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The Subject in the Structure: Issues of Procedure in Contemporary American Poetry

Hélène AJI

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1One may argue that it all started with Gertrude Stein and her focus on the constraints imposed by language on perception and the subsequent grammar of infinite repetitivity and minute variation that informs her poetic texts. This notion of a subject permanently and irredeemably caught in the very “structure” of his expressive modes opens up a multiplicity of debates centred around the attempts at assessing and gaining control over these restrictions.

2One of them lies in the impulse to free poetry from the fetters of meter and rhyme, thus blatantly asserting an assumed independence of the poetic subject from the pre-established demands of his medium. It is however interesting to notice how, with poets such as Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams, this effort culminates in the claim for impersonality and an erasure of the subject—at least from the text of the poem. Pound’s choice of didacticism over aestheticism and Williams’s work toward a new metrics could then be seen as perverse returns of the subject through structure: they send poetics back to its original dilemma of inscribing the subject in the poem in a manner distinct from sentimental projection as well as from arbitrary metrical constraints. Whatever failures Pound and Williams’s poems might embody in terms of impersonality, they albeit sometimes unwillingly outline the possibilities for new inscriptions of the subject in the poem in terms of organised production and controlled, streamlined genesis. Both the compositional method of the Cantos and of Williams’s Paterson can be understood as striving toward the adoption of rationalised procedures in the production of the poem. The conflation of Stein’s writing with these attempts has engendered an awareness that the inscription of the subject in the poem is indeed an inescapable fact but that this fact is structural, and does not coincide with issues of self-expressivity .

  • 1  Cf. “The Return of the (Numerical) Repressed: From Free Verse to Procedural Play” (Radical Artific (...)

3Consequently the last part of this paper will focus on the modes some contemporary poets have been adopting to move away from the assimilation of subject to self. The subject is other than a self: in the procedural poetry of Jackson Mac Low the subject becomes generic, de-personalised so as to embody a conceptualised individual in a world or context conceived of as structure or architecture. Procedural poetries have often been considered with condescension for various reasons, which all have to do with poetics and the poetic agenda of those who look at them. At worst, they are dismissed as obscure, pointlessly complex modes of composition which produce even more obscure and hermetic texts, failing to trigger off the reader’s empathetic projection and vicarious expression of self. At best, they are deemed interesting in the philosophical approach of authority which they imply and more often than not thematize in the hypotactic discourse they unfold. More disturbing perhaps than these contradictory appraisals is the fact that procedure as a text-generating method is almost unavoidably reduced to “play,” as in Marjorie Perloff’s formulation of the modernist shift “from free verse to procedural play.”1 Such an expression, even as it justifiably chronicles and emphasizes a key moment in the evolution of poetic praxis and theory, also unwittingly downgrades the very texts it aims to describe as serious and valuable. And indeed, because procedural poetry is often based on game-related methods (manipulating cards, dice, etc.) and because it imposes compositional constraints that jeopardize meaningfulness, one is tempted to dismiss it as purely experimental and in no way a viable option for poetry. Moreover one is also tempted to constrast it with free verse, forgetting that there might never have been such a thing as “free verse.” Indeed, one would rather talk of changes in the nature of compositional constraints and their problematic role in the definition of authorship, of the field of poetry, and ultimately of the conception of voice or rhythm as self-related—or not. These questions can be raised in front of many a poetic text and what follows does in no way argue that they cristallized for the first time with the advent of high modernism: Whitman’s bombastic rambling verse and Dickinson’s often playful conciseness could be as worthy fields of investigation. Nevertheless, what differentiates Eliot, Pound or Williams from earlier poets is perhaps their famous claim for impersonality, universality, objectivity—and their radically personal, particular, and subjective subsequent poetics.

I - Poundian Impersonality as Decoy

4Thus, it is interesting to notice how Ezra Pound’s imagism gives way, almost instantaneously, to vorticism. The very poem he presents as the quintessential example of his imagist theory, “In a Station of the Metro” (Collected Shorter Poems 109), does not foot the bill of his theoretical dicta: in a highly metaphorical way (“petals on a wet black bough”), the poem conveys an emotion, which is very remote from the demands of a “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” proclaimed in Make It New (“A Stray Document” 335). Rather, this poem paves the way for the vorticist theory of concentrated but also distorting fluxes of energy. Pound’s imagist poem par excellence evidences the type of transmutation performed by the vortograph, which so fascinated him: the lenses of the photographic camera are made to interact in such a way that the resulting picture is not only blurred but allows for the multiplication of interpretations, in other words, for an endless game of projections. At the same time though, by playing with the camera—and the notion of play is tantamount here—the artist establishes procedures by which he is going to convey a mode of being in the world, or rather to the world. In Pound’s view, similar methods were to be developed by the vorticists in painting (decomposition into planes as seen in Wyndham Lewis’s Timon illustrations) and in literature (by himself). However, one can wonder whether this mechanization of artistic production goes beyond wishful thinking and a fairly erratic pseudo-scientific reaction to the assumed emotionality of romanticism. If one is to believe Pound’s argument, poetry before him, apart from a few select exceptions, had reached an absurd point of sentimental self-centredness, encased in the statutory form of the iambic pentameter. But if one is to abandon fixed forms, what else is The Cantos doing than convey the emotional as well as intellectual tribulations of a modern version of the romantic genius? The practice of selection, juxtaposition and repetition obeys an overall vision which functions as the poem’s hypotext and which stabilizes its methods while eluding rationalization and systematization: the original motif of the fugue, alluded to by Yeats in A Vision, does not hold, nor does the poem fully “cohere” on a referential level, to take up a Poundian phrase. But this cannot be easily dismissed as a failure, at least not according to Pound’s conception of literature and of the poet’s mission, both from a historical and from a linguistic point of view. Thus one reads, in ABC of Reading, that “Great Literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost degree” and that “the good writer chooses his words for their ‘meaning,’ but that meaning is not a set, cut-off thing like the move of knight or pawn on a chess-board” (“Compass, Sextant, or Landmarks” 36). Although vorticism, after imagism, tries to standardize the procedures of writing, the result, for Pound, is not to be assessed in terms of dynamics but in terms of accumulation and stasis—something paradoxically apparent in the poem he wrote as an example of vorticist literature and which reinvests the metaphor of the chess game. Here, mobility is turned into motionlessness through the use of gerunds and nouns, and adjectivation charges the words with meaning, subliminally conveying the agenda of the poetic self:

Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens
Striking the board, falling in strong 'L's' of colour,
Reaching and striking in angles,
       Holding lines of one colour:
This board is alive with light
These pieces are living in form,
       Their moves break and reform the pattern
(From “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess–Theme for a Series of Pictures”)

5The willful suppression of the subject (the grammatical ‘I’) does not equate a suppression of the subjective, but allows for a return of the self in disguise, unfamiliar maybe, but in no case impersonal. The semantic field of violence betrays the intention until it is voiced explicitly: to “break and reform the pattern”—where reforming, in other words recovering a fixity, is at least as important as breaking. At the centre, “L” is the letter that comes to embody—in a symbolical way—the intrinsic link the poet makes between “light,” “life,” and “line,” thus assimilating his poem to a vehicle for his enlightened vision of self in world, and definitely asserting form as the locus of meaningful, personal revelation. Pound’s cuts in Eliot’s manuscript of The Waste Land could be read in the same way, as the syntactic erasure of self—another decoy to draw our attention away from person, a step further than the recourse to persona, but without any essential differences.

II - Williams/Stein: the poem as configuration

6Similar attempts, with different modalities, could be outlined to amplify this point, and exhibit the ambiguities that inform procedural composition: William Carlos Williams’s interest in photography and the work of Alfred Stieglitz on urban views, as well as his attraction to the empty industrial landscapes of Charles Sheeler, convey an aspiration to a form of expression deprived of perspective: in Stieglitz’s pictures, all planes are in focus; in Sheeler’s landscapes, minute detailing defies the capabilities of sight; in both cases, the human figure disappears from the landscape and point of view loses determination in an attempt to prevent projection and induce estrangement. The world or context emerges as a shell, a structure or an architecture, which are only optionally inhabited. In those works, the removal of the human in representation does not involve its negation but rather its generalization. This is part of Williams’s poetic project, and to a certain extent, of Gertrude Stein’s: in Williams’s words about Stein, “it is simply the skeleton, the ‘formal’ parts of writing, those that make form, that she has to do with” (“The Work of Gertrude Stein” Selected Essays 115), and, one might add, that Williams wants to have to do with. Yet this is not what happens in his famous “Red Wheelbarrow” poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
(“Spring and All, XXII” Collected Poems I 224)

7Nor is it what happens in Gertrude Stein’s “A Red Hat,” in spite of all the critical rhetorics aiming at defining it, along with the other poems of Tender Buttons, as a Cubist poem, which would offer the whole range of points of view to the extreme of losing sight of the object:


A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey is monstrous ordinarily, it is so monstrous because there is no red in it. If red is in everything it is not necessary. Is that not an argument for any use of it and even so is there any place that is better, is there any place that has so much stretched out. (Selected Writings 467)

8In both poems, despite their formal differences and despite the absence, again, of an “I” to denote the presence of someone behind the text, one can find orientation which determines the range of interpretation in ways more constraining than could be believed at first reading: to give but two examples, Williams’s “so much depends” and Stein’s final question without a question mark are ways of circumscribing the poem and reminding the reader of the presence of an agent, who defines him- or herself through the poem. For Williams, a whole organizational system is hinged on the “red wheelbarrow,” whereas for Stein the dialectics of desire inform the relation to the outer, simultaneously stressing the power of the absent and the illusory nature of fulfillment. Red versus white or red versus grey, in both cases, the poem is generated through a method of contrasting and out of the potentialities these distinctions generate for metaphysical meditation. What makes these two poems more stimulating perhaps than Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or than his “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess” is the fact that both are non-metaphorical and non-symbolical: the figure at the centre of the poem (more strikingly perhaps in Stein) is no more than a passage-way to theoretical thinking. However, it has been acknowledged that in both cases the theories were eminently specific, personal to the point of idiosyncrasy. In Williams, this appears in his development of the notion of measure; in Stein, in her use of repetition as a mode of “explanation” and “composition.” However a shift occurs from the “meaning” of the poem as input of the poet to the idea that what “makes a difference,” is arrangement and the dialectics between specificity and genericity which inform it. Thus Williams:

To make a poem, fulfilling the requirements of the art, and yet new, in the sense that in the very lay of the syllables Paterson as Paterson would be discovered […] — it would be as itself, locally, and so like every other place in the world. […] It is up to us, in the new dialect, to continue [Whitman’s theme] by a new construction upon the syllables. (“Author’s Note” Paterson iv)

9And Stein:

[…] anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it. […] The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. […] Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition. (“Composition as Explanation” Selected Writings 513)

10With the notions of construction and composition, Williams and Stein initiate a line of reflection on the poem as a grammatical place, where the various configurations that can be achieved in language are played and displayed. In this perspective, the self is no longer artificially assaulted through its eviction from the poetic text, but becomes the instable locus of an interplay between the “I” as affect and the “I” as subject, dramatizing the limitations brought upon creation by ego and the extension of boundaries achieved by its momentary silencing in the formalization of the writing process.

III - Procedure: an avatar of ectoskeletal forms

  • 2  Cf. Davidson, “Approaching the Fin de Siècle” The San Francisco Renaissance (214).

11Thus, this move from self to subject, in what Michael Davidson calls the “crisis of expressivity,” finds one response in the emphasis laid on the “productive nature of language in forming the subject” and in the development of a “process- or action-oriented aesthetics” (“Approaching the Fin de Siècle” The San Francisco Renaissance 205). The focus moves away from the poem as monolithic product to the modes of its production, and the streamlining of these modes according to procedures or rules turn the poem into what John Ashbery calls “an all-purpose model” (“The Impossible” 251). This is far-removed from the “graph of consciousness,” which Perloff used to define the form of Pound’s Cantos, and indeed this type of formalism has elicited a great variety of comments, both from critics and from poets, that revolve around the issues of projection both in the context of a poetics and of a theory of reading. The exemplum of the radical rejection of projection would be the chance-generated text that Jackson Mac Low, sometimes in collaboration with John Cage, has been producing. The approach to such texts has too often been narrowly ectoskeletal, and exclusively descriptive of the procedure involved—a consequence of the impossibility to narrativize a meaning for the poem. This type of reading can reach a high degree of sophistication and propose the ideal of an “anti-content,” “nonreferential”2 text, solely preoccupied with showing the range of syntactic and/or semantic possibilities. In this respect, one can read the following by Charles Bernstein on Mac Low:

The Mac Lowian systematic poem refuses the normal process of identification of a ‘self’ (voice, persona, sensibility) in the text as expressed or revealed—of writing as confessional or personally expressive. Faced with the Mac Lowian structurally generated poem, one is hard put to ‘read into’ it to recognize the mapping of the author’s consciousness or a narrative or pictorial image. (“Jackson at Home” Content’s Dream 252-3)

Mac Low […] has generally been more interested in his written texts in building structures than in inhabiting them […]. His work is a great testament to the possibility for structures in and of themsleves, and for the sufficiency of possibility. That it is architectures that shape the world, but we who must fill them up. (“Jackson at Home” Content’s Dream 257)

  • 3  Cf. Perelman The Marginalization of Poetry 167 n.1.

12But such a reading also has to come to terms with the persistence of authorship even when meaning has become problematic: as Bernstein suggests but does not account for, “the circuit of intentionality is not so easily broken. Words get in the way” (“Jackson at Home” Content’s Dream 253). Not only that, but in fact the very exhibition of procedure gets in the way, as it allows for commentary and provokes a reading into the procedure for meanings that the poem seems to preclude. Asserting, as Bernstein has done, that in procedural texts “language speaks for itself” (“Jackson at Home” Content’s Dream 253) is preposterous as it presupposes a radical dissolution of agency, perhaps confusing the existence of an author with the exercise of authority over the poetic text, the construction of a subject with the expression of a self. What procedure is trying to do is at least partially relinquish the arbitrariness of psychological decision and selection, as well as the fixity of “inherited form” to establish a “programmatic”3 formalism in which, to take up Lyn Hejinian’s parallel with Adamic scenarios, “what naming provides is structure, not individual words” (“The Rejection of Closure” The Language of Inquiry 53). What the procedural poem is supposed to do is work out the consequences of such a structure-oriented poetics: the authoritarian posture of one magisterial self telling another is ideally to be replaced by the distribution of the subject-function to all the individuals involved with the poem. But, of course, this never happens: as Mac Low evokes the writing of Barnesbook: Four Poems Derived from Sentences by Djuna Barnes, he underlines the distinction between the “nonintentionality” that procedure allows for and an absence of determinism. The use of his computer program DIASTEXT—“an automation of the ‘diastic reading-through text-selection methods’ that [he] first developed in January 1963” (“Afterword” Barnesbook 47)—makes him unable to “predict what will be drawn from a source text,” but it does not suppress the fact that he has chosen the seed word and the source text—the seed being “used to select words (or other linguistic units) that spell it through repeatedly throughout a poem” (48) in a manner akin to the acrostic. Nor does it suppress the fact that he maintains the possibility of editing the resulting text. As a consequence, Mac Low’s procedural poems are not, as is too easily formulated, chance-generated, but, as he puts it, devised according to compositional methods that include “rule-guided interaction with nonintentionally-generated materials”(51). In a final twist, one is made to realize the possibility of formalizing the generative activity of self in language, to the extent of replacing it with a subject producing and inhabiting structures that others can in turn inhabit. The poetic text becomes indeed an architecture and DIASTEXT-based composition is one possible architectural organization:

Such the is in them.

“Then the ones,
Robin their extremity
of extremity—
with years,

were responsible for other and painful ran building,
(“Barnes 2” Barnesbook 19)

13However, since the poems of the Barnesbook, Mac Low eventually acknowledges, are also “acts of homage,” this product of his procedure becomes a form of elegy. Procedural poetry, thus, does not preclude the persistence of expressive intention, but because it asserts the status of ectoskeletal form not as “a fixture but an activity” (Hejinian “The Rejection of Closure” The Language of Inquiry 275), it displaces the locus of meaning from content and context to form and text. Simultaneously and paradoxically, it opens the text to the proliferation of compositions and readings, and reduces the range of activity of the self to his position in text, which is why it can indeed be deemed a poetics of the subject.

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Ashbery, John. “The Impossible.” Poetry 90 (July 1957).

Bernstein, Charles. Content’s Dream. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986.

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Mac Low, Jackson. Barnesbook: Four Poems Derived from Sentences by Djuna Barnes. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1996.

Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Perloff, Marjorie. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Pound, Ezra. “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess-Theme for a Series of Pictures.” Blast 2 (July 1915) 19.

—. ABC of Reading. London: Faber, 1961.

—. Collected Shorter Poems. London: Faber, 1984.

—. Make It New. London: Faber, 1934.

Stein, Gertrude. Selected Writings. New York: Vintage, 1962.

Williams, William Carlos. Collected Poems. 2 vols. London: Carcanet, 1987.

—. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1963.

—. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1969.

Yeats, W.B. A Vision. London: Macmillan, 1962.

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1  Cf. “The Return of the (Numerical) Repressed: From Free Verse to Procedural Play” (Radical Artifice 134-70).

2  Cf. Davidson, “Approaching the Fin de Siècle” The San Francisco Renaissance (214).

3  Cf. Perelman The Marginalization of Poetry 167 n.1.

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Hélène AJI, « The Subject in the Structure: Issues of Procedure in Contemporary American Poetry », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 28 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Hélène AJI

University of Paris IV-Sorbonne
Hélène Aji is Senior Lecturer in American poetry at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne. In addition to a number of articles on Modernist and contemporary American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams : pour une poétique américaine (L'Harmattan, 2001) and William Carlos Williams : un plan d’action (Belin, 2004). She is the editor of special issue 16 of Annales du monde anglophone on “Ezra Pound dans le vortex de la traduction” (2nd semester 2002) and of Ezra Pound and Referentiality (Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003). She is currently working on an Ezra Pound biography and on a book on performance and procedural poetry, as well as editing the Revue Française d'Études Américaines's special issue on poetry (February 2005).

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