progress report

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.

further reading

Dickinson, Emily, and Cristanne Miller, ed. Poems: As She Preserved Them. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Gruenler, Curtis. “Piers Plowman” and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2006.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

tyrannical curriculum

The more and more I teach at the college level, the more and more I appreciate how intertwined teaching and research are for professional academics. This is not immediately obvious when reading through scholarship on the page. Periodization ensures that fields don’t connect, because courses within those fields don’t connect.

The same dynamic plays out within the fields of literary study. Features of the intellectual landscape in my own field that puzzled me as an undergraduate and PhD candidate are readily explained with reference to the need to teach in a curriculum. The overwhelming centrality of Chaucer in late medieval English studies corresponds to the provision of Chaucer courses at nearly every college and university. We offer “Chaucer” ostensibly because Chaucer is uniquely important, and because undergraduates most want to take these courses. I have grown skeptical of both of these implicit rationales, the first about Chaucer’s intrinsic worth and the second about students’ preferences. I now think it’s the other way around: Chaucer remains canonical and well-known because every English-department medievalist shares an experience of taking and/or teaching a class on his work. It’s just easier to have something to say about texts that you regularly discuss with students. And the Chaucerian texts that get the most attention in scholarship, in turn, are those that are easiest to teach and most commonly taught to undergraduates: the Wife of Bath’s Tale, less so Troilus, still less the Boece or most of the lyrics. It’s understandable.

There are more subtle examples. The first part or visio of Langland’s Piers Plowman (A.Prologue-8 / B.Prologue-7 / C.Prologue-9) receives far more scholarly attention than the rest of the poem, which makes up about two-thirds of Piers Plowman by volume. That is because the visio is a blueprint for the whole poem, but it is also because it’s typically not possible to read beyond the visio in the undergraduate (or often even the graduate) classroom. The visio is all we have time for when we teach Piers Plowman in a course on alliterative poetry, or political poetry, or religious literature, or multilingualism, etc.

This is true for Old English, too. Beowulf dominates this field for many reasons, and a major reason is that it is nearly always the spring semester text, after a fall introduction to the language. It’s the right size to get through in one semester at a fast clip, but there’s no room to read other texts in that semester. For the same reason, a handful of short texts (the ones in Eight Old English Poems, ed. R. D. Fulk) also get a lot of play: they are bite-sized and easy to work through in a non-Beowulf spring Old English seminar.

Texts that, on paper, ought to be central to our assessment of medieval English literary culture are often relegated to the status of specialized topics because they are difficult to squeeze into a semester: the Paris Psalter (the longest poem in Old English), Lawman’s Brut (the longest poem in Early Middle English), the Prick of Conscience (the most-copied poem in Middle English), the so-called Wycliffite Bible. Not to mention the many important medieval English texts not composed in English, which must be taught in translation, if at all, in the US: Richard Rolle’s Latin writings, Gower’s Vox clamantis, Froissart’s dits amoureux. Medievalists whose training is in a different language tradition are always on about the single-minded prioritization of the English language in English departments, and they have a point. It’s a point less about the individual moral rectitude of researchers in this field than it is about the pragmatism of keeping a research career spinning while teaching a full courseload.

(Now, it’s always possible to do research on texts that you never teach, but it is much harder to maintain that split-brain for long.)


Here is an opposite framing of all this. I have the incredible privilege of learning with my students about texts that I then analyze in scholarship. The feedback loop between teaching and research is both professionally convenient and intellectually fulfilling. Just this semester, rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my students generated two small new ideas about the poem, which are now under consideration as two scholarly notes. One must, after all, teach something, and, unbelievably, I get paid to read and think about the literature that I already want to read and think about. If that has to include Chaucer, well, fine, I’ll think of something to say about him, too.

The problem arises, I think, as it also does for periodization and linguistic nationalism, when the boundary-line between foreground and background sinks below the level of consciousness: when we forget the tyranny of the curriculum and mistake a field of study for a self-sufficient and essentially disinterested response to the past. Medievalists, like other humanists, have long since discarded the idea that historical work could ever really be disinterested, yet certain basic assumptions about what is a ‘major’ text, which poets had an ‘Age,’ seem to replicate the thinking that we claim to have transcended as a field. (This mirrors the situation with periodization, whereby the political-historical boundaries that, we all agreed long ago, should not deterministically govern English literary history still do so in the curriculum, and therefore in the distribution of fields, hiring, scholarly organizations. . .)


What to do? I don’t know. In a small way, I’ve been trying to be a bit more experimental in what I assign to undergraduates, partly in order to be a bit more experimental in what I can speak about in my research. I teach anonymous political prophecies in English and Latin, Welsh poetry in translation, Gower alongside Chaucer, Piers Plowman beyond the visio. This has meant foreshortening some other, expected components of my course offerings.

Experimentalism is a decision that I have the luxury of making as a tenured professor rather than a graduate candidate, a job-seeker, or a junior colleague. Ideally, though, experimental teaching can in turn change expectations, reflecting a different vision of the field back into research, hiring, etc. The prospects for this shift in perspective seem to me good: postmedievalists don’t know all that much about our texts, anyway, so I think they are just as happy to hear about an anti- or non-Chaucerian book as a Chaucerian one–as long as you promise to teach “Chaucer” one way or another.

Piers Plowman / social upheaval

William Langland’s Piers Plowman (composed 1370s-1380s) is a poem of social upheaval. It grapples with new social realities in the wake of the plague, which devastated England in 1348; its title character became a codename in an uprising of peasants, laborers, and artisans in 1381; fictionally, it depicts a society on the brink of implosion.

The 1381 connection has, rightly, attracted a lot of attention from Langland’s modern readers (Justice). During the uprising, rebels beheaded government officials, burned legal documents, and exchanged letters calling on Piers the Plowman to “go to his work.” To adapt a phrase that Lerner uses to characterize the ideology of the avant-garde, Piers Plowman was “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel” (39). There are not many poems that come with a death toll–and none that I can think of that are such good poetry.

Piers Plowman is a poem of social upheaval in another sense, and here I’m moving from critical commonplaces to a new argument that I make in a forthcoming article. Langland’s poem takes the form of a search for truth and justice in this world, including social justice, but a search that is known ahead of time to be an abject failure. Why? Here Langland would spread his hands theatrically wide. The wretchedness of the world was, for him, self-evident. A truth that Piers Plowman repeatedly discovers is this: perversely, describing a better world drives home how awful this one, the actual one, is. Langland expresses this truth by obsessively hitting the poetic reset button that was available to him in the dream vision form (first-person dreamer falls asleep in springtime, has a disorienting allegorical vision of dubious significance, etc.). Other medieval dream visions are one long dream; the dreamer of Piers Plowman is always falling back asleep.

In the article, I write:

Piers Plowman deepens or intensifies but does not progress. It is a tensile poem, responsive to the world, but it does not move, really. Running in parallel with the successive invocation and dismissal of [literary] genres, Piers Plowman proposes extrainstitutional principles for the refoundation of Christian society, all of which fail in precisely the same way, by generating the unacceptable present reality. This is Langland’s “negative utopianism,” as identified by Karma Lochrie [164]. […] The whole poem expands and expounds the opening dream of a society gripped by debilitating hypocrisy.

(In making this argument I join one strand of modern commentary on Piers Plowman, which sees its structure as basically recursive, like a Möbius strip [Middleton]. There is another strand that views its structure as basically progressive, like a pilgrimage. This scholarly schism is fascinating in its own right and tells you a lot about the poem.)

My article defines Piers Plowman‘s recursive form and proposes a new analog for it, the tradition of political prophecy (think Merlin). But there is maybe more to say about the political implications of literary recursivity and failure. Lerner again: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price” (53). Langland felt that. Piers Plowman is a massive failure, and knows it. It is a theological failure; it is a political failure; it is a social failure; and it is therefore a poetic failure. It has to be: it is a “particular poem,” not a sublime abstraction. Piers Plowman includes asides in which the narrator/poet Will is berated by a range of allegorical figures–Reason; Conscience; even imagination, who might be expected to be a fan–for wasting time writing all that dumb poetry.

Piers Plowman‘s circuit of frustration and failure conforms to some modern political and social problems. The sterile debate about whether everything or nothing in society nowadays is neoliberal, and, interlocking that debate, the sniping at and among the various strands of socialism share a structure that will be familiar to a reader of Langland. The problem of a term meant to encompass an entire mode of social organization, like feudal or neoliberal, might be that it is being pressed to do too much conceptual work; or it might be that it is too apt, that a mode of social organization is at that moment oppressively total (Song).* Correspondingly, the problem with political labels/ideologies like socialism–but equally small-l liberalism, and fascism–might be that their political content is inimical to a given person’s disposition, experience, and social placement; or it might be that the distance between the world as it is and the ideal state of affairs that those terms differently demand is insufferable. We are all familiar with how fruitless it is to argue against one of the isms armed only with an actual example. It is always possible, and in practice easy, to exclude the example from the ideal. Socialists, liberals, and fascists all do this: actually existing inequity can only ever be blamed on someone else’s abstraction. To an extent, this is understandable. One’s political ideals are ideals precisely insofar as they’ve never been put into practice. Nothing will wreck the beautiful poem in your head faster than trying to write it down.

This two-sided discursive problem–a political description that seems uselessly repetitious with the totality of lived experience, and one that seems uselessly abstract and unattainable–maps onto what I see as the major poles of Langland’s vacillating thought throughout the poem. It’s not as if there is for Langland a middle ground, where terms are just useful enough. It’s failure all the way down: either a failure to imagine anything different, or else a failure to imagine anything achievable. Piers Plowman expresses its optimism that things could change for the better in a fashion that would seem strangely pessimistic if it were not also the signature move of academic ideology critique: to demolish, one by one, ideas that won’t work.

But social upheaval does occur. We know this. Langland knew this, too. Piers Plowman alludes more than once to the time “before the plague,” a period represented in the poem as obviously better than the present but sealed off from it by the cataclysm of 1348. The political and social realities which vexed Langland in the 1370s, in turn, gave way to something else. And our unacceptable present reality, whether neoliberal is a perfect or an inane descriptor for it, will end, too. Song on 2010s neoliberalism could be Langland on a post-Edenic world and post-plague England: “a kind of postlapsarian moment that exists ever in the shadow of a time before” (283). Langland did not expect or want his poem to inspire a rebellion, but it did anyway. There seems to be an inevitable asymmetry, a slippage, between the experience of one political/social moment and the remediation of texts and ideas from that moment. Maybe we can just call this slippage (literary) history. It’s something that will continue to fascinate me; and it holds out hope for achieving some measure of justice in a world that is often intolerable. At the same time, it suggests that Langland was right to sense that a poem, no matter how brilliant, would not cut it. “A kind of value no particular poem can realize. . .” A devastating critique of the status quo does not normally change things. It can only be a starting point.

*Hugo Raine has a splendid essay for Verso’s blog on “Marxism and the Middle Ages,” in which he argues that a fundamental error of some Marxist medieval historians is to assume, with Marx, that the totalizing structure of modern capitalism implies prior totalizing modes of economic/social organization. (Hence feudalism.) What if there weren’t any? What if capitalism is in this respect unique? It’s a very smart thought, and I think that in general I agree with it. But Langland does seem to represent the economic/social system of fourteenth-century England as totalized, as implicated in every sector of human existence, even if feudal isn’t the right word for it.

further reading

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2016.

Lochrie, Karma. Nowhere in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Middleton, Anne. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Mortwon W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 91-122.

Song, Min Hyoung. “An Ethics of Generosity.” In Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 281-98.

Weiskott, Eric. “Political Prophecy and the Form of Piers Plowman.” Viator (forthcoming).