I have seen increasing numbers of people writing about rhythm lately, so I'm going to just go ahead and plant my own little academic flag: rhythm is mine! I've been onto this for months now, trying without much success to talk to people about it! But more seriously, I'm very excited that others are onto the same trail as I am, or following different paths to the same concept.
Rhythm. Because we begin with the synchronic, considering a thing. And then we move to its historicity, and we start to get diachronic, perhaps considering the differences between two points in time. But then we acknowledge that the literary object - or life itself, or history, whatever your unit - is a thing to be considered as a temporal progression. We realize that time just keeps moving and we think - wait a minute - how do these events accrete into something that isn't just a giant data set? This is part of my attraction to narrative theory, I think, besides all the good narrator stuff. I think Ricoeur, emplotment, then phenomenology, moving to Derrida's critique of it, then start to feel myself inching closer and closer to psychoanalysis via Derrida...move back, re-engage through de Man's temporality. He's working from some obscure phenomenologists I've never heard of, suggests Brian McHale (I can't remember offhand..) Then I find Nicholas Abraham, a Hungarian-French psychoanalyst who wrote a book called Rhythms in the 70s. I re-read my L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets ("L poets" from now on, ok?) and things start to cohere a little bit. (Don't worry, I'll get to academic freedom here sometime.)
Some things I've realized: rhythm works because it helps negotiate between the fundamental disunity that's always there in language, the possibility for disjunction and rifts and all that, and the need for and tendency toward unity or wholeness. Rhythm, as the L poets see it, fits into the emphasis on finding the emergent properties of language and language acts. They don't want to come in with a rule to follow; rather, they want to begin and let the work itself determine its own rules. In trying to write something beyond the bounds of what has been said before, they can only discover a principle for writing: they are sailing into the dark unknown with an optimism only available to the American coastal 60s and 70s. And so they are (this is Lyotard) both premature and belated. Premature because they are coming at a thing that has never been done before, and maybe is not even ready to be born into the world yet. (Or the world isn't ready for it.) But they are belated, too, because by the time they find the rule, principle, method, idea...the work is nearly done. And to bring that principle anew to a new work has no guarantees, because it fit only in the event of its formation. So instead of sailing into the dark and slowly beginning to map the territory into something less than impossible terror, they are perpetually cursed to return to waters that are ever-renewed in their uncertainty.
This is okay, though, because Raymond Williams says so. The emergent is what we want, it's the renewal of art, it's sensitive to structures of feeling, it's not bourgeois: it gives us options to work against the hegemonic, to reconfigure the possibilities of the residual and the dominant powers-that-be. This is all great. And Williams is one of my very favorite- I not only love his work but I trust him as a thinker. (I'll write about this someday- trusting a writer or philosopher. More important than we want to admit. There are all sorts of micro textual effects and blips or skids in meaning, intentional and not, that operate to entice me or alienate me, subtly, and in different qualitative dimensions.) But back to working against the hegemonic-- as you might sense, the resistance can get hegemonic on its own faster than you'd like. (Hold on, not to academic freedom yet, but it's working extra hard to sneak in here right now.)
Let's get back to rhythm first. I was talking about how rhythm works as an important emergent property of language. But there's something a little more fundamental - rhythm itself. What is it and how does it "emerge"? I want to say that rhythm can only be emergent (though maybe on a smaller scale): and really, this isn't that contentious. Any pattern can only establish itself as such over a period of time, over some iterations. (How many? That's a good question. Has anyone written on this, how many events or items constitutes a pattern? I know, I've been meaning to teach myself statistics...maybe after exams.) But this is another way that rhythm knits together different strands of contemporary theory: it also gets at the iterative, or what Butler et al. would call the performative. (There is something totally fundamental about iteration to postmodern literature, or maybe modernism deals with iteration and postmodernism with permutation. I want to write about that, too, and it's another reason I need to learn stats.) I know there's some contention about the overuse/misuse of Austin's "performative," but I'm not too worried about it. I'm more interested in the way the "performative" taps into the fundamental nature of iteration to forming reality. Your identity isn't a seamless item, it's a collection of repeated and repeating actions and perceptions and ways that people treat you and everything that repeats at you ever. (Which is a lot.) Likewise, rhythm isn't seamless or stable: it's born from iterations and renewed by iterations. And it changes, too, subtly: but those changes don't undermine what came before, they augment and complicate it. This is, to my mind, the best current way of conceptualizing difference within unity, conceiving coherence without eliminating the wild and hairy particular. It's a conceptual unity, enforced in the same way we create narratives: emplotment (that's Ricoeur).
So-- iteration. The great thing about these iterations is that they're not just conceptual; they're also bodily. This is part of what's so great about Williams's structures of feeling: they are not just emergent ideas, they are felt in the fabric of everyday existence, barely perceived shifts in the way things are iterating around you. This is why gender, for instance, can be so viscerally felt. And it's why after reading The Rape of the Lock straight through, you feel Pope's heroic couplets coursing through your mind, your body, your potential speech. (I know I'm not the only one. This is part of what creates so much conversation about what different poets "feel like".) So this is pretty important, because it starts to underline the way language works across minds and bodies: language (and especially styled language, that has purposeful patterns like rhythm and such) interpenetrates us, body and mind, and has real experienced effects. Yeah, I'm only Pope-drunk for a couple of hours afterward. But if I kept going it would keep writing itself into me, into my speeds and my rhythms and my words, my mind offering me end-rhymes without any effort. This is crazy but it's also fun, and sometimes totally gorgeous. It's an ecstasy to be patterned by someone's language act, in my world. (I wrote about the telepathic nature of this, and the types of reading strategies it effects, in a paper about literary possession and Infinite Jest that I'd like to publish eventually.)
So we're finally getting to ethics. Clearly if you're going to go about touching people with carefully patterned language, you have to consider the ethical dimension. Maybe not everyone wants to be touched, or they only want to be touched when in the library, or something- each to their own. So why did the L poets want to mess around with something so powerful? Why take the risk that nothing will emerge and you'll just have been writing screwy syntax for 700 pages? Because they had a crisis of content. Poems "about" something, poems that "expressed" some deep "truth," or "feeling" - they felt that stuff had been done, and it was maybe getting kind of boring. Plus, everyone was high on the rebellious and liberatory energy of the 60s, they were recovering neglected artists and reveling in difference and jouissance and drugs and language, man. But they were also, maybe, fed up with poetry that sought to be whole or purposeful or unified. What if you could do something entrancing with language that didn't rely on a distillation of a transcendent lyric moment, or wasn't centered by that transcendental lyric "I"? They were finding that subjectivity itself is plural, so the lyric I is maybe a lyric "we," and that one crystalline lyric moment actually leaves out all this other stuff. This is its own celebration of a kind of pluralism, diversity: the decentered poem. (Did they know that all poems were already decentered and not, at the same time...was this just the ultimate decentering? Another essay I'd like to write sometime is about some of these dynamics between philosophy/theory and literature: literary phenomena generating theoretical insights and systems, and theoretical ideas setting off experiments in writing. And of course the L poets are already aware of this interaction- Charles Bernstein tries to sort out the difference between poetry and philosophy in the essay "Writing and Method.") But so: ethics. Poems that were about something, that you had to decode, were sort of authoritarian. They made the rules. But the L poets didn't want to do that- they wanted rhythm to be as much their creation as yours, and meaning more so. Any utterance can be missed, can be misunderstood - meaning is full of rifts, it's unstable and really hard to pass from a writer to a reader. So screw it- understand what you want. These poems aren't even possible to decode through intentions, when, for instance, Kit Robinson writes, to explain the stanza "Two bullet holes: / one in the window / one in the arm." the following reasons: "Like I said the bullet hole in the window was really made by a pebble Larry threw up there to engage the attention of Rene Ricard who was inside talking on the phone. The force of the wind drove it through. The one in the arm is from another of Burden's stunts" (In the American Tree 551). The ethics of this is anything goes, reader: do what you want and enjoy it. By really not saying anything (to the point of calling their poetry non-referential, though of course you can't strip language of reference) they made themselves incapable of being misunderstood.
Of course, they negated understanding to a large degree, as well. The total subjectivizing of reader response has its own immense, and immensely troublesome, consequences. (This is too big to get into, but I think that rather than expand the self it helps also to solipsize the self: if it's up to you to "find" meaning, intelligibility, etc. in the poem, all you end up "finding" is yourself. "Yourself"? You end up replicating your own patterns and tendencies as you notice those things that matter to you, those are the things you remember, and suddenly you are looking in a really warped mirror.) But we can't always be free from meaning, and this is what brings me to academic freedom and free speech. Of late there has been a lot of tumult about a number of professors being penalized for controversial viewpoints, or viewpoints expressed controversially; or about universities cancelling or moving events based on donor pressure; or about the importance of "safe" or "unhostile" environments and the possible need for trigger warnings for students, and on and on. My own academic sphere has been working out how to respond to situations of dissent and argument, carefully but I think in some misguided ways that reflect a general larger cultural trend. This trend prioritizes vulnerability above much else, by reconceiving what it means to "do injury" to someone or something. (Is this the influence of Zizek's analysis of symbolic violence, consistently in vogue?) When language is understood as powerful, we realize that it can hurt. And there are quite a few ways of dealing with hurt, that I can tell. One way is to exile all potential threats: to create "safe" and "welcoming" spaces free from dissent or discomfort or challenge. (I'm a total advocate of safe spaces but I do think the rhetoric of the word "welcoming" is pretty fucked up.) A moderate version of this is pretty good, I think: cultivating some zones in which people are especially sensitive to certain kinds of concerns, zones in which we work to be especially careful about how we talk, in which we're aware of the potential for a faux pas or that we might not even know how to talk correctly about a thing.
But that right there gets at this fundamental instability of engaging in iterative language acts: we do a lot of them, and we make errors, mistakes; we try to talk across borders of a very diverse group and we inevitably end up with this disjunction: I meant / you heard. The necessity not to hurt, in a space where vulnerability takes first concern, means not speaking at all. And so when we ask our communities to create, to regulate, spaces that are free from uncomfortable dissent -- when we begin to regulate our conversational places to eliminate disagreement and discord, period, we are silencing not just assholes or racists (who still have free speech anyway)...we are silencing even those who hold respectable and respectful positions. To think that this is not so, and to aim for the sunny shores of agreement is to bask in silence and alone.
Ninja edit: for anyone into rhythm: I found this Semiotics of Rhythm / "Rhythmology" online. And I know that I completely don't explain here what I mean by rhythm or what cash value this concept has more largely or for interpretation, though I begin to articulate its connections to various theories. This is a poetics thing, for me, fundamentally-- a phenomenological poetics thing.