By Invitation

These People Live Here: Conceptualism and the New Documentary Poetics

This essay was first published in Russian translation in the St. Petersburg journal Translit.


What did you want – a cliff over a city?

A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?

These people live here

-Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead”


In the last year it became clear that Shklovsky’s imperative to “make the stone stony” is a much simpler task than “making the corpse corpsely.”  I am thinking of the use of autopsy transcript as poem, Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of the shooting death of Michael Brown.[1]  While this particular text was said to be uniquely parasitical and vampiric, likely as much for its arrogance as its form, it should be understood as the logical product of an aberration in American documentary poetics that has recently adopted the brand name “Conceptualism.”  Goldsmith’s personal framing of Conceptualism holds that all that must be written has been written and must merely be re-packaged: 

“The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”[2]

A maximalist take on a now commonplace idea that demands the equally commonplace response, “what relationship exists between the texts and the writer?”  And the more immediate question, “who, then, do the texts serve?”  The answer to these questions is at the core of the struggle to develop a documentary poetics adequate to our new and increasingly textual world. 

I will say plainly that I believe Conceptualism’s sole answer is essentially surrender.  For the Conceptualist, left almost entirely without initiative, there is no choice but to become wholly reactionary – making their names almost exclusively by usurping not only individual tragedies, but history itself, as if the events they reproduce emerge from a divine absence.

This is not to say that engagement with documents, appropriation, or the use of “found texts” is, in and of itself, incorrect.  As we become increasingly steeped in infomedia, rhetorical products, social networks, and “immaterial” goods of all stripes, the question of the document becomes a legitimate and potentially vital consideration in any artistic project.  With these technological and financial innovations perceived as the bedrock of a new mode of globalized production, the question takes on a profound political significance as well.  In this atmosphere of urgency, two antagonistic and irreconcilable paths have developed[3] – one, the neo-liberal “pure appropriation” of the Conceptualist, and the other represented in a new strain of radical poetics which draws its inspiration from such counter-traditions as communist theories of reportage and Literature of the Fact.  It should be obvious that I align myself here with the Reds. 

To describe the enemy:    

In his text Immaterial Labor, the sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato writes that contemporary “Post-Fordist” production is not merely the production of goods, “but the multiplication of new conditions and variations for production itself… Consumption in turn gives rise to a consumer who does not merely devour, but communicates, who is ‘creatively’ engaged.”[4]  The result is what Virno calls the “communism of capital,” the commons of immaterial production, and, finally, “production for production’s sake.”  Compare this concept with Vanessa Place’s theses on allegorical and appropriative writing in her “Notes on Conceptualisms” and you will see a clear symmetry:

The primary function moves from production to post-production.  This may involve a shift from the material of production to the mode of production, or the production of mode.[5]

Compared side by side it is easy to draw the conclusion that Conceptualism finds its inspiration and natural home in the neo-liberal logic of our contemporary economy.  Situated comfortably in this new marketplace, there is a necessity for the Conceptualist poet to “buy in” to the transformative possibility in this “communism of capital,” and so, logically, they mimic its techniques.  Appropriation and an emphasis on choice of medium (especially mediums that are hyper-current and digital, as in Snapchat poetry) become the obvious mechanisms for literary production and the document - its raw material.  The artist, like the modern info-worker, learns to curate tastes rather than products.  At the same time, this type of writer positions herself as the conduit between the banal and the sublimeanother act of privatization of the commons and a gesture that makes the Conceptualist look more like an antiquated Romantic rather than something postpost-modern. 

And like this - Conceptualism and the New Economy are conjoined.  Just as Alan Greenspan can offer the phrase “irrational exuberance” and dictate not only the perception, but the real prescience of investors, Kenneth Goldsmith can say:

“I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature, for that it (sic) what they are when I read them.”[6]

Both have made the production of fact, thus of reality, and thus of literature a matter of a simple utterance.  Poetry operating under this mantra can function as nothing more than an “archival machine” which hoovers up and spits out the most pop formulations of inert and disarmed language, and can find as its justification an appearance of contemporaneity in the shadow of the market.  Each time the marketplace reveals its expansive power, so too does the Conceptualist method seem to prove its strength.  Even now the cry goes up, “Three cheers for the diffuse factory!”

But woe to the cognitariat! – and to all those who see in it some kind of redemption, an ennobling proletarianization.  Even Hito Steyerl cannot resist comparing the artists of today to the “shock workers” of the Soviet Union.[7]  But we should recognize that reproducing the conditions and struggles of contemporary life does not, in its own right, make conceptual writing (or any artwork for that matter) critical, nor does it make it masterful.  After all, to be proletarianized under a revolutionary “workers” ideology means something much different than it does in the context of a dominant and massively global private economy.  For this reason, it is of use to look backwards at the origins of American documentary poetics, and the political avant-garde which it circumscribed.

The 1938 cycle “The Book of the Dead,” written by Muriel Rukeyser and contained in her collection US 1, was one of the first canonical works in American documentary poetry.  The cycle deals with the death of scores of laborers in West Virginia due to silicosis and gross neglect during the construction of a tunnel servicing the Gauley Bridge hydroelectric project, an event that was still playing out in national headlines at the time.  A contributing writer to New Masses, The Daily Worker, and a witness to the dawn of the Spanish Civil War, Rukeyser was an unabashed leftist poet.  And as a leftist poet, she had a natural awareness of poetry’s historical weakness: its over identification with the poet him/herself regardless of its subject.  Recognizing this inherent poetical limitation, Rukeyser felt a powerful need to address the overt subjectivity and self-indulgence of the lyric poem in her maturing work.  Documentary form and the practice of reportage, as inaugurated by John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, in the West and LEF in the Soviet Union, became obvious tools for the “reconciliation of her position as an intellectual and her allegiance to the working class.”[8]

It is this solution that produced “The Book of the Dead,” which makes use of the document (whether congressional testimony, interviews, correspondence, or stock prices) as a powerful form of Brechtian estrangement.  Their immediate effect is to subordinate her poetry to historical fact and not her personal mythology, and to unite the lyrical elements of her poetry with the dramatic and the epic – with a collective vision. The section “Mearl Blankenship,” for example, demonstrates the intersplicing of Muriel Rukeyser’s own voice with documentary evidence – the words and writing of an afflicted worker:

            He stood against the stove

            facing the fire –

            Little warmth, no words,

             loud machines.


            Voted relief,

            wished money mailed,

            quietly under the crashing:


“I wake up choking, and my wife

“rolls me over on my left side;

“then I’m asleep in the dream I always see:

“the tunnel choked

“the dark wall coughing dust.


“I have written a letter.

“Send it to the city,

“maybe to a paper

“if it’s all right.”


            Dear Sir, my name is Mearl Blankenship.

            I have Worked for the rhinehart & Dennis Co

            Many days & many nights

            & it was so dusty you couldn’t hardly see the lights.

            I helped nip steel for the drills

            & helped lay the track in the tunnel

            & done lots of drilling near the mouth of the tunnell

            & when the shots went off the boss said

            If you are going to work Venture back

            & the boss was Mr. Andrews

            & now he is dead and gone

            But I am still here

            a lingering along


He stood against the rock

facing the river

grey river grey face

the rock mottled behind him

like X-ray plate enlarged

diffuse and stony

his face against the stone[9]


By rejecting self-identification with the lyrical subject, Rukeyser offered a powerful rebuke to the Romantic conception of poetry as the portrayal of inner life, and the Romantic conception of history as a chain of events through which the individual (the artist) may gain more varied and unique cathartic experiences.  But this polemic is characteristic of the Modernist project as a whole, visible in Pound’s politically fascist Cantos just the same as in the tradition of the aesthetical left.  The differentiation and specific development unique to Rukeyser lay in her ability to surpass the mythological quality of writers like Pound by uniting the epic-objective (in the form of raw statistics, facts, and reports) with the dramatic (in the form of interviews, testimony and letters).  It is this conceit in documentary poetics that can allow lyric to merge with rhetoric, and therefore to become capable of conflict, of ideological argument on the field of history rather than sentiment. 

We can see the further development of this strategy in the work of the Moscow based poet, playwright, philosopher, and theorist Keti Chukrov.  Chukrov’s writing often takes the form of dramatic poems with every day contemporary Russian scenes as their backdrops.  Into this staging she introduces characters who interact primarily in verse, most recognizable as clearly delineated “social types” or the embodiment of a specific theoretical tendency – as in the Post-Humanist bio-robot Paco in her video piece Love Machines. The skeleton of her cast becomes, then, documentary: a host of re-purposed tracts, streetside banter, popular opinions, political screeds, poems, and art-historical tropes.  Chukrov animates her players with the generally unattributed language of other actors. 

Through this convention the documentary gesture is removed from authorial ownership – and re-appropriated in its role as a social tool.  Yet, the characters themselves are prevented from becoming bare bones archetypes through their lyricism, their verse, which corrodes the mold of their assigned language and makes them flesh.  By inverting the gesture of appropriation (that is by showing how society appropriates), it is not the poet who stages a monologue, but the shopkeeper, the performance artist, the young Marxist theorist.  And by setting all that the document contains in a vessel that lives and breathes, be they actors or poetic constructs, Chukrov shows that it is possible to suggest their trajectory and to reveal the inevitable clashes and intersections that ensue.  In this framework, Hamlet can be recast as the petty lord of the Afghan Kuzminki market and an artist disguised as housepainter can be given the name Diamara (short for dialectical materialism) to juxtapose the language of antique Marxism with the proverbs of the nouveau riche.  Or, as in Love Machines, a young leftist intellectual can discover the limitations of his role as “knowledge worker” when the bio-robot Paco demonstrates the materiality of the world simply by soliciting a blowjob in exchange for a spot at a prestigious London Conference.  Set in motion these vessels become not only lyrical subjects, but carriers and partisans of something akin to an opening of the archive. 

This embodied commons is what the privatizing logic of Conceptualism ultimately cannot understand or engage with.  For every abstracted phenomenon of the New Economy, for every new mode of production, for every “twitter revolution,” enmeshed in the mechanics there is a mass of interconnected bodies that sweat, laugh, fuck, and speak in real time – in new and sometimes prescient combinations.


[1] In March, 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith read a “re-mixed” version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the Interrupt 3 conference at Brown University.  It was entitled “The Body of Michael Brown.”

[2] This too is purloined from a 50 year old quotation by the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more."

Kenneth Goldsmith.  Being Boring.

[3] Of course there is a much larger ecology than these two tendencies, but they embody a conflict between left and right wing that will have important repercussions for writing and the arts in contemporary “networked” conditions. 

[4]  Keti Chukrov.  Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality.  e-flux.

This is Keti Chukrov paraphrasing Maurizio Lazarrato’s article Immaterial Labor.  I have carried over her own description because it so neatly and succinctly parallels the following quotation of Vanessa Place. 

[5] Vanessa Place.  Notes on Conceptualisms.  Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

[6] Kenneth Goldsmith.  Kenneth Goldsmith Says He is an Outlaw.  Poetry Foundation.

[7] Hito Steyerl.  Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy.  e-flux.

Steyerl, it should be noted, deploys the term critically and specifically in the context of the art market, but even the simple conflation has dangerous/questionable implications, especially for the way artists conceive of themselves as political actors. 

[8] Paula Rabinowitz. They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Democracy.  Verso, 1994. 

[9] Muriel Rukeyser.  A Muriel Rukeyser Reader.  W.V. Norton & Company, 1994.

Critique, Neo-Kantianism, and Literary Study


Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” positions itself as a challenge to long-standing orthodoxy in the academic humanities.1 According to Latour, critique—a mode of detached, rigorous analysis that has become standard across a range of disciplines—has led its adherents to abandon the reality of the word, to dismiss matters of fact either as mere fetishes—as repositories of subjective desires and beliefs—or as the effects of grand impersonal systems such as economics, genetics, and ideology. Latour traces this nihilistic tendency of critique to the mistaken idea that “there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible,” an “unfortunate solution inherited from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant” (231-32). In order to counter this nihilism, Latour enjoins critics to model their professional practice on the “healthy sturdy realis[m]” with which they pursue their own passions and interests, the area of their lives typically kept private and jealously guarded against the ruthless process of demystification to which they submit everything else. Latour asks critics to reconnect with the world, to abandon the attitude of superiority which has for too long characterized academic work and adopt a stance of openness and engagement. He characterizes this stance as “concern,” a term borrowed from Heidegger but which Latour seeks to strip of its romanticism and nostalgia so that it embraces not only traditional practices but the technological and bureaucratic forms of life that flourish in the present day.

In the following essay,2 I will trace the influence of Neo-Kantian philosophy on early twentieth century literary study, suggesting that Latour is indeed correct to identify the critical dimension of humanist scholarship with the legacy of Kant. Against Latour, however, I contend that critique is not solely and perhaps not even primarily negative in character: it also has an important synthetic function, uniting historical and interpretive modes of inquiry in such a way as to invest its objects of study with cultural and historical significance.

Calls to advance literary study beyond the limits imposed by the model of critique have grown both more common and more confident since the appearance of Latour’s article. To name a few prominent examples, Rita Felski, Sharon Marcus, Stephen Best, and Heather Love have all offered careful assessments of the character of critique and charted potential avenues for moving beyond it, helping to establish a variety of approaches that have been termed “post-critical.”3The methods that make up this post-critical landscape are diverse, but they might be organized under two broad headings. First, there are those that take an empirical and descriptive approach, eschewing fine-grained analysis for data-driven studies of historical trends in literature and the nature of literary production. Here we might think of such schools as Franco Moretti’s distant reading, the new bibliography, neuroaesthetics and other approaches influenced by cognitive science, and the various modes of computational analysis and mapping associated with the digital humanities. Second are those that focus on the individual encounter with the text, such as affect theory, object-oriented ontology, and surface reading. These approaches, which often draw on a robust philosophical realism inspired by such figures as Graham Harman, involve a turn from epistemology to ontology, a shift from a fixation on representation, mediation, and context to a concern with the vibrant presence and agency of the thing itself. While we were once admonished to “Always historicize!” the new imperative seems to be to de-historicize, to de-contextualize, to contemplate the object in its simple, autonomous being.4

If this is an accurate description, it is striking how much the post-critical era of literary study resembles what we might call the pre-critical period, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when departments of literature and modern languages were beginning to take shape. As critics like Gerald Graff, Michael Warner, and John Guillory have shown, literary study at this time was dominated by two doggedly opposed schools: philology and belletrism.5 The former concentrated on rigorously factual accounts of literary production while the latter engaged in the judgment of individual works of literature as a means of cultivating aesthetic sensibility.6 The analogy with the present situation is not absolutely precise: the rivalry that existed between philology and belletrism does not appear among the approaches we see today. Nevertheless, I would argue that the division of the field between data-driven analysis on the one hand and decontextualized, ethically-invested reading on the other echoes the philology-belletrism divide that obtained from the 1870s to the 1940s.

René Wellek, writing near the end of this period in 1946, offers some suggestive comments on the opposition between philology and belletrism. The first, he writes, was dedicated to “the accumulation of isolated facts, usually defended on the vague belief that all these bricks will sometime be used in a great pyramid of learning.”7 Set against this position was “late nineteenth-century aestheticism: it stresse[d] the individual experience of the work of art, which is… the presupposition of all fruitful literary study, but which in itself can lead only to complete subjectivism” (257). The remainder of Wellek’s essay presents a wide-ranging survey of contemporary European critical approaches that challenge positivist orthodoxy. The three writers with which Wellek begins are significant: Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert. Each of these figures is closely associated with Neo-Kantianism; Windelband and Rickert in particular were the leaders of the so-called Baden School, which along with the Marburg School made up the mainstream of Neo-Kantian philosophy at the turn of the century. The influence of Neo-Kantianism in a number of disciplines is well-documented: the revolutionary work of Max Weber in sociology and that of Gaston Bachelard and Thomas Kuhn in the philosophy of science are routinely characterized as Neo-Kantian. But there has been little attention to the influence of Neo-Kantianism on literary study.8

It is possible to see in the impasse between positivism and subjectivism a situation similar to that which prompted the original critical turn, the “Copernican Revolution” staged by Kant as a means of transcending the opposition between rationalism and empiricism. And it was a version of the Kantian transcendental method that served to synthesize factual description and individual interpretation, helping to establish literary study as a specifically critical discipline in the early twentieth century. In a more direct way than is usually acknowledged, then, it was indeed what Latour deems the “unfortunate” legacy of Kant that helped to establish critique as the primary mode of analysis in the academic humanities. But, as I will contend, this legacy did not entail the nihilism that Latour ascribes to it.

Neo-Kantianism, the dominant philosophical school in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe, is often dismissed as a backward-looking idealism, but it was not defined by unquestioning acceptance of Kant’s philosophy: Windelband insisted that “understanding Kant means going beyond him,” and this became a widely-echoed motto of the movement.9 For the Marburg School led by Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, the essential part of the Kantian inheritance was not any one of his arguments, but his methodological approach: Kant’s innovation was to avoid taking objects of experience for granted and to understand them as necessarily conditioned by the faculties of the experiencing subject. As Kant writes in the first critique, “experience… is a kind of knowledge that requires understanding; and this understanding has its rules which I must presuppose as existing within me even before objects are given to me, and hence a priori. These rules are expressed in a priori concepts to which all objects of experience must necessarily conform.”10 While many would reject the image of the rational subject that this formulation assumes, those modes of inquiry which situate the object within a particular weltanschauung, mentalité, paradigm, episteme, or normative framework nevertheless rely upon Kant’s turn to a priori conditions.11 The Neo-Kantians called such methods transcendental.

As Natorp explains it, the transcendental method involves two distinct steps. “The first is the secure reference back to current, historically verifiable facts of science, morals, art and religion… it strives to root itself firmly in the total creative work of a culture. This includes ‘spelling out appearances’ scientifically” (182). After having secured its foundation in the immanent analysis of a fact of human culture, the second step in the transcendental method is to establish “the basis of the ‘possibility’ of the fact and therewith its ‘warrant’” (182). The method thus transcends the immediate circumstances of the object in order to discover its conditions of possibility, the principles that structure and constrain its creation. Natorp emphasizes that this transcendence implies a methodological rather than a metaphysical distinction. Though it establishes a “higher” viewpoint from which to perceive the object, the method nevertheless remains decisively within the same realm as the object, thus avoiding the subjectivism or psychologism with which Kant had been associated: “this methodological ascendance to a higher plane of observation, implied by the word ‘transcendental,’ in no way conflicts with the immanence of the real experiential standpoint, but instead coincides precisely with it. This is because the method does not force laws upon the experiential act from the outside, nor prematurely lays down the tracks it must follow. Rather, it seeks to uncover in its purity that law which makes experience ‘possible in the first place’” (182). Thus the transcendental method is “a ‘critical’ one: critical of metaphysical encroachments, but also of a lawless, law-eluding empiricism. It makes the autonomy of experience count against both the heteronomy of any metaphysicalism that seeks to master it and the anomy of an empiricism devoid of or even quite hostile to laws” (182).

The career paths of several key figures in modern literary criticism led through Natorp’s University of Marburg, one of the centers of Neo-Kantian philosophy: Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and T. S. Eliot all worked or studied at the university. Here I concentrate on the case of Spitzer, who offers a compelling account of the development of his own critical methodology in an effort to contest the positivist approach in which he was trained. In “Linguistics and Literary History,” Spitzer reflects on his career and the evolution of his critical practice. He begins with an account of his post-graduate career at the University of Vienna, where he studied under the Neogrammarian philologist Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke, the world’s most renowned expert in Romance languages. He attributes his attraction to the subject to a fascination with French that began during his youth in Vienna, where French culture was held in high esteem. But in pursuing his research, he was dismayed by Meyer-Lübke’s bloodless positivism. Hoping to attain a deeper understanding of the culture that so captivated him, he was instead confronted with a grimly factual account of linguistic development that was entirely divorced from French life:


in these classes we saw the Latin a moving, according to relentless phonetic laws, toward French e (pater>père); there we saw a new system of declension spring up from nothingness, a system in which the six Latin cases came to be reduced to two, and late to one… In all this, there were many facts and much rigor in the establishment of facts, but all was vague in regard to the general ideas underlying these facts.12


Fearing that he would never complete his studies in such an atmosphere, he began to take classes in literary history, but there too he found nothing but the accumulation of facts. Questions of meaning and motivation were entirely ignored: “In this attitude of positivism, exterior events were taken thus seriously only to evade the more completely real question: Why did the phenomena Pèlerinage and École des femmes happen at all?” (3-4).

Spitzer overcame his discouragement and completed his PhD under Meyer-Lübke, but for the remainder of his career he worked to develop a critical practice that would take into account the artistic and historical significance of cultural production in an effort to resist the stifling positivism that he still perceived in the academic world around him. To illustrate the method at which he arrived, Spitzer cites the example of an etymological study he undertook during his time at Johns Hopkins. Since coming to America, he had been intrigued by a pair of English words that resembled one another: “conundrum” and “quandary.” Through a painstaking investigation that I will not rehearse here, Spitzer identified the French calembour, “pun,” as the source of both words. While a Neogrammarian might have ceased the investigation at this point, confident that a previously overlooked etymological development had been discovered, Spitzer took the additional step of situating this development within a set of historical and cultural conditions. As Spitzer explains it, the importation of “conundrum” and “quandary” into English was enabled by the cultural influence of the French during the medieval period, and the fact that French was mined for words associated with wit and word-play suggests that even then the French were admired for such qualities. Yet we may also perceive in this linguistic development the tensions that remained between the cultures, tensions to which the multiplicity of forms assumed by the new word testify. That calembour entered English in such a variety of forms—“conundrum,” “quandary,” “colundrum,” “columbrum,” “conimbrum,” “quonundrum,” “quandorum”—suggests resistance to its use, that it was adopted only hesitantly and over a protracted period of time: “the instability and disunity of the word family is symptomatic of its position in the new environment” (7). By intuiting the cultural conditions that made the development of “conundrum” and “quandary” possible, Spitzer’s method “introduces meaning into the meaningless… What seemed an agglomeration of mere sounds now appears motivated” (6). Much rests, then, upon this apparently minor development. The particular linguistic event is revealed to be “symptomatic” of larger cultural forces: “what repeats itself in all word-histories is the possibility of recognizing the signs of a people at work… Wortwandel ist Kulturwandel und Seelenwandel [word-change is culture-change and soul-change]” (8).13 And if even this small etymological innovation may be read as evidence of cultural change, how much more, Spitzer asks, might the literary text speak to the soul of its age?

To briefly conclude, I’d like to suggest once again that the two-step process that Spitzer rehearses here—first an empirical account of a linguistic event, then a careful elaboration of the cultural situation that made it possible—shows the influence of the transcendental method described by Natorp. A few points follow from this: first, it suggests that the tradition of philosophical critique is more fundamental to the practice of literary study than is typically acknowledged, having entered into the field not during the turn to continental theory in the 70s and 80s, but in the early twentieth century when departments of English and Comparative Literature were coming into their own. The second point is that critique does not necessarily entail the cynicism and negativity that its opponents impute to it, for Spitzer’s express purpose in developing his critical method was, to use Eve Sedgewick’s term, reparative. The methodology represents an attempt to redeem the figure he called “the ideal Frenchman,” the desideratum of his Viennese youth, from the deadening grip of the Neogrammarians. Spitzer’s synthesis of interpretive and empirical methodologies allowed French language and literature to be understood as motivated and meaningful phenomena rather than as repositories of data. The critical approach to the linguistic event, then, is not a move away from the fact, as Latour has it, but an attempt to situate the fact within a larger set of cultural conditions and thus to grant it a secure foundation in history, to invest what would otherwise appear a mute and indifferent datum with cultural-historical significance. 

  • 1. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-248.
  • 2. This essay was originally written for “Intellectual Labor and the Crisis of Value in the Humanities,” an ACLA seminar organized by Christian Gerzso, Geordie Miller, and Timothy Brennan. I would like to thank the organizers of that seminar as well as Matthew Flaherty and Julie Orlemanski for their generous responses and readings.
  • 3. See Rita Felski, “Suspicious Minds,” Poetics Today 32 (2011): 215-234; “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” M/C Journal 15 (2012); The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Sharon Best and Steven Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21; Heather Love “Close Reading and Thin Description,” Public Culture 25 (2013): 401-34. For the term “post-critical,” see Matthew Mullins’s review of Felski’s Limits of Critique, “Are We Postcritical?” LA Review of Books, December 2015.
  • 4. “Always Historicize” is the well-known motto of Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982). “Surface reading” as a method is conceived as a departure from the “symptomatic reading” pioneered in that book
  • 5. See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Intellectual History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Michael Warner, “Professionalization and the Rewards of Literature,” Criticism 26 (1985): 1-28; John Guillory, “Literary Study and the Disciplines,” Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 19-43.
  • 6. The comparison to belletrism, often derided as polite dilettantism, may seem unfair to sophisticated practices like affect studies and object-oriented ontology, but, as Guillory points out, belles lettres was itself a sophisticated practice that emerged from the moral philosophy of figures like Hume. See Guillory 20-25. René Wellek, “The Revolt against Positivism in Recent European Literary Scholarship,” Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 256-57.
  • 7. René Wellek, “The Revolt against Positivism in Recent European Literary Scholarship,” Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 256-57.
  • 8. James Comas notes that “The Neo-Kantian foundation of Wellek’s new criticism has not, to my knowledge, been examined,” Between Politics and Ethics: Towards a Vocative History of English Studies (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), 146n. One exception to the inattention to Neo-Kantianism in literary criticism and philology is Michael Holquist’s “Erich Auerbach and the Fate of Philology Today,” Poetics Today 20 (1999): 77-91. Qtd. in Andrea Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, tr. John Denton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 268n. For a general introduction to the subject, see Frederick Beiser, The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • 9. Qtd. in Andrea Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, tr. John Denton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 268n. For a general introduction to the subject, see Frederick Beiser, The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • 10. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Marcus Weigelt and Max Muller (New York: Penguin, 2007), 19.
  • 11. Felski helpfully distinguishes between the process of uncovering and revealing characteristic of Marxist and Freudian critique, which she calls “digging deep,” from the process of contextualization that defines historicist critique, which she calls “standing back.” It is the latter that I want to emphasize in this paper. See The Limits of Critique.
  • 12. Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 2.
  • 13. Spitzer’s use of the term “symptomatic” may not merely be an accidental anticipation of Jameson’s. While Jameson attributes the term to Althusser, he also wrote his dissertation at Yale under the direction of Auerbach, who also used the term

Pavel Arseniev: Poetry and Prose

READY-WRITTENS (2009-2015)


Translator’s Note

The connection between these words was, perhaps, made at another time. -L. Wittgenstein


King’s College is on fire.

Don’t talk nonsense.

What is the object of your desire?

I want Mr. Smith to walk into this room.

Are you sure that that is exactly what you want?

Of course, I am bound to know what I want.

Don’t talk nonsense.

I want for this and that to happen.


That which you believe in is not a fact.


I feel fear.

I am afraid of something, but I don’t know what.

Wherever you were, you must get

from wherever it was

to the place from which you left.


Why do you assume that your toothache corresponds to the fact

that you hold your cheek.


There most certainly exist entirely determined actions,

ideas about

another person sensing pain.


I was never taught

to correlate the depth of water underground

with the sensations in my hand,

but when I feel a certain tension,

the words “3 feet” immediately appear

in my consciousness.


Well, of course red exists,

and you are bound to see it,

if you are capable of imagining.


An increase in pressure on my eyes

produces red images.


King’s College is on fire.

Don’t talk nonsense.


I want this and that to happen.


In that case what a strange mechanism

our desire must be,

if we can desire that

which will never be fulfilled.


Of course, that’s not all,

but you can come up with more

complicated cases, if you want.


But we are bound

we will speak further

of the significance of the expression

“forgetting the meaning of a word”


Translator’s note:

This was actually never







Artem Aleksandrovich

at an unidentified time

in an unidentified place



without intent to distribute

for personal use

acting willfully

aware of the unlawful character of his actions




from an unidentified person

for an unidentified sum

a plastic bag

with a substance

of vegetative origin

and green

which was the narcotic drug marijuana

the total dry mass of the substance was eleven point zero grams


which is in fact a large amount


after which

putting it in his carrier bag

in the same way



without intent to distribute

carefully keeping on his person

an illegally purchased narcotic drug

Artem Aleksandrovich


to travel

across the territory of the Dzerzhinksy neighborhood



Slightly Edited (from the article of a critic)


I am a poet and an activist,
desperately resembling S in the movie “ Sh-Sh”:

“So young and already (or despite it?) trying.”
One ought to be, of course, the most lonely
or the most miserable

to respond so critically.
Especially because in our case,
they don’t talk at all about the “artist”
but exclusively about the young activist,
the citizen, and of course, the poet—
although the texts for the show tell the opposite story.

It’s unclear whether I really have artistic ambitions.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing, of course,

why not and who cares,

if there really are very few young artists.

And I, whose articles are full of the words “now” and “today”
at the beginning of almost every paragraph,
rather pragmaticly use
any chance for Applications.
The life of Noam Chomsky, clearly, has become a reference point for me.

My art is becoming a space for large-scale installations,

as a rule, with an eye to a certain socio-political topicality.

Between the white foam letters unevenly cut by me
you could walk and take pictures; it’s effective.
The carving style resembles the most famous Soviet font,
but the first line, the biggest “THAT”
greeting the audience on the threshold, of course, brings to mind
the classical techniques of Erik Bulatov.

I am a young poet-activist-citizen,
and I hasten to use any airspace
for language exercises,
asserting the need for a direct link
between life and art,
and I choose for my exhibition
cute lines from the work of Soviet art-dissident,
whose works would fail to inspire tenderness
in only the most indifferent and callous child.

“The machine of irony,” surfacing in relation to my poetic texts,
rounds off the traces of megalomania of the Soviet past.
Here, in a highly witty and ironic form,
I declare my guilt in this and that.
This kind of pretentiousness evokes a smile,
evoking indulgence—for both the author and ourselves.



In Response to a Provocative Exhibition of Contemporary Critical Art


an occupiers’ exhibition

exaggerating the inferiority of Russians

and humiliating on national grounds,

impressing upon Russians that we don’t exist,

that we are nobody

that those blockhead occupiers are better than Russians

and that Russia doesn’t belong to Russians

and that Russian shouldn’t have their own country,

all these blockheads were blockheads before and stayed that way

because that hyped-up Dzhugashvili Pushkin

recognized by somebody as the founder of the Russian literary language

I’m not hot or cold,

for me that language

is fuck all necessary,

because I’m pure-blooded Russian, a native speaker

and I don’t need any of his contrived variants 

from some kind of dirty troglodytes,

because anyway that Pushkin

had no right to mangle my language

much less tell me how to speak it,

and in general all those phony blockhead celebrities 

took the places of really talented Russians

whose names those lumps in power try as hard as they can to erase or just opress

like for example the artist Vasilyev

their presence or absence won’t make Russians any poorer,

we’re a full-fledged independent nation

we don’t need

any of those nits

phony geniuses

much less people who deform and suppress our identity

and national consciousness,

it’s like they’re trying to take Russia away from Russians

liquidating our identity and subjecthood

declaring us a brand, some non-existant thing

for the use of parasites from other nations

when it suits them pretending to be useful to us,

why the fuck would I consider Pushkin a talent

if that carrion hyped up by Jews

is presented in every way as an argument

for my national inferiority and in order to erase my identity,

what other talent, that rotten carrion

like all these combined anonymous liars,

telling us lies straight to our faces

in a few words alone, contradictory facts,

we Russians don’t need anything from all these perverts

bloating their perversion into culture cults,

Russians will only get clean morally and grow intellectually

by getting back to their own consciousness

if all that Russophobic parasitic abomination gets wiped out,

the pus, ballast, and shit of Russia



My Friends’ Words (cycle)


Oleg’s Words

on the one hand it’s clear

that we were unripe

but now we’re so-so

which is why one should decide once and for all

one should be marginal

every possible bonus that can be expected

intellectual life

has already been sampled by all of us

not in full measure, but enough,

a taste of it

and so it’s time to be marginal

i’m sure, yes, marginal


Lisas words

can you imagine,

she just has to this day a sore neck,

and she goes to a fortune-teller,

who says to her: “Go

get an MRI fast,”

and she asks her:

am I talented or not,
I have to work in theater

or not, you know,

and she just needs to fix her neck


Oleg’s Words (2)

but you would have liked a confession

well i think there should be a book

at the very least from harvard university press

so that it would legitimize everything

and a prize, say, in honor of hannah arendt

which was last received by zygmunt bauman

never to receive one again

these are the signs of distinction which

would finally allow me to behave

utterly without compromise


Sveta’s Words

sometimes we get together with our friends

and suddenly one suggests we get a little drunk

and watch some kind of arthouse film

and then another one of us

says that he has some grass,

and after this begins to cite the poems of auden

and then another one begins to cut a line

and puts on this music, you know, the postunderground type

and at that point sveta finally says:

don’t you think that’s enough

and I too sometimes want to say

don’t you think that’s enough



The Pragmatic Paradox as a Means of Innovation in Contemporary Poetic Speech


Is the evolution of poetic forms at all legible to prosody, when the new forms are in no way based on rhythm, but borrow their effects from the domain of speech? A feeling of guilt on the part of the traditional poetry scholar forces him “to open up to the contemporary,” to misspeak about rock poetry and internet poems as the exceptions that prove the rule (which boils down to the corpus of M.L. Gasparov). But of course, in these domains, versification is actually preserved in its most inertial forms. What is to be done with those specific (and hence harboring the very possibility of specification) cases in which poetry openly and deliberately refuses to collaborate with rhyme and other traditional formal indicators of verse, and intrudes into an area fundamentally outside of the grasp of traditional prosody? If even Gasparov admitted that it would be better to translate the numerous traditions in different epochs of European poetry into free verse, that means that he acknowledged the existence of some poetic substance that can’t be apprehended by quantitative poetry studies; which, incidentally, it is entirely possible to conceptualize. The point is not novelty alone. As is well known, many experimental forms, like combinatorial poetry for example, are perfectly amenable to “digitization,” soothing the ego of the expert in quantitative methods of prosody. But if we are able to recognize that the loosening of meter towards freer verse reflects significant trends, and that certain fundamental changes are taking place in the very nature of the poetic, isn’t it time to finally stop tallying, and to start worring about  how verse theory will survive once everything is not only completely shattered (as in free verse), but based more generally on some other grounds?

And what if this transformation will take place, not according to the soothing scenario of elite detachment, justified by the need to invent a future language in laboratory-like conditions, where all others will also be invited (although, unlike the number invited, that of the select will remain small, as we know from Dmitry Kuzmin’s anti-democratic argument about the identical print runs of poetry books across time), but through the dissolution or the mixing of poetic with everyday speech, whereby the former becomes more and more comprehensible to non-specialist consumers of verbal productions. For the interesting cases are less those in which it is not clear “who speaks,” how the “subject is constructed,” or how the proverbial aphasic speech is syntactically arranged, etc., but those where we face something that can be evaluated simultaneously as verse and as everyday speech.

Since the time of the Formalists, a central literary task has been to find a way of differentiating “poetic” language from everyday speech, which confronts it remotely, resists it in every utterance, or even threatens to overwhelm it in certain extreme experiments. There have been several kinds of solutions to this task—ranging from the absorption of marginal thematic and stylistic zones into a thereby galvanized high literature, to attempts to grant linguistic competence to the “tongueless street” itself,[1] to delegate to it the right of expression. What remained inviolable was the very division into material that needed to be made literary, in one way or another, and the method used to do so; and therefore the carriers of poetic and everyday language always remained divided.

Contemporary Russian poetry in its normal aggregate state produces a consistent defense of its institutional boundaries, accompanied by a regular violation of formal boundaries. Newly grasped domains of social speech and modes of expression (street language, internal or egocentric speech, the paratactical language of numerous special states of consciousness, etc.) are co-opted in the process. At best, this practice is described as “implicitly political”: liberating the text itself; multiplying ways of reading and means of understanding; disavowing the repressive construction of the addressee; dissipating its intentionality as—once again—repressive; and in the end, as soon as it becomes completely literary, directed at nobody.

Today, common sense casts poetry as a wager, still primarily constituted through maximum distancing from the profane speech of everyday life—a scenario of privileged language that has been proven across the centuries, having lost in the last century some stability of reference and subjectivity of speech, but not priestly ambitions and their related social habits. Consumers of such language behavior can always be found—at the very least among those who were oriented towards the same thing, but have been less successful in establishing their right to produce privileged language. An opposing practice demotes poetic utterance to the very bottom of the verbal and medial mainstream; performs lyrical work with linguistic and intellectual cliches, hoping to move right through them into the present or even future of language. Within these coordinates there exist two tendencies that have most clearly declared their resistance to the status quo: for convenience, let’s call them the analytic and the synthetic.

The analytical tendency focuses on dismantling “obvious meanings” by breaking up conventional syntax. The synthetic tendency, by contrast, consists of overturning “the Other’s” “finished” words, or free indirect discourse, turning to social heteroglossia as productive material. These two tendencies, respectively, aspire to develop the “zaum” (trans-sense) or conceptualist lines of the Russian-language poetic tradition (which seem to harmonize with OBERIU poetics in between avant-gardes), and constitute the coordinate axes within which contemporary Russian-language poetry already exists (although this is not yet universally acknowledged).

The analytical tendency appears more reflexive, thanks to its distance from the immediacy of political struggle and social heteroglossia (N. Safonov); the synthetic requires advocacy in the form of substantial cognitive enterprise—on the part of the author, or from critical authorities (R. Osminkin). But whether in the division into enigmatic and meta-language, or in holy foolery, instrumentally legitimized by means of theoretical commentary, we again see a kind of division of linguistic labor into the properly poetic and the critical, which at any rate resembles a pastiche of the first and second avant-gardes.

Thus, in my view, the poetic texts that have the largest stock of novelty today are built on what can be called the pragmatic paradox, which gives a poem the properties of a speech event, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or an archive that unpacks itself. It is not enough for such a poem to be an herbarium of words, marking the author as the adept of prestigious discursive usage, nor to simply “delegate the word to the Other/oppressed.” This situation requires (self-)critique of the utterance’s ability, included in its very production; we need sessions of verbal action and their subsequent exposure; today there isn’t enough (self-)referentiality about the utterance’s own means of production. These are the experimental problems that are to be resolved by pragmatic poetics and texts that rebel, as it were, against being read in traditional institutional circumstances. Only texts that invent anew each time a pragmatic frame for their realization, that are estranged precisely from this level of speech’s function, have the right to be called experimentally poetic. We can cite as an example—among those we’ve already analyzed as examples of pragmatic artistic expression[2]The Debut Book of a Young Poet by Nikita Sungatov, which at the level of title already manifests a new, provocative, direct, and tautological means of action. Characteristically, not only the name (i.e. the very first speech act that confronts the reader), but also the book’s last text has the character of pragmatic paradox.  It is a single-line poem that for obvious reasons can only work as the last in a book or a poetry reading:  


And then one more poem.


A leaflet read at a poetry reading instead of verse, and causing a scandal namely in that context (but noticed by no-one at a rally—see the Osminkin case study[3]); a poem reporting on the circumstances of its reading and criticizing either the speaker or the listeners (see the Nugatov case study[4]); a poetic text, disguised in a utilitarian context, but displacing and rendering it schizophrenic with the help of an indivisible poetic remainder. The repertoire of subversive speech acts is fundamentally open.

We’ll add a few reflections, dangerously close to the genre of self-case. The common recourse to political material, which cannot go ignored, rejected, is balanced by the pragmatic tendency to subject itself to a specific method of verbal distancing and rhetorical processing, thereby preserving a critique of ideology as derivative of the combination of signs. The difference between pragmatic poetics and conceptualism consists then of the first’s materialized address to a measure of political passion, reconstructed from the rubble of text bricolage; i.e., an attempt to preserve a measure of the political, so too a measure of rhetorical sophistication (which may have been lacking on the level of dispatch in the poetics of direct speech). If you will, these are speech paradoxes and ambiguities in the service of revolution. Unfortunately or not, neither the “final truth,” nor nominalist skepticism alone are capable today of firing up the mechanism of estrangement.

When taking such a manifesto-like tone, it is always necessary to question one’s own poetic practice—how does it fare in relation to the dialectic of method and material? Or, in other words, exactly how documentary and how fabricated are ready-writtens? As much as is necessary in order to preserve the material’s flagrant quality, having demonstrated the presence of a methodological shift, the reworking of the text. Sometimes it’s enough to simply break a certain text into lines, so that in a given pragmatic situation it becomes poetic; sometimes it requires more laborious work or speculative effort.

However, there still remains here a fundamentally unavoidable element of chance, born of a reckless passion for the material, as well as resistance to it, and consequently with the same hopes as in the avant-garde’s rejection of instrumental reason. And although, as Valery put it (and as Debord would have been ready to agree), “an accident can be arranged” or accompanied by heightened attention, which is also a form of its production (in surrealism), in general it “renounces the constructive principle in favor of passive-expectant susceptibility, and thus cannot be accepted by avant-garde theory.” It also cannot be entirely rejected, however, as it contains a huge potential for flagrantness in the material. For this reason, we need a materialist theory of accident.[5]

The illusion of hazard objectif, spontaneously existing in the world and only perceived by the artist, is opposed to the concept of the produced accident—as in the case of its immediate discovery in Tachisme or Action Painting (in which the  arbitrariness of empty subjectivity appears in the place of the dialectics [of freedom] of vision and [the resistance of] material); so too in the case of the indirectly produced accident. The latter is based on a most precise calculation; however concerning only the means (method), but keeping the result of the material processing unforeseen. This allows us to see that serial music or concrete poetry in Adorno’s description are thereby heirs to the Literature of Fact as described by Tretyakov and Vertov’s Kino-Truth, catching “life unawares,” but applying “dialectical montage” to it. This “dialectical montage,” inherited by the neo-avant-garde as well, differs from the composition techniques of the past in that it introduces accidental material into the work, like pierced holes in a representational system based on the “realistic reflection” of reality, thereby giving the entire prouction a different status—no longer references to reality, but pieces of it.[6]

By this means, the establishment of an inorganic production (Bürger) suggests a technique of working with the material that allows for the manipulation of meanings, arising in concrete life situations, as empty signs, acquiring (anti-)artistic value only through use, in a gesture of assigning. The decontextualization and re-combination of isolated elements, parallel with granting them meaning that isn’t derived from their original context (what is usually called montage), does not mask the fact of the production’s constructedness, its status as an artificial formation, but nonetheless insists on the facticity of the used material.

Thus, in the case of the ready-written, the pragmatic paradox arises at the moment that the “weed” Internet text begins working, aesthetically framed by its use, but at the same time—at the level of speech content-—it continues to bear utilitarian signs, creating a double map of discursive distribution. The communicative intention of first authorship sloughs off and what emerges is an unsolicited artistic effect at the level of the speech act (or, we might say, located in the eye of the beholder). Or conversely, it forces the communicative value of fragments of poetic texts onto banners at a demonstration, while preserving the smell of art.[7] As a regulatory ideal, we might admit the creation—-by dint of that very rattling—of an infrastructure for opening up the aesthetic; absorbing into the world of cultural values ​​potentially any speech product or media language, instead of producing attractive or mysterious, but one way or another exceptional (and for that reason alone preserving the auratic effect) objects of linguistic design. Such a statement is not, strictly speaking, utilitarian; it retains all the attributes of the artistic, to be sure: closed in on itself, or more precisely, on the pragmatic situation of its reading, it includes the recipient’s reaction, [8] but for all that sooner exposes itself to dismissal than allow narcissism.

The subjective, the safety of which it is common to worry about when claims are made to the innovative use of language, solidifies in the given case into the very gesture of assignment (poetic subjectivity has always existed in very specific forms—whether “cursed poets” or authors of the Language School tradition). The flip side of such a transformation of poetic subjectivity, however, is the growing attractiveness of meta-reflection about the language of poetry or the creation of poetic objects (as a practice opposed to the writing of yet another cycle of lyrical poems). A wager on the production of the methods of speech production themselves inevitably leads to less inclination towards normative creativity, which is limited by the parameters of publication.

The intuition of pragmatic poetics is fueled by the fact that, today, such a large number of poetic texts are produced as will never be read (regardless of their so-called quality). This renders expedient the refusal to participate in the quantitative competition in favor of arriving at a qualitative method that will let us break out of this “waste-paper Auschwitz,”[9] pushing to the surface some new method of speech production, which at the same time will pull the voices of many people into the future, and not only the usual person of the artist.


–translations by the Cement Collective



[1] Cf. Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Cloud in Trousers.”

[2] Arseniev P., “The Contemporary Russian Poet Emerges and as if Nudges Us: Towards a Pragmatics of Artistic Expression.” New Literary Review 124 (2013).


[3] “Roman Osminkin chose a text that he said had affected him most in recent years. It turned out to be a leaflet demanding rights for ‘mental laborers’ and for the educational sphere in particular. It’s important to note that the rules behind the “Tell-Tale Heart” readings in no way specify the nature of the texts to be read by poets during the course of constructing their readerly backgrounds; accordingly, the text read by the poet Osminkin did not claim the status of a poem, which in this case could have been assigned the calming formal designation of ‘found poetry.’ Thus the usual question during discussion about ‘artistic processing’ is  rendered meaningless, as estrangement took place not at the level of the thematic and rhetorical resources of the text itself, but at the level of the event. “Artistic processing,” if you will, in this case consisted of what was chosen for reading where....A similar situation of using resources in the context of speech events renders meaningless the question that we still have to deal with: is it a work of art or political agitation. Here political subjectivization consists not of personalized instances of knowledge and expression, but rather flickers as an opportunity thanks to the displacement of the pragmatic framework of poetic expression’s realization.” Arseniev, Ibid.

[4] “For a long time, Nugatov was aiming at the destruction of not only conventional literary devices, but the established rules of the literary behavior, the modes of action in contemporary poetry....Nugatov sarcastically described this world as an industry not devoid of the contradictions of production, one whose ability to generalize itself rests on very shaky ground . Thus, if aestheticism usually dresses in the clothes of political non-conformism, but in fact perfectly adheres to the ideological consensus, Nugatov, shocking and insisting on the primacy of aesthetics, takes an uncompromising stance, exposing the unspoken rules of the game within literature.” Ibid.

[5] For example, in the version Yoel Regev suggests under the name of “coincidentalism.” See Regev J., “Relations from the Battlefield: Art and Conflict.” Translit 15-16 (2014): 153-156

[6] In theory, automatic writing itself can be seen as an example of a strong method imposed on absolutely random material.

[7] As it is alleged to have taken place in the case of the project “Workshop of street poster”:выставка-голос-улиц/

[8] See the lecture “More/Less than Poetry?” by Mikhail Makeev, Professor of Philology at Moscow State University”:

[9] Shalamov V., “About my Prose”:

Undermining the Instrumental Discourse of Reification: Alternate Linguistic Discourses in Language Poetry

As they share the belief that it is referential language that, in its predictable and transparent patterns, causes death of the mind and rebroadcasts, on the level of writing, the rules of commodity fetishism, Language poets set out to create an alternative linguistic discourse that aims to undermine the instrumental use of language.

Love, Eroticism, Grief, and Time in Marilyn Chin’s Hard Love Province

The poems in Marilyn Chin’s most recent book of poetry, Hard Love Province (2014), explore, among other things, love and grief.  Love is hard precisely because, as Chin illustrates, it continually circulates within overlapping registers of longing, desire, grief, absence, and presence.  The love that emerges throughout Hard Love is fierce and gentle, generative and destructive, fleeting and eternal, personal and cultural. 

Chin’s exploration of love’s terrain necessarily takes her to the boundary between life and death and love’s place at that boundary.  At this limit and in a desire to transgress this limit, Chin writes an erotics of grief.  In this paper, I focus on the elegies in Hard Love Province specifically addressing “Formosan Elegy,” “Beautiful Boyfriend,” and “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony.”  Working within and against the elegy, Chin’s poetic longing and unabashed eroticism mourns the dead, and the elegiac voice also sounds outrage as it mourns the loss of “brown bodies,” of men changed forever by war, for all lives lost and shattered by wars, politics, and injustice.    

Her eroticism also depends on reconfiguring our notions of time as Chin conflates absence and presence.  She often merges absent lovers with present ones, allows sexual longing to cross limits of space and time, and collapses generational and historical timeframes.  Finally, these elegies may, indeed, illustrate what Andy Amato describes as “poetic time”:  “a subjective phenomenon experienced in our moment-to-moment acceptance of our mutuality with others, our recognition that we, in an elemental sense are already ever sharing a middle world—a liminally conjoined world—with others” (61).  Chin seems to accept this mutuality, and her poetry seems always to operate in a “liminally conjoined world,” fused by multiple poetic and cultural voices; however, I suggest that the poetic time that she offers us in Hard Love Province filters through an erotics of grief which demands we reconsider notions of love and time, and, ultimately, what it means to be in time.   

As Octavio Paz ruminates on love and eroticism, he makes the following statements about time: “There is no remedy for time.  Or, at least we do not know what it is.  But we must trust in the flow of time, we must live” (Double Flame 263).  He names time “the greatest catastrophe” which “no love can avoid.”  Ultimately, the beloved succumbs to time’s assaults—“age, infirmity, and death” (262).  Yet, he offers hope.  Although we cannot deny nor destroy time, we can transfigure it, which according to Paz, “the great artists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and certain men of action have done” (264).  He also offers love as an “answer” because he sees “love as time and made of it, a consciousness of death and an attempt to make of the instant an eternity” (264).  If love, as Paz suggests, is conscious of death and attempts to make its instant an eternity, then, the elegy, specifically one overwritten with eroticism and sexual longing, proves a particularly apt poetic form for this undertaking.  The elegy, as Angela Leighton reminds us, “plays with tropes of distance, difficulty, even of unreclaimable absence, but it does not simply forget” (127).  Chin insists on remembrance throughout Hard Love Provence. She dedicates eight of the twenty-three poems in the volume to poets who have died or to her dead lovers; one of the twenty-two stanzas or “fables” comprising “Two Inch Fables” is for Denise Levertov, one pays homage to Gwen Brooks, June Jordan, and Sylvia Plath, and another to Emily Dickinson, and yet another stanza pays tribute to Don Lonewolf, Chin’s deceased lover.  The elegiac soundings that reverberate throughout the pages of this volume mourn endless and continuous death while simultaneously wrapping the keening in an erotics of grief and anguish for the lost physicality of eroticism.  The sexual yearnings pulse with both a felt bodily presence and the body’s “unreclaimable absence.”

The elegies that memorialize Chin’s lovers represent presence and absence simultaneously, refusing to do the work of mourning as presented by Freud or by contemporary standards.  There is no “working through.”  Certainly not the first poet to violate the “traditional elegiac model [which presents] the [mourning] process as a set of conventional tasks with preordained beginning, middle, and end” as described by Michael Moon (235) or to refuse consolation, renewal, recovery, or transcendence, also associated with the traditional form, Chin does grieve the loss of the very things that traditional elegy and the Freudian model of mourning promise.  Therefore, these poems offer fleeting moments of resolution, of recompenses, and of peace.  They do not, however, offer lasting solace, like the “beautiful boyfriends,” in the poem with the same name, the comfort is “transitory.” 

Paz locates eroticism in “the realm of the imaginary, like celebration, representation, rites, and because it is ritual . . . [eroticism] intersects in places with violence and transgression” (An Erotic 69-70).  Grieving, too occupies this same realm, imaginary and ritualistic.  Chin’s elegiac eroticism often manifests as violent and transgressive.  The comforting images in the first stanza of “Beautiful Boyfriend” give way to horrific images of these dead boys: Soulless, their “shiny brown flesh // turn[s] into purple festering corpses” (74).  Chin offers us little in the way of solace.  Later in this poem, as I will discuss, this grieving is one of sexual longing.

Although Chin, like most contemporary poets working with the elegy, rejects the Freudian paradigm of painfully confronting the loss, accepting it, and returning the ego to a “free and uninhibited” state (244-45), she does, paradoxically, offer an element of permanence—a thread that connects living to dead.  This permanence lies in the erotics of grief that permeates the most clearly marked elegies, those for Chin’s dead lovers—in the speakers’ sexual desires and in the refusal to relinquish sexual yearning for these lovers.    

Many have recognized the erotic aspects of the elegy, most notably, gay and lesbian scholars who have, as Moon points out, “written evocatively on mourning and sexuality” (235).  These scholars argue that this poetic form of mourning provides expressions of desire that “begin to defy the limits placed on male-male desire,” according to George Haggerty in “Love and Loss: An Elegy” (388), and that sexual desire expressed in elegies reconfigure the cultural messages about lesbian/gay bodies, lesbian/gay sexualities and relationships as Moon argues in “Memorial Rags” 236.  Much is at stake for these scholars in their arguments, and I do not wish to co-opt the eroticism that they identify in the elegy and overwrite it with notions of heteronormativity.  However, I also believe that much is at stake for Chin as she traverses the geography of loss in Hard Love Province.  She grieves from the margins, mourning the lives of those on the margins: brown boys sold into slavery, female ancestors brutalized by their Chinese husbands, women poets scarred by their feminist and poetic battles, women killed in order to allow younger women to speak truth to power.  Her elegiac eroticism is fierce—excessive—and, at times, terrifying, even when it is most quiet.  It often defies both cultural and patriarchal dictates regarding “acceptable” femininity, female desire, and perhaps, poetic decorum. 

In “Formosan Elegy,” dedicated to Charles, Chin’s lover killed in a plane crash, Chin uses the caesurae to foreground the bleakness of the fundamental yin and yang of the poem: unbearable presence and unreclaimable absence.  These gaps, while providing unity to the poem, underscore the existential nothingness that the images of a fragmented body raise. 

Sitting near her lover’s body bag, the poet/speaker regains her voice. She “sing[s him] a last song” and “chant[s his] final sutra” (20). In “Formosan Elegy,” grief, felt in the body, corporeal presence and absence, and eroticism become tightly bound.  Haggerty suggests that “[t]he dying form of one so loved does not resist . . . eroticization . . . rather, death itself becomes a scene of unspeakable intimacy” (387).  Referring here specifically, to the body of a lover dying from AIDS, Haggerty, nonetheless presents a framework through which to consider the moment in “Formosan Elegy” when the poet/speaker can finally utter her song of grief.  She does so once she is near her lover’s body.  This physicality suggests the erotic attachment that Haggerty describes.  For Chin, it allows her simultaneously to reconnect with her lover, to share the intimacy of his death, and to ask and answer the age old questions: “What’s our place on earth?” “What’s our destiny?”  Her answers: “nada” // “war     grief    maggots    nada”—answers that resonate with paradox (20).  How can one fill a place with nothingness?  Perhaps, one fills it with eroticism, which according to Paz, “evaporates, and evaporates, and all that remains in our hands . . . is a shadow, a gesture of pleasure or of death” (An Erotic 14). 

In Chin’s poetic rendering, the vapors of eroticism mingle with the bodies torn asunder by death—thrust into the nothing that is death in this poem.  By stanza eight, both body and poetic line fragment.  Spaces appear between every word, causing us to linger over each separate image, most related to the body—each severed from it: 

                        Arms    cheeks    cock     femur    eyelids    nada

                        Cowl    ox     lamb        vellum     marrow   nada

                        Vulva   nada     semen      nada    ovum    nada

                        Eternity    nada     heaven       nada     void    nada (20)

No longer the body of the speaker’s lover, the body, in this stanza, is both male and female, animal and human.  The loss is personal and social, confined and all encompassing, everything and nothing. 

Whereas the love mourned in “Formosan Elegy” seems specific, the loss in “Beautiful Boyfriend,” dedicated to Don Lonewolf, Chin’s lover who died in 2011, takes on a more generalized form of mourning, grieving for all the lost beautiful boyfriends, and more overtly proclaims the speaker’s sexual desires for her dead lover.  This poem, which opens with images of the speaker drifting in a skiff “made of spicewood,” surrounded by sounds of “early Mozart,” Coltrane, “and miles and miles of Miles, with [her] new boyfriend,” moves, at times swiftly and at times slowly, through geographies of space and time (73).  In these spaces, Chin articulates a longing for forgetfulness as she insists on remembrance while sounding an elegiac eroticism, collapsing space/time/death/life/absence/presence.

Although the speaker attempts to identify the conditions that will allow her to love the ambiguous “you” of the poem “like no other” and “to float [her] mind toward the other side of hate,” she is seemingly unsuccessful (73).  Either she cannot meet these conditions, or they prove inadequate: she can neither master “the nine doors of [her] body” nor “close [her] heart to the cries of suffering” (73).  She clearly remains among the living, and she cannot forsake her bodily desires.  The elegiac voice grieves not for one lost love but for many, and the mourning spans place and time:

                        The shantytowns of Tijuana    sing for you

                        The slums of Little Sudan       hold evening prayer

                        One dead brown boy is a tragedy

                                     Ten thousand is a statistic

                        So let’s fuck    my love           until the dogs pass (74)

The ambiguity of the “you” leads us to ask, “Whom does the speaker mourn?  Whom does she wish to fuck?”  Does she mourn her dead lover and seek forgetfulness in her new one, or does she mourn her dead lover and express her sexual desire for him?  “What if the terms of the communion [she] seeks can be realized only by touch, rather than by a thought?” (Haggerty 388).  Then, I suggest, Chin’s only recourse is to write these elegiac love poems through an erotics of grief.

In stanza nine, we are the Irrawaddy, the River of Spirits, in Myanmar.  Here the “you” of the poem floats away among the spirits, and, in Chin’s rendering, we are also once again in the “nada,” a space devoid of “sun,” “moon,” “coming,” “going,” “causality,” “personality,” “hunger,” thirst” (74-75).  Chin shatters the calm with stanzas depicting violence—images of both war and “calamity,” events resulting in overwhelming numbers of death: “ten thousand corpses,” “Malarial deltas typhoidal cays” (75).  Like the ten thousand dead brown boys who become a statistic or the ten thousand corpses in stanza eight, the number in these stanzas seem too many to mourn. 

Unable to mourn the many and needing to mourn the one, the speaker returns to her lover’s body: “You push down my hand        with your bony hand // The fox-hair brush          lifts and bends” (75).  The “you” remains ambiguous.  Is this coupling that of the speaker and her new boyfriend or a remembered encounter between her and her dead lover?  Perhaps one between her present, but absent, lover?  Is this moment full of time or devoid of it? 

I suggest that in Chin’s erotics of grief time becomes overwhelmingly apparent and frustratingly illusive.  Chin’s elegiac eroticism represents the “ruptures, nicks, cuts . . . instances of dislocation” necessary to consider time because time itself “contains no moments or ruptures and has no being or presences, functions only as continuous becoming,” according to Elizabeth Grosz (5).  Eroticism when linked to grieving in Chin’s poetry is that continuous becoming.  In these poems, mourning overwritten with sexual desire for the dead both “stops” time—making us keenly aware of it—and collapses past, present, and future—disorienting us in time.  Thus, this elegiac eroticism makes living bearable, yet the eroticism is excessive as past desires are continuously written onto present and future ones.  Desire becomes endless, perhaps unbearably so, and ending in a place of oblivion, of nothingness—that gesture of pleasure or death—that Paz says is eroticism—perhaps desire is both pleasurable and deadly.

“Beautiful Boyfriend” ends in a place of irresolve: “Surrender           you must         to one love one nation” (76).  Again we ask: Who is this “you”?  The dead lover?  All lovers?  Must we all surrender, and what is the result of surrender?  The end of grief, desire, life or the beginning?

I do not believe that Chin provides an answer, but she closes Hard Love Province with the achingly beautiful, “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony,” whose title comes from lines in Yeats’s “Long-Legged Fly.”  Chin’s poem circulates within the realm of unceasing desire, an endless erotics of grief, continual being, and a liminally conjoined world.  The first line directs our “gaze beyond the vermilion door”—a reference to a 1965 Chinese film about a complicated love triangle, spanning decades and involving power and dead lovers (78).  As the stanza progresses, we must look far in time and space at the “road’s interminable end,” which, of course, is oxymoronic because interminable means endless, everlasting, ceaseless, a place we cannot see.

The poem is full of movement; the speaker is restless, looking past her present time, her immediate place.  She leads us up “cold cold mountains” and down long valleys, across “broad waters.”  “Twilights become endless,” as she climbs up the steep hill to the monastery of “ten thousand Buddhas” (78).  With the speaker we, too, are restless, searching—for what?  the lover?  Solace?  Nothing suffices.  The journey ends “in the land of missing pronouns” (78).  If these placeholders for persons, places, and things are missing, and we have no evidence that the things themselves populate “the land,” Chin seems to suggest a double absence and to place us in a void.  However, in this void, “[s]un is a continuous performance” (78).  There is no night, no rest, no respite, no turning away from the glare.  The glare, Chin suggests, is unremitting, “and we my love are nothing” (78).  Unlike “Beautiful Boyfriend,” in “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony,” the you is not ambiguous.  The you is the speaker’s lover.  The you and I do not exist separately; rather, they are a continual being in nothing—in the fullness and emptiness of death.  I suggest that nothing is both the moment of orgasm and death that has pulsed through these elegies in the sexual longing that delineates Chin’s erotics of grief and certainly that Paz implies in his ideas about the erotic evaporating into pleasure or death.   


Works Cited

Amato, Andy, “A Daring Hospitality: Towards a Poetics of Time.” KronoScope 10.1-2 (2010): 49-63.  MLA. Web.

Chin, Marilyn.  Hard Love Province.  New York: Norton, 2015.  Print.

Freud, Sigmund.  “Mourning and Melancholia.”  Trans. James Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete  Works of Sigmund Freud.  Volume XIV.  London: The Hogarth Press,     1957. 243-58.

Gosz, Elizabeth. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely.  Durham: Duke University, 2004.  Print.

Haggerty, George.  “Love and Loss: An Elegy.” GLQ 10:3 (2004): 385-405.  MLA. Web.

Leighton, Angela.  On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.  Print.

Moon, Michael.  “Memorial Rags.”  Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature.  Eds. George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman.  New York: MLA, 1995. 233-50. Print.

Paz, Octavio.  An Erotic Beyond: Sade.  Trans. Eliot Weinberger.  New York: Harcourt Brace,1998. Print.

---. The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism.  Trans. Helen Lane. Orlando: Harvest Books, 1995. Print.

The Refrains of Kashmir: Agha Shahid Ali's Canzones and the Forms of Exile

Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,

is bringing love to its tormented glass.

Stranger, who will inherit the last night

of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?           (241)[1]


These concluding lines to Agha Shahid Ali’s canzone “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan” disclose the crucial intersections of his exilic poetics—the hope of freedom within the “tormented glass” of form, the question of aesthetic versus political inheritances, and finally the choice of poetic object. Ali’s poetry aims to represent his experience as a “Kashmiri-American” poet by reflecting on his life and locales, past and present, but frequently his work turns his own experience into a heuristic for thinking through the notion of exile as the lyric situation, as in his conclusion to the “Ghazal” that ends each couplet with “by exiles”: “Will you, Belovéd Stranger, ever witness Shahid— / two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?” (Ali 298). He ends the ghazal with a terrifying lyric question, carving speaker and reader into the shape of their estrangements, as those two destinies (to write and to read as the teloi of literary connection) emerge in the alienations of writer from lyric subject and reader from interpellated other (both beloved and strange). Ali indulges in wordplay on his name here as well, which means “The Beloved” in Persian and “witness” in Arabic, as he reveals in a ghazal from his previous volume (226), and this punning leads us to think of the oscillating self and/as refrain as a formally constitutive property of his exilic poetics.

Ali exports the ghazal’s “echo chamber” (Ramazani 104-105) into other verse forms as he explores the recombinatory possibilities of exile as figure and refrain, especially in the intricate canzones, with their incessant invocations of Kashmir reinstantiating the gap between poet and homeland. This paper reads Ali’s poetics principally through his canzone, “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” epitomizing Ali’s commitment to form as not only a vehicle of poetic expression, but as a figure for dissecting the lyric mode within the continued departures of refrain. His forms assemble the pieces of an elegiac poetics around exile, in which return to the absent homeland is repeatedly denied through the repetition of naming, as the incessant turn to “Kashmir” loses its symbolic valence in favor of an incantatory resonance, foregrounding the loss of each invocation.

A glance at his use of the word “Kashmir” reveals that he mentions his homeland by name ninety-four times in the collected volume of his poems, but more crucially, not once explicitly between the publication of The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987) and The Country Without a Post Office (1997). He does not mention Kashmir for two entire books of verse, and then The Country Without a Post Office erupts with a litany of ‘Kashmir’ that bypasses signification:

Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void:

Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,

Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar

in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire,

Kasmir. Kerseymere?             

(“The Blesséd Word: A Prologue,” p. 171)


On the collection’s first page the poet announces his homeland, muse, and poetic object in what seems like a cosmic invocation. Writing “on that void” (note the deictic points away from the page) an incantation of his homeland’s name foregrounds the divinely creative power of the speaker while also straining the notion of poetic production in the tension of “cry” versus “write,” exposing the core difficulty of grief’s legibility against the virtuoso opportunism of the elegy. This explosion becomes a valuable window into Ali’s poetics; naming his lost home marks the impossibility of yearning rather than the object of its signification. The poet finds eighteen different ways to spell ‘Kashmir’ in a Roman script, already taking the Sanskrit word into exile far from its orthographic origins, foregrounding the role of foreign language in mediating Ali’s (even more so, the reader’s) experience of Kashmir. The discerning philologist may object that ‘Kashmir’ as geographically recognized by that term today (denoting the larger region) dates to the nineteenth century, whereas already by the end of the eighteenth century the Roman alphabet was used to transliterate Sanskrit words. Exactly—few other words cut so quickly to the core of Ali’s poetics. By making ‘Kashmir’ a refrain in his last two volumes, the poet forces us to recognize the word’s lineage of resonances, including centuries of linguistic development alongside the historical litany of imperial regimes involved in the region. The poet even slips the French “Cauchemar” (nightmare) into his incantation of ‘Kashmir’, suggesting not only that exilic loss is a horrific dream, but also that it obsesses over the difficulty of linguistic representation, as a set of phonemes variously signify home and something else, and this constant reiteration changes the shape of Kashmir in his poetry.

“On paper, Agha Shahid Ali was a poet of exile,” opens Christine Benvenuto in an article for The Massachusetts Review after Ali’s death (261), and that initial declaration, so latent with subversion in the qualifying phrase “on paper,” encapsulates one of Ali’s insurmountable difficulties: How do we read this “paper exile” against larger traditions of exilic poetics and greater paradigms of homelessness in the late twentieth century? Ali’s turn toward Kashmir in his penultimate volume brings along with it a deluge of Western poets in the collection’s quotations and epigraphs—Osip Mandelstam, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Merrill—that forces us to consider the aesthetics of exile far more than its politics. He is truly a “paper exile” because he uses the written word to figure and reconfigure the echoes of his exile, turning his elegiac poetics of the lost homeland into nearly unlimited occasions for poetic making. The shapes of form both in the external world and in the poems’ crucibles fail to console, though the purely aesthetic fulfillments of his elegiac canzones allow us to consider the practice of reading as a process of lyric departure, in which the massively ornate contrapuntal forms of his major elegies transform even refrain’s ubiquitous return into a perpetual leave-taking.

Such a claim requires that we consider what form might mean for Ali in particular. In “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said convincingly argues that poetic form for Mahmoud Darwish provides a potential analogue for exile (142), though the term “form” has historically taken a score of meanings according to its resonances for different cultures, and by extension, theorists of poetry. Angela Leighton summarizes the history of English poetry’s revisionary appropriations of the word ‘form’ from Kantian aesthetics all the way to twentieth-century debates about formalism and expressionism in art, focally dwelling on Picasso’s question, “what is outside or what is inside a form?,” and proposing form as a conceptual dividing line, “the shape of a choice to be made” (16), something one might have said of the psychocartography of exile. While any type of poetry necessarily has an objectively definable form that constitutes the text’s body and border, for Ali the borders are obvious in their rigidity and yet capacious for his artistry, as the boundaries of his exilic imaginary both restrain and free his poetry. Any discussion of form typically figures it as paradox throughout twentieth-century criticism on the subject, from Susanne Langer’s notion of shadowy virtual objects that disclose their non-representational quality through form (Langer 212) to Kenneth Burke’s understanding of form as creation and then fulfillment of a desire (Burke 31), and all these notions (border, the shape of choice, spectrality, desire) put us in mind of the crucial aporia of exile for Ali’s poetry, which Ramazani assesses as “anticompensatory elegizing” (130).  Ali’s elegies, instead of offering consolation, articulate the experience of exile instead by dwelling on losses inherent in the structure of refrain and forcing the reader to confront generic assumptions of closure.

While Ali wrote many beautiful ghazals throughout his career, for a thorough examination of his commitment to formal poetry this paper turns instead to the canzones that may in some ways be considered his true masterpieces, both because of their unparalleled formal difficulty and because no other writer has produced their equal in English. The canzone[2] is a sixty-five line form in six stanzas with five refrain words, essentially a much more difficult version of a sestina. Every line must end with one of the five end words, so five twelve-line stanzas and a five-line envoi shuffle these end words in a motivic progression that we cold term an “echo chamber,” using Ramazani’s term for Ali’s ghazals in an even more fittingly massive and contrapuntally resonant form (indeed, the canzone may be the best Western poetic analogue for the ghazal form). Two of Ali’s three canzones use the already-ubiquitous “Kashmir” as one of the refrain words: “Lenox Hill” and “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan.” The former, Ali’s elegy for his mother, conveys a sense of the canzone’s fugal mode with the torrent of ‘Kashmir’ released by the trauma of separation from his mother(land):

                                                            For no verse

            sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir

            and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir


            (across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,

            she’s dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe

            as she sleeps in Amherst. Windows open on Kashmir:

            There, the fragile wood-shrines—so far away—of Kashmir!  

             (Ali 248)


The recurring placement of ‘Kashmir’ holds out the homeland’s finality as a suggestion and then refuses it as the poem continues, incessantly leaving ‘Kashmir’ in the movement of the verse (which is also, cleverly hidden inside ‘universe,’ a refrain word), always pointing beyond: “Kashmir: / There.” The deictic forces us into the recognition of distance in the interweaving of ‘Kashmir’ and ‘mother’ as Ali imaginatively overlays the powerlessness of his mother and his homeland while positing the sonic connection of the elephant’s cry as an arbitrary cosmic echo-location, yet the figurative reiteration only multiplies the linguistic departures. Kashmir is the promise of return, then the location of an anecdote, then directly (and desperately) apostrophized other, and then Kashmir moves from being outside the window to being “—so far away—” as we feel the verse pulling Kashmir into the sonic abyss with every repetition. Despite the assertion that “no verse / sufficed,” the poem’s only sufficiency emerges in the plenitude of arbitrarily perfect rhymes.

Befitting the recursions of Ali’s work, now we return to the poem quoted at this essay’s beginning, “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” a poem I would describe as an elegy for Kashmir, to offer an in-depth look at his exilic poetics and imagined returns. The title runs right into the poem’s first line, propelling the reader into the poem with the realization that the title, with its final comma, offers no secure vantage or containing force for the lyric, which continues, “we all—Save the couple!—returned to pain, /  some in Massachusetts, some in Kashmir” (239). Despite Lahore’s close proximity to Kashmir and the communal nature of the celebration, the moment of almost-return quickly pushes the reader away into the poem’s departures and toward a focus on the poet’s anxiety over writing, “all my words sylvanite / under one gaze that filled my glass with pain. / That thirst haunts as does the fevered dancing” (239). His “sylvanite” words have value only as a loss already (an impure mineral compound of gold) under this mysterious and painful gaze, which reads both as his own and as the reader’s. His thirst as desire and lack connects to the dream of return, while his feverish dancing, both at the wedding and in his verse craft, is exhausting. The performance of poetic virtuosity haunts him just as the dream of return, and we come to the elegy’s choice of poetic craft over the beloved object, an analogue in Ali’s life for the expatriate’s choice. He turns away from the possibilities of Kashmir in the second stanza with a pivotal question: “Sing then, not of the promising / but the Promised End. Of what final pain, / what image of that horror can I sing?” (Ali 239). Ali forecloses the “promising” hope for return on this occasion of geographical nearness, instead searching only for an appropriate “image of that horror” as poetic occasion.

As he reflects on his vocation and recounts part of the wedding singer’s song, Ali turns to personal reminiscence for just a moment:

                        With a rending encore she closed the night.

                        There was, like this, long ago in Kashmir,

                        a moment—after a concert—outside Kashmir

                        Book Shop that left me stranded, by midnight,

                        in a hotel mirror. Would someone glass

                        me in—from what? Filled, I emptied my glass,


                        lured by a stranger’s eyes into their glass.      

                        (Ali 240)


The “rending encore” divides rather than unifies, and suggests identification with the poem before our eyes, because “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” is the final poem in The Country Without a Post Office. The poem fools us with the Kashmir rhyme’s opposition of in/outside and the enjambment of “Kashmir / Book Shop,” as we find ourselves in the exile’s nightmare (“cauchemar”), trapped both inside and outside the homeland like the receding and recurring refrains. Ali describes his position as “stranded” in a mirror, connoting far more than the experience of looking at himself, as the act of looking fixes the glass as permeable boundary, allowing images to reflect but also preventing their immediate contact. The poet is “glassed in,” cut off by the glass’s borders from access to the wider world, instead becoming fixed in the gaze of the observer (“lured by a stranger’s eyes”), as if an aesthetic object. Form becomes a constitutive fact in mediating exilic representation, calling to mind the mimetics of his craft here under the reader’s gaze. The poet finds no sanctuary in the aesthetic image though he spends more time framing his own reflection, requiring the placement of the body’s form so as to produce and observe the distance between the subject and its aesthetic objectification, suggesting that the lyric subject’s abstracted distance matters more here than the immediacy of his homeland. As the poem slips away from the reader into the last stanza, the fugue finally modulates into the scale of Kashmir, and it begins after an homage to Dickinson’s syntactical voids in the deluge of dashes: “O, to have said, glass / in hand, “Where Thou art—that—is Home— / Cashmere— / or Calvary—the same”! (240). Ali cuts the line just before the comparison to Calvary, the enjambment drawing out the illusive hope of return until the excruciating pain of exile’s permanence takes over, with the succession of dashes pushing us away from return as we become caught in the poem’s movement. His assertion that “in each new body I would drown Kashmir” (240) resonates with the recombinatory forms of his poetry, recalling the meaning of form as bodily shape, while also placing his native land on the altar of his poetics for sacrifice.

The poem’s conclusion runs back into the problem of poetry from the insoluble difficulties of the exilic situation as well as the violences of Kashmiri history and politics:

                        A brigadier says, The boys of Kashmir

                        break so quickly, we make their bodies sing,

                        on the rack, till no song is left to sing.

                        “Butterflies pause / On their passage Cashmere—”

                        And happiness: must it bring only pain?

                        The century is ending. It is pain


                        from which love departs into all new pain:

                        Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,

                        is bringing love to its tormented glass.

                        Stranger, who will inherit the last night

                        of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?          

                        (Ali 241)


Along with Ali’s determination to “drown Kashmir,” the memory of colonial occupation recalls torture, with “singing” suggesting poetry beaten out of subjected bodies. We see another Dickinson quotation, dragging out the moment of “passage” as Ali troubles the notion of departure by running love through a circuit of pains when the form demands three consecutive lines end with that particular word. The “tormented glass,” which once again signals both the nation’s bounded image and the reflective space of his formal poetry, brings the poem to an ultimately indeterminate lyric question, “Of what shall I not sing, and sing?” The speaker’s rhetoric inclines us to paraphrase the question as “What can’t be discussed in poetry?” but the comma and the negative modifier make the rhetorical stress impossible to pin down; we could equally well read a genuine question “What shouldn’t I sing about?” or “What shall I not continue singing about?” or even “What can a poet refuse to sing about?” The immaculately balanced ending line leaves the reader’s eye on Ali’s central concern, the vocation of the exilic poet, amid the echoes of “Kashmir,” “sing,” and “glass.”

One could say that for Ali the elegy for Kashmir is not an individual poem, but an entire poetic strain that relies on an apostrophic impulse and splinters the locale into universe and fragment, as the sheer number of repetitions elegiacally erases the exilic signified. The more we hear Ali repeat ‘Kashmir’ in The Country Without a Post Office, with every recombination of exilic figurative imagery and the name of his lost native land, the more his refracting crystalline verse forms expose the absence of Kashmir in the continued sonic departure. If we consider the beginning of “Lenox Hill” as a keystone for understanding his refrains, “The Hun so loved the cry, one falling elephant’s, / he wished to hear it again” (247), we can see the fiction of form as pure aesthetic caught in a sequence of continuous loss under the governing desire of the lyric subject. The violence of separation comes under the governance of the lyric imperative, figured as a repeated listening to the same “cry,” the tireless refrains of the canzone trapping reader and writer in the aesthetic exchange.

It may prove useful to turn back to the lyric questions mentioned briefly at the beginning of this paper to sketch out some further thoughts about the reader’s experience of elegy and lyric more broadly. We can look at a paradigm of “overwhelming questions,” if you will, in some of the major reflective lyrics of the post-Romantic tradition, from Keats’s “Do I wake or sleep?” (Keats 460) to Yeats’s “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (Yeats 217), and the meditative questions seem to invite the reader into the process of the lyric subject’s self-conception as it evolves in the poem, but we should consider how the questions draw out our assumptions about lyric reading. It might be tempting to tell Keats that he is awake, but we have then ignored our reading’s failure to consider the lyric subject as a textual effect. We can see that Ali’s questions in “Lenox Hill” and “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” collapse universal pain and grief into the individual, but only if you read them with a mind to response: “what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe / when I remember you… O my mother?” (249); “Of what shall I not sing, and sing?” (241). In fact their locations at the end of the poems rather make us aware of lyric’s problems of abstraction and the impossibility of continuing the (already compromised) conversation. The limitations of form are clearly up for debate, and the closing thoughts in these poems send the reader back into the echo-chamber to suffer once again elegy’s disconnect, slipping through the poem’s sonic closure through the rhetorical indeterminacy of the ultimate question.

To use Leighton’s comment on form, the “shape of a choice to be made” governs the conclusions of these poems by deferring closure beyond the assumed lyric interchange. The poem breaks just as it becomes complete, in line with how Giorgio Agamben reads “The End of the Poem” – the lyric question is in some ways the ultimate antipoetic move, but it allows for the reinscription of the lyric exchange within an arbitrarily textual matrix, as the question’s patent disregard for potential answers figuratively repeats the canzone’s dynamic refrain. The continued movement between prompting and then subverting the readerly desire for closure forces us to consider our mode of lyric reading as a continuous exilic process, pushing ourselves further from the poem’s internal formal completions as we descend through its succession of rhyming chambers until our sense of the refrain words has replaced the notion of return with that of departure.




Works Cited                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Agamben, Giorgio. “The End of the Poem.” The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. pp. 430-434. Print.

Ali, Agha Shahid. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.

Benvenuto, Christine. “Agha Shahid Ali.” The Massachusetts Review Vol. 43, No. 2. Amherst: The Massachusetts Review, Inc., 2002. pp. 261-273. Web. JSTOR. 29 March 2015.

Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. Print.

Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner, 1953. Print.

Leighton, Angela. On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Web. ProQuest. Accessed 10 April 2015.

Ramazani, Jahan. A Transnational Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Yeats, William Butler. The Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1983. Print.        


[1] Unless otherwise attributed, all citations to Ali’s verse refer to the The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009), which includes his published poetry from The Half-Inch Himalayas through his final volume, Rooms are Never Finished, also including his book of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight.

[2] The etymology links to “canto” and “chanson,” forms with lengthy international traditions of reinterpretation, but the form as described here obtains for Anglophone verse in the later twentieth century. 


The Other Problem with "Anonymous"

This piece originally appeared as a blog post on Arcade November 29, 2011 here


My Shakespeare class finally persuaded me to take a class trip to go see the new Roland Emmerich movie, Anonymous.  I went forewarned.  Multiple reviewers have pointed out problems with the film, which proposes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the literature by William Shakespeare. (For starters, see Stephen Marche and James Shapiro.)  The movie makes absurd historical errors.  At one point, Shakespeare “retires” to Stratford in 1604, before LearMacbethAntony and CleopatraThe Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest; at another, Marlowe is eaten up by his jealousy of Hamlet, which was written seven years after his death.  Anonymous also makes unsupported allegations, suggesting, for instance, that Shakespeare never learned to write the alphabet.  The film sees conspiracy in unremarkable events: the introduction makes the (dubious) assertion that we have not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand, as if this is proof of a cover-up, as opposed to a norm for texts from that era.  I was prepared for all of this.  But I wasn’t prepared for how retrograde a fantasy of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, and the entire era the film advances.

Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets to a beautiful young man.  These sonnets use the language of love.  In Sonnet 19, the speaker asks time not to age the young man, but to leave him as “beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.”  A few lines later he claims the young man as his beloved, crying, “My love shall in my verse ever live young.”  In the next poem, he addresses this beautiful young man as “the master mistress of my passion” (20). 

Scholars disagree over what to make of this romantic language.  Some argue that it figures same-sex desire; others believe it expresses the standard relationship between poet and patron.  Some suggest that the love of the young man is Platonic; others contest that it is physical.  What is indisputable is that these sonnets confound conventional modern expectations of love.  As everyone who has ever tried to find a Shakespeare sonnet for a wedding knows, the sonnets generally express love in an unfamiliar idiom.  (This might be why “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” remains such a perennial favorite of high school English classes: although it rejects the norms of Petrarchan love poetry, it at least inhabits the same universe of language.)  Sometimes Shakespeare’s speaker and the young man are fused — “Here’s the joy: my friend and I are one” (Sonnet 42).  Sometimes their love is figured as reflection — “Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,” says the lover, only to conclude that “’Tis thee (my self) that for myself I praise, / Painting my age with beauty of thy days” (62)).  The sonnets figure love in unaccustomed and fascinating ways.

Emmerich’s film straightens all this out: rather than a Shakespeare who might need a patron, or one who might love a man, Anonymous gives us a Shakespeare both noble and unequivocally heterosexual.  Actually, it turns Shakespeare into not one, but two, vehemently heterosexual characters: a whore-loving lowlife and a queen-bedding nobleman.  The William Shakespeare of Anonymous appreciates the virtuosic language of Romeo and Juliet only for its potential to get him under all the skirts in London.  We watch him woo a tubby street vendor with lines from the balcony scene; we walk in on him bare-bottomed with a prostitute.  His taste may be mocked, but his heterosexuality is unimpeachable.  The Earl of Oxford, meanwhile—the film’s “real” Shakespeare—has inclinations of a similarly unambiguous, if higher, order.  Even as a boy, we learn, he harbored desire for Queen Elizabeth; ultimately, he courts and wins her as his mistress.  And when she rejects him, he falls into bed with one of her ladies-in-waiting.

The sonnets to a young man, meanwhile, though never mentioned in the movie, are implicitly reimagined as the expression of paternal love.  In Anonymous, Oxford and Elizabeth have an illegitimate child who grows up to be the Earl of Southampton.  The movie uses the dedication of Lucrece—in which Shakespeare tells Southampton, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end”—to encapsulate Oxford’s love of his son.  Venus and Adonis, too, was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, who many scholars believe was also the recipient of the sonnets.  The movie thus implies that the beloved young man of the sonnets is neither the patron of a lower-status Shakespeare, nor an object of romantic desire, but simply the son of a loving and noble father.

Anonymous also straightens out Venus and Adonis.  The movie reads the text as code for the young Oxford’s love affair with the older and lusty Queen Elizabeth.  In a way, it’s a nice thought: what would it be like to be the lover of the queen?  Perhaps something like being attacked by the goddess of love—overwhelming, like contending with a force of nature. Yet again, this version of history tidies up the curious and frequently comic unwillingness of Shakespeare’s Adonis to bed the queen of love (“’I know not love,’ quoth he, ‘Nor will not know it, / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it’” [Venus and Adonis 409]). 

At least imagining Elizabeth as Venus gives her some credit for power, if only a sexual power.  That is more than can be said for the rest of the film.  Emmerich’s Elizabeth is vain, sex-addled, gullible, and incompetent.  She is repeatedly exasperated by her (male) advisors’ efforts to discuss affairs of state.  Each time, she throws up her hands, leaving the realm to them.  She prefers to attend to her hair and makeup, and to plays and lovers.  The movie explicitly assigns her three bastard sons (Essex, Southampton, and Oxford himself — don’t ask); it alludes to many more.  Her affair with Oxford deprives her of any remnants of reason: dizzy with carnal delight, she declares to Cecil that she wants to marry Oxford, shrieking “I can do what I want” when he reminds her that Oxford is already married.  When this Elizabeth gets angry with Oxford for talking politics in bed, he has merely to recite “O Mistress Mine” bare-chested to reduce her to quivering desire.  He speaks the poem standing over her, as she bends her head below his waist.

Elizabeth I was a queen who spoke Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek.  She ruled England for forty-five years, surviving multiple assassination plots and attempted invasions.  On the occasion of one of those attempts, she told her assembled army that she was “resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst [them] all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.”   Late in her life, when a young ambassador publicly complained about her policies, she delivered a stinging extemporaneous speech to rebuke him — in Latin. 

Anonymous doesn’t only straighten out non-normative love language and female power.  It also readjusts Shakespeare’s class status.  Many scholars have pointed out the simple snobbishness behind the notion that only a nobleman could have written Shakespeare’s plays.  Anonymous takes that idea to an almost comical extreme.  It revels in Oxford’s nobility — his many tutors, his fine estate, his access to the queen.  Oxford is reprimanded on multiple occasions for not living up to his position; at one point, he  refers to his family as the oldest and richest in England.  But the representation of Shakespeare himself is not especially comic.  Emmerich’s Shakespeare is a lout: drunken, inarticulate, illiterate.  The movie opens by telling us that he never finished grammar school.  His worst crime, though, might be his class aspirations.  A delighted Shakespeare parades into the tavern one evening, where his theater friends are drinking Falstaffian measures of ale, to show off his new coat of arms.  Unable to pronounce his own motto without help, he is humiliated when Jonson challenges him to write a letter, any letter. 

It might be unfair to expect a filmmaker to know the niceties of the Elizabethan education system.  Emmerich has no reason to know that Stratford boys would have learned handwriting in petty school, or that grammar school then lasted for the six years between ages eight and fourteen or so.  He might not have known of the rigorous training in Latin language and literature that boys received there.  What astonishes me here is not the movie’s historical ignorance, but its ridicule of the very idea of social mobility.  Shakespeare’s desire to raise his social status is represented as vulgar.

What is going on here?  Why would a movie of our day and age be invested in protecting the nobility from lowly upstarts?  Why turn Shakespeare into a straight nobleman, Elizabeth I into a pawn of powerful men, their era into one in which only university graduates could write their names, and only a nobleman could possibly write powerful verse? 

One way to answer this question is to look at the way Anonymous portrays the value of Shakespeare’s poetry.  The movie provides several red herring perspectives.  Perhaps the easiest to identify is that of the Puritan villains of the piece, the Cecils, who believe that poetry is sinful.  Elizabeth, who loves plays, seems at first to hold a position opposite to the Cecils’s.  Yet for both Elizabeth and the Cecils, poetry is seduction and diversion.  They agree that poetry provides sensual delight and a distraction from pressing worldly affairs; they just disagree on whether or not that’s a good thing.

Anonymous presents its view of poetry in the person of Oxford.  Oxford repeatedly says that poetry is politics, that words are power.  And if the movie does not quite accept that art can make kings, it does repeatedly show us the power of theater.  Audiences are moved to anger, to patriotism, to tears.  A crowd stands stock-still in the pouring rain, straining to hear every word of “To be or not to be.”  They throw their swords onto the stage after hearing Henry V’s St. Crispin Day speech.  Watching Richard III, they are moved to mutiny against Robert Cecil.  In Anonymous, art is neither sinful nor merely pleasurable: art is power.  And the only and ultimate holder of that power in this movie is a straight and wealthy nobleman.

A movie that so insists that art is political demands that it be judged not only for its own art, but for its politics.  This is a movie concerned less with art than with power.  So perhaps it should be no surprise that its portrait of power closely follows modern realities of power.  Social mobility in modern-day America is now at an all time low.  The gulf between those who go to college and those who don’t continues to widen.  Americans continue to resent women in power, and to resist placing them there: think of the response to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, or look at the US Senate, where only seventeen women serve.  As for culture making, in 2010, only 7% of directors of domestic films were women.  Despite the progress that has been made, we continue to battle as a nation over how to represent and accord rights to non-straight citizens.  As an openly gay German, Roland Emmerich is perhaps an odd director of this portrait of power.  Yet his movie not only mirrors the reality of power in our country, it consolidates and perpetuates the heterosexism, misogyny, and class bias that help maintain that reality.  Anonymous may well be the portrait of an age, but it’s not Shakespeare’s.

How Cervantes Made His Characters Seem Real

This piece originally appeared as a blog post on Arcade January 21, 2016 here


With the release of The Man Who Invented Fiction, I thought I would devote this post (my first in quite some time) to highlighting what I feel was the most important thing I learned about Cervantes as a writer over the last several years of researching and writing the book. As is well known, the critical tradition has generally credited Cervantes with having invented the modern novel; but for me the true force of his innovation lies not so much in a specific literary form as in the structural trope he introduced into the medium of the printed word that enabled the modern experience of character.

In the 45th stanza of the first canto of Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, published in 1581, two of Tasso’s great heroes, the knights Tancredi and Rinaldo, make their appearance:

Next comes Tancredi; and there is none among so many (except Rinaldo) either a greater swordsman, or handsomer in manners and in appearance, or of more exalted and unwavering courage. If any shadow of guilt makes less resplendent his great repute, it is only the folly of love: a love born amid arms, from a fleeting glimpse, that nurtures itself on sorrows and gathers strength.

A mere 24 years after the enormously successful publication of this great poem, Miguel de Cervantes has his own fearless and lovelorn knight step forth onto the glorious fields of Mars. Having spied “a large, thick cloud of dust coming toward them along the road they were traveling,” and overjoyed at the prospect of at last showing his prowess in war, Quixote urges Sancho up the nearest hill to get a better look at the armies. From their new vantage, the Don begins to narrate in terrific detail, exactly as Tasso or Ariosto would have done before him, all the famous knights and giants he spots among the two armies. But in lieu of recognized names of lore, he spouts utterly absurd inventions of his imagination, replete with signature arms, shields, and powers—all to the great bewilderment of his sidekick Sancho Panza, who sees nothing but great quantities of dust in the air:

“Señor, may the devil take me, but no man, giant, or knight of all those your grace has mentioned can be seen anywhere around here; at least, I don’t see them; maybe it’s all enchantment, like last night’s phantoms.”

“How can you say that?” responded Don Quixote. “Do you not hear the neighing of horses, the call of the clarions, the sounds of the drums?”

“I don’t hear anything,” responded Sancho, “except the bleating of lots of sheep.”

Cervantes’ view of the battlefield doesn’t differ from that of Tasso because of the depths of its description or the beauty of its verses. It differs in that, where Tasso’s verses describe for Tasso and his readers the essence of war, Cervantes’ prose describes how his characters perceive and misperceive war. Tasso’s words paint heroes; Cervantes’ lines animate characters.

Cervantes’ success in creating characters that feel like “real people” depended in part on his rich descriptions and his attentiveness to their voices; but underlying all his characters was his fascination with how different people might experience differently the same situation. This focus is present throughout Cervantes’ writing. Indeed, his ability to shift fluidly between different points of view and voices was fueled by his obsession with portraying not just the world and the people and events that fill it, but how people perceive and misperceive that world and each other. Just as his most important novel, Don Quixote, is organized around the central character’s inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, what makes all Cervantes’ characters stand out are the idiosyncrasies and differences of how each inhabits his or her world.

The uniqueness of each person’s perceptions is, to my mind, the source of the book’s extraordinary appeal; at its core is a sustained relationship between two characters whose incompatible takes on the world are overcome by friendship, loyalty, and even love. Sancho Panza, whose simplicity and oafish appetites often veil an inadvertent wisdom, knows Quixote is mad, and chooses to follow him anyway. When the mischievous duchess mentioned above elicits Sancho’s confession that he does indeed know Quixote is mad, and then accuses him of being “more of a madman and dimwit than his master” for following him, Sancho replies:

if I were a clever man, I would have left my master days ago. But this is my fate and this is my misfortune; I can’t help it; I have to follow him: we’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I love him dearly, he’s a grateful man, he gave me his donkeys, and more than anything else, I’m faithful; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the man with his pick and shovel.

As Erich Auerbach wrote of Sancho’s attachment to Quixote, the former “learns from him and refuses to part with him. In Don Quijote’s company he becomes cleverer and better than he was before.”

Just as the tenderness evident in Sancho’s confession is conjured not in spite of but because of the very incompatibility of lived worlds it transcends, so too does the book’s famous humor function along these same parameters. When the hunch-backed and half-blind scullery maid Maritornes slips into bed with Don Quixote in the dark of night, the hilarity doesn't just come from the fact that she's fat and ugly and he's old and bony, or that her true amorous target, the mule driver, gets angry and beats Quixote up after he's already suffered two or three terrible beatings the same day. What makes the scene so funny is that Quixote is convinced that Maritornes is the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter and a princess to boot; that when he declaims about his devotion and service to her she doesn't have the slightest idea what he's talking about; and that the mule driver thinks his tryst for the night has preferred another man to him, and so hands him the beating that Quixote concludes must have come “from the arm of some monstrous giant.”

Don Quixote is indeed a very funny book; legend has is that King Philip III once exclaimed, upon seeing a student doubled up in raucous laughter one day, “that student is either out of his mind or he is reading the story of Don Quixote!” As such, it uses many of the same tricks and themes that have elicited laughter throughout human history, specifically the scatological and coprophiliac sensibilities that have clung to the lowest rungs of humor throughout literary history.

The French humanist François Rabelais, who lived in the century before Cervantes, was one of many sixteenth-century writers who relished a good dirty joke; and his enormously influential series of satirical novels about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are packed with scatological humor. Indeed, the principal character of his books, the giant Gargantua, is literally born in shit, his mother, the giantess Gargamelle having over-consumed on tripe the night she gives birth. Rabelais, a physician as well as a writer, revels in not sparing us the details:

A little while later she began to groan and wail and shout. Then suddenly swarms of midwives came up from every side, and feeling her underneath found some rather ill-smelling excrescences, which they thought were the child; but it was her fundament slipping out, because of the softening of her right intestine—which you call the bum-gut—owing to her having eaten too much tripe, as has been stated above.

Almost a century later, Cervantes would turn to such tried and true themes as well in his desire to spur his readers to laugh. But where prior writers focused their efforts on depicting the grotesque, the humor in his version derives almost entirely from how the two characters perceive and misperceive what is happening.

Lost in the woods in in the dead of night, Sancho becomes frightened by the sound of “strokes falling with a measured beat, and a certain rattling of iron and chains that, together with the furious din of the water, would have struck terror into any heart but Don Quixote's.” To prevent his master from heading toward the sound, Sancho secretly ties his master’s mount’s hind legs together and begins distracting him with stories, when he feels “the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him.” Afraid to move away from Quixote, he first tries to relieve himself in secret, but finds he cannot do so without making a noise, as Cervantes writes, “quite different from the one that had caused him so much fear.”

"What sound is that, Sancho?" Quixote asks. "I don't know, senor," Sancho responds. "It must be something new; adventures and misadventures never begin for no reason." His second attempt is more successful, and silent, but this time it is another sense than hearing that gives him away, and Quixote remarks, holding his nose, "It seems to me, Sancho, that you are very frightened.”

The abyss that divides these two scatological moments in literary history is decisive. Where Rabelais achieves his effect by describing the obscenity of basic human functions with an anatomical zeal leavened by his impish disdain for propriety, Cervantes’ prose brings into relief his characters’ emotions, their embarrassment, their fear, their desire to pull the wool over one another’s eyes, and their rueful responses when they fail. Rabelais wrote patently untrue stories that entertained their readers with their bawdy satire; Cervantes wrote fiction.

Don Quixote as a Topographic Poet

This piece originally appeared as a blog post on Arcade June 27, 2013 here.


In addition to his signal achievements as a knight errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha produced a small but noteworthy body of poetry.  Samples of this poetry appear at different places in the history that Miguel de Cervantes wrote about the great knight.

The most dramatic depiction of Don Quixote as a poet comes in chapter 26 of the first half of the story, when Don Quixote retires to the mountains to lament his love for the beautiful Dulcinea del Toboso.  He sends his squire, Sancho Panza, on a mission to Dulcinea to express his love.  Then Don Quixote strips down to his underwear, leaps about a bit, and writes some poetry.  I want to consider here the challenges he faces in his poetic undertaking.

Don Quixote's poetry is written in the highly stylized manner known as Petrarchism.  This is poetry that builds upon and develops the images and situations set forth several centuries earlier by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, in his Canzoniere or "Book of Scattered Rhymes."  Petrarch invented the model of the weeping lover sighing for his absent lady (think of Romeo at the beginning of Shakespeare's play, mooning over Rosalind).  Petrarch is the model for all of Don Quixote's contemporaries—even, in most cases, those who write religious verse.  So we should not be surprised to see that the knight's lyrics adhere generally to the Petrarchan tradition.

Quixote's poetic opus while he is in the mountains consists of set of rhymes  ("muchos versos") either written in sand, or carved into the bark of trees.  Of these poems, unfortunately, only one survives. "Árboles, yerbas y plantas. . . "  presents three eleven-line stanzas, commemorating both Quixote's misery and the composition of the very poem we are reading.  Each stanza ends with a refrain that refers both to poetry and place: "here Don Quixote wept/ over the absence of Dulcinea/del Toboso" [aquí lloró don Quijote/ ausencias del Dulcinea/ del Toboso].

The act of writing on trees recalls a scene in Ariosto's epic poem Orlando furioso, in which the footsoldier Medoro writes poems on trees about his dalliance with the Cathayan princess Angelica.   Medoro's precedent underscores the great literary historical problem that haunts Don Quixote's poetry.  This is the problem of how to present the uniqueness of his passion.  Petrarch's poetry commemorated his love for his beloved Laura.  It was so original as to make that love appear to be a love like no other.  What, then, is one to do when one writes Petrarchan poetry about a different love that, nevertheless, one feels is no less extraordinary?  How can we express the sense we all have that our love is like no other--in a poetry where everything has already been said?  Don Quixote's contemporaries try to solve this problem in different ways.  The French poet Pierre de Ronsard gets past Petrarch's  depiction of a love for Laura that lasted thirty years by simply dumping the idea of devotion to a single lady.  He takes multiple beloveds and makes it clear that if they seem to be bewitchingly beautiful, it is because his poetry is making them so.  The English sonneteer Philip Sidney reverses this approach.  He begins his collection "Astrophel and Stella" by noting that many poets quote Petrarch as they struggle for originality.  In his case, the lady Stella is simply so beautiful that all he has to do is look at her and he will write well.  So, for Ronsard the power to evoke the uniqueness of love lies with the poet; for Sidney it inheres in the lady.

Don Quixote's poetic strategy is different.  He stresses the act of inscription, and its relationship to place.  He links his poetry both to the place in which he is writing it—this love took poetic form in precisely this place—and to the place from which Dulcinea comes—it sings this particular lady.  Don Quixote wagers that he can he escape becoming a tired copy of all of the lover/poets who have preceded him by rooting both himself and Dulcinea in a place.  Here is the first stanza, with a crude translation by me:

Árboles, yerbas y plantas

que en aqueste sitio estáis,

tan altos, verdes y tantas,

si de mi mal no os holgáis,

eschuchad mis quejas santas.


Mi dolor no os alborote,

aunque más terrible sea;

pues, por pagaros escote,

aquí lloró don Quijote

ausencias de Dulcinea

del Toboso.


Trees, grass, and plants

which grow in this place,

tall, green, and luxurious,

if you are not amused by my pain,

listen to my holy complaints.


However terrible my pain,

let it not disturb you;

yet, to pay you my share,

here Don Quixote wept

over the absence of Dulcinea

del Toboso.

In their concern for place we might locate Don Quixote's verses in a long tradition of topographic poetry.  Its roots are in the epigrammatic tradition, where poems get carved on stones.  But we could link his poems as well to a tradition of land sculpture.  Robert Smithson's "Circular Jetty" in the Great Salt Lake comes to mind as a famous example of art as landscape and landscape as art.  Don Quixote is doing the same thing, in his way.  Indeed, when he writes his poems in the sand he is creating a self-consuming piece of modern art worthy of Marcel Duchamp.

This topographic dimension to Don Quixote's poetry—a blending of text and object—might be seen as a reasonable response to his cultural situation.  "All that is solid melts into air," says Karl Marx of the world of commodity capitalism in which everything can be exchanged for something else and nothing is unique. Similarly (though in a different historical context) all notions of originality and even sincerity have vanished into cliché in Don Quixote's world, a world where everything has already been done and said.  This sense of abstraction and cliché is clear from Dulcinea's very name.  Petrarch's beloved is named Laura, a name suggesting both the air, and the laurel leaf that symbolizes the poet's fame and undying love.  The French poet Du Bellay loves a lady named Olive, who brings peace.  Sidney's Stella is a star.  Dulcinea's name, however, means nothing more than “Sweetie.” Thus she very much needs to be distinguished from other ladies.  Quixote does this by insisting on her origin, on the place from which she comes.

Yet when we consider Dulcinea's place of origin, “El Toboso," things get even more interesting.  "El Toboso" seems to refer to a real place in Spain, a unique location.  Yet the word also suggests the Greek word “Topos,” which means "place."   The “b” and “p” sound alike in Spanish, and the two letters are frequently interchanged in the unstable orthography of early printed books.   Thus "Toboso" is a word caught between languages.  It may be Greek; it may be Spanish; it maybe a kind of Hispanicized Greek.  Yet it matters very much what it refers to. On the one hand, it may refer to a singular place in Spain that grounds Dulcinea's beauty and origin in a culture and a landscape (you can look it up on Google Maps).  That would indeed make her unique, as the only Dulcinea from Toboso.  Or, on the other hand, the word may mean "any place."  In that case, at the very moment Don Quixote tries to root Dulcinea in space,  he is revealing, despite himself, that she may just be “Sweetie from Someplace.”  In a sense, the whole question of whether Quixote (or anyone else, for that matter) can assert the originality of his love in a language saturated with clichés rests on our reading of the word "Toboso."  No wonder he's carving this stuff on trees!

This brings us to the courage—or desperation, depending on your point of view—that shapes Don Quixote's poetics.  The narrator tells us that he makes sure to add the half-line "del Toboso" to the end of each of his stanzas, every time he mentions Dulcinea.   This addition of a kind of stringer (technically called a versus caudatus or "line with a tail") makes it clear to anyone reading that we are talking about, not just any Dulcinea, but the Dulcinea who is from Toboso, "del Toboso."  "Here don Quixote wept over/ the absence of Dulcinea/ del Toboso."

The paradox of this poetic solution to Dulcinea's typicality is that, in order to affirm his lady's rootedness and uniqueness, Don Quixote must destroy the form of his poems.  For the elegance of his well balanced 10-line stanzas is upset by the addition of the tail.  The tail quite literally ruins the aesthetic integrity of the stanzas. At the very least, it sounds dopey, since Toboso doesn't rhyme with anything else.   He could drop it and each stanza would end elegantly with "Dulcinea," which rhymes back to line 7, leaving us with two balanced five-line groupings of lines, each grouping semantically complete.  The half-line also looks clumsy.   Thus phonically, metrically, and visually, the half-line ruins the poem.  This is not just my impression.  The narrator tells us that it was precisely the tail that those who read the poem found ridiculous ("no causó poca risa").  "Del Toboso" may distinguish Dulcinea as a girl like no other.  But it makes Don Quixote's heartfelt poetry a joke.

Don Quixote faces the problem that is faced by many artists working in times of cultural overload.  In order to make his poetry stand out—in order to stress the originality of this passion and this experience—he has to destroy its formal integrity.  He has to wound his verse in order to accomplish the expressive goal he sets for it.  In this regard we might see him, not only as one of the first "modern" characters in literature, but as the quintessential modernist poet.  "Le paradis n'est pas artificiel," wrote the modernist poet Ezra Pound, "but is jagged."

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Langston Hughes and the Paris Transfer

In his exquisitely written biography of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad details the poet’s wanderlust, from his travels with his father to Mexico to his hopscotching across the globe on the S. S. Malone and McKeesport freighters, visiting African and European port cities in between 1923 and 1924. Initially, regaled by stories of Paris from a Frenchman during a port visit to Rotterdam, Hughes fell hard for the city he imagined, seduced by tales of its grand boulevards and architecture, cultivated charms, and spirit of elegance.  

He was not the first, and would certainly not be last to be taken in by Paris, for as Joan DeJean writes in The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour:

Louis the XIV, a handsome and charismatic young king with a great sense of style and an even greater sense of history, decided to make both himself and his country legendary.  In the sixteenth century, the French were not thought of as the most elegant or the most sophisticated European nation. By the early nineteenth century . . . France had acquired a sort of monopoly on culture, style, luxury living, a position it has occupied ever since. At the same time, Paris had won out over all its obvious contemporary rivals—Venice, London, Amsterdam—and had become universally recognized as the place to find elegance, glamour, and even romance. Beginning in the seventeenth century, travelers were saying what novelists and filmmakers are still repeating: travel to Paris was guaranteed to add a touch of magic to every life.1

So when the McKeesport docked in Rotterdam, and after a row over chicken with the freighter’s surly chef, Hughes jumped shipped with “less than nine dollars”2 in his pocket and took the night train to Paris. He arrived in Paris’s Gare du Nord in the early morning.  He wandered the sights, from the celebrated bookstalls along the Seine and near the Notre Dame Church to the Louvre. His life eventually took on a ‘stuff that writerly dreams are made of’ quality—a cozy room of his own for poetry writing perched high up in a Paris garret and champagne for breakfast, a habit he’d acquired from working countless nights to the early dawn at the Grand Duc cabaret set on the hill of Paris’s Montmartre district.

The thrill was dampened only by his need of funds. And once the thrill was gone and the day-to-day nuances of workaday Paris set in, Hughes wrote grumpily to friends, cautioning them to stay home. “Dear Countée,” he began his missive to his friend after a month in Paris: 

I am in Paris. I had a disagreement[sp] on the ship, left and came to Paris purely on my nerve, as I knew no one here and I had less than nine dollars in my pocket when I arrived. For a week I came as near starvation as I ever want to be, but I got know Paris, as I tramped from one end to the other looking for a job. And at last I found one and then another one and yet another!

I have fallen into the very whirling heart of Parisian night-life—Montmartre where topsy-turvy no one gets up before seven or eight in the evening, breakfast at nine and nothing starts before midnight. Montmartre of the Moulin Rouge, Le Rat Mort and the famous night clubs and cabarets! I’ve just had tea over in the Latin Quarter with three of the most charming English colored girls! Claude McKay just left here for the South. Smith is in Brussels and Roland Hayes is coming.

I myself go to work at eleven pm and finish at nine in the morning. I’m working at the “Grand Duc” where the culinary staff and the entertainers are American Negroes. One of the owners is colored too. The jazz-band starts playing at one and we’re still serving champagne long after day-light. I’m vastly amused. 

But about France! Kid, stay in Harlem! The French are the most franc-loving, sou-clutching, hard-faced, hard worked, cold and half-starved set of people I’ve ever seen in life. Heat-unknown. Hot water—water—what is it? You can pay for a smile here. Nothing, absolutely nothing is given away. You even pay for water in a restaurant on the use of the toilette. And do they like Americans of any color? They do not!! Paris—old and ugly and dirty. Style, class? You see more well-dressed people in a New York subway station in five seconds than I’ve seen in all my three weeks in Paris. Little old New York for me! But the colored people here are fine. There are lots of us.3

And by May 1924, Hughes was still sounding the ‘stay in America’ alarm. This time to Harold Jackman:

Stay home! Europe is the last place in the world to come looking for a job, and unless you’ve got a dollar for every day you expect to stay here, don’t come. Jobs in Paris are like needles in hay-stacks for everybody, and especially English-speaking foreigners. The city is over-run with Spaniards and Italians who work for nothing, literally nothing. And all French wages are low enough anyway. I’ve never in my life seen so many English and Americans, colored and white, male and female, broke and without a place to sleep as I have seen here. Yet if you’d give them a ticket home tomorrow, I doubt if ten would leave Paris. Not even hunger drives them away. The colored jazz bands and performers are about the only ones doing really well here. The rest of us, with a dozen or so exceptions, merely get along.4

While one of Hughes’s correspondents, writer and Crisis editor Jessie Fauset, was highly attuned to the toll the Great War had taken on France and its citizens, psychologically as well as in terms of the sheer number of war casualties,5 Hughes appears largely unable to connect that recent past and its devastation with the present miserliness he finds in abundance. He does, however, note that the chronic unemployment, onerous work permit restrictions, a readily available cheap immigrant labor source, and virtual poverty on display everywhere were not enough to make Americans, colored and white, flee Paris. Despite his own dire straits, Paris was still a cultural haven, an incomparable brew of cosmopolitanism and freedom that America, at least for those expatriates he’d observed, couldn’t match on any day.  

And in spite of his unhappiness, or perhaps because of it—Hughes claimed to be at his most prolific when discontented, he composed —“To A Negro Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” which gave his readers insight into life in Montmartre for black jazzmen and the populace’s, tourist and resident, enduring infatuation with jazz:

         Play it for the lords and ladies,

         For the dukes and counts,

         For the whores and gigolos,

         For the American millionaires,

         And the school teachers

         Out for a spree.

         Play it

         Jazz band!6

It was also in a Paris cabaret, the Grand Duc, where Hughes made the acquaintance of Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who, with the assistance of Hughes’s pen, become known as the Queen of Nightclubs in Jazz-Age Paris.  Perhaps no other chronicler of black life in the Jazz Age as it was lived has done more to help reconstruct what expatriate life was like in Paris for African American women than Langston Hughes.

Hughes returned to the United States in November 1924; he wouldn’t return to Paris again until the Second International Writers Conference in July 1937. A good deal had changed in Paris in his near fourteen-year absence. The collapse of Wall Street in 1929, which had upended the good fortunes of countless Americans abroad, ushering a mass exodus home and sending the US economy into the free fall of the Great Depression, had reached Europe in 1931. Adolf Hitler had consolidated his power as leader of the Nazi Party and the Chancellor of Germany; by fall 1937, he held his Führer conference, which outlined the strategies of his war of aggression in Europe.  Old Europe, though, turned a blind eye to Germany’s machinations, attempting to patch up their own ailing national economies. While France was never so bad off as Germany, which assisted in Hitler’s rise, France’s local economy was routed enough to have led to the riots of 1934 and the simultaneous rise of their own versions of ultranationalist political groups.

And yet, for African American women, as Hughes details, Paris still held out hope, particularly in the tumbledown entertainment district of Montmartre. In an unpublished essay related to his 1937 Paris sojourn, he writes:

In Paris, within the last decade, one after another three colored women have risen to reign for a time as the bright particular stars of the nightlife of Montmartre. Princes, dukes, great artists, and kings of finance have all paid them homage (plus a very expensive cover charge) in brimming glasses of sparkling champagne lifted high in the wee hours of the morning.7

It is from Hughes that we learn of Bricktop’s reversal of fortunes. By 1937, she had closed Chez Bricktop at 66 Rue Pigalle and become an itinerant club hostess; Hughes reminds his imagined readers: “She made several fortunes, so they say, and lost them, or spent them. Or maybe gave them away, the godness [sic] of her heart being almost a legend in Montmartre.”8

The other two colored women, Florence Embry Jones and Adelaide Hall, had either preceded Bricktop to Paris, or replaced her as the toast of Paris nightlife, much in the same way Bricktop had gradually eclipsed Embry Jones’s star in 1925. Embry Jones was the wife of the philandering jazzman, Palmer Jones, whose voice and sophisticated style made her a popular figure in Montmartre’s nightlife just after the Great War. As Hughes remembers her in 1924 during his time at the Grand Duc:

[P]etite Florence Embry, lovely vision in brown, was the reigning queen of Montmartre after midnight. Today, even after her death, “Chez Florence” is still a fashionable club. And the memory of the very pretty, very reserved little brownskin woman who paid attention only to royalty or to people with a great deal of money, still lingers in the minds of international nightlifers.9

A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Florence Embry was born in 1892. She left Le Grand Duc to perform at a club/restaurant owned by Louis Mitchell. Embry Jones was known to be difficult but nonetheless riveting in her performances. And so much so that Mitchell renamed the club Chez Florence instead of Mitchell’s.

She also merited a short article, “Chez Florence,” in Time magazine in 1927, where she is described as

Ivory-white [teeth], lipstick-red, and a suave, tawny brown are the colors of Florence Jones. These were colors good enough for smart, expatriate Americans of both hemispheres . . .  The fact that this handsome Negress . . . keeps the smartest boîte de nuit in Paris, was evident again last week, when His Royal Highness, 27-year-old Prince Henry of Britain, strolled into Chez Florence, atop Montmartre, at 3 a. m., with a highly unofficial entourage.10

Through the connivances of a few white Americans abroad intent on putting Embry Jones in her place for her uppity airs, the only “Negress” in Montmartre with the “smartest” nightclub in Paris would slowly lose ground to the slightly younger, affable Bricktop. Jones left Paris to Bricktop in 1927, returning to the United States; and by 1932, she had died—hence Hughes’s mention of her death in his 1937 reportage.

Hughes tells us of the third player in this feminized retelling of the twentieth-century Black Expatriate Paris narrative: Adelaide Hall. Indeed, his piece is entitled, “Adelaide Hall New Star of Paris Night Life: Her 'Big Apple' Glows Over Rue Pigalle.” Hall’s rise came at Bricktop’s and, Paris’s perennial favorite, Josephine Baker’s, expenses. “Florence is gone,” he announces, “Bricktop is with the British. A new colorful girl swings out from Montmartre’s midnight throne! Everybody Suzy-Q in homage to Miss Adelaide Hall!”

Bricktop had decamped to London with the opening of the Hall’s Big Apple nightclub in Montmartre, while Baker continued her fledgling stint with the Folies Bergères; upon Hall’s debut in Blackbirds 1929 at the Moulin Rouge, Baker too had found it convenient to take cover, hoping to ride out France’s fascination with this newest American cultural sensation/invasion that oddly represented more of the same in terms of French Black Venus/exoticist’s fantasies. But this mattered not a whit to these women who found in the City of Light the luxury of freedom, even if its cost was a sort of “Negro under glass” dynamic. It was a very small price to pay when cast side by side with the catch-as-catch-can murderous American racism.

As the scholarly work of recovery and re-envisioning the American expatriate narrative continues to take shape and form, what Langston Hughes’s wonderment via his wanderings offers is a critical archive for the recuperation of another expatriate “lost generation” that was neither white or male.


About the Author: T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French at Vanderbilt University. Her latest book, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (SUNY Press 2015), was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2015 and a Long-List finalist of the American Library in Paris Book Award.



  • 1. Joan DeJean, The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (New York: Free Press, 2005), 2-5.
  • 2. Langston Hughes to Countée Cullen, March 11, 1924, Countée Cullen Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
  • 3. Hughes to Countée Cullen, March 11, 1924, CCP, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.
  • 4. Langston Hughes to Harold Jackman, May 25, 1924, Box 1, Folder 9, Langston Hughes Papers, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
  • 5. Fauset notes the “war has spoiled them poor things” in a letter written to Hughes during her stay shortly after Hughes’s departure. Fauset to Hughes, January 6, 1925, Langston Hughes Papers, JWJ Collection, Beinecke, Yale University.
  • 6. Hughes, Crisis 31 (1925): p. 67
  • 7. Langston Hughes, “Adelaide Hall New Star of Paris Night Life: Her 'Big Apple' Glows Over Rue Pigalle,” 1937, 1, unpublished essay in LHP, JWJ Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke, Yale University.
  • 8. Hughes, “Adelaide Hall,” 2.
  • 9. Hughes, “Adelaide Hall,” 1
  • 10. "Foreign News: Chez Florence," Time, Monday, June 20, 1927, n.p.