Thursday, October 27, 2022

Saba Pakdel : roots


For Woman, Life, Freedom


an inability
an unwillingness
swelling in me

teething – blood in my sore gums
cannot up(roots)

that I exist
that I resist

that I do not forget
that I am unable to un-remember

the pain bodied of my mother(land)

her hair

              combing every morning
fall over my shoulders
that I carry

that I continue her being
that I am the being

that I am
the (mother)land


October 2022




Saba Pakdel is a poet, modernist scholar, and PhD student in the English department at University of Victoria. She specializes in migration studies and contemporary literature with a focus on exile, refugee, and immigration problems, particularly in works of migrant authors from the Global South. In May 2022, Saba published her chapbook In-Between by above / ground press.


Thursday, October 6, 2022







It is impossible to separate poetry, and art generally, from questions of morality, no matter how hard you try. And people have tried, and tried hard, for a very long time. When Oscar Wilde, at the end of the 19th century, famously stated “there is no such thing as moral or immoral books. Books are well written or badly written,” he staked out a post-Pater aesthetic territory that attempted to redefine the parameters of most of the thinking about the question that preceded him. It’s one of three possible relations that Tzvetan Todorov points out have held true over 2000 years of arguments: 1) poetry should be in the service of moral principles that exist beyond it; 2) poetry, art, should define morality, since beauty is the highest form of human activity; and 3) poetry and morality are autonomous from one another, and never the twain etc. Wilde weighed in after a very long time of art and morality being wed in a restrictive bond, with art cinctured by moral codes. Starting with Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the city and continuing pretty much until the mid-19th century, that first relation dominated thinking in the West. Wilde makes the case that the two categories—Art/Beauty and Morality/the Good—are mutually exclusive. But Todorov goes on to argue that even though they are autonomous, Beauty and the Good are connected by three inescapable links—the immoral but necessary cruelty of the artist, the beauty poetry contributes to the world, and the increase of intelligibility it adds. Even at its most disconnected, art, it seems, is still connected to a moral discourse.

Poetry always speaks from the world, or just speaks the world (not to be confused with The World), formed in its particular originating energies, even as it resonates with its source in eternity. Drenched in the sense of our world, poetry utters the wild logos of our condition here at the end of some time we know that is also the beginning of some time we don’t yet know, or only have an inkling of. And in that speaking, that ordering/uttering of the tumult of the world, poetry necessarily touches on realities that are subject to moral judgement, though what that means will depend on how you think morality, or in philosophy’s lingo, the Good, which flows from your imagination of the world, your cosmology. Wilde’s words invoke the frightening spectre of a world in which extraneous moral codes determine what art can and can’t do, regardless of the world art finds itself in and that speaks through it. And the agents of those codes, the censors, are never far away, animated by some frenzied idea of enforced obedience as a remedy for the historical disintegration of the social imaginary significations of the old world. It wasn’t very long ago that every film in North America had to be approved by an official Censorship Board, that D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce were banned from North American bookstores, and all married couples on TV slept in twin beds (although that’s honestly beginning to look preferable to the constant stream of soft core pornography on the telly today).

Censorship is never old news. In so far as there is always a Party of Return, the thinking of further will meet resistance, and censorship is one of the main tools for attempting to hold time back, subject to a purified imagination of an untroubled past of real, recoverable value. A massive wave of censorship is currently sweeping across the U.S. A record number of attempts were made in 2021 to censor books in libraries, and schools, mostly by right-wing religious groups opposed, for instance, to “immoral” (realistic) representations of sexuality, or historical narratives that acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the development of USAmerican culture. And the political/religious right is not alone in this outbreak of censoriousness. A whole new totalitarian movement haunts the post-Wall “left” dedicated to imposing a moralistic view of gender, race, and sexuality in the determination of acceptable art and language. Should you disagree with, or even question, their position, you will likely find yourself blackballed in some hellish social media madness for not toeing the line.

But questions about morality and art are never simple, never limited to black and white, and as with many issues, much of the complexity (and confusion) arises from differing definitions of the same word, in this case what’s meant by “morality.” In the most general sense, it is the knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, the acknowledgement and acceptance of The Good. But depending on how you understand “knowledge,” not mention “right” and “wrong,” the sense can shift radically. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, moral law was literally writ in stone, an immutable code bestowed on humans directly from God. Emerson challenged that idea of morality, recognizing the loss of a foundational ground on which to establish it. “Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand,” he wrote, at a time when science, technology, and business were rapidly replacing the authority of religion and the spiritual knowledge that founded moral knowledge with their own authority to determine what is true. Emerson proposed instead that morality is relational and arises in the necessity, the necessary struggle, to make ourselves intelligible to those we are addressed to, and in that sense to be committed to a further, better self. Stanley Cavell calls this moral perfectionism, where the perfection is not an achievement but a commitment to a process.

In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck is the embodiment of Emerson’s self-reliance. He faces a dilemma that arises from the moralist code written in stone (as well as various legal statutes) that states categorically, Thou shalt not steal. According to the law of the United States, since Huck’s friend, accomplice, and occasional saviour, Jim, is an escaped slave, he is the literal “property” of Miss Polly. The code holds Huck morally obligated to return her stolen property, and since he is struggling to be a moral person, that’s what he decides to do.

But when he starts to think about it, when he looks in Jim’s face and recalls the times Jim has helped him, and saved him, and comforted him, Huck sees a friend, and that friendship is implicated in a moral sense of loyalty, love, and the recognition of a debt. Which will prevail? A code that demands Huck return his friend to a condition of slavery regardless of who he is and what he has done? Or Huck’s knowledge of his obligation to his friend, his commitment to a world of the value of actual relation? Morality for Emerson is a deep experience of right and wrong that arises out of a relation between people. Moralism is not morality. Founded on a code, an immutable set of laws etched in stone, utterly divorced from any human interaction, it is also grounded in a deep structural binarism that divides the world into mutually exclusive categories, beginning with good and evil.

Think of it as a Compulsive Paralytic Binary Syndrome (CPBS). Because questions of morality necessarily involve considerations of the Good, they also invoke its antithesis, the Bad. And since a moralist code is fixed, so are the values of the Good and the Bad which divide the world in half. The code then leads into a perpetual state of proliferating binary-ism where the world divides endlessly into exclusionary categories—good/bad, moral/immoral, masculine/feminine—that spread, fractal-like, into every aspect of your thinking of the world—white/black, strong/weak, sentiment/intellect, male/female, mind/heart, reason/imagination, feeling/thinking—each component a purity. William Blake pictured it as a man and woman tied together back-to-back—a marriage of perpetual isolations, of impossible (sexual) union. He called it a state of Generation.

Emerson confronted it in his reckoning as a minister with the emptiness of church rituals, and especially the ritual of The Last Supper. He became disillusioned seeing people mouth Christian words in church but make no place for them in their workaday lives. It was form bereft of content. Once you separate the ritual act from the content of the act in the most sacred of gestures, the world becomes emptied, unoriginal, a place in which the thinking of truth loses orientation along with a point of origin that guarantees the honesty and virtue of the acts that arise from it or out of it. When general equivalence determines the World, exchange value overwhelms all other modes of value, especially spiritual values that mediate between the human and the divine. Then those values—virtue, honesty, valour, integrity—are degraded and eventually lose meaning. Morality, the moral life, becomes an empty form, much like the ritual of The Last Supper that motivated Emerson’s exit from a religious vocation.

Authentic is a word relevant to this thinking, though it is currently out of favour, even slightly scandalous, in sociological circles, especially in so far as it is associated with the troubled thinking of subject or self. That address, following Theodor Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, defines authentic as an autonomous subject in accord with it’s innermost, “true feelings.” Since in those sociological circles subjective autonomy is seen as an ideological construct, authenticity, according to the Adorno view, is a delusion, an ideological manipulation, designed to facilitate the operation of a free market economy.

But what if we think “self” not as an abstract subject deluded by ideology, but as a process of relational worlded authoritative finitude with the potential to make grow, to create, to author and authorize. This is close to Emerson’s sense of authenticity, out of the Greek root, authentes, self-doer. In that case, authenticity is not about the identity between an abstraction called a “subject” and another abstraction called its “inner feelings.” Authenticity is not about identity at all. It is about difference, the commitment to a further self. It is a measure of the self’s ability to authorize its own address to the furtherness of the world—as Emerson (and Cavell) would say, to make itself intelligible. Then rather than some “subject”’s “voice,” the authenticity of a poem has to do with the manifest struggle within the poem’s language to make the world’s furtherness intelligible. Arguably, to do that is a moral gesture.

As Todorov pointed out, however, morality is sneaky and given half a chance, it will find a way to insinuate itself in some form even into otherwise seemingly anti-moralist stances. Art is vulnerable and finds itself moralized in different ways, even in discourses that claim to reject moralism. Judging work morally objectionable and banning or burning it is only the most obvious mode of attack. Moralism also sneaks in through assumptions about value that seem natural. A perfect example is the opposition between “virtuous sentiment” and the “virtue of intellectual imagination,” two mutually opposed modes of “poetics” recently proposed as part of a critique of the “moralism” of popular poetry that positions itself in line with social justice issues and identity politics. The opposition is presented as a technical distinction with no moral judgment involved. In this anti-moralist aesthetic, virtuous sentiment is moralist in its outlook, which produces inferior poetry, while (the virtue of) intellectual imagination, free of morality, is paradoxically moral in its amoral stance which produces superior poetry.

The option presented here (sentiment vs. intellect) is old and narrow, notwithstanding the updated vocabulary and clever word play. Something called “virtue” plays a role in both categories, though somewhat sneakily. Virtuous is an adjective, virtue a noun, and as the grammatical function shifts in the opposition, so does meaning. In the 13th century, virtue was the quality of a first-class Knight and had to do with strength, even manliness, which makes sense given that the Indo-European root of the word, *wi-ro, means man.  By the end of the 14th century what constituted “moral qualities” had begun to shift as the last remnants of Feudalism and courtly culture faded away and the new market order replaced it. Religious values replaced courtly values, and virtuousness came to signify the possession of excellent moral qualities as defined by religious authorities, especially chastity. And although chastity supposedly applied to both genders, it became feminized in its focus on controlling female sexuality, including the notorious belts which never existed for men. Even today, while someone might speak of a virtuous woman, it’s unlikely they would describe a man that way.

For the Euro American radical intelligentsia who embraced intoxication and sexuality in the 19th century as a tonic for the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of bourgeois culture, “virtue” was a sign of duplicity and shallowness as they witnessed “upstanding” citizens claim to be virtuous by day, while indulging in drunkenness and lechery (and killing the occasional streetwalker) at night. Robert Louis Stevenson nailed it in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That sense of duplicity remains, while the issue has shifted. Whereas 75 years ago virtue had to do with sexual purity, these days it more often refers to political positions involving identity, race and gender, i.e., what is called “virtue signalling,” a negative label for a self-righteous social media behaviour, which, it seems to me, is the sense that informs the phrase, “virtuous sentiment.” On the other hand, and this is definitely an on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand moment, as a noun in the phrase, the virtue of imaginative intellect, it signifies something different, harkening back to the original sense of valour, something noble, even . . . manly.

Once the binary division is established, moral value (good versus bad) immediately slips in to locate one half of the division in the superior position as The Good. It introduces a valuation of two opposed modes of human knowledge, say “sentiment” and “intellect” (or to use an old literary recognition, heart and head, or even behind that, feminine and masculine) finding one wanting in relation to the other, at least as far as poetics are concerned, and poetics are a big deal these days, arguably bigger even than poetry. Partly that’s because poetics sounds kind of scientific, which is good if you want to be taken seriously by people who like measurable, scientific sounding stuff. It’s the ics at the end. ICS. It’s hard and precise, like mathematics, semiotics, axiomatics, probiotics, or athletics. You know something is there when you hear that. It’s serious.

The focus on what’s called poetics is relatively recent. It started around 1960 with Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry. Given the oppositional nature of his anthology, Allen knew he was in for some critical turbulence, that the Authorized Poetic Authorities would dismiss the poetry in his anthology as unworthy of serious attention because of its rejection of preconceived form and traditional conventions, and its embrace of improvisational techniques that were congruent with a shift in world view. In an era when the Poetry Professoriate made its living analysing how many kinds of ambiguity it could discern in a lyric poem, when the metaphor for poetic excellence was a “well-wrought urn,” and poets were expected to fit their “content” into some “form” that pre-existed it as proof of their expertise, the poetry Allen gathered was labelled “uncooked” at best, and at worst mere prose broken into lines. Unworthy of serious consideration as poetry, in any case.

Allen sought to head that off by including a section by poets on their modes of composition. In a final section of his anthology called “Statements on Poetics,” he located the poetry in relation to serious thinking about method and form that arose from and with the poetry. It was meant as support for the poetry. Most of the contributions are short excerpts from poets’ journals or previously written statements where they thought through and articulated the process of their work. Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” a major statement about poetic composition and cosmology that became a rallying point in the poetry wars that followed, was an exception.

First published in Poetry New York in October 1955, and then as a pamphlet by Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) Totem Press in 1959, “Projective Verse” fused Olson’s thinking about poetry, philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, geometry, and history into a wild exploration of our postmodern condition and poetry’s entanglement in it. He begins by displacing the “human” from the centre of the poem’s attention in order to allow in the world and prepare the ground for his emerging vision of the absolute immanence of the divine in the specificities of the mundane, “secular” world. His notion of the “projective” energy of the poem resonated with the same spirit that animated the improvisational work of contemporary jazz musicians. In an academic arena dominated by intricate analyses of formal elements, Olson’s liberating essay dropped like a bomb—a stink bomb, maybe, but a bomb nevertheless.

While Olson posed his open field poetics against the poetics of what he called “closed verse,” he did so to clarify poetry’s response to the profound historical changes we are caught up in. He did not locate it in a moral framework of right versus wrong, nor in a linguistic crisis of referential versus non-referential, but in an historical framework of temporal process (nowpast). And in a necessary cosmology. He did not attempt to make a moral judgement, because he had no theory to measure truth against, no wrong to his right, only a stance which he enacted in his work. All the effort he had put into getting to the place where he could write the projective was part of a transformative spiritual ordeal rather than the development of a theory.

Olson’s trip to Yucatan in 1950 was central to his struggle as he sought a deep somatic relation to meaning specific to the actual space of “America” and outside the box of European modernity. Look, he said, digging his hands in the soil, this is where we are now. This is how Time is moving, this is the turbulence we are all swept up in, this is what it means to our lives and their relations. What forces are in play? What can poetry do to measure that? In this cosmological process, poets need to transform, to become the transforming voice of transformation, that process of emergence. Olson’s friend and companion, Robert Duncan, underwent a similar process of spiritual ordeal in quest for a “poetics,” though in his case the ordeal involved undertaking the epic work that became The H.D. Book. For both poets, achieving a “poetics” involved an actual struggle, and a change, a transformation that led to a new stance or mode of being. Poetry flowed from that. Poetics, from that perspective, is not a “theory” but a transformative struggle alive in every word.

Following Allen’s introduction of poetics as support for poetry, it quickly became an independent focus of energy and attention. Poetics really came to its own in the mid-70s with the ascendence in the U.S. of what’s called generally Language Poetry. As has often been pointed out, Language Poetry was an ambiguous descriptor covering many different writers and modes of writing. Some things, though, they shared, among them a rejection of “representationalism,” a sociological critique of the traditional lyric “I”, and an attention to the thickness of language. They began by creating an exclusive binary division between the thought of language as representation and language as coded difference within a system of signs. Then, not unlike Richard Nixon’s contemporaneous suspension of the gold standard in 1971, they divorced language from a referential ground, cutting signification loose. Quickly colonizing a literary territory called avant-garde, Language Poetry thrived by taking up Olson’s practice of poetry based on scholarship, substituting Adorno and Saussure for Homer and Melville, and sociology for mythology. Their post-Wall post-Marxist Marxism was grounded in materialism and found theoretical support in the post-structuralist European address to language and signification that they buttressed with reference to linguistic critics such as George Lakoff.

In so far as poetics becomes more and more closely identified with theory, which can be studied and learned in classrooms, it opens itself to bursts of moralist judgement. Theory operates within a world of competing ideas that explain phenomena, and based on that explanation propose further practice, say, one ought to write poetry of imaginative intellect rather than poetry of virtuous sentiment. Unlike a spiritual ordeal that yields a stance in-formed by knowledge, theory yields an idea that competes with other ideas.

The rejection of theories of the autonomous subject in control of representational language (meaning as the identity of word and object) gave rise to theories of a socially constructed self informed by ideology, and of language as self-referential (meaning as a result of difference within the system), as if this binary consisted of the only two legitimate ways of understanding how language works. If self is ideology at work, then sentiment is ideology’s net, it’s honey trap. “Imaginative intellect” is another story. There is no sloppy, sentimental self there. By joining imagination and intellect, two pure, abstracted modes of mind, the phrase implicitly rules out the impure “not-mind” of Western thinking: emotion, also known as heart, and in a “degraded” form, as sentiment, or, in Adorno-speak, true feelings, those nasty, ideologically conditioned modes of being of a socially constructed self.

Based on that division, this new poetics proposes a correct way of composing poetry, one that is free of the unconscious domination of ideology’s formation and manipulation of desire. Like all such abstract value systems, the category overwhelms the particulars that make it up. What individual poems do beyond signalling virtue or being imaginatively intellectual is lost. The specificity of judgement in relation to the actual work of this poem or that poem disappears in the face of a categorical moralist judgement which identifies a degraded mode of writing —“virtuous sentiment”—to be rejected in all cases. But while the judgement might superficially seem avant-garde, a deeper examination uncovers an age-old misogyny which identifies and rejects sloppy feelings and sentimental schlock because it is linked to the feminine (heart, feeling, sentiment). I doubt that the author of this critical binary had any such sexist point in mind, but such is the power of the Compulsive Paralytic Binary Syndrome to sweep us into moralist lockdowns without our even knowing.

The issue is poiesis, or the relation to poiesis, the event of the making of the poem. Poiesis, from whence our word “poetry,” etymologically “to make,” names the entangled process of the emergence of form/meaning. The question is, as a poet, what is your relation to that process? In a way, when it comes to poetry (which, given its name, has a special relation to poiesis) the difference between poiesis and poetics echoes Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis but reversed. For Aristotle, if poiesis is “to make,” its goal is oriented toward something beyond itself—a pot, a ship, a painting, a poem—unlike praxis which for Aristotle is action undertaken strictly for itself, for the value implicit in it—returning money you found, helping someone who fell get up. That distinction was made in a world in which poetry had a recognized value and a significant status. Given the minor status of poetry in our culture of general equivalence and spectacle, poiesis, the making of the poem, is an act, generally speaking, undertaken for its own sake.

That’s not always true. Some writers find ways to use poetry for personal advancement: a limited kind of fame, prize money, status positions, departmental promotions, even, occasionally if they are lucky, sex. But for every one of those Players, a thousand other poets write neither for gold nor glory but simply because they must, even in the currently degraded world of poetry competitions and low-level prizes. They write because they know on some level poetry matters. Poetry calls them into its orders of language and attention. Some do it spontaneously and sporadically out of a deep impulse. Others do it studiously and regularly responding to and fitting into the centuries of poetry that precedes them. Some write from deep feelings of anger over injustice or the ever-astonishing joy of love. Some write out of intellectual excitement. Some write in a scholarly frenzy. Some write for fun. Some are possessed. Some do it badly. Some do it exquisitely. Some bore you. Some excite you. Some teach you. The difference has to do with the nature of their poetearmind, the way the poets sounding of the poem thinks. That’s poetry--thinkingsounding.

The issue is not this theory or that theory, this poetics or that poetics, virtuous sentiment or the virtue of imaginative intellect. Poetics has a goal in mind. It’s relation to poiesis is disciplinary, the production of a specific mode of composition. That can produce interesting poetry given the poetearmind of the writer, a necessity even for imaginative intellectuals. It also produces a lot of dreck given the rarity of the poetearmind. The kinds of composition I am thinking of here engage poiesis as an ordeal, an action, a struggle to achieve unprecedented truths in language events, say even, authentic language events, specific events that have no goal beyond their own transformative articulation.

I read somewhere that I have now forgotten that poiesis, to make, was first an action that transforms and continues the world. That makes sense. Morality enters in so far as the maker, through a spiritual ordeal, comes in touch with actual energies that she transforms into language events that continue those energies. It is not a question of technical production. Nor is it a question of linguistic theory. It is not even a question of creation in some romantic sense. Poetry gives voice to thinking reconciled with matter, time, and spirit, locating person in their actual world. The poet’s soul is tuned to frequencies most people are unaware of and her job is to transform those energies into language that remains true to them. Morality haunts poetry just here, because there is no greater good than the virtue of truth.






Michael Boughn is the author of numerous books of poetry including Cosmographia, A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic which was short listed for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and Hermetic Divagations—After H.D. He co-edited Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book with Victor Coleman, and from 2016-2020 he and Kent Johnson edited and produced the notorious online journal, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. His most recent books are The Book of Uncertain—A Hyperbiographical User’s Manual (Spuyten Duyvil, 2022) and Uncertain Remains (BlazeVox, 2022). Measure’s Measures, a selection of essays, is due out from Station Hill Press in 2022.

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