On Poetics

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

(Selected from the DuPlessis essayOn Poetics: pleasures, polemics, practices, stakes’ by Robert Hampson for this blog)


Conjunctures of intensity

play out as dispersion. So meant to make a poetics.

The way people do.

But it never included everything I wanted.[i]




In thinking of poetics, one oscillates between theory and practice. And “practice” may mean any individual item, any given poem, and/or it may mean poetry, the collective rubric, with all its historical and institutional conventions. “Practice” may also be evoked here by the word “praxis,” when the poetry and poetics feels socially charged, a literary act in a social space. A poetics (or even an a-poetics) cannot fully precede the text, nor can it only follow. The on-going, active, even painful dialogue between the poem and a writer’s poetics—that is, between a writer’s thinking about the poem (as a grand category, or as a specific work) and her relation to the notions of “poetry” — are part of the constitution of writing.[ii]  The combustion of writing. In the words of Robert Duncan: “Poetics is the contemplation of the meaning of form”.[iii]





Poetry is the enactment of an attitude in poetics (the theory, even when it is unarticulated and implicit), which is coupled with constant choice and making—intense, demanding, driven activities (acts within a practice). This is an utterly dialectical relationship, and poesis as a practice (the making of things) is in a feedback loop with its explicit or implicit theorizing, modifying the assumptions, testing them, even critiquing them. The desire to be making is startling and forceful, erotic, really: poetics frames this, but is often flooded out by it.  




How fast can the mind work?  Too fast to follow and too multiple to track. That’s how fast and simultaneous the choices in writing are. Really fast. And really social as well as personal. Even if you try to take notes or write memoranda on why you are choosing, you can’t cover even half of what you do when you make something. It’s uncalibratible. This can be summarized in the writer’s deliberately slo-mo joke—“I spent all morning putting a semi-colon in and all afternoon taking it out.” Or, more seriously, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, in proposition 4.002 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where, briefly considering the social aspects of language, he says: “The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated”.[iv] In another translation: “The tacit conventions on which the understanding of everyday language depends are enormously complicated” .[v] Yeah—precisely.  To say the least.  And even more so for poetry. “The silent adjustments to understand language usages in and as poetry are enormously complicated.”

            When, in one of Jacques Derrida’s essays on Paul Celan, he posits the hypothesis: “all responsible witnessing involves a poetic experience of language” [my emphasis], I take the word “poetic” not to mean something vague and airy, but rather to mean an in-depth understanding of the complexity and ethical resonance of a detail—a word, an inflection, a historical usage.[vi] To illustrate this, Derrida immediately embarks on an enriched philological and cultural reading of a specific poem. He analyzes the nuances of translations (from German into French and into English), proposes humility before the poem’s extreme ellipses, tries to understand Celan’s “kennings” in their etymological, allusion-laden and social depths, plumbs the historical reaches of a custom (swearing an oath, bearing witness), and finally engages with the multiple facets and meanings of a very simple word in Celan’s stanza:  the word “für” or “for” (Derrida 2000, 199). By the elegance and precision of the analysis, Derrida proposes that every poem embodies acts of existential and ethical witnessing that occur through language itself, in the depth of poetic details. I might be tempted to say “every poem worth reading”—but I won’t. Why? Because I agree that EVERY poem does this—it’s just that the witnessing can be lazy, banal, boring, derisory—the language will tell you, the poetic detail will tell you this.

            If the “silent adjustments to understand language usages in and as poetry are enormously complicated,” this fact will also implicate ambiguities: The contradictory meaning of intransigent words. The complex meaning of complementary words. The opposing meaning of basic words. The dialectical meaning of simple words. The antithetical meaning of primal words.




Poetry draws on and explores this social-sensuous generativity.  Poetry works “the materiality of language”.[vii] And a poetics honours and discusses that necessity–given all the layers of information, thought, bibliographic meanings (textual, visual, material and historical), intertextuality, sonic pulse, cultural allusions and social understandings that are prolonged by the work, evoked in the making of the work, and embedded in the practices of language. Poetics—sometimes like literary criticism—makes overt the bolus of language. A poetics may sound sublime and all-encompassing simply because it tries to acknowledge the importance of the inexplicable and unassimilable in language itself.




I might be paraphrasing Louis Zukofsky, so I will do so more explicitly.  Intricate bottomless tangibility—these words are all from Zukofsky (they are also from the dictionary)—but I am not citing him. I’ve put these words together in my own phrase.[viii] That’s a description, in poetics, of the poem.[ix] Even if a poem is very short and very small, it has the potential to show intricate bottomless tangibility, a vast extent on the surface—this is because of the depth and breadth of the detail and its prolongation in sound, rhythm and the pulse of the poem.

            Is this my “Test of Poetics”? A poetics is not really (or solely) a cookbook, a list of do’s and don’t’s, though it might (charmingly and importantly, as Ezra Pound ‘s does) offer these kinds of suggestions as a polemical intervention. A poetics is fundamentally a document in a discussion touching on ethics: intersubjectivity and connectedness and the relations of “everything….” Any word is an intersubjective confrontation. Without the social, there is no language. A poetics will propose the particular (peculiar?) ethics of feeling the cultural potential of language, of presenting the actual play of language as thought, of acknowledging the generative making of language to evoke emotional and visceral impacts in oneself and in others.  To evoke the sense of the veridical–truth is being told–not said (baldly) but told–exfoliating in and through the resources of language. Poetics acknowledges the phenomenological experience at the social-sensuous moment when word does evoke—even mean—world. A poetics points to/analyzes and is invested in the intricate bottomless tangibility of a poem, and it attempts to describe the praxis, the pleasure, the polemics, and the stakes involved.   



Poetics is the unstable rope bridge swaying between poems and philosophy.



Judging from the overstatements and suggestive rhetorical generalizations of a lot of grand theory and the propositional clarity (or at least goal) of a lot of philosophy, the role of poetry as thinking when confronting philosophy is to acknowledge the under-generalized detail, the social-sensuousness of language. The detail changes everything, because it speaks of the contingent, the intransigent, the odd, the potentially unaccounted, uncounted, unaccountable. “Dissonance/ […]/ leads to discovery” said William Carlos Williams in Paterson IV, ii—extrapolating (accurately) from scientific to artistic experiment.  For verification of his point, in all the psychological and intellectual dramas of extreme discomfort and urges to conformity before the breakthrough is made, see Thomas Kuhn’s great work in the poetics of thought, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).




The singular anomaly is what trips up the systematizing and exciting and generalizing claims of philosophy. A poem is an anti-totalizing text, in a totalizing situation filled with totalizing temptations—among these of poetics itself. Poetry—with its image-etymologies, historical uses, connotations, conventions–is the question that “eludes” philosophy possibly because of that initiating gesture of Plato—somehow to exclude rhetoric, personae and masking, propositional lushness, socio-cultural “adjustments” (see Wittgenstein), and discursive ambiguity.  Yet philosophy is a rhetoric, after all; it is an artifact; it has style as well as substance. Style qualifies and reveals substance. “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”

             As Louis Armand has justly pointed out, “[Poetry] itself constitutes a condition, an illicit possibility of the ‘philosophical’ and of the ‘political’ (Plato’s exclusion more than implies it)” (Armand 2012).[x] Poetics reveals via the poetic text that grand theory and philosophy cannot ever be fully adequate as thought. This realization has sometimes provoked a counter-screed by poets against abstraction, generalization, informed overview, or analysis—this variously by Pound and Charles Olson in the recent years of poetics. But I don’t think that analytic thinking is taboo in poetry—just that it must be informed by intricate bottomless tangibility—a lively sense of the social-sensuousness of language and of thinking as praxis inside the poem as practice.




Any poetics needs to be able to attend to this complexity, to comprehend in it the embodied suggestiveness of word, syntax, rhythm, the micro-scale of the poem, the force of the detail and the detail in motion, up and down to its “bottomlessness.” Bottomlessness, as I have just suggested, occurs in a relationship between time and making (that is, poesis in the enlarged sense). This is what poetry brings into or against the systematizing of philosophy—it constructs another branch of thought. It says—here is the little, here is the detail, here is the quirk and turn: here it is. The deictic IT and the IT in and of language. Here is the limit of the systematic, of the overgeneralization, of theory as such: it lies in the specificities of making thought presented evocatively through-and-in-language.


[i]  Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ‘Draft 107: Meant to Say’, Surge: Drafts 96-114 (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2013), 88.

[ii] The historical, conventional institution of poetry itself and the institutions of literary production, dissemination and reception may also incur comment in a poetics. One hopes so. Further, one might believe a writer of poetics who had never made a poem—or maybe not. Or that fact could simply mean that the theory (the poetics) is the practice (the poem). That the plan for the work is the work defines an active postulate of conceptual art and conceptual poetries.

[iii] Robert Duncan, Collected Essays and Other Prose, ed. James Maynard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 30; essay from 1947-48).

[iv] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922), 62. In the original: “Die stillschweigenden Abmachungen zum Verständnis der Umgangsspreche sind enorm kompliziert”; 

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. David F. Pears and Brian McGuiness (New York: Routledge, 2001), 95.

[vi] Jacques Derrida, “‘A Self-Unsealing Poetic Text’: Poetics and Politics of Witnessing’ in Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today, ed. Michael P. Clark, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 181.

[vii] Robin Blaser, The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, ed. Miriam Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 97.

[viii] People interested in consulting the exact sentence that Zukofsky wrote are directed to the second paragraph, fourth sentence in the following citation: Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays, ed. Mark Scroggins (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 19.

[ix] Zukofsky’s strange manual A Test of Poetry and much of his literary criticism assembles, but does not codify, the plethora of diverse and semi-calibratable effects of the poetic medium. He joins this sense of richness with a concern with poetic form as a way of presenting, representing social materials, even of proposing social ideas and debates; he was trying for a tertium quid poetics—as I see this–between Thrysis and Corydon (the realist and the sweetener).

[x] This is also particularly germane: “As [Alain] Badiou observes: ‘Words take on, in philosophy, a sense both imperious and troubling. They are at the same time made axiomatic by the effort to systematise and poeticised by the rhetorical energy of doing so [10].’ Armand is citing Badiou, Theoretical Writings. See Louis Armand, “Poetry and the unpoetic” (Jacket, 2012), available at https://jacket2.org/article/poetry-and-unpoetic.


Selected from the DuPlessis essayOn Poetics: pleasures, polemics, practices, stakes’ by Robert Hampson for this blog. If you want to read the whole essay, it is to be found in Jeanne Heuving and Tyrone Williams (eds), Inciting Poetics: Thinking and Writing Poetry (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019), 13-38.