English 633: Poetic Texture

The Smooth and the Striated in Postmodern Poetry

Prof. Joseph Conte

Fall 2001

Poetic texture is comprised of at least three valences:  a. considerations of genre (the work as governed by the restrictions of a densely inscribed lyric, the languorous extrapolations of the meditative sequence, the desultory shifting of attachment in the series, or the comprehensiveness of epic); b. considerations of form (traditional or invented; serious or light; arbitrary constraint or motivated compulsion); and c. considerations of compositional method (the various strategies by which the poet deploys the materials of the poem).

In describing problems of poetic texture and compositional method, I want to apply the somatic metaphor introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari near the end of A Thousand Plateaus:  Capitalism and Schizophrenia:  “the smooth and the striated.”  One can distinguish “smooth texts” from “striated texts” according to the presence or absence of striation.  One examines the body of the text to determine whether its tissue is arranged in parallel sheets or transverse striations.  The text may be marked by the continuity or discontinuity of perception, a mellifluous or harsh enunciation, and a laminar or disturbed surface.  One can evaluate the consistency or fragmentation of authorial voice, the hypotactic or disjunctive qualities of syntax, regular or irregular rhythms, the presence and variety of source materials, and the relative constraint by or liberation from formal devices.  “Smooth texts” texts maintain a consistent voicing; practice either a normative or a regularly-irregular syntax; refrain from difficult allusions; and suppress or restrain formalism.  “Striated texts” display aspects of collage, broken syntax, polylogism, dense allusion, and procedural forms that tend to ripple and contort the language of the poem.

A fair amount of attention will be paid to questions of genre, poetic form, and literary history in the accession of modernism by postmodernism.  The reading list for the seminar will thus be comprised of texts from various poetics and genres in both the late modern and postmodern period.  We’ll examine the structure of the epic in Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948) and Ronald Johnson’s Ark (1996).  The long meditative poem will be represented by Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (1932) and John Ashbery’s Flow Chart (1991).  We’ll pry apart modern and postmodern proceduralism in such works as John Wheelwright’s Mirrors of Venus (1938), Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1978), and Joan Retallack’s Afterrimages (1995).  The crafts of weaving and quilting, or texere, are found both in Marianne Moore’s lyrics and in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1987).  Figures of the intensive or nomadic intellect may also bring us, time permitting, to poetry and prose by Clark Coolidge, David Antin, Pierre Joris, Ann Lauterbach, and Nathaniel Mackey.

Seminar participants who are registered intensively will be required to make a twenty-minute oral presentation and produce a twenty-page research paper.

Last revised on Tuesday, August 7, 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Joseph M. Conte.  All Rights Reserved.