- For a Global Poetics
Near the beginning of three poems (1972), john ashbery writes,
I’m sorry—in staring too long out over this elaborate view one begins to forget that one is looking inside, taking in the familiar interior which has always been there, reciting the only alphabet one knows. To escape in either direction is impossible outside the frost of a dream, and it is just this major enchantment that gave us life to begin with, life for each other. Therefore I hold you. But life holds us, and is unknowable.1
This passage is a defense of poetry in global terms. After beginning with a characteristically breezy, off-hand apology, the poem first claims that the view of a certain “elaborate” external prospect might cause us to forget that the “alphabet” of poetry comes from limning a “familiar interior.” Then the poem moves inward, to the realm of “dream” and “enchantment,” those uses of poetry that are as traditional as the description of the prospect with which the passage begins. But this movement inside brings us into the domain of relationality, not solipsism, and Ashbery proceeds to build the poetic address into an embrace. The poem then moves back outward to a sense of being held together by “unknowable” forces. Ashbery’s “I” constitutes a global subject to the extent that his subjectivity, like the poem itself, comprises such forces. The poem inverts the imperial gaze of its sovereign, white, U.S. male poetic speaker, who determines that the “elaborate view” before him is one of immanent rather than eminent domain, at one with the “major enchantment” that brings “life for each other.”2 This view requires both active care and the acknowledgment of precarity: the dependence upon unseen forces that exceed our forms of knowing. The poem is built through a dialectical movement in which the address to and care for the other is transformed into an enchanted sense of being grasped by the world, an ecstatic process of encountering the unknowable in the alphabet of the known. [End Page 365]
Published in 1972, Ashbery’s language of dream and enchantment stands at an oblique angle to the brutality of the early 1970s—the dawning of our current “global age,” as Martin Albrow names it in his eponymous study.3 And yet the precise meaning, political valence, and general usefulness of “global” as a term to describe this period remain unsettled and subject to intense debate. Whereas twenty years ago globalization may have seemed “a polite euphemism for the continuing Americanization of consumer tastes and cultural practices,” as Susan Strange puts it, today the global has undergone a conceptual strengthening, and the call for a richer understanding of global processes has been amplified rather than muted.4 This forum turns to contemporary poets writing from a variety of positions in the world economy for a reconsideration of what “global” signifies and the master terms, keywords, and concepts we might use to grasp it. As the testimonies, musings, and polemics of the ten poets in this forum suggest, a reappraisal of the global also requires a reassessment of global poetics. Indeed, in order to claim that Ashbery’s poem, titled “The New Spirit,” has anything to do with “The New Spirit of Capitalism,” we must undertake a major revision of the premises under which poetry in general has been understood: the gap between critical global studies—the interdisciplinary critique of global capitalism—and poetic criticism must be annealed.5
Critiques of post-1970s globalization have long been underserved by familiar concepts for the global such as flow, hybridity, and scape.6 These circulatory metaphors can be misleading in their neutrality. Who are the agents promoting particular flows, maintaining the priority of certain circuits over others, diverting or shutting down routes, installing checkpoints? The description of the world in such terms reproduces the hierarchies that benefit more and more from their complexity, occultism, and normative posturing as accomplished [End Page 366] fact. The current wave of critical global theory—promulgated by such thinkers as Radhika Desai, David Harvey, Greta Krippner, Timothy Mitchell, Vijay Prashad, Kristin Ross, and Saskia Sassen—seeks to think beyond these...