symposium on subjectivity and style




There is a Zen koan which asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The answer is neither yes nor no, but the single Japanese word mu, which means “enough.” In other words, stop analyzing; the interrelationship of self and selflessness cannot be grasped through mental exertion alone. Of course, in the English translation, the answer might also mean that a dog has just the amount of Buddha nature that a dog should have, an unknowable and unquantified amount. In other words, in its persistent questions and permanent unanswerability, the subject lives at the thin edge of language, constantly dissolving to its opposite. 

This does not mean we will stop talking about it.

For this Symposium, fifteen poets have contemplated their particular engagements with the verbal technologies of self. Our query seems to have arrived at an opportune time in the subtly-constructed collective conversation that is contemporary poetics: the responses take shape (as we had hoped they would) in a variety of ways. Delectations of the sentence, tonal riffs, anecdote, quotation, and collage abound; if any overarching conclusion is suggested, it is simply that the paradox of self imprints in myriad ways upon the much tinier paradox that is the poem.

Frances Richard

By way of context, we have included the invitation as sent to our participants.

A Call for Response

It’s been said that a writing life ultimately revolves around only a few subjects, and perhaps the life of literary criticism is like that too. In the realms of debate, some topics have a way of recurring, reasserting themselves in different guises. Of these core critical subjects, a perennial favorite for discussion is that of subjectivity—loosely defined as the experiences, perceptions, and diction of the “I”—and how that subjectivity is, or is not, expressed on the page. 

Specifically in the realm of poetry, the question of subjectivity and its influence on style has been on our minds at Fence since we began the magazine. Our commitment to presenting writing of sometimes disparate character has required us to inquire into what it is that creates these differences. In the interest of enacting in our pages what we talk about in our meetings, we would like to invite you to contribute your thoughts to a symposium on Subjectivity and Style.

We realize that we’re treading contested waters. Discourses of the Self are so mutable, and so constant, that almost any topic—from the genre of memoir to plastic surgery or the proliferation of websites—is grist for the mill. Each noun in the first paragraph of this letter could open into a hypertext of philosophical and linguistic glosses. Despite the stubborn fluidity of the terms, there are certain historical and textual benchmarks to which we can refer. For example, the Confessional, Narrative, and/or Lyric traditions imply a poetic subjectivity that is identifiable and coherent, while Objectivist, Beat, and/or Language traditions tend to treat poetic subjectivity as an experimental ground, deprivileged or decentered. 

We might accept these schema as historically true but not necessarily binding for the individual writer. And it is the individual writer’s perspective that we seek with this inquiry. Part of our mandate in producing Fence is to create a forum for the airing of grand themes without grandiosity—to foster, in our features, the kind of erudite and kooky conversation you might have with friends, in which bombast, pedantry, and shyness are checked in favor of engagement, verve, and if necessary, honest puzzlement. 

Individual writers evince different needs, or choose different modes, for representing subjectivity in their work. For some, it appears to be most important to cohere and to use coherency; others seek to fragment or to make use of fragmentation. What are the implications—aesthetic, cultural, political—of such choices? For the writer? For the reader? For publishing and poetics criticism? Would you qualify or disagree with these statements?

I don’t think women’s relatively difficult access to the “symbolic order” is inevitable, but, more important, I don’t think it is necessarily all bad. Might there not be a moment of potential in that exclusion, a moment of freedom? Perhaps it is not, to quote Ron Silliman, “white male heterosexuals who are most apt to challenge all that is supposedly natural about the formation of subjectivity.” 

Rae Armantrout, “Feminist Poetics” 

Now the subject who keeps the two texts in his field and in his hands the reins of pleasure and bliss is an anachronistic subject: he enjoys the consistency of selfhood (that is his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is his bliss). 

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text 

Insanity to the sane seems so unnecessary.

Emily Dickinson, letter to Kate Scott Anthon

Voice and presence, silence and absence, then, have been the resonating terms of a four-part homology in our literary tradition for well over two hundred years.

Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey

Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since one is the other (you have to see the words) and I hope the poem to be a subject, not just about it.

Frank O’Hara, “Notes on ‘Second Avenue'”

Let those scorn you who never starved in your dearth. 

Robert Pinsky, “Ode to Meaning” 


The First Person in the 21st Century



Is it fair to say there is in the 21st century a greater consensus towards the notion that true coherency is fragmented? For me, for example, if the movie star goes to the bathroom I feel better about the movie. Bathroom time, thoughts, needs and events, after all, contribute the fragments that altogether we recognize as experience. The poet Paul Celan wrote, “Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won.” The search includes reintroducing all that has been broken off previously to make the narrative smooth. The “I” ultimately has a responsibility to the intelligence (think humanity) of the “you.” Some might say that recognition of responsibility on the page is what makes the use of the first person social. It recognizes we are always being broken into by history, memory, current events, the phone, e-mail, a kiss, calls of nature, whatever.

The languaged self, then, in order to keep itself human, in order to cohere, has to fragment. The “I” exists in time and is married to biological, personal, historical and cultural meaning. Not to realize this is to commit a blink of omission. For example, I am a black girl in a yellow dress. I want to light up my life. The adjectival insistence in the first sentence immediately reminds us that words have social and political currency. Yellow looks good against black skin. Yellow dresses are gender specific. Black girls have a “public story.” Cowards might avoid yellow. Soon I am both closer and further from myself due to my mind’s-eye’s association to the colors yellow and black. Chip away enough and I am bouncing off social and cultural generalities complicating the first person’s association with hue (read you). So what that the initial thought was simply, I am a black girl in a yellow dress. I want to light up my life. There is clearly a more fractured and complex reality behind the two sentences. 

And the complexity doesn’t necessarily lead me to what I recognize. I am a black girl in a yellow dress. (Everyone) (Where did they come from?) wants to light up my life. In my imagination of the neighborhood where all the little black girls grow up, a yellow dress makes me a little more visible to the gun-slinging drug-dealer. I could exploit this cowboy reality in the name of—what? Urbane authenticity? (fragment, no suggestions) Sentimentality? (fragment, no suggestions) Racism? (untold fragments, too many suggestions) Clearly more fragments are needed. Clearly, even more is needed if “I” am to begin to cohere. Together let’s think, “Love is all around why don’t you take it.” Remember her, Mary Richards. Put her next door to the black girl and maybe a swing-set would be a stabilizing addition. Maybe a handshake? Which is to say—So many times could “I” shake hands with the times I live in. 

Claudia Rankine is the author of The End of the Alphabet (Grove Press, 1998). Her next collection, PLOT, will be published in 2001.


What thrills me in poetry is the work of making a model of consciousness, a replica of subjective experience. Never mind that all attempts to represent subjectivity are, ultimately, failures. Art is bounded, has edges, has limits in time and space. Its attempts to replicate the edgeless continuity of consciousness are always smaller than the original, always circumscribed. But poetic craft creates a seemingly endless variety of versions of the subjective, so that the reader has the sense of encountering a perceptual character, a style of seeing. This is as true of a poem by Brenda Hillman as of a poem by Amy Clampitt: they are versions of the mind at work, language dressed up as the action of mind, and when they work on us—when they engage us and delight us—it’s because we feel we’ve been brought into an intimate relation with the subjectivity of another. The illusion is that we’ve been brought into the fresh cascade of perception, we’ve been given access to a self feeling and thinking its way through and in a sensory field. No stylistic gesture is more “unnatural” than another; they only seem so. Some call attention to their “wroughtness” while others attempt “transparency,” but all are verbal performances, all representations of the self in the flux of time. 

This summer, in Prague, I saw a puppet performance of Gluck’s opera, Orfeo et Euridice. Orpheus mourned, descended, found his beloved, ascended, then looked back. When Euridice died the second time, the puppeteer threw the wooden handles and strings which had animated her onto the stage; here is where artifice ends, the gesture seemed to say, here is where art cannot go. Meanwhile, in the realm of the living, our gestures illuminate the vast fields of being, the styles of seeing, in a thrilling array. Four puppets and one actor represented Orpheus; it took all that, to point towards the complexity of a single hero.

I am not a poet of fragmentation, obviously, and I think that stems less from a philosophical stance than from love, a deep love for the sentence, and the way it makes a gesture of coherence, a small stay against chaos—like a puppet’s gesture. Maybe the relationship between subjectivity and style is a bit like the relationship between the sentence and the line. The sentence seems to stand for the momentum and rush of experience, tumbling forward; the line halts it, punctuates that flow with interruptions, asking us to isolate the parts. I am moved by the little aria that a sentence is, its claim to organize experience into a syntactical unit, with a chain of action and causation, with a beginning and middle and end. I am especially moved by the moments when such efforts begin to break down, to buckle under the pressure of experience, as they push against what can’t be said. When those crossed sticks and strings were thrown down onto the stage, suddenly we could see how much the artifice of the moving, singing puppets had been resisting all along.

Mark Doty’s new book of prose, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, will be published by Beacon Press in 2001.






What is most important to me in the poems I admire is the sound of a voice, the registered speaker whose subjectivity is being aroused through her/his contact with the world (the friction is called Experience, Mary).

Poetry is not literary criticism. Poetry is far more entertaining. It better be.

I don’t think we need to argue anymore about whether that speaker is “natural” or “artificial,” flesh-and-blood or a sheerly linguistic “construct,” whether the voice of a poem is composed of literary conventions, or who owns those conventions. We’ve talked that talk, and poetry remains—and some of it remains interesting, and some of it remains profoundly dull. 

A lot of young poets these days are being educated into a state of hysterical aesthetic complexity. I saw poetry worksheets from the University of Iowa this year and what I saw was a widespread terror of not being smart, and a compensating effort to intimidate the reader. It scared me.

Not just the speaker, with all the modulations and tonalities and interruptions of a human voice, but a voice evolving in relation to its subject matter. 

That’s right: I said subject matter.

The fragment, a device so common in our poetry now, seems quite limited to me as a poetic instrument. Yes, it simulates spiritual urgency (breathless, as in Graham), or spiritual solemnity (as in Pinsky’s litanies), and it can be mildly interesting as a descriptive technique (notational/strobe). But the grammatical fragment can’t embody the fluctuations of an interesting, continuous, changeable sensibility—as the full, generous, complex, acrobatic, mutating sentence can. 

Yes, I know that the fragment is the best representation of our modern experience of distraction and fracture. I’m all fucked up too. But that doesn’t make it good poetry. The shattered glass is an eloquent emblem for our time, but it does not hold water and I am thirsty. 

What I love in poems these days is tonality. Even when poetry is pitched pretty far away from experience, as in Michael Palmer’s work, I get the grave, rhythmic, existential inflections of a speaker who has suffered time and gravity, and above all, the inadequacy of meaning. Even if the poem is noting the “arbitrariness of referentiality,” what matters to me is the emotional (and conceptual) rhythm of the speech—I can confirm that feeling as a response to the world. 

No matter how independent a poem is from representation (like narrative or description), it still must register the contours, the shoreline of experience in a way that is verifiable to me. When I read a poem, I am collating my experience with that of the writer. I am not simply looking for reflection, or a mirror image of my own subjectivity; but I need proof that the speaker lives in the world where I live, and responds to that world in a full, passionate, and original way.

Tony Hoagland is the author of Donkey Gospel (Graywolf Press, 1998) and Sweet Ruin (University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).


Two things come to mind. First, a recent talk with my friend Drew Daniel (a Renaissance grad student) about his paper on a 17th-century English portrait “on the cusp of emblematic and realistic painting.” A young lord in melancholy posture reclines beneath his shield, which bears the emblem of a flaming heart and the tag Magia Sympathia. I had never really thought before about how odd it must have been to paint a message on something supposed to function as defense: like graffiti on a Kevlar vest, a little wistful. According to Drew (who got it from Hegel, apparently), a shield in this kind of picture was meant to be expressive, to posit an idealized or abstracted version of the self that would serve as an inviolable stand-in for the body, presenting both as statement and as armor. I thought this was as good a model for lyric as any. 

It reminds me of something Les Murray said in an interview a year or so ago: something about how each of us constructs an elaborate, indestructible self to stand in for the shortcomings of the mortal body. I remember liking this thought—it conjured up a figure like those huge balloons in the Macy’s parade, except with articulated joints, armor-plated or chitinous, attached to the self with strings, maybe even dogfighting. Lyric poems do something like this, I think: they use parts of the self (or experience or the body) as models for breastplates, shin guards, etcetera, which they then fashion into some kind of instrumental whole. Then, inevitably, a poet tries to make this creation perform some inappropriate communicative task. There is much creaking of joints, all invulnerability is lost. When Yeats wanted to “hammer [his] thoughts into unity,” this wholeness would have been located outside of the self; his use of the possessive put the ideal forever out of reach. 

Watching this, it’s hard not to get sentimental. It is neither praise nor blame to say that a poem is grotesque the way road rage is grotesque (tailgating, cutting people off, various ways of trying to speak with your car): the attempt to make something inorganic—a thing made out of words—perform an expressive function that is both unsuitable and inevitable.

Monica Youn lives in New York City. She has poems in this issue of Fence.