"A=R=T M=E=A=N=S"

     My subjective ego could identify with Joe Brennan's essay "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S." For me, too, the advent of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry brought a new dimension to poetry and poetics in English: a theoretical approach to its own practice by a loose working group of poets ambitious enough to engage the most abstract issues in philology. This new dimension was dialectically patterned in opposition to mainstream practice at the time (the '70s), which, to generalize extremely, can be characterized as anti-intellectual and disguised not so much by the mantle of artistic autonomy as the workshop smock of "craft" integrity. It was this smock that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry endeavored to expose as the emperor's new clothes.

     However, the merging with theory so undertaken may have proved to be something of a devil's bargain. Levels of abstraction lead to further levels of abstraction, Dantean rings of reductive universals. Brennan's defense of his psycholinguistic overlay of aesthetics is hidden in his footnote #34, where he justifies it by claiming that Lacanian psychology is not a theory but a "practice" which does not aim to impose universals but is inherently dialogic between theory and the individuated/divided Subject (I am paraphrasing heavily here). Methinks he doth protest too much. His approach, while it may reflect an accurate awareness of the relativity and psychic subjectivity of all theory, reflects, just as much, a dependence on the original works of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, in all their ambiguous non-specificity.

     This exemplifies what for me is a more meaningful theoretical approach -- because more modest about claims about the inner workings of the psyche, and more focused directly on the art work as the object of interpretation. I am referring to the linguistic work of the Ukrainian 19th-century scholar Aleksandr Potebnia. Potebnia, in good pre-pragmatist fashion, argued for the overall objective and inter-subjective unity of the Word as such and the poetic works of art which are homologous to it; he pointed out the essentially dialogic basis of all conceptions arising out of the activity of the poem. With these basic points I don't think Brennan's position is at variance. But Potebnia goes on to establish an algorithmic basis for poetic art -- focusing on the fable and the proverb as its paradigmatic forms -- as follows: X = a < A, where X is the new knowledge or conceptual whole produced by the poem; "a" is the actual written or spoken form; and A is the aggregate of possible referents or "sources" of "a". What this means is that "a" -- the imagery of the work -- functions as a kind of overdetermining model -- a meaning-fragment always LESS than "A" but able to point to "A" in all its forms nevertheless. A unifying seed-cipher.

     What I am implying here is that the work of art does function as a multi-definable essence or whole whose essence is ultimately UN-definable (every abstraction being a reduction and paraphrase). And Brennan's reductive summary of the multiple productions of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry is just such a paraphrase. It is not necessary to burden a critique of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry with the refinements of Lacanian psychology. An empirical analysis which takes into account the psycholinguistic, subjective reality -- and by empirical I mean a more attentive study of the actual workings of poetic art & particular texts -- will raise perhaps more generative differences of approach. It might also maintain critical perspective about the unique values and functions of art, unshackled with an over-determined universal theory of psycholinguistic operations.


Potebnia is not very available in English. See, however, John Fizer, Alexander A. Potebnja's psycholinguistic theory of literature : a metacritical inquiry (Cambridge: Harvard Ukrainian Research Inst., 1986)