“L’Hypothèse du compact” is the title of a text by the poet Jacques Roubaud that appeared in the first issue of the Revue de Littérature Générale1 in 1995, edited at the time by two young poets, Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi. In his article, Roubaud speaks of course of poetry: poetry does not think, says nothing, says what it says in saying it, is not paraphrasable, is “now,” is memory, memory of a language, memory of a language in the language—all propositions that he would reprise and expand the same year in his Poésie, etcetera: ménage.
But the end of the original text introduces a new notion. This last section is entitled “Contrat du compact,” and begins by saying “poetry has with language a contract of compactification” (297). Roubaud goes on to define poetry’s memory: “In a poem, what springs from poetry’s memory, by the arrangement of language, is a state of compression, of condensation, of compactification that is as extreme as possible” (298).
One could reprise this hypothesis of compactification in poetry in its immediate, quasi-literal meaning, in order to see in it more than a simple procedure, but an emblematic operation of today’s poetry—an exemplary gesture of a certain modernity, as Pierre Alferi confirms.
In his diversified trajectory from philosophy to poetry to novel, Pierre Alferi has acquired a distinctly recognizable voice: the casual use of ordinary, quotidian language, the blurring of prose and poetry, but also a great formal stringency and a priority given to syntactic exploration. It has been said that this generation privileges a poetry of speed, of movement, arising from a desire to butt heads with existing forms. One thinks of Walter Benjamin, who characterizes modernity by the aesthetic of shock, and links this to the traumas of World War I, to projectiles, to the railroad train, which makes the passenger into a cannonball—to the general acceleration of the century.
In Pierre Alferi’s work, the need to render this movement, this fluidity that goes beyond experience, is met by the use of a privileged procedure—that of compression, of compactification. In the preface to the first issue of the Revue de Littérature Générale, Alferi wrote, àpropos not only of poetry, but of literary objects in general, of compacted accidents, of reduction, of shrinkage; basic literary materials are a compression of memories, of perceptions, of bits of sensations. These new literary objects would be “balls of sensations-thoughts-forms,” or again “small agglutinations characterized by the senses-affect-language” (5): fleeting outlines, brief memories condensed to the point of a blazon, to blocks of sensations—Proust’s madeleine, but three-dimensional. What Alferi calls elsewhere “the lyrical spark” (“l’étincelle lyrique”)2 would arise from the act of telescoping (references, objects, models)—in short, from a maximal condensation of the text. Alferi wonders (àpropos of Jacques Roubaud), does the densest poetry have to do with the compression of data?
Obviously the compression of data arises from computer language, but the term “compact” also refers to mathematical theory—in this case to topology: a territory that determines its own border, but where all points remain autonomous, without melding or amalgamating, each retaining its own particularity—another modern metaphor for poetry.
We see right away that this desire to recreate in the poem the fulguration of experience is indebted to Joyce, to his epiphanies. We are talking about a moment of illumination (harking back to Joyce’s Stephen Hero, but most particularly to the amorous fragments of his Giacomo Joyce, whose spirit Alferi calls upon here). According to Alferi, poetry is about violent sensation, about everything that arises from discharge, from detonation— from the model of explosion, or rather, implosion. Let us return for a moment to Roubaud’s text, “L’Hypothèse du compact.” In it he writes, “The effect of poetry, in the memory, can be compared to an explosion.” And “The poetical condensation of memory is instantaneous” (299).
Instantaneity is the moment of detonation when the banal and singular reality of objects invades you like a revelation, like an explosion. St. Augustine leaps to mind...