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Say poem and I see margins emerging. Question. How marginal is poetry? To answer my question I must shift to the margins of poetics and you must be prepared to occupy the margins of poetry. Why? Because the discourse produced in that kind of 'in-between' space stakes out for itself and shows how poetry is a language mode that challenges speech and thought frames as it displaces them towards, or within, various margins. And why? Because poetry puts its finger on the disjunction between speech and writing. After all, Rilke says somewhere that poetry is the capacity to 'remain in the open', the ability to take risks. And so, any attempt to define a marginal space for poetry implies some desire to leave poetic texts open, mobile, and not to lock them forever in neat structures produced by criticism - interpretations that would exhaust them. As Michel Serres puts it in Passages du Nord-Ouest (Northwest Passage): 'La critique est une science des bords. Elle est science de la mort' (Serres 1980: 59). You could translate this sentence in two ways at least: 'Criticism is the science of borders. It is the science of death'; or 'Criticism is the art of cutting. It is a deadly art', a kind of know(l)edge.
I would gladly extend this view of criticism to poetics, which is a space where one is two, i.e., both poet and critic, where my task overlaps with your task. And this task is to unmap the passage from the known to its edges and to expose the gaps in between to conceive of writing as an acceptance of the turbulence of an uncharted passage rather than as an appropriating of new territories (which, by the way, can never be done without some amount of terror, as etymology tells us). For writing, I'd say, has made me aware that one of the displacements poetry effects is to place me always and already in the margin.
But what do I mean by margin? Well, let's say that the margin is less a vanishing point (a desirable, potentially sublime horizon, which might sound a bit escapist) than an interstitial space (a spacing, a tension, a disjunction), which would, by this virtue, be a figurative representation of the condition of poetic speech. In other words, the concept of margin refers to both topology and trope.
like seagulls taking off
The very weakness of the links between poet, community, and state makes the issues of power and place in society vital for the poet. The fact that poets are hardly on the map adds an intense twist to these questions, what kind of maps are poems? What authority does the poet have as mapmaker? (Perelman 1996: 110)
And you hang over leaf-
Presently You're taken
You take each clue to task
Like a snail's trail on this footworn lawn
Margins and marginality can be thought of in at least three ways: iconic, generic and political. These three types of margins can, of course, overlap or interact, and the marginality of the appropriate critical space used to describe them derives from its own capacity to absorb such overlapping or interaction. Marginal poetry, in other words, invites critical discourse to recognize its own marginality or perhaps, irrelevance.
The importance of margins as constitutive of any page of poetry seems to go without saying: margins (unjustified right-hand-side margins, or, more generally, all kinds of blanks generated by lineation) have for a long time now defined poems by opposition to prose. Thus, the margins of the poem may be conceived of as a figurative representation of the poem's definition, and consequently may contribute to a blurring on the page itself of the border separating the space of the poem properly-speaking from the space of the poetics of the poem. That this defining should be challenged by various strategies in contemporary poetic practice, notably in the prose poem or in 'sentence writing', shows that an assessment of the status of margins is crucial in any attempt to define poetry, insofar as one of the central aesthetic gestures of the poem is to challenge the clear-cut distinction between poetic theory and poetic practice. In the margin, a transaction between poem and poetry takes place: Which frames the other? becomes an undecidable question, and this at least shows that the framing of language is specifically the question which poetry raises.
The same question can therefore be raised in relation to the whole genre of poetry. Working on the concept of marginalization involves a rethinking of the relative importance of poetic theory and poetic practice as constituents of poetry. Imagine using formal devices to figure in your texts the interaction of the literary value of the margin with the political and social dimensions of marginalization, as Lisa Belear does, for instance, or II.O. Here, marginalization can no longer be simply considered as a social phenomenon and should clearly appear, by contrast, as a theoretical statement, a prerequisite for the writing of a poetry which aims to maintain its critical opposition to the uniformization of speech. In other words, the marginal position of poetry on the literary scene is partly the reflection of the inner distortions and dislocations achieved by the effects proper to the language of poetry: poetry can only stake out its proper place for itself resisting today's media-saturated world by creating unconforming forms that ceaselessly raise the question of how meaning is articulated in language.
Out of Bounds
Now, there is a catch. By giving marginality the status of a dominant trope of poetic writing, I run the risk of granting it a predominance that its very nature would seem to reject. It seems to me crucial, therefore, to insist on the multiple forms margins do take, because this multiplicity, as it decentres the locus of poetic ideology and theory, is a good representation of the 'tropological a priory' I played with at the beginning of this paper. An example of such multiplicity would be a poetics that enhances the possible difformities of language (and there are many forms) in order to avoid being entrapped in, or seduced by, ideological conformity. This is what I try to achieve in some experimental works with the kind of 'linguistic acrobatics' you've just read, for instance, where the heightened formalism is based on mis-shaping language through interlingual cut and paste - a refusal of uni-formity that needs to be watched like anything, lest it con-forms the way parody does:
There is no last phrase, no end to phrasing, since any 'last word' on a subject is itself a phrase, as is the silence following it (Lyotard 1988: 85).
Dominique Hecq is the author of The Book of Elsa, a novel, two collections of stories (Magic and Mythfits), two books of poems (The Gaze of Silence and Good Grief) and two short plays (One Eye Too Many and Cakes & Pains). With Russell Grigg and Craig Smith, she also co-authored Feminine Sexuality: The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies). Noisy Blood is due out in September 2004. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Melbourne.
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Vol 9 No 1 April 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady