Robert Wood: an autobiography

I was not exposed to a wide range of poetry. §

 Robert Wood

 On Sociological Poetics:

 an autobiography

Paragraph One follows: 1:

As a child growing up in suburban Perth, I was not exposed to a wide range of poetry. My father, clinging to his Scottish roots, had a volume of my namesake, Robbie Burns, by his bedside from which he regularly quoted and my Indian mother used nursery rhymes, proverbs and limericks as moral lessons for my sisters and me. But ‘poetry’ itself was not held apart, or considered to be of greater importance than times tables, capital city memorisation, dinosaur identification, finger painting, or even family history.


When I went to university I read history — my father had written a dissertation on British economists and the empire in the nineteenth century and my mother had studied the connection between Impression and psychology. It seemed like a logical progression. I soon discovered that in the discipline of history, the point of origin is as arbitrary as it is explicable. That is to say, if one searches for the start of a fire, one may find it conceivably everywhere and that the belief in what came afterwards will explain its significance [See Endnote 1] . This holds for a historian of the Annales School or of a structuralist persuasion or simply the common sense practical critic, each of whom choose a ‘point x’ from where they can definitively declare the start of the story. Every beginning is ‘new’ even as we pass over it again in our re-telling for it is simply a repetition whose difference is its material expression if not its universal logic. [See Endnote 2] 


That history is concerned with the past seems like a misguided platitude then. It is, in fact, concerned with time, and in so far as one wants to declare it being about ‘change over time’ one might also draw attention to similarity over time, tied as those two are in a paradoxical though close and dialectical embrace. What the historian concerns herself with is not simply the facts, that which happened, but an unrecognised ground, ladder and sky that might be best thought of as the games of politics, philosophy and poetry, which is to give new metaphors to genres the historian can productively borrow from. In interrogating what is the underlying reason of this, the principle as it were, or, perhaps, in my case, the foundational ritualised language, which is to say the consciously defamiliarised articulation of death spirit, one must bring to the surface of things that which we commonly hold to be depth. [See Endnote 3] What seems superficial or self-indulgent or artificial assumes an importance precisely because of its particularity as undeleted critical labour. [See Endnote 4]


That we can focus on the body as a history, assumed in politics to be a distinct and inalienable source of private property, unactualised though that is, means that birth, literally and metaphorically, is used as a beginning. This might be for convenience or congealment, simply because ‘it makes sense’ or that’s ‘just what you do’. The other paradigmatic introduction is often the metonymic one — the anecdote that contains within it the whole of the oak like a drawing of a seed whose mature tree-form is established internally albeit tiny. There is too the history that places two events side-by-side as if marking out the goalposts through which the line of the story will be directed, which is precisely to suggest that we cannot take our own position for granted and so we too will see the birth of a new world order in this distinction. [See Endnote 5] These may be the paradigmatic ways of writing history, but they are not the only ones. [See Endnote 6] What holds for them is a type of prose that values linearity and clarity, a type of easy, which is to say not difficult, accessibility and truth content.


After I studied history, I studied poetry in a metropolitan centre of contemporary experimentalism. Poetics in this iteration often assumes the mask, and hence rhetoric, of the poets expounding it, which is to say, it is attuned to how the story is told, to the form of the essay, and in so doing may mimic, and hence mock, the journalistic article, or alternatively continue the practice of abstraction, claiming to radically break down prose itself. [See Endnote 7] That one may get lost in this thicket precisely because of its international reach suggests not only that the centre of this world displays an exhaustive, contemporary archival network [See Endnote 8] but also that the expectations of what constitutes radical or peripheral work relies on an expectation of what is normal. In this poetics the historical sediment of what once was official and also an idea of thought as its own paradigm are not broken down into their component parts but held aloft as straw men for a very obtuse, if performatively intellectual and engaging, beating.


This brings me to what does world historical poetry look like to me? If we broke this into its constitutive parts we might be tempted to say the world does not exist, that history is about time and being, and poetry is a self-expression. And that might be the case, for all of these positions have defensible purchase in the language games of conferences and academic papers. What I would like to suggest though, is a way of understanding the term as a whole that is at once an example of its poetics as well as an articulation of its foundation in my genealogy.


World historical poetry implies that it is a particular literary expression of world historical spirit, of divine reason made poetic. The inevitability of one’s own perspective, the limited frame of reference, the realisation that the ‘nation’ matters, means that in searching for what comes to be ‘spirit’ in one sense is bound with language as a thought process. But what some call spirit we might call death precisely because it is one of the two certainties in life. If we can leave taxes to the Marxists, thinking through death means examining the life lived, which is to say the rituals that assume an importance within some sort of frame. But the point might not be to explain it, through experience or reference or knowledge, but simply to take account of it. [See Endnote 9]


The problem of historical poetics is evident then in this basic question: ‘How is it possible to see a text according to an interpretation?’ History sees and poetics interprets. [See Endnote 10] History is that which sees the triangle and represses its desire to say it stands, hangs or falls over, even as it must, whereas poetics does the opposite. [See Endnote 11] History works by accumulation, poetics by interrogation; the former by contextual aggregation through the reading of several texts; the latter by close inspection through the reading of one text. [See Endnote 12] Or so it appears in the disciplinary regime of today’s university. Says the historian ‘if the poet is a lion we cannot understand her’, which might account for the lack of a sociological poetics. [See Endnote 13] The paradox though is that history may do the work of close reading through its purported lack of interpretation just as poetics carries with it a whole host of contextual judgement, which we can take account of simply by reading symptomatically what it sees. Historical poetics is the fact that ‘one man might make an accurate drawing of the two faces, and the other notice in the drawing the likeness which the former did not see.’ [See Endnote 14]


We cannot help but live with sociological categories, which are abstractions grounded in material histories (Australia), just as we cannot live without philosophical assumptions (seen in the use of specific words, dialectics), political ‘realities’ (how knowledge is disseminated) and linguistic metaphors (see Hegel on the fire). Each word is a madeleine and a child of midnight. The move away from Australia’s collective madeleines be they parrots or kangaroos because they appear kitschy fails to think through the way there is a universalising language whose root is closer to me as a lived material reality than if I was in London. In other words, within walking distance of here I can find a kangaroo that is not in a zoo and not only in a book or on a screen. This is a return of the repressed when all appears digital. In other words, what are the words of a world language that we have here because there is always a world and always a here?


Should we then ‘mistrust our own senses but not our own beliefs’ or should we acknowledge that ‘the human body is the best picture of the human soul’? [See Endnote 15] I have been subject to attempts to categorise me as poet in a particular way, many as shorthand for my embodiment — as Australian, as experimental, as minority, as person of colour, as male — and rather than refuse such designations as boundaries of confinement, I would prefer to interrogate the assumptions that underpin their agreed upon lexical common ground while maintaining useful and affective bonds with individual actors themselves. In other words, what is the logic behind the identification and how can we ask that with someone, and hence begin work on a collaborative designation that is utopian in its premise rather than simply inherited. This extends to each word, particularly that which is rich and based in the acknowledgement that a new criterion for seeing and interpretation ‘can conceal the old problem but not solve it.’ [See Endnote 16] That is one such task for the poetics that has me in its sights.


One might say of an Australian poet that to be a genius is ‘embarrassing and ridiculous’ if only because ‘we’ associate genius with a time and place of the ‘not now or here’. [See Endnote 17] That we are concerned with mimesis and anachronism, while continuing to presuppose that originality is still prized despite uncreativity and conceptualism, carries with it a whole forest of association. This is to say nothing of the strategic imperative common to poets here that loudly deny the ambitions of one’s work while currently lapsing, of course, into the belief that poetry is intuitive and enjoyable rather than part of a conflictual world.


In ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of World History’, Hegel puts paid to any notion that history teaches us lessons now precisely because of the particularities of each situation, which is not to say that universal spirit, divine reason or the world itself are absent, but that historians may not be well equipped to translate their teaching to the present. The task, as I see it as a practitioner, is to continue to find hope in the languages of our contemporaneity not as transcendence of a politics but as a way of thinking through a collective past that is the material ground upon which to build a house in the suburb of language itself. And while the future may be hidden from us, it does not stop the astronomer from calculating the eclipse of the sun or me from wearing shades when I left home today.


[ 1 ] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, H. B Nisbet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 75 [on the man who takes revenge by burning down a house]
[ 2 ] Badiou, Alain. Philosophy for Militants, London: Verso, 2015, p. 10
[ 3 ] See Victor Shklovsky ‘Art as Technique’ Accessed 9/9/2016
[ 4 ] Jarvis, Simon. ‘An Undeleter for Criticism’ in Diacritics. Vol. 32(1), 2002, pp. 3-18.
[ 5 ] Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House.
[ 6 ] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
[ 7 ] See: Charles Bernstein’s essay on National Poetry Month.
[ 8 ] See: PennSound, UbuWeb
[ 9 ] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 175e
[ 10 ] Wittgenstein, p. 211e
[ 11 ] Wittgenstin, p. 211e
[ 12 ] Wittgenstein, p 235e
[ 13 ] Wittgenstein, p 235e
[ 14 ] Wittgenstein, fragment 112, part 2
[ 15 ] Wittgenstein, fragment 91 of part 2; Wittgenstein, fragment 25 of part 2
[ 16 ] Wittgenstein, p. 221e
[ 17 ] Wittgenstein, p. 192e
[ 18 ] Wittgenstein, p. 235e


R.D. Wood has previously had work published in Best Australian Poems, Southerly, JASAL, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and Foucault Studies as well as in various issues of JPR. See his work here.


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