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  • Planetary Dejection:An Ode to the Commons1
  • Walt Hunter (bio)

Many contemporary Anglophone poets have, in the last five years, turned to the lyric ode as a form through which to process global crisis and catastrophe.2 The appearance of so many odes is part of an emergent social vision for lyric poetry that, I believe, differs in several important ways from previous political projects undertaken by the lyric. The ode, in its structure of approach and withdrawal, depends on a complex and dialectical relation to otherness that cannot be explained adequately by the theoretical model of radical alterity proposed by Emmanuel Levinas. This chapter looks closely at Keston Sutherland’s The Odes to TL61P (2013) as a case study in the articulation of a global ethics from within traditional lyric forms. In the ode, the first-person “I” is placed in dynamic relation to an other. This relation is not based on an infinite “responsibility” to the other, as Levinas might have it, but rather on probing, querying, testing, feeling things out—a mutable provisionality that holds off certainty as much as it avoids dramatic notions of ineffable otherness and radical alterity (Levinas 1961, 86). Through the ode, poets critique a notion of the “global” predicated on scarcity, in which the ethical figures of the “Same” and the “Other” become the allegorical [End Page 225] manifestations of competing claims to resources.3 As an alternative to the Levinasian metaphor of the “height” of the other, lyric poetry is concerned instead with laterality, with being together in a way that extends beyond “our immediate spheres of belonging” (Butler 2012, 140).4 As a response to the politics of scarcity, the ode models the ethical and aesthetic forms of a commons.

One way of understanding lyric poetry is through its historical role as “the most readily available fictional space in which [questions of subjectivity] can be dramatized and explored” (Greene 1999, 224). During the democratic and capitalist crises of the last decade, lyric poetry has been engaged in rethinking political subjectivity and conceptions of alterity within the processes of global political economy. Noticing a marked “persistence of the lyric” (Ashton 2013, 217) in recent poetry, Jennifer Ashton argues that this version of lyric is no longer defined by its “grounding in personhood.” She suggests that the poetry of the first decade of the twenty-first century reveals a different possibility, a “serious consideration of the ground of ‘scarcity’ on which the recognition of persons is constructed” (Ashton 2013, 222). An alternative genealogy of lyric poetry, scarcity, and precarity remains unwritten—one cauterized by the legal and political enclosures that drive the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century expansions of the modern world-system, and thus by the precarity that accompanies the elimination of the space of the commons, the activities of the commons, and the language that describes the actions that are possible in the commons.5

This essay concentrates on some specific forms that a poetics of the global commons has assumed. It argues that the contemporary resurgence of the lyric is the poetic translation of a lost commons. The lyric poets in this chapter demonstrate how global, material forces are instantiated in some of the formal innovations of the ode in the last decade. Their work has a particular affect on the ontology of the poem as a critical object: rather than issuing from a self grounded in legal personhood, the practice of lyric poiesis is bound together with the precarious subjectivity of life under globalization. Since the lyric poem, in its origin, history, and traditions, is consolidated at the [End Page 226] very moment that the enclosure of the commons passes into law, the catalogue of lyric forms might be reconceived as so many traces of the loss of the commons.6 As I have argued elsewhere, such a notion of lyric also shapes the contemporary prospect poem (Hunter 2015). The worlds of the lyric are, from the start, worlds of precarious life, brought into existence by the expansion of global capital and the foreclosure of the commons.

Under the current regimes of neoliberal globalization, the violent exclusions produced by communitarian forms of belonging make various kinds of...


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