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Declaring Poetry

By Andrew Benjamin.

Waiting to see what poetry would bring involves forms of expectation. Poetry expects. Equally, it is expected. An expectation therefore that brings poetry into play without the need for a defining not. Poetry cannot be constrained by forms of definition that were preceded by or which arrive at a not. As though what poetry is not is a source of understanding. As though negation, poetry’s own, would have been an opening to poetry. The limit is clear. Poetry defined by a series of negations cannot open beyond an insistent not. Trapped, unable to traverse an unending set of knots. As a result unable, even, to encounter itself. Expectations therefore would have been defied. Were those expectations to have been stilled, poetry forced back on what it is not, a forcing that is not even poetry’s having been abandoned to itself, but its having been abandoned as such, even then there is a remainder, a feeling still endures. Enduring as a form of awaiting. Hence the question: Is there another lead, one leading to an other know? While what is being asked clears a space, even forms of address remain elusive.

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Continuing. Even if negation’s hold – poetry defined by a not – fails, other avenues while appearing to be open only ever endure as forms of closure. Were there to be one then the way ahead has to break open. Thus moving beyond the knot/not that seeks to hold poetry. Rather than the apparently countering force of another negation, if there were a way out then it stems from the enclosing. Even though it may have been enclosed poetry turns within that enclosure. It turns to itself. This itself has to be remembered. Remembered, retained and, in the end, affirmed. After all, what truth would there be in a showing that was brought to poetry? Rather than a definition given by that which came from without – from the outside – what if there were another way? The question itself stalls any precipitate onward rush. In that stall there is the intimation of an actual opening. Rather than questions of either form of content predominating, let alone of poetry staging, presencing what it is not, what if it were possible to begin with two simple assertions. They begin with poetry. Beginning with the inescapable. There is poetry. To which the following should be added: What there is sustains a sensibility. Poetry is the latter’s object. A sensibility that touches on what there is. The there is of poetry. Perhaps then there would be another touch. What is touched upon would then be poetry’s own object.

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What sustains? What is sustained? Within these questions language is allowed another quality. Allowing language a presence in which poetry’s insistence is there in a form of work. However, that work involves relations and thus differing forms of address. Poetry depends upon a type of sensibility. Reading work, allowing for its poetry, responding thereby to what was expected.

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Poetry’s occurrence pertains to a sensibility to the given that is linked to a type of allowing. There is a sensibility which is itself an occasioning, sensible to the given as the occasioning of language and thus to language already being the site of work. If there were a link to truth then it is not a truth that is shown independently of the work of language. On the contrary, it is the truth about that work. Work is already sited. That site, the work, already bears what there is. Bares it.

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Perchè scrivi,/ Perchè tu scrivi in lingua ignota e strana,/ Verseggiando d’amor, e com t’ osi?’ Daring, of course has to do with what language occasions. It cannot be a mere state of mind. Nor could it be just one language. The poet knows this. Evoked in this question’s answer is the name of poetry itself, which here is Canzone. The final line completes. Completing however not by evoking a finality that ends but with the reiteration of poetry as itself a condition of possibility: “Questa è lingua di cui si vanta Amore”. Poetry as language’s work stages and allows.

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What is there, given to be read, yields to a feeling which opens a return to what is there. (Given within a relation to poetry’s own history.) And which is there now as the site of reading. Poetry stages the question – a staging asked within the poem as its own individual question. Its individuality – ‘The sense to the cloud of the light, Who can tell me?’ – is both just that, and poetry as a mode of questioning.

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And yet, poetry though always within the poem, retains the structure of the question to the extent that any answer while evincing a necessary fidelity to what was asked, and it is this fidelity that carries the project of any poem, cannot escape the presence of further, though now unknown, answers. This now’s repeatability – a sense of repetition staged in relation to the inevitability of the given – is what can be known of the poem. Poetry answers the poem’s question – ‘Hast thou found any likeness for thy vision?’ – by returning within it; by its being that answer. Always as itself, thus returning to the task that is always there. Invention stays with and is stayed by what there is.

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While the not would always fail poetry, the move towards the declarative endures. It becomes a necessity. That move is, of course, accompanied by another. Sensibility changes. There is a continuity of movement, a back and forth. Though any evocation of an either/or would be to yield to an illusion. As though language plays out within the hold of oppositions. As though language allowed for a constraint of the essential, and thus of its being constrained to its having one single determination that would be there in opposition to another. * The declarative remains poetic – poetry – to the extent that the enclosure that it, the declarative, may work to enforce the closure, one that will always have its own specific exigency, is allowed to come undone. This allowing cannot be disassociated from a specific exigency, namely the need or obligation to declare. The declarative therefore, language as a form of declaration, precisely because it must suspend the possibility of poetry, a suspension that can only ever be pragmatic, is itself as tenuous as the poetic. Each is bound to the work of language and each demands that sensibility within which a specific determination can be sustained. It is, of course, always sustained after the event. That event is more complex than first appears. It is language as event – thus the event of language. This however is not the end point. Caution, therefore, has itself become necessary. The event of language, and the itself of poetry, are always there at work within poetry as the poem. There is a relation. It involves, equally, the giveness of language’s use. The latter, here, takes the form of the history of poetry; a history that incorporates the specific.

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And the relation? What is this relation? Questions that bring their own sense of complexity into play. A complexity linked to a threefold opening. As a beginning, the relation resists an encounter with the essential by allowing poetry a history. There is poetry. Then the relation gives rise to a demand. Of the particular there is the question of its presence as a poem. Finally, there is the interplay of what there is and language as declarative.

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Time numbers motion, yet…It is, of course this yet that marks a break. Not a mere break but an opening. Opening to another time. The line continues, without a crime / (‘Gainst old truth) motion numbered out his time/. Cosmic time meets mortal time. Death is now possible. There is an inversion. A necessity now obtains. Were it not for that inversion there could be no real account of either mortality or finitude. The insistence of the severance occurs with the yet that joins them. The yet allows for one and the other. The yet, of course, becomes the poem. Becoming it by its being the work of poetry. Marking it as a poem. The yet turns the opening declaration Time numbers motion. Not by turning it against itself but by turning it towards another possibility. It still declares – Time numbers motion – though once said what possibilities that it might have entailed, and it is an entailment that always follows a declaration, are refused. The interruptive yet demands that the declaration come undone. There is no other life but this – / Yet this life elects the soul / As refugee or citizen. The opening expectation, its deliberate singularity, is caused to falter. It stalls. The yet both calls upon and sustains that other sensibility. As these lines are read, as the force of the yet is encountered, the move forward brings with it another demand. Any declarative force that these openings may have had is now, after the yet, dispelled. The opening words are repeated, read and thus always there sounding within the continuity of reading thus they are there being always reread, therefore they are there within and as something else. That something other is poetry.

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Poetry, on its own, can undo the declaration, though it can declare an undoing. Though introduced and repeated the ‘I’ can become an impossible source, even of its own continuity. Recounting a biography refusing unity while giving the latter that form of presentation in which the continuous ‘I’ would no longer be there: quand’ era in parte altr’ uom da quel ch’ i’ sono.

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What does it mean, now, to continue? Is love’s labour to have lost to another, and then, in having lost, what could poetry say? The saying would be the event. There is written her fair neck round about / ‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am. / And wild for to hold for I seem tame’. She has noted the writing. In writing she notes it. She is neither Christ nor hind. The interdiction, originally, had been spoken. Mary Magdalene heard the words – noli me tangere. On hearing she did not touch. Now, however, hearing has become reading. Touching is still forbidden. Another sense and place of sovereignty is in play. The line traces its movement from Christ to Caesar. Read once ‘noli me tangere’ is the forbidding of physicality tout court. Christ’s body must remain untouched. The refusal of touch as the line continues is different. The difference is staged twice. In the first instance it is there in the move from saying to writing. The words – ‘noli me tangere’ – inscribed into the poem; becoming it. The force of that move only becomes clear once the words are no longer Christ’s. The addition ‘for Caesar’s I am’ locates the presence of touching and thus of the physical elsewhere. It is not just another, rather it is Caesar. Moreover, that physicality is given greater extension in the last line’s juxtaposition of ‘wild’ and ‘tame’. It is, of course, possible to continue. This is the opening that poetry allows. There is poetry.

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A final note? What could be noted at the end? And this would have to be an act without obligation. Forse. In answering it will be possible to begin with what has already ended. Two intertwined paths. Firstly, the beginning is the act of reading. An expectation in relation to what there is (to what is already there). A sensibility sustaining it. Poetry has to be allowed. Equally poetry’s own allowing is maintained in the process. The other path is one in which reading comes to be matched by writing. The writing of poetry is always retrospective in the precise sense that what is written – and it is never poetry but poems, perhaps more accurately a poem, lines having been allowed to stage poetry, there is poetry – begins poetry. Each poem, every line begins poetry again. And if this – this retrospective awareness of poetry’s presence – were itself a question? Such a question would be clear: How is this beginning a beginning? In other words, if the question then became one bound up with a declaration that there is poetry here, then, while there is no one direct answer to such a question what occurs is the moment in which a form of knowledge – the knowing resisting the work of negation – takes hold.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Benjamin is Anniversary Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Kingston University London and Distinguished Professor of Architectural Theory at the University of Technology, Sydney. His recent publications include Virtue in Being (2016), Toward a Relational Ontology (2015), and Art’s Philosophical Work (2015).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 23rd, 2018.