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Lineation: Agamben

Agamben's Theory Cont...
Having established the semiotic event of the poem as occurring at the end of each line where the semantic is challenged by the semiotics of space, Agamben then both expands and switches round his argument to think about the end of the poem as a whole. Here his rather limited project, considering the period in the 19thc where traditional prosody started to give way to free verse, is a bit of a problem but the point is still well made. Whatever happens at the end of a line should be augmented massively at the end of the poem:

What is this falling into silence of the poem? What is beauty that falls? And what is left of the poem after its ruin? If poetry lives in the unsatisfied tension between the semiotic and the semantic series alone, what happens at the moment of the end, when the opposition of the two series is no longer possible? Is there here, finally, a point of coincidence in which the poem…joins itself to its metrical element to pass definitively into prose? The mystical marriage of sound and sense could, then, take place. Or, on the contrary, are sound and sense now forever separated without any possible contact, each eternally on its own side?…In this case, the poem would leave behind it only an empty space in which, according to Mallarm√©'s phrase, truly rien n'aura lieu que le lieu. (Agamben, The End of the Poem 114)

Obviously, as I mentioned, the end of the poem is a very different event to that of the end of the line. Within the confines of the line you are, as reader, ensconced in meaning and so the semiotic comes at you in the form of a shock, what Lyotard would term an event. Does this shock occur at the end of every line or can the reader become used to it? Can it even become somewhat absorptive, to use Bernstein's term. Agamben doesn't say.

What he does stipulate, however, is that the space which follows the last line of the poem is not a space encompassed by the semiotic field of the poem. It is the space of the beyond of the poem. Depressingly, Agamben sees this space, the normative zone where the tensions of poetic language do not interfere, as prose. Therefore, the end of the poem is almost opposite to the end of the line. At the poem's end either sound and sense fuse together and organic poetic perfection is reached, what Jakobson calls poeticity or the perfect coincidence of form and theme, or the poem as event is erased, its semiotic challenge neutralised and the natural form of prose inundates all.

Now some of these issues do not pertain to contemporary experimental and/or avant-garde poetic practice. First of all space is disseminated throughout the visual, semiotic field of the poem, not just located at the end of lines. This being the case the end of the poem is not such a big deal, or perhaps more accurately, it is not the only big deal. There is the beginning of the poem and the problematic birth to presence there. Does the title indicate a new poetic "being", must it control semantically what follows due to its semiotic locale or should it undermine meaning? What about the space directly after the title, it's not a line so is that a line break? And what about the space before, above and below the title?

Similarly radical questions are often asked by avant-garde and postmodern poets about the end of the poem. Lyn Hejinian told me that she removed the last line of every lyric in "The Cell" because they were too last-liney, only to find the penultimate line becoming last-liney in its stead. What of serial poems and circular poems? What of hypertext and performance work, work which is improvised, poems as long and as large as life. What about Raworth's micro-poems? There are now myriad ways to end the poem and some of them are not endings at all in any real sense, in addition to which the "dream" of poetry, the fusion of sound and sense is no longer our dream. Mallarmé's influence is massive, but his project of the great book is not an aim of any poet I know of and appreciate.

Finally, Agamben's dislike of contemporary poetry means he lacks a basic experience of the variety of line measures and the possibility of radical, semiotic space within the line or in the centre of the page. If one considers Blau duPlessis' sequence "Toll", or Hejinian's "Writing is an Aid to Memory", or any of Susan Howe's palimpsests, you can see that a semiotic event of interruption of sense by sound, the pause or babble, and by visual means, can occur anywhere within the field of the poem. Furthermore, looking at Ashbery's columns in "Litany" or similar techniques in Raworth, it would be easy to note that the end of the line is not always the end of linearity on that horizontal plane, and that the radically empty space of the right hand margin is not always empty. The semiotic event of space, in other words, can occur anywhere within the field of the poem, and in a certain number of environments beyond it.

Just to finish off it is worth summarising the world of the poem as Agamben sees it. First of all it is dialectic, a tension or conflict between what he calls the semiotic, but which I would prefer to see as poetic materiality, and the semantic. Poetry, in this way, is not actually a materiality at all but a psychology, a tension, a concern on the part of the reader to resolve an issue. In addition, the poem becomes sublime in every instance as it becomes defined by the terror of meaning ending and matter taking over, followed by the joy of this not happening, followed by a tension in case it might happen next time. Or maybe the terror is that meaning will take over, in which case, according to Agamben at least, these fears are justified.

I think it is proper to ask a simple question here, why is prose the normative, ambient environment within which poetry is a place which occurs, an event, for a brief time and then is gone? What about the materiality of prose and what about the poeticity of prose and of everyday speech? Also, who said the other dream of poetry was the perfect coincidence of form and theme (yeah I know it was the Romantics, but I mean, who recently). It is hard for Agamben, who is a philosopher, to accept that the basic ontology of the poem has changed totally since Mallarmé due to the efforts of poets not philosophers, but the simple fact is it has.

Yet none of this undermines Agamben's basic point which is that the line break, not stress patterning or phonetic patterning, is what the poem in all its myriad forms is really about. Also we can agree with him that the space it introduces is radical, especially as a means of undermining meaning, and that the end of the poem is not just a bigger line break but an ontological challenge to poetic presence, although not the only such challenge.


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