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Digital Poetics #25 Writing for Freedom: Joe Luna

In September 2017, the California-based communist small press Commune Editions sent out a promotional email for a collection of poems in English by the Mexican poet and critic Heriberto Yépez[strikethrough].[1] Transnational Battle Field is represented in the mailout in the standardized diction of crackling enthusiasm: the book is “a Molotov cocktail of poetic critique,” “both a wake up call and a call out”; Yépez is “questioning notions of fluidity and synthesis,” and his work is “essential reading for those trying to figure out the role of culture in the revolutions to come.”[2] “About Me: In English,” the short poem included in the mailout, begins

I am possessed by the most powerful

Revolutionary force in the world today:

The Anti-American spirit.

But I am written and I write in English

I too sing America’s shit.

In a scatological regurgitation of Langston Hughes’s “I, too, sing America,” the poet channels a set of decolonial aporias. Yépez, who teaches at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Tijuana, speaks plainly in the poem. He is “a professor in the Third World,” for whom “Libraries in the North / Do not open their doors”; he is “colonized,” “inhabited by imperial feelings,” and “dream[s] of decolonizing / Myself and others,” though such a “dream” remains just that, fragmented oneiric fantasy, and “The images of the dream / Do not match up,” either with each other, or with reality. The final lines of the mailout’s poem, in a parting riposte to any exaggerated idealism of lyric transcendence, read:

Writing is counter

-insurgent. But the counter


Leaders want our body

Believing writing is freedom.

This is as far as my English goes.

Believing that writing is freedom is a luxurious folly that the poet refuses to commit. The entire short poem is constructed so as to present the political necessity of this refusal in the very marrow of the verse. It exhibits a social taxonomy of contemporary political contradiction by confessing its writer’s contradictory desires as starkly as possible: “possessed by the most powerful / Revolutionary force in the world today: / The Anti-American spirit,” the poet nevertheless “write[s] in English,” the language of the colonizer, and is “inhabited by imperial feelings” (though they are not enumerated); his “hopes” that these feelings, which are referred to in the next stanza as “wounds,” are also “weapons,” may well be snuffed out in the likely case that they reveal themselves to be the “undead / Scholarly jargon” he suspects them to be; as a professional academic, a “professor in the Third World,” he nevertheless experiences the racist academic and cultural censures on his intellectual horizons that First World global hegemony ensures, figured in the poem through the metaphorically closed doors of the “Libraries in the North.” On these terms, writing that mistakes itself (or is mistaken) for freedom cannot but be a naively idealistic accomplice to the gigantic power structures that ensure unfreedom is the given norm for any subject who protests its myriad social instantiations in any possible situation. The contradictions of emancipatory political desire—of being a worldly body that has emancipatory political desires—are real, and they exist, and the poem’s task is to explain them; or at least, to point them out. “This is as far as my English goes”: going further would not only traduce in scholarly jargon the material reality within which cultural objects like poems circulate, but would imply, falsely, that such material reality can somehow be evaded, undercut, or countermanded without there first coming to pass a fundamental transformation of that material reality—and hence of all the interconnected systems of oppression to which the poem makes reference—that keeps stuffing American shit down the throats of everyone in the Third World.

It is unclear from Yépez’s short poem exactly how or in what sense “Writing is counter / -insurgent.” In the context of a poem about decolonial struggle, one might expect writing to be potentially insurgent, not counterinsurgent, and to be an activity antipathetic to the state and its ruling authority, whereas “counterinsurgency” suggests the combined military and civilian efforts to quell such dissent. But Yépez writes: “Writing is counter / -insurgent. But the counter / -insurgency / Leaders want our body [...].” If writing is “counter- / insurgent” then it is neither straightforwardly insurgent or counterinsurgent, because its political character is to a certain extent determined by the ambiguity introduced at the line-break, an ambiguity that encourages us to reserve for “writing” a modicum of the universally antipathetic “counter-” when the line lands, with the thud of a deliberately bad punchline, on “insurgent.” We cannot hear “insurgent” without having read “counter-” beforehand; we cannot hear “counter-” without proceeding to read “insurgent.” We should hear in “counter- / insurgent,” I think, something of the poem’s chief motivating contradiction, something of its most ardent critique of postcolonial English: that we remain deeply attached to the notion that writing retains some measure of contrariness in its otherwise deeply counterinsurgent nature. Given all this, and given the roster of stark contradictions which the poem catalogues and which lead up to this point, the poem therefore insinuates that writing may only be considered as that which quiets and mollifies the material basis of such contradictions by speaking them—or risk having them spoken about—in the textual language constitutive of Western bourgeois critical enlightenment, and that in doing so writing effectively saps the activist energies that are required to struggle against bourgeois enlightenment and in the interests of a properly communist intelligence. The “Leaders” of the “counter - / insurgency,” who are by the logic of the verse the spokespeople for “writing,” collapse even the ambiguity introduced by Yépez’s versification into a devout misrecognition: that “writing is freedom.” Who these “Leaders” are is less important than what they do—they are defined by what they do—and what they do is this: intentionally or otherwise, they mistake the activity of writing for the freedom they desire, and in doing so they sacrifice the real needs of the global, especially Third World, population on the altar of their imaginary liberty. The line “This is as far as my English goes” refuses to mistake writing for freedom: nothing else is certain save this, the poem’s hopeful allyship, its immoveable center of political gravity. This line is followed, in a version of the poem published on the Commune Editions website, by the line: “I close my eyes and start to sing[.]” Commune Editions’ promotional communiqué frames Yépez’s poem in such a way that it alters its last line, accomplishing two things. It accentuates the intertextual relationship to Langston Hughes developed by the (pen)ultimate line’s echoing of Hughes’s “This is my page for English B,” from “Theme for English B.” And it strips from Yépez’s poem its indication of a return to the non-textual space of declarative orality in opposition to the colonial imposition of the hegemonic lingua franca. The redaction thus accentuates in the poem one form of postcolonial inheritance, and strips from it a certain kind of explicitly decolonial argument.

In order to understand the publisher’s blurb about “[e]ssential reading for those trying to figure out the role of culture in the revolutions to come,” we should ask what Yépez’s poem might teach us about such a role, by example or otherwise, and one thing that it certainly labors to communicate is that the role of cultural objects like poems should not be overestimated. The poem moves towards the “Leaders”’s fervently believed-in identity of writing and freedom in order to be skeptical about this identity. This in turn entails a number of further stipulations about the role of culture in the revolutions to come: that its power of allyship and inspiration be respected and taken seriously; that its linguistic “weapons” must nevertheless at all times be ready to acknowledge themselves as elitist “Scholarly jargon”; that writing is an individual endeavor unless or until it is a collective one; and that certain “Leaders” have a blind and practically mystical faith in the power of the written word to effect social transformation, a faith which in their capacity as leaders they desire to impart to others. Certainly, these indications would chime with the stated aims of Commune Editions, who write on their website that they “are curious about, but not overconfident regarding, the capacities of art,” and continue:

Poems are no replacement for concrete forms of political action. But poetry can be a companion to these activities, as the “Riot Dog” of Athens was a companion in [the] streets. A dog, too, might start barking when the cops are about to kick down your door. Perhaps that’s it, for now, what we’re doing, what is to be done, with poetry. Some barking. Some letting you know that the cops are at the door. They’ve been there for a while.[3]

Commune Editions’s statements conjure the figure of a poet (or publisher) who really believes that poems are a replacement for concrete forms of political action, and who therefore to some extent believes in what might be considered a second order of vanguardist abstract self-delusion, that writing is freedom. This (speculative) poet is an idiot who wallows in extraordinary self-delusion. He is probably also the kind of poet who considers himself, at the very least in secret, as a leader of some kind, and who employs his position of cultural privilege to tell other people what to think and do. Commune Editions nod to this poet in order to remind writers, by upbraiding and cajoling them, that if they see themselves in his glutinous image, their priorities are shonky. In this sense he is as real as they are: his image is their preference for the aesthetic over the street-political exaggerated to the level of principle. Exaggerated because no one really mistakes writing for freedom, just as no one really mistakes a crocodile for transcendentalism; though they might very well go on the permanent historical record saying comparably risible things like “poetry is related to poetry and not to socialism, communism, or anything else that tries to swallow it. It deals with reality,” or, from the other side of the sock drawer, “I am a literary communist.”[4] [5] Commune Editions, then, imply the figure of the speculatively idiotic poet—if we were inclined to follow certain miasmic historical trajectories of literary criticism, we might call him “The Romantic Poet”—in the service of an emphasis-by-contrast on the potentially (but not emphatically or essentially) useful role that poetry plays as a “companion to [political] activities.” Poetry is like a friendly dog that barks at the police. Thus the role of culture in the revolutions to come Commune Editions propose is one of cautious solidarity by satirical design, since the materialist insistence that cultural objects like poems really are helpful companions on the road to revolution is inevitably reflected on the horrified visage of the really existing poet for whom any relegation of the aesthetic in the face of the political is an unendurable insult to their own entrenched feeling of creative genius. The sentence: “It is important for Commune Editions that no one mistake writing for freedom” would at once describe but also somewhat traduce their position, since it would ascribe to poets and to readers—to the leaders of the counterinsurgency?—a naïve piece of intentional ignorance, when in reality the target of Commune Editions’s rhetoric is the imputed self-importance of poets, publishers, and readers who do not acknowledge, implicitly, in the style or content of their writing, the fundamental social importance of street-level political organizing and community building. Poets mistake writing for freedom when they think that writing poems contributes to the transformation of social relations instead of helping to get the message across.

The way in which Commune Editions insinuate their idiot bears a superficial resemblance to Keston Sutherland’s “radical anatomy of phantoms” in his Stupefaction (2011). Therein, Sutherland tracks certain histories of radical literary composition that exert the pressure of a “confrontational truth,” whose apogee and epitome, he argues, is Marx’s Das Kapital. The literary production of the stupefied “bourgeoisie” and vampiric “capitalist” in Marx is the stylistic definition of the truth of capitalist social relations, which is to say that in Marx’s account of capitalism, speculative constructions and really existing people are not entirely separable personages. In fact, they are the same thing:

The “bourgeoisie” in Das Kapital is not only a real, living class but also a satirical “speculative construction”; its existence as a “speculative construction” is incomprehensible except by the illumination of confrontational truth by satire. Speculative constructions, then […] are not excluded from social reality (even if social reality may be reduced to “presence”), for example, by “reassuring limits” in thinking, but they are a major, living part of social reality. Real individuals live out their lives as speculative constructions.[6]

For Sutherland, satire is “the literary basis of Marx’s dialectical materialist objectivity”: “[t]here are human beings who are phantoms as well as flesh,” and what the identification of this “fact” means for Marx, Sutherland argues, is “the definition of a social necessity, the destruction of capitalist relations of production and capitalist social relations.”[7] It is fair to say that Commune Editions believes in the same social necessity. But Sutherland’s and Commune Editions’s definitions of this necessity, and hence their respective versions of satire, are not finally compatible, even though they both make use of the idiot, and in some cases, the same idiot (i.e., the bourgeois poet). They are not compatible because they are underpinned by fundamentally different ideas about what reality is in the first place. Commune Editions does not flesh out their speculatively implied poet because their definition of a social necessity is the priority of street-level politics, not the “irrecusable disarticulation from social reality” that is “the truth of materialist dialectic” in Sutherland’s Marxist poetics.[8] The insinuated satire upon the “Romantic” poet by Commune Editions is not the endless and exorbitant insistence of a theory that is at odds with the world it describes. Partly because it is only implied in passing in communiqués and statements of intent, but also, and more importantly, because for Commune Editions the whole point of their publicly interventionist, satirical Romantic-baiting is to reckon with the very limits of what they believe literary discourse to be, so that in turn the work of actually transforming the world can continue to be struggled with in earnest. For every insistence that a Marxist poetics like Sutherland’s makes concerning the necessity for the production of confrontational truth by literary means, Commune Editions would reply that the real site of confrontation is the riot or the anti-fascist protest, not the poem or the monograph; for every “revolutionary account of the power of poetry” produced by Sutherland or anyone else, and especially for every airy or personal account of the generally transformative power of writing in and of itself, Commune Editions would reply (as indeed the editors have done in another context) that “we don’t think you transform the world by transforming literature, we think you [first] transform the world, and [then] literature comes with it.”[9] The lesson about the role of culture in the revolutions to come that Commune Editions teach is that unless culture is prepared finally to take a responsible back seat, it won’t have a role at all.

The kind of critical attitude that Commune Editions exude in their mailouts, blurbs, communiqués, and interventions is significant for the present moment in literary experimentalism because it illuminates a certain spirit of the age. For many poets, something that matters right now is the intense desire not to mistake writing for freedom, and to ensure that their audience know they have not done so. Freedom could mean the fundamental transformation of human social relations, or it could mean a few days off work; whatever it is, this work, the work the poem is doing right now in front of you, is emphatically not that work, which happens elsewhere. There are a great many varieties of this tone in contemporary English-language poetry. In the UK at the moment it usually hovers somewhere between whimsical despair and militant agitprop. The version of Yépez’s work sent round in the Commune Editions mailout, bookended as it is by the editorialized “last” line, “This is as far as my English goes,” provides an object lesson in the service of a more important one, the same lesson that Commune Editions teach when they perform a reflexive curiosity about the capacities of art in their other promotional material. The restoration of Yépez’s promotionally redacted line, “I close my eyes and start to sing,” rather complicates this lesson, because it begins to articulate a particular skepticism about the possibilities of decolonizing in the colonial tongue, on the colonial page; Commune Editions prefers an historical reprimand that begins and ends with a greater, more profound skepticism about aesthetic experience tout court. But who are the specific objects of the consequent insinuated reprimand? Whose poems are too big for their political boots? Who exactly is being satirized? Because zombified mainstream blog pieces about the “power” of poetry to change our worlds and transform our lives are surely under the radar of this kind of critique, they are not a likely candidate. Sutherland himself stands out as a probable object, with whom Commune Editions’s Joshua Clover had a lengthy exchange on The Claudius App. online poetry magazine some years ago, which is now (along with the rest of the journal) unfortunately unavailable.[10] Sutherland is probably a target precisely because his poetical work takes up a challenge diametrically opposed to the ambience of cautious solidarity, which is the ineradicable insistence on the conceptual labor of the subject and the imperative to drive into intense experience ever more fundamentally confrontational social truths. In his collection The Odes to TL61P (2013) one such truth might be indicated by the argument-through-accumulation that the sum of all sexual pathologies is the erotic law of bourgeois universalism.[11] The way that this argument is made in the poem is inseparable from the argument itself, because the very accumulation of the pathologies—catalogued and explained by definition as they are in the poem’s metrical prose—that leads progressively to the statement of the universal “law” also ventriloquizes the historical conditions of their social reality; namely, the accumulation of values intrinsic to the law of capital. The disarticulation of every sexual pathology in the poem does not labor to argue that, for instance, paedophilia is simply a “bourgeois” disorder and that getting rid of capitalism would get rid of exploitation. It argues that, in this world, the science of sexual pathology grows ever more atomized as the objects of that science are considered ever more rooted in their perversions. It argues that accumulation forms a part of social reality and is not just something that happens to it, and it argues that history as the accumulation of values is the law by which human development as a subject (sexual or otherwise) comes to be understood and accepted. The specific forms of organized exploitation that capitalism is really good at, like wage labor, are undergirded by tranches of historical exploitation that gnarl the subject into the symbol of a perversion. This is a social fact for The Odes, and one that necessitates the destruction of capital as much as Sutherland’s reading of Marx’s satire does, but it also produces the illumination of social truth by the formalized instrumentation of versified language, and in doing so brings to light the capacity of the subject to struggle through its own conditions of reproduction to a critical relationship with the same.

Poetry like Sutherland’s, very broadly speaking, risks attracting the accusation that it produces an entitled expression of unfreedom, the star of which is the poet who wrote it, and who is therefore, to some degree or other, exempt from the suffering that he eloquently describes. The accusation might continue that, furthermore, the poet’s efforts to illuminate social contradiction through the technique of lyric perseverance end up exchanging the subject’s liberation from the manacles of history for the suffering of others, which provides its content and material. In other words, for the reader determined not to mistake writing for freedom—or to condemn such misrecognition where they find it—what emerges from a poem like The Odes to TL61P is the battered but victorious champion of self-centered literary style. This is a common suspicion about lyric poets, radical or otherwise, and one levelled against the poetries of their contemporaries by poets and critics who employ the leverage of an accusation of abstract solipsism (not the fully-fledged philosophical variety) in order to critique a purported meagre attention to social reality, or the paucity of revolutionary clout. It is a criticism with a long historical pedigree, a broad church of accusers, and can come from either side of an argument about practically anything; it can descend from liberal frustration with radical cliquery as much as it can erupt in fiery denunciation from revolutionary bolshevism. Douglas Oliver, one of the most ambitious poets of the twentieth-century, in whose poems of the 1970s and 1980s the desire for the possibility of a political universalism beyond the scope of contemporary political discourse is worked through with passionate acuity, wrote to his friend, the poet Peter Riley, on New Year’s Eve, 1970:

You take the current English or American poet. You know damn well that stupidity is there but it never appears in a text that is, in every one of its stages, clever. Meanwhile, what are all these ellipses, these slick jump-cuts between image and image, thought and thought? […] Behind the ellipses skulks an area of personality the poet never puts into his poem […]. So why are all the left-wing poets intellectual snobs? Why are their structures so carefully cemented so that no one should see through the gaps? Why are they so concerned to tell other people exactly how it is? Why are they the heroes of their own poems all the time?[12]

The refusal to admit into our everyday lives what Oliver called “stupidity” was a moral failing of the left in general, but “left-wing poets” receive his greatest disapprobation for what he takes to be the highfalutin intransigence of their intellectual privacy. Oliver’s suspicion is that these poets are too proud, too mighty, and too insulated from the man on the street to simply admit that they are the same as everybody else. Earlier in the century, a more foundational (and more radical) critique of individualism in poetry can be found in Trotsky’s diatribes against pre-revolutionary Russian writers, but also against one of the most famous literary champions of the revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Trotsky’s criticisms of the “Russian subjectivists” like Andrei Bely that seem most relevant to the issue at hand consist in the straightforward denunciation of mystical solipsism; Bely “believes in the magic of words,” and is “always occupied with himself, narrating about himself, walking around himself, sniffing himself, and licking himself…”[13] He furthermore

wishes to replace the whole world with himself, to build everything from himself and through himself, to discover everything anew in himself—but his works, with all their different artistic values, invariably represent a poetic or spiritualist sublimation of the old customs.[14]

This is not quite (or not only) hyperbolic lampoon. First, because Bely did actually believe in what he called, in a 1909 essay, “Magija Slov” (“The Magic of Words”), and wrote that “[i]f words did not exist, the world would not exist […] ‘I’ and the ‘world’ arise only in the process of combining them in sound.”[15] Second, because Trotsky’s criticism is also an astute reading of the psychology of class reaction, as is clear from the thrust of his wider argument:

The idealists and their almost deaf and blind disciples, the Russian subjectivists, thought that mind and critical reason moved the world, or, in other words, that the intelligentsia directed progress. As a matter of fact, all through history, mind limps after reality. Nor does the reactionary stupidity of the professional intelligentsia need to be proven now after our experience of the Russian Revolution. The working of this law can also be seen clearly in the field of art. The traditional identification of poet and prophet is acceptable only in the sense that the poet is about as slow in reflecting his epoch as the prophet. If there are prophets and poets who can be said to have been “ahead of their time,” it is because they have expressed certain demands of social evolution not quite as slowly as the rest of their kind.[16]

Trotsky’s criticism of Mayakovsky, meanwhile, urges a coherence of lyric figure and revolutionary object, part of his criticism of the Futurists to the effect that they struggle, and eventually fail, to mesh their giant egos with the collectivity of post-revolutionary social needs. In Mayakovsky’s great poems, “[t]he parts refuse to obey the whole. Each part tries to be separate. It develops its own dynamics, without considering the welfare of the whole,” and his verse has in this sense “lost the measure of the salon, [but] not yet found the measure of the street.”[17] Trotsky’s maxim that a “sense of measure in art is the same as having a sense of realism in politics” underlines his criticism of Bely and Mayakovsky alike: however well-intentioned (Bely, despite being stupider and worse, enthusiastically supported the revolution), both poets drag behind them in their poems remnants of the old order, Bely in his mystical sublimations of naïve bourgeois idealism, Mayakovsky in his “racy” Bohemian shouting about kisses from the rooftops of Mayakovskygrad.[18]

Oliver’s and Trotsky’s criticisms help to illuminate the present state of feeling about writing and freedom on the left, in which the desire not to mistake the one for the other operates as a kind of atmospheric indication of whether or not, in Trotsky’s words, “The poet is too much in evidence.”[19] Oliver’s because it lays bare a frustration with the arrogance of poets who seem to believe that they are important enough not to have to explain themselves, which is the kind of thing still routinely levelled at anything more complex than The Internationale, and Trotsky’s (more persuasively) because it locates the appropriate lyric presence in direct proportion to the social needs of the historical moment. “The individualistic and Bohemian arrogance—in contrast, not to humility, which no one wants, but to a necessary sense of the measure of things” is what detracts from the brilliance of Mayakovsky’s talent.[20] When Trotsky wrote his critique, the production of “a necessary sense of the measure of things” faced the extraordinary task of measuring the revolution and subsequent civil war, and (for Trotsky, at least) understanding that the movement of history that had been set in motion by revolution and war necessitated “doing away forever with class culture [so as] to make way for human culture.”[21] The value of the current anxiety about the place of poetry in a hierarchy of social imperatives is that it seeks a necessary sense of the measure of things today by raising to the level of concentrated discourse the question of what poetry is for on the left. This question would not have meant very much to Trotsky, since on his terms as long as poetry was, in the final reckoning, for the revolution, as far as he was concerned it could—and, in fact, must be encouraged to be, for anything else besides. But perhaps a more fundamental problem with this question in our historical moment is that it figures its object of inquiry in such a way as to ensure that conscious or unconscious misrecognition is understood simply as the result of a failure of perception and a paucity of active solidarity, rather than an intrinsic and unavoidable condition of living under capitalism. To claim to ensure that poetry does not over-step its role as the guard dog of the revolution is to claim that capitalist social relations must be overcome before literature can represent the freedom that such an overcoming would entail. But in the kind of capitalist social relations that include and surround us, all sorts of things are already mistaken for the freedom that they only promise, because such things really do confer a vestige of the freedom they pretend to—things like sex, and dancing, and Mahler, and pop, and loving camaraderie—and the necessity of describing this social fact demands that it be spoken. The collectivism of cautious solidarity itself mistakes a toothless base/super-structuralism for historical materialism. It is, moreover, a persistent and compelling feature of the best poetry written in English over the last decade that it involve, perform, or even fully embrace mistaking writing for freedom, partly in exactly the ways in which the contemporary distrust of poetry in the cultural-material hierarchy would identify (the indulgence of gratuitous lyric spleen or persuasion, the coining of fresh worlds of labyrinthine ironic phantasy, the stupefied confessions of erotic love) but also in innumerable other ways too. Good poetry mistakes writing for freedom, whether some of the time or all of the time, because by doing so it makes available to aesthetic experience that which is mistaken for life and which is really lived as such, whether in anguish or in joy or anything in between, and not solely that which indicates the necessity to fashion a world in which living death is not a systematic priority. This is to argue something slightly more than that, by contrast, bad poetry only tells us how shitty the world is and behooves us to do something about it, though it is certainly to argue that. It is to suggest that poetry which does this—which tells you exactly how it is—is not really poetry at all, but only lip-service to a lackluster tradition that still just about commands enough respect to be able to tell people where else to care. Writing that has decided, once and for all, that aesthetic experience is a fanciful supplement to transforming the world, is nothing more than policy without governance; it is legislation waiting for acknowledgement, instead of exercising its singular powers of critical imagination with the leverage of the unacknowledged.

What are the preconditions for the general tone that I have sketched here? Why has the question of poetry’s function on the left become so pervasive? Where has it come from? Perhaps an historical moment in which, whilst local and community-led political organizing and activism such as the Oakland Commune continue to build incredibly productive scenes of resistance, the world picture into which they fit has become ever more obscurely mangled. We live in a moment in which immiseration, destitution, and displacement are represented in incredibly high resolution on every imaginable surface, whilst the larger political and economic forces shaping life at large remain as indistinct to most of us as they were to the Medieval peasantry. It makes a certain kind of sense in this moment to know that certain orders to the armies of the arts can make a stab at holding this particular fort. Yépez’s poem is defiantly unexciting because it distrusts as a point of contemporary avant-garde principle the auratic thrill-seeking of the historical avant-garde, whose quest to demystify and illuminate seems so much bourgeois-ideological fairy dust in the face of the latest midnight ICE raid; given that everybody can read about the hellish treatment meted out to migrants the world over, and knows full-well (for example) how much more of a valuable export than Syrian flesh is Hungarian razor-wire, the simple repetition of what hell is and where to find it becomes in poems like Yépez’s another indictment—and there can never be enough—of the liberal delusion about historical progress that Benjamin referred to, in the Theses on the Philosophy of History, as “amazement.”[22] To hold on to the knowledge of what poetry is for in our times, one could argue, provides both inoculation against amazement, and an enabling organizational focus in the midst of existing practical struggles, struggles for which the accurate recognition of the means and ends of political activism is paramount. Poetry readings are increasingly popular on university picket lines in the UK for the same reason: they provide a focus of attention and emotional companionship that is also a temporary break from the dreary work of being sneered at by student Tories, and thus they provide an a priori united front which includes the added bonus that poets can feel better about being there since they can prove their particular use-value in their own special way. It is not a question, therefore, of deciding whether the current trend for identifying, implicitly or explicitly, what poetry is for as part of a leftist program is defensively despairing or militantly avant-garde, because in the terms that I am suggesting here the contemporary avant-garde operates a program of aesthetic despair as a large part of its claim to political militancy, and that in so doing it misrecognizes the phenomenology of capitalist object relations for something like an ontology of misrecognition. The question is rather whether the despair of poets and presses that feel historically condemned to confess their practical uselessness is a good enough despair, a despair that does enough human work, in the fibrous coursing tissue of line and verse, to push through the hell we must be conscious of to something—anything—beyond the newsy consciousness of hell.

J. H. Prynne, a poet both disgusted and enchanted by the news flash grease trap of multifarious despair, wrote in 1989 his own corrective to misrecognition that offers a potential purchase on our current predicament. It takes the form of a letter to the Canadian poet Steve McCaffery about the latter’s performance of priorities in the poem as open text, a position which Prynne took to emanate from the mistaken belief on McCaffery’s part that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry proposes a model of resistance to—and liberation from—the apportioned social function and fetish-character of cultural objects by the active incursion of a reader discerning enough to regulate their consumption of signifiers:

Isn’t it the classic freedom to eat cake, to diversify an assumed leisure and to choose out of a diversity which is precisely the commodity-spectacle of a predisposed array, clearwrapped in unitised portion control? […] the cosmetics of choice become the most dangerous elements: they destroy vigilance and all sense of an interconnected general good by seeming to provide a rewarding increase in benefits for those defined as deserving (earning) (acquiring) them.[23]

Here, the implied historical contradiction is the exponentially diversifying freedom to choose in a world inescapably reproduced by the choices from which we cannot exempt ourselves; Prynne goes on to gloss the conditions of what he takes to be the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E position as such:

What a few individuals do doesn’t matter, because they are statistically insignificant: that seems to underwrite the freedom to be left alone with one’s anomalous behavior. But if the reader isn’t to be harmlessly marginalised, but to have some power of indirectly altered return to the pressure of social experience upon the sign system mediating its interpretations, then for reading “not to matter” is for a tacit reading-frame to trash out the whole event.[24]

Out of which comes the most important line of the letter, referring tacitly (and no doubt doing a certain amount of trashing in the process) to the whole program of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics:

The mandatory liberation then is the liberal’s mandate, and it de-activates the radical irony which I believe is a fundamental task of any skeptical reader, not to cruise and choose without also knowing what you are set up to do, checking the price-tag as you tremble with leveraged completion.[25]

What Prynne believes is also indicated by the homophobia inherent in his deliberate use of “cruise”—in 1989, no less—as a saccharine synonym for window-shopping, in what amounts to a conflation of queer sex practices with effeminate inattention in a rhyme clearly designed to rankle with acidic stupidity. The nasty machismo here is not mitigated by Prynne’s insistence, in effect throughout his writing, on the foundational violence of social life that it is nigh-on murderous to refuse to acknowledge; indeed, the throwaway sneer scuppers his version of this very critique by simply reinstating one of its most murderously violent tenets: that queerness is a liberal delusion.

Despite its underhanded Juvenalian stylings, Prynne’s critique of the misrecognition of writing (that encourages the denaturalization of social signs) for freedom (from complicity in the more fundamental circus of value in which the signs trade) in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets is not quite satire, at least, not in the same vein as the current trends outlined above, but rather a denunciation of a specific set of claims made on behalf of a variety of different texts (some of which, Prynne points out, are unstable enough to break through the stultifying theoretical nets thrown over them). It is a more toxic warning to its addressee(s) than any admonition comparable to it made today, even if by the standards of the 1980s it hardly sinks to the rotten depths of an Ed Dorn, let alone a Bernard Manning. It also provides an account of the misrecognition that it criticizes in McCaffery and Co. that offers by corollary an important contribution to thinking about writing and freedom. To claim we can destabilize thought-control and reality-control through dismantling language-control, as Prynne took the more fanciful shout-outs of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E crew to mean, is to ignore the reader’s considerable investment in the history of the language that they are bound to use and think with upon contact with any given poem, by McCaffery or anyone else; “mandatory liberation” from worldly semiotic praxis “de-activates […] radical irony” because it presumes to extravasate language from the body politic the better to deconstruct it, whereas for Prynne, still trading in a little Heideggerian stock, since language is itself an historical agent of contradiction, writing should recognize

certain ironic reversals installed within a contaminated language as socially the idiomatic instrument of routine appropriation; and if the activity of diagnosis were not to be referred to some authorising subject-position then the potential for its disclosure would need to be instigated where I myself indeed consider it to be located: within the ironic self-contradictions of the language process, historically and currently experienced, its implicit dialectic as an entrepôt of exploit and manoeuvre.[26]

Language is “contaminated” and “the idiomatic instrument of routine appropriation”; what language speaks must be heard—and here is the singularly weird point of tactical convergence of Prynne, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Kenneth Goldsmith, and any number of fearless pdf neo-conceptualists—beyond and apart from the taint of “some authorizing subject-position,” so recklessly personal and squishy. Prynne’s disdain for subjectivity notwithstanding, his critique nevertheless requires that the reader experience “some power of indirectly altered return to the pressure of social experience upon the sign system mediating its interpretations,” albeit “located […] within the ironic self-contradictions of the language process,” the “implicit dialectic” of language as the “entrepôt of exploit and manoeuvre” that is words in peoples’ mouths. Now, Prynne’s 1989 censure of what he takes to be McCaffery’s misrecognition of the social experience of language is comparable with the recent imperative not to mistake writing for freedom (and variations thereon), because they both demand fidelity to the political priority of something defined as essentially apart from (because deeper and more foundational than) the aesthetic experience of literary art: for Commune Editions and their allies, it is the street; for Prynne, it is the dialectic.[27] Both are a poetics of radical aesthetic despair in the militant service of what each believes to be the really fundamental motor of historical transformation. But unlike a poetics that directs the reader endlessly away from the object of contemplation and towards the object of transformation, a poetics that maintains a recursive insistence on the reader’s “indirectly altered return to the pressure of social experience” at least encourages the transformation of contemplation into history, however inadequately subjective. The “radical irony [which is] a fundamental task of any sceptical reader” for Prynne must involve the conscious interpolation of a certain kind of unfreedom (interpretative decisions made within a necessarily limited matrix of choice) with the negative image of real freedom (from the matrix itself) in a reading experience that frontloads the sedimentation of linguistic-historical inheritance in acknowledgement that all of this is what we are “set up to do”; for Prynne this whole process constitutes proper historical truthfulness, the kind of thing required by any responsible poetics of confrontation. Yet the “return to the pressure of social experience,” a return that is for Prynne of second-order importance compared with the “implicit dialectic” that directs it, provides a small but significant caveat to the whole diatribe, one which neatly characterizes the experience of knowledge and pleasure that a poem might confer: you come out differently to how you went in.

If we care that poetry can do more for the left than restate with line breaks the basic tenets of an anti-capitalism in the Age of Bannon, then poetry’s negative powers need to be insisted upon and championed despite and beyond the occasional saccharine broadsheet encomium to the power of poetry. One of these negative powers is the capacity to return us, from the isolation of contemplative reading, to the feeling of being incontrovertibly social, through the experience of knowledge and pleasure that a poem makes concrete in the time of its reading. It is a negative power because it cancels a certain kind of relation to the world—that of quantifiable material or economic efficacy—in the truthful acknowledgement of the impotency of culture truly to represent the world we don’t yet have, instead of the world of compulsory exploitation (and unavoidable misrecognition) that we do. Poetry that reviles and shirks this kind of power because it does not believe in the useful experience of knowledge or pleasure outside the remit of practical action risks impoverishing the very activism it supports by supposing that poetry’s raison d’être stops at stylishly repeating easily disseminated political principles in the form of relatively obscure sixteen-dollar chapbooks. But poetry that embraces and exhibits this kind of power might offer an experience in the fullness of companionship with life made unlivable in its entirety, an experience that alters, even ever so slightly, what that life and those around it might possibly offer or encounter. “If a symbol is a concentrated image,” wrote Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution,

then a revolution is the master-builder of symbols, for it presents all phenomena and all relations in concentrated form. The trouble is that the symbolism of a revolution is too grandiose; it fits in badly with the creative work of individuals. For this reason artistic reproductions of the greatest mass dramas of humanity are so poor.[28]

The trouble with poetry that is quick to grasp the greatest mass dramas of contemporary humanity because the historical necessity for their exposition has reached a point of absolute determination of the laws of representation, is that it tends to reproduce these dramas in precisely the same terms already given to history by the very necessity that compels writing poetry. This is all well and good for anyone who does not believe it possible, or desirable, for radical literary culture to offer anything in the way of an original take on our present situation. And yet it is worth considering the extent to which the interpretation of poetry is closed off from poetry’s own most innervating energies of psychological and social description by the encouragement not to mistake the labor of composition for anything other than a series of takes. Here is a reductive but hopefully useful couple of definitions of current committed poetic modes: the carefully regulated contemporary lyric ensures its message is delivered by the appropriately sanctioned indication of a subject, whose gloss on events can never—indeed, by its own internal logic should never—detract from its fidelity to really existing reality. The contemporary unregulated lyric, by contrast, which maintains a deliberate capacity to mistake writing (or anything else) for freedom as internally consistent with the affective dehiscence of lived experience, performs the gratuitous, the stupefied, and the lovely, as part of the mistaken real that is ours by proxy and by definition. And whilst the two are not mutually exclusive, since their modes and methods of composition are never anything like as distinct as their speculative definitions given here, they nevertheless might offer potentially helpful categories for taking the measure of our scene. Certainly, no one wants humility.

The poems I close by exhibiting do not so much exemplify the suggestive category of unregulated lyric as exhibit some of this lyric’s possible modi operandi. Here is the first, from Lisa Jeschke’s The Anthology of Poems by Drunk Women (2018):

Ehe für alle

For Gizem and David

Oi! Congratulations! Back then, when we were still alive, like now,

On this soap bubble, bleached soap bubble, bleached crumbling

Soap bubble, bleached crumbling cracking soap bubble,

When we were floating separate on sharp silver miniature disks in this

Hell, and were nearing despairing, when we found ourselves on these

Shiny silvery floating disks, which featured various features,

Back then, when we were violent witnesses, and when we were

Always out in the open, spinning exhibit pieces and things,

Back then the man with the axe, he called himself Boss, and

We too called him Boss, who spoke often of life and sighed, moved

To tears by his own words, by bio-life and its laws,

Back then, when that Boss routinely

Cracked open our skulls, like nuts, took out the worms

Pulled them tight across the universal

Arc, left them for blazing immediate sun-drying,

High-quality fibre that formed the mini disk linen we were on,

So that we were what we were on, spinning silver,

And when in spite or because of these occurrences

The Boss wouldn’t stop speaking of life and nature,

And wouldn’t stop crying, move by his profundity,

Then we knew the nature of life had always been dubious,

Chainsaw-massac’ring dubious, and if we were to

Be hunted like monsters, we had to turn monstrous first,

Turn monstrous first, be more law than the law,

Cut open our chests before he could,

Cut them open according to law,

Cut open our chests, lock our hearts together in

Plastic durable formable chains, glue together

Our lymph nodes, and did we only

Lock our hearts together? No, we glued also heart to liver, tenderly

Stroking one another, and cheeks to knees, and straw of

Hair to teeth, and dead animals were glued

To thighs, and tongues to the living,


And wings to sour jelly chips, and lick naked breasts to

Chairs, and diagrams of weather forecasts to

Why are you sat on her I like it, and health insurance cards to ears,

And we deformed part shapes stood there, dangle.[29]

Here is the second, from Verity Spott’s The Mutiny Aboard the RV Felicity (2017):


Now skim the shock of sky that split without

us, sinking through the plaiting of the reids:

You slept, and whispered all your silence out,

the shoreline sang out threats in choking heaves.

The houses, polder fizzing in the ear.

What’s that? It snaps your cheek; a little rain?

Behind a shock of teaming buddleia

the face that switched my heart back on again.

The choice, to wince or lean into the gale

disclosing faces traumatized by rote

our unclaimed lives that rocked and broke in trails

the subtlest loss at edge of eye, remote:

To build an oath or crush this tiny snare

make rendezvous in all our hearts, laid bare.[30]

Neither of these poems looks particularly “unregulated” on the page; both eschew the more fractal iterations of modernist performative text-distribution in favor of what could justifiably be called undead forms: the first, dedicated to Jeschke’s friends the poets Gizem Okulu and David Grundy upon the occasion of their marriage, is to all intents and purposes an epithalamion; the second is that most groan-inducing of clapped-out curios, a sonnet. It has long been common practice for poets to use traditional formal arrangements and twist them to new purposes, with varying degrees of success, but in each of these cases the form is not so much torqued into contemporaneity by a master craftsman as collapsed onto the present like the deadweight of a body washed ashore. The epithalamion is built on wave after wave of bathetic, lumpen nostalgia, extruded through a comedy of grammatical irregularity. What is initiated in a celebration of union (“Congratulations!”) swiftly becomes derailed by the poem’s own narrative and imagistic digressions about wage labor and employment (“Back then, when that Boss routinely / Cracked open our skulls”) until the digressions become the very body of the poem; its final third revisits the form’s traditional sexuality, first in a suicide pact of surgical gore (“we glued also heart to liver, tenderly”), then briefly in a further atomized collection of conjoined objects, before culminating in a pathetic expression of pathos barely able to summon the energy for a performative sign-off: “And we deformed part shapes stood there, dangle.” By the standards of some of Verity Spott’s more severely damaged and damaging poetry, her sonnet is in some respects remarkably restrained. Precisely in this restraint lies the poem’s desperate awkwardness. It is a kind of bastardized historical mutation, its imitation of Shakespearean rhyme (throughout) and self-regarding Petrarchan volta (“The choice,” at the ninth line) too fastidious to be earnest, its jilted iambics too laboriously synthetic to be real. The poem laments the peace from suffering that is not a possibility for the scene it sketches; the cloacal rhymes absorb and then evacuate the metrical momentum of the preceding lines as if to quietly diffuse any chance of succor or relief they might suggest; the sonnet, in this sense, sinks into itself. The final couplet reiterates the double-bind of the volta’s “choice”: “to wince or lean into the gale” becomes “[t]o build an oath or crush this tiny snare / make rendezvous in all our hearts, laid bare,” such that no indication is given as to the nature of any connection, agential or otherwise, between the iteration of choice and the imperative of naked universalism with which the poem shuts. Both poems feel crushed and living at the same time, and they achieve this feeling through a combination of syntactical parasitism and holistic sabotage. Both poems animate their forms wrongly; they wear their forms like someone else’s skin.

What is going on in these poems cannot quite be covered by the term “irony,” or even “radical irony,” though that is certainly an aspect of their intrinsic incongruity. It would be ironic if the poems only paid lip service to their respective inherited models whilst consciously perforating them with content that eschewed or undermined the models’ formal tendencies. But Jeschke’s and Spott’s poems do more than this, or rather, they do something slightly to the side of this, which is to act as if the love they speak can allay the forces of destruction through which they sound. The love that each poem speaks can be heard across the erotic half-life of their entire bodies, in the manner of their formal models: Jeschke’s trivalently (her speaker speaks to the two loving addressees lovingly) and Spott’s directly (her speaker loves), and is concentrated in each case in lines that bleed with the urgency of unkempt desire; in Jeschke’s case, the blurted “AND IF IT WASN’T YOU THERE WOULD BE NOTHING,” and in Spott’s case the last line of the octet, which is the closest the poem gets to naming its loved object: “the face that switched my heart back on again.” Neither poem would exist without the respective organizing fantasies of which these lines are the most direct and explicit indication, fantasies of desperate longing congealed by a singular focus of redemptive passion. A passion that is, in turn, powerless before the grim work of historical, emotional, and economic accounting undertaken by their haunted forms. The anguished, artificial exaggeration of a line like “AND IF IT WASN’T YOU THERE WOULD BE NOTHING” is the culmination of a poem that believes its own painfully sarcastic fiction of demystification right up until the point at which the subject of belief is a “deformed part [shape]” without even a dramatical body to pretend in; the anonymous “face that switched my heart back on again” fades into the faceless collocation of “all our hearts” lined up for sacrificial martyrdom. By arranging their economies of intimate social relation on the scaffold of reanimated art, part of what these poems involve is the deliberate misrecognition of writing (formal compositional choices made in the clarity of affective insinuation) for freedom (the direct and uninhibited reception of the results of these decisions as the fantasy of complete and unified connection), in order to produce in poetry a subject capable of relation that survives among its hollowed out remains. Freedom is smeared across each of these poems like grease across a mirror. You can see it, every time you try to wipe it off.

It may be that the production of subjects capable of relation is far too despairing an ambition for some, far too idealistically naïve for others. Why languish in such dour intoxication with brokenness when exactly this kind of depressive position saps our spirit from the fight to be had? Why not stick to the channels of companionship and aid that offer resistance where we can see it, instead of in the corridors of privileged indecision and philosophical ambivalence traversed by well-meaning, totally amazed intellectuals? Both of these criticisms could potentially undercut the poems’ use-value, and both would destabilize any sense in which they manage to adequately take the measure of things today. This is something the poems risk from the moment they identify with themselves incompletely, as works that inhabit a set of formal propensities in order to draw from these forms the blood they transfuse into a life on the edge of abolition. There is nothing in either Jeschke’s or Spott’s poem that could be excerpted to serve as a slogan around which antagonistic, localized social coherence could be emboldened or inspired. They are not even particularly sociable poems; they are not interested in making friends out of their readers, or even, really, forming appreciable arguments or theories about the present state of things, as by contrast Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P certainly is. In some ways they are defiantly inward-looking poems for which privation is the caustic precondition of externally enforced and lonely privacy, and in which ever-present, utterly meaningless, organized suffering either bullishly stomps over (Jeschke) or murderously sneaks into (Spott) the most ardently sequestered psychic recesses of daily life. They are, perhaps, shoegazingly self-regarding in just the sense excoriated by Trotsky when he feels that the poet is too much with us. And yet these poems nevertheless sit there on the page, in flagrant contravention of their most upsetting content, and say if it wasn’t you there would be nothing. When we are witnesses to strangers, friends, and comrades crushed and immiserated by the piss and shit of economic necessity that resembles life in its present form, and when we see them dispatched, if they are lucky, to the outskirts of the dying social appendages of the state to be nursed back into a condition in which they can be made useful again, on however miniscule a scale, to the organs of capital; when we sift through the contemporary psychological implausibility of a life unscathed by the severest traumas and distresses, or even just by the average common-or-garden traumas and distresses, and consider the catastrophic affective residues of these conditions across the communities we inhabit; when we are in need of a social being that is founded on something more finally thorough-going than the common sympathy expressed through mute, disgusted comedowns from the narcissistic, wild excesses of self-negation the night before; when we think about all this stuff, is it conceivable that the poetic culture that we should most cherish and attend to is one that radiates a sympathetic intelligence about the stultifying difficulties of active solidarity, one that writes for the freedom that it has to grasp, and hold on to, by accident or emergency, that ingrains the urgency of commonality into the torn-up fibres of a less-than common language? What kind of production do we envisage from the revolutionary energies of our manifestly de-revolutionized historical moment? What can political radicalism do for the poetry that feeds its most potent effigies of thoughtful commitment? What is the role of activism in the poetry to come?



[1] Earlier versions of this essay first appeared in Scaffold magazine and in a chapbook from Glyph Press. My thanks to the editors. Yépez’s name appears in print with a strikethrough, which the current platform does not support but which is intended throughout.

[2] Commune Editions, ‘a Molotov cocktail of poetic critique: Heriberto Yépez’s Transnational Battle Field,’ e-mail to the author, 17th September 2017. The promotional blurb and the poem are both reproduced on the Commune Editions website, although the last line of the poem on the website is not reproduced in the promotional e-mail. See: https://communeeditions.com/transnational-battle-field-heriberto-yepez/.

[3] See https://communeeditions.com/who-we-are/. The reference to Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1902), its title a nod to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel of the same name, seems more like revolutionary color than inference of direct principle, given Lenin’s work’s argument for the necessity of a political vanguard to lead the revolution on the one hand, and Commune Editions’ editorial focus on spontaneous community uprising on the other.

[4] The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, ed. John C. Thirlwall (New York: New Directions, 1957), 131.

[5] Kenneth Goldsmith, Twitter post, June 2018, 2:36 p.m., https://twitter.com/kg_ubu/status/1006983550418280448.

[6] Keston Sutherland, Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (London, New York, and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2011), 15–16.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] “Poetry is intensification pressed to the point of absolute impotence against the real limit of capitalist social reality, where abstract relations reveal their abhorrent imperviousness to poetry in ‘brutal’ detail. This is a revolutionary account of the power of poetry.” See Keston Sutherland, “Marx’s Defence of Poetry,” in World Picture, no. 10 (Spring, 2015), an essay that is in many ways a re-statement and a re-figuring of some of the claims in Stupefaction through an account of Marx’s own early love poetry (http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_10/Sutherland_10.html). For the context of the second quotation, see the set of responses to the question “What Is Literary Activism?” curated by Amy King on the Poetry Foundation website (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2015/08/what-is-literary-activism), the reply “Responding to ‘What Is Literary Activism?’” by Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, Tim Kreiner, Joshua Clover, Chris Chen, and Jasper Bernes on the same website (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2015/08/responding-to-what-is-literary-activism), the subsequent “A Response from the Writers of ‘What Is Literary Activism?’” from the original authors (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2015/08/a-response-from-the-writers-of-what-is-literary-activism), and finally the further corrective from Trevino et. al., which seems to have been removed from the Lana Turner website on which it was originally published. The relevant passage of the final corrective can be found in Jos Charles, “Interview with Juliana Spahr,” in Entropy, December 11, 2015 (https://entropymag.org/interview-with-juliana-spahr/).

[10] The Internet Archive has other ideas; see Joshua Clover and Keston Sutherland, “Always Totalize: Poetry and Revolution,” The Claudius App., no. 5 (2014), accessible via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20140116090157/http://www.theclaudiusapp.com:80/5-clover-sutherland.html.

[11] See Keston Sutherland, Poetical Works 1999–2015 (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015), 297–367.

[12] Douglas Oliver to Peter Riley, 31 January 1970. The correspondence can be found in the Douglas Oliver Archive, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex, UK, Box 9.

[13] Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, ed. William Keach, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2005), 34, 54, 56.

[14] Ibid., 55.

[15] Thomas T. Beyer Jr., “Andrej Belyj’s ‘The Magic of Words’ and The Silver Dove,” The Slavic and East European Journal 22, no. 4 (1978): 465.

[16] Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 34.

[17] Ibid., 130–31.

[18] Ibid., 130, 134.

[19] Ibid., 129. My italics.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 155.

[22] “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” See Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Pimlico, 1999), 249. Amazement at Trump, for instance, is not the beginning of anything resembling knowledge, unless it is the knowledge that confronts antagonistically, and makes untenable, the view of history that sees President Trump as a freakish anomaly.

[23] J.H. Prynne, “A Letter to Steve McCaffery,” The Gig (November 2000): 40–46 (41–42). The critique is so nonchalantly thorough-going, and has since been so energetically cited as evidence of the philosophical vacuity of McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, et. al., that it barely matters whether another important motive-force behind Prynne’s letter was his long-standing and often defiantly flippant antipathy to French post-structuralist theory, an antipathy he shared with Douglas Oliver.

[24] Ibid., 42.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 43

[27] For a recent, succinct indication of Prynne’s feelings hereon, see his impromptu comments on the poetry of Peter Larkin, reproduced as “On Peter Larkin,” in No Prizes,No. 2 (June, 2013), pp.43-45. In terms of his poetic output, the dream vision Kazoo Dreamboats, or, On What There Is (Cambridge: Critical Documents, 2011) comes the closest to an outright manifesto of the priority of a dialectics of nature from which all else follows; see also Robin Purves’s usefully sceptical reading of the poem in his “For-Being: Uncertainty and Contradiction in Kazoo Dreamboats,” in Hix Eros: On the Late Poetry of J.H. Prynne, ed. Joe Luna and Jow Lindsay Walton (Brighton: Hi Zero and Sad Press, 2014), pp.143-157.

[28] Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 474.

[29] Lisa Jeschke, The Anthology of Poems by Drunk Women (London: Materials, 2018) [unpaginated].

[30] Verity Spott, The Mutiny Aboard the RV Felicity (Cambridge: Tipped Press, 2017), 17.


Joe Luna is the author of Air Hunger (Plea Press, 2018), and Development Hell (Hi Zero, 2020). He lives in Brighton.


This publication is in Copyright. Joe Luna, 2020.

The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.

©2018 by the87press

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