Sei sulla pagina 1di 13

Taking steps beyond elegy: Poetry, Philosophy, Lineation and Death

No longer will we turn our pain into elegies. We will no longer capitalize on our
losses. (Jean-Luc Nancy)1
Numerous modern poets writing on loss in their refusal to use representation to name
death into familiarity echo philosopher Jean-Luc Nancys sentiment. Nancy believes that
all forms of representation, especially philosophy, are incapable of true mourning as:
In the end, the dead will be represented, thus held at bay But mourning is
without limits and without representation. It is tears and ashes. It is: to
recuperate nothing, to represent nothing. And thus it is also: to be born to this unrepresented of the dead, of death.2
It is instead, Nancy says, to the poverty of thought, thinking that cannot represent, that we
must turn in order not to write death out of existence and thus deny ourselves the
essential human activity of mourning loss. The rest of the essays in Nancys The Birth to
Presence struggle to come up with a satisfactory name for this poverty of thought but
three are always in contention: literature, art, and, most obviously, poetry. Poetrys
commitment to singularity is noted by numerous modern philosophers. Each new poem is
a new birth of language in its unique, nonrepresenting usage, that short-circuits thinking
and allows new ideas to come into being. This is what Nancy means by the birth to
presence.3 It is the belief that singularity is essential to modern mourning and that death
can only be approached in this way that informs a wide range of modern thinkers on loss
and brings us closer to an idea of a contemporary elegy that is able to write about loss due
to death without taming or distancing either phenomenon. This poetry, a type of faulty
thinking, is rather general in Nancys work, but it manifests itself in contemporary poetry
by a kind of prosody of loss and it is this that I want to approach in the pages that follow.

Although many poets still habitually write elegies, it is true to say that the elegiac
has overtaken the form of elegy proper in much contemporary poetry. As Jahan
Ramazani has noted, the neat performative formulas of traditional, consoling elegy, loss
withdrawalconsolationrecovery/returncommemoration have, in the last century,
given way to a more open-ended elegiac architecture where the poet simply refuses to
feel better by the end of the last line.4 In my own recent work I have speculated on the
devilish deal of the poem of consolation where the success of elegy in overcoming the
emotional and cultural dangers of the radical absence of being has to be at the expense of
the poem itself.5 If a poem has a purpose and is successful, then the remains of the poem
become excessive, useless and, to some degree, improper or unclean (tears and ashes).
Modern, Christian-Romantic, introspective, consolatory, monumental,
commemorative, elegy, such has been practiced in Anglophone literature since at least
Milton, now faces two powerful threats to its continued presence within the canon, both
based on the aporetic paradoxes of its own carefully developed formal combination of
Romantic self-centeredness and Christian ideas of otherness. The idea of the elegy as a
time for the poet to reconsider her own being and its relation to the other, before moving
back into normal, less self-reflexive, intersubjective formulations, is confronted with two
basic truths: all being is incomplete, not just the being of mourning, and the other person
is always profoundly unknowable, like God totally other, not just from the moment that
their physical presence is eradicated. At the same time, the performative nature of elegy
can either succeed against these ontological crises at the expense of poetry itself,
reducing poetrys singularity to mere prosaic or philosophical instrumentality, or save

poetry, the only thing that can save us in times of trouble, but remain aesthetically
ineffective and emotionally depressing; Ramazanis melancholic mourning.
Elegy is supposed to be an example of how poetry can disclose being through a
close contact with death but without actually dying. Instead it has come to be a rather
fatuous reaction to loss that results in a smug, well-dressed doppelganger for subjectivity
and a poetry that is self-defeating, indeed not poetry at all but its negation through the
reduction of its singularity to instrumentality. Those poets who have realised this and yet
still appreciate the founding relationship between poetry and the presence of absence
have no choice but to abandon traditional elegiac form. They either, as Ramazani
describes, develop an open-ended form, or they pursue the less tangible elegiac poem.
This latter entity is suffused with a sense of contemporary loss of certainty and belief,
which becomes arche-loss, or absence discovered retrospectively at the beginning of the
birth to presence. Here elegy becomes a vague thematics or tonality. It is not within the
remit of this essay to analyse such poetry in detail but one could note the work of such
poets as John Ashbery, Susan Howe, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, John Ash, and Lee
Harwood. All write a poetry replete with a sense of loss, even if they are not writing
specifically of a loss. Thus contemporary elegy in a postmodern world will tend to be
formal yet open-ended; take loss somehow as its subject matter without openly stating
this; and allow the tincture of sadness to inform its imagery even if the poem appears
celebratory or light-hearted.
A recent trend in post-Heideggerian philosophy, however, has raised a third
possibility for the contemporary poet of loss. Death is inherent to poetry both in terms of
what poetry actually is and in terms of the metaphysical effects or implications of the

poetic semiotics, in particular lineation. In fact, the similarities between the idea of death
and the idea of poetry in our culture become so marked that poetry as such seems to
become an aesthetics of death marked by a semiotics of loss/absence, making generic
subdivisions such as elegy all but meaningless. In what follows I will focus on modern
philosophers Derrida, Blanchot, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Agamben, - whose work
obfuscates some basic assumptions about a poetics of loss, including most notably elegy,
and makes it much more difficult for poets and critics alike to use terms such as
mourning, consolation and commemoration uncritically.
The origin of this modern confluence between poetry and death can be traced, I
believe, to Heideggers attempts to define da-sein, or being, as being-towards-death. In
Being and Time Heidegger makes a case for being as only being complete if it has a
conception that it can end, an ending that cannot be a part of living being but without
which being cannot be. It is an ontology of complete incompleteness particularly to be
found in Derridas later elaborations on this theme.6 At the same time, Heidegger defines
two different ways of coming to terms with death. There is the inauthentic public mode
which he calls everyday death as spoken about by the they or society around you. The
aim of such talk about death with the they is constant tranquillization about death,7 by
distancing and generalising it, less for the comfort of the dying person than for those who
remain.8 In contrast, Heideggers definition of authentic death requires that you keep the
possibility of death with you at all times precisely so that you cannot get over it.
Authentic death as a precondition of true being, is profoundly different to the everyday
death of western culture and elegy as Heidegger makes clear in his dense definition:
Da-sein is concerned about its being-in-the-world absolutely. Its death is the
possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there... As a potentiality of being, Da-

sein is unable to bypass the possibility of death. Death is the possibility of the
absolute impossibility of Da-sein. Thus death reveals itself as the ownmost
nonrelational possibility not to be bypassed.9
This more radical death remains with subjectivity as the possibility of its ending or
limitation that paradoxically is the very condition of being as such. Being that can end
becomes being in all its singularity that defines being as singular to itself, existent
irrespective of cultural, historical or everyday relations. This is being in its possibility,
the chance to become who you are at the very moment when this life is potentially at an
end. The end of being cannot be avoided because it is the possibility of ending that we all
carry within us that allows us to be. This conception of death, along with Heideggers
later ideas about language and poetry, has lead many contemporary philosophers to
associate poetic singularity with this idea of death. Like death, poetry exists as selfsufficient, closed to external relations; as an unfulfilled possibility of language as pure
saying without meaning; and as a form of non-instrumental utterance that can never fail
to represent or express things in the world because it never really strives to. Poetry is the
imminence of the end of language the moment when word and thing will no longer be
separate. If it were to occur it would be the death of language just as death would put an
end to being, but without this imminent threat/promise, language cannot exist.
Apart from singularity, poetry and death share other features in common. The
origins of western poetics reside in elegy and so poetry has always been deathly at root.
Crucially, the topography of post-Heideggerian philosophies of death, primarily the idea
of the border on one side of which is limited singular being, and on the other illimitable
alterity, becomes a clear prosody in the poem. Issues of singular units, gaps, edges,
space, ellipses, inexpressible or glossolalic materials and linguistic excess have all

become central semiotic tools for contemporary, experimental prosody uniting

philosophy and poetry along this essential thematics: the impossible possibility of
speaking about death. These works are not all primarily elegiac but, in their use of a
prosody of disjuncture and absence, they investigate, dramatise and test language as the
location of the very limit of being. They make a kind of prosody of death. The versions
of contemporary elegy being performed by the diverse material possibilities of innovative
poetics are rich indeed, and I have dealt with them elsewhere. I will therefore limit
myself here to one central semiotic feature of all poetry and its metaphysical inferences:
the poetic line of enjambment and the space it produces at the boundaries of language.
It was the work of Giorgio Agamben on lineation in The Idea of Prose and The
End of the Poem that first suggested to me the possibility that the metaphysics of
singularity in relation to poetry and philosophy could be traced at the micro-level of
poetic semiotic procedures. Agambens insistence on the end of the line as the point
wherein language gives up sense in favour of sound, only to fall back into sense by the
commencement of the next line through the continuation of the line of thought, his
definition of poetry,10 adds a powerful dimension to Heideggers idea of being-towardsdeath. This is a dimension in keeping with Heideggers later idea that language is the
house of being pursued dynamically along a line, which he describes as being on the way
to language.11 This much cited concept is, amongst other things, an ontology of the poem
which combines, paradoxically, the containment of the dwelling, house or room in a
house (stanza), and the serial, linear, incompleteness of the poetic line of enjambment,
always on the way to language but also always cut off before it gets there. Taking my
lead from Agamben it is apparent that these are not topographical or metaphorical

coincidences. Rather, the development of philosophy occurs along with, because of, and
at the expense of, poetry. Poetry and philosophy are the two sides of being in language.
Several points need to be made here. The first is that the poverty of thought,
which we seek in poetry, occurs at that moment at the end of the line where content is
sacrificed for what Nancy terms the fundament, usually referred to as form.12 The second
is that this collapse of thinking is itself a loss of language as discourse so that the
representational, naming language which is essential to philosophy becomes, briefly,
bereft and therefore susceptible to mourning. A third point is that the end of the line is
the onset of poetic singularity as it both defines poetry as not prose; stops poetry from
generalised, instrumental thinking by interrupting such cognitive procedures; and is a
one-off event of language in action that cannot be reproduced by prosaic generalisation at
a later date, for example in criticism. Fourth, this singularity is continually being born,
line after line, the birth to presence in ending whereby Nancy seeks to update Heideggers
idea of the centrality of being-towards-death.13 The final point to make is that the end of
the line launches us either into ineffable space in the right hand margin, or forces us to
drop down back into discourse. It marks, therefore, the limits of thinking through the
imposition of a limit to limitation, or what Derrida, through a complex reading of
Heidegger, calls the aporia.
Derridas Aporias results from a reading of Heideggers possible impossibility of
the ends of being and leads to yet another powerful paradox. Death limits being, imposes
limits on being in life, due to the fact that it is the border beyond which life cannot
proceed marking the outer limit of existence in the world. Yet, Derrida notes, death itself
is the illimitable making a nonsense of our western discursive practice of categorisation

through naming (death cannot be named). Death does not offer a limit to being then, a
border, but undermines ideas of limit, structure, definition and the like:
Let us consider, for example, this negative sentence: death has no border. Or else,
death is a border, according to an almost universal figure, death is represented
as the crossing of a border Here, now, is an interrogation: Can death be reduced
to some line crossing, to a departure, to a separation, to a step, and therefore to a
decease?.is not death, like decease, the crossing of a border, that is, a trespassing
on death [un trpas], an overstepping or a transgression. You have noticed that all
these propositions, whatever their modality, involve a certain pas [step, not].14
The word pas here, and one or two other comments in the book, are the only indications
that Derridas consideration of the aporia is a form of poetics of being-towards-death.
This, however, is precisely my contention. In French, the pas is both the step and its
negation. It therefore contains the paradox of the experience of the aporia (these two
words tell of the passage and nonpassage and are thereby coupled in aporetic fashion).15
This not only touches on being but also on Agambens very robust definition of poetry as
the linebreak where sense is sacrificed for sound. The end of the line is also an aporia. It
marks the moment where marks come up against space, and poetics in general is defined
by the oscillating dynamic of the pas, the step and its negation. This travels from the
very smallest syllabic units, where stress must be followed by its negation unstress,
through lineation, all the way to the sense of the poem as a single entity. The importance
of the metaphor of walking to prosody is widely acknowledged but at each stage of the
poems taking a step, it also enters into its negation. It is this impossible possibility of
language, never fully realised, that links poetry, philosophy and death.
The simultaneous literary and ontological significance of the paradox of the pas is
perhaps nowhere more fully realised than in Blanchots The Step Not Beyond. Early on in
the text Blanchot considers the role of the law in imposing the limit of limitation as such:

The circle of the law is this: there must be a crossing in order for there to be a
limit, but only the limit, in as much as uncrossable, summons to cross, affirms the
desire (the false step) that has always already, through an unforeseeable
movement, crossed the lineThe law reveals itself for what it is: less the
command that has death as its sanction, than death itself wearing the face of the
lawDeath is always the horizon of the law.16
In trying to define elegy, or indeed to write a poem of loss, one must come up against the
law and somehow transgress it. If, as Blanchot suggests, death is the horizon of every
law, luring us into the paradoxical experience of the aporia and crossing the noncrossable that can only be termed death, then surely the issues surrounding elegy are even
more complex that we first thought. For the law dictates the very idea of genre itself as
well as the basic conception of literary constraint, even at the expense of transparent
content, that is the founding definition of the literary as not discourse. At issue here in
the pas, the step and its negation, would seem to be the very ideas of generic definition
and beyond that our post-Kantian conception of literature as dictated by critical taste,
itself just another form of generic categorisation.17
What I am suggesting is the following: the ontology of death, so prevalent in postHeideggerian philosophers, always occurs along with a consideration either of poetry as
such or, in Derridas case, through the development of a poetics. Clearly, postmetaphysical philosophy of being, death, and poetry are linked. This is for at least three
reasons: deaths singularity is shared by poetry; philosophy and poetry are intrinsically
linked so that one cannot proceed in a direction in one field without a concomitant
movement in the other; and, finally, the topography of death is matched by that of poetry.
Of what does this topography consist of, and can one map it?
Death is the pas, the step beyond the limit that one must take in order to exist
there is no existence without the imminent presence of the possibility of the end of

existencebut which one cannot take and continue to exist. It is the step you take and
then take back or retrace (pas being step and its negation). The space beyond the border
is without borders and thus calls into question the very idea of limitation and category, in
other words philosophical thought. How can one have a border whose length is limited
on one side and is illimitable on the other? Yet, without this illimitable field philosophy
would have nothing to build a border with. The space beyond the step is destabilising of
categorical thought, and also foundational of it. Deaths topography is present as
unmappable: one cannot produce a case of it because it is infinitely vast and totally
singular, that is, irreducible.
Developing from Agamben, one can state that the topography of death is also that
of the poem, in particular, the broken line that defines the poem upon which
contemporary experiments in semiotics and absence are based. In the poem one is asked
to make a step, at the end of the line, into the infinite space of the right hand margin. The
use of double columns Ashberys Litany and Derridas Glas are two notable elegiac
works that test this rule. Blau DuPlessis goes one step further in Draft 5: Gap by
blacking out her two columns at one point to make graphic this often ignored central
element of poetry and emptiness. Without this step, which breaks the line, there is no
poetry. However, one cannot step off the line into space and retain the poem. Agamben
is quite clear about this: poetry exists in the tension between sound and sense, it is not
pure glossolalic sound.18 Each line steps out into space to break with prose, only to step
back into prose in the following line. A good example of this is Ashberys
experimentation in hypertactic lines culminating in the manner in which lines selfconsciously cut across the imposed dizain boxes in his mournful Fragment dramatising


the passage from life to death. Perhaps the most astonishing consideration of loss and
lineation in contemporary poetry is Susan Howes Thorow which moves from narrative
prose, through disjunctive prose, to poetic lineation while considering the desecration of
the lands of America and their lost peoples. Toward the poems conclusion Howe steps
out onto new ground with her three pages of palimpsests before ending with a collection
of words suspended in lines in space that are neither lines of prose nor poetry.

blue wov


This semiotic step out of prose but not beyond it is what defines poetry. As the space
beyond calls into question philosophical thinking, poetrys deliberate existence on the
edges of this space is where its renunciation of general thinking allows it to argue for its
own singularity. Poetry partakes of death so as not to be thought. The step, therefore, is
what poetry takes to confound philosophy into being. It is impossible to say whether
poetic or categorical thinking came first but, in the west at least, poetry and philosophy
were born at precisely the same moment. As Lacoue-Labarthe says glossing on the
experience of poetry as developed by the poet Celan:
The poem must clear a way between silence and discourse, between mutisms saying
nothing and the saying too much of eloquence. It is the poems narrow path, the
straightening: the path that is most narrowly that of the I. But this path does not
lead to speech or language. It leads to only one wordIrreducibly, to the language of
a single person20
Through a brief overview of modern theoretical forays into poetics and death, I
have suggested two things. The first is that the ontology of being-towards-death is also
that of being-towards-poetry, or perhaps occurs only by virtue of the location of poetry on
the edge between life and death. The second is that apart from elegy as genre, poetry by


definition is a semiotics of loss and recovery to be found most clearly in lineation. It also
exists in a number of other semiotic elements such as the caesura, margins, interior
spacing, non-sequitorial phrases, tensions between poetry and prose and so on.
Contemporary innovative poetrys exploration of these semiotic/prosodic features,
therefore, are not merely significant in themselves. It is through these experiments in
form that recent generations of poets have been approaching an elegiac prosody by
retracing their steps towards the fundamentals of poetry and rethinking their relation to
the philosophical problem death as the limit of thinking. These poets are taking steps
beyond elegy into a profound poetics of absence and loss; a new faulty thinking about
death the ends of which we can only begin to glimpse in the confluence of poetry,
philosophy, lineation and death.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Birth to Presence. Trans. Brian Holmes & Others. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993)
Nancy attempts, in the collection of essays entitled Birth to Presence, to sidestep the limitations of presence highlighted by
post-Heideggerian thinkers, especially Derrida, by concentrating on being not as a limited entity riddled with aporias but as
defined by its perpetual coming into being. Instead of conceiving of subjectivity in terms of limitations, through
representation and death, Nancy aims to reconfigure it in terms of its potential, its singularity and natality.
Speaking of the writer of melancholic mourning he notes: in their fierce resistance to solace, their intense criticism and
self-criticismunlike their literary forbears or the normal mourner of psychoanalysis, they attack the dead and
themselves, their own work and traditionsScorning recovery and transcendence, modern elegists neither abandon the dead
nor heal the living. Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1994) 4.
See in particular Poppy-petal: Elegy and Consolation in William Watkin, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern
Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001) 53-83.
Key texts in this regard are Signature Event Context, Memoires for Paul deMan, Aporias and The Gift of Death.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. (New York: SUNY Press, 1996) 234-5.
In such tranquillising modes of discourse, death is seen as a familiar event occurring in general to all of us eventually, but
which cannot be conceived of in relation to the singular subject at the moment it is represented or discussed. It occurs at the
end of life and so, in some ways, is not to be dwelt on in life and also marks the end of life. Finally, Heidegger suggests, the
they disallow what he calls angst about death or brooding on it. Death as a word is only used to distance, tranquillise,
estrange or generalise the basic fact that being must be defined at all times as being-towards-death. These facts of everyday
death, which lead to an inauthentic idea not only of death but also of life, are most certainly intrinsic to traditional elegy.
While elegy often ruminates on the fact that we all will die it is the specific event of a death that is not our own that brings it
into being as a work. Furthermore, the general consolation we are all to take from a specific death means that even the
singularity of the specific death is lost in a generalised idea of death and mourning (ibid. 222). Clearly, elegy is more for
the living than the dead, a point commonly made, for indeed how are the dead actually to profit from it? Finally, the whole
purpose of elegy for the elegist is to allow them to come to terms with death and thus resume life, to refuse angst or what we
more commonly call melancholy or depression.
Ibid. 232.
As I have extensively glossed this definition elsewhere in this context I merely refer the readers attention to Giorgio
Agamben, The End of Poem: Studies in Poetics. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)
Speaking of language as way-making, that is not on the way to but providing the way to being, Heidegger asks: What is
a way? A way allows us to reach something. Saying, if we listen to it, is what allows us to reach the speaking of language.
Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language. Trans.Peter D. Hertz. (SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1971) 126. This saying
Heidegger calls appropriation, likening it to a clearing in a forest before stating: Appropriation grants to mortals their
abode within their nature, so that they may be capable of being those who speak. (Ibid. 128). Finally, he concludes:
Language is the house of Being because language, as saying, is the mode of Appropriation. (Ibid. 135)
See Nancy 216-32.
Nancy refigures this, through his idea of poetry, as a being towards birth due to the event of death or how thoughts are
born out of their collapse from sense into sound.
Jacques Derrida, Aporias. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993) 6.
Ibid. 19.
Maurice Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond. Trans. Lycette Nelson (New York: SUNY Press, 1992) 24-5.
Both Agamben and Nancy identify the Kantian, eighteenth century value of taste leading to judgement as the beginning of
aesthetic appreciation as a specialised field open only to those who are gifted with taste. This is simultaneously the
beginning of aesthetic criticism and the demise of art in the modern period. For more on this see Giorgio Agamben, The
Man Without Content. Trans, Georgia Albert. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) 13-27 and Nancy 254-265.
Agamben, End of the Poem 109, 112-5.
Susan Howe, Singularities (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990) 59.
Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe. Poetry as Experience. Trans. Andrea Tarnowski (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)