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  • “Desire pronounced and/Punctuated”: Lacan and the Fate of the Poetic Subject
  • David Kellogg

A certificate tells me that I was born. I repudiate this certificate: I am not a poet, but a poem. A poem that is being written, even if it looks like a subject.

—Jacques Lacan (1981, viii)

Throughout the 1980s, as future histories of the academy will no doubt recall, the concept of the self was in big trouble. Theoretically, that is. Outside the academy it was a different story; indeed, in popular culture, forms of self-exploration and -expression proliferated alongside fragmented and fragmenting media technologies. Next to this complex narrative, the self in the academy enacts a fairly consistent retreat. 1 Attacked by intellectuals in every corner of the human sciences, the self was nowhere less secure than in the very discipline often accused of giving it ultimate priority: psychoanalysis, symbolized especially by the figure of Jacques Lacan. In the eyes of some historians at least, Lacan singlehandedly loosed analysis from its traditional moorings; as Anthony Elliot (1994) recently phrased it, Lacanian theory “has completely transformed cultural debates about the development of the individual subject in social and historical terms” (91–92). Yet at the height of this transformation, the Lacanian theoretical vocabulary of desire was being picked up and employed by several young American poets toward very different ends. As poststructuralist theory grew more important to the academy, Lacanian terms became important to poets who struggled over the fate of traditional poetic notions of agency, selfhood, individuality, and authorship. What resulted from this heady mixture of lyric and Lacan by no means reaffirmed the centrality of the subject in either poetry or cultural theory; it did, however, implicate the collapse of traditional discourses of the self in the reproduction of contemporary poetic value. [End Page 405]


At the intersection of such troublesome categories as pleasure, politics, and information, the self holds a problematic—and important—place in the contemporary American poetic (Gilbert 1992, passim). 2 It continues as an object of inquiry and a source of articulation against, and partly because of, the serious challenges posed to it both within the poetry community and outside it. Indeed, in spite of the cynicism of much postmodern cultural production, a fair amount of well-received poetry in the eighties—work produced across a broad geographical and stylistic spectrum—explicitly addresses the issue of personal emotion as a subject for the poem (rather than merely its context or source). At an interpoetic, stylistic level, the affective and experiential registers of language may have received renewed attention as some poets in the early eighties reacted both to the depersonalized, object-centered poetry of the Deep Image and to the New York poets’ ironic, noncommittal style. Yet we would be mistaken if we read this reaction as a return to confessionalism, since such a reading would reduce the history of American verse to the crudest possible dialectic of Self and Other.

Besides, the historical situation of the poetic today is different. Current verse is implicated in social institutions—including the university, the media, and the state—in ways distinct from those characterizing American poetry in the sixties. Personal poetics shares a social stage with language poetry; 3 if it is experiencing a resurgence of sorts, that context must be taken into account. It is more difficult now than it was thirty years ago to set up drastic oppositions between academic and antiacademic in poetry—between the cooked and the raw, the formal and the spontaneous—though it is still possible and sometimes useful to do so. Much contemporary poetry, including the New Formalism and what Vernon Shetley (1993) calls “the MFA mainstream” (20), may be postmodern against its will, taking part in the postmodern blurring of resistance and cooptation by its very participation in an articulatory matrix that it has not author(iz)ed. Even the most radical contemporary poetry, such as that of the language movement—which, [End Page 406] like most avant-garde movements in this century, has tended to pit itself against the academy—has found much authorization for its practice in academic theoretical discourse; and as its chief practitioners seek university jobs, it...