How do literary poetics in the discourse of the university appear? Remember that for Lacan the discourse of the university exists in a hegemonic relationship with power, and is further based on the phenomenological consciousness of the autonomous ego as unified subject who knows. From this perspective, it becomes clear why so many English and Creative Writing departments focus on the type of poem which upholds the sort of unified self that is most typically represented in lyric poetry – a self which typically ruminates on a serious topic through the use of rich imagery and figurative language, and then concludes with a pithy observation. The logic of the autonomous self of the lyric dominates the popular representation of contemporary poetry as well, not only on the university English department syllabus, but also in the list of set texts for secondary schools and in the media (for example, The Guardian’s Saturday poem and virtually all of the poems published in Geist magazine or the TLS or the London Review of Books are written from the perspective of the lyric “I”). This type of self-expression finds a safe home in Creative Writing departments, which are especially friendly to the discourse of the university, because they are based on the workshop situation: where people worry about adjusting a comma here or a word there, rather than inquiring into the rationale for writing itself, or considering the relationships formed among writing, subjectivity, and power. (Peter Jaeger, “The Freudian Readymade”)
I freely admit that much of the theory presented in the new issue of Frank Davey’s Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory (Fourteenth Series, Number 8, Spring 2012), subtitled “Negotiating the Social Bond of Poetics,” breezes easily over the top of my head, but there is a great deal to admire in this issue, including impressive critical and creative works by Tim Atkins, Jeff Hilson, Amy De’Ath, Sean Bonney, Jeff Derksen, Eve Watson, Carol Watts, Vanessa Place, Nicole Markotić, Andrew Levy and Peter Jaeger. Guest-edited by Nancy Gillespie and Peter Jaeger, I’m fascinated by the selection of authors, a slight shift in contributors from across the Atlantic, which I can presume comes, in large part, to expat-Canadian poet and critic Peter Jaeger. Some time ago, Jaeger studied at the University of Western Ontario, and has spent the past decade or so writing and teaching in England, engaging with a number of highly active and engaged writers, including Bonney, Hilson and Levy, while maintaining a number of his Canadian relationships. In 2000, he published the critical study ABC of Reading TRG: Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, and the Toronto Research Group through Talonbooks.
So I see you’re a teacher again. November 10th was ridiculous, we were all caught unawares. And that “we” is the same as the “we” in these poems, as against “them,” and maybe against “you,” in that a rapid collectivizing of subjectivity equally rapidly involves locked doors, barricades, self-definition through antagonism etc. If you weren’t there, you just won’t get it. But anyway, a few months later, or was it before, I can’t remember anymore, I sat down to write an essay on Rimbaud. I’d been to a talk at Marx House and was amazed that people could still only talk through all the myths: Verlaine etc nasty-assed punk bitch etc gun running, colonialism, etc. Slightly less about that last one. As if there was nothing to say about what it was in Rimbaud’s work – or in avant-garde poetry in general – that could be read as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of any revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognize ourselves in it. the form would be monstrous. That kinda romanticism doesn’t help much either. I mean, obviously a rant against the government, even delivered via a brick through the window, is not nearly enough. I started thinking the reason the student movement failed was down to the fucking slogans. They were awful. As feeble as poems. (Sean Bonney, “Letter on Poetics”)
I’m fascinated by much of this issue for the way that it forces me to consider writing differently, yet again, from all the structures I might have previously known. It reads as such a simple thing, but a constant struggle, working to approach a work on its own merits, or even attempt to expand the borders of one’s own writing. “The Social Bond of Poetics,” by itself, could mean a great number of approaches, from the writer’s circle to activism, and the issue originally came out of a series of readings and talks run through Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing, as Gillespie writes in her introduction:
The initial idea for this issue developed out of a year long series of poetry readings and critical seminars that I ran, with the generous funding of the Canada Council for the Arts, and the organizing assistance of Nikki Reimer and other members of the collective at the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver, under the same title as this issue “Negotiating the Social Bond of Poetics.” Participants included Peter Jaeger, Steve McCaffery, David Marriott, Kaia Sand, Jules Boykoff, Rachel Zolf, Roger Farr, Jeff Derksen, Meredith Quartermain, Nicole Markotić, Clint Burnham, and Louis Cabri. Peter Jaeger was the first participant, and our continuing dialogue brought about our work on this issue. Although both of us are interested in psycho-analysis and poetics, Peter edited the poetry contributions and I edited the articles. Like the series, this issue draws on Jacques Lacan’s late work – in particular, his Seminar XVII – in order to examine the social bond of poetics and the links between Lacanian analysis and the act of writing. Seminar XVII, which as I noted above, took place in 1969, was delivered shortly after the student and social revolt of May 68, a historical moment in which Lacan was immersed. While Lacan is concerned with the limitations of the master’s discourse and the university discourse, he sees the potential of transformation in the analyst’s discourse. Although he asserts that it is necessary to make an “hysterization” of the analysand’s discourse in the process of analysis – because this is the first step towards questioning the master’s discourse – he asserts that this discourse must then be shifted to the analyst’s discourse for real change to occur (Other 33). These seemingly discouraging words can be seen as a provocation to go further, however, and to not fall into the same relationship to repetition, so does the revolutionary. As we do find in moments of Lacan’s seminars in which he suggests that a writer can hold a similar position as an analyst, and thus one would assume, also be able to shift these other discourses to enact some social change. (“Introduction: Negotiating the Social Bond of Poetics”)
One of the highlights of the issue included the work of London, England poet and activist Sean Bonney, both his “Letter on Poetics” and the magnificent concrete poems, a selection from hi “Baudelaire in English.” Other highlights include magnificent poems by Holly Pester, Britishpoet Amy De’Ath (currently studying in Vancouver), Jeff Derksen, Carol Watts and the luscious “Portraits” by Elizabeth Guthrie, as well as Vanessa Place’s “Purlo ned Letter” and Nicole Markotić’s “The Body in Pieces: Lacan and the crisis of the unified fragmentary” (which I suspect is part of a larger, ongoing critical work).
At Par s, just after dark one gusty even ng n the autumn of 18--, was enjoy ng the twofold luxury of med tat on and a meerschaum, n company w th my fr end C. Auguste Dup n, n h s l ttle back l brary, or book-closet, au tro s eme, No. 33, Rue Donot, Faubourg St. Germa n. For one hour at least we had ma nta ned a profound s lence; wh le each, to any casual observer, m ght have seemed ntently and exclus vley occup ed w th the curl ng edd es of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber. For myself, however, was mentally d scuss ng certa n top cs wh ch had formed matter for conversat on between us at an earl er per od of the even ng; mean the affa r of the Rue Morgue, and the mystery atten ng the murder of Mar e Roget. looked upon t, therefore, as someth ng of a co nc dense, when the door of our apartment was thrown open and adm tted our old acqua ntance, Mons eur G--, the Prefect of the Par s an pol ce. (Vanessa Place, “The Puro ned Letter”)
And there is just something about the selections here of Jeff Hilson’s “Organ Music” that I think might need to be heard aloud:
why john dunstaple I hardly know you/can I borrow your memorable face/ yourenglish countenance is quite quire rare/ oconstaple I have fallen for john/ johndunstaple/ in the 1440s he is very forward/he is finished with gloria & he is finishedwith carol/ & I am finished with johndunstaple/ o god we are all plantagenets/a tudor is neither male nor female/ whoeveris besieging the house of carpets/nobodypainted their burgundian kitchen/ whyjohn dunstaple why/ because I wasin my coat of arms in the burning houseof windsor/embattled & dancettyI left my shield in your ordinary extrafield/& I lied in the ground of eton college/& I liked in the ground in armed corsets/& I lied in the ground on dunstaple downs