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Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:American Imago, Volume 52, Issue 4, p.405-437 (1995)
Keywords:Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts; Hass
A certificate tells me that I was born. I repudiate this certificate: I am not a poet, but a poem. A poem that is being written, even if it looks like a subject.
--Jacques Lacan (1981, viii)
Throughout the 1980s, as future histories of the academy will no doubt recall, the concept of the self was in big trouble. Theoretically, that is. Outside the academy it was a different story; indeed, in popular culture, forms of self-exploration and -expression proliferated alongside fragmented and fragmenting media technologies. Next to this complex narrative, the self in the academy enacts a fairly consistent retreat.1 Attacked by intellectuals in every corner of the human sciences, the self was nowhere less secure than in the very discipline often accused of giving it ultimate priority: psychoanalysis, symbolized especially by the figure of Jacques Lacan. In the eyes of some historians at least, Lacan singlehandedly loosed analysis from its traditional moorings; as Anthony Elliot (1994) recently phrased it, Lacanian theory “has completely transformed cultural debates about the development of the individual subject in social and historical terms” (91-92). Yet at the height of this transformation, the Lacanian theoretical vocabulary of desire was being picked up and employed by several young American poets toward very different ends. As poststructuralist theory grew more important to the academy, Lacanian terms became important to poets who struggled over the fate of traditional poetic notions of agency, selfhood, individuality, and authorship. What resulted from this heady mixture of lyric and Lacan by no means reaffirmed the centrality of the subject in either poetry or cultural theory; it did, however, implicate the collapse of traditional discourses of the self in the reproduction of contemporary poetic value.
At the intersection of such troublesome categories as pleasure, politics, and information, the self holds a problematic--and important--place in the contemporary American poetic (Gilbert 1992, passim).2 It continues as an object of inquiry and a source of articulation against, and partly because of, the serious challenges posed to it both within the poetry community and outside it. Indeed, in spite of the cynicism of much postmodern cultural production, a fair amount of well-received poetry in the eighties--work produced across a broad geographical and stylistic spectrum--explicitly addresses the issue of personal emotion as a subject for the poem (rather than merely its context or source). At an interpoetic, stylistic level, the affective and experiential registers of language may have received renewed attention as some poets in the early eighties reacted both to the depersonalized, object-centered poetry of the Deep Image and to the New York poets’ ironic, noncommittal style. Yet we would be mistaken if we read this reaction as a return to confessionalism, since such a reading would reduce the history of American verse to the crudest possible dialectic of Self and Other.
Besides, the historical situation of the poetic today is different. Current verse is implicated in social institutions--including the university, the media, and the state--in ways distinct from those characterizing American poetry in the sixties. Personal poetics shares a social stage with language poetry;3 if it is experiencing a resurgence of sorts, that context must be taken into account. It is more difficult now than it was thirty years ago to set up drastic oppositions between academic and antiacademic in poetry--between the cooked and the raw, the formal and the spontaneous--though it is still possible and sometimes useful to do so. Much contemporary poetry, including the New Formalism and what Vernon Shetley (1993) calls “the MFA mainstream” (20), may be postmodern against its will, taking part in the postmodern blurring of resistance and cooptation by its very participation in an articulatory matrix that it has not author(iz)ed. Even the most radical contemporary poetry, such as that of the language movement--which, like most avant-garde movements in this century, has tended to pit itself against the academy--has found much authorization for its practice in academic theoretical discourse; and as its chief practitioners seek university jobs, it is confronted with what had hitherto seemed the unlikely fate of being quickly assimilated into academic writing programs.
In any event, we should recognize that such categories are socially constructed and blurry at the edges; individual writers move rapidly in and out of them. When John Ashbery, whose work was considered among the most “radical” and “difficult” in American poetry for years, is made readable for broad and diverse audiences by critics who represent his project as a revisionary Romanticism, then admitting discursive and abstract elements into a poem does not turn out to strike a blow against the self after all.4 Indeed, Ashbery’s later work exemplifies how the contradictions of discourse and subjectivity implicate the poetic through and through. As his influence demonstrates, the self in the contemporary poetic may be represented by a poetry that simultaneously affirms personality and engages a dispersed field of social discourse whose fragments the poem arranges without “centering.” As Andrew Ross (1986) has recognized, postmodern writers like Ashbery no longer view issues of subjectivity as external to the poem but rather as “problems to be described and displayed within language itself” (159). Admitting this “irreducible share of subjectivity” in language may be basic to postmodernism (xvi); but unlike earlier poetic moments, postmodern poetry does not dismiss social and supersubjective components of discourse as unsuitable for poetry. On the contrary, postmodernist poetry has embraced the languages of science, advertising, historical inquiry, and other areas previously thought inimical to the lyric impulse--and this without subscribing to the modernist myth that such a gesture necessarily erases the personal subject. A return to subjectivism, in other words, has not accompanied postmodern poetry’s acknowledgment of subjectivity.
The tension between discourse and subject in postmodern poetry is visible at a number of levels. As several critics have noticed, recent poetics has increasingly emphasized the sentence as opposed to the line or the image; I read this emphasis as a product, to some degree, of the historical pressures placed on contemporary poetry by its combined investment in subjective articulation and social discourse. A kind of baseline of practical linguistic attention or “measuring rod of thought and reality,” the sentence is seen as a flexible unit that mediates between social data and personal signatures (what used to be called “voice”), whereas the line may flatten heterogeneous social languages into patterns of repetition: for its advocates, the sentence is “inscriptive not prescriptive” (Fredman 1990, 35). Given such assumptions, the New Formalism, which is deeply invested in traditional metrics as a primary source of poetic value, cannot help seeming reactionary; but the concept of the sentence as the vehicle of poetic meaning has had influence, if not success, even there. Indeed, the newfound importance of the sentence is visible in corners of the poetry world far from language poetry, where most talk about the sentence takes place. (My reading opposes the prevailing view that sees recent interest in the sentence as a conscious response to the commodification of public discourse. Such an argument may be partly accurate but is hard to apply outside language poetry.) 5
We should not, therefore, ascribe the emergence of new relations between discourse, emotion, and subjectivity in a number of poets to the creative invention of a few brilliant writers; nor should we frame such relations within a progressivist model of corrective literary change. Both moves, common enough in discussions of contemporary poetry, mystify the dynamics of literary production and consumption in the poetic, perpetuating the model they describe. Bo Gustavsson (1989), for example, subverts a promising essay on these issues in both ways. He rightly argues that “a new discursive poetry” has arisen in contemporary American verse, locating useful examples in Robert Pinsky, Stanley Plumly, and Robert Hass (193). But by accepting the celebratory self-representation of these writers as seeking “to go beyond the lyric self and to speak about the facts of our common existence in the world” (193), Gustavsson ignores the historical pressures behind rhetorical differences, closing off the possibility of socially representing the emergence of the new discursive poetry he identifies. He thus portrays these writers’ interest in social discourse as entirely clear, freely decided upon, and relatively simple of motivation, correcting the “extremes” and “solipsism” of sixties poetry (194). Besides forcing poetry into grossly misrepresentative oppositional categories (such as “discursive” and “lyric” poetry--much of the work he examines is both), this model of literary-change-as-positive-development is powerless to understand the social causes behind shifts in poetic style.
An alternative model of the poetic field must not be content to rest at the level of interpoetic difference. Stylistic arguments are struggles among what Pierre Bourdieu would call “position-takings”; however, these struggles are determined by the state of poetry as a “position” or “post” in the literary field as a whole. As Bourdieu (1993) argues:
The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e., the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in the field--literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc.--is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30; emphasis in text)
Bourdieu’s distinction between positions and position-takings allows individual poems and poetic statements to be inscribed in a broad literary-social context without reducing their operation to a functionalist model of culture.6 As a component of the literary field, poetry is shot through by issues of power; but as Bourdieu argues, power in the literary field is not a thing but a process of struggle. Moreover, this process is bifurcated, governed by the opposing principles of heteronomy and autonomy. At the “heteronomous” pole of the literary field, power is more or less economic, operating according to such criteria as sales and popularity; at the “autonomous” pole, on the other hand, where we find most contemporary American poetry, power is indexed by recognition and prestige (27-73 passim).7 Read as struggles for recognition within the literary field, interpoetic differences may become wholly social while retaining their specifically cultural operative principles.
Only a perspective which sees poetry in the literary field, and the literary field within the larger social field, will be able to release itself from the pervasive idealism of American poetry criticism. Further, Bourdieu’s emphasis on recognition as the dominant principle of value at the autonomous pole paradoxically undermines the autonomy of the critic, who can only be framed, in this context, as another participant in the literary-social field of struggle. Through Bourdieu’s social field model, we are able to address the functional role of critical statements in the dynamics of canon construction and change. To apply this insight to the present subject, we must note that any new discursive poetry has not come into prominence by itself, but rather has been assisted in its rise by a ready and appreciative audience cultivated to receive it; this audience is equipped both with specific stylistic preferences and, more important in the long run, sufficient economic and cultural capital to increase the symbolic value of the work it endorses. Robert Hass and Jorie Graham, the poets I will examine here, have thus emerged as two of the best bets for canonization among mid-career poets in the United States, ironically fulfilling Whitman’s maxim about the greatness of poets and that of their audiences.
Discussions of postmodernism in poetry are less likely to focus on changes at the lexical level than at the level of syntax, since the image is not postmodernism’s central concern.8 Yet the complex of forces just outlined has had effects at this level too; while it is impossible to define a vocabulary of contemporary poetry, we can isolate words which have gained increased prominence across diverse styles. The word I want to focus on is desire.
You know what I mean? I mean the desire
To crouch and loosen earth, toss pebbles,
Pull the taut grass at its roots
And wonder what to do with a fat rope of old vine.
(Ann Lauterbach, “Mountain Roads,” 1991, 3)
Gossip and length, hours
Yoked together, sun shines,
Air presses on their capillaries,
Actions. Desire pronounced and
Punctuated, their minds end
In their senses. Pleasures
Lag across solid bridges.
(Bob Perelman, “Pastoral,” 1986, 73)
Why have men been taught to feel ashamed
of their desire, as if each were a criminal
out on parole, a desperado with a long record
of muggings, rapes, such conduct as excludes
each one from all but the worst company,
and never to be trusted, no never to be trusted?
(Stephen Dobyns, “Desire,” 1990, 6-7)
a voice absorbed
by eyes and eyes by those
so close to home, so ready to resume
the lunge of desire, rested and clear of debris.
(Olga Broumas, “Mercy,” 1989, 11)
Many poetry readers could no doubt assemble whole anthologies of contemporary desire-poems. Desire appears to have gained enormous flexibility through the eighties, since it is employed by poets of vastly different stylistic temperments and affiliations. As Calvin Bedient (1991) argues, desire “has become the most commonplace of topics” (212), but more importantly here, the word “desire” is becoming a commonplace signifier. It has a gender dimension as well, which I shall address presently.
First, though, it is helpful to place this word in the context of other words privileged in American poetry in the sixties and seventies. The word most associated with the deep image poets is probably stone. In “Stone Soup: Contemporary Poetry and the Obsessive Image,” David Walker traces the interest in this word back to Robert Bly’s early collection Silence in the Snowy Fields and from there to the surrealists Bly was translating. Bly, for one, understood stone in the cultural context of Spanish surrealism as well as through Jungian archetypal models; but Walker (1980) argues that other poets, such as Gregory Orr, have “introduced the surrealist vein a little too easily” (150). In its heyday, the stone was the ultimate image of the Thing, and for poets like Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Charles Simic, and Mark Strand--each of whom tapped into specific European or Latin American traditions of object poetry--it represented unmediated contact with the elemental world of things, as well as a shedding of the self and of personality (often associated with a receptive stance toward death). Later, as Walker notes, the word was used less for specific echoes than for poetic effect: “dozens of poems . . . seem to be written in the belief that merely by mentioning the word stone one can plug the poem into a current of hermetic insight and gnomic utterance . . .” (154). When it became “a central metaphor of our poetry” (147), the signifier stone abandoned its association with a particular poetic practice, serving instead to announce a poem’s presence. Eventually, according to Walker, it devolved into a cliché.
At the other end of academic poetry in the sixties, as so often remarked, is the ubiquitous confessional I. If stone represented the object before its apprehension by the perceiving subject, the I privileged subjective experience over all other routes to knowledge. As with stone, historical patterns found in the deployment of the I can help us understand how words rise and fall in the shifting hierarchy of the poetic. For Lowell and the other poets M. L. Rosenthal would call confessional, the I signalled a radical break from the controlled academic poetry in the forties and fifties--poetry that Lowell, among others, had actually written. Lowell’s leap from the dramatic monologues of The Mills of the Kavanaughs to Life Studies, with its autobiographical poems and prose autobiography fragment, heralded a dramatic shift in certain poets’ understanding of themselves and their relation to the poem (Rosenthal 1967, 27-28).9 Yet if for Lowell and others the turn toward autobiography represented a radically altered attitude, it is worth remembering that I in poetry is first and foremost a word, a signifier--and that as such, those reacting to confessional poetry may in part be complaining about the overuse of this word rather than just about a certain stance toward the world. The limitations of confessional language were as rhetorical as they were epistemological.
Both stone and I, initially representing a particular attitude toward the world, the self, and the language, quickly became commonplace rhetorical moves. Theirs is a familiar pattern with code or signal words in poems. They first gain power in the context of a specific nexus of associations, and among a particular group of poets; stone and I are not just words but resonate with layers of meaning. In this stage of use, they are associated with specific domains of knowledge--to schematize it rather crudely, with Jung and Freud for deep image and confessional verse respectively. Later, as their use widens, they are transformed, as Walker complains, into little more than poetic devices indicating a general tone or mood. Their proliferation is a result of the kind of symbolic capital initially associated with the words’ specific use; yet this same proliferation is precisely what undermines their symbolic value. Between the origin of code words in particular knowledges and their devaluation through overproduction, such words hold intermediate value, still retaining some symbolic worth but slowly falling in value. Like everything else under capitalism, then, poetic signifiers have a specific pattern of planned obsolescence, with perhaps diminishing shelf lives over time (Silliman 1990, 150).
It is unclear where on the scales of value desire may currently lie; it seems pretty popular, though. I suspect that it mainly operates as a second stage word, no longer implying direct link with specific knowledges but not yet having outlived its modishness. In fact, I date its emergence precisely: 1977, the year of the English abridgment of Lacan’s Écrits. In the late seventies and early eighties desire was quite strongly encoded; as it proliferated through the eighties, following the pattern just outlined, its specific resonance diminished. Nonetheless, one can see traces of its original specificity in the overwhelming preference more recent poets have for desire in its noun form.10 Desire, desiring, desired: while in the abstract desire is as respectable a verb as a noun, contemporary poets gravitate toward the potential of the word as thing. In addition to referencing a specific zone of knowledge, this preferred usage points toward a crucial feature of the word’s recent importance: its intersubjective character. Neither object (stone) nor subject (I), desire moves like a verb at its most nounlike. It posits a subject--the one who desires, who has desire--even when pointing to an object. This gestural, deictic quality increases its appeal for recent poets who negotiate the Scylla of discourse and the Charybdis of subjectivity.
The above schema is by no means exhaustive. Other signifiers are also privileged in eighties poems; other styles could be traced. Even within the limited range I have discussed, numerous words have special status in confessional verse (blood and father come to mind) and deep image poetry (snow, breath). No term is irreplacable, and any change would alter the patterns I am tracing. Further, the linear nature of this model only comprehends a word’s travel in one direction, from the excitement of discovery to tired obsolescence; it does not account for the various ways words may regain currency after the run of their initial lives, whether in the remarketing of signifiers for their nostalgic value or through postmodern parody and pastiche. But desire still seems to hold particular privilege in poetry today, and focus on it is useful insofar as such focus traces the dynamics of contemporary verse in a threatened literary culture. In any event, I am not interested in the word’s frequency (I remains one of the most frequent words in American poetry) so much as its use as a coded term.
An important and early instance of the contemporary encoding of desire in American poetry is found in Robert Hass’s (1979) poem, “Picking Blackberries With a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan,” from his watershed second volume Praise. Here is the poem in full:
August is dust here. Drought
stuns the road,
but juice gathers in the berries.
We pick them in the hot
slow-motion of midmorning.
Charlie is exclaiming:
for him it is twenty years ago
and raspberries and Vermont.
We have stopped talking
about L’Histoire de la vérité,
about subject and object
and the mediation of desire.
Our ears are stoppered
in the bee-hum. And Charlie,
beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get a bigger pot.
Taking the title as a cue, Gunilla Florby has read this piece as a riposte to Lacan in particular and poststructuralist critical theory in general. The poet has won a victory over Lacanian theoretical discourse: “Hass thumbs his nose at post-structuralist notions of alienation,” Florby (1991) argues, and Hass’s poems as a whole enact a “defiance of the structuralist split” between signifier and signified (194). To this extent, Florby reads the poem as it asks to be read. But the title of the poem, which acts as a guide to its proper reading, also seeks to control it. The space between title and poem traces the disjunction between the text and its ideology. Lacan’s presence in the title can be seen as a sort of ritualistic naming-as-exclusion, as the proper name of Lacan is absent from the body of the poem. By weaving Lacan back into the fabric of the poem from which he has been “ousted,” as Florby perhaps unwittingly says (194), we are able to distance our reading of the poem from the text’s explicit ideology, refiguring the function of desire in the contemporary poetic. In such an improper reading it is possible to find a more troubling deployment of desire. 11
Note that Hass here employs desire in its early stage of coding. While the poem is readable without our knowing either the word’s importance for Lacan or its specific functions in his work, the reader who comes to the poem familiar with its recent history will recognize its resonance. In addition, Hass’s poem, like the book in which it appears, is an early instance of a style that would proliferate widely in eighties American poetry: this style, or set of styles, merges informal, almost flippant personal narrative with a larger discursive sweep invoking political, historical or philosophical reflection. Finally, “Picking Blackberries” indicates how much American poetry has come into uneasy contact with structuralist and poststructuralist critical theory. The poem could only gain wide recognition in a social context where American poetry is deeply implicated in the academic world. At least in 1979, when Praise was published, there were no pop-Lacanians (as there are pop-Freudians and pop-Jungians);12 the specific knowledges that find echoes in this poem are centered in the university, even the graduate English or comparative literature department.
To understand the role of Lacan in this poem, we must note how Lacanian discourse enters the poem, indirectly, through the characters. The poem’s “Lacanian” section operates as a semi-autonomous discursive unit, almost as a poem within the poem, at the poem’s uncertain center. This section, which takes up one sentence and four lines, seems to provide access through the narrator and “Charlie” to the specific discourses that inform the poem. Both characters are familiar enough with Lacan to converse knowledgeably “about subject and object / and the mediation of desire.” However, because the poem contains no dialogue, the reader cannot participate in this conversation. We only read what the conversation is “about,” not its content; the related words “stopped” and “stoppered” framing this section apply to the reader as much as, or more than, the characters. They do not talk (”We have stopped talking”), we do not listen (”Our ears are stoppered”). The conversation is thus anterior to the poem and barred from it in two senses: it precedes both the writing of the poem and, strictly speaking, the time the poem represents. Like speech markers signalling class, race, or region, the Lacanian terms in this poem situate the characters as possessing a probable perspective and range of knowledge. The words themselves, of course, would not have enacted an actual speech situation--the poem is still silent on the page. However, the manner in which the words are distanced from the reader depends on the bête noir of deconstruction: the myth of speech as presence.
Indeed, if we remove the “Lacanian” sentence (not coincidentally the sentence containing desire), the poem is still fully readable. Perhaps even more so: the title L’Histoire de la vérité is easy enough to understand, but it might send readers scrambling to locate the reference. Further, with this sentence removed, the later phrase “the word juice” loses its air of poststructuralist argot. Without this sentence the poem is still concerned with binaries of presence/absence, plenitude/want, and nature/language, but these issues are addressed through deeply traditional imagery: the dry summer heat, the ripeness and sexualized “wetness” of fruit, the garden of Eden motif, and Charlie’s almost Frostian nostalgia.
It is not the case, however, that familiarity with Lacan is of no aid in reading the poem. Readers with a good grasp of French poststructuralism may know that the title, L’Histoire de la vérité, is fictional, invoking no single, specific text but rather a set of theoretical assumptions (for example, that “truth” has a variable history rather than a stable content).13 Indeed, basic recognition is necessary for the joke at the poem’s conclusion to succeed; the reader has to associate Lacan with the poststructuralist thought supposedly finding no reality outside language in order for the cool put-down of “beard stained purple / by the word juice” to have its full effect. Thus, whether fluent in the discourses of contemporary theory or not, the reader can participate in a joke authorized by the “insider” knowledge of the characters.
This insider stance is carefully cultivated in several poems of Praise. The book’s most widely anthologized poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas”--a poem that, like “Picking Blackberries,” also uses blackberries as a foil against poststructuralism--begins by noticing that “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking” (4).14 The sober, reflective tone here gives the poem such authority as to characterize “all the new thinking” at a stroke, and to dispute its newness. As with the joke at the end of “Picking Blackberries,” the friendliness in the lyric tone mitigates against the real hostility in the poem’s treatment of poststructuralist writing. Blackberries are affirmations of the sensual world against the immateriality of speculative thought; they are Hass saying “I refute it thus.” Yet with Hass as with Dr. Johnson, the responsive kick does not touch the disputed claim on its own terms; the overall language of this poem is informed not by the discourses of critical theory but by the meditative stance of T. S. Eliot’s Four Ouartets and John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
The arguments of poststructuralism are here taken up and absorbed into a lyric observation with a specific literary and personal ancestry. These lines explicitly echo Eliot’s (1971) “Every poem an epitaph” (144) but also such later theory-laden poems as Ashbery’s (1975) with its affirmation that “there are no words for the surface, that is, / No words to say what it really is, that it is not / Superficial but a visual core” (70). Accordingly, when the speaker of “Meditation at Lagunitas” later comments on the cheapness and unreality of theory-talk--”talking this way, everything dissolves: justice, / pine, hair, woman, you and I”--he counters this observation with the remembrance of a lover and the “violent wonder” he felt “at her presence” (Hass 1979, 4). The poem’s critical observations, which stretch the domain of the poetic to include the discourse of critical theory, are countered by the stereotyped material of postromantic lyric verse: love, memory, image. In this regard, and given the stress placed on “absence” in poststructuralist theory, “presence” seems deliberate, even aggressive. This poem negotiates a series of absences, attempting to take poststructuralism’s attack on presence seriously while it refutes the Derridean (1976) slogan that “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (158).
But it is precisely at the level of slogans, not of understanding or dialogue, that the battle is pitched. The stance here resembles that in “Picking Blackberries” because the authority or “expertise” of the poem’s speaker does not have to be shared by the reader but is transferred to the reader by what is shared: a distrust of what is perceived as poststructuralism’s arrogance, and a faith in the emotional force of poetry. Thus, the reader is able to gain the upper hand on “theory” and dismiss it as irrelevant; by participating in the emotional journey of the speaker, the reader also assumes the speaker’s authoritative, knowledgeable tone. To put it another way, what the reader needs is not an expertise or fluency in poststructuralist theory, but a passing familiarity with its vocabulary. The implied audience of this poem has a peripheral relationship with, some respect for, and a general suspicion of the discourses of theory in American university English departments; it also has a continuing commitment to the Romantic ideal of literature as self-realization tempered by a worn skepticism about that ideal’s fulfillment in any socially meaningful sense. In other words, the ideal implied reader of “Meditation at Lagunitas” is a student in any typical American M.F.A. program.
As in “Picking Blackberries,” desire in “Meditation at Lagunitas” holds a crucial place for the rhetoric of the poem:
It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
In this poem the desire earlier linked with the blackberries is associated with an absent woman. This woman, it is assumed, desires the speaker even as the speaker desires her. But the symmetry between male and female in the lines above is, I think, rare in the poems of Praise. In “Picking Blackberries . . .” the two men of the poem share in a secret knowledge (which is not given to the reader), and the staining of the beard in that poem, as well as the domestic and traditional female associations of the receptacle “pot,” grant a gendered dimension to this poem as well. “The Feast,” another poem in Praise, represents a “wifely woman” who is denied even knowledge of the object of desire: “She didn’t know what she wanted” (18). And in “Against Botticelli,” a kind of private knowledge is connected with anal intercourse (11-12). Characteristically, the man knows what he desires in these poems, while the woman is either an object of a man’s desire or confused about her own desire.
Brought thus back to the sexual aetiology of desire, we can begin resituating its place in the contemporary poetic through the Lacanian problematic. In approaching this issue, an issue that also addresses Lacan’s view of the Oedipus complex, it is not necessary to answer what Peter Dews (1987) calls “the major question which hangs over Lacan’s work,” namely whether Lacan’s writings enact a return to Freud’s most radical and powerful formulations, “or whether Lacan too--for whatever reasons--was obliged to become a revisionist” (49). This is because Lacan’s discussion of desire is both Freudian and Hegelian. Indeed, Samuel Weber (1991) notes that Freud, unlike Lacan, never uses desire “as a central theoretical concept” (120). Lacan’s deployment of the term may, as Weber argues, map an absent space in Freud’s work, strengthening connections between knowledge, the feminine, and alterity that were implicit in Freud. But its ancestry as a term must also be traced back to Hegel via the famous lectures of Kojève that Lacan, like so many other French intellectuals of his generation, attended. 15
With this dual ancestry, desire contains for Lacan a multiple and characteristically overdetermined signification. Read through Lacan’s selfrepresentation of his work as a return to Freud, desire (désir) substitutes for the less useful concept of the Freudian wish (Wunsch) in Lacan’s redescription of the Oedipus complex, arising “with the prohibition of the original love object, the mother” (Weber 1991, 124).16 It is thus a desire for what can never be known, what Lacan calls “the Other.” In its Hegelian/Kojèvian sense, conversely, desire is directed toward recognition, and produces a certain positive knowledge as the subject approaches self-consciousness: “self-consciousness is desire [Begierde],” Hegel (1977) says, and “self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self” (109, 110). This dual ancestry and signification of desire in Freud and Hegel is one source of Lacan’s distinction between “the Other,” emblem of unknowable, unrepresentable alterity as such, and “the other” (left untranslated as object petit a), which can be read as one element in an Hegelian dialectic of self-realization. If the objet petit a is a component of knowledge, the Other lies outside the realm of the known; if one recognizes oneself through an intersubjective relation with the other, the Other is unrecognizable, a negative space of mis-recognition.
Lacan (1977) is led to represent desire in terms of the difference between the other’s dialectical, and the Other’s radically nondialectical relation to the subject: “Thus, desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung)” (287). Admitting some necessary measure of reductiveness, we may here associate the first of these--appetite for satisfaction--with Hegel and the object petit a, and the second--demand for love--with Freud and the Other. Given the importance of Saussure in Lacan, one should read the word “difference” through the Saussurean view of language as a differential chain of arbitrary signifiers. Read as difference, the split between appetite for satisfaction and demand for love, in addition to its Saussurean associations, is also linked with both ancestors of desire: with Freud insofar as the onset of language in Lacan is connected with the emergence of the incest taboo; and with Hegel insofar as the dynamics of recognition underlie the master-slave dialectic. Nevertheless, in Lacan’s reading, Freud “reopens the junction between truth and knowledge” closed off in the thought of Hegel: “desire becomes bound up with the desire of the other, but that in that loop lies the desire to know” (301). In other words, the subject enters the signifying chain through recognition of/by the other, but that subject is forever barred from knowledge of the Other. This bar is precisely the bar of signification (150-52).
This double signification of desire as at once Hegelian and Freudian, dialectical and nondialectical, other and Other, forms a fault line in Lacan that is carried over in applications of his work to feminist theory. In general, American feminist theory has favored the Hegelian side of desire. Juliet Flower MacCannell (1992) argues that “for Lacan desire-as-recognition remains critical for the history of oppression of women, because it arranges the sexes in an imaginary symmetry, as it does all egos, when in fact, owing to its inherent aggressiveness and its strictures of domination and servitude, dissymetry prevails” (65). By not recognizing the Hegelian face of desire’s coin, Freud, MacCannell suggests, ignores how desire can act as an agent of repression. In demonstrating the power of recognition, MacCannell (1992) says, “Lacan fills in a certain gap apparent in Freud”; by filling in this gap, Lacan eventually arrives against Freud on the side of academic theoretical feminism (65-67). In addition, though MacCannell recognizes the antihistorical element of the Lacanian description (”imaginary . . . desire dramatically suspends the historicity of desire” ), she does not seem altogether troubled by the potential for reifying the very dissymetry also uncovered in his description of desire-as-recognition. Rather, she notes that later French feminists “have made the effort to re-write the phallic character of this central image of desire” while retaining, even utilizing, its ahistorical representation (67). For MacCannell, in other words, desire-as-recognition is itself recognized only to be deflected as an agent of history and historical repression.
In MacCannell’s reading, the nondialectial representation of desire is caught in a dialectical relation to the dialectical representation of desire (desire-as-recognition). There is, in other words, a dialectic between the dialectical and the nondialectical; the nondialectical is negated as part of a greater dialectic. On the other hand, this greater dialectic obliterates the historical as such. To a degree, MacCannell’s reassertion of the dialectic may reauthorize history against the fundamental ahistoricity of desire. For other feminists, however, this reauthorization might not be enough. In Jane Gallop’s (1985) Reading Lacan, for example, desire is even more firmly grounded in its Hegelian moment. Here, “the primacy of recognition” is imperative: “A desire must insistently repeat itself until it be recognized. . . . [R]ecognition, that basic fact of psychoanalysis . . . , is the effect not so much of the frustration of desire but of the lack of recognition of a desire” (104). Gallop’s promotion of Hegelian desire has strategic motivations. Hers is a radically historical psychanalytic feminism, with its own historicity foregrounded in the service of a political redescription. 17 In addition to reasserting the historical as the primary agent of signification and subject-formation, Gallop returns to Hegel in other ways as well: for example, she attempts to destabilize the authority of the analyst as master. Throughout Reading Lacan, Gallop brings dynamics of psychoanalytic transference to bear on textual interpretation: the reader’s desire for recognition, including her own desire as a reader of Lacan, is in fact recognized--that is, legitimated--and the implicit authority of the Lacanian text is brought into question. Though Lacan himself can not be mastered, he loses his powerful significance as the master.
Both MacCannell and Gallop emphasize the Hegelian ancestry of desire. For Gallop, however, the very symmetry which MacCannell wishes to undermine is strategically reasserted. The desire of the reader is recognized, and symmetries--reader and text, Gallop and Lacan, analysand and analyst, female and male--reborn. Gallop recognizes the problems in such a reading of Lacan, but she is willing to risk them: “I am still within the effects of a massive reading transference onto Lacan’s texts specifically and psychoanalytic literature more generally. Having denounced the illusory and ideologically repressive effects of that transference, I nonetheless am in no position simply to give it up” (30). Gallop, in other words, inscribes the dynamics of desire into the very form of her textual practice.
We seem to have travelled a good distance from poetry, and the way back is by no means easy. Yet Robert Hass’s Praise is a book in which desire is central, and the question of gender both acute and suppressed. Woman in his poems is object of desire and wellspring of knowledge, that toward whom the male speaks and gestures yet at the same time the source and ground of his own speaking. The object of desire would seem to be stable, since that object does not itself desire--yet Lacan’s concept of desire does not allow for such stability. If desire in Lacan is, as Weber (1991) claims, “essentially unconscious in structure,” then it comes about as an effect of signification, “structured differentially and as a metonymic movement: it is oriented less by objects than by signifiers” (127). To illustrate this effect, Weber recasts Lacan’s image of the “loop,” noting that “insofar as desire is directed towards something else which ‘itself’ can never simply be a self-identical object, it is not only desirous of another, but is ‘itself’ another’s desire. It is ‘the desire for the other’s desire,’ the desire of a signifier, defined as the signifier of another’s desire” (128). Reading Praise and the other (typically male-centered) invocations of desire in eighties poetry with this sense of desire’s history and signification in Lacan, one might ask: who is this Other whose desire is desired?
The obvious, but for that reason elusive, answer is--Lacan himself. And the object of Lacan’s desire, that which the contemporary poetic misrecognizes as its own, is theory. The poet thinks he (sic) desires poetic authority, and represents his own poetry as having satisfied that desire--but the terms have shifted, theoretical (in)authenticity has been substituted in its place, and the theorist has come to replace the poet as the original and authoritative site of desire. Theory for the poet has stolen the traditional roles of poetry, separating poets from their language; it has appropriated both the authority of truth (miscast as ironic unmasking of ideology) and the burden of literacy. Thus, theory gives birth to the language and cultural situation of contemporary American poetry; but in Hass, the poet who uses this language stands in a secondary relation to the Other of theory itself. The particular splitting in which the poet comes to realize his own lack of primary contact with theory (and the seeming access to primary contact of Lacan, or the theorist qua theorist) gives rise to the anxious place of desire in Hass’s Praise.
If we take this analogy to its extreme, the linguistic Oedipal anxiety18 of the male poet, like that of the male child, arises through a separation from the mother (in this case, theory), a separation that is directly constitutive of the subject as subject, in addition to the subject as user of language. The poet’s own narration of this event, which constructs as it remembers, is unable to disentangle this separation from the active intervention of the father (Lacan), who is seen as having caused it. The calmness of tone in Hass’s poems masks the Oedipal anxiety that motivates them. The stress placed on desire displays not only the awareness of that loss, but also its denial in a poetic will-to-power; it takes the weapons of the Father against the name of the Father.
Against Hass’s distinctly male, anxiety-driven use of desire, we may pit Jorie Graham’s first volume, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, which appeared the year after Praise. Graham, like Hass, can be counted as one of the new discursive poets emerging in the seventies, though her philosophical turn of mind may have less to do with response to American poetic traditions than with her own upbringing and education in Europe.19 Graham’s work has a hard-headedness in philosophical and cultural matters that distinguishes her from Hass, with his anxious evocation of “all the new thinking.” Like Hass, Graham’s poetry explores how the self is formed and dissolves in discourse, and, moreover, how language that describes such formation and dissolution from “outside”--that is to say, “discursive” language--may operate within the conventions of lyric.
The difference between Hass and Graham may be clarified through Robert Pinsky’s 1976 book The Situation of Poetry. Though ostensibly an historical argument, Pinsky’s influential work has sometimes been read as a manifesto for the poetry that would appear with poets like Hass and Graham. Pinsky describes the style he foresees--still on the horizon but occasionally, briefly visible--as “neither ironic nor ecstatic. It is speech, organized by its meaning, avoiding the distances and complications of irony on the one side and the ecstatic fusion of speaker, meaning, and subject on the other. The idea [of such poetry] is to have all of the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic” (134). Though Pinsky’s book is directed against the legacy of Romanticism in contemporary poetry, his radical have-cake-will-eat formula tastes decisively of a Romantic drive for total absorptive discourse. Ultimately, the bold prophecy of the book may register Pinsky’s anxiety over the failure of that totalizing drive, a last-ditch effort to refight a battle he elsewhere recognizes as lost.
Additionally, Pinsky’s formulation suggests that this new poetry may solve a perceived, and long-standing, dilemma between “subjective” and “objective” poetry. As I have suggested elsewhere, that impression is due mainly to his having set up the problematics of contemporary poetry against the backdrop of the Romantic lyric.20 Yet though Graham’s work formally addresses the making of categorical oppositions, she seems less interested than Hass in resolving paradoxes of poetic tradition; her deployment of Lacan is less confrontational, as is her use of extrapoetic discourse in general. Whereas Hass is anxiously skeptical about the ability of poststructuralism to describe the world, he is nonetheless persuaded that there is a world “out there” to describe. His references to desire attack poststructuralism at the level of its truthfulness. Graham, on the other hand, seems more receptive to the hermeneutics of suspicion; she is more likely to explore the possibilities of theoretical discourse for poetry than contest their perceived meaning and/or significance. While Hass writes about poststructuralist ideas in “Picking Blackberries” and “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Graham tries throughout her work--and even at this early stage of her career--to write through them. While Hass considers desire, Graham everywhere deploys its effects.
To distinguish Graham from Hass in this manner is not to suggest that Graham is “avant-garde” as Hass is not. At least in her early career, Graham remains strongly referential; though interested in multiple perspectives and functions of discourse, her work is situated squarely within the conventions of voice. Indeed, it is precisely those conventions which open her work to an active or formal use of desire. For Graham, the voice can provide poetry, and lyric in particular, with access to a temporal decay which contrasts with reader expectations of a “lyric moment.” In Hybrids, the temporal dimension of speech energizes her work; she submits the written voice to the effects of spoken time, allowing what has just been said to pass away into silence, all the while hanging the “present” of her sentences, as the voice does, on what is no longer present (the “past”). This technique will manifest itself in the title of her second book, Erosion, and later will be radically extended to incorporate cinematic effects.
What is that tension between the temporal decay of voice and the expectation of lyric closure if not the formal mapping of the dynamics of desire? To read Hybrids as a formalization of desire is to explain why the poems can evoke a strong frustration in readers trained to expect the lyric moment. When I first encountered her poems as an undergraduate, they annoyed me; next to familiar poets like Stafford, Bishop, James Wright, even Sharon Olds and Hass of Graham’s generation, they seemed unstable, always ready to fly apart. All the instrumentation of lyric was present, yet the machine didn’t work.
One might attribute my early response to the abstract language of the poems, as in this passage from “Angels for Cézanne”:
Not because happiness
exists, but because
it can be deduced from continuities
such as these--yew
trees, dark windows
holding back dark sky,
(Graham 1980, 10)
Yet the poem, and my frustrated early response to it, escape such a reduction to abstraction. It is not the vocabulary of the poem that disturbs, but the dynamic shuttling between vocabularies--its conceptual syntax. The vocabulary is decidedly mixed. In this passage, visual specifics cluster at the end of the sentence, providing the impression of an imagistic closure. Yet the images remain strangely unanchored, floating; their significance is relational, and lies in the “happiness” which can be “deduced” from these “continuities.” Of course, they are not continuities but things; they become continuities as a result of repeated perception, that is to say, over time. This phenomenological emphasis on temporality foregrounds the already obvious difference between the seemingly eternal yews and the fragile--and conspicuously singular--”white flower.” The yews and flower are more discontinuous than continuous, and they are syntactically (and possibly physically--is the flower indoors?) divided by the “dark windows,” emblematic of the “bar of signification” itself.21 Still, by highlighting this difference, the poem stresses that phenomenological recognition depends on the stability of things, a stability the speaker regrets: “it is what holds still / too long that belong / to us.” While we generally expect desire to seek its fulfillment, the cost of possession--holding still--is here too high.
Though Graham approaches the issue of desire at the level of use (syntax) rather than meaning (vocabulary), the signifier desire does appear conspicuously throughout Hybrids. I count ten instances in all, one in the lines immediately following those just quoted:
between the trees
move more rapidly.
You can feel them
in your kite’s crisp
desire the moment before
it leaves you.
This poem does not deploy desire as a philosophical concept appropriate only for a subject. Here desire is anthropomorphically attributed to an object; the kite’s desire is a desire to leave, not to possess or dominate. Hass’s poems desire to close a gap; desire in this poem, at least, opens one.
If the pathetic fallacy in giving the kite a desire is read as projection, then whose is it? The speaker’s, or the “you”? All attempts to fix desire in this poem only destabilize it further. The kite has desire; the kite leaves “you.” What is their relation? Here is how the poem begins:
The almost invisible
shuttlecock at dusk
floats over the fine net,
coming to bloom in
the empty gardenia bush.
The game is played in the mounting dusk; external forces seem to make the loss in this poem inevitable. However, the “missed shot” here has a humorously gendered aspect: missed or not, the “shuttlecock” does make it over the net and “come” to bloom, albeit in an “empty” bush. Everything in the landscape is sexualized, but the game of desire is awkwardly, and humorously, misplayed. In Hass, male desire is profoundly serious, and its deflection and thwarting is always a loss. Desire does always lose, though, in part because the game is rigged; theory has (always) already been there. In Graham, on the other hand, desire has no “end” in mind; it is mobile, shuttling across spaces like a badminton birdie. Indeed, the mobile actions of birds are traced throughout Hybrids, and their restlessness is admired. Desire is useful only as long as it shifts; we remember how possession or belonging results from the game’s having been given up (”what holds still / too long”). Indeed, at one point in Hybrids, desire has “become too accurate / to be of use” (26). Another poem argues that “we need to seize again / the whole language / in search of / better desires” (28). Better desires do not equal better objects of desire; the point is not object but action: “If we could only imagine / a better arc / of flight; you get just what you want” (28). Better desires, paradoxically, are desires that lose control: “And see how beautiful / the alphabet becomes / when randomness sets in” (28).22
In Hass’s poems desire is directed toward its fulfillment, and the essential lack that theory inserts into the very structure of desire seems like a cheap shot. In the same cultural context, Graham shifts the terms; in her poems, the rules of the game are its object. Thus the end of “Angels for Cézanne”:
the gentle kites
what cannot hold them--cone,
cylinder, sphere and
signature like breath
scoring the pane
There are Hass-like moments of pathos in the poem’s final recognition of loss, but they are finally overcome. Not transcended: deployed. “What cannot hold” the kites is the human eye (with nods to Yeats in cone and cannot hold and to Emerson’s transparent eyeball in sphere) as they pass beyond the range of visual perception. In addition, the kites are released because of the gaining dark: “cone” and “cylinder” suggest the eye’s loss of color vision as light diminishes. Therefore, it is not the kite’s movement alone that blocks sight, but the passage of time itself as well as the limits of our own physiology and sense perception. The last three lines also allude to Derrida, I think, 23 and the puns on “pane” and “scoring” bring the poem back to its implicitly human terrain. The humor at the beginning of the poem is also reaffirmed, though the last line (with its evocation of Lacan’s bar of signification again) undercuts that humor.
What are we to make of “Angels for Cézanne”? Like many of Graham’s poems, “Angels” can best be read as a performance of its own argument. It shuttles back and forth between the human and the object world, between earth and air, between writing (signature) and speech (breath), between male and female. It does not, however, stop or “unify” those oppositions; unlike Hass, Graham does not ask us to “accept” or “reject” poststructuralist arguments. Instead, Graham enacts these claims in the text and texture of the poem. As with Hass, Graham links Lacan with other major French theorists including Derrida. But in her poems, such theory forms the ground of articulation rather than the object of examination. The difference is apparent in the ways the poets choose to end their poems. Both of Hass’s poems end with a moment of imagistic closure, one which emphasizes abundance to overflowing. In “Meditation at Lagunitas,” the repetition of the word blackberry at the poem’s famous end could serve as the beginning of a counting or accounting (one blackberry, two blackberries, three). In such a reading, the poem may open rather than conclude. Still, the effect of the poem is pretty strongly closed; each repetition of blackberry hammers one more nail in the coffin of poststructuralist pretension. Similarly, in “Picking Blackberries,” the final image of the pot evokes the richness and fecundity of nature, a formalized Horn of Plenty. In both poems the blackberries are not only there, present, accounted for; they are abundant, infinite, overflowing. Both poems dismiss arguments about the construction of lack in the very making of language as so much hot air; next to such arguments, the richness of blackberries looks like “the goods.” “Angels for Cézanne,” by contrast, ends not imagistically but relationally. The kites are in nature, “Above / in the garden clouds,” and the union of culture and nature, according to the logic of Romantic closure, should satisfy. Yet it does not. The poem’s end neither closes as one might expect, nor opens out into the world as Hass’s poems do; instead, it sends the reader back into the poem and to its shifting lexical registers. To get a sense of what Graham has done here, imagine the last two lines reversed to read “between us, / scoring the pane.” While the puns remain, the poem ends on a feeling and its concrete manifestation in “the pane” rather than in the relational dynamics of Graham’s version.
There is more to discuss in these poems, including an implied narrative of development traced by Graham’s use of “desire” in the volume’s opening three poems. 24 However, my argument here is historical, and is limited to the question: What happens to American poetry when poststructuralism threatens its traditional affirmation of self? It should be clear by now that Hass and Graham both use desire in the context of a poststructuralism that, as it expands into culture and as poetry contracts into the academy, is increasingly inescapable. Perhaps it is too much to say that Graham deploys the dynamics of desire that Hass resists. Yet faced with a common cultural situation, the two poets respond differently; how are we to measure that difference in a way that moves the poetry back into the literary and social field? If both poets are seeking recognition, 25 and their response to Lacan is a strategic component of that search, then perhaps we can say that Hass bets against the future success of poststructuralism in the academy, while Graham bets in favor of it. To put it another way, if in the late seventies Lacanian and other poststructuralist theory was viewed suspiciously by poets in the academy, Hass places his confidence in the then-present (1979) distrust of critical theory, and Graham hopes for its future (circa 1995?) acceptance.
Such a reading has several effects. First, it demonstrates that what is at stake in the deployment of desire is not the fate of the self but the fate of poetry. Second, it throws a wrench in the machinery of transcendence. If recognition is transcendence’s yardstick, then both Hass and Graham seek to transcend history by means of it. Indeed, in Graham transcendence of reputation is sought by rejecting transcendence as a category; while Hass, who has more faith in the Romantic reconciliation of opposites, seems stuck in the dominant logic of his time. Yet by monkey-wrenching transcendence, I may have just sabotaged my own essay. Since the future both Hass and Graham place their bets on includes by definition the present argument, I too am implicated in their decisions; I must, therefore, situate my role in the wake of their response. My increased fondness for Graham’s work over the years, and my increased dissatisfaction with Hass, displays not necessarily my growth as a reader but my move from one side of the poetry/theory divide to the other, even as the divide itself has moved. For me to cast my lot with Graham against Hass is to enter, and not merely to describe, this dynamic.
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Durham, NC 27708
1. There have been numerous attempts to take stock of this retreat, ranging from the welcoming to the apocalyptic. An example of the former is Who Comes After the Subject, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (1991), which focuses on perspectives from contemporary French philosophy. Constructions of the Self, edited by George Levine (1992), is a more measured text; Levine’s introduction even holds out the possibility that the self may emerge from the ashes of humanism. The individual pieces are wide-ranging, though Levine does rightly identify Irving Howe’s contribution, “The Self in Literature,” as the most unswervingly humanist essay in the book.
2. I employ the term “the poetic” to designate the entire social-discursive field of contemporary poetry, including not only poems but also manifestos, critical statements, reviews, M.F.A. programs and other workshops, little magazines, presses, funding agencies, and readings. I develop this term throughout my larger project, Deploying the Poetic, to describe a limited and semiautonomous region of the literary field as a whole.
3. Language poetry has become the most useful, if still disputed, term for identifying the diverse configuration of radical experimental verse associated with the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1979-82) and other outlets for radical writing emerging in the seventies. Central players of the Language movement who now hold posts in major English departments include Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe. All three of these writers have recently published critical books with university presses.
4. Proponents of Ashbery generally divide into two camps, one stressing his role in the postwar avant-garde, the other emphasizing his connection to “the Western lyric tradition,” in Helen Vendler’s words (1988, 231). The question of which, if either, of these views will gain ultimate acceptance is by no means settled. But the general rise in Ashbery’s visibility and readership seems directly related to the power of the latter view, especially as articulated in the (otherwise quite different) projects of Vendler and Harold Bloom, who both connect Ashbery to Romanticism via Stevens (see, e.g., Bloom 1973, 142-46). While the opposing view, presented most forcefully by Marjorie Perloff, continues to have some influence, a soft version of the Bloom/Vendler perspective continues to dominate Ashbery’s reception. This view’s dominance is related to, among other issues, the teachability of Romanticism--while Perloff stresses Ashbery’s strangeness and difficulty (Perloff 1980, 79 and passim), Vendler and Bloom normalize his work by reference to canonical texts.
5. See e.g., Andrew Ross. 1988. “The New Sentence and the Commodity Form: New American Writing.” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 361-80. See also Shetley’s critique of Ross (140-43). As for the influence of the sentence on the New Formalism, I might point to the convergence of New Formalist and New Narrative interests, participants, schools, and presses (especially Story Line Press). See, e.g., Expansive Poetry: Essays on the New Narrative & the New Formalism. 1989. Edited by Frederick Feirstein. Santa Cruz: Story Line Press.
6. But Bourdieu’s own work has been accused of precisely such functionalist simplification; see Jenkins 1992.
7. Yet these “poles” are not opposites. In fact, Bourdieu rather severely deflates the absolute opposition between these categories as found in mainstream philosophy since Kant; the principle of autonomy is not free, nor is the heteronomous principle exactly enslaving.
8. But see Richard Kearne (1987), “The Crisis of the Post-Modern Image,” for an alternate perspective. Kearney takes the Barthesian view that postmodernism is a crisis of the inauthentic image (and hence a crisis of imagination). It is this very inauthenticity that makes the image, locus of humanist value in much previous discourse, central to postmodernism. I would argue, however, that Kearney’s is a minority position, as most studies of postmodernist culture (e.g., Hutcheon 1988 and Jameson 1991) focus on narrative and history. Jameson does briefly discuss language poetry (1991, 25-31).
9. I here rehearse the standard narrative of Lowell’s development. Robert Hass, discussed below, takes the opposite view: “I still find myself blinkering incredulously when I read--in almost anything written about the poetry--that those early poems ‘clearly reflect the burden of the new criticism,’ while the later ones are ‘less consciously wrought and extremely intimate.’” To hold this view, Hass argues, “is to get things appallingly wrong” (1984, 6).
10. Empirical study in this area is difficult to perform. I have collected dozens of instances from early eighties poetry of its appearance, in poets published by the major poetry publishers, in what I would call a strongly coded form. Almost never is desire used as a verb. A significant exception is in a Graham poem from the volume I discuss here. I regret that there is not the space to discuss it. The lines in question read: “what I desire is / nostalgia for a moment different from another’s moment, undressed, / clean, / all that you cannot give away” (”Whore’s Bath,” 1980, 6).
11. It is an open question whether the following mapping of a rather broad social problem (that of the function of subjectivity in contemporary poetic articulation) onto a specific psychoanalytical model should be taken seriously. I present it neither as proof of Lacan’s views nor as a cultural diagnosis. Rather, I claim merely that Lacan’s own work can challenge his ouster, and the broader exclusion of theoretical discourse, from even that segment of the contemporary poetic which desires it.
12. Slavoj Zizek may be the first.
13. Florby (1991) finds echoes of Foucault as well as Lacan here (194); also of interest, especially given this poem’s hostility toward Lacan, is Jaques Derrida’s “Le facteur de la vérité,” a response to Lacan’s seminar on Poe. As Derrida’s translator Alan Bass notes, the title retains a certain multivalence in French and so is left untranslated (Derrida 1987, 413 n. 1).
14. Florby (1991) refers to “Picking Blackberries” as a “spin-off” of, rather than a “companion-piece,” since the latter term “suggests too great a similarity” (193). Such language suggests that “Picking Blackberries” is more occasional than “Meditation at Lagunitas,” a ranking I would not like to repeat. In any case, Florby does recognize that these poems conduct a dialogue.
15. A useful discussion of Lacan’s early Hegelianism may be found in Dews (1987, 49-69). Among the attendees of these lectures were Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (52). Kojève’s lectures are available in English as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.
16. This is the view of Alan Sheridan in the translator’s note to Lacan’s (1981) Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Sheridan argues, however, that Lacan’s use of désir elaborates on what was already standard practice among Freud’s French translators (Lacan 1981, 278-79). See also Jean Laplanche’s (1973) The Language of Psycho-Analysis, which discusses desire under the heading, “Wish (Desire).” Laplanche’s standard and somewhat perfunctory description does not discriminate between other and Other, nor does it historically situate Lacan’s revision through Hegel, but otherwise it is clear and helpful:
Jacques Lacan has attempted to re-orientate Freud’s doctrine around the notion of desire, and to replace this notion in the forefront of analytic theory. This perspective has led Lacan to distinguish desire from concepts with which it is often confused, such as need and demand. Need is directed towards a specific object and is satisfied by it. Demands are formulated and addressed to others; where they are still aimed at an object, this is not essential to them, since the articulated demand is essentially a demand for love.
Desire appears to be the rift which separates need and demand; it cannot be reduced to need since, by definition, it is not a relation to a real object independent of the subject but a relation to phantasy; nor can it be reduced to demand, in that it seeks to impose itself without taking the language or the unconscious of the other into account, and insists upon absolute recognition from him. (482-83)
17. In Reading Lacan and her other works, Gallop (1985) foregrounds her own historicity by commenting explicitly on the production of the text within the text itself, as in the passage in Reading Lacan where she narrates her own process of revision and her response to an early critique of the manuscript by a peer evaluator as part of an explanation of her own position: “My assumption of my inadequacy and my attempt to read from that position are thus, to my mind, both Lacanian and feminist. . . . It is apparent to me now that in my response to the reader’s report I was justifying my giving up the position of authority by invoking an authoritative version, an unambiguous sense of Lacan” (20-21).
18. No critic of contemporary poetry can use a term like “anxiety,” especially in a Freudian context, without raising the issue of Harold Bloom’s much celebrated, and much vilified, “anxiety of influence” theory of poetry. In fact, contemporary poetry may be the only area of academic literary study where Bloom’s views still hold much sway, for a host of interesting reasons which I am unable to elaborate here. I am indebted to Bloom (as Bloom would say, “so far as I can tell” [1973, 8]) for his understanding of poetic work as a struggle for priority and a denial of belatedness, and to some extent this essay may be read as an analysis of such a struggle. On the other hand, my analysis refuses the evaluative axis which would seem to be Bloom’s ultimate goal.
19. According to the back cover of my copy of Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, Graham “grew up in Italy and was educated at the Sorbonne, New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Iowa.” She currently teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
20. See my essay “Literary History and the Problems of Oppositional Practice in Contemporary Poetry” (1995, in press) for an elaboration of this issue. The term “absorptive” is taken from Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption” (1992).
21. Images of glass, mirrors, ice and the like would provide material for another essay exploring a different area of Lacanian influence. Aside from the “bar of signification,” another obvious source for this image is Lacan’s famous essay on the mirror stage.
22. The poem from which these lines are taken, “One in the Hand,” forms an implicit commentary on the opening image of “Angels for Cézanne”: “A bird reentering a bush, / like an idea regaining / its intention, seeks / the missed discoveries / before attempting / flight again” (Graham 1980, 28).
23. I read the line “signature like breath” as an allusion to Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context.”
24. The poems are “The Way Things Work,” “I Was Taught Three,” and “Whore’s Bath.” The latter poem contains a rare instance of desire used as a verb.
25. The simplified model of the literary field I am using here assumes that the position of poetry that is struggled over by means of various individual position-takings lies at the autonomous pole of the literary field. In fact, the categories are considerably fuzzier than that. While the logic of recognition seems to dominate talk about American poetry in the academy, the poles of autonomy and heteronomy are not all that opposed. Witness, for example, the increasingly lucrative awards from agencies of recognition such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Readers Digest-Lila Wallace Foundation, the Academy of America Poets, and so forth.
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