WHO IS A CONTEMPORARY POET?
What does it mean to be a contemporary poet? It’s a trickier question than it seems, and not just because of the difficulty in defining poetry. In fact, the greater part of the difficulty may come in defining the nature of the contemporary.
I’m no stranger to arguments about the meaning of the term. In 2011, for example, the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith and I had a bit of a disagreement that, at root, was a disagreement about the meaning of the contemporary. He had said something about how writers who respond to their times will of necessity be innovative and relevant, and had pointed to those who engage the vast changes wrought by electronic communications as an example of this. I had objected, saying:
To dismiss all that writing by saying that people who are not engaged in a particular practice are not “relevant” or not “responding to their time”… is to argue that there is only one way to respond to our times — which is patently false. I mean, crawling into a cave and trying to write runic poetry on stones, if one did it now, would be a response to our times, since the imaginative rejection of the present moment is a very powerful and critical way of responding to that moment (think of all the Victorian medievalism of guys like William Morris: it was a radical response to the industrial moment).
Goldsmith was kind enough to respond, saying, a propos those poets who make an art out of the electronic appropriation of existing textual archives (often of great scale) that theirs is “the most relevant, contemporary, and engaged response” to our moment.
Our dispute was based on two different senses of the meaning of the contemporary. My own sense, which could charitably be described as expansive, and uncharitably described as ploddingly commonsensical, was that anything produced in our time was, by definition, contemporary. Our moment produces everything in it—and in poetic terms, that includes everything from traditional odes and sonnets to free verse lyrics to emulations of classical epic to surrealism to things that could have appeared in the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to the kind of textual appropriations Goldsmith admires, and much else besides. In the view I was espousing back in 2011, to elide any of that was to lie about our moment, to reduce something heterodox and complex to something much simpler. Goldsmith’s sense, which could charitably be described as precise, and uncharitably be described as narrow, was rather different. The category of the contemporary wasn’t a grab bag into which anything coming into being at the moment must be stuffed. It was more like a Platonic form, which could be approached with various degrees of perfection: some things were more contemporary than others, and at the time of his argument Goldsmith considered works of conceptual appropriation the “most… contemporary.” I inferred from this that what made one thing more contemporary than another, for Goldsmith, was the degree to which it engaged with the features of our moment that, in his estimate, set us apart from the past. A love sonnet might still be made, but it didn’t address what made our age different from Shakespeare’s age. But works that made use of, and depended on, the textual conditions created by new media were more contemporary that those that did not.
Neither my own definition nor Goldsmith’s seems adequate to me now. My definition was too breezily commonsensical, too free of any careful attempt to understand the meaning of the term. Goldsmith’s, too, left too much unexamined and unarticulated: indeed, I’ve had to infer a lot in order to make sense of it, and those inferences may or may not connect to what he had in mind, most of which he kept in his mind. So, in quest of something more refined than what either I, or Goldsmith offered, I’ve gone to Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher whose many works include the elegant little essay “What is the Contemporary?” If we follow his line of reasoning, we come up with something subtler than the blunt instruments Goldsmith and I had at our disposal.
There are five points to Agamben’s concept of the contemporary. He derives the first of them from Nietzsche–or, to be precise, from an observation Roland Barthes once made about Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations during a lecture at the Collège de France: “the contemporary,” said Barthes, “is the untimely.” In this view, to be contemporary is to be a little at out of phase with one’s own time. Nietzsche called his thinking “untimely” because, as he put it, it sought “to understand as an illness, a disability, and a defect” the kind of consciousness that his age took pride in. To share the general way of thinking of your time may seem like the most contemporary thing possible, but not for Nietzsche, and not for Agamben, who follows him. In Agamben’s view, “Those who are truly contemporary… are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.” It is their out-of-jointness with their moment that renders them “more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time.” Those who fit in with their times too easily simply lack the distance to see those times. They embody their moment, but cannot understand it—indeed, they probably feel no need to understand it, understanding being the fruit of alienation.
The second component of Agamben’s idea of contemporaneity has to do with the nature of the understanding that comes to those who are out-of-joint with their times. “The contemporary,” says Agamben, “is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.” This isn’t a matter of seeing only the evil or unpleasant side of the moment, or its injustices. The darkness is not so much ethical as epistemological: the truly contemporary person sees the time in which he or she lives not in its own terms, but in terms that reveal things about the time that those who live in it comfortably do not see. Agamben doesn’t provide an example, but we might think of Freud as a true contemporary thinker of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In an era that still thought in terms of progress, he was a great revealer of the primitive, the animalistic and the atavistic. Where others saw rational motives, he saw the irrational at work. His thinking seemed utterly counter-intuitive to many, and his notions of the eroticized family drama are still disconcerting to many. If, as Agamben says, “the contemporaries are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of a century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights,” Freud was surely one of them.
Knowledge is insufficient for true contempoaneity, though, or so Agamben asserts in the third moment of his thinking about the issue. For Agamben, the contemporary person (who, as you have no doubt noted, is quite rare) is in agreement with Marx when, in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” he maintained that interpreting the world is inadequate and said “the point is to change it.” In Agamben’s thinking, the contemporary “working within chronological time, urges, presses, and transforms it.”
The final two components of Agamben’s theory of the contemporary concern the connection of the present with other periods of time, especially the past. Firstly, the contemporary sees the living power of the past within the present:
Contemporariness inscribes itself in the present by marking it above all as archaic. Only he who perceives the indices and signatures of the archaic in the most modern and recent can be contemporary. ‘Archaic’ means close to the arkhé, that is to say, the origin. But the origin is not only situated in the chronological past: it is contemporary with historical becoming and does not cease to operate within it, just as the embryo continues to be active in the tissues of the mature organism, and the child in the psychic life of the adult.
In any given period, most people are unaware of the presence of the past in their everyday life: it is part of the darkness of their era, the darkness that only the true contemporary sees. This isn’t an obscure point, though it may sound like one. Almost no speakers of English, for example, give any thought to the fact that the words they speak are a living example of particular historical events. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 led to the domination of the Anglo-Saxons by a French speaking elite, and the language we speak was forged in that crucible of conquest, where French and Anglo-Saxon melted together, giving us the rich and redundant (Anglo-Saxon “underwater” and French-derived “submarine”) vocabulary we use. 1066 happens in every sentence spoken in English, it lives in every sentence, though the speakers of the language tend to have no notion of it whatsoever. And this lack of awareness, this darkness, means that most people don’t fully live vast portions of the things that live in them: that is, they don’t grasp, and never come into conscious contact with, the things that make them who they are. As Agamben puts it, “The present is nothing other than this unlived element in everything that is lived…. The attention to this ‘unlived’ is the life of the contemporary.”
Finally, Agamben tells us that the true contemporary, in seeing the dark or unlived parts of his or her time, doesn’t just work to change that time: the contemporary changes the nature of the past as well. St. Paul, says Agamben, was a contemporary, because he saw in the Old Testament prefigurations of the moment of Christ: Adam became something new, a figure for and even a promise of Christ. The capacity to re-see the entire past in relation to elements of the present that the majority do not see is of central importance to the contemporary: “the contemporary is not only the one who, perceiving the darkness of the present, grasps a light… he is also the one who, dividing and interpolating time, is capable of transforming it and putting it into relation with other times.” This needn’t be conscious: indeed, it ought not to be something one tries to do: for the true contemporary, it arises spontaneously, as “he is able to read history in unforeseen ways, to ‘cite it’ according to a necessity that does not arise in any way from his will, but from an exigency to which he cannot not respond.”
So a true contemporary is out of joint with the times, and this alienation gives a perspective from which he sees the time in ways the time does not see itself. He sees, in particular, the persistence of the past in the present, and wishes to change or modify the present in ways that also reconfigure how we feel about the past. It’s a tall order, and contemporaries are rare. I’ve mentioned Freud. Marx seems like another figure who lived his times as a true contemporary—discontented, seeing forces at play in the world that others could not see, seeing the persistence of the past in the social order and wishing it away, and providing us with a way of seeing that re-scripted all of history from a tale of battles and kings to a tale of economic forces, and all of this not chosen as an academic project but coming about as a result of over social injustices he could not abide.
But what about the question we started with? What about the contemporary poet? If we view the contemporary as Agamben does, we find ourselves looking for poets surprisingly similar to those described in T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” What, after all, is Agamben’s notion of the contemporary’s sense of the living nature of the archaic but an extrapolation, beyond poems, of Eliot’s assertion that “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously”? What is the conscious awareness of the often-darkened past than Eliot’s “historical sense,” which “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” and which compels the poet to write “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe” is present? And what is Agamben’s sense that the true contemporary reconfigues the past but Eliot’s notion that the monuments of the tradition “form an ideal order among themselves that is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them”?
An Agambenian contemporary poet, then, is much like an Eliotic one. Dante, surely, was a contemporary poet by this definition: aware of the presence of the classical past, deeply critical of his own era’s failings, writing with those things in his bones, and compelled to re-present the past as a mere prelude to the Christian order of the present (Dante’s Virgil, we must recall, was his necessary guide to the underworld, but was unable to enter the territory of the Paradiso).
If to be a contemporary were merely to be fashionable—to be up to date in terms of style and technique—then all one would need to do to be a contemporary poet would be to read “The Moves,” an essay outlining various elliptical and post-elliptical poetic techniques by Elissa Gabbert. But to be a contemporary poet in an Agambenian sense is altogether more demanding. One would have to know those poetic moves, but also see their limits, their historical genesis, and the reasons for their prominence, and to be dissatisfied with the state of affairs they represent. One would have to write with an animus toward those moves, and to draw on unexpected elements of the literary past in ways that make us reconceptualize our relation to that past. It’s easy to be a fashionable poet, but hardly any poets can be contemporary.
Seen from the perspective of Agamben’s theory, my old definition of the contemporary appears naïve, and Goldsmith’s is hardly any better, depending as it does on the poet’s engagement not with things about our time that most of us do not see, but with the most obvious manifestations of our time: new communications technologies. Goldsmith, though, has always been more interesting than his ideas. When, for example, he was invited to read poetry at the White House, he presented his own work Traffic—a verbatim transcription of New York traffic reports, including reports for travel over the Brooklyn Bridge—alongside poetry about that bridge by Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. In drawing his work into overt relation to a literary past, he took a step toward the kind of awareness of, and critical relation to, the past that was so important to Eliot, and is so important to Agamben. In short, he proved that he may become a contemporary poet yet—one of the few. But if he does, it will be despite his theory of contemporaneity, not because of it.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU‘s books include Laureates and Heretics, Home and Variations, and the recent The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World. He is the editor of Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, Letters of Blood and Other English Works of Göran Printz-Påhlson, and co-editor of The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing. He is professor of English at Lake Forest College and blogs at samizdatblog.blogspot.com
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