Within the discipline of Romantic studies, Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’ holds an exemplary place. The story recounted by the poem is an archetypal narrative of what has been called the Romantic Ideology. As is typical of ideology, its nefarious influence is assumed to propagate throughout the whole of English language poetry, giving rise in contemporary poetics to mainstream, free-verse late-Romantic poetry such as we find in Seamus Heaney, and the rejection of this model to be found in the poetics of Charles Bernstein. The poem begins with the event of an encounter, ‘Behold her, single in the field / Yon solitary highland lass! / Reaping and singing by herself / Stop here, or gently pass!’ Opting for the first of the two injunctions, the journeying poet listens to her as she sings ‘a melancholy strain’. The reaper sings in a language that Wordsworth does not know which leads him to speculate as to what she may be singing across the middle two of the poem’s four stanzas. Finally, unable to solve the mystery of her voice, he is moved and moves on, but the true shift in his emotions comes, as ever, at a later date in retrospection: ‘And, as I mounted up the hill / The music in my heart I bore / Long after it was heard no more’. However mysterious the voice of the reaper and the theme of her chant, the rhetoric of this poem remains remarkably familiar. The reaper is no more a reaper than the daffodil a daffodil or the French revolution an actual historical event in Wordsworth’s other works. All three are fables of solitary wandering, sudden encounters with a singular event, immediate emotion, opening up access to recollection at a later date and a mediated emotion through the power of imagination manifested in verse. This is what makes Worsdworth’s poetry so great and also so vulnerable to attack.
Wordsworth, like all great poets, is a liar. As ever Plato was right. We now know by virtue of the labours of philology that he never encountered the solitary reaper in question, shall we say in actuality, but appropriated the event from Gilpin’s XXXX.. From this lesser known text we are able to evince facts germane to the work of the poet, for example that the reaper Gilpin encountered was singing in erse, that he was not alone but travelling with companions, but that none of his companions were Wordsworth. Due to this source text and the arduous work of Wordsworth scholars this poem as been given as an example of the problems of appropriation and authenticity now seen as detrimental to the ideas of Romanticism resulting in their being termed ideologies. Wordsworth invents fake encounters to support his masculine ideology of the male poet, alienated from society, and able to take up a god-like position in relation to the objects of his regard. Here this object is literally a woman, whose alterity, her song in erse, is encapsulated in a voice which, like that of his sister Dorothy, is a potential threat to the male poet’s dominance. Thus he chooses several techniques to protect his aesthetic sovereignty. He sits above and beyond her on his horse, for example, and while his curiosity as to the content of her singing leads him to exclaim ‘Will no one tell me what she sings? —’, the heavily marked caesura here the only graphical indication of mendacity in the text leaving space for the consideration of the possibility of companions and the original poet Gilpin all of whom have been excised from the final poem, he opts not to risk dismounting and approaching her to ask. The danger, we might surmise, of dismounting is that while the colonial occupier does not speak erse, his subject may indeed speak English. This possibility perhaps unconsciously resonating, the poet stays mounted in splendid elevation and opts instead to appropriate the woman’s narrative, bringing to it an Orientalist flavour: ‘Of travellers in some shady haunt, / Among Arabian sands:’ (There is a hint here to the still exotic status of the Hebrides to late 18th century English folk). Subsequently our vaunting poet speculates that the song’s topos may be of ancient battles, recalling the troubled colonial history of these isles, before settling on perhaps an inevitable masculinist comment on female poetics: ‘Or is it some more humble lay / Familiar matter of today?’
Contemporary readings of this poem are all excellent in identifying how inauthentic the Romantic Ideology is in its fake encounters, masculinist postures, colonialist arrogance and pretence of authentic relationship to the world of natural order. At the very end of the work the poet is able to leave the woman toiling in the field, a comment on their differing sexual, cultural and national status. He could dismount and join her in her work, learn her language, get to know her culture and songs, but apart from Wordsworth being too early for modern anthropology, the scholarship suggests there is too much at risk for Romanticism to behave in such a manner. It is too risky to leave the lakes for wilder lands to the north. Better to get someone else to make the actual journey for you, so that you can plagiarise the event of the solitary reaper from the safety of your study.
‘The Solitary Reaper’ therefore is a classic in the lethargically expanding canon of what I am calling apotropaic verse: poetry which protects by pushing things away. The brilliance of the readings of the poem are all based of course on the fact that the poet has altered the facts of real experience to fit the poem. Brilliant though they are they are all disastrously flawed, for while Wordsworth may be a liar, he is lying on behalf of the truth of poetry and its relation to its dictation.
The theme of poetic dictation is sustained across Agamben’s work commencing in his 1977 study of pneumatology in Stanzas. Over several astonishing chapters Agamben attempts to unearth what he calls ‘perhaps the most imposing intellectual cathedral constructed by late medieval thought’ (St 90), namely the conception of the pneuma as breath and spirit and vital substance moving through the circulatory channels of the body. The pneuma as a concept is already familiar in Aristotle but during the medieval period it becomes finessed to represent an intermediate state between ‘corporeal and incorporeal, rational and irrational, human and divine’ (St 93). By the time we get to Dante and what Agamben sees as the Stilnovist origins of all European poetics, the idea of the pneuma as spirit which however has enough substance to circulate in the body and which palpates from the heart as both seat of the emotions and engine for the body’s circulation, is well established within the body of European culture.
This divagation through the quasi-corporeal circulations of the body is necessary to explain the conception of poetry as dictation found in a tercet from Dante’s Purgatorio: ‘I am one who, when Love inspires me, takes note, and in the manner that he dictates within I go signifying’ (cited in St 124). Agamben notes that while on the surface this tercert conforms to the scholastic definition of language as ‘notation and sign of a passion of the soul’ (st 127), in fact it radically calls into question the idea of language as a notation of intellection. ‘Dante instead characterized poetic expression precisely as the dictation of an inspiring love’ (St 127). The legacy of this pneumatic theory of poetry is that poetry was situated ‘at the extreme limit of the corporeal and the incorporeal, sensible signifier and rational signification’ (St 128), allowing it to transcend the tradition of assuming the signifier and signified are first separated by an uncrossable barrier, and second, therefore, that language is dominated by the pursuit of an object of desire it can never attain.
Five years later and instead of considering word and phantasm Agamben finds himself in a complex reading of Heidegger’s famous definition of the human animal as having an experience of death of which it can speak differentiation if from the animal. Itself a seminar on Heidegger, ostensibly, with Hegel playing an imposing supporting act, on the transcription of the seventh day Agamben begins with a consideration of the negative grasping of the very taking place of language through the unspeakable experience of the voice as such, which leads him to speak of the ‘’confrontation’ with and divergence from poetry’ on which first philosophy is founded by Plato in the exclusion of the poets from the republic. This leads him to raise the dual interrogations: ‘Do we find in the poetic tradition, unlike the philosophical tradition, a language that does not rest on the negative foundation of its own place? And where do we encounter something like a reflection on the taking place of language in the Western poetic tradition?’ (LD 66). Naturally the implied answer to the first question through this book and Agamben’s work is yes. And while Badiou would reply ‘The Age of the Poets’ to the second question, Agamben instead turns to the troubadour tradition and the development of the razo de trobar to supersede the ratio (ars) inveniendi.
Approaching a theme he will return to again in The End of the Poem, Agamben considers the term topics in ancient rhetoric as ‘a technique of the originary advents of language; that is, a technique of the “places” (topoi) from which human discourse arises and begins’ (LD 66-7). The conception of topoi allowed the ancient tradition of thought to conceive of ratio (ars) iudicandi or scientific logic, as ‘less originary than that of the ratio (or ars) invendiendi, which sets off the very advent of the discourse and assures the possibility of ‘finding’ language, of reaching its place’. (LD 67). Agamben goes to on to explain that while judgement was based on the already-having-been-given of language, topics took as its duty the building of a place for language termed argument after the Latin root for the word in argu or splendour ?? and clarity. ‘To argue signified originally, “to make shine, to clarify, to open a passage for light”. In this sense, the argument is the illuminating event of language, its taking place’ (LD 67).
Over time this radical view, certainly for we moderns, that invention precedes judgement and does so by making a luminous, translucent or merely transparent space for language to simply shine through in the form of an inventive argument, is smudged then obscured. By the time of the 12th century and the troubadour and Stilnovist traditions, ratio inveniendi had therefore ceased to be a form of invention, and became a set of memory places or mnemonic devices for the orator. The art of invention had been reduced to a tenebrous memorial to the original, shining inventive act of language presenting itself as such. It is at this stage of aesthetic decadent automatism that the transformation of ratio inveniendi into razo di trobar, from which the troubadors took their name, occurred. The term trobar means to find, but it may also stem from tropus meaning rhetorical figure, either way: ‘What they experience as trobar goes definitely beyond invention. The troubadours do not wish to recall arguments already in use by a topos, but rather they wish to experience the topos of all topoi, that is, the very taking place of language as originary argument… Amors is the name the troubadours gave to the experience of the advent of the poetic word and thus, for them, love is the razo de trobar par excellence’ (LD 68).
Now we are aware through our earlier encounter with love in Dante that first, another name for the place of the trobar is the stanza, and second, that love here refers to nothing other than the very place of language as such. And so it is finally to Dante and dictation that we now turn after yet another, and in this context final, digression. Through a reading of the poem L’infinito by Italian poet Leopardi, Agamben then turns his gaze to Dante through the statement of the profoundly Heideggerian basis of all his early theories of poetry:
L’infinito expresses the same experience which we saw as constitutive for philosophy itself; namely, that the taking place of language is unspeakable and ungraspable…The poetic experience of dictation seems, thus, to coincide perfectly with the philosophical experience of language. Poetry contains in fact an element that always already warns whoever listens or repeats a poem that the event of language at stake has already existed and will return an infinite number of times. This element…is the metrical-musical element. (LD 77)
For old time’s sake let’s go back again to Scotland. It should be apparent now that the metrical-musical element is simply another means of discussing the semiotic, as indeed Agamben goes on to do, and it is the music of poetry that ‘The Solitary Reaper’ also celebrates. While the topos of the reaper’s song, for what else is one to term the tried and tested structure of the Romantic lyric, may be the cause for the extension of the encounter of poetry into an actual poem, it is the nature of the poetry as such which actually concerns Wordsworth, as exhibited by that most English of poetic techniques, synonymisation. The reaper’s song is described variously as ‘melancholy strain’, ‘overflowing sound’, ‘chaunt’, ‘voice so thrilling’, ‘plaintive numbers’, ‘humble lay’, ‘song…singing’ and finally, perhaps most telling, ‘music’. One effect of this synonymisation is to sustain the metrical-musical element of her poetry not merely through the balladic prosody of the poem, but also as a continuous background of noise sustained through that another most poetic usage, this time of diction, anaphora. Yet it is the final couplet that brings the poem so very close to an Agambenian reading: ‘The music in my heart I bore / Long after it was heard no more’.
This seemingly simple conclusion is deceptive and, I hope, more clearly understood as a result of my arguments pertaining to argument as such. First, of course, Wordsworth closes what Agamben calls the hermeneutic circle of pneumatic verse. If, as Dante argues, poetry is first and foremost a dictation of breath/spirit from the emotional pumping station of the heart, its circulation can extend beyond that of the poet’s body. Here the poem dictated to Wordsworth is pronounced from the heart of another poet, the reaper, who must also be subject to the dictation of the place of language as such in the form of love. It is notable here that the myth of Syrinx and the origins of poetry in the unrequited lust of the gods is emulated in the reaper’s own melancholic, weary, plaintive and sorrowful song. The poem circulates literally heart to heart, but what allows it to be carried in the heart of Wordsworth if his understanding of the voice remains absented? Precisely this: that the unknowable and unspeakable nature of the voice as such as originary place of the experience of language is to be found within the qualities of the pneuamticisim of her voice. Wordsworth does not understand the theme of what she sings, but he instantly and consistently comprehends its topos.
As the reaper sings, what she sings, language as such, is already in existence. She sings from the heart of its ever-present circulation as it is dictated to her by the pneuma of breath/spirit. Of what she sings remains forever unrecuperable, even if we knew erse, but what she sings, the metrical-musical matter of song as such, will continuously and constantly be re-encountered. Indeed this poetry, the poetry external to versification, a poetry of voice beyond the grammata of the line, will never cease, both because it will live forever in a pneumatic transcirculatory motion between the reaper and Wordsworth, reproduced within the apotropaicism of language as prophylactic to the cessation of the semiotic, and because as Wordsworth says, ‘the Maiden sang / As if her song could have no ending’. Returning to 12th century Italy now from the Cimmerian future, we can propose in English fashion a synonym for the reaper: she is to be called the muse.
Speaking of the metrical-musical element or the semiotic, Agamben says that it ‘demonstrates first of all the verse as a place of memory and repetition. The verse (versus, from verso, the act of turning, to return, as opposed to prorsus, to proceed directly, as in prose) signals for a reader that these words have always already come to be, that they will return again, and that the instance of the word that takes place in a poem is, for this reason, ungraspable’. (??) This phrasing alone not merely opens up ‘The Solitary Reaper’ as exemplary of a poetic thinking, but also reveals that the Romantic Ideology, so-called, is not a localised event but issues from the totality of the western ideology of verse: ‘For oft when on my couch I lie’ [etc]. The now almost infamous phrasing ‘Recollection in tranquillity’ testifies not so much to the Great Universal Teacher or even the spirit that moves through all things, as to the inevitable originary presence and return of the verse. What the archetypal Wordsworthian encounter dramatises is not, I am contending, poetic events, but the means by which the event is unable to disrupt the versus, just as prose can never entirely overwhelm poetry or, for that matter, poetry exist without the return of thought in the caesura. As Agamben has it: ‘Through the musical element, poetic language commemorates its own inaccessible originary place and it says the unspeakability of the event if language (it attains, that is, the unattainable). Muse is the name the Greeks gave to this experience of the ungraspability of the originary place of the poetic word…To utter the poetic word’, according to the Greek tradition supported by Plato, ‘signifies ‘to be possessed by the muse…that is to say, without the mythical image, to experience the alienation of the originary place of the word that is implicit in all human speech’. (LD 78).
All of which prepares for the final two statements on poetic dictation in Agamben’s work thus far. Idea of Prose is subdivided into 33 short, what to call them, chapters, better prose stanzas, each of which is entitled with the syntactic commencement ‘The idea of…’ Of these 33 the first 5 form a remarkable discourse on poetry directly in relation to themes of dictation, memory and the muse. The first essay ‘The idea of Matter’, considers enigmatically the decisive experience, what one might term the subjective event, for which subjects habitually lack words. Agamben says of this experience that is not even an experience but ‘nothing more than the point at which we touch the limits of language’. (IP 37). Such an event is not, he confidently assures us, an event at all ‘not a thing so new and awesome that we lack the words to describe it’ (IP 37). Instead of event he calls this matter: ‘Where language stops is not where the unsayable occurs, but rather where the matter of words begins. Those who have not reached, as in a dream, this woody substance of language, which the ancients called silva (wildwood), are prisoners of representation, even when they keep silent’ (IP 37).
As we have moved through the wonders of Agamben’s prose we have often found ourselves literally cutting through the wood of matter, first through our channelling of the myth of Syrinx and how after her transformation into a reed bed her reeds were then cut from the ground and made into pipes for music and poetry. Then, in the wilds at the edge of my own Cimmerian world, we found this myth reversed as the feminine principle of the Syrinx is reversed as an ineffable, and yes misogynistically conceived, woman, sings as she reaps rather than having to be reaped so as to be allowed to sing. It is significant, I feel, Agamben sees fit to begin amidst the arboreality of woodland before the book commences to the sections which have concerned us thus far, the ideas of prose and the caesura respectively. It is mere coincidence and yet not without some meaning that ‘The Idea of Caesura’ ends with a poet on a horse who ‘awakens and contemplates for an instant the inspiration that carries him—he thinks nothing else but his voice’. As we have already seen, this moment of thought arriving through the pure place of the voice is central to an understanding of Wordsworth’s verse, sorry Penna’s verse.
Why then at this stage does the next stanza consider ‘The Idea of Vocation’, by raising a question odd, I think, to a contemporary audience: ‘To what is the poet faithful?’ He admits that such fidelity could not ‘be fixed in a proposition’ (IP 45) as indeed propositional thinking is what a philosopher is faithful to. Yet, he realises, ‘how can a vow be kept if it is never formulated…? It would have to quit the mind in the very moment it affirms its presence there’ (IP 45). The philosopher then speaks of forgetting in relation to the origins of the Italian word for forgetting—the rather disturbing dimenticare leading to the formation dimenticato, I forgot or made myself de-mented, (in Italian, expelled from the mind)—in the word oblivion with an aphorism culled from a gnomic moment in Hölderlin: ‘The forgotten is not simply cancelled or left aside: it is handed over to oblivion’ (45). As Hölderlin goes on to express, the vocation of the poet is precisely to the oblivion at the very limit of all memory leading to a special form of immemorial infidelity which is, for him, the vocation of the poet: ‘Fidelity to that which cannot be thematized, nor simply passed over in silence, is a betrayal of a sacred kind, in which memory, spinning suddenly like a whirlwind, uncovers the hoary forehead of oblivion’ (IP 45). The vocation of the poet, therefore, is neither to what can be remembered or that which must be lost forever but the ‘reverse embrace of memory and forgetting which holds intact the identity of the unrecalled and the inforgettable’ (IP 45). In moments, in seconds, and for all time, we will come to understand exactly how this vocation of the poet accords with that of the philosopher, but before that it is worth reminding ourselves that we are still woodbound, for the forehead of oblivion is hoary for arboretical reasons. [It is not mere accident that hoary means grey simultaneously from age and frost and must, from its origins in the Anglo-Saxon hoar. Indubitably hoariness is again a Cimmerian quality pertaining to damp nestled in the hollows of gentle rolling hills for many mild wet months, once bore the now abandoned usage ‘of tree or wood: grey from absence of foliage or because covered in lichen’. The limbs and stems of trees, saplings, perhaps beds of reeds some neglectful god or reaper failed to gather in and which have been dead for generations, become hoary from misuse.]
‘The idea of Dictation’ is nestled between two related articles, ‘The Idea of the Unique’ which speaks some more of the poetic vocation in relation to Paul Celan, and ‘The Idea of the Muse’, which on the surface seems little more than a recollection of Agamben’s attendance of Heidegger’s seminars, perhaps just a statement of his credentials. It seems odd that a biographical sketch of Heidegger’s hoary last years where he would give his seminar ‘in a garden shaded by tall trees’ or ‘in front of a small hut hidden away in the midst of an olive grove’, should be the chosen example for the archetypal poetic experience of inspiration manifested in the figure of the muse. The philosopher seems old and frail. Agamben recounts how when students crowded around he retorted to their incessant questioning, ‘Who, what?’ ‘ ‘You can see my limit; I can’t’. Where once he would stride through the Cimmerian wild woods of his arboreal retreat in Todtnautberg, expectant of the encounter with lichtung, now he cowers beneath the olive trees, unable to sustain the attentions of his disciples into whose midst he appears thrown by fame, his beard gone grey, his cheeks flecked with the mortal marks of his death to come. Agamben interprets Heidegger’s frailty in the face of persistent questioning as a confirmation of the philosopher’s earlier comments on philosophical fidelity:
a thinker’s greatness is gauged by his fidelity to his own internal limit, and not to know this limit—not to know it because of its closeness to the unspeakable. That a hiddenness be maintained in order that here be a disclosure, a forgetfulness maintained in order that there be memory, this is inspiration, the rapture of the muses which brings man, word, and thought into accord with one another. Thought is close to the thing only if it gets lost in this latency…’ (IP 59).
As we can see from this the vocation of the poet and that of the philosopher bear an uncanny resemblance. Both are determined by an inspirational experience of the muse, and both engage in a process of forgetfulness. Yet their relation to oblivion is of a different order. For the poet, the presence of the forgotten remains intact after the experience of the poem for the essence of poetry is precisely to retain obliviousness. In contrast, for the philosopher oblivion is retained for the purposes of disclosure, which away from Heidegger might explain the failure of dianoia in the twentieth century. Like the Homo Sacer or scapegoat, it would seem as if philosophy embeds within itself the hidden so as to experience disclosure and the forgotten to facilitate memory. It is true that, for Agamben, there can be no thought without desire for what is lacking, what he elsewhere terms the res amissa of poetry. Yet for Heidegger surely the power of poetry over philosophy is poetry’s relation to the hidden as permanently hidden. While poet and philosopher both set out across the woods in search of a thinking of being and truth, the philosopher sets out to actually find the lichtung, while the poet has no such intention.??
Irrespective of the differences, both poet and philosopher come together over the nature of thought as such: that is something which is hidden, forgotten, which inspires unexpectedly the poet-philosopher and to which they remain faithful. Another name for such thought is, according to Badiou and Nancy, the event, although Agamben does not use such terminology here perhaps to avoid confusion with the Heideggerian eirignis which both is and is not what we now understand as the event. Instead, he talks about the uniqueness of language in the final ‘stanza’ under consideration here, ‘The Idea of the Unique’. Glossing on Celan’s assertion as to the uniqueness of poetic language, Agamben goes on to note that language is always doubled up:
There is, in fact, the experience of language that forever presupposes words…Contrariwise there is another experience in which man remains absolutely without words in the face of language. The language for which we have no words, which doesn’t pretend, like grammatical language, to be there before being…[is] the language of poetry (IP 48).
And so it can be said that there two types of language in accordance with the traditional roles of philosophy and poetry respectively. Dianoic prose does not concern itself with the semiotic and has, therefore, no means of cutting a path through the wild-wood of matter to an encounter of the forest as composed of wood. While I would prefer to avoid the clichés of wood and trees here, it seems in English one is destined to arrive there regardless of one’s best intentions. Philosophy is literally not able to see the wood for the trees, but wood here refers not to the summation of the set of trees, but rather the pure matter as such from which the trees are composed, if one can use such a verb. In contrast, the poet can see only the wood, so that they are unable to see the trees at all. While my rhetoric is under collapse, what is important here, however, is that through Agamben’s reading of the dictation of poetry, or poetic inspiration, both philosopher and poet are able to make a move outside their own sylvan aporias guided as ever by the helpful muse.
Agamben realises immediately the aporia at the heart of any conception of a unique language accorded to poetic dictation. He explains ‘the unique language is not one language’ in that it is always already split between words without language (philosophy) and being wordless in front of language (poetry). If, as Celan argues, uniqueness is the destiny of language, of what order is such a destiny in that, as Agamben responds, it precedes words as vehicles for meaning and to whom can it occur if we are not yet speakers? Agamben, of course, calls this state of speechlessness before a language that precedes words, infancy, and reflects that such a state knows nothing of destiny. ‘Destiny is concerned only with the language that, faced with the infancy of the world, vows to be able to encounter it, to have forever…something to say of it’. (??). Such a destiny is, as we have repeatedly seen, a false eschatology for in speaking of the uniqueness of language, one proves its impossibility, and if one has words to speak of language, one no longer has language before one of which to speak. Faced with the impossibility of seeing both wood and tree, Agamben’s great innovation here is to turn a dead-end into a new clearing for thought:
This vain promise of a meaning in language it is destiny, which is to say, its grammar and its tradition. The poet is the infant who piously receives this promise and who, through avowing its emptiness, decides for truth, and decides to the remember that emptiness and fill it. But at that point, language stands before him, so alone, so abandoned to itself that it can no longer in any way impose: ‘la poésie ne s’impose plus. Elle s’expose’, so Celan writes…’ (IP).
Both poet and philosopher meet at the chilly point of poetic exposure. Neither can, alone, reveal the truth. The philosopher has the great advantage of arriving after language and all the benefits that language brings with it. However, thinking through philosophy means presupposing the existence of the very thing upon which the truth of being resides: language. The fidelity of the philosopher, therefore, consists of thinking up to their known limits, yet retaining in reserve the possible inspiration of a forgotten additional limit. That limit is, naturally, the fact of language’s existence as such. In contrast, the poet always already thinks in direct relation to the existence of language as such, the wild, pithy matter into which they constantly hack and moan. Yet they have nothing more to say on this subject that the very fact that they can say something. They may work endlessly with the raw material of the forest, but they will never even shape a single tree let alone the wonders of natural woodland. For the philosopher the tree trunk is hollow, they see the outline of the form but there is no wood inside. Such trees are light and easy to topple, perhaps explaining the restless energy of philosophy since Plato. For the poet, to my relief, the metaphor is slightly harder to sustain. It is as if one had carved out the centres of each tress, dispensed with the bark, and left the sawdust and chippings strewn all over the place. Yes one can get a pure experience of matter, but it is meaningless waste product. Both poet and philosopher alone are faced with a profound emptiness wherein the truth of being in language ought to reside. The philosopher concerns herself with empty shells, the poet with filling up the void with sawdust and trash. A pretty pass surely and a tragedy if, contrary to Eliot’s premature assertion, it were not for the fact that these woods are enchanted, filled with nymphs, naiads and sprites. They are the territories of the muses and at moments of pure inspiration, poet and philosopher can and will meet over the very things both have lost and forgotten, perhaps go for a walk and barely understand each other or of what they speak and yet exit from the encounter inspired.
The name of the power of the muse is dictation.
In ‘The Idea of Dictation’ Agamben returns again to the razo di trobar, defining razo here as ‘the exposition of the hidden ground of the poem’. (IP 51). He then cites Dante’s warning that poets risked shame if they were unable to ‘set it out in prose’. It should now be much clearer as to what is at stake in this apparently merely charming philological observation. The razo is of course philosophical thinking, and the origins of modern European poetics reside precisely in an irrevocable inter-relation between the trobar or pure creation, and the razo or pure explication. There can be no finding without the attendant narrative of its occurrence, and no such narrative need exist before the occurrence itself. To find an event one must always already commit to naming the event in language, yet to write in language one must always concede to the precedence of the event. Thus poetic dictation has two permanent meanings: to dictate the poem to someone else to transcribe, but also to be dictated to by pure creativity as such.
Both elements come to the fore in a reading of a razo by 20th century writer Delfini which deals directly with the problem of memory, thinking and the semiotic. As Delfini tries to negotiate the complex thickets and byways of dictation as we have whittled on them, he ends up snagged in a familiar thorny bower, ‘between the impossibility of thinking…and a power only of thinking, between the inability to remember in the perfect, amorous attachment to the present, and the memory that arises precisely out of the impossibility of this love…’ (IP 52). This paradox, as we have seen and as is confirmed in this essay, is the permanent division of poetry ‘and this intimate divergence is its dictation’ (IP 52). The analysis of Delfini, and the complex work which surrounds the idea of dictation that I have tried to negotiate on your behalf, and which found me betimes lost, befuddled, exhausted, scratched and literally having lost my mind to forgetting quite why I entered this bosky realm in the first place, leads Agamben finally to make his point that the lyric is ‘necessarily empty…transfixed on the verge of a day that has always already set: it doesn’t have, literally, anything to say or recount’ (IP 53). Yet it is precisely the fact that poetry has nothing to say, that the poet is speechless in the face of the trobar, that the razo comes to the fore: ‘thanks to this sober, exhausted dwelling of the poetic word in the beginning, something like a lived experience (which the narrator will gather as the material for his tale) comes to being for the first time’ (IP 53).
It is a difficult path through the trees to the moment when Agamben finally puts pen to paper and writes the essay that for decades he has been promising to write or better has been perpetually writing in the form of some other razo de trobar. In The End of the Poem we meet with the essay ‘The Dictation of Poetry’. It is worth pausing here to marvel on just quite how difficult and involved any reading of Agamben proves to be. This essay, although of length and lucid, is simply impossible to understand without reading all the work on dictation and language which precedes it. Yet as one does so, one finds oneself taken down various other pathways, raising entirely new conceptions, yet all the time tied to the proximity and yet never merging streams of poetry, language as such, and philosophy, what language has to say. The majority of the essay revealed as if in a clearing in the thickest of Italian pineta consists of a reading of the razo of various troubadour masters, reiterating and developing issues we have already concerned ourselves with. In the midst of this Agamben returns once more to that moment when the ars inveniendi has reached a point of automatism in the 12th century and had been downshifted from the art of inventive creation to a mere mnemonic technique. By now of course we must be aware that the art of invention’s relation to memory will, at this juncture, become unstable. Poetry has no memory, for it is either so proximate to the object of its love that it is totally inspired by it lacking any distanciation necessary for recollection (remembering for our part that this love or trobar of which we speak will also be reconfigured by Dante as the stanza, it is as if in question is right there in the room with you, like the fabled elephant, and thus impossible to ignore). Or poetry makes as its task the immemorial and the permanently hidden. By concentrating on the linguistic infancy of pure matter, poets wander deliberately lost in the woods, refusing to remember from whence they set out that morning, or where they intended to arrive. They have a map, their sense of direction is acute, and Arianne has assiduously unspoiled her thread but the poets simply do not care. In fact this problematics of poetic double forgetting, no need to remember or no intention of remembering, is encased to a degree in the very moment that invention had been reduced to mere mnemonics, for at that very moment invention in Europe had forgotten its roots in the event of the inspiration of the muse, and poetry had lost its place. At this moment, the troubadors’ conception of the razo inevitable gains powerful currency:
The troubadours want not to recall arguments consigned to a topos but instead experience the very event of language as original topos, which takes place in an absolute proximity of love, speech and knowledge. The razo, which lies at the foundation of poetry and which constitutes what the poets call its dictation (dictamen), is therefore neither a biographical nor a linguistic event. It is instead a zone of indifference, so to speak, between lived experience and what is poeticized… (EP 79).
In the 12th century in Europe a great deal of importance to modern literature is born. The abandonment of the ars invendiendi in favour of the razo de trobar radically alters how we go on to conceive of literary singularity in relation to its inventiveness. Perhaps it is the recollection of the collapse of the term invention at this point that spurs Derrida on to force invention as such to always collapse into convention. Is he presenting a logical and metaphysic originality, or merely expressing the hang-over of European disappointment as to how the Latin art of invention lost sight of the muse in the grove and instead turned art into serviceable and lasting roadways to expression? Certainly invention is of a very different order to the trobar or discovery, and this one fact alone leaves a trail of crumbs, barely discernible amongst the rusting bracken, which many centuries later that arboreal thinker Heidegger was able to unearth. Invention speaks of creation ex nihilo, and all the attendant joys and disappointments that ushers in, whereas the trobar speaks of a sudden encounter a finding. And who exactly finds who? Does the walker find the truth, in which case he is a philosopher, or does the truth upend the walker, tangling about their feet and transforming him into a poet? The trobar has inbuilt a narrative carved out of journeying, searching, hiddenness, revelation, memory, forgetting, and inspiration. This narrative then leads to the essential second element of the razo, which is itself nothing other than a fictional narrative of how the room was discovered, or how love was trobato [found].
The razo has at its roots three forms of dianoic thinking. The first is philosophy of course, for the razo is that other form of remembrance, what came after the event as the precondition for the event. A simple example of this will suffice. Agamben’s own Heideggerian insistences on language being the house of being gives us access to the infancy of language as such from which philosophy proceeds. Yet this infancy of language remains inaccessible to the mind until philosophy’s razo makes it present, although intimations of its presence have been felt in poetry for millennia and more. The second is literary prose. And the third is literary criticism. The razo, therefore, allows for the much belated return of philosophy to poetry, a homecoming on which we have had attend, admittedly, seven to eight centuries. It also begins the collapse of poetry into narrative prose which took approximately six to seven centuries. And finally it began the discipline of literary criticism, whose full impact will begin to be felt in about five to six centuries.
The most famous razi de trobar in the English canon reside in Romanticism. Perhaps the most obvious and widely known is Coleridge’s explanation as to how he came to write ‘Kubla Khan’. For those of you unfamiliar with this great narrative of English letters, Coleridge found himself in an opium inflected dream during which the whole of Kubla Khan came to him. When he ‘woke’, by which modern readers would probably say sobered up, he set about transcribing what had been dictated to him. Like many from the more inspired side of writing, we anti-Wordsworthian, Faulkneresque or XXXX, I imagine his pen did not travel fast enough across the page for, as is often the case, he was interrupted in his act of dutiful transcription by the mythical ‘person from Porlock’. The Porlock, a metonym in English literature now for any unwanted interruption, detained the poet long enough for dictation’s strident but intermittent voice to fade. Subsequent critics have attempted to reinterpret Porlock as a fictionalised excuse for the fragmentary state of the work but, as often seems to be the case, a lack of understanding of the European roots of English Romanticism is the cause of this dire misapprehension.
It should be clear now that Coleridge’s so-called excuse is little other than a razo de trobar, and that these narratives first take many forms, second are always concerned with a lost love that cannot be reclaimed, and third are always fictionalised narratives after the fact to explain the event of inspiration. It is interesting that in this famous Razo that Coleridge is called from his room by the Porlock, and that when he returns to his room, the dream has gone forever. The room here of course is the stanza form and what remains are mere fragments, wood without a trunk as it were. Porlocking has since had a rich history in literature, and it is surely significant to remark that it is not so much the moment of dictation that writers have found so inspiring as the subsequent moment of interruption. Porlocking is, in some ways, the writer’s first experience of the end of the poem in that it constitutes the dramatisation of the end of the encounter with language as such on whose basis poetry and philosophy are revealed. The Porlock will and shall always arrive so that the trobar will cease being experienced so that it subsequently can become an experience in its recounting within the razo.
With this interpretation still resonating in our ears we can now return to Scotland and Porlock ‘The Solitary Reaper’ in that all acts of hermeneutical interpretation as unwanted interruptions, ill-timed knocks at the door of the stanzas of poietic dictation. Wordsworth’s adage, ‘recollection in tranquillity’, is a typical example not only of a superlative razo but itself a theorising of the razo as we saw with our first knock on ‘The Solitary Reaper’. The poem purports to telling the razo, the poem, of a trobar, encountering the reaper, yet we now know that no such trobar occurred. The facts that the encounter is fictional, that the meaning of the words remain untranslated, and that the pneumatic promise of poetic immemoriality is a sham for the poet never gave access to the reaper’s music in the first instance, do not undermine the work as has been widely reported. Rather they confirm its status as a superlative example of dictation. Indeed the whole Romantic Ideology, so-called, is a meta-razo de trobar: the poet wanders without aim, he encounters poetry before speech, then later in tranquillity he narrates this encounter with speech. There is nothing new therefore in Romanticism, arguably the world’s first avant-garde movement. Romanticism does not encounter, trobar, this theory of composition, razo, it is the age-old structure of poetry, as well as the archetypal moment wherein all poetry succumbs to prosaic philosophy. Romanticism, therefore, merely unconceals what has always been the essence of western poetics.
Moving forward a couple of hundred years and Modernism, the self-styled enemy of Romanticism begins to give way, in poetry in the 50s, to the more open ambiguities of postmodernism—this is decades before the novel is brave enough to tentatively make this move before collapsing disastrously into it current swamp of ersatz late-Realism. The initially much-vaunted, now often vilified self-consciousness of postmodern poetry is perhaps subsequent to modernity for no other reason than it returns poetry back to the razo de trobar tradition of Romanticism. The perfect exemplar of this motif remains John Ashbery, whose supposed late Romanticism if it exists at all does not depend on the formulations of an orphic subjectivity as American critics have tried to establish, but something quite other to that. Ashbery’s poetry seems rather the perfect hybrid of trobar and razo that is typical of Wordsworth and Coleridge at finest. Poems which relate their own composition, such as the famous opening of Three Poems or works like ‘Late Echo’ and ‘Down by the Station Early in the Morning’, have merely absorbed the razo into the trobar, coming close to fulfilling the dream of Agamben’s work even though he suggests such an event could never happen in modern poetry.
Needless to say postmodern poetry abounds in such examples, and it would be churlish to ignore Ashbery’s friendly rival Koch in a roll-call of postmodern troubadors. In work such as ‘Seasons on Earth’, ‘One train may hide another’ and ‘Time Zone’, Koch consistently relates the razo of the great trobar of postmodern aesthetics from the abstract expressionists through to the New York school themselves. That said, the outstanding work of postmodern troubadorism to be found in post-war New York is Frank O’Hara’s often anthologised ‘Why I am not a painter’. The poet begins by responding to what must have been a common question for the director of foreign collections at MoMa and so clearly steeped in the dictations of inventive creativity: Why is he not a painter?
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
‘Sit down and have a drink’ he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. ‘You have SARDINES in it’.
‘Yes, it needed something there’.
‘Oh’. I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. ‘Where's SARDINES?’
All that's left is just
letters, ‘It was too much’, Mike says.
Initially the poet acts as second fiddle to the culturally more valuable inventiveness of the painter Goldberg who, interestingly, has opted to make the word SARDINES a visual component emphasising its woodiness in ‘baring the device’ as Perloff terms it. Here the poet seems to take on the subject-role of the razo of someone else’s trobar, revealing the enigma of artistic inspiration: it needed something/it was too much. In fact, in miniature, this double syntagm is the essence of every creative act, the need for something and the need to remove something. Already we learn a great deal more about invention than one tends to glean from philosophy, for while Agamben, Derrida and their peers spend a great deal of time in the moment from absence to presence, they tend to neglect the other form of creative absence, that of simple erasure. As the poem progresses, however, it increasingly becomes apparent that O’Hara is making a point about poetic creation perhaps even at the expense of the visual arts:
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
What we find here is that the trobar of invention is much more expertly rendered with the poet’s encounter with the sign/idea/colour orange. The thought ‘orange’ comes unbidden to the poet’s consciousness and while there is a double joke here in that orange is the most famous example of a word that does not rhyme in English as well as being a colour in language in the opposing fashion to SARDINES being a word within colour, pretty soon the poet becomes overwhelmed by the dictation of orange. At the end of the poem and painting we discover that the remnants of the trobar, SARDINES and orange respectively, are retained within the works in the form of titles, but that the works that result from them have little directly to do with either dictation. As with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, or the first instance of the double encounter in Wordsworth, the initial dream of the work, its first dictation, is Porlocked to the effect that another work takes its place. The poem ‘Oranges’ exists, it even spawned a work of art, but the poem ‘Why I am not a painter’ is the real work of genius here, providing a razo de trobar as trobar. It is this embedding of the trobar within a razo, or the trobaratizione de razo that is the lasting legacy of postmodern art, and is a gesture that as yet remains poorly understood by the professional writers of razo, we literary critics.