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  • Important Pleasures and Others: Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson
  • Eric Murphy Selinger

Are the pleasures of experimental poetry important? 1 William Wordsworth certainly thought so. The “experiment” of Lyrical Ballads was published, he tells his readers in the “Preface,” in the hope that it “might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quality of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart” (153). Such pleasure is not, he hastens to add, “a matter of amusement” or mere “taste.” Rather, the “immediate pleasure” that the Poet is to supply is an “homage” to “the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which [man] knows, and feels, and lives, and moves.” The pleasure of poetry testifies to the beauty of the universe and the dignity of man; it inculcates the linked Romantic values of social comradeship and natural inquiry. “We have no sympathy,” the poet tells us, even with those in pain, “but what is propagated by pleasure”; likewise “we have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn up from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone” (166–7).

It’s hard for me not to play Oscar Wilde to these earnest pronouncements. How are you, my dear William? What brings you to experimental poetry? Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? It’s still harder not to read them as historical artifacts, relics of an aesthetic and a psychology that Poe, Dostoevsky, Lautreamont, and Freud, among so many others, have debunked, and which research into the brain’s endorphin reward-system has yet to revise and reinscribe into general repute. But if his talk of pleasure sounds a little out of date, Wordsworth’s insistence on the social and political importance of “experimental” poetry still echoes in academic accounts of such verse (and prose) in the last decade. 2 Peter Quartermain thus speaks of the “moral imperative” that underwrites a tradition of “disjunctive poetics” from Stein and Zukofsky to Susan Howe; and he quotes William Carlos Williams’s warning that while “It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” people “die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” (20). Jerome J. McGann, in a polemical moment, declares that the variety of experimental verse called Language poetry “does not propose for its immediate object pleasure,” but rather exposes the “illusions of pleasure” that capitalist culture has “constructed,” thus allowing readers to “gain a certain freedom from their power” (“Response,” 312). 3 Even the cheery and skeptical Marjorie Perloff, who opens her volume Poetic License by describing postmodern “poe(t)heory” as “a very pleasurable activity,” closes it with a stern reminder of the task at hand: “What [Susan] Howe calls the ‘Occult ferocity of origin’ is an obstacle only a persistent ‘edging and dodging’ will displace,” she tells her readers, “if we are serious about ‘Taking the Forest’” (5; 310). 4

There’s something suspect about pleasure, after all. The “text of pleasure,” in Barthes’ terms, “contents” us; it “comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading” (14). Comfortable? The shame of it. Such a comfortable practice reduces poetry to what Wordsworth called “a matter of amusement . . . as indifferent as a taste for Rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry” (166), and what Michael Palmer has more recently disparaged as “a kind of decor in one’s life . . . the kind of thing for hammock and lemonade” (127). In an “age of Media” (Perloff) when pleasure has become a “cultural commodity” (Gilbert 249), in a period when “no writing,” so it’s said, “can offer a comfortable place to be” (Reinfeld 152), how much more important seems Barthes’ “text of jouissance, the text that imposes a state of loss . . . that discomforts . . . [and] brings to a crisis [one’s] relation with language” (14, my emphasis). 5 The pleasure one takes in such loss, discomfort, and crisis—such threat, anxiety, and terror, to borrow three terms from Palmer...

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