2003 NEMLA
Aesthetics and Politics II:
Social/Aesthetic Order

Judy Halden-Sullivan
Millersville University of Pennsylvania

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

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.