I have a new note out at The Explicator [free epub / permalink] on the section of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that engages with Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. My note, “Claudia Rankine and Robert Lowell, Again,” supplements a PMLA article by Kamran Javadizadeh by pointing to a little-known or unknown prior version of the Citizen section, published in the poetry magazine AGNI. I provide a full collation of the early publication with Citizen’s text.
This is the first scholarly output from the contemporary half of my current book project, Unheard Melodies. My bookbrings together fourteenth- and twenty-first-century poetics.
I have been working for the past couple of years on a new book that brings together, finally, my disparate interests in premodern English poetry and contemporary American avant-garde poetry. I was a poet before I was a medievalist. I used to be defensive about the non-relation between these interests. I wanted to make sure everyone knew the poetry I was writing and reading wasn’t medievalizing or nostalgic. On the contrary. Having studied with Elizabeth Willis in college, my map of contemporary poetry centered on the kinds of avant-garde poetry made after the confessional poetry movement and after the heyday of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. There’s no agreed-upon name for this strand of contemporary poetry, the strand most often being reproduced in prestigious MFA programs these days. It is easier to convey what is meant by listing some poets you may have heard of: Ben Lerner, Claudia Rankine, Prageeta Sharma, Juliana Spahr, Willis. They were born in the 1960s and 1970s. Anthony Reed’s term post-lyric, which he applies specifically to Rankine, could apply to all of them. So usefully, Reed stresses that the post– doesn’t mean lyric has been superseded but that it has grown belated and ashamed of itself, like the –racial in post-racial.
This is going to be my longest book! It takes a while to flesh out the critical terms I need to make the leap from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. Terms like author, lyric, meter, and source.
Two of the last chapters of the book that I’ve been working on lately compare Chaucer to Rankine and to Willis. These are unexpected, difficult pairings. There’s no historical connection in either case. Rankine’s poetry and prose poetry, while conscious of their place in a history of violent race making, are determinedly presentist, so presentist that one page of Citizen underwent gut-wrenching expansion in subsequent printings to include names of further Black people murdered by police in 2014. Willis does think historically but focuses on the pre-Raphaelites, the subject of her dissertation.
Instead, I pursue a formal homology. Chaucer shares with Rankine on one side and with Willis on the other forms of what I am calling apophatic effects. With Rankine (and many other avant-garde poets), Chaucer shares a sense of lyric poetry as missing, absent, already erased, unavailable. That chapter centers on Chaucer’s Death of Blanche the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls, and the short lyric Fortune, and on Rankine’s 2004-2020 Graywolf Press trilogy Don’t Let Me Be Lonely—Citizen—Just Us. With Willis, Chaucer shares a propensity to stage moments of unrecognizable allusions, as when the dreamer of the Death of Blanche the Duchess alludes to a never-identified “phisycien” who can “heale” him (39-40). This chapter is still in progress but likely will touch on Chaucer’s House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Fortune again, and on Willis’s last three books, Meteoric Flowers (2006), Address (2011), and Alive: New and Selected Poems (2015). (Chaucer’s dream visions and lyrics I find easier to like than the Canterbury Tales, which makes me weird.)
Juxtaposing Chaucer and the avant-garde is mutually illuminating. Rankine helps me see the whiteness of Chaucer’s lyric subject, and Willis helps me see the radical nature of Chaucer’s spectral citationality. Chaucer in turn grounds avant-garde poetics in a much longer history of verse craft. His example suggests that some paradoxes of poetic making aren’t new.
I thought I’d give a progress report and some backstory on my current book project, Unheard Melodies: Apophatic Poetics in English Literature.
I was an experimental poet before I was a scholar of premodern England. In this book, for the first time in my scholarly career, I am paying critical attention to the contemporary American lyric poetry that I have been reading, teaching, and writing for years. The point of connection is what I call apophatic poetics: literature’s invitation to apprehend the inapprehensible, as in John Keats’s “On a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”
I argue that apophaticism entered English poetic practice in premodernity via apophatic (or ‘negative’) theological discourse (on which see Turner). However, I’ve organized the book conceptually rather than historically, and it’s not important for my argument that any particular author have theology in mind. In fact, it’s more interesting when they don’t. When Lerner writes a verse essay theorizing “the negative lyric” (59-67), I think he is thinking of Adorno and Hegel, but his use of negation has more in common with pseudo-Dionysius.
I’ve come to see Keats as the crucial hinge between premodern and contemporary apophatic poetics. His famous term negative capability names a disposition that lies behind many of the works I discuss in the book. Keats’s sweet unheard melodies sound an awful lot like the heavenly/mental music described in the Prick of Conscience, Pearl, Margery Kempe’s Book of Margery Kempe, and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Centuries later, Dickinson echoes Keats (Miller 198, 684):
This World is not conclusion. A Species stands beyond— Invisible, as Music— But positive, as Sound— It beckons, and it baffles— Philosophy, don’t know— And through a Riddle, at the last— Sagacity, must go—
The words the happy say Are paltry melody But those the silent feel Are beautiful—
Dickinson’s “through a Riddle” refers to 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass darkly [per speculum in enigmate],” which has emerged for me as a key scriptural reference-point for apophatic poetics. Speculum and enigma are the names of early literary genres, mirror for princes and riddle. The works I consider in the book all, in different ways, understand themselves to be inadequate, reflecting the world (like a mirror) but with mysterious distortions (like a riddle).
This is also my Piers Plowman book. I consider William Langland the grandmaster of apophatic poetics. Ejecting his poem into the undefined negative space surrounding familiar languages, literary forms, genres, motifs, texts, doctrines, devotional practices, and historical persons and events, he weaves a text almost entirely out of what I call apophatic effects. I read Piers Plowman in enigmate, following Gruenler and other modern commentators but also echoing the English rebels of 1381, who discerned under the surface of the poem an incitement to insurrection, and John Bale, who says he found in Piers Plowman both prophetic grandeur and an abundance of figurative language (Bale’s word is similitudines ‘analogies,’ another keyword of my book).
Part I of the book, now drafted, is a survey of forms of apophatic effects: unpronounceable syllables, metrical duck-rabbits, unreadable novels, and more. Authors and texts considered in part I include Anne Carson, Beowulf, Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wallace Stevens, Victoria Chang, and Vladimir Nabokov. Part II, yet to be written, will discuss the careers of six poets, three from the fourteenth century and three US-based poets born in the middle of the twentieth: Geoffrey Chaucer, Bob Dylan, Langland, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Willis, and the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m going to have fun comparing and contrasting across the six-hundred-year gulf.
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