Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Troubling Language: Avant-Garde Strategies in the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Troubling Language: Avant-Garde Strategies in the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian

Article excerpt

This essay examines the avant-garde poetry of Medbh McGuckian, and argues that these poems destabilize ideological discourses that delimit the role of women in contemporary Northern Ireland. McGuckian's poetry, therefore, shares with some contemporary feminist theory, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interest in how excessive uses of language can rework existing social codes.


In "How Does One Speak to Literature?" Julia Kristeva pays tribute to the writings of Roland Barthes by critically engaging Barthes's difficult texts on avant-garde literature. For Kristeva, as for Barthes, experimental or avant-garde writing holds an obviously privileged position as the vehicle of revolutionary or counter-hegemonic knowledge:

     The literary avant-garde experience, by virtue of its very
     characteristics, is slated to become the laboratory of a new
     discourse (and of a new subject), thus bringing about a mutation,
     "perhaps as important, and involving the same problem as the one
     marking the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance"
     (Critique et Verite, p. 48). It also rejects all discourse that is
     either stagnant or eclectically academic, preempts its knowledge
     where it does not impel it, and devises another original, mobile,
     and transformative knowledge. In so doing, it stimulates and
     reveals deep ideological changes that are currently searching for
     their own accurate political formulations. (92)

Avant-garde literature becomes, then, the apogee of all politically engaged writing in that it provides a glimpse into "the underlying rules governing" society (96) and the "complex relations of a subject caught between 'nature' and 'culture,' [...] between desire and the law, the body, language, and 'metalanguage'" (97, emph. Kristeva's). While we would be wise to question both the ambitiousness of Kristeva's reading and the power and privilege that it ascribes to avant-garde literature, her remarks are nonetheless instructive in that they offer a critical vocabulary through which to assess the political import of a literary and linguistic mode that does not readily disclose its connection with material reality and history.

In this essay, I read the experimental work of the Irish poet Medbh McGuckian against the prevailing codes of the public sphere in contemporary Northern Ireland. McGuckian's poetry, I argue, speaks to the delimiting, disciplinary function of Irish religious, political, and even literary institutions. McGuckian's anti-mimetic, nonrepresentational language not only enacts what Kristeva calls "the shattering of the subject" (93) but also destabilizes the ideological discourses that are built around the over-determination of "the feminine" within this culture. The emphasis on the oppressiveness of disciplinary social codes in McGuckian's poetry suggests an affinity between her writing and the theoretical work of Judith Butler, whose sustained inquiry into the discursive production of gender, and the limits of feminine agency within these disciplinary codes, has not been unequivocally endorsed by contemporary feminist scholarship. In what follows, I contextualize McGuckian's discussion of feminine agency, sexuality, and embodiment by reading these aspects of her poetry as transpiring within an overarching avant-garde use of language. It is my view that this complex and demanding poetry offers a response to public codes that is more resolute because it would appear to evade their demands for referential exactitude and mimetic reflection. For McGuckian, language can strategically exceed the demands of nation and gender and offer alternative social visions that do not conform to existing modes and are incomprehensible within the cognitive horizons that are produced by everyday, ideologically inflected language. If this makes her poetry utopian and idealistic, it should be noted that this idealism is not one that is disengaged from the social but intrinsically attached to it through the agency of critique. …

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