Plumbline & Broken Middle

Here is my confession : since setting the Plumbline School on its merry airy erring way, I've had unspoken doubts & misgivings about what it all means. It began in a reaction : against what I perceived as a certain exaggerated or parodic or intentionally superficial or "facetious" atmosphere in the contemporary poetry realm (manifested at the time by "flarf" poetry - but this is only one example). But a simple reaction tends toward the reactionary : & I've worried that an emphasis on the "normative" and the "center" in poetry is a recipe for a staid, conventional stance (Joseph Hutchinson made this quite clear in his response to an invitation to join, a while back).

A second problem, for me, hovers around the idea of labels and abstract categories. To claim a poetry of "the middle" seems to homogenize & standardize a great deal of difference and variety; to look at it from another angle, it seems an awfully vague measure - so abstract as to be incapable of actually characterizing much.

I've tried, in various ways, to sharpen the idea, to make it more interesting : exploring such things as the relationship between mediation (the "golden mean") and ancient concepts of aesthetic and natural beauty; the issue of Metaphysical "wit", the yoking of opposites in a pithy metaphor, image, or aphorism; the differences between a poetry of experience and a poetry of discursive knowledge (Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility"); & finally, the notion of "the middle" as an ethical category, and its relation to poetry (Mandelstam's "sense of being right", etc.).

These are indeed some curious facets of the middle : but I don't think they answer either of the problems I've raised. We are still left with the question of how this concept of the plumbline relates to our poetry, and to contemporary poetry generally - if it does, at all! & we are still left with the 1st of my problems - that is, the slippage between the notion of "the middle" and mere, bland, complacent mediocrity (conventional, middle-brow or uncritical art).

Other members of the Plumbline may feel differently about these issues : perhaps I'm exaggerating the dilemma. But recently I've come upon some writings that might help me move forward. I was reading the final essay in Geoffrey Hill's Collected Essays (the essay title escapes me at the moment - something about modernist poetry). There he makes a reference to the late British thinker Gillian Rose, and her concept of "the broken middle". The phrase betook me to her book of that title, from the late 90s.

I'm not very well-read in philosophy & "theory" generally, and I found much of it hard going. So I welcome corrections to the following inadequate paraphrase. But basically Rose's book is a reflection on the status of contemporary philosophical thought, in the post-modern era. With deep readings of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Luxemberg, Adorno, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, & other modern & postmodern authors, Rose describes the agon of "authorship" in a post-Enlightenment, and post-Holocaust era, when post-structuralist theory has attempted to critique and dismantle "instrumental reason", the ideological underpinnings of Western society and governance, and to replace them with various alternative modes of discourse and social (non)structure.

Rose's very basic countering concept is formulated as "the broken middle" : a term describing the human condition, and the condition of human mediating social institutions, as always both sin-ridden and redemptive; violent and law-ful; and that this "compromised" (my term) condition is not escapable by way of verbal or ideological sleights-of-hand, but must be endured, deeply & critically evaluated, and lived. Surprisingly, she adds a small "lyric" toward the conclusion, which goes :

I am abused and I abuse
I am the victim and I am the perpetrator
I am innocent and I am innocent
I am guilty and I am guilty

(a poem which seems to echo both Whitman and some ancient Sanskrit passage)

I will have to go back to G. Hill's essay to see how he relates Rose's work to poetry in particular. But it occurred to me today that this notion of a "broken middle" - a mediation which is inevitably conflicted, compromised, endangered, guilty, and above all implicated, engaged - might offer another way to think about our "plumbline". The middle, here, is not simply a form of "instrumental" discursive management or technical flair, transposed to the sphere of aesthetics. The middle in this sense doesn't offer a "solution" to anything : it is not necessarily a resolution, or even always "peaceful" : in Rose's terms, it is more like an agonistic arena. Such a concept, in fact, might be applied to an interpretation of the contemporary poetry scene in another way : if the middle is conflicted, unresolved and agonistic, then the poetry scene - full of broken, distorted, and mistaken or incomplete formulae for competing styles - none of which seem to find much favor with an indifferent or uncomprehending public-at-large - the scene itself seems to reflect, to offer some evidence for, that agonistic state of things. Agonistic - yet still offering an elusive promise (or dream, or possibility) of reconciliation.


J.H. Stotts said...

there is also the idea of profanation: that poets need to constantly abuse the holy, bring it down, use it for play, shit on it, so that values can be reinvigorated, given new meaning.
ostranenie, making strange, so that when the final judgement comes we will remember all that was forgotten, recognize our various values in their weird manifestations.
in this formulation, the middle ground is the space consecration and profanation move between.
it seems like a very good agonistic catch-all, and is less despairing than, say, harold bloom's vision of desperate progress, where the later we come the more impossible it is to overcome our precursors; this sort of lightens the burden of our lateness, and seems golden in that respect, too.
for more on profanation--agamben. for ostranenie--shklovsky.

Joseph Duemer said...

Hello all. Sorry to have been gone so long. It's about 100 and humid in Hanoi, where I am working with Vietnamese poets on translation and setting up interviews. And Henry, I feel your pain, as President Clinton used to say. I share your agon in our broken middle. If it's any consolation, it seems Vietnamese poets are having similar debates about the proper role of poetry, especially in a maddeningly globalizing world that seems to wash away connections to traditional practices. I've been so wrung out at the ends of my days that I haven't had much energy to think about poetry in any deep way, yet. I'm just trying to absorb a great deal and collect a great deal of material for later contemplation. One thing, though, that Vietnamese language study has taught me is that syllables matter. Especiallin in Vietnamese, but also, in a different way, in English. So my thought for the day is: consider the lowly syllable, a little seed planted in the broken ground of the middle places, the meeting places of one kind of thing and another.

Henry Gould said...

Great to hear from you, Joseph! Your look to the lowly syllable today (Shakespeare's birthday) brought me back to the passage that started off the Plumbline in the first place (from Macbeth)... -

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time..."

[interested readers : see early posts to this blog titled "Inaugural message of the Plumbline School", and "Shakespeare, Lincoln, Macbeth"]

Stay cool, Joe!

Joseph Duemer said...

Henry, in Vietnamese any syllable has six possible intonations that cary symantic meaning. Not every syllable has all six variants -- some are nonsense -- but many Vietnamese words are differentiated in meaning only according to the way they are sung. I'm going to try to write something more about this, but the short version is that practicing Vietnamese with a teacher is an exercise that really sharpens one's sense of melopoeia in one's own language.

Henry Gould said...

Your comment on Vietnamese intonation reminded me of this comment over at the Harriet blog, from Don Share (under Annie Finch's recent post on Simone Weil) :

"“Anne Mounic: Yesterday, during your conference, you mentioned Simone Weil a number of times, saying that the reading of L’enracinement and L’attente de Dieu had confirmed some of your intuitions as a young man. What are these intuitions which, in this manner, were confirmed?

GH: It is rather strange, if one considers that Simone Weil was a writer very involved with the spiritual, with what were the intuitions regarding the relationships between politics and poetry. Yesterday, I cited a passage where she says that the poet, when he writes a poem, must consider his words on multiple planes and that it is the same for the politician in his thought and action. For me, it is a question about one of the most profound observations and one which concerns the link between poetry and politics.”

Chris Bays said...

Henry and Joseph,

Since we are discussing syllables as one of the basic elements of poetry -- what do you think about the role of asian poetic forms, such as haiku and haibun, in 21st century poetry?

Henry Gould said...

Chris, I'm just not that familiar with that (fascinating) world... maybe you could help us out there!