Having so far posted three (very) short essays in this space, I have come to a juncture at which—as I remarked in a cab that was hurtling up the BQE at 1am last night—I don’t know what I have done and do not know what I am going to do. Why write to you here in the manner I have apparently chosen, about a subject that is, 1., far from being clearly defined and, 2., either in spite or because of this lack of definition, hardly seems to be a priority for anyone? What am I talking about? What am I trying to say about it?
There are books on the subject of poetics and I have read some of them.
The paradigmatic western example, Aristotle’s Poetics, whose title is probably responsible for keeping the very term in circulation, is incomplete. (Umberto Eco, for one recent reader, was enterprising enough to spin this textual loss into a medieval whodunit concerning a series of monastic poisonings, but I digress!) I want to say that I find it awkward that very much of what Aristotle has going on in his handbook is in regards to a redemptive property of dramatic plot. I do not generally care for redemptive story lines and also this—unreasonable and anachronistic of me though it may be—is not what I am looking for under a title such as Poetics. I mention this so that it will be clear that I have gone in search of definitional help before. I’ve gone, as you can probably surmise, to a number of experts late and recent, and as much as I liked their pronouncements (Coleridge’s softballs, Spicer’s intelligence, the bristling prose of Hejinian, Valéry’s limpid prisms, the historical genius of Mandelstam, the enviable conspiracy of the Athenaeum, sentences by Gertrude Stein, Dazai’s neurotic taste, Mallarmé’s glistening delay, the preternatural balance of Hölderlin, Dickinson’s impossibly capacious peripheral vision, the unclean hopes of Baudelaire, Milton’s precisely stenciled pansies, the blind ambition of every heroic American modernist you can think of, early-modern defenses of literature in the vulgar tongue, fifth-century grammarians, popular music, etc., etc., etc. …) I was somehow left wanting. This is in fact one of the only interesting things about me—this propensity to disappointment. In every other way I’m a completely average and unremarkable person.
Were it not for my propensity to become inconsolably and sometimes hysterically dissatisfied by the definitions and descriptions—composed by individuals otherwise pretty much miraculously good at writing things—of the ways and reasons writing should get done, I would probably be living a full and productive life. As it stands, it’s possible that my life has been ruined by literature; more specifically, by something called poetry. It seems even more ludicrous that such a state of affairs has come to pass when one considers the afore-suggested fact that I have no idea what poetry is, much less, historically speaking, what it was.
Somebody will no doubt get back to me on Facebook and tell me what to read next, plus how to solve all my obviously crippling personal problems, but before that moment comes (I know this message will be the thing that ends my disappointment, For All Time), I want to share with you my coping mechanism. Somewhat presumptuously, perhaps, I believe that it says something about a more general situation.
A Kind of Proof
- There is no longer a demand for poetry.
- There is strong demand for anything new.
- It seems impossible to write anything new.
- It still seems possible to do something new with poetry. (I do not know why???)
- Therefore, we must write poems.
It’s a list more intuitive than assured. In some sense, I’m only punning on the adjective “new,” since it has a spectrum of meanings, ranging from something like, “nominally different from what has come before; a present iteration,” to “fundamentally distinct and unique with respect to all comparable instances in both recorded and unrecorded time; revolutionary; bordering on the miraculous and/or physically or intellectually impossible.” America (for one)’s obsession with avant-gardism has caused emphasis to shift from the first of these two definitions—an incidental, simple use of the term—to the sanctimonious and potentially very silly second definition. I’m both aware of this tendency and certainly guilty of it myself. This sort of newness has a flimsy but pretty nice allure.
This is, at any rate, what I mean by “novelty.” And it is why I have chosen this as a topic, why I think it’s an important facet of contemporary reading and/or writing. The new-as-novel, which is to say, novelty, is not exactly an aesthetic quality. Rather, it’s a quality of other aesthetic qualities—or, of the sum/juxtaposition/interference of some qualities. It’s a second-order sort of perceptual event. Like how we first have to see something before we can (secondly) exclaim, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!”
And it’s an interesting thing that we might get to a point in the history of literature at which we are more concerned with and perturbed by qualia of this sort than with or by the text itself. That we might be more after a kind of reading context, a comparative value. I guess this also feels very heady, intellectual—this demand that we be equipped to stare down some poem and diagnose with certainty its novelty, its relative newness and relative utter originality. That novelty is something that requires the intellectual apparatus of some kind of argument about the sum total nature of poetry in order to be verified—that it’s not something we can exactly “point to” in the words themselves—means that it is easier to assume than it is to perceive, or, for that matter, to demonstrate or prove.
So am I chasing after ideology? I think, rather, that I’m hoping to portray a certain contrast. She takes first the notion that she has never known what poetry is, that no one (no expert) has ever been able to convince her of some inherent, defining quality of it. She yet for some reason continues to be fascinated by its (counterfactual/counterintuitive/irrefutable) existence. She takes second the dual nature of novelty, that sometimes it just entails the most recent version, that sometimes it connotes transcendent originality.
I’m looking at these two words: “novelty,” “poetry.” I feel sort of anti-modern in this. I can’t really find anything (any meaning) inside of either one of them.
What’s more interesting anyway is the fact that no matter what happens—apocalyptic scenarios included—after this, something is going to continue to happen. Like death and taxes, there is a certain kind of accretionary “new” so banal as to scare a good number of readers off. And I like the idea that—if there is a way out of news-cycle avant-gardism, if there is a way to do something other than constantly become modern all over again—that this might occur through a novelty of another kind. Maybe call it radical novelty—a pathetic novelty. I like this latter term. Imagine that it’s the least that one could do. It’s like, just continuing to exist. Cutting one’s hair or fingernails, the recognition that a nose whisker has emerged, sleep in one’s eye: All of these are examples of pathetic novelty. And poetry, what can poetry do with this? Perhaps poetry becomes a convivial site for the most novelty-scarred reader, the one who can no longer stand anything new, who would like only a pathetic amount of novelty. This reader is also a reader who thinks it’s fun never to be convinced of anything.
Lucy Ives was born in New York City and earned a BA from Harvard University, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in comparative literature from New York University. Her first collection, the book-length poem Anamnesis (2009), won the Slope Editions Book Prize. Ives is also the author of...