"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."


Russian plumbline

Speaking of Acmeists, & conjunctions of opposites... on this date in 1966, Anna Akhmatova died. On the same day, in 1953, Stalin died. One lived by the word, the other by the sword. & the survivor outlived her mortal foe - leader of those who executed her husband Nikolai Gumilev, & sent her only child to the gulag. Gives another sense to those famous lines of hers:

Gold rusts, steel decays, marble
crumbles. Everything readies for death.
The firmest thing on Earth is sorrow,
and most lasting is the regal word.

In some of the early posts to the Plumbline, there was discussion of the "theatrical" dimension of human life and history, & how poetry is bound up inextricably with the dramatic fate of cultures & nations. You can see that clearly coming to the fore in the struggle between poetry & dictatorship in Russia : where Mandelstam's early affinity with Ovid played out in a foreshortened imitation (his poem about Stalin sent him to exile & death, as Ovid's poetry had gotten him shipped off to the Black Sea).

There's a thematic aspect to this particular confrontation, since the Acmeists (Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam et al.) had a conception of the project, the vocation, of the poetic Word, as a matter of humanizing, civilizing, and domesticating life on earth. They suffered and died for this vocation, in very dramatic (even iconic) fashion, in a battle with forces of violence and dehumanization : those ideological projects of the 20th century which were engaged in humiliating and defacing the human image.

Akhmatova at least outlasted her opponent. Stalin ["steel"] decays... & "most durable is the regal word."


Plumbline School on Facebook

Members of the Plumbline School now have an incipient group on Facebook. Hopefully it will be useful means of communication for the far-flung Plums.

& a reminder to visitors : we welcome eligible new members. Please see link at upper right, How to Join the Plumbline School.

Derek Mahon through an Acmeist lens

If Gumilev had somehow survived the Bolshevik firing squad, and lived another 90 years, I think he might have accepted this poem by Derek Mahon (in the current New Yorker) into an Acmeist canon.

How would he evaluate it? As I'm scribbling this at the office, it will have to be a quick sketch. How would Gumilev read & appraise "The Thunder Shower"?

First of all, it's clearly a poem, with rhymes & stanzas, not prose chopped up into lines. The Russians were (& often have continued to be) more conservative in this area. Gumilev wrote that "poetry wants to distinguish itself from prose." (I'm not making a judgement of my own here : I recognize & value some free verse. Nevertheless I agree with the general idea. Poetry is distinct from prose.)

Secondly, the diction & syntax displays some clarity and simplicity. Poetry, for Acmeism, is "the art of the Word." Language, speech - in its natural, everyday, vernacular, contemporary formations, its common usages - is to be engaged & built upon, not shattered & destroyed. In other words, the given language we speak is to be respected in its integrity. The integrity & wholeness of the word itself is the living ground out of which poetry emerges & effloresces.

Thirdly, poetry is organic - a living whole, in an Aristotelian sense. Gumilev (again, following Aristotle somewhat) conceptualized four basic elements of the living organism of the poem : phonetics, style, composition, and what he called "eidolology" (or what we might term "thematics" or "argument", though it means more than that). Gumilev even analogized these elements to complementary, interactive physiological systems (flesh, bone structure, circulation, nerves).

How does Mahon's poem reflect such an organic whole? First, the entire poem describes a single "action" : the coming & passing-away of a heavy thunderstorm. This is the unifying (compositional) plot which undergirds both the underlying theme, and the flights of wit & fantasy elaborated in the individual stanzas. The calm elegance of the everyday syntax, combined with images of a multitude everyday things (sirens, trucks, honks, beeps, muggy air, world economy, etc.) - equivalent to the Acmeist doctrine of accepting & celebrating the things of this world - are wrought, up, caught up, in the waves of wet & stormy sound. & suddenly the unity of recurrent sounds, images, figures & form begins to gather into the specific gravity of a strictly poetic magic : we begin to recognize the equivalence of the natural phenomenon (the storm) with the verbal action of the work of art. As the poem states : "all human life is there". We are caught up in a unity of natural/artifical life, that is, a creative fusion. The rain becomes a sort of fountain : the faint & subtle Scriptural allusions (Baal, the creche) reinforce a vague feeling of being in the presence of new Making itself. "...a thrush sings..."

The phenomenon I am describing here is an example of Gumilev's concept of "chasteness" : we recognize the integrity and independence of the strictly poetic event - the artwork's inherent value - in the very process of the poem's celebration of the "chaste" integrity of both everyday communication (speech) and everyday natural events.

Then the storm, that "angry downpour" (or Biblical deluge) fades away. "A few last drops drip from a broken gutter". It was only a rainstorm. Yet the concluding lines acknowledge, in a sort of backhanded undertone, the sense that, by way of this poetic/natural process, we have been swooshed into a dimension slightly beyond the ordinary everyday, to apprehend a subtle sort of creative consciousness :

"but the storm that created so much fuss
has lost interest in us."

The poem thus diminishes to a close with this sly understatement.

I would hazard to guess that Gumilev would not only approve this poem, but enjoy it a good deal. & I find it fitting to come upon this work by an Irish poet, so soon after reading that other Irish writer's edifying book (Justin Doherty, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry). Maybe the ghost of that master guild-poet Yeats (whose work displays both Symbolist & Acmeist dimensions) hovers somewhere nearby.


Justin Doherty on Acmeism

"...there is an unchasteness of attitude in both the doctrine of "Art for life," and that of "Art for art." In the first case, art... has value only to the extent that it serves goals extraneous to it.... In the second case, art becomes effete, grows agonizingly moonlike..." - Nikolai Gumilev, "The Life of Verse" (tr. by D. Lapeza)

For 30 years or so, ever since I happened upon a book of Mandelstam's selected poems in a local bookstore, I've been fascinated with his work & that of other Russians he led me to : Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gumilev, Brodsky... I think I've delved as deeply into it as someone who works in an academic library, & never gets past the beginner stage of learning Russian, can possibly delve... & then I come upon something new, & I realize how much I haven't really understood. Justin Doherty's excellent book has had this effect : The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry : culture and the word (Oxford UP, 1995).

One of the things this study has done is lift my perspective beyond a focus on Mandelstam, toward the underlying principles of the group of Petersburg poets with whom he affiliated. Acmeism grew out of various practical associations, especially the so-called "Guild of Poets" - who convened regularly in semi-formal meetings to read and discuss each other's work. This friendly proximity helped foster a kind of professional outlook - a "guild" mentality - which in turn helped the poets to establish some common principles, seen as grounding characteristic, universal elements of poetry, and allowing for a degree of critical objectivity.

I can't adequately paraphrase or even summarize Doherty's book. All I can do is try to point toward some of these salient principles. Nikolai Gumilev, one of the founders of the Acmeist group, can be credited with formulating them, while Mandelstam further elaborated their implications. Here's my rough sketch :

1. The Acmeist movement appeared in Petersburg around 1910, as a critique of the then-reigning but waning Petersburg phenomenon, quite accomplished & sophisticated, known as Symbolism. Russian Symbolism took a mystical view of art and poetry, proposing a categorical divide between the material and the noumenal or spiritual worlds; poetry served as a kind of cultic & mystagogic pathway from the debased world of time and the senses, to a supernal spiritual world of Beauty and Eternity. Poetry was equivalent to gnosticism : a way of knowledge. The Acmeists, on the other hand, committed themselves wholeheartedly to the real, visible, ordinary world of living things, time, and space. They firmly rejected Symbolism's otherworldliness, as well as its amalgam of art and cultic spiritualism.

2. A key defining term for Acmeist poetics is : integrity. Gumilev used a special word for this : "chasteness", or "chastity". We can speculate on his motive for this terminology : integrity (which he also used frequently) has primarily either a structural/physical or a moral sense; "chasteness", in Gumilev's usage, involves these aspects, but perhaps also adds an aesthetic element, a sense of beauty. What did the Acmeists mean by this? As a consequence of their rejection of Symbolism, they affirmed the inherent value, the wholeness of things : that is, of natural life, of language (the "Word"), and of poetry itself. "Integrity" meant that all these things had a "right to exist", and, as Gumilev put it, "on a higher level, a right to be of service to others" [inexact quote from memory]. Thus an acceptance and affirmation of life-on-earth displayed an ethical dimension, and under the umbrella of this overall stance of affirmation, a fundamental equilibrium was established, between the freedom of poetry to be itself, of value in itself, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inherent value of life & culture at large. The two realms were distinct, symbiotic & complementary, all at once.

3. Acmeism, from the Greek "akme" - the acme : perfection, fulfillment, flowering, wholeness... these qualities had more than an ideological or quasi-philosophical reference. For Gumilev and his associates, wholeness and fulfillment had a specific meaning for poetics. The approach was basically Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on poetry's organic (living) wholeness. Gumilev built on Aristotle's sense of the poem as displaying a unity of beginning-middle-end, of proportion of parts & whole; he developed an "anatomy" of the poetic word with analogy to the systems of the living human body. & this focus on the organic qualities of poetic language helps distinguish such language from other kinds of discourse. The Acmeists began to build a series of interlocking "wholes" of this kind, into a synchronic sense of joyful "philology" - the expression of the poetic Word as a shared effort within a single world tradition, an "Hellenic domesticity" (Mandelstam) crossing all barriers of time & space - centered on the human, and human culture - as sanctioned, reflected, guaranteed by the freedom of the "Word".

4. Acmeism also displays a "reflexive" dimension : standing between Russian Symbolism and Futurism, they thematized (in the poetry itself) the special quality of poetic language as self-fulfilling, as of inherent value. The material of poetry was the living Word. Whereas the Symbolists subsumed poetic speech under the "higher" dimension of music, and the Futurists reduced language to the equivalent of a physical material, something to be smashed, split & distorted at will - the Acmeists accepted the simple denotative meaning(s) of the word as the core, the substance of its value. The inherited language of a culture was to be affirmed & loved along with all other things (in Gumilev's "chaste" vision); the shaping power of art worked in tandem with the given world of nature, not in isolation or alienation. To repeat : this clarity & firmness of expression, the recognition of the akme or beauty of the living language as such, became the bond which united the free & independent sphere of poetry with the actual & ethical world at large. Gumilev & the other Acmeists, again, called this state "equilibrium" (or "integrity") : a synthesis of ethics & aesthetics.

These are just a few very basic aspects of the Acmeist movement. What this suggests to me - as it has for years - is that these concepts, & this attitude, have relevance and application for poets today. We can learn from their shared sense of an objective standard - a "judgement about poetry", as Mandelstam put it. We can learn from their affirmation of the (meaningful, beautiful) Word, and the "world of which it was a part" (W. Stevens); we can learn from the complementarity they discover between the equilibrium of the poem and the normative ethos of civilization, the "teleological warmth" of "domestic Hellenism." The Acmeist's "judgement of poetry" is also a judgement of our own poetry, and the poetry being produced around us now...

Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, & their son Lev, ca. 1913