Shifting an Imaginary: Poetics in Anticipation

Robert Sheppard

A more compassionate world, inspired by the great sacrifices of NHS frontline staff?

Or a crueller world, of people, some people more than others, sacrificed to the greater good: Dominic Cummings’ ‘few pensioners’, the Governor of Texas’ improbable opinion that ‘there are more important things than living’? Not levelling up, but whacking down.

Defund the police or defend the statues? Even Extinction Rebellion seems deflated, though not defeated.

Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators of the World’ (508) or Oppen’s ‘legislators || of the unacknowledged || world’ (11)?

We could be ‘drunk with open-mindedness’ at this point, as Louis Aragon puts it (151).

After The Hungry Years The Drowning Years The Age of Irony Warrant Error The Age of Immiseration, a hope for a worldlier world, one more ecologically fragile, but fluid, worldlier in is inter- (and outer-) nationalism.

‘I’m transfigured into a bigger idea | shifting an imaginary where I’ll | remain for all eyes to behold’, in the valetudinary words of Idea (Sheppard, Bad Idea 96).

In the poem, a lower case ‘bigger idea’ in opposition to a singular capitalised ‘Big Idea’. In the world, the smaller the ideas are, the more focussed they become, doable, durable.

‘Neurologically speaking,’ writes Lee Ann Roripaugh, ‘I would suggest: challenge a reader’s perceptions, assumptions, modes of thinking, preconceived histories, and ideologies; foster attentiveness (to language, to others, to the surrounding world); create new neural pathways in the brain in lieu of neural ruts developed in response to sociocultural clichés’ (28).

Blah blah blah media voices saying poetry must be harnessed to the restorative necessities of the post-Covid world (one big assumption there), as if compensation is what art offers, like a negligent government department. Art’s formal splinter, its promise of a partly uncontrollable aesthetic encounter, may not necessarily yield a positive or ‘therapeutic’ response.

Utopia that embodies our hopes lies beyond any representation. ‘Hope is the opposite of security’, Ernst Bloch hopes (qtd. in Lagapa 8). It is an ‘anticipatory consciousness’, a creative ‘forward dream’, but a lucid one, in opposition to the constructions of ‘blueprint utopians’ (119). 

Bloch’s ‘not yet’ chimes with Nathaniel Mackey’s ‘not yet’, as Jason Lagapa puts it: negatives, negations, particularly formal ones, constitute the poetics of this gesture (55).

Put in these terms it is (almost) enough it is never enough.

Utopian hope is as anticipatory as our ‘rhythmising consciousness’, to use Nicolas Abraham’s term for one important phenomenological ‘impulse’ (as outlined in Pulse) (1). A relationship between instinctive intentionality as immediate action and utopic figuration linked in the active forming of the poem. 

Poetics as a luminous phrase, a catalytic particle. Less a slogan or a buzzword, than a koan. Poetics is another anticipatory activity. I’ve hitherto called it ‘speculative’, but is it not better thought of as ‘anticipatory’? That has me sitting at the edge of my seat, alert, ‘speculative’ sinking back into a thousand cushions.

In Lee Harwood’s ‘Notes of a Post Office Clerk’ we read the words, ‘a list of simple, practical, and just acts | moves towards a real “socialism”’, but not the list itself (Harwood, Collected 253). The list is excised (though published separately in a magazine), disproportionately long for notational form, maybe. Perhaps too programmatic. In any case, promised ‘just acts’ are enough to read the poem (as poem).

Also unaccountably excised from Harwood’s poem (at a later stage of republication), this visionary account of ‘process’: ‘Changes that produce changes. The action simultaneous, not linear. The action chemical in that one change transforms the whole into a completely new set of references’ (Harwood, Boston-Brighton 57).

Just as aesthetic encounters must be open to potential negative affect (though moderated by forms of reception), political and cultural ideas, and their transformations, must be open to negative effects (though constrained by social institutions).

The danger is the move from the NHS being ‘powered by love’ to ‘there are more important things than living’, from Black Lives Matter to ‘I need a haircut’, from declarations of human rights to the extermination of human ‘rats’.

We need to defend rights that have no ground to them, other than recognised common humanity, ‘the human covenant’ (Sheppard, Warrant 41).

Boosterism is the poetry of Brexit. Political ideas, to work as poetry, have to be registered corporeally, on the human frame, with its anguished and ecstatic voice, as in the writing of Sean Bonney.

A young woman holds up a homemade banner: ‘I’m really not happy about this.’ Homemade form: homemade refusal. Like a poem?

‘2020,’ Steve Hanson states, ‘whether we like it or not, is the start of an acutely painful transformation of the world…’, poised against a Randean ‘libertarian Conservative clique’, aided by ‘capitalist realism’, now we witness ‘a planned economy of crisis’ (np), ‘notional socialism’ as I call it (Sheppard, British Standards np).

Hanson quotes Will Davies as counterclaim: ‘Utopia is … something that emerges among all of us as a need in the face of some lack’ (np). Lagapa quotes Levitas: ‘Concrete utopia … is anticipatory rather than compensatory. It reaches forward to a real future, and involves not merely wishful but wilful thinking’ (119). The utopian emergence is both communal and real, to conjoin these two definitions. That doesn’t diminish the carefully distanciated formulations of a poem’s utopianism, the biggest ideas in the smallest letters.

There are questions that have no answers but there may always be responses.

You might think that you couldn’t build something that you can’t imagine or present, but isn’t that what writing a poem often feels like? A genuine literary work cannot be imagined by a reader before it comes into being, as Derek Attridge attests in The Singularity of Literature. (Of course, it has been anticipated by the writer’s poetics, though as thumbnail not blueprint.) This is another link between (a specialised version of) phenomenological intentionality and the utopian impulse.

It’s not that the explorative motion of writing – the feeling that all writing is improvised – is itself directly utopian. It is that this mode of making shares its anticipatory vectors with the ‘anticipatory consciousness’ of utopian aspiration. The pulse with the impulse.

It is almost (like) a representation of a non-representation, an image of a non-image, but it is to be savoured.

‘The utopian moment’, Norman Finklestein is quoted, from his book The Utopian Moment, ‘stands revealed [in] that very moment when the text most strenuously resists thematic or interpretative closure’ (qtd. in Ragapa: 125). And formal closure, I’d say (as the author of The Meaning of Form). And liberation of the said in the saying, I’d add(as the author of The Poetry of Saying).     

I hang out inside these sonnets, punching
echoes into new shape, because I take
poetry as the investigation
of complexity through the means of form,

I sing (as the poet of Bad Idea) (13).

Specific techniques and methods from my Muses, my ‘nine loose-leaf proofs’,

            contingency; precarity; heterogeneity;
intersubjectivity; outer-objectivity; transposition;
dissensus; interruption; and multiform unfinish…

for the three books of ‘transpositions’ of sonnets from the British standard tradition, my English Strain project (English Strain, Bad Idea, British Standard). Activating a force field between text and transposition (Bad Idea 26).

‘Transposition’ (in preference to ‘translation’, even to ‘intralingual translation’ in Jakobson’s witty term) is borrowed from Rosi Braidotti. In her musicological derivation, it’s an ‘in-between space of zigzagging and of crossing: nonlinear and chaotic’ (226). ‘Transposable moves,’ in genetics, she explains, ‘appear to proceed by leaps and bounds and are ruled by chance, but they are not deprived of their logic’ (226).

These poems are ‘new shapes’ until they become old shapes. Then I shall anticipate other forms.

Form. Re-form, not reform. De-form, un-form, in-form, out-form. Etc. All the forms of forming. All forms of forming. Not just Form, not ever form, but forms.

Not just forms, but all the forming and re-forming the social can form.

A listening happens after saying. I cannot say what comes next and I’m saying it now.

Works Cited

Aragon, Louis. Paris Peasant. Translation by Simon Watson-Taylor. Picador Classics, 1987.

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. Routledge, 2004.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory. Columbia University Press, 2011.  

Hanson, Steve, review of Davies, W. Economic Science Fiction, in Manchester Review of Books, 3 (2020).

Harwood, Lee. Boston-Brighton. Oasis Books, 1977.

Harwood, Lee. Collected Poems. Shearsman Books, 2004.

Lagapa, Jason. Negative Theology and Utopian Thought in Contemporary American Poetry. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Oppen, George. Primitive. Black Sparrow Press, 1979.

Lee Ann Roripaugh, in ed. Hix, H.L. Counterclaims: Poets and Poetries, Talking Back. Dalkey Archive, 2020.

Shelley, P.B. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. by Donald H Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. W.W. Norton and Company, 1977.

Sheppard, Robert. Warrant Error. Shearsman, 2007.

Sheppard, Robert. The English Strain. Shearsman, 2021.

Sheppard, Robert. Bad Idea. Knives Forks and Spoons, 2021.

Sheppard, Robert. Pulse: It’s All a Rhythm (unpublished)

Sheppard, Robert. British Standards (work in progress)

Robert Sheppard’s most recent books are The English Strain (Shearsman, 2021) and Bad Idea (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2021), the first two parts of his ‘English Strain’ sonnet project, which will end with ‘British Standards’ in progress. It both pays homage to the English sonnet tradition and explores the Brexit-Coronavirus bunglings in high places. The Robert Sheppard Companion, a series of essays on his work, is available from Shearsman, as is History or Sleep, his selected poems. As a critic, he has written The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, as well as numerous essays and articles on the speculative discourse of poetics. He is emeritus professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, and lives in Liverpool.