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  • Living “As and Where We Are”: Feeling and the Emotions as Situated Poetics
  • Peter Williams (bio)

In a 1978 article, the American literary critic Albert Cook claimed that Robert Creeley’s “preconscious” poems undertook the functions of both the “I” and the “it.” Cook is cryptic about the precise meaning of these pronouns just as he never defines the preconscious, but he follows these terms with the claim that the “self-possessed” voice Creeley employs in many of his poems “flattens” but still “retains” Wordsworth’s “something evermore about to be” (Cook 1978, 355). Creeley as a flattened William Wordsworth is a curious image. Creeley was always thin, but I suspect that Cook here is referring more to the aesthetic qualities of Creeley’s work and its romantic heritage than to his physique, both in the ways that Creeley exemplifies a prevailing modernist disposition towards language and its relation to things, and in the ways that he represents affective stances that speak to our ordinary and everyday experiences of the world, rather like Wordsworth’s own claimed fealty to “ordinary language.”

The trajectories of Cook’s associations, however, are complex, linking Creeley’s “preconscious” poetry with the “I” and the “it” (the ego and the thing) and, finally, with Wordsworth and the Romantic transcendental ego whose activity unifies its mental contents into a coherent representation of the external world. Cook rather assiduously skirts any specific references to the emotions in his analysis of Creeley’s poems, but instead suggests that the related notions of “sentiment” and feeling underpin Creeley’s “hardbitten” affective poetic poses and, perhaps, establish a thin resemblance to Wordsworth’s “overflow of powerful feelings” as both the source of poetry and the affect of the poetic imagination.

Cook’s associations therefore minimally link significant points in the aesthetic shifts from a Romantic transcendentalism in which Wordsworth’s transcendental I” inhabits, absorbs, and discloses the emotional registers of his remembered experiences to the more primordial aesthetics of American modernist poets like Creeley, who in a more abstract poetics, extends feelings into emotions in order to invest his poetic objects with what he calls “the emotion-literal” (1970, 28). The externalization of emotion is a restoration to [End Page 83] poetry of “its relation to the physiological condition” (58), one of the virtues Creeley saw in Olson’s Projective Verse. The poem, according to Creeley, is not then a “signboard, pointing to a content ultimately to be regarded” (207), but is form as extension of content, a “stasis” for thought, inhabited by an “intelligence” expressing care for “the senses and the intensity of the emotion” (55).

Feelings for modernist poets remain in the unarticulated background that Cook calls the “preconscious,” that unspoken but reverberating substratum of consciousness from which poetic forms emerge. Feelings would then constitute part of what Creeley terms poetry’s “physiological condition” and are therefore less demonstrable but, like moods, more constant and universal than emotions. For most theorists, however, feelings are nearly universally distrusted as either a form of knowledge or the basis for an aesthetic judgment. Hegel characterizes feeling as an empty form of subjective affection that extends beyond even vagueness into “the indefinite dull region of the spirit” about which very little can be known. Feeling is a “purely subjective state of mind in which the concrete thing vanishes, contracted into a circle of the greatest abstraction” (32–33), a silent world of empty forms that provides only quantitative intensifications independent of any particular content. Intensities elude conceptualization, instead inhabiting a corporeal interiority that in its “vital vibrancy” restores “the faded teachings of consciousness-unconsciousness” (Blanchot 1995, 56). Echoing Hegel, the nineteenth-century theologian John Henry Newman piously declares, “Nothing lasts, nothing keeps uncorrupt and pure, which comes from feelings; feelings die like spring flowers, and are fit only to be cast into the oven” (qtd. in Hart and Wall 2005, 4). Not only is the ephemerality of feeling a problem for Immanuel Kant, but so too is its reliability. Whenever the subject of feelings, or “subjective sensations,” appears in his work, feelings are always represented in a limited way unless they can, in their universality, become the basis of a principle of...


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