The Point Is To Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present

The Point Is To Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present

by Jerome McGann

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A preeminent critic maps the frontier of contemporary poetry.

In this book, Jerome McGann argues that contemporary language-oriented writing implies a marked change in the way we think about our poetic tradition on one hand and in the future of criticism on the other. He focuses on Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein as important intellectual resources because both see the history of poetry as a crisis of the present rather than as a legacy of the past. The crisis appears as a poetic deficit in contemporary culture, where values of politics and morality are judged prima facie more important than aesthetic values. McGann argues for the fundamental relevance of the aesthetic dimension and the contemporary relevance of cultural works of the past.

McGann moves through several broad categories in his examination of contemporary poetry, including the ways in which poetry must be abstract, change, and give pleasure. The author draws on sources ranging from the poetry of Bruce Andrews and Robert Duncan to Looney Tunes cartoons. The experimental move in contemporary poetry, McGann contends, is an emergency signal for readers and critics as much as it is for writers and poets, a signal that calls us to rethink the aesthetics of criticism. The interpretation of literary works has been dominated by enlightenment models—the expository essay and monograph—for almost two hundred years. With the emergence of new media, especially digital culture, the limitations of those models have grown increasingly apparent.

The Point Is To Change It explores alternative critical methods and provides a powerful call to reinvent our modes of investigation in order to escape the limitations of our inherited academic models. The goal of this process is to widen existing cracks or create new ones because, as McGann points out via the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, "That's how the light gets in."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817381448
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/25/2015
Series: Modern & Contemporary Poetics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 483 KB

About the Author

Jerome McGann is the author or editor of over 30 books of scholarship and criticism, among them Algernon Charles Swinburne: Major Poems and Selected Prose, Byron and Romanticism, Radiant Textuality: Literary Studies after the World Wide Web, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game that Must be Lost, and Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism.

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The Point Is To Change It Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present

By Jerome McGann THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5408-4

Chapter One Philological Investigations

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. -Frank O'Hara, "Meditations in an Emergency"


Forty-eight constellations once populated the heavens. Then, at the end of the sixteenth century the navigator Pieter Keyser traveled to the East Indies and discovered in the southern sky twelve more to add to Ptolemy's canon. Today eighty-eight have been officially recognized. But we know that those "infinite mountains of light" are in fact numberless. We know too that they are, as Blake knew, for ever "falling, rushing ruining! buried in the ruins, on Urthona's dens."

Suppose we start again, this time from the ruins of Poe and not Paumanok, from Swinburne instead of Browning, from Stein and Riding rather than Pound and Eliot. Suppose we start by imagining the protest Robert Burns would make against any Lives of the Poets written to the measure of Lyrical Ballads. Would not he have justly cried: "Before Wordsworth was, I am"?

"Are there not other gods for other loves?"

For all the gods undergo shocking changes in their historical passage, as the pestilence-stricken Coventry Patmore shows. There is more in those ruins than "The Angel in the House."

What rumour'd heavens are these Which not a poet sings, O, Unknown Eros? What this breeze Of sudden wings Speeding at far returns from interstellar space, To fan my very face, And gone as fleet?

That verse marches to a drummer we have forgotten to our cost. Constructed, like the verse of Poe, from an articulated thinking on itself, Patmore's theoretical clarity and innovation create the solitude upon which this verse is brooding, like a god out of time.

Say, should the feet that feel thy thought In double center'd circuit run, In that compulsive focus, Nought, In this a furnace like the sun; And might some note of thy reknown And high behest Thus in enigma be expressed: "There lies the crown Which all thy longing cures. Refuse it, Mortal, that it may be yours! It is a Spirit, though it seems red gold; And such may no man, but by shunning, hold. Refuse it, till refusing be despair; And thou shalt feel the phantom in thy hair." -"The Unknown Eros," 1-7, 48-52, 62-75

In our own day Robert Bresson would find his way in just this kind of ruined Roman Catholic dialect. For Patmore as for Bresson, there is a poetical Comfort of the Crucifixion as well as a Comfort of the Resurrection. A poetical comfort-reading itself in a passion of refusals, always dark, often comical. And this comfort has assumed other, secular identities: postmodern, anti-aesthetic, simulacral.

"In a dark time, the eye begins to see."

Which is true. But with the dawning of that light, what then? We go on to other wonderings:

God appears, and God is light, To those poor souls who dwell in night, But does a human form display, To those who dwell in realms of day.

And if the days are lost in translation, what forms might those human forms take? Monsters? (Hal Hartley) Philandering butterflies? (William T. Vollmann) Glorious whores, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the underworld, dancing in the dark.


"What's past is prologue"? If Shakespeare has it so, then it must be so. On first looking into Keats's Endymion, what do we discover? (About ourselves.) (Every looking is a first looking.)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; but still will keep A bower quiet for us, and a sleep Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing. -Endymion, bk. 1, 1-5

Does this sentence tell the truth? Not if we think it references the quotidian world where "we live and move and have our being." In that horizon each of these four (or is it five, or six, or seven?) Keatsian assertions will trigger various dubieties in an attentive reader.

-But poetry has special licenses. It doesn't speak the language game of information.

-Then what language game does it speak? Or do poets speak each her own language? What is Keats's language game? Perhaps if we read on he will explain.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing A flowery band to bind us to the earth, Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth Of noble natures, of the gloomy days, Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all, Some shape of beauty moves away the pall From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon, Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon For simple sheep; and such are daffodils With the green world they live in; and clear rills That for themselves a cooling covert make 'Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake, Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms: And such too is the grandeur of the dooms We have imagined for the mighty dead; All lovely tales that we have heard or read: An endless fountain of immortal drink, Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.

"Therefore"? But since the first sentence itself needs some shape of beauty (or truth?) to move away the pall it cast on our thoughts, how therefore? Or does Keats's language game stand aside from reason as well as reference?

-Perhaps we should take the first five lines as a hypothesis. A kind of propositional imagining whose consequences unfold in the rest of the passage. The o'er-darkened ways of the first five lines were made by Keats for our searching.

-Or re-searching. Only when the first passage gets recalled does the hypothesis about deathless beauty gain the beginning of a rationale.

And still Keats seems whistling in the winds he has himself stirred up. For all of this is, by its own self-insistence, thoroughly unreal, a flowery wreathing that binds us to no natural earth. Dark spirits and shapes of beauty are alike the creatures of this waking dream.

-The passage itself illustrates the thing of beauty it imagines for itself.

-But what does that mean? That things of beauty are momentary in the mind but immortal in the flesh of language?

Things of beauty. That raises a problem, perhaps the problem. As if there were such things, like pots made by that puttering artisan of the Bible. Keats's view seems more primitive: "Therefore ... are we wreathing / A flowery band to bind us to the earth." This polytheistic "we" references (I take it) the visionary companies of poets and artists, whom Keats's soul selects for its society. But the company is also here imagined-in the entirety of this scene of earthbound imaginings-as the we we meet (again) at the close of the passage: ourselves, readers and listeners, not poets and makers. Is Keats one of that company? Certainly he seems to be listening to these words he is even now, apparently, writing. Listening to what he says, as if he were making up what he means as he goes along. (He sings a solitary song / And whistles in the wind).

We will have to think more carefully about what kind of beautiful things this Keatsian text has summoned.

-But that's not all we have to think about. However we judge those things, only on this special Keatsian account can we say, or believe, that they are joys forever, or that their loveliness increases, or that they bring pacific pleasures.

-We have to suspend our doubts about the imaginative hypothesis; we have to read in the horizon of another hypothesis: "With the same spirit that its author writ." Which must be hypothetical since that spirit is inaccessible to us, only something we may surmise and then seek to share with others.

-Yes. But then are we also to forget that we have willingly suspended our disbeliefs? Is this expected of us by the act of reading itself ?

-And what can it mean to speak of Keats's intentions or reading expectations? Of course we imagine that he must have had them. But to speak of them now, to hypothesize them, is surely a rhetorical move by the reader-made, presumably, to persuade his readers to join what is being represented as a select reading company (one including the poet himself!)


"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever." The nominatives on both sides of the copula are uncertain; and they discover their uncertainty in being joined at the copula, which defines an identity that, in this case, also presents itself as a problem. Note the special character of the uncertainty, that's to say, the patent condition of its apparent untruth. So brazen that we may be teased out of our critical certainty (our certainty of the untruth of the statement) and begin to wonder if there might not be some special case where the statement could be said and could be true. And at that point we begin to interpret, to go a journey in quest of this special case of truth. We interpret the assertion in order to remove that uncertainty of meaning.

The journey toward meaning proceeds through the remainder of the text, where fresh uncertainties and arresting moments emerge to make the journey more complicated and interesting.

-Because Keats's poem has been widely read, a meaning-consensus has developed. Many hypotheses have evolved a general theory of the poem, which encompasses this opening passage as well. Endymion (we say) is a Romantic poem. It operates on principles of imaginative desire. Or as Keats's friend Leigh Hunt observed, it gains its objects by its desire for them. The poem's opening statement is in the optative mood.

"But does this general theory of Keats's poem close down its interesting uncertainties of meaning?" "Clearly not, for people keep reading it." "Perhaps they keep reading it for its certainties-for instance, the declared certainty of poetry's joyful permanences." "Reading, in other words, in a state of perpetual hope and desire." "Why not? Would that not be, as Leigh Hunt thought, a Keatsian reading?" "But what if readers lost interest in it, lost sight of it?" "Then it would cease to be meaningful." "And its opening passages would cease to be true, even in your Romantic sense?" "That question is a hypothesis about the conditions of the poem's meaninglessness. And it's implicit in the general Romantic theory of the poem's meaning. So I want to answer this way: Yes, it would cease to be true, but not 'even in your Romantic sense'; rather, it would cease to be true only in your Romantic sense. That's to say, it would cease to be true for us. Now."


But is it accurate to say that "poetry doesn't speak the language game of information"? That its language is rather the language of imagination-that artifice of figurations wreathed, as in a double helix, with its codependent strand of informational artifice (syntax, vocabulary, usage). Even nonsense speaks a common language. How else could Alice get so annoyed with Humpty Dumpty, how else could they converse at all?

-But then how accurate can it be to make the distinction in the first place, as if the codes of image and metaphor were noninformational. Besides, those communicating codes are clearly not the only ones at play in the discourse of poetry, as we can see in the conversation about poetry between Alice and the egg:

"As to poetry, you know," said Humpty Dumpty, stretching out one of his great hands, "I can repeat poetry as well as other folk, if it comes to that-" "Oh, it needn't come to that!" Alice hastily said, hoping to keep him from beginning. "The piece I'm going to repeat," he went on without noticing her remark, "was written entirely for your amusement." Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it; so she sat down, and said "Thank you" rather sadly, "In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight- only I don't sing it," he added, as an explanation. "I see you don't," said Alice. "If you can see whether I'm singing or not, you've sharper eyes than most," Humpty Dumpty remarked severely. Alice was silent. -Through the Looking Glass, chapter 7

The code of bibliographical inscription brings an added dimension to a textual game-in this instance-"written entirely for your amusement." Alice holds her own in bantering with Carroll's literalist of imagination because she can see that he doesn't, in fact, sing it at all. "He doesn't write it either. It was written by somebody else, a man with a birth certificate, as we all know and anybody can see. And what should we say about the printing of what was written entirely for our amusement?"

-And how can we speak of a textual double helix? Here are three strands of code operating code-pendently.


So we can see that Humpty Dumpty is singing, for we see a difference between his prose texts and his poetry texts. The difference is inscribed bibliographically.

-But the music being sung cannot be seen. Music is not coded for the eyes. We should see the music, we could aver that, if it were cast in a graphical code.

-Can it then be heard?

-No, not here. It would be heard only if the poem were repeated orally. Recited. Then we should register a fourth strand of code operating in the discourse of poetry, the metrical code. As Alice says, this is a code strand that "ought to" be listened to. The music of poetry can be recoded in bibliographical terms, can then-as in this text of Through the Looking Glass-be recoded into another form of expression. But the music itself, its metrical form, is coded for the ears, not the eyes. Alice tells us this and she ought to be listened to too.


One strand of code-say, the bibliographical-can encode another strand-say, the metrical. That kind of transformation appears a general feature of all forms of expression. Expressive forms are then not just forms of code-signs and symbols. They are codings of forms that are already encoded. Not just mediations (though mediation is one of the phase spaces of code) but remediations as well, simultaneously.

This multidimensional state of expressive forms comes clear when we test any given form for its constituent parts. Take the verses Humpty Dumpty recites; how do we identify them? "Well, various ways are possible. They are verse, not prose. They are verses Humpty Dumpty recites for Alice. They are also verses that come into this chapter of Through the Looking Glass. They are verses written by C. L. Dodgson, perhaps writing as Lewis Carroll. They are one component of a larger textual unit, of verse and prose, that is itself multidimensional (it is a narrative, it is a complex exposition, it is a textual game). They are also one component that is oddly but interestingly divided into several parts, and those parts are themselves open to a number of different kinds of partitionings."

-One could extend this naming of parts indefinitely. Those who devise logical markup schemes for digital texts speak of this phenomenon as "overlapping structure." It seems the feature of language that most clearly sets poetry outside the language game of information.

-All expressive forms exhibit overlapping structure. Poetry appears to be a coding system determined to solicit and exploit the phenomenon of overlapping structure-in sharp contrast to digital markup as normally conceived, which seeks to disambiguate itself.

-Disambiguated language would then be language speaking the game of information. And if so, do markup languages argue that one can't have digital poetry? Clearly not, for we do have it. How then do our imaginary gardens-oral, textual, digital-have real toads in them? Marianne Moore raised the question but didn't really answer it.

-Perhaps she did when she argued in her poem that poems are

important not because a high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful

and by "useful" she means useful to readers who, "in defiance of ... opinion," place the "demand" of usefulness on the poet and the poem. The language game of information is a subroutine in the language game of poetry:

case after case could be cited did one wish it

The cases will be cited if the "demand" for them is made. "Business documents and // school-books"? In the abstract, "all these phenomena are important." It is for the reader to "discriminate" the minute particulars of what is "valid" and "genuine," and it is poetry's part to facilitate that kind of discriminating demand.


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments 000 The Argument 000 Poetry and the Privilege of Historical Backwardness 000 1. Philological Investigations 000 Part I. It Must Be Abstract 2. Truth in the Body of Falsehood 000 3. The Alphabet, Spelt from Silliman's Leaves 000 4. The Apparatus of Loss: Bruce Andrews Writing 000 Part II. It Must Change 5. Art and Error, with Special Thanks to the Poetry of Robert Duncan 000 6. Private Enigmas and Critical Functions, with Special Thanks to the Poetry of Charles Bernstein 000 7. From Sight to Shenandoah 000 Part III. It Must Give Pleasure 8. Marxism, Romanticism, Postmodernism: An American Case History 000 9. Looney Tunes and Unheard Melodies: -) An Oulipian Colonescapade, with a Critique of "The Great-Ape Love Song Corpus" and Its Lexicon 000 Part IV. Continuing Present 10. The Evidence of Things Not Seen: A Play 000 11. IVANHOE: A Playful Portrait 000 12. Modernity and Complicity: A Conversation with Johanna Drucker 000 Notes 000 Bibliography 000 Index 000

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