Monday, March 05, 2007

Lost in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: The Elegiac Tendencies of Contemporary American Poetics

Paper presented at Keele University, May 2001 and again at Reading University in June 2001.

Death is never completed as there are always leftovers. There are the literal remains of the body which, within western culture, are vital to the mourner’s sense of how to mourn successfully; there are those who are left over or behind who must make sense of their loss; and then, more often than not, there are monuments. Elegy theory pays a great deal of attention to the nature of the monument, as does art history and social anthropology, and certainly the memorial is the moment when the privacy of mourning meets the public gaze of the community. At this most difficult of meeting points, private and public, we often like to construct something to mark the occasion, something arresting and affecting. But which occasion are we commemorating with our monuments to that which has been lost?

Elegists and psychoanalysts tend to stress the affective importance of the monument as an essential step towards the completion of the healthy cycle of mourning. Yet even here there are voices of dissent. As Ramazani and Shaw describe, the contemporary elegy is typified by its refusal to get well, while post-Freudian psychoanalysis increasingly sees loss as a fundamental aspect of subjectivity, something that one cannot get over. So if the monument does not mark the occasion of loss, what is its purpose?

Never forget the materiality of the monument. Walk through a large city and note how much of the essence of the place is given over to monumentalising loss. Pass the statuary and the fountains, walk through the squares and sit on the benches looking at the trees marked with small brass plaques. Continue on, paying attention to the inscriptions above doorways and the names of boulevards. Enter the cemetery. Don’t tarry among the famous graves or recently dug plots, but head to the back where the stones are sinking and the tombs have developed cavities and list alarmingly. Their gates are rusting and crooked, their angel’s hands amputated and their faces scoured smooth by time.

The monument is physical and so apparently made of matter, which is its purpose after all. We place monuments in such a way as they can be apprehended so that the specific loss can be similarly apprehended. They don’t mark loss and the closure of mourning, in other words; instead they are an open form. They exist to allow a continual meeting between the privacy of a death and the public truth of all our deaths. Anthropological studies of mourning rituals over the last century, initiated by the Durkheim School, have increasingly come to the conclusion that the ritual act of mourning is exactly that, an acting out of communal anxieties when faced with the incommensurable threat which actual death poses.

This view is also supported by a particular strand of the philosophical community and can be found in the work of Lacan, Levinas, Derrida, Kristeva, Blanchot, and Lyotard. All these voices speak of death in a similar way, as the incommensurable event which is radically unknowable and therefore other. It is a limit not to life but to limitation itself. It is an absence not within the subject but of subjectivity itself. Death constitutes something other, over or out there, a final encounter the effects of which we meet with every day. Death becomes, in effect, the real.

Taking all this into consideration, what is the monument for and how does it operate? If it is essentially of material importance what should it be constructed from, and if the point is to facilitate meetings, who attends these meetings and what gets discussed there? These are questions I want to begin to answer. For too long the false assumption that mourning has a healthy aspect facilitated by the monumental act of commemoration, has hidden the truth about mourning in western culture. However, throughout the reality of loss has been encountered because of this. This reality is the reality of the remains. Death, because monuments have always tried to tame and trope it with their scale and perfection of form, remains as something still to be dealt with. Also, the marking of our remains in the form of gravestones and the like, the most common and communal monument, links the spirit of the lost beloved with the debased matter of their abject corpse. The monument, therefore, in being what is left on the earth after the spirit has departed, both denies the radical incommensurability of death, and at the same time demonstrates it. For when one encounters the material thing which is the monument, one comes face to face with the matter of death.

For those of you familiar with the avant-garde group of American poets called the Language group, the idea of addressing the issues of the elegiac monument in relation to their work may seem perverse. This loose collective of writers which developed in the U.S. in the nineteen seventies are committed to undermining and exposing the very values that make poetic elegy possible. Their sustained attack on the assumed unity of the lyrical I and its ability to express itself through meaningful, transparent forms means that, by rights, it would be impossible for there to be a Language elegy. Yet, at the same time, their commitment to the materiality of the word directly accords with my own analysis of the elegiac monument as the meeting point of the subject and its radical delimitation within a communal realm. Therefore, while the Language group would be unable to write an elegy, everything they have written has been tinged with what I would call the elegiac or the encounter with the irreducible real of actual death.

Bob Perelman, Language poet and unofficial historian of the group, points out that the titles of the two journals which began the Language group convey all one really needs to know about Language poetry:
Consider the titles of two magazines, which were initially devoted to language writing: This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E...This is deictic—it points something out; there has to be somebody doing the pointing: a person using a word, using it specifically, confidently, this not that. If anything is, this is here and now... L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, on the other hand, presents a different problem, as anyone who has ever had to type it more than once will understand... (Perelman 19-20)

Contained within the differences between these two titles is the essence of the central tenet of Language poetry which is the materiality of the word, and it is this avowed materiality that allies their poetry to the post-elegy theory of monuments I am attempting.

Materiality must be taken to have two meanings, which also represent two, sometimes opposing, strands of Language poetry. The first materiality is the materiality of this, of pointing, of being a subject within a context and of language being an aspect both of this subjectivity and this context. This is the word as a material product of the world in which we live, here and now, and accounts for the leftist political orientation of Language poetry. It also retains for language a continual interaction with the real, representing language as something that, Charles Bernstein argues in his influential “The Artifice of Absorption”, is both absorptive of the real, and impermeable to it:

By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
Completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie...:
belief, conviction, silence.

Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,
fragmented...: skepticism
doubt, noise, resistance (Bernstein 29)


Language, Bernstein argues, tricks us out of the real by acts of absorption in the same way that capitalism tricks us out of seeing the real material conditions of our existence. Yet language also is the real, or is a thing within the world of the real, and therefore capable of being consumed and of being resisted. This is its impermeable quality that makes it the ideal site for confronting the ideologies of absorption, such as elegy, head on.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, on the other hand, stresses a very different materiality, that is the literal materials from which Language is constructed: letters, vowels, consonants, marks, spaces, patterns, phrases, punctuation, voicings, rhythms, sounds, repetitions, lines, sentences, paragraphs and so on. This is also a materiality of this-ness, of quiddity, and of the real, but instead of stressing the context of the poetic act, it stresses the act of construction within that context. Bernstein calls this element of the material word the mark, something he inherits from Derrida, and it is to the mark that we must turn if we are to understand the radical monuments of loss that language poetry can be seen as being:

The “mark” is the visible sign of writing.
But reading, insofar as it consumes &
absorbs the mark, erases it—the words disappear
(the transparency effect) & are replaced by
that which they depict, their “meaning.”...Antiabsorptive
writing recuperates the mark by making it opaque,
that is, by maintaining its visibility... (Bernstein 64)


The mark within writing is what I would call the elegiac as opposed to elegy proper. If you consider every act of language, it is always in a small way an elegy, indicated by the fact that elegy is an unusual genre in that it is self-consuming. It is not a means of communicating but of healing, therefore it really produces a waste product if it succeeds, and the poem becomes, like so many monuments, a charming but irrelevant remainder, picturesque but impotent. All elegies do is express the truth of deconstruction in a visible way: that the referential imperative of language results always in a useless material excess which hangs around, undermining meaning’s claim to transparency and prominence. In contrast to this, the elegiac tendency, which one can find in some modern elegies and monuments, testifies to the unknowability and irreducibility of death and loss in general.

This is a difficult concept for those not schooled in continental philosophy, but Bernstein’s idea of the mark clarifies the idea of what the elegiac is, while also relating Language poetic strategies to contemporary theories of absence and mourning. When one reads the mark, one consumes it and thus one erases it. It is significant, I think, that Bernstein ends his list of absorptive strategies with “belief, conviction, silence” because this holy trinity constitutes the unholy alliance of logocentric views as to what language is for. Once one has belief one can overleap the material, or better use materiality to leapfrog into the immaterial realm of belief typical of the history of the funeral monument in Europe over the last one thousand years as the work of Phillipe Aries has demonstrated. Similarly, conviction brooks no resistance, allows no questioning. It ignores the claims of materiality that the remainder of the sign attempts. The result is, of course, silence, the proper response not only when one attends a funeral or reads an inscription on a grave, but also what results from a successful elegy: the end of the need for words about that loss.

I want now to move on to consider an example of elegiac impermeability using the work of Lyn Hejinian. Hejinian’s poetry is some of the most challenging and intellectually vigorous of all the language poets and her constant interactions with time, writing, reading and memory, regularly bring her into areas within her work that would ordinarily be termed elegiac. In addition to these qualities, she has actually written an elegy, of sorts, and it is with this elegy and her related idea of happiness that I want to finish with. The poem “(Elegy, for K. B.)” is the only poem in the sequence of poems that make up the book The Cell with a title. It goes as follows:

This augmentation of infinity a
death
but incomplete
we shouldn’t stay in one
spot to look at it
but...

Early one morning made perceptible
three trees, no noise to
hold the air...the list
is not complete

I want it, where something
has affinity to it

There is life and then
occupation of place
A gulf that drawing goes
such
The skies are wide tines,
blue and blue always receding
From solids, midday, no overlapping
The middle
That we too might gradually
arrive at a life, a
whole
Which speaks for itself and
has no further explanation (Hejinian, The Cell August 10 1987)

Some aspects of this poem approach elegy, I would say the poem in fact attempts to meet with, or to experience a perception of, elegy as a form or real thing in a real context. It is written for a specialised audience who all know about elegy, they may also know who K.B. is, although I don’t. I would imagine supporters of Language poetry might be as outraged at this elegy as supporters of what Language poets call absorptive poetics, in that it is called “Elegy”, its opening line refers to death, there is a debate about life and the fragmented style, normally so confrontational and impermeable in her work, here actually seems to convey quite well the feeling of fragmentation that many in mourning describe.

However, tested against Bernstein’s list of absorptive poetics, and the elegy is the arche-absorptive poem of western culture, one can see that it refuses belief in transcendence. Also, it is not a poem of conviction as it does not try to persuade us of anything in relation to death. Elegies, for those of you who have read a number of them, often tend towards the didactic. Finally, it’s not a poem about silence, but about speech. While Hejinian agrees openly, in her work, with Derrida’s definition of death as the ultimate aporia or uncrossable limit to thought, she is not stunned into quiescent silence at the thought. Rather, she seeks a dialogue with death. She seeks to address her perceptive consciousness to death.

The poem begins by taking on the sublime paradox of death’s infinite scale, which is Derrida’s central conception of death as the formless deconstructive limit of form. Here, in suggesting impossibly that death is an augmentation or expansion of infinity, she describes the impossibility of the absorptive elegy that seeks to expand rationally on death and mourning. And yet also she is not being ironic. Her belief in the world’s being made up of what she calls elsewhere an “infinity of finitudes,” is central to the elegiac aspect of all her poetry. She knows she cannot absorb the real into the word, but this does not mean she cannot know the real. For a start she can know the real, in her poetry, through her inability to absorb the it and thus consume it cognitively.

In the essay “Strangeness,” written at the same time as The Cell, she further expands on these issues: “Because there is a relationship between the mind and the body, there are inevitable experiences of instability and therefore of loss and discontinuity. Loss of scale accompanied by experiences of precision” (Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry 138). The dynamic between a loss of scale and the gaining of an experience of precision, similar to the Kantian mathematical sublime in reverse, is in evidence throughout the poem. Incompletion, or the inability to think death, motivates her to keep moving, to keep experiencing what remains to be experienced. With this in mind she turns to the tangible world left over, the simple pastoral world of trees, small numbers, and silence. However, in a gesture repeated throughout The Cell, the precision of things always draws her eye to the incompleteness of any taxonomy. Her desire for affinity to it, to death or to the real world of mourning depending on how you choose to read it, is both denied by the aporetic nature of death as vast and unknowable, and yet it is also confirmed by her experience of life.

The difference between life and death is, therefore, one of listing. In the list of life there are too many precise things to list for the subject to ever develop affinity, while the list of death has only one item on it, but it is of such magnitude that again an absorptive association to it on the part of the poet would be ridiculous to claim. There is life then, and occupation of place, and there is death and the impossible occupation of its no-place. The subject, she suggests, exists at the midday point. Being is the middle point between the failed taxonomy of life and death.

In terms of impermeability, the poem’s material credentials are fairly solid. Of the four final values in Bernstein’s long list, “skepticism, doubt, noise, resistance” the poem’s suspension of positions between the sublimity of death and absence of matter, and of life and the massive overabundance of matter, is openly stated. Doubt exists both on behalf of the poet and reader I would suspect, as the fragmented, non-sequitorial form is a doubtful vehicle for the important human issues of death and life. In fact, from a psychological point of view, Hejinian’s tendency towards fragmentation and nonsense would be seen as typical of what Kristeva calls depressive speech. As regards resistance, the poem is resistant to reading and interpretation, and itself resists the absorptive temptations of elegy. Which just leaves us with noise.

Bernstein’s commitment to noise is his theory of the mark from an aural perspective, and Hejinian’s use of internal rhyme, line breaks, and a lexicon often chosen as much for sound and appearance as referential meaning, is in accord with the materiality of the word as I have described it. Yet the poem’s concluding lines seem, in fact, to advocate a withdrawal into silence which would be rather typical of an absorptive elegiac monument, rather than an impermeable one. In fact, it is through her desire for a life that speaks for itself, that the implications of the elegiac monument are fully revealed.

In the essay “A Common Sense,” Hejinian puts forward a theory of what she calls happiness, which strangely is in accord with my own ideas as to the nature of the elegiac. Happiness is life’s self-sufficiency or self-satisfaction away from the dictates of western subjectivity and metaphysics. It is the meaningfulness of things in existence, beyond the semantic realm of reference and transparency:

When it comes to ordinary things, their meaning is the same as what they are. The meaning of an ordinary spoon is the ordinary spoon. Its meaning cannot be separated from it...In this sense, one might say that things thinging is their achievement of the ordinary, their achievement of the commonplace...To say that the meaning of a thing is inseparable from it is not quite enough; the meaning of a thing is inseparable from it in its totality...The commonplace is a totality; a place, physical or mental, we (things that exist) hold in common with each other. (Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry 364-5).


Happiness is like mourning for the things you have rather than for the things you do not. It is acceptance of the unknowability of all things, or what Levinas, Derrida, and Lyotard all agree is the proper ethical response to otherness: the treating of the other as other, retaining a respect for its unknowability. What Hejinian’s work does, therefore, is bring the Language group’s concept of the material word to bear on the sublime paradoxes of the material world. Faced with the unknowability of death in her poem, she also encounters the unknowability of life.

From a European perspective this truth has tinged life with the dark tincture of horror, holocaust, death and the inadmissible. It remains to be seen if Hejinian's much more positive take on these issues, as being a cause for happiness, is a profound insight, an American spin on what has been a quintessentially European issue, or merely a strategic polemic stance. What can be said is that the monuments we encounter as a result of being lost in Language, present a powerful challenge to the exhausted monuments of elegy, which merely tries to make up for loss through language. As for death’s incompleteness, Language poetry’s elegiac tendencies mean that the truth about death literally remains to be seen. Its materiality, in the form of leftovers, becomes the public site for an encounter with death on its own terms as unknowable and real. Death, on other words, should be met with not in a state of mourning but as an aspect of happiness.
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