Brian Kim Stefans: The Alchemy of the World

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— Edited by John Tranter, September 2014.

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Brian Kim Stefans: The Alchemy of the World:
Rimbaud and Revolutionary Artifice

Paragraph 1 follows:

Author’s Note: This essay was first written in 1996 and updated for its present publication. Special thanks to Ann Lauterbach for her comments on the essay’s first draft back in the 1990s.
Editor note: Notes, Photo credits and bio note at the end.



Walter Benjamin records, in his ‘Conversations with Brecht: Svendborg Notes,’ the playwright’s interpretation of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’:
Brecht and friends, Berlin, May Day 1954

1, Berthold Brecht and friends, Berlin, 1954.


[Brecht] compares [Johannes R.] Becher’s poem to Rimbaud’s. In the latter, he thought, Marx and Lenin, too — had they read it — would have detected the great historical movement of which it is an expression. They would have recognized very clearly that it does not describe the perambulations of an eccentric stroller, but the vagabond flight of a person who can no longer endure the limits of his class, which — with the Crimean War, the Mexican adventure — was beginning to open up exotic parts of the world to mercantile interests. To assimilate the gesture of the unfettered vagabond, putting his affairs in the hands of chance and turning his back on society, was patently impossible for the stereotype of the proletarian fighter. [See Note 1]


The ‘stereotype’ Brecht was attacking was that of Becher himself — ‘When Becher says “I”, he believes himself — as president of the Union of Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers in Germany — to be exemplary. Only no one wants to follow the example.’ Brecht had just been explaining to Benjamin how the writer becomes ‘proletarianized, and utterly so’ when ‘the development of his own means of production are concerned.’ [2] Though it is not clear in these notes what Brecht meant by ‘his own means of production’ — is this self-education? the tools of publishing? — Brecht implies that the writer, when writing, developing skills and even publishing, moves from the position of being a consumer to a producer, thus transcending an early class identification. Benjamin himself clarifies this position through an analysis of the newspaper, film and Brecht’s Versuche in ‘The Author as Producer’ (a paper Benjamin Brecht presented at The Institute for the Study of Fascism in April 1934, a few months before this passage of the ‘Svendborg Notes’ was written).


Brecht understands Rimbaud to have been the chronicler of this peculiar class mobility of the artist, though the poet is not engaged in the sort of collective, non-individualistic world struggle of, say, later poets such as the British Christopher Caudwell, Louis Aragon during the French Resistance, or the American George Oppen. That Rimbaud may have been overwhelmed but delighted by the contingencies of this historical movement is apparent in the poem’s most famous quatrain: ‘And from then on I bathed in the Poem / of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent, / devouring the green azure where, pale / and elated, a thoughtful drowned figure sometimes sinks. [3] The repetitions in the next group of quatrains, which all begin with the word ‘Je’ — Je sais, J’ai vu, J’ai reve, J’ai suivi — indicate more than the poet’s youthful pride in having ‘seen it all’ but also his experience of ‘the game of possibilities’ (to borrow Baudrillard’s phrase). The poet is in the center of language, at the nexus of the various exchanges that comprise the process of communication, and — in Brecht’s interpretation — is also a symptom of Capitalism’s internal contradictions.


In his short essay ‘Rimbaud as Capitalist Adventurer,’ Kenneth Rexroth records a similar interpretation of the poem, but he is not quite so impressed with the goals of the young poet. Rexroth writes:


He applied to literature, and to litterateurs, the minute he laid eyes on them, the devastating methods of total exploitation described so graphically in the Communist Manifesto. Some of them were not very applicable. He ‘ran’ the vowels like he later ran guns to the Abyssinians, with dubious results. Usually, however, he was very successful — in the same way his contemporaries Jim Fiske and P.T. Barnum were successful. He did things to literature that had never been done to it before, and they were things which literature badly needed done to it… just like the world needed the railroads the Robber Barons did manage to provide. [4]


Though Rexroth does have kinder things to say about Rimbaud’s poetry — ‘Rimbaud [is] a sort of magician of the sensibility — of that specifically modern sensibility invented by Blake and Hölderlin and Baudelaire — and an innovator in syntax, the first thoroughly radical revealer of the poetic metalogic which is the universal characteristic of twentieth-century verse.’ — the implication is that Rimbaud’s poetic adventure was motivated by a similar sort of avidity that drove him as a trader.


Rexroth concludes: ‘The old monument to Rimbaud in Charleville ignores his poetry and memorializes him as the local boy who made good as a merchant and hero of French imperialism in the Africa where the aesthetes who were never good at business think he went to die unknown, holding the Ultimate Mystery at bay.’ This puts Rimbaud at an even greater distance from the image of the ‘eccentric stroller’ that Brecht was negating; furthermore, it places him on the other side of the Marxist-Leninist imperialist equation.


Brecht saw the poet’s exploitation of the materials of language as necessary for the expression of the movement of history by a poet who is only a small part, a subject, of it (perhaps even as a member of the proletariat), but Rexroth, keeping in mind Rimbaud’s later career as a gunrunner and colonizer of Africa, sees the opportunist.


Rexroth also takes pains to refute the understanding of Rimbaud as ‘a sort of combination of Bakunin and St. John of the Cross’; this is in contrast to Brecht’s appreciation of Rimbaud’s anarchist (‘putting his affairs in the hands of chance’) aesthetic as the toppler of class and cultural hierarchies. Rimbaud fortified hierarchies in Rexroth’s view — he did not describe or experience a ‘derangement’ of language — ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’ in the original — that would eventually collapse bourgeois values and result in the more liberating forms of Modernism, but rather trapped and hoarded language in poems that would later be understood by the authorities — as well as the poets who would benefit from his formal innovations — as ‘Art.’
Sketch of poet Arthur Rimbaud by Cazals

Image 2, poet Arthur Rimbaud.


The poem, in this sense, became another coin for the piggy-banks of nationalists, who never understand art as anything more than the proof of a superior culture, symbolized by Rexroth by the statue of the young poet in Charleville.


While Rexroth’s misgivings — written in the heat of the Beat moment in 1957 — offer a valuable demystification of the life and work of the poet, Brecht’s earlier assessment provides rich ground for a consideration of Rimbaud’s work in relation to political thought. This essay compares Rimbaud’s conception of the ‘alchemy of the word’ with Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s idea of the ‘image-complex’ as she describes it in her 1978 study Poetic Artifice. Forrest-Thomson’s book provides a critical language for much of what is only implied in Rimbaud’s poem, in that it describes in semi-technical language the space of ‘non-meaning’ in a poem in which the worlds inside and outside a poem meet, while at the same time maintaining these dichotomies of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ — here and there — necessary for a theory of literary ‘alchemy.’ The work of American ‘language’ poets Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews is central to this argument, since their work is most singularly and directly concerned with the role the poet plays as arbiter of cultural values — whether as creator, destroyer, animator or aggravator.

Countering Romanticism


A basic understanding of the Romantic concept of history can be gleaned from Shelley’s essay ‘A Defense of Poetry,’ in which civilization is understood to have had an ‘infancy’ from which the present civilization — through revolution and a progressive democratic liberation from tyranny — has derived. Shelley writes: ‘The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization has reposed.’ [5] The culture of Greece is understood as the foundation of all cultures following it — a sort of Platonic ideal of which later generations were merely flawed copies.


As Shelley implies here and elsewhere, the poet stood at the center of this culture, having illuminated the way that the more active agents in culture — the politicians, the warriors, the social architects — would take in shaping it. Shelley’s claim is that the poet is indistinguishable from the motion of history; earlier, he compares the work of poets to ‘the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre,’ as if the poet were the mere plaything of the ‘gods,’ who, in a materialist view, are really just historical forces.


About fifty years after the ‘A Defense of Poetry’ was written, Rimbaud wrote ‘A Season In Hell,’ in which he expresses his disillusionment with this Romantic ideal. In ‘Season,’ the image of the poet is no longer that of a healthy, integrated individual, but is rather the opposite — the criminal, the sick man. Poets are no longer lighting the path that ‘everyone’ will take in the march of civilization, but are merely inventors of monstrosities, isolated orphans on the sidelines. Rather than being the ‘nightingale’ of Shelley’s ‘Defense,’ the poet (as Rimbaud writes in his famous ‘Letter of the Seer’ [’Lettre du Voyant’, to his teacher Paul Demeny, written on 15 May 1871]) is comparable to the ‘camprachico’ — the mythical mutilators of children who later displays them for money created by Victor Hugo in his 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs — or a ‘man implanting and cultivating warts on his face.’ [6] The language of Romanticism is acidly deformed in the poetry of Rimbaud:
Cover, graphic comic version of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel 'The

Image 3, Cover, graphic comic: ‘The Man Who Laughs’.


Work of man! This is the explosion which lights up my abyss from time to time. ‘Nothing is vanity; science and onward!’ cries the modem Ecclesiastes, namely Everyone. And yet the bodies of the wicked and the slothful fall on the hearts of others. Ah! come quickly! out there, beyond the night… shall we miss those eternal rewards?
   — What can I do? I understand what work is, and science moves too slowly. I see clearly that prayer gallops and light thunders. This is too simple. And it is too hot. People will get along without me. I have my duty. I will be proud of it in the fashion of several others, by putting it aside.
   My life is worn out. Come! let’s pretend, let’s be idle, O pity! We will exist by amusing ourselves, by dreaming of monstrous loves and fantastic universes… [7]


Rimbaud pens an anthem for the radical nature of Modernist individuality, which involves, among other things, a courting of perversions, a precise but arbitrary overturning of cultural values, and a total refusal to engage in the most minute aspect of practical daily living. This is Goethe’s laconic Werther taken to a new extreme — blue jackets replaced by ‘fists in torn pockets’ (‘Ma Bohème’) — for the (male) poet does not even idolize (feminine) beauty any longer, but rather the ‘monstrous’ and ‘fantastic’ — suicide won’t be his end, but idleness. The Romantic’s belief in history as the march of democratic liberation is contaminated by the oppression that the leveling aspects of bourgeois society exerts on the artist — a common theme of adolescent rebellion, here raised to the level of ethics.


Democracy and eternal ‘brotherhood’ may have arrived, but so has stagnation. Rimbaud writes: ‘Work seems too slight for my pride.’ [8] Rimbaud is unable to conform to history’s slowness; history simply cannot keep up with the explosive illuminations to which he felt subjected.


The result is that the poet, who was once permitted to warble ‘in darkness, singing to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds’ [9] (Shelley) and yet remain society’s ‘unacknowledged legislator,’ is now exiled from the mainstream of history’s march. The poet’s imagination takes on a new importance — neither God nor Necessity governs its machinations. The deranged imagination becomes, itself, governor, and discovers that there is freedom in disorder, and beauty in chaos. Rimbaud describes this new understanding in a section called ‘Alchemy of the Word’:


It is my turn. The story of one of my follies.
   For a long time I had boasted of having every possible landscape, and found laughable the celebrated names of painting and modern poetry.
   I liked stupid paintings, door panels, stage sets, back-drops for acrobats, signs, popular engravings, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, little books from childhood, old operas, ridiculous refrains, naive rhythms.
   I dreamed of crusades, of unrecorded voyages of discovery, of republics with no history, of hushed-up religious wars, revolutions in customs, displacements of races and continents: I believed in every kind of witchcraft. [10]


Rimbaud overturns, in a catalogue of artistic ‘monstrosities’ — his own island of misfit toys [11] — a series of cultural assumptions regarding beauty and success; in this way, he anticipates the twentieth century attraction to readymades, ‘outsider art’ and kitsch. Utopian ideals are both embodied and destroyed; the knowableness of the scientific universe is sacrificed to the preference for ‘unrecorded voyages of discovery’ and ‘every kind of witchcraft.’ Only Blake and perhaps Yeats and Dickinson, among English-language poets, seems to have had the power to make the great substitutions — an imaginative universe in place of the ‘rational’ one — that Rimbaud describes here. (French writers, from Lautréamont, Jarry and Roussel to Genet, Queneau and Debord would make a tradition of it.)


However, it is the adolescent Rimbaud, then on the verge of terminating his writing career, who speaks of these imaginative escapades, these substitutions, in the past tense, as his ‘follies.’ He continues:


I invented the color of the vowels! — A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. — I regulated the form and movement of each consonant, and, with instinctive rhythms, I prided myself on inventing a poetic language accessible some day to all the senses. I reserved translation rights.
   It was at first a study. I wrote out silences and the nights. I recorded the inexpressible. I described frenzies.


It is the dual nature of letters — their role as mere elements in a word, and the role they can play in the evocation of colors and meaning — that best describes the synthesis that occurs in the ‘alchemy of the word.’ Rimbaud’s synaesthetic sense permitted him to see the transformative power of even the naked vowel. What is most important, for now, is that Rimbaud sees himself as possessing the power to regulate a total artwork — a Gesamtkunstwerk for the page — one that will be ‘accessible someday to all the senses.’


Rimbaud conjures the phantasmagoria of history in the ‘Season In Hell.’ The most famous use of this word in poetry is in Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley — ‘He had moved amid her phantasmagoria, / Amid her galaxies’ — but this ‘phantasmagoria’ might be better compared to the state of being the ‘still center’ of the ‘turning world’ as described in Eliot’s Four Quartets, and involves a sense of divorce from, but power over, the ghostly movement of objects through time. In this Cartesian point beyond the flux of immanence — an imagined stasis — things become plastic and malleable, subject to a form of ‘alchemy,’ not so much in themselves — the poet doesn’t turn lead into gold — but in the way one perceives them, this latter function dissolving the necessity of the former.


It is best expressed by Rimbaud’s catalogue — church Latin, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers — but also in his hallucinogenic perception of a ‘virtual’ or alternative world of ‘hushed-up religious wars.’ Rimbaud finds himself able to go backwards in time, to reverse history’s motion, having discovered that one need only look the other way, and in the folds of this turbulence he upsets cultural values. Significantly, Rimbaud rejects the power that has been granted him by this new understanding of the imagination; its power is one of the many veils of illusion that he discards — in his total thrust for demystification — in ‘Season.’

The Art of Politics


The sentiments of Rimbaud’s poem, which recorded the ‘folly’ of one person’s experience of the historical phantasmagoria, began to be put to political purposes by Modernist artists. A major early Modernist manifesto, written by F. T. Marinetti and published in 1909 in the French newspaper Le Figaro, is one of the more extreme of these statements. He lists the aims of the Futurist program:


   1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
   2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
   3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and slap.
   4. We say the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot — is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. [12]


This type of outrageousness — not to mention the garrulous optimism — had been already both celebrated and disavowed by Rimbaud; furthermore, the element of youthful joy and personal submission, as expressed in the ‘The Drunken Boat,’ has been lost or suppressed. Marinetti adds the metaphor of the machine to the equation, but otherwise the intoxication with transformative power is intact. The Manifesto continues, more ominously:
Tato, Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral, 1930. Ventura Collec

Image 4, Tato, ‘Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral’, 1930.


   8. We stand on the promontory of the centuries! … Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created the eternal, omnipresent speed.
   9. We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.
   10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.


‘Time and Space died yesterday’ seems particularly Rimbaudian — compare this line to his short poem beginning ‘Elle est retrouvée!/ Quoi? L’Éternité.’ However, the tone of ironical self-condemnation that permeates ‘Season’ is lacking in Marinetti’s manifesto; in fact, the Manifesto rearticulates many of the Utopian ideals, with the same sort of visionary confidence, that were expressed by Shelley in the ‘Defense.’


Marinetti has done away with history — he later declares we should fill ‘that a great sewer of traditionalism,’ the canals of Venice, ‘with the rubble of the tottering infected old palaces’ [13] — thus taking advantage of that state of ‘phantasmagoria,’ the freedom to stand apart, that Rimbaud describes. He expresses the aesthetics of speed, which leads to his many metaphors of violence — not the ‘tohu-bohu’ that Rimbaud describes in the ‘Drunken Boat,’ but the later programmed violence of Fascism.


What Marinetti doesn’t take from Rimbaud is an understanding of the divorce between the ‘folly’ of a total art and the possibility for a total, transformative politics. This exaggerated sense of determinacy is expressed by his unwitting caricature of a ‘masculine’ ethic. There are no gaps or hesitations — signs of ‘feminine’ doubt — in the Futurist manifesto, only the pure determination for change, often in the name of cathartic spectacle. This absence becomes more apparent when one realize that ‘Season,’ in which Rimbaud’s most violent refutations of the past are expressed, is a poem primarily concerned with his love affair with Paul Verlaine.


Marinetti takes advantage of the many permissions that arose out of Rimbaud’s understanding of imagination, but in a major push to transcend the decadence of Symbolist writers like D’Annunzio, he doesn’t temper it with the humility of having to permit the presence of conflicting voices or anything close to sentiment. The poet thus regains that image of health and centrality that had been characteristic of the Romantic ideal, but at the same time loses the power to understand sickness, since this new ‘health’ is that of the machine.


This completely avoids the more revolutionary aspect of the Modernist configuration, since it maintains and indeed exaggerates the societal hierarchies that, one can argue, Rimbaud felt himself compelled to destroy. The poet doesn’t step to the side to create his ‘monstrosities’ in rebellion against the bourgeois world, but instead becomes its acknowledged legislator and also its worst sort of tyrant — an exaggerated bureaucrat, a bookkeeper.


Walter Benjamin’s analysis, in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ of the link between Fascism and aesthetics is worth quoting at length, since he introduces the vocabulary that will become instrumental in determining the new relationship that the post-Romantic political poet will have with society.


Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into public life.
   All efforts to make politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and only war can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.
   Fiat ars — pereat mundus, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of ‘l’art pour l’art.’ Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a point that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art. [14]


Fascism, with its heavy-handed symbolism, uniforms, flags and public displays of might, was a large-scale cathartic experience for the masses. Politics thus became a way for the public to ‘express themselves,’ patterned on Nietzsche’s dialectic of the Dionysian and Apollonian in Greek theater described in The Birth of Tragedy. Continuing the descent from service-to-God to service-to-the-democratic-will, the poet exceeds the service of the people and knows what’s better for them, hence compelled to take the reins of cultural arbitration. The poet attempts to revive the ancient line, to create the ‘New Rome,’ aware of its artifice but believing in its mechanical efficiency, regardless of the global historical forces that continually argue against its exclusive, singular narrative.


Much French Symbolist theory that was the result of the movement of ‘l’art pour l’art’ finds its origins in Rimbaud — i.e. his ‘poetic language accessible to all the senses’ and a theory of correspondences derived from Baudelaire — and yet it is Rimbaud who saw art as existing in a direct engagement with society, despite his own refusal of positive assertions. Benjamin understands ‘l’art pour l’art’ as an attempt at a total art form, and Fascism an attempt at total politics; he introduces, in opposition, the concept of property transfer, or the dissolution of private property, that communism advocates.


Though Benjamin doesn’t pursue the aesthetic implications of this policy in this brief excerpt, his intentions are clear when he writes that ‘communism responds by politicizing art’: poems can no longer be self-contained, closed structures divorced from the traffic of history, of ‘life,’ but must be permeable, both in sense and structure. This guarantees that art will never be in the service of an oppressive institution or of nationalism, but rather will always be in motion, moving towards and away at the same time.


Fascism is the aestheticization of politics in that it offers politics a sense of determinacy — even of God-like overdeterminacy — which it stole from the artist. ‘Politicized art’ operates in the opposite direction, by emphasizing the gaps, hesitations and inconsistencies of language — the anomalies, to use Thomas Kuhn’s term in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that operate against the hegemonic epic narrative of Fascism. Rimbaud maintained an awareness of these exceptions; he reveled in the imperfect, the ridiculous, the sick and the criminal. The failure of Fascism, and artists in its service such as Pound and Marinetti, was to attempt to destroy anomalies in an effort to institute an overdetermined universe, the inevitable result of which was war.

The Politicization of Artifice


Even if one agrees with Rexroth’s conclusion that Rimbaud was merely a ‘capitalist adventurer,’ one cannot deny that the poet was trading in something impressive. Rimbaud writes later in ‘Season’: ‘I grew accustomed to pure hallucination: I saw quite frankly a mosque in place of a factory, a school of drummers made up of angels, carriages on roads in the sky, a parlor at the bottom of the lake; monsters, mysteries. The title of a vaudeville show conjured up horrors before me … At the end I looked on the disorder of my mind as sacred.’ [15] The Surrealists, fortified by Freudian theory, would adopt this sort of associative imagery for similar aesthetic ends, aiming to break down the barriers between the waking and dreaming states.


However, whereas Breton did not equate his literary productions with art but rather saw them as most valuable politically — he and later the Situationists both sought to equate imaginative, ‘convulsive’ acts with societal transformation — Rimbaud is aware of the artifice of his fantastic perceptions and of the ‘folly’ of his politics. He continues, for example, to write in the past tense in this excerpt, and he is very much aware of the ‘disorder’ of his mind, never advocating it as a higher state of consciousness. This sort of skepticism is symptomatic of his awareness of the mechanics of his ‘alchemy of the word,’ which he unable to consider anything more than a delusion (at least in ‘Season’).


Veronica Forrest-Thomson in Poetic Artifice may shed some light on how this ‘alchemy’ works. Her book is concerned with establishing a critical language that is able to discuss a poem through attention to its artifice as she feels that the focus of critics has been too much on a poem’s meaning in the ‘external’ world. She calls the critical process to which she is opposed ‘Naturalization,’ which she describes in her introduction as


an attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organization by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world, by making the Artifice appear natural. Critical reading cannot, of course, avoid Naturalization altogether. Criticism is committed, after all, to helping us to understand both poetry as an institution and individual poems as significant utterances. But it must ensure that in its desire to produce ultimate meaning it does not purchase intelligibility at the cost of blindness: blindness to the complexity of those non-meaningful features which differentiate poetry from everyday language and make it something other than an external thematic statement about an already-known world. [16]


Critics, in Forrest-Thomson’s view, often rush to ‘produce ultimate meaning’ for the poem, ultimately paying the price of blindness. Critics attempt a total statement about a poem, regardless of those elements of the poem that resist that statement — the exceptions or anomalies that argue against the paradigmatic narrative that the critic is employing. She is describing, in essence, the battle against an overdetermined, ‘fascistic’ interpretation of a poem. She continues:


There would be no point in writing poetry unless poetry were different from everyday language, and any attempt to analyse poetry should cherish that difference and seek to remain within its bounds for as long as possible rather than ignore the difference in an unseemly rush from world to world. Good naturalization dwells on the non-meaningful levels of poetic language, such as phonetic and prosodic patterns and spatial organization, and tries to state their relation to other levels of organization rather than set them aside in an attempt to produce a statement about the world.


Forrest-Thomson assumes, for the sake of her argument (which, for the sake of the present argument, is here being dramatically schematized), that there are two ‘worlds,’ one which is within the poem and the other ‘external.’ A poem has an essence which we can never truly know or think; we only have access — as we do to all objects — to its accidental properties. In the area between these two worlds occurs ‘thematic synthesis,’ which is when the ‘non-meaningful’ levels of the poem which resist Naturalization synthesize with often-inchoate elements of the ‘external’ world, the cultural, semantic elements which must impose themselves upon a poem in order for it to be intelligible at all. ‘Thematic synthesis’ is how the reader experiences the poem, where she engages in that complex relationship between the singularity — the unreachable essence of the poem — and the unit of language (words themselves being mere accidents) called ‘a poem.’ This is Rimbaud’s ‘alchemy’ translated into a critical vocabulary, for it is the area within a poem where the ‘external’ world — the stuff that Rimbaud steals, hoards, exploits, trades, etc. — is transformed into the poetic, but without the total eradication of its existence as ‘material.’ It is because history is able to be alchemized, to synthesize with non-narrative elements, and to be translated from the mundane to the artifice of meaning, that Rimbaud is able, for Brecht, to provide a lens on the motion of history.


The invariable outcome of Rimbaud’s project as it is outlined in the ‘Letter of the Seer’ then becomes clear: if language and history are Artifice, then the poet him/herself can be Artifice. This possibility finds expression in such writers as Wyndham Lewis, for example, who eventually transformed himself from a writer of ‘Vorticist’ literature to a living vortex, which he named the ‘Tyro’ (and depicted in a self-portrait), or the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who transformed herself from a 90s-style Decadent to the queen of Dada upon moving to New York in the 1910s where her disparate, often spontaneous activities anticipated Fluxus, Happenings and Performance Art.


The Futurists, in their political statements in the early part of the century, attempted to impose with military efficiency the Artifice of a historical narrative of Italy (which had been deteriorating for a variety reasons) onto the nation. The paradox is that Forrest-Thomson’s theory suggests that this fake, spectacular history is part of the ‘external’ force that critics abuse, an engine for the ‘bad Naturalization’ of every element of the poem.


That is, for the poem that is read or written within the situation of Fascism, nationalist Artifice (that of an artificial, often racial lineage conjured by the Fascists) is being positioned against Poetic Artifice (that of the poem itself in its resistance to ‘Naturalization’). The implications of this understanding become important when considering some of the theories of ‘non-absorption’ as posited by the contemporary poet and theorist Charles Bernstein, who is concerned with bringing the reader to a heightened attention of this political and poetical artifice.


Before departing from Forrest-Thomson’s critical vocabulary, it is worth considering her estimation of a poem in which she feels ‘thematic synthesis’ failed to occur. The poem is by the late British surrealist David Gascoyne and is called ‘The Rites of Hysteria’:


A cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
Green as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
And wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
The afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
The afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows
And the owners of rubber pitchforks bake all their illusions
In an oven of dirty globes and weedgrown stupors. [17]


Forrest-Thomson, ever handy with terms, calls this an example of ‘irrational obscurity,’ in which ‘the formal levels exercise no control, so that one cannot tell how the external world is filtered through the language of the poem.’ [18] These ‘formal levels’ would include shifts in tone, alliterative clusters (so expressively put to use by initially ‘obscure’ poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins), rhythmic and affective variation (is it song, rant, insanity or data dump?) or clusters of coherent imagery from the ‘external’ world which might help enliven a reading. She writes:


At first sight we might hope to find significance in the way the level of meaning relates to both the level of image-complex and the level of formal pattern. Afternoons, vegetation, lunacy, and destruction are all dominant, and they provide several external contexts which might be fictionalized. But the agents of fictionalising are not working. The level of convention suggests nothing except that these lines ought to interact in some way, so we are left with the levels of formal pattern and of image-complex. [19]


Forrest-Thomson attempts to discover what the poem is telling her by observing its ‘level of convention’; had there been anything unusual, such as dramatic spacing and lineation, the number ‘16’ printed before each line, or bold face words, she would have been able — with her understanding of Artifice — to have pursued that lead. Her initial criticism of the imagery is that it is all operating on the same level; one could simply say that the imagery is flat and predictable, and yet one would be hard pressed to explain how ‘a bucketful of chemical sorrows’ is not, in itself, modestly ‘convulsive.’
Veronica Forrest-Thomson 1947-75, Cambridge, England, 1972

Image 5, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, 1972.


For this reason, Forrest-Thomson’s language of ‘image-synthesis’ is important, since it describes not the failure to create provocative images — which any inebriated poet can do — but the failure of the entire superstructure of the poem (which she equates with the ‘image’ of the poem) to animate a field of meanings. She continues:


Nevertheless, fighting one-handed, let us see what may be done with these. All the vowels in the alphabet and many of the consonants are present but we have no way of telling which are important and which are not, since the conventional level — rhyme, rhythm, line-endings are all inert — does not help. If ‘hovel’, ‘sorrows’, ‘stupors’, or any other word that ends a line were to feed back its sound/look into the rest of the lines — which would be indicated by metre and rhythm — we might find glimmerings of formal pattern, but they do not do so. There is as much case for claiming that l is prominent as there is for s, for e as for o or i. And as little, for in the absence of metre and rhythm the reader cannot tell which sounds come to the surface in the poem’s movement.


Forrest-Thomson’s criticisms concern the unwitting democracy of the poem: ‘many of the consonants are present but we have no way of telling which are important and which are not.’ The poem could then be considered the opposite extreme, one feels, of a ‘fascistic’ total choreography of meanings, since every element in it resists assimilation into any sort of narrative. Yet, the price is still blindness; lacking ‘thematic synthesis,’ the poem’s accidents fail to point toward, or create tensions with, its essence (which it, like any object no matter how trivial, possesses), hence abandoning the poem to its own solipsism, not to mention a lack of dedicated readers.



The poetry and poetics of the Language school often emphasizes a practice that both imposes and withdraws a strong, authoritative voice, with the ultimate aim to create an awareness in the reader of the nature of authorial — which is inherently political — control. The violence, but not the overdetermined consistency, of an aesthetic like Marinetti’s, for example, is apparent in the following excerpt from Bruce Andrews’ book-length poem from 1992, I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism):


Labial pesto — popeye less of a man
lizards better-equipped beefcake phosphated determinism carries to the Nth degree: how many of them are junkies? — aristocrats in pampers
voodooized hit list, preppies sink. Intellectuals learn to make their own beds; dent of insolvency
as a debris aficionado, plump unionism to advertise toy airplanes hanging from the ceiling — this is not the poetry project, wheelchair backpedaling into our prehistory as a drain — the lips will have to work over time. Did you get sanctified enough? Gabby drool how it’s effective, this grotesque totalitarian mediocrity: probate courtroom be so brief, sterile spinsters are making us clean our plates in a pieta position. A saint
that wets its turnkey; putting things in your mouth is postmodern? [20]


This excerpt demonstrates the level of assault that is sustained for the entire three hundred pages of the poem. The question, of course, is: Why is this apparently arbitrary assemblage of words and phrases — no more or less ‘irrational’ than the pastel of ‘The Rites of Hysteria’ — meaningful to a reader?


On its lowest level, the poem brings to the reader’s attention the volatile nature that single vocabulary words — ‘junkies’, ‘sanctified’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘determinism’ — can possess, even when outside a narrative context or syllogistic argument. When an author writes the word ‘junkies,’ for example, one assumes he has some sort of insider’s knowledge of a subject that is culturally taboo. The reader then inquires what sort of authority the author has in approaching this specialized, and emotionally charged, subject.


But word phrases are far more meaningful than single words; there are a plethora of provocative combinations: ‘aristocrats in pampers’, ‘beefcake phosphated determinism,’ and ‘sterile spinsters are making us clean our plates in a pieta position’ are three examples. Each of these phrases implies a highly determined opinion of the author concerning some very important issues, often of a social nature, and there is, consequently, simply no way to be lulled into forgetting about the violence of competing ideologies and society’s abysmal failures.


Though the tone is urgent and abrasive, or at least expressive of a consuming dissatisfaction, at no point is the reader assured of the author’s opinion of these matters, since the author never explicitly despises or condones any of them. The cards are merely put on the table — they are burning, but the poet leaves it up to you to decide what to do. The implication is that one must act, but there is no specific coercion.


The primary mode of the aesthetic of Andrews’ project is the complete opposite of what occurs in, for example, Ezra Pound’s Canto XLV, in which the poet provides an equally cumulative view of the materials of culture, but with an attention primarily to ‘high’ elements, while employing a controversial refrain:


Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’
not by usura nor was ‘La Calunnia’ painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
Came no church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
Not by usura St Trophime
Not by usura Saint Hilaire … [21]


Very different from the artistic productions of Marinetti and Futurists, this is nonetheless the Fascist cultural program put to a particularly baroque form of music. Pound’s intention is to lull one into conformity with the dominant narrative of history as he sees it; worse, his rabid anti-Semitism, not actually a strong feature of the Italian Fascist program before the intervention of the Nazis, is embedded in one of the most effective linguistic performances of his middle career. Though a reader might not be entirely knowledgeable of the work of this group of artists or works, at no point in this Canto is one not sure of Pound’s opinion on the matters he raises. In contrast to Pound’s melody — the ‘great bass’ in his term — one can understand the noisy, even grating sound of Andrews’ work as an effort at ‘turning the reader off’’ to the poem. Whereas Pound’s poem has the grandiosity and focus (at least in the excerpt) of Wagnerian opera, Andrews’ poem is granular and unfocused, like a chord played on an electric guitar with high distortion.


Andrews’ certainly has the ‘love of speed,’ the ‘love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness,’ the ‘aggressive action, the feverish insomnia’ that Marinetti advocates in the Futurist Manifesto. Comparisons between Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’ and the poems of Shut Up can also be drawn, as both works enact the phantasmagoria of history, setting its objects and events in motion with an unpremeditated, associative violence.


But Andrews is careful not to impose a historical narrative (despite what is very apparently a leftist, even libertarian, tone); rather, he repels the reader periodically in order to exaggerate the textual imposition of poems.


Charles Bernstein’s reference to the Brecht’s theory of the Verfremden-Effekt (alienation-affect) — the counter-naturalistic practices in Brechtian theater such as affectless acting and cue cards announcing the plot twists that destroy the seductions of plot and suspense — helps one understand the connection between Brecht’s aesthetic and Andrews’, which seem initially dissimilar.


Bernstein also shows how the ‘alchemy of the word,’ and the concept of ‘image-synthesis,’ play a large role in creating this effect, since it is only through these means that the poem is able to make any sort of impression on the reader, and by extension the world of the reader. Bernstein writes in ‘Artifice of Absorption’ (it is in ‘verse’):


is a well-tried
method; Brecht’s
verfremdumdumden effect
explicitly sets
this as its goal. But
is significantly
from impermeability.
Brecht uses his techniques
in conjunction with a
subject matter
& this subject
matter tended
to be in
the form of
a form which
absorptive dynamics. [22]


Bernstein is essentially stating that Brecht was aware of the role ‘melodrama’ — the ‘bracketed’ subject matter in which a basic ‘Naturalization’ can occur — plays in his theater. Melodrama, not to mention the conventions of street and cabaret theater that Brecht also employed (Kurt Weill being a key collaborator) — is the level at which the audience can become engaged in the performance with little struggle, though Brecht is always sure that the engagement is never seductive or intoxicating. Though Shut Up avoids melodrama, it does have an element of spectacle in its very display of cultural accumulation: the billboards of Times Square, channel-switching on cable television, the rapid fire images of the music video, the static of radio — and it has an impressive sort of clang that is comparable to the meeting of No Wave and avant-garde jazz in the music of John Zorn.
Charles Bernstein, NYC, late1979, photo J Tranter

Image 6, Charles Bernstein, 1979, photo John Tranter.


Andrews takes advantage of the conventions of both the ‘confessional’ poem in its most shocking guises and the stand-up comedy routine of the likes of Bruce and Pryor, in that there is an unavoidable connection to be made between the voice of Shut Up and a persona; the poem is one long soliloquy, of sorts, though with a continually self-annihilating (social) actor. Despite these aspects, the poem is never ‘easy’; Andrews, like Brecht, repels the reader/viewer into a position that is somewhat‘outside’ the poem/play, though never so far as to become disengaged with it. Bernstein continues:


In effect, Brecht doubles
the attention
of the spectator
in his hyperabsorptive
theater, bringing
to mind
Leiris’ observation
that the most
distances itself
from the veridicality
of what it
so that
the spectator
rather than being
has something to
& so can become
maximally engaged.


The ‘doubling’ Bernstein describes, and which Brecht and Andrews exploit, is the same sort of doubling represented in the split interpretations of Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s poem was seen by Brecht as a description (as one of his plays) of the material dialectic, and hence useful in a revolutionary struggle; Rexroth saw it merely as the product of a precocious boy’s enthusiasms and the harbinger of his later ‘imperialist’ activities. The aesthetic of ‘alienation,’ as initially explored by Brecht, exaggerates the paradoxes of this split interpretation by reminding the reader at all points of the false authority and permeability of the text, while at the same time keeping him/her ‘maximally engaged.’


Aesthetic control is exerted — Brecht was no Allan Kaprow, the audience was never invited to write their own play — but authority over the space ‘outside’ the poem is not, though it is certainly illuminated. In fact, it is the falseness, or Artifice, of both this external and internal cultural authority that is the subject of the work.


Brecht was, of course, didactic — his plays were intended to produce specific conclusions in his audience even as he gave them freedom to find them. But Brecht’s plays were often as unsuitable to the government of East Berlin as they had previously been to the Fascists (not to mention the Americans). Brecht’s plays, which struggled with a series of complex problems rather than supplied ready-made solutions, were understood to contain doubt about the inevitability of communism, even after a form of it had been put in place.


Doubt is what is decidedly lacking in the overdetermined narratives of Marinetti and the ‘New Rome’ Fascists and in the political statements of Pound — it was associated with feminine weakness, or the much loathed Decadence of the late 19th century.


But doubt is what the ‘non-meaningful’ elements of the poem provide in Forrest-Thomson’s theory of artifice (though she doesn’t use the term in her theory), since they remind the reader that there are elements — of truth, or essence — of the poem and of the world that can never be known. For this reason, art can never be politically programmatic; it always hides too much while advertising a fathomless, fascinating interior  — and so maintains a relationship with the ‘magical’ and the potential for social alchemy that Rimbaud explored.


1   Walter Benjamin, Reflections (Schocken Books, 1978), p.204.

2  Benjamin, p.203.

3  Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works and Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), p.115.

4  Kenneth Rexroth, Bird In Bush: Obvious Essays (New York: New Directions, 1947), p.44.

5  ‘A Defense of Poetry,’ Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (New York: Norton, 1977), p.486.

6  Rimbaud, p.307.

7  Rimbaud, p.205.

8  Rimbaud, p.220.

9  Shelley, p.480.

10  Rimbaud, p.193.

11  Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, a Christmas television special produced in stop motion animation by Rankin/Bass in 1964.

12  F. T. Marinetti, Let’s Murder The Moonshine: Selected Writings (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991), p.49.

13  ‘Against Past-Loving Venice’, 1910.

14  Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969); p.250.

15  Rimbaud, p.208.

16  Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), p.xi.

17  based on its appearance in Forrest-Thomson, p.38.

18  Forrest-Thomson, p.38.

19  Forrest-Thomson, p.39.

20  Bruce Andrews, I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1992), p.40.

21  Ezra Pound, The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1966), p.230.

22  Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.66.

Image credits:

1  Brecht and Helene Weigel, Berlin, May Day 1954.

2  Contemporary sketch of poet Arthur Rimbaud by Parisian artist Cazals.

3  Cover image, graphic comic version of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel ‘The Man Who Laughs’.

4  Futurist art: Tato, ‘Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral’, 1930. Ventura Collection, Rome. Photo: Corrado De Grazia.

5  British poet and critic Veronica Forrest-Thomson 1947-75, Cambridge, England, 1972, photo courtesy Jonathan Culler.

6  US poet Charles Bernstein, NYC, late 1979, photo John Tranter.

Bio Note:

Brian Kim Stefans is an American poet. His books of poetry include “Viva Miscegenation” (MakeNow Books, 2013), Kluge: A Meditation (Roof Books, 2007) and What Is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (Heretical Texts, 2006). His other books include Before Starting Over: Selected Interviews and Essays 1994-2005 (Salt Publishing, 2006) and Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (Atelos, 2003) which includes experimental essays on the role of algorithm in poetry and culture. Among other web activities, he created in 1998, a site devoted to new media poetry and poetics. He lives in Hollywood and teaches poetry, new media and screenplay studies in the English department of UCLA.

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