Juxtaposition, the Modern Sublime, Poetry Responding to The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
Column Note: POETICS APPLIED
In pursuit of those methods, techniques, theories and figures that can contribute to one’s own poetry by their application in poetic praxis, Curtis Jensen comments on, reviews and analyzes contemporary and past literatures from the perspective of an emerging poet, which he is.
Say for instance a subject is confronted with the endless array of a system of signification, as is often the case in the postmodern context. This array of unending signification happens to resemble a cloth of red silk, extending in all directions at once. The subject is struck by the overwhelming vastness of the array and the beautiful silken resemblance, and sets about to express this. The subject, an artist, selects elements that are distant (and so contrasting), and draws them together in juxtaposition, fashioning their figure into that of a cloth rose. The figure is a fine aesthetic object, and each time the artist re-encounters it, she projects the unbounded context of the vast and terrifying array of signification into it, re-expanding the array’s unbounded context, and re-accessing the sublime.
Now say for instance this example permutates: the unbounded array, a horrific oil spill, and the artist, a poet powerfully struck by the vast unbounded context of the spill’s disastrous unfolding. The poet selects contrasting elements from the complex of the oil spill, perhaps a little girl playing on the beach with a broken containment boom and a dead, oil-drenched turtle; the poet fashions these elements into a juxtaposed figure, perhaps including a couple other figures to go along with the girl and the turtle; the poet attaches a title to her work, something like Oil Spill, or Oil, or The Girl and the Oil Spill and the Dead Turtle, and then the poet posts her poem on her blog. Again, it is likely that the poet, when re-encountering Oil Spill or Oil or the Girl and The Oil Spill and the Dead Turtle, is able to access the sublime that sparked her poem. Other poets and readers who share with the poet an awareness of and a perspective on the disaster’s unbounded context (its material, social, political and human implications) are able to project this context into the juxtaposed figures of Oil Spill, or Oil, or The Girl and The Oil Spill and the Dead Turtle. Such a projection invokes the fear, despair and terror of the unbounded and uncapped disaster still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, and so accesses the sublime. In this way the Oil Spill or Oil or The Girl and The Oil Spill is an affirming poem.
But what of, say for instance, the poet’s brother-in-law? He encounters the rose figure at work one afternoon while responding to the day’s emails; he recognizes the figure as an aesthetic object of great skill and craft, appreciates it as such, and goes on with his business till knocking off early to stop by the local pub for a tall glass of cool beer before heading home to dinner with the artist/poet’s sister and their two small children. The rose figure does not facilitate his accessing the sublime because he is not already familiar with the array’s unbounded context, he is not informed previously of a theory of signification systems, and the rose figure in its compression does not bring him any closer to becoming conscious of it. This is not to suggest that the brother-in-law is not capable of becoming conscious of semiotic theory, but that the rose fails to invoke an encounter with the sublime, the encounter that the artist had set out to express.
When the brother-in-law encounters Oil Spill or Oil or The Girl and the Oil Spill and the Dead Turtle, he does not share with the poet the same consciousness of or ideological perspective on the disastrous oil spill, and recognizes the poem as an aesthetic object only, knocks off work early to enjoy a cold beer at the bar before heading home to dinner. Again, this is not to say that the poet’s brother in law cannot become conscious of the disaster’s unbounded context, but that the poem failed in invoking for the brother-in-law an encounter with the sublime nature of the disaster.
As a class, poems in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster seek to express and comment upon the horror, fear, despair, disgust, anger, and frustration felt as a result of the disaster’s unfolding. Most of these emotions are attributes of the perception of the sublime. The postmodern sublime differs from the romantic sublime in that it is a refiguration of the subject-object interaction characteristic of the former. In postmodernity, practically all aspects of the natural world have been effected by human activity, hence the postmodern sublime is understood to be the subject and a human-effected object in its unbounded context. In theory, such an encounter sparks overwhelming sensations, and so accessing the sublime initiates a powerful affective mode in poetry. Accordingly, poems written in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster (Gulf Coast’s Poets for Living Waters features the bulk of the best of these) share a tendency to attempt to access the sublime. Such attempts are intended to further the poet’s expression of, comment upon, or protest against the disaster.
I suggest that the poetry responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster over-relies upon the device of juxtaposition, and that in this over-reliance, it has failed to access the sublime.
The ecopoetics movement has taken a vanguard position in contemporary poetry, its supporters writing and criticizing some of the most compelling poetry written today. The poetry circulating in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not all the result of the ecopoetics movement, but the primary themes of the two camps, ecopoetics and practically everyone else writing about the disaster, overlay one another.
The poems circulating in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster are influenced by a prominent maxim of the ecopoetics movement: show the bird and the bulldozer together. This maxim presumes that the bulldozer and the bird are causally related, which, in the postmodern context, they often are, perhaps as a function of the destructive development of habitat as in the case of, say, a landfill or a subdivision or a catastrophic oil spill.
Though the bird and bulldozer maxim does lend itself to juxtaposition, it does not oblige the poet to rely upon it as a primary figurative device. Juxtaposition, by bringing together unlike terms for comparison, engages a contrast that results in powerful compression. Often juxtaposition is deployed for rhetorical purposes, say perhaps to defamiliarize some traditional literary convention, as the modernists were apt to do, or as in the case of poems in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, to convey that the disaster is a giant horrible mess and a manifestation of a deeper set of highly destructive practices. (Jonathan Skinner mentions the bird and bulldozer maxim in his excellent and free literary journal, ecopoetics. See his statement from a talk presented at AWP in issue 4/5, specifically for his compelling (and I feel accurate) ethical arguments. For another treatment of the bird and bulldozer maxim, Christopher Arigo works at the topic in his review of Juliana Spahr’s last book in How 2, as well as explicating the role of the postmodern sublime in ecopoetics).
But for those that don’t share a similar awareness of the context of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and who encounter these highly compressed poems, what then? The poems’ figures are art objects that elicit an aesthetic response, but because of over-reliance on compressive devices such as juxtaposition, the poems do not facilitate the reader’s access to the sublime, and therefore fail in achieving their intentions. Furthermore, such poems do not bring the reader, the poet’s brother-in-law, or anyone else not broadly sharing the same ideological perspective, any closer to sympathy with the poet’s position in regards to the material, social, political and human aspects of the disaster.
I do not mean to insist that poetry must take a rhetorical position. I mean to insist that in relying upon highly compressive figurative devices such as juxtaposition in its treatment of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the poetry circulating in response to the disaster is affirming, but not convincing, thus failing in its rhetorical intentions. Showing the bird and the bulldozer is an ethically sound maxim; I hold it as an imperative in my own work. But reducing of vastly complex material, social, and political contexts to selected elements figured in compression results in poetry of affirmation, whether it is poetry in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster or otherwise. And, Poetry of affirmation is poetry which holds very little significance.