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Poetry’s violent dream

By Alan Gilbert

Blogging for Harriet this summer has felt a little bit like a slow striptease—never knowing how many personal details to reveal, or which parts to keep covered up. It’s my sense that readers enjoy a little bit of personal information (I definitely do), but too much—for me, at least—and I begin to think, Who cares? . . . or worse, if the information seems particularly self-indulgent. But it’s also a question of style. I could read Kevin Killian discussing just about anything, and those who’ve spent time with any of his nearly 2,000 [!] reviews for Amazon.com might agree. Don’t believe me?

So for those who care to know, if I were stranded on that hypothetical desert island and could subscribe to only one magazine or journal (how it would get to me is equally hypothetical), it would be the London Review of Books. More lefty and literary than the New York Review of Books, more lefty but not as literary as the Times Literary Supplement, the LRB is a consistently engaging read, even when it publishes examinations of mid-19th-century British working-class brass bands. Its articles frequently situate the title(s) under review within a larger scholarly, political, and historical framework. Sometimes the book itself is only discussed for a small portion of the review. I don’t have a problem with that. However, the LRB doesn’t always demand this kind of contextualizing—i.e., materialist historical-political approach—from its reviewers of fiction and especially poetry.
Bucking this trend, the current issue of the LRB (Vol. 30, No. 16; 14 August 2008) contains two essays on poetry that locate their discussions within major historical events. The first is a short piece by Slavoj Žižek, in which he discusses the post-Yugoslavia “military-poetic complex,” pointing out that the recently arrested Radovan Karadzic was also a poet, specifically of a “pseudo-Bataillean” sort. Žižek writes: “War has been defined as ‘a continuation of politics by other means,’ but the fact that Karadzic is a poet enables us to see that ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was the continuation of (a kind of) poetry by other means. True, Milosevic ‘manipulated’ nationalist passions—but it was the poets who gave him the means to do this. They—the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians—were at the origin of it all, when, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism, not only in Serbia, but also in the other ex-Yugoslav republics. Instead of the military-industrial complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the military-poetic complex personified in the twin figures of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.”
The perverse thing about all of this is that in his current (free) associational, anything-goes discursive style, Žižek has become more of a poet than a theorist, moreover one enamored with the (violent) act of revolutionary politics. I’m all for strategically throwing logic out the window. In fact, I consider a major task of poetry to be the upsetting of dominant ideological formations disguised as common sense. But the beauty of deconstruction (and of Žižek—which isn’t to conflate the two) is when it/he makes rhetorical modes self-conscious. The problem arises when this form of analysis—or any form of analysis, for that matter—becomes yet another brand of rhetoric.
The other poetry article in the current LRB is similarly interested in the relationship between poetry and violence, particularly as found in W.B. Yeats’s poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” (reproduced in the issue and here). In an earlier blog entry, I imagined the connections between poetry and dreams. In his piece on Yeats for the LRB, Michael Wood writes: “Both poems and dreams, lyric poems and mere dreams, can weigh in the record—if we are lucky they are the record, they remember and reflect on what can’t be thought otherwise.” The main focus of Wood’s reading of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is to “make a start on the question of what a poem, as distinct from any other sort of proposition or utterance, may have to tell us, or show us, about violence.” He finds two examples of violence in the poem: one against a specific person, and a more general one embedded within the times Yeats wrote it.
It’s the movement from the first to the second that preoccupies Wood: from the murder of “a young woman shot from a lorry by the Black and Tans in Galway” to “a new, groundless, unfocused form of violence.” During the course of his reading, Wood seamlessly draws on a wide array of writers, theorists, and secondary literature on the poem. He also offers a succinct exegesis of Walter Benjamin’s much-discussed “Critique of Violence.” I tend to be of the camp that thinks Benjamin went a little too far in this essay in possibly condoning divine violence. It might be that Wood does so as well in making a loose connection between the insights provided by dreaming and poetry with the ones violence offers, along with suggesting the potential necessity—à la Benjamin—of violence for redemption, or even for historical understanding.
[Cue striptease music.] I’ve always been fascinated by the threat of violence yet horrified by violence itself. Maybe that’s a good description of poetry.

Comments (2)

  • On August 28, 2008 at 5:09 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I was just thinking yesterday that if Harriet ever hired me, I’d want my inaugural post to be on that Karadzic poem. Drat you, Gilbert! (Not that I imagine an invitation is forthcoming!)
    I’ve lately been reading Zizek on the need for revolutionary terror. I’m sure it’s dilettantish of me.

  • On August 29, 2008 at 9:40 am Joshua Marie Wilkinson wrote:

    I enjoyed the post, Alan.
    If folks are curious, Zizek’s new book Violence (Picador 2008) draws on readings of Adorno’s famous post-Auschwitz claim about poetry and turns swiftly to a story of Akhmatova, with
    readings (well, snippets) of Stevens, Brecht, and Yeats among others.
    In Defense of Lost Causes, Zizek’s other new one (Verso–also 2008) draws on readings of (or at least mentions of) Walpole, Melville, Yeats, Pound, Kafka, Thoreau, Kipling, Stoppard, William & Henry James, Rushdie, Beckett, Saramago, Heine, and Borges, among hundreds of others.
    I’m still plowing through that one.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, August 28th, 2008 by Alan Gilbert.