The Poetry of the Formless – Preface

by: Jeroen Mettes


Poesie kann nur durch Poesie kritisiert werden.
Friedrich Schlegel


It is the apparent fate of the critic to live in a time of restoration. Poetry always already reaches him in ruins – ruins that are nevertheless prejudged and predetermined as some X, some cultural variable, to be further judged, determined and ‘explained’. Restoration is never simply a return to the past in the present; it is above all a judgement on history and its ‘explanation’, the closing off of future possibilities that opened up as rifts in history, in the name and nominal glory of an eternal present and the end of history. What Restoration is not saturated by the sanctimonious jouissance of a Final Judgment on History? Surely, restoration is “the age of cynicism, accompanied by a strange piety,” that is to say, the age of humanism (Deleuze and Guattari  1984: 225). History can only mean catastrophe to a humanist; yet catastrophe is also endlessly fascinating, and the ruins, once polished, can evoke a pleasant melancholy in his sensitive soul.

Is this not how we receive art today, even modern or contemporary art? “The work is the death mask of its conception,” Walter Benjamin has written (2004: 459). In order to avoid the cynicism native to the critical position, that is to say, in order to protect art against its subsumption by ‘culture’, Benjamin’s fourth thesis on ‘The Critic’s Technique’ dictates that “Criticism must speak the language of artists” (460). I would say that criticism must speak the language of creation. Creation, however, should not be understood as temporal and personal origin; creation is not the act of an author. Creation is that which, in a work of art, cannot be reduced to either its materials or its thematic; it has something to do with style, but not in a rhetorical or ornamental sense. Art – and all the great modern ‘aesthetic’ philosophies have stressed this – cannot be adequately understood as an aesthetic phenomenon only; indeed, if it is to matter at all, an artwork must have an essential relation to truth and to the universal. This relation is what I call creation, and it cannot originate from a subject. That is to say, the origin of the work of art is always double: on the one hand, there are the numerous actual causes, like the artist, his techniques and intentions, the materials, the environment, and ultimately ‘culture’, both contemporary and historical; on the other hand, there is a singular virtual cause which, seen from the perspective of actualities, is a quasi-cause, and does not have its true effect in chronological time. This virtual cause is ‘inspiration’, Yeats’s ghostly dictations, Cocteau’s radio, Tzara’s hat; it is an alien energy source that comes from the outside, as Jack Spicer has called it, from outside of all actual intention, language and culture, though it underlies the actual as the magnet that produces Pound’s “rose in the steel dust” (Pound 1994: 463).

It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks – with ABCDE, which are in English – and he tried to convey a message – this is the way the source of energy goes – but the blocks on the other hand are always resisting it. . . . The more you know, the more languages you know . . . the more building blocks the Martians have to play with.
(Spicer 1999: 275)

In a more philosophical manner, the virtual cause could also be called the Idea of a poem, as long as is kept in mind that there is nothing of the transcendent or ineffable about it: its elements are blocks of the actual; the Idea is merely the expressed of the sense that these elements make. If this discourse still sounds metaphysical, that is because it is. It is not, however, mystical, or even Platonic. Only through the positing of an Idea can we account for the curious effect that a great poem has on us, i.e., its apparent emergence out of nothing according to a strict if elusive law, “bricks thought into being ex nihil” (Pound 476).

I forced the calm grey water, I wanted her
to come to the surface I had fought her,
long enough, below. I shaped her out of
the watery mass
(Olson 202)

Again, the Idea does not precede the work in time – as an intention in the mind of the artist, for instance. The Idea is posited each time the work functions as such, i.e., as creation. In this sense, the truth of a work depends not only on the artist – as creative body rather than as intentional author –, but also on us, on critics and other ‘consumers’, to posit it as Idea, and hence constitute the beauty or sublimity of the work as its radiance.

Heidegger states that, “Beauty is one way in which truth essentially occurs as unconcealment” (Heidegger 1993: 181), and by ‘unconcealment’ he means something like everyday intelligibility, the simple givenness of a world which, for Heidegger, is always a historical world. I want to stress, on the contrary, the unworldly or ‘Martian’ character of the poem’s sense. Sense is distinguished from both essence and meaning; it is not the secret content of the myriad forms of the world. In so far as Heidegger thinks the truth of a work of art as the finite truth (qua unconcealment) of a historical world – even taking into account the distinction between geschichlich and historisch –, his thinking cannot but enact a reterritorialization a priori of the founding gesture that he also claims for the work: “Whenever art happens – that is, whenever there is a beginning – a thrust enters history; history either begins or starts over again” (Heidegger 201). It is precisely as beginning that a work cannot be reduced to history, which is always the history of works, the history of labour. Such is Adam’s curse. Indeed, even the poet works:

For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world

But the poet works in the Garden of Eden. Hence his and his work’s essential worldlessness, which is basically identical with its worklessness, as Maurice Blanchot calls it. Every poem is this paradox – part world, part other of all worlds; work and no work; a bite from the apple, and the expulsion from Paradise, all at the same time. As such it is also the sweetness of repeated beginning, beginning in itself. This universal beginning – the work’s empty sense or truth – is less well illustrated by Heidegger’s beloved image of a river, which would organically bestow historical being on a people, than by the worldless and formless, the workless and meaningless ocean:

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
(Spicer 217)

Yet, as sense, it is made. It is creation, but not as origin. Poetry is an ocean, not a spring. If a poem is understood as an originary leap (Ur-Sprung), the trajectory of the river, or at least the territory it traverses is already present at or even before the beginning, in which “the concepts of a historical people’s essence, i.e., of its belonging to world history, are preformed for that people” (Heidegger 199). “Die ganze Stromlauf selbst gehört zum Ursprung” (Heidegger X: 202) But poetry could not care less about countries and peoples, preformed territories and languages. Its beginning is an absolute beginning, a beginning in the absolute, the world of all worlds, and as such unformed, deformed, formless. Poetry is an ocean, poems are desert islands. The world of poetry is as unworldly a world as possible: an archipelago of archipelagos of desert islands. The stately course of a river classically culminates in a sea that is nothing but the plenitude of its meaning, as in John Denham’s ‘Cooper’s Hill’ (1642), which describes the flow of the Thames, “Hasting to pay tribute to the Sea, / Like mortal life to meet Eternity”, and likens it to the flow of verse. At the end of the passage, as the stream enters the sea, it is not the sea that receives attention, but rather the river and its tenor:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing, full.

“The beginning is the same as the end,” according to the law of the Hegelian dialectic, with this precise difference that at the end spirit is conscious of itself, and the present ‘explains’ the past, the past never having been more than an ur-present. Criticism cannot in a similar vein bring the literary work to self-consciousness, for this would mean the end of the work qua creation, its fundamentally untimely character. Creation is always an escape from consciousness: the sporadic adventures of the high seas, not the manifest destiny of an imperial stream. The fact that a poem nevertheless presupposes the formed territories of language and culture, or that it is inevitably reterritorialized as a cultural product, that is, a form fit for consumption, does not at all invalidate its essence: creation as such. Because it is universal, creation is never over and done with; its time is radically different from the time of restoration, which is the time of presents and representations: a past present that is re-presented.

If we want to grasp what is truly alive in a poem, we must not think historically, but creatively. The critic does not restore and conserve images of the cultural past, but harnesses works against a culture which no longer even denies being an industry by preserving what in art is genuinely creative. The latter is not simply a property of the work; creation is not novelty. It is, rather, the moment that constitutes the work as autonomous individual. “Yet the individuality of this moment is only a product of the highest struggle, its universality only  product of the highest struggle” (Hölderlin 1988: 54).




What is weak is forgettable and will be forgotten.
Only strength is memorable.
Harold Bloom


Creation is struggle, not of the artist, but of art. It is only as creation, not as particular representation of general opinion, that a work of art is universal. There is no other history for art than universal history; there is no other ‘theme’ for art than struggle. As critics we should learn to read the struggle on the Mona Lisa’s face. But again, struggle is nothing but the simple fact (which cannot be reduced to ‘the facts’) of its being created out of nothing, i.e., the nothingness “martyrs call the world”. It is only in this sense that art is political, and it is precisely as a site of struggle that the canon is of crucial importance. Yet the canon is not primarily a site of struggle between interest groups, nor even between ‘great works’, the latter just being the battle cry of the most powerful interest group. The struggle is between the interest groups and the works, between history and what escapes history. Works of art can neither be depoliticized in the name of ‘universal’, i.e., general representation (of Man) nor reduced to partisan politics in the name of a fight against unjust underrepresentation (of women, homosexuals, (post-)colonials, etc.); they only work as works in the name of a universal politics. There is no minor politics except in the name of the universal. The poet’s aim “is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men” (Zukofsky X: 8). But “all men” can never be Man in general. Hence Schlegel’s great dictum: “Jeder rechtliche Autor schreibt für niemand oder vor Allen” (Schlegel X: 178) or, better, “für Allen und Keinen” at the same time. The political stance of a work of art is always the same: it is aristocratic and revolutionary. As such, it may be said to surpass the merely subjective (the ‘personal’) and the merely objective (the ‘factual’), and can thus be called universal.

If art cannot lay claim to universality, it is worth nothing, i.e., it is worth as much as everything else, which is nothing. Its universality cannot be abstract generality, but must strive for singular embodiment. It is obvious, however, that this embodiment cannot be the work’s material actuality, its existence as yet another historical particular. Kant, therefore, took the universality of art to be located not in the work itself but in the singular judgment passed upon it, or rather in the demand inherent in this judgment that the latter be true for each and every subject. What is properly universal is this demand for the commonality of aesthetic judgment. Universality and demand: these remain the basic concepts of modern ‘aesthetic philosophy’, although they may occur with different names in different contexts: truth, will-to-power, desire, creation…

I would say that the work itself, not our judgment on it, expresses a universal demand – not as empirical structure but as virtual Idea. To change the world: this is the single absolute demand it makes, and keeps making. Art should change the world, obviously. It will not and cannot, of course, but it should. Gadamer, in Truth and Method, writes that, “every work of art has something about it that protests against profanation” (Gadamer 2000: 151). I want to rewrite that as: There is something about every work of art – and this and this only is what makes it artistic – which is absolutely intolerant to everything that does not aspire to its own impossible standard. A poem is as great as the intensity of the desire that is expressed in it. This has nothing to do with the representation of a just society, or even with the negation of social relations, since negation is not creation. It is simply a matter of life versus death.



Wir sind aus der Zeit der allgemein geltenden Formen heraus.


The primacy of life over representation, universality over generality, struggle over ‘culture’, may appear to the reader as a typically modern concern. The reader would be right. Yet modern poetry is the subject of this study and, moreover, in a certain way there is no other poetry. But there is no other poetry since the event we call modernity – a very curious event, therefore, that at once takes place in history and, defining it, also constitutes its vanishing point.

In one of the Athenaeum fragments, Schlegel famously declares that, “Die Französische Revolution, Fichtes ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ und Goethes ‘Meister’ sind die gröβten Tendenzen des Zeitalters.” A few fragments later, he adds:

Die revolutionäre Wunsch, das Reich Gottes zu realisieren, ist der elastische Punkt der progressiven Bildung und der Anfang der modernen Geschichte. Was in gar keiner Beziehung aufs Reich Gottes steht, ist in ihr nur Nebensache.

So much for the conception of Romanticism as the ideology of finitude (cf. Badiou 2003). Indeed, if modernity indeed entails the invention of Man and History, as has so often been claimed, it is equally important to emphasize the fully reciprocal discovery of the “elastic point” Schlegel talks about, the instant objective history breaks off as it were, falls into the subject and becomes the infinite Bildung, or perfectability, of the latter. “[T]he History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom” (Hegel). But freedom, the universal subject, is an abyss (cf. Žižek’s essay on Schelling).

When Heidegger declares that, “Im deutschen Idealismus wird überhaupt die Geschichte erstmals metaphysisch begrifften” (Heidegger X: 83), he implicitly distinguishes the romantico-modern view of time and history from both the classico-didactic as the Christian view. It is distinguished from the former in so far as in modernity time uncoils and becomes a straight line, in which beginning and end no longer rhyme. Classical time is celestial time, determined by the cyclical movement of heavenly bodies. Because time is cyclical, we can learn from history: it presents us with models of good and bad behaviour, it is didactic. The modern revolution qua caesura is explicitly not cyclical, i.e., a re-volution, a re-turn that corrects a disastrous turn of events. In classical thinking, such a first turn can only be thought of as disastrous, since it reverses the natural cycle of celestial time, as in this thought experiment from Plato’s Statesman:

In the fullness of time . . . , the pilot of the universe let the helm go, and retired to his place of view; and then Fate and innate desire reversed the motion of the world. . . . While the world was aided by the pilot in nurturing the animals, the evil was small, and great the good which he produced, but after the separation, when the world was let go, at first all proceeded well enough; but, as time went there was more and more forgetting, and the old discord again held sway and burst forth in full glory; and at last small was the good, and great was the admixture of evil, and there was a danger of universal ruin to the world, and the things contained in him. Wherefore God, the orderer of all, in his tender care, seeing that the world was in great straits, and fearing that all might be dissolved in the storm and disappear in infinite chaos, again seated himself at the helm; and bringing back the elements which had fallen into dissolution and disorder to the motion which had prevailed under his dispensation, he set them in order and restored them, and made the world imperishable and immortal.

Classical time is best understood as eternal restoration, a restoration that has always already taken place. Evil, “infinite chaos” – Cornfold (1948: 207) translates the Greek more literally as: “infinite ocean of Unlikeness” – is original, while order is guaranteed by the determinations of a transcendent Helmsman.

Christ is already modern in so far as he breaks time in two dissimilar parts: before and after the Resurrection, the time of Mosaic Law and the time of the New Testament. Indeed, the early Romantics and Hegel, among others, use the term ‘romantic’ to refer to Christian as opposed to Greco-Roman art. The modern view of history, however, is not merely a secularized messianism. Or, if it is, this secularization should be grasped in the absolute radicality of its gesture: the immanence of the absolute, its political consequences. “So wie is es jetzt ist, kann es nicht bleiben, so gewiβ in unserem Herzen jener Funke der Gottheit glimmt, und so gewiβ uns derselbe auf einen allmächtigen Gerechten hinweiset” (Fichte 1967: 35). Fichte, of course, refers to Kant’s notion of the moral Law, the law of freedom, which is only ‘divine’ in so far as it is not phenomenal, i.e., conditioned. For Kant, freedom, as an Idea of Reason, cannot be presented; it remains problematic even as it is the highest obligation. Fichte’s subjective idealism theorizes freedom as “unsre ursprüngliche Form” (Ibid.), as absolute I, and declares that the latter can be intuited, albeit not phenomenally but intellectually. The second chapter of the first part of this book deals extensively with the notion of intellectual intuition in German Idealism, but for now it suffices to point out that absolute Form, the unconditioned condition of all particular forms, can only be intuited as absolute formlessness. Only Schelling and Hölderlin draw the ultimate consequences from this insight and can thus be seen as pointing beyond German Idealism, while remaining closer to Kant’s critique of representation than Fichte or Hegel. Theirs is not a particularly Christian philosophy. Indeed, it even entails a modern turn (which is not a re-turn) to the Greeks and to what Nietzsche has designated as the Dionysian pole of their life and artistic production. Hölderlin, for instance, seems to have understood Oedipus, not Christ, as the first modern man, in so far as his tragedy is the site of a “categorical reversal”, i.e., an absolute reversal that is not a re-versal, but a versing or pure turning (versus, vertere), that constitutes a linear time in which beginning and end no longer coincide (as in, say, the tragedies of Aeschylus):

Man forgets himself and the god turns around like a traitor, naturally in a saintly manner. – In the utmost form of suffering, namely, there exists nothing but the conditions of time and space.

Inside it, man forgets himself because he exists entirely for the moment, the god [forgets himself] because he is nothing but time; and either one is unfaithful, time, because it is reversed categorically at such a moment, no longer fitting beginning and end; man, because at this moment of categorical reversal he has to follow and thus can no longer resemble the beginning in what follows.
(Hölderlin 1988: 108)

Tragedy is the “metaphor of intellectual intuition”, according to Hölderlin, and the Kantian vocabulary of the passage is not accidental. At the tragic instant or caesura “there exists nothing but the conditions of time and space”: intuition = 0, pure Form is dramatized as absolute formlessness. The latter is thus not simple lack, form-lessness. It can neither be the privation of any particular form – since it is the absolute condition of all particular forms –, nor the privation of absolute Form, with which it is identical. The formless as such, then, is not an exception or an abnormality but, to say it in Heideggerese, the abyss that grounds or, in Deleuzian parlance, the plane of immanence that conditions all individuation and formalization.

“Man is this Night” (Hegel), this caesura or elastic point. The true accomplishment of modernity is not so much the invention and glorification of Man – as in the so-called human sciences or the ideology of human rights –, but the operation that renders the human animal for the first time truly problematic, and defines its problematic nature as its “spark of the divine”, its essence. It is in this sense that we are still modern. If we had somehow exited modernity, we would know who we are. But we do not, and that is what it means to be modern: to be subject to the open-endedness of history or, rather, to be this open-endedness itself. Oedipus, not as neurotic, but as wandering caesura, as problem. It is no different for the modern poem, which becomes defined by its tendency towards formlessness.



The achievement of a work is to propose new problems.
Ron Silliman

An Idea is a “problem that does not allow for a solution, although we stubbornly assume that a real object corresponds to it” (Kant). An Idea is thus not a product of the imagination, i.e., the formal unity of an aesthetic manifold. On its most basic level an Idea is poetic rhythm. Rhythm, moreover, is the becoming problematic of natural language; the beginning of style. “As Proust says, [style] opens up a kind of foreign language within language, which is neither another language nor a rediscovered patois, but a becoming-other of language, a minorization of this major language, a delirium that carries it off, a witch’s line that escapes the dominant system” (Deleuze 1997: 5). “Een gedicht is maatvolle levensbeweging in woorden” (Albert Verwey). Poetic rhythm or measure should not be confused with metre; the law of rhythm – Hölderlin’s “gesetzliche Kalkul” – is the universal law of freedom, while metre is the overcoding of rhythm in discrete actual units. Rhythm is fundamentally a matter of the distribution of intensities across a virtual continuum. An Idea is therefore always intense and rhythmic. If poetic modernity seems inaugurated by the invention of Freie Rhythmen, it can also be defined, more profoundly, as the discovery of the poetic Idea.

From the perspective of traditional forms and metres, the Idea can appear only as formless and ametric. And indeed, it is both. As the (universal) measure of the (empirically) immeasurable, it is not surprising that for Kant, the Idea comes into play aesthetically speaking only when we experience the sublime. It is not the vast mountain range or the storm at sea that is erhaben, but transcendent reason, which steps in at the moment our faculty of presentation has reached its limits and forms break down. The Idea is necessarily formless, unpresentable. I do not want to locate the poetic Idea in some noumenal sphere of thinking, however, but make it the virtual structure of every genuine artistic event. Additionally, the range of Ideas is unlimited if not infinite, and there is no basic difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Above all, what should be avoided is giving the Idea even the slightest aura of the ineffable. There is nothing otherworldly about the creations of Martians. The ‘other world’ of mysticism and philosophy has always been an inner world of essences and the soul, not an absolute outside, an unworld. The movement towards this absolute outside – which is the outside of forms of all kinds, both forms of content as well as forms of expression – Deleuze and Guattari call deterritorialization. The discovery of the poetic Idea, then, entails a poetics of essential deformation. The fear which ‘naturally’ accompanies such an enterprise – after all, nature is form, and every organism has the conservative tendency to persevere in its being, i.e., is afraid – constitutes the opposite but fully reciprocal movement called reterritorialization.

At first, the grand deterritorialization of form of expression that is free verse is compensated by a reterritorialization on the level of content, as if the expressive revolution had to be motivated outside of itself. Klopstock’s great early hymns, for instance, are obviously grounded in the religious enthusiasm of a supposed lyric ego. This ego ‘explains’ the unheard of flow of irregular lines and hallelujahs, and as such it sets a limit to the violence of the poem’s rhythmic forces:

Nicht in den Ozean
Der Welten alle
Will ich mich stürzen!
. . .
Um die Erde nur, will ich schweben,
Und anbeten!

One could call this form of reterritorialization indexical in that it subjects form of expression to form of content – which are here understood as signifier and signified respectively – in a relation motivated by continuity: the words find their justification and seal of approval in the mouth or soul of the speaker. There is definitely a pouring out, but like a river that cannot finally leave its origin in order to lose itself in the ocean.

Another way to curb the flight of the modern poem and bring it back to earth is iconic reterritorialization, as in the cathedral scene in the first Faust, where Gretchen is plagued by her guilty conscience. Both speak free verse:

Böser Geist:
Wo steht dein Kopf?
In deinem Herzen
Welche Missetat?
Bet’st du für deiner Mutter Seele, die
Durch dich zur langen, langen Pein hinüberschlief?
. . .
Weh! Weh!
Wär’ ich der Gedanken los,
Die mir herüber und hinüber gehen,
Wider mich!

Here, free verse is obviously employed in order to mirror Gretchen’s erratic state of mind. The formlessness of expression is motivated by the degenerating consciousness of the character (at the end of the scene she even loses consciousness) in a relationship of likeness. On a lower level, a line like “dich zur langen, langen Pein hinüberschlief” is equally iconic, as it is the longest line in the passage.

In both these cases – indexical and iconic reterritorialization – the formless is held off by grounding the deterritorializing form of expression in another, more firmly territorial form, that of content. In other words, a hierarchic relation of representation is called on: the organicism of Goethe’s ‘inner form’, the interiority of which is only made possible through a transcendence of meaning or thought. Emerson expresses a similar notion when he states that, “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem – a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature, with a new thing.” Obviously, this passionate thought is not yet an Idea, but merely an argument; poetry is not yet a way of thinking, but merely a vehicle for thought, no matter how much “the spiritual and sensuous aspects [are] fused as an undivided unity” (Hegel 4).

Klopstock’s ego functions much like Fichte’s absolute ego in so far as the I is posited as “absolute Gehalt” (Fichte X: 181); the latter, of course, is really a form of absolute content intended to reterritorialize the unacceptable deterritorialization of expression that Kant’s antinomies bequeathed to his successors. The conflict between Gretchen (essentially a good spirit) and her evil spirit resembles Hegel’s dialectic in so far as the differential possibilities of the former are closed off by the “identity of identity and difference” constituted by something that could be called the absolute Spirit of the scene: Gretchen’s character – again, a form of absolute content, absolutely speculative, reterritorializing expressive formlessness as mirror effect. The fear of the sea that is reterritorialization is much less present in the late hymns of Hölderlin:

Dir mag auf heiβem Pfade unter Tannen oder
Im Dunkel des Eichwalds gehüllt
In Stahl, mein Sinklair! Gott erscheinen oder
In Wolken, du kennst ihn, da du kennest, jugendlich,
Des Guten Kraft, und nimmer ist dir Verborgen das Lächeln des Herrschers
Bei Tage, wenn
Es fieberhaft und angekettet das
Lebendige scheinet oder auch
Bei Nacht, wenn alles gemischt
Ist ordnungslos und wiederkehrt
Uralte Verwirrung.
(Hölderlin 1998: 206-8)

The river is absent from the entire stanza, and where we would expect the sea receiving the Rhine harmoniously in the manner of Denham – in the final lines –, we are told about the return of “ancient Chaos”. Of course, the opposition between a night of disorder and a daytime in which life is chained and ordered seems classical enough (cf. The Statesman). It should be noticed, however, that chaos no less than order is said to express God. More importantly, the verse is markedly anti-classical. The line endings almost never coincide with natural pauses in syntax as they almost always do in Goethe’s and Klopstock’s free verse hymns: the short run-on lines programmatically frustrate one of the most common pleasures of poetic form. The basic unit of composition is therefore neither metre nor syntactic phrase; in other words, the poem does not respect the integrity of the line at all. This apparent lack of form should not lead us to dismiss the poem as lacking in craft or, inversely, to overlook ‘formal’ concerns and go straight to matters of ‘content’.

It is the primary concern of this study to show how modern poetry can best be understood as revealing a tendency towards formlessness, while proving that this does not at all make it unpoetic, inconsistent, or lawless. On the contrary, the law of the modern poem is universal law in so far as it does not depend on any cultural contingency or tradition, let alone fashion or ‘lived individual experience’; it is fully immanent and singular. Each singular poem expresses its immanent law, and as such it is universal. But the universal is a process, a problematic, a rhythm: immanent and thus infinitely close, yet “schwer zu fassen”, as Hölderlin says of the God in another hymn. The law cannot be presented – for it is incommensurable to the order of presentations – and hence not cognized, although it constantly demands expression. There are various ways in which a poem can express its law qua problem, and the second part of my dissertation will deal with four of them. In general, I hope to show that the modern poem pushes language to its limit or outside, for instance, to silence or pure music, since the law only becomes manifest in its resistance. The autonomy of modern art – literally its self-legislating capacity – depends on a dialectic with its constitutive outside. But it is a dialectic without closure. It seems obvious that a poem cannot have a ‘solution’ – this would reduce it to a puzzle or a game –, yet this does not mean that it is not problematic. On the contrary, it is a pure, infinite problem. The poet never finishes writing his poem, we never stop reading it.

Since modern poetry is defined as essentially problematic, a purely sociological or historical approach is not of interest here (when is it?). I am interested in the poem as poem, and its essential (i.e., poetic) relation to the socius and to history, is neither one of (re)presentation nor of determination. As has been said, a poem is of interest only in so far as it escapes history, both general as well as literary history; in other words, in so far as it does something new, not only ‘in its time’, but also now, for us. “Poetry is news that stays news,” not as novelty, but as untimely event, that which arrives both too early and too late. I have called this aspect creation. I am solely interested in what poetry can be or can do, rather than what poetry should be or already is. This, I confess, is a fundamentally modern and anti-classicist interest. Classicism is a passion for representation, i.e., for imposing ‘rational forms’ on ‘irrational matter’; it is fear of the ocean. The eternal call of classicism to poets and readers alike resembles Tennyson’s ‘Sea-Fairies’, who seductively sing, “Mariner, mariner, furl your sails . . . mariner, mariner, fly no more” (Tennyson 40). Modern poetry, by contrast, destroys forms and creates problems: a Hölderlin problem, a Mallarmé problem, a Pound problem… The literary historian that reduces these problems to Romantic, Symbolist or Modernist forms, paradoxically overlooks what is essential to this particular historical epoch: the tendency of poetry towards formlessness, towards a problematization of its own being in a world of prose, which is equally quest for the absolute and universalist demand.

If my corpus, therefore, appears to include only the most ‘difficult’ or problematic authors, this is by no means coincidental. The work of these poets, I think, shows us what poetry can do. If traditional forms have lost their value because the historical world they came out of has disappeared or has lost its foundation, there is no point in repeating them. Why chisel your banal anecdotes about modern life into sonnet form? “If there isn’t a God, don’t believe in him” (Jack Spicer). But also: “Don’t invent a new one.” The major novelty of modernity should be understood less as the replacement of a traditional set of values (norms and forms) with a new set – this, after all, is true of every new era –, than as the radical critique of tradition, of value, of form per se. It is in a similar manner that Kant interpreted of the French Revolution: not as a necessarily reasonable way – let alone the reasonable way – to found a society on Reason, but as the event that showed its contemporaries and, in effect, posterity, that (universal) history gets written by refusing to take part in (empirical) history. What is essential, according to Kant, are neither the event’s actors nor its documents nor even its outcome, but the affect it produces, the intellectual enthusiasm it inspires in its spectators; for the latter points to a disinterested, moral disposition or capacity (Vermögen):

Denn ein solches Phänomen in der Menschengeschichte vergiβt sich nicht mehr, weil es eine Anlage und ein Vermögen in der menschlichen Natur zum Besseren aufgedeckt hat . . . , und welches allein Natur und Freiheit, nach inneren Rechtsprinzipien im Menschengeschlechte vereinigt. (A 148; Kant’s emphasis)

It is striking to observe how here, in Der Streit der Fakultäten, the French Revolution plays a similar role to the work of art in the analytic of the beautiful in the third Kritik, namely, as an object that facilitates judgment and ensures harmony between the faculties (“Natur und Freiheit”). The enigmatic link between art, revolution and the universal – a link that no doubt defines modern art – is taken up again, beyond all disinterested judgment and harmony, beyond the sublime even, by Deleuze and Guattari, in the last book they wrote together:

A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event: the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly resumed struggle. Will this all be in vain because suffering is eternal and revolutions do not survive their victory? But the success of a revolution resides only in itself, precisely in the vibrations, clinches, and openings it gave to men and women at the moment of its making and that composes in itself a monument that is always in the process of becoming, like those tumuli to which each new traveller adds a stone. The victory of a revolution is immanent . . . (1994: 176-7)

If Deleuze and Guattari make no clear distinction between a work of art and a revolution – the cited passage depicts revolution as an autonomous work of art, but does so in the context of a discourse on art –, this is not because they want to claim for art a power to change history. What is defined as the revolutionary aspect of art is, on the contrary, its ‘eternal’ aspect: the virtual Idea that makes the work “stand up on its own” (164); Deleuze and Guattari call this element the event, which they distinguish from its actualization in spatio-temporal states of affairs and empirico-historical documents. The event is history’s problem. Thus every work seems to say with Büchner: “Es fällt mir nicht mehr ein, vor den Paradegänlen und Eckstehern der Geschichte mich zu bücken.” Yet it is not in the spirit of restoration that it says so.




The best way to find out about poetry is to read the poems. That way the reader becomes something of a poet himself: not because he ‘contributes’ to the poetry, but because he finds himself subject of its energy.
Louis Zukofsky


Then how do we deal with these things called works of art, which reach us from the past, but will not identify as members of some cultural trust fund? As singularities, obviously. But in order to know what kind of singularities we will be dealing with, we could do worse than speak the language of art, of creation, and see how an exemplary poem deals with those quasi-historical events that leave tears in the fabric of history.

Already the first line of Louis Zukofsky’s ‘Memory of V.I. Ulianov’ seems to contradict its title:


This, however, is only an apparent contradiction if we are prepared to rethink remembrance in light of the singular. For the memory of an event cannot simply be the re-presentation of the past, or rather, of a past present, here in the form, the image, the death mask of an event’s primary actor. The time of an event is never the time of the present, of the spectacular restaging of the past overtaken as a past present. Zukofsky’s poem does not exhibit Lenin’s corpse. An event does not take place; it has always already happened and is always yet to come. There is nothing as empty and unspectacular, Deleuze claims, as the time of the event. The memory of an event, therefore, in order to be true to the latter, cannot bring it to full presence, which would entail its destruction. In Freudian terms, an event cannot be successfully mourned or exteriorized as representation. The elegy is not the objective form that subjective grief takes in order to give this grief ‘a place’. We cannot ‘get over’ an event, because its past is not simply an old now which cannot be recalled to present memory. It is, indeed, immemorial.

And after us

In a similar way, the future of the event escapes active representation – at the present moment obviously, but also later, since the future of an event is absolute future, a future without a future that therefore can never become past. But what of the subject that would but cannot subjugate the event in the form of an object of memory or anticipation? Who is this “us”, this melancholy collective, deprived of the power to mourn? “The complaining millions of men / Darken[ing] in labour and pain” (Matthew Arnold), the masses who Zukofsky’s “Mantis” simply designates as “the poor”? Or perhaps, more specifically, the Jewish immigrant community that Zukofsky was part of (“It is your Russia that is free, mother. . .”)? In any case, it would be a mistake to set up an opposition between a passive, impotent “us” and the active, yet extinguished guiding light of the masses. Lenin – whose politico-historical name is significantly absent from the poem and its title – is indeed described in heroic, even cosmic terms:

O white
O orbit-trembling,
Star, thru all the leaves
Of elm;–

But in the next line he is described as

Lighted-one, beyond the trunk tip
Of the elm
High, proportionately vast,
Of mist and form;–

Hence he is not the light itself; the proper name is only the sign of an event, the name of a reconfiguration of intensities, the

Star, of all live processes
Continual it seems to us,
Like elm leaves
Lighted in your glow; –

The image of the elm may have been taken from Arnold’s great elegy ‘Thyrsis’, in which the tree signals to both past and future, remembrance and hope:

There thou art gone, and me thou leavest here
                Sole in these fields! yet will I not despair.
                                 Despair I will not, while I yet descry
‘Neath the mild canopy of English air
                That lonely tree against the western sky.

In Zukofsky’s poem, however, the tree is “us”: it indicates a loss that is interiorized and a hope that cannot be made explicit in the form of representation, a problematic temporality. So we find the elm described in paradoxical terms – “proportionately vast”, “Of mist and form” –, which indicates that “us” hovers between form and formlessness, between the finite and the infinite, in the same way that it was seen to be located between two immemories, to use Chris Marker’s phrase: the absolute past and an unpredictable future. Yet “us”, – let us say, we do not constitute the present. Rather, we are the caesura between the has been and the to come, the overdetermined and the undetermined. In the final stanza of ‘Poem beginning “The”’, Zukofsky also implicitly compares the collective subject to a tree:

How wide our arms are,
How strong,
A myriad years we have been,
Myriad upon myriad shall be.

In ‘Memory’, the tree is less horizontally imagined: it rises from the earth to the skies, from mist to form, and from death to immortality:

We thrive in strange hegira
Here below,
Yet sometimes in our flight alone
We speak to you,
When nothing that was ours seems spent
And life consuming us seems permanent,
And flight of stirring beating up the night
And down and up; we do not sink with every wave.
Travels our consciousness
Deep in its egress.
Eclipsed the earth, for earth is power
And we of earth.
Eclipsed our death, for death is power
And we of death.

Again, the “you” should not be read as anything but ourselves in so far as we are capable of climbing up to the skies. The poem asks us to imagine a tree as a line of flight. The star is the sign of this event, its immanent cause and goal. Zukofsky, at this point in his intellectual development, seems to have no problem combining Leninism – the doctrine that designates the Party as vanguard of the proletariat, not as its exterior representation – and Spinozism – “all in all is all we all are”. This does not, contrary to certain conceptions of both communism and Spinozism, lead to a philosophy and politics of undifferentiated masses:

Single we are, tho others still may be with us
And we for others.
We have come to the sources of being,
Inviolable, throngs everlasting, rising forever,
Rush as of river courses,
Change within change of forces.

Being is understood as becoming, as struggle or process. Yet it is precisely as such that we are most individuated, most alone. As we have seen, Hölderlin, at the brink of poetic modernity, theorizes this as the tragic instant, the caesura at which intuition = 0:

For the world of all worlds, the all in all which always is, only presents itself in all time – or in the decline, the instant or, more genetically, in the becoming of the instant and in the beginning of time and world, and this decline and beginning is – like language – expression, sign, presentation of a living yet particular whole . . . This decline or transition of the fatherland (in this sense) is felt in the parts of the existing world so that at precisely that moment and to precisely that extent that existence dissolves, the newly-entering, the youthful, the potential is also felt. (Hölderlin 1988: 96; the emphasis is the poet’s)

The star, then, in Zukofsky’s poem is this sign of a “living yet particular whole” in so far as the latter can only be signified as the breakdown of all real forms at degree zero, an immemorial nothingness. It is the sign of an event qua creation of pure possibility. It is also, of course, the poem itself or, rather, its Idea. Both Hölderlin and Zukofsky do not hesitate to give this phenomenon (which cannot be reduced to the order of phenomena) the ancient name of fate:

Irrevocable, yet safe we go,
Irrevocable you, too,
O star, we speaking to you,
The shadows of the elm leaves faded,
Only the trunk of elm now dark and high
Unto your height:
Now and again you fall,
Blow dark and burn again,
And we in turn
Share now your fate
Whose process is continual.

It is the apparent fate of events to be betrayed. That is to say, they are betrayed by being actualized, formalized, represented. There is indeed no formal revolution. But this is not fate’s last word; if it was, it would not be different from natural determinism or historical pessimism. What to the dead eyes of historiography appears as a memorial for a nothingness, is at the same time a continual process, an unsuccessful work of mourning. The star falls and burns again, falls and burns again – only in its essential repeatability can an event be called fateful or universal, whatever name of history it will adopt at any particular time. This is true for ‘historical’ events, but its truth is only made manifest in works of art. The latter preserve the event in rhythmic, repeatable structures. A poem, therefore, is not merely a death mask or a tombstone – even though it is always that as well –, it is fundamentally “a monument that is always in the process of becoming” (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 177). The event is death, or failure, but death precisely as the event, individuation without personality and without present. “The new life, which had to dissolve and did dissolve, is now truly possible” (Hölderlin 1988: 97). We could call this the elegiac essence of poetry. Every poem is a monument, but not in the sense of a memorial, i.e., an arrested development, arrested in representation; it is, rather, an immemorial, a composition in words that refuses to mourn what cannot die.

Criticism, I hold, does not come after the fact; nothing comes after the immemorial. Hence, we are not belated. Indeed, criticism is a constitutive moment of the immemorial. The critic does not solve problems, but (re)articulates them, translates them, makes them more ‘accessible’; he helps remember the immemorially new in a poem, the eternally formless as that which sich nicht mehr vergiβt but cannot be recognized or represented, because it has always already eluded cognition and presentation. Certainly, there is a legitimate typology of modern literary history, and there are romanticisms and modernisms and so on, but these are formal solutions to problems, and it is problems as such that will concern me in this book, for I believe that therein we find both what is properly modern and what is properly poetic in a modern poem. We will find, in other words, what is most alive.




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