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Monday, April 20, 2009

Francis Ponge’s ‘Thing Poems’ continued

On Thursday, 9 April the Next Objectivists met at the Mess Hall in Rogers Park, Chicago to continue our discussion of Francis Ponge. What a remarkable writer! We spent most of our time discussing this short but incredibly incisive poem (here translated by C. K. Williams):

The Cigarette

Let’s first create the atmosphere, at once misty, dry, and disheveled, in which the cigarette, since it itself continually creates it, is always laid athwart.

Then its person: a little torch, much less luminous than fragrant, from which in a rhythm yet to be determined a measurable number of little lumps of ash detach themselves and fall away.

Finally, its passion: that fiery bud, flaking off into silver dandruff, held by a sleeve immediately formed by the most recent of them.

We might begin with the most basic structuring elements of Ponge’s approach to this object: the poem is split into three parts, which are ordered temporally in terms of an act of creation: “first,” “then,” “finally.” This temporal structure refers, through the verb “create” and through the order of its parts, to the order in which the poem exists for the reader. That is, it is the temporal mode of an arrangement for the writer and a perceptual experience for the reader. Ponge is by no means providing us with a record of immediate sensory experience of the object—on the contrary, pains are taken to call our attention to the art and craft of creating the poem in precisely this way.

The arrangement is next determined by three thematic elements of the cigarette: “the atmosphere,” “its person” and “its passion.” These elements proceed from the specific and factual, to the abstract and metaphorical. The cigarettes’ atmosphere is, on a first instance at least, the smoke that it produces. It is therefore a commonplace, ordinary element of the cigarette to observe. “Person” (in the French, “personne”) make a striking metaphorical leap, because while we might ordinarily think of a cigarette as having an atmosphere (indeed, as Ponge says, of creating one), it is not customary to speak of the “person” of a cigarette as one might speak of its “filter” or “ember.” A similar leap is made when we move in the last line from “person” to “passion.” Here a kind of pathetic fallacy is generated: the cigarette is endowed with a human (or perhaps animal) trait—it is given an affective life.

This thematic ordering carries with it yet another dimension of relations: from the outside toward the inside. “Atmosphere” signifies an element that is physically outside of and surrounding the cigarette, whereas “passion” suggests something internal. Between them is “person,” which like a person’s body mediates between their external spatial surroundings and their internal feelings.

Passion, of course, indicates not just any feelings, but those which are particularly intense—one thinks, for example, of Christ’s passion, or of ‘a single night of passion.’ In the context of a passionate encounter, the phrase “fiery bud” suggests male or female genitalia and we are reminded of the importance of the cigarette to popular romance scenes and narratives. The atmosphere is not just a smoky one, but now also one of flirtation as this becomes a poem about getting closer to the hot object of desire.

Yet, remarkably, it remains always and foremost a poem about an object and about the words that describe—or, better, “create”—this object. Each of the three lines goes on to describe what Ponge clearly deems to be the core or constitutive feature of the object: its burning. The minute developments at the immediate site of the carbonization are taken up in detail: we are asked to notice how the cigarette “continually creates” its “misty, dry, and disheveled” smoke; how “little lumps” of ash “detach themselves” from the burning end in “measurable” quantities and at a “determinable” rate (if not yet determined) rate; and how the flakes of ash are “held by a sleeve immediately formed by one of them.”

The detailed, almost microscopic observation carries with it a charge of objectivity which counteracts the obviously subjective elements that emerge in the narrative about passion. As a result, the space of first-person authorial experience is evacuated, leaving a gap between the object and the words used to describe it. The words develop circuits of referential meaning which belong to the field of language, rather than to the cigarette. At the same time, the cigarette appears to exist in its objectivity—as a thing which is in no way dependent upon the words that describe it.

The ability to maintain this separation between word and thing is perhaps Ponge’s greatest contribution to the practice of Poetry from the Outside. In his essays on objectivist poetry in Poetry magazine, Louis Zukofsky writes of the ‘balance’ which gives the poem its objectivism. Such a balance is achieved in Ponge’s three-line poem. It’s a balance that comes about from the radical separation of subject and object within a few dozen words which intertwine both the impenetrable ‘thatness’ of the object’s being and the self-sustaining circuits of passionate intent which ‘translate’ the object without ever quite containing it or matching up with it….

This coming Thursday, 23 April, we will meet to continue to build our Time Line and World Map of POETRY from the OUTSIDE. We do this in order to compile poems and practices of writing we may wish to study in the future, and in order to begin to recognize the tremendous range of writing that suggests itself when we think broadly about ‘objectivism’ in verse and what it means to write poetry from outside the I-self

Our focus for this Thursday’s class is next objectivist poetry from around the world: please join us and bring a passage of poetry that seems to be written from the outside and which was not written in the United States. English translations are appreciated but not required! Bring copies of a short passage and some information about the writer’s outsider practices if possible!

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