The Poetics of Encounter

Introduction by Kimberly Lamm

While they are distinct in form, subject matter, and purpose, all the work within this “Readings” section stage and investigate poetic encounters. I am not speaking of encounters with literature, but rather, an attentive testing of how literature illuminates and complicates the ways language structures one’s encounter with the world.

Though there are different levels of attention to politics and history in these essays, each text resists a conception and practice of literature as, in Joan Retallack’s description, a “time machine” that can imaginatively enfold reader and writer, excluding the persistent ticking of the present as it transforms into history. Many of the essays acknowledge that we only encounter others through literature’s medium—language—and that literature can—and does—forge attentive encounters between oneself and the world of others.

In her interview with Redell Olson, Retallack reminds us that making is at the root of poesis. And many of these essays attempt to make or forge into awareness John Cage’s definition of silence: “what we are not noticing at any given moment.” In other words, these texts draw our attention to encounters within language and culture that are present, but are not easily or always perceived. This absence that inscribes its presence on the present moment aligns with “the model of absence” Norma Cole shows us is at work in Susan Gevirtz’s CAESURA. And in the essay that inspired my decision to title this section “Poetics of Encounter,” Kate Fagan explains Lyn Hejinian’s conception of the possibility within encounter: “for in encounters, we discover not only our reasons, but evidence of our reasoning.”

The evidence and reasoning elucidated by encounter often have contradictory relations to power. As Susan M. Schultz reveals in her essay “The Stutter in the Text: Editing and Historical Authority in the Work of Susan Howe,” power is at stake in literary and historical encounters, especially in texts such as Howe’s, which attempt to reshape the rhetorics of history and “search for a new authority.” Howe is known as the poet who speaks to and for the voices that have been rendered mute by history; Schultz’s essay elucidates Howe’s complicated relations to the powers shaping the tropes, exclusions, and valorizations of history. Howe is “captive” to both her restrictions and her privileges as well as their uncanny repetitions within her poetic dismantlings. Michael Eng’s essay “Among Murderers and Madmen—Ingeborg Bachmann, Fascism, and the Experience of Writing” revisits the space opened up between philosophy and writing in Bachmann’s 1959 Frankfurt lectures on poetics in order to draw attention to the persistence of fascism in her work—“not only historical fascism,” as Michel Foucault says, “but the fascism within us all.” Eng argues that Bachman’s concern is for the possibility of responding to “the experience of language” when historical and personal experiences have been called into doubt by fascism.

These essays and the work they encounter pursue language as a medium of inquiry and form as “a conduit of intention.” They are wary of rendering literature as a mirror, wary of the political and ethical dangers of valorizing “being for the other.” Perhaps this resistance to a mimetic model of literature and the self stems from an awareness that women have so often served as the conceptual and material ground that mirrors how male writers have seen themselves. Susan Gevirtz’s essay on Norma Cole’s Ruth draws attention to the figure of the mother as an unacknowledged structure of absence. Imitating patriarchal imperatives, Cole writes, “The mother better not speak.” The mother’s “anonymous viligance” in silence becomes, in Gevirtz’s words “something or someone that is not audible, or might be heard only in the wings.” And yet, Cole’s innovative forms, and Gevirtz’s poetic and critical encounter with those forms, makes that unheard voice present.

Perhaps this is the ideal motivating all the essays in this section: illuminating how a poetics of encounter allows us to hear and perceive the absence that wouldn't be present otherwise. 

Bio: Kimberly Lamm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. She teaches English at Pratt Institute, and Women’s Studies at Long Island University. A recent essay on Susan Howe’s Pierce-Arrow, entitled “Within Hearing Distance of Philosophy: Susan Howe’s Textual Portrait of Charles Sanders Peirce” is forthcoming in the International Studies in Philosophy.


The Poetics of Encounter

Kimberly Lamm, Kristin Prevallet, and Melissa Buzzeo
“Inquiries: A Conversation on Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry

Susan Gevirtz
“ ‘Ruth’ in Mars

Norma Cole
“For Susan Gevitz's CAESAREA: Herod's City

Kate Fagan
“ ‘A work of acknowledgement,’ a poetics of Happily

Michael Eng
“Among Murderers and Madmen– Ingeborg Bachmann, Fascism, and the Experience of Writing”

Kimberly Lamm
“The Clarity of Fanny Howe's Doubt

Susan M. Schultz
“The Stutter in the Text: Editing and Historical Authority in the Work of Susan Howe”

Dell Olsen
Interview with Joan Retallack

back to readings

go to this issue's table of contents