Thursday, November 15, 2007

* * * VOLUME ONE (2007): CONTINGENCY * * *





Editors, "After Contingency"

A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

ISSN 1938-3592

VOLUME ONE (2007):

After Contingency: Reflections On/Following Volume One

Our call for work, which you may find reprinted below, proposed an issue addressing various aspects of contingency. Thanks to a robust field of submissions, we have achieved more than we had initially hoped to accomplish in this inaugural volume.

38 + 1(6) = five essays, three interviews, seventeen poems, six prose works, seven book reviews, and one special feature written by six other contributors. All submissions and works accepted for publication were reviewed by the editorial board and/or by other external reviewers. Nearly all of the final documents were revised prior to launching/publishing.

Reconfigurations is an open-access, annual, independently managed, peer-reviewed journal for poetics and poetry & literature and culture that aims to build bridges among different national and international communities.

Our work here turns upon generative contradictions. We are both outside of established institutional hierarchies of process and production (we are online in the form of a blog) and we are the epitome of such systems (we are peer-reviewed). We seek to gather and present both creative and scholarly texts—a judiciously selected diversity of genres/modes and forms of discourse. We exist as a dynamic space for readers and writers invested in tradition and innovation. Such dedication to both/and, such inclusion of opposition, is required by our project of reconfiguration.

Works are accepted for editorial review between April 1 and August 1. Reconfigurations launches/publishes during the month of November.

Reconfigurations is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. For permissions beyond the scope of that license, please contact the Editor <showard@du.edu>.

We welcome your participation. Comments and suggestions may be submitted via the post-a-comment links.

The theme for volume two will be Process: Fields of Signification. CFW forthcoming.

The Editors, November, 2007

158 / 120 / 38 + 1(6) = submissions / rejections / publications

2007 CFW: Contingency

A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

Volume 1: Contingency

Submission Deadline: August 1, 2007

Publication Date: November, 2007

Call for Work: Abstracts, criticism, dialogues, essays, fictions, interviews, manifestos, poems, reviews, statements, translations, vectors & whatnots.

Guidelines: The inaugural issue of Reconfigurations <
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/> seeks innovative writing that devises/defends (aptly, playfully, seriously) relationships between poetry and the world. In many journals (major and minor) one of the recent topics of vigorous debate has been informed by a cluster of perennial questions about the relevance (artistic, cultural, intellectual) of experimental poetics and poetry. Who can read and enjoy such work? Must innovative writing be difficult? What does contemporary poetry contribute to the world-at-large? The word contingency conjures an array of nuanced meanings: affinity, immanence/imminence, willfulness, hap, autonomy/conditionality, uncertainty, collaboration, accident, particularity/possibility, incidence . . . . Reconfigurations invites submissions that engage with that diversified field of signification.

Electronic Submissions: Send attachments, URLs, etc. to <

CONTINGENCY: Close connexion or affinity of nature; close relationship. The quality or condition of being contingent. The condition of being liable to happen or not in the future; uncertainty of occurrence or incidence. The befalling or occurrence of anything without preordination; chance; fortuitousness. The condition of being free from predetermining necessity in regard to existence or action; hence, the being open to the play of chance, or of free will. The quality or condition of being subject to chance and change, or of being at the mercy of accidents. A chance occurrence; an event the occurrence of which could not have been, or was not, foreseen; an accident, a casualty. A thing that may or may not happen. A conjuncture of events occurring without design; a juncture. An event conceived or contemplated as of possible occurrence in the future. A possible or uncertain event on which other things depend or are conditional; a condition that may be present or absent. A thing or condition of things contingent or dependent upon an uncertain event. A thing incident to something else; an uncertain incident; an incidental expense, etc.



Sunday, November 11, 2007

* * * ESSAYS * * *

Osita Ezeliora, "The Swedish Academy"

Osita Ezeliora
Literature and Language Studies
University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, South Africa

The Swedish Academy, the Politics of the Nobel Prize, and My Africa

May I resume this simple, innocent statement with a brief remark on the general misconceptions that have come to define Western perceptions of Africa and her children. Some of us had believed, uncritically, that contemporary global advancement in technology, particularly the developments in the audio-visual techniques in telecommunications and television would lead to a better understanding of our common humanity. Evidence abound, however, that commercialism, deliberate governmental propagandas and the irresistible urge to re-colonize the world through military engagements, and the cultural modes of films, radio and the whole tribe of the media department has continued to produce a greater number of “illiterates” across the world. You only need to listen to a typical American television talk show to observe how uninformed the average American is about anything else outside his immediate milieu. To him, his house is ‘the best in the world’, his army is ‘the best in the world’, his cottage is ‘the best in the world’, his backyard is ‘the best in the world’, his wrestler is ‘the strongest man in the world’, his food is ‘the sweetest in the world’, his city is ‘the most beautiful in the world’, and so, we might conveniently add, his stupidity is ‘the most profound in the world’.

The Igbo have a saying: it is the child who has never visited another man’s farm that beats his chest every morning to proclaim that his father’s farm is the largest in the world. This simple proverbial assertion leads ultimately to an understanding of the psychology of the Igbo in their quest for knowledge, adventure, and the sheer competitiveness for success that has come to mark him out, many observers and analysts say, as the most entrepreneurial and inquisitive of the black race. Thus the average Igbo would often remind his neighbour that ‘a widely travelled child has more wisdom that the grey-haired old man sleeping at home all his life’.

Why have I chosen to go this route? It is clear to me that the long history of the relationship that had existed between Africa and Europe has not diminished the jaundiced perception which most Europeans had, and still have of Africa since the middle ages: the patterns of ethnographic categorizations which had classified human intelligence on the basis of pigmentation appear, though, to be waning out in recent time: after all, mega-media structures in the likes of the CNN and the BBC acknowledged the ingenuity of an Igbo child-soldier of the Nigeria-Biafra war, Philip Emeagwali, whose resilience and resourcefulness has made available to the world the facilities of the International Network. What many Africans never imagined thus happened: the CNN acknowledging a black man as ‘Father of the Internet’. The world celebrated it; the American parliament honoured him; the presidency represented by the nation’s chief executive at the time, Bill Clinton, eulogised his accomplishments. For a while, we believed that pigmentation no longer matters--
many of us still do: after all, the acceptance of the subalterns in areas previously preserved for the ‘untouchables’ is increasing geometrically; even inter-racial marriages is now taken for granted, given that it is not only very fashionable in some quarters, but also because such conjugal relationships have produced some of the most beautiful specie of humanity. Many white women, today, openly declare that black men make better husbands--a statement that would have raised eyebrows once upon a time. When, recently, news came that Professor Esogbue, another Nigerian scientist of Igbo extraction played very prominent role as part of the team of scientists that designed the un-manned space ship at NASA, it was jubilation galore all over the African continent. “At last”, many screamed, “they are beginning to give us the opportunity to prove our mettle”.

This brings me to the ultimate question: where is the place of SWEDEN in the recent efforts by world powers to demonstrate their humanity to the so-called third world countries? I am particularly concerned, here, with the Swedish connection with the many peoples of Africa. I’d like, at this point, to remind you that not many people in Africa, obviously for some slight phonological reason, know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland. You might guess why: there is a ‘SWI’ in Sweden, and a ‘SWI’ in Switzerland. Again, as the Igbo would say, ‘because all lizards lie prostrate, it is difficult to tell which of them suffers from stomach-ache’. But while many people do not know the difference between Sweden and Switzerland, a lot of Africans do know, however, that one of the two countries is notorious for encouraging African dictators, avaricious criminals and sundry rogues to defraud their nations and to loot their national treasuries. A lot of Africans know that the recurrent cycle of poverty that appear insurmountable in the continent is largely a making of one of the two countries, which also provide banking facilities for the looted funds from Africa. Are you then surprised that a large segment of the Western media would confine itself to feeding you only with information about famine in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, war in Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, HIV/AIDS in the Southern African sub-region and, of course, the spectacular news about rape and crimes of all sorts in South Africa?

The western media might not necessarily be wrong in all of these negative images painted of Africa. Where we are worried is that the same media hardly remind their privileged audience that many Euro-American nations are accomplices in the continued perpetuation of crime, disease, structured patterns of impoverishment and, consequently, the continuing decimation of the African humanity. I do hope that Sweden is not the ‘SWI’ country that has brought so much pain to the people of Africa.

Somehow, believe it or not, I feel quite persuaded that Sweden and Switzerland are two separate countries. Like many of my friends and colleagues, we have come to venerate this Scandinavian nation for the visions, insights and cultural prognostications of one of her great leaders, Gustaf 111 who, way back in 1786, established the ‘Swedish Academy’ with the sublime goal of propagating and projecting the ‘purity, vigour and majesty of the Swedish language’ so as to ensure its ‘clarity, expressiveness and prestige’. In spite of the many problems she encountered at the beginnings, the Academy has survived for over two hundred years with eminent secretaries and administrators that include Nils Von Rosenstein (1786-1824), Bernhard von Beskow (1834-1868), Carl David of Wirsen (1884-1912), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1913-31), Anders Osterling (1941-64), amongst others.

If any cultural engagement ever sold Sweden to the world, it is precisely the prestigious award of the Nobel Prize, especially for Literature that got included in the many functions of the Academy since the beginning of the 20th century. Within this period, over 90 writers have won the Prize in Literature, some of whom are Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Rudyard Kipling, Anatole France, Romain Rolland, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neil, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Samuel Becket, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and the many other accomplished writers that, for reasons of space, would not be accommodated in this short essay. These awards, I believe, are well deserved, and the winners have all contributed immensely to the global understanding of our universal humanity in varying virtuosities.

But many observers have often wondered whether fairness is part of the game in the award of the Nobel Prize. This suspicion arises in discussions of the mentalities of the Swedish Academy in its relationship with Africans, especially in its perception of black African writers. A widely held view is that the Swedish Academy is not synonymous with the United Nations or the World Bank and that the issue of fairness does not arise. The Academy, it is argued, is an organization founded on the goodwill of a Swedish patriot and visionary who was determined to market the linguistic and cultural elegance of his people. To this end, no one has the right to interrogate the propriety of its decisions in matters of awarding laureates to whomever it chooses. It could decide to award the Nobel Prize to whoever dances to the tune of Europe’s intrigues and political calling. In recent time, however, even this view could be challenged: the world is aware of the refusal of Sweden to join the clamour for a European common currency, and we watched with dismay as one of her very charming daughters got assassinated recently for what appears obviously to be for her political beliefs. The world watched, surprised, because it is often taken for granted that such pattern of killings is only associated with the so-called third world countries of Africa.

A more commonly held view, however, is that as deserving as they are of the Nobel Prize, many black African writers might never win it because of their unrepentant attack on the European notion of superiority. Sometime in 1998, a renowned Polish-American scholar of African and English Literatures, Professor Bernth Lindfors during his occasional visits to Nigeria, had spoken frankly to an assembly of students at Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, on how he has often looked forward to Chinua Achebe winning the Nobel Prize for Literature at the turn of each year, and had prayed: “I hope he gets it in his life time”. He had probably read the minds of the thousands of students who were eager to ask him basic questions on the politics of such awards and, somehow, he was strongly of the position that if anyone actually deserves such an award in Africa, from Cape to Cairo, Chinua Achebe has to be the one.

This does not imply, of course, that Achebe is the only African writer so deserving of the award. Indeed, while Achebe rightly occupies a foremost seat for consideration, the Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiongo stands quite close to him, as does the Ghanaian Ayi kwei Armah and Nigeria’s Buchi Emecheta. But why has nearly all commentators on the politics of the Nobel Prize often hammered on Chinua Achebe as the most acceptable choice? It does seem that Achebe’s brutal frankness in matters of race relations, which, many claim, must have infuriated many Europeans, will always come into play. Achebe has never argued for a superior African black pigmentation just as he has never accepted its inferiority to anyone anywhere in the world. In an interesting essay he wrote in the late 1970s, ‘Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South’, he had averred: “Many Europeans have made enormous contributions towards the understanding of Africa in Europe. Some of them have even helped us to see ourselves anew in the freshness of an itinerant perspective” (Achebe 1988:16). Achebe, in this reaction to the many centuries of Europe’s refusal to listen to the subaltern, had cited the instance of a former British Governor of Rhodesia (Southern Africa) in the 1950s who, when asked to explain the “partnership” between black and white in his territory, had no hesitation in defining such partnership as the one that exists “between the horse and its rider!” (Achebe 15). For the British colonialist, the African would always be a horse! But is this position also true of the Swedish?

I dare not take a position on this last question, for, after all, the Swedish do not have the odious reputation of being colonizers--at least, not in my Africa. But the central point has been made: Europe’s audition to the African predicament through the course of history has been defective and selective; her vision is equally selective; Europe’s memory of Africa is selective just as her amnesia remains selective. It took a Chinua Achebe at the Belgium lecture to address this frustration on the part of Africans in their dealings with their white over-lords: “I realize that all white people cannot be exactly of one mind or equally guilty of too much transmission and too little reception; I realize that all Europeans did not participate to the same degree in the events of modern African history. But despite local qualifications that would be made here and there, I believe that the major outline of my thesis is correct” (Achebe 1988: 16).

Achebe’s thesis, which runs through his numerous imaginative writings and profound scholarship rests on the need for a common and universal humanity; it resides on the premise that pre-colonial Africa, with all its imperfection, did not hear of culture for the first time from Europe. In Things Fall Apart, a novel that has been translated into over forty languages, with over fifteen million copies sold, Achebe imaginatively reinvents a pre-colonial African society with a robust sense of values: a society that exemplifies the ingenuity of the often talked-about traditional African through an admirable sense of productive craft. Awka, one of the many towns East of the Niger, archaeologists have discovered, was notable for iron-smiting and was involved in magnificent technological inventions prior to the incursion of western civilization. The hoes and machetes used for agricultural purposes, and the weaponries used for the occasional wars that erupted in many of these societies were said to have been invented by these so-called traditional technologists. The culture of ‘gun salutes’ during the burial of ozo-titled men and other people of great accomplishments were part of a bourgeoning tradition that was in existence prior to the advent of Europeans to Africa. The design and invention of the nkpo-ani, the traditional ‘gun’ used during such festivities remains a historical fact. The immense archaeological findings in Eastern Nigeria especially at the sites in Igbo-Ukwu and the neighbouring towns of Ora-Eri, Amichi, Nnobi, amongst others, attest to a memory of productiveness that lasted over twenty centuries before the arrival of Western merchants, missionaries, and colonialist mercenaries. This epochal sense of inventiveness is evident in Achebe’s novels of pre-colonial Africa.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe also presents a traditional society with a fine sense of entertainment that subsume wrestling contests, poetry, dance and music; a democratic society where the young is trained from childhood to “wash his hands properly” so as to be able to “dine with elders”; a society where agriculture enjoyed a pride of place and every member of the community, male and female, desires to be a champion of the farm, be it in yam, cassava, or cocoyam production. Achebe successfully presents of Umuofia an archetypal Igbo and, indeed, an African community with a profound sense of justice where “ there are no lawyers and there are no liars”. To a European reader-audience unfamiliar with aspects of African cosmological discourse that necessitates the supremacy of truth and honour in the absence of the western-type legalistic structures, the system would always be fascinating, if only such a person is prepared to listen.

Whether it is in his Things Fall Apart, No Longer At Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Chike and the River, Girls at War, Anthills of the Savannah, Beware Soul Brother, Morning Yet On Creation Day, The Trouble With Nigeria, Hopes and Impediments, Home and Exile, or in his other numerous short stories, poetry, and essays scattered everywhere in Literary magazines, the search for justice, racial equality and the economic emancipation of humankind has always been the preoccupation of Chinua Achebe. Till date, Achebe remains the most venerated African novelist, dead or alive. This is an accomplishment that came with the long years of struggle, of resilience, and absorption of all kinds of criticism, be it constructive or otherwise. There is hardly any novelist-scholar who has inspired the over 500 million African audience and the rest of the world more than Chinua Achebe with respect to the propagation and projection of Africa’s cultural identity and racial equality. It is instructive that even Ngugi wa Thiongo--himself a worthy son of Africa and a deserving candidate for any literary award that has any claim to integrity--would pronounce Chinua Achebe as a major influence on him as a writer. The young Ngugi had not only read Achebe as an undergraduate during which period he says he has “a sense of the Igbo”, but also he had the privilege of meeting him in person during a seminar organised by the Makerere University, Uganda, in 1962.

“Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the two American presidents to have visited Nigeria while they were in office”, writes Prof. Harry Garuba, “each had course to refer to Chinua Achebe’s works when making policy statements to their Nigerian audiences” (Garuba 2003:276). Such is the veneration Achebe commands that practically every university that matters, as well as most African governments--from Nigeria to South Africa--have had to honour themselves in honouring him. One recalls that about ten years after Achebe’s insistence that Europe should learn to listen, if there must be proper dialogue between North and South, another leading African novelist from South Africa, Nadine Gordimer, in ‘Living In The Interregnum’, echoed a similar request when she asserts that the white in South Africa “has become highly conscious of a dependency on distorted vision induced since childhood”, and suggests that “the way to begin entering history out of a dying white regime is through setbacks, encouragements and rebuffs from others, and frequent disappointment in oneself. A necessary learning process . . .”. Gordimer, of course, herself a Jewish white, is convinced that Africans never really slept in history per se, and so all superficial efforts to write the African off history would fail. So, she had suggested to the white world: “There is no forgetting how we could live if only we could find the way. We must continue to be tormented by the ideal . . . Without the will to tramp toward that possibility, no relations of whites, of the West, with the West’s formerly subject peoples can ever be free of the past, because the past, for them, was the jungle of Western capitalism, not the light the missionaries thought they brought with them” (Gordimer 209-225).

The experience of South Africa is a matter of recent history and, as I am writing this piece, South Africa is celebrating her 10th Anniversary of democratic dispensation. Do we need to over-flog the beauty of listening instead of only transmitting, which Achebe had so much decried?

As the founding editor of William Heinemann’s ‘African Writers’ Series’, Chinua Achebe applied himself into editing the first one hundred titles of that series without charging a cent from the Heinemann’s publishing outfit; at the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war, he founded at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, OKIKE: An African Journal of New Writing, a fine literary journal of creative writing and criticism that provided voice for the emerging African literary intelligentsia, and it is worthy of note that most of the major scholars and writers from Africa and beyond got their earlier endeavours published by OKIKE. Major contributors to African literary scholarship such as Isidore Okpewho, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike, Charles Nnolim, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Romanus Egudu, Emmanuel Obiechina, Donatus Nwoga, Theo Vincent, Clement Okafor, Niyi Osundare, Juliet Okonkwo, Patrick Wilmot, Ossie Enekwe, amongst others, all appeared in OKIKE. Achebe also founded Aka Ikenga another journal in his Igbo language also at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was also instrumental to the founding of the United States’- based African Commentary. The list is actually endless, and the obvious question is: who has done more towards the growth and development of African Literature? Who has inspired the emerging African writers more than the founding editor of the ‘African Writers’ Series’? Who has provided the finest space, within Africa, to the young scholars of African literature and culture more than the founding editor of OKIKE? Who has inspired young Nigerian writers more than the founding President of the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA)?

Professors Emmanuel Obiechina, Eustace Palmer, Ernest Emenyonu, Dan Izevbaye, Bernth Lindfors, Wole Soyinka (a Nobel laureate), Oladele Taiwo, G.D. Killam, C.L. Innes, Simon Gikandi, Ali Mazrui, Biodun Jeyifo, Samuel Asein, Harry Garuba, Kalu Ogba, Theo Vincent, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, and the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, just to mention a few, have all honoured Chinua Achebe in very percipient essays and speeches that would challenge not only the visually impaired, but also even any literary magistrate caught in the web of selective and afflicted audition.

The world has since begun to acknowledge individual achievements without recourse to racial pigmentation. In spite of the general perception of American arrogance and what some see as her stupidity, that country will be atop the world for several years to come--and I wish her well. She deserves every bit of the progress she has made so far in ensuring her pride of place in scientific and technological advancement: she is there because she has recognized the beauty of our common humanity and has been able to bring out the best in the likes of Professors Emeagwali, Esogbue, Nnaji, and Oyibo. But will Sweden and the Swedish Academy ever concede to the theory of a common humanity? I feel reluctant to risk a response to this question, which, I believe, only the named institutions can. But I also feel tempted to respond in the affirmative; after all, there is one black man, Wole Soyinka, in the list of the Swedish Academicians. And as the Igbo would say, “ikwu amaghi, ibe ezi ya”(it is the duty of neighbours and relatives to advise an erring and confused brother). The Swedish Academy has done well by extending the frontiers of what was originally meant to be a project for the advancement of Swedish language and culture to writers all over Europe and beyond. The Academy deserves to be commended by anyone genuinely interested/trained in literature and criticism. In extending its frontiers beyond Sweden, however, its engagements might at a point in time, with good reasons, be seen as very political. Nothing probably suggests this widely held view than the Academy’s continued exclusion of black African writers whose literary accomplishments, many insist, outweigh those of many of the previous winners. Chinua Achebe and his “son”--Ngugi--have done excellently well in this regard.

Given my encounter with the works of many of the previous winners of the Nobel Prize, I believe that the Swedish Academy is an institution of profound honour. But it can no longer afford the luxury of subjecting this positive testimony of its integrity to suspicion. We are living in the African century, and there is no greater honour the Academy could do to itself as an institution than to honour the most revered African novelist(s). It’s time the Academy dropped the decadent mantle of Euro-modernism to embrace the classical imaginative output of black African writers and, especially, my Africa.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. ‘Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South’, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-87. London: Heinemann, 1988.

Garuba, Harry. ‘Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society’. Public Culture. 15.2 (2003): 276.

Gordimer, Nadine. ‘Living in the Interregnum’. In Race and Literature. Charles Malan (ed). South Africa: CENSAL Publication, 15 (1988): 209-225.

Lindfors, Bernth. 1998. ‘Lectures’ at the Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, Nigeria.

‘Swedish Academy, History of’,

‘Swedish Academy, The Nobel Prize in Literature – Laureates’,

Osita Ezeliora taught African and British literatures in Nigeria’s Ogun State University for about ten years. An Andrew W. Mellon scholar, he recently completed doctoral research on the new directions in Post-Apartheid South African Novel of English expression at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where he currently teaches Post-Apartheid and Postcolonial literatures.

Bill Freind, "Inquiring Minds Want to Know"

Bill Freind
Rowan University

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Kent Johnson’s Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets

From the staged brawls on The Jerry Springer Show to rappers whose beefs occasionally turn deadly to the screaming heads on cable news shows, American culture has elevated public confrontation to a minor art form. Yet there’s one area that remains astonishingly genteel, at least in public: poetry. It used to be that poetic displays of anger and resentment were almost as common as bad love poems, as writers as diverse as Catullus, Dante, Pope, and Pound all demonstrate, but the satirical attack poem has largely vanished in America since World War II. In Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets, Kent Johnson shows that he’s doing his part to both resuscitate and renovate the satirical epigram. His epigrams are caustic and often very funny, but they’re much more than mere insults. Instead, they highlight the ways in which reputations are (or are not) made in contemporary poetry, as well as the attendant ambitions and partially-disguised careerism. Given its insights into the dynamics of fame, Epigramititis is simultaneously a deft critique and an ambivalent celebration of contemporary American poetry.

Johnson came to a sort of prominence for his role in the Araki Yasusada affair. Allegedly a Hiroshima survivor who had died in 1972, Yasusada achieved posthumous recognition when his poems were published in translation in a variety of journals in Europe and North America in the 1990’s. However, it soon came out that Yasusada was an invention and many readers now assume that Johnson, who holds the copyright, was in fact the author—a claim which Johnson denies. Instead, he insists that Tosa Motokiyu, a pseudonym for a person who is now dead, was the actual author. Not surprisingly, the possibility that a white man appropriated (or impersonated, or utilized—the choice of verb matters quite a bit) the voice of Japanese survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima led to some strong denunciations. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that the Yasusada project displayed an extraordinary understanding of the complexities of the various factions and fiefdoms in both contemporary poetry and the North American academy. For instance, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada,
[1] a collection of Yasusada’s work, provided the materials for its own mini-industry: it included not only poems, drafts and letters ostensibly written by Yasusada, but also a brief biography of Yasusada, essays by Marjorie Perloff[2] and Mikhail Epstein, and an interview with Johnson—practically a prepublished course packet. Its provocative use of issues related to race, gender and history seemed designed to elicit passionate debate and Johnson’s framing of these hot-button issues was so sharp that it amounted to a meta-commentary on the academic-poetic complex.

Johnson is continuing that commentary, in part by carving out a niche as the closest thing in contemporary poetry to a gossip columnist. Celebrity gossip is predicated on some mixture of admiration, contempt, jealousy and schadenfreude, and the skilled purveyor of gossip must intimately understand how the mechanisms of fame operate at that time. Consequently, gossip columnists exist in a kind of netherworld: they are recognized and, occasionally, even famous, but while they can make or break celebrities they are not quite celebrities themselves, since they are simultaneously inside and outside the economy of celebrity. That’s a pretty accurate analogy to Johnson’s role in the poetry world. On the one hand, the diversity and quality of his body of work should make him a major force in North American poetry. Johnson has published a book of translations of poems written in the poetry workshops organized by Ernesto Cardenal throughout Nicaragua during the Sandinista era;
[3] edited a collection of contemporary Russian poetry;[4] co-edited an anthology of essays and poems by writers who examine the influence of Buddhism on their work;[5] translated, with Forrest Gander, two books by the extraordinary Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz;[6] and published a number of books of poetry including, in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, what I think are some of the most powerful political poems written in English in the last thirty years.[7] On the other hand, Johnson has displayed an impressive ability to infuriate a wide range of poets and critics, which I believe is the central reason why he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves.[8] Johnson himself is well aware of his position, writing in the Author’s Note to Epigramititis “This book is fated to be assiduously ignored by the Poetry Establishment, ‘mainstream’ and ‘experimental,’ the two sides of its ancient coin.”[9] Johnson doesn’t position himself as marginalized; instead he claims to be almost irrelevant. Still, Johnson states that his book will be “assiduously ignored” (emphasis added) and the adverb suggests a willfulness on the part of the “Poetry Establishment,” as if the mere presence of this book acts as an irritant or allergen, even if it isn’t being read. Although Epigramititis hasn’t received a large number of reviews, I’ve heard stories (and in a paper dealing with gossip, second- and third-hand stories are legitimate sources) of poets passing Epigramititis around at readings, looking up epigrams (their own and others) with a mixture of horror and fascination.

Those are the same emotions that Johnson seems to feel for the “celebrities” in the post-avant, as indicated by the epigraph by Catullus that opens Epigramititis: “Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? / nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.” Johnson offers no translation, but here’s one from Guy Lee: “I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that? / I don’t know, but I feel it happening, and am racked.”

While Catullus’ poem alludes to his conflicting passions for Lesbia, the lover who is the subject of much of his work, Johnson’s
epigraph is about the poetry world, i.e., not just the poetry that is written and published, but also the ambitions, rivalries, and petty squabbling that are an inextricable but often overlooked part of that work. Furthermore, Epigramititis implicitly suggests why the poetic satire in North America has slipped into a coma: the poetry world is simultaneously all but invisible to the public at large and so fragmented that most readers will be unable to identify at least a few of the targets in Johnson’s poems, which highlights the deep irony in the entire concept of poetic celebrity. That means that Johnson’s epigrams, like the traditional epigram, are a kind of attempt to seize the mechanisms of poetic fame—both to praise those who deserve it (Johnson cites Eleni Sikelianos, Robert Creeley and Eliot Weinberger, as well as a few others) and to disparage those writers whose reputation, according to the epigrammatist, has exceeded or outlived their talent—even as the epigrams parody the desire for poetic reputation.[11] That’s a pose, of course, but it’s nonetheless an interesting revision of the epigrammatic tradition.

Epigramititis differs from traditional epigrams in another way: each poem includes a drawing or photograph on the facing page, but they’re metaphorical, not literal representations of the poet. These images are the equivalent of the paparazzo shot, that staple of celebrity journalism: the common denominator is that they are intended to make the subject look bad. Robert Pinsky is paired with a photo of a used car salesman, and Johnson discusses this in an interview with John Bradley that’s forthcoming at the journal Plantarchy:

“Now, let me say again, this has nothing to do with Robert Pinsky as a person—nor even as a poet, speaking in the main. I mean, Pinsky is a magnificently gifted person, I don’t think many people doubt that. But talent or personality have nothing to do with it: He has a starring role in the whole institutional drama titled “Poetry Biz and Its Discontents” and the soap opera (post-avant poets as the token minority characters) is just awful—a tragicomedy of stupid plot and embarrassingly cheap scenery. Exactly what used automobiles have to do with it, admittedly, I’m not certain, but I suspect there is some connection there . . . ”.

Johnson's irony is unmistakable, since many people involved with post-avant poetries would doubt that Pinsky is a “magnificently gifted poet.” (I suspect Johnson himself is a doubter; I certainly am.) Additionally, Johnson’s professed confusion about why he might have paired Pinsky with a used car salesman echoes the epigram itself: “I, too, dislike him, / though I’m not sure why (37).

As poet laureate, and now as de facto poet laureate emeritus, Pinsky, as Johnson notes, continues to play a role in which he is required to bemoan the irrelevance of poetry in the US, while coming up with solutions (or, some might say, gimmicks) to change this state of affairs. The epigram, which reworks Marianne Moore’s widely anthologized “Poetry,” suggests that as poet laureate Pinsky is the visible face of poetry in the United States, while the image contends that Pinsky has attempted to foist poetry to a largely uninterested public, just as a sleazy car salesman might use the hard sell to move a lemon off the lot. I think Pinsky operates as a kind of shorthand for other poetry salesmen such as Ted Kooser, another former laureate; John Barr, the investment banker who presides over the more than $100 million endowment at the Poetry Foundation; and Dana Gioia, the former VP of marketing at General Foods who now directs the National Endowment for the Arts.
[13] Each of these men has explicitly called for marketing poetry as if it were a product.[14] That’s where the irony of the photo really comes into focus: even a dismal used car salesman has a better sales record than these guys.

Pinsky’s epigram is somewhat anomalous, since the images and poems in Epigramititis more typically slide into outright mockery. For instance, John Ashbery gets a reproduction of Brian, the talking dog from the animated sitcom The Family Guy; Brian is holding a martini, a clear nod to the stories about Ashbery’s prodigious drinking. It’s a cheap shot, but in many ways both gossip and the epigram are based on the cheap shot. Byron later described English Bards and Scotch Reviewers as a “miserable record of misplaced anger and indiscriminate acrimony,”
[15] which is both largely true and exactly why we still read the poem: like gossip, the satire is sometimes more effective and more enjoyable when it’s not completely accurate. The comparison to Byron is apt on at least one level, since Johnson seeks a position that’s roughly analogous to Byron’s in the Preface to Don Juan, attacking the Language poets just as Byron savaged the Lakers. Charles Bernstein serves as Johnson’s Robert Southey, that is, the former radical who has sold out for mainstream respectability. Bernstein, who with Bruce Andrews co-edited the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, moved on to an endowed chair at the University of Buffalo and now holds an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania and has even appeared in television advertisement for The Yellow Pages.[16] Here’s Bernstein’s epigram:

“Pity the aardvark; he seems
at once lost in the Ivy of the zoo
and strangely at home, too” (35).

If for a good slice of the poetry reading public, “language poetry” is still a pejorative, Bernstein has somehow managed to move from outlaw to mainstream, a change that has at the very least complicated his trenchant critiques of official verse culture. The accompanying image extends the epigram: it is a picture of Eduard Bernstein, the leader of the Second International, who rejected violent revolution and instead celebrated reforms within the framework of parliamentary democracy. Bernstein’s deviations from orthodox Marxism led Lenin to attack him as a revisionist and opportunist. Would this be a fair analogue to a poet who has moved from the margins to the heights of Ivy League prestige? Maybe, but ultimately, there’s something a little absurd about comparing the Johnson-Charles Bernstein battles to those of Marx and Eduard Bernstein or Byron and Southey: the stakes in a squabble in the post-avant are nowhere near as high as in the splits in international Marxism or even in Byron’s attacks on the Lakers. It seems to me that that absurdity is precisely the point: Johnson has stated that “poetry’s political impact, at least in the United States, is going to be poignantly tiny”
[17] but he seems deeply ambivalent about that. It may be that poetry’s ineffectuality is a part of its freedom: because it is unable to generate money, fame or political change, poetry remains off the national radar and as a result poets are largely free to do what they want without the influence of undue censure or praise. But if Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world was a bit of a stretch in the nineteenth century, it’s almost laughable in twenty-first century America. Poets may write political poems but their political power is nil.

That sense of political powerlessness provides the subtext of Johnson’s epigram on Stephen Burt:

“Poet and critic, we claim him
as our Randall Jarrell (the younger version).
Oh, goodbye, Helen Vendler, goodbye,
for you are their Matthew Arnold.
We wash you out of your shattered turret with a hose” (41).

The second line alludes to Burt’s celebration of Jarrell in his (i.e., Burt’s) book Randall Jarrell and His Age,
[18] and the comparison of Burt to Jarrell is certainly a case of damning with very faint praise. The epigram also suggests that Burt has assumed Helen Vendler’s role as the unofficial Critic Laureate of the US, so Vendler (like the title figure in Jarrell’s famous poem “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”) is now another fatality of the poetry wars. It’s a funny epigram, I think, even if Vendler never had a fraction of Arnold’s stature.

But the poem’s humor is eliminated by the accompanying image, a photograph of charred bodies hanging from a bridge. These are the contractors from Blackwater International who in March, 2004 were shot in Fallujah, Iraq, their corpses set on fire then strung from a bridge above the Euphrates River. Johnson makes a similar move in a few places in Epigramititis: he chronicles or charges into the various skirmishes in the poetry world, only to point at political concerns which make the poetry “wars” seem absurd by comparison to the real and horrifying conflicts that continue around the globe. The photo offers no pat message; it is simply (simply?) an acknowledgment that these atrocities far exceed the squabbles of poets concerned with fame and ambition. As a result, the photograph implicitly calls into question the entire project of Epigramititis.

I think this has been one of the most overlooked aspects of Johnson’s work: while he has spent the better part of a decade critiquing and disparaging a variety of prominent poets and critics, his work also calls into question his own position. He mocks Helen Vendler by comparing her to Matthew Arnold, but in the book’s final epigram, entitled “The Epigramist,” he includes a Photoshopped image in which his own face is superimposed on Samuel Johnson’s. The epigram demonstrates that the gesture is clearly ironic:

“He’s offered, in decorus subjunctus, to Double Happiness,
The Poetry Project, The Bowery, and the KGB Bar,
that he fly to New York to share his Epigramititis.
He wonders how Martial would say: ‘So far, no cigar’.” (259)

Helen Vendler may be a watered down Arnold, but Kent Johnson, by his own admission, is no Samuel Johnson (and no Martial). The Author’s Note predicts that these epigrams will be assiduously ignored but this epigram implicitly drops the adverb. Maybe that’s for the best: epigrams have more force when they’re launched from beyond the margins.


[1] Johnson, Kent. Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. New York: Roof Books, 1997.

[2] Perloff’s essay, “In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada,” is an abridged version of an essay that originally appeared in the Boston Review 22.3-4, (1997): 26-33.

[3] Johnson, Kent. A Nation of Poets: Writing from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua. New York: West End Press, 1985.

[4] Johnson, Kent. Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992.

[5] Johnson, Kent. Beneath a Single Moon. Boston: Shambhala Press, 2001.

[6] Saenz, Jaime. Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz. Trans. Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Saenz, Jaime. The Night. Trans. Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

[7] Johnson, Kent. Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, Austin: Effing Press, 2005.

[8] Johnson’s provocations got him banned from the Poetics listserv at the University of Buffalo, as well as the British Poetry listserv; he also makes regular and often polemical appearances in the comments sections of a number of poetry blogs. In fact, Johnson’s comments on Kasey Silem Mohammed’s Lime Tree blog so enraged Mohammed that he banned Johnson and initially threatened to delete every comment that Johnson had ever made on the blog. Mohammed later relented on the deletions when he realized how difficult such a project would be, but he did in fact delete all of the discussion regarding Johnson’s banishment. For Johnson’s version of the exchange, see <http://www.blazevox.org/072-kj.htm>.

[9] Johnson, Kent. Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets, Buffalo: BlazeVox, 2007. 18.

[10] Catullus, “Carmen 85.” Catullus: The Complete Poems, trans. Guy Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 131.

[11] Johnson also has a number of ambivalent epigrams that seem as if they might be simultaneously praising and disparaging. For instance, Kenward Elmslie’s epigram reads

“Indeed, I am dying, but I am here to say
that his poems are miniature theaters,”
said a boy on fire, standing on a paper
stage. Bravo! Bravo! cried the poet-pilot
in a little plane, dark blue against a
dark-blue night sky. VIVA DELAUNAY!

[12] Bradley, John and Kent Johnson. “Epigramaphobia: A Conversation between John Bradley and Kent Johnson,” Plantarchy 5, forthcoming.

[13] Johnson’s epigram “The Poet Laureate” continues this conflation of those who would serve as spokespeople for poetry:

I can’t quite recall his or her name presently.
Is it Robert, Rita, or Billy?
Or is it Ted? No… Ted Hughes is dead.
He wears a helmet of hair in Hell.
I’m so silly (167).

The accompanying photo is of Laura Bush, who has attempted to promote both reading in general and poetry in particular. The poem suggests that the attempt to domesticate poetry for public consumption puts the American laureate in a position that’s analogous to the British laureate, whose job is to write verse for state occasions. The position of laureate makes these different poets indistinguishable from each other, and from the first lady, and suggests that they are at least tacitly complicit in the actions of the government that employs them.

[14] For an excellent analysis of the strategies of Kooser, et. al., see Evans, Steve. “Free (Market) Verse,” 29 July 2007 <http://www.thirdfactory.net/freemarketverse-all.html/>.

[15] Quoted in Byron: The Oxford Authors, ed. Jerome McGann. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 1021.

[16] This ad, as well as an eleven minute outtake with Jon Lovitz and two radio ads, are at PennSound. 29 July 2007 <http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bernstein-YP.html>.

[17] Johnson, Kent. “Hoaxes and Heteronymity: An Interview with Kent Johnson.” By Bill Freind. VeRT 5, 29 July 30, 2007 <http://www.litvert.com/KJ_Interview.html>.

[18] Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Bill Freind is the author of American Field Couches (BlazeVox, 2008) and An Anthology (housepress, 2000). He lives near an abandoned golf course in South Jersey.

Rich Murphy, "Spectacle and Aporia"

Rich Murphy

Spectacle and Aporia in Ted Kooser and John Ashbery

* * *

Abstract: The paper recognizes Derrida’s understanding of the idea of a non-transcendental sublime (aporia) and explores the difference between aporia and Roland Barthe’s idea of “spectacle of excess.” The paper will acknowledge that the dichotomy is false but credible. This author will then use the two lenses to analyze poems by Ted Kooser who is considered one of America’s most popular poets and John Ashbery who is considered by many critics to be the most important poet writing in English today. This author finds that as poetry becomes Modern and familiar, it becomes a thing of beauty and a spectacle of excess. When it is postmodern, it is a spectacle of the sublime.

* * *

Beauty is a blind alley. It is a mountain peak which once reached leads nowhere. That is why in the end we find more to entrance in El Greco than in Titian, in the incomplete achievement of Shakespeare than in the consummate success of Racine. Too much has been written about beauty. That is why I have written a little more. Beauty is that which satisfies the aesthetic instinct. But who wants to be satisfied? It is only the dullard that enough is as good as a feast. Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore.
Cakes and Ale, W. Somerset Maugham

The question of postmodernism is also, or first of all, a question of expressions of thought: in art, literature, philosophy, and politics … a kind of work, a long obstinate, and highly responsible work concerned with investigating the assumptions implicit in modernity.
The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard

* * *

In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes’ first chapter “The World of Wrestling” analyzes the “grandiloquence” of the spectacle of the so-called sport and finds in it that of the ancient theatre and Greek drama. Barthes celebrates wrestling because he sees that in its grandiloquence is the morality passion play of ancient Greece. In the chapter, he tells us that the sport is “the spectacle of excess” (15). He finds in its grandiloquence the same “as that of the ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity” (16). Later he continues,

“There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. The emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.” (18)

In finding the structure of wrestling to be that of ancient theatre in general and ancient Greek drama in particular, Barthes is recognizing what James Joyce recognized when he wrote Ulysses. Joyce noticed that recognizable patterns and harmonies in literature satisfy the audience and make legitimate the symbols of the day, suggesting that they indeed do hold something. However, where Joyce seems to be making critical commentary on his day with his anti-hero de-legitimizing his society’s behavior and re-legitimizing ancient Greek drama, Barthes is legitimizing contemporary activities as dramatic, religious rituals as worthy as Greek literature. He is finding the beauty that lies in the spectacle of excess in popular culture. Joyce holds the present up to the mythological past for comparison in order to make it new. Barthes suggests spectacle can’t be made new. In fact, he sees that beauty is a meta-narrative for the spectacle of excess.

The reader comes away with the idea that using the “spectacle of excess” as a lens he/she may examine other events in our society and find the beauty of Greek drama. The reader also comes away with the notion that spectacle of excess may be modernity’s beauty. One can observe it most easily in staged events that are meant to attract the masses to witness “Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” played out (19). Examples of it can be found on reality television and staged programming such as sitcoms as well. Barthes suggests that beauty is the emptying out of symbolic form inherent in the spectacle of excess to the satisfaction of the audience. If one looks closely at poetic works in modernism, one can see that the poets are performing that function. Just as we find in popular culture’s staged events, we find the spectacle of excess possesses beauty in poetry. Poetry that resolves irony with the justice of closure is using beauty to articulate its experience. Beauty might be said to be the intelligible representation of moral situations that are often private and that are emptied out of their interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs and the audience (18).

It is the satisfaction of justice witnessed that one finds in the spectacle and in the legitimating power of its performance of morality that is also known as beauty. The satisfaction of harmony, symmetry, and the promise and performance of oneness to audiences / “spectators” builds society and culture with its shared experience. This same satisfaction found in recognizing ourselves in a storyline or a scene in a play or an image in a poem is the joy of recognizing the language game as familiar and safe. We know the game and if that isn’t enough we are witnesses of the situation in the literature after all. We are present metaphorically.

Throughout modern poetry we find great beauty in its spectacle of excess in every line, of every sentence. The poem starts with the promise that needs performing. The performing is the emptying of the symbols. The emptying is one of alliteration, allusion, simile, contemporary images, and other devices of harmony that reassure the audience of purging of symbol that is taking place. Even if the images are ugly, if they are familiar they satisfy the reader.

However, there is always a place where the poet in his/her attempts to give the spectators / audience the emotional experience of the plot or event beyond language. When the author attempts to inspire and to possess words with a kind of madness and divine spirit as Longinus might suggest, the author ‘“carries the hearer along with the [sublime] involuntarily”’ with ‘“a kind of violence rather than by cool conviction”’ (Shaw 14). Kant clarifies the sublime as something not in nature by telling us that the sublime is contained in our minds. Derrida is summarized on the secular postmodern sublime: “The experience and pleasure of the sublime do not stem from the promise of something noumenal, outside a given frame, but rather the perpetual, yet always provisional, activity of framing itself, from the parergon” (Shaw 118). The spectacle of beauty sets up the audience for the sublime moment. Beauty frames sublime as modern poetry. By “set up” I mean allowing the reader to trust the writer for three-quarters of the way through a text with familiar representational conventions until the writer confronts the reader with the idea that the only conventions we have are the ones we make, driving the poem’s point home. Modern poetry may or may not have the Romantic’s transcendental sublime. However, it is most often of the Longinus variety of sublime of inexplicable passion.

If we recognize the non-transcendental sublime or aporia, we find that we are “without way or passage,” at an abyss, something open and unresolved that inspires doubt and “difficulty in choosing” (Royle 92). We have something more threatening than beauty. In his book Aporias, Derrida defines it as,

“a matter of the nonpassage, or rather from the experience of the nonpassage, the experience of what happens and is fascinating in this nonpassage, paralyzing in this separation in a way that is not necessarily negative: before a door, threshold, border, a line, or simply the edge or the approach of the other as such. It should be a matter of what, in sum, appears to block our way or to separate us in the very place where it would no longer be possible to constitute a problem, a project, or a projection, that is, at the point where the very project or the problematic task becomes impossible and where we are exposed, absolutely without protection, without problem, and without prosthesis, without possible substitution, singularly exposed in our absolute and absolutely naked uniqueness, that is to say disarmed, delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret.” (12)

Aporia is a concern for all frames, a reminder that there are no frames except for the ones we make. The poem is not going to lead the reader to a sublime moment but challenge the frames of the familiar, the beautiful, the harmony at every turn of phrase. So when the familiar or conventional performs as a frame or parergon, aporia emerges. The frame promises convention while aporia disturbs as the nonpassage. However, it isn’t a transcendental sublime. There isn’t an imitation of a higher power. Perhaps Jean-Francois Lyotard explains the Postmodern sublime aporia best when he says, “’Presenting the existence of something unpresentable. Showing that there is something we can conceive of that we can neither see nor show’” (29). In Simon Malpas’ book The Postmodern, he summarizes Lyotard:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes or the work he creates is not in principle governed by pre-established rules and cannot be judged . . . by the application of given categories to this text or work. Such rules and categories are what the work or text is investigating.” (30)

The difference between modern poetry and postmodern poetry can be attributed to modern poetry’s putting forward the sublime as “missing contents,” and postmodern poetry as ignoring beauty and form to attempt to put forward the unpresentable. In fact Lyotard sees the relationship between modern and postmodern not as historical moments but as styles, shifting back and forth. Modern art first may be Postmodern until it is familiar or conventional and then it is Modern. With Barthes’ idea of spectacle and Derrida’s sublime aporia as lenses, this paper argues that when poetry becomes modern and familiar, it becomes a thing of beauty, a spectacle of excess. When it is postmodern, it is a spectacle of the sublime.

The poetry of Ted Kooser and John Ashbery bears this out. Kooser is the most popular poet in the USA and has recently been its Poet Laureate. Ashbery is said to be the most important poet writing in English today. However, Ashbery’s work is unknown or inaccessible to most of the population in the USA. How does one explain this apparent paradox? One may reply that one is modern, and one is postmodern. One writes beautiful poetry or poetry that embraces the spectacle of excess and attempts the sublime at some point in each poem. The other writes poetry employing sublime aporia as its instrumental tool. One writes using pre-established rules, and one does not, as Lyotard explains. But a closer look at the two poets’ work may be more revealing.

In Ted Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Shadows and Delights, any of the poems would serve as an example of modern poetry using my definition. “Tattoo,” the short second poem in the collection, is a poem beautiful in its spectacle and will serve my purposes in this short paper. (6) “Tattoo” is modern in that Kooser is not looking for dignity in his choice of subject but revealing the subject’s dignity to the reader. It is modern also because readers expect the revealing, the emptying of the poetry. Any subject is fair game. The images he brings that include a thug grown old are familiar to Americans: a yard sale, a shoulder with a tattoo, a schoolyard bully. What is new in this poem is not the images. There are harmonies in his walking between the tables, the bruise gone “soft and blue,” and youthful vanity gone bony with age’s self-recognition and yet insisting on what was once (6). Even the abused broken tools as fragments of the bully’s youth or stories of that youth are familiar and are a spectacle of excess. It is a great poem of a defeated middle-class suburbanite persona finding justice.


What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

The reader knows this story of withering powers and regret brought on by growing old and so anticipates “[t]he emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs” (Barthes 18). Kooser heightens the story by using the familiar motorcycle culture imagery and flattens the magnified image that the bullied persona has of the predator using the yard sale and the line “only another old man” (6). The satisfaction that the reader receives from the execution of this poem is the same as Barthes reveals in wrestling spectacles. It is the execution of justice, a kind of justice that Nietzsche attributes to slaves and Christians, a justice long after the crimes were committed, a kind of no justice that is not witnessed except in the minds of the victims. The language and props . . . concur in exaggeratedly visible explanation and description (Barthes16).

What Kooser may be making new in the “make it new” sense of modernism is the familiar, common everyday world. He also may be making new the poem’s subject, the persona and not the biker. The poem may be read as the persona and the other old man as one person, using the conventional double. The persona is not a witness recording the events a la Confessional School but the poet as tough guy gone “blue with stories” (6). The first line introduces the reader to “a statement” of youth and then reveals what the symbol tattoos in every poem of the youthful male poet: one of masculine passion and virility. A reader unschooled might contend that Kooser’s poem is an attempt to “show us who he was.” The broken tools are his apology to the reader for the fragments that he is shoring against his ruin.

In fact, Kooser attempts to nudge the reader to consider the sublime is in his line, “rolled up to show us who he was” (6). On one level the reader is expecting “who he is” because the sleeves are rolled up and he dresses as in his youth but bringing in the past tense throws the justice-seeking reader off the end of the line with satisfaction while the line points at the terror of the inevitable powerlessness of old age. Here he is also humbly offering to the reader the fragments of his former virility as a poet. Read on either level, the persona is performing the same “necessity” as Barthes’ wrestlers whether the reader understands the poem to be about the bully of bike culture or the life of a poet.

In John Ashbery’s As We Know, the title poem is a good example of his developed style and typical of the shorter poems in the book. Where Kooser meets the reader with the beauty of familiar images and leads the reader to the moment of the sublime that is the subject, Ashbery’s poems are inaccessible to most readers to this day and this poem is no exception. However, once the reader recognizes that Ashbery is not meeting the reader on the reader’s terms but reminding the reader with each sentence that language itself can merely point or gesture at the poet’s subject, the reader has a chance to come to grips with his poetry. The busy reader going about the day “making a living” and pretending that, and taking for granted that what is before him is knowable, thanks Kooser for coming into the reader’s world of pretense and escorting sensibility to Longinus’ insight. Busy readers are confronted with aporias that make up an Ashbery poem. In fact the title itself takes a common notion and turns it on its head. The confidence of the common platitude becomes a meditation on the fleeting nature of knowing.

As We Know

All that we see is penetrated by it—
The distant treetops with their steeple (so
Innocent), the stair, the windows’ fixed flashing—
Pierced full of holes by the evil that is not evil,
The romance that is not mysterious, the life that is not life,
A present that is elsewhere.

And further in the small capitulations
Of the dance, you rub elbows with it,
Finger it. That day you did it
Was the day you had to stop, because the doing
Involved the whole fabric, there was no other way to appear.
You slid down on your knees
For those precious jewels of spring water
Planted on the moss, before they got soaked up
And you teetered on the edge of this
Calm street with its sidewalks, its traffic,

As though they are coming to you.
But there was on one in the noon glare,
Only birds like secrets to find out about
And home to get to, one of these days.

The light that was shadowed then
Was seen to be our lives.
Everything about us that love might wish to examine,

Then put away for a certain length of time, until
The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned
Toward each other, to each other.
The way we had come was all we could see
And it crept up on us, embarrassed
That there is so much to tell now, really now.

The first sentence / section of “As We Know” is an example. In the first line, “All that we see is penetrated by it--” what does Ashbery mean by “it:” light, evil that is not evil, life that is not live, air (74)? Any of these will do for now. We can see light moving through the trees surrounding a steeple, innocent because of human declaration only and the windows flashing, glaring as well as the metal lining that prevents leaks. But what is described as an “evil that is not evil . . . life that is not life” adds intricacy but does not necessarily block or shade the penetration that is splashed at the reader’s feet: “A present that is elsewhere” (74). The reader has little chance at getting familiar with any image because the images that he gives the reader are fragmented. The reader must see the poem’s imagery as a part of the process that is the experience of experience, the poet insisting the experience of the poem’s now. The giving and taking away that he does in this first sentence itself and through it is aporia, the nontranscendental sublime of Derrida: the fascinating, paralyzing, not necessarily negative experience of the nonpassage (12). The first lines permeate with the unpresentable now of a Barnett Newman painting. It also demonstrates through lines 2-5 the penetration of a present that is not, at least any longer. The permeation theme calls to mind Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

The second section invests the reader in a drama without the “we” of the first. The drama or “dance” is the anticipation of the now. During the dance of life we merely rub elbows with the present, perhaps “finger it,” but trying to wear it, one has to stop because it is impossible to appear the way one appears already by living in the present (74). The most one can do is get on one’s knees and soak up the precious jewels of the moment. The drama spills over into the third passage where it becomes the regret and fear of a past now. As close as we get to capturing the moment passing is our teetering on the “edge of this / Calm street” (74). Throughout the building of the reader’s investment in the second passage, aporia reigns. “[T]he small capitulations / Of the dance,” is a case in point. The negative of capitulation is undercut by the dance (and vice versa), keeping the reader in the present tense of “finger it” (74).

The third section reminds this reader of the existential Lowell lines “nobody’s here--/ only skunks” in “Skunk Hour” (95). The anxiety of Ashbery’s first section is denied by the second line: “no one in the noon glare, / Only birds” (74). Unlike Lowell though, Ashbery presents aporia in the first two lines and in the “secrets to find out about,” where we recognize that we don’t recognize (74). The home the reader is urged toward is not made of wood or brick or stone. It is the reader’s demise.

The last section picks up on death with the idea of the shadows of lives and again includes the voice along with the reader: “Everything about us” (74). Here the voice suggests that the reader, the voice, and everything is shadowed (or is shadow) so that love’s examination of the reader and voice is not possible. The nuance of the lines “and we turned / Toward each other, to each other” reminds the reader of the relationship of the poet and the reader, and that even this confrontation of love on the page cannot capture the magnitude of now’s so much to tell (74). The light and shadow as lives, love examining, the gathering of experience, our way that crept on us, and the embarrassment of experience’s stories are all examples of aporia in this poem. Over and over the poem demonstrates to the reader the fragmented process of consciousness, the rung by rung climb up Wittgenstein’s ladder resulting in this poem.

What David Shapiro in his essay “The Mirror Staged” refers to as “deferred sense” or “meaning absenting itself” in Ashbery’s poetry is what Derrida means by aporia. Where we may find aporia at the height of a modernist poem is where the poet attempts to go beyond words to bring the passion of his/her meaning to the reader. Postmodern poetry distorts in order to rescue the value of distortion (5). In the distortion is the poem tracing the mind tracing a poem (11). Postmodern poetry attempts aporia in every sentence if not in the fragmentation of imagery; unresolved irony is key. In every “denial of intrinsic logos” the reader is confronted with the postmodern sublime (30). These qualities in postmodern poetry are confrontational in a culture that survives on sound bites, platitudes, clichés, and jingles. The pretense of communication demands that its participants be reminded of the pretense. Line after line, sentence after sentence of rescuers of distortion’s value is aporia reminding the reader of possibility, other realities waiting for them. The poet’s job then becomes one of merely suggesting a statement through the poet’s variations on themes, promoting a healthy respect for the gap between the signified and signifier.

Ashbery’s poem “Litany” is in the same collection of poems. Too long to examine in this paper, however, the 65-page poem is made up two columns “to be read as two simultaneous but independent monologues” (2). What kind of trick is this? This kind: the poem itself is aporia, extended parallel tracts that don’t meet. In the first 31 lines of the first column ending in “Code names for silence” and the first 26 lines of the second column ending in “About to happen” we can see subtly opposing or better yet isolated voices: one embracing the past and the other embracing a fantasy future (4).



For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.

The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in the wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

The casual purring of a donkey
Rouses me from my accounts:
What given, what gifts. The air
Stands straight up like a tail.

He spat on the flowers.

Also for someone
Like me the time flows round again
With things I did in it.
I wish to keep my differences

And to retain my kinship
To the rest. That is why
I raise these flowers all around.
They do not stand for flowers or
Anything pretty they are
Code names for the silence.


So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery, whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge.

The brown lines persist
In explicit sex
Matters like these
No one can care about,
“Noone.” That is I’ve said it
Before and no one
Remembers except that elf.

Around us are signposts
Pointing to the past,
The old-fashioned, pointed
Wooden kind. And nothing directs
To the present that is

About to happen

The voice of column one is infatuated with the assurance of one concrete place perhaps being served wine and cheese at a reception would provide, and with the stillness of dead streets and “air standing straight up like a tail” of a donkey, a stubborn animal whose breathing complaint spits on flowers. In an effort to escape knowledge of reality, the voice is one living in the past, with time flowing around it again containing things it did (3). The voice raises silence around it as though silence were flowers or anything pretty and reaffirming.

In the second column the voice is no place, a cloud that is a trap or “milk of enchantment” (3). As the pissing “Parents of the town” in the first column “escape knowledge” by living in the past, the concrete place here is the scenery “behind hedges of dark lissome knowledge” (3). Matters of explicit sex that “No one can care about” are not acknowledged by people (3). Avoiding knowledge seems to be the only thing these two voices have in common. Only an elf remembers everything in the second column. As the flowers are codes of silence in the first column, signposts point to the past in the second where nothing directs “to the present that is” and is “about to happen” (4) As one voice lives in the silence of the past, the other lives in fantasy, the place of the future. Neither is attempting to live in the present, perhaps an impossible but perhaps worthy task. The aporetic gap exists between the two approaches that the two voices use to live life: through the past and through fantasy. Ashbery is commenting on the fleeting nature of the present. If the poem is read as critical commentary on the postmodern world we live in, it is because the voices in the poem flee from notions of the present, fearing perhaps their impotence regarding it. Neither voice recognizes the possibility of the sublime moment of now.

Modern poetry through representation makes new the subject matter of its poetry. The transformation of the subject matter is an attempt at therapy for the writer and reader, an attempt to reveal the beauty and sublime in what might be construed as ugly: Pound’s imagist poem “In a Station at the Metro,” for example. Substitute Barthes’ spectacle of excess for beauty, and it makes new representation in Kooser’s poetry as it does in modern poetry. Through the excess emerges the sublime moment of the poem.

Postmodernism interrogates representation, and using aporias confronts attempts at therapy with a relentless barrage of possibility at a foundational level of language. So Ashbery’s poetry is a spectacle in its public display and an excess of a different kind. Nothing physical is being represented. Ashbery’s excess is the relentless line by line attempt at the unpresentable. The relentless aporias are reminders of the possible worlds contemporary society refuses to inhabit.

If the world of modern poetry uses the spectacle of excess as beauty for therapeutic purposes, then it is where it was in Tennyson’s day, or worse it is a reassurance that all is right with the world that capitalism controls. If so, poetry substitutes for a snooze or a venture to a flea market on a Sunday afternoon. Modern poetry gets lost in its compromise with the reader and beauty. Modern poetry may indeed save lives one at a time. However, postmodern poetry calls for among other things last ditch gestures. It challenges the concept of making it new with exhilarating meditations on the possible worlds that are being lost in each moment of the now.

Works Cited:

Ashbery, John. As We Know. NYC: Penguin Books, 1979.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. NYC: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Derrida, Jacque. Aporias. Tr. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Kooser, Ted. Delights & Shadows. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.

Lowell, Robert. The Selected Poems. NYC: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1977.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Sublime. Ed. Philip Shaw. NYC: Routledge, 2006.

Malpas Simon. The Postmodern. NYC: Routledge, 2005.

Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. NYC: Routledge, 2003.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Rich Murphy’s credits include a chapbook Great Grandfather; poems in Rolling Stone, Poetry Magazine, Grand Street, New Letters, Negative Capability, Confrontation Magazine, West 47, Aesthetica Review, foam:e, and Spiral Bridge; and essays in Fulcrum, International Journal of the Humanities, Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning and Fringe.

Erika M. Nelson, "Orpheus Underwater"

Erika M. Nelson
Union College

Orpheus Underwater & Poetry at the Spa: Remann’s Modern Glashaus Temple of Hearing and Healing

In 1897, the Berlin poet Paul Scheerbart, the so-called “high-priest of Expressionism,” published some of the first sound-poems in German, including his love poem “Kikakok!ú Ekoralábs!,” consisting of purely fictional words and relying on the element of sound for coherence. Years later, in 1914, Scheerbart composed his book Glass Architecture, a full-fledged treatise envisioning a world set right by implementing colored glass. He succeeded in having his poetic visions realized in architecture: his friend, visionary architect Bruno Taut, who shared Scheerbart’s utopian vision of the transformative power of glass, opened the Glashaus pavilion at the May 1914 German Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Credited with combining function, form, and fantasy, the Glashaus comprised a fourteen-sided prismatic dome of colored glass with glass-block stairs decorated with mosaic and a cascading waterfall. Viewing the construction of glass monuments not merely as a symbolic act, but as one that would encourage social cohesion and spiritual renewal through “human transformation” and the “expansion of human consciousness,” Scheerbart and Taut set out to supplant masonry with colored glass and adorn the earth “with sparkling jewels and enamel” and fantastical verse. Before completed, the walls of the Glashaus were inscribed with six of Scheerbart’s whimsical poems and aphorisms celebrating glass.

Scheerbart’s utopian vision, like the Glashaus itself, did not survive the horrors of World War I, and had it not been for curious poetry lovers, including Mickey Remann, Scheerbart’s vision might have been forever lost to future generations. Remann, a trained Germanist and free thinker, followed in Goethe’s footsteps from Frankfurt to Weimar, taking with him Scheerbart’s vision, which he crystallized again in architectural form: this time in the shape of the modern Liquid Sound Temple, located in the small town of Bad Sulza in Thuringia.

Additional inspiration came from boat excursions with Jim Nollman, a musician who explores interspecies communication through music, investigating whether music is a true universal language and a possible form of cross-species communication. Rather than forcing communication, Nollman beckons participation from wild Orca whales, enticing them with music he plays alone or in small groups and amplifies underwater. When lucky, the Orcas show interest, as with Remann’s experience, when toward the end of their journey, a group of whales encircled their boat and joined in the music-making. Their movement around the boat illuminated the bio-luminescent plankton, causing the water to sparkle. Musicians and non-musicians alike grabbed instruments and chimed in—participating as they could. The concert lasted a mere thirty minutes, but forever changed Remann, leaving him with a sense of urgency to communicate this experience. Words alone did not suffice. Instead, the larger dream of Liquid Sound was born. Remann pondered what it would be like to hear music underwater as whales do. Blessed with no understanding of the technological difficulties involved with a project of this magnitude, Remann simply knew what poetic vision was and remained faithful to his vision until finally the underwater light and sound experience that mirrored his visions was realized architecturally: in 1999 the Liquid Sound Temple at the Toskana Therme spa was opened and featured in the Hannover world exposition in 2000.

Remann’s modern sound temple brings together the worlds of poetry and spa culture, as well as the disparate German lyric traditions of both Goethe and Scheerbart, the traditions of ancient Greek dream temples, legendary European spas, great opera houses and the futuristic Berlin’s nightclubs, offering a multi-media experience of “sound wellness.” Embracing the same playful, poetic spirit of creativity and invention found in Scheerbart, the Liquid Sound Temple is a veritable post-modern celebration of sound. As the showpiece swimming-pool, the modern “temple” (simply called the Tempel), consists of a dome-covered, cavernous, circular pool in a freestanding, windowless building, kept dark so that the hint of colored lights projected onto the walls and water evoke the effect of multicolored transparency and shimmer on the water’s surface. Although not made of glass, the walls of the Liquid Sound Temple retain the shape of the original Glashaus and the inscriptions of Scheerbart’s verses, while the roof of the Temple, the main focal point when one floats on one’s back daydreaming, presents a glass mandala looking out to the sky.

All high culture pretensions are literally stripped away, as one enters the temple in one’s bathing suit. Floating on one’s back in thermal saltwater, which carries the body effortlessly, so that even sinkers stay afloat, with ears submerged, the body relaxes. Cocooned by luring underwater sounds and bathed in colored moving lights, the body becomes an instrument in the Orphic sound experience, so that one begins to hear and resonate with one’s whole being the “water melodies,” underwater concerts, and readings made with the liquid-sound system in this “underwater opera-house.” This spa, as most modern destination spas, represents a modern sanctuary of relaxation, self-discovery, and a “place of metamorphosis,”
[i] where individuals undertake what Dean MacCannell has called “a voyage of discovery […] to discover or reconstruct a cultural heritage or a social identity.”[ii] Central to their quest is the search for “authentic” experiences, which enhance their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Like other spas, Bad Sulza has become a modern-day pilgrimage site for spa-goers embarking on secularized versions of the traditional “spiritual journey.”

For the reinvented Toskana Therme spa, this idea of metamorphoses takes on a much wider significance culturally, socially, and economically not only for the rebuilding of this economically poor region, but also for the re-construction of German spa culture. Until recently, new spas and reinvitalized old ones were a rarity in Germany. In 1996, the German government severely cut back national health insurance funding for the traditional water cures, the centerpiece of most German spas, sending Germany’s vast spa network, financed largely by health insurance money, into turmoil and causing many specialized clinics to close. German spas, like the Toskana Therme, had to redefine themselves in more attractive ways in order to survive. The Toskana Therme embraced Liquid Sound and transformed from what originally was a small 19th century clinic operating on a minimal scale in GDR times to a multi-million dollar resort. In this small “futuristic and historic” spa, Remann serves as cultural director, also known as the “conductor in flip-flops,” for the holistic opera-house, offering the unique experience of “bathing in light and sound.”

Despite its modern look and multi-media technology, this spa is part of a much longer spa tradition that informs the overall experience. As Jonathan de Vierville has suggested, the modern spa at Bad Sulza, is a re-envisioned replica of the ancient Greek healing dream temples of Delphi and Epidaurus, dedicated to Aesklepios, the god of healing.
[iv] These pilgrimage sites[v] were important meccas where people consulted the oracle to gain insight, purification, and healing, and where the practice of receptivity, i.e. “inner hearing,” facilitated the process of dream incubation, or incubatio, derived from Latin words, in meaning “upon” and cubare meaning “to lie down.” Seekers were “cured” by their dreams, involving a direct visit, metaphorically or symbolically, from the god in a dream and the consultation with the priestess, the pythia, who would speak as the oracle’s medium, while male priests “interpreted” the visitation from the gods. The oracle fell into disrepute around 500 BCE, and until Freud and Jung, the modern world had lost touch with the tradition of dream incubation and its ability to understand dreams. Mapping the inner landscape is a territory usually relegated to poets, and more recently to psychologists, who understood how to address the deep currents within the self, but in particular the tradition of Orphic poetry was able to mediate the gap between heaven and earth.

One of the most thorough modern explications of Orphic poetry is found in Rainer Maria Rilke’s work. Orpheus, known from Classical sources as the divine supreme poet-singer, able to tame the hearts of wild beasts and transform reality through the power of his song, emerges in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus as the dismembered and resurrected god who becomes oracle. Elizabeth Sewell describes Rilke’s Orphic work as an “exploration of the labyrinth of body-and-mind, a field between living and dead with the poetic self as the instrument of investigation.”
[vi] Robert McGahey sees Rilke’s Orpheus as an evolution in the Orphic tradition: Orpheus becomes the “poet-thinker,”[vii] whose self-knowledge emerges from “body-learning and body-thinking.”

Emerging as a “way between modes” (xiv), this figure harks back to the tribal shaman as “the oldest go-between of the spiritual and human realms.”
[viii] Embodying the sparagmos, i.e. the moment when the scattered limbs of the dismembered god first stir back to life as vibration, this Orpheus is painstakingly “restrung” (vii). This “inner song of creation”, analogous to the shaman’s impersonal song (31), allows the “poet-as-instrument” to become the “mouthpiece” for larger forces, like the Romantics’ Aeolian harp, passively sounded by the divine winds passing through it. As inner music, it breaks out of its confinement, shattering the very human confinement that produces it. Orphic song is “poetry thinking itself,”[ix] and its creator, the Orphic poet, is a “new being,”[x] part shaman, part philosopher.

Rilke’s Orpheus emerges through sound, symbolizing the possibility of a multi-sensory poem of transformative power, whose sounds engage all the senses and create a physical presence audibly tangible with the entire body, echoing the Pythagoran belief that musical resolution brings the human being into sympathetic vibration with the cosmic order and harmony of the spheres. Rilke’s opening sonnet evokes Orphic song in the image of a tree, placed firmly in the ear, which constructs in word and sound a “temple of hearing” and a sanctuary where nature heals its differences, bringing harmony to the chaotic uncivilized world, as articulated thematically, in the poem’s imagery, and aurally, in its sound-patterning of the sacred mantram AUM within the poem, which creates its own reverberating “world of sound.”
[xi] Musicologist Joachim-Ernst Berendt speaks similarly of sound as spaces, or “cathedrals,” which are characteristic of the evolution of a new sound ideal from a collective “old World” Classical sound to the more individualistic “new World” sound of jazz:

“Old-world sound […] grows, rises, searches you out, penetrates you. [...] New-world sound, on the other hand, has more female traits. The sound of a rock group, for instance, is a body that incorporates a musical process and in which the listener himself is incorporated. There are sounds in rock that can be said to be ‘as large as a cathedral’. When hearing them, the listener 'stands inside them'."

These modern sound temples and cathedrals, as described in Rilke’s and Berendt’s works, best explain the experience of the Liquid Sound Temple, which acts as an entryway into the landscape of consciousness. Audience agency and participation is key to the experience: in this modern temples, seekers lie down in the water, “sleep,” and dream in thermal water, which relaxes the body, engages the senses, and incites a lucid dreamlike meditative state of heightened inner awareness. On the aquatic stage of their inner minds, each spa-goer is encouraged to become part of the production, a “dreamer,” co-creator, visionary, actor, director, and instrument in their own inner story that plays into the larger musical performance. This whole-body, inner listening allows audience participation in a way traditional theater has not made possible, reorienting the audience to the water and to ways of engaging in imaginative cultural practices. The womb-like environment of Liquid Sound evokes a deep transpersonal response of returning to a primal state of one’s being,
[xiii] echoing the Delphic oracle’s exhortation to know oneself more deeply.

Thus, in the Temple, kept dark so the colored lights seem to dance in the water, under the skylight of a mandala, modern seekers bathe in this modern vision, which as Judy Lazarus observes is not new, but “really Old World, transported from the past into the new millennium on a magic carpet of imagination, modern technology and academic investigation.”
[xiv] As such, the Liquid Sound Temple in Bad Sulza appears as a testament to the imaginative potential of dreams and the transformative power of poetry.


[i] Shelley Baranowski and Ellen Furlough, “Introduction,” Being Elsewhere: Tourism, Consumer Culture and Identity in Modern Europe and North America. Eds. Shelley Baranowski and Ellen Furlough (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001) 5.

[ii] Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken, 1989) 13-14.

[iii] The European Fund for Regional Development (EFRE) subsidized the complete project of the Toskana Therme in Bad Sulza, complete with its Liquid Sound Temple, with 19 million DM. All pools are fed with local thermal saltwater that comes from a well drilled into the underground Trias Sea. Spa goers relax in the 92-degree Fahrenheit warm water with 3-5% salinity content, which enables a relaxed, weightless kind of floating.

[iv] Jonathan Paul de Vierville briefly speaks of the history of bathing in his article: “Taking the Waters: A Historical Look at Water Therapy and Spa Culture Over the Ages,” Massage & Bodywork (Feb/March 2000). However, it is in his course, “Dreams and Rituals in Healing Waters,” offered annually at the Toskana Therme spa in Bad Sulza, where he has drawn parallels between the Ancient Greek dream temples and the Liquid Sound Temple as described in the course description .

[v] For more information on Asklepios, see Theorore Papadakis, Epidauros: The Sanctuary of Aesklepios, (Munich: Schnell and Steiner, 1973), Edward Tick, The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine (Wheaton, Il: Quest Books, 2001), and also Jean Houston, A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) 128-129.

[vi] Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (New York: Harper & Row, 1960) 326.

[vii] Robert McGahey, The Orpheus Moment: Shaman to Poet–Thinker in Plato, Nietzsche and Mallarmé (Albany: State U of New York P, 1994) xvi.

[viii] MacGahey 6.

[ix] Sewell 47.

[x] McGahey xvi.

[xi] H.W. Belmore, Rilke’s Craftsmanship: An Analysis of his Poetic Style. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1954) 53.

[xii] Joachim-Ernst Berendt, The World is Sound: Nada Brahma. (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books : Distributed by Harper & Row, 1987) 129.

[xiii] Ontologically, sound harkens back to a “collective” beginning of all time, as expressed by Pythagoras, but also to one’s personal beginnings, as the ear is one of the very first human sense organs to develop in the womb. Early in fetal development, an infant hears the mother’s voice, as filtered through bone, flesh, and amniotic fluid and perceives high frequency sounds. The infant adapts this hearing to hear not only through their ears but through their whole body, with the baby’s body functioning as what Alfred Tomatis terms a “full-body sound resonator” [See Alfred Tomatis, The Conscious Ear: My Life of Transformation Through Listening (New York: Station Hill Press, 1991) 212], able to perceive the “whole universe of relationship established in utero.”[xiii] The ears thus prepare the infant’s path of development for speech and for the processes of their adaptation to self and environment. As Kay Gardner indicates [See Kay Gardner, Sounding the Inner Landscape (Stonington: Caduceus, 1990) 63], this neurological pathway can, however, become developmentally blocked by deeply emotional and physically traumatic experiences.[xiii] By reestablishing the sonic atmosphere experienced in the womb, one can retrain one’s entire ability to listen from the formative stages, so that “gradually two tiny but important ear muscles are reconditioned to respond to a broader frequency spectrum” (63), thus drawing one “toward previously unexplored areas” (63).

[xiv] This is a quote from spa writer Judy Lazarus, taken from the aforementioned article written by Leigh Baldwin, “Necessary Hype: Three Spa Writers Talk Trends,” Experience ISPA Spa Reading (2004)

Erika M. Nelson is an Assistant Professor of German Studies at Union College. Her book, Reading Rilke’s Orphic Identity, explores issues of identity construction and sound in Rainer Maria Rilke’s work. Currently, she is working on transnational poetry, German spa culture, and modern renditions of myth in literature and film.