"Corn: From Anatomy to Poetics" by Giorgio Agamben

It's not often an essay can impress by the qualities alone of form, scholarly virtuosity and elegance but Agamben's "Corn: From Anatomy to Poetics" certainly does. I'll compare it to anything Derrida wrote at the height of his powers. I'll even venture to say Agamben, whose name can't be tied to any current literary movements, is a lot more generous with his sources and can segue into more scholarly categories than even the great deconstructionist. It's no coincidence that I discovered Agamben through the writings of another master essayist Robin Blaser (in The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser) who discusses Agamben's unique philosophico-literary contributions to language in his essay "The Irreparable" .

As belonging to a larger text entitled The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics Agamben's essay is actually the record of a literary discussion with friends Italo Calvino and Claudio Rugafiori, all of whom had conceived together of a review, as he says, of "'Italian categories'... a matter of identifying nothing less than the categorial structures of Italian culture through a series of conjoined polar concepts." (The End of the Poem xi). The essay can be seen as a contribution towards an oeuvre of the scale, say, of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism though the scope and design later narrowed considerably to a shorter discussion of "general problems in poetics." (xii) Agamben's work is part of that discussion.

The essay is a work of philology, translation and literary criticism that proposes a general view of meter seen as a break with the musicality of Troubadour poetry. That is its general design: Agamben's thesis develops skilfully through the details of a transition from anatomical (quasi-bawdy) reference to metrical innovation and then to all the semantic possibilities now opened to poetry on a newer (more contemporary) meta-understanding of the relationship between sound & sense. Its content almost amounts to a literary paradigm shift.

The form of the essay, on the other hand, looks strangely at odds with content: divided into Historia, Allegory, Tropology, Anagogy, Sensus Mysticus and Epilogue, it seems to follow a sort of scriptural or medieval Thomistic exegesis. Agamben's exposition can be read in one of two ways: a case of intentional (a poststructuralist sort of) 'irony' at the expense of serious academic reading—a view I'm inclined to adopt—or an ingenious synthesis of classical and contemporary criticism, one that traces out of an ambiguous translation of 'corn' (anus, clitoris or some other purposely ambiguous sense of bodily orifice?) no less than the origins of a veritable metrics revolution. The razo to Arnaut Daniel's Troubadour composition (in its original bilingual form):

Raimon de Dufort and Lord Turc Malec were two knights from Quercy who composed the sirventes about the lady called Milday n'Aia, the one who said to the knight that she would not love him if he did not corn her in the arse.
And here are written the sirventes.
(Raimons de Dufort e N Turc Malec si foron du cavallier de Caersi que feiren los sirventes de la domna que ac nom ma domna n'Aia, aquella que dis al cavalier de Cornil qu'ella no l'amaria si el no la cornava el cul.
Et aqui son escritz los sirventes.)
Thus the philological status of 'corn' in Arnaut's Provencal verses takes us initially to a contested moment in Historia: the historical fact of Arnaut's own substitution of corn for cul in the sirventes that follow the razo. The substitution does more than correct an embarrassing blemish: it creates a textual lacuna (or 'gap', as Agamben says) that becomes the occasion for a crucial "'body of the woman/body of the poem' equation, which constitutes the sirventes's theme" (31). Which in turn leads to Agamben's most developed view of the Arnaut text and Ayna figure as "[t]he site of a fulfillment and an impossibility, of a perfection possible through an imperfection alone". (42) Just the sort of purposeful but playfully ambiguous reworking of traditional materials that's characteristic of so much contemporary poetics.

A quibbling over bawdy terminology creates a textual split after which the history of verse is never the same. But how exactly: how does the essay's typology lead in this way from what Agamben sees as the "somewhat uninspiring interpretative exercises" (23) of the courtly poet's earliest critics to a point in literary understanding where "comprehension is darkened in speech and speech is silenced in comprehension"? (42)

Through scholarly researches that uncover a vital 'corn' to 'cors' transition the 'corn' debate changes female into poetic anatomy (28), the new term 'cors' or 'cor' now meaning a "metrical unit", a structural feature not of a female body but of the verse fabric itself. A nonconformist (more problematic) view of poetry and its constitutive parts arises where anatomy turns into a blemish in prosodic design. A lewd reference to the female body now translates into an equally troubling reluctance on the part of rhymes to do their job within the same strophe. 'Corn' is now understood as "a partially unrelated rhyme" that requires the presence of other stanzas to which rhymes must later refer if compositional unity is to be maintained.

By virtue of this asymmetry of design, and the necessity the reader is now under to regard the poem in its entirety, a new "metastrophical" view of courtly lyric poetry is born in which the appearance of 'corn' then 'cors' marks a continuity and experimentalism divide begun with a substitution of the initially ambiguous 'corn' for a patently obscene 'cul': so that a part of female anatomy in the early Arnaut sirventes now carries over into a new sense of poetry as the place of rhyme displacement. Freed from strophic constraint rhyme loosens like a free radical into the body of the text. Arnaut who "treats all verses as "corns" and...by thus rupturing the closed unity of the strophe, transforms the unrelated rhyme into the principle of a higher relation" (31 italics are Agamben's) is seen as a poet of unexpected novelty, more particularly of verses that always leave something else oddly mislocated within the same poem. The troublesomeness of 'site' makes the reading eye work a little harder, looking no longer for melodic verses to courtly ladies but a more interesting Allegory at work in all poetic texts. In Agamben's words,

If we return, therefore, to Arnaut's sirventes, the whole dispute surrounding Ayna's corn is displaced from its obscene literal sense to a question of poetic technique and from a problem of anatomical suitableness to a metrical matter. The "body of the woman=body of the poem" equation, which is not altogether unexpected but is still not a given, will find a counterpart in the equation of corn as bodily orifice and corn as point of rupture of the strophe's metrical structure." (30)

If the corn is a point of fracture in the unity of the strophe, and if the strophe's metrical structure is not to be irremediably shattered...the laceration must take place with a particular precaution: the unrelated rhymes must be joined in a new metastrophic formal unity. (23)
By linking rhymes within a wider textual body the poet (and reader) avoids the prurience of focusing on one aspect only of the "woman-poem", dispensing at the same time with the purely melodic signifiers that give prominence to the physical Lady: in short, a literal reading of corn as female anatomy must now subserve a higher "harmonic" part-to-whole ordering that now appeals as much to the eye as the ear. Here is the emerging idea of poetry as text. The rupture between rhymes and a Troubadour's sound devices stills the singing voice, the poem's allegiance to a dominant tradition of "oral performance" forever gone, and activates a new type of intellectual viewing such as is typified in the complex sestina form. The body of Ayna, no longer the object of coarse sexual play, is elevated to a more intellectually innovative Tropology: it is even perhaps a morally (or spiritually) edifying way to talk about how the female body can presage a distinctively novel view of textual poetry.

Scattered readings of philological speculation and an emerging transformation of the physical into a symbolic body through Allegory are now bound to veer off into more technical discussions. Leaving melos for metrics will mark the poetic text as a site of errant rhymes and verses that won't end uniformly at the end of every line: enjambments are now seen as a negotiable upper-limit to where poetry can be safely distanced from an encroaching prose, poetry's ghostly Other. Enjambment, the errant verse line, is to poetry at this stage what Arnaut's 'corn' caesura originally was to rhyme.The very "harmony between sound and sense" (35) is put into question.

The bifurcated textual body of the poem can now be reconfigured as a sound and sense, "metrical segmentation and syntactical segmentation" (34) battleground where the distinctions between them are becoming more vaguely defined. If the music of oral tradition has given way to a the poem's metrical unity, which in turn threatens to enter prose terrain through lines (enjambments) whose chief sense-carriers (rhymes) don't appear uniformly at the end, it's even hard to separate sound from sense (a topic that's received in Silliman's view of the New Sentence its only true contemporary post-avant formulation). The "metastrophic" unity signalled by 'corn' now marks a troubling divide between the poem as metrics and poem as site of meaning. This is poetry's Anagogy phase: a kind of even more ultimate & divergent reading of that always troublesome place ('corn' or unrelated rhyme) of the "woman-poem".

Citing Dante extensively (particularly Book III of the Convivio) Agamben draws the most controversial conclusion of all from this growing sense-sound separation: namely, that poetry resides in the ineffability of poetic meanings themselves. Intellect and language, having ruptured almost beyond any formal compatibility, now chase each other around tempestuously like cold and warm fronts, with meanings sometimes gaining the ascendancy over sounds, sometimes sounds over meanings. Again, a perceived imperfection in language (lack of stable rhymes & verse lines), site of potential embarrassment, turns into a new sort of literary perfection. In the hands of the great Dante imperfection is the beginning Inferno stage and the Comedy that ends in beatific vision becomes the Sensus Mysticus form of language itself. Arnaut as the prequel to Dante!

These two synchronous and inverse processes in the act of speaking (and listening)—that of language's movement toward comprehension and of comprehension's movement toward language—communicate with each other in their limitation, such that (as Dante will go on to say) their imperfection actually coincides with their perfection". (39)
And more emphatically still:

And is this not precisely what happens in every genuine poetic enunciation in which language's movement toward sense is as if traversed by another discourse, one moving from comprehension to sound, without either of the two ever reaching its destination, the one to rest in prose and the other in pure sound? Instead, in a decisive exchange, it is as if, having met each other, each of the two movements then followed the other's tracks, such that language found itself led back in the end to language, and comprehension to comprehension. This inverted chiasm—this and nothing else—is what we call poetry. This chiasm is, beyond every vagueness, poetry's crossing with thought, the thinking essence of poetry and the poeticizing essence of thought (41 Italics are Agamben's)
In my previous two posts on Timothy Steele's work on the decline of metrics I noted the author's linking its devaluation to the abandonment of meter for something perceived to be closer to language's natural rhythms. I wonder if Steele is aware of the Arnaut connection to the loss of melos in poetry evolution: perhaps even if he'd consider Dante's own Commedia as a valid testimony to the loss of song, & its decline into an opposing play of sound and sense as outlined in Agamben's essay. Whether the lament for 'song' is at all the same as the celebrated final Dantean paradox of the broken vision of the Trinity in Paradiso: XXXIII : where language, as elevated as this, can envisage a triune God only in fragments. In the terzina,

O luce etterna che sola in te sidi,
sola t'intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi! (124-126)
Dante, nearing the end of his journey, wants to celebrate and invoke at the same time this visione straordinaria of a divine mystery imparted to him in three parts: even at the celestial summits the divine essence grasped only little by little, restricted to only its diverse qualities. Intellect and poetic imagination battle it out to the very end. To avoid experiencing similar limitations with regards to other higher mysteries like the Incarnation & the contemplation of God requires a final divine grace (one that seems tantamount to a complete abandonment of poetic language itself):

A l'alta fantasia qui manco possa;
a gia volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle,
si come rota ch'igualmente e mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.(142-145)
Comprehension and language completely submerged in the divine "love that moves sun & stars."


Henry Gould said...

Sounds fascinating, Conrad. I will have to look for this book. My off-the-cuff skepticism, however, leads me to wonder if Agamben's approach isn't already dated. Your sketch seems to reflect the period's exalted valorization of theoretical analysis : as if the simple fact of analyzing a phenomenon into its constituent parts somehow unveils the mystery of its essence...

The process of poetic composition, and the imperfections, disjunctions, & elisions this involves, might be conceptualized from the obverse direction : that is, that both the sound and the meanings of the text are dimensions of a synthetic complex or nexus, the ur-poem - composed not on the page, but on the poet's lips... this is the approach emphasized by Mandelstam (in "Conversation about Dante"), that the text of the Divine Comedy is the "score" of an organic, physical process - a combination of the poet's "walking" and
mumbling" - a synthetic process which fuses the two strands of poetry (M's "verbal material" (its actual sound, texture) and its semiotic dimensions (meanings)...

One can thematize, as Agamben seems to do, Dante's tropes of ineffability - as descriptions of the nature of poetry itself (its disjunctions of sound/sense), but this would be a reductive argument which Dante himself would reject.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


Mandelstam might just serve as an interesting 'mediation' of pure 'sound' and later, more 'theoretically' interesting textual corruptions of a more modern poetics. Mandesltam as a probable 'mean' between extremes.

My amazon-shipped copy of Mandelstam has yet to arrive.

Henry Gould said...

Conrad, did you order the book by (fellow-Canadian) Elena Corrigan ("Mandelshtam's Poetics")? Or something by OM himself? The Corrigan book goes in depth into this question of "2 strands"...

Conrad DiDiodato said...

No I haven't, Henry, but certainly will now. Corrigan's book on Mandelstam's Petics), in conjunction with his own views on Dante,are vital to this discussion.When I've read all three I will post something (hopefully by about middle of April)

Thanks, again, for the references.