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).

Visionary Dylan

Absolutely Modern: Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song

by Timothy Hampton

The essay begins:

In December of 1965, Bob Dylan gave a news conference in San Francisco. Following his rise to fame in the early 1960s as a writer of politically themed “folk” songs, Dylan had caused a stir several months earlier at the Newport Folk Festival by appearing on stage in a black leather jacket, accompanied by an electric blues band. Now he was beginning an extensive tour to play a new kind of music—music that he described in his press conference as neither folk, nor rock, nor folk-rock, but something called “vision music.” In this essay I want to consider what that phrase might mean.

images-2In what follows I will argue that Dylan’s famous turn to “electric music” is part of a larger stylistic shift in his approach to writing and performing—a shift that unfolds across the middle years of the 1960s. Imagery, lyric form, musical structure, and even the dynamics of performance are recalibrated through new strategies that emerge to replace the earlier interest in topical songs. This is what I will call a “visionary poetics.” It places Dylan in a tradition of visionary poetry reaching back as far as Dante. However, as I will show, Dylan’s development during this period takes shape through his dialogue with literary modernism. For mid-1960s Dylan, the visionary is the modern. My focus will be, principally, on the trio of great “electric” albums produced in the mid-’60s: Bringing It All Back Home (1964), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). What interests me is less the notion of “poetic inspiration” (often assumed to be part of some generational Zeitgeist) than the development of the specific literary techniques and musical innovations through which Dylan expands his songwriting range. I will trace the ways in which the expansion of his songwriting palette during this period generates a set of aesthetic and ethical problems that place pressure on the forms of popular song.

Certainly, Dylan’s expansion of his lyric range owes something to the work of the Beat Generation and, in particular, to Allen Ginsberg, who was seated prominently at the San Francisco news conference. It was no accident that the San Francisco visit included a pilgrimage to the beatnik mecca of City Lights Books, where Dylan was photographed in the alley behind the store with Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure. This was the already aging royalty of the Beats, who had, in their own time, rejected the collective activism of the Old Left to pursue individual beatitude or “beatness.” Dylan was bringing Greenwich Village intellectualism to the epicenter of the emerging sensory-based West Coast counterculture, casting himself as the heir to an earlier visionary generation. Yet Ginsberg had been working in a visionary mode from his very first published poems. Dylan now had to make himself into a visionary; he had to develop a new poetic vocabulary and link it to the limited formal capacities of the popular song.

arthur_rimbaud_gThe touchstone for any study of visionary self-creation is neither Ginsberg, nor Ginsberg’s idol William Blake, but Arthur Rimbaud. It was Rimbaud who had given first voice to the brand of visionary modernism that Dylan would embrace. It was Rimbaud who had announced that the poet “makes himself into a visionary” (Illuminations, xxx). And it was Rimbaud who had codified, in his letters about poetry, the procedures and limitations of the visionary mode. My discussion here will set Dylan and Rimbaud in dialogue, less as a study of influence—though influence is part of the story—than one of affinity, using Rimbaud’s canonical accounts of visionary poetry as a template for tracing Dylan’s development. Continue reading …

Bob Dylan’s turn from “folk music” to “electric music” in the 1960s involves the development of a new visionary poetics. Through a consideration of his affinity with the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, this essay traces Dylan’s recasting of himself as a visionary and studies the pressures placed by this process on lyric form, on poetic diction, and on the representation of the self in popular music.

TIMOTHY HAMPTON is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of French at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 2009). He is currently working on a study of the history of cheerfulness.

An Idea Proper to Poetry

Retcon: Value and Temporality in Poetics

by Joshua Clover

The epistemological rupture proffered by finance in the seventies, seeming to inaugurate a distinct mode of production, is merely a form of appearance that capital’s struggle takes in crisis, beneath which the capitalist economy remains under the sway of the law of value and its source in socially necessary labor time. While narrative fiction has been taken insistently as the relevant literary mode or genre for understanding the motion and particularly the temporality of finance, poetry finally provides a better heuristic for such an understanding and, more substantially, for grasping the motion and dynamic of value moving behind the seeming of finance’s hegemony.

This essay is from Representations‘ current special issue Financialization and the Culture IndustryThe introduction to the issue by C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett, is available online free of charge.

240_jcloverJoshua Clover’s present work revolves around political economy and forms of revolutionary struggle, including the co-authored “Can Dialectics Break BRICS?” (an assessment of class composition and communist party possibilities in emerging economies, with Aaron Benanav) forthcoming in South Atlantic Quarterly, and the Little Book of Riot, forthcoming from UC Press. He is a professor at the University of California, Davis; in 2015, he will convene a Residential Research Group at the UC Humanities Research Institute, studying “Culture, Industry, Finance.”

Photo: C. Dingler

The Literary Mirror

Tang_Dynasty_bronze_mirror_with_dragon

“When is a traditional Chinese ‘poem on things’ (yongwu shi) not a poem on ‘things’? When the perceived and, eventually, constructed nature of the particular thing being described is at odds with, or somehow exceeds, its prescribed function as a discrete object of perception. One such object is the mirror, which appears in some of the earliest Chinese historical and philosophical documents in our possession, before entering the lexicon of classical poetic expression some time around the third century—at the very moment when the tradition of individual lyric expression as such was beginning to take shape. At that point, although it carried with it centuries of discourse relating vision to questions of knowledge of self and others, its capacity for creating meaning would soon exceed anything that could rightly be called symbolic or even metaphorical. The mirror would become one salient thing that would reflect and shape changes in the very notion of the lyric subject over time.” –Paula Varsano

In her new essay “Disappearing Objects/Elusive Subjects: Writing Mirrors in Early and Medieval China” (Representations 124) Varsano examines changes in the philosophical and literary representations of mirrors—and mirroring—in a foundational period of Chinese history beginning with the pre-classical period and ending in the medieval Tang Dynasty. Inspired by the peculiarity of this object, which acts upon subjects at least as much as it is acted upon by them, this study of the literary mirror, of reflection and reflexivity, provides a glimpse into the larger issue of the construction of subjectivity in premodern China.