Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology,
Princeton University Press, 1999
280 pp., $55.00
It is now widely accepted, in these hard times for literary scholarship, that first, all valuable literary criticism and literary theory should have a political agenda, and that second, the strength of such an agenda is directly linked with a disavowal of the too-ancient vision of literature as a high-art practice (with its acme represented by poetry, more especially by lyric poetry, and still more specifically by that certain kind of confessional, slightly ironic, eminently self-reflective and most of all radically depoliticized and ahistorical poetry roundly promoted by the New Criticism, and now bred as an almost farcical cancer by creative writing programs all over the United States). In order to survive, one often reads, literary studies has to commit itself to new types of research, replace poetry by other, more democratic and more involved types of writing, substitute social praxis for formal analysis - in short become a branch of cultural studies.
Poetry at Stake both confirms and denies such a stance. It undoubtedly confirms the ongoing marriage of literary and cultural studies, but it does so in a dialectical manner: far from simply blurring boundaries, Noland brings together two conflicting disciplines so that their encounter produces a whole new set of - often very disturbing - interrogations. Noland's dialecticism is indeed strongly indebted to the type of dialectical thinking set forward by Theodor Adorno, and one of the strongest chapters of the book is dedicated to a very innovative reading of "Negative Dialectics."
At the same time, the major focus of the book remains strongly on the Medusa-head of today's literary teaching and learning: lyrical poetry. For Noland, this kind of poetry is not something that must be "protected" or "saved" as an endangered species (and which can only be done thanks to the newer insights of cultural studies). It remains on the contrary at the heart of the cultural system, but at a heart which should no longer be seen as an isolated reservation, splendidly cut from a "bad" outside, that is, from society, technology, low culture, history, or linguistic change. In fact, what Noland argues is less that our society still needs poetry, but that poetry has changed, and that the changes undergone are not a menace to but a promise for the future of lyricism. Although historical in its corpus, this book looks resolutely ahead as far as its spirit is concerned (it says also to poetry: "Trust yourself").
Such a thesis is per se not completely new. After all, one could say that a similar plea has been made for several years by authors such as Marjorie Perloff (cf. her path-breaking Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, Chicago, 1991), and Charles Bernstein (both in his work as an artist and as a scholar), whose convictions and analyses are now being echoed by a new generation of scholars (among them Christopher Beach, author of a book which has certainly influenced Noland's thinking: Poetic Culture, Northwestern, 1999). In a similar way, Noland's position also sympathizes strongly with the new current of literary and media studies which emphasize the productive role of technological change, from "traditional" 19th century changes (as illustrated in the works by Friedrich Kittler, among others) to postmodern, virtual ones (for a good survey, read the poetic and media threads of this journal).
At the same time Poetry at Stake has a totally new sound. The first reason is of course the emphasis put on the importance of Adorno's "negative dialectics" for the reexamination of the relationships between poetry and technology, or between poetry and the culture industry. Moreover, and this is also very refreshing and innovative, it proposes a reading of French poetry since Baudelaire which consistently and consequently analyzes the very meaning of Apollinaire's 1917 "L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes" ("Poets and the new spirit"). In this text Apollinaire suggested, on one level, that poetry should use the new media to increase its own communicative and expressive possibilities, and proposed, on another level, a breakdown of the boundaries between art and commodities, and between art and mechanical development. This "manifesto" has not really had an important posterity in France, both because its importance was narrowed to that of some Futurist Zeitgeist, and because its fashionable intuitions were considered incompatible with the fundamental characteristics of lyricism; i.e., of a way of writing where the subjective "I" can only be hindered and reduced by the presence of any exterior (be it social or technical) element whatsoever. Contemporary French criticism has never called into question that historic dismissal of Apollinaire's text, since the consensus on the basic definition of what lyric poetry is has never been really challenged: society and technology continue to be considered the radical "others" of lyricism, and poetry is still strongly defined in terms of resistance to the exterior world of commodities, technology, and capitalism.
What Noland shows is that the poetical facts are completely different, not only in the case of "industrial" writers, but even more in the case of those who are canonically placed in the centre of modernism and avant-garde [by the way: Poetry at Stake is also a vigorous and healthy reaffirmation of the importance and actuality of avant-garde writing, and here it can be seen as one of the studies which most eminently "export" the major conclusions of Andreas Huyssens's Beyond the Great Divide (Indiana, 1986) to areas outside the field of visual culture]. What Noland's book does is nothing less than a thorough and very convincing rewriting of the history of French poetry (and thus in a certain sense of continental culture in general). Not that she wants to introduce a new canon, or debunk the older one: the main authors studied here are Rimbaud, Cendrars, and Char. But she demonstrates to what extent all these authors have been doing, often with great enthusiasm, what the traditional canon and the classical vision of literature never wanted to see: they wrote poetry not against commodity culture and technology, but with them and for them. This strategy enabled them to radically transform, in some cases even to revolutionize, poetic language (and hence language and culture, which is no longer a hollow slogan, but the logical consequence of poetry eager to interact with society).
Mostly in the readings of Rimbaud and Char, the redefinition of the artists' work is very refreshing and new. Noland fruitfully highlights the role and place of publicity, both as a quoted material and as a literary strategy, in the later poems by Rimbaud (one of the seemingly inexpungable fortresses of high-literary 19th century modernism). And she conducts an interpretation of Char's hermeticism (the major example of "official" modernism in 20th century French poetry) as directly inspired by the radio-transmission of coded messages during WW II, which completely changes our conception of this "Heideggerian" poet.
Of course, Noland also revisits with great depth and critical balance some of the capital works underpinning the distinction of high and low culture, of poetry and pulp (here, much room is rightly made for Adorno, whose work is discussed with much sympathy and a great feeling for internal disparities). At the same time however, the integration of different fields and scopes never gives birth to a refusal of distinction itself. Poetry at Stake provocatively compares punk rock artist Patti Smith and Rimbaud, for instance, but not without also insisting on their differences, nor without forgetting formal and structural principles which make their very difference possible.
This well-balanced approach of a new vision of poetry and literary history, together with the innovative close readings of many famous pieces (Rimbaud's "Féérie," Cendrars' Sur la robe elle a un corps, Char's Feuillets d'Hypnos, among others) make Poetry at Stake an essential contribution to recent scholarship in modern poetry. It is one of the studies which will bring about a paradigmatical shift in literary studies, showing a way out of the sterile opposition between literary studies and cultural and media studies. One can only hope that books like this can help poetry to become once again what it should never have stopped being: something that matters.