Bakhtin and the Social Moorings of Poetry

Bakhtin and the Social Moorings of Poetry

Bakhtin and the Social Moorings of Poetry

Bakhtin and the Social Moorings of Poetry


First and last, what moors poetry to society is speech: the speech that gets into writing. So why do most political readings of literature neglect this fundamental orientation? Mikhail Bakhtin never forgets the central role of utterance: his philosophy of literary dialogism is based on the idea of fighting out social issues on the ground of the spoken word. Accordingly, conflict-in-language is the theme of this book's introduction as if it is of the whole volume. In this book, Donald Wesling offers an organized reading of Bakhtin's thought, to achieve an account of why Bakhtin scamped poetry; and an account of how a poetics of utterance is a major achievemnt, if we employ in the dialogic reading of poetry many of the powerful terms Bakhtin developed for the novel. After an Introductory chapter that is polemical and pedagogical, this book contains chapters on the social poetics of dialect writing, on the clash of inner and outer speech, on the problem of rhythm, and on broader conflicts of types of discourse in English Romanticism and in the American 1990s. Examples come from England and Scotland, Russia, and the USA. Traveling with and beyond Bakhtin, this book extends to Anglo-Ame


“[W]e can account for the productivity of language … only
when we have understood how reference is culturally and histori
cally determined…. how the social moorings of language might
be understood as essential to it. That is, if we are going to explain
how language works, we cannot relegate the social processes of
reference to the realm of the ‘extralinguistic’ as de Man and
every other formalist wish to do.”

—Satya P. Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History (1997)

OF ALL THE LITERARY TYPES, POETRY IS THE ONE THAT MOST SEEMS TO toss ballast and float free of the dull realism of shore. This is because lyric poetry has come to stand for all poetry, and because lyric poetry has music in its name and makes cri de coeur confession its game. Rubbish, of course, but how show this is a mistake? How tie the social moorings of poetry to history and ordinary experience? Mikhail Bakhtin of Russia, the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher of communication, had a strong believable answer to this question: the speaking that is in writing is itself necessarily social and historical, and we fight out ideological struggles on the territory of our every utterance. This is a book about how to detach a social reading of poetry from Bakhtin’s own reluctance to give it, how to use his terms to produce it, and about what to do once we have it—to answer specific questions about how social speech gets into verse, and to confront the antipoetic prejudice wherever it occurs.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) can help us to think about the ways that speaking gets into writing—how we as readers can return utterance, and with it social-historical reference, to novels and plays and poems. After the general introduction, my chapters are on four topics Bakhtin himself considered: dialect, inner speech, rhythm, and the struggle of available languages in an era (called by me the clash of discourses). I explain with examples, usually quoting and closely following whole poems. Most of my examples come from the U.K. and the U.S., with side excursions to Russian guitar poetry of the . . .

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