Alison Croggon: The Poetic: some speculations

Poetry must be a debacle of the intellect.

            Charles Baudelaire


To begin at the beginning.

Who is the poet?

Firstly, the poet is a fiction. The poet has nothing to do with the quotidian self who bears children, buys the milk, scrubs the cupboards, yells at her partner and forgets to do the tax return.

That person is irrelevant to literature, although it might appear that the poet writes about nothing else. Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish is not a great poem because it tells us about his mother, his homosexuality, the Diaspora, his childhood, madness or loss. If he wished merely to confess these things, he could more easily have written a diary. But he didn't: he wrote a poem, and a poem obeys other, less easily defined imperatives.

The conflation of the quotidian self with the poet is the beginning of the death of understanding. Poetry is not therapy, nor autobiography, nor documentation, nor politics, nor a theoretical arena: although of course it may disuise itself as all these things.

The poet is the self who writes poetry. The link between the poet and the quotidian self is the body. The difference is poetry. Although one is not the other, it is impossible to separate them. Neither of these putative selves have anything to do, yet, with the idea of a reader.

The quotidian self is of minor interest and is nobody's business except the poet's. I should like to confine my speculations to poetry and the body.


First, a glance at the poetic.

The poetic is the embarrassment of contemporary thinking because, no matter what cultural hygienists do, it stinks of a metaphysics. Since Plato, philosophers have continually plundered poetry, while proclaiming their rational superiority over those liars, poets. The contemporary proliferation of theory, and its bid to wrest the crown of poiesis from poetry, might be read as the symptom of a giant panic: for the destruction of truth means that philosophers have lost their traditional argument for superiority over poets. But, as Rimbaud might have said, theory is too slow. Guiseppe Ungaretti anticipated Derrida by half a century, summing up differánce in a poem of two lines:

Between this flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothingness. (1)

Poets have been as eager to thrust poiesis at the theoreticians as theory has been eager to take it: perhaps similarly to how the Incas initially welcomed the Conquistadors as gods. Contemporary positions on poetics are colonised positions, where poets touch their forelocks to their theoretical masters, forgetting that it was poets who gave them their ideas in the first place. And that is their fault. Theoreticians do not possess the swords of the Conquistadors. On the other hand, poets are entitled to use what tools they like, and theory gives us some useful springboards. We would be as foolish to ignore it as to take it seriously.


And what is this poetic, which disagreeably refuses to die despite the best efforts of mediocre poets and timorous thinkers? Perhaps one should talk of love, a word which has been also abused. Let us pick these poor, soiled rags off the floor and see if body can be breathed back into them.

. . . I urge you . . .
. . . . taking . . .
the lyre, while desire again . . .
wings around you (2)

It requires a barbaric exercise in enchantment: but poetry is a barbarous activity, persisted in by fools and children. The Romans named the Barbarians so because their languages sounded to them like - baa baa.

Baa baa black sheep ....

Rhythm is the first sign of the poetic.


Rhythm is the signal that language is produced by the human body and links us to the world outside our skin.

RHYTHM. A perceived pattern of repetition in time. The term has wide reference, from the cycles of the seasons to the pulse of an atomic clock. As applied to language, rhythm refers to a timing which is not exact, but rather fluent, like that of the heartbeat, breathing and walking. (3)

Prosody, the formal regulation of rhythm, stems from the Greek word meaning words sung to music and governs breath and tone. Rhythm reaches into and out of the body: it is both analogous and literal. It shapes the movement of the eye over the page, the emotional, intellectual and physical being of a poem.

Rhythm is carnal. It gives us the immediate, unrepeatable present of language. This carnality, combined with poetry's encounter with otherness, is the source of the eroticism of the poetic.


Poetry does not forget the etymological link between veneration and venereal. Despite its debasement, the desire for the poetic persists. Subliminally alert to its subversive possibilities, culture turns a primping face and sells the poetic, deodorised and neatly plucked, to a dwindling population desensitised by a promiscuous mania for explanation. This degradation of the poetic to the banal, commonly remarked on as a result of two decades of creative writing courses or seven decades of academisation, can be seen as a symptom of prurience, as Madonna is of puritanical America: the asexuality which, in adopting the forms of erotic activity, eviscerates them of their powers to appal, to horrify, to compel reverence or delight. The poetic, like sexuality, is rendered safe, containable, explicable, easily commodified: it is disincarnated and so removed from either authentic pleasure or genuine pain. We live in the era of the fake - or perhaps the theoretical - orgasm.


According to Herodotus, the god Eros was the third born in the world, after the Earth and the Sky. Eros is almost exclusively represented by the Greeks as a child.

The child as a dimension of the erotic has been forgotten or perverted: Georges Batailles for instance, otherwise hardly a typical thinker, places childbirth and child rearing in the anerotic arena of work.

The child is the immeasurable, irretrievable risk of love, incarnated. Its anarchic challenge to hygiene opens the possibility of the world to us, outside our conditioned reflexes: are faeces so filthy? is urine so disgusting? is the breast, engorged with milk, so distasteful? is nakedness as exclusively genital as we are led to believe? and is this unorderedness, or, perhaps, this unculturated response to carnal stimuli, as opposed to aesthetic pleasure as is conventionally thought? Or is it, perhaps, better considered as the (to be sure) unevolved origin of authentic sensation - that is, aesthetics?

Too literal an analogy between the child and the poem is not tenable without trivialising both. But I wish to retrieve for the erotic, and thus for the poetic, the unanaesthetised reality of birth. We often hear of the place of death in the erotic but the spectrum cannot be whole unless we include beginnings as well as endings, the opening of possibility as well as its closure. We must remember that in its perpetual destruction and restoration of language, its serious play and playful seriousness, its foolishness and fragility, its derangement of dualities and smashing of unities, in its acceptance and implicit rejection, finally, of mortality and finitude, poetry is a making of love.

How do we restore the wholeness of our desires? We must firstly imagine the cunt with more clarity than as a hole with indeterminate borders (4) and the cock more fully than as a defining phallic pen to stick in the hole. We must remember the child, the ambiguity and mystery of our fertility. Eroticism must be liberated from its desolate obsession with copulating genitals and embrace, not only the whole of our bodies, but of our experience and being in the world.

But does this not return us to the hovering banality of the quotidian self and banish us from the domain of literary imagination?


What, then, of form?

The true subject of the poem is a life that recovers its form - a finitude that becomes limitless. (5)

This might function as a definition of beauty. We are used to thinking of beauty as a limitation, a series of ideals, or stereotypes, which art, confined by its historicity, assimilates and perpetuates. But is this in fact the case? Might not the terror of beauty lie in the fact that everything is beautiful: that beauty is not a matter of idealisation, but of attention?

Perhaps, to use a Lacanian model, beauty is the chaotic self, the chaotic body, the chaotic world: fragmentary, diffuse, unassigned to meaning. One might think of consciously defined form as an armoured aesthetic, the integrated self aggressively defending itself against the chaos within and without it. Against this consciousness, art then is a means, not of containing chaos, but of releasing it, of shattering the pre-existing aesthetic/self and simultaneously remaking it. All true art contains the terror of obliteration, which lies at the core of beauty. It admits the reality of death, of human finitude and failure, it admits that the world is not us and that we do not control it. This admission is love: the voluntary renunciation of self-tyranny, the ascension to the place of ordinary beauty, which redeems nothing.


In poetry, or any art, it is impossible to talk of form and content as if they are two separate qualities. But most discussion about art, and much art, implicitly makes this distinction.

A formless poem is an oxymoron. Formality is the proper realm of the poetic imagination: those who think of form in terms of a narrow set of conventions from which poetry must be liberated or within which poetry is defined are refusing the necessity of its limitless possibilities. A poem is not a vessel from which a subject can be poured out, any more than the human body is a container for the soul.

Poetry is about nothing except itself.

For poetry makes nothing happen; it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. (6)

The fact that poetry has no justification is a sore trouble to many people and is why it is so often asked to be something else. One of its most essential qualities, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger (7) points out, is the freedom not to read it. Poetry, that most severe of disciplines, is about nothing if not freedom: even from itself.

It can matter only on its own terms, which are radically without use. If it incorporates the terms of other agendas, they must be secondary to the imperatives of the poetic. Poetry requires the courage to believe in nothing except the infinite possibilities of the poetic.


All poetry depends from the impossible.

The actual, the present, the now are the only things that matter in poems: and they are everything that is not in poetry. Love is presence attending to the present. Poetry is a confession of love's absence, where the self is nourished by its own effacement. How often are the words I love you a despairing admission of emptiness? What are most of our lives but a series of still births, aborted moments? And who has a heart vast enough to encompass these failures in our selves and our language?

Yet poetry, if it does not recall something like faith in our broken language, is not poetry at all. Its demand is that we are constantly reborn; and such nakedness requires a courage that invites us, continuously, to failure. For us, as Eliot said, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.(8)


1. Selected Poems, Guiseppe Ungaretti, trans. Patrick McCreagh, Penguin Books 1971.

2, 9. Sappho, Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, trans. Diane Raynor, University of California Press, 1991.

3. Rhythm, Form and Metre, Seven Centuries of Poetry in English, third edition, ed. John Leonard, OUP 1994.

4. Differènce, Jacques Derrida, 1968.

5. p 133, The Act and the Place of Poetry, Yves Bonnefoy.

6. In Memory of W.B. Yeats, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, W.H Auden, Faber and Faber 1966.

7. A Modest Proposal, Mediocrity and Delusion, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, trans. Martin Chalmers, Verso 1992.

8. Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, Faber and Faber 1976.

Alison Croggon, National Word Festival, Canberra, 1995.