Aesthetics and Politics II
Social/Aesthetic Order
2003 NEMLA Meeting
Boston, MA
07 March

Judy Halden-Sullivan
Millersville University of Pennsylvania

The Poetics of Nearness, the Politics of the Open: Gadamer and Contemporary American Avant-Garde Verse

Do not cite without permission of the author.

RAM disk
lens grinder
decency soap
drama desk
regnant specific
zonal function dross
archetypal swifty
recreational Zoroaster
reeking Kleenex torrent
South Side retribution
near clerestory
primary shock absorber
. . . .

From "100-line poem" by Jackson MacLow

The non-hierarchical front-end collision of words and the worlds they manifest characterizes the verse of American Language poet Jackson MacLow. Contemporary American poet Susan Howe at times superimposes lines upon other lines, offering simultaneously both declaration and commentary upon such declaration, such as in "Melville's Marginalia." Leslie Scalapino not only blurs the boundaries among verse, narrative, and drama in her poetry, but also invites readers into the worlds of enigmatic photographs set in amongst her words. The State University of New York at Buffalo, long-considered the wellspring of the American avant-garde, offers an interactive website in which poems are stridently visual, mobile, and audial: they literally sing and dance. Such poems create unexpected demands upon readers who approach them via paradigms marked by the closure of rhyme schemes, meters, and themes. How should this artform be encountered? Drawing from the work of philosopher/critic R.G. Collingwood, Hans-Georg Gadamer suggests a possible way: "We can understand a text," he claims, "only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer" (Truth and Method 370). From this vantage point, the poem is a response to a question--a respondent in a transformative dialogue. What questions does American avant-garde verse answer, and how can readers find an appropriate response? Responses in such a dialectic provoke thinking that is at once poetical and philosophical and political, thinking that explores the situated nature of language itself.

This paper will remodel the dialectic that exists between the avant-garde and the traditional. I will propose that avant-garde aesthetics--in this case, those of contemporary American experimental verse--do not merely counterpose a politics of difference marked by their distance from tradition as much as they radically remake possibilities for such positionality. In Gadamerian terms, experimental aesthetics bespeak not the fringe but the center, evoking "nearness." Tradition reveals the structured periphery of a "fallen" world; the dialectic between the avant-garde and the traditional, then, is not reversed but re-situated.

In Disjunctive Poetics, Peter Quartermain offers what has become a typical description of experimental poetics:

The increasing mismatch between such semantic elements as sentence pattern, repetition, voice, and context so undermines ordinary decodingprocedures that the reader is forced to take account of both the individual particulars (each separate word) and the totality in which those words appear (the whole text). In effect, such work presents islands of localised meaning . . . . (17)

Contrary to Quartermain's definition, experimental verse actually asks for "ordinary decoding," of sorts, in its simplest terms: readers compose worlds via the parts offered. However, experimentalists' emphases are less upon the consistent artifacts assembled--the insularity among Quartermain's "islands"-- and more upon the experience of thinking in its variegated diversity. In Textual Politics and the Language Poets, George Hartley describes readers as slates brushed clean by what he and other critics characterize as experimental poetry's "socialist critique" (xv). Hartley's claim dilutes the hermeneutic character of readers as participants in the poem's making. In contrast, I would like to put forward an event, as it were, invoking the poetics of nearness and politics of openness that experimentalism invites.

For Gadamer works of art, particularly poetry, have a dynamic, performative, radically autonomous self-presentation: Gadamer claims that "the work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there" ("The Relevance of the Beautiful" 35). The language of poetry in particular "does not intend something, but rather is the existence of what it intends . . . ." ("On the contribution of poetry" 113). It becomes an experience that the world affords; it is not merely about the world. "The poem," Gadamer claims, "does not stand before us as a thing that someone employs to tell us something. It stands there equally independent of both reader and poet. Detached from all intending, the word is complete in itself" ("On the contribution of poetry" 107). The poem's autonomy becomes apparent not when representation becomes transparent but only when a "disruption in communication provides a motive for reaching back to the text as the 'given'" ("Text and Interpretation" 34)--not when matters are simple, but when they are disjunctive and problematic. As Haney elaborates, " . . . a text is more immediately present the further it departs from being a mere sign of a prior situation, a means to an end . . . " (Haney 39); "The autonomy of a work of art," he notes, " . . . lies not in its separation from an original referent or from the temporality of human life but in its own kind of temporality" (38).

The event of the poem also invites dialogue. While certainly "poems are [not] equivalent to persons" (Haney 38), for Gadamer " . . . the process by which the truth of a poem is revealed is instructively similar to the unconcealing that goes on in the ethical hermeneutics of being open to . . . the truth of another person" (Haney 38). And so, as Haney surmises, "engagement with a historical text can be modeled on a conversation with another person, even though texts are obviously unlike conversational partners . . . . Subjectivities are subordinated to the play of a conversation in which the truth that emerges fuses and transcends partners' individual conceptual 'horizons' . . . ." (Haney 39). Like Gadamer's work of art, the poem "becomes an experience changing the person experiencing it" (Truth and Method 92).

Most important, the language of poetry delivers thinking of a world into "nearness": it aims to bring thinkers closer to what is (Gadamer "On the contribution of poetry to the search for truth" 113, 114). Gadamer explains that " . . . The word summons up what is 'there' so that it is palpably near. The truth of poetry consists in creating a 'hold upon nearness'" ("On the contribution of poetry to the search for truth" 113). Specifically,

A genuine poem . . . allows us to experience "nearness" in such a way that this nearness is held in and through the linguistic form of the poem. What is the nearness that is held there? Whenever we have to hold something, it is because it is transient and threatens to escape our grasp. In fact, our fundamental experience as beings subject to time is that all things escape us, that all the events of our lives fade more and more, so that at best they glow with an almost unreal shimmer in the most distant recollection. But the poem does not fade, for the poetic word brings the transience of time to a standstill. ("On the contribution of poetry" 114)

The poem has a unique relationship to time: it is a temporal event that in itself can slow the transience of time by engaging readers in thought. According to Gadamer, in the face of transience, the human being's task in life is "to make ourselves at home" amidst the profusion of impressions the world affords us (Gadamer "On the contribution of poetry" 114). However, the poem as an event "stands over and against this process like a mirror held up to it," showing not so much the world, but our immersion in the moment of thought--"this nearness in which we stand for a while" ("On the contributions of poetry" 115). The poem is an experience that brings thinkers nearer to being, particularly those nuances of strangeness that both define daily experience in the world and yet elude the detection of preoccupied readers. Poems slow transience to surprise us with our own condition.

Gadamer's account of poetry is enacted by contemporary American experimental verse--an aesthetic border-crossing. While avant-garde poets demonstrate Heidegger's deep concern for a dialogue between poetry and thinking, their keen awareness of intertextuality collapses even Heidegger's dichotomy. Experimental poets' understanding of what the tradition of poetic form and content has extended to them and their desire to retrieve from that tradition what has been left "unsaid" in the thinker's sense constitute their "newness." Their poems are radical retrievals, but their poetizing shakes loose the syntax and punctuation of traditional discourse in favor of an associative splicing of imagery and the non-hierarchical melding of abstract notions with concrete detail. Experimentalists posit a propositional structure in their verse only to explode it to openness beyond assertion, rendering the "new" and inviting the "unsaid" in provocative juxtapositions. It reveals the logos of postmodern American poetics to be a Gadamerian rapprochement between poetry and thinking. In particular, Gadamer's poetics of nearness best contextualizes how experimental verse does the following: a.) how it investigates the character of truth as processual revealment in response to readers' a priori openness; b.) how it interrogates the experience of language and a human being's participation in language by defamiliarizing the proposition; c.) and finally how it allows verse to cross borders beyond the paradigm of referential artifact to the fluidity and temporality of an experience of nearness that "does not intend something, but rather is the existence of what it intends," to reiterate Gadamer's description. The poem becomes an egalitarian partner of sorts in a transformative dialogue. In these ways, Gadamer's poetics of nearness instigates a remaking of the conjunctions and disjunctions between the avant-garde and the traditional to reveal another space: the political open.