Cynthia Hogue

Another Postmodernism: Towards an Ethical Poetics

Cynthia Hogue

    To the famous declaration of Theodore Adorno that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, a possible response is that there must be poetry after Auschwitz.  Not to go on with poetry would be like not going on with life: a surrender to the powers of human destruction. 

                                             —    Alicia Ostriker[1]

    Poetry makes nothing happen.

                                              —    W. H. Auden

    ......................................I want strong peace,
      and delight,
    the wild good.
    I want to make my touch poems:
    To find my morning, to find you entire
    Alive moving among the anti-touch people.
        I say across the waves of the air to you:

    today once more
    I will try to be non-violent
    one more day
    this morning, waking the world away
    In the violent day.

                                                —   Muriel Rukeyser

In response to Adorno’s and Auden’s well-known despair, Alicia Ostriker reminds us that the poet Muriel Rukeyser rejected both despair and apathy.  Ostriker writes in her collection of essays, Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic:

[T]here are those of us who disagree [with Auden and Adorno]. . . . Poetry can, as Conrad puts it, make us see.  It can also, like Rilke’s torso of Apollo, tell us that we must change our lives.  From time to time, some of us believe, poetry changes the world.  I am of this (perhaps dotty) persuasion and I have always enjoyed the work of visionary artists dissatisfied with the rule of “things as they are” (i)—

The issue so darkly raised by Auden and Adorno, and opposed in terms of the life-affirming by Rukeyser and Ostriker herself, has to do with the commensurability of aesthetics and ethics.  It is not wrong to subordinate art to history’s horrors, in Ostriker’s view; she urges us, however, not to stop there.  That is, as she puts it, “the struggle can neither be won nor abandoned” (“Beyond Confession” 35).  The site of this struggle—the witnessing, the transmuting (i.e. the representing), the act of contemplative analysis (or vision, if you will) that becomes the work of art—is a place where aesthetics and ethics can meet synergistically.  Ostriker is interested specifically in the poetics of postmodern witness.  I would like to consider, for the purposes of this essay, that synergistic site itself, in order to contemplate more broadly an ethical poetics.

Although ethical criticism has burgeoned in the last decade, and was even the topic of a recent PMLA issue edited by Lawrence Buell, the term ethics is somewhat fluidly defined. [2]    For my purposes conceptually, I follow Julia Kristeva in such early work as Revolution in Poetic Language, as well as the later Tales of Love, In the Beginning Was Love, and Nations Without Nationalism, because she theorizes both an ethical subject and artistic practice.  A practice is ethical, she writes, “when it dissolves those narcissistic fixations (ones that are narrowly confined to the subject) to which the signifying process succumbs in its sociosymbolic relation” (Revolution 233 [3] ).   The Law of the Symbolic is not simply internalized but shattered-within-unity.  An acknowledgment of the internal “stranger to ourselves”—what Emily Dickinson called  “Ourself  behind ourself” (P 670)—mobilizes a radically ethical tolerance for external differences. 

I also follow Charles Altieri, who uses the term ethical, in his essay “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Postmodernism,” to characterize the desire on the part of postmodernist artists both to extend modernist formal resistance to realist ideals and marketplace values, and to offer more plausible ways than postmodern theory has of imagining alternatives to dominant ideologies of mainstream culture:

Countering realism entails treating art less as a mode of referring directly to the world than as an emphasis on the capacity of the artistic syntax to exemplify ways of feeling, thinking, and imaginatively projecting investments not bound to dominant social structures. [4]   

Concerned to theorize an expressivist ethics that accords space and place to a moral and intentional subjectivity, Altieri asserts that poets are better than theorists at envisioning poetic subjects with agency, a “dynamic intentionality” that is inseparable from that with which we imbue our speech (215). [5]    

I would like now to consider more specifically the ethical stances of three exemplary poets: the syntax of thought and emotion in their work, their thinking-through of dominance and one’s treatment of others.   I focus on three poets whose works are connected not only in their aesthetic innovativeness, but also in being ethically motivated—Marianne Moore, Alicia Ostriker, and Alice Fulton.  In listing these poets chronologically, I am loosely indicating an American tradition of feminist, ethical poetics, but I will not specifically be arguing that possibility in this essay.

Moore’s eccentric blend of liberal individualism (which is at once an Enlightenment and Christian version [6] ) and Modernist collage has camouflaged the ethical grain against which she often writes.  She developed “an anti-poetic mode of expression that rejected the self-centered, culturally imperialistic assumptions of both the romantic and modernist eras as well” (Miller 17).  For Moore,  “a heteroglossic . . . intertext of voices acts as a didactic tool of participatory education.  No singular and unambiguous voice instructs, but the poems push oppositionally toward change” (Miller 6).  She construes such heteroglossic tension as a kind of fortunate fall from the self-enclosed perfections of inherited poetic tradition into the messy flaws of linguistic experiments. 

Flaws and imperfections in Moore’s work have ethical implications.  As Laurence Stapleton suggests of a relatively late poem, “Tom Fool at Jamaica” (1953) (originally titled “Letter Perfect is not Perfect”), they mark “a victory of sensibility over everything in one’s self or in others that defeats life” (189): “Be infallible at your peril,” Moore cautions (CP 162).  In perfect rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter in “Enough: Jamestown, 1607-1957,” Moore jarringly distills the deadly essence of a nascent capitalism in our imperfectly realized notions of freedom: “Marriage, tobacco, and slavery,/ initiated liberty” (CP 186), [7]   this liberty—the colonists’ “history of treachery, genocide, and enslavement” (Miller 151).  She portrays the colonists as concerned with fortune (“a search for gold” [CP 186]) and fame (“could the most ardent have been sure/ that they had done what would endure?” [CP 187]) rather than seeking ethically “what is good” (CP 186). 

Nothing now marks the site of Jamestown—“the site that did not flower” (CP 186), she dryly closes, and because of this erasure, “it is enough/ if present faith mend partial proof” (CP 187; emphasis added): in other words, if we believe the stories for lack of ample evidence.  But these lines are ambiguous, for “mend” means “reform” (in the religious sense of amend, improve in morals) as well as “repair,” and “partial” not only means “in part” but “biased.”  Having throughout the poem enumerated the colonists’ excesses (among them cannibalism), Moore makes it difficult for readers to accept biased versions (“partial proofs”) that whitewash (“mend”) the colonists’ reprehensible record.  It is “enough” only if—the conditional (in)conclusively eloquent—the present, through spiritual belief, can correct the flaws (both of character and culture) that caused past wrongs.

Moore was a pacifist (albeit not a passivist), and her question in the fifties, in the wake of McCarthy’s interrogations of “un-American” activities, the Korean War, and the atom bomb testing [8] was how to valorize “American” individuality without encouraging “egomania.”  As the speaker of another late poem, “Blessed Is the Man,” remarks, “Blessed the geniuses who know// that egomania is not a duty” (CP 173).  The poem continues:

    Blessed the man whose faith is different
        from possessiveness—of a kind not framed by “things which
                    do appear”—
                    (CP 174)

The issue Moore raises is how to promote self-possession without possessive individualism. 

This poem was published in Ladies Home Journal in 1956, six years before C.B. MacPherson’s “classic analysis of Western ‘possessive individualism’ (1962) trace[d] the seventeenth-century emergence of an ideal self as owner: the [white, male] individual surrounded by accumulated property,” as James Clifford, in his chapter on collecting art and culture in his own classic analysis, The Predicament of Culture, summarizes the ideological paradigm shift that so vitally contributed to the philosophical foundations of America (Clifford 217).  As “Blessed Is the Man” confirms, Moore contemplated the tension that characterizes the American ideal of individualism—that is, the Lockean possessive individual and the Washingtonion individual whose civic-mindedness tempers the self-aggrandizing, bourgeois individual’s unfettered quest for profit.  The poem blesses “the man who does not denigrate, depreciate, denunciate,” or “comply”; advocates “‘Diversity, controversy; tolerance’”; and employs a metaphor from the language of housekeeping to portray moral vacuity—condemning those authors “mitin-proofing conscience against character” (who, in other words, put their conscience in “mothballs”).

In the late 1940s, after her mother’s death, Moore very publicly refashioned herself as a Washingtonian figure, positioning herself as a sort of transvestite “founding father” in order to assert a voice authoritative enough to be heard. [9]   Her self-fashioning made visible and readable some of the tensions among self-aggrandizing, American individualism, radically Christian ethics, and liberal democracy, [10] which dominant cultural ideology in the U.S. covers over.  But she had long considered the linking of poet and prophet, which was best exemplified for her in the Bible. 

Take as illustration the poem that contains lines often quoted as metapoetic, “The Past is the Present.”  The lines are: “Ecstasy affords/ the occasion and expediency determines the form” (CP 88).  The poem continues: “‘Hebrew poetry is prose/ with a sort of heightened consciousness’” (CP 88).  The equivalence of Hebrew poetry with prose, formally asserted by the line break after “prose,” is put into question by the enjambed semantic qualification.  Is prose “‘with a sort of heightened consciousness’” (emphasis added) poetry, prose, or something in between?  Moore’s notes attribute this quoted statement to Dr. E. H. Kellogg of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  In a poem that takes up as an issue another kind of repetition—rhyme, which it notes is “outmoded”—why is the poem’s speaker concerned with repeating Dr. Kellogg’s words precisely (“He said—and I think I repeat his exact words”)?  Why quote precisely what may be, after all, Dr. Kellogg’s oratorial hemming and hawing (“sort of”), which obscures rather than clarifies the precise nature of Hebrew poetry?  Why introduce a phrase that calls into question the accuracy of the quotation, moreover (“I think”), or open the poem in the conditional (”If external action is effete/ and rhyme is outmoded,/ [then] I shall revert to you,/ Habakkuk”; emphasis added)?  And why redefine such a crucial word as ecstasy so oddly (a “sort of heightened consciousness”)?  The poem takes formal issue with a Modernist economy forbidding verbal excess, not only through the poem’s witty repetition of prolix masculine authority but also through its internal and off-rhyme (words/affords, verse/prose, effete/repeat) and abjuration of conventional notions of “ecstasy.” 

This poetic rumination on a “Bible class” is a notably odd Modernist moment.  But in effect, Moore posits her own revised relation to masculine poetic tradition on a par with Pound’s and Eliot’s poetic individualism (Slatin 30).  As Habakkuk’s name signifies, the poem replaces classical with Judeo-Christian tradition.  “Of the prophet Habakkuk,” we are told in Moore’s source, “we know nothing that is personal save his name,” which is unusual even in Hebrew—an intensive form of a root meaning “to caress or embrace.” [11]   Jerome, a note further tells us, suggested that Habakkuk was “called ‘embrace’ either because of his love to the Lord, or because he wrestles with God.”  Luther suggested that “Habakkuk means one who comforts and holds up his people as one embraces a weeping person” (129).  Habakkuk was the earliest of a new school of religion in Israel, and was an atypical “prophet,” for unlike the other prophets, who addressed Israel on behalf of God, Habakkuk was a skeptic who addressed God on behalf of Israel.  Moore’s other quotations from The Book of the Twelve in her reading diary note that the Hebrew ecstatics were not selfish (unlike modern Christian fanatics); that they were “in sympathy with their nation’s aspirations for freedom and her whole political life” (vol. 1, 25); and that the “age was very modern”—noted for its joy, energy, patriotism, devoutness, and “cruel wealth.” [12]   Writing during the First World War (but before the United States entered it), Moore must have contemplated the analogies between the tumultuous age that produced the Old Testament prophets and her own—even, perhaps, between Habakkuk and herself. [13]  60; In reverting to “Habakkuk” because “external action is effete,” then, she openly, if discreetly, declares that an expedient form for action is poetry and the ecstasy that informs her work a reversion of Old Testament skepticism, which serves as an analogue of her very individual embodiment of an ethical poet-prophet.

Like Moore’s modernism, Alice Fulton’s postmodernist poetic project resists a poetry comprised of particular (often exclusively personal and narrative) details, as well as the lyric engagement of only those emotions deemed appropriate by mainstream poetics.  For Fulton, the problematic is that there are so few emotions represented in the lyric that it has narrowed the range of the possible.  Desire and grief have long since “consolidated into genre” (Feeling 300); ordinary language is uncritically prized as a symptom of “sincerity”; linguistic play—a central aspect of poetry, at least in English poetry since the Old English riddles—is considered florid and insincere (and sometimes hysterically overwrought). 

What both of these poets implicitly call for is a less visually, formally, and thematically stabilized poetry—a poetry that is on the verge or at the edge, one that does play tennis without the net (and out of bounds to boot!).  Fulton has termed the kind of poetry she has in mind fractal verse, after the term that mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot used (from the Latin fractus: “irregular or fragmented”) for structures of natural turbulence previously thought to be chaotic.  Mandelbrot discovered the deep patterns or logic (see Feeling 62-63, passim) of roots and leaves, for example, or clouds or arteries. [14]   Fulton is interested in a poetry open to the fluctuations of consciousness, mindfulness, openheartedness.  She describes it as being cast in “that point of metamorphosis, when structure is incipient, all threshold, a neither-nor” (Feeling 63), and as having a sense of the nonbinarizing, the peripheral that Lynn Keller has called, following Fulton herself, the “then some inbetween.” [15]  

Here, in that place of edges, doorways, and openings, just as the old identity has been dropped but before the new one has been taken on, we find a maximalist poetics of liminality (in Victor Turner’s sense of the creative betwixt-and-between of culturally organized categories) capable of engaging the reader in less emotionally predictable ways. [16]   Fulton explains:

I’m interested in poems that engage with those untoward emotions, going off the given emotional scripts to write the peripheral and unvisited.  Such poetry will disappoint the genteel expectations of genre, but it stands a chance of surprising me into feeling. (Feeling 300; emphasis added)

For Fulton, the most interesting poetry engages a reader’s mind with something-larger-than the self. 

Like Moore’s, Fulton’s poetry is distinguished by its eclectic and flexible linguistic innovation and, Emily Grosholz argues, its negotiation of, attendance to, the demands of accessibility (213). [17]   To this assertion, however, I want to add the caveat that, as with her great precursor, Fulton has never let the “demands of accessibility”—as much a contested issue in current poetics as it was in Moore’s day (see Keller 311-14, passim)—constrain or determine the formal and contextual explorations in her work.  That is because, Fulton argues, so much of the poetry which attends to those demands is not, in practice, concerned with substantive issues—“conscience, responsibility, power, cruelty, or form“— but is relentless in its concern with the self.  Its investigations are not ontological, epistemological, or ethical, but “solipsistic” (Feeling 282).  She asks exasperatedly, Can we talk about something else (i.e. than the self)? (Feeling 303). 

As a self-identified feminist, postmodern poet, one who, from the first, has been as theoretically astute as the Language poets, Fulton has explored multiple (re)constructions of the lyric subject, disengendering as well as regendering it.  In doing so, she both attends to the personal and opens her work to that which lies outside the individual (Miller 319). [18]   She is interested in an exploratory inquiry that will discomfit readers and unsettle their expectations, a poetry of inconvenient knowledge (the title of one of her most important essays).  She favors the eccentric, calls for a maximalist poetry of “odd, postmodern rapture” (akin to that Moorean ecstasy of the “sort of heightened consciousness”)—that is, a formal excess and emotive content which will unhinge foundational assumptions (Feeling 302).

I want now to turn to a specific example in Fulton’s recent collection, Felt, the title of which obviously functions symbolically as both noun (the fabric) and verb (the past tense of feel).  In a poem that takes up this symbolic potential, “Fair Use,” Fulton describes how the fabric felt is made (“by pressing/ fibers till they can’t be wrenched apart” [Felt 17]). [19]   Although I have quoted the passage separately, lifted it out as I might a piece of the fabric so that you can see how it feels, it cannot really be taken out of its context without skewing the sense of Fulton’s methodology.  Here’s the passage reconstituted:

    As for the sofa, its fabric is vermiculite,
    glittering, as is trans-
    ferment.  My head’s already in its sixties flip.
    Kennedy’s already dead.  Incandescence
    has a heavy hand.  For all I care,
    the TV might be an airshaft

      when the statics of is widen and show everyone
      meshed, a fabric of entanglement = =
      my consciousness felted with yours,
      although I didn’t know you then.

      It is not metaphorical, the giver is
      literal beyond prediction about this:
      what happens to others happens to me.
      What joy, what sad.  As felt

    is formed by pressing
    fibers till they can’t be wrenched apart,
    nothing is separate, the entire planet
    being an unexpected example.
    Is this fair use, to find

      the intergown of difference
      severing self from = = nonself = = gone.
      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
      What lowercase god sent this
      = = immersion = =
      to test my radiance threshold?
      From then till never = = time, space, gravity
      felted to a single entity[.]
        (Felt 17-18)

This is a poem that posits the insight that we are all interconnected on this planet, and moves into a contemplation of our capacity to feel others’ feelings: a sense of having “interfelt,” as the poem puts it towards the end. 

The poem opens in apparent in media res (“As for the sofa...”) but never fastens upon a story line.  The personal and historical details (“My head’s already in its sixties flip,/ Kennedy’s already dead”) locate us chronologically but not purposefully (as in: developing the movement that the opening lines trigger).  The first indented section (“when the statics of is widen . . .”) substantively widens the poem, which becomes suddenly—coinciding with the indentation—an ontological contemplation.  The poem then shifts abruptly into analogy and neologistic pun (“my consciousness felted with yours”).  Then, with the move back to flush left, it shifts to definition (“As felt// is formed by pressing/ fibers till they can’t be wrenched apart”) felted (as it were) with extended metaphor.  As fabric and as sign registering an emotional experience, the word felt is posited, through the flux of the poem’s shifting focus, as both the ground and figure for the transcendent epiphany at the heart of this poem (“nothing is separate, the entire planet”). 

As a fabric formed by “pressing/ fibers till they can’t be wrenched apart,” felt is a seeming but complex image expressed in an unseemly—even violent—language (the violence latent in wrenched, for example).   The poem, too, is a complex of affective forces.  Formally, it foregrounds its seams (“a fabric of entanglement = =”).  Thematically, it renders an insight—that “nothing is separate, the entire planet”—wherein science (specifically the Gaia hypothesis that we live in a living world in which we are all interconnected) and spirituality (specifically Buddhism) meet.  Thus, as Fulton might explain, the poem’s complexity happens at the level of lining as well as line.  To give a few examples:

  • The word felt morphs from verb to noun over the course of an enjambed stanza break (“What joy, what sad.  As felt// is formed...);
  • later in the poem Fulton employs a neologism, interfelt, for the kind of entanglement of hearts that she both thematically resists (“students = = teachers = = parents = = children = =/ get your hearts out of mine” [Felt 19] and formally contemplates;
  • and this is akin to that moment of graphic severing = = and = = connection accomplished by Fulton’s innovative use of the double equal sign (much like Emily Dickinson’s use of the dash, of course—“severing self from = = nonself”— as well as A.R. Ammons democratizing use of the colon). 

In other words, the poem is formally structured by a series of scenic, substantive, and typographic confluences, meeting-places (for the personal and historical, for example, or the scientific and spiritual, among others), enacting what Fulton terms “the content of form” (Feeling 69). 

The stays of abstraction that underpin this poem— “transferment” = = “incandescence” = = “consciousness” = = “immersion” = = “radiance” = = “synthesis” = = “interfelt” = = “thousandfold” = = “hearts”—form the dense, emotional texture of  epiphany at the poem’s heart.  As Ostriker remarks of the engaged and ritual poetry that  “suggests nonoppressive models of the conjunction between religion and politics, usually by re-imaging the sacred as immanent rather than transcendent,” there is no transcendence in this poem.  Rather, here Fulton’s poetry echoes Moore’s in its contemplation of the value of immersion, saturation—excess of feeling.   I want to suggest that this excess is associated with Fulton’s ethical sense of compassion.  As she construes this notion central to Buddhism, compassion is that communal capacity to feel with rather than the distancing effect of feeling for—a sympathy often mouthed but hardly felt in American culture (although it seems clear that September 11th has changed that fact).  Instead of the self-delusions of sympathy, the poem enjoins us through its mindfulness, its mindful contemplation of vertiginously swift shifts, to immerse ourselves, to risk the too-muchness of others’ feelings, from which we ordinarily—unmindfully—try to protect ourselves.  To let the world in, close the distance, lower the veil that separates “self from = = nonself”: to interfeel.  

I’d like to close by turning briefly to Alicia Ostriker, who has become, as Fulton’s poem allows us to see, a poet who risks the too-muchness of others’ feelings.  In the essay “‘Howl’ Revisited: the Poet as Jew,” Ostriker contends that Alan Ginsberg’s Jewishness was at least as crucial to his poetics as Buddhism:

There is a word in Hebrew for a virtue at the core of Ginsberg’s character and his writing, a virtue that has been noticed by infinite numbers of people—chesed.  It means kindness, or lovingkindness.  (103)

Because of the thoroughness of her study of Judaism, Ostriker is able persuasively to contextualize what others have noticed and attributed solely to Ginsberg’s Buddhism.  She then goes on to link his work’s commentary on America to the role of “prophet” (as in Old Testament Hebrew prophecy).  She contends that no full understanding of Ginsberg’s tragicomic sensibility—the link between The Book of Lamentations and “Howl,” to take a specific example—is possible without taking into account Ginsberg’s formative Jewishness.

I would say, of course, that we may not only see from her commentary useful connections to Moore’s public persona, but also to Ostriker’s own work as a revisionary Jewish, feminist poet.  In Ostriker’s case, the later poetry especially is complicated and deepened by the methodology of midrashic collage and the ethics of chesed, of “lovingkindness,” which permeate the vision central to her oeuvre.   In her moving poem “The Class,” Ostriker assembles into the overarching narrative of the teacher’s compassion for her students her students’ own words, multiplying the perspectives in the poem so that, like a prism fracturing light into a spectrum, the poem contains the comic as well as tragic:

    We say things in this class.  Like why it hurts.
    The teacher hears tales from the combat zone
    Where the children live . . . . .
        Like all draftees,
    They have one job, survival,
    And permit themselves some jokes.
    Like my father hits the bottle . . .
    And my mother.  [And]
    The homosexual drummer tapping out
    A knee tune, wagging his Groucho brows.
    Hey, you ought to meet my mom real soon.
    ‘Cause when I tell her, she’s gonna die. (194)

The teacher hears the students’ “common stories” (the choice of common both precisely descriptive and ironic) of surviving incest, rape, abuse of all sorts, attempted suicide, and knows that, in challenging her students to “Write what makes you afraid to write,” she “helps them descend into hell” (The Little Space 195). 

This surprising counsel is, as it turns out, because what she knows from her experience of giving permission, in the space of the classroom, for her students “To gather pain into language” is that:

    The critics are wrong, the other professors are wrong
    Who describe an art divisible from dirt,
    From rotten life.  (195)

Rather than submit finally and absolutely to despair over art’s powerlessness in the face of horror, which can render the pain unsurvivable (as it was for the subject of Adorno’s contemplation, Paul Celan, as Ostriker well understands), she insists on the relevance, the connection of art to all with which “dirt” is metonymically associated.  Poets confronting all to which “rotten life” refers, Ostriker suggests in a recent essay, might contemplate a line from the Talmudic Ethics of the Fathers: “It is not incumbent on you to finish the task.  Neither are you free to give it up” (“Beyond Confession” 35).  Adorno himself, we might recall, admitted the necessity of what we now term a poetry of witness.  He wrote in Negative Dialectics:

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream, hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.  But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living.  (362-63) [20]

As a critic, Ostriker advocates and herself writes as a poet a poetry that has an “intensely engaged and engaging” speaking subject.  Like Ginsberg (and Moore in her later years,), Ostriker favors a performative, ritual poetry in which:

The poet . . .enacts a bardic, shamaness’ or priestess’ role, enacting a modern version of the theme of transformation common to tribal ceremonies in ancient Europe, Britain, America, and Africa. . . . For poet and reader-participant alike, ritual poetry implies the possibility of healing alternatives to dominance-submission scenarios.  It suggests nonoppressive models of the conjunction between religion and politics, usually by re-imaging the sacred as immanent rather than transcendent, by defining its audience as members of a potentially strong community[.] (16-17)

To write a defense of poetry by excavating its archaic function, Ostriker articulates a position located at the juncture of the political and the spiritual, that is both ethical and revolutionary.  It is an astonishingly romantic stance for a major poet-critic at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

But, you may recall, Kristeva also theorizes the importance of the subject position in poetry: its capacity to dissolve narcissistic fixations, its association with social practices that destabilize social structures and the privileging of the privileged—esoterism, shamanism, and carnival, for example—because like them, she argues, poetry’s language demystifies the unifying operations of the symbolic.

Artist and activist Suzi Gablik contends that the artistic process of dissolving ego-boundaries poses a visionary response to what she calls the “modern challenge”:

To find sacredness within the world, to recover our lost souls, to somehow get past what George Steiner recently described as “the age of embarrassment about God, about the numinous, the collective unconsciousness; embarrassment about owning to our inner world, transcendental experience, mysteries, and magnanimities.”  (quoted. in Gablik at 53)

Gablik suggests, in The Reenchantment of Art, that the ethical aspect of the artistic practice might be usefully termed reconstructive (rather than revolutionary), concerned as it is with ways of changing our minds, our mindsets, our socialization into, our complicity with, oppression (Gablik 17)—and after last week’s horrific act, I want to add: with violence. 

To return in closing to Ostriker’s poem “The Class,” what the teacher sees and hears—what Ostriker (following Rukeyser and Carolyn Forché) terms a poetics of witness—generates the poem.  But what she is portrayed as believing—and this teacher is paradigmatic for the ethical vision of the prophet-poet Ostriker envisions—is that against all evidence “Poetry heals, or redeems suffering,/ If we can enter its house of judgment” (to believe ourselves, we might recall Moore’s line: it is enough if present faith mend partial proof).  Whose suffering does poetry redeem and whom does it heal?  If not the poet herself, the teacher thinks, perhaps a reader years later, for:  “Great is truth,” she tells herself, “and mighty above all things” (195).  She cannot say this in her class, for the students would think her dotty, of course.  What she can quietly give them in the position that she occupies is chesed, “lovingkindness,” the strand of which is one thread running through the collaged narrative.  Years later, one of her students may read the poem, and themselves be in a position to pass on the vision. 

I am not suggesting that any of these poets calls for a larger systemic change, though it’s arguable.  Rather, I contend that these poets ethically, spiritually explore in their work what is possible at the individual level, where we have subjective agency and can effect change—if only a change of heart.  As Moore put it in “In Distrust of Merits,” lines that resonate eerily for me as the nation responds to the September 11th terrorist attack: “We/ vow, we make this promise//to the fighting—it’s a promise—‘We’ll/ never hate black, white, red, yellow, Jew,/ Gentile, Muslim“: “There never was a war that was/ not inward; I must/ fight till I have conquered in myself what/ causes war” (CP 137-38).

[1] Alicia Ostriker, “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness,” APR 30.2 (March/April 2001): 35 [35-39].

[2] As Buell, in the recent PMLA special issue on ethical criticism that he edited, suggests, ethics has increasingly become a topic for critical inquiry in the last decade or so.  For an overview of the multivariety of this term and of critical inquiry, see Buell 7-19; see also the whole of that issue featuring ethical criticism.

[3] Also quoted in Lawrence Buell, “In Pursuit of Ethics,” PMLA 114, 1 (January 1999): 14; and Hogue, Scheming Women.

4 Charles Altieri, “What Is Living and What Is Dead in American Postmodernism: Establishing the Contemporaneity of Some American Poetry,” Critical Inquiry 22.4 (Summer 1996): 767, 768.

[5] See Altieri, Subjective Agency, esp. 188-220 (passim).

[6] On Moore’s relationship to America’s dominant Calvinist heritage, see Jeredith Merrin, “Sites of Struggle.” I had the opportunity last summer to discuss the notion of election with a Presbyterian missionary (don’t ask me how).  Although I have no room to go into it here, I think a belief in one’s “election” fundamental to Moore’s purposive, late-life cross-dressing as a Washingtonian figure with an ethical—clearly Christian—message.

[7] See Miller’s discussion of the contradictions that characterize this poem (149-51).

[8] Moore was a pacifist (though not in favor of passivity).  See correspondence, Moore to Morten Zabel, 6 October 1932, V: 79:29, Rosenbach.  My thanks to Victoria Bazin for bringing this letter to my attention.

Moore’s unpublished reading diary during the 1950s confirms her continuing, lifelong concern with and about world peace.  She quotes a 19 April 1952 New York Times article, for example, with the headline “Queen Juliana Warns That Time is Short for Humanity to Save Itself by World Unity”:

“It seems to me that what matters most is that people know that these claims of theirs are inalienable and will be recognized,” the sovereign said. “Thus they are not caught in a whirlpool of quarrels and dissensions, preventing them from ever uniting again.  In world-consciousness and respect for the freedom of others lies a great mental power which is yours.”  In May 1956, Moore quotes Herbert Hoover and Hugh Gibson from the Quaker calendar: “Victory with vengeance is ultimate defeat in the modern world.  We can have peace or we can have revenge, but we cannot have both” (Rosenbach, VII:12:07).

[9] Costello, Molesworth, Gilbert, Gregory.

[10] See Altieri: “expressivism helps thicken the case for why liberal means of defending democratic values are worth pursuing, for why a political theory adequate to modern society must emphasize rules and attitudes oriented towards cultivating and tolerating incommensurable differences, and for how one can correlate democratic individualism with the social constraints necessary to negotiate those differences.  Expressivism shows why agents have interests in democracy that go beyond capitalist market principles, and it can help explain how we can care about freedoms for those whose primary values we find incommensurable with ours” (222).  I think Moore, pragmatist as well as Lincolnian Republican that she was, would agree.

[11] The Book of the Twelve Prophets, by George Adam Smith, vol. 2, 129.  Moore’s unpublished reading diary notes the following: “others addressed Israel on behalf of God.  He, God on behalf of IS[rael]” (Rosenbach, VII:01:01).

[12] Smith: “It was a marvellous generation—so joyous, so energetic, so patriotic, so devout!  But its strength was the strength of cruel wealth, its peace the peace of an immoral religion” (vol. 1, 41).  Moore twice notes in her diary that the “age was very modern” (Rosenbach, VII: 01:01).

[13] Indeed, as Smith himself reiterates, “I have said that the age is very modern, and we shall indeed go to its prophets feeling that they speak to conditions of life extremely like our own” (vol.1, 41).

[14] A thorough discussion of fractal verse is beyond the scope of this paper, and indeed, Fulton’s own discussion in “Feeling as a Foreign Language” comprises among the best, most exciting poetics I have seen of late (I would add Kathleen Fraser’s, Charles Bernstein’s, and Alicia Ostriker’s recent essay collections as well to that list). 

[15] See Lynn Keller, “The ‘Then Some Inbetween’”: Alice Fulton’s Feminist Experimentalism,” American Literature 71.2 (June 1999): 311-40.

[16] Although I came to this insight separately, please see Jane Hirshfield’s excellent essay using Turner’s notion of liminality, “Writing and the Threshold Life,” APR 25.5 (September/October 1996): 29-38.

[17] Although more insistant on Fulton’s commitment to “accessibility” than I find justified in Fulton’s poetics, Grosholz astutely analyzes Fulton’s formal debt to Dickinson and A.R. Ammons.  See Emily Grosholz, “Distortion, Explosion, Embrace: the Poetry of Alice Fulton,” Michigan Quarterly Review 34.2 (Spring 1995): 213-29.

[18] Cristanne Miller, “‘The Erogenous Cusp,’ or Intersections of Science and Gender in Alice Fulton’s Poetry,” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994): 317-43.

[19] Alice Fulton, Felt (New York: Norton, 2001).

[20] I am quoting this passage from Benjamin Friedlander’s excellent essay on Emily Dickinson, Holocaust Survivor Ruth Angress, and trauma, entitled “An Arctic Region of the Mind: Reading Dickinson after the Holocaust,” paper presented at the 2001 EDIS Conference, panel on “Dickinson and the Moderns,” August 4, 2001, Trondheim, Norway.  I am indebted to Friedlander’s thinking-through of poetry, ethics, and the representation of trauma.

Bio: Cynthia Hogue’ collections of poetry include The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999) and Flux (New Issues Press 2002, and a critical study of American women’s poetry, Scheming Women: Poetry, Privilege, and the Politics of Subjectivity.  With Laura Hinton, she recently edited We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2002).  She directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches in the English Department at Bucknell University.

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