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Poetry and contingency: within a timeless moment of barbaric thought.

Kant thought he was honoring art when among the predicates of beauty he emphasized and gave prominence to those which established the honor of knowledge: impersonality and universality. This is not the place to inquire whether this was essentially a mistake; all I wish to underline is that Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the "spectator," and unconsciously introduced the "spectator" into the concept "beautiful." It would not have been so bad if this "spectator" had at least been sufficiently familiar to the philosophers of beauty--namely as a great personal fact and experience, as an abundance of vivid authentic experiences, desires, surprises, and delights in the realm of the beautiful! But I fear that the reverse has always been the case; and so they have offered us, from the beginning, definitions in which, as in Kant's famous definition of the beautiful, a lack of any refined first-hand experience reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error. "That is beautiful," said Kant, "which gives us pleasure without interest." Without interest! Compare with this definition one framed by a genuine "spectator" and artist--Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur. At any rate he rejected and repudiated the one point about the aesthetic condition which Kant had stressed: le desinteressement. Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?

If our aestheticians never weary of asserting in Kant's favor that, under the spell of beauty, one can even view undraped female statues "without interest," one may laugh a little at their expense: the experience of artists on this ticklish point are more "interesting" and Pygmalion was in any event not necessarily an "unaesthetic man."

--Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (as quoted by Giorgio Agamben in The Man without Content)

 An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
 Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
 Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring;
 Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
 But leechlike to their fainting country cling
 Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
 A people starved and stabbed in th'untilled field;
 An army, whom liberticide and prey
 Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
 Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
 Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
 A senate, Time's worst statute, unrepealed--Are
 graves from which a glorious Phantom may
 Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

--Percy Blysshe Shelley


 as if
 in the impersonal thinking of the world
 quiet and clear
 here--as in the center of a clearing--purity
 trembles--and we pass by
 not disturbing it
 even with the imperceptible
 breeze of attention

 13 July 1983

--Gennady Aygi

 So much
 depends upon

 through a night-scope
 in the evening

(MP, with WCW)


 Close connexion or affinity of nature; close relationship.

 The condition of being liable or not to happen in the future;
 uncertainty of occurrence or incidence.

 The befalling or occurrence of anything without preordination;
 chance, fortuitousness.

 The condition of being free from predetermining necessity in
 regard to existence or action; hence, the being open to the play of
 chance, or of free will.

 The quality or condition of being subject to chance and change,
 or of being at the mercy of accidents.

 A chance occurrence; an event the occurrence of which could not
 have been, or was not, foreseen; an accident, a casualty.

 A conjuncture of events occurring without design; a juncture.

 (et al)

--selected definitions from the OED

In April of last year, Bradin Cormack contacted me to ask whether I would be willing to come to the University of Chicago to give a reading and a talk, and I happily agreed. I believe it was in July that I was asked for a title for my talk, and I hastily decided on something about "Poetry and Contingency," though with no clear approach in mind. The events and images of 9/11 were still very preoccupying, along with the administration's ominous rhetoric of crusade-like retribution. The attack upon al-Qaeda and the Taliban (and whatever innocents happened to be in the way) in Afghanistan was taking place, our promises of funds for reconstruction to the Afghani people not yet broken. It was already clear from the ultranationalistic rhetorical bombast of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Ashcroft, as well as assorted right-wing ideologues such as Richard Perle, William Kristol, and Robert Kagan, that international laws and relationships, and domestic values once considered essential to the moral probity of the Republic, were coming under siege in the very name of that probity. Reason itself, as some shabby remnant of Enlightenment thought, was under siege. The poetry community, if thought of at all, was initially excoriated for not turning its full attention to the production of uplifting, elegiac verse in response to the destruction of the twin towers. When our designated public poets did dutifully begin to produce such verse, the results could be charitably described as lamentable and, in some odd way, self-aggrandizing.

And, of course, things had begun, even then, to accelerate in such a manner that it seemed impossible to find any fixed point from which to assess the situation. All statements of fact and purpose were subject to instant revision, as soon as proven untenable. Responsibility to language and memory was henceforth inoperable. Pure flux. We were suddenly at war not only with Terrorism, wherever it lurked, but with the earth and its resources, the Bill of Rights, the poor, the godless, and, of course, discourse itself. And acceleration a central fact of culture now: today, our blitzkrieg finds our troops within a few miles of Baghdad. When I actually speak with you, who knows.

And I hasten to add that this talk will reflect that flux: an assemblage of fragments, shored perhaps against the ruins. With no theory, no argument to speak of, and only that tentative knowing, that knowing of nothing, that the uncertain yet actual experiencing of poetry offers. Poetry, which includes the unspoken. Within a timeless moment of barbaric thought. Of what is and what returns; of memory and forgetting. Since I think we can agree that we find ourselves in a very strange time, yet also, remembering, a sadly all-too-familiar one. As it happens, poetry has something to say about all of these things, the "strange," the "familiar" and of course "time."

As I began to reflect on my title, problems soon emerged, as seen in the above definitions. Contingency, as a word, would seem to be both itself and another, or its other. It seems to bind as well as liberate, to conjoin and to fracture, to open to chance or to tether to circumstance. As it yields its meanings, it at once exceeds itself and undermines itself. Like any word in a poem, examined closely it grows more strange, rather than more familiar. And it points both forward and backward in time, and toward an unsettled present. Of which, more later. So much depends upon the glance, the gaze, but also upon the chance of what may be there: a red wheelbarrow, a bed of phlox. Contingent, dependent. Two weeks ago, I escaped probable, meaningless death on a highway by a few inches, and my wife the same a week before that.

A man, born into wealth and privilege, finds God in the bottom of a bourbon glass. This is not unusual. It is in fact banal, but not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. To the man, it appears salvific. His first birthing did not work out. He has, in fact, little recollection of much of what preceded his being born again; he is said to suffer "dropouts," abyssal memory events. This is not unusual. Then the God the man found in the glass tells him of his destiny--he at least remembers this and often recounts it--that he is to be President of the most powerful nation on earth. The man can name the heads of state of perhaps two or three foreign nations. His sense, in fact, of world geography is hazy, though he knows about Mexico, since it is adjacent to his state of rebirth. Mexico is to the south, beyond the river. He has great difficulty recalling any hooks he has read, except of course for the Good Book. This seems more than sufficient. He does not "believe in" evolution, or in reflection. In a laudatory memoir, an epigone reports that he is "suspicious of conspicuous intelligence," as well he might be. Everyone knows the story. (No one knows the story.)

Another man, born into wealth and privilege, dreams of driving the Infidel from the Arab lands and reestablishing the Kingdom of Islam, and he dedicates his fortune to that end. Like the other, he has undergone a kind of conversion. Like the other, he too believes in the fundamental truth of the One Book. Like the other, he converses with God; he receives messages. The one and the other are in touch with the Logos. Their families are friendly and engage in global business practices together. Everyone knows the story. (No one knows the story.)

The first man lives in a zone cleansed of poetry, save perhaps for certain psalms and hymns. The second is given to reciting traditional, religious verse, with variations to suit the occasion, during his speeches. It is the kind of devotional poetry swept aside in many cultures by the tides of modernism, the modernism of which Giorgio Agamben writes, where the subject has disappeared. In the culture of fundamentalist Islam, the poetry of the one subject is the only form of poetry permitted. The poet Adonis, and many others, have spoken often of this, at their peril.

Each would destroy, and each instantly authenticates, the other. Good versus evil. As if by magic, each fulfills both roles.

And then there is Saddam, the would-be Saladin, with his meat hooks and his toxins.

Today, I gather, we are entering Baghdad.

And so, of the two possible catastrophes, those of conquest or defeat, it appears the former awaits us.

Poetry and catastrophe: we know that it, poetry, makes nothing happen; we also know, or trust, that it is something happening among other things happening. We know that it is something happening in language, and happening to language. For some its strangeness and estrangement represent catastrophe, and they would cast the poets out of the city. They speak of the Logos besieged, as we speak of language under siege. We have a guided missile called the peace-keeper. And it seems that the rhetoric of "freedom," "justice," "democracy," has been turned on its head. "Tutta per nulla, dunque?" asks Montale in his poem, "Primavera Hitleriana."

We know that it is something happening in language and in silence. We know that in its silences a certain excess gathers, an excess, or surplus, of meaning that can cause meaning to tremble. Yet, "No more than a breath between / there and not there," as Celan writes. We know that the breath-turn itself is silence, the moment in which the poem gathers itself, the site where the conversation is to begin, and where another is to be found. Whereas, it would seem that the voice of God in the bottom of the glass brooks no other, except perhaps a beseeching. We know that poetry is a form of listening. Both the making and the receiving are forms of listening. To an unknown language found everywhere among our daily words, in the currents of our common speech, where Jack Spicer's low-ghosts lurk. In the winding streets. We knew as we marched through the winding streets that the powers-that-be were not listening, had not the capacity. Just as the discourse of control annuls conversation and represses all questioning, as it erases the other, thereby ultimately erasing itself. Whereas poetry is nothing if not a question, and then a book of questions. To which the answer is, perhaps, no more than another question. Poetry in that sense remains open, and without authority. Its authors, is there anything to say of them?

Is that woman, sitting and drinking coffee, the person who wrote that poem, about coffee? Is that man, talking with his daughter, the same one who wrote the poem about the moths? He seems to have misplaced his glasses once again.

Poetry and memory. What does the poem remember, that otherwise the culture hastens to forget? It was no more than a week or so ago, as the bombs, the smart bombs, were first falling in unbelievable profusion, that my copy of Child-And-Rose (New Directions, 2003), by the great Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi, arrived. It is a book concerned with childhood, sleep, and silence as poetic sources. It is also a book that, as the translator Peter France writes, remembers in its rhythms, riddles, and incantations the tribal origins of Chuvash song and choral dance. Before the period of enforced christianization, and before Stalin. Yet it re-members, rather than simply remembering. It is a book not of folkish nostalgia but of the present, a work of fractures, fragments, and gaps, in which the missing resides, or into which the missing has been translated. In it too, is that poem I quote at the beginning of this talk, which remembered poetry for me that day while I was forgetting it, in the ashes, and "in the impersonal thinking of the world." Or, one might say, in the noise of the world, the obliterating and deafening roar. Would you agree, that it has become harder to hear these days? Overhead, in New York, as we marched, we counted at least three helicopters. They hovered all day. Here is the opening of Aygi's "Poetry-As-Silence":
 Listening--in place of speaking. Even--more important than
 vision, an), vision (even--in imagination).

 And: rustling-and-murmuring. Rustle--of the origin--already--so
 distant. "Mine" "my own self"

 There "everything" is silence. All long since--took their leave.
 Buildings are empty. Cold. The former wind--dead. Deserted the
 lumber-rooms. The wind,--dead scattering--of dead flour.

 Not to give way to nostalgia. For I also am not ... how could I!
 Too much--from spaces interrupted--from "powers" long since
 abolished. (157)

I can't help adding another memory jogged by the book, that of wandering with Aygi through the Paris streets on a wet winter day years ago, while conversing in a third, shared language about Pasternak and Peredelkino, and the French and their dogs. It was almost certainly then that I first read some of the work included in Child-And-Rose, in a volume of translations into French entitled Le livre de Veronique.

All poetry is, of course, translation, a bearing across from one region to another, a crossing of borders, a conjoining of same with other. It is a voyage out of the self-same or the self-identical or the self-satisfied into a fluid semantic and ontological field. That is, to translate is also to be translated, to commit to an act of becoming ... what? Human perhaps, in a world where we cannot assume that as a given, but as something to be earned partially and imperfectly. The extensions of voice, beyond that one with which we come into the world. The elsewhere so necessary to any understanding of the here-and-now. Yet the "here-and-now" of our national conversation seems suddenly to have filled with a virulent xenophobia, and a hatred, as well as a fear, as well as a willful ignorance of the other, the foreign, even of difference itself. The dosing of minds is represented as certainty of belief and of righteousness. Outside must he remade to conform with inside, by total force if necessary. We cannot help being reminded of the language of earlier empires, of the "white man's burden," of the "mission civilisatrice." Language under siege from within.

Under siege: a man in a half-ruined apartment complex during Sharon's intense bombing of Beirut in 1982 wants his coffee. The man is the poet Mahmoud Darwish. He wants his coffee and a cigarette. He wants to read the newspaper over coffee and a cigarette:
 Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with
 the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water,
 then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the
 second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise.
 Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from
 the fire and bring it back. Repeat this several times until the
 water boils again and a small mass of the blond coffee remains
 on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don't let it sink. Turn
 off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. "lake the coffee to
 the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure hand into a
 little white cup: dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the
 coffee. Observe the paths of the steam and the tent of rising
 aroma. Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee,
 the cigarette with the flavor of existence itself, unequaled by the
 taste of any other except that which follows love, as the woman
 smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

 Now I am born. My veins are saturated with their stimulant
 drugs, in contact with the springs of life, caffeine and nicotine,
 and the ritual of their coming together as created by my hand.
 "How can a hand write," I ask myself, "if it doesn't know how to
 be creative in making coffee!" How often have the heart specialists
 said, while smoking, "Don't smoke or drink coffee!" And how
 I've joked with them, "A donkey doesn't smoke or drink coffee.
 And it doesn't write."

 I know my coffee, my mother's coffee, and the coffee of my
 friends. I can tell them from afar and I know the differences
 among them. No coffee is like another, and nay defense of coffee
 is a plea for difference itself ...

 (Memory for Forgetfulness [U. of California P., 1995], 18-19)

A remarkable photograph appeared in The New York Times a few days ago, that kind of organic surrealism so typical of war scenes. A flock of Apache helicopters in close formation is heading in one direction, while below them, on the desert sands, a herd of camels, in equally close array, heads unconcernedly in the other. If I read the orientation of the picture correctly, the Apaches would seem to be heading north, in the direction of Baghdad perhaps, and the animals south.

I've just come across a note I made in early August of last year, while briefly visiting a very beautiful, very tranquil, small island off the coast of Maine. I indicate that it is "for the Chicago talk":
 It is only among the less interesting artists that this question of
 "the aesthetic vs the political" becomes relevant, since there is no
 integration, only superposition.

 Regarding those such as Dante and Darwish, Beckett, Goya,
 Salgado, et al, it is laughable ... the chatter of minds that cannot
 comprehend the concept of "the work" and its goals, its human
 urgency, agency. Yet to say this will bring no end to the talk, and
 no end of false terms. No end of noise. In fact it could be now
 that the noise is only beginning to rise. (And yet how quiet here.)

And now that noise ... "within a timeless moment of barbaric thought." Timeless because, as Umberto Eco has written, "Bad ideas don't go away." For my generation, the assault upon language, the equation of patriotism with support of violence, the double-speak, the provocation of anxiety and paranoia, the triumphalism, all evoke the Vietnam era, and in certain ways, the Cold War ethos of the 1950s. Yet, we are to go about our business, above all fulfilling those material desires represented as desire itself. In that time of growing up for me, the 1950s and the 1960s, there were several interconnected formative nexuses, or points of resistance, to the "culture-as-such." One was the intensely active and often collaborative world of the arts, as experienced in New York, where the visual arts, music and contemporary dance and performance were undergoing a moment of extraordinary creative ferment. Another was the international modernist and vanguardist tradition, "tradition of the new," still at the time largely unacknowledged in many of our institutions, that seemed to offer forms of resistance to the given that might prove useful to building the alternative life. That in turn led to various theoretical matrices not otherwise readily available. Thus, to cite just one example, the Russian Futurists and Formalists led to Roman Jakobson, among others, and Jakobson and his peers led to alternative prosodies, alternative perspectives on language, on the social, and much else. Third, the exploratory counter-tradition in American poetry, with its centers in New York and San Francisco and Black Mountain, but with its adherents characteristically also scattered about the States. I think of its challenge to the settled subjectivity and self-absorption of much canonical verse of the time. And finally, the fact of Vietnam itself, that forced us to reconsider not only our own positions as artists or would-be artists in the society, but also the status of the art object itself, which had been represented to us as a kind of Grecian urn, outside of time. And though the urn may well be timeless, the poem about the urn is subject to time, is contingent upon time, its own and many others. (I quoted Shelley's sonnet at the beginning of this talk not only as an instance of scathing political verse, but also to show in an obvious way how the poem is altered by events that it cannot possibly foresee. It does not know what awaits it, any more than Dante could have foreseen Milton and the Romantics awaiting him. Nor could I have known how a particular poem of mine, being used in a dance performance, would be so altered by the events of 9/11. The point is not simply how work responds to current events, but how previous work is altered by and alters, them.) The focus of this necessarily truncated remembering is that these nexuses were not isolated but interconnected, as fact of one's thinking about poetry, the process of poetry, and its critical relation to habits of speech and thought and institutional assumptions about the function of art. Poetry as something happening among other things happening. As something happening in language, and to language under siege. Poetry as memory, sometimes memory of the future. Poetry as both fixed and in process, ever a paradox. Above all, poetry as experience, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe would put it. (He would add, poetry as interruption of the "poetic," but that's for some other time.)

And yet we must acknowledge the poem's not so secret dream of an idea of order, a glimpse of a palm at the end of the mind, where contingency would be annihilated, perhaps by a throw of the dice.

Last night, as I drove home from teaching, the radio was full of rumors of the death of Saddam and his sons, killed or not killed by bunker-buster bombs. So far, however, in the ruins, they've only found the bodies of a twenty-year old woman and an eight-year old child. And it seems that the Giants have won seven in a row to start the season.

A timeless moment of barbaric thought, at once endlessly strange and endlessly familiar. Under siege, to drink our cup of difference and look for a clearing. To keep the conversation with language alive and open--this makes nothing happen. Yet, does it not somehow, and crucially, contribute to the restoration of Logos as ratio, as measure, and as human bond. And wouldn't that have surprised Plato.

And so, uncertainly, in the noise and fog of this moment when some in power would see the conquest of Baghdad as only the first among many such actions, we return to the critical concept of art as participatory if-at-all, and to Stendhal's promesse de bonheur, as cited by Nietzsche as quoted by Agamben. Then we trace a question mark.

March-April 2003

Michael Palmer's most recent collections of poetry are The Promises of Glass (New Directions, 2000) and Codes Appearing (Poems 1979-1988) (New Directions, 2001). His contribution to a multiple collaboration with the painter Gerhard Richter was published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Richter 858 (2002). A new book of poems, Company of Moths, is in preparation. He lives in San Francisco and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Cardiff.
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Author:Palmer, Michael
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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