Vanessa Place and the Poetics of Radical Evil and some poems

There are times when you come across something that you agree with, sometimes you come across stuff that articulates things that you have been trying to articulate and very, very rarely you come across stuff that you have been trying to articulate / think about and then takes it into areas/arenas that you haven’t thought about but now seem suddenly obvious. this is the case with the above essay which was published in issue 3 of Lana Turner.

I’m tempted just to leave the link and let people read this without further comment from me but I also feel the need to elaborate on some of the really important bits.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am passionate about and obsessed by poetry but that I also recognise its weaknesses and fragilities in the wider scheme of things. I’ve also observed somewhat glibly that poetry or the poetic is the problem with poetry just as there’s too much of the political in politics. Regular readers will also know that I’m of the firmly held (this is unusual) view that Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is the most strategically important work for decades- on either side of the Atlantic.

THE ‘Poetics’ essay is correct in both its analysis and its remedy. That it’s correct is a bit of a misnomer, it is incredibly focused and puts the rest of us wooly-minded poetry types to shame. I acknowledge that Place does not compromise and this can be more than a little off-putting, I also admit that she scares me to death but in a really good way.

In her introduction, Place warns us that she will be playing the lit crit academic game- name-dropping, one upping, explicating whilst slagging off etc and this dance does occasionally get in the way of the argument- a certain audience may respond to the games played with Helene Cixous but it doesn’t do that much for me. What I think is really important is that poetry is increasingly that speaks only to itself about itself in a language that only initiates have access to and that this is The Very Bad Thing.

Here we fall across the ‘c’ word- Place considers herself to be a conceptualist and here quotes conceptual works with approval. For the rest of us this could lead us to ignore the message because it’s not been spoken by ‘one of us’ ie not one of us rugged individuals struggling with the limits of the poetic / late modern tradition. The sad fact is that this argument does apply to us and we need to take notice. One of the things that I continue to fail to understand is the ongoing ghettofying that seems essential to the poetry business, the rule that says that I can’t see the point of J H Prynne whilst also seeing the point of Erica Baum, that says that I’ve got to apply blanket condemnation to all those who might not share my particular view of Adorno / Derrida / Heidegger / Marx.

So, not all conceptualists are bad just as not all Cambridge poets are good. End of short speech whilst reserving the right to repeat it at will. What Place says that is important is the primacy of communication and the real and the absolute need to devise a poetry that is ‘what poetry isn’t’ and to think very, very hard about the rhetoric of witnessing.

The good bits

For those that can’t be bothered to read this seminal piece in its glorious entirety, I present a completely partial and subjective list of quotes that I’m currently learning by heart:

  • Our guilt is all we know of the law;
  • If we fashion a critical poetics out of these approaches, we have, on the surface, a three-chambered ecumenics of: (1a) impotency, by way of penned constellate meaning; (1b) elision, by way of the metaphoric slide, glide, and aside, and (2) reform, by way of errant liberal recombinancy;
  • In other words, and I say this often for a reason, the question becomes whether proffering a multitude of meaning is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether proffering difference or différence is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether embedding the dialogic is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether reading itself is a sufficiently ethical response, whether there is a sufficiently ethical response;
  • That is to say, there must be an excavation, necessarily wrenching, in addition to a radical archiving, necessarily annoying. In other words, it is not enough to walk down the Department hall, or cross a theoretical divide that is not a divide, at least not in practice;
  • In other words, a violent and manacled responsibility, even duty. To what? To insist that poetry is what poetry isn’t;
  • An a-poetics rather insists that, to use another numerical referent, the trinity is the new binary, and there is no dialogue, no call and response because the poem is no longer treated as a text to be read, however many ways and loose, but is cut loose altogether. The poem is simply a site of potential engagement like other works of art are simply sites for potential engagement, and there may be no “reading” just as there may be no “writing,” but a tripartite encounter with a textual surface;
  • And in my Statement of Facts, in which I self-appropriate my legal writing, and unadulterated narrative accounts of sex offenses are re-presented as poetry, the rhetoric of witnessing—and what is the law if not rhetoric? and what is poetry if not rhetoric? and what is law and/or poetry if not the rhetoric of witnessing?—is overtly rendered immaterial;
  • All I know of poetry is of my transgression of poetry. Through a-poetry, radically evil poetry, poetry that cannot be poetry as poetry has been previously conceived, poetry that takes the execution of poetry quite literally and quite stupidly, there is poetry.

The Poems

Issue 4 of Lana Turner contains ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like something in the United States’ and an extract from ‘Triptych’. I think that the first of these is staggeringly brilliant and encapsulates a way to do the poetics that she describes. I don’t think that the ‘Triptych’ extract is in the same league, there is this aspect of Place’s practice that seems to want to demonstrate some kind of credibility which is misplaced and undermines what she’s about.

Place the poet is at her best when she engages with the real blood and guts of the violence that lies at the heart of our world, when she deals with stuff that we’d prefer not to think about, when she shows that she understands the importance of the ‘rhetoric of witnessing’. We all need to pay attention to the work and the rationale that informs it.

2 responses to “Vanessa Place and the Poetics of Radical Evil and some poems

  1. I read your blog regularly and find it really good. This piece is good, too, as is Place’s, tho I think that she like all poets, overestimates the importance of her way of doing things. Not that I don’t admire and read as much of her as I can. But that’s besides the point. What I really want to do, besides offer you a compliment is to ask: you only mention her Statement of Facts, which is just the first volume of her trilogy Tragodía. The other two are called Statement of the Case and Argument. Is there some reason you privilege this over the other volumes? Or is it just shorthand for the project? Anyway, keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading. every time I come here I learn a lot.

    • Thank you for this, I didn’t mention the other two simply because I haven’t read them (yet) so I wasn’t privileging ‘Statement’ in the sense of being better although it has had a dramatic impact on the way I think about this stuff.
      I don’t think she’s perfect by any means – she’s produced some work that annoys me but the essence of her argument is one that we should all pay heed to.

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