Poetry as other

More Lakoff-inspired thinking about categories and poetry. (Though first, via Silliman, an article about Lakoff and politics.) Warning: I make a few logical moves here that I'm not sure I stand behind, although I'm more or less OK with where they end up.

Lakoff likes to refer to certain interpretive models as being psychologically "real", meaning something like "not just an interpretive model, but one that can be clinically shown to have meaning." I'm not sure that's different from a non-"real" ("ideal") model?

But: One categorical concept he wants to suggest is "real" is the notion of the catch-all category, the "other" or "misc." category, where anything that doesn't fit into the other categories might fall. In English, we nouns are replaced by pronouns, and some nouns fall into the "he" category, some into the "she" category, and some into the "it" category. We can say that "he" and "she" are determined by rules -- categories which seem to have definitions -- and "it" is the catchall. Nouns in the "it" category don't necessarily share positive characteristics the way nouns in the "he" or "she" categories do. (This is my example, not Lakoff's, and like all such examples it might be philosophically problematic, but it still might be useful, so let's go with it.)

So I want to suggest that "poetry" is an "other" category. If you take the category of "writing", you can come up with rules that pull out various subcategories ("prose", "plays", "memoirs", "three-hundred-word album reviews", "personal ads") and what doesn't get pulled out has to be "poetry" -- what else could it be? (Well, "nonsense"? But we recognize spam as poetry! As better poetry than our own humble efforts. Well, many of us do, anyway.)

(I wonder if poetry in the small sense might not actually be an "other" category.)

Anyway I don't necessarily think this conceptualization of "poetry" as "catch-all" in necessarily true (or "real") but it at least points to a desperate plurality and heterogeneity within poetry (no shock there).

But that heterogeneity -- this possibility that poetry is not a thing but a collection of unthings -- might be why asking a question like "is poetry a technology" is so itchy-making. Poetry is not as specific or coherent as the sorts of things we call "technologies".

And so when Kasey wants to ask: "I want to ask if there's a way of thinking about this in which it becomes clear that poetry absolutely cannot be a technology, almost by definition." -- we can suggest that because poetry is so indefinite, it can't comfortably be a technology. (Though is the Shakesperean sonnet a technology? Is whatever you want to call the method that Kenneth Goldsmith used to write The Weather a technology? Probably yes.)

And when he adds: "And at the same time, I wonder whether poetry assumes an ironic relation to technology, in which it exploits technological resources, explores technological themes, and generally behaves as though it were a member of the set 'things that are intelligible under the rubric of technology,' precisely in order to burlesque that relationship, to flaunt its total resistance to any subsumption by (modern) technology." -- we can suggest that again, poetry is by definition heterogeneous and not assuming, en masse, a relation to anything (except those categories of "writing" that it is not falling into).

But then, is Kasey making a definitional move here? Is poetry, for him, going to be writing which "assumes an ironic relation to technology" (or things like technology), which aims for or acheives this (potential political) end? Is this descriptive or proscriptive thinking about poetry? Does it take into account Susan Polis Schutz (or is her work "not poetry")? Is this less a query towards the status of poetry than it is a query towards the formulation of a manifesto?


  1. khrushchevinlove said...

    This may be one of those logical moves you're not sure you stand behind, but I'm wondering how much those things we call 'he' or 'she' really are "determined by rules" and "share positive characteristics", given the striking tendency in English to refer to cars and boats - vehicles, generally, though I've never heard it said about bicycles or motorcycles, though I wouldn't be confused or surprised if I did - as "her". Now that I think about it, we don't so much (though, yeah, it happens sometimes) refer to other inanimate objects as "he". It seems to me that 'she' is more of a catchall, though maybe not even a catchall, or other, than 'it', 'it' objects sharing more characteristics generally - being inanimate, or readable as strikingly nongendered (e.g. babies, kittens).

    Which makes me wonder about treating poetry as the catchall because, in part, "what doesn't get pulled out has to be 'poetry'" and then later, "[b]ut we recognize spam as poetry!" Poetry there seems more like 'she' - things get pulled out of her as its, some of them only to return later as shes: cars, sailboats, a prized golf club; spam, found poetry, greeting cards.

    I mean, yours seems like maybe a good model for poetry, as good as any, or maybe it seems backward - I was just reading a bit on Benjamin that was probably wrong, and probably a misinterpretation, where the author insisted that Benjamin insisted that back in the day, it was all religion, which could be understood as a system that "embraces", his examples, "culture, law, philosophy and so forth", nurturing these subsystems until they were able to break out on their own. Maybe poetry is like that, the catchall, but only because other writing systems haven't yet broken out, or have fallen out of use to be preserved poetically. Poetry on that model could be the mother-nonthing, the nonthing that nurtures things.

    Or, maybe, I just haven't had enough coffee today.  

  2. Chris said...

    I was waiting for that.

    I think the "boats as she" thing is a bit of a canard, since (1) this is because (if I remember correctly) of extra, historically-based rules, rather than generative ones that are productive today (and Lakoff sensibly allows for this -- this is, after all, why we think "women, fire, and dangerous things" were lumped together in Dyirbal); (2) and nobody really does this anyway, except in a few set expressions ("ain't she a beaut!"); I don't think you'd hear "My car has broken down, and I need to take her into the shop."

    But at the same time, Lakoff notes that in Dyirbal, "she" is more inclusive than "he", and the same might be true for English, perhaps.

    Nevertheless "it" still seems like a more heterogeneous, catch-all concept. Or, to put it another way, "inanimate" and "nongendered" are both negative, rather than positive characteristics. And you could argue that, well, that's a happenstance of language. The reply is something like "well, yes, that is how we're playing this game; that is what we are investigating".

    I was also wondering whether philosophy is the catch-all of thinking. As they become more defined, categories get taken away from philosophy -- science, psychology, linguistics -- until philosophy is left with, what, the dregs -- thinking about thinking, epistemology, metaphysics (unless religion has taken that?). Perhaps it's not fair to think of them as dregs. Perhaps this isn't a fair characterization of any of this at all. I'm not committed to anything (except perhaps heterogeneity).  

  3. khrushchevinlove said...

    Actually... That's an interesting comparison, with philosophy (and, incidentally, that's how I used to see things philosophy-wise). But! The other way to look at philosophy is as this sort of blobby thing that changes its shape in response to the demands of the people who use it. This, maybe, sounds to me like another good model for understanding what poetry is.

    (Also, for the record, I have heard variations on "I need to take her to the shop". I think that whether or not the rules that govern inanimate shes is generative depends on where you live and who you hang out with.)  

  4. Chris said...

    See that was the move (one of the moves) I wasn't sure about, because I usually prefer to think of poetry et al. as blobby things. But I was thinking that this other (this "other") way of thinking might help clarify the problems I was having with Kasey's question.  

  5. Sam Kaufman said...

    "Prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books." - Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy  

  6. Chris said...

    That smells like a challenge. Three nice poety things about a schoolbook and a business document, coming up!

    (Actually, I've used both as source texts for poems before.)  


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