Robert Wood: Status and Identity in Poetry: a footnote

  Robert Wood

  Status and Identity in Poetry:
  a footnote

  JPR 07

Paragraph One follows — 1:

Status changes depending on our choice of and performance in language games as they exist dialectically. This is not merely to highlight the performativity of a proposition but to say language’s materiality, and activity, is paradoxically a real and ideal symptom and structure. If I say ‘I’m white’ the meaning of that depends on context as will the response.


But meaning, context and response should not be reified as words that are not themselves contested. What is a meaning is in question here not only what do you mean in this particular, concrete instance. But by reading meaning in a concrete way, we may indeed read through to the universal.


This is not, pace structuralism, a case of the critic as anthropologist divining the ualterable myth through their reading of one case study alone, or standing outside the grammar. It is rather, an acknowledgement that once we are on the inside of an experience, language, group (which we always are) then it is mute to point out what that inside is through a process of negation what it is not, for in the rigidity of boundary, the critic fails to realise immanently or dialectically that which occurs in the language itself.


That we are always on the inside, which is necessarily an outside, of language, considered here a system of signs, means that in saying ‘I’m brown’ does not inter alia disprove the prior statement ‘I’m white’. This is then, an example of ‘how to be both’ without there being a neither.


This critique then is about critiquing identity as a congealed set of social relations that exist in paradigmatic ways discursively without a simple acceptance of a post-logic, which would have us believe the way through to the utopia of politics is either by being more specific (not only ‘Australian’ but ‘Indian Australia’, not only ‘Indian Australian’ but ‘Malayalee Scots’ and so on and so forth) within existing nomenclature or in the radical disavowal of their essentialising labelling (‘squi’ not ‘they’).


If one is to speak of the space of politics though, one must be basic, or superstructural, for in the rhetorical formation that is practical action, which of course interacts with ideology, one notices that the particular keywords one uses have a history, hence the end of ‘half-caste’ in popular and legislative formation; and the adoption of new terms by what is considered erroneously to be an avant-garde.


Where words come from, where language comes from, where criticism comes from then becomes a question of history, and the genealogical foundation of that, and in asking what is an identity we begin to see through to the formations that imply what is necessary in simply asking that.


It is not that ideas travel from top to bottom; or that ideas travel from left to right; or that there are no boundaries, it is that the very assumptions that underpin those positions reflect more on the example and the critic who proposes them rather than anything else. The critic of the avant garde thus hopes to become more relevant, or popular, as time goes on; the experimental writer working in research and development is taught to hope their work becomes applicable; and yet, this is the dissemination and prevalence of an instrumental logic. History follows no path but its own.


It is not only that individuals seek status, which come through following or breaking established rules in the game (say through conservative or rebellious defamiliarisation or recontextualisation). It is that the game itself evolves such that one ‘player’ may seek to become a game themselves.


Rather than seeing the alienated as turning into a commodity (say a depressed celebrity) which implies that the abstraction of social relations is negatively privileged, one may argue for the freedom that comes with chosen, intentionalised ritual play.


Ritual stands against the market precisely because of a dialectical relationship of frame, which is not to say the slave has unrealised power over the master necessarily, but that the poet can succeed in deep abstraction such that they experience ontological transcendence becoming a liberation. Intention undoes habitus.


Hence, the invention of a paradigm of thought as lifestyle that is not invested in binaries but paradox as symptom as well as structure. If the grass is always greener why not look to the sky? This is not synthesis for sky is not grass then grass’ opposite then itself, nor is it a linear, teleological progressive self improving arrival at a goal. Grass needs sky to grow even as grass gives sky something to do.


Where one may be tempted to draw boundaries, porous and doomed as that is, is between poetry and money. This is not poetics, which sits in a symbiotic relationship, or capitalism, which stands in a parasitical one.


Poetry in today’s parlour appears dispensable, which has necessitated redefinitions of it (Conceptualism, flarf, and so on) that focus on its import. Money seems the opposite even as it continues to disappear, into paywave, paypal and unseen credit.


This view of poetry and money neglects the decorative, feauturist speech acts of the everyman as well as the gift economy as a whole, which if no longer a potlatch of immediacy, appears with frequency be that liberal celebration (birthday) or collective emotional entrainment (Christmas, Diwali, Chunnukah). When metaphor enters practical language or the good is handed over without coin, we glimpse the end of ideal types that were only ever heuristic. These are not liminal, but constitutive as yin is for yang, which is to say they are general, known and necessary.


What this means for poetry is dependent, in part, on the aims of poetry. Poetry as critique as therapy must function as a utopian space, discourse, game outside and against that which emphasises use value, which is to say it must be, in the first instance, anti-instrumental, non accumulative and open in order to be safe, non-violent and good. That is its utopian task without a tendency to collapse, exhausted, in the face either of pragmatism, or importantly, as a fetish we can see in publication as paper book precisely because status appears initially to be accorded, almost universally, with this particular object.


I myself maintain a large library but this is for the magic spirit of enlightening psychosis that it contains. The poet then is not a trader in books but a shaman of the secular, whose modernity is neither so amorphous as to be an ill described feeling that lacks cultural grounding, nor so time bound as to be a specific artefact seen only in retrospect and constructed for convenient deployment in naïve maneuvering, nor is it a romantic call of the wild that would hold onto the opioid induced false consciousness that seeks to overturn a caricaturised past through a re-enchantment of personal liberalism.


It is rather:

  1. to know thyself, which is to understand the body as it is imprisoned by the soul
  2. to live a good life, which is to labour for service
  3. to change the world, which is to find that which does not exist


That many poets, like the talented tenth, often perform a type of feigned humility means that the rhetoric of ambition is submerged, while there being still an unconscious desire ‘to become a better poet’, which means attending to the system of judgement about what it is ‘to become’ (dialectic), ‘better’ (in what language games), and ‘poet’ (a status designation).


This is not to ask why or how but also when, where and what precisely because questions are foundational. If philosophy is a ladder then poetry is still the sky.

Australian writer Robert Wood.

Robert Wood holds degrees from UWA, ANU and Penn. He has delivered lectures at Berkeley, Peking and Mumbai Universities respectively. Wood will be an Endeavour Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in 2017. Find out more on:


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