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Pour toi

(Frayed Strands)

Je est un autre.

Arthur Rimbaud, 13 May, 1871 2

L’autre qui est je s’appelle toi.

Richard Burns, 13 May, 2002

Adapted version of presentation to the Conference 


 La Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 13th May 20024

Extract from a longer working paper entitled

'Steps towards a Universal Poetics'


The starting point [for this conference] is the extraordinary essay published by Michel Deguy in June 2001, De la poésie aujourd’hui.5 The wealth scattered through Deguy’s text is a wealth of fascinating and provocative questions. Reading it, if one is a poet, one almost has to take a step back, an intake of breath back, because what it says connects so accurately and so anxiously, so forcefully and so urgently, with much of what poets – at least in the west – are constantly occupied and preoccupied in thinking about. Here, I have time to present only one small part of my response – a response that is not an answer, but attempts to articulate more questions, find right ways of asking, and eventually risks offering the summary (or glimpse) of at least one hypothesis. Working notes, then, towards open discussion: tips of tips of icebergs . . .

    Deguy is concerned not just with the theory and the practice of poetry but with the placement of poetry in (and into) the world: how it is disseminated, how it is received. I intend to postpone all questions of the latter sort, that is, those which might be interpreted as, broadly speaking, sociological or economic – about publishing, marketing, media, selling, and so on. Exploring these would be engaging and interesting but to focus entirely or even predominantly on them here would, I think, be for us to get our priorities wrong, miss the point of this conference. This is because Deguy’s challenge to us is to risk the formulation not just of a pragmatics of poetry but a theory of poeticsa universal poetics. This is also why I prefer to avoid the English terms global and globalisation.6 I prefer to turn to the older, more fertile and less emotively jangling term universal. Doesn’t doing this immediately jolt our positions from pragmatics right over into theory, to the quest for a universal poetics? And doesn’t a universal poetics need to be based on poetic universals? To search for and attempt to test and establish poetic universals, in order to formulate a universal poetics, then, is how I interpret Michel Deguy’s singular, extraordinary challenge.

    In a number of Indo-European languages, we can distinguish between several quite distinct though overlapping uses of the word for ‘poetry’. First, there is the poetry that is constituted by-or-in-the-poem, by-or-in-the-work-of-art-in-words. Then there is the quality of poetry which resides not only in the poem, but by analogy and extension, apparently, anywhere outside it too. What interests me, here, in the attempt to shape an integrative theory of poetics, and to uncover or discover poetic universals, is the point of transition or line of demarcation between what is considered or claimed to be poetic or poetry, and what is not – regardless of whether this point or line is found within a poem or outside it. Within or without the poem, whenever this transition does happen, in the Augenblick (G. ‘moment’, literally ‘eye-glance’) of its occurrence, there is always, I think, a sense of opening-into-or-out-of: of uncovering, discovering, recovering, rediscovering; heuresis, anakalipsis, anagnorisis, epiphany; revelation, revealing, breath-taking, inspiration. So, in the following, relatively unrefined working notes towards a hypothesis for a universal poetics, what happens in this particular flittering, flickering, trickling, volatile Augenblick constitutes the total ‘zone’ that I most want to explore.

* * *

My claim and my call is this: that the poem’s gift, the gift of the poem is for you. The poem’s call, the call of the poem (double genitive) is to you. To you and/or for you – over and above any other pronoun(s) or person(s).

   I suggest that this dative to-you / for-you is no longer applicable to vous but has become inextricably, inevitably, irreducibly toi.7  Perhaps this was always so – or at least has been ever since Sappho. Perhaps ever since Gilgamesh. The you called by the poem, the you to whom the poem gives itself (soi même) and gives itself away, is by definition singular, intimate, and addressed individually and face-to-face.

    I suggest that this applies even in the most regal speeches of, say, Racine, when character speaks to character as vous.8 Doesn’t the drama, the oeuvre, and the quality of poetry in and of the drama, in and of the oeuvre, address the toi in each member of the audience, each toi in the collective vous?

   I suggest that in the act of the poem itself (soi même) in addressing itself (an act which constitutes not merely its purpose but its being), vous is only relevant or meaningful insofar as it is turned and re-turned, decoded and deciphered ‘back’ into each one of its uniquely individual and wholly singular toi’s. I suggest furthermore that if and when vous is addressed in or by the poem, the vous is constantly re-assessed (re-examined, re-vitalised, re-vised, re-constituted, re-assembled, etc.) in its re-call to the singularity of each of its toi’s.

    Villon’s address to the “frères humains qui après nous vivez” is a case in point. It is the ironic finesse of the balance and the bittersweet poignancy of the contrast between the implicitly unending, continuously proud and impersonally unwavering line of the future vous frères, and the pathetic mortal finiteness of each individual fellow-suffering frère (toi – to whom I/you might now surely add lecteur and semblable), which injects the compassion, the power, the psyche, the duende into Villon’s ballade.9

* * *

As for the gender-centredness of frères and fraternité, I long too for women to be irrevocably and irreducibly included in this sense of fellowship, loss and belonging: soeurs humaines qui après nous vivez? Hypocrite lectrice, ma semblable, ma soeur? Why not? Do (would) these utterances have the same or similar force? I think they do (can, could, should). I think that, in responding to these lines, each reader or hearer becomes (is capable of becoming) either frère or soeur, perhaps even both frère and soeur. The other and the Other (l’autre and autrui) surely both possess and are possessed irreducibly by the mixed blessings of sexual identity and sexual (comm)union, of gendered alterity and togetherness, and of all that they all engender and trace – including the lineaments of gratified desire10 and including the communality, com-passion, sym-pathy, em-pathy, of simply being human. Je est un autre, je est une autre,11 et l’autre qui est je s’appelle toi.

* * *

This dividing ‘back’ of vous into its toi’s constitutes a return and a restoration. The poem itself does (performs, accomplishes) this decoding, dividing, turning, re-turning, re-storing, re-calling (etc.) by the very act and fact of being a poem. By the poem’s being and doing this, it is clear that the exact opposite of a reductive process is taking place. Being magnanimous, the poem puts the human first. All other identities and group-identifications – sex, gender, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, class, status, belief system, creed system, and so on – are subordinate, are sub-categorisations.

   The toi is always and by definition called by the poem to, from, in and through the fullest humanness of the toi – that is to say, the highest and most exalted, and the deepest and most mysterious levels and layers (Herakleitan), and the greatest of dimensions (magna- as in magnanimity; veliko- as in Srb. velikodušnost, megalo- as in Grk. Μεγαλοψυχία) – especially and ‘above all’ within the tiniest and most unassuming, the most modest and most ‘ordinary’. These are the dimensions of Marlowe’s infinite riches in a little room12 and Blake’s world in a grain of sand.13

    Across the threshold of the Augenblick, if and when a connection is made successfully, the hitting of the mark is memorable and remains remarkable: frayed strands of that Augenblick’s touch – or of its ‘needle-like’ piercing through14 – get lodged in some corner of deep memory, and may reside there, stored for the remainder of life-time, always available for possible later recall, for twisting out, for teasing back, into presence.

    The poem’s calling and calling out of the fullest humanness of the toi posits a totality, even an overabundance, of respect for the toi.

    I (may) deliberately avoid exploring the word love here, simply because (I believe) it may be regarded as given (datum), but simply recall Shelley’s explanation of the integrality of poetry and love in The Defence of Poetry.

   Wherever sexual and erotic longing finds expression or representation, poetry can never be far from the surface, far beneath the skin of things.

  The poem’s calling and calling out of humanness also posit unquavering recognition and reconnaissance of the total, integral and rightful freedom of the toi. Whenever or wherever freedom is in question, or threatened, or at risk, poems and songs pour out. This is so well-known that it is taken more or less for granted and not thought much about or questioned. But this is not a cliché and the fact is worth examining.

    And doesn’t the inevitably political nature of any poem begin here too? Where can any politics begin that is not to end in vileness, villainy, violence, autocracy, oppression, atrocity, unless with the constantly and warily upheld insistence on freedom, and out of it, on love and justice?

  This gifted freedom of the toi that is celebrated, blessed and upheld in any and every completed, perfected, born, freed poem is limited only (perhaps) by mortality.

   Yet this freedom may even be conditional (predicated) upon mortality. And in any case, the poem’s call challenges mortality too. Poetry is gifted with the power to touch and cover everything conceivable or imaginable and in so doing intuit it or reveal it. This applies to all fields of knowledge, discourse and action. Shelley said all this too and much more besides in A Defence of Poetry, and there is no need to repeat it here. But in relation to mortality, and to anything to do with or reminiscent of mortality, poetry bears very special marks and privileges, wears special signs and is protected by special talismanic powers which allow it to ‘pass through’.

   Every loss is a kind of death. And whenever loss of any kind is in question, poems and songs pour out too: elegies, laments, longings, nostalgias, celebrations, nihilistic or existential complaints, heroic defiances of death and affirmations of love, wisdom, joy and grace. I am not concerned at this moment with the intrinsic validity or truthfulness of their content but with the fact of their occurrence. And this fact of their occurrence is just as well known and, as a strand in the fabric of a universal poetics, is just as worth unpicking and following.

   Might it not be said, then, that in directly addressing each toi in any collective or plural vous, the poem simultaneously re-engenders the vous in each toi, celebrating the capolavoro, the chef d’oeuvre, the piece-of-work, that is a human being?

* * *

On this point, I should like to add that if, after rigorous scrutiny and testing, my hypothesis regarding the toi does turn out to have general validity in a universal theory of poetics, then it will throw out many knotty ramifications and implications for pragmatics too – some of which may even come up in discussion today. 15

* * *

A universal poetics of course needs to serve us today and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and after-tomorrow.

   It needs to be for now (pour maintenant), for hand-holding (pour main-tenant; pour tenir-la-main / tenir-dans-la-main), for heart’s keeping (pour tenir-au/en-coeur), for soul’s keeping (pour tenir-à/en-l’âme), for tomorrow (demain), and of-or-from-the-hand (de-la-main), for today and for all days and for always (pour aujourd’hui et pour tous les jours et pour toujours).

   For the first time in our history, we are contemporaries of all mankind, wrote Octavio Paz.16 All mankind” can scarcely not include the living and the unborn – and the dead? This toi who is ‘I’, who is the poem’s addressee clearly includes (incorporates, embodies) the unopened eyes of the unborn. Each response, which is a reading of the poem, and a new writing, happens in what Eliot calls an eternal present. It might equally well be called: an atemporal contemporaneity – even if that doesn’t sound quite so pretty.

   And a universal poetics needs to serve us yesterday. It needs to address the dead as well as the living.

It’s painful and difficult, the living are not enough for me
First because they do not speak, and then
Because I have to ask the dead
In order to go on farther17

I am happy to close here (to unend, to unfinish) with the voice of Seferis. 


1 Grateful acknowledgements to Melanie Rein, Joanne Limburg, Anthony Davies and Anthony Rudolf for their critical comments, editorial suggestions and challenges.

2 Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Georges Izambard, Charleville, 13 May, 1871.

3 RB to this Conference, Paris, 13 May, 2002. L’anniversaire de la lettre de Rimbaud.

4 Here is the first paragraph from the original speech:

It is a privilege and a pleasure to attend this conference on the condition and future of poetry, and I thank you, my hosts and hostesses, for your generosity and hospitality, and for the gift of your welcome here in Paris. The topics of hospitality, generosity and magnanimity, of the gift, the call and the welcome – in the contexts of poetry and poetics – are foremost among those I am most interested in addressing. However, in what follows, time-constraints mean that I can hardly do more than greet all these topics with a friendly wave. [...]

5 Michel Deguy, Robert Davreu and Hédi Kaddour, des poètes français contemporains, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Paris, June 2001.

6 Zygmunt Bauman starts his book Globalization, The Human Consequences, with these words: “ ‘Globalization’ is on everybody’s lips; a fad word fast turning into a shibboleth, a magic incantation, a pass-key meant to unlock the gates to all present and future mysteries.” He continues, one paragraph later: “All vogue words tend to share a similar fate: the more experiences they pretend to make transparent, the more they themselves become opaque.” Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 1.

7 German offers accidental homophony here. Das Gedicht ist für dich. (‘The poem is for you.’), etc.

8 Though of course the heart-wrenching poignancy of the exact Augenblick when Phèdre betrays her love for Hippolyte is marked with pinpointing precision by the wholly ‘unintended’ transition in her speech from vous to tu – a touch of total poetic mastery.

9 ‘Ballade des pendus’. Among the many wonderful aspects of Villon’s testament is his use of the present tense. The future interlocutors live in a now, in the now, in whichever now they are encountered. Shakespeare performs a similar trick with tenses vis-à-vis duration and durability in the comparable address: ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ (‘Sonnet 18’)

10 ‘What is it in men women do require? / The lineaments of gratified desire. / What is it in men women do require? / The lineaments of gratified desire.’ William Blake, MS Notebooks, 1973, p. 99.

11 I am indebted to Anthony Rudolf for the addition of Je est une autre. Here, Rimbaud’s own prophetic remarks – saturated with Baudelaire’s ‘Voyage’ (“Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau”) – are salient once again:

Ces poètes seront! Quand sera brisé l’infini servage de la femme, quand elle vivra pour elle et par elle, l’homme, jusqu’ici abominable, - lui ayant donné son renvoi, elle sera poète, elle aussi. La femme trouvera de l’inconnu! Ses mondes d’idées différeront-ils des nôtres? – Elle trouvera des choses étranges, insondables, repoussantes, délicieuses; nous les prendrons, nous les comprendrons.

 Letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871.

Compare Rimbaud’s extraordinary insights with the impassioned vision of Luce Irigaray, arguing that (total reappraisal of)

...sexual difference would represent the advent of new fertile regions as yet untwitnessed, at all events in the west. By fertility I am not referring simply to the flesh of reproduction. No doubt for couples it would concern the question of children and procreation, but it would also involve the production of a new age of thought, art, poetry and language; the creation of a new poetics. (Underlining mine, RB.)

The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford, Blackwells, Oxford, 1990, p. 165

12 Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, Act 1. Sc. 1 – spoken by Barabas.  

13 William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’.

14 I am thinking of the effect of an acupuncturist’s needle, whose piercing rebalances, restores and heals.

15 I use the word ‘knotty’ advisedly, intending an affectionate nod in the direction of R.D. Laing’s book Knots (Tavistock Publications, London, 1970), in which Gregory Bateson’s ‘double bind’ theory is brilliantly explored and applied. The situation of the poet vis-à-vis society – and the poet’s movement within it – is packed with double-binds at every turn.

16 Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1967.

17 George Seferis, Collected Poems 1924-1955, tr. E. Keeley & P. Sherrard, Jonathan Cape, London, pp. 278 – 9.

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