Nathaniel Tarn On Poetic Production, "The Embattled Lyric"
and a Topography of Hope

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A lecture in the series “History & Forms of Lyric,” Poetics Colloquium,
University of Chicago, May 1st, 2012.
It first appeared in 'Hambone' no.20, ed. Nathaniel Mackey.

In a book entitled “The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics & Anthropology” published by Stanford in 2007, I proposed a model of poetic production, some aspects of which I would like to try to push forward today. Not having opened my mouth in these august surroundings for sixty years, I am most grateful for this opportunity. But, at the outset, I would like to make clear that this is not an academic presentation stricto sensu, that it makes no claim to any interpretive scholarship but only tries to advance a few of a practitioner’s personal experiences in the labor of creating Lyric Poetry. It is, in all likelihood, heavily influenced. It is probably at the farthest possible remove from anything new, unheard of, or exhaustive.

What I want to do today is to talk about Hope in relation to Lyric Poetry. Hope and its absence: Hope in a situation of Hopelessness.

In “The Embattled Lyric” I argued for poetry as the purest quintessence, the purest incarnation of Hope in part because of its, for me, absolute solitude in this world and absolute lack of consequence. I develop this in its connection with the absolute freedom, the absolute liberty inherent in the poetic decision, or Fiat, a dimension of creation akin to that described in any genesis. Here we are simultaneously in a realm which can be read as either Myth or History – or both. This is a vast subject which, on an occasion like this one, I will only have time to glance at from two viewpoints: one theological, one neurological. But first, since this is not Theory but Autoanthropology, let me be personal for a moment and say something about an aspect of my recent life.

Until some two years ago and ever since I can remember, I was engaged in a search for some sort of ultimate meaning – if you like some kind of “spirituality.” A longstanding interest in esoteric writings of all sorts and in the phenomenon known as initiation; eventually lodged for many years in Mahayana Buddhism, first in Zen, later in the Vajrayana. Then, some two years ago, during a morning walk, I suddenly felt all of that dropping away like some garment no longer required. It has seemed to me since then that all religions, all religious systems and practices, are ultimately brought about by attempts to deal with the universal fear of mortality. With the fear of what I call “the nothingness of nothing” since the word “nothing,” by itself, is incomprehensible. I eventually went as far as to see all established institutional religions – and especially the Abrahamic ones – as nocive when acting within their static, interminable, cultic redundancy and their authoritarianism, no matter how strong their consolatory functions might be. An ultimate pessimism regarding the fate of the human race in the hands of equally authoritarian politico-economic powers made me into what I have come to call a “terminalist.” Not, of course, “Repent, the End of the World is at hand!” but: Given the way in which humanity continues to behave toward itself and toward Nature and despite numerous praiseworthy efforts to stem the negative tide, it is more than probable that the human race will do away with itself in an already foreseeable future and, in any event, well before the end of this planet’s existence.

At this point, despite the claims on me of isness, ipseity, immanence; despite the cardinal directive of virtually all secular or profane philosophies – i.e. “lead your life in the moment and nowhere and at no time else,” I continue to find the questions “why? what for?” fundamentally overwhelming. Entertainment left completely behind, the point of producing Hope in the form of poetry seems to withdraw into immeasurable distance and alienation. In plainer words, how and why does a thinking human being continue the activity of hoping when in the absence of all apparent ground for Hope? When, as a poet, one has lived longer in death than in life? When to be a poet as fully as to be a human being is to be in a great many ways already dead? A little later, I’ll be going into the figure of Orpheus as the archetypal poet-visitor from the dead.

Before going further into this, I want to recall that the model I proposed in the Stanford book suggested three major aspects or loci of a new poem, or Lyric Poetry production, as it moves forward from the sum of poems previously created, this sum being the Opus. At the start of production, the three loci are the Vocal, the Choral and the Silence. I argued that, here, the first two are diametrically opposed illusions of each other in that it is impossible for the mind, when integrally, saturationally, involved in one of the Vocal or the Choral loci, to even envisage, let alone accept the existence of the other. As the poem progresses, saturational involvement relaxes, the loci may meet and even merge and, as we’ll see, the matter changes. The third locus, the Silence, is a locus in which the first two may eventually meet in a variety of ways to promote the actual coming to birth of a poem. This tactical meeting may occur peacefully or as a struggle. The meeting also entails – indeed for me almost always entails – an unstable point I call the Idyll – of which more in a moment.

The poet is approaching his or her task in the Vocal. Right now, this Vocal is completely dedicated to creating this poem; completely ego-centered and completely competitive with all other poets who are, or might be, creating poems in the same time period. I subscribe less to Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence from supra-generational predecessors than I do to intra-generational competition and conflict. Every single unpleasant aspect of what I am believed by one critic to have baptized “pobiz” enters at some point into this Vocal. I see the poet as confident in the Vocal but also anxious about the possibilities of the poem. Here the poet will be looking back at Opus while attempting to measure the extent to which the new poem follows in the tracks of previous poems – and while, at the same time, holding to the possibility of creating something new.

As the poem progresses there will come a point which I have called the Idyll when the poet may experience – I certainly have and, again, this is a personal presentation – a strong idea, a conviction, that poetry now cannot stop. It is here that the sense of Paul Eluard’s poésie ininterrompue (to which I add poésie ininterrompable) makes itself felt. Literally, the poem or poetic Process could continue forever. This is also connected to the place of Prophecy in Poetry and, no doubt, to the intuition that, in the act of creation, the poet may become “other” (Rimbaud’s “je est un autre”). Since Time-Space is masked in the Idyll, it is sometimes possible that the poet knows and can therefore cause to emerge in the poem a certain future state of fact or a resolution of a problem. I’ll say more about this later, when returning to the theme of Hope.

However: since all Process is fated to end back in Structure before going on to the next Process, the Idyll, like Janus, is double faced. I have often felt that this is close to the depiction of epilepsy as most dramatically described by, say, Dostoevsky – where a feeling that the epileptic owns the world and all knowledge crashes into the erasure of the epileptic fit proper. For it is precisely at the point where the Idyll peaks in what one could call, somewhat ironically today, a, or the Rapture – where the poet feels the poem cannot finish, that the poem is ready to descend into its final phase and take its place in the Opus which now will own one more poem.

ASIDE/{N1}: I wish it were possible to discuss this in connection with Giorgio Agamben’s conclusions in his “The End of the Poem” essay in the book of the same name (Stanford, 1999) or Walter Benjamin’s statement to the effect that “every completed work is the death-mask of its intuition” but we would need a seminar. The major equation in such an event would be the end of a poem as the poet’s death - in - life.

Here, at the point of Idyll, the poet is likely to be divided in mind and to some degree to encounter, stray or struggle into the locus of the Choral. Note first that my Choral is cognate with, but not the same as, the concept of the Khôra as adumbrated from Plato in a certain line of continental philosophy. By the Choral I refer to a place in which the self-centeredness of the Vocal is interfered with by an overwhelming sense of the collective. The collective, in which we may recognize, for instance, Robert Duncan’s “Symposium of the Whole,” here covers not only all the other manifestations of the Vocal in poets working in the same time frame, but all the individualities of the society at large as well as the past, mostly benevolent, manifestations of the dead, i.e. the ancestors. This involves a recognition of the familial nature of all the Opera produced in that same time-frame, the idea that, basically, we are all writing the same poem at any given time and perhaps in time as a whole.

ASIDE/{N2}: But for limitations of time, I would add here considerations from both anthropology and poetics on the functional values of communication with the dead. For the most part, First, Indigenous societies rely greatly on charters from the ancestors – on which most behaviors and most social interaction are modeled.

At this point the poet must be thought to also have access to the Silence (though, in fact, this course must be available to him or her throughout the production.) Note that I speak of the Silence rather than of Silence plain and simple. This is because, in much or most criticism of which I am aware, the idea recurs again and again that, fundamentally, the Vocal arises out of silence proper and returns to silence. But there is always something underneath or beside the Vocal. I see the Silence then as the place in which the Idyll may be most likely to occur but which can be accessed at any time wherein the poet may wish to commune with her/himself and make the most crucial, the most informed possible, decisions regarding the direction the poem has taken, is taking and will take. It is probable that the Silence is the place where the claims of the Vocal and the Choral on this poet are examined, integral participation in one or the other is abandoned and some kind of balance is achieved if a poem is to succeed.

You may suspect that, for me, the Choral is the most important of the three loci in that society cannot survive without some ground of collectivity, however trivial, however miserable it may appear to be at any given moment in human history. This is related to one of my oldest beliefs: that the deeper you dig into a true individual voice, the more collective in its nature and implications that voice will turn out to be after each failure, as in the Orphic myths, to secure Eurydice. Note of course that, leaving aside the understanding of the author as both produced and producer, I have always found any talk of the “death of the author” or any critical theory which denies voice as the cardinal producer of poetry to be, in plain speech, irresponsible and unacceptable. I have always felt that the mark of the poet is that he or she is the container and conduit of an uninterruptible voice which he or she hears or listens to as frequently in her or his life as possible, as frequently as the effects of the world which is always with us (and dominates the poet in the Choral) allow. If the world is “too much with us” of course, the voice can be momentarily drowned out.

The argument just put forward is mainly manifested in the last essay of “The Embattled Lyric”: “On Refining a Model of Poetic Production.” In another essay of the same book, called “Archaeology, Elegy, Architecture: a Poet’s Program for Lyric,” I attempt to comment on the role of poetic production from a diachronic point of view. The essay ties together the major theme of Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice with what I have described in terms of Lyric thrust forward and Elegiac look backward during poetic production. I take the terms “Lyric” and “Elegy” not as two forms or categories of poetry production but as directional markers: lyric representing the thrust forward of the poet’s activity; elegy representing those backward looks which the poet has to give to the Opus both as that out of which a new poem arises and that into which the new poem will fit.

The story of Orpheus – which I take to be the constitutive myth of poetic production is then sparagmatized by generating different views of Orpheus. I’ll mention only two.

The first view sees Orpheus as born in an “Origin” – the mythical, fantasy divine world of a Golden Age. He emerges out of Hades into a strange eschatology (his tearing to pieces by Bacchantes resulting in a “Selected Orpheus” – the survival of only the head and the lyre) to shrine, divine and prophecy.

In another view, the birth and youth of Orpheus are occulted by the divinity of that first, golden Orpheus so that he now comes to our stage as a historical Orpheus, one “already begun.” We know he married a wife, Eurydice, that she is bitten by a snake, dies and ruins into Hades. Orpheus, all loss and elegy, turns Archeologist and goes down into Hades to fetch his wife. Not only that: this Orpheus rejects failure and returns again and again to the dead through the labor of fetching Eurydice – much as the poet goes back down into the Opus as he or she begins to build new poems. This Orpheus then is the poet as producer of poetry and his or her very production is that of a commodity known as Hope: Orpheus never gives up on Eurydice. The poet never gives up on poetry.

ASIDE/{N3}: Other views of the couple are available: Orpheus as homosexual (he makes love to boys; his head and lyre fetch up at Lesbos); Orpheus as Eurydice and vice-versa (the fetcher fetched); Orpheus as marrying successively several wives not one of whom is named Eurydice – the potential is inexhaustibly rich.

As for the enshrined Selected Orpheus, his head and lyre become prophecy. I have already commented on poetry’s potential for prophecy. At this point, the poet has a choice. According to how the poet evaluates a prophecy, he or she can opt for optimism or pessimism. Centrally involved in this decision is the role of the presence or absence of a commodity known as Hope.

I now loop back to the main subject I have been wanting to deal with today.

As a student of Lévi-Strauss, as sympathetic to structuralism and while bound by teaching duties for many years, I was never able to do more than dip a toe into the vast sea of post-structuralism, deconstruction and so forth. One dimension I would like to have studied at length involved an interest in Negative Theology, Utopianism, Prophecy and Messianism or, as Derrida calls it, Messianicité, on the part of a number of philosophers: Bloch, Benjamin, Levinas, Derrida, Agamben among others. I was gratified to find that certain concepts had reached my poetry before I was reading them elsewhere: I would instance Derrida’s major concern with “Justice.” Specifically right now, however, I have been looking, not at Ernst Bloch’s vast, three volume Das Prinzip Hoffnung, (The Principle of Hope) but at a much shorter work, the kind of work which made Frederick Jameson call Bloch “The Theologian of the Revolution”: “Atheismus im Christentum” (“Atheism in Christianity”), (Suhrkamp 1968). Partly because of its lyrical style, partly because of its extensive and insightful expertise, this book continues to fascinate even though it has aged, even though we have heard some, even much, of this before and a great deal since. It is also a portent of the ever accelerating coming together of poetry and philosophy – or at least of the philosophies mentioned here – the motto of which has for long been to me Hölderlin’s statement in a letter of 1802 “the philosophical light around my window is now my joy; may I be able to keep on as I have thus far!”

Bloch worked by looking at pairs of apparently irreconcilable opposites to find elements of each in the other. In this book, he searches for atheism within Christianity, the latter containing the whole Old Testament as well as the New and several para-Biblical, apocryphal and side-rider texts. He develops a long and very detailed argument for the existence of a rebellious, indeed revolutionary view of human fate running through the whole of this hugely variegated tissue of much interfered-with writings. The argument’s core is that the divine has always been a regressive illusion and that anything that might be mistaken for “God” is actually the creation, let us say the Son of, Man, and not anything like a “Son of “God.” In a Flash-take, this involves a story of a rebellious Serpent initiating human life by kicking it out of a static and ab initio illusory Origin or Eden, all the way to the major theme of Exodus out of Egypt, through Job’s own discovery that man is wiser than his “God” and through the advent of the Christ. This Christ’s extremist human-centered notion is that the Kingdom he announces is a totalizing and immediate destruction of this world engendering an absolute change in existence where every kind of inequality is abolished. While this never materialized and fossilized “churches” were the ultimate result, Bloch’s stance in dialectical materialism and atheism maintains him in a belief in that-which-has-not-yet-but-will-in-the-end-come-to-be. A strong quote from St. Augustine arises at this point: “Dies septimus nos ipsi erimus: We are ourselves the Seventh Day.” This helps to note, in passing, something about the modulations of the definition of messianic time in the work of some contemporary philosophers. They appear to be getting closer and closer to the “life in the moment” directive that I have already mentioned. Messianic time is less and less distant from any apocalyptic future and more concerned with the bare, profane life that, although unrecognized, we are provided with already. Simply: that profane life has to be looked at differently. If anything tends to be elided it is the person of the Messiah him or herself – although the figure of the living-dead poet may be pertinent here.

Whether any of this can appeal to any individual or group as ground for continued Hope, I have to leave open here. It certainly jibes with my ultimate political inclinations. I might wish, though, that it convinced me, I am not at all sure that it does. Meanwhile, I have been thinking about another approach to Hope, this time a neurological one. If you look at “The Embattled Lyric” you will see that, there, I already discuss a neurological view when looking at a poem of mine at whose termination the writing ego simultaneously wishes for immediate death and for continued life:

Now, simultaneously,
a burning interest in the next facet
of this life – also the absolute
desire to put an end to it.

One argument relates to what happens in the Silence as a reflection of a ground human concern, shared by the poet, with the primal question “to be or not to be.” In the Silence, this ontological question surfaces essentially as a concern with the being or not being of the poem at hand: a concern arising during the Lyrical thrust all the way up to the Idyll. The question takes various forms: Is this the right moment, the ripe moment, to throw the poem (throw as in throwing a pot)? Was preparation adequate? Was the ground cleared? Was the start o.k.? Was it propitious? Should one continue or abort? And within all this: questions on the poet’s breath; questions of linguistic matter or stuff; of rhythm, of tone; of junction and disjunction; of how far the poem will resolve or not problems inherent in its own progression – problems, in short, relating to all major concerns in the field of poetics at the time of writing.

In Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain” (Harcourt, 2003), the author, starting from Spinoza’s “the human mind is the idea of the human body,” gives evidence for taking emotions and feelings as generated by the interpretation that a subject makes of mental maps of the state-of-his-or-her-body at a given moment. The report of that state is fed to the brain by an astoundingly complex system of humoral and neural pathways. Diagnosis is principally reached by examining the way in which, if lesions occur in any part of the brain, certain normally exhibited behaviors are correspondingly modified, inhibited or accelerated. The complexity of the ways in which a satisfying homeostatic normalcy is achieved, in which the mind strives for “survival-with-well-being,” suggested to me that the fate of an art work could be linked to the decision-making processes involved in such neurological operations.

How would one begin to list the series of concerns that occur in the cardinal moments of the Silence? High on the list is whether the state of initial emotion set off, in Damasio’s terminology, by an “emotionally competent stimulus” (which a poet might agree to call a trigger) is going to carry a sufficient Lyric energy to be in play while the force of the poem itself may still be in question. To what extent is the poem going to issue from the real-time thrust of the initial trigger, or to what extent is it going to require buttressing by any one of a large number of, for instance, symbolic systems? To what extent is previous experience with this kind of trigger going to play a role in the making of this poem? Or is this particular trigger going to exhibit unknown facets, revealing itself to be radically new, requiring a probably blind lunge into something felt (correctly or not) never to have been experienced before?

In a previous book, “The Feeling of What happens: Body, Emotion and the making of Consciousness” (Harcourt, 1999), Damasio’s discussion of, not only a “core self” but also, in creative individuals, an “autobiographical self” (“the sense of personal past and anticipated future also known as ‘extended consciousness’ ”) allowed me to take his “extended consciousness” as extremely descriptive of what I have called “prophecy” in the poetic context. Also to link this with the sense that to a member of the species poet, the survival of poetry is ultimately related to the survival of humankind and that it is part of the poet’s own survival to believe in the possibility of human survival. In an essay “Exile out of Silence” ( contained in “The Embattled Lyric”) I wrote that “ a strong sense of poetry failing in the poet or in his or her community can and does bring about suicide. Kenneth Rexroth once pointed out that almost all the major poets of a named dark time in American history had committed suicide... And, for us, in our moment, the extraordinary complex matter of the Rimbaldian “suicide” continues to have a haunting power.”

Anthropologically, I saw the Vocal as involved, if ever acting communally, in self-other reciprocity; the Silence as promoting self-self reciprocity and the Choral as involving no reciprocity – since where there is self there is other but where there is no-self there is no other. I continued by referring anthropologically to a major aspect of group interaction – cooperation versus conflict – and by asking what happens when the mainly conflictual Vocal meets with the mainly cooperative Choral in the Silence. The Vocal as conflictual with its self-other reciprocity involves part against part. The Choral with its non-reciprocity involves the whole or totality. I found that considerations of survival meant that allegiance to the Choral eventually would prime over allegiance to the Vocal and that the social collectivity would therefore win out over the battlefield carnage. Here then the Prinzip Hoffnung would tend to be triumphant.

A further aspect of this thought is that the Vocal is very much related, at the topical level, to the necessity of Selection (of a part rather than another, of a self rather than an other) whereas the Choral is imbued with a passion against selection, with a constant urge toward Totality, toward dealing messianically if you like, with what Chinese culture calls The Ten Thousand Things and, eventually, toward the adoption of an ideal of no-self. Whereas, for Evolution, the Choral primes over the Vocal; for Poetics the reverse is the case in that the return from Process into Structure ultimately involves Selection. The feeling of “die now/never die” would thus arise out of this opposition and out of the extreme difficulty of achieving any form of abdication of the self into the state of no-self. Die now: self can founder at the hands of another self. Live forever: self cannot founder in no-self. In the same breath, if life remains a value, overcoming death here results in the triumph of the collective over the individual and that of poetry over its disappearance. The poet now under-stands the world, knows that he or she must support it. Hölderlin’s “Was bleibt, stiften die Dichter” (What stands, what remains, poets found, establish, institute, it), mentioned in Agamben’s “Remnants of Auschwitz,” (Stanford, 2002), dominates here. What would need going into later at length is Heidegger’s Dichtung as production especially in the work on Hölderlin’s hymn “Der Ister.” In such senses, I see poetry as exactly co-terminous with Hope. Poetry is Hope.

Leaving Damasio, the approach I want to look at now is simpler and arises, in a short report, from the work of Tali Sharot at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Center for Neuro-Imaging and a comment on it by Daniel Schacter & Donna Rose Addis of the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.

This work results in a view of the Human brain as instinctively upbeat. Evolution may have hard-wired our brains to be relentlessly optimistic, even in the face of bitter experience – the bitterest of all, of course, being the realistic recognition of death’s universality. A series of experiments on individual expectations when faced with a number of hypothetical situations past, present or future, appears to show that activity in two limbic areas of the brain – the rostral cingulate cortex and the amygdala, reflects positive rather than negative attitudes so that the healthy human brain can be considered as fundamentally optimistic rather than realistic. In unfavorable times, humans, on average, may expect things in the world to turn out negatively but private optimism about a personal future intimates that things will turn out better than they end up by being. This private optimism protects and inspires us and keeps us moving forward – hence its relation to evolutionary value.

This would not be the place to detail the scientific experiments that led to this view – even if I were an exact scientist myself rather than a one-time social scientist. I think I can see the results of such a view in what I have called the Lyric thrust – a thrust that makes a belief possible in an activity which is so lonely and apparently without consequence as the Vocal. But what if a number of circumstances influenced a negative view of possibility in the Choral? Inter alia, among such statistical circumstances: an obvious collapse of the way in which Poetry has been produced in the past; a potentially devastating overproduction of people believing that they are poets at a time when people believing they are readers are underproduced; a huge change in the technologies involved in the dissemination of poetry, the arts in general and, indeed, all cultural products. Thinking this way, everything now, our whole past, seems to exist on the other side of Hope. And if we take Theodor Adorno’s statement that “After Auschwitz, writing a poem is barbaric” as the guiding interpretation of our time, the paradigm to be overcome toward belief in any politically-messianic horizon, life transfers itself in toto to that other side.

I have always found it impossible to deal with matters of aesthetic production – inter alia in literature, art or music – without declaring such production as being subject to poetic fiat. By this I mean to see the poet (standing for the artist in general) acting as a radically free being who has decided on a statement, has declared it, promulgated it if you like, and that is that, there’s the end of it. The fiat rules as the motor image of Hope, Liberty, Freedom, as the absolute, unconditioned action, unrelated (if the poet wishes) to any given Philosophy or World-view foreign to itself, unrelated to any other mode of being or action-production than the being and production in question at any given moment of creation. This is, of course, the culmination of many such essentially political statements – a view of poetry as perpetual opposition – springing over time out of the belief that the aesthetic domain aims now to be the only independent one, both from Pharaoh (or Caesar) for Bloch and from any divinity, thus acting in lieu of religion. In Adorno’s words, we have witnessed “the immigration of theology into the profane,” the acceptance of life’s absolute transience eliminating the distinction between the two categories of “Sacred” and “Profane.” I am now treating poets as a species apart – a status the world never grants us so that we might as well grant it to ourselves.

ASIDE/{N4}: I would be most interested in following the history of a notion regarding an autonomous aesthetic realm and the supreme social status of poetry during the Northern & Southern Dynasties of China, circa 220-600 A.D. This in connection with the notion of ziran: translated as “self-so”(Mark Lewis) in a world of spontaneous self-generation of entities.

In our present life, however, the ever-growing gap, between such a stand and reality is huge. There is a more and more unbridgeable distance between Hope and possibility, or “potentiality” – the guiding desideratum in Agamben’s discourse. I find it not at all coincidental that an “as if” philosophy of any cultural and poetic production has, for some long time, dominated my view of action. As if it were still possible to live, to breathe – even while dead. Taking up the stance of “as if” may be the ultimate waking dream of the fiat. Seeing the production of poetry as that of let us say some kind of Supreme Fiction, (to recall Wallace Stevens), allows some continuity of belief in the job of not only just pleasing but quasi-religiously consoling the reader and can therefore be seen, in a shamelessly Romantic vein since Romanticism is not over yet, as the last potential “human responsibility or duty.” Most pessimistic philosophies of a human future – all the way up to, or down to perhaps, various forms of absurdism – have kept some kind of continuity in human duty as a last, an ultimate resort. Whether through some version of messianic politics or through taking comfort in the optimistic direction of brain activity, the ultimate function of poetry as a modestly salvational activity can survive stoically to be believed in. I continue to hold that, as the icon of Hope, Liberty and Freedom, poetry can indeed be the absolute of Belief.

This material is © Nathaniel Tarn
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