Affirmation of Poetry by Judith Balso (review)
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Affirmation of Poetry.
By Judith Balso. Translated by Drew S. Burk. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014.

A keen sense of political exigency is retained in this English translation of Judith Balso’s Affirmation de la poésie. It is a slim book, spread between chapters on a purposefully diffuse selection of poets: not just Wallace Stevens, but Gennadiy Aygi, Xi Chuan, Fernando Pessoa, Osip Mandelstam, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Giacomo Leopardi. A “small sampling,” as Balso puts it, of poets who successfully realize what she sees as the unique and privileged capacity of poetic language to open a space of resistance (17). The diffuse and episodic [End Page 266] structure of the book is consonant with the logic of what Balso names a principle of “poetic events” (16), which might be summarized as a plural potential, inherent in poetry, to think differently. These are named “events” for the way in which they cannot be homogenized or submitted to generalizing precepts; in this sense, the book is an invigorating series of affirmations rather than one, totalizing affirmation. In this review, I will focus on Balso’s chapter on Stevens, but it is worth first making a note of the way in which glancing but suggestive comparisons are made elsewhere in the book between the “projects” of Stevens and Pessoa, and Stevens and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, for instance when Balso writes, “It is striking that Jean-Luc Nancy’s research also ends with the necessity of fiction” (95–96). Readers of comparatist sympathies might feel frustrated by Balso’s strict adherence to her strategy of isolating “events” rather than expanding upon these gestures of kinship, but the book does succeed in its aim to mount an affirming juxtaposition of discrete figures.

From the beginning of the book, Balso is sensitive to the prepositional dilemma which is characteristic of her critical situation: “It is not a question of thinking ‘about’ poems but with poems” (17). This sentence’s implication of a certain critical tact or deference to the force of the poems in question is only partially fulfilled. Balso does not subordinate or appropriate Stevens to the ideas of modish philosophers (the only philosophical proper name that appears in the first chapter is Plato), and indeed one of the values of the book is the way in which it mounts an original treatment of Stevens as a poetic thinker of “events” entirely on his own terms. However, as this implies, Balso’s position does entail an insistence on the poem as producing “Events of thought” or “figures of thought” (16, 100)—and Stevens’ poems are read accordingly, first and foremost, as intact figural theses, as acts of mind isolated in poems. For Balso, poetry is ontologically distinct rather than formally distinct; as a consequence, the rhythms, semantic slipperiness, and vocal richness of Stevens are elided, thereby opening Affirmation of Poetry to the accusation of being an affirmation of only a philosophically invested version of poetry.

With the ambitious brevity of Affirmation of Poetry comes the risk of telescoping. Balso negotiates this risk by organizing the chapter on Stevens around a reading of the poem “Description Without Place,” which is elevated to the status of a kind of conceptual keystone. Balso’s engagement with this poem, long a favorite of philosophically oriented Stevens scholars, inspires the paranomastic flourish of the term “appar-être,” which signifies what Balso calls “un être dans un apparaître. A being within a seeming” (29). Here, in a passage significant for Stevensians with an interest in the poet’s French reception, Balso pursues a beautiful reading of Stevens as a poet of “emergence,” an aesthetic that is yoked to a political opposition to “the massiveness of the State” (33). One cannot help thinking that this stance might have been enriched by more of an engagement with existing criticism, since Affirmation of Poetry pointedly avoids building on current scholarship. This is consistent with Balso’s stated aim of championing poems and proselytizing for new readers, but her fresh excursus through the very familiar Stevensian binaries of imagination and reality, poetry and philosophy, and abstraction and actuality, though studded with occasionally novel insights, may bemuse readers who...