Falling into Silence: Giorgio Agamben at the End of the Poem

By Ben-Merre, David | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2012 | Go to article overview

Falling into Silence: Giorgio Agamben at the End of the Poem


Ben-Merre, David, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Defining poetry as the potential of enjambment, Giorgio Agamben concludes that the final non-enjambed line of a poem cannot really be "poetry." My essay explores this poetic state of exception in terms of Agamben's project of reconciling poetry and philosophy in the face of Plato's exile.

On the whole, rhyme should come at the end of something.

--George Saintsbury, History of English Prosody

First, an interruption. (1) But an interruption into what? In this space I will attempt to lay out as clearly as possible what I mean to say. By "clearly as possible," I mean (we mean? one means?) being able to translate the supposed concreteness of ideas into the supposed concreteness of language. I will partake of the great philosophic myth of the logos, the dream in which saying equals meaning. I bring together a short essay by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben and a dramatic monologue of sorts by the poet William Butler Yeats in the hope that their juxtaposition or co-incidence sheds some light on the immediate work of each and, more generally, on the relationship between philosophy and poetry. Agamben's description of the ontological end of the poem helps make sense of the terrifying silence found at the end of Yeats's rhetorical verse. (2) To read Yeats's poem, however, as an allegory of Agamben's thought is to misread both Yeats's poem and Agamben's thought by subsuming poiesis to logos, poetry to philosophy, and sound to sense. And yet, refusing to take Yeats's poem as an instance of Agamben's thought would be to deny that the philosopher is making a claim about poetry in general, a claim that is paradoxically bound up in a semiotic network of poetic specificity (sound events), which, by definition, must deny any claim to universality. Unable to navigate this paradox and yet embracing the encounter between philosophy and poetry, William Watkin finds the space for this Agambenian juxtaposition-without-hierarchy between the universal (logos) and particular (phone) in the neologism "logopoiesis," or "thinking as such through poetry" (196). Agamben's project of recovering Language as such depends upon this potential for the reconcilability of the irreconcilable schism between poetry and philosophy. (3)

In "The End of the Poem," an essay in his book of the same name, Giorgio Agamben sets out to "define a poetic institution that has," in his words, "until now remained unidentified: the end of the poem" (109). (4) Agamben's essay is short but its breadth is staggering; what is at stake is not merely another comment on a concluding couplet, but the very possibilities of ... well, everything. The essay is about indefinable spaces: the spaces between lines of verse, the spaces between verse and prose, and the spaces between poetry and philosophy. As a philosopher whose reflexive style, realizing the unrealizable realm of language as such, plays against what he is trying to convey, Agamben naturally leaves many of his own loose "ends": Agamben takes up the negative ontological state of the final line of a poem, but also the eschatological end of lyric poetry in the twentieth century (as in Theodor Adorno's oft-cited pronouncement), and the mythological end of poetry which marks the possibility of philosophy--that millennia-old exile of the poet from Plato's Republic. (5) There, with the end of the threat of the poem, comes that mythological harmony of the logos, the possibility of accord between sound and sense, between the semiotic and the semantic--or what we call philosophy. Agamben's fascination with teleology might seem odd at first, given that his body of work deals with navigating around one. Even here, the end is not a type of Hegelian Absolute but is, instead, turned around once again as a potentiality that defines in its non-identity the jagged spaces of our existences.

In an early work, Idea of Prose, Agamben argues that poetry was "the discourse in which it is possible to set a metrical limit against a syntactic one" (39). …

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