Johan de Wit



A Response to Robert Sheppard’s

The Necessity of Poetics



I am a poet, not a critic or a teacher of creative writing. I have only one hat to wear. That should make life easy, but no, it makes communication in a multidimensional context extremely precarious. (I deliberately refrain from using the word problematic.) (Not every context requires a multidimensional approach.) As a practising poet I see no need to privilege “the world of creative writing teaching” above my own chosen method: reading the poets, critics and theorists I feel close to, have an affinity with or who express my intuitive thoughts, in short, with whom I share a language and with whom I can have an interior dialogue. Indeed, Robert Sheppard is one of those poets.


The following is a selection of fragments from my named and unnamed statements 1992-2001. The named statements have been made available in six separate pamphlets between October 1993 and February 1999. The six booklets plus Preface and Postface now carry the title No Hand Signals (earlier No Signal). Between 1992 and 1998 I read many of these statements at Bob Cobbing’s Workshop and at various other places including the Subvoicive Poetry Readings. I would be very surprised indeed if Robert Sheppard wasn’t aware of this.



If popularity becomes aestheticized then poetics becomes politics and behaves as such.

The origins of words come too late for poets to bargain away their free choice with which they could line their internal poetics. Poets can say what they like but behind the real words linger the feel words felt as paper and measured out by the most advanced medical team as belonging to the emergency services of language.

The page is a place where poetics and poethics meet without getting separated at gunpoint for electoral gains. All too frequently poetry is clogging up aesthetics.

Whether it’s necessary to say more reiterates the position of poetics itself. Poetry when it goes back over its own beginning wants to recover from doubt and uncertainty. Each new beginning is a turning back on continuing the shift towards emancipation.

Poetics and profits don’t follow each other without wearing protective clothing.

Poetics is an extension of poetry is an extension of language.

The reader does what only a reader can do which is reading a poem or, let’s say, a poem by a poet; a choice based on a poetics to be released; the reader mirrors the poet. Of course, the reader is entitled to feel cheated when he/she reads a poem and notices that the poet is the actual reader and s(h)e the reader merely a verbal shadow whose only function is to complete the poetic process on the poet’s terms.

A poetics is always related to and embedded in a poethics.

Poems if they work get caught up in poetry and then if lucky poetics keeps the grass wet.

Reunited through recognition, poetics bugs aesthetics, the talking is in the taking is in the making.

The page shows whether poetry and poetics play the same tune.

Poetry is metalanguage, poetics betalanguage, poetry forced back into language synonymous with the semilanguage of circular walks and, to return to first principles, poetry pushed out of language antonymous with mentalanguage.

At the page where words gather momentum and settle, or set out their positions, poetics is to be found in the almost invisible background of itself. Poetics is part and parcel of the line if written in lines or the sentence if written in sentences, because the connections between the words constitute a line of poetics. That line of poetics is the poetry of the poem. The margins, the outer limits, are the poet, language and occasionally society. That’s why transplants don’t work. Poetry works in a natural, organic way, within the boundaries of one natural language. Friendship is the ground force that keeps the troops on their toes, and the ammunition on stand-by. Fashion only plays a role in popularity contests, not in poetics. Apart from that, it’s a handy way of measuring the effectiveness of a personal approach as well as the flipside of a restorative move to scale the individual’s isolation in the face of a world changing faster than a handshake. Poetics is not based on connotation, suggestion or association, it’s the relaxed intersection of words within the confines of a given unit. A relaxed attitude to language makes it possible for poetry to be interactive with its own potential. The more rigid the code the higher the chance of a package tour being sold as a discovery procedure. The roll call goes from poem to poetry to poetics.

Poetry’s agenda is contained in poetics and this should therefore precede all other activities; thank you Philip French.

A second impression of meaning superimposed on its first reading delivers an internal poetics to be spelled out later in a separate location.

A poetics on display on the shelves of a poetry community may well be a fake representation of things to come, it can’t be taken to the cashier for applause, it develops out of the practice of writing (contemplation clearly belongs to a different social plane where they love to think of and about the incoming calls to) poetry.

Who benefits from a discussion about meaning? Who opens a dialogue on poetry? Who sets the agenda for a conference on poetics? Who records the whereabouts of poetry? Who encourages hands-on experience in a hands-off situation?

Any poet going back to the New American Poetry sooner or later writes a poetics.

Language is the classical obsessed with the self while poetry is the romantic obsessed with the other. All this leads to a poetics of poetry with a tendency for the other to cross the border. Other and author are stress-related configurations of the same.

A line of poetics may contain an idea of poetry in the making but context doesn’t topple stabilizing factors unless rereading can generate a force that brings simultaneity to the page. Poetry and poetics are not printed separately one overlaying the other. Poetry is always poetry including poetics. Poetics could and should follow this example. Bring back the scale of human proportions, the page and the reader reading the page. Language is not just one more plane, register or medium for the art of poetry, poetry doesn’t need any more frames but its own: language. Poetics as a metaframe of poetry remains a subframe of language.

Publication, distribution, etc are out of necessity absolutely vital to the poetry business; as economic and social activities they take their cue from parapoetics.



I became aware of Robert Sheppard’s ‘The Necessity of Poetics’ on 17th December 2001. The following “definitions” I wrote on Christmas Eve while reading the essay ‘Photography, Iconophobia and the Ruins of Conceptual Art’ by John Roberts (in: The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966-1976 (ed by John Roberts), Camerawork, London, 1997, pp7-45). These “definitions” may look like definitions, they are nothing of the sort, they are ideas which suddenly occur to you when you can only think of that one subject. Definitions in the proper sense refer to a discourse outside experimental and radical poetry.



«     poetics is a new reading of the poetic whereas poetry is a new writing of the aesthetic

«     poetics is a public inquiry into the load-bearing, wall-facing assumptions underlying the poetic process

«     doing poetics-as-poetry is a legacy of the conceptual era

«     a poet who does poetics is a why poet (how poets rarely do poetics)

«     poetics states rather than nominates

«     poetics sums up the parts without being the sum of its parts

«     poetics becomes the language of poetry when language is the medium of poetry

«     poetics is not the discovery of the missing link between poetry and the understanding of poetry but the creation of that missing link

«     poetics is both the caretaker and the underwriter of poetry; in that sense poetics is the will to write poetry

«     poetics starts with poetry and stops at poetry; it does not want to change the world, neither the world of poetry; poetics only wants to write more and more poetry; poetry might change the world

«     poetics is positively dysfunctional and officially incompetent

«     poetics is the subjectivization of poetry; it turns the objectivity of language into a subjective experience; it transforms mental activity into verbal activity; it readjusts the documentation of poetry or its internal possibilities and makes these perceptions less important than they are

«     poetics is showing off when it means business

«     poetics is not a body of knowledge but a presentation of poetic knowledge

«     poetics is the external language of poetry

«     poetics is caught not taught

«     poetics is a discussion between poetry and aesthetics — a discourse of perpetual delays and relays — dissatisfaction is the mother of conception, perception and reflection

«     poetics is a self-reflexive critique ...

«     poetics is a diaristic extension of poetry

«     poetics is not necessarily an internalized understanding of the poetic process

«     poetics is only on target when the target is poetics

«     poetics is not an analysis of poetry but everyday language bouncing off the walls of poetry



I don’t see that it is relevant to take the term, the concept of poetics back to Aristotle. Even if we assume that in poetics you can say anything you like, bringing an ancient philosopher into your discourse neither strengthens the argument nor gives it more clout. The formal discipline of poetics may go back to Aristotle but the informal poetics Robert Sheppard practises starts somewhere else. Apart from that I always feel slightly ill at ease when I read that poetry (poiein) goes back to the ancient Greek language where it meant to make. Any good dictionary can tell you that. But what it doesn’t say is that at that time poets were put in the same category as shoemakers and shipbuilders. I believe we have come a long way since then. The word I use, and I believe Robert Sheppard does too, is write. A writer writes. What difference does it make? It writes the difference it makes. It makes the difference it writes. Poetics is typically the place where you can show whether write means compose like a musician, construct like an engineer, design like an architect, write like a novelist, or whatever. Aristotle’s Poetics wouldn’t be of much help here.

I see my poetics, in the examples I have given above, on the level of my prose poems and my critical poems (Linear A’s). They are subgenres within the genre of poetry. In conversation I have described my statements as metapoems but if they are not poetry then they are not metapoems either. Prose poetry is now generally regarded as being part of the same discourse as poetry and I see no reason why poetics should not be seen as just another way of writing poetry. When you decide to write an external poetics you place yourself not in the tradition of scholars like Aristotle but in the company of the avant-garde movements of the last century with the aim to defamiliarize, dematerialize and demystify the poetic process.

Poetry and by extension poetics are in my praxis part of a process of democratization. Poets as practitioners of the verbal arts don’t wait until they’re given a licence to practise poetry, they are self-authored and self-authorized. That doesn’t mean you should forego a formal education that gives poetry centre stage, on the contrary, it usually sets you up for life, but it does mean that such a background puts you in a different position to poets whose development has taken place outside an academic context.

In Robert Sheppard’s definitions the difference between micropoetics and macropoetics is from my point of view too close to the difference between sentence analysis and discourse analysis. I would have preferred to see him make a fundamental difference between an internal and an external poetics, between an implicit and an explicit poetics. You cannot write poetry of whatever kind without an internal poetics but without articulating an external poetics you can. When poets are or become aware of that they may well say there is no need, no necessity to write an external poetics. If there is such a thing as primary and secondary discourse can you really expect poets to practise or participate in both? And if poets ought to decide for themselves how they practise their art form then why insist that it’s not “right” when their choice differs from yours?

If the current practice of writing poetics is heavily indebted to American postwar poetry then writing your own poetics irrespective of Aristotle, Sidney or Shelley is your concern. What is the primary function of the poet? Each and every poet answers that question the way they see fit, each poet individually writes his or her own job description. Most poets answer that with: to write poetry. In my understanding to practise the primacy of the verbal is certainly an explication of that choice.

Charles Bernstein’s poetics with all due respect doesn’t descend from Wordsworth or Shelley, his poetics is much closer to discussions in everyday language with fellow poets and artists; it’s really an exercise in the freedom of speech: say anything you like, and see what people make of it; ie, not a dialogue with literary ancestors, or if by extension then only by proxy. Linguistics, poetics and politics are on the side of the speaker, usually the first speaker. All their rules are geared to privilege the speaker, that’s the role that receives the power and status from the system, not the listener, reader or voter. To be first and to come first is all important in such a system. Why people at the receiving end should accept such a system is beyond me. Why poetics of this kind is hardly practised in Britain is not surprising when even a radical poet such as Robert Sheppard sends us back to the classroom. It’s not my impression that the creative writing classroom is the place where poets learn and practise their skills. If I am not mistaken they do that in the privacy of their own home.

Denise Riley’s anthology Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-1991 was indeed a revelation; it hardly mattered that in her introduction she only used the word poetics as part of the title of a book she mentioned ‘Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute’. Anything goes is apparently not the response Robert Sheppard is looking for. It’s somewhat disingenuous to call Tom Raworth’s contribution “a typically British refusal to discursively tackle that very issue” if you don’t mention at the same time that Allen Fisher was also represented by poetry. The back cover states clearly that “a number of contemporary poets, distinguished by their energy and thoughtfulness, were asked to write on aspects of the working processes of poetry in whatever ways they believed would be helpful to readers.” (my italics) No wonder that you “return to base” as Denise Riley described it when you are given such a free hand. The surprise is that a poet like Allen Fisher whose Necessary Business had been published in 1985 didn’t submit that essay again if at that moment he didn’t have the time or didn’t want to write a new piece or why the bibliographical details don’t mention Necessary Business. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen Fisher sees Necessary Business as theory, truly a metadiscourse, and not as poetics. Did Robert Sheppard not call Allen Fisher a theorist among other things in ‘The Necessary Business of Allen Fisher’ (his introduction to Allen Fisher’s section in future exiles)? I hope what was called theory in 1989 is still called theory in 2001. Or am I expected to call that poetics now? Maggie O’Sullivan is also a poet who doesn’t like to present an external poetics. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t. There is apparently no necessity to do so. What about Bill Griffiths? What about Ulli Freer? Do they write a poetics? What about Bob Cobbing? He just doesn’t believe in it? It seems that if you nevertheless do write an external poetics, it’s purely a personal choice. That it may change your writing if you do, no-one can answer that question. To quote Robert Sheppard, “it’s too early to tell”.

                                                                                    January 2002