Journal Article

Poetry and Sociality in a Global Frame

by Walt Hunter

Khaled Furani’s Silencing the Sea (2012) and Michael Dowdy’s  Broken Souths (2013) bring a global perspective to post-1945 and contemporary traditions of Palestinian and Latina/o poetry.

Dowdy, Michael. 2013. Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. $30.00 sc. 296 pp.

Furani, Khaled. 2012. Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press. $55.00 hc. 312 pp.


A formidable hermeticism has long held sway over Anglophone poetry criticism. While criticism of other literary genres expands its grasp, most notably into new sociological approaches to literature, knowledge of the tropes and schemes of poetry serves as a border check for those interested in poetic criticism, slowing contemporary poetry’s reception, inhibiting pedagogy, and operating in general like a canon of revealed truths. Generally speaking, to read poetry means to learn the history of poetic devices and to recognize the various appearances (or absences) of this history in an individual poem: why a line break works the way it does, why a metaphor appears where it does. But these claims about poetic design do not only represent a neutral language specific to literary study or a convenient mechanism for distinguishing between traditional and avant-garde strands of poetry. By attributing a private and individual, rather than global and material, foundation to the aesthetics of poetry, such claims also prevent poetry from being recognized as a social form. As a result, canonical notions of line, verse, and enjambment are theorized as though poetry developed and continues to develop in monastic seclusion from the political economies and emergent precarities of modern global capitalism.

No sustained analysis exists in which the history of poetry and poetics is reread in the light of the history of globalization. Books on Anglophone poetry in particular have been cautious in adopting a postcolonial, global, or transnational critical perspective and, in general, complacent in upholding the immutable value of a small set of formal devices and traditions. Within this tradition, however, there are critics who are moving toward a global and socially attuned poetics. Jahan Ramazani’s The Hybrid Muse (2001) and A Transnational Poetics (2009) link poetic tropes of metaphor and figures of irony with theories and themes of hybridity, migration, and exile in postcolonial Anglophone poetry. After Ramazani, the Jamaican poets Claude McKay and Louise Bennett can no longer be treated as marginal, neither to postcolonial studies nor to poetry, while the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and the Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott, who are already the subjects of a voluminous critical corpus, appear newly relevant. Focusing on the late nineteenth century, Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (2005) calls attention to the processes by which a variety of poetic genres had been “lyricized” into a single, dominant genre, at the same time that it incites new histories of poetic subgenres, genealogies of American poetry, and compelling defenses of lyric as a collective voice (Costello 2012) or the “performance of an event” (Culler 2009, 887). Meanwhile, Stephen Burt’s many accessible reviews of contemporary poets bypass altogether the retrenched arguments for conceptual and lyric forms. The cultivation of a catholic taste for multiple, often discrepant styles in poetry, rather than buttressing a single framework of value, makes Burt a welcome voice in the wake of Language and post-Language scuffles over the politics of poetic form and political identity. Most recently, the poetics of precarious life under neoliberal conditions has been the object of attention by a scattered group of leftist poets and thinkers, including Anne Boyer (2014), Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013), Jasper Bernes (2013), Christopher Nealon (2011), Joshua Clover and Keston Sutherland (2013), Franco Berardi (2012), Judith Butler (2013), Chris Chen (2013), and Rob Halpern (2013). If we place this work alongside emergent, innovative work on post-war Anglophone, Russian, and Nigerian poetry by critics as diverse as Jennifer Ashton (2013), Marijeta Bozovic (2014), and Nathan Suhr-Sytsma (2013), it becomes immediately apparent that the entire field of poetry and poetics has taken on a new urgency and a pluralism of method.

There is no reason why more work on poetry cannot wager the ambition, strength of argument, accessibility, and cross-disciplinary reach of groundbreaking books on globalization and culture such as Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002), Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010), and Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (2013). Following in the path of Christopher Nealon’s The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (2011), Khaled Furani’s Silencing the Sea (2012) and Michael Dowdy’s Broken Souths (2013) bring a global perspective to post-1945 and contemporary traditions of Palestinian and Latina/o poetry. Both books are less interested in an account of poetry that describes its transnational circulation or cross-cultural hybridity than in an analysis of global forces and conditions (of occupation, marginalization, underdevelopment, financialization) as they shape poetic innovation. Far from occupying niche spaces on the margins of literary history, these books are crucial landmarks in a growing field that has yet to be institutionalized fully, but that deserves to be recognized as global aesthetic theory or critical global studies.

Furani and Dowdy are not troubled or anxious to establish their credentials through the Anglophone poetic tradition. Instead, their work provides ways outside the existing tradition and methodologies from which Anglophone critics might learn. In Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms of Palestinian Poetry, Furani, an anthropologist, argues that aesthetic innovations in post-1948 Palestinian poetry must be understood in relation to ethical and political “craftings of the self” (2012, 2): “I have been able to see the poetic tradition as caught in the formation and contestation of truth and subject formations in a particular society, rather than as an insular unraveling of beauty and imagination” (3). In Furani’s account, poetic meter and religion are the two critical axes for understanding Palestinian poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. The history of Palestinian verse, Furani argues, is one that links traditional meter with religion and the break from traditional meter with the rise of secularism as “a dominant fragmentary formation in ways of knowing and being in the modern era” (19). While Furani’s work introduces many poets who will be virtually unknown to those well versed in other poetic traditions, it also culminates in a powerful critique of secularism for its elevation of self-sovereignty and its claims that truth can only be found in the visible (246). Furani concludes by stressing the need “to think fully through the secular demands sensing the frailty buried under its claims of sovereignty” (248).

The most striking aspects of Silencing the Sea are the structure of argument Furani creates and the methodology he employs. The first section of the book, “Initiations,” introduces readers to the theoretical, formal, and institutional frameworks of the study by giving overviews of secularism, forms of Arabic poetry, and poetry festivals in post-1948 Palestine. The next three sections, “The Song,” “The Picture,” and “The Dream,” plot a course in which an emphasis on sound, the traditional ode, and audience shifts to an emphasis on the image, the prose poem, and its distance from the public. Furani’s ethnographic analysis depends on repeated visits to the poets he considers, a long roster that includes Taha Muhammed Ali, Hilmi Salim, Hussein al-Barghouti, Nida’a Khoury, Adonis, and Ahmad Bekheit. The analysis accumulates interest and force through the phenomena of reappearance and of return, as though the nature of the inquiry were structured in part by the rhythm of repeated visits, chance meetings, and additional questions. Since the poetry Furani encounters is woven into daily, lived experience, as well as festivals and protests, the book does not have to rely on an etiolated textuality. Stories of lives open onto theoretical discussions of secularism, modernization, prosody, and hermeneutics, in which the pivot between the historical-material and the aesthetic becomes the self-presentation of the poet. While anthropological approaches to poetry are desperately needed, such a peripatetic approach to the subject matter falls occasionally into a desultory drift. As a result of the argument’s reliance on anecdotes by individual poets, some of the conclusions Furani reaches can be disappointingly general: “The prose poem tells ordinary stories of ordinary people in ordinary places with ordinary things” (177). Others are revelatory in their explanation of the social and political pressures on poetic form. Discussing the work of a poet from Ramallah, Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Furani writes, “Abu Hashhash’s rhythm developed simultaneously as a rhythm of the occupied and the ignored, occupied by the Israeli army and ignored by the Palestinian official literary establishment” (147). Although no example of Hashhash’s poetry is provided, the poet explains to Furani that this rhythm of occupation and marginalization is “confused, complex, disorderly, and fast” (146). Furani asks questions that are not often asked about poetry, questions that assume a continuity between poetry and daily life and between the fate of poetry and the fate of words and sounds in the world (106).

As an anthropologist, Furani introduces readers to a wide variety of Palestinian poets not so much through their poetry, of which relatively few examples are given, as through their statements about poetry and anecdotes about their lives. This addition is necessary in the greater context of criticism on poetry, which has all too often emphasized solely textual analysis at the cost of the social world that shapes and is shaped by these texts. Especially in the North American context, this book will seem both exciting and unfamiliar in its approach, like an occasionally recurring dream in which poetics gives itself the latitude that other genres have long adopted. Furani’s work helps to develop a methodology for a global poetics—as a social poetics that rereads the schemes and tropes of poetry and the genealogies of national poetries in the light of postcolonial, transnational, and global forces. Silencing the Sea stimulates excitement for alternative genealogies and literary histories, mappings of the world republic of letters that (at last!) include poetry in their cartographies of power, influence, circulation, and inequality.

The sense that poetry might be disarticulated from exegesis may be disheartening to some who stake the value of poetry in its susceptibility or resistance to the critical intelligence. For many others, however, the apostasy of the twenty-first-century reader of poetry might signal the recognition of poetry as the social form it has always been. While Silencing the Sea presents an ethnographic method for the study of poetic form, Michael Dowdy’s Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization offers a more familiar literary historical account. Dowdy’s close readings of Latina/o poetry, however, shows that poetic devices are inseparable from a critique of neoliberalism. In Broken Souths, Dowdy investigates what political possibilities remain after 1968 while multiplying the literary and material sites from which these possibilities might emerge. Bringing together poets from the Caribbean and Latin American with poets from the US South, Dowdy’s readings uncover a “place-based poetics” (2013, 5) that responds to neoliberalism, which Dowdy defines broadly as “a global political project to restore capitalist class power by any means necessary, including state, paramilitary, and extraterritorial violence” (ix). The elements of this poetics include both familiar figures of movement and exile and less familiar ecopoetic analyses of city infrastructure and “consumer-based citizenship” (18). Rather than being understood only as the work of a specialist in Latino studies and hemispheric American poetics, Broken Souths should also be read as the companion to contemporary historical revisions of a Global North/South epistemology, taking its place alongside James Ferguson’s Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (2006), Jean and John Comaroff’s Theory from the South: or, How Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa (2011), and Vijay Prashad’s The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (2013).

Although Dowdy anchors his argument in the work of particular poets, the chapters of Broken Souths avoid two traps that might accompany author-based criticism: a dubious chronological development and a critically unmotivated progression from one poet to the next. Instead, the ligatures between chapters vary, making the narrative of the book shift in compelling and unexpected ways. Whereas chapter 1 situates Martín Espada’s “lucid, place-based consciousness” against a “ludic, atomized individualism that reinforces neoliberal norms” (32), chapter 2 responds dialectically with Juan Felipe Herrera’s “restless, playful, and unpredictable experimentation” (60). The analysis in chapter 3 of Chile as “the first neoliberal state” (90) blends seamlessly into a regional examination of Appalachian Latina/o poetics in chapter 4. Whenever Dowdy’s comprehensive knowledge of a hemispheric American poetics threatens to become overwhelming, a graceful transition leads the reader into a new set of poets or a new site of inquiry.

Dowdy does the necessary work of reading poetry alongside an immense body of critical theory about neoliberalism, from Wendy Brown and Slavoj Žižek to Juan Flores and Néstor García Canclini. Yet this very density of reference can distract from the clarity of the readings. When the time comes for a summary point to be made, too often it comes by quoting or adapting the terms of another critic or theorist, making the text oddly anticlimactic. When Dowdy’s own critical voice emerges, however, his argument could not be more relevant for students of poetry and poetics, globalization studies, Latina/o studies, and contemporary literature, as in the paradigm-shifting discussion of Nuyorican poetics in chapter 5. Here, in a strong reading of Jack Agüeros’s Sonnets from the Puerto Rican, the argument of the book springs into view:

In my view … the compelling logic is that Agüeros’s graceful, accessible, and formal anticapitalist poetics confounds definitions of Latino writing in a “post-” era that deems anticapitalism passé. Further, they are not didactic “protest” poems (and thus unfairly dismissed), “perfect” formal sonnets (and thus praised in some circles), or written from a critically sexy identity position, each of which makes it difficult to assess the sonnets under prevailing critical models. They are fully realized critiques of the neoliberal order through the lens of Puerto Rico’s ambiguous, often invisible, status. (184)

Dowdy concludes with the claim than “Nuyorican poetics is the vanguard of poetry of the Americas” (187). Far from hyperbole, this claim, after his readings of Agüeros, Victor Hernández Cruz, and Judith Ortíz Cofer, could open exciting possibilities for studies of contemporary poetry.

Two conclusions follow from reading these books on a global poetics together. First, a broad definition of poetry emerges that is less about formal complexity—“the practical mastery of language and sounds” (Furani 2012, 202)—than about ways of living, knowing, sensing, and acting in the world. By looking at poetry through the lens of global conditions, Furani and Dowdy recast the ontology of the poem itself. There are different implications: for Furani, a secular poetics can also risk alienating its audience and creating a hierarchy of the senses, whereas in Dowdy’s account, poetry is primarily a form of nonacquiescence to an all-pervasive “market logic” (Dowdy 2013, 120). Second, the understanding of the global that develops in both books not only characterizes a set of supranational organizations, international clashes, or transnational circulatory networks, but also the economic and social divisions that neoliberal globalization, annexation, and settler colonialism create within states themselves. In this way, Furani and Dowdy echo the conclusion Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin draw in The Making of Global Capitalism: “The political fault-lines of global capitalism run within states rather than between them” (2012, 21). What will be exciting is the moment, made slightly more visible by these books on poetry, when the internal divisions created by global capitalism can be articulated in relation to—not elided within—a planetary struggle against the norms of neoliberalism and the foreclosure of a political and social aesthetics.

WALT HUNTER is Assistant Professor of World Literature in the English department at Clemson University.

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