by Robert Sheppard
For many years I have put at the centre of my poetic practice, my teaching and pedagogy of creative writing and – latterly – my literary criticism, the production and study of writerly poetics. I say ‘writerly’ to distinguish it from other uses of the term – some critics use it to describe their unpacking of the packaging of literature – because I want to limit it to the writings that writers write about writing, which are curiously misread. Even more curiously, I’ve never managed to produce a definitive essay on the topic. However, I have (repeatedly) defined poetics as the ‘product of the process of reflection upon writings, and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others, speculatively casting into the future’. I have recently decided that the activity is best thought of as ‘anticipatory’ rather than ‘speculative’, though it strikes me now that it might be best to call it both ‘anticipatory’, for its excited forward-thrust, and ‘speculative’, for its sense of exploration. Excitement and exploration. It looks as though another definition is forming itself.
Perhaps it is not surprising that something that I wish to remain protean and unfinished should evade my attempts at a single essay, or rather, that they should become as protean and unfinished as the activity itself. I have written literary critical essays about particular writers’ poetics (all poets, but I emphasise that ‘writerly’ poetics is appropriate to all writing, Sheppard 2011); I have compiled lists of poetics from the ancients to our contemporaries (they ended up on my blog, Sheppard 2009); I have written an introduction to a trans-Atlantic anthology of poetry and poetics, Atlantic Drift, where the reader may find a variety of contemporary examples (Byrne and Sheppard 2017); I have written my own poetics to further my own writing (for example, Sheppard 2008 and 2021).
Rather like poetics itself, then, my conceptualisation of poetics keeps developing, but it also keeps returning to its first occasion, the following text, ‘Metapoetics: Definitions of Poetics’. Of course, this ‘first occasion’ wasn’t the first at all (since I had developed my own poetry in the nexus of the innovative British poetries, in which poetics was an essential part of its communal development). What follows is my attempt, made in 1999, to offer multiple definitions of poetics – I remember lots of pieces of paper all over the floor – and to present them as a performance (at the Creative Writing conference, Sheffield Hallam, 1999). The over-determination of multiple definitions has a propensity to confuse, but it also has the potentiality to enthuse. At various times, I have published them as part of a series of re-edited booklets called The Necessity of Poetics, which really were handouts for students of the MA in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University, of which I was Programme Leader from 1996-2017.
Later, I began to think of poetics as a discourse, as a particular practice that developed its own rules (and history). Another important qualification for me was that its ‘truths’ were provisional, not universal (though they might have been thought of as such by their authors), that the discourse was developed specifically with the aim of furthering literary work, the anticipation and the speculation (as I now see them) working together (or, at least, simultaneously). Whenever I refine my sense of poetics (if that is what I am doing in my restlessness) I find that the definitions I assembled in 1999 usually prefigure my later ways of thinking – and making (for making is at the root, etymologically as well as practically, of poetics). The one that resonates most at I write today is my assertion that poetics is not a blueprint but a thumbnail, and the associated suggestion that the writing produced may not be described in the poetics (that the writer was deluding herself, or that something else happened in poesis). The tendency of critics to read writerly poetics as deficient literary criticism must be vigorously resisted.
24 September 2021
Metapoetics: Definitions of Poetics
Poetics is the product of the process of reflection upon writings, and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others, speculatively casting into the future.
Poetics is a discipline, though a flexible one.
Poetics is a discourse, though an intermittent mercurial one.
Poetics is a writer-centred, self-organising activity.
Poetics is a way of letting writers question what they think they know.
Poetics is a way of allowing creative writing dialogue with itself, beyond the monologic of commentary or reflection.
Poetics exists for oneself and for others, to produce, to quote Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ‘a permission to continue’. (DuPlessis 1990: 156)
Poetics is not theory in the ordinary rationalistic sense.
‘Poetics don’t explain; they redress and address.’ (Bernstein 1992: 160)
Poetics is not practice in the ordinary empirical sense.
Poetics could be a test of practice; but practice will test poetics.
To talk of theoretical poetics is not accurate; to talk of practical poetics is no less accurate.
Poetics involves a theory of practice, a practice of theory.
Poetics, to take it back to Aristotle, where the category began, is distinguished from theoria or praxis, theory or practice, in the primacy of its activity of making, poesis. Poetics is the active questioning about how does, how should, how could, art be made.
Poetics is also to be distinguished from aesthetics and rhetoric.1
Poetics and poetry are only etymologically linked, dually from the Greek root poiein: to make.2
Poetics only makes sense if your sense of art, artifice, artificer, is concentrated on the act of making, rather than self-expression.
Poetics is a secondary discourse, but is not ‘after the event’; it does not simply react to making. The making can change the poetics; the poetics can change the making.
The aim of literary criticism, to parody Marx, is to describe writing; the purpose of poetics is to change it.
Poetics is born of a crisis – the need to change.
Poetics has a history as long as writing, because writing has always changed.
Poetics may be textually specific; or it might not be so focussed, not least of all if the ‘examples’ of which it speaks do not yet (and may never) exist.
‘Poetics needn’t be understood as explanations of some prior body of work.’ (Bernstein 1992: 154)
Poetics is a prospectus of work to be done, that might involve a summary of work already done.
Poetics is a speculative discourse, not a descriptive one.
Poetics says: look back, look forward, look straight ahead, and cross the page.
‘One of the pleasures of poetics is to try on a paradigm … and see where it leads you.’ (Bernstein 1992: 161)
Poetics could be a running commentary, but it might overtake, or equally lag behind.
Poetics’ ‘answers’ are provisional, its trajectory nomadic, its positions temporary and strategic.
Poetics offers generative schema.
Poetics is more concerned with form than with content, but will not respect that boundary.
Micropoetics: whose domain is the text and its techniques; everything below the level of the text.
Macropoetics: whose domain is the text and the world: everything above the level of the text.3
One reason to make your poetics public is to test it, to build a community of writers, or of risk. The manifesto may be its gateway or its trap.
Poetics is contained in, and by, the great art manifestoes, both in the sense of being locatable there, and in the sense of being restricted. A manifesto colonizes the field of literary production, rather than opens it up.
Poetics can be located in Poe’s term ‘Philosophy of Composition’ so long as it composes, decomposes, re-composes that ‘philosophy’.
Poetics involves ‘how to’ (as in ‘How To Write a Melodrama’) as long as knack plays second fiddle to knowledge, as long as craft stays crafty.
A danger of poetics is that it might operate as self-justification, but when it does it will be settling into argument like someone embedding him or herself into an armchair to bore you with his or her monologue, reflections. It has ceased dialogue with the activity of making.
When poetics stops it becomes theory, retrospective rather than speculative, definitive rather than open to infinitude.
Poetics provides strategy for the writer. To look for truth value in its propositions may be beside the point for the writer, though it might not be for you, particularly if you are another writer. It speaks to a working practice as much as it speaks to you.
Poetics is not about creating equilibrium, but about causing a structured disequilibrium.
‘Poetics becomes an activity that is ongoing, that moves in different directions at the same time, and that tries to disrupt or problematize any formulation that seems too final or preemptively restrictive.’ (Bernstein 1992: 150)
Poetics may involve strategic self-deception.
Poetics may mismatch the writing that results. It is not necessarily a ground plan.
Poetics as snapshots, thumbnails.
Some poetics contains a goodly portion of gobbledegook; it may be a strategy to get texts moving, to get the writer creatively into spaces that otherwise might not be accessed, or to divert attention away from the creative act.
Poetics may not judge the use of its findings well.
‘The test of a poetics,’ to adapt Charles Bernstein, ‘is the [writing] and the [writerly] thinking that results.’ (Bernstein 1992: 166)
Poetics steals from anywhere.
Poetics finds things by accident, by mistake.4
Poetics takes structural homologies from science and philosophy, but also from gardening and pinball, if it needs to.
Poetics breathes creative potential into uncreative material.
Poetics is not just a discourse, a way of thinking, saying or writing about making, but a discursive practice with rules of its own.
Poetics can never offer readings of the writer’s literary works. He or she cannot read his or her own work as a critic.
Poetics, of necessity, makes its practitioners creative readers as well as writers.
Poetics is a way of reading or misreading texts (in the widest sense) not normally thought of as poetics: to refunction their discourses as part of its own. The infuriating magpie descends upon science or aesthetics, theory or history, rhetoric or popular culture, even the author’s own earlier work. All the discourses that are poetics’ Others.5
‘Poetics as an invasion of the poetic into other realms: overflowing the bounds of genres, spilling into talk, essays, politics, philosophy …’ (Bernstein 1992: 151)
Poetics doesn’t always call itself poetics.
Poetics is mercurial enough for writers to not know that they are producing it, to think that they are constructing something else: a letter, a preface, an apology, a defence, an essay, a memo, a diary or journal entry, even an art work, a manifesto, a job application, a lecture, a description of somebody else’s poetics, a conference paper, a witty aphorism, an anthology, an editorial, a biography of the mind, a questionnaire, being tape interviewed, having a drink, making comments between reading texts to a creative writing group, dreaming, reading a book, summarising Western metaphysics on the back of an envelope, pillow talk….
Poetics could be a commonplace book full of favoured quotations.
Poetics could be a sentence from a novel you use as an epigraph to a half-written project, which you remove once the project is completed.
Poetics often appears as, results in, hybrid texts.
Poetics can appear in the creative work itself, as content, as theme or aside.
Every literary work is a statement of poetics itself, as a formal statement about its own form, a model for itself, as it were.
When poetics absorbs a writer’s politics, cosmology, philosophy, religion, it becomes most luminous and individual, but less communal, less of use, perhaps even to the writer him or herself.
Writers who say they have no poetics should logically find no continuity between any of their texts, but also no change. That they do is the inauguration of their discursive practice of poetics.
Poetics disappears at moments of intense creative fruition, until the next moment of critical reflection and change.
A test to see if you’ve produced explicit poetics is to ask of your discourse about writing: is this literary theory or literary criticism? If the answer is ‘Neither of these,’ then it might be poetics. (If the answer is yes, it might still ‘contain’ poetics.)
Poetics is an intermittent discourse, and when it is found in literary criticism, it is revealed there rather than contained.
Poetics could re-read the literary canon (or any literature) as it re-reads everything else.
Poetics could be a bridge back to literary criticism, built upon the making of texts rather than upon its rhetoric or effects.
‘Resisting the institutionalization of interpretation’, says Charles Bernstein, ‘is a motivation for poetics….’ (Bernstein 1992: 157)
Poetics could shape the way we read work.
Another danger of poetics is that it could present the ‘ideological imaginary’ to pre-judge reading, to offer preferred reading strategies of literary works to readers, as Jerome J. McGann says of Romantic Ideology. 6 (McGann 1983: 1) This can be countered by keeping poetics speculative, to avoid the armchair monologue. Or in formal terms, by keeping the documents open to future readings, by use of hybrid or discontinuous forms, to internalise gestural poetics into their presentation.
Poetics should be written (and read) with an awareness of its function in the creative process.
Poetics should be studied as such.
Poetics can stop being absorbed by the metalanguage of literary theory or criticism by asserting its own claims as a discourse, a language game with its own players, rules and purposes.
Poetics in hybrid, fragmentary, collage, playful, jokey, patapoetical, forms, avoids co-option into the explication of the writing that results.
Poetics’ function is both oriented towards, and in, new form.
- ‘Poiesis’, writes Gerald F. Else, of Aristotle’s Poetics, ‘is the actual process of composition … is the activation, the putting to work of poietike.’ (Aristotle 1970: p 79)
Poetics is not Aesthetics. Aesthetics is a contemplative analytic of art: what is art? what is beauty? what is the sublime?
Poetics is not Rhetoric. Rhetoric is to do with the laws of composition, not with the lore (or lure) of writing.
- Poetics within literary studies is used by structuralists like Todorov, (Introduction to Poetics) or by Bakhtin (The Problem of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics) or even Harold Bloom, to speak of a theory of making that properly belongs to literary criticism. (It is common to read of the poetics of the novel, or of feminist biography, in this sense.) Poetics has also found many uses to describe various non-literary or even non-artistic kinds of making: in psychiatry to describe the making of self (autopoesis); in musicology to describe the compositional (poietic) dimension of music. Titles like Bachelard’s The Poetics of Fire adorn philosophy shelves.
- Bernstein writes: ‘Equally at play in the context of poetics is the political and social situation, including the social configuration of poetry [writing] in terms of distribution, publishing, capitalization, jobs, awards, reviews.’ (Bernstein 1992: 157)
- Looking for a book to put the slips of paper containing the above ‘definitions’ of poetics safely in, I took down one containing some uncollected essays by Robert Duncan. One, entitled ‘The Poetics of Music: Stravinsky’ (1948) begins with a slightly overpassive definition but one which reminds us of the term’s use in the other arts: ‘Poetics is the contemplation of the meaning of form: it is what is common to painting, music, sculpture and poetry. Poiein, Stravinsky reminds us, means to make. We might keep in mind that in the days of William Dunbar the poets were the Makaris.’ (Faas 1983: 335)
- Poetics at one limit is apoetics, formulations that deconstruct poetics, as the continuous lower case typography on the extra titlepage of Bernstein’s A Poetics suggests: ‘ a p o e t i c s’. (Bernstein 1992: vii). In this sense, poetics must eat itself! At another limit is anti-poetics, a discourse that accompanies the practice of not, or no longer, writing, as in the pronouncements of Laura Riding (see Seymour Smith 1970) or John Hall’s ‘Writing and Not Writing’ (in Riley 1992: 41-49). See my essay on the latter in Sheppard 2011, ‘The Price of Houses the Cost of Food: The Poetics of Not Writing’: 55-67. Other essays in this volume treat the poetics of Ken Edwards and Maggie O’Sullivan, as well as the communal poetics of the Poetry Society 1976 and the cultural poetics of Iain Sinclair. Also of note is Sheppard 2008.
- MacGann argues that ‘Literary criticism too often likes to transform the critical illusions of poetry into the worshipped truths of culture’. (MacGann 1983: 135) In poetry ‘we can to a degree, observe as well our own ways of thinking and feeling from an alien point of view. That alienated vantage, which is poetry’s critical gift to every future age, permits us a brief glimpse at our world and our selves.’ (MacGann 1983: 66) Perhaps a similar critical function for the writer of contemporary poetics might reside in the historical poetics outlined above.
Aristotle, trans. G.F. Else. Poetics: Michigan: The University of Michigan, 1970.
Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Byrne, James. and Robert Sheppard, eds. Atlantic Drift: Poetry and Poetics, Arc/EHUP, 2017.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar, Writing as Feminist Practice, New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Faas, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan, Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.
MacGann, Jerome J. The Romantic Ideology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Riley, Denise, ed. Poets on Writing, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1992.
Sheppard, Robert. ‘Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26.
Sheppard, Robert. Robert Sheppard: ‘Poetics 1: Poetics and Proto-Poetics’ online: http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2009/06/robert-sheppard-poetics-1-poetics-and.html
Sheppard, Robert. When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, Exeter: Shearsman, 2011.
Sheppard, Robert. ‘Shifting an Imaginary: Poetics in Anticipation’, New Defences of Poetry: Celebrating the Bicentennial of Shelley’s ‘Defence of Poetry’, online: http://nclacommunity.org/newdefences/2021/07/16/shifting-an-imaginary-poetics-in-anticipation/ July 2021.
Seymour Smith, Martin. ‘Laura Riding’s ‘Rejection of Poetry’’, The Review, no. 23, 1970.