The Visual and the Self in Contemporary Poetry
Andrew Michael Roberts
University of Dundee
The dominance of the visual is often seen as a new and defining feature of contemporary culture. Yet it is Romantic poetry which most powerfully associates the act of seeing with understanding, self-shaping and the visionary. This article draws on the ideas of the Idealist philosopher J.G. Fichte and the German Romantic writers Novalis and F.W. Schlegel, as well as some of Walter Benjamin’s reading of their work, to explore the ways in which contemporary poetry engages with this Romantic legacy. Making connections with the metaphors of reflection and refraction used by Wordsworth and Coleridge, the article interprets examples of 21st-century post-Romantic text poetry (which revisits Romantic models with an ecological inflection), and digital poetry (which uses technology to reconfigure the relationship between text, self and the visual). More specifically, it proposes a set of relations between visual perception of the natural world, reflective thought and awareness of self in the work of three contemporary poets: Thomas A.Clark (born Greenock, Scotland, 1944), John Burnside (born Dunfermline, Scotland, 1955) and John Cayley (born Ottawa, Canada).
The visual in poetry can be divided into the visual aspects of the poem itself (what we see on the page), and its representation or thematisation of the visual. The contemporary poets John Burnside, Thomas A. Clark and John Cayley each makes distinctive use of the visual aspects of the poem itself. Burnside writes in free verse, using visual layout expressively (for example line breaks and spacing across the page). Clark has written much free verse, as well as concrete poetry, but in the book I am going to discuss, uses prose poems accompanied by photographs, which add another dimension to the material visuality of the text; he also produces artists’ books, so that the look and feel of the book as object are significant elements of his work. John Cayley is a digital poet, who creates programmed moving and changing text and images displayed on screen. Such material visual features of the work or text interact with poetry’s representation of visuality. Gillian Rose makes a relevant distinction of terms:
Vision is what the human eye is physiologically capable of seeing …. Visuality, on the other hand, refers to [the] way[s] in which vision is constructed .…‘how we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see, and how we see this seeing and the unseeing therein[.]’
The representation of vision includes how the poem “constructs” vision, what it enables us to “see” (with all the multiple connotations of that word in respect of knowledge and understanding), and how it reflects upon the process of seeing. In all of this a play of presence and absence is crucial. Whenever a poem, by whatever means, evokes the visual perception of the world (as opposed to the visual perception of the poem’s material or formal structure), it imagines a presence while at the same time presenting an absence. The play between the visual and the visionary occurs in the space between this presence and absence. Interestingly, this play of presence and absence is something which poems have in common with visual images, rather than something which distinguishes them, according to W. J. T. Mitchell, who argues that “an image cannot be seen as such without a paradoxical trick of consciousness, an ability to see something as ‘there’ and ‘not there’ at the same time” (17). So, if we look at a visual image such as a painting of a landscape, to see it as an image (rather than as an actual landscape on the one hand, or a surface with paint on it, on the other), we must see the landscape as both “there” and “not there” (this, Mitchell suggests, is why animals cannot see images).
I referred just now to how the poem “reflects upon the process of seeing.” Not only was I using a visual metaphor (of reflection) for the process of thought, but my own thought-process was being shaped by a phrase which itself involves a mirroring symmetry. In that phrase, the word “reflect” mirrors the word “seeing,” and vice versa, in a möbius strip or “strange loop” between knowledge and sight. This loop is wholly typical of the way in which Western thought has configured vision and knowledge. More specifically it is central to the Romantic and post-Romantic configuration of visuality in respect of self-knowledge. “Reflection” is the articulated joint between vision and the self, since it images self-knowledge as the bouncing back of rays of light which makes sight possible: “The action, on the part of surfaces, of throwing back light or heat” (OED, 2a); “The mode, operation, or faculty by which the mind has knowledge of itself and its operations” (OED, 8c. Philos.). So I approach my theme, the articulation of the visual and the self, via Romantic formulations of the relationship between reflection and thought. Clark, Burnside and Cayley, I shall suggest, all use reflection as trope, or a formal device, or as topos, drawing on a Romantic tradition which ties together thought and vision, and in the process ties together self-awareness and vision.
“Reflection” is a complex and resonant term, especially in relation to epistemology and aesthetics. It is worth recalling its etymology: “Re” (“back,” “again”) and flectere (L) “bend”: to bend something back or bend it again. So rays of light are “bent” or turned back by an object, or mirror; the mind can turn or “bend” its thoughts onto something (especially, perhaps, onto thinking itself). Early obsolete meanings of “reflect” include “To shine, cast a light” (OED, 9b). The “re” in “reflection” suggests that the word partakes in that beginning in medias res that F.W. Schlegel attributes to philosophical thought: “philosophy always begins in the middle, like an epic poem” (Athenaeum Fragments, Kritische Ausgabe 2:112; qtd. Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory 105). The word “reflection,” used in other than a strictly optical sense, conveys both passive and active relations of self to world: reflecting the world and reflecting upon it. The concept of “reflection” has a rich history, especially in German Romanticism and the writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth. John Beer describes how Coleridge’s use of the term, and of images and metaphors of reflection, draws on an eighteenth-century understanding of reflection as “serious thought,” (20) with implications of self-judgment and conscience, but invokes and moves towards a more spiritual meaning. This later use of the term by Coleridge involves:
a conception of inward reflection which was not just a mental working but, more precisely, a reflection from an illumination within—to be viewed in its turn by some as analogous to the creative illumination of God himself.
In Beer’s account of eighteenth-century thought, “reflection” links thought and reflexivity: it is thinking about oneself. As Frederick Burwick writes, in the “poetry of reflection,” “[o]ptical reflection becomes mental reflection. An image on the surface of water provides the poet with another metaphor of perception and contemplation” (23). One link between reflection as a form of thought and mood, and reflection as an optical process, may be that reflection in nature normally requires a degree of calm, since troubled water reflects less (probably only colour). Beer refers to Wordsworth’s irritation when a reader assumed that the daffodils (in “I wandered lonely as a cloud”) were seen reflected in water, even though the poem mentions dancing waves (Beer 27). Furthermore calm in nature is conducive to a reflective mood and such an influence can be represented metaphorically as an inner (psychological-spiritual) “reflection” of an outer calm. Beer suggests that the dependence upon a physical (meteorological) calm is one reason for, or aspect of, Wordsworth’s “distrust” (Beer 25) of the imagery of reflection (which he nevertheless uses). Thus when Wordsworth writes, in “There was a boy,” of “that uncertain heaven received/ Into the bosom of the steady Lake” (V, 389, ll. 411-2), the heaven may be uncertain for meteorological and physical reasons (such as cloud or wind), for spiritual and metaphorical reasons (the uncertain benevolence of a “heaven” which will allow the listening boy to die in childhood), or as a form of transferred epithet. Is it that the heaven becomes uncertain when reflected in the lake (which may be slightly in motion)? Is it, then, in fact a “steady” heaven received into an “uncertain” lake? If so then the theme of reciprocity extends to an appropriately reciprocal exchange of conditions, or at least the impossibility, for the observing mind, of distinguishing.
The negative sense of reflection as self-absorption (whether of a culture or an individual) haunts the Romantic valuation of reflection as symbol of reciprocal relationship and form of connection of thought to the Absolute. John Beer considers such haunting in Wordsworth’s thought:
Where Coleridge traces in the imagery of reflection a complexity which images the nature of relationship even in the divine, Wordsworth inspects it with an eye that is then averted from what is suspected to be delusive, or even threatening.
He gives various instances, such as the sinister description of Lake Como in book VI of The Prelude (Beer 27). Similarly German Romantic writers grapple with the fear that reflection shuts us out from the Absolute, rather than offering a route to it. The problem, as expounded by Wilfred Menninghaus, is that of reification. Whatever reflection directs itself at becomes, by that process, an object. Yet the Absolute cannot be an object. Hence Novalis writes “we wish to represent non-reflection through reflection and precisely on this account we never arrive at non-reflection” (Schriften 2: 206 quoted from Menninghaus 22). F.W. Schlegel writes of the “impossibility of definitely attaining the highest level through reflection” (Kritische Ausgabe 19:25, qtd. Menninghaus 23). This applies especially to self-reflection:
where the ‘I’ reflects itself as the ‘I’, it is already no longer the ‘I’ but a “divided ‘I’” [Novalis, Schriften 2:131]—divided into subject and object of reflection, into reflecting and reflected poles. As Fichte would later formulate it: reflection, ‘by dint of its being, divides itself within itself’, and in this way leads to the ‘destruction of reality’—bringing with it the danger that the entire form of reflection could disintegrate into absolutely nothing.
Menninghaus 23, quoting Fichte, Nachgelassene Werke 2: 325 and 2:364
Fichte argues that reflection can neither lead to full self-knowledge, nor be a route to the Absolute. It cannot lead to full self-knowledge because reflection divides the “I” and treats a part of it as an object, and it cannot lead to the Absolute because of the problem of reification. However, this blockage can be circumvented through an argument that both consciousness and the Absolute are always already matters of reflection. Walter Benjamin describes such an argument in respect of self-consciousness:
The thinking mind does not “exist” at the start and then afterward come to self-consciousness through some occasioning causes, whatever they might be; it comes about first through the underivable, inexplicable act of self-consciousness.
Benjamin 1: 134, qtd. Menninghaus 33
This could be related to individual infant development (whether viewed through a psychoanalytical framework or some other): we do not “start” with a self and then at some point try the experiment of being aware of that self: self and self-awareness emerge as part of the same process. The application to the Absolute is more enigmatic and metaphysical: the “original and first,” according to Schlegel, is itself a “circle” of reflection constituted by “reciprocal interchange” between concept and proof (Kritische Ausgabe 18: 518, qtd. Menninghaus 38). Schlegel and Novalis, as Menninghaus points out, do in fact rescue the idea of reflection as a mode of access to the Absolute, by redefining the Absolute in terms of reciprocity, a reciprocity between two poles which can be regarded as a form of reflection in itself (Menninghaus 39). A philosophy of the Absolute must accept the impossibility of grounding:
Philosophy must have at its foundation not just a proof assuming the form of reciprocal determination, but also a concept subject to reciprocal interchange. In every concept as in every proof, one can ask again for a concept or proof of the same. Thus philosophy, like epic poetry, must begin in the middle, and it is impossible to convey and dissect it in such a way that the original and first might immediately and itself be completely grounded and explained. The original and first is a whole, and the way to recognize it is therefore not a straight line but a circle. The whole of foundational theory must be derived from two ideas, principles, concepts; intuition without any additional matter.
Schlegel, Philosophical Apprentice-Years, in Kritische Ausgabe 18: 518; qtd. Menninghaus 38-9
Schlegel expresses here his scepticism about “grounding” a philosophical system: a very modern thought which finds an analogy in twentieth-century mathematics in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but in critical theory leads to the hermeneutic circle (Schlegel goes on to say the “original and first [in philosophy] … is a circle.”  The idea of starting in the middle is crucial to Schlegel’s defence of reflection from charges of reductive reification.
Walter Benjamin interprets this passage in his dissertation, taking the “two ideas, principles, concepts” as “two poles of reflection,” and concluding that “if the whole of philosophy is a movement between these poles, without a firm point beyond reflective reciprocity, then so all philosophy is a ‘medium’” (Benjamin 1: 137, qtd. Menninghaus 39). So Schlegel and Novalis manage to rescue reflection from its negative association with failure of self-knowledge and blocking of access to the Absolute. But the fact that reflection needs saving, and by such elaborate manoeuvres, from the risks of emptiness or negation, confirms the haunting of a positive “reflection as reciprocity” by a negative “reflection as self-absorption.”
Thomas A. Clark’s volume Distance and Proximity (2000) is centrally concerned with aspects of aesthetic experience, which it takes to have both ethical and political import. It comprises eight prose poems (plus a number of photographs), each of which is made up of a series of sentences (between one and three lines in length). The poems have both imagist and aphoristic qualities, and there is obviously a certain tension between the two, since the aphoristic impulse involves complete sentences of prose syntax which a strictly imagist style would eschew. For example one could imagine the following section might be rewritten as an imagist poem, one-third the length: “There are spring days, before the first leaves have appeared, when the light in the beech wood is so strong that sunbeams and shadows appear substantial as beech trunks” (“Of Shade and Shadow,” Clark 54). In the interaction with the natural world, Clark finds both self-discovery and liberation of the self from itself:
When we have put distance between ourselves and our intentions, the sensibility comes awake
“Riasg Buidhe,” 97
There are walks on which I lose myself, walks which return me to myself again
“In Praise of Walking,” 22
Yet he is often critical of the way in which the self may interfere with attentive visual perception. In seeming contradiction to the idea of ours as a “visual culture,” Clark writes: “We live in an age so completely self-absorbed that the ability to simply look, to pour out the intelligence through the eyes, is an accomplishment” (“Riasg Buidhe,” 98). Here another version of the negative configuration of self and vision is proposed: an inability really to see, properly and with intelligence, what is other than the self. This is akin to reflection as reification. Clark is wary of any explicit mystical gestures of the sort which might invoke the Absolute, stating in interview that:
I tend to use the word vision in a very precise sense. Not in the Blakean sense, but in the quite specific sense of actually seeing. Not seeing things that aren’t there, but seeing things that are there, but which are often hidden by the preconceptions of language.
Nevertheless, I think a sense of the Absolute within nature is a strong implicit presence (or perhaps one should say, an absent presence) in his poetry, in allusions to “a moment out of time” (“Jouissance,” 41), or lines such as “Whatever there is in a landscape emerges if we just sit still” (“Riasg Buidhe,” 101). Describing the ideas of Novalis, Bowie suggests the possibility of a “negative” invocation of the Absolute:
There seems to be a negative way of representing the Absolute, such that the very relativity of the attempt to represent it makes us aware of what is being missed in the attempt.
As in negative theology, Clark’s avoidance of any ready gesturing towards the transcendent strikes me as a way of protecting the purity of Absolute meaning, rather than as a way of denying its possibility. His critique of self-absorption is directly in line with Fichte’s view that “the entire form of reflection could disintegrate into absolutely nothing,” and Clark’s belief that “self-absorption” is also a form of self-distraction, that forms of self-reflection can impede perception of the self, parallels Schlegel’s and Novalis’s anxiety about the self divided in reflection.
In his prose poem “In Praise of Walking,” Clark writes “That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing” (15). Like many of the aphoristic sentences in Distance and Proximity, this skirts the edges of the trite, simplistic or clichéd, but I think attains the profundity of the truly simple, in part through its framing, the incremental ethical seriousness and formal aesthetic intensity of the poem. Reflection as reciprocity is implicit here. “That something exists outside ourselves” is a blessing only if we have a possibility of relation to it, of reciprocal relation with it, and also of reflecting upon it in the mode of open receptivity of which walking, for Clark, becomes the epitome: “Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world” (“In Praise of Walking” 15). The phrase “so readily available” reflects Clark’s celebration of the landscapes and places he has inhabited (he currently lives in a fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife). But it is also a claim (with Kantian or Heideggerean undertones) of the potential availability of the sensuous world to “serious thought.” Avoidance of “self-absorption,” for Clark, does not mean avoidance of self-knowledge: “In the course of a walk, we usually find out something about our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone” (17). Distance and Proximity contains black and white photographs by Olwen Shone, many of which suggest the etymological sense of reflection by showing or evoking the way in which light bends in, or is bent by, water. For example, a series of images at the end of the book begins with photos of reeds standing in water, with the precise point at which they meet the surface obscured by the presence of their reflections, which nevertheless become wavy as they approach the foreground of the picture. It ends with an image of a bend reed or wire, seemingly suspended above a surface (unidentifiable, though suggestive of water), upon which it casts a similarly bent shadow. Other photographs in Distance and Proximity recall Wordsworth’s irritation about the daffodils and the waves, as described by Beer, in that two photographs of the same object seem to offer a mute commentary on lucid and obscured reflection: the first, facing the title page, shows what looks like a vase with a very narrow mouth, shaped so as to suggest a seed pod, floating at a slight angle in water, with ripples effacing any reflection, while an image of the same object floating in stiller water appears on pages 36-7; here the object is clearly reflected though foreshortened. The form of the book is essential to its aesthetic. There is the pleasure of holding it, derived from its size (it is in the Canongate “pocketbooks” series), weight, and smoothness of cover, as well as the texture of the paper. The spacing of the sentences on the page and the simplicity of the formal structure (in which sentences effectively play the role of stanzas), suggest the contemplative connotations of “reflection,” while the oblique relationship between text and photographs (unlike the reductively illustrative photography which one sometimes finds accompanying poems), mimes a form of reflection with difference, as well as prompting interpretative reflection.
“On Looking at the Sea” imagines the Romantic reciprocity of self and world in terms of internalised landscape and space:
Every distance has an internal duplicate which can be measured and sustained.
Walking down to the sea, with the hills behind me, with the miles inside me.
The play of presence and absence, which I alluded to as the space of the visionary, is here evoked: “When we are far from the sea, within closed horizons, we can look again and again at its absence” (35). Wordsworthian echoes are strong here: the act of walking itself, of course; but also the “internal duplicate to every distance” recalls the internalised sounds and sights of “There was a boy”: the voice of “mountain torrents” which are “carried far into his heart,” or the “visible scene” which “Would enter unawares into his mind” (408-9)—and here we might note Clark’s line: “The complement to looking is listening” (“On Looking at the Sea,” 32). The look at the absent sea recalls Wordsworth’s celebration of the restorative power of remembered landscape in “Tintern Abbey.” A certain balancing, if not resolution, of the negative and positive forms of reflection and self-reflection invoked in Distance and Proximity, may be proposed with reference to Fichte’s concept of “intellectual intuition”: “that through which I know something because I do it” (Fichte 1:463, qtd. Bowie, 1990: 64). As Andrew Bowie explains this concept, “it is both the act of thinking and the consciousness of that act.” Just as Schlegel sees self-consciousness as integral to the self, not subsequent to it, so Fichte argues that:
the consciousness of my thinking is not something which is just coincidental to my thinking, something which is added to it afterwards … rather it is inseparable from it.
Fichte 1: 527; qtd. Bowie 1990: 64
On this view “[e]xternal nature” must be “a product of thought” (Fichte 1: 527; qtd. Bowie 1990: 64): “the consciousness of a thing outside us is absolutely nothing else than the product of our own capacity for thinking and ... we know nothing more of the thing than we precisely know about it, posit via our consciousness” (Fichte 2: 239, qtd. Bowie 1990: 64). At first sight this insistence on the priority of the self might seem at odds with Clark’s celebration of the fact that “something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations.” But Clark’s poetry assumes something akin to Fichte’s intellectual intuition, because it implies that an escape from a limiting self-absorption actually requires a liberating taking-for-granted of the presence of self-consciousness. So the poem “Jouissance” begins and ends with pleasure: “The first of all pleasures is that things exist in and for themselves” (41); “Enjoyment is a fullness of response to the abundance of the world” (44). An ethical priority (in accord with a sensuous pleasure) is here given to external nature, but both ethics and pleasure require a subject: a consciousness must be present to experience that pleasure and to acknowledge and inhabit that ethical stance in relation to the world.
Burnside’s poem “Koi” (from The Light Trap, 2002), uses tropes of reflection and refraction to consider the workings of the creative imagination, and their relationship to the possibility or risk of epistemological solipsism: creativity and solipsism may both involve inhabiting “a realm of …. Invention” (4). The poem contemplates something like a version of Plato’s cave story, in exploring the idea that the visible and perceptual world might be an illusion akin to the play of light on the surface of water, flecked with “pollen and motes of dust.” It is a poem of paradoxes, though, and the central paradox is that the poem represents the human possibility of being trapped in a solipsistic world of illusion by imagining the perceptual world of fish in a pond. In other words, it imagines being trapped inside one’s own (human) consciousness by imaging what it would be like for the other (and fish generally seem very “other” to us) to be so trapped. The koi “hang in a realm of their own invention” and the question “how much they know of us/ and whether this/ is all illusion” implicitly becomes the question “how much we know of them/ and whether this is all illusion.” The barrier between self and world (which is also the barrier between self and other) is figured in visual terms, as refraction/ reflection, in the surface of the water, seen from above and from below. Mitchell’s suggestion that animals cannot see images suggests one way in which Burnside’s koi cannot be parallel to the human observer: a fissure between the human and the non-human natural is created by our reflective self-consciousness itself. There is a certain ironic relation in the poem between the tenor and vehicle of the reflection metaphor. The vehicle—light bouncing off water or being refracted by it—is common to humans and fish, though different perceptual apparatus would presumably mean that it is received differently. The tenor—reflection as a process of “serious thought” (Beer 20), self-awareness and self-judgment—is limited to the humans. The poem thus registers some of the complexities of our relation to the “natural,” and particularly explores the condition of an ecologically-informed sense of self in the world.
As with Clark, the play of absence and presence is crucial. Clark imagines “seeing” the absence of the sea in a move which shifts the visual into a more visionary register. Burnside begins by invoking the power of the creative imagination (“The trick is to create a world/ from nothing”), and develops that idea through a series of affirmative negations, as he describes the sense impressions that the poem is, allegedly, not made from: “not the sound a blackbird makes … not dogwood … not the clouds,” evoking these impressions in the process of overtly denying their originary force. Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” with its ambivalent celebration of “the listener, who…beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (14) is an obvious presence behind both Burnside’s poems and Clark’s volume. “Koi” moves towards a paradoxical assertion of the presence of nothing: “but nothing/ which is present in the flesh/ as ripeness is: a lifelong urgency.” The comparison with ripeness suggests a distinction between substance and quality: ripeness is “present” in the flesh (of a person or a fruit?), but is not an object, not something with a particular location, but a quality. Again what is being described appears to be the creative imagination itself: “a lifelong urgency” for the poet which leads to the creation of worlds. The poem continues to evoke through negation. Having denied that the non-human natural is the raw material of the poem, it goes on to assert the importance of the process of creation rather than the made object— “the trick is in the making/ not the made”—but again evokes the natural world, this time by offering the poem’s images as metaphors for the process of creation. It thus foregrounds the made object (the text or words) in the process of asserting its relative unimportance: “shadow in the pinewoods” or “a rim/ of wetland” stand for the “borderline and limit” of the creative mind itself, the borders perhaps of consciousness, of deliberate thought, where creativity operates best. A third affirmative negation follows, more indirectly introduced:
As everything is given
a stone’s throw in the mind
it’s not the thing itself
but where it stands
This introduces a further series of natural objects or sights, which again have an ambiguous status because of their place in what is partly an abstract argument, and the way they flicker between represented sense impressions, and philosophical or reflexive metaphor. The use of spacing rather than punctuation, resulting in unmarked apposition, enables the ambiguity of the lines which follow those just quoted:
—the shadows fanned
or dripping from a leaf
the gap between each named form and the next
where frogs and dragonflies arrive
Here the relationship between the (visual) “shadows” and the (abstract) “gap” is unspecified: are they linked as tenor and vehicle of a metaphor (in which case, which is which?), or are they two items in a list which exemplifies the initial message (“it’s not the thing itself”)? There are resemblances here to Clark’s poem, in the impulse to reflect on the processes of perception and their aesthetic and ethical value. Clark’s line “On looking at the sea, it is not the sea but the looking that is redemptive” invites comparison with Burnside’s lines “it’s not the thing itself/ but where it stands,” though they come at the question of perception from the opposite side: “it is not the sea but the looking” attending to the observer, while “it’s not the thing itself” attends to the object observed (though “where it stands,” given the preceding lines, could mean “where it stands in the mind” just as well as “where it stands in the world”). Clark’s poem ends with the idea of looking at an absence (“we can look again and again at its absence”), just as Burnside’s poem describes the sense impressions of which it is supposedly not made. While there is an apparent contrast between Burnside’s “it’s not the thing itself” and Clark’s pleasure in the fact “that things exist in and for themselves,” both poets use the trope of reflection to show their awareness of the necessary reciprocity of consciousness and object, and to explore the boundaries between negative and positive versions of such reciprocity: the ethical and psychological value of modes of relating to the world.
John Cayley’s overboard (2004) is a digital poem, including text, music and images, viewable on the web. The nature of the work is best summarised by excerpts from Cayley’s own explanations of the piece:
There is a stable text underlying its continuously changing display and this text may occasionally rise to the surface of normal legibility in its entirety. However, overboard is installed as a dynamic linguistic ‘wall-hanging,’ an ever-moving ‘language painting.’ As time passes, the text drifts continually in and out of familiar legibility— sinking, rising, and sometimes in part, ‘going under’ or drowning, then rising to the surface once again … letters … [are] replaced by other letters that are in some way similar to the those of the original text … The text itself, extracted and adapted from the account of an incident during the Mayflower crossing in Governor Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, tells the story of a man who was swept overboard and later hauled back on board the ship alive … The underlying text is set out with line and stanza breaks in the manner of poetic verse. Each of the four verses in the complete text may, independently, be in any one of the three states: floating, drowning or surfacing … On the left-hand side of the screen a visual correlative of the text and its textual processes is displayed, with small images—fragments of a photograph of the sea’s surface—correspondingly, in position and identity, with the letters of the text … The entire performance of overboard … is algorithmically generated … [using] simple but carefully composed algorithms to produce performed outputs with a large measure of significance and affect. The visual component is made from a fragmented picture of the surface of the sea. Each fragment is associated with a particular letter and the fragment associated with that letter is displayed in a corresponding position on the left hand side of the screen whenever the letter appears in the textual transformation… There is also a visual clue to the performance of the audio correlative that runs through the visual fragments on the left hand side of the screen. A black-on-white rectangle—its changing shape also reflects a mapping to the alphabet—successively replaces the fragments of the sea, running through the visual ‘text’ like a cursor. It is, in fact, a musical cursor, following the “melodic” line of the generated musical correlative for overboard.
“‘Overboard’: An Example of Time-Based Poetics in digital art “ n. pag.
Cayley’s source text has strong allegorical potential for human-natural relations, in its tale of immersion and rescue. Overboard has a number of formally reflective elements: between mutating text and visual fragments; in the visual fragments themselves (though, like Wordsworth’s lake in “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” any potential reflection is obscured by motion); in the reader’s sense that the visible text is a reflection of the source text, variably obscured by the algorithmically-generated mutation; in the way in which the music reflects and is reflected by the sound and moving text/ image fragments. A reading in terms of Romantic tropes of self, self-consciousness and reflection is, however, rendered difficult by the mediating presences of programme processes and by the intermedial relation of text, image and sound, which brings formal processes into the foreground. There is little to suggest or evoke a poetic self or persona, and the role of machine processes resists even our habitual tendency to associate poetic works with some form of representation of consciousness. Aesthetic intention is, however, manifestly present in the intricate design of the work.
Is reflection, or reflexivity, inherently different in digital poetry? Overboard seems to achieve what much late modernist or “linguistically innovative” poetry has sought to do since the 1960s: to remove voice from the lyric, thereby diminishing or making uncertain the role of the subject or “I” in the poem. Cayley increases this effect by using an adapted source text and fragmentary images which offer little obvious scope for interpretation. Cayley nevertheless speaks of “significance and affect” in his comments on the work: “performed outputs with a large measure of significance and affect.” The locus of meaning is formal process, not any hypostatized consciousness. This seems likely to change the conditions of reflexivity (often called self-reflexivity or self-consciousness), and of reflection, since all these formulations tend to imply an implicit metaphor of the text as self, or inhabited by a self. Deprived of an idea of voice, the work becomes more like a mechanism, and can a mechanism self-refer? One might quote Fichte here: “The mechanism cannot grasp itself, precisely because it is a mechanism. Only free consciousness can grasp itself” (Fichte 1: 510, qtd. Bowie, 1990: 61). Certainly “intellectual intuition” would seem a property of consciousness. One might say that, rather than representing (figuring, troping) the human acts of perception, reflection and self-reflections, overboard stages or elicits such acts from the viewer. This might be the familiar avant-garde gesture of fracturing the illusion of representation by foregrounding process and mediation. The work, however, has a certain haunting, meditative poignancy, which suggests that it is not simply in the business of theoretical critique. The mutability of the text seems to mirror that of the sea images, and the story in the source text evokes echoes of death and rebirth myths (The Tempest, The Waste Land), so that in one interpretation Overboard is very much about the human relation to the natural. It also shares with Clark and Burnside the sense of presence and absence; indeed, the sinking and rising of the text visually dramatises these themes. The minimal quality of the image fragments (barely recognizable as the surface of the sea) draws attention to the play of presence and absence that Mitchell argues is characteristic of the image itself in its complex relation to perceived reality. The seeming absence of a figure of human consciousness may also evoke its imagined presence. Bowie suggests that the sense of an artist’s absence (his example is Velasquez’ painting Las Meninas) points to his or her existence, as “ironic creator of an aesthetic object” (1990: 74). Just as Clark’s avoidance of explicit invocation of the Absolute has the effect of evoking it in its absent purity, so the self can be represented negatively as a space or absence. In Cayley’s work there is an ironic, distanced, highly self-conscious, but nevertheless powerful evocation of the enigmas and paradoxes of the reflective consciousness.
Different as they are, these three poets are all working within structures of thought derived from Romanticism. Burnside is the most “conventional” of the three, if by that term we refer to the protocols of reading invoked by most post-war “mainstream” British and Irish poetry (I am not using “conventional” in a negative sense here). These protocols are based around the poet’s persona as an organising centre of the poem, and the imbuing of personal experience and observation with metaphorical, symbolic and often numinous meaning. Although “mainstream” British poetry is generally held to have turned its back on the example and aspirations of modernism, Burnside’s form of late or neo-Romanticism seems to me strongly tinged by the tragic aspects of T.S. Eliot’s modernist poetry—estrangement, alienation and fragmentation—while the metaphorical register of “Koi” (pool, dust, bird song, shrubs and light) recalls in particular section 1 of Burnt Norton. In the twenty-first century, such moods acquire a tinge of ecological anxiety, as in the poem “History” from the same volume:
Sometimes I am dizzy with the fear
of losing everything—the sea, the sky,
all living creatures, forests, estuaries:
we trade so much to know the virtual
we scarcely register the drift and tug
of other bodies.
“History,” The Light Trap, 41
Burnside’s concern in succeeding lines that we “scarcely apprehend/ the moment as it happens: shifts of light/ and weather” is very much in accord with Clark’s stress on attentiveness. Clark’s affiliations, in terms of publishing history, the people he has worked with, the anthologies in which he has appeared, would place him within the broad grouping of “linguistically-innovative” or late modernist British poets, influenced by post-structuralist theory and U.S. “language” poetry. Yet stylistically he achieves what Tony Lopez has described as a “lack of alienation that Robinson finds separates Clark from most modern writing since Eliot” (76). Lopez quotes Robinson’s view (based, it should be said, on very much earlier work) that Clark avoids “violation of the object by the attribution of an unfounded volition, which would force it into a relationship of expressiveness or correspondence to the poetic consciousness” and adds that “[t]he violation that Clark avoids is, I take it, a feature of romanticism” (Lopez 76). My own argument is that, while one can obviously find in some poetry an excessive or forced form of pathetic fallacy, one of the lessons of Romanticism is the inescapable reciprocity of object and consciousness. Lopez goes on to modify any such distancing of Clark from Romanticism; indeed, he concludes by associating Clark’s work with both Romanticism and modernism:
The concern for what is left of the wild places becomes a kind of revised romanticism, returning the poet or artist to those landscapes that were important for the romantics in another more spacious age… The work is very ambitious in its project to continue modernism by radically revising the pastoral tradition, but it remains within the mode of poetry (of a particularly pure, impersonal and modernist type) rather than developing a postmodern mix of genre and media.
The postmodern might be an obvious location for Cayley’s work, given its intermedial form, its connection to mesostic experiments such as those of Emmett Williams, Jackson Mac Low, and John Cage, and its theoretically-informed challenge to habitual ways of reading poetry.  However, continuities between Romanticism and some varieties of postmodern literature are now well established, while the cultural and theoretical reach of the term “postmodern” has become so vast and its uses so involuted as to seriously limit its usefulness. Cayley has also sharply criticized some of the rhetorical excesses of postmodern theory, in the shape of Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality (Cayley, “Writing”). Does Cayley’s digital work circumvent the reciprocity of reflection with self-reflection by the use of algorithms, machine processes which, while designed by the poet, “run” autonomously? The implicit metaphors of internality, spirituality and reflective consciousness are still strongly present: surface and hidden depth; mirroring with difference between text and image; the sea as non-human other which is nevertheless richly available for projections of human meanings, for “significance and affect.” The “machine” performs a form of reflective consciousness. Writing of another of Cayley’s programmed pieces, riverIsland (which also combines a “morphing” adapted source text with images and sound, though in a different configuration), Maria Engberg comments that
The 32 verses of riverIsland offer a meditation on, and mediation of, the complex relationships between human beings and nature. The content of the work echoes a long history of these relationships while the form points to the current and latest configuration of humans and their technologies. The verses are thus a meditation on and an instantiation of the equally complex relationships between the human being (poet, reader) and the machine (hardware, software). The literal morphings—textual transformations—ask questions about what we are seeing and how we are reading when we view the screen. I would argue that this practice of “revealing the code” is comparable to what has been termed postmodern self-reflexive practices (as well as an engagement in the nature-s of letters in different media). When the verses are static, we immerse ourselves in the river/forest/island world that is conjured up by sounds, images, and the words we read.
n. pag.; emphasis original
This comment, while associating Cayley’s digital poetry with postmodern techniques, recognizes its strongly Romantic concerns: “a meditation on, and mediation of, the complex relationships between human beings and nature.” My own sense is that a distinct waning of interest in the concept and discursive dynamics of “postmodernism” has recently been perceptible in literary studies. While the term remains of historical importance in relation to certain areas of literature (and other arts), it seems less and less useful as a general tool of analysis, interpretation or critique. In the field of the aesthetic, Marjorie Perloff has recently proposed that we should think rather of “21st-century Modernism.” But the examples of Clark, Burnside and Cayley, the potency of forms such as the landscape art of Richard Long or Ian Hamilton Finlay and the rise of ecological criticism, suggest that Romanticism may yet come to be the mode that speaks most powerfully to the twenty-first century; that we should be thinking too of a “21st-century Romanticism.”
Andrew Michael Roberts is Reader in English in the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee, where he teaches twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and culture. His research interests include: poetry since 1950, especially the work of Geoffrey Hill and avant-garde—“linguistically innovative”—poetry; modernist poetry and fiction, especially the works of Mina Loy and Joseph Conrad; theories of masculinity and psychoanalytical theory; poetry and cognitive processes. His books include Conrad and Masculinity (Macmillan, 2000), Geoffrey Hill (Northcote, 2004) and (co-edited with Jonathan Allison) Poetry and Contemporary Culture: the Question of Value (Edinburgh UP, 2001). He is currently completing a Salt Companion to the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill and a book entitled Poetry & Ethics.
Translations of German texts unless otherwise stated are quoted from Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche. All translations are Bowie’s own.
See Burwick, “Reflection as Mimetic Trope” 23-38.
Prelude VI, 635-8.
“The Second Incompleteness Theorem shows that the consistency of arithmetic cannot be proved in arithmetic itself,” writes Juliette Kennedy, “Kurt Gödel,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Andrew Louth argues that "for the Romantics the hermeneutic circle can be regarded as a provisional state, which ultimately vanishes in perfect understanding when we find ourselves in the mind of the author. But for a truer doctrine of interpretation the hermeneutic circle does not vanish in understanding: rather the circle is understanding.” According to Gadamer, “The circle, then, is not formal in nature, it is neither subjective nor objective, but describes understanding as the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter. The anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the communality that binds us to the tradition” (quoted from Truth and Method in Louth 33).
For a definition of “intermedial,” see Glazier 79.
On mesostic influences, see Cayley, “Writing on Complex Surfaces”, hereafter “Writing.”
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Bowie, Andrew. From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German Literary Theory. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.
Burwick, Frederick. “Reflection as Mimetic Trope,” Romantic Poetry. Ed. Angela Esterhammer. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2002: 23-38.
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Lopez, Tony. “Thomas A. Clark, Nationality, Modernism.” Scottish Literary Journal 202 (1993): 75-85.
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