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PORES - A Journal of Poetics Research

Language Public and Poetry

- Peter Middleton

Poetry is slow politics. Slow because poetry rarely has a direct impact on national life and, even when it does, the time it takes for the effect to be felt is likely to be measured in years or decades, and unlikely to be traceable. It is not that poetry makes nothing happen; it simply takes a long time and its influences are subterranean. Slow because poetry like most other arts is marginal to modern culture, for many reasons ranging from radical changes in social formations to the ascendancy of the sciences. Slow because of the speed of modernity. Robert Pippin usefully summarises Hegel’s argument that art has ‘ended’ by explaining that for Hegel the problem is that modernity lives within an ‘altered sensibility, perceptual meaning, and “lived” sociality’ (296), and earlier forms of art have ceased to be relevant: ‘Representational art cannot adequately express the full subjectivity of experience, the wholly self-legislating, self-authorising status of the norms that constitute such subjectivity, or, thus, cannot adequately express who we (now) are.’ (300). Poetry that represents the ‘conceptual significance’ of the materiality of language for instance, is a highly self-conscious art that will work its way into the ‘intellectual habits of modern understanding’ (305) in ways that may apply a hidden slight torque to political process. Slow because of the anguish of estrangement from dominant political structures that the spatial metaphor of margins understates, a disjunction from imperial history that poetry can speculatively articulate. Poetry is one of the arts that J. Bernstein argues is a “place-holder” or “cipher” for “an absent politics” (13) not yet realisable in our world.

Slowness can appear to be invisibility, ineffectiveness, or unresponsiveness in times when the need for change is most evident, and this is why the collection of conference papers brought together by Tony Lopez and Anthony Caleshu in Poetry and Public Language matters today. These essays diversely show why we still need to think about the surprising routes by which poetry is viral, allopathic and anamnesic for publics and counter-publics, and the discussions remind us that the words of which poems are constructed are not just building blocks, they are each one a history of public action manifested through the performance of the poem. As George Oppen reminds us in ‘Twenty-six Fragments’, ‘Clarity means, among / other things, to know / how the words come to / meaning.’ (235)

The appearance of essay versions of the talks given at the conference ‘Poetry and Public Language’ is therefore very welcome. As a contributor I can’t claim full objectivity but I will say that these essays offer in my view the best contemporary discussion of the many troubling issues presented by poetry’s position in public culture and its relation to the dominant discourses by which public life are framed. It’s not that these papers are likely to make you any more certain about how to think about poetry and public language than before. These are not spell-checks for the poetics of existing texts nor templates for future ones. Questions predominate. ‘Can poetry be made to “fit” our need for public language?’ asks Allen Fisher. Thinking of the practice of fast collage in Tom Raworth’s later poems, Andrea Brady wonders whether its underlying aesthetic offers a way past the seemingly fixed opposites of sensory or cognitive pleasure in the Kantian tradition: ‘in this way, they encourage the reader to develop a sense of the contingency of the moment and of the experiences ciphered in the verse, and to develop an intuitive (in Raworth’s use of the term not Kant’s) rather than an intellectual set of responses to poetry’s acts of signification’ (35). This is a pleasure that is neither wholly private nor wholly public and communicable, and therein lies its value. Poetry’s slow politics also derives from its interstitial modes of inquiry: ‘What poetry is capable of through deliberation and detailed poetic investigation, of poetic form and the variety of vocabularies used, often leaves the best poetry incapable of matching the public demand for continuous and linear expression, ostensibly the demand for complete meanings’, (81) says Fisher. Decluttering is also part of its role according to Lyn Hejinian, who transforms T. J. Clark’s reinvented iconoclasm in his meditations on Poussin in The Sight of Death (he speaks about this as a ‘weak politics’ (185)) into a promising counter-imagism: ‘Poetry has as one of its tasks that of clearing public life of images and giving us art instead.’ (120) These are just samples of many important lines of investigation opened up by the contributors. 

Language public? The concept of language made the eighties possible—post-structuralism ran its semantic engines on pure signification—while the concept of the public was more a nineties idea. By then we had become concerned about how to recognise more openly the history and politics that ‘Theory’ claimed were encoded within the DNA of language, and poets took on public discourse, recycling and flaying with irony or polymerising with disdain the political jargon, clichés, military euphemisms, the low comedy of high finance, and the slick adjectives of advertising. For these decades the phrase ‘public language’ was often a tautology. Private language was an impossibility and therefore all language was public; this was why we could work such magical analyses of texts, and why all modes of communication were texts.

How public is language? Language requires intersubjectivity for its very existence, and even that most private of languages, a twin language, requires the two colluding children as a minimum condition. Yet maybe we should not so readily oppose public and private as if they were mutually exclusive and interdependent. To be public, a language or a poem have to do more than be exchanged between two or more people. Michael Warner suggests several criteria. A public consists of strangers, and a text that is public circulates in a time that it is aware of, or as he explains: ‘Public discourse is contemporary, and it is oriented to the future; the contemporaneity and the futurity in question are those of its own circulation.’ (94) He thinks that ‘the discourse of a public is a linguistic form from which the social conditions of its own possibility are in large part derived.’ (105) What is particularly interesting for poets about this analysis is that it shows that in the space of language (like the space of reasons) public and private are not necessarily opposites.

Certain specific lexical sets are used in public texts such as political speeches, newspapers, television news and internet reporting, contexts where the words and sentences have a meaningfulness that emerges within what Warner calls the temporality of circulation, the unfolding process by which a text locates itself in a history, however brief (think of a newspaper), that implicates its audience, its ‘public’ in a collective whose functioning may range from collusion to co-optation or community. This text might be a news conference, a rally, a morning tabloid, or an evening bulletin. Much of the language used to discuss the ethically repugnant issues of the day is active in such texts, and the problem for poets can be that these usages depend on their material context and outside it they become even more depleted than they already are.

Publics are not easily, let alone automatically, created by acts of publication of poetry or poetics. The publication of Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, a counterpart to Poetry and Public Language, an excellent, timely set of essays mostly written by poets interested in very recent British poetry (the title says 1945-2007 but the perspective is that of the noughties) makes this issue explicit. The editors, Robin Purves and Sam Ladkin explain their title by saying that their contributors discuss poetry that ‘knows language, consciousness and culture to be profoundly complicit across the board in the extension of acts of domination’ (2). The editors rightly note that the strength of the collection is that ‘attention is paid throughout to the importance of intractable details in the particulars of a poem as well as the social conditions from which the poems emerge.’ (2) Tracts, traction, tracks, and their negations drive the discussion. Sara Crangle argues that Chris Goode ‘ruminates on the thickness and onrush of contemporary aesthetic language, considering ways artists respond to the current privileging of factuality, the ever-proliferating end product of our information age’ (206) in an essay that explores Keston Sutherland’s influential ideas about bathos, and explores its poetic insinuations. Sam Ladkin asks a question that presses on many poets: ‘Our identities are dependent for their making and sustenance on the catastrophic exploitation of the unfortunate inhabitants of other places. How can lyric, one of the traditions of which deals with the representation of immediate, personal experience, enact a fidelity to this dark matter of production’s displacement?’ (275) Craig Dworkin is also concerned with the underlying ethical dilemmas. In a subtle reading of Peter Manson’s Adjunct, Dworkin proposes that this poem raises language to ‘another power of citation, something like a third degree of reference’ (171). Submitting reference to the ‘third degree’ is what seems needed in a time when discursive emissions threaten to stifle thought and resistance, as contributors to Poetry and Public Language also recognize, yet Dworkin’s felicitous pun resonates with  those editorial concerns about complicity, since the ‘third degree’ usually requires some ethical slackening to justify the use of violence against those submitted to such questioning.

Complicities make poetry’s relations to an absent politics tortuous and the editors appear to have also encouraged debate to push forward into difficult areas where our poetry communities sometimes have a democratic deficit. Many women writers have recently argued that gender discrimination continues in the UK poetry networks, where gender politics is not considered a priority in the face of other political campaigning, and women poets are still under-represented in every area of public discourse, whether in histories, anthologies, reading series, critical attention, mentoring, and above all publication. There is much to be done as one says and a slow politics can seem to chafe. It need not however entail either a distanced playfulness nor supplementary radical activism, though the achievement of a counter-public for the ‘absent politics’ that J. Bernstein adumbrates remains a demanding task. Issues of representation, discursive norms, ethical frameworks and transmitted subjectivities can be fraught, and loopbacks within the publics and counter-publics of poetry still require vigilant attention, a care to listen, and discursive reflection on our modalities of communication (especially email, a form of communication that strips out voiced affect and other situational cues to emotion and intersubjectivity attunement and relying on generic recognitions that embody consensus to make for fast mutual understanding, and becoming slow and bumpy when inferential leeway is too wide). Inequalities of public access in poetry are a reminder that the publics of poetry and their languages demand the highest degree of attention to false binaries, dangerous thirds, and the slowness of political change in every sphere including those close to our bodies and identities. These new collections will help us think our way forward. We owe thanks to these editors for their work towards creating future publics for poetry.


Works Cited

Bernstein, J. M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.

Clark, T. J . The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Dworkin, Craig. ‘Poetry Without Organs’. In Purves and Ladkin eds. 168-193.

Lopez, Tony and Anthony Caleshu. Poetry and Public Language. Exeter: Shearsman, 2007.

Oppen, George. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Edited by Stephen Cope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Pippin, Robert. The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian aftermath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Purves, Robin and Sam Ladkin eds. Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2007.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2005


Peter Middleton

PORES webjournal, Professor William Rowe,  email: