantic as well as visual proximity — “mal” corresponds closely to “mis” and “placée” to “placed” — but Demarcq’s word choice actually produces a puzzle about Stein’s meaning where there might have been none at all, had the translator written instead “la chaîne n’est jamais égarée” (the chain is never mislaid).

So with this translation, what information is being communicated? Where is the French tongue accessing the English? And what is not being being accessed or communicated?  The shared sense and the shared letters between “misplaced” and “mal placée” capture a certain “information” from Stein’s poem (to recall Nichol and McCaffery’s report), or we might say a certain “content” (if we take McCaffery’s language from his introduction to Every Way Oakly):  the verb  “place” and the “bad” associations of “mis-,” the shared “m’s” and “l’s” and “c’s,” and the sounds that go with them.  But there’s a referential dimension that isn’t being communicated or accessed at all. For while with “mal placée” the translator has given us a sense equivalent to one available to any speaker of English (we can read “misplaced” as “badly placed”), something closer to “the chain was never mislaid” – a good paraphrase, we might say – would help establish the reference Stein’s poem makes to the tiny chain that attaches to an interior coin purse in handbags from the period.  The chain is never misplaced because it’s attached to the purse, and the chain can only be seen when the bag is open (“it showed that it was open and that is all”).

With “égarée,” then, we might lose some of the patent “information” of the text — the “m’s” and “l’s” and “c’s” and the verb “place” contained in “misplaced” — and the aural and visual experiences they afford. But we would retain information that helps us imagine the object — the purse — that the poem is intended to represent. Demarcq’s translation gives us the inverse: we might get from it access to something closer to the material information in Stein’s poem “A Purse” but we get less access to the purse that that material is being used to represent.  We get the experience of the original, but not quite the meaning.

Here is McCaffery’s translation of “A Purse” from Every Way Oakly:

(Oakley 57)

Homolinguistic translation may have emerged, according to Nichol and McCaffery’s report, from an effort to abandon “informational service”; nevertheless the first line of this translation, “There are no buts about it,” performs a very straightforward “informational service.”  While it is not a translation of any meaning of the source text, and it’s certainly not a paraphrase, it is a very literal description of the entire poem if “it” refers to Stein’s “A Purse.”  “There are no buts about it” because the clauses of “A Purse” are either coordinated by an “and” or no conjunction at all. The word “but” never occurs. My point here isn’t that McCaffery is really doing “informational service” when he claims homolinguistic translation is a means of avoiding it. As we’ll see, these informational gestures signal instead a very different way of understanding “one tongue’s access to another,” one that does indeed abandon what McCaffery and Nichol mean by “informational service.”

The lines that follow “no buts about it” spin out various associative logics, operating at the level of syntax, reference, sound and sense, sometimes simultaneously.  The purse that “was not green” in Stein’s poem becomes “the field that was,” in McCaffery’s, and “straw” becomes “hay when it named itself gold.” There’s no mistaking the Rumplestiltskin allusions here.  The translator spins out his associations in a thread that starts as straw and turns to gold.  The allusion continues, when McCaffery spins Stein’s chain into “bicycle/peddles and links.” The bicycle’s chain is already slipping, however, since the “peddles” associated with it are already working two different referential registers, one that associates the pedals of a bicycle with the pedals of a spinning wheel, but another that associates the pedaling of either with the peddling of goods and extends the thread of “purse” and “gold.”

Repeatedly in interviews as well as in the introduction to Every Way Oakly, McCaffery acknowledges his debt to what he calls “allusive referential,” an experimental concept and technique he developed in collaboration with Fluxus founder Dick Higgins. And the debt is easy to see if we look at Higgins’s own explanation of the concept in “Notes Toward an Allusive Referential”:

1) I think a.  Let us call a my “object.”  2) As artist, I observe that though I try to think a simply, I find that my mind moves on to b.  I could fight this and insist upon mentioning a only.  This would cause anxiety, of course, but that might have its uses.  However, instead, I accept the displacement.  B now becomes the new object, which I will call a “referential” [the substitution].  3) But I find that when I refer to b in my original context, that the sense of a, if the intuition has been a close one, remains.  B is justified by its heightening of the experience of a — though a displacement, the allusion (or movement from a to b) has created a vivid effect in my mind.  4) The reader need not go through the beginning of the process.  The reader simply reads b and feels a (ideally).5

If we map Higgins’s “allusive referential” scenario onto the example of McCaffery’s translation, we start with Stein’s poem as the “object” that the artist is “thinking” — Stein’s “A Purse” is McCaffery’s a (as we know from the mention of the fact that there are “no buts about it”).  And we could say that in thinking about this object a, which, in addition to lacking any “buts” also includes such things as “A purse was not green, it was not straw color” and “the chain was never missing,” McCaffery finds his mind moving on to green fields and straw spinning into gold and bicycle chains and the peddling of goods.  And as Higgins suggests, why “fight this,” why stick to the referents given by a only?  So McCaffery does not stop at at the first line, which we might describe in Higgins’s terms as “mentioning a.” The translation goes on and gives us the ways in which the artist (the translator, in this case) “accepts the displacement”; the translation records for us the effects of his new object b, which is the “referential” complex of Rumplestiltskin and bicycles and economic exchange.

In this respect, as I began to suggest earlier, we could say the homolinguistic translation doesn’t involve giving up “informational service” at all.  If anything, the translation’s “allusive referential” involves an intensification of the information, since what we get in b is both a sense of a and the effects of a on the translator. In other words, the information is not just what’s available in a (the lack of “buts,” an idea of green, an idea of money); it’s also a’s effects on the translator, the “movement from a to b” that creates, as Higgins puts it, “a vivid effect in my mind.”  And not only is b “justified by the heightening of the experience of a,” but its heightening seems to consist in part in compounding these experiences for new subjects, for readers who encounter b: As we recall from Higgins, “The reader need not go through the beginning of the process.  The reader simply reads b and feels a.”

What we have is clearly a kind of causal chain of experience, or a circuit even, but what kind of a chain is this?  If the “heightened experience of a” is something that can travel from one person to another, then this chain is surely one that’s not only hardly seen, but never seen:  In reading “A Purse,” I would have to feel the feelings, think the thoughts McCaffery felt and thought in reading Stein’s “A Purse.” But how can one person actually feel another person’s a? More plausibly, we might think that the causal chain involves a proliferation of effects from the same a — not different subjects having the same feelings about a, but the same a producing different feelings in different subjects. But then we also have a different source of pathos — how can I tell if my a is the same as your a? Not how can I feel another person’s a, but how can I know another person’s a?

In the first instance, “one tongue’s access to another” looks like a kind of Whitmanian fantasy of shared embodiment (“every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”). The second instance, meanwhile, requires not so much one tongue’s access to another as one text’s access to another. But the access between texts in this instance is just as literally embodied as the access between tongues in the first. As McCaffery explains in the introduction to Every Way Oakly,

In the present translation, [the] cubist perceptual method has been preserved and Stein’s method of observation and description has become my method of reading and translating….  The source texts (Stein’s original pieces) become textual still lives placed under the rigor of translational observations so as to generate their target texts along the lines of allusive reference and connotational structures and possibilities. (ix)

If I can’t feel what McCaffery feels, but nevertheless, by the workings of the allusive referential, I am to feel his a when I read his b, then it looks as if it’s something about the object a that must pass from text to text and become available in my experience of b. Indeed, for this to happen the source text and target text themselves must function as objects, as things that require a perceptual method for a method of reading.

One of the Tortonto Research Group’s other major discoveries, also from its 1973 report on translation, was a “link between found poetry and translation”:  “The translative movement from a source to a target language was seen,” write McCaffery and Nichol, “to involve a shift in the context of signs.  Like translation, the found poem is an activity upon a source text and a transportation of selected material into a new context” (Rational Geomancy 56).  While the difference between the translation and the found poem is left unstated here, we can infer that it must be a difference above all in the degree of “activity upon the source text.” If translation and found poetry both involve “activity upon a source text,” the found poem simply represents a minimization of that activity to as close to zero as possible.  In this respect, all translations could be said to be a version of found poetry — some of them just involve more activity upon the source text than others. Moreover, the likeness extends further if we go back to the earlier discussion of the “allusive referential.” In the case of a found poem, there’s no question that reading b will enable me to feel a, since the target text b shares not just some things but everything with its source text a.

We can see more clearly now what might be at stake in raising the question of paraphrase in this context. If the heresy of paraphrase is that by losing the form of the text you lose experiences that are crucial to the meaning of the text, then a paraphrase that could somehow keep all that experience of the text would look like a kind of solution. In the case of found poetry, you certainly have a way of keeping all the experience of the text because you keep all of the form of the text.  The fantasy of the link between found poetry and translation seems to be the same fantasy as Higgins has for the allusive referential  — that you can somehow keep the experience of a even when the movement to b involves a lot of “activity upon the source text.” If I can always feel a when I’m reading b, with b I haven’t lost, much less violated, the experience of the source text. If the heresy in the heresy of paraphrase was that the paraphrase gave you the meaning of the text without the experience of it, the triumph of the homolinguistic translation – basically also the triumph of found poetry — is that it gives you the experience of the text without the meaning of it.

Part 2.

We have already seen how the metonymic displacements in McCaffery’s translation of Tender Buttons are designed to proliferate experiential effects, and how those effects depend on a highly literalized sense of the information a text contains.  Of course for McCaffery, and indeed for some of the most influential experimental poetic movements of the late 70s and 80s, in particular the Language movement in the U.S., Stein’s work was understood to privilege metonymy.  And it’s not just a commonplace among the Language writers and their affiliates, but a commonplace in Stein criticism as well, to treat Tender Buttons as eschewing metaphor in favor of metonymy.  Christopher Knight, for example, describes the poems as given over, in Roman Jakobson’s terms, “to one pole, the metonymic with its consequent suggestion of contiguity and realism, over the other,” namely metaphor.6 And for Stephen Scobie, this privileging of metonymy is what allows Stein’s poems to “break[] out of the logocentric, patriarchal world…the imposed ‘identities of metaphor; along the horizontal axis of combination, it offers the unlimited freeplay of dissemination.”7

A more recent body of work, following on the heels of language poetry and also heavily influenced by it, has turned not to Stein, but to Wallace Stevens, whose lyric commitments and New Critical champions have previously lumped him with T.S. Eliot among the Language movement’s “bad” modernists (as opposed to the “good” ones like Stein, Laura (Riding) Jackson, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky). And although this new interest in Stevens has functioned not exactly to recruit him for metonymy, the critique of his commitment to metaphor (which can be found in the work of poets from Frank Bidart to Rae Armantrout to Jennifer Moxley) has, I’ll argue in the second half of this paper, functioned to produce a skepticism that goes beyond the Language poets’ enthusiasm for the explosion of meaning into an “unlimited freeplay of dissemination” and for systemic indeterminacy.  It has been instead through something like a radicalization of metaphor rather than metonymy that meaning as such has come to be understood not as inherently indeterminate but inherently false, and that truth has come to inhere in the refusal of holding any beliefs at all.

In a recent interview, Armantrout discusses a poem from her book Next Life, called “Reversible”, which begins:

Try this

Shadows of leaves
between shadows of venetian blinds


like holes

across a scroll of a
player piano

But are similes reversible?

Try this.

Trunk of a palm tree
as the leg

of a one-legged

“To my mind,” Armantrout says in the interview,

the simile that follows is not reversible.  That is, someone might well imagine, fancifully, that a palm tree’s trunk, below its little skirt of fronds, looked like a ballerina’s leg, but no one would look at a ballerina’s leg and imagine that it looked like a palm tree. So that’s an answer, of sorts.  But, for me, it opens up another question:  what does it mean if similes aren’t reversible?  If they’re out of balance, does that undercut their validity.”9

I’ll make clearer what this has to do with Stevens specifically in a moment, but for now the point is just to establish Armantrout’s particular way of suspecting metaphor – a suspicion that is actually compatible with a more general suspicion of the prospects for truth claims, and a suspicion that Stevens, I will argue, not despite, but entirely in keeping with his understanding of and commitment to the motives for metaphor, shares.

In what sense is a metaphor “invalidated” if it’s not “reversible?” What would it mean for a metaphor to be “valid” in the first place?  We can get a sense of what might be at stake from a 1992 essay in which Armantrout prefaces an extended reading of a poem by Lyn Hejinian with a passage from an essay in which Hejinian, on the one hand, criticizes metaphor for its conservation of meaning and, on the other hand, celebrates metonymy, in good postmodern fashion, for what amounts to its indeterminacy:

Metonymy moves attention from thing to thing; its principle is combination rather than selection.  Compared to metaphor, which depends on code, metonym preserves context, foregrounds interrelationship.  And again in comparison to metaphor, which is based on similarity, and in which meanings are conserved and transferred from one thing to something said to be like it, the metonymic world is unstable.  While metonymy maintains the intactness of particulars, its paratactic perspective gives it multiple vanishing points.10

Armantrout, in turn, goes on to praise Hejinian’s poetry for its metonymic workings and the “restless attention” they generate, in contrast to a poem by Sharon Olds, whose “mainstream verse,” Armantrout deplores for the ways that it “impl[ies] that people and things are serviceable, interchangeable, ready to be pressed into the service of metaphor” (Collected Prose 41). The metaphor that is served, moreover, is a  “system” with “no outside…no acknowledged division within it.  It is imperialistic” (Collected Prose 41). What then is the relationship between what Armantrout sees as the “imperialism” of metaphor and what Hejinian sees as its conservation of meaning?

Now it might seem like a contradiction for Armantrout to claim, on the one hand, that similes are irreversible; and on the other, that “people and things…pressed into the service of metaphor” have been rendered “interchangeable.” The logic that can exchange “my love” for a “red rose” obviously depends on the principle of interchangeability, a principle that functions above all to conserve the qualities of one thing in our ideas about another.  But once the rose becomes the vehicle and my love the tenor (or we might say, using the language of cognitive linguistics, as well as of translation, once the rose becomes the source and my love the target for this transfer of qualities), the one subsumes the other, annexes it in good imperial fashion.  And Armantrout is willing to use an even more predatory analogy to make the point.  As she says in a 1999 interview with Hejinian:  “Metaphor is like one thing swallowing another:  the bulge of the antelope in the boa’s midriff.  Metaphor should make us suspicious, but we can’t do without it.”11

Wallace Stevens was certainly aware of the power of metaphor to conserve certain qualities even as it obliterates the object of its transactions.  In “Poetry Is a Destructive Force,” the second poem in a 12-poem sequence Stevens published under the title Canonica in the Partisan Review in 1938, tenor and vehicle fight it out, and only one emerges intact, having utterly consumed the other:

That’s what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.

It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own . . .

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.12

To say that the thing one has at heart is a lion or an ox is to construct a metaphor, where the heart shares the stoutness, the physical power, of a notoriously powerful beast. In the next stanza, however, the “be” verb that enacts the initial equivalence is eliminated, and the metaphorical transformation of the heart into a beast is enacted through sheer juxtaposition:  “Corazon, stout dog, young ox, bow-legged bear.”  Apparently the less of “is” there is, the more literal the metaphor becomes, so literal that the man whose heart is like a beast can actually taste that beast:  “He tastes its blood, not spit.”  The transformation is complete, and the consequence of its completion is that the man himself becomes a metaphor, marked by the signal “like”:  “He is like a man.”  Yet in no longer being a man but merely being “like” a man, he is also wholly consumed by the original figure:  “He is like a man/In the body of a violent beast.”  The vehicle of the metaphor, the beast that began as a figure for the man’s heart, has now swallowed its tenor in a violent act of consumption, such that the man has become its heart. Meanwhile the beast, overcome by the exhaustion that follows a kill, lies down for a nap:  “The lion sleeps in the sun./Its nose is on its paws.”  What we have learned then, is that “Poetry is a destructive force” because “it can kill a man.”  And more specifically, it is the heart of poetry — metaphor — that kills him.

Now I don’t for a moment think Armantrout has Stevens’s postprandial lion in mind with her metaphorical boa fat after its kill. But throughout each of her two most recent books, Next Life, published in 2007, and Versed, published in 2009, she produces poems that invoke and test the boundaries between tenor and vehicle and make self-conscious work of addressing metaphor as such.  Obviously many poets across many centuries have shared a self-conscious interest in the devices of their craft.  In each of these recent volumes, however, Armantrout has also produced a poem that reads as nothing if not a kind of a homolinguistic translation of another more familiar poem of Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate,” which, as it happens, immediately follows “Poetry is a Destructive Force” in the Canonica sequence, and takes up what it might look like to rid poetry of the desire to represent things as other than what they are.

In Next Life, “Close,” one of Armantrout’s allusions to “The Poems of Our Climate,” offers, in the place of Stevens’s “Clear water in a brilliant bowl/Pink and white carnations” (Stevens 193), “Dry, white frazzle/in a blue vase.” (Next Life 11). Moreover, following Stevens’s’ “still one would want more, one would need more/More than a world of snowy scents,” Armantrout gives us, in “Help,” fron her 2009 book Versed,  “a frozen swarm/of incommensurate wishes.”13 And while initially at least, the

Creased, globular,
shiny, baby

pumpkins on stalks
upright in a vase,

may seem a lot less plausible as a version of Stevens’s “pink and white carnations” (if nothing else because they can’t possibly be anything other than fake pumpkins), there is no mistaking the allusion to Stevens by the end of the second section of the poem:

A space

can’t bear
to be un-


I mark it:

“I” “I” “I” (Versed 16)

The three “I’s” lined up so starkly here are nothing if not an instantiation of the “evilly compounded vital I/…made..fresh in a world of white” in Stevens’s poem.

The “stutter” of “I’s” enacts a more general commitment in Armantrout’s work to something like a poetics of hesitation.  And what Armantrout’s poems hesitate over is the confidence required in making propositions — truth claims — of any kind. In an early talk on “poetic silence,” Armantrout points out a problem with a tendency in certain experimental prose poems, whose “declarative sentences…tend,” she says, “to create a tone of certainty” (Collected Prose 22).  Citing an example from Bob Perelman, she points to how his declarative sentences, “do not invite silence,” but instead invite “assent”:  “After each sentence, one makes a certain effort, and then has the sensation, the satisfaction, of getting the point.  And at least for me, there is the experience of assent.  Yes, he’s right.” (Collected Prose 23).  She puts this even more succinctly in a 1999 interview:  “Perhaps I associate the discursive with an attempt to persuade.  …I’ve used my poems as an alternative to that.  They make fissures and gaps show, structurally reflecting a state of doubt” (Collected Prose 89).  Armantrout combats this “tone of certainty,” the “satisfaction of getting the point,” and pursues this “state of doubt” in a number of ways, but most vividly in her critique of metaphor and her embrace of metonymy. In making metaphor stand for propositionality as such (x is y), Armantrout’s work is littered with efforts to construct and then disrupt the workings of various metaphorical operations. The undoing of metaphor, moreover, is often accompanied – and even more often, displaced – by patently metonymic gestures, which by emphasizing sheer juxtaposition between seemingly incommensurate statements, serve to enact the “gaps and fissures” she thinks promote a “state of doubt.”

Extending such splicing effects, Armantrout also draws heavily on what she and many of her readers identify as “found language.” As she puts it in a 2006 interview with Charles Bernstein, “A lot of what I do is really notational, and I suppose the art comes in the way the notes are combined. That is, I use a lot of sources, and I don’t mean to imply at all that it’s all found language, but I do…overhear things and make notes.”14 In another interview, she calls some of the lines in her work “faux found language” — language that looks found but is of her own making (Burt & Ogden 21). Such tactics serve, of course, to generate uncertainty about the meaning of the language by obscuring its sources, making it impossible to identify or differentiate them.

As we have already seen in the link between homolinguistic translation and found poetry in McCaffery and Nichol’s research reports, one way of explaining this tactic is to say that it works to preserve the material “information” of some prior speech act even as the meaning of that prior speech act is irrevocably transformed or even obliterated.  That is, insofar as found language retains the form of the source only to produce completely new and surprising effects — what it gives us is effects in the place of meaning. And if, as I have argued elsewhere, language poetry and postmodernism more generally have been marked by a tendency to conflate the meanings of poems with their effects, the post-language-poetry tendency we see in Armantrout transforms a poetics of indeterminacy into a Stevens-like poetics of uncertainty, although, as we’ll see, it involves a more radical (and I would argue, a more implausible) skepticism than anything Stevens could have imagined.

As an insurance executive, Stevens couldn’t have been more conscious of the uncertainty built into any project that depends on predicting effects.  As Michael Szalay persuasively argues in New Deal Modernism:  American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State, Stevens writing in the wake of the financial panic of 1929 and the subsequent formation of Social Security, saw insurance and poetry as analogous endeavors that understand the epistemological implications of actuarial statistics.  As Szalay puts it, “Stevens eschews the political models of central planning that begin from the assumption that collectivities can rationalize and intend the economies they constitute.”15 The fact that the consquences of any given act are in principle subject to turning out differently from how we intend them to turn out – the risk built into any action – becomes, for Stevens a motive to capture instead the perpetual process of acts generating effects, a process that, as Szalay shows, is completely assimilable both to metaphor making and to the circulation of money:

[If] Pound wanted the state to keep money “moving, circulating, going out the front door and in the tax window,” Stevens wanted just to trace and capture this motion itself.  For he saw in money a profound, connective fungibility, the same that John Maynard Keynes identifies when he notes that “the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.” (Szalay 144)

Stevens’s Canonica sequence quite dazzlingly bears this out.  From “A Parochial Theme” through “Poetry Is a Destructive Force,” “Poems of Our Climate” and the “The Man on the Dump,” and concluding with “The Latest Freed Man,” Stevens oscillates between the literal and the figurative, real objects and represented ones, sound and sense, in order to execute a continual unsettling of propositions so that each poem concludes with an idea that can’t be fully contained within the framework with which it began, and the next poem attempts to absorb it into a different and more accommodating framework which, in turn ruptures. Throughout the sequence, Stevens continually returns to questions of metaphor-making and variations the structures of exchange and fungibility that make it possible.

The sequence culminates (though importantly does not end) in “The Man on the Dump,” where figurative images are ultimately shed as waste.  Many of these — a can of pears, a bouquet of flowers, a “tiger chest” — invoke earlier images from previous poems in the sequence, only here they appear manufactured and packaged, post consumption, and removed altogether from the economy of exchange. The point of the man being “on the dump” is that he can watch the images accumulate as things, that the images themselves have been rendered literal, purified of any metaphorical impingements:  “Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon/(All its images are in the dump) and you see/As a man (not like an image of a man),/You see the moon rise in the empty sky” (Stevens 201).  The privileged position of the man on the dump is that of being able to see “as a man” rather than as “an image of a man” – as a literal rather than a figurative man — and to see “the moon as the moon” rid of all its images; it is the privileged position of seeing the truth.

But as soon as Stevens’s man on the dump questions the source of that truth — “where was it one first heard of the truth?” — he raises the question of how we come to know it, how we come to know anything.  The answer is a word: “The the,” and the article doubled in this way gestures toward an infinite range of possiblities (a grammatical signal that a noun is to follow followed by the signal treated as a noun) without determining any particular one among them. Not surprisingly, the next poem in the sequence, “On the Road Home,” gives us an “I” who says “There is no such thing as the truth,” and a “you” who says “There are many truths,/But they are not parts of a truth” (Stevens 203). And the sequence ends with “The Latest Freed Man,” where we find ourselves “escaped from the truth” into a world that “was everything being more real, himself/At the centre of reality, seeing it” (Stevens 205). For Stevens, the inevitable “escape from the truth” that both insurance and poetry entail is ground for celebration — if our knowledge of the world (and our power to control effects in it) is necessarily incomplete, then all representation, whether in the form of poems or in the form of securities, is “a supreme fiction.”

For Armantrout writing sixty years later, representation is, for the same reason, to be treated as an object of our profoundest suspicion, and the critique of metaphor becomes a way to imagine representation’s defeat. If metaphor is a matter of making false assertions (my lover is not like a rose, a ballerina’s leg is not like a palm tree), then one way in which metonymy avoids the risk of falsehood is the degree to which its turnings give us not likenesses (or more important, unlikenesses) of things, but parts of a thing or indices of a thing. In Armantrout, the thing persistently indexed, I would argue, is — and, despite Armantrout’s commitment to multiple sources for the language of her poems, not at all paradoxically — a self. But it’s not a meaning-making self.  The “I” that stutters itself out in triplicate in “Help,” for example, is “evilly” compounded just like Stevens’s “I” in “The Poems of Our Climate,” but what compounds Armantrout’s “I” are the infinite, uncontrollable, and incompletely knowable effects of language, both found and made.  And her poems don’t represent those effects; they embody them.

Armantrout’s rewriting of Stevens doesn’t simply rescue metonymy from metaphor (and, like the language poets, rescue indeterminacy from meaning) but does so in order to produce a more generalized critique of the very possibility of meaning. I want to close by suggesting that in this respect she participates in a more general flight from representation that has taken place under the heading of affect theory.  This repudiation of representation has been based largely on the neuropsychological research that Sylvan Tomkins published between 1962 and 1992 in the four volumes of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness and articulated in critical texts like Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, which draws on Tomkins’s study of shame to reimagine the hermeneutic relation between readers and texts and offer an alternative to what she thinks of as fundamentally paranoid interpretive procedures that insist on ascertaining meanings and treating all literary effects as intentional. Sedgwick proposes, as she puts it, to “address aspects of experience and reality that do not present themselves in propositional or even in verbal form alongside those that do” and to refuse “to reverse those priorities by subsuming nonverbal aspects of reality firmly under the aegis of the linguistic.”16

Quite the opposite, Touching Feeling persistently subsumes the linguistic under the aegis not just of the nonverbal, but more specifically of the neurophysiological.  The performativity in Sedgwick’s subtitle thus derives from Austin but only to render speech acts completely continuous with bodily expressions like a blush or sweat, which are not propositional in form and, however we might invest them with values of authenticity, do not and cannot make truth-claims. Affect theory thus matches the post-language poetry of writers like Armantrout; where Armantrout gives us propositions without beliefs, affect theory gives us human expression without propositions.

The goal in both is to rescue the speaking subject from a world in which it seems that nothing it could say could be its own – a world in which everything is poised for translation and repossession. The self expression that modernism never wanted and that postmodernism sought to repudiate is here restored to the speaking subject but only on the condition that words function like sweat or blushes – they belong only to the speaker, but she means nothing by them.


1.  Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine: The Collected Reports of the Toronto Research Group 1973-1982 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992), 56.  All further references cited in text as Rational Geomancy.
2. Steve McCaffery, Every Way Oakly (Toronto, ON: BookThug, 2008), ix.  All further references cited in text as Oakly.
3. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1908), in Stein: Writings 1903-1932 (New York:  The Library of America, 1998), 320.
4. Gertrude Stein, Tendres Boutons, tr. Jacques Demarcq (Caen, France:  Nous, 2005), 20.
5. Dick Higgins, Dialect of Centuries: Notes towards a Theory of the New Arts (New York: Printed Editions, 1978), 68-69.
6. Christopher Knight, The Patient Particulars:  American Modernism and the Technique of Originality (Lewisburg, PA:  Bucknell University Press, 1995), 115.
7. Stephen Scobie, “The Allure of Multiplicity: Metaphor and Metonymy in Cubism and Gertrude Stein,” in Shirley C. Neuman and Ira Bruce Nadel, eds., Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), 116.
8. Rae Armantrout, Next Life (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 29-30.  Further references cited as Next Life.
9. Stephen Burt and Linnea Ogden, “Interview with Rae Armantrout,” Rain Taxi 12.1 (Spring 2007): 22.  Further references cited in text as Burt and Ogden.
10. Lyn Hejinian, cited in Rae Armantrout, Collected Prose (San Diego, CA: Singing Horse Press, 2007), 42.  Further references cited in text as Collected Prose.
11. Tom Beckett, ed., A Wild Salience: The Writing of Rae Armantrout (Cleveland, OH: Burning Press, 2000), 13.
12. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 192-193.  Further references cited as Stevens.
13. Rae Armantrout, Versed (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 16.  Further references cited in text as Versed.
14. Charles Bernstein, interview with Rae Armantrout, Close Listening radio broadcast, Edition #20 (aired 7 August 2006),
15. Michael Szalay, New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 126.  Further references cited in text as Szalay.
16. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick with Adam Frank, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 6.