[Wgcp-whc] WG/Poetics--minutes for 1/28

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Tue Feb 1 10:23:49 EST 2005


Dear Friends of Poetry and Poetics,

On Friday, January 28th, the Working Group in Contemporary Poetics met 
for its first session of the new semester.  The focus of the discussion 
was Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  Although, it is hard to classify 
Whitman as contemporary, it had been proposed that he might be seen as 
a precursor to American avant-garde poetics.  One issue that was 
posited at the outset was how Whitman could be held up by both the 
aesthetic right and the aesthetic left as forebear. We didn’t deal 
directly with this question, but the implications of the 
institutionalizion of counteraesthetics, or innovative, experimental 
writing hovered over the discussion.

The group moved back and forth between discussions of the text itself 
and general considerations of poetics.  We noted that poem was 
comprised of a multitude of tonalities, addresses, dictions and so 
forth.  It seemed, or so some argued, that Whitman’s “impure” poetics 
strove to be inclusive as a way of enacting democratic ideals in 
poetry, rather than describing or simply declaiming them.  We discussed 
the shifting perspectives of the poem destabilizes not only the 
subject’s position but also the position and constitution of “thou” 
being addressed as various times (and in various ways) throughout the 
poem.  One descriptor that came up was that Whitman’s poems was 
comprised of various textures, revealing, rather than hiding its 
composition—in that way “Song of Myself” might be seen as writerly.  
Although some felt that Whitman’s diction (and its hortatory excesses) 
was too archaic, its particular radicality to be too tendentious to be 
effective in anything but a historical or genealogical fashion.  Others 
felt that Whitman’s risks—formally and in terms of lyric subjectivity—
were still dynamic enough to contemporary resonance.  One example 
offered was section 25, wherein female desire, homoeroticism, and a 
transgressive voyeurism all come together in ways that remain difficult 
to discuss openly in they critique (if not threaten) prevailing 
conventional gender roles.

The key issue in discussing the work dealt with form and technique.  
The group, for instance, explored the way that a maximalist poem can 
court boredom.  The group was divided in terms of how much could be 
said about Whitman’s technique.  Is every word and its various effects 
considered intentionally by the poet—or was he engaging in a 
Ginsbergian process wherein “first thought is best thought” and the 
moments of lyricism and particularity were chanced upon rather than 
arrived it?  One thought was that there might be a middle way of 
looking at the poem, that parts of the poem were looser in order to set 
other moments in greater relief.   In the end Whitman’s work was 
compared and contrasted to figures such as Baudelaire (particularly 
Paris Spleen) and T. S. Eliot.  The question that we ended with and 
that bears more thought was whether or not the avant garde must 
necessarily by thought of in its historical terms or might it describe 
as set of textual practices.  If the latter, then how might the avant-
garde be characterized?

The group drew up a list of possible readings for the semester.  The 
names that got the most votes were Pierre Alfieri (son of the late 
Jacques Derrida, for all the gossip hounds) and Basil Bunting. We also 
are looking at several visitors, including Paolo Valesio (to speak on 
the Futurists), David Jackson (to speak on the Concretistas), the 
poet/translator/provocateur Kent Johnson, and poet/translator Cole 
Swenson.  It will prove to be a busy but exciting semester.

The group will meet again on Friday Feb. 11 at 1.45 in Rm 116 of the 
Whitney Humanities Center.  We decided to meet next time to discuss 
Emily Dickinson.  Dickinson is a prime example of a poet whose work is 
extremely difficult but had been domesticated by various editors for 
decades.  The group has arranged to purchase 10 copies of the most 
respected edition of her Selected Poems and these will be available in 
just a few days.  In the meantime, her poems are easily found.  For 
instance the complete poems are at http://www.bartleby.com/113/

However, this is taken from and edition published in 1924. Another 
useful Dickinson is here: http://www.emilydickinson.org/
And an extremely interesting discussion of Dickinson’s absence from the 
canon of literary theory by Marjorie Perloff is here: 

This includes a discussion of Celan’s translations of a handful of 
Dickinson’s poems,
Which are available at 

We also will read (time willing and interest prevailing) two essays on 
Dickinson by Susan Howe, avant-garde doyenne and author of My Emily 
Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich’s seminal essay on the poet as well.  I 
will also provide copies of Paul Celan’s translations of 6 of 
Dickinson’s poems and an essay that briefly describes the significance 
of the changes that he made.

“The Working Group in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics meets every other 
Friday at 1:45 PM in room 116 at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale 
University to discuss problems and issues of contemporary poetry within 
international alternative and /or avant-garde traditions of lyric 
poetry. All are welcome to attend.”  

---R. Deming, group secretary


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