- Contemporary Poetry and Social Life
In Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life,Oren Izenberg sets out nothing less than a definition and defense of poetry. The complete book shows why essay-length portions have roused such excitement among scholars of the “new lyric studies” and of twentieth-century literature; this urgent, considered study is essential to both. Izenberg is interested in the nature of a genre pressed to its essence by the necessities of recent history. He would shift attention away from the fact of the twentieth-century poem—whether taken as a specific instance of situated speech or as an ideal expression of transcendent self-reflection—and toward the operation of twentieth-century poetry. Poetry can be a potential, he argues, rather than a product or effect; it is something we are rather than something we do. It allows one to recognize the presence of others and thus provides one with the foundation for social feeling. Writers of this art are not seeking “a kind of object” so much as “a knowledge or capacity” that is “constitutive of what it is to be a person,” and they do not hope to create a work of art so much as to “reveal, exemplify, or make manifest” that establishing “power” (17).
Poetry’s unique function, then, is a humanism more basic than any justification, embellishment, or even expression of human life. Poetry proves that life in the first place. In a useful passage of his introduction to Being Numerous, Izenberg compares poetry [End Page 188] to the “indication sign” of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, something that “motivates our confidence in the existence of an intending mind” without communicating, necessarily, any particular intention or aspect of the mentality (30). To further define the nature of indication would be to draw limits, forbidding some group or aspect human recognition, and it is just such exclusions that Izenberg’s poetic capacity would subvert. Poetry, he explains, allows “an account of personhood” that is “minimal,” “universal,” and “real,” and therefore one that is open and evident to all—manifesting alterity without specifying what it could or should be (4). “[T]he persons intended by the poetic principle are defined by their possession of value,” Izenberg writes, and that value inheres before any taxonomic detail (23).
This description means, paradoxically and interrelatedly, that poets can serve poetry by refusing to make poems, and that poetry can serve politics by refusing to engage politically. Since any accomplishment in verse threatens to circumscribe its essential universality, the writers Izenberg hails in Being Numerous take suspicion of their craft to be in service of its aim. Silence may be the most poetic act of all. Conscientious reticence, furthermore, bears real consequence: as Izenberg explains, “[t]he attempt to make the person appear anew as a value-bearing fact—as the necessary ground of social life—is a conceptual precursor to any effective politics, to any subsequent account of justice” (35). The effects and accounts that follow from this “precursor” may take wildly different forms, from fascism to socialism to an anti-statist collectivity, even as poetry remains politically and judicially “radical” in the etymological sense of the term. Poetry displays a personhood that requires other persons’ recognition.
This type of poetic legislation is deeply Shelleyan, as Izenberg points out. Like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry,” Being Numerous forwards a justification of aesthetic activity that supersedes aesthetics as a goal. But its worth is most germane, Izenberg argues, to a twentieth-century world in which “a set of civilizational crises” have made the threat to personhood omnipresent and imperative (2). These crises include theoretical turmoil, which Izenberg describes as a post-Enlightenment “terror [End Page 189] of skepticism about persons” (33) in a “philosophical culture that emphasizes the contingency of human value” (34), and historical devastation—a combination of “decolonization and nation formation, the levelings of consumer culture, ‘the end of history,’ and above all, genocide and the specter of total annihilation” (2). As person-valuing poetry redresses these conditions...