The ends of poetry: sense and sound in Giorgio Agamben and Ugo Foscolo.
From the perspective of this apparently traditional if not self-evident definition, the end of the poem presents particular problems. For at its conclusion, Agamben writes, the poem is capable of being quantified and catalogued, since it is then brought to a semiotic full stop that potentially negates the capacity of form to exert its gravitational pull on content. "If poetry is defined precisely by the possibility of enjambment," he notes, "it follows that the last verse of a poem is not a verse" ("End of Poem" 112). Poets, he continues, have historically and collectively experienced this crisis viscerally: hence the "often cheap and even abject" nature of poem's endings, "as if the poem as a formal structure could not and would not end," for this would imply, according to Agamben's definition, a logical impossibility--the coincidence of sense and sound ("End of Poem" 113). Agamben adduces the criticism of Walter Benjamin and others regarding the infelicitous endings of poems, and then quotes Dante's memorable lines from De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular [c. 1302-05]) as to how a poem should end: "The endings of the last verses are most beautiful if they fall into silence together with rhymes." (2) Dante, Agamben writes, achieves this silence by following his own protocols and lacing his endings so tightly that the verses seem to collapse in silence, letting "language finally communicate itself' ("End of Poem" 115). Dante's technical solution to the ending of the poem, as we see in the following canzone, was a linked couplet rhyme called a baciata that allows his lines to "kiss":
Canzon, vattene diritto a quella donna ch m'ha ferito il core e che m'invola quello ond'io ho piu gola, e dalle per lo cor d'una saetta; che bell'onor s'acquista in far vendetta. (3)
(Poem, go straight to that woman who has wounded my heart and stolen from me what I most hunger for, and strike her heart with an arrow, for one gains great honor in taking revenge.)
(qtd. "End of Poem" 113)
Such an ending, in Agamben's view, fuses sense with sound to render the theme of the poem and its form indivisible. This enchantment of language, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, is also necessary for philosophical discourse, which may otherwise lapse into a message devoid of music. Poetry, in Agamben's view, suffers from the opposite threat: sometimes it can be so carried away with its own "song" that its over-enchanted language becomes excessively strange and lacking in thought. Hence, it must "philosophize" as it sings:
Wittgenstein once wrote that "philosophy should really only be poeticized" [Philosophie durfte man eigentlich nur dichten]. Insofar as it acts as if sound and sense coincided in its discourse, philosophical prose may risk falling into banality; it may risk, in other words, lacking thought. As for poetry, one could say, on the contrary, that it is threatened by an excess of tension and thought. Or rather, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, that poetry should really only be philosophized.
("End of Poem" 115)
Each reader may fill in his or her own version of Agamben's antidote to the crisis of ending a poem by finding the requisite verbal fade. I cannot fail to think of T. S. Eliot's sinking final lines in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917) ("We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with red and brown / Till human voices us wake us, and we drown" [129-31]) as an instance where the poem does not so much end as dissolve with a final rhyme so thorough as to swallow the verses with a silence as deep as the evoked sea. Perhaps this is why an inordinate amount of lyrics tend to end with images of surfeit, resolution, or defeat--for example, Giacomo Leopardi's "naufragrar dolce" ("sweet shipwreck") in "L'infinito" ("The Infinite" ), William Wordsworth's eternal roll of rocks and stones and trees in "A slumber did my spirit seal" (1803), and W. B. Yeats's blurring of the dancer into the dance in "Leda and the Swan" (1908). In the Middle Ages, the crisis of ending a poem inspired a formal overture called the congedo, where the poet in the last stanza would bid his work farewell and ask its audience for forbearance. Poets have long since dispensed with such formalities, but Agamben's words remain instructive: poems do not end the way other literary forms do because their thematic horizons and means of expression are so explicitly indivisible. With poetry, one could say, when the music stops, the party's over.
Whereas Agamben's aforementioned essay considers how we read the end of poems, a related essay of his on Giorgio Caproni examines how we read the "end" of poetry, as in its aim or goal. Agamben answers his rhetorical question --Why does poetry matter to us?--by labeling the two opposing camps that designate a reigning dichotomy in professional criticism today. There are those who confuse poetry with life, he writes, and those who see its functions as entirely isolated from life. Those who confuse poetry with life tend to see it as a cultural, historical, and social phenomenon, implicated in overlapping realms of human relationships and networks. The second group, heirs of Immanuel Kant, views the poetic as the category of a disinterested substratum of ethics--as a purposive but not purposeful entity, necessarily removed from the marketplace and the town hall, and the source of an enduring aesthetic pleasure. This group of criticism is most associated with formalist approaches to reading, including New Criticism and Deconstruction. However different, Agamben writes, for each group the question "Why does poetry matter?" attests to its "absolute importance" ("Expropriated Matter" 93).
The current, often-acrimonious debates in Anglo-American academic criticism about the status of the "literary" often invoke the competing notions of poetry as and outside of life in a manner reminiscent of Agamben's. In a chapter ominously entitled "Aestheticide," Geoffrey H. Hartman asks if literary studies have not in fact "grown old" and weary (211). The contemporary critic, he contends, is likely to use "socioeconomic categories, particularly class, gender, race, and property relations, to inspect works of art as 'products' of a certain form of social life" (224). What has disappeared, he laments, is an "art- centeredness," or attention to form that the prevalent historicist and sociopolitical modes often consign to the peripheries or interrogate as evidence of a suspect bias or power relation. On the other end of the spectrum, Franco Moretti's notion of "distance reading" calls into question the very idea of "close reading" promoted by critics sensitive to literary form. (4) The ascent of translation studies, moreover, has also moved the interest of many literary comparatists away from the original and to its rendering into the thematic and syntactic codes of the target language. (5) One is tempted to invoke a loss of Benjaminian aura here, but cooler heads should prevail. In reality, the formal teasing out of sound and semantic patterns remains a highly active field in today's academy, especially in the so-called New Formalism. (6)
Overall, recent academic criticism has struggled to reestablish the value of both the formalist enterprise and a more systematic attention to the affective claims of the literary text. (7) However varied these "defenses of poetry," (8) each shares a belief that certain texts contain an intrinsic literary quality that no contextual, cultural, historical, or sociopolitical factor can produce, negate, or render morally suspect. A return to formalist premises of this nature appears in the unlikely figure of Edward Said. In a seeming reversal of a career devoted to demystifying the authorial consciousness and exposing its capacity for ideological mauvaise foi (his Orientalism  comes first to mind), Said's last work, the posthumously published Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004), argues that the reader's stance toward the writer should be one of sympathy and intimacy (Humanism 62). The reader's principal task, according to Said, is to reenter the thought processes of the writer and reimagine the same decisions that the author himself made during composition (Humanism 92), which the critic is to access via a Vichian and Auerbachian "return to philology" (Humanism 85-118). One hardly expects statements of this nature from the critic who advocated the militant political analysis of the aesthetic assumptions and patterns of representation by major Western writers, especially in their mystifications of the Middle East. Yet Said's clarion call for philology and authorial intentionality remains one of the more forceful defenses of aesthetic criticism in this past generation. (9)
Agamben's essay "Expropriated Matter" warns us about the dangers of taking an overly partisan, Manichean position in the above critical debates. He claims that both the Romantics/well-intentioned secularists (who mix poetry and life) and the Olympian classicists/aesthetes (who separate the two) fall into a category error when defining poetry: they fail to consider the experience of the poet himself--not in the sense of his intentions, but in the way in which his language "produces life" ("Expropriated Matter" 93). Agamben writes:
The experience of the poet [...] affirms that if poetry and life remain infinitely divergent on the level of the biography and psychology of the individual, they nevertheless become absolutely indistinct at the point of their reciprocal desubjectivization. And--at that point--they are united not immediately but in a medium. The medium is language. The poet is he who, in the word, produces life. Life, which the poet produces in the poem, withdraws from both the lived experience of the psychosomatic individual and the biological unsayability of the species...The unity of poetry and life does not have a metaphorical character...On the contrary, poetry matters because the individual who experiences this unity in the medium of language undergoes an anthropological change that is, in the context of the individual's natural history, every bit as decisive as was, for the primate, the liberation of the hand in the erect position or, for the reptile, the transformation of limbs that changed it into a bird.
("Expropriated Matter" 92-93).
Agamben's definition is useful, I believe, because it states that poetry is both more and less than what many of the reigning definitions in the academy make it out to be. Poetry, according to Agamben, is "more" in that it represents a clearly discernible point of evolution in the human condition, a capacity as eminently human and valorized as, say, the burial of the dead to protect them from the elements or the establishment of laws to provide for justice and order. Agamben's notion of poetry is "less," however, in that it suggests that poetry does not act in and on life; it is a form of life itself, "desubjectiviz[ed]" and beholden to the raw material of language.
Taken as a whole, Agamben's reflections on the "ends" of poetry and their anthropomorphic qualities inspire the reader to consider the connections between the actual conclusions of poems and, more broadly, their implications for human life. In short, there are endings to poems that, however potentially "abject," manage to "poeticize" as they "philosophize." For example, in "Dei sepolcri" ("On Sepulchers" 1807), Ugo Foscolo's monumental poem about the Florentine basilica Santa Croce, the cascading final lines fuse "sense" with "sound" in a linguistic dissolve that recalls Dante's exhortation for poems to end in silence. This aural fade, I will argue, accompanies Foscolo's meditations on the transition from an individual to a cosmic sense of human life, a thematic point that is intimately bound to its formal mode of articulation.
Unbeknownst to many of the visitors who crowd inside it daily, Santa Croce is considered Italy's pantheon, home to the nation's illustrious dead. The church houses the remains of Alfieri, Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Rossini, to name a few, as well as funerary monuments to Dante, Petrarch, and a host of other Italian luminaries. Foscolo's wrote his famous poem on the basilica, "Dei sepolcri," in protest of a Napoleonic law that banned burial within the city proper and required the standardization of tombstones. Napoleon wished to abolish city graveyards for hygienic purposes, especially to curtail the spread of infectious diseases from improperly interred corpses, a rampant medical problem at that time. But, as Foscolo understood it, for Italy to come to life, the Italian polis (city) would have to maintain intimate and sustained contact with the necropolis, the city of the dead. I have written elsewhere about the problems that "Dei sepolcri" presents to readers because of its difficult language, rich mythological imagery, and complicated structure (Luzzi 5-11, 36-41). Its technical obstacles notwithstanding, the poem shows how Foscolo perceived in Florentine culture a timeless therapeutic value that he believed could counter the schisms and ideologies of contemporary politics in the name of the universal and restorative message communicated by the city's art. He discerned in the tombs of Santa Croce, and the Florentine cultural experience more broadly, the opportunity to recuperate a Renaissance humanism that he imagined to be his society's best hope for peace and progress.
The concluding lines of "Dei sepolcri," which recount Cassandra's prophecy of the impending destruction of Troy, contain Foscolo's most explicit example of what a city like Florence could represent for future generations of Italians. Foscolo writes:
[...] Un di vedrete Mendico un cieco errar sotto le vostre Antichissime ombre, e brancolando Penetrar negli avelli, e abbracciar l'urne, E interrogarle. Gemeranno gli antri Secreti, e tutta narrera la tomba Ilio raso due volte e due risorto Splendidamente su le mute vie Per fare piu bello l'ultimo trofeo Ai fatati Pelidi. Il sacro vate, Placando quelle afflitte alme col canto, I Prenci Argivi eternera per quante Abbraccia terre il gran padre Oceano. (279-91)
(One day you shall see a blind beggar groping under your ancient shadows, and, muttering, penetrate the burial vaults, and embrace the urns, and question them. The secret recesses shall groan, and the tombs tell all, Ilium razed twice and twice rerisen magnificently above its silent roads to make finer the final trophy of the fatal sons of Peleus. The holy bard, calming those tormented souls with his song, shall make immortal the Argive princes through all lands embraced by the great father Oceanus.)
When we read of Homer burrowing into the burial vaults of Troy to sing to the future children of this city (that is, the Italian people) about its fallen warriors, we are left with the image of Trojan blood--indeed, the fierce razing of the entire Trojan civilization--being healed, and as it were restored, through a monumental act of aesthetic re-creation. Yes, the Trojans will let in that Greek horse, and from its wooden womb will emanate untold carnage; but one day, in the epic song of first Homer then Virgil (and later, one is led to presume, Foscolo himself), the Trojan myth will be proclaimed, and in it the Italian people will have their glorious foundation myth. This surging conclusion to "Dei sepolcri" neglects the questions of warfare's rightness or wrongness and its causes--its ideology--and focuses instead on the recuperation of loss that can only transpire, so this poem would have us believe, through the secular religion of human art. In Foscolo's view, there was no greater Italian site for this humanist cultural restoration than Florence.
The concluding lines of "Dei sepolcri" reinforce the theme of cultural healing and, in so doing, recall Agamben's words on the fusion of poetic sense and sound:
E tu onore di pianti, Ettore, avrai Ove fia santo e lagrimato il sangue Per la patria versato, e finche il Sole Risplendera su le sciagure umane. (292-95)
(And you, Hector, shall be honored by tears wherever men lament and hold sacred blood poured out for a fatherland, and as long as the sun shall shine on the calamities of man.)
Ludwig Feuerbach once wrote that what distinguishes humans from animals is our ability to think beyond our own individuality and contemplate the life--and, as Robert Pogue Harrison has eloquently shown, also the death--of our species. (10) The final lines of "Dei sepolcri" chart such a progression from the awareness of individual death to a collective sense of human mortality. In so doing, the poem must end where it does, for its conclusion signals an endpoint for fathoming humanity writ large. Agamben's--and before him Valery's--tension between sense and sound appears in the sonic fade of the soft consonantal fricative sc-and the repetition of the equally flowing-u in "sciagure umane." To return to Feuerbach, it is clear by the end of "Dei sepolcri" that Foscolo intends to situate the death of the individual in its most cosmic context --thus, the poem's voice seems to tumble from the heavens above and not from Foscolo's own professed "spirto guerrier" ("warrior's spirit"). (11)
In conclusion, Foscolo's "Dei sepolcri" negotiates the crisis of the poem's ending as theorized in Agamben because it is in the final lines that the thematic and the sonic utterly intertwine. The transition from the death of the individual to a broader awareness of human mortality is charted on an aural axis where sense and sound coalesce in a symphonic finale. In so doing, Foscolo achieves the equivalent of the medieval congedo or farewell that permitted a poet like Dante to mark the end of a poem with an explicit reference to its reception. Like the "kissing" conclusion in Dante's above-mentioned lines, "Canzone, vattene diretto a quella donna" ("Poem, go straight to that woman"), the closing verses of "Dei sepolcri" appear, in Agamben's words, to collapse in silence and let "language finally communicate itself." In the soft purr of those final two words, "sciagure umane," Foscolo's vision of humankind healed from death finds its perfect sonic form, thereby reminding us that the literal end of the poem can also reveal the larger end or aim of poetry as such--through discourse that, to quote Agamben via Wittgenstein, "philosophizes" as it "poeticizes."
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--. "Expropriated Matter." End of Poem 87-101.
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--. "Thoughts on Late Style." London Review of Books (August 5, 2004): 3-7.
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(1) "Le poeme: hesitation prolongee entre le son et le sens" (qtd. "End of Poem" 109).
(2) "Pulcherrime tamen se habent ultimorum carminum desinentiae, si cum rithmo in silentium cadunt" (De vulgari eloquentia 2.13.7-8; qtd. "End of Poem" 113-14).
(3) For the original, see "Cosi nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro," Rime 103, ll. 79-83, in Le opere di Dante.
(4) "If we take this model [of distant reading] seriously [...] literary history will quickly become very different from what it is now: it will become 'second hand': a patchwork of other people's research, without a single direct textual reading. Still ambitious, and actually even more so than before (world literature!); but the ambition is now directly proportional to the distance from the text: the more ambitious the project, the greater must the distance be" (56; Moretti's emphasis).
(5) See Apter on how global artists, video makers, and writers consciously or unconsciously build "translatability" into their art forms.
(6) See Levinson for a comprehensive overview of the so-called New Formalism.
(7) See recent studies by Altieri; Donoghue; and Stewart. For a related philosophical perspective, see Scarry. For an emphasis on literature's didactic function in fostering literary representations of the other, see Nussbaum. Kermode offers a measured evaluation of the alternately disruptive and felicitous effects of literary pleasure (15-31); for responses to his views, see Hartman and Guillory (Pleasure and Change 53-75). For an attempt to define "literary value," see Knapp 88-105.
(8) See Edmundson for analysis of the perennial need for self-defense and self-justification in literary study vis-a-vis philosophical discourse, especially in the decision by Plato to banish the poets from his ideal republic (1). See also Fry's view on the "literary" as a property of texts that "cannot be consumed as documentary evidence by the historian or the semiotician" (11). Altieri critiques the "defense of poetry" as a genre for its defensive posturing of "basing poetry on either its power to disclose certain truths or its power to refuse the imperatives of disclosure." See also the attempts at definition of the literary in Culler 18-42 ("What is Literature and Does It Matter?"), especially his description of how the category of "literariness" has spread outside of literature per se and into other forms of intellectual inquiry and linguistic representation (37). In a different vein, see Simpson's description of a paradoxical situation in which, on the one hand, literature has lost its earlier prestige in academic humanistic study; yet, on the other, "literary" methodologies and theories (for example, narrative, anecdote, autobiography, and rhetorical self-consciousness) permeate fields across the humanities and social sciences.
(9) Said's return to high formalism recalls a similar obsession in the autumnal years of one of his maitres a penser, Theodor Adorno; see Said's remarks on Adorno and "late style" in London Review.
(10) See Feuerbach 1-2; and the discussion in Harrison 127, 136.
(11) See Foscolo's poem "A Zacinto" (1796).