“The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field; or, What Is a Poet/Critic?”

Keynote address, Poetry and Public Language, University of Plymouth, U.K., March 2007; in Poetry and Public Language, ed. Tony Lopez and Anthony Caleshu (Exeter, U.K.: Shearsman Press, 2007). Publicity flyer/ordering information here; the essay can be accessed in pdf here.

In March 2007, Lyn Hejinian and I were invited by U.K. poet Tony Lopez to lecture at a poetics conference at the University of Plymouth (see links above). My talk addressed transformations in the nature of the poem as object, and employed in terms of the relation of poet and critic, using a series of works from my own oeuvre. The claim that one could speak as both poet and critic proved to be controversial in England, where distinct roles must be perserved as, respectively, object-producing and value-conferring.

In a rebuttal at a subsequent conference at University of Southampton, Anthony Mellors saw nothing but postmodern (read: American) self-promotion in my presentation and, in a strained effort at characterization, wondered if I took myself for a “shaman” in making such a double-voiced claim to authority. His response, in retrospect, is strikingly crude and appears to be a kind of gate-keeping maneuvre designed to keep Island England free of contaminating influences; it can be accessed here:


Only recently, I came across a more modulated response, by poet Scott Thurston. In his sense, the problem is the claim of the simultaneity of the two roles, rather than a more admissible priority of poetry leading to poetics as legitimating discourse. Of course one can choose to construct arguments for one’s practice, but they must follow the making of the work. His argument is available here, along with a summary:


Thurston, S 2009, The poet as critic, criticism as poetics: on Barrett Watten and Robert Sheppard , in: The Critic as Artist, The Artist as Critic, 27 June 2009, University of Lancaster (unpublished).  This paper was delivered to the conference ‘The Critic as Artist, The Artist as Critic’ at Lancaster University in June 2009. It performs a critical reading of a paper given by US Language Poet Barrett Watten at the Poetry and Public Language conference at the University of Plymouth in 2007 on the relationship between a creative writer’s creative and critical writing. Via Robert Sheppard’s work the paper introduces the term of ‘poetics’ into the discussion and then models some of the implications by examples from the author’s work across poetry, poetics and criticism.

Thurston locates as point of disagreement my claim that “neither aesthetic work nor poetic discourse is supplementary to the other.” This is key to my second point, that changes in the object (the poem) effect a change in its reception—of what counts as poetry. For me, it would not be possible for the poem as example to have such an effect unless its criticality were part of its object status, in short. To refer this to Kant’s aesthetics, the maker of the object that changes how one understands the kind of object it is (what counts as a work of art, or a poem) is in a reflexive relationship with canons of reception that are thus transformed.

Rather than evidencing some kind of dark magic (quite a romantic projection, in fact), my sense of the nonsupplementarity of work and discourse, poetry and poetics points to their combined criticality and capacity for making meaning, for transforming the nature of understanding as well as the object itself. By not seeing a discourse of the making of the work as only following from the work itself, I return to the distinction of technique from method I made in Total Syntax in seeing the poem (work, object, example) as the site for agency.

I am grateful to  both authors for their responses to my argument, I should add.

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