Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Place of Rhetoric in Contemporary American Poetics: Jennifer Moxley and Juliana Spahr

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Place of Rhetoric in Contemporary American Poetics: Jennifer Moxley and Juliana Spahr

Article excerpt

It may be time to recognize that aligning poetry with an aesthetics. shaped largely by the nonverbal arts--one central legacy of Modernism--denies the poet certain potentially crucial resources. My topic here is rhetoric, specifically the attempt by some younger American poets to reverse the Modernist expulsion of rhetoric from lyric practice. These poets urge us to consider what happens if we shift our ideal of lyric from the aesthetic object to the rhetorical act. This does not mean ignoring form; it only suggests that the pleasures and intensities of form need not be located primarily in analogies with other arts.

This shift has enormous stakes. First, it calls into question a surprising consensus among contemporaries that the ideal poem evades or outstrips "ordinary" discourse and becomes an expressive object in its own right. (For the conservative camp, New Critical interpretations of Modernism continue to dominate, while the experimental camp relies still on what the Objectivist line from Williams to Zukofsky to Olson made of those same Modernist permissions.) Second, it allows us to see the historical boundaries of this lyric ideal, which is too often treated transhistorically. The poets 1 have in mind use rhetorical resources to make visible some important limitations of the experimental traditions that have emerged out of Modernism. Ben Lerner, Joshua Clover, Karen Volkman, Graham Foust, and Geoffrey O'Brien all exhibit an interest in these resources. But I limit my discussion here to Juliana Spahr and Jennifer Moxley, poets whose recent work is in many respects distant from the experimental tradition (Language writing) with which they are most commonly associated. These poets do not so much renounce that tradition as put the spirit of experiment to new use in exploring how poetry might take on more overt social responsibilities. In the process, they redefine received opinions of what rhetoric entails. Spahr offers what I will call a "thin" subjectivity that reduces boundaries among agents and elicits direct participation in the political situations she dramatizes. Moxley calls on rhetoric to establish a poetry with the directness of prose. She explores strategies for reducing the self-defensive postures of obscurity and tests the possibilities of what we might call "sincerity effects." Neither Spahr nor Moxley offers a theory of rhetoric or engages classical texts on the subject. Yet an understanding of rhetoric that can accommodate resistance to the effects of well-madeness or artifactuality offers powerful insight into their poetic strategies.

In classical terms, rhetoric is the art of combining persuasive argument with demonstrative acts in order to shape distinctive attitudes. This contrasts sharply with Modernist ideals, in which the aesthetic object may itself create conditions of experience, independent of the authors purpose. These ideals originate, of course, in the Symbolist ontology of artworks. Arthur Symons's description of Mallarme is apropos: "Every word is a jewel, scattering and recapturing sudden fire, every image is a symbol, and the whole poem is visible music." (1) According to Symons, Mallarme attempted to "spiritualize literature, to evade the old bondage of rhetoric, the old bondage of exteriority. Description is banished that beautiful things may be evoked, magically." (2) Rhetoric could never be music, could never take on the aesthetic power of nonverbal arts. Symons's writings were especially influential on Yeats and Eliot, and we have inherited this set of assumptions from Modernism.

The first concern for the contemporary poet who would incorporate rhetoric, then, must be to counter this orientation by establishing an ethos, a speaker who convincingly expresses the concerns of a community. In the Ciceronian tradition, an ethos exemplifies communal virtues that audiences desire to find, even as the character of those virtues is often modified by the rhetorical performance. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.