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  • Poetics and the Question of Value; or, What Is a Philosophically Serious Poet?
  • Barrett Watten

IN THIS ESSAY, I put the question of value, just as one might put the question of being, language, or ethics, in the context of poetics. To put an even bigger question, I could frame my discussion in terms of a larger horizon: “What is poetics?” Poetics is a discourse of the making of the work in its condition of possibility. One of the conditions of possibility for poetics is, precisely, value—but what do we mean by that? Truth: does the work of the poem correspond to necessary knowledge of a given state of affairs? Taste: is it worthy of consideration, esteem, and perpetuation? Interest: does it articulate a necessary concern of our own or others? Community: does it convey values held by a community it reflects or constitutes? Economics: does it take part in the social production of material life? Transformation: does it participate, through its making of value, in new horizons of lived experience and collective meaning? Each of these concepts of value that come to mind as I write—and there are other ways to put them—cannot be excluded from what the concept of “value” may entail.1 But in the two recent considerations of poetics and value I sketch out here, the horizon of value is restricted to more limited senses by either “philosophy” or “political economy,” in turn. I want to resituate both toward an encompassing horizon of the transformation of lived experience.

My point of departure is an unserious remark I once heard made by Charles Altieri: that William Carlos Williams is “not a philosophically serious poet.” It is clear from the entire course of Altieri’s work, over at least three decades, that Wallace Stevens does count as one. Whether this offhand remark survives in print or not, an imagined rivalry between Stevens and Williams over philosophical seriousness is a recurrent concern for Altieri and often surfaces in his work.2 As a partisan of Williams in this debate, I want to question what it means to say that “X is a philosophically serious poet,” and why Stevens’ explicit references to philosophy are a better guarantee of value, in Altieri’s estimation, than Williams’ “no ideas but in things.”

My second consideration links the defense of Williams to the turn to materialist criticism and political economy after 2008. The shift to a baseline Marxist theory of value as ground for poetic value, in recent work by [End Page 84] Joshua Clover, Christopher Nealon, and Ruth Jennison, in different ways fails to connect the formal construction and theoretical mediation of modernist and later poetics to the renewed horizon of “the economic in the last instance.” Altieri, as a proponent of form as mediation, in an opposite way fails to take into account the turn to political economy; a Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values” is for him enough to direct Stevens’ objectified and distanced, analogy-making if not allegorical, poetry toward an experience that is at once sensuous, self-reflexive, and value-conferring. Altieri neglects two important aspects of this process, however: first, that the abstract processes he values in Stevens themselves partake of other forms of value (history, culture, art); and second, that considered as social products, these relations between material existence and abstraction permit interpretation through Marxist theories. The direct transposition of political economy to poetic construction in Clover and Nealon is inadequate, on the other hand, in that it oversimplifies the move, in Marx, from values of precapitalist utility and capitalist exchange to a larger horizon of “value” per se that is theoretically and historically open. A more encompassing theory of value is needed, for both poetics and Marxism, in order to link the two. Here Williams becomes the more philosophically profound poet for the way he sees a poetics of material life—one of transvaluation after the influence of Dada and the “Revolution of the Word”—as open to such a horizon. At the intersection of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, the theory of value in Marx, and Williams’ late poetics, I will answer Altieri and the subsequent critics.

Poetics of V...