The problem of discourse pragmatics has troubled poetry for some time. By discourse pragmatics I mean the same thing as when Wittgenstein writes “language games”. That is, what does it mean to speak in a certain way, through a certain set of rules, in a particular situation of address. Discourse pragmatics, as a problem in poetry, is here to stay. In fact, it may be the problem poetry is most suited to address, if not solve.
Why is this? Because page poetry (poetry that is written for the page) if it is relevant, is constantly concerned with the ways that it can mean, and beyond meaning, evoke discourse. By recognizing ways that it can mean it is not merely acting contemplatively or descriptively, but as a form of action. I believe this fact is what Gertrude Stein gets at through much of her writing, but especially in her lecture “Composition as Explanation”. It is also a problem often noted throughout George Oppen’s work, not least of which in his daybooks and papers where the poet speaks of the difference between political activism and poetic action:
"I think the question asked more frankly would be: is it more important to produce art or to engage in ˆtake political actionˆ. Of course I cannot pretend to answer such a question. I could point this out, however, that art and political action are in precise opposition in this regard: that it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is very difficult to ever prove that it has been in the past ˆthat political action has been valuableˆ. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case; it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that in the past it has been. ˆthe art of the past has been of value to humanity. I offer it only as a suggestion that art lacks in political action, not action. One does what he is most moved to do.ˆ" (Daybooks, 89; crossed-out passages have been indicated by bold font)
Certainty, as far as I understand it in Wittgenstein’s context, concerns the ways that belief, knowledge, and experience involve action, decision-making, and consequence. Why would we write anything if we didn’t mean it? Why would we say anything if we didn’t intend those words to have an effect?
It would be naïve to believe that the poet intends everything they write. But writing is a matter of craft, and craft is a problem of intention. When I write something I do not always know where the writing is going to lead me (in this way all writing is “experimental,” to use a term popular nowadays); but I do know that to continue writing will reveal what it means to write anything in time.
If one loves the world, poetry (or philosophy) will be just a small part of what they do. It will be a guide to action. It will be an action, that is, that can ground other actions, meanings, experiences, understandings, interactions. For me, personally, the poem is a learning tool, a processing device, a lab experiment, a disclosure of experience, a way of telling someone I am in love with them, or they are friend, or to fuck-off; it is also an ethic, insofar as it allows differences to enter into thought-processes that are not normally permitted, or allowed to be expressed adequately otherwise. I hope that my poems may give others pleasure, and be open to others’ experience, however indeterminacy is not the intention of my work. If anything, to reach the indeterminate, I believe one tends to do so only through a more rigorous mediation of their materials whether by procedure or the intensification of their practice via research, conversation, and further thinking.
In the past thirty years, the United States has been under attack from within. This attack has been political, economic, and legal. It has also been immensely cultural. The perpetrators of this political and economic attack include, primarily, our politicians and the economic superstructure that has put them into power. During this time, it seems no coincidence that the poetry that has been most popular, and garnered the most support from our politicians, is one whose battle cry is “common sense”. Most of these poets who call for a common sense—our laureates, for one—are poets that have opposed our politicians through their vote and through public statement. Yet, the fact that they have power and wield what power they have in the ways that they do makes them complicit with those powers that they would oppose in their statements about politics and through their votes. That these poets do not tend to equate language power—and the powers of poetry specifically—with political power, seems unforgiveable after the past century of political error.
But any poetry that really matters, any cultural production for that matter, overturns common sense for the sake of common sense. That is, it does not take common sense as a priori—something that is given within a culture facilitated by language—but questions language as the very ground for all experience whether ontological, political, ethical, legal or otherwise.
When I think of our various laureates of the Bush years, I lament that a poet like Robert Creeley, or Nathaniel Mackey, or Anne Waldman, or Susan Howe (for only four of many possible candidates) should not have become our national laureates instead of Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Mark Strand and others. The fact that such poets should have become laureates, and come to champion common sense is a travesty for our country. It is concomitant with the other disasters the world has faced at the hands of United States.
The only poetry or art that should matter (and I would separate the status of poetry and art right now insofar as art has become a major commodity, while poetry remains something less valued as a commodity by our culture) is that vetted by a culture that cares about the history of poetry and art, and that makes work from the ground up—from the very ground that language is. This is different than producing a poem which can be understood by the most number of people, and is therefore populist in the most vulgar of ways.
Poetries create the conditions necessary to change culture, and via culture larger spheres of social activity, organization, consciousness, and behavior. In order to have the culture we want, we must also scrutinize the role of the arts, and the privilege of the poet to speak as both a member of a specialized discourse (poetry), and as a citizen who wishes to present their special view of the social through the ways they use language. All of this goes against one traditional view that poetry is useless, merely a luxury/leisure activity. Poetry may not be instrumental—or should not be—but has use value insofar as it provides a readership with a way to ground experience in language in both critically reflective and sensual ways. When poetry fails to ground language in such ways, a culture has failed. Despite the proliferation of poetry in the past thirty years, poetry culture and the culture at large have failed as such.
Think poetry, act locally. Those who love poetry’s prospects to change culture will organize for poetry at a local and personal level, recognizing all the while that advancing poetry is not what is in question as a goal or result. Rather, what is in question, is the transformation of culture through the ways language and other cultural valuables are used.
The organizers of this symposium have asked us to comment on the role of poetry in terms of "witness". To close, I think that bearing witness is one of the great values of poetry. This is because the problem of witness is always a problem of how language use establishes justice adequately. While many poets have sutured legal and poetic language games in the past century with very good reasons, this task of the poet goes on. What language expression can possibly present the case of those unlawfully detained, or displaced because of U.S.-centric geopolitics, or the victim of racial, class, gender, and sexual discrimination? The solution is not merely to elegize or represent the oppressed as so many poems do, but to act, gesture, perform, and present the case of how language itself has created the conditions for injustice that could produce a need for witness. By such means would poetry, or any language-based practice, create the conditions for justice and better living for all. How this happens happens through the most personal, intersubjective, and roundabout of means.