Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cole Swensen on Four Specific Modes of Ambiguity

Cole Swensen, writing in Poets on Teaching, has the following to say about four types of ambiguity, or perhaps what can be seen as four traditions in ambiguity. I like the way she talks about these, it creates a kind of buffet of possibility, a thought experiment of affiliation. Here she is (I’ve reformatted it a bit so that it’ll look better in the blog format):

Keats’s negative capability, Rimbaud’s dérègelement de tous les sens, Shklovsky’s ostranenie, and Lorca’s duende. Each of these takes the point at which knowledge, including one’s own bearings, begins to slip and uses that exact slippage as a vehicle to get to the interstices of language, to occupy, even if for just an instant, a place where language cannot go. But, coming from four different cultural traditions, each approach gets there in an entirely different way:

Keats, with his air of calm suspension, as if a kind of radical acceptance could leave us hovering in a zone of distilled space and time;

Rimbaud, casting off all the controls that regulate the senses and welcoming an ungovernable onrush of sensory data;

Shklovsky, seeing in rigorous attention the possibility of returning to the objects of this world their bottomlessness, their unknowability, the true uncanniness of which our lax attention has robbed them;

and Lorca, suggesting that we can tap into a power beyond the individual to participate in the soul of an entire people, or, more precisely, an entire art.

Each of these approaches has its own hidden assumptions:

Keats’s, that there are uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts to be wallowed in;

Rimbaud’s, that there’s a tumultuous world of impression and sensation always trying to bombard us;

Shklovsky’s, that every little thing has a unique and limitless nature;

and Lorca’s, that there is a soul, both individual and collective.

Despite their differences in detail, all these approaches rest on a radical faith in the world, not necessarily the faith that is safe or good, but simply that it is, and that the experience of its is-ness is fundamentally different from the knowledge of it. Furthermore, the work of these poets and their writings intimate that language, with its constant production of knowledge, blocks us from experiencing that is-ness, and yet, paradoxically, can be used to get beyond the very blocks it sets up.


Here are the Wikipedia definitions of the four terms, just for fun. It’s nice to see this alternate take, to color in a bit what Swensen sketches above.

1. John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist as one who is receptive to the world and its natural phenomenon, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorize knowledge. In a letter to his brothers on December 21, 1817 he employed negative capability to criticize Coleridge, who he thought sought knowledge over beauty:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

2. Rimbaud, wishing for new poetic forms and ideas, wrote:

“I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!”

3. Shklovsky is perhaps best known for developing the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization (also translated as "estrangement") in literature. He explained the concept in the important essay "Art as Technique" (also translated as "Art as Device") which comprised the first chapter of his seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925. He argued for the need to turn something that has become over-familiar, like a clichè in the literary canon, into something revitalized:

"The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." (Shklovsky, "Art as Technique", 12)

4. [A]t least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that "ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head"; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca's lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call "angel"), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, "on the rim of the well", in "hand-to-hand combat". To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca's words, "a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience... the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual." The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, "it dilates the mind's eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable... There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal...".

Lorca writes: "The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.". He suggests, "everything that has black sounds in it, has duende. [i.e. emotional 'darkness'] [...] This 'mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's siguiriya." [...] "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm." [...] "All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present."


As Swensen writes: “On a more mundane level, focusing on knowledge and its limits shifts the class’s perspective, taking the attention away from notions such as craft, which, while they have their place, can also be distracting . . .”


At 8/30/2011 8:24 PM, Anonymous Mike Theune said...

Negative Capability not only is a kind of ambiguity, but is itself highly ambiguous. "Negatively capable" has been used to describe a wide variety of poetries, from hybrid to plainspoken to pataphysical.

Man, we love Negative Capability...! But Keats has a much better phrase: T wang dillo dee. According to Keats:

"T wang dillo dee… This you must know is the Amen to nonsense. I know many places where Amen should be scratched out, rubb’d over with a pou[n]ce made of Momus’s little finger bones, and in its place ‘T wang-dillo-dee,’ written. This is the word I shall henceforth be tempted to write at the end of most modern Poems — Every American book ought to have it."

My question for those who use a concept like Negative Capability to teach poetry writing is: how do you know that the piece of writing in front of you should be designated Negatively Capable and not dismissed with T wang dillo dee? Once that question gets answered, we've suddenly descended from the cloudy realms of easy unknowing into difficult terrain of decision-making.

At 8/31/2011 4:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Ha! I love it! Yes, of course. And the other three should have similar caveats.

I suggest either Vonnegut’s “so it goes,” or, better, “poo-tee-weet.”

Absolutely. And I don’t think Swensen would disagree with you at all. The introduction to such things is the easy part. It’s just school. Working with them (or making them work) is the art.

It's both the seduction and the parting kiss, isn't it? An aloha of the soul. They all are, really.

At 8/31/2011 4:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Just to clarify, when I wrote "work with them," I meant it in the "secret ingredient" kind of way. I think it's important, with the way people can often want direct answers to questions that have no direct answers, to have a X one can give them. Something absent. My favorite is Spicer's Radio. "Tune in the Martians." You know?

At 8/31/2011 6:16 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I like Orphée's radio in the Cocteau film. I've always been excited by the idea of a "poetry machine."

How about Stevens' echolalic babbling as an amen? "the mic-mac of mocking birds." You could append "mic-mac" to Armantrout's IndyMac.

I've never thought about how these types of ambiguity can be "conflated" (a word John has used a few times recently). Doffing your habitual egoistic identity and donning another expunges--sponges away--the "film of familiarity." Lorca's duende-laden poetry makes New York strange.

Annie, by the way, is a friend who crashes at my place now and then. A male impersonator who happens to be a man.

At 8/31/2011 6:24 AM, Anonymous Mike Theune said...

"An aloha of the soul." Nice.

At 8/31/2011 9:44 AM, Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

John, I cannot decide if your image for Lorca's duende is extremely naughty ... or an actual, accurate depiction.

And then as well, I haven't had my second cup of caffeine to say anything more insightful than that.

At 8/31/2011 9:48 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

David: I love the poetry machine, as long as it's not real. Once it's real, it starts getting all snarky about the toaster.

David-Glen: Well, it's a chance operation. To get my pictures I perform a google image search, and choose the first image that seems interesting. It's funny that two of the four images were consumer products, you know? That also tells us something.

At 8/31/2011 3:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Keats’s, that there are uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts to be wallowed in;

Rimbaud’s, that there’s a tumultuous world of impression and sensation always trying to bombard us;

Shklovsky’s, that every little thing has a unique and limitless nature;

and Lorca’s, that there is a soul, both individual and collective."

I think Keats' assumtions can be supported structurally. Just by acknowledging that there are limits to what we can grasp, we are assuming the ungraspable.

Rimbaud's assumptions are borne out by any theory of perceptual psychology ... that we filter out the bulk of our sensory data. Failure to do so is called tripping.

Shklovsky's and Lorca's propositions seem much more purely metaphysical.

FWIW, I've had the same toaster for 5 years but I can never get the poetry machine to work right.


At 8/31/2011 4:12 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

When a surrealist poem won't pop out of my poetry machine, I try to dig it out with a butter knife, and I get shocked.

At 9/01/2011 8:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Whatever makes the bread into toast. You know?

At 9/01/2011 6:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe a toaster should just be a toaster. When you enslave it with the reductive, subservient expectations of toast-making, you become a tool of the forces of capitalism.

Just sayin'.


At 9/01/2011 6:47 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

When my toaster is deprived of its social function, it grows depressed. Filled with ennui, it weeps. Which of course is a fire hazard. So what I do with the bread is purely for the good of all.

At 9/01/2011 7:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why must you keep leaning on that oppressive dichotomy of the toasted vs. the untoasted? Can't it all just be bread?


At 9/01/2011 7:05 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

My toaster only toasts one side. It's a hybrid.

At 9/01/2011 7:06 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or, as it likes to say: hybread.

At 9/01/2011 7:42 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Why can't you just loaf and invite your soul? Why must you always make toast, scramble oeufs d'art?

At 9/01/2011 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not be post-avant? It's like being avant, but it comes in a kit.



At 9/01/2011 7:46 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Don't you mean, um, Toast-Avant?

Just keeping it real.

At 9/01/2011 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Toast-avant, yeah, I knew I'd lobbed you an easy one.



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