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Death in New York: The Edges of Elegy in New York School Poetry

This article stems from an unused chapter in my first book, In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell 2001). It was made into an article but it was too long for submission and I got distracted by life. The work then fed into my second book, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature (Edinburgh 2004). Yet in fact none of the article was used in either book so that it remains both central and supplemental to everything I have done thus far. So hey here it is for the first time. A bit naive now but in the end even back then I was not so stupid. Oh, when I use the term nonrational I am using a Kristevan term that I now longer care for. I don't mean irrational or made but work which exceeds the generic dictates of thetic, so-called rational thought. The avant-garde in other words.

Death in New York: The Edges of Elegy in New York School Poetry

Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude. (Derrida, The Gift of Death 68)

In one case the nonpassage resembles an impermeability; it would stem from the opaque existence of an uncrossable border: a door that does not open...In another case, the nonpassage, the impasse or aporia, stems from the fact that there is no limit. There is not yet or there is no longer a border to cross, no opposition between two sides: the limit is too porous, and indeterminate. (Derrida, Aporias 20)

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death...No, as in true theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror 3)

Elegy is an edge

Elegy is an edge.

The art of an inscribed loss, elegy presents an edge between itself and its own impossible nonpassage into a realm of paradox. The very sense of elegy as an “inscribed loss” is quite clearly paradoxical: one cannot really write absence, and this is the direct relationship between elegy and poetry. Poetic language is in the first instance elegiac. It is committed to the giving of presence to absence, making manifest the dead or the gods, while simultaneously investigating the absence of presence in language due to poetry’s inversions, omissions, and detours. Poetic language thus effectively becomes the significant other of language as such, the former’s purpose being to communicate absence and the latter’s to communicate presence, as well as being rational language’s lost beloved or dead best friend.

Elegy, which aims at the reification of elegiac impulses in poetic language, is revealed to be the ancient site of the logic of the horror of the presence of death in life, and, because of the double logic of presence, that of life in death. Poetic language is, therefore, dominated by a confounding combination of sickness and consolation which I will unpack at this point. Rational language communicates presence, nonrational or poetic language communicates absence, although “communicates” can only be used in its more general sense of being in touch with. Elegy seems placed between these two linguistic functions. Its purpose is to communicate absence in a rational format which is, as we shall see, the process of mourning, and yet its permanent dalliance with absence makes this purpose problematic.

The elegiac aspect of poetic language inherits this double function: to set up a process of interaction between the sickness of loss and the cure of language’s ability to stand in for what is lost. The result is an irresolvable aporia, or dead-end, for logic, especially in nonrational poetry that is still openly elegiac.

Elegy is the edge. Not the line or limit between life and death and between presence and absence in language, but a point of cutting off one thing in preparation for the next.

The thing is a life lived through language. In this sense elegy is never the end of something but rather the process of the ending of something so that something else can begin. In the classic Freudian version this is usually assumed to be the end of mourning and the beginning of a new libidinal attachment. But this is not necessarily the case, as elegy comes about between melancholia, which is the endless process of mourning leading to illness, and mourning, which, in its successful resolution of loss, negates itself and the elegiac. Because of this dynamic between radical failure and a compromised success, perhaps it was disingenuous of me to say that elegy is the art of an inscribed loss when it would be more accurate to call it the process of the inscription of loss. It is processual paradox that interests me here, as it bisects the radical poetics of the “New York School,” specifically John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Taking two central concepts from the New York School, those of “surface” and “going on,” I want to reconcile these seemingly very positive tropes with the more negative connotations of elegy and the elegiac.

Before moving on to discuss the two compositional tropes and elegy, however, it seems apt to consider the edges in two of the New York School’s most impressive elegies, Ashbery’s “A Wave” and Koch’s “Seasons on Earth.” Within hermeneutics not enough attention is paid to the edge of the poem, especially when considering that it is the radical breaks in poetic language that define the majority of poems. These edges, breaks between lines and stanzas, the beginning and end of the poem, the gaps between titles and poem bodies and between one poem and the next, and finally the internal edge of radical poetics which I will return to shortly, are all graphic examples of the predominance of the elegiac in poetic language. They both vouchsafe poetic presence saying, look, this is a poem, and undermine it by erasing the causal conceptual links of continuous linear prose.

For radical, or what can be called nonrational, poetics, this edge-reliance is exacerbated by a number of semantic edges between one phrase and another which generally do not follow on coherently, except by imposing the most violent associative patterns. And so nonrational poetics seems defined, primarily, by an extra edge, what one might call the internal edge; an elegiac absence at the heart of the textual continuum to posit against the more usual edges around it. Added into this one must contend with an extra relationship, in the nonrational, with the graphic breaks of the poem which traditionally serve to articulate a poem into a hierarchical linearity: poem follows title, line follows line, stanza follows stanza, all to convey an overall organic semantic presence.

In the nonrational this hierarchy is not normally dispensed with, although Ashbery’s Three Poems or Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence are examples of attempts to do this, but abused and, in a paradoxical sense, rationalised to make the semantic causal links of the poem actually tabular, in four directions, rather than merely visually so.[i] To put it simply, there is no guarantee that the break between one phrase and the next in nonrational poetry will provide an opportunity for a causal or associative semantic link, it may be there instead to express the absence, rather than the presence, of meaning. The nonrational seems to have, in a very basic sense, the most rational view as to what edges are: the imposition of an absence. All edges are elegiac.

[i] In Kristeva’s very early, and still untranslated, Shmeiwtich [Semiotike]: Recherches pour une Sémanalyse she posits the idea of tabular poetry as the essence of nonrational, what she calls paragrammatic, poetic language. Both she and Lacan have subsequently been criticised for using mathematical models incorrectly so here I will take such a term as tabular as metaphoric and descriptive. Nonrational poetry is tabular in as much as one cannot move through it serially without paying attention to the infinite semantic possibilities which lie beyond the code strings. Such possibilities exist because, rather than tie meaning down to expression as we find in rational poetics, the nonrational poet writes in order to negate semantic closure at each moment of expression. This could be through the aural and visual marking of the signifier into a basic materiality before or beyond expression, very much the case with the New York School and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, or through wilful semantic obfuscation. Thus Kristeva typifies rationality as 0-1, and the nonrational as 0-2, in other words always in excess of possible semantic closure. Away from the terminology it is a crucial point, and while I will not be using her ideas to the point of the inclusion of the infinite possibilities of limited code, I will rely on the idea of two interactive axes of semantic production that work together to undermine presence and express absence, in contrast to the rational model which attempts to flatten these axes into a single, somewhat organic unit.


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