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This working against the grain.

IN CALIFORNIA AROUND 1970, IN MY EARLY twenties, at the shore of that "peaceful ocean" that was both a body of water and an idea, I wondered what to do. I was trying to imagine that I could write a poem. So I went naming things and sensations, and extending sentences out to greater length on the wave-beaten New-World west coast, where syntax too seemed a wave to be caught, ridden, an articulate energy. I was reading Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, William Everson. There was war, unarmed resistance but also even some that was armed, teargas; there were arguments over books and wars and wines; in Berkeley there were stands on streets against cops and on hillsides fragrant stands of laurel; there were eucalyptus trees along the roads, sloping apricot orchards, avocets on the wide beach striding, beaking through each wave's last thin rushing, and herons in treetop nests, terns diving with tucked wings and spearpoint plunge; there was endless blossoming in yards, woods, fields, gardens, bedrooms, and misery across the tracks, and trash-fire smoke burning in some streets and incense in others. A notebook came in handy.

Almost any moment in a life of writing--whether early or late--can seem a crucial reckoning, an opportunity or an obligation to challenge one's feelings, to rethink, to choose to continue as before or to change, to commit oneself definitively to what one is writing and how one is writing it, or to throw it aside (or try--this isn't so easy to do). I question my ear; I wonder in what book of poems, in what novel, I will find the key to what and how I might write. In middle age now, and despite my sense that I seem to be who I am, and despite what I know of myself, and the many traces of myself that I have left in my own writings, I cannot fully remember who I was, and must wonder still who I may have been, and who I may yet be--feeling a little disappointed in myself if I must continue to be who I think I am, just as I am, till the end.

I don't mean I wish to improve myself. And I don't mean that a moment of self-reckoning as a writer brings with it a question of salvation--secular, artistic, or religious--as it did so famously for Dante, who made it the occasion not only of astonishing artistic will and mastery but also of spiritual resolve and change. Yet I may still find myself reckoning with my sense of the truth of human wrongs and rights. Artistically, the decisions we make may seem to be about the craft of writing--whether to solve an artistic problem this way or that; existentially, the solution on the page has to break into realms far more important than those in which this rhythm or that, this narrator or that, may be the problem at hand. Was Keats's poetic line simply a technical achievement? After his earliest poems, including some Keatsian lines, was William Carlos Williams's new poetic line only a technical innovation?

I have always been artistically restless. I don't like the idea or the feeling of having to stay in the place where I find myself, even though I know that in fact I can't even entirely understand where I am, simply because there is as much of myself that I cannot know (although my not knowing it is for different reasons) as there is of the life around me. And yet, despite not wishing to stand still. I am also apprehensive about leaving this place that I don't even fully know. Its familiarity is reassuring (even when it is disappointing).

And I have been thinking for a long time about how it is we call new artistic impulse to begin, where it comes from, whether we call or are called, how much we plan or do not plan, how much will must be summoned in order to carry intuition to fruition.

I have repeatedly looked for ways to free both my intuition and my will, since I don't believe that making art, for me anyway, is likely to be possible without my always seeking more freedom of both. As so many writers and artists have said in different ways--since the beginning of the Romantic era to our day--we want to overcome old habits of perception, thinking and feeling, and to deepen the hard-won habit of overcoming them. Self-reinvention. Techniques to "defamiliarize" (that is, to make apparent in their real strangeness what is, what one perceives, what one says, even who one is--see Rimbaud).

We do all this within the "mental environment" (as Adbusters magazine calls it), from which there is scarcely any escape. Both the physical and the mental environments, we know, no matter how much we would like to believe otherwise, contain garbage of one kind or another. There is trash at the top of the highest peaks on the planet, no surprise, and there are some frozen bodies, too, and in our formation and daily lives there is trash and there are bodies. Junk food, junk politics, junk yards, conceptual and emotional junk in our mental veins, and mental viruses--or junk "memes" (the word that evolutionist Richard Dawkins uses for the phrases, ditties, images, ideas that flourish in our minds as if we existed only to serve as carriers for them). I don't want to wear the label of any manufacturer of ideas and feelings; yet I can't go naked nor can I myself make all my own clothes of any kind.

"Defamiliarize" some of all that, both outside us and within us, so that the trash can be seen for what it is, and the reality comes into view in more of its true beauty and horror, whether necessary or avoidable. Maybe the goal is simply to find a way to articulate all that. Maybe the goal is not to be oneself, but to try yet again to become oneself. And all the while with the language and form that are truly adequate. To understand the world by responding to it humanly and artistically. This is more than a problem of writing; yet writing is the path I know how to find, if I want to try to go down it. "You've got to go there to know there." And where is "there"?--out there, on the street comers and in the offices and schools and historical cataclysms, and inward, deeply, and into the origins of verbs and nouns, elegies and odes.

I have never forgotten reading an end note to the Collected Poems of Donald Davie (1922-1995), with whom I studied how to read and how to write from 1969 to 1974 at Stanford. I mean that I have remembered his note not word for word but as the gesture of a poet who worked very hard to open up his own work to himself, or to try to know himself in order to open his work to new possibilities.

In California, Davie seemed an anomaly. He was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, and now lived in a town that could not have been more different. Palo Alto. He was an English rather than an American--much less West Coast--poet. He had come from the religious minority in England collectively called dissenters, meaning those who from the seventeenth century on had created their own religious communities outside of the Church of England, the established religion of the state. In modern times these are the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists and others. In America, we could hardly call those who hold such convictions dissenters in the same sense. Far from dissenting from an established church, our fundamentalist Methodists (among whom I was raised), Baptists, and other Protestant denominations and sects have made the Enlightenment stance of the founding Americans seem like a minority, and certainly a reprehensible, position. The brilliant Davie, out of his love of the "Augustan" poets of the English eighteenth century and his particular English formation, which included not only his provincial and dissenting origins but also Cambridge University and naval service during World War II, wrote sometimes difficult verse, filled with ideas and argument, and composed with the full powers of traditional formal mastery, while I and my 60s generation, especially in California at that time, were radicalizing (we thought) the Enlightenment conception of American freedoms at the same time we were seeing what it felt like to throw off formal traditional mastery (before we had learned much of it), because the latter seemed an artistic burden.

Yet again--to give this story of a poet another turn--during these years Davie was a champion (both in England and in the United States) of poets regarded as experimental or out of the mainstream, including first of all Ezra Pound, but also Basil Bunting, and then among his contemporaries, Charles Olson, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Ed Dorn, and others. Let me turn the portrait once more: Davie was an extraordinary critic (whose book on poetic syntax, Articulate Energy, still seems the best such work). But naturally, what he wanted first of all was to be acknowledged as a poet. In those years of his life, he was a model of a remarkable inconsistency that somehow made sense. He would tell one student to read Thomas Hardy and the next to read William Carlos Williams and the next to read Charles Olson; he would tell one to read Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains (1961) and Moly (1971) and the next to read Roy Fisher's City (1962) and another to read Charles Tomlinson's American Scenes (1966). (These were new books then.) And in every instance the student would leave his office thinking that it was the poet whom Davie had mentioned who was the one close to Davie's heart. What was the grain of this writer, so to speak, when he seemed able to go against it in one way or another so freely and productively?

It wasn't easy for him. Here, from his Collected Poems of 1972 (published when he was 50), is the end note I have remembered (to his poem "With the Grain"). It contains in briefest form many ideas about poetry:</p> <pre> It is true that I am not a poet by nature, only by inclination;

for my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it

relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have

little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet's need of concreteness. I have

resisted this admission for so long, chiefly because a natural poet was above all what I wanted to be, but partly because I mistook my English empiricism for the poet's concreteness, and so thought my mind was unphilosophical whereas it is philosophical but in a peculiarly English way. Most of the poems I have written are not natural poems, in one sense not truly poems, simply because the thought in them could have been expressed--at whatever cost in terseness and point--in a non- poetic way. This does not mean however that they are worthless, or that they are shams; for as much can be said of much of the poetry of the past that by common consent is worth reading and remembering. Nevertheless I have taken a decision to write no more poems of this kind, only poems which are, if not naturally, at all events truly poems throughout.

For a true poem can be written by a mind not naturally poetic--

though by the inhuman labor of thwarting at every point the natural

grain and bent. This working against the grain does not damage the mind, nor is it foolish; on the contrary, only by doing this does each true poem as it is written become an authentic widening of experience--a truth won from life against all odds, because a truth in and about a mode of experience to which the mind is normally closed. [...] (301-02) </pre> <p>An extraordinary statement--an admission, perhaps a confession, in a book of poems, that the poet is "not a poet by nature," and also the self-defense that his poems are neither worthless nor shams. It is as though Davie had voluntarily offered to stand in the dock of some court of the poetry of his day (and not only of his day), self-accused. Davie's note makes me wonder what such confession and self-defense any of us might offer, if we had the courage to act on an impulse of such fierce honesty. What might any of us say about where and how our minds move most easily? For Davie's abstractions and experiences, what might we substitute to represent our own dilemmas? Anecdotes, illusions, desires, individualistic self-images?

When I consider where I came from, I think I understand my own persistent impulse to find another way, again and again, to write a poem--because I sensed long ago that whatever useful grain my temperament and experience might have given me, I nevertheless felt compelled, out of dissatisfaction or restlessness or both, to open myself to what my early formation, psychological and cultural, had closed me up against. Naturally, and sometimes against my nature, I'm still working at all this, and I still find Davie's note very affecting. Working at it--in order to understand my formation, and escape at least some of it; and to learn how to keep escaping from our continuing formation at its most debased public worst--is not impossible but is exhaustingly difficult. Working at it--in order to form a more perfect union, however unpretty, of artistic goal and ability, of writing and the truth of lived experience.

My telling about Davie provides me with a point of extreme contrast to the French writer Helene Cixous (b. 1937). Yet contrast does not necessarily mean contradiction. When I try to grasp at least a little of Cixous's thought about writing, it seems to me that the two contrasting stances coincide in urging me to work or allow myself to work or allow myself to be worked (that is the shaded progress from Davie to Cixous) toward an opening of possibilities that do not at first seem to me to be "mine."

Helene Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria and grew up speaking German and French. She went to France to study, working on Shakespeare and James Joyce, moved to Paris in 1965, and published her first book in 1967. As a thinker and as one of the founders of the Universite Paris VIII in 1968, director of the women's studies program there, and mentor to many younger scholars and writers, she has had a profound influence on contemporary French thought--especially on feminism, because of the originality and power of her analyses of gender difference, patriarchal aspects of culture and art, and creativity. Perhaps foremost for her, though, are her many novels and the plays she has written for and with the Theatre du Soleil.

Very little of Cixous's fiction has been translated as yet into English (such as The Third Body and the forthcoming The Day I Was Not There). Nothing could be further from what almost all American fiction writers have produced than is The Third Body. It's a deeply interior non-narrative work that is partly about reading. Carole Maso seems to share Cixous's impulse, but Maso uses images, bodily sensations, names of things, to produce the movement in her meditative zigzagging fiction, whereas The Third Body follows thought more than image, and never presents anything like Maso's sensuous and sensual immediacy. In fact, it's that I could never and would never write anything like Cixous's fiction that makes it so valuable to me--no less so than Davie's poetry, of which the same is true for me.

When French is compared to related but remote Indo-European languages like ancient Greek or modern Bengali, then it does not seem very different from English. Yet the literary history of French, especially as regards poetry, is so different that much of what Davie takes for granted about poetry in English is not true of French poetry, as far as I can tell. For example, Davie wrote, "I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy"; in this admission we hear Davie's extraordinarily insightful appreciation of the work of Ezra Pound, whom he likened to a sculptor in language, and whom he saw as exemplifying the possibilities of the English language for linguistic richness of concrete description. But we might conclude from reading French poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that while some of it is beautifully musical in its manipulation of sound and rhetoric, most of it does not exemplify "sensuous fullness and immediacy" in the English-language sense--that is, based on diction that is very specific, often musically thick with consonants, and tending toward delight in the particular thing (often using words of Anglo-Saxon origin) rather than in the generalized symbol. (Davie's love of Samuel Johnson and the lofty generalities of Augustan poetry fit his own poetic impulse, which is not exactly French but does cut against or across the grain of the post-Romantic concreteness of much poetic language.) English is rich in hyponyms, and much English poetry in several different historical periods makes rich use of them. To us, Davie's "sensuous fullness and immediacy" of language would mean the diction in poems by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and many others who, whatever their substantial differences, in one way or another fill their poems with the particular. By contrast, modern French poetry often presents a dreamlike symbolism of ideals, positive or negative. Even French surrealism does this, however artificial its images.

But Helene Cixous takes a different angle to language from the more expected French art of mellifluous symbolism. Emphasizing the great leeway in French for wordplay, which English fully shares, although in a different register, Cixous urges us not to seek wordplay but to invite it. She often states that the language urges itself toward this kind of play all the time. I don't mean fashions of play, such as we see in French surrealism or our own speedy contemporary poems of flashing changes line by line, mostly for the sake, it seems, of the playful changes themselves. The kind of play Cixous is after has to do with seizing opportunities to get past surfaces or appearances or rote customs of language habits, not in order to create a kind of performance of "poeticity" but in order to uncover something beneath, beyond or within that is more real, or even more true. (Yes, even as a theorist of the postmodern era she can believe there is a truth of feeling and of lived experience.) The playfulness Cixous describes is not a goal in itself nor a manner but a kind of dialogue between, as Yeats put it, "Self and Soul": a conundrum of self-colloquy that Emily Dickinson, too, tested by means of metaphor. One of the difficulties of such dialogue is that self and soul are not entirely private, utterly individualized aspects of the person, but are formed by our "mental environment," also.

Why should language itself play? The reasons are not limited to psychoanalytical explanations for our saying (or hearing) the "wrong" thing (Freud's "parapraxis"--as it is sort of translated into medicalized English from his far clearer German words Versprechen or Fehlleistung, meaning something said or done mistakenly). The reasons include a ceaseless restless impulse in language itself to shift, change, morph, as we are using it--which also means when we are used by it. Cixous says that language, too, has an unconscious. The unconscious of language cannot be unique to any person, as the individual unconscious may be in its idiosyncratic combinations of the genetic, the experiential, the familial, the social and the historical. That is, language as if working on its own can sometimes reveal to us not only the personal, individual thoughts and feelings in each of us but also the shared ideas underneath the ideas we are conscious of. (A casual conversation with a seat-mate on an airplane is enough to reveal to both parties how what we think of as our utter individuality is in fact powerfully inflected by our social formation. When we leave our own country or even region, we experience the peculiar sensation of seeing more clearly in our countrymen and in ourselves the memes of our Americanness.) Cixous also sees an impulse in all language that insists on remembering, as she puts it, what we language users forget: this linguistic remembering begins with etymologies but perhaps doesn't end there. (Etymon, meaning an earlier form of a word, comes from ancient Greek etymos, "the true sense of a word.")

By the play of language I don't mean a goal of producing witting or unwitting contemporary versions of Apollinaire. When he created poems rushing pell-mell by free association and accidental juxtapositions of perceptions, it was with the effect of adding ideas and expression to our human repertoire. How much of our own poetry, pell-mell or at slower speeds, might be for the sake of simply producing an utterance that can be called "poetry"? A discovery becomes a method, a method becomes a manner becomes a fashion and the discovery is now useless.

The reasons for us to allow ourselves to be played, so to speak, by language, also include something like Davie's coming to understand, around 1972, that it was by finding a way into the unfamiliar, into that which went against his own grain, that he was able to think and to feel his way into a new "mode of experience to which the mind is normally closed." Although Davie characterizes this change as his individual and idiosyncratic experience, Cixous suggests that it is an experience we all share, but which most of us resist acknowledging. I wonder how else a writer is to find a way to new work, and how else we as readers are going to be able to hear what we are reading, if we do not listen to what we are not entirely aware that we know. Achieving that awareness can be difficult and tiring; our thinking, feeling and language use have great gyroscopic momentum that keeps them stubbornly on their accustomed course no matter what obstacles we encounter--of class and gender difference, political fraud, historical folly, and individual lived experience that we are capable of registering, acknowledging, but which often we don't. We follow the routes or ruts of what we sense is acceptable: to ourselves and to others (ranging from our families and friends, with whom our ties are often so complex, to those who are trying to get us to do something or agree to something, or whom we want to please or aggravate, to all those persons remote from us physically who are always attempting to control social attitudes by filling our heads with their language, attitudes, justifications and pretexts, or who want to save our souls, or just sell us something). At other times we do consciously determine to go the wrong way on those accustomed paths, precisely in order to defy what is acceptable. The problem is that both of these choices can be the same choice. "The path up and down is one and the same," said Heraclitus. The path of openness and serious play is not up or down, in this sense, but to the side, and even to both sides.

And meanwhile we must do almost all of this in words. A phrase set into the public sphere by a politician or a broadcaster can rush through our whole culture bringing millions of persons into line for a while with the assumptions it represents; this can be innocent, however irritating, but also less than innocent, even when not consciously manipulative--like the recent, rapid spreading in the United States of the lifeless metaphor-meme, "at the end of the day," which has the effect of suggesting there is no more to be done. Or such linguistic infectiousness can indeed be the result of manipulative calculation and domineering attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, like the equally lifeless metaphor, "support our troops." I call it a metaphor because "support" comes from a Latin root meaning "to carry," and while the phrase is used to suggest giving soldiers sympathy and supplies to carry within or on their bodies (Tim O'Brien's broad category of "things they carried"), in fact this meme enforces an uncomplaining carrying in our own heads of our own acquiescence to the decisions that send soldiers to war.

After all, a figure of speech can be effective either at energizing thought or at closing it down. A poem can use a figure of speech or be used by it. A poet can be used by a figure of speech in a way that leads to thought, or in a way that leads to not thinking. While I have not encountered a passage in Cixous in which she discusses the negative possibilities of linguistic play, they preoccupy me often, because I am after the positive possibilities in my own language-use.

My purpose in mentioning Cixous's work and stance is not to advocate a theory but to describe aspects of a process. What is her own writing like? Her prose is hard to categorize: her essays are often autobiographical and her fiction includes accounts of reading and trains of thought. Her prose devices are already familiar to us from poetry. She sometimes compresses separate grammatical utterances into single, often unpunctuated ones, or on the contrary breaks utterances into fragments. She structures her writings by association rather than by argument or narrative plot. She creates, or offers to language itself the opportunities to create, plays on words--paronomasia--for the sake of the lines of thought and feeling that such play opens. (We who live inside the English language tend to regard puns as a heavy sort of linguistic humor producing groans as well as smiles, but Cixous is attending to something larger, more serious, more consequential--not sports headlines in American newspapers but the proliferation of meanings that we associate with the richest use of language.) Cixous favors tropes of doubleness, and thus of oscillation and substitution. To cite only a few of the tropes that she herself explicitly names--antonomasia (using a proper name for an attribute, or an attribute for a proper name: "the author says ..." instead of "Cixous says ..."); amphibology (ambiguity; but the etymologies are different--that which is ambiguous goes around something rather than straight at it; that which is amphibologous has been thrown on both sides of something); and hypallage (shifting the application of a word--"the grateful shade" on a hot summer's day, "a wicked wound"). Cixous deconstructs two-term oppositions in order to reveal more complicated structures of paradox or contradiction. Of her poetics, she writes:</p> <pre>

It is in the poem, hybrid of music and language, that something of mysterious and unstoppable life can be produced, with subverted

grammar, with liberties in the bosom of language, in the law of

genders, in dance, the dans (in), the dancing of the poem, minimal

world in movement, the poem speaking French, the tongue, very

differently from prose, the poem playing with language more than it speaks, changed expression of drives--but here I am evoking only the poem that invents the other tongue within the tongue, the dream- tongue [...]. ("The Author in Truth," 148) </pre> <p>(And even Davie, to whom this way of thinking would have been very foreign, might have added that the poem speaking English can do these things, too, albeit by different linguistic rules and literary histories.) Although Cixous says she means "only the poem that invents the other tongue within the tongue," her poetics do not require a specific poetic practice. As Cixous herself might well point out, one could imagine subscribing to her poetics while writing poems utterly different from Cixous's "poetic" prose.

Even in aesthetically patterned work which earlier in Cixous's career she might have considered repressively controlled, such as Dickinson's poems, say, I would expect that Cixous would find the feminine "excesses" and escapes from patriarchal control that she has delighted in discovering in other writers (including of course men), especially Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Augustine, Jean Genet, Thomas Bernhard, Stendhal, Rousseau, Joyce, Shakespeare and others. In such writers, Cixous praises the play of language, the presentation of gender difference, the fullness and subtlety of feeling and thought, the attempts to grasp paradox.

The art of writing, as I see it, is in part a circulation of the psyche--in our sense of the word, meaning either soul or mind or both at once--and of the sense of language; it is a movement of our being-in-language--from observation and thought to our objects, in a psychoanalytical sense, and a returning again ceaselessly but not (thank gods or cultural and mental evolution) always identically. Perhaps the process is yet another version of the constant change of the same river. ("On those who step into the same rivers, always different waters flow," said Heraclitus.) In attending to this circulation (in both senses) as writers and as readers, we begin, at least, to learn a way of judging, however tentative, however imperfect, however ineffectual--a way of judging what we are to believe is true to our own experience and the experience of others, and what is true for the imagination. Attentiveness in the writer--who is also a reader--brings the insight that what one thinks or feels unexpectedly is what one had already been expecting, or perhaps fearing. (A faith in spontaneity in writing can easily mistake words hurriedly written down as the beginning of new work, when in reality it may be an ending, the irruption of a potent image or phrase, charged with feeling, after a whole train of thought has already been in motion for a time. In Cracking Up, Christopher Bollas, discussing the activity of the unconscious during our waking hours, illustrates this process vividly.) Following the unexpected, following what is brought to consciousness, in the writer, by the play of psyche, language and formal literary constraints, begins the productive circulation.

To persons and places, events and memories important to us, we are responding both consciously and unconsciously, and with love or hate, with happiness or fear; for the writer, there are also other writings as objects, and perhaps even more important, there is language itself as object. And the emotional investment in language as an object may be what most differentiates a writer from one who does not write, even if it is far less significant in the writer's overall accomplishment than the writer's ability to address the world and readers. We all know that writers enter (and have always entered) into conversation with other writers or at least other writings; even Ovid, in his Tristia, his pleading life-and-death letter-poems to powerful men in Rome, in which he begs for help in gaining release from Caesar's order of exile, is still writing with an eye on poetic form and the poetry of his contemporaries. But "intertextuality" is almost always interpreted, at least in American academic literary studies, as a matter of responding to ideas, political stances, and fame itself (in Harold Bloom's anxious version). What of an intertextuality that also encompasses the full range of emotional, linguistic, narrative, stylistic, metaphysical, formal, or dialectical responses, and is in large part unconscious not in the sense that it is unwitting but in the sense that it pursues the "logic" of association, imagination, dreaming? What of the intertextuality arising also from the interplay of psyches for the sake of permissions rather than only for the sake of yielding to (or struggling against) prohibitions?

What about a writer's responsiveness to a work of writing--or visual art or music--that produces for that writer a more profound sense of who he or she is? Cixous herself quotes a startling articulation of this movement or opening or revelation of the psyche when in her essay on Clarice Lispector. "The Author in Truth," she comments on Lispector's "Dedication by the Author" in her 1979 book A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star). This novel presents its "Dedication" as ostensibly the words of a (fictional) author created by Lispector. The fictional author dedicates his book to a number of composers, from Bach to the most recent--"to all those who have reached unexpected zones in me in a terrifying way, all our prophets of the present time who have predicted me to myself to such a degree that in this very instant I explode into: I" ("The Author in Truth," 145).

Our formation shapes us in a way that can nearly obliterate the human capacity of which Lispector's fictional author speaks. Rather than learning to see that in which we are predicted to or into ourselves, with a sense of discovery, we learn to look for and to prize in ourselves that which predicts us to be what our strange, blindly energetic culture (commercial and political and politico-commercial, rife with exemplars and fantasies of wealth, contentment, melodrama and celebrity) tells us to be. While political power still decides much of our fate and the fate of most of us, the media saturate our mental environment sufficiently to enforce this fate psychologically without the necessity of our governing structures doing so. (The media enforce it on some of us all the time, on all of us some of the time, and fortunately not on all of us all of the time; and also fortunately human beings remain refractory when given half a chance to be so. But I mean: really be so--not as in the laughable idealization of some cultural studies scholars who have seen the television viewer's couch as a "site of resistance" because the viewer can choose one channel over another. That's not going to be nearly enough resistance against anything except a few personal, individual, isolated preferences.)

Perhaps I have succeeded only in coming to commonplaces--the sort that are taboo in the media which exemplify them. Alert creators of deceptive legal and communicative technicalities and plausible deniability in all too many corporations, their cousins the enthusiastic flunkies in the offices of the honking love of power, domineering fathers and mothers in far too many houses, pious politicos and power-chasing pulpit-men, adagency "creatives," all devise with diverse suppression and common purpose the interdictions and seductions that are intended to rule us. In fact, I think our culture has now outflanked Cixous's 1993 formulation of such interdictions in "We Who Are Free":</p> <pre> On pain of exclusion, you shall not, in texts, approach unexplored zones. You shall not broach the solidity of the ego. You shall not deconstruct. You shall feign stability. It is a sin to dive into the wells of the unconscious by means of dreams. You shall not divulge the secret of the dream. You shall not name the root and the origin. In Clarice Lispector's words: "Living life instead of living one's own life is prohibited." (213) </pre> <p>Now we seem happy enough to be deconstructed into multiple participants in different market niches. But Cixous's purpose is still clear: to urge us to distinguish between that which is merely individual and that which is the basis of a common humane response to each other. Not surprisingly, this writer sees that a sense of a shared reality can arise from an admittedly exalted prizing of both reality and imagination. (And to dream at night is not a solution to our need to find our own way for real--as persons, as artists, as readers, as citizens. It is only a starting place. To dream by day is far more powerful. "In dreams begin responsibilities," Yeats famously wrote. Nightmare Begins Responsibility, replied the poet Michael S. Harper in this title to his 1975 book of poems, transforming "nightmare" into the agent of what begins.)

In seeking to become aware of my objects--among which is "Cixous's writings"--I am only trying to do what Cixous has herself demonstrated time after time, in recurring as she does to the work of other writers not as a "critic" or scholar but as a supremely articulate reader. I think this intense reading is not necessarily a testing of one's language for thought and for feeling against another's, but rather a process by which, with sufficient strength of imagination, one can evoke in oneself one's own language.

Out of one's own responses to the writings of others, and out of the resistance of those writings to one's own dispositions to perceive only what one is already capable of perceiving in them (rather than perceiving something un-mistaken), one might slightly change one's stance. One might work across or against one's own grain.

The dead authors of books do speak, not only in the first place, but also in the second place, when they answer our questions. In the dialogue called Phaedrus, Plato voiced through Socrates a famous objection to writing, namely that one cannot interrogate the author of a written work, and must hear only silence in response to every question one might put. But reading is much more complicated than that. And our questions do not always assume an interrogative form, but may be images, inarticulate longings or fears that we know only imperfectly or that we even hide from ourselves and from others, our emotional attachments both loving and hating, and even simply but not simply the very rhythms of our words. (Related to but not the same as rhythms of feeling and thought.) And in our conversation with a work of writing we learn how to discover and use our own imaginations, because many of these other sorts of questions are answered by a text, if we read it closely enough, and if we allow ourselves to be read by it. Plato was thinking of contesting flaws in written arguments; I mean addressing the contours of the dreaming and valuing that we learn and do when we read.

In our American context, imagination in the sense that I want to invoke is not about inventiveness or "creativity," which after all can be put at the service of what is destructive and cold, but about fullness of response. Some of us are thinking about, and teaching, matters of poetic craft, no less than we also try in other moments to teach the shaping of argument and the analysis of texts. But the craft of argument and perhaps the craft of poetry too are all too suitable for purposes of justification as well as critique, to solicit acquiescence rather than to urge discovery, to bring oneself into line with the grain one has rather than to cut across or against it. What should be taught, if we knew how, is imagination. Kafka was reported to have said (perhaps out of admiration, yet with pity, too) of the suicidal poet George Trakl that he "had too much imagination, so he could not endure the war [the one that we in retrospect call World War I], which arose above all from a monstrous lack of imagination." Imagination teaches humane understanding. Kafka said that the Germans of his era did not wish to comprehend, understand, read; they only wished to possess and rule; he pointed out that understanding is usually a hindrance to possessing and ruling (Janouch, 99, 114). Cixous no less than Davie, and Davie no less than Cixous, in their very different ways, seem to me to argue for seeking truthfully those truths which we are not usually inclined to seek. And verifying them with an independence of imagination. Independence even from oneself, somehow.

Kafka's pronouncement on Trakl haunts our own moment, but the sense of it has been changed by time. Where are we to find anyone with too much imagination, now, when "creativity" itself has been so often conquered and enslaved by commercialism, public relations, and propaganda? The most strenuous dadaist and surrealist attempts to create images that could and would irreducibly resist the unimaginative received opinion and narrow habits of thought and feeling of their contemporaries have for a long time in America been carried beyond the surrealists' dreams (so to speak) for the purpose of selling cars, beer, laxatives, wars, tax laws, fantasies of violence and sex, fantasies of governance and morality. The most courageous Enlightenment attempts to reason in a way that could and would counter the irrationality and determination of religious orthodoxies are often co-opted in order to impose prohibitions on science, freedom of thought, civil liberties, and imagination. The task of the writer with genuine allegiance to thought and to the truth of lived experience, to feeling and to the liberating play of language and form, in such a context, is enormously difficult.

Out of temperament, my early formation, my unconscious, and my language, I see and do not see in specific ways. I look for what I do not yet know I am looking for because I have never seen it even when it was before my own eyes. And for the writer, literary objects are just as decisive as those essential things we can touch and see and smell or hear, those things by which we learn to perceive--like a dirt path and an aunt's tobacco shop called The Two Worlds, in Oran, Algeria, or a street in Barnsley, Yorkshire, like a particular sea-green shirt of pale plaid, an episode of triumph or humiliation that could not be fully disclosed perhaps even to oneself, a song to which one danced at the age of thirteen or thirty-four or seventy, arms around an unreachable body, around an emotionally unattainable other. As readers and writers, we reach toward what can only be apprehended in the poem, not in some other mode of communication. The poem might ask us to thwart our natural grain of responsiveness, of language. It asks us to allow ourselves to recognize the images that evoke both our freedom and our responsibilities, personal and social, our risks of loving and hating. To cut across ourselves to the practice of a humane imagination.

[This is the first of two parts.]


Brief biographies of Cixous can be found conveniently on the web. See, for instance,


Some works of Helene Cixous about writing, and other works cited:

Helene Cixous, "The Author in Truth," in "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays, edited by Deborah Jenson, translated by Sarah Cornell, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

______, The Third Body (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999).

______, Three steps on the Ladder of Writing, translated by Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

______, "We Who Are Free, Are We Free?" (as excerpted in Critical Inquiry in Vol. 19, No. 2, 1993).

______, "Writing Blind," in Stigmata: Escaping Texts (New York: Routledge, 1998).

______ and Mireille Calle-Gruber, Photos de Racine (Paris: Des Femmes, 1994); published in English as Rootprints, translated by Eric Prenowitz (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Donald Davie, Collected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).

Christopher Bollas, Cracking Up: The Work of Unconscious Experience (Hill & Wang, 1995).

Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka (New Directions, 1971).

REGINALD GIBBONS has published seven books of poems, and most recently the chapbook Fern-Texts: Autobiographical Essay on the Notebooks of Young S. T. Coleridge. He is a professor of English and Classics at Northwestern University, and also teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
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Title Annotation:poems
Author:Gibbons, Reginald
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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