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Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Critical Inquiry, Volume 28, Issue 1 (2001)
Keywords:Erosion; Materialism; Swarm
Lyric Substance: On Riddles, Materialism, and Poetic Obscurity
In poetry, a garment is not a garment; it conceals nothing.
-G. E. LESSING, Laocoön
Everyday opinion sees in the shadow only the lack of light, if not light's complete denial. In truth, however, the shadow is a manifest, though impenetrable, testimony to the concealed emitting of light.
-MARTIN HEIDEGGER,"The Age of the World Picture"
Pure of source is the riddle.
-FRIEDRICH HÖLDERLIN, "The Rhine"
In the Parlance of Things
By most accounts, the form of the earliest secular poetry in English-the riddle—descends from the genre of the aenigma, first composed by English scholars (in Latin) in the seventh century. Because the Latin clerical tradition of riddling was far less robust and inventive than its Anglo-Saxon descendant, however, this literary-historical account may be less significant for a genealogy of lyric than the cultural disposition of the riddle poem. Archaeological evidence reveals that the earliest poetry in English displays an affinity for objects whose rarity and eccentricity were signaled by a peculiar verbal identity. Indeed, it may be possible to claim that lyric poetry first emerged in English as the enigmatic voice of certain highly wrought objects.
In the Anglo-Saxon world prior to the eleventh century, certain artifacts (crosses, weapons, bells, jewelry, sundials, chess pieces) bear inscriptions—in the first person—that refer to the object's maker or owner (or both), to the world at large, and to the object itself. For the most part, the scope of these inscriptions is quite limited, consisting of formulaic phrases such as "Godric made me," or “Ælfred ordered me to be made," or "'Ædred owns me." A smaller number of objects, however, bear more complex inscriptions betraying the form of a riddle. One object, for ex-ample, declares, "Cross is my name. Once, trembling and drenched with blood, I bore the mighty king." Evoking the form of Anglo-Saxon riddles that end with an exhortation such as "Say who I am," or "Say what I am called," the first statement in this inscription ("Cross is my name") is the solution to the riddle posed by the second sentence. A riddle containing its own solution (in the title or embedded in the enigma itself) is a common feature of the Latin tradition, refined considerably by the Anglo-Saxon poet.
The incorporation of verbal identities by these objects reveals—even in the case of the meanest inscription—important details about their social and imaginative identities. Unlike the phenomenon of the modern commodity fetish, which comes to life only at the moment of exchange, these artifacts speak on the occasion of their manufacture, or under the condition of ownership (as distinct from simple possession). Yet the grammatical construction of the owner/maker formulae undermines the peculiar agency of the artifact. For although these objects speak and thus appear to occupy, at a linguistic level, the position of a subject, their grammatical position in these statements is usually in the accusative case ("Godric made me"), thereby preserving their status as objects that are acted upon. The incorporation of verbal identities thus secures for these artifacts a novel position suspended between subject and object, human and thing.
The scope of animation increases considerably when the object speaks in riddles, which coincides with its assumption of grammatical agency. In the riddle inscription I cited earlier, for example, the I of the object exists in the nominative case, and it possesses a name (though its name, Cross, blurs the distinction between ordinary nouns and proper names). In addition, the riddle endows things with a history, since the artifact, even as it presents itself to us, provides us with an image of itself in the past ("Once . . ."). The artifact, through its riddlic form, is now capable of disappearing into the past—a past, moreover, that is false, for the cross bearing the inscription did not actually bear "the mighty king." Not only, then, does the riddle permit the object to tell lies about itself (and thus exist in an ambiguous state of not being present), but the moment of animation coincides with the object's transformation into what it is not: flesh. For the being whose name is Cross claims to have "trembled" under the weight of the king, suggesting that this particular cross (made of precious metals) possesses qualities of a living body—the king's body. The artifact, altered by its enigmatic voice, has become a kind of god.
Now, before I comment further on the possible significance of lyric poetry's role in coaxing an object to speak in riddles, I want to make some observations about the terms of the analysis I have initiated here, in order to bring to light certain assumptions that are characteristic generally of the analysis of material culture. Nothing in my introductory remarks suggests any reason to doubt the coherence of these artifacts as material phenomena. That is to say, I do not call into question the material substance of the things I have been examining, nor do I believe most readers would hold me accountable were I not to do so in the course of an extended analysis. Nothing about these particular artifacts, as far as I've described them, appears to call for such scrutiny. Indeed, the evidence of material culture ordinarily possesses, insofar as it becomes the object of academic criticism, a similar immunity from critical reflection concerning its physical mass.
In the humanities, the material substance of ordinary things is judged to be either an intuitive certainty or an arcane possession of physics. Matter is no longer viewed as a problem relevant to humanistic criticism. These assumptions, which extend to the ostensibly critical study of material culture, are among the long-term effects of literature's (and philosophy's) withdrawal from serious debate over the nature of material substance. Science has long been regarded as the sole arbiter in the determination of matter. The result is that the authority and explanatory power of literary or cultural theory in relation to material culture is limited by its dependence on science not only to furnish a plausible account of material substance but to determine, in a fundamental sense, what sets material things apart from ideas or events.
In this essay, I am concerned essentially with what lyric poetry may be able to tell us about the material substance of things and if what matters about the world in a poem holds any particular significance for the history of philosophical materialism. Science continues to be puzzled by distinctions between ponderable and imponderable bodies or, more precisely, by the coexistence of these properties in a single entity. What do the intuitive properties of an object (what we can perceive of it) have in common with the invisible foundation of material substance? Following the development of modern physics, this question has become more acute because certain kinds of subatomic events do not appear to observe the laws of intuitive bodies—the very bodies that are ostensibly founded on these inscrutable events. Hence, real bodies appear to be composed of unreal substance. And the substance of things—the insensible foundation of material bodies-possesses intuitive reality solely in the form of images and tropes. Substance, in this sense, is the solution to the conundrum posed by things that speak in riddles: the verbal identity of these objects, which is the source of their obscurity, corresponds to the role of analogy in the determination of material substance. More precisely, when an object speaks in riddles, it reveals its true "substance." That is to say, the innate obscurity of matter in the history of physics, like the inscrutability of things in lyric poetry, betrays the inescapable role of language in depicting the nonempirical qualities—the invisible aspect—of material phenomena. The production of verbal or lyric substance in poetry therefore corresponds to an essential aspect of the way science understands the nature of the material world.
My contention that philosophical materialism betrays an affinity with lyric poetry in particular (rather than, say, with fiction or painting) depends in part on a conception of poetry formulated and reiterated by the leading figures of Western aesthetic philosophy. That is to say, I am interested not only in particular qualities of poetry as such but also in poetry as a discursive formation that has come to be defined in relation to other arts and other forms of knowledge. This historical formation relies in part on a fundamental correspondence between the technicality of poetry (its craft) and its obscurity—including the attenuated substance of the lyric "air." Hence the productive (or, to borrow the term used by Vico in The New Science, genetic) character of poetry has always raised important questions about the relation between techne, or technology, and material substance.
Philosophical materialism, from antiquity to the present day, has sought to establish an authoritative account of physical reality by depicting a world of invisible and frequently unverifiable entities: the lawlessness of visible reality masks, it is said, the lawful—but invisible—realm of atoms. Correspondingly, poetry is to be distinguished from the other arts, according to Lessing, Kant, and Heidegger, by its freedom from intuition and its disavowal of imitation. For poetry renders the world effectively by making illusory and even impossible images of things—by rendering the world as what it is not. For example, Kant states, "Poetry fortifies the mind: for it lets the mind feel its ability-free, spontaneous, and independent of natural determination-to contemplate and judge phenomenal nature as having aspects that nature does not on its own offer in experience either to sense or to the understanding." Philosophical materialism has been plagued since its inception, starting with the figure of the atom, by its reliance on tropes and imaginary pictures to render the invisible foundation of matter. It is not therefore simply a question of a moment in the history of materialism when matter is captured by language and thus, suspended between materiality and immateriality, begins to lose its substantial character. Rather, materialism in its most rigorous forms descends unavoidably into language, to a place where matter is mostly not matter, where matter cannot be distinguished from the tropes and analogies that make it intelligible (and hence secure the equation of materialism and realism). I am therefore interested in the problem of literary obscurity, not only for what it can tell us about the improbable (though essential) materialism of lyric poetry, but also as an authentic model of the figurative aspect of Western materialism. And I undertake this analysis in order to make available to literary and cultural studies a more productive sense of the ambiguity of material substance—a project that challenges the epistemological and ethical priority frequently assigned to materialist criticism.
I want to return now to the correspondence between riddles and things by invoking, with some trepidation, the Marxist premise of technological determinism, as a way of picking the lock that currently bars the literary critic from addressing the problem of material substance. In a recent issue of PMLA devoted to the topic of material evidence, Yves Bonnefoy claims in an essay on the indexicality of photography and poetry that Edgar Allen Poe and Stephane Mallarmé were among the first writers "to announce that photography was going to change the world." Further, aligning Mallarmé's lyrical conception of "Nothingness" with the ontological effects of the "new look" of photography, Bonnefoy contends, "Mallarme wants to accomplish consciously—wants to accomplish as an ultimate act of consciousness, at the threshold of a new age—what the photographic machine does outside any consciousness.... Mallarme wants to look as photography looks." Now, this is an interesting (and debatable) point, but the principle of technological determinism, which serves for Bonnefoy (and for many others) to explain the "new age" precipitated by photography, appears to have no application to poetry. Is it not the case that the determinism governing the effects of the photographic machine might also be ex-tended to lyric poetry, surely the most technical, and even mechanistic, of literary forms (given the requirements of meter, rhyme, and stanza)? As a veritable "machine" of literature (Paul Valéry, for example, called poetry "a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words"), the lyric poem appears to have a special affinity for the implications of a doctrine of technological determinism. Bonnefoy's thesis of indexicality may be worth considering, but it seems likely that the apparatus of a lyric poem would yield a very different kind of substance (as a Mallarme lyric yields the peculiar "Nothingness" of objects) from the photographic machine. And it is therefore conceivable that the technics of poetry (by which I mean prosody and the craft of ordering words, but also the poem's image-making and rhetorical apparatus) might yield a consistent and coherent doctrine of "lyric" substance.
If we return to a discussion of riddles and artifacts with an explicit concern for material substance, it appears that the grammatical suspension between subject and object, the projection of things into the past, the assumed identities, and the transubstantiation from metal to human flesh to divine matter may all have distinct implications for the material substance of things that speak in riddles. To gain a fuller sense of the way objects are shaped by riddles, and of the significance of riddles for the origins of lyric poetry in English, we must turn for a moment to the Anglo-Saxon riddles collected in The Exeter Book in the late tenth century (though the riddles themselves date from the eighth century). One of the four great miscellanies of Old English literature, The Exeter Book contains, in addition to riddles, the source texts for "The Wanderer" and "The Sea-farer." Though these two celebrated poems are typically granted, in contrast to the riddles, a privileged place in the genealogy of English lyric, the prosody of the riddles (the standard four-beat, alliterative line of Old English verse) is identical to that of "The Wanderer," "The Seafarer," and Beowulf. The elevation of the riddlic form is confirmed by "The Dream of the Rood," the greatest Christian poem in Old English, which was composed as a riddle. These formal correspondences bear witness to the hermeneutical implications of the word riddle, which is directly linked to the verb to read.
The formal sophistication and delicacy of the riddle-poem, coupled with its inherent obscurity, points to an unresolvable-and productive—ambiguity in its literary character. For although the archaic aspect (and historical origin) of riddles is associated with prophetic and oracular speech, the Anglo-Saxon riddle no longer functions, quite obviously, in a prophetic mode—though it retains, in its construction, the inscrutability of the oracle. Thus the riddle as a secular form is already, in its earliest manifestations, a poetic device—a kind of literary toy, which invites us to regard the riddle not as an archaic mode of poetic utterance but as a form of literary decadence. The genealogy of lyric poetry in English therefore begins late in the life of an archaic form, the riddle, and this tension between archaism and decadence appears to stabilize the form and to remain integral to its endurance and mutability as a poetic model. Indeed, as W. P. Ker suggests, the genealogy of the riddle can be drawn to encompass the seventeenth-century Metaphysical lyric, with its bold conceits, its obscurity, and its curious amalgam of analysis and sensibility. From this perspective, what may appear in the present context to be an eccentric attempt to extend the poetics of the riddle beyond its historical moment actually supplements T S. Eliot's alignment of modernist and Metaphysical poetry, which he calls "the direct current of English poetry." Thus, linking Eliot's influential thesis to Ker's observation, modernist poetry, insofar as it follows the example of the Metaphysical lyric, might be viewed as reviving and transforming the poetics of the riddle.
Anglo-Saxon riddles display a high degree of artifice and formal sophistication, yet their basic design differs little from the two-sentence inscription on the cross I described earlier. In about half of the ninety-six riddles in The Exeter Book the mystery object speaks directly to the reader, and the riddle ends (as I mentioned earlier) with a phrase such as, "Say what I am called," or "Say who I am." The solutions to most of the riddles (not all of them have been solved) are familiar objects, and sometimes animals, of the house, hall, farmyard, monastery, or battlefield. One finds riddles, for example, about storm and wine cup, churn and key, rake and bagpipe, quill pen and gold. Thus, a riddle is essentially an allegory, though, unlike conventional allegory, the phenomenon veiled by the dark or enigmatical description is not a metaphysical entity (an abstract concept or a divinity), but a physical object or being. A riddle is a materialist allegory (as well as an allegory of materialism). The weird creature we encounter at the outset of the poem turns out to be a phenomenon common to most people's experience; the dark speech of the riddle veils, even as it describes precisely, a familiar object.
The riddle produces a complex object—a "riddle-creature," as one editor calls it—that, by speaking, sheds its human qualities yet goes on speaking. The thing becomes human and then performs a verbal strip-tease in the dark, before our eyes, divesting itself of its human attributes. The suggestive verbal gestures that constitute the striptease are, at the same time, the movement that obscures the thing and transforms it into what it is not. For that is what a riddle does: it withholds the name of a thing so that the thing may appear as what it is not, in order to be revealed for what it is. Here's how it works:
My dress is silver, shimmering gray,
Spun with a blaze of garnets. I craze
Most men: rash fools I run on a road
Of rage, and cage quiet determined men.
Why they love me—lured from mind,
Stripped of strength—remains a riddle.
If they still praise my sinuous power
When they raise high the dearest treasure,
They will find through reckless habit
Dark woe in the dregs of pleasure.
There is an element of the burlesque both in the main persona of the riddle and in the teasing performance of the riddle itself. The inherently seductive quality of a riddle, which can be attributed in part to a manner of speaking that simultaneously illuminates and obscures its object, finds itself embodied in this irresistible—and apparently dangerous—object: a wine cup. Thus the object itself resembles the form of its dark speech; the source of its fascination, according to the speaker, "remains a riddle" to its suitors. What's more, like the inherent obscurity of the riddle, a darkness associated with pleasure lies at the bottom of things-and of this thing in particular. It is the darkness that remains after the thing has disrobed, after the wine cup has been emptied, after the object has reverted, but for the darkness of speech, to its inhuman origin.
What can a riddle, a word trick that allows an object to speak directly to us, even as its identity remains a mystery, tell us about the material substance of things and about the substance of the riddle itself? The riddle I cited above, along with a number of others in The Exeter Book, turns upon a moment of reflexivity, which reveals the object, aside from its verbal identity, to be inherently puzzling or mysterious. In one riddle, for example, the mystery object declares,
My race is old, my seasons many,
My sorrows deep. I have dwelt in cities
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My craft and course, power and rich passage,
I must hide from men. Say who I am.
Here, the persona of the riddle creature—that of a wanderer or fugitive—thematizes not only the veiled course of the object through the riddle, but its inherently cryptic nature: "I must hide from men. Say who I am." The object—gold—thus reflects by its enigmatic nature the linguistic mode of the riddle. This homeless substance is therefore doubly disguised: already hidden, it is veiled by the dark speech of the riddle as well. Indeed, there is, it seems, a darkness common to both the object and its riddle.
In another riddle poem, the object speaking is generally thought to be a bell (though there are other possible solutions) whose sound mimics the riddle song: "I sing round/The truth if I may in a ringing riddle." Thus the object, whatever it may be, calls itself "a ringing riddle." The thing is therefore a riddle even before it starts talking in riddles, a correspondence that suggests a certain degree of identification between poem and thing. Frequently, as I indicated in earlier examples, this identification is rooted in the phenomenon of darkness or obscurity, a quality intrinsic to the riddle or aenigma (and to allegory)-as the roots of these words tell us. The darkness of the riddle becomes a property of the thing encrypted in the riddle, or, more accurately, the dark speech of the riddle finds an image of itself in the cryptic nature of the thing it brings to life.
The puzzling identification of words and things becomes a bit more explicit when the object speaking in riddles is associated, as often hap-pens, with reading, writing, or bookmaking. In one of the most ingenious riddles of The Exeter Book, an inkhorn (or inkwell) speaks as an individual separated from its twin brother (the other horn), describing itself as "un-twinned." The melancholy inkhorn declares, "in my belly/Is a black wonder"—a trope referring to the ink that it contains. Materialized in this way, darkness appears as the material of the poem's inscription—the very substance of the riddle that is concealed in the "untwinned" thing. The "black wonder" at the core of things is thematized in another riddle on bookmaking, where the book-object describes how the quill pen "darts often to the horn's dark rim" and "with a quick scratch of power, tracks/ Black on my body." The darkness of writing embodied in these riddles calls to mind the dark well of the wine cup and the obscurity that binds gold to the words of its riddle.
Returning now to the problem of material substance, the first question is obvious: How are we to understand the inherent obscurity of riddles (and of lyric poetry) as a substance that mirrors the darkness of things? What qualities does the body of darkness possess (in a poem)? And what significance might the problem of literary obscurity—as distinct from obscurantism—hold for the history of philosophical materialism? To begin to answer these questions, the term obscurity, as it pertains to texts and especially poetry, must be dislodged from its conventionally figurative usage. Obscurity must be understood as a phenomenon occupying a position along a material spectrum of darkness, ranging from the unclear to the obscure to the opaque. The critical task of materializing obscurity, as a way of gauging the significance of poetry for our under-standing of things, begins with the long history of the topos of darkness—a history, by the way, that reveals obscurity to be an element ranging well beyond the aesthetic ideology of the sublime. In the Book of Exodus, for example, the eighth plague is a swarm of locusts that "covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened" (Exod. 10:15). And the darkening swarm, conceived as a body, anticipates the plague immediately following it—that of darkness itself—a "darkness which may be felt" (Exod. 10:21). Evidently, there is a correspondence here between the obscure nature of the swarm and the darkness produced by the swarm, which in turn gives way to a darkness that is somehow autonomous. The autonomous dark is figured differently in The Exeter Book, where the first three poems are storm riddles, which thematize the obscurity of the riddle by configuring darkness as a pneumatic or meteorologic phenomenon. Hence the body of darkness first appears in The Exeter Book in the guise of the weather, as a body of air (corresponding to the lyric "air").
The Orphic Measure and the Backwardness of Things
Before I delineate further the corporeal aspect of obscurity—what Milton in Paradise Lost calls "darkness visible"—I want to establish a literary-historical framework for understanding the significance of obscurity as a critical concept. In his magisterial survey of Western literature, Mimesis, Erich Auerbach divides the European tradition into two styles, one originating with Homer and the other with the prophetic books of the Old Testament. He writes:
The two styles, in their opposition, represent two types: on the one hand, fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression.... On the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed.
Work of the latter type, Auerbach observes, is "dark and incomplete" and hence "mysterious, containing a second, concealed meaning." This type, characterized above all by its obscurity, has its roots in allegory, while the opposing type, Auerbach states, forms the basis of realism. Although Auerbach never mentions the literary form of the riddle—and indeed he tends to neglect lyric poetry in his analysis-it is quite evident from our brief examination of the riddle that it belongs in the category of the dark style. The very fact that Auerbach's dichotomy of literary styles depends, in part, on the principle of obscurity indicates that the dark speech of the riddle should not be viewed as an eccentric or aberrant phenomenon in literary history.
The problem with Auerbach's model, for our purposes, is that the phenomenon of obscurity never becomes palpable in any way; it functions solely—and predictably—as a figurative term. Auerbach fails to corporealize the dark principally, in my view, because to do so would undermine the basic opposition in his model between obscurity and realism. Were darkness to be understood as a trope for the kind of body produced by the apparatus of lyric poetry—that is to say, if obscurity belongs to the history of materialism—then it could not stand securely in opposition to realism (as long as the equation of realism and materialism survives). Our immediate task then is to materialize the concept of literary obscurity that typifies, in Auerbach's mind, a major component of the Western literary tradition. We must ask: Are there corporeal phenomena analogous to the qualities in language that we judge to be obscure? But also: What precisely does obscurity yield in the act of reading—in the absence of clear, cognitive meaning—if not a sense, strange indeed, of poetic materials?
The literary-historical division at the core of Auerbach's survey reap-pears (in the name of darkness) in Maurice Blanchot's theory of literature, with the difference that Blanchot provides a highly suggestive material emblem for the phenomenon of literary—and specifically "Orphic"—obscurity. In his essay on the image in language, Blanchot states, "there are two possibilities for the image, two versions of the imaginary, and this duplicity comes from the initial double meaning produced by the power of the negative." Literature, according to Blanchot, negates the "world" in such a way that it produces two "versions"—one ideal and the other material—of the phenomena it negates; and neither version (idea or thing) belongs to the "world." To grasp Blanchot's dichotomy correctly, one must understand the "world" in a Heideggerian sense, as the effect of a primary negation and idealization of "things," resulting in the mediated phenomenon we call the "world." Literature—and more precisely the literary image—thus constitutes a second moment of negation, destroying the world as we know it and exposing us to what cannot be fully grasped, that is, whatever exists in a purely ideal or purely material state. The two versions of the imaginary (namely, the two aspects of the image) therefore correspond to whatever precedes the world (things) and to whatever comes after the world (ideas), both of which are equally remote from understanding.
Blanchot associates the aspect of the image pertaining to what precedes the world (its purely material aspect in sound or inscription) with what he calls "the word as expression of the obscurity of existence," with a moment when "literature refuses to name anything, when it turns a name into something obscure and meaningless, witness to the primordial obscurity." Thus, over and against the word in its ideal, transparent, and meaningful aspect, there is, Blanchot states, "another side to literature. Literature is a concern for the reality of things, for their unknown, free, and silent existence ... it is the being which protests against revelation ... it sympathizes with darkness." It is especially pertinent for our investigation of lyric that Blanchot associates the penumbral aspect of the image (which is on the side of things) with what he calls "the Orphic measure" and with "the essential night" that is "kept within the limits and the measured space of the song." Hence Blanchot refers us, like the riddles of The Exeter Book, to a darkness that is common to song and to things.
The most astonishing moment of Blanchot's theorization of poetic obscurity occurs when he compares the darkness of the image—its "elemental strangeness"—to a cadaver: "At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image" ("T," p. 81). According to Blanchot, there-fore, the figure of the cadaver renders what we experience as obscurity in a literary text; hence he argues that the material aspect of a poem (not its content or meaning) is the origin of what we call obscurity in literature. The cadaverous aspect of the image is the remains of the world after its negation by words: "what is left behind is precisely this cadaver, which is not of the world either—even though it is here—which is rather behind the world ... and which now affirms, on the basis of this, the possibility of a world-behind, a return backwards" ("T," p. 82). The analogy of the corpse thus depicts the resistance to understanding—the backwardness—of the orphic measure and of things prior to the "world."
At the same time, it is essential to bear in mind that, although "someone who has just died is first of all very close to the condition of a thing" ("T," p. 82), Blanchot does not regard the corpse or the thing as an object. Rather, the corpse is continually transformed by "infinite erosion" and "imperceptible consumption" ("T," p. 85), properties that emphasize its partial and unstable identity and that help to explain its aesthetic allure. For Blanchot calls the cadaver "this splendid being who radiates beauty" ("T" p. 83) and declares, "it can very well represent an object to us in a luminous formal halo; it has sided with the depth, with elemental materiality" ("T," p. 80). The cadaver, in Blanchot's conception, effectively depicts the element of obscurity precisely because its substance is no more palpable than a halo (a phenomenon said to be woven of light and air), which is almost certainly related, in a material sense, to the beauty radiating from the corpse. Indeed, because the cadaver is subject to "infinite erosion," thereby rendering its physical being comparable to the nebulous body of a storm (or a swarm), the material substance of a thing cannot easily be distinguished from the invisible substance radiating from the blurred boundaries of what exists prior to, or behind, the world. Hence the radiant cadaver, as Blanchot conceives it, is an emblem of the lyric substance of a poem—its obscurity—but also of the kind of body consistently produced by the apparatus of a poem.
Blanchot's emblem of the image-cadaver may appear to be eccentric or even perverse, but it displays qualities often found in a longstanding iconography of lyric substance, which concerns the representation of what Milton calls "darkness visible"—the strange light of hell. And because the luminescence of the underworld is somehow more palpable than natural light, its substance cannot be clearly distinguished from that of certain kinds of nebulous bodies. In addition, beginning with the ancient texts that feed Milton's imagery, the topos of this radiant, shadowy substance has been associated with the pathos of hell, with suffering. R. W. Johnson, in a superb book on the style of Vergil's Aeneid and its legacy in European lyric poetry, proves to be an indispensable guide to the classical origins of the topos of "darkness visible." Though Johnson is not deliberately concerned with questions of material substance, his subtle and evocative readings of Homer and Vergil yield a rich archive of images pertaining to the material spectrum of "darkness visible." In addition, though he does not explicitly identify lyric poetry as the proper frame-work of his study (because the Aeneid is an epic poem), he readily admits that his analysis is keyed to Vergil's "famous lyricism" and that he regards the Aeneid as a "lyrical epic" (DV pp. 50, 164). Hence his elaboration of "darkness visible" and its various permutations holds special significance for the study of lyric poetry.
In the Aeneid, Johnson argues, the reader encounters a "deliberately violent and disordered poetics" and further, he claims, "this deliberate failure of images is a way of showing darkness" (DV p. 59). It is not so much unmitigated darkness, however, as an amalgam of shadow and luminosity that characterizes Vergil's Stimmungskunst. What Johnson calls the "negative image" of Vergil's style evokes "a trembling, fitful splendor, moving at random, overwhelmed by a space whose magnitude it can suggest but cannot illumine" (DV p. 87). And there is a distinct correlation between these atmospheric conditions and the representation of unknown or unknowable phenomena (a visit to the underworld, for example): "Vergil opts for 'unknown modes of being' and for the beautiful filtered light that reveals realities only to hide them again" (DV p. 48). Yet the "darkness visible" of the underworld becomes the light in which ordinary reality is perceived in the Aeneid; hence "Vergil's hell exists both for the sake of the narrative it frames and for the sake of other kinds of realities" (DV p. 89). Because it exists at the threshold of intuition—and for the sake of "other kinds of realities"—the palpable and antithetical lux of hell serves as the invisible material foundation of ordinary bodies.
Johnson takes great care in describing the chiaroscuro of common things (which are at the same time unknowable) as they appear in the Aeneid, yet he also reveals other kinds of bodies that are latent in the trope of obscurity. For the material propensities of the dark as a figure of speech extend well beyond the failure of light that is its immediate cause. As in the storm riddles of The Exeter Book, meteorological phenomena in the Aeneid (storms, clouds, rainbows, mist) become forms capable of showing or approximating the substance of darkness. These pneumatic or meteoric bodies—bodies of air—have a direct correlation to the lyric "air." In addition, Johnson cites an extraordinary passage in the Aeneid depicting an attempt to dislodge a beehive from a tree with a smoky torch (see D, p. 92). The roiling material phenomena of the swarm, the smoke, and the turbulent sound of the bees all combine to produce a powerful approximation of the poem's obscurity, but also of the strange substance of things as they appear in Vergilian darkness. Indeed, Johnson makes an explicit correlation between the elements of lyric and the material substance of unknowable things (which are also common things) when he refers to "the 'unknown modes of being' that Vergil, in trying to write his poem, has learned are part of its materials" (D, p. 89).
Johnson's study not only corporealizes the obscurity of Vergil's text but also seeks to account for the significance of darkness as an image of material substance. That is, Johnson attempts to discern what the idea of obscurity refers to in the existence of real bodies. Vergil's poem involves "imagining the nameless and invisible sense of what it is like to be overtaken by one's doom"—what Johnson calls "the process of becoming nothing" (D, p. 98). Overtaken by darkness, a body becomes increasingly obscure and, in time, it becomes "nothing." The trope of "darkness visible" therefore depicts the substance of a body in time, or through time, and thus in flux—a process of invisible decomposition recalling the "infinite erosion" of the cadaver in Blanchot's essay. Because things dwindle to nothing as darkness overtakes them in a poem, the matter of obscurity itself conversely loses its substantial character as things yield to it in time. Hence the obscurity of the temporal object—the poem, but also the world it calls into being—reveals itself to be at once corporeal and incorporeal, the anomalous and imponderable medium of literature itself. Yet the erosion or eclipse of things in a poem—the filtering effect of the dark—is never complete or unequivocal. As a temporal object, a body remains in obscurity, and it is precisely the invisible erosion of things that appears in poetry as a form of darkness, as a blur.
The iconography of lyric substance constellated about the phenomenon of "darkness visible" provides a framework—remarkably stable throughout literary history—for depicting correspondences between the poem's nebulous body and certain amorphous bodies in nature. There is certainly a reflexive dimension to these correspondences-the poem sees its own body in a rainbow, a cloud of dust, a shadow, a storm-but we must also recall that pneumatic and meteorological bodies have been an inescapable feature of the iconography of material substance in physics since the seventeenth century. Natural philosophers repeatedly visualized the invisible foundation of matter as a kind of weather. Hence the corporealization of obscurity in lyric poetry frequently coincides, in its particulars, with the depiction of invisible substance in the history of philosophical materialism.
One could examine the iconography of materialism through its philosophical unfolding, but the correspondences between materialism and lyric poetry also inform poetry itself, as is the case, for example, in the writings of contemporary American poet Jorie Graham. The most ambitious and programmatic rendering of these correspondences occurs in her book Materialism, though a concern with lyric substance is also evident in the titles of an earlier collection, Erosion, and of her more recent book, Swarm. Materialism juxtaposes Graham's own meditations on the mysterious texture of things with translations and "adaptations" of authors—mostly philosophers—who have had, in her view, something interesting to say about the nature of materiality: Plato, Sir Francis Bacon (twice), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertolt Brecht, Jonathan Edwards, and Walter Benjamin (among others). In addition, the book includes a translation of canto eleven of Dante's Inferno to remind us that the poet's descent into the underworld (recalling the topos of "darkness visible" I outlined earlier) should not be isolated from the scientific discovery of a material occult that can be represented only by imaginary forms.
Graham's anatomy of what she calls "the dream of the unified field" (the title of a poem in Materialism, later to become the title of her Selected Poems) is provoked, in part, by two questions that appear in the book: "(how can the water rise up out of its grave of matter?)—/ ... / (how can the light drop down out of its grave of thought?)—." The former question, alluding to the recurrent motif of a Heraclitean river in the book, becomes "How can the scream rise up out the grave of its matter?" The armature of the book thus turns upon the impossible convergence (out of the grave) of the corporeality of the voice and the insubstantial body of light.
Versions of this impossible substance, like Milton's figure of "darkness visible," appear throughout the book as corrupt forms of light, which constitute the "atomic-yellow ground" of the visible world. The poet, hypnotized by a "beam" of sunlight "calling across the slatwood floor," refers to herself and "the incandescent thing" in the third person as "she"—the first of many palpable bodies to be gathered into the "beam" ("S," p. 26). In the material world of these poems, things without mass betray the presence or passage of time, suggesting, as proposed earlier, that one aspect of lyric substance pertains to the substance of bodies in time. The poet calls the beam
an unrobed thing we can see the inside of—
less place than time—
less time than the shedding skin of time, the thought
["S," pp. 26-27]
Insofar as the "beam of sun" incorporates (and therefore idealizes) more palpable bodies, modeling the inscrutable passage of time that blurs or veils the substance of things, it recalls the insubstantial image in Yeats's "Byzantium": "an image, man or shade,/Shade more than man, more image than a shade." In Graham's Byzantium, the "she" inhabiting the beam, "unrobed," appears likewise in radiant form:
and out there, floating, on the emptiness,
among the folds of radio signals, hovering, translucent,
inside the dress of fizzing, clicking golden
frequencies—the pale, invisible flames—
is the face of the most beautiful woman in the world
Here, the movement toward imponderable bodies revises the topos of "darkness visible" to include the ponderable light of radiation and a new division of radioactive bodies. Radiography, poised between vision and voice, thus becomes the new science of lyric substance.
Though sublimation and incorporation are magical functions of the beam's physical presence, its substance is much more likely to become evident in these poems by assuming, though never unequivocally, the properties of other, more tangible bodies. Thus the palpable light of Graham's materialism tends to darken with air, or dust, or moisture; to darken into song, or storm, or flesh. In her adaptation of a passage of Plato's Phaedo, Graham cites Socrates on the relation of the body to "the intellectual principle, which to the bodily eye is dark and invisible." By contrast, Socrates states, "this corporeal element, my friend, is heavy and weighty and earthy and is the element of sight", hence the soul, when it becomes "fascinated by the body," is "cloyed with sight." In Graham's reworking of the dialectic of light and dark in her poems, the "beam" of light acquires texture—a tentative corporeal identity—by entertaining the dark:
powdery, yet slick—the
continuum?—no luminosity and yet a sheen on it
which you could say is your listening
sprinkling over the green dark,
but not materially, no, a dust
The subversion of light here coincides with its granulation into darkness or twilight, yet it also appears to be converting itself into an acoustic body, as if darkness and sound were related phenomena. Indeed, there are moments in Materialism when darkness appears to usurp altogether the role of the luminous beam:
the dark seems to be composed ...
Has voice in it. A lyre? A concealed
As if there's something in it for safekeeping, something
of which I
am the paraphrase
as if lifts up above me now, a labyrinth of variegated darks—
["B," p. 123]
Concealed in the dark is a paraphrase of the human body, but also a voice and a lyre, the root of the term lyric.
The insubstantial beam darkens with compounds of air and dust, signifying matter; and the granules of dust impend, always, in the neighborhood of sound: "morning dust, dust of the green in things, on things, dust of water/whirling up off the matter, mist, hoarfrost, dust over the fiddlehead" ("B," p. 127). If the beam is "aswarm with dust and yet/not entered by dust" ("S," p. 27), then the air, impregnated by dust, functions as the matrix that permits the light (and the world) to be seen:
Meanwhile the transparent air
through or into which the beam—
over the virtual and the material—
over the world and over the world of the beholder—
["S," p. 28]
The body of air, the medium in which the beam makes its appearance, is the body of music that grounds the poem:
the last note carries the air in it and is
that air, dusty, in which the light, and the molecules of watching, and
the motes of
listening, are changes rung, rung, but upon what.
In this passage, the motes (or motets) of vision and sound are suspended in a medium of air and light, which is the matrix of the turbulent substance of things as they appear in a poem. In Graham's rhapsodic materialism, the elements of lyric substance (air, light, dust, moisture) achieve their most comprehensive form in the nebulous and dynamic bodies of the weather. And it is through the elements of this poetic meteorology that Graham's dialogue with Wallace Stevens, concerning poetry's role in the determination of material sub-stance, becomes audible. Indeed, passages about the weather in Graham's poems often bring to mind Stevens's profound meditations on the correspondence between "the sense of poetry" and "the sense of the weather." For example, Graham's poem "The Dream of the Unified Field" begins with a meditation on a snowstorm, an amorphous body that appears and reappears in the image of other bodies, such as "the huge flock of starlings massed over our neighborhood ... /the black bits of their thousands of bodies swarming/then settling/overhead." The poet returns repeatedly to the memory of the storm as an image of "the constant repatterning of a thing" ("DU," p. 82) and of the mysterious inside of things, recalling the "bullioned slant" of the beam:
Filaments of falling marked by the tiny certainties
of flakes. Never blurring yet themselves a cloud. Me in it
moving easily through it.
["DU," p. 80]
The imaginative and philosophical changes "rung" on the snowstorm (which reflect the mutability of the phenomenon itself) coincide with the reciprocation of interior and exterior spaces. The "certainties of flakes" become bits of sleep and thought that accumulate to become the imagined objects of an interior climate:
The storm: I close my eyes and,
standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside
thing. Once I was... once, once.
It settles in my head, the wavering white
sleep, the instances—they stick, accrue,
grip up, connect, they do not melt.
I will not let them melt, they build, cloud and cloud.
["DU," p. 85]
The nebulosity of the material storm and the solidity of intellectual objects coincide because the blind, possessive, agglutinative mode of composition is the same in both cases. Ultimately, the storm that is reassembled in the mind reveals itself to be a "possession" of history, a "splinter colony" ("DU," p. 85). Indeed, in a startling transformation, the snowstorm becomes the "vast white sleeping geography" of the "new world" discovered by Columbus ("DU," p. 86)—the very substance of a unified field of matter, thought, language, and history.
Considered solely in terms of its conceptual horizon and its philosophical ambitions, Graham's anatomy of lyric substance might be regarded as a literary anomaly, as an eccentric and highly sophisticated thought-experiment. Yet insofar as it dwells on—and in—the obscurity of its particular medium (the materia poetica of lyric), it addresses the urgent question of how poetry makes sense of the material world. Her poetry, couched in a literary genealogy of darkness, follows the great tradition of Epicurean meditations on the nature of sense. That is to say, as rich as Graham's particular vision may be, one need not turn to poems devoted explicitly to the topic of materialism in order to discern how the medium of darkness becomes palpable in the signatures of things. There is, of course, a substantial tradition of obscurity in lyric poetry—again, to be distinguished from obscurantism or just bad writing—ranging from Pindar to the English Metaphysical poets to Mallarme's doctrine of "mystery" in literature (conceived principally in terms of "obscurity"). Yet obscurity associated with virtuosity or difficulty need not be a precondition for the elaboration of lyric substance in a poem because obscurity is a quality that most readers tend to associate with poetry—even in its most accessible forms.
The problem of obscurity, conceived as an allegory of materialism in lyric poetry, poses significant questions about the nature of material substance, even as it offers a fleeting glimpse of the tenuous matter of the poem itself. If we think of Blanchot's figure of the cadaver or the "beam" of sunlight in Graham's Materialism, it is evident that these marvelous things (or "strange creatures," in the parlance of riddles) possess both the stable form of an object and the nebulous body of a meteoric phenomenon. The duplicity of things also appears in the object lessons staged by the Anglo-Saxon riddle, if we recall that possible solutions for one unsolved riddle range from swan to water and from quill pen to siren. The difference between ponderable and imponderable bodies, but also the mysterious relation between them, is implicit as well in the storm riddles of The Exeter Book, which speak to us in the same fashion as the talking objects that follow them. It is peculiar that the storm-riddles, which comprise the first three riddles in the collection, and which pertain to nebulous bodies that are also events, should serve to introduce us to a collection of talking objects. Indeed, were all of the riddles to remain unsolved, the dark speech of the weather would not betray what distinguishes a storm from an object. The rainbow and the bucket would speak the same gibberish.
Imagining how a rainbow may be like a bucket, or how a body of air precipitates more tangible bodies, might appear to be a fanciful pastime, but science suggests it is not, or not merely so. Even so, if the intuitive and nonintuitive aspects of a thing remain polarized in the discourse of scientific materialism, poetry, by contrast, excels at producing images in which the invisible foundation of matter rises to the surface of things and the mutable forms of intuition dissolve into the hidden ground of their abstraction—what Graham calls "the dream of the unified field." Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet notorious for the close, labored textures—and hence the obscurity—of his verse, praises what he calls "pied beauty," a rubric for contrasting phenomena that are paired or conjoined. Though, at first glance, the poem called "Pied Beauty" appears to be a rather simpleminded celebration of "dappled things," it is not, on closer inspection, entirely clear why "skies of couple-colour" or a "brinded cow" might be counted among "all things counter, original, spare, strange." We must attend closely to these terms if we are to grasp the correspondence envisioned by the poet.
Dappled things are "original" because they make visible the origin, the hidden foundation, of things; and they are "counter" because their appearance betrays what is antithetical to appearance—the amalgam of "pied beauty." In this sense dappled things are "spare" because they are simple and rudimentary but also excessive in their disclosure of what they do not possess, a beauty that is "past change." These ordinary things therefore betray the qualities of an invisible, mutable substance that precedes them in the image of all that is "adazzle, dim" and, more palpably, in "fresh-firecoal chestnut-fálls." These protean substances, which hover just below the threshold of objecthood, and which nevertheless reveal the essential properties of "pied beauty," are emblems of "darkness visible." In addition, by praising "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim"—perhaps the most curious example of "pied beauty" in the poem—Hopkins suggests that the insubstantial apparatus of lyric poetry somehow renders the "strange" matter of pied beauty. The ember of pied beauty, too faint to illumine any thing but itself (and therefore akin to darkness), is an effect of what Hopkins calls "light's delay." The phrase occurs in one of his so-called dark sonnets, which begins with the line, "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day." What it means to wake into a darkness that is felt depends, in large measure, on the word fell, a complex term with at least four disparate levels of meaning: a covering of hide; the substance known as gall (a bitter humor); a waste hillside; and a blow. The dark of wakefulness is evidently a material thing, shape-shifting and enigmatical, yet it is also a form of utterance:
This night! what sights you, heart, saw, ways you want!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this.
The poet feels "the fell of dark," and he speaks it in the "rugged dark" of the sonnet's heavily stressed lines. Thus the substance of darkness ranges across the material spectrum, from barren soil to liquid humor to the blows of the metrical beat.
The extraordinary texture and density of Hopkins's lines—the basis of their obscurity—arouse a sense of the submerged correspondence between darkness and things—the kind of enigmatical affinities that form the basis of Anglo-Saxon riddle poems. But the vocabulary and rhythm of Hopkins's lyrics, which reflect a conspicuous attempt on his part to recuperate the strong-stress metrics of Anglo-Saxon verse, are not the only aspects of his poetry to evoke the sensibility of the riddle. The bold but sometimes inscrutable physiognomy of Hopkins's verse recalls the materialism of the riddle as well in its use of uncommon conceits to render common things, not to mention the substance of things. The most ambitious and sustained example of this method occurs in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," the first great expression of Hopkins's mature style. The poem recounts the sinking of a passenger ship (and the drowning of five nuns on board) by a powerful storm at sea "between midnight and morning of December 7" in 1875. It is not the ship, however, but the storm and the darkness mingled with it that compel the poet's attention. The long night at sea and the storm consume nearly a quarter of the poem's thirty-five stanzas, so that the storm becomes the material and figurative matrix of the poem's theology.
Instead of starting with an ordinary object and allowing the object, through the material and figurative operations of the poem, to decompose, to dissolve into the invisible substance of its material foundation, the method of Hopkins's materialism, by contrast, starts with an image of the penumbral substance of things—a storm—in order to bear witness to the objectification of matter through language. A number of the poem's features invite the reader to view it as a storm riddle, after the Anglo-Saxon riddle poems. Indeed, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" actually contains several short riddles that are very close in form to those found in The Exeter Book. Here is one of them:
'Some find me a swórd; sóme
The flánge and rail; fláme,
Fang, or flood'
["W," p. 121]
Were we to supply the exhortation "Say who I am" at the end of these lines, the poem could easily be mistaken for an Old English riddle (which indeed it may be, given the quotation marks). The riddle creature, in this case, is Death (the solution supplied by the poet, who adds, "storms bugle his fame").
If we are to read "The Wreck of the Deutschland" as a storm riddle, as a parable of theological materialism, then we must listen more carefully to Hopkins's echo of a storm riddle in The Exeter Book. Here is the voice of the storm in the Anglo-Saxon text:
Sometimes I swoop down, whipping up waves,
Rousing white water, driving to shore
The flint-gray flood, its foam-flanks flaring
Against the cliff wall. Dark swells loom
In the deep—hills on hills of dark water,
Driven by the sea, surge to a meeting of cliffs.
And here is Hopkins's description of the imagined (and perhaps borrowed) storm of his allegory:
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wíry and white-fíery and whirlwind-swivelled snów
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps
["W," p. 122]
Though the two texts diverge in significant ways (Hopkins, for example, imagines a snowstorm), the evocation of "dark swells" is central to both passages. And Hopkins's phrase "sea flint-flake" is almost certainly an adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epithet, "flint-gray sea." A few lines later, he refers to "the cobbled foam-fleece" of the sea, again perhaps echoing the Exeter riddle ("W," p. 123). Generally, the alliterative patterns and strong-stress meter shared by the two poems heighten one's sense of resounding forms and intertextual play.
Though the Anglo-Saxon tradition appears to furnish Hopkins with the imagery and prosodic effects necessary to evoke the storm's fatal character, the modern poet recoils from the task of imagining what lies beyond the scope of his experience or knowledge. The storm, to the poet, is therefore a mystery, a conundrum whose resolution is uncertain. Faced with an unknown—and perhaps unknowable—event, the poet is nearly abandoned by words; the poem begins to unravel:
But how shall I ... Make me room there;
Reach me a ... Fancy, come faster—
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there.
["W," p. 126]
The problem here is similar to that faced by Vergil or Milton in trying to depict the underworld, for the storm that Hopkins seeks to represent is indeed a kind of hell on earth. That is to say, the storm becomes, for Hopkins, the place in which one discovers the protean substance of "darkness visible."
Hopkins's solution to the problem is at once surprising and familiar; he declares,
There was a single eye!
Réad the unshapeable shóck níght
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—
["W," p. 126]
The poet finds his footing again, so to speak, and acquires the power to envision what has taken place in the dark, by assuming the "single eye" of God, the one true witness to the event. (This is the surprising part of the poet's answer to the conundrum posed by the storm.) Even more important, for our purposes, the act of imagination or representation is conceived in terms of reading and textuality. Hence the unknown materials of the storm—the "unshapeable shock night"—are assimilated to the turbulent substance of the poem. And that is the familiar part of the poet's solution to representing the storm. For we have already seen, on several occasions, how a poem is inclined to discover the nature of its own materials in the substance of darkness and the weather. In Hopkins's great poem, not only is there continual attention to problems of language and speech, but the storm's furious body (air, snowflake, thunder, stress, darkness) begins somehow to resemble the dainty materials of the poem: "Storm flákes were scróll-leaved flówers, lily showers-sweet/héaven was astréw in them" ("W," p. 124). The storm becomes a kind of toy, its "black-about air" at once the poem's breath and the "searomp over the wreck" ("W," pp. 125, 123). The "storm's brawling" becomes a "madrigal start" ("W," pp. 124, 123), and the fearful "dark" rhymes with "the uttermost mark"—with writing ("W," p. 127).
In Hopkins's storm riddle, the wind, called out of its name, becomes "the burl of the fóuntains of air" ("W," p. 123), and night is converted to the poem's obscurity, to "counterfeit gloom" (in Milton's memorable image). The insubstantial engine of lyric therefore turns darkness into a thing, an artifact. And this is the aim of a riddle: the dark speech veiling the object coalesces—once the riddle is solved-into an image of the object itself. Yet obscurity, in a literary sense, is itself already an artifact, the glowing remains of darkness apprehended by language. Heidegger's equation of naming with lighting comes to mind, so that we may understand obscurity—what passes for material substance in poetry—to be the erosion of the particular darkness of things by their names, producing a compound of language and matter, a crepuscular medium. Naming the dark makes darkness visible, and this conversion from substance to object is always a matter of artifice.
In conclusion, I want to return to the question of what significance the principle of lyric substance may hold for philosophical materialism and for materialist criticism in literary studies. Most immediately, the correlation between the way science makes sense of material substance (by depicting the invisible) and what matters about the world in a poem should encourage criticism in the humanities to abandon uncritical assumptions about the nature of material substance. Unless the critical methodology is strictly empirical—an orientation fundamentally alien to literary criticism—the reality of matter must always remain uncertain, always a problem that needs to be taken into consideration. Hence the study of material culture, for example, should never take for granted the material existence of its objects.
Finally, although one is not likely to ascribe to poetry the authority and explanatory power usually reserved for science, this antinomy obtains within science itself, between theoretical physics and more empirical models or disciplines. Hence the question of what sort of reality should be ascribed to the impossible configurations of quantum mechanics (in contrast to the way bodies behave in Newtonian space) resembles debate about the significance of poetry for our conception of physical reality. Which is more real, physics must now ask, the unreal substance of which we are made or the lawful appearance of things in perceptual space? It is not inconceivable that it may one day appear reasonable to assimilate our understanding of ordinary bodies to the invisible—and frequently impossible-features of material substance (as science envisions it). So, too, we may one day grant to lyric substance (what poetry makes of the world) an authority it possesses today only in the realm of speculation—the only certainty, perhaps, it will ever possess.
Daniel Tiffany is the author of Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound (1995) and Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (2000). A poet and translator, he is coeditor of a new book series on auditory culture and teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
W. P. Ker comments on Anglo-Saxon literature's affinity for the riddle: "Poetical riddles were produced in England more largely than anywhere else in the Dark Ages, both in Latin and the native tongue.... The difference is that the old English poetical fashions are much more favourable to this kind of entertainment than anything in Latin. It is the proper business, one might say, of the old English poetry to call things out of their right names" (W.P Ker, The Dark Ages [London, 1904], p. 92; hereafter abbreviated D). Northrop Frye makes a bolder claim, identifying the riddle as the primordial form of one of the two basic modes of lyric poetry, which are melos and—the mode proper to the riddle—opsis; see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism(Princeton, N.J., 1971), p. 280. On the riddle as one of the essential roots of lyric poetry, see Andrew Walsh, Roots of Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics (Princeton, N.J., 1978), ch. 2.
Elisabeth Okasha, Hand-list of Anglo-Saxon Non-runic Inscriptions (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 106, 49, 89.
Ibid., p. 57.
Because this particular object, a cross, involves the death of an individual, the ambiguity of its animate being (suspended between human and thing) may be compared to the principle of the "deodand" ("accursed object") in English law. Rooted in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon common law, the deodand (meaning, literally, "that which must be given to God") pertains to "the liability of inanimate objects," to objects implicated in the death or injury of a human being (William Pietz, "Death of the Deodand: Accursed Objects and the Money Value of Human Life," Res 31 [Spring 1997]: 98).
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, 1987), §53, pp. 196-97. Kant's position echoes that of Lessing, who observes, regarding the impression conveyed by a poem, "I am a long way from seeing the object itself"—because, he says, "illusion" is "the principal object of poetry" (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Edward Allen McCormick [Baltimore, 1984], p. 88). Furthermore, Kant's position anticipates Heidegger's view that, in the language of poetry, "everything ordinary and hitherto existing becomes an unbeing" (Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter [New York, 1971], p. 72).
The correspondences between lyric poetry and philosophical materialism, which I can allude to only briefly here, are the subject of my book, Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (Berkeley, 2000).
Yves Bonnefoy, "Igitur and the Photographer," trans. Mary Ann Caws, PMLA 114 (May 1999): 333.
Ibid., p. 335.
Paul Valéry, "Poésie et pensée abstraite," quoted in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, N.J., 1993), p. 1124. I want to thank Barbara Bowen for referring me to this citation.
Ker views the riddle in Old English literature as an important source of innovation in the history of lyric: "In some of the riddles the miracle takes place which is not unknown in literary history elsewhere: what seems at first the most conventional of devices is found to be a fresh channel of poetry" (D, p. 93).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymological root of "riddle" and "read" is the Old English verb, raedan, meaning "to give or take counsel, to advise, to deliberate." Further, "the sense of considering or explaining something obscure or mysterious is also common to the various languages, but the application of this to the interpretation of ordinary writing, and to the expression of this in speech, is confined to English" (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "read").
Ker writes, "Though it is only a game, it [the riddle] carries the poetic mind out of the world: as not infrequently with the Metaphysical poets, the search for new conceits will land the artist on a coast beyond his clever artifices" (D, p. 93).
T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921), Selected Prose of T S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York, 1975), p. 66.
See Craig Williamson, introduction to A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs, trans and ed. Williamson (Philadelphia, 1982), p. 41.
"Riddle 9," A Feast of Creatures, p. 69.
"Riddle 79," A Feast of Creatures, p. 141.
"Riddle 2," A Feast of Creatures, p. 62.
The Latin term aenigma (a "dark saying") derives from the Greek verb ainissesthai, meaning "to speak riddling verses." The term riddle (and its cognate, to read) derives, as I mentioned earlier, from an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning "to consider something obscure" (Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. "ainissesthai").
"Riddle 84," A Feast of Creatures, p. 147.
"Riddle 24," A Feast of Creatures, p. 84.
Here is the passage from Paradise Lost in which the phrase occurs:
... yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, in Complete Poetry of John Milton, ed. John T. Shawcross [New York, 1971], 1.62-66, pp. 252-53).
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, N.J., 1968), p. 23.
Ibid., p. 15.
Maurice Blanchot, "Two Versions of the Imaginary," The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis, ed. P. Adams Sitney (Barrytown, N.Y., 1981), p. 86; hereafter abbreviated "T."
Heidegger formulates his theory of the work of art issuing from the "rift" between the "earth" and a "world" in his essay, "The Origin of the Work of Art." See esp. pp. 42-44.
Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death," The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 48.
Ibid., p. 49.
Blanchot, "The Gaze of Orpheus," The Gaze of Orpheus, pp. 101, 103.
R. W. Johnson, Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil's Aeneid (Berkeley, 1976); hereafter abbreviated DV.
My favorite weather in the Aeneid occurs when a rainbow (the goddess Iris) appears as a messenger of death; see Virgil, The Aeneid of Virgil, trans. Rolfe Humphries (New York, 1951), 4.693-705, p. 112.
See Jorie Graham, Erosion (Princeton, N.J., 1983); see also Graham, Swarm (New York, 1999).
Graham, "Event Horizon," Materialism (New York, 1995), p. 53.
Graham, "Manifest Destiny," Materialism, p. 100.
Graham, "Subjectivity," Materialism, p. 25; hereafter abbreviated "S."
W. B. Yeats, "Byzantium," The Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York, 1983), p. 248.
Graham, "Event Horizon," Materialism, p. 54.
Quoted in Materialism, p. 62.
Graham, "Break of Day," Materialism, p. 115; hereafter abbreviated "B."
Graham, "Invention of the Other," Materialism, p. 132.
In "Adagia," Stevens writes, "Weather is a sense of nature. Poetry is a sense" (Wallace Stevens, "Adagia," Opus Posthumous, ed. Samuel French Morse [New York, 1957], p. 161). Stevens's materialism, inevitably overlooked or misread by critics, develops principally through his meditations on poetry's affinity with the weather. His many poems referring to this subject include "Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas," "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," "Chocurua to Its Neighbor," "The Snow Man," "Man Carrying Thing," "A Primitive Like an Orb," and "Auroras of Autumn."
Graham, "The Dream of the Unified Field," Materialism, p. 81; hereafter abbreviated "DU."
Mallarme's essay, "Le Mystere dans les lettres," published in Revue blanche in 1896, appeared in direct response to Marcel Proust's polemic, "Contre l'obscurite," also published in Revue blanche in 1896.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty," The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Norman H. MacKenzie (Oxford, 1990), p. 144.
Hopkins, "St. Winefred's Well," The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, p. 181.
Hopkins, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, p. 119; hereafter abbreviated "W." This reference to the timing of the storm—at night—occurs in the poem's dedication (to the five drowned nuns).
Williamson, A Feast of Creatures, p. 60.
Heidegger refers to naming as "the lighting of what is" (Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," p. 73).