In Poetry & Barthes, I attempt to trace the influence of Barthes across the intellectual history of Anglophone poetry in the latter part of the twentieth century. This short essay is an attempt to harvest a few of those insights towards a picture of language as a kind of sympathetic hyperspace.
Habitats of Expression
In one of his most popular passages among readers who are poets, Roland Barthes compares choosing a word to buying paint in a certain colour:
The word transports me because of the notion that I am going to do something with it: it is the thrill of a future praxis, something like an appetite. This desire makes the entire motionless chart of language vibrate. (Barthes 1977: 129)
This idea of the word as an object can be found in some of Barthes’ earliest texts – ‘prepares to radiate towards innumerable uncertain and possible connections’ (Barthes 1967: 48). As an idea, this unites a commitment to linguistic innovation and to pleasure, the pure hedonism of language. Language is something whose anticipation is to be enjoyed rather than used.
I find this concept of the sympathetic ‘resonance’ of words particularly relevant to the work of Lyn Hejinian, who is the aficionado of the above quote from Barthes who brought it to my attention when I was researching the book. It is particularly relevant to her book My Life (1980, revised edition 1987), a long prose poem in which certain significant sentences reappear in new contexts, bringing with them the shade of their previous connections and adding an extra semantic and grammatical dimension to the book. Moreover, I take the word ‘resonance’ from Rae Armantrout’s review of Hejinian’s 1984 book The Guard. At the beginning of the review, Armantrout writes: ‘Resonance is inherently pleasurable, as this book shows us, and requires no raison d’être.’ (I am suspicious of any unjustified assertion of anything’s being ‘inherent’ in language, but as we shall see later, this effect only appears inherent.) Later, Armantrout describes how resonance operates: [Hejinian] creates her resonances by presenting the identity of a single word […] in different contexts, and more abstractly by elaborating variations on a single theme’ (Armantrout 1985). For instance, Poetry & Barthes, I discuss the way Hejinian in My Life re-uses the phrase ‘Latin of love’ (Gardner 2018: 135), and how repetition in different contexts forms the layers of meaning that give it its significance, rather than its place in a discursive or descriptive passage. This is the main poetic operation in these texts, and Barthes’ comment encapsulates it, but here I want to look deeper into how it works and what its wider implications are.
Hazel Smith’s notion of the ‘hyperscape’, articulated with reference to the poetry of Frank O’Hara, posits a fundamental postmodern disjuncture in the meaning and symbology of poems. Smith’s ‘hyperscape’ prompts a reference to the idea of ‘hyperspace’, a space through which objects can move in more than the four dimensions we experience. Smith calls the extra dimension of O’Hara’s work ‘hyper’ because of the way it exceeds the usual world of literature, engaging with visual art, the cityscape, and acknowledging the impossibility of separating the poet’s subject-position from this. She compares it to Frederic Jameson’s notion of postmodern hyperspace, in which it becomes impossible for subjects to orientate themselves politically in an ‘unmappable’ space. I also see this as part of how we read resonance like that found in Hejinian; if the usual formal/phonetic/syntactic/semantic world of the poem is like our four-dimensional spacetime, then ‘resonance’ offers a fifth dimension, projecting the poem into hyperspace.
However, unlike hyperspace, language is not a void, because if that were the case, resonance would not be possible. The relationships between words travel through sounds and their history. This would seem to put Barthes at odds with the Saussurean semiology he practices elsewhere, which holds that the relationship between signified and signifier is arbitrary – there is no essence of ‘treeness’ inherent in the word ‘tree’. But what we might call the Barthesian hedonistic semiology reveals is that words are connected through resonant linguistic hyperspace. The knowledge (and pleasure of knowing) that each word contains the potential of all of its other uses, and because language is a complete system, and words have no existence outwith language, this creates a kind of pseudo-inherence which can easily be mistaken for a contradiction of cut-and-dried Saussureanism, when in fact it is merely a refinement of it.
Because of the infinite (‘innumerable’) proliferation of possible connections, the space of language is completely filled. This is why the entire ‘chart’ ‘vibrates’ when we ponder the use of one word. However, often the hedonistic excitement engendered by the knowledge of the hyper-connected word means that this hyper-connection takes priority over more conventional connections. Because of this, such language it becomes resistant to our movement through it. Only the connections are left, and these are not navigable by conventional means. This is what Sianne Ngai describes as ‘thick language’: to put it succinctly, when moving through hyperspace, layering takes the place of sequencing (Ngai 2005: 257).
This ‘thickness’ is crucial because Barthes is constantly conceiving of language as spatial, but never as void. In The Pleasure of the Text, texts are conceived of as variably resistant, ‘non-isotropic’ like a piece of wood or else a ‘tissue’ formed of strands that are not universally distributed, weaving and crossing over one another in a form which we would understand to occupy the entire space, but still composed of a ‘broken or obliterated network – all the movements and inflections of a vast “dissolve”’ (Barthes 1974: 20). For every connection that can be identified and apprehended, an infinite number are beyond us. The pleasure in Hejinian’s texts, for example, comes not in navigating them like hyperlinks in an online encyclopedia, but in knowing that whatever word we touch makes all of its connections vibrate.
However, we also know that not all connections between words are created equal, and it would be a mistake to think that there can be any language that has no consequences or material effects. In his essay ‘Huts’, J. H. Prynne writes:
The house of language is not innocent and is no temple. The intensities of poetic encounter, of imagination and deep insight into spiritual reality and poetic truth, carry with them all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does. […] The house of language is a primal hut, is stark and is also necessary, and not permanent. (Prynne 2008: 630-1)
This is true even and especially of hyperspace poetry, where the poetic ‘encounter’ happens through the medium of resonant and/or thick language. In the essay, Prynne talks about an encounter between the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger and the holocaust survivor and poet Paul Celan in Heidegger’s mountain writing-hut. Celan was drawn to Heidegger’s work by the idea that human beings inhabit ‘the house of language that is [our] shelter’ (628), but had to reconcile this with the fact that, for a significant portion of his life, Heidegger was a committed Nazi. That humanistic understanding of language as ‘dwelling-place’, as Barthes puts it, did not preclude his fascism. So what good is it?
This urge to consider language as a kind of built environment, or at the very least as an environment in which we must build something in order to live (is the cabin part of the mountain?), is another poetic response to the feelings of abandonment by/of language felt by poets in the last fifty years. Yet as Prynne writes, huts can be malign, making guardtowers or temporary prisons just as they do treehouses or sweat lodges. They are a simple, ‘primal’ (628) type of shelter, easily erected and used, then easily removed and forgotten. Language’s primal nature is not just a humanistic joy but also makes it the first tool of oppression and marginalisation, and this is not changed just because we are able to move through it by means of hyperspace passages. This is a consequence Barthes never quite reconciled, and one the avant-garde poets who follow him are still working to unpick.
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