Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

I Object: Writing against the Contemporary

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

I Object: Writing against the Contemporary

Article excerpt

   I am become an object    the man I love    uses me    he eats me like breakfast    and then he shits     Dorothy Livesay    "The Stoned Woman" 

THIS PAPER ADDRESSES both Giorgio Agamben's notion of the contemporary and Slovoj Zizek's defence of lost causes as a means of developing a more contemporary response to Foucault's old but still startling question, "What is an author?" But before I do, I would like to start with a poem, perhaps my best poem, in order to illustrate how I navigate critical writing as a poet and poetic practice as a critic.

I say this is my best poem but I use best here not in the superlative sense of it being better than most of my usual work, which is to say that I am not using best as the realization and culmination of the good in poetry. Plato found no good in poetry, but Aristotle noted the ethical implications and imperatives of art and life and happiness. And indeed, Aristotle's notion of the good (1) accords with the ethical insinuation of that annual anthology called The Best Canadian Poetry in English, in which I have never published a poem nor been so invited. It seems worth noting that this use of best stems from the Old English word betst, suggesting that maybe there might be more of me in that anthology than I believed. In fact, though, when I say my best poem my use of best returns to the earlier sense of betst that was at one time, in Old English, the superlative of bot, which referred to remedy and atonement. I introduce this poem, then, as the best remedy and atonement for the flaws in my other works that have all been judged lacking by my contemporary Aristotelian anthologists and that which leads me beyond my namesake, beyond the best in poetry, and beyond the betst in poetry.

Sunshine     Like a prospicient set    Your long sunshine    Sicing    Prospicienter than a set     To hesitate    Swinging heat     Reach    Becoming    Like an exposure     Gregory Betts 

Why did I include my name in this short, strange poem? To let you know that there is a difference between the named author and myself. It is an easy and obvious point to make, but in this case, the name is arguably the most noteworthy part of the poem: it was first published in the now rather infamous anthology Issue 1 from the fall of 2008, conceived and edited by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter. Issue 1 is an enormous, unwieldy 3,785-page anthology of poems purportedly by poets both living and dead (including new poems by Chaucer!), but in fact all of the poems were created by the computer-generator named Erica T. Carter. My name, alongside the names of 3,164 other poets, was harvested from the internet and randomly placed at the end of the poems generated by the program.

This displacement from a poem that bears my name, this alienation from my own author-function, affords me the rare opportunity of approaching my poetry--in name at least--as a critic without reifying the self behind the poem. While I am proud of this poem that bears my name, any analysis of my poem has to acknowledge that the poem has nothing to do with me except through our shared relationship to an abstract author-function. My first-year English textbook has a chapter devoted to the idea that the speaker of a poem is different from the author, but in practice I have yet to encounter the scholar (or poet) who obeys this familiar dictum. Even Christian Bok begins his discussion of Canadian 'pataphysics by situating the work historically and geographically as part of a nationalist dialectic ('Pataphysics 81). Poems are written by people in the world, we all implicitly understand, except this poem. Close reading a poem written by a computer is my first engagement with what has become of authorship since Foucault asked his question so many decades ago.

Approaching this poem, then, with the liberty of a practising literary critic, I begin a close reading free from the biocritical soft-humanist interest that so often tells the human story behind and surrounding the poem without attending to the inhuman poem unto itself. …

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