Thursday, June 05, 2008

It is the Word Which is the Dwelling Place

I picked up a used copy of Barthes' Writing Degree Zero while in Rochester. Its descriptions of modern poetry are apt for reflecting on the referential dynamics of Paterson. For Barthes, the word in modern poetry is like a terrible, inscrutible monolith, "without environment." "It is the Word which is 'the dwelling place.'" (47) The Word has an "existential geology" rather than a social space. Throughout New Jersey as an Impossible Object, this type of purity has been under scrutiny, especially when the poem drags along with it an entire city, seducing us into imagining that it serves--however absurdly--as a kind of map that connects us to that city, or cities in general. But what seems a little more interesting than this familiar dilemma is that, the way Barthes describes it, classical language (which he contrasts with modern poetry) acts in many ways like the modern factory. Thus, the modern factory town of Paterson, with Alexander Hamilton as its creator, is a failed attempt to create classical poetry in the modern world. Barthes' description of the classical evokes the industrial manipulation of nature:

"The economy of classical language . . . is relational, which means that in it words are abstracted as much as possible in the interest of relationships. In it, no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connection."

"The classical flow is a succession of elements whose density is even; it is exposed to the same emotional pressure, and relieves those elements of any tendency towards an individual meaning appearing at all invented." [think: sluice, which may be an "invention" but doesn't mistake the invention for raw material.]

If we want to take Barthes' on his "word" here, then Paterson's relation to the city, and the connections we make to it and through it, is a kind of parody (or another favorite Barthesian word, "alibi" . . . but he uses parody here.) It's a way to trick the mind around a dark corner in the city leading one to the revelation of the word. "Connections [in modern poetry] are not properly speaking abolished, they are merely reserved areas, a parody of themselves, and this void is necessary for the density of the Word to rise out of a magic vacuum, like a sound and a sign devoid of background, like 'fury and mystery.'" (47) It's as if his approach to the city itself is like a culture-jammer picking up some crappy classical poem (like Thomas Ward's Passaic), and treating it to a variety of recontextualizations, mutations, and derangements in order to get at something more elemental.

However, beware of random tips from used books. Because even though a lot of poets have glommed onto this notion of the dwelling place of modern poetry, a few quick web searches make me think that maybe Barthes will challenge this strict division between classical and modern poetry later in the book. Or--given the self-canceling nature of web-opinion--not. Read on . . .

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