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Sarah Dowling reviews
The Material of Poetry: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics
by Gerald Bruns
143 pp. with CD. The University of Georgia Press. US$24.95. 0820327018 cloth

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Sarah Dowling and Jacket magazine 2007.

Sketches Toward a Potential Poetics


Gerald Bruns’s latest book acts as an apology for ‘difficult’ poetry, arguing that innovative practices and poetics are philosophically interesting because they ask us to reconceive of subjectivity, the ways in which meaning is made, and the relationship between language and the world. Bruns defends paratactic, appropriative, sound, concrete, and paragrammatical poetries, discussing works by Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, Louis Zukofsky and Gertrude Stein, as well as lesser-known poets such as Karen MacCormack and Claude Gauvreau.


For Bruns, one of the features connecting these poets’ work is that it puts forth its own poetics, in other words, we experience a theory of what a poem is through reading. Essentially, Bruns argues that the non-utilitarian uses of language in these poetries present occasions for the reader to “develop new ways of experiencing meaning” (8), and that in exploring the relationships between the parts of the poem the reader reconceives of her relationship to language and to the world around her.

Gerald Bruns

Gerald Bruns

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The Material of Poetry can be contextualized within the so-called turn to ethics in the field of literary studies (and the corresponding turn to literature in philosophy)[1], although what is unique about this book is its consideration of formally and linguistically innovative writing practices. The book stands in contrast to many works in the lit-ethics area, which tend to be concerned with reference and narrative because of the ability of literary works to describe complex situations of ethical significance. “Particular examples, not rules for every occasion, are really what moral philosophy is about” (Bruns 15), and literature, especially narrative fiction, is a trove of such examples.


We might consider, for example, Martha Nussbaum’s argument Love’s Knowledge that The Golden Bowl constitutes a practice of philosophy, a set of practical examples more useful than an ethical treatise or a list of principles. The major lit-ethics theorists, such as Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Cavell, focus on character and plot in fictional narratives, not on the language of which those narratives are composed, and are perhaps a little “suspicious of poetry” (16) with its attention to language and ability to do away with narrative.


In contrast, The Material of Poetry is concerned not only with poetry, but with non-narrative and non-referential experimental practices. Poetry is considered as a species of conceptual art, made of language and requiring a support structure in order to be understood as a poem: “something that requires an argument, theory, or conceptual context as a condition of being experienced” (16). Bruns takes a Wittgensteinian approach, employing the principle that anything can be poetry, that the concept of what poetry is cannot be closed or limited by an a priori definition. This raises philosophical questions because “much of contemporary poetry is in fact made of nonpoetic, everyday, socially and even intellectually distinctive forms of discourse” (7).

book cover


For Bruns, the philosophical interest in poetry therefore lies in the distinction between the nonpoetic discourses of which poetry is made and the poetic itself. The Material of Poetry constitutes a significant departure from the trends of the lit-ethics sub-field in its contention that poetry is not about reference or narrative but remains relevant to ethics. In addition, the main effect of this book is to raise concerns about the Self-Other relationship, not to demonstrate the ways in which literature gives directions for action.


The idea that linguistically and formally innovative poetries present challenges to the distinction between the poetic and the nonpoetic suggests to Bruns that what poetry is cannot be determined in advance of any poem by “principles, rules, traditions, or any sort of formal description” (24). In other words, we are left without outside criteria for determining what poetry is or whether a given piece of writing is a poem.


This is tied to a Levinasian conception of ethics where the subject is not a cognitive agent working “under the safety of criteria” such as rules or maxims for correct behavior (42). Instead the subject is working without ethical principles, without any means of exempting herself from responsibility to and for the Other, where Levinasian responsibility refers to responsiveness and answerability. Rather than relying on dicta or guidelines for action, the subject is held by the Other’s claim over her, and the force of this claim is such that Levinas has described the subject as a “hostage” (Levinas 138): “[t]he relationship with another is a relationship that is never finished ... [it] goes beyond all duty, ... is not absorbed into a debt that we might discharge” (161).


Similarly, without dicta or guidelines for knowing what a poem is, we readers are held responsible for our reading, and must respond or attend to the work we are confronted with. Bruns’s use of Levinasian ethics is one of the most original and interesting things about this book; however, there seems to be a slippage in his treatment of Levinas. For Levinas, the Other is tied strongly to a person, if not a subject, but Bruns draws an analogy between the Other and the poem without much elaboration. This is not in any way a necessary link, but it is one that has great significance for his argument, and perhaps warrants further explanation.


Bruns puts forth three specific theses, devoting a chapter to each. First, Bruns argues that poetry is “made of language but is not a use of it — that is, poetry is made of words but not of what we use words to produce: meanings, concepts, propositions, descriptions, narratives, expressions of feeling and so on” (7). Second, “poetry is not necessarily made of words but is rooted in, and in fact already fully formed by sounds produced by the human voice (or voice and mouth), even when these sounds are modified electronically” (8). Third, Bruns argues that poetry does not belong to a specified realm of human culture, but has a similar ontological status to any other kind of thing. Many of these arguments have been articulated by many people over the past 20 years, what Bruns adds to the discussion is to relate some of the main concerns of the poetics community to debates about ethics and language in Continental philosophy.


In his first chapter, Bruns discusses paratactic poetries, using Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, and Charles Bernstein’s work to argue that poetry is an event of language, not a use of it, and that poetry is made of language but does not put language in service of any function (like conveying information). Bruns concentrates on their uses of parataxis and appropriation, thinking of the fragment as form, considering it “an event of incompletion, a formlessness that one cannot supplement or remedy by reading” (106). For example, in discussing Coolidge’s The Maintains, Bruns states that the base unit of this poem is the word, and that the composition of the piece is a spatial arrangement of its base units; the words are not syntactically coherent. Because syntactic sense is avoided, Bruns argues, the challenge to readers is to find ways of reading this poem. This is precisely where the philosophical import of innovative poetic practices lies:


In a paratactic poem, the displacement of syntax means that words can enter into all kinds of unpredictable semantic relations and evoke many possible contexts. So the problem is arguably not one of nonsense but of too much sense, augmented or invigorated by alliteration, assonance, and echoes of all sorts. The poem forces us to expand our boundaries of what we think of as meaningful. (27, Bruns’s emphasis)


Bruns relies on the by now rather familiar argument articulated in Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure” that an open text, rather than fixing meanings in relation to a given context, frees up meanings by unfixing their referentiality. Rather than reading consecutively, discovering the meaning as we go, an open text must be read constructively; meanings must be built by the reader. Bruns also argues through Charles Bernstein’s “Semblances” that the poet’s work is to perform “a deviation of social discourse” (35): “Instead of being transported imaginatively or vicariously to another world, we are exposed critically to our own social environment” (36). The philosophical significance of these arguments is that our social experience is unsettled and unsettling — there is too much rather than too little to comprehend. Bruns argues that that situation is similarly present in paratactic poetries, and that these poetries present opportunities for theorizing the overabundance of things to be understood.


Bruns’s second thesis is related to the first, but exceeds it. Rather than arguing that poetry is made of language, the second chapter uses works by Steve McCaffery, Christian Bök, Henri Chopin, and others to make the claim that poetry is “not necessarily made of words but is rooted in ... the sounds produced by the human voice” (7–8). Although the evidence offered in support of this claim is scant, it is extremely attractive for its ethical implications. This chapter argues that “our capacity for listening and responsiveness” is analogous to “the ethical claim that other people have on us,” joining arguments influenced by Joan Retallack to Levinasian ethics and playing on the Cageian notion that responsibility for sound corresponds to responsibility for others. As a side note, there is a cd of sound poetry accompanying this chapter, which is not anthological but merely offers a few representative samples in support of Bruns’s argument.


Bruns stresses the event character of all “difficult” poetry, but especially of sound work. He draws attention to the way in which a sound environment breaks down the performer/audience dichotomy, stating that both are ‘in’ the sound, and argues that sounds dismantle subjectivity:


Sound decomposes the self-identity of the subject, a self-identity that is the first principle of rationality. Sound is invasive; ears a porous in a way that eyes are not. Sound fills the subject with foreign material, driving the subject out of itself. (45, Bruns’s emphasis)


While it may be problematic to claim that the performer/audience dichotomy is broken down in sound poetry given the virtuosic nature of many sound performances (especially those on the cd), sound is an environment in which speaker and listener are both immersed. Sound demonstrates the sense in which the body ought not be regarded as the outer limit of subjectivity, as the body can be filled with the speech of another subject.


In Noise, Water, Meat, for example, Douglas Kahn describes the passage of sound from deep within the speaker’s body, through the air and into the listener’s inner ear (7). Kahn illustrates the intimacy of sound to which Bruns refers more obliquely; the transgression of the bodily boundaries that sound accomplishes. Bruns doesn’t devote much discussion to the porous bodies of speakers and listeners or the sounds that join them, but emphasizes that “[l]istening involves a form of subjectivity ... different from seeing” because it “undoes this state of self-sufficiency and contentment” that sight produces (43–44).


In other words, whereas sight maintains a sense of separateness between self and world, sound places the speaker and the listener in intimate proximity, their porous bodies joined by the sound around and inside of them. For Bruns the form of subjectivity suggested by listening applies directly to Levinasian ethics and suggests potential for philosophical inquiry.


Bruns’s third thesis is that poetry cannot be relegated to an aesthetic realm or otherwise placed outside of the realm of the quotidian because it “is not a purely differentiated species ... Rather, precisely in virtue of its materiality, poetry enjoys a special ontological relation with ordinary things of the world” (9). Essentially, Bruns argues through Francis Ponge, Louis Zukofsky, Gertrude Stein and Gerald Burns that poetry belongs within the realm of things and indeed is a thing. Innovative writing practices therefore offer a rich site for theorizing the relationship between language and the world.


To illustrate, in discussing Stein’s “A Long Dress,” from Tender Buttons, Bruns states that the relationship between words and things in poetry is not one of “nomination, designation, prediction, or description; that is, it is not a relationship of mediation linking separate entities across an ontological divide but a relationship of proximity, intimacy, and perhaps even identity provided by a shared plane of existence” (81 Bruns’s emphasis). In other words, poetry does not function by naming or describing things, but by being a thing itself, or being made up of actual things, much like Duchamp’s readymades. Bruns notes Stein’s wariness of proper names:


[T]hings once they are named the name does not go on doing anything to them and so why write in nouns. Nouns are the name of anything and just naming names is alright when you want to call a roll but is it good for anything else. To be sure in many places in Europe as in America they do like to call rolls.
As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. (quoted 93)


Words that name or describe things act in the Levinasian sense of grasping; they attempt to control or fix the objects to which they refer. But Stein’s poems like “A Long Dress” don’t describe the dress in the sense of telling the reader what the dress looks like or what the style of it is. Instead, Bruns argues that “what we get is the life of the thing, how it is in the environment it inhabits” (94). Rather than existing in the nominative case, Stein’s work could be described as being in the accusative, the case expressing “the relation in which the object stands, as shown by its position alone” (OED, emphasis added). In other words, we see the long dress in relation to other objects: the “machinery” that made it, the “wind,” a “waist” (quoted 92); we see the dress inhabiting its environment although we don’t have a definitive description of it or a way of having presidential knowledge of it.


Bruns therefore argues that in poetry there are no generic things, only singularities that “exist beneath the reach of concepts and categories” (95). In the end, we are not really left with a clear conception of the relationship that Bruns wishes to convey as existing between things and language, but it seems that there is an untheorizable dimension to this — one that Bruns wishes to point out as a possible area for further inquiry, rather than to work on defining in this book.


In this sense, The Material of Poetry can be positioned closer to Joan Retallack’s work, especially to her writings on John Cage. Although The Material of Poetry draws no explicit connections to Retallack, the main similarity between Bruns’s argument here and, say, the “Four on Cage” section of The Poethical Wager, is that Bruns’s discussion of the ethical import of innovative writing practices parallels Retallack’s formulation of poethics as an acceptance and attentiveness to chaos and complexity, and a responsibility to and for its results. Bruns advocates a similar attentiveness to complexity, discussing the potential that innovative writing practices offer for apprehending meaning in new ways.


The formal differences between Bruns’s and Retallack’s work, however, illustrates one of the comparative shortcomings of The Material of Poetry. While Retallack’s essays constitute an enactment of her poethics, The Material of Poetry merely suggests the potential richness of considering innovative writing practices through Continental philosophy. The gesture of Bruns’s book seems somehow less complete in the sense that, as the title states, these are only “sketches” and a lot of work remains to be done.


The Material of Poetry, then, emphasizes an overall sense of intimacy and connectedness between subjects, words and things; and perhaps we might think of this as the intimacy that exists in a world or text overfull of sense and meanings. The ways in which Bruns draws attention to these areas that so richly deserve deeper ethical and philosophical investigation is interesting and exciting if somewhat unfulfilling, but perhaps it is appropriate that the bulk of this work — of attending to that intimacy — is left to the reader.


Many thanks to Janet Neigh, Steve Newman, and Jena Osman for their helpful suggestions.

Works Cited

“Accusative.” The Oxford English Dictionary.

Bruns, Gerald. The Material of Poetry: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics. Athens, GA: Georgia UP, 2005.

Eskin, Michael. “The Double ‘Turn’ to Ethics and Literature?” Poetics Today 25. 4 (2004): 557–572.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT UP, 1999.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “God and Onto-Theo-logy.” God, Death and Time. Trans. Bettina Bergo. Ed. Jacques Rolland. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager. Los Angeles and Berkeley, CA: California UP, 2003.


[1] For a discussion of the turn to literature within ethics and the corresponding turn to ethics in literary studies see Michael Eskin’s introduction to the Winter 2004 issue of Poetics Today, “The Double ‘Turn’ to Ethics and Literature?” (557–571).

Sarah Dowling is a PhD student in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her creative work has previously appeared in Cue, Descant, EOAGH, How2, and West Coast Line.

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