A field I would meet you in
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
The ideal poem - that “imaginary work…[which] could reconcile the finite and the infinite, the individual and the communal…can make a new world out of the linguistic materials of this one”; ultimately, it will fall short, and great poets instead “make a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the ideal poem we cannot write in time.” So says Ben Lerner in The Hatred of Poetry. What is he talking about.
Apparently, there is an ideal poem, defined by negation. It mediates between opposites, even synthesising them. This ideal poem exists, somewhere. I like the idea of it squatting on the wingtip of an aeroplane in flight. This ideal poem, if actualised, would produce a new world.
But it cannot be actualised and exists in imagination only. You can arrive near it (there is only one) through the imaginative act of writing poetry. Great poets are marked by how far they succeed in getting close to the ideal poem. Not all aeroplane wings can be graced by it. Lerner takes an instrumental view of poetry; a poem is a means to the end of the ideal poem. That is where it is headed, or rather where it ought to be heading.
Where is this argument insecure. It sits unfastened on the wing of an aeroplane in flight. In preparing for the ideal poem is there a yield of neglect for the poetry that does exist. When there is an ideal poem, which all real poems are only images of, a poem cannot be an inherent world of its own. This is not true.
Could this new world be thought of as a utopia. A place where poetic language and the rest of the world are in harmony with one another. An unreal place, its perfection and non-existence inextricable. This written into its calling.
Jacques Rancière considers the etymology of utopia: “whether this u- comes from ou- or eu-, whether the word “utopia” originally meant the nonplace or the good place.” The root of the problem in prefixes. The energy in two letters alone; how much hinges on these. Rancière expounds:
The problem crystallizes around the sense of a negation…What is the topos denied or displaced by u-topia? According to the first [of two classic responses], utopia is a simple negation of reality, a work of pure theory or imagination…[T]his timeless definition includes failure as always already given, verified in advance. Utopia is then framed by the reality that it negates and is negated by.
The second response goes on to determine this “reality”…[U]topia is a negation of the present…which makes visible present reality as nonnecessary and another reality as possible. Utopia is a fable or allegory that suspends adherence to a given and proposes a question rather than a program. It is essentially anticipation.
I prefer the latter to the former for how it holds to futurity. To face forward is to be, even if this sets you at the edge of calling. This utopianism as anticipatory rather than imaginary. Anticipating is acceptance of probability; the probability of calling your living, your body, even if not now. To verbalise the present/eventual wants and needs of your body. Anticipating is apart from imagining by virtue of its commitment to materialising.
A way to turn language back in on itself; against the powers it serves. Living in the absences, touched by and touching the field’s beyond. The inversion of invoking your own arrival. Making new and in place – reconciling language to experience; giving form (and this includes absence of) to your living. Anticipating a time and place for speaking your living through production of a speaker who can.
I like the acknowledgement of allegory as vital. Similarly, Haraway’s myth is marked by “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted”. How would this be.
Did you hear the one about the uncertain creature startled by aeroplanes that is and will walk priest(ess)ly; that will not grow unsociable with age. Could allegory not also include the paralanguage of emojis. I think so. In other words, a
As for the world this stag walks – is a world not defined by its own population and mechanisms. Does a poem not have its own population and mechanisms. The population being its subject(s).; their voice(s) and presence. Interacting with a material object (be it touching the page or hearing an audio recording or any other) and knowing the poem is the same action.
This is not to say a poem is a commodity. Instead it is material in the sense of event(ual). Though without a clear place and time of origin – what would you measure from? The city in which its form was first used, the time of the poet beginning to write or the street they were walking down whilst thinking should I make a poem of this? Though any poem’s beginning is not clear, that it recurs at recognisable times in knowable locations is observable. As in, have you never looked at your watch when reading a poem.
Back to reconciling: whether or not the poet and/or the reader accept the imperfectness of language, it must be reckoned with. It has to happen. The attempted reconciling might be between the poet, the lyric-I, and language. Or the poet, the reader, and language. And so on.
T.S. Eliot provides an account of a poem’s workings:
No poet…has [their] complete meaning alone. [Their] significance, [their] appreciation is the appreciation of [their] relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value [them] alone; you must set [them], for contrast and comparison, among the dead…as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.
It is blinkered let alone impossible to read a poem in isolation. I would argue not just in isolation from the dead but also from the living. I or anyone else will read a poem relationally. A poem is touched by the eventual fact that it is not the only one of its kind. Its meaning is not a thing that the poet commands, but a happening in the between of social relation.
Yes it has a world but its world is neither self-sufficient nor inherent. A poem leans on what poems have come before. What has been previously done with form; what connotations of image have been set down. What traces and taints have been put upon language. Is a field not living and dead simultaneously. Its topography shaped by what was; traces of what was; what is now.
Reconciling within a poem is often triangular and always grapples with language. Its equivalencies and its instances of ≠, many of. Lerner’s single ideal poem falls prey to the fallacy of isolation as guarantee of genius. Proximity to the ideal as singular, private. A lonely thing.
Give me exchange, conference, attempt, mischief, trying, mess any day. Stampede; bloodrush through the velvet of antlers grown only to shed. Never the isolation of taking off, the sickliness of your gut at its limit. Your surroundings unreal in the light.
I say reconciling because this is ongoing; poetry as unavoidably discourse. Kristeva counsels “[i]f we are not on the side of those whom society wastes in order to reproduce itself, where are we?” That side would be one with its own particularities of language. Where is that side.
It is where poetic language embraces materiality. Where it gives way rather than forcing concussion upon subjects. Where it can fall apart as a glacier or marriage does, maybe by punctuation uneasy in that there is too much or too little of it. Where it can combine as salt does with water, bringing together two, three, eight voices. Where it can scatter as commuters across lacunae and rupturing line breaks.
Never reaching – – – – – – –
turning punctuation to paralanguage. Dashing and lacunae produces flickering. The poet transcribes faltering; speech only stopping once the speaker is at the end of trying to–. She makes her person present right to the brink through aposiopesis; we have come to the edge of something. The small impermanent extinction there is in passing out of the field. Out of the sayable and back in – how the subject is turned.
This is why I like experimental. It is trying. Oxymoron that this is, I note acknowledgement of language falling short as a mark of experimental poetry. Again, this failure is material. Dialects may be similar but never the same. Language fails specifically, not universally.
How can you figure the universal. What would an ideal poem look like. Practically. I am not convinced there is use in speaking about poetry as a metaphysical truth. Speech disjointed from what is real and happening is where the problem began.
It may be compelling when a documentary presenter calls the behaviour of atoms in some part of space poetry but what does this actually mean. Is it possible that it is only said because of the poems beforehand. From these comes a fascination and familiarity with time not passing quite as we are used to, for example. This cannot be obtained from poems that are overhead and not quite tangible. This is not to say a poem ought to be graspable. Tangible and graspable are different.
In the face of this do you dig in your heels. Not my language. Are you looking overhead just above what language is to the aeroplane of what it maybe could be. Can you make out what is on the wing. Can you really. How useful is it to squint at the expense of seeing the field around you. Something ferocious unsafe that you do not want to contend with may be approaching. On realising what is on the wing has little use do you run dropping poetry as if picked up by accident in the first place. Or continue to do it (poetry) anyway and anew having adjusted your line of sight.
Lerner provides me with a more concrete form to thoughts on alterity, poetry and experimentation that had been developing for some time. Consider “the profound reality of all the subtle shadings of our attachment for a chosen spot.” Who might desire to make a new world. Will it be those whose selfhood is affirmed by the workings of this world. For some, it is politically convenient to embrace language as perfectly capable of full expression once you have mastered it. When you are the universal, how likely are you to admit the limits of that universe.
Granted, at times those who are the universal subject do write experimental poetry, but here I will tend to poets whose poetic work of imagining new worlds stems directly from their place on the margins. Poets who work from an angle at which it is blisteringly clear that language is ≠ what it ought to be.
Often marginal experience takes place in this struck-through equivalence. The triangle here is alterity and experience (and language). A site of exclusion. Gaston Bachelard notes that “[o]utside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains…Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being.”
In the field that is language, it is more real to think in terms of a speaking outside and a spoken inside. It may be comfortable to be in the norms of language but norms are not all encompassing. If a poet finds that poetic language denies them, then what else but to newly arrange those linguistic materials. To be present in the new world they are making.
The poets I am going to consider are two who prioritise expression of alterity over the comfort of language as always all-accommodating. Nat Raha and Mina Loy. of sirens, body and faultlines, and Love Songs. Both in their own but comparable ways turn language back on itself; back against the power(s) it serves. They ask questions of permissibility in language.
There is a double transgression in speaking marginal experiences. Such speech is often met with disbelief and contempt. It is taboo. Then a mischief must happen; accepted rules of syntax, grammar, style and aesthetic set aside in order to come closer to truths of alterity. What new world is willed.
There may not be the adequate words to put what you are into. In this there is a keen agony. Early in life I get caught mediating how I want, gender, and language. Looking to find a place in these. I am out of words. Keeping faith in the flawlessness of language and determined to enter back in I believe only in my want and in language. There is no sense in this. All three being ways to make sense in the world. So is this.
I step into the costume of a cartoonish femininity. In time I set aside the costume and go to the edge of the field. The field is language. Language is being seen. I make no sound when leaving. Over there I hug myself. Having been just out of language eight years I come upon a word. There is a metonym in the word. It is language turned in on itself. Sound has been tended to. I am not the word exactly but I am in there. There are no antlers or hooves. The word did not exist in this way until I was out of the worst of the hurt. I was almost this before called. It is immeasurably good to be called and to realise your living in the calling. To be brought in from exterior. A stag’s head mounted above the fireplace as a trophy is and ≠ in this word. In this word ≠ a dismembered part as representative of how totally manhood overcomes. In this word that appears in its entirety not as meat but as refusal of manhood and its trappings. I see a video of a stag walking in a church and nothing is an accident . It hits my heart like a shot dodged in a clearing.
I hesitate when setting out terminology for what I am about to do. Peter Quartermain cautions that
“[t]he would-be commentator…faced with unconventional and opaque new work, is often tempted to invent special terms or redefine those already in use. But inventing language frequently leads to an arcane jargon…comprehensible (if at all) only to specialists. Redefining terms already in use…runs risks of a different sort, for the habitual usage interferes with the revised…result[ing] in a confused response if not in confused thought.”
To mediate: specific but not unintelligible words, words that are new but not self-satisfied in their ornateness.
Un-innocence Language as neutral and without inscription or fallibility is taken as a given by many. Defining the imperfection and confinement of language ought to begin with negation, literally with a prefix.
Boyer suggests “[i]n everything we wanted, in all we acquired, and in how we could not want, how we could acquire nothing, we were simultaneously the lamb and bird of prey”. If suspended between predator and prey, between being able to walk in the field that is language in plain sight unchallenged and needing to tiptoe the same field or risk much to enter it, what would you do. What am I talking about.
Before even seeing the word “innocence” I want you to think of not. I want you to think danger. I want you to think on the hostility of the sonnet, how it hinges upon a male speaker who cannot take what is his in one sense and so turns it in another no less material way; if not by touch he will have you by singing you. How bitch once and somewhat still does just mean a female dog. On arbiters of conversation who exclude by setting mastery of proper grammar as a requirement for entry. Will you.
Un- is return; movement towards a prior state of absence. I am asking you to dwell in uncertainty. We are something between – ferocious and unsafe. It is good to have an emblem when making a passage. Perhaps a
Field The best I have at present for expressing language’s un-innocence. A field is shaped by what has been done before even if it does not look it. Language is often put to the end of homogeneity and this is unacknowledged. A field may seem neutral ground, innocent of difference, but is in fact a way of creating and reinforcing difference. Certain crops will grow healthily themselves whilst depleting soil nutrients . A field is a place where rot is not generally desirable. Discard is terrible. A sign of failure by those who work in the field. Apparently.
Self To be abandoned. Hejinian notes the word’s inextricability from essentialism:
“This experience of contingency is ultimately intrinsic to my experience of the self, as a relationship rather than an existence, whose exercise of the possibilities (including consciousness) of its condition and occasions constitutes a person.”
As does Daniel Dennett:
“[t]he idea that a self (or a person, or for that matter, a soul) is distinct from a brain or a body is deeply rooted in our ways of speaking, and hence in our ways of thinking.”
Although speech does not account for all experience, there is a correlation between speech, thought, and ontology. An idiolect is a field for a new ontology. I will trip if I speak of the self when talking poetry as social relation, not least because the relationship of the poet to their lyric-I is unfixed.
Instead it will be person and personhood. Whilst Dennett argues the word is also tied to an essential self, I find use in its multiplicity of meaning. Both “a role taken by a person”, so denoting the instability of identity and of the lyric self, and “an individual human being”, so allowing for specificity. Person demarcates “an active, knowing subject mediated by the person’s relations to experience – including language – and her consciousness of these relations.” A person works for “…their fables out of our skins”; assonance of the “o” turning the vowels to something unexpected; turns openings of the “o” on the page and the mouth of the reader to the end of expelling. A person can make you a vessel from which myths of the other are expelled.
But why Loy and Raha. If I am to make an argument which takes poetic language as social relation then comparative exploration makes sense. It is a question not just of what is happening within each of these women’s work but what is happening between. What conversation are they having. Both make frequent use of second-person address:
I will be right back.
“The function of deterritorialization: deterritorialization is the movement by which “one” leaves the territory. It is the operation of the line of flight…[and]…may be overlaid by a compensatory reterritorialization obstructing the line of flight…
Through a movement of deterritorialization, then, one leaves the territory, the place of safety, security, familiarity, and habit.”
For my purposes this place of safety, security, familiarity, and habit could equally be
For it to be deterritorialization (slippery thing that it is) there must be expansion of the territory that it started with. Reterritorialization, then, is responsive; if it is happening, it will be in pursuit of deterritorialization happening. What will deterritorialization look like in poetry.
Lyn Hejinian tells the importance of “what stays in the gaps” in open texts, writing that “[p]art of the reading occurs as the recovery of that information (looking behind) and the discovery of newly structured ideas (stepping forward).” This sounds like what deterritorialization would look like in poetry.
The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it.
A reaction (speaking / reading) to an action. An experience of experience of deterritorialization. A recurrence in which there is vying. A person with desire for open access to the world, the desire implying that this person at present lacks this access. Can you ever have enough. “Everybody cannot have the keys of nicety.”
Returning to Kristeva: could this person not be equivalent to those who find themselves out of society, often violently. And how to mediate these two things. I am newly back to Lerner: finite (familiarity) and infinite (openness
In what field would these meet. Could it be that it is not possible to mediate or subsume or unify or any other of those elegant things that construe the ideal. That refusal of reconciliation is important to un-innocence.
I am back. Changed. Ready to start again. Raha’s collage poems are exercises in deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The poet has departed from a blank page, returning with written-upon pages to be dismembered and used for writing upon the territory of the blank page. The return is residual, precise in its acknowledgement in recontextualization of textual materials, but shaded in the absence of disclosure of these materials’ prior context. 
The gathered materials span several dialects and even mediums of communication. Images alongside text. These varying mediums inflect one another. The compound noun “fear-capital” across the page from transcriptions of vehicle license plates, capitalised; the reader
apprehends the surveillance, how arresting it is. These pages are replete with lines differing in their angles. Lines interrupting one another, each an attempt at flight. Each interrupted by one another. All in struggle to occupy the page; for space in discourse. All having the jurisdiction of different materialities. Though I have not seen these protestors before I see them now, am confronted.
The license plates are possible. I see them daily outside of this poem. Is the subject of the speaker’s dispatch – the “escort”, the “riot vans” – then possible. In invoking a physically possible thing, Raha makes probable the materiality of the poem. And these populations’ mechanisms are real as they are interrupting, slashing violent across the page, turning what is comprehensible upside down. This is not just poetry’s words but its movement. The passage of the license plates into the text of the poem. A disruption. None of the blurring afforded by a news report on the television. Who could the poem answer to, for this exposure.
A textual violence. What has gone into the making of the poem is inseparable from the poem itself. There is interconnectedness between the poem’s world and the world that the poem issues from, Raha’s and yours and my world(s). Subjective experience is reproduced; though the world Raha and you and I experience is technically the same we are all looking at individual angles depending on our positions. I would hazard a guess that each reader will engage differently with the sometimes intersecting sometimes parallel lines. In what order do you read it.
None of the purity / distillation you might associate with innocence. In all honesty. When has a group ever exactly agreed on a poem. A poem is a tilting shifting thing. Think the wings of an aeroplane during turbulence, maintaining flight, teetering.
How does Loy do it. Via the sequence’s title. “Love Songs” denotes an expected thing the reader does not get. From early on the poems arrest. Loy disorientates you and I through deterritorializing and reterritorializing in the first line.
Spawn of fantasies
Sifting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
We are presented with spawn – of frogs? Of Satan? From the very beginning there is a noun (a population) and a preposition (a mechanism). A world. I think of prepositions as latch points in language. Sites of hinge and rotation, indicating of both population and mechanism. That a preposition tells of how something is happening is mechanism. That it is placed between things or persons is population.
One rotation, one “of” and it is on to fantasies, pleasant; in adherence with the conventional semantic field of romance. A three-syllable waltz to the stomping monosyllable of spawn. We are back in love again.
Just as Raha’s range of mediums inflect one another, so does Loy’s mischief with connotations. Sifting is done to powders mostly. Appearing just after fantasies rightly or wrongly you might expect flour or icing sugar. Bland, sustaining. Loy confers a Pig Cupid. Pig Cupid has gone from a thing formless enough to be sifted to a thing of form enough to be named.
Not to be reconciling but these both seem fair. What are they getting at. There is instability – the varying responses to one thing or contending forces which intend to reduce the subject to formlessness. For Quartermain there is sequence; cause and effect. For Empson there need not be a sense of chronology. For Quartermain the instability is about time. A series of rapid happenings. For Empson the instability is about space. Several persons behaving differently in the one field. Both would suggest that the best mode for instability is multiplicities. And I take un-innocence as a substantial multiplicity. Accepting the fallibility of language and using fallible language. An ironic faith.
Language is crucial to production of gender and so if language is fallible, not inevitable, so too is gender. Nat Raha and Mina Loy both have un-innocent relationships with womanhood. Not only discomfort with populating that category of identity, but also with how it is produced. It is a field they walk uneasily. There would need to be negation, endangering confinement, a recognition of language’s hostility.
Why speak it in poetic language. According to Megan Simpson, “[w]riting in which language is experience rather than representation might allow an increased agency for both readers and writers (women as well as men) of such work.” Gender as experiential rather than representative. To draw out un-innocence.
Loy and Raha’s use of poetic language is shaped by this. It is what you live among; it is generated by the teaching of secrets. It is an accumulation of memories, falling under the category of done, not is, and can equally be undone.
Raha plays with proximity, making bare just how close an end of gender might be. Only two letters away! How small and enormous a gesture to add letters and meaning to a word; to make ambiguous. Loy also takes “their” as ambiguous; undefined. We can know them only through our experience. They are not innate; neither womanhood nor manhood is innate. There is no ideal. Both work in terms of cleanliness, and cleanliness as adjacent to violence. “[S]hreds” placed beside “clean” by Raha; an expulsion of “the brood”, cleanly, in Loy.
Quartermain may not be as fair as I thought. In Loy as in Raha, the textual violence of entrapping the poem’s speaker is purposeful. A decision of agency. Raha asserts “our”; her speaker is alert to ownership. And Loy’s speaker is faced with a decision – there is the possibility that this person “would have lived”. There are other ways to be than the one that is happening in your line of sight.
There is a field, enclosed and monocultured in which things are visible, graspable, huntable. There is also a field that is barely a field and facilitates passage. Granted this field has a concept of prey but it is a rapidly dying one. There is rot; things are falling apart; they are passing through; nothing is perfect. Maybe there are planes overhead maybe they have all been folded to cubes. Who can know. Nothing at the expense of a field happening right now. When an unnameable thing passes through it is a hush and wonder as a stag wandering a church and the unnameable thing will name itself or will not and nonetheless it will
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