A “Field Theory” of Poetry

Compositionism: Plants, Poetics, Possibilities; or, Two Cheers for Fallacies, Especially Pathetic Ones!

by Maureen N. McLane

The essay begins:

I adopt “compositionism” from the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, namely, from his “Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’” (2010). For poets and composers, “compositionism” might evoke thoughts of composing, making, arranging, wordsmithing, tune smithing—of poiesis itself. For botanists, compositionism might conjure the plant family Compositae (also known as Asteraceae, a vast group including daisies, asters, sunflowers). Latour, for his part, proposes “compositionism” as an “alternative to critique”: “It is time to compose—in all the meanings of the word, including to compose with, that is to compromise, to care, to move slowly, with caution and precaution.” I am agnostic about whether critique has “run out of steam”—though it may be increasingly beside the political and ethical point in precisely the ways Latour limns; but for the duration of this essay I would like to entertain compositionism along critical, as well as poetic and botanical, axes.

Among his many sallies, Latour observes in a footnote to his manifesto, “The redistribution of agencies is the right purview of literature studies” (489n25). Compositionism, then, might be one name for this mode of literature studies; it might also designate what literature—or rather poetry—has long undertaken. Latour’s compositionism notably aligns with some recent reflections on poetics—as when Marjorie Levinson draws on William Connolly, “defining agency as distributive across a very wide spectrum of life forms, including the inanimate ensembles woven into our everyday routines.” Or when Susan Manning (in her posthumous The Poetics of Character) proposed an analytic of “correspondence”—in her lexicon, a conceptual category allowing for the mapping of anachronic networks of rhetorical and ethical relations—and called for an “affective poetics based on principles of analogy.” Among other things, “compositionism” offers routes to take seriously challenges to anthropocentrism (including that unslayable dragon “pathetic fallacy”) without throwing out the anthropomorphizing baby with the anthropocentric bathwater.

Latour has long excavated and critiqued the division between human and nonhuman subjects he sees as central to “the Modernist Constitution,” from 1600 to yesterday, and he polemically endorses a kind of neo-animism the regime of modern science has long scorned. Here and elsewhere his work chimes with posthumanist, ecocritical, anthropocenically minded critics—from Timothy Morton on “the mesh” to Jane Bennett on “vibrant matter” to Anahid Nersessian on “the calamity form” to Levinson’s recent reactivation of Spinoza alongside new morphogenetic modeling. Rather than plunging into new or old materialisms, ecocriticisms, folds, spheres, meshes, or hyperobjects (inter alia), I would like to explore compositionism more locally in a poetico-botanical key, taking plants as one crucial node for thinking about new horizons for poiesis—both the making of poems and the theorizing of them. For as certainly as literature has long redistributed agencies, often violently, along planty lines—from Ovid’s metamorphoses to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “old root” that “was once Rousseau” in his “Triumph of Life”—plants have long been significant players in the fatally vivifying game of anthropomorphism and trope: not for nothing does John Ruskin begin his reflections “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” with the matter of a blue gentian.

Yet now that we seem to have arrived at a postnatural, posthuman/ist, posthistorical moment, it is worth wondering: are we postplant? I would say that in many ways I am preplant.

But, you may well say, your entire lifeworld depends upon your interactions, overt and covert, with plants: you eat them, wear them, breathe them, touch them, arrange them, pluck them, smell them, ingest them! You are indeed a plant codependent!

Pressed thus, one might want to consider the plant unconscious—a phenomenon not so complex perhaps as what Fredric Jameson called years ago the political unconscious but not unrelated. (Might plants have a politics? Might minerals? Or consider the recent granting of legal personality to the Whanganui River in New Zealand.) Plants have always been good to think with and good to think through; I would further suggest that plants have been thinking poetry for a long while—and continue to. And so I want to consider poetry as a mode of what the philosopher Michael Marder has called “plant-thinking”:

“Plant-thinking” refers, in the same breath, to (1) the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants (hence, what I call “thinking without the head”); (2) our thinking about plants; (3) how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanized and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world; and finally, (4) the ongoing symbiotic relation between this transfigured thinking and the existence of plants.

I will suspend the question of whether plants “think” and attend rather to Marder’s options 2 and 4, pursuing “our thinking about plants” and the “transfigured thinking” that might emerge, compositionally, symbiotically, when we think with poetry’s plants. Marder draws inspiration in part from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who in A Thousand Plateaus commanded us: “Follow the plants”! And one hears echoes of Deleuze and Guattari’s call for a “rhizomatic” thinking over and against “arborescent” thought—excessively rooted and hierarchized. And perhaps rhizomes offer one compositionist model for the composing and receiving of poems. Alive to the roots of and in language, one might stumble upon new linkages and new futurities: rhizomes in the tree, the composite in the apparently singular specimen, a plant within and without the self, the plant in the poem, the poet in the plant. Continue reading …

Invoking Bruno Latour’s notion of “compositionism,” this essay proposes a “field theory” of poetry, exploring the use and abuse of plants as one crucial node for thinking about poiesis. Core cases include the traditionary ballads “The Three Ravens” and “Barbara Allen,” with nods to romantic and contemporary lyrics. The essay also considers en route the pathetic fallacy in light of ongoing debates about anthropomorphism and personification, and concludes with a meditation on “nighing” as a mode of composition.

MAUREEN N. McLANE, Professor of English at NYU, is the author of two monographs on British romantic poetics, both published by Cambridge University Press, as well as My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism.  Her most recent book of poems is Some Say (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

Maia McAleavey tracks “The Plot of Bigamous Return”

McAleavey’s article traces a single plot—the plot of bigamous return—through a range of genres and texts, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Alfred Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden” (1864), concentrating on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). Arguing that plot is a more productive heuristic than genre, this article investigates the intersection of literary currents in one historical moment with the long durée of a recurring story, powerfully present in nautical ballads and melodrama. (Representations 123, Summer 2013)

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