Poetics and agonism

H.L. Hix – Counterclaims: Poets and Poetries, Talking Back (Dalkey Archive) 

H.L. Hix is a Professor of Philosophy and Creative Writing at the University of Wyoming. He put this book together. He began by sending two well-known comments on poetry to lots of contemporary poets. The comments are Adorno’s ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ and Auden’s ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’

Adorno and Auden are both A names and so I secretly wonder if there’s a reader called something like Poets on Poetry which fell open at A, inspiring the whole project. We don’t find out and it doesn’t matter one bit.

The purpose is to begin another process beginning with ‘a’, namely agonism, which roughly means ‘to speak is to fight’, and Hix is inspired by Chantalle Mouffe’s book on agonism. The quotes are clearly pokes in the ribcage. First finger, second finger. Stab, jab.

The format is that Hix chooses something the poet has written before, there’s a floating bullet point and then the response to the quotes arrive.

There’s a lot of preamble about the structure of the book, about the demographics of the respondees and those who chose not to participate, and about Aspiration with a cap A and with a small a. I’m not too interested in all that, but I am very interested in Hix’s ‘Overture’ poem at the start of the book and in the responses themselves.

The Overture piece is incredibly powerful. ‘Meaning means form. Form means meaning’ it begins.

‘A poem’s closest sister need not be other poems.’ ‘Until we name past trauma, we are powerless to prevent future trauma.’ Feels very now. It is very now. The responses follow on from this overture.

Many of the responses do not mention the quotes and often do not seem to be responding to them at all. This does not matter one whit. The responses provide a directory of contemporary poets, many American, but not all, the great Robert Sheppard is included, for instance. Within that is a snapshot of poets talking about poetics. In this house of many mansions, each with many rooms, there are lots of feasts. This is a book for poets to live in. It now sits on my shelf next to Adrienne Rich’s Notebooks on Poetry and Politics ‘What Is Found There?’ The form works.

Here is my entry: Auden wrote his line in 1939 and Adorno in 1949, in exile. The two sentences bookend an incommensurable decade of horror across the world. It is not commented on, but it is all I seem to be able to think about.

Adorno’s ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ was revised later. But when Adorno revised his statement, in his last work, Negative Dialectics, he made it even more damning. He said that ‘it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems’, but it is ‘not wrong to raise the less cultural question’ of ‘whether after Auschwitz you can go on living…’

Poet Nelly Sachs proved Adorno wrong. She carried on living as she took in the knowledge of the camps, and she wrote poetry.

But she did not really write poetry directly about Auschwitz. She wrote poetry that is fused with the raw, livid, negative energy of the events. When I write poetry my aim, in my own very small way, is the same. But this book gives us thousands of other reasons why, making it an invaluable volume for the practicing poet. In fact all practicing poets of any seriousness.

Both Adorno’s excessive negation and Auden’s listlessness are overcome, often without mentioning them. But it is so much bigger. This book, actually, provides a structural underpinning for a poetical symphony on the state of human life in the early 21st century. If we began again with Hix’s brilliant ‘Overture’ and then remixed the statements that followed into poetry, we might have something like an Iliad for our times.

Alternately, you could just open it at random and be knocked for six out of your poetical complacency. Either way it’s a win-win purchase we think.

– Steve Hanson 

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