Saturday, November 17, 2007

From "Lines out of Space"

how was your day?

now darker I wrote this later
[leave space up top for cataphoric reiteration] such is the gamble
throw what if the saying of it can’t fill this obscure whiteness? inexhaustible streaming whose source whomsoever stakes a claim mist shrouds the brow call it a hill if you will but brow still stands black birds peck roads this was, at the finish, what we all agreed on having seen if it was made up I didn’t make it up but I made you up
one animal’s sharp cry “ ” somehow delimits this shapeless grey occasioning of the passable irrevocable day so they say anyway best thing is to deny having anything to do with it that way your arse is covered either way if anyone asks thrown down the paged reconstruction hollow soled boots on the wooden platform everything is meaningful in that it happened now much lighter I wrote this earlier real writers probably feel the tool-heft asks “do you know the name of these flowers?” furrowed is a word, double letter score the pattern that is made by your current of associations less a way of thinking than mental disappropriation it was an effect I went looking for actively back there first light on honey soft nearly time to put the dinner on somewhere an owl not invisible only held from view by its will if the phone rings tell them I’ll call them back let me pick up where you left off I say “think the
unthinkable, because it’s unthinkable not
“to try”

Teaching Experimental Postmodern Poetics

While is is fairly easy to the my students to understand that postmodern poetry is a form of critique of normative poetic strategies of the 20th century, often I find that, in an odd way, they don't necessarily see such strategies as normative. They are not normal for them in that way that for most normal people poetry is totally abnormal. I am them left with the need to teach them what normal is so they can see why Ashbery is not normal. Anyway, here is one way I do it. I usually illustrate first with a poem by Heaney, "Digging" "Death of a Naturalist" something horribly late-Romantic. Then get them to read some O'Hara and Ashbery. It always works.
Normative poetry is called variously traditional, realist, late-Romantic, free-verse or voice poetics

Elements of The traditional poem:
Titular Law: the title announces the meaning
Formal regularity and coherence
Thematic coherence
Significant Lineation (rhyme or strong enjambment)
Coherence (narrative, logic, syllogism, end lines)
Move from the particular to universal: e.g. Heaney’s “Digging” from digging to creativity as such
Finitude: poems ends significantly

Within which one finds such things as:
Referential certainty
Subjective certainty

Romanticism: recollection in tranquillity, alienated poet, wanders in a landscape, encounters an event, recalls it later, poetry forms bridge between the event as such and wider significance for all (to see into the life of things) [cf. Daffodils]

Free Verse Poetics: spontaneity, open form, apparently artless, reliance on the voice as authentic, tends to ‘lineated prose’, seems to renounce constraint in favour of expression (no ideas but in things vs confessionalism)

Modernism: the eternally transient, poeticisation of the word, new-realism, disjuncture as realism, myth, objective correlative, imagism

Cultural Presuppositions about poetry:
Prosody is dead
Motivation is essential
Organic form is still the ideal
Poetry versus prose, that these are somehow now mutually exclusive
Poetry Makes nothing happen
Poetry performs the truth that philosophy seeks re: singularity of being
Every word counts

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bernstein, "The Klupzy Girl"

This crib is based on my lecture and seminar notes for teaching this poen to students who have little or no experience of experimental poetry

Like in Koch’s “A Time Zone” poem seems to take place on a bus as poet travels to Boston,probably from New York (3 hour journey)

Opening 20 or so lines are a series of statements to do with modes of expression: poetry, parables, deciphering, protest, alibis, telepathy, epistles, phrasemongering, evocation, explanations, glossing

Self-referentiality: regularly calls attention to the experience of reading the poem or poetry itself: poetry is like a swoon, his parables, not gymnastic: pyrotechnic, perfume scented, enacting, thoughtlessly, glossings of reality seemed like stretching it to cover ground

Techniques: lineation at odds with sentences, gaps between sentences result not in narrative or cohesion but confusion, cohesion instead comes from association, repetition, randomness and self-referentiality; good deal of caesura use or interruptions within the lines

Cohesion versus disjuncture, poetry and prose: Next long section juxtaposes a coherent narrative of someone leaving work with 20 or so profoundly fragmented, disjunctive phrases. Here incoherence now exists in the sentence not between them.

Materiality of the Signifier: next section deals with the material conditions of poetry production: to stroll on the beach is to be in the company of a wage-earner, to command a view of it from a vantage point, ruthlessness, when you stop acting in good faith. Here traditional poetic tropes (beaches and mountains) are inscribed in financial or power structures

Back to work: It seems the person leaving work may have been fired due to these mysterious calls!

Civilisation: towards the poem’s end the poet considers the relation between civilazation and barbarism.

Bus crash: Car smashed into; camera stolen; get off in Boston and everything seems to go crazy
Final 7 lines: inconclusive and suggestive, like only half of each line is present: “Fog commends in discourse” takes us back to the swoon or fog of consciousness

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charles Bernstein, Introduction

Bernstein’s three collections of poetics statements and contributions to the important collection The L=A=N=G… Book have set the agenda for a contemporary, postmodern, experimental aesthetic

His comments on absorptive poetics have set the standard for a postmodern poetics developed from the modernist conception of estrangement to be found in Russian Formalism and of course then picked up on by Brecht amongst others.

Bernstein on absorption:
“By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie...:
belief, conviction, silence.
Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,
fragmented...: skepticism
doubt, noise, resistance “ (Charles Bernstein, A Poetics Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992) 29.

Bernstein is committed to poetry in all its possible manifestations and several impossible

Through the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Centre he is advocate of electronic poetics

Through his theoretical work he has advocated voice-based, performative work

In the variety of his collections he explores all areas of page-based work

Through his involvement with PennSounds he is also an archivist of performed verse for the future

"Thank you for saying thank you" (Girly Man)

Postmodernism has been typified by an incredulity towards metanarratives which, in Language poetry means the cultural norms of language, art and poetry

In “Thank You...” Bernstein lists these presuppositions about what a poet should do

At the same time the poem is a commentary on the poem which is (permanently) absent from the collection

Through his ironic celebration of free-verse, expressive poetics he of course gives us a primer in all that is limiting about such mainstream poetics and, by negation, what a postmodern experimentalism should be concerned with:

Accessibility through linguistic transparency vs obscurity, difficulty, alienation techniques

Anti-intellectualism in favour of emotional expression

Stability of the subject who speaks (lyrical ego) with the intention to communicate authentically undermined by radical questioning of subjectivity to be found across post-structural and psychoanalytical thought

Shared values of humanism, subsequently questioned and negated say in the debates between Lyotard and Derrida on the one hand, Habermas and Rorty on the other

The importance of craft (as if poetry were indeed a badly drawn bed cf Plato's Republic Bk X)

Direct communication with an implied readership that will forgive racism in great art (no comment needed)

It says what it is, it is real. The desire for reality at the expense of the real being, in some measure, the definition of the age of the modern reformation as Badiou calls it which we live through today. Denial of the real, in forms that pathetically mime it. Maybe Plato was right, certainly most poets ought to be expelled from the city.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Charles Bernstein and Language Poetics

Have been teaching Bernstein for some years now and last year included him on my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at Brunel University, West London. Thought I would post these notes as a general introduction to Charles' work. This begins in a very rudimentary style desgined for all kinds of students who have not encountered Bernstein of Language poetries before.

1. Context: Introduction to Language poetics

So-called Language poetry emerged in 70s West and East Coast USA around journal This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E

I was ostensibly reacting to the predominant free verse, confessional mode of English language poetry to be found across the US and UK poetry scenes

As a group it looked to build on the formally innovative and socially concerned poetry of American modernism

Picking up on the postmodern innovations of New York School poetry, the groups however had a political edge

Founder poet Bon Perelman defines the Language programme as the following:

“breaking the automatism of the poetic “I” and its naturalized voice; foregrounding textuality and formal devices; using or alluding to Marxist or poststructuralist theory in order to be open to the present and to critique change” (Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry 13)
An early central theoretical concern of language poets was: the materiality of the signifier, that language is physical material not just a medium to express ideas or describe the world “out there”

Additionally that language is subject to the material conditions of everyday life like any other object in capitalism, thus assumptions about writing are all ideological in origin.

Their confrontational, often unreadable, poetry tries to demonstrate the materiality of the signifier and undermine the ideologies of naturalised signification.

Bernstein is the leading voice of this project which Watten has encapsulated in his comments on the two founding journals of the movement, This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
The deictic This refers to things quiddity, there this-ness, namely for Marxist inflected aesthetics their ideological context.
In contrast the awkward articulation of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E reveals the materiality of all language, or that it is made up of phonetic and graphematic matter.
Taken together these two positions encapsulate all that is enduring, controversial and aporetic as regards the conception of the materiality of the signifier.

Friday, October 19, 2007

PJ Harvey, White Chalk

Grow grow grow

wet toes aligned at the edge of a void
as clams
like limpets
at the rocktide's lapline

jump and make something
project out into what was not the void
until you happened and
like a waveretreat
cleaved that into empty

the hallway didn't seem so empty until we inherited this hideous armoire
an impassable thouroughfare become itself a placeless place
my kids are stranded in the lounge
we cringe and scrape the stairway's foot
stamped once in anger
now planted
then blooming

bravery comes in the lingering copse of the faithful

not to break nor fashion but
hold on there on that upturned hull
skyborne rescue is not for the likes of us

rather we stubborn we clutch
to a boat's expanding shell
while the swell below becomes continuum

no, it isn't in the throw
nor in the wreck as such
but how the swell
begins to build
to gather rise and fill
beneath our rafting doggedness
to rise, to fill and then
to grow,
grow and grow.

From "lines out of space"

fast (food) thoughts

burgerking has suffered a complete makeover fu-
cking horrible it is but then it must be hard to come second in
late monopoly capitalism as they call it now to us lot or
sometimes yes I call it globalisation but no do not know what that actually
means ends was so simple, supply the demand but in BK at KX what
exactly is the demand for fake lichtensteins on the walls? oh where is the new real? to
add insult to injury or perhaps spicen [sic.] up this hyper-real
salsa, that by the way is when the attractions of reality very
real though they are are outstripped by those re-presented by art or the
media with chilli added , the latest burger is the Mexican big spicy which not only is-
n’t Mexican (burgers aren’t) but you have to specify that you want it regular (a beat)
big regular! or big large that is an option too and it is all about that isn’t it options I

mean? and outside you can buy crack&sex fairly easily which is also
tempting but one must resist because I am tired of thinking about it supply
and demand I mean and how drugs and prostitution are indeed rather old-
fashioned in a quaint way in that they are really giving you something that you
want for which you have to pay and are probably dependant on in some way the
way we all used to be dependant on flour, milk and eggs—so Marxists thought, (happy days) pancake economics they called it but the late eighties flipped that over I
guess what I am getting at is how fucking difficult it is

these days
to stop for a quick bite
during lent
without having to work it all out I
mean the whole rotten system dammit!

but hey bubba, that’s modern life for you and
off he went, or she, or didn’t go, into the sordid city night, or country gloom, actually it was only late afternoon in the suburbs’ time of hopelessness and tedium I quite like it actually not everything is such a big deal you know if you don’t think about it and you can’t always be thinking about it then you can be like the mouse B. and I saw last night on the tube got half way along the platform actually nearly to my Italian shoes before a newspaper rattle startled it and it

scarpered actually

real events are scary like that un-
real imaginings of a desire-sick brain, in con-
trast are now fairly easy to assimilate under the general rubric don’t you find?
what I mean is that no one cares much about being sick in that 20thc European way
stained crack pipes and orgies where are thee now that we have a need for thee?
by the way I forgot to say, part one is over, will you wait for part two or would you like to go get a drink or something?
I know a really good thai/fusion place (a beat) and they do kareoke in the

mouse basement

Thursday, October 18, 2007


To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer. To be a great writer one must first learn to be a bad writer and never become a good writer.

Badiou on Deleuze

These are my notes on Badiou's book Deleuze: The Clamour of Being. They are more detailed than I thought and supplement the very popular notes I already have here on Deleuze.

Badiou, Alain. Deleuze: The Clamour of Being. Trans. Louise Burchill. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000

there are two paradigms that govern the manner in which the multiple is thought…the “vital” (or “animal”) paradigm of open multiplicities…/ and the mathematical paradigm of sets, which can also be qualified as “stellar” in Mallarmé’s sense of the word (Badiou, Deleuze 3-4).

· his analysis of Deleuze in the opening pages is designed to re-situate his thought in relation to the traditional metaphysic of the one, expressly so as to undermine the belief that Deleuze’s work is “devoted to the inexhaustible variety of the concrete"” (Badiou, Deleuze 14).
· thus the role of multiplicity here is to liberate being from such variety in an ascetic purification which Deleuze calls being chosen by the inorganic as an automaton. This must be in keeping with Badiou’s own position and is where I have to be careful not to see his work as just version of the mathematical sublime, unless I reconsider this sublimity somehow.

Certainly, the starting point required by Deleuze’s method is always a concrete case…/ But one starts to go wrong as soon as one imagines that constraint exercised by concrete cases makes of Deleuze’s thought a huge description or collection of the diversity characterizing the contemporary world. For one presumes then that the operation consists in thinking the case. This is not so: the case is never an object for thought; rather…the case is what forces thought and renders it impersonal. It is therefore perfectly coherent that, in starting from innumerable and seemingly disparate cases…Deleuze arrives at conceptual productions that I would unhesitatingly qualify as monotonous… (Badiou, Deleuze 14-15).

The rights of the heterogeneous are, therefore, simultaneously imperative and limited. Thinking can only begin under the violent impulsion of a case-of-thought…And each beginning, being a singular impulsion, presents also a singular case. But what begins in this way is destined to repetition… (Badiou, Deleuze 15).

· in other words each case is a case of the one concept of being, as he notes in relation to Deleuze’s work on cinema, thus Deleuze’s work is, he argues, organised around the metaphysics of the one, proposes and ethics of thought based on asceticism, and is systematic and abstract (Badiou, Deleuze 17).
· what can there be then within the proliferation of the case and what is the function of singularity here. Again there seems to be agreement with Nancy here that the multiplicity of the case merely establishes the limits of thought. Case proliferation does not open thinking up to an unbearable relativity, but in fact closes it down to an equally unbearable limited set of monolithic principles. As he says “I am convinced that principles do exist” (Badiou, Deleuze 17).

· it is central to Badiou’s project to turn ethics away from alterity, multiplicity away from diversity and philosophy away from language and his reading of Deleuze is based exactly on this. His is instead a return to a sense of being, an existential sense revealing his early debts to Sartre, which comes back to Heidegger as the central force of twentieth century philosophy. The univocity of being which he picks up on in Deleuze relates then directly to this aim, to reduce multiple voices as just examples of a limited number of cases which all testify to a very limited set of principles which all relate to the ontological certainty of being which is not reducible to identity.

· in reading Deleuze’s work as kind of updating of Plato he notes in relation to the simulacra of the real the Plato also notes…

it is necessary to affirm the rights of simulacra as so many equivocal cases of univocity that joyously attest to the univocal power of being…/ One does far more justice to the real One by thinking the egalitarian coexistence of simulacra in a positive way than by opposing simulacra to the real that they lack, in the way Plato opposes the sensible and the intelligible. For, in fact, this real lies nowhere else than in that which founds the nature of the simulacrum as simulacrum: the purely formal or modal character of the difference that constitutes it, from the viewpoint of the univocal real of Being that supports this difference within itself and distributes to it a single sense (Badiou, Deleuze 26-7).

· this is similar in some ways to Nancy’s argument that singularity reveals the edge of being through its interruption of myth only working on the opposite direction. For Badiou the singular case is only a proof of the univocity of being, for Nancy it only allows univocity by a linguistic intervention.

· he then goes on to consider the problems of giving a name to being with being itself being seen for rather dull reasons as insufficient. What is more interesting is Badiou’s reason for Deleuze must give being two names:

What emerges over the course of these experiments is that a single name is never sufficient, but that two are required. Why? The reason is that Being needs to be said in a single sense both form the viewpoint of the unity of its power and from the viewpoint if the multiplicity of the divergent simulacra that this power actualizes in itself…it is as though the univocity of being is thereby accentuated for thought through its being said, at one moment, in its immediate “matter”, and, in the next, in its forms or actualizations. In short: in order to say that there is a single sense, two names are necessary (Badiou, Deleuze 28).

· these two names for being reveal Badiou’s own opinion about the relationship of being and its event in simulacra. He also notes that Deleuze uses a wide ranges of “doublets” or double names for beings, but that this does not mean a relativistic view but an experimentation with a suitable doublet.

· what can also be said is that his concept of the multiple should not be confused with a theory of variety or categorical difference. Difference, as it exists in the multiple, resides only to confirm the singularity of being. One must also consider his sense of singularity in relation to that of Nancy and the others, for there seem to be major differences which are not apparent from the terminologies they share in common. Multiples are not different categories which pertain to the ethical code of being, and heterogeneity is not a sense of “being various” but of being in terms of an unspeakable supplement.
· His list of vital texts for Deleuze are Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense, Foucault, Cinema 1 & 2, and The Fold.

· it is true that it would be tempting at this stage to think of the second name as being that of categories of the first, something which one finds from Plato through Hegel to Heidegger. Badiou calls the dysymmetrical view where the names are secondary categories of being which serve to divide up being into a series of essential subdivisions such as matter, form or substance. Instead, he sees Deleuze as undermining this tradition:

The univocity of Being and the equivocity of beings (the latter being nothing other than the immanent production of the former) must be thought “together” without the mediation of genera or species, types or emblems: in short, without categories, without generalities (Badiou, Deleuze 32).

· this is the essence of Deleuze’s anti-dialectic in Difference and Repetition especially through an attack on mediation. Mediation is a passage from one being to another based on a relation that is internal to one of them, for Hegel negation. However “univocal Being is affirmative through and through” (Badiou, Deleuze 33) meaning the negative is impossible. Thus the long error of philosophy which divides ontology into being and nothingness is attacked:

There are not two ‘paths’…but a single ‘voice’ of Being which includes all its modes, including the most diverse, the most varied, the most differentiated (Badiou, Deleuze 33) quoting Difference and Repetition p. 36.

· instead of being/non-being, Deleuze goes for active/passive and all his couplets are based on this how everyone must not lose sight of the fact that while two names are needed to described being, this does not produce an ontological division which could be productive of categories. Within the violence of though one must begin somewhere and it is natural to being with categories but the aim is neutrality of a point beyond active/passive.
· interesting precisely because it is an attack on categories and their false role in dividing up the indivisible and putting a name to the unnameable. Obviously I should refer this to consciousness as well.

· he goes on to consider these doublets in terms of the double movement of thought that is typical of Deleuze from beings to Being and Being to beings for from sense to nonsense and from nonsense to sense. All thought consists of this double moments then between the singularity of beings and the univocity of Being. Badiou’s terms this in the form of descent and ascent, beings to Being and Being to beings and concludes:

when we have grasped the double movement of descent and ascent, from beings to Being, then from Being to beings, we have in fact thought the movement of Being itself, which is only the interval, of the difference, between these two movements…Univocal Being is indeed nothing other than, at one and the same time, the superficial movement of its simulacra and the ontological identity of their intensities… (Badiou, Deleuze 40).

When thought succeeds in constructing, without categories, the looped path that leads, on the surface of what is, from a case to the Ones, then from the One to the case, it intuits the movement of the One itself (Badiou, Deleuze 40).

thought is always an (ascetic, difficult) egalitarian affirmation of what is (Badiou, Deleuze 45).

· he turns his attention to the return to the importance of the ground in Deleuze’s work or the univocal Being behind each of the simulacra of beings, stressing that this is not a pictorial ground where the beings are mimetic copies of an ideal ground but in the sense of the double movement we have just considered. In turning Deleuze towards this grounding (fond) he seeks to state that they both share in common the fact of being classical philosophers:

in this context, classicism is relatively easy to define. Namely: may be qualified as classical any philosophy that does not submit to the critical injunctions of Kant…[it} upholds, against any “return to Kant,” against the critique, / moral law, and so on, that the rethinking of the univocity of ground is a necessary task for the world in which we are living today (Badiou, Deleuze 45-6).

whereas my aim is to found a Platonism of the multiple, Deleuze’s concern was with a Platonism of the virtual. Deleuze retains from Plato the univocal sovereignty of the One, but sacrifices the determination of the Idea as always actual. For him, the Idea is the virtual totality, the One is the infinite reservoir of dissimilar productions. A contrario, I uphold that the forms of the multiple are, just like the Ideas, always actual and that the virtual does not exist; I sacrifice, however, the One (Badiou, Deleuze 46).

· Badiou says then that Deleuze’s work results in transcendence while he argued that Badiou’s work failed to hold thought within immanence, resulting presumably by accidental transcendence? He raised this problem in a letter to Deleuze.

Reaffirming the integral actuality of Being, as pure dimension-multiple, I stated that, in my eyes, immanence excluded the All and that the only possible end point of the multiple, which is always the multiple of multiples (and never the multiple of Ones), was the multiple of nothing: the empty set (Badiou, Deleuze 46).

· thus they ended up in a non-resolvable controversy over what constituted the ground, multiple-actual vs. the One-virtual
· the result was an “impasse” as he says:

for me, multiplicities “were” sets, for him, they “were not” (Badiou, Deleuze 48).

· the way he presents this debate is fascinating in terms of the differend and the ethics of friendship. Here they line up in an arrangement that does not agree to disagree, does not agree, and yet which retains no hostility. Surely this is the aporia at the heart of a classical philosophical debate, the basic inability of ontological certainties of different orders to talk to each other in debate. Their argument consists of Badiou saying yes and Deleuze no.

· after critically appraising Deleuze’s theory of the virtual, he concludes:

I must therefore return…to my own song: the One is not, there are only actual multiplicities, and the ground is void (Badiou, Deleuze 53).

I have always conceived truth as a random course or as a kind of escapade, posterior to the event and free of any external law, such that the resources of narration are required simultaneously with those of mathematization for its comprehension. There is a constant circulation from fiction to argument, from image to formula, from poem to matheme… (Badiou, Deleuze 58).

· quite central for work on the avant-garde and the theory of chance encounters
· then goes on to consider the false and the true in terms of paradoxes of time to show that truth supersedes time. He agrees with this:

truths are actual multiplicities with a much higher “Dionysian” value than that accruing to any sort of phenomenological salvaging of time…I maintain that every truth is the end of memory, the unfolding of a commencement (Badiou, Deleuze 60-4).

· the section on chance, 68-76, is concerned with the throw of the dice in an opposite sense, Badiou believes, to the may it is found in Mallarmé. He ends up by summarising Deleuze's position in terms of three basic axioms: the throw of the dice is always unique, the unique cast is the “affirmation of the totality of chance” (Badiou, Deleuze 74) and what eternally returns in each event is “the original unique throw of the dice with the power of affirming chance” (Badiou, Deleuze 74).
· the importance of these axioms’ for Badiou, is to clarify Deleuze’s relation to the eternal return but there is also a second importance in determining the difference between absolute chance, the event, and the role of chance in probability. Thus the throw if the dice is not part of a series of throws which move towards a probability which is that of the dominance of the same, such as in an infinite series where eventually all six sides of the dice will occur equally. Instead, chance is the affirmation of the absolute uniqueness of the event. Thus what returns in each throw is not a movement towards probability like monkey’s typing the works of Shakespeare, but the uniqueness of the event.

With each throw of the dice (with each event), there is, no doubt, the formal distinction of numerical results. But the innermost power of the cast is the unique and univocal, it is the Event, just as it is what affirms in a unique Throw, which is the Throw of all the throws, the totality of chance. The numerical results are only the superficial stampings or simulacra of the Great Cast (Badiou, Deleuze 74).

· in contrast to this approach, he makes clear his own…

…I said to myself that the indiscernibility of casts (of events, of emissions of the virtual) was, for him, the most important of the points of the passage of the one. For me, on the other hand, the absolute ontological separation of the event, that fact that it occurs in the situation without being in anyway virtualizable, is the basis of the character of truths as irreducibly original, created, and fortuitous. And if truth is indiscernible, it is not at all so with respect to other truths (from which it is, on the contrary, doubly discernible: by the situation in which it is inscribed, and by the event that initiates it), but with respect to the resources of discernment proper to the situation in which it originates (Badiou, Deleuze 75).

Contrary to Deleuze, therefore, I think that the “event dice throws” are all absolutely distinct—not formally (on the contrary, the form of all / events is the same) but ontologically. This ontological multiplicity does not compose any series, it is sporadic (events are rare) and cannot be totalized. No count can group the events, no virtual subjects them to One (Badiou, Deleuze 76).

If, when all is said and done, chance is the affirmation, for Deleuze, of the contingency of the One in all its immanent effects, it is, for me, the predicate of the contingency of each event. For Deleuze, chance is the play of the All, always replayed as such; whereas I believe that there is the multiplicity (and rarity) of chances, such that the chance of an event happens to us already by chance, and not by the expressive univocity of the One (Badiou, Deleuze 76).

…for me, given that the void of Being only occurs at the surface of a situation by way of the event, chance is the very matter of truth. And just as truths are singular and incomparable, so the fortuitous events from which they originate must be multiple and separated by a the void (Badiou, Deleuze 76).

Chance is plural, which excludes the unicity of the dice throw. It is by chance that a particular chance happens (Badiou, Deleuze 76).

· we end up with two versions of chance, the ludic and vital (Nietzsche/Deleuze) and the stellar conception of the Chance of chance (Mallarmé/Badiou)

For me, alas!…death is not, and can never be, an event (Badiou, Deleuze 77).

· in final conclusion he states his defence against Deleuze’s accusation that he is guilty of transcendence:

…I conceptualize absolute beginnings (which requires a theory of the void) and singularities of thought that are incomparable in their constitutive gestures…Deleuze always maintained that in doing this, II fall back into transcendence and into the equivocity of analogy. But, all in all, if the only way to think a political revolution, an amorous encounter, an intervention of / the sciences, or a creation of art as distinct infinities…is by sacrificing immanence…and the univocity of being, that I would sacrifice them (Badiou, Deleuze 91-2).

· on grace…

It does occur, by interruption or by supplement, and however rare or transitory it may be, we are forced to be lastingly faithful to it (Badiou, Deleuze 97).

During this (short) period of our philosophical history, all in all there have been…two serious questions: that of the All (or the One) and that of grace (or the event). (Badiou, Deleuze 98).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Beckett and Badiou, by Andrew Gibson

Am writing a review of this great book and as usual well over the word limit so thought I would post the full text here before I have to cut half of it out and inevitably totally change it.

I am posting it because in the months to come Badiou's conception of poetic thinking will make more and more appearances here and Gibson's book is a great introduction to that.

Book Review: Andrew Gibson, Beckett & Badiou: The Pathos of Intermittency (Oxford, 2007).

This is a rare book in modern times, an academic study of unflinching seriousness, resolutely RAE unfriendly at nearly 300 pages, and one of the few examples of literary criticism that one needs to own and return to and over time. In fact it is not one book at all but at the very least two. In the introduction Gibson himself admits that “my book might be thought of as Janus-faced,” adding “it has a revolving structure, turning alternately in one direction and another.” (B&B 5).
Thus, as the title suggests at one moment the revolving eye of Gibson gazes firmly at Beckett, a familiar figure to the academia, at another at Alain Badiou, now perhaps a familiar name but still a thinker many feel the need for an introduction to before then can enter into any form of lively intercourse. These two gentlemen, Becket and Badiou, require therefore two slightly different modes of address as Gibson is aware, producing effectively two different books within one volume.

The first book is quite simply the best introduction to, and proposed development of, Badiou’s work in relation to the study of literature. The second is a sophisticated reappraisal of Beckett’s whole oeuvre. This occurs not merely through the filter of Badiou’s rosy gaze, Badiou’s great innovation being to read Beckett as an optimist of the event, but also through the diffraction of Gibson’s systematic analysis. I am less qualified to say if this is major work in Beckett studies, but I am perfectly in place to say it is an important advance in literary studies and should be made required reading for anyone still interested in the relationship between literature and philosophy that we used to call literary theory.

Or is it three books, the third being more of a parergonal outwork or project for a future monograph in the form of a complex and suggestive conclusion that expands on Gibson’s own theories on the remainder, modernity, and the temporality of intermittency? I don’t have the educational background to know who the three headed beast of yore is that could supplant Gibson’s invocation of Janus, but whomsoever they are, this book is their kin.
This being the case, and my having only a few hundred words to go up against Gibson’s 100,000 plus, it is perhaps best to proceed fairly systematically. Such a progression is in any case apt considering the patient, systematic exposition Gibson provides here of the work of Beckett and Badiou. Then there is the often clinical systematicity of Badiou’s mode of thinking and rhetoric. And finally, Badiou’s project to produce a fairly diachronic, systematic narrative of Beckett’s journey through the problems of humanism, the impasse of language and on into to a thinking of the eventhood of the event. A journey that, in the final analysis, for Badiou and Gibson makes Beckett’s work overall heroic and affirmative.

It took over 15 years before Badiou’s foundational work Being and Event (1988) appeared in English in 2005. In contrast, the follow-up La Logique Des Mondes (2006) will appear in translation in 2008. This is indicative perhaps that Badiou’s star is rising, although his reception amongst Humanities scholars will always be hampered by his reliance on mathematics, in particular set theory. Then there is his unadorned, often vituperative prose that seems cold and angular to an ear attuned to the voluble, metaphoric style of much French philosophy. If Badiou is going to find a world audience not limited to French-speaking philosophers and political theorists, then Gibson’s work in the first 140 pages will play a major role in this.

Gibson begins by defining the bi-polar universe of Badiou’s thought as contained within the concepts of actual infinity and the event. These two ideas are at odds with each other and yet also totally inter-dependant. Actual infinity is not the endless proliferation of numbers beyond human comprehension that one finds in Hegel and Romantic thought, rather it is an axiom of a determinate infinity. In set theory there is an infinity of infinities, but infinity itself can thought of as a limited number or concept, that of the fact that there is infinity.
If infinity turns out to be, in some ways, finite, the presupposed finitude of the event, the thing that happens, reveals in fact the potential for infinity. The event is an “aleatory fragment, the chance occurrence of something that had no existence beforehand”. It is an explosive movement that “destroys any illusion that the limits of the situation are the limits of the world.” (B&B 16). I find the clarity and yet also the complexity of this summary of Badiou’s work of real benefit to the study of literature, but it also explains why Badiou and Beckett form another dyad in this dualistic, yet never dialectic, study. As we go on to find out, the role of infinity is key to Beckett’s work, as is the potentiality or perhaps even threat of the event.

It is at this early stage that we also encounter Gibson’s own central thesis, which remains the most important and original element of this impressive study and, I hope, will come to stand as a key term for the development of our ideas of the relationship between literature and philosophy in the years to come. This conception which Gibson calls “the remainder” is in fact very close to a definition of the literary post-Badiou. I will leave the precise formulation of the remainder to Gibson himself:

In Badiou’s philosophy, the world of events is the sole source of value. From its point of view, the situations to which events are counterposed and into which they break constitute a negligible historical residue. I shall call this residue the remainder. (B&B 18).

The remainder is a vital development of Badiou’s work on literature. As events are so rare, and when they do occur they are often missed or only realised by a coterie of faithful militants, the bare facts state that for the majority of the time we are in the realm of the remainder and most, if not all, literature emanates from that world or temporality. As literature itself cannot constitute an event, but can only testify too or patiently wait for events, by definition literature is the remainder.

This simple logical observation is, in fact, rather devastating. It certainly takes Badiou to task over his neglect of the remainder in his relentless pursuit of intermittent events. It allows Gibson’s book to open up completely the philosophical importance of Beckett, who ceases to be a writer and instead becomes one of the great thinkers of the remainder. It raises uncomfortable questions as to what the status of literature is in relation to the radical potentialities of events. And finally, it makes this book a full-blown theory of contemporary literary value.

Having summarised Badiou’s work and established his own thought in relation to it, based on an implicit critique of Badiou’s work which simultaneously requires that we treat his work with the utmost respect and seriousness, the first two chapters then introduce Badiou’s work to a general audience. Chapter one deals with key Badiou terms: Being, Event, Subject and Truth. While the second moves more towards the issues of state, doxa and politics that fill in some of the detail of the remainder and prepare the way for the consideration of the aesthetics of waiting for the event that define Beckett’s importance to our age.
This allows Gibson, in the third chapter, to tackle specifically Badiou’s take on Beckett in relation to the current scholarship. Taken together with the introduction these first three chapters constitute probably the most accessible and certainly the most relevant introduction to Badiou’s work to a humanities audience. Not that Gibson does not pay his dues to his forbears, most notably the brilliant work of Hallward, it is just that here Gibson is able to concentrate on Badiou’s ideas on literature, apply them to literary works, and unpack their implications from the perspective of a literary critic.

These chapters alone are worth the cover price. In particular we come to understand Gibson’s main criticism of Badiou’s affirmative ethos. Central to Badiou’s metaphysics is a rejection of what he sees as a late-Romantic melancholy to be found in Heidegger’s insistence on the end of metaphysics, and the work which followed on in such an eschatological vein. In contrast, he insists that metaphysics is possible now the gods have fled the earth, placing all his faith in the existence of actual infinity and the power of intermittent events.
What Gibson notes, however, is that because events are so infrequent, so intermittent, there is an inevitable human side or cost to this. One comes to long for past events, or to desire the sudden arrival of new events. Rather than instilling a sense of militant optimism in writers and thinkers, the scarcity of the event has resulted in a pathos or melancholia. And it is precisely such a melancholia, Gibson argues, that one finds in Beckett.

Thus, in keeping with the Janus-face of this revolving study, we have two theses which are then pursued through the remainder of the seven chapters of the book. On the one hand is Badiou’s radical reappraisal of Beckett. In Chapter 2 Gibson addresses what Badiou calls in The Handbook of Inaesthetics “poetic thinking.” There are, it seems, two main types of poetic thought vis-à-vis the event. The first is exemplified by Mallarmé and is described as a patient fidelity to the fact of an event having occurred. These poets name the event and in doing so allow it to exist within the world of the remainder that we all occupy. They are the apostles if you will, acting as servants of the intermittent and demanding that we accept its occurrence.
Then there is a second type of poet, those of restricted action. These writers take as their point of interest not that there was an event, but that there is no event. They are the precursors, John the Baptist preparing the way for the possibility of the event. One can see here then that there are two alternatives for Beckett. He may testify to the event’s passing, or he might clear the ground in preparation for the event’s arrival. That it is the latter case explains for Badiou and Gibson why critics have misread Beckett’s work as pessimistic. Rather, it is a systematic admission and understanding of the fact that there is no event, Such an admission admittedly can seem negative, but it is a necessary negativity and an essential acsesis, a clearing away of the detritus of the remainder. This work must occur before the event can arrive.

This is thesis one and Gibson unpacks how Badiou is able to tell the tale of Beckett’s heroic wait across the whole of his career. In the early work Becket breaks with doxa, across The Trilogy he clears the ground taking language to a point of collapse while demonstrating that there is no event, while in the later prose he is able to establish a landscape in preparation for the possibility of some future event. To explicate and develop this thesis from limited sources, for Badiou’s work on Beckett collected in On Beckett, is both repetitious and intermittent, is a great feat. To bring it about Gibson travels far and wide within Badiou’s whole oeuvre, demonstrating remarkable levels of scholarship.
Where Gibson’s book is exceptional, however, is the way in which he is able to overlay his own critique of Badiou and put forward his own, complementary but ultimately competing theory of intermittent pathos. Taking his lead from attacks on Badiou’s overly technical almost allegorical readings of Beckett, Gibson concedes that Badiou’s reading of the author borders indeed on an allegory of reading that not only misses the detail and nuance of Beckett’s work, but misses the fact that breaking with doxa, clearing the ground and waiting on the event are all dependant on nuance, hesitation and uncertainty:

The final chapter, looking at Beckett’s plays, is effectively Gibson’s extension of Badiou. Criticising explicitly Badiou’s reading of the drama as “more consistent with his [Badiou’s] philosophy than with the plays themselves”, Gibson is free to propose instead the centrality of the remainder to Beckett’s poetic thinking. Perhaps my only criticism of the book is that the centrality of the remainder is not matched by extensive consideration of what the remainder consists of. Gibson is not unaware of this problematic when he notes, reviewing his own book:

It may sometimes have seemed as though I have defined the concept of the remainder chiefly in terms of what it is not. The remainder is what exists outside the domain of the event, truth, subject, fidelity. How can we characterize it, other than negatively?...For Badiou, the remainder is so closely associated with pure negativity that he scarcely thinks it at all as such. (B&B 235)

Gibson goes on to assert that in Beckett one comes close to an “empirical definition of the remainder” (B&B 235) as effectively an approximation or an abstraction. Gibson then sets himself the task of tracing these approximations and abstractions across the plays which he feels Badiou reads rather poorly. As to whether this will satisfy the reader as to the importance and definition of the remainder, I remain myself unconvinced, not by the conception but by the clarity of its appearance here. It is, I would humbly suggest, the topic for a future study.

Two things come from this book as very clear however. The first is that Badiou’s formulation of an atheistic, post-Romantic metaphysics of acsesis and assertion is highly significant for an understanding of poetic thinking. or how literature has taken up the reins of philosophy during the period of modernity. Second, that Badiou’s work on literature has limitations when it comes to analysing literature as such, beyond using is as simply exemplifying his system. At this stage one needs a literary critic to step in as Gibson has done. In doing so Gibson not only expands one of the four terms of contemporary, post-Badiou philosophy, but also provides a complex intervention on Badiou’s work through his criticism of the philosopher’s neglect of the remainder.

In the conclusion Gibson takes up his own theorisation of the pathos of intermittency and provides a complex and wide-ranging reading of various philosophers’ work on modernism. I can’t do justice to it here but if the reader is at all concerned with modern art then I suggest they read it. This leads Gibson to a conclusion that, while pitched locally at the way a contemporary philosopher reads one of the great writers of modernity, is in fact a provocation to all of us whose object of regard is literature:

We might finally put the point like this: for Badiou, the event is difficult insofar as it is rare and has a complex structure. But it is also simple, almost luminously clear…Because Becket thinks the event and its rarity from the vantage point of the remainder, the event appears only in second-order, muted, veiled, distorted, equivocal, or compromised forms” (B&B 290)

It was ever thus. Even when formulating poetic thinking, the philosopher cannot resist the clarity of dianoia, cannot, in fact, in approaching literature, help but obfuscate it by the very act of philosophical illumination. At the same time the writer, however philosophically rigorous, can’t help but smear the clarity of the philosophical optic with their messy insistence on thinking through poiesis, through making. Gibson’s brilliant study takes us right to the heart of this ancient and yet suddenly very relevant problem. In the future library of works on poetic thinking which thinkers like Badiou have founded, Beckett & Badiou: The Pathos of Intermittency will be a required text and I urge any colleagues with an interest in the future of our disciplines to read it with care. While the remainder may be obscure, Gibson’s mind is nothing but clarity and light.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.Every great writer must experience at least one apostasy of sense.

PJ Harvey, White Chalk

2. Dear Darkness

Dear darkness
we are timorous at your edge
ledged in metaphysically small
walled by our illimitable
perimeters of theme and its counter
bound to a dream of light
frightened by their shadow play

Dear darkness
we are hardly here
fear of the unknown has had us thinned
pinned to an apocalypse of sense
henceforth unable to approach
to stroke you, riotous material
feral and fecund, tattered and unwhole

Dear darkness
why is it they tell us that you fall
stalled by metaphor and the promise of relief
stolen from potential
torrents of sodden word worried leaves
returns from beyond the woods
hooded eyes and opened cheeks

Dear darkness
I am laid out on a thought of boat
floating on your bottomlessness
caressed by lapping's lapping
happy to slide beneath or 'tween your tress

trees that bear your fabric on their crown
bend low then let their old defences down
dear darkness, it is true

Friday, October 05, 2007

PJ Harvey, White Chalk

For some reason, before even listening to more than a couple of tracks, I knew I could write poems to each of the titles of PJ Harvey's lastest album. So here goes something.

1. The Devil

The devil'
sold bad boots
by farrier jones

evil is still got meaning
he spouts as
he limps to town
or anywhere really'
show he talks

The devil'
bought bad debts
by broker james

even evil got the blues
he wails as
he punishes a piana
or anyone really'
show he works

The devil'
fed bad booze
by barman jessie

even evil got to die
he chokes as
his vomit'sinhaled
not anything really'
show he joins 'n dis


one shoe shed
a sepia key plucked fingerfree
wettened words that
stink of gutsn
yeah brim
stone if you
like, oh
'nd our happiness

Lines in Space

How I imagine Michael, liking my poem not quite enough to...

It was perhaps my finest moment. PN Review, in particular Michael Scmidtt, almost published one of my poems. They liked the work but not quite enough to publish it. Like O'Hara I am too hip for the squares to square for the hipsters. Anyway, it was more than Stand could be bothered to say so in honour of meaningless honours here is my most successful work of art. It is untitled or better tri-titled:

"ein augenblick in der lichtung"

silence a fire’s percussive click cuts
the ciccada’s strum
Zum Zirm
one in the dog valley it
is night here last night to be exact all
is unwrapping in real time then
before the storm in cloud above mountain
on an off like a faulty fluorescent light
in a summer abandoned porta-cabinã
(It’s not as if I am trying to kill romanticism)
or not it does not have to be that way for you I
am not so convinced it was really that way for me
impermeable logic, all can and should be otherwise

"wo ist mein kugelschrieber?"

erm, what next oh yes! Freud
stayed here once (idle mind that seeks no particular recollection)
thermo-electric pulses across the brain’s ravines he
later wrote “all I ask is to be alone near a wood” ah, would! he
was firming up chapter one of Totem and Taboo (that great double
act) “The Horror of Incest” which is a bad book in the end
they say we all have one great novel in us we
also all have one bad anthropological generalisation
was writing in skirmish to Jung but Jung wasn’t listening said
he had heard it all before which is typical

"im haus rottensteiner"

all day walking we got nowhere damn this dim happiness smokey valley phased in blue im-
“did I tell you the story of the story that ate itself?
it began like this…”
“did I tell you the story of the story that ate itself?”
it began like this…”

Friday, September 28, 2007

Ashes to Ash (end)

Redemption, Limits and Swallows

Whilst Ash investigates the redemptive power of the elegiac poetic process, Ashbery’s poem is based on the aporias discovered at the outer edges of this process, or what might be called the limits of poetic thinking. Derrida describes the aporia thus: “Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, as its death and finitude” (Derrida, The Gift of Death 68). What is the limit of poetic thinking? “Fragment” suggests that the edge of the conceptualisation of poetic language is that of the consciousness which, according to Ashbery, controls everything else: “My power over you is absolute. / You exist only in me and on account of me” (Ashbery 79).

And yet this consciousness, as the trope of the fragment suggests, can never be encountered in full, and its paratactic accumulations and distributions of the fragments of this self emanate from a vacated subject centre. The combination should be devastating: “That coming together of masses coincides / With that stable emptiness, detaining” (Ashbery 79) but the detention here is the key, tracing the gesture of distribution and thus holding the poetic consciousness between two absolute edges, that of total presence which is impossible, and total absence, which is unknowable.

The poem suspends a fragmented consciousness between the two forces I have already enumerated, the “closed box” of death and the “advancing signs of air” which tend towards a sublime subjective plenitude. The fragment then forms an inner edge between the radical aporetic scandal of two outer edges, life and death, or in ontological terms presence and absence. Derrida would describe this suspension between detention and distribution as the “non-passage”:

In one case the nonpassage resembles an impermeability; it would stem from the opaque existence of an uncrossable border: a door that does not open...In another case, the nonpassage, the impasse or aporia, stems from the fact that there is no limit. There is not yet or there is no longer a border to cross, no opposition between two sides: the limit is too porous, and indeterminate. (Derrida, Aporias 20)

This is the paradox of the edge of poetic thinking. First that there can be no edge between presence, which exists through the violent imposition of limitations on poetic being, and absence which has no experience of what a limit could be. Thus the end of each line, each dizain, of the poem as whole, is literally impassable, the poem maybe a fragment of the whole but there is no edge between the fragment and the whole which would allow the articulation of one against the other. The fragment of post-subjective and postmodern consciousness is ongoing and so is infinite in scale, whilst the whole-ness of the unified poem, traditional locale of Romantic subjective certainty, is now a vacated hole.

However this non-existent edge itself is permeable, so that absence floods the structures of presence in the poem, and presence leaks out into the realm of absence. One finds the poet permanently not there, not at home, yet the streets of his town are full of ghosts from beyond, suggesting the location of absence is as empty of absence as that of presence is empty of presence.

The limit between life and death is both uncrossable and endlessly crossable as it pertains to the edge of being as presence, and the lack of edging around the infinite being of non-presence. This aporia takes the form of a decision when it is applied to poetics. The first mark of every poetic utterance is a moment where the poem decides whether to repeat the mark into presence or retain its irreducibility through a relation with absence. The basic copula of mark syntax is then either mark/mark, at which point the iteration of the mark makes it into a sign. Or is a detention of the mark within the aporia of the non-passage between the mark and its other, the non-mark.

This logic of the aporetic potentialities of the edge is reproduced between each word of the poem syntax, each stanza, and between each singular poem and its others. That this is of particular importance to poetic language is due to the ontological necessity of the edge, the line break, which is the minimal differentiation between the materiality of poetry and prose, but also because semantically poetry subsists on what is elided, whatever is missing. Ash’s ruins of lost civilisations seem pitched directly at this point of decision, for he records the marks of absence in redeeming the past within the present of the poetic structure.

However, as Steve Clark notes, this past is not the totality of the past, but a particular late-Romantic, eurocentric, decadent, imperial version of it. Further, the historicism in question is a double fiction, a process of making fictional narratives from a fictional past which Ash calls “decadent historicism” (Ash 171). As in Benjamin’s modernist schema, the poet redeems the past by recording the flashes of the then in the now, however, the past redeemed is not cited in full but is elitist, and redeemed to comment on our perceived current cultural crisis. It does not so much redeem the past as the present, a present which without the past is an excessive simulacrum, the artificial scene of “Accompaniment to a Film Scene” being not untypical in Ash’s work as a whole: “this is no deception but a form of imitation / unconnected to ordinary ideas / of accuracy. Buildings and mountains / are reproduced exactly, but all much larger / than life size” (Ash 29).

Ash’s exploitation of absence is not then to redeem history, a project of modernism and dialectics, but to make history from the pathos of the ruin so that in the future our history will be redeemed: “If we are not to become / a dispersed people of smoke, / the monument that is us must be built soon” (Ash 157). Ashbery in contrast aims, with his Romantic trope of the fragment of consciousness, to create a chiasmatic poetic unit whose external edges not only investigate the double non-passage of the aporetic line between life and death, but which also folds these edges back into the gaps between each dizain so as to inscribe a self-conscious presence of absence back into the evacuated semantic heart of the poem.

Thus in “Fragment,” the individual moments of the poem are allowed their specificity whilst remaining fragments of the larger whole, that is they retain their limits of non-passage, being exactly what they are in full presence, but only through a process of passage out of themselves into the radical unknowability of the sublime zone of death. The end of “Fragment” conveys this;

One swallow does not make a summer, but are
What’s called an opposite: a whole of ravelling discontent,
The sum of all that will ever be deciphered
In this side of that vast drop of water...
The words sung in the next room are unavoidable
But their passionate intelligence will be studied in you. (Ashbery 94)

One mark alone means nothing without its opposite, the non-mark or trace of death alongside each mark, which is the basis of elegiac language. Ash utilises this logic, the presence of absence, really to vouchsafe a certain, elitist postmodern poem unit which is really that of meta-absence, or the anti-logos. His false redemption of a fictive history into a simulacra of the present makes a mockery of the messianic time of redemption. Ashbery, however, in the passage given above, allows the parts of his poem to retain first and foremost their current specificity.

One swallow here, one word, is not a part standing in for the whole, just as the fragment of this poem about death does not take the place of death in a monumental fashion. Instead one must add up the words into the poem. However at each point of addition there is an unravelling, each additional mark not only adds in more presence, it also adds in more absence, as each mark is traced by the non-mark, each swallow followed by a ghost swallow. The resultant sum is all we can know on this side of the non-passage, but it allows access to what is beyond, in the other room, because its edge is not between absence and presence, but is the double passage between the logic of presence and that of absence.

This denies the passage and in denying passage allows thinking to pass from the realm of metaphysical presence, into that of metaphysical absence and back again. Like the ruin, the fragment is only part of the absence all around us, but unlike the ruin, the fragment is not the end of the story but the end of ending in favour of a process of inscription wherein equal attention is paid to the voices outside the room/box of the poem, as to that singular but deconstructed voice of the poetic consciousness. This manner of composition, of writing in and on the edge of the aporia, exploiting the natural tendencies within poetic language towards absence rather than enforcing discourses of presence at the expense of absence, is the beginning of a formulation of poetic practice predicated on the semantics of absence, and is typical of postmodern poetry making it the site of a formulation of an elegiac language, the ghostly trace to the modernist, rational model of direct, and semantically full, communication.


Ash, John. Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 1996.
Ashbery, John. The Double Dream of Spring. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana Press, 1992.
Bloom, Harold ed. John Ashbery. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Clark, Steve. “‘Uprooting the Rancid Stalk’: Transformations of Romanticism in Ashbery and Ash.” Forthcoming.
Derrida, Jacques. Aporias. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
---. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.
Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Ode (kinda) to John Ash

when will the world look and see John Ash
writing alone on those Anatolian shores his
pen poised as his judgements are
hesitant to drop
to mark a make yes
like a kestrel conscience
hung above
matter's vole

our curiosity too needs to pounce
just as poiesis must first eat, stuff
way before it can ever move to make, oh
when will John Ash see and look
the world and in shining on its
already faded rugs & drapery
he saved the very thing he saw and
caused to fade?

Seems Ash's newest collection has caused a minor surge in interest in this most reclusive of writers. See the comments on Sonnets at 4am for example:

This includes a poem from a much earlier collection The Burnt Pages.

He also has his own Wikipedia page which no longer amazes me as everyone seems to:

John Ash, "To The City"

Found this online from Ash's newest collection which I haven't yet seen. It is, as all of Ash's work is, deceptively simple, seeming first off to simply present a scene in lineated prose, then the prosody makes its gentle presence felt, and finally matters of metaphysical import take possession of your consciousness.

As Peter Campion says in his lovely littel review of the poem:

"The poem blends absence and presence, dream image and naturalistic reality. Like those shoes at the doorway, Ash dwells (in this poem and in all his work) in a borderland. By living there he maintains a state of desire, an intensified engagement with feelings as fragile and surprising as the ghost of poplars he sees in the city towers. "

To the City

The village has come to the city.
In the narrow street, in the crowd
pressing down it, in the faces of tall buildings
we plainly see the shimmer of poplars
in the emptiness of the plateau, the huddle
of houses from which the voices of families,
and tribes before them, rise, reaching across
the sharp ridges of their displacement
to settle like smoke in the deepest hollows
of the city. They are very near to us, in the store
or the next apartment, in the shadow of the tower
yet are heard as distance, as ignorance,
and, in their echoes, the city seems to shudder
like something imagined from very far away—
glass city for those without windows. Their shoes
sit at the doorways as if begging for admission.

Ashes to Ash (3)

Ashbery and Ash: The Harp and the Cave

Ash’s poetry works on how he can cite the past in poetic language and thus redeem it, without reducing the rubble of its current state of ruination to a kind of gothic theme-park testifying to the permanent presence of absence in our lives. In “Scenes from Schumann” he again comes up against the artefact and the ruin: “The urns showed well against the blue of the river, / and beyond them, the ruins of the old insane asylum, / covered in leaves...” (Ash 156). Here the urn, traditional tropic centre of the transformation of absence into presence thanks to Keats, is not so much juxtaposed ruins as placed on top of or against them, which is a means of imposing an artistic unity onto actual ruination. This is the aporia of the non-redemptive monument. However he then goes on to undermine this: “the words / took off like birds from our lips, to circle an absence // that couldn’t be named without turning the feast to ashes. / Not that the talk died. No, it grew brighter...” (Ash 156). The ruin as testimony to loss is a trick. The monument openly testifies to a new and full presence created out of a radical totality of absence: death. In this manner its deconstruction is not so surprising, its confidence being so great it is literally heading for a fall. But the ruin is surreptitious in seeming to pay homage to absence by allowing absence equal footing with presence within its form. A ruin consists of what is there and what is not in equal measure. However the ruin is not the same as the flashes of a ruined past, because the ruin is the end of a process whilst these flashes, these bits of lost history, are part of an ongoing process of eventual, total citational redemption. The ruin is archival, but flashes are held in a radical dialogue with the present, thus they are the bird-like words in Ash’s poem which circle around, rather than settle on the absence. Here absence is not elevated to monumental status, or even the mid-way gothic monumentality of the ruin, rather it is an absence that will not relinquish its semantics of absence into the presence of nomination. This would indeed reduce the feast, the joyous process of the redemption of the past, into ashes; the past brought down to the ruins of what once was great. The end of the feast would be the end of words, but it is the end of the elegiac poem also. The greatest tragedy of the elegiac is that it must end and the lost beloved finally given up, but like the peculiar logic of ending into beginning, one notes that the beginning of elegy comes from the end, whilst the end of the ending is the onset of beginning of a real end, the end of absence in favour of monumentally consoling presence. Whilst this can be avoided the talk will not die, but when the process of local redemption is over it can begin again, as the fragments redeemed from the past are not viewed as eloquent testimonies to a once great empire, but as parts of an ongoing current process of redemption. This is a logic Ash addresses in “The Sudden ending of Their Dream”:

The sudden ending of their dream
came when the wall collapsed
and they saw the water-wheel stop turning.
They began again,—
under the chestnuts in flower, on the bridges,
under the marvellous clouds, beside the statues.
If anything could be saved they would save it. (Ash 119)

Ash’s ongoing battle with the redemption of fragments of the past from the status of ruins, back into the ongoing temporal process of being the past in the now, is picked up in Ashbery’s “Fragment.” The title suggests an open relationship of the part standing in for the whole, which is also the synecdochic operation the ruin represents, but in his own admission the title is something of a joke due to the length of the piece.

If the poem is a fragment of a greater unity, it is the fragment of a consciousness, and it is a fragment not because it is all that is left over after the consciousness has departed, it is not for example the fragment of the consciousness of his dead father, but because it is all that has been recorded up to the present time. Immediately the redemptive aspect can be seen, in that like the flashes in Benjamin, the fragment is a working out of the relationship of memory to the current event of writing it down, but this is a process without the modernist presupposition of a final, unified telos of total redemption through citation.

Ash’s use of postmodern redemptive history was all about what goes into the poem, what can be salvaged in there, and for how long, without a discernible telos to structure the redemptive process; Ashbery’s poem however is about the outer limits of elegiac utterance and thus moves on from redemption altogether into the irresolvable and irredeemable realm of the aporia.

As critics such as Bloom and Shoptaw note, “Fragment” is not so much an elegy for the poet’s father as for the poet’s Romantic, questing, solipsistic self. The fragment presented is immediately problematised for within the synecdochic imperative the part, whatever its status, must stand if for an unidentifiable whole, but not only is the part here problematic in scale, and in its self-conscious exploitation of the aporias of parts and wholes, the whole itself is empty. The trope of the self as absent centre is one around which the whole of “Fragment” revolves:

Out of this cold collapse
A warm, near unpolished entity could begin

Although beyond more reacting
To this cut-and-dried symposium way of seeing things...
The hollow thus produced
A kind of cave of the winds; distribution center
Of subordinate notions to which the stag
Returns to die: the suppressed lovers.
Then ghosts of the streets
Crowding, propagating the feeling into furious
Waves from the perfunctory and debilitated sunset. (Ashbery 80)

The collapse of presence, onset of the elegiac but also of fragments and ruination, is the necessary cut for this “near unpolished entity,” the fragment of the poem. This fragment, although possessed with edges, is not “cut-and-dried,” its limits are not formed as a matter of course nor are they necessarily permanent. This is due to the radical presence of absence as I have already discussed in relation to edges in dizain 3. Here the textual marking of absence is thematised through his father’s death and the threat to poetic identity this announces.

The result is a self evacuated of presence, a hollow cave of the winds, with the emptiness then re-constituted in the poem as wholeness, graves, open ports, empty spaces, and the like; and the winds representing a natural creative force, poetry, which blows through this emptiness. The similarities to Coleridge’s Aeolian harp are notable, as they are to Plato’s cave of course, only here the wind blows across an absented instrument of the self, and the cave is not a trope of a real world beyond the shadows, but a distributing centre, disseminating absence into all forms of metaphysical presence that surround and are predicated on the concept of subjectivity.

These subordinated notions, subordinated because they have collapsed from dominance and also because they are the subordinate but excessive supplements to the discourse of subjective presence, announce the death of the poetic questing self symbolised here by the quarry rather than the hunter. The tropes of the presence of absence then pile up from the stag which is, itself, an aporetic heart of a dying Romantic subjectivity. The suppression of love results in the proliferation of ghostly lovers, as if to negate something were to result naturally in its propagation and distribution, whilst the rhythmic waves emanate from a symbol of edging and cutting, the sunset, which is then undermined. The discourse of the end then comes to an end here, and the end is performed in a manner which arrests its power to structure the self into full presence through monumental death.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ashes to Ash 2

John Ash, Melancholic Historian

The semantic paradox at the heart of elegy makes it a prime site for the investigation of a semantics of absence, namely the construction of a monument to absence whose monumental presence, in consoling the mourner, actually ends the process of elegy and destroys the very presence of absence the monument was meant to preserve. Ash seems sensitive to this basic paradox in a work like “The Monuments” where a fictional community commit themselves to an endless process of building monuments even though, “The Monuments meant nothing of course” (Ash 134). The reasoning behind this is melancholy, “Each year the monuments grew larger / The citizens demanded this. As their lives got worse they wanted / longer staircases to descend, towering fountains...” (Ash 133). In the poem the role of art is to “take the place / of events too unbearable to discuss” (Ash 134), a classic formulation of the consoling power of the elegiac monumental utterance: to produce a reified body, in this case a huge staircase, to stand in for what is missing. A violent muscling in on melancholic absence, elegy imposes its presence at the expense of absence.

However in the sister prose piece, “Funeral Preparations in the Provinces,” Ash notes the manner in which the consoling monument subverts the very ontological presence it is designed to confirm. At the end of a complex mourning ritual where the dead father is placed on a pyre with various fantastic artefacts, Ash cynically notes: “They wept for their father who was dead, but they wept much more for the prancing horses, the elegant chariot, the gleaming kitchen” (Ash 137).

The impossibility of elegy is that it first brings presence to absence by introducing a significant utterance on the back of a radical loss. This undermines the predominant position of absence, and thus of elegy, which primarily gains its semantic power through the favouring of absence. However it also introduces into the monumental form of the presence of absence, a second radical absence which one might term the absence of absence. And once absence is removed from elegy, it ceases to be elegiac and so generically, at least, it dies. Ash is right in noting both the public usefulness of the art monument, and the manner in which the monument puts death to death within the elegiac, but he also opposes the unified monument to loss with the ruins of the lost, in a manner very close to Benjamin’s conception of redemptive history.

In the now famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin conceives of a melancholic rather than elegiac history, that is one that does not try to close down the aporetic processes of the presence of absence in our lives:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. (Benjamin 246)

This is the role of the materialist and melancholic historian, to seize all moments of time, to redeem all time, to cite everything. Ash, in this way is a tentative redemptive historian. In numerous poems his tells melancholic narratives of fragments of lost civilisations, as in “The Hotel Brown Poems”:

As we walked towards the temple
the poet said to us: ‘This may seem
a small island to you but once it was
an independent state with its own fierce navy.

The Athenians destroyed it utterly’
The old ramparts were massive, finely jointed
but the area of jumbled stones and bushes they enclosed
seemed no bigger that a modest public park. (Ash 123)

Here history is redeemed by the memory of the poet, but again into a kind of monument with the ruins being compared to a public park, which is one of the dangers of redemption that is not involved in the dialectic of the past and the present. Benjamin warns that: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and it never seen again...To articulate the past historically...means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin 246).

The moment of danger for the event of history is not merely that of a possible forgetting but of being remembered too well. A lost memory ruins memory, but a memory seized upon in a universalist and reifying manner transforms the ruin into a folly, an over-preserved sign of a falsely homogenous past as in Ash’s poem. To redeem the past is to cite everything, to remember every flash, every moment, and because this process resides in the “now” of the apprehension of the event of the “then” in the “now,” the process has no point of cessation, Benjamin argues, until the return of the messiah at the end of time.


Forgive me bloggers for I have sinned. It has been a month since my last Blogfession.

Personal circumstances of a glorious kind, holidays, work and a blizzard of emails has kept me from THE BLOG.

Seemingly there is more to life than pasting and writing things that no one cares about in real life (i.e. poetry) and yet which they will log on to read about on my blog.

Anyway no apologies as what would blogging be without living interposed between? Mere blogs about blogs I surmise.

But am back on the case now.

So where were we, oh yes, about John Ash...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ashes to Ash: Elegiac Language in the Poetry of John Ash and John Ashbery

A rare image of the elusive poet John Ash

Not much if anything has been written about the work of UK poet John Ash. This is a shame. Along with Lee Harwood, he represents the successful export and development of New York School poetics intoa European environment. Which is not to say that he is also his own man. In fact the much mentioned similarities between Ash and Ashbery, the basis in some sense for this paper, are overstated. That said, here I am stating them.

This was originally presented at the Symbiosis conference in UCL towards the end of last century. Sorry, couldn't resist the grandeur of that phrase. Like so many of my earlier works it was accepted for publication by Symbiosis only to be cut when the editors got chicken over using theory to analyse poetry.

Ashbery's Fragment

The beginning of dizain 3 of John Ashbery’s “Fragment” expresses the paradox of poetic edges: “This page is the end of nothing / To the top of that other” (Ashbery 78). The poem was written in a systematic fashion after the death of his father in 1964: two dizains a day over, theoretically at least, 25 days, each dizain restricted to, I believe, a page. Thus each dizain begins at the top of the page and ends at the bottom. Each page is the “end of nothing:” literally not the end, except for the opening and closing dizains for which anyway critics argue special status, an interim, temporary end afforded by the gap between one dizain/page and the next, and finally the end of the nothing separating this dizain from the previous one. Each dizain further directs attention to the “top of that other,” the dizain which is not this dizain, which allows for this dizain by not being this dizain, a kind of trace-dizain that is allowed within the network of dizains. This dizain does not exist, not as such, is not specifically dizain 2 or 4, for here dizain 3 is acting as a meta-stanzaic commentator, expressing in the situation between it and its local others the general situation between on closed poetic form and its other. The top of that other is the edge between the presence of the ten-line dizain stanzaic form, and the absent space surrounding which marks out the distinctive poem blocks that make up the whole block of the poem.

In the poem “Even Though,” John Ash enters similar territory by enumerating in a number of self-conscious tropes of absent being and writing, a kind of mini-check list of the paradoxes and aporias of the articulating space around, between, above, below, before, after and finally within, every utterance or mark thereof due to the logic of edging. The doorways of the poem, “linking the clauses of rooms and corridors / into a majestic sentence that will not reveal its object” (Ash 11), are in essence the main text continuum of the postmodern poem, especially apparent in Ashbery and Ash, a process of endless linking of clauses for no apparent semantic point, which I have elsewhere formulated as parataxis.

These clauses are made up of a strange process of signification or denomination where “a word / is a hand a throat a strand of hair after an evening’s dancing” (Selected Poems 11). These words operate not in a traditionally representative fashion of naming a thing, rather they set about naming themselves, pointing to themselves, speaking themselves, unravelling only after the event of their enunciation, naming nothing so much as naming as a process itself. Such words are not signs but taxonemes, minimal units of the postmodern alternative to naming which I again have elsewhere formulated as taxonomy.

These are the inner edges of the postmodern poem unit. Another key trope in “Even though” talks of windows that “are open onto the white of the margin” (Ash 17) in a manner that echoes the discourse of edging in “Fragment,” but here in an openly elegiac fashion. The poem is open to absence, willing to let absence into it, to place the marginal value of the absent other at the very heart of the lyrical process. This invitation literally to the margin of the poem to form the centre, is matched in Ash’s work by a traditional postmodern appeal to marginality in general. Whilst the vacated centre of presence which this results in in the poem, is the central trope of subjective uncertainty that critics have identified in Ashbery’s “Fragment.”

This “white of the margin” is literally between the actual dizain in “Fragment,” and its trace dizain. It is the presence of the absence of the other dizain, that not only allows for the presence of the dizain in question, number 3, but which also undercuts the claims for meta-narrative presence this dizain makes, as it is a presence predicated on a radical absence. At the other extreme Ash introduces a trope of ending: “the branching stairs escape syntax / are the extreme point of muscular tension” (Ash 11). At some point the poem must end by leaving syntax, and this introduces a peculiar breach of breaching, for into the central absence at the heart of the elegiac poem the poet must then introduce another radical absence; that the poem is no more. Logically this is a process of ending absence by introducing presence, of ending the poem by beginning it, an aporia central to the outer edges of the postmodern poem investigated further in “Fragment.”

“Fragment” begins by closing, “The last block is closed in April” (Ashbery 78). and closes with a trope of opening up: “words like disjointed beaches / Brown under the advancing signs of air” (Ashbery 94). These signs of air are the dizain blocks, reduced to sign status due to the peculiar logic of stanzaic presence and absence broached at the start of dizain 3. This is the central logic of elegiac poetic language, that language is predicated on an investigation of signification through absence over presence.

In closing the elegiac poem unit one closes its absence into presence, and in opening such a poem one opens the predominant discourse of presence, opens it up to the absence at the margin, placing absence in the centre and thus closing off presence by collapsing it into the predominance of absence. This occurs, I would argue, through three aspects of postmodern elegiac discourse that I have just described. First a central discursive poem body that is structured not by an attempt to render semantic presence, but by a basic semantics of absence. Second the logic of beginning into ending and ending into beginning, which is that of the aporia. And finally, third, the nature of the individual parts or moment of the poem body once the internal and external edges of the elegiac have been set up. I now want to briefly investigate these three moments.