Three stones: ‘Objectivism’ as poetic mode in Szymborska, Bonnefoy, and Choi
Creative producers are meaning-makers who mediate language through particular generic modes: just as philosophers do, Terry Eagleton assures his readers that poets are equally in the business of launching ethical pronouncements, simply because a poem also deals in ‘human values, meanings and purposes’ (Eagleton 2007: 29). Beyond material and stylistic difference between the genres, this paper argues there are further, profound differences of approach to thinking-into-language: while philosophical doxa such as Plato’s Republic and Kant’s critiques seek to instrumentalize human activity into political function, poems that delineate humans from their sublime dwelling open up the possibility for a variant, non-prescriptive ethics. Creative producers must remain cognizant of the difference between a constructivist approach to meaning-making (in which the world is comprehended as a mediated site for humanly-orchestrated realities) and objectivist approaches, where the world ‘which we seek to understand and know about is what is largely independent of us and our beliefs about it’ (Boghossian 2006: 22). For the sake of clarity, in this paper the term objectivism bears no relationship to the Objectivist poets (Zukovsky, Reznikoff, Oppen, et al); for creative producers, consciously delineating epistemological differences between constructivism and objectivism serves to alter both the scope and range of our texts.
Indeed, these two modes of perception are not only epistemologically contrary but also (arguably) transform genre. As arch-constructivist Kant imagines it, the world is indeed extra-logical and beyond-human (that is, essentially sublime):
Despite this advice to his fellow philosophers that they must avoid pre-ordained and systematized apprehension, Kant goes on to use language (as Plato did millennia before him) to construct a philosophical edifice which reflects ‘contingent needs and interests’ (Boghossian 2006: 22) – in this instance, the need for categorical imperatives to stabilize the discourses of philosophy. Despite this strange contradiction, though, Kant is right about poets, who perceive differently indeed to philosophers: evidence for an objectivist perspective as generative, disruptive, and emancipatory exists in poems by Szymborska, Bonnefoy, and Choi. Re-reading specific poems here, this paper raises the possibility for recontextualizing poetry as an objectivist mode in which the human drama is apprehended as at once preternatural and a vivid presence which deserves the fullest attention and ethical judgment of poets.
Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Conversation with a Rock’ is a whimsical speculation that we do not share the world, merely occupy it. The exploration proposed by the poem’s unidentified interlocutor (‘I knock at the door of the rock’) is immediately diverted when the rock quips back with, ‘You may get to know me, but you will never know me’. This comes close to that epistemological divide between ‘objectivist’ and ‘constructivist’ world views; readers may well label Szymborska’s poem an objectivist text for its portrayal of the world as existing independently of human agency. But the world is also a place of complexity and human activity and, as Eagleton tells his readers, a poem is ‘not about getting something done in a practical, immediate sense’ (Eagleton 2007: 38). Indeed, rather than a pragmatic utilitarian mode, Szymborska’s allegorical work operates to a different logic which indirectly reframes humans as outsiders, exiles who engage repeatedly in patterns of entitled thinking, acting, and being.
Herein, and rather than just an exchange between voices and their competing desires, Szymborska’s poem contains a humanizing ethics in a milieu suffused with beyond-human, sublime wonder–
Curiosity leads to wondering and wandering, and both these lead to different modes of responsiveness (including objectivism and constructivism). Szymborska reviews the inanimate world of things as astonishing and, as Czeslaw Milosz writes when introducing Miracle Fair (2002), here is a poet who is consistently ‘mindful that whatever remains is all the more precious for having been torn away from an ever watchful death’ (Szymborska 2001: 3). These, then, are texts that memorialize: in essence, Szymborska’s is a poetics which traces the event and spectacle of existing and apprehending. The implication is: how to exist? What (and how) to apprehend? These questions are similar to those asked by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781): ‘What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope?’ and (footnoted) ‘what is a human being?’ (Kant 1996: 735). Szymborska’s responsiveness to similar questions is generic, and her answers uttered differently to Kantian constructions, which prosecute their own modes of knowing.
The poet riffs from an objectivist platform of human-as-tourist: herewith, the insatiable curiosity of her poem’s inquisitive persona will not be sated by the coolly indifferent, primordial stone –
Rather than enshrine human agency at the apex of (humanly-invented) hierarchies, Szymborska’s satire steadfastly refuses to instrumentalize the world. This poetic/sublime paradigm is at odds with constructivist approaches to meaning-making, more commonly favored by speculative philosophical styles. Plato’s ancient quarrel with poets is essentially an exemplary mode of proto-constructivism, and poets may sorely recall those sections of the Republic in which Plato problematizes the relationship between the two genres. The philosopher claims the constituent character of reality can be known only through philosophy, and sets up a rationale (indeed, a rhetorical ambit) in which things-in-themselves exist as ‘universal forms’ on a transcendental site. His famous cave allegory narrates a story in which philosophers blunder out of the prison of the real to fetch an understanding of these supra-sensible forms:
Plato’s allegory resonates with artifice, and bears all the hallmarks of a prototypical prose-poem; indeed, Glaucon (and, by association, Plato’s audience) has been invited to a puppet show conducted by the philosopher, whose representation of ideas are not truths but instead performances. Plato’s dramatic speculation moves away from the philosophical mode of ‘elenchus’ (emptying out a question through examination and argumentation) to build a ‘speaking picture’, which Roman theorist Horace would later propose as a defining characteristic of poetry (‘ut pictura poiesis’). Plato stages a prescriptive rhetorical text which projects on to the minds of readers. And Glaucon? ‘I see’ is a literal response to Plato’s mimetic endeavors; Glaucon has had the puppet-strings of his imagination pulled.
And so, while Plato reasons that poets destabilize truth, and presents them thereafter as either ‘mad or divinely inspired’ language-users, (Plato 2000: 533d) the philosopher simultaneously enshrines philosophical constructivism – schematizing, logical, totalizing – as the mode which will conduct (and confine language to) the affairs of constructing human realities. Perhaps WH Auden intuits this formal divide between generic language-use when, in his elegy for Yeats, he famously writes that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (Auden 1979: 82). Certainly, both genres make claims to truthfulness, and Plato’s constructivism sets up explicatory systems that stabilize the possibility for patterns of argumentation-into-meaning. But the Republic is also a hegemonic attempt to control of the discourse of reality – in short, a persuasive fiction. Millennia later, and Szymborska seems steadfast in her conviction that things-in-themselves cannot be completely known, nor that reality is merely socially-mediated, a philosophical (philosophized? Philosophizable?) event.
So it is that ‘Conversation with a Rock’ concludes with the stone’s obdurate (deadpan, and hilarious) refusal to enter the logic of the poem’s all-too-human chatterer:
The rock’s doorlessness seems an ambit from Szymborska to underscore that, no matter how well-organized a logical system is, it will fail if wrong questions are asked. Perhaps the poet’s point is that some questions must remain questions, and are essentially unable to be answered (and that any attempt to answer results in fallacy, absurdity or, in this instance, satire). Introducing her book, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy, classicist Andrea Wilson Nightingale states philosophy ‘originates in wonder and aporia and aims for certainty and knowledge’ (Nightingale 2004: 12). Perhaps poets like Szymborska are wary of too much certainty, too much ‘truth’, and are instead attuned to questions that cannot have answers. Heeding the details of her life in Krakow under Stalinism (until 1953) and later, it seems that when mutated into ideological dogma, those politicized discourses of constructivist truth-making provoke Szymborska’s response: ‘Conversation with a Rock’ carries with it a gesture of transgression in which the poet refuses – is compelled to refuse – to take humans and their soi disant hegemonies too seriously. One senses these are questions the rock (as allegorical mouthpiece) has heard before, and that the impulse toward making a macroscopic perspective is at work here: for Szymborska, the litanies and patterns of politico-social drama (either comedic or, as she witnessed, tragic) have broader implications within transcendental contexts. Her skepticism toward hegemonic discourses perhaps extends the bid to destabilize their power.
While Szymborska’s poem culminates in the thing-itself talking back to a human voice in human terms in order to deny participation in human attributes, Jeongrye Choi’s ‘In Three Minutes’ (Instances 2011), is an equally impossible (though less skeptical) conversation with the world:
When Choi writes of stones with wings extended out from under armpits, readers may well raise a collective eyebrow: what’s going on here? Taking less time to read than the three minutes alluded to in the title, this tiny pastoral can be read as an apocryphal godless metaphysics. ‘What can’t we finish in three minutes?’ Like Szymborska, Choi confronts human finitude within arcane realms of possibility, and her poem is mediated and informed by a meta-view. If anything can finish in three minutes, then what must be begun (and … why)?
Choi’s surreal re-viewing the world challenges readers to reassess accustomed modes of perception; when responding to her own pseudo-question the poet supplies numerous hints toward how meaning must be individualized rather than instrumentally imposed. In three minutes we can get married, or the three-dimensional wallpaper that surrounds us can disintegrate – ‘A bridge can collapse/ and a department store can crumble’ (as happened in her native South Korea in 1995 when the Sampoong Department Store collapsed, killing 500 people) – indeed, nations can rise on either side of a border established in the middle of a civil war. But from these general ideas, Choi’s objectivism generates a particular ethical position –
Except for ‘what are you doing?’ Choi leaves her final two abstract interlopers – shame, oblivion – uninterrogated. When asking readers to think on what they are to do with shame, then oblivion, Choi in fact asks deeper questions: how do we stay sane in a place where we must struggle always to make effort… to make (and keep making) moral decisions, to perform essential perfunctory roles (like hanging out washing)? In short, how do we manage to make the effort to stay functional and positive, shameless, when the abyss of oblivion awaits?
At this point I am reminded of Yves Bonnefoy’s poem, ‘A Stone’, a gritty musing on meaning and terrestriality which also explores that rift between natural and human realms:
This short poem (cited entirely above) is another reminder of human impermanence; Bonnefoy’s anthropomorphized stone narrates its existence upon an earth which is ‘unappeasable’, which cannot be appeased because, despite the rain providing sustenance to living things, the earth exists on a different plane, without either affectivity or need. The earth, like the stone, simply is: a thing-in-itself, a Kantian ens realissimum. The existence of Bonnefoy’s stone, like Szymborska’s rock, is neither contingent nor relational but simply exists, though there are human traits to this stone too – perhaps it once had a heart which now is ossified? And the path this individual stone helps form is analogous to the provenance of each human individual; we all form part of both line and lineage. Bonnefoy views the stone as poets do (viz. Kant), and ‘dying’ and ‘night’ propel his poem toward dénouement: in similar vein to Choi’s ‘oblivion’, the absence of light is both temporal and mortal, and implies the impermanence of both memory and affect. Bonnefoy opens his readers to the question ‘how to live unlike this stone’, in a vividly mysterious world where meaning is both connection and a pathway we must find in the time we have, somehow, before we lose our hearts to a night which is to be permanent.
Unlike Bonnefoy, Choi’s ‘In Three Minutes’ refuses to conclude on the bleak notes of disappearance and instead, when the strangely flying stone comes hurtling through her poem, Choi reminds readers that we each can choose to have roles to perform: we ‘have to get married’ (Choi’s imperative is critical), just as we must ‘give birth’ in order to formally contribute to lines and lineages, those mundane yet extraordinary contexts where, for example, washing gets hung from dusty verandahs. This is a participatory poetics, which implores readers to find their own paths: three minutes is all it takes for paradigms to shift irretrievably (negatively and positively) and Choi wants to remind her readers that
Participation in the human realm of meaning-making is, for Choi, the only choice worth making; she is proposing possibilities for meaning within larger ethical contexts. Just as her stone has wings which spread quickly from its armpits, so too should we attach the green wings under (our) arms; that individuals and paradigms can be swept so incontrovertibly into oblivion is the very reason to compel each of us to fly while we can. Choi seems to be working toward a credo: namely, that we can remain inert and stone-like, or we can move as if reality is surreal, a winged stone scoping across the weird vistas of existing.
Similarly to Szymborska, Choi has lived through a series of dictatorships in the late twentieth century; early in the 21st century, her native South Korea performs to the logic of late capitalism’s commodity fetishism; a tiny distance away, there is a different kind of fervor performed by perhaps the world’s unfriendliest neighbors. These contexts shape Choi’s creative production, and ‘In Three Minutes’ the poet compels her readers to become cornerstones, or stones thrown against an ideology, or experientially-hardened masses which may prove exemplary to future generations. In short, Choi’s text stages this narrative: it is an obligation to throw ourselves at the most real questions we can find, stonily and without hesitation, in order to be the shapes of the real.
While Szymborska’s objectivist rock delineates separation from the world – it is not just poets, but all humans who live in miraculous exile – and while Bonnefoy’s poem expresses that same relationship, in which this ancestral place is eerie with old emotions contoured by ghosts who come before us, Choi’s ‘In Three Minutes’ reminds readers to be resolute without becoming stony-faced: this is a poem informed by an impulse to live toward meaningfulness before the inevitable opening of an abyss which awaits us all. Rather than prescribed as a system or program or ideology, action and activism is an ethical position made available to Choi’s readers. We must be prepared to make unanticipated choices – like flying, when the impulse may be to stay underground – and, on the way to being and to being meaning-filled, Choi implies how much the world will demand our strangeness.
These three inventions, from three different cultural and social backgrounds, each open textual vistas onto the world rendered as sublime; each contain complex resonances which chime with possibility. Calling into the ether of a world which exists independently of us and our beliefs about it, these stone-filled meditations each reveal an emancipatory, ethical cri-de-coeur. To each of these poets, the world is a site to wander and wonder in, and their poems are supreme fictions which scan as desperate and desperately humanistic ontological maneuvers. These are texts which can remind us who we are while sustaining the challenge to learn yet who we can be… this mode of viewing the word as a site in which human dramas play out enables a kind of creative output which is complex, allegorical, and opens on to the possibility for a variant, generic ethics which diverges from mere prescription’ Philosophers ask questions, then answer in totalizing, instrumentalizing tropes: ‘What can I know?’ This is what (and how) we can know. ‘What ought I do?’ This is what we ought do. ‘What may I hope?’ This is what we will hope. Creative producers must avoid similar modes of systematization; viewing and reviewing the world as poets do enables a meta-view which is less interested in pragmatics or truth and instead sets out to explore our milieu (sublime and human) as quintessentially strange.
The following texts, which serve to introduce the work of Jeongrye Choi, each work from an apprehension of the world as sublime, as a site in which patterns of human drama repeat and resonate. These are texts that make response to and promote the possibility for a personal ethics, a foremost priority within zones both dynamic and preternatural.
Dan Disney’s first collection of poems, and then when the, is published by John Leonard Press (2011). He teaches in the English Literature Program at Sogang University (Seoul), and is currently completing a book of villanelles and collaborating on a ‘book object’ with John Warwicker. Further details can be found at www.dandisney.com
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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo