To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reconfiguring Romanticism (45), Part Three: Jeffrey Robinson, from “Romantic Poetry, The Possibilities for Improvisation”

[continued from postings on 10/17/10 and 10/29/10]

But there is another side to improvisational poetics, one that seems to gender the whole phenomenon: the poetry of the improvvisatrici calls attention to improvisation’s ephemerality--a poetry that cannot be preserved--and, by an inevitable metonymy, to the poet’s own mortality. The improvvisatrici and even more their followers in written poetry sometimes wedded improvisation to the death of the performer. In this regard women’s poetry as improvisation becomes embedded in two popular 18th-century and Romantic paradigms for the woman poet: the nightingale and, even more, Sappho. In both cases, and unlike the Byronic model, poetry and human life become mutually exclusive. Unlike a Byron or a Procter, the “annihilation,” in Keats’s negatively capable term and in the experience of the improvvisatore totally absorbed in his or her performance, seemed for some woman poets a reality. As L.E.L., often given the epithet Sappho, wrote of a woman’s poetic career: “Your songs sink on the ear, and then they die, / A flower’s sweetness, but a flower’s life.” The ephemeral sweetness produced tragically, like the songs of Sappho, equates to the brevity of the life of its author. Similarly, of Felicia Hemans’s superb late lyrics about poetry as ephemeral sweetness, the 19th-century’s George Gilfillan said: “the sweet sounds often overpowered the meaning, kissing it, as it were, to death.” What counts here as her particularly poetic effect is something non-semantic, erotic; meaning, like the life of the poet as improvvisatrice, dies in and of poetry’s embrace. Hemans, it might be added, also saw her own life as a “waste,” again the wasted life equating to a poetry of supplement (music, kisses, not meaning), what Bataille calls “sacred waste.”

At this point, I wish to rethink this what I might call Sapphic economics as something less lugubrious, less tragic, and more indicative of a new poetics, based upon the principles and associations of improvisation. What, let us ask, constitutes the trajectory of this poetry? Given its performative origins, it most pointedly establishes registers of success by the response of the audience; in other words it directs itself away from the performer-poet. In the imagery of the poetry of improvisation, the falling cataract permanently leaves its source, “a fine mind,” in L.E.L.’s [Laetitia Landon's] words, that “wastes itself away,” to end up “A noble stream which, unconfined / Makes fertile its rich banks, and glads the face / Of nature round; but not so when its wave / Is lost in artificial waterfalls.” (History of the Lyre) Elsewhere she refers to “the hand / That can call forth the tones, yet cannot tell / Whether they go, or if they live or die.” This other-directedness, fertilizing river banks, refuses to replenish the poet herself, just as the ecstatic performance becomes a self-annihilation. But suppose that a female poet could replace the Sapphic poetic economy of scarcity with a comic one? One feels in the late lyrics of Hemans and the poetry of L.E.L., and in the fact that people perceived them as improvvisatrici, that part of what wants to die off is the very idea of self as a necessary fact of lyric celebration. The history of experimental or open-form poetry by women would indicate the possibility of a different outcome from the Sapphic one, one in which the mobility, the libidinal onrush, the spontaneity and ecstasy, the supplemental quality of the verse, would put forth not a self in an act of self-depletion but rather a mind-in-motion. No one equates the destabilized self as a poetry of the ephemeral better than Felicia Hemans in “The Dying Improvisatore”; even the quatrain, with its distended middle of two five-stress lines and slighter first and fourth lines of three stresses, images a passing wave:

Pouring itself away
As a wild bird amidst the foliage turns
That which within him triumphs, beats, or burns,
Into a fleeting lay. . . .

Similarly L.E.L. in Erinna, a long poem based on the ancient Greek lyric woman poet, proposes “to trace the thoughts which are the workings of the poet’s mind.”

One must note here that the imagery of “flowing” belongs generally to Romantic improvisational poetics and should not be equated with an essentialist feminism. “Flow,” in this instance is a metaphor, as it were, for metonymy as juxtaposition, contiguity, linkages—what Landon and, as we shall presently see, the contemporary poets Lyn Hejinian and Rae Armantrout all argue for in a feminist poetics.

Armantrout has written about the special advantage of a truly feminist poetics: women poets may choose to reject a poetry of the unitary subject which, ironically, reinforces the stable view, positive or negative, that patriarchy has of them, and instead may consider writing a poetry of their actual, perhaps less comfortable but more generative, subject-position on society’s periphery—a poetry of destabilizations, in the language of improvisation, of flowings, in the words of Lyn Hejinian, a metonymic poetry: “Metonomy moves attention from thing to thing. . . .Compared to metaphor, which depends on code, metonomy preserves context, foregrounds interrelationship. . . . the metonymic world is unstable.” Hejinian’s poetry, says Armantrout, speaks to the experience and the vision of many women in that, with a critical allusion to the Coleridgean imagination, “opposites and discordant life experiences can be encompassed without being distorted by resolution.” The poems of Lorine Niedecker, she says, “achieve a brilliant clarity, not because of the predominance of a single image or a subordinating metaphor, but because they follow the labyrinthian twists of thought and circumstance with great agility.”

For the later Romantics poetry is a pouring forth of words that reside at the periphery of ordinary consciousness and supplemental to it, at the threshold of speech, the lips, at the break of day, but authentic as the fluctuations, the “changes,” as L.E.L. says, of being. Words are not discrete from but blend with thought, just as they blend with bird song and nature sounds. “I feel / My spirit would have pour’d itself in song, / Have learn’d a language from the rustling leaves, / The singing of the birds, and of the tide.” Landon and Shelley, moreover, speak of poetry in terms of links and chains, so that the tracing of the thoughts of a person occurs as metonomy. As Landon says: “Thoughts are Life’s great human links, / And mingle with our feelings.”

A metonymic poetry functioning to image the mind-in-motion seems to have two important outcomes in later Romantic poetry: the first as a sign of a feminist poetry of the destabilization of self and the second, more generally, as taking the form of blank verse in a function new for Romanticism. Mme. De Stael’s Corinne (1811) embraces both outcomes. In the midst of her performance in the Naples Countryside, the protagonist and female genius, Corinne, an improvvisatrice, abruptly stops her song on the tragic masculine history of Italy: “Corinne was suddenly gripped by an irresistible emotion; she looked round at the enchanting place and wonderful evening, at Oswald who was there but perhaps would not always be there, and tears flowed from her eyes. Even the common people, who had just applauded her so noisily, respected her emotion, and they all waited silently for her words to tell them of her feelings. For a time she played a prelude on her lyre, and no longer dividing her song into eight-line stanzas, in her poetry she gave herself up to an uninterrupted flow”—an exchange, presumably of ottava rima for something akin to blank verse (or perhaps even “free” verse), more obviously a verse image of the linkage of thoughts. The next phase of her song features the history of women. It is as if she is proposing a subversive poetry of and by women, one that refuses fixed identities and meanings and instead follows the labyrinthian twists of female thought and circumstance.

The British Romantic women poets associated with improvisation do not choose the ottava rima form. Instead they opt for shorter, less complicated, stanzas and occasionally blank verse (see L.E.L.’s Erinna)—forms that move more quickly down the page. This suggests to me that they are more interested in the movement of mind, link by link, “now” to “now,” than they are in the freedom of mind as registered by extravagant play marked by the foregrounding of non-semantic elements. It is striking to me that Erinna and the strange poem “Orpheus,” thought to have been improvised by P. B. Shelley and transcribed by Mary Shelley (both in blank verse), recast the function of blank-verse monologues from the 1790s—from a domestic poem of quotidian meditation by an actual person in real time to a monologue from history or mythology, a voice from the collective. Here blank verse seems to function less to solidify in a monumental (Miltonic) verse form the democratic person as free-standing agent and more to catch before they vanish the ephemeral energies of one going out of his or her own nature. At such moments the risk-taking side of Romanticism urges poetry and its readers towards an “unwinding of imagination,” the habit of mind required for the perpetual reconsideration of our world.

Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities; Gioia Angeletti, “Byron, Improvisation, and Romanticism”; Charles Bernstein, ed.; Close Listening; Mme. De Stael, Corinne; or, Italy; Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, trans. Jacques Barzun; Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials, ed. Susan Wolfson; Steve McCaffery, “Language Writing from Productive to Libidinal Economy”; Friedrich Schiller, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry

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