Essay by Joe Luna
Harmless Unnecessary Cat
A future in brains.
Every time I write a paper or give a talk about poetry or a poem it gets more difficult to do so. Why is this the case? It does not get more difficult to read poems; and although poems do not stay still, and although the poems that I do read demand all of me and all of my attention when I do read them, I do not feel like I have a comprehensively different relation to poetry to the one I had when I wrote the last paper I delivered on the subject. There is something confusing to me about the law of poetry’s genre that is essential to poetry. This much seems obvious. That it remain confusing is probably important, though that doesn’t help much. The poetry that I have always admired most is the kind of poetry whose possibilities seem endless. This makes the poetry that I love extremely difficult to talk about with any concision or precision. I suppose it is a utopian notion, because endlessness under current conditions does not make much sense as an emancipatory or especially contradictory or antagonistic or anti-capitalistic principle.
The difficulty of talking about poetry is utopian when it is the difficulty of an attempt to name that which the poem is incapable of naming as a future which we do not own.
In 1951, Theodor Adorno named this utopian notion, described in the phrase his English translator renders as “the standpoint of redemption.” The last aphorism of Minima Moralia, ‘Finale,’ describes “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in the face of despair,” which Adorno firmly believed was the only face worth looking at, in the following terms:
Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. [...] It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.
I would like to suggest that the gap which Adorno describes, that between the scope of existence and a standpoint removed, even by a hair’s breadth, from that existence, can consist in the difficulty of talking about poems.
Poetry opens this gap, which swallows the particular into the normatively universal even as it emerges from the consideration of the particular as the only responsible task in the face of despair. It is the simplest of all things, not only because that hair’s breadth can be expressed in, or by, a line-break or a rhyme, but also because talking about poetry is generally embedded in the language of dissent and dissensus that demands a better world; yet it is also the utterly impossible thing, because that demand becomes aggressively presumptuous to the point of reckless utopianism as soon as the consideration of poetry reposes within the very framework of establishing itself as a naturally emancipatory model.
In 1956 Brecht wrote the following poem:
Und ich dachte immer die allereinfachsten Worte
Müssen genügen. Wenn ich sage, was ist
Muß jedem das Herz zerfleischt sein.
Daß du untergehst, wenn du dich nicht wehrst
Das wirst du doch einsehen.
[And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.]
That Brecht wrote this poem when he did, at the end of his life and in the middle of the century, speaks volumes about the kind of simplicity that must be enough. In Brecht’s poem, the simplest of all things is the crushing weight of demystification demystified, wrought into a new simplicity: “When I say what things are like / Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.” Surely it goes without saying that “enough” is a lodestone of ironic counterpoint that dissevers the effort required to achieve anything like it from any intimation of the opposite to, or even a situation a hair’s breadth removed from, “what things are like”? Must be enough for what, or for whom? To tear people’s hearts to shreds; or to be able to say that? Is Brecht’s poem just a sarcastic admission of the paucity of critical representation? Is it a joke?
Yes and no: the bluntness of the tone in this poem, as in much of Brecht, is both the vehicle and the object of its satire. It is never enough. In the face of despair, that it “Must” be enough is not incredulous that it can’t, but is rather the constant re-application of the pressure of a revolutionary imperative that makes the poem beat with such eloquent insistence in the first place. Barely five years after Adorno’s mock-heroic sign-off in Minima Moralia, Brecht’s poem reads as a paean to the simple impossibility, or rather, the impossible simplicity, of fashioning perspectives that require nothing less than “Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.” It is as if Adorno’s speculative standpoint is extenuated across the length and breadth of these lines in the time of their reading, shunting back and forth across the infinitesimal infinity between “the very simplest words” and “Must be enough,” constantly flaring up as the subtextual backdraft of the almost agonizingly sardonic “Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.” Today it is difficult to keep this demand, loaded as it is, from sliding into a kind of critical tagline for the arrangement of bourgeois liberal philanthropy: the shock of the recognition of alienation become the bleeding heart perpetually pumping out the kind of saccharine pity that maintains the charitable liberal in a relation of delayed disgust with his or her pitiable objects. That difficulty is more inescapable the more the simplicity of the poem’s affect is taken to be the uncomplicated Ideologiekritik of its message. But I think that, rather than estranging the world and revealing it to be, Brecht’s poem endlessly re-capitulates the dialectic of resistance to despair that entails the recognition of the difficulty of making simple what is more and more difficult to maintain: the possibility of a future. Brecht’s poem resists being made into an emblem of resistance by the sheer endlessness of its commitment to the lived time of political and affective differentiation. What “Must be enough” is never enough, forever; nearly too much / is, well, nowhere near enough.
At this point I take issue with the suggestion, which feels implicit in much contemporary discussion of radical, experimental or avant-garde poetry, and which was stated explicitly in the brief which prefaced the symposium for which this talk was originally written, that “poetry provides resistance.” This seems too easy to me; resistance has to be harder than that; it cannot be provided; it must be made from scratch. To name that provision (“resistance”) too soon, to name it as the universal characteristic of dissent which criticism assumes its object bears and is bearing, that it is the dissent with which poetry is uncritically invested, that it operates in the world as a short-cut to the standpoint of redemption; all this is to name precisely that by which poetry is divested of its powers of endless criticality and subsumed back into the world which so easily accommodates our resistance to it. If poetry resists anything, it resists the easy ascription of itself to a static model of resistance that it supposedly proceeds to exemplify. Before it resists anything, poetry resists being made into Poetry. I think Brecht knew this only too well, which is why his poem closes with the incredulity that its imperative had thus far resisted: “That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself / Surely you see that,” provides an icon of the segue into individualistic caprice that would betray the commitment to opposing the truth of “what things are like” by subjugating it to the precarity of personal survival. By ending his poem in this way, Brecht allows its central dialectic, epitomised in the hair’s breadth between “When I say what things are like,” and “Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds” to persist uninterrupted, for as long as the poem is read.
The British poet J.H. Prynne recently described, in an interview with Nicholas Royle at the University of Sussex, the futurity inherent in poetical composition. As soon as you have even 10 or 12 words, suggested Prynne, you open up a space for their arrangement into a formation which has never before been present in the history of the language. Prynne described this constant possibility as one of the greatest and most extraordinary privileges of poetical composition. The first lines of the first poem in Prynne’s 2005 collected poems, ‘The Numbers,’ read: “The whole thing it is, the difficult / matter: to shrink the confines / down” (the poem was published in 1968). Poets repeatedly shrink the confines down in order to be able to deal with the historical trauma of their inheritance. If they did not, they would not be standing up for themselves, let alone anybody else. Philosophers do this, too, when they talk about “poetry,” when what they really mean is ‘Un Coup de Dés,’ or Hölderlin. But this condition of simplicity, of shrinking the confines down, of poetry’s radical economy of means, of the simple act of breaking a line in the first place; this condition is part of what makes the time of reading verse so intrinsically paradoxical, so irresistibly propulsive and yet so endlessly repetitive: prosody is a tool for making a future that is impossible to articulate otherwise. That is not to say that prosody is redemptive, but that it presupposes and fleetingly inhabits standpoints unthought in linguistic expression before the poem gets written. Another British poet, Douglas Oliver, a contemporary and dear friend of Prynne’s, believed that the stresses in lines of poetry were the actual sites of fleetingly lived intersubjective encounters between poet-author and reader. This seems positively magical to me; and yet there is an extremity to Oliver’s thinking about prosody, which by attention to the microscopic articulations of spoken language presents an example of relationality unthinkable outside the radically discrete confines of written verse. Such a thesis speaks to a community of readers as part of the pre-conditions and the energies of composition, a community repeatedly activated and brought into being by the scene of reading and writing.
Poetry is intrinsically futural: it delineates a relationship to the future that is both simple and impossible. It makes a future by refusing to relinquish its possibilities of commitment and thoughtful pressure to the critical idiom of the spectacle of resistance. I think that the “demand [...] placed on thought” by the attempt to fashion the impossible perspectives that Adorno describes could help to formulate a criticism that would define poems not as loci of resistance, serene in their localised discretion, but as the echoes of the future from which resistance gains its energies, tactics and emotional intelligence of possibility. Perhaps this would help us to think about poetry as the historical expression of presently ineradicable social contradictions, rather than, as it sometimes feels with the resistance model, as the cauterization or suppression of those contradictions in the service of defending the authentic remnants of a life already given over to its pre-, post- or sub-aesthetic abolition. I wonder if this might either intersect with, or entirely bypass, Jacques Rancière’s polemical distinction between the pretentious uselessness of critical art conceived as such on the one hand, and the critical attention to the dogma of the equality of the intelligence on the other, by which lights his theory re-interprets entire swathes of 20th century art as the historical hangover of the failures of didactic methodology and of the misguided ontological compartmentalisation of art and life.
Rancière’s theory is designed to effect a radical sea-change not just in the designations of critical art theory, but in the production of works of art committed to an anti-capitalist critique; it suggests a re-organisation of that critique on the basis that the equality of the intelligence is best served by attention to the “‘being together’ in ‘being apart’” which constitutes, for Rancière, if I understand him correctly, the possibility of community building in artistic practice along non-sovereign, anti-capitalist lines. What if the disregard for the critical commonplace of poetry as resistance per se helped to further the composition of poetry whose quality and register of attention took nothing for granted except the futurity inherent in its practice as the impossible simplicity of its movement out of this world? Might this condition of impossibility be a fruitful one, in which the possibilities for affective re-distribution and intensities of feeling, of subjective re-organisation and of the articulation of the limits of class fantasies, remain profoundly endless? Or would it simply strip from poetry any distance or distinction from the world in which it gets written, rendering it the surest mirror-image of the face of despair at which it winks back knowingly from the glass?
Here is a poem, published in 2012, by the American poet William Fuller:
I’ve been enjoying these moments of unconscious travel, touched by
death-hints or impressions of an alien wilderness—first heat, then
rain, then paradox—but there’s a trace of something else that slips in
and is felt along my shoulders. Last week I became more aware of it.
Whose thoughts do I hear now and what is happening inside them?
They concoct what I’d call a musical thesis and it’s unusual to
encounter it taking place near so many trees. How did I not see, and
in the midst of this not carefully take note of—not its reluctance to
make itself known—that was fairly clear—but that—and how—it
wove itself into every substantive articulation, motivated them in
fact, heightened all their elements almost to glistening, even the
spectacle of its own disappearance along the perimeter it defined?
And though everyone keeps talking, the sun burns right through
them, and all I see is a spot on the pavement, which reverberates.
The difficulty of talking about this poem is that its beauty is predicated on a kind of luxurious aesthetic cannibalism, which I now attempt to follow.
Fuller’s work often feels moved by some unseen, unconscious “trace” that weaves its way through the poem, never quite revealing itself but nonetheless intimating that “it,” this “something else,” underpins the possibility of the production of any scene or scenario the poem might concoct, and it is in this sense that the “musical thesis” herein is agent and saboteur alike of “every substantive articulation” to such an extent that it incorporates itself into the “thoughts” that belong to some anonymous individual, “even the / spectacle of its own disappearance along the perimeter it defined.” That is, the disappearance of the “musical thesis,” what happens inside a cognition (access to which is predicated on its distinction, its independence from one’s own) takes place at the limits of that thought’s concoction, a disappearance that is experienced as a “spectacle,” as if the products of thought are witnessed disappearing through the optic of a mediated social relationship born of their very concoction by the image which the poem expresses and which is the poem.
This obscenely compressed description of the oxymoronic spectacle of disappearance traces just one of the poem’s innumerable moments of internal reverberation, disconnect and contradiction that are the propulsive organs of its curiously restless futurity. Grammar in the poem is the operative mechanism of impossible continuity, repeatedly folding the cumulative sense of the lines back upon its previous objects so that reading becomes a practice of syntactical cartography; the poem unfolds concentrically, since you hold the “musical thesis” in your mind as it winds its way through the various accommodations of more and more complex associations and relations of the pronoun “it” with its various objects and environments, until “it,” fat with retrospective syntactical inheritance, expands and extenuates into the flat-line linearity of its own disappearance, the militarized “perimeter” into which “it” is subsumed and which is a product of “its” own definition. The poem proliferates more intimate complexities of sense and relation between its objects than its pronomial relations can possibly fulfil in a single reading; as such, it renders the most complete realisation of its potentialities inaccessible by dint of the formal expression of each of its possibilities in the first place. The distance from this world which the poem opens through a nod to the speaker’s dream-like “unconscious travel” is bound by this proliferation, syntactically, imagistically and spectacularly, to the “thoughts” whose concoctions define their own boundaries over the course of their materialisation.
But these thoughts belong to a person who is not the speaker of this poem.
Fuller’s poem is beautiful because the sleight of thought that produces the illusion of captivated rumination is at the same time the self-destruction of its attachment to an endless negation. It is beautiful to watch that thought go, and it is beautiful to find it clinging to the underside of the möbius strip of the world for which it is too responsible to abandon. But what has responsibility got to do with it? The impossible simplicity of the poem’s closing couplet “burns right through” the scowl of precious contractual obligation to the language of futures both temporal and financial, as it does through the sound of “everyone [...] talking,” if we can imagine what that would sound like. Its final, humble object is a “spot on the pavement, which reverberates,” closing the poem with a public scene of intractable, persistent movement, the speaker turned directly towards a point of common orientation and universal sustenance. The tone is quietly ecstatic. The face of despair is a desperately bourgeois ruse.
 This talk was written for the third in a series of interdisciplinary symposia at the Kunsthalle, Zürich, which took place on the 26th April, 2014, at the invitation of Ed Atkins and Julia Moritz. The original delivery can be recovered here: http://vimeo.com/94422611. Many thanks to Lisa Jeschke for her generous attention to this work, and for our conversation about it.
 The original passage of the symposium’s brief was as follows: “In the context of Un-like, POETRY is an interpolation. As will be discussed in the two prior sessions, LOVE and DEATH are intertwined in their mutual discretion, their situation one of near-impossible representability – their conditions such that their very apprehension threatens epistemological possibility as well as any kind [of] unanimity. Poetry epitomizes Un-like’s attempt to interrupt and understand. One of the foundations of the symposium is a certain kind of belief in the irrecuperable in experience; the inability of culture to fully represent or redeem the loss of experience, the loss of lived life. We are left with Love and Death, with their blinding deficit; more than anything else, we are left with those vast, echoing words. Poetry, then, might offer the possibility of approaching experience as a witness, as permitter; advocacy without possession or reparation. This permissiveness, in the context of artworks and in relation to implications of the digital, the virtual and the deferred […] can be understood as a rejection of immortality. The vital, parenthetically embraced by love and death, is allowed – celebrated. Within this configuration, poetry provides resistance.”
 An alternative divergence from the line of instances of resistance is expressed in Danny Hayward’s recent writings, and especially in the essays ‘Perfect Capitalism’ and ‘The Essential Standpoint of Man: An Autopsy, in Three Parts.’ Inhabiting the toxicities of language whose predilections we might initially feel should be “resisted” is part of this argument, as in, for instance: “How do we know social possibility and the class fantasies which police it? We might begin, I suggest, by living out those fantasies with the most thickly malevolent cupidity [...]” because “[t]he ‘possibility’ for the individual alienation of social contradiction is abolished only in the vision of the effort to realise it, and what I’ve called the dissolution of a class can be nothing besides the asphyxiation of its possibilities—it can (can it?), to some extent, be an inside job.” See http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_6/PDFs/Hayward.pdf. I propose another (more depressive) alternative in a presently incomplete account of ‘Poetry and the Fantasy of Totality,’ that is, the reading of lyric poetry in which domination is experienced as specifically capitalistic and as a scene of disproportion, in order to describe “an experience [...] which the poem produces and which is the poem, [and which] occurs at the site of the most complete incommensurability of the promise of a better world and the possibility of its realisation.” See http://fallopianyoutube.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/poetry-and-fantasy-of-totality.html.