Richard Poirier, man of letters, founding editor of the journal Raritan, and longtime Rutgers University English professor, has died.


August 21, 2009

Richard Poirier, man of letters, founding editor of the journal Raritan, and longtime Rutgers University English professor, has died.

In an essay in the book Poetry and Pragmatism, titled "The Reinstatement of the Vague," Poirier beautifully defends the act of immersing yourself in the liquid, frothy, language of literature as an act of freedom, an act of resistance to the ordinary, sometimes bullying language of assertion and proposition and point-making that can wall us in. He quotes William James telling his reader to

"set [each word] at work within the stream of your experience." Each word [Poirier continues] will then be recognized "less as a solution... than as a program for more work." Though this is a worthy enough injunction, it is compounded of terminological blurrings that could easily make anyone unsure of just how and where to carry it out. It would be helpful to know, for example, where this stream of experience is located before we begin to set a word at work within it. Is the stream in us? Or is it shared with others? Are we on it, or is it next to us? In any case, how is one to identify the stream as peculiar to oneself - and how are its movements to be traced without the use of words, words that will inevitably mediate and thus contaminate or redirect the stream's flow? What, besides, can be meant by the word "work"? In the next sentence all he can promise is that if we set the word "at work within the stream," we will discover "a program for more work." But this work will produce nothing beyond an "indication" - an "indication of the way existing realities might be changed."

Vague as all of this might remain, there's a real promise within it: "Language," Poirier writes, "and therefore thinking, can be changed by an individual's acts of imagination, and by an individual's manipulation of words." Stephen Dedalus complains about what he calls "the aquacity of language," but far from complaining about it, says Poirier, Dedalus should dive in and start floating. (Ulysses lovers will recognize Dedalus as the driest of characters, refusing to bathe, or to swim, throughout the novel -- his aridity somehow conveying his spiritual paralysis, his refusal or inability to reenter the stream of humanity.)

Drifty language can "insinuate an identity for the speaker without asserting one," Poirier writes, and this insinuated identity implies a freedom from dominant, even domineering, notions of the self. It allows us not to be pinned down by others' interpretations, or by inherited ideas about what it means to be a certain category of human being.

This languid, almost prelinguistic, soundworld isn't merely a high literary sort of phenomenon:

[T]he deconstructive movements of language are [not] unique to literature. ... [O]rdinary people are in fact immensely sophisticated about the mediating and mediated nature of words and phrases. Most of us talk all day and say nothing worth repeating or repeatable. "What did you two talk about?" "Oh, nothing!' It has mostly been sound, efforts to create the gel of human relationships, even as the gel is forever melting away.

In The Names, an entire novel devoted to the contingencies of language, Don DeLillo's main character walks through a section of Athens, listening to people at cafes speak Greek to one another, a language he does not know:

People everywhere are absorbed in conversation. Seated under trees, under striped canopies in the squares, they bend together over food and drink, their voices darkly raveled in Oriental laments that flow from radios in basements and back kitchens. Conversation is life, language is the deepest being. We see the patterns repeat, the gestures drive the words. It is the sound and picture of humans communicating. It is talk as a definition of itself. Talk. Voices out of doorways and open windows, voices on the stuccoed-brick balconies, a driver taking both hands off the wheel to gesture as he speaks. Every conversation is a shared narrative, a thing that surges forward, too dense to allow space for the unspoken, the sterile. The talk is unconditional, the participants drawn in completely. This is a way of speaking that takes such pure joy in its own openness and ardor that we begin to feel these people are discussing language itself. What pleasure in the simplest greetings. It's as though one friend says to another, "How good it is to say 'How are you?" The other replying, "When I answer 'I am well and how are you,' what I really mean is that I'm delighted to have a chance to say these familiar things - they bridge the lonely distances."

They bridge the lonely distances; they create the gel of human relationships. And if the gel is forever melting away, we too are always in motion, in this fluid element, at work within the stream of our experience.

This motion is an odd, trusting, unknowing. Poirier gets at it here:

[W]e are brought together not by a shared commitment to explicitly defined values; we are brought together instead in a shared confidence that we are all somehow accommodated to what Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses calls "the ineluctable modality of the visible." That is, we really do not know what is there or cannot agree on what it is; and yet we assent, or so our most elementary idioms seem to indicate, to the fact that in life and in poetry there is "something" or only "something, perhaps." The value of such verbal sound is that... it points toward future realization, toward the existence of things which it cannot verbally re-present.

We must, in other words, "loosen the gravitational pull of substantives," writes Poirier; we must "stay loose." Swimming with language, constantly afloat, we move from place to watery place, undergoing as we do a kind of self-transformation or self-transcendence. Charles Wright, in his poem Disjecta Membra, puts it this way:

…Take a loose rein and a deep seat,
John, my father-in-law, would say
To someone starting out on a long journey, meaning, take it easy,
Relax, let what’s taking you take you.

A final image that comes to mind is that of prayer flags flying over a river. Here.

Each word set vaguely at work within the stream.


Back to Top