The Anthropological Turn in Poetry from Rimbaud to Leiris

Article excerpt

The argument of this paper is threefold. First, to the extent that Western poetry since the pre-Socratics discourses on human affairs, this discourse combines philosophical insights with perceptions of an everyday world in terms of primary spatial differences. Second, the notion that the physical underpins the metaphysical suggests that poetry is less a belletristic activity than a privileged, ritual social practice, whose function is to locate the subject in the social text and to articulate this subjectivity in the reader's own life-world. Epic poetry, originally the preferred mode of reminiscing and recording, remained for the longest time the premier form of collective memory in culture. After the epic disappeared, however, this cultural aspect was attenuated and poetry was confined to the margins of fiction and history. In the modern age, i.e., mostly since Blake and the Romantics, poetry has been autobiographical in range and has featured the tribulations of the individual poet as hero in a poetry of his own making, the two best examples in French poetry being Rimbaud and Lautreamont.(2) To rediscover the anthropological function of poetry, both as the fashioner of and the reflector on culture, means for the anthropologist, to find how much of its own tradition modern poetry can collect and translate in terms applicable to the everyday world. However, and this will be the third point of this paper, a critique of the classical tradition in modern poetry involves a difficult trope on the idea of return. On the one hand, in claiming modernity, poetry continues to fashion its origin out of a traditional modern/classical divide. On the other hand, it also articulates the impossibility of this origin (the modern did not originate in the classical) and it works through the hermeneutic consequences of such an impossibility for the community of poets and their readers: the world out there can only exist for us if it is, first, interpreted and second, if the interpretation provides us with transparent metaphors for obscure phenomena. In other words, the interpretation produces a translation, in which the specificity of experience is both theorized, i.e., in the etymological and masculine sense, gazed at, and mourned (the subject of experience is an absent other, often with no name and no personal history). This complex translatability, then, has a certain untranslatability as its other face, as the poetic text is essentially the locus of a signature, that of absent or dead poets who want their readers to read the poetic text as the very ground for the inscription of an experience which can't properly be assigned to anyone in particular.(3)

However, because many poets have at one time or other themselves engaged in translating other poets, the point can be made that this translating enterprise from one language, especially the original Greek or Latin, into the vernacular European language is literally at the root of the poetic enterprise. Here I seem to privilege a Eurocentric move, but the formal gesture of adapting the classics of culture, only one of the aspects of standing up for the "canon," is in fact made by all cultures as a contextualizing gesture, permitting various degrees of identification with and difference from an established tradition.(4) In European culture, however, the problem of acknowledging a particular tradition and of developing a poetic practice which speaks to that tradition and translates it in contemporary terms, becomes especially acute in the post-Romantic period. At that time, the concept of poetic genius interpreting Nature in a work of its own unique origination and controlling representation through imagination (Coleridge) or philosophy (Hoelderlin) or language (Hugo), is no longer available.(5) Nature has been displaced by machines and a modern postBaudelairean poetry wants to establish its own autonomous space distinct from the naturalized space of industry and capitalism.(6) This means, on the one hand, a rejection of the cliches of Romanticism and on the other hand, an ongoing gesture of rejecting the tradition in which those cliches originate, especially the tradition of an artistic claim for universal truth and beauty transcending history. …