Frank O’Hara wrote in “Personism: a Manifesto” that he was advocating for the poem being placed “squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” To eroticize the poem as O’Hara did is, it seems to me, entirely appropriate; it is a body pressed between (at least) two other bodies. Claims about poetry that attempt to dislocate it from the flesh, claims that have dominated poetic discourse for decades (from new criticism, to language, to conceptualism), are ignoring what is for me poetry’s primary social and personal function: the generation and transmission of affect.
So, what is affect? This is one of those fantastic questions that doesn’t so much demand an answer as a discussion. Some think of it as emotion or feelings, and this is an entirely valid and useful application of the term. One need look no further than the work of Sianne Ngai or Jennifer Doyle to see the value of exploring the place of emotion in art. Some of the essays in this collection deal quite brilliantly with the idea of emotion as content. I, on the other hand, am particularly drawn to the idea of affect as non-conscious experience, as a physiological experience that precedes the cultural, linguistic translation of experience into “emotion” or “feelings.” Following Brian Massumi, (who is following Deleuze and Guattari, who are following Spinoza…), I find it useful to think of affect as the experience of “unqualified intensity,” an experience that registers on the skin, that has not yet been narrativised, has not yet been defined. Where emotion is a “sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal” (Massumi 28), affect is the unqualified experience of the virtual, of genuine potential, the potential for new ways of thinking, of being, of relating to one another. And it is not defined as personal. Rather, it is an experience that exists between individuals, a binding agent, if you will, that belies the notion of individual subjecthood entirely.
Poetry, the poetry to which I am most attracted, deals in affect. It uses language to express those things that language can’t express. Certainly, when one is playing with/in language, there is always an element of representation involved, but the thing that makes a poem a poem is, to my mind, the beyond language. A poem is a poem because it ruptures the apparently seamless flow of information, the apparently static system of relations that make up our reality, and it lets in these unqualified intensities, these brief instances of (as yet) uncaptured potential. Poetry, like all good art, reaches beyond what we know and allows us to experience, with the sensorium, with the feeling body, the unknown.
Fred Moten’s reading of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! in his contribution to this volume, “Blackness and Poetry,” is a prime example of this mode of reading. In it, he explores the “story of no-body” that “cannot be sung alone.” Philip, in Moten’s estimation, “has come to tell you what she cannot tell,” and it is in this non-telling that the no-body becomes a body in the expression of the intensities beyond the purely representative expression of language, an “extramusical plea.” Taking a somewhat different approach, Lisa Robertson, in “Notes on Form and Belief,” claims that “form is a bodily event,” and also that “form is always to transform.” She addresses the political agency of form and its relationship to other forms, other bodies. In his essay “I Feel Your Pain… or, Reimagining Irony,” Rob Fitterman seeks to rescue irony from the popular conception that it is somehow the opposite of sincerity or authenticity; it asks the reader to contend with the “reach between the said/unsaid,” where she/he will have an “unpredictable” emotional response. Irony, according to Fitterman, can be “a way to speak to or with contemporary culture by using contemporary culture directly.”
There are any number of ways one can engage the question of poetry’s relationship to affect and vice versa; the spectrum of approaches taken by the poets and scholars in this issue alone demonstrate this diversity. They also, I believe, demonstrate how crucial it is that we do explore this relationship.
We hope you find this collection as engaging and stimulating as we do. May we all, at last, find the poem standing between two bodies, between communities of feeling bodies, where it can stimulate us into movement, into action.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Print.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995. 498-499. Print.