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Poetics. When I began to study poetics, I did not fully appreciate what contemporary poetics examines. It’s not simply the “form” of poems. It’s critical theory.

Cruel optimism. When I read Sappho’s poetry in Early Modern Poets class last fall, I encountered the idea of “cruel optimism” in the Sapphic principles of the unattained attachment and the significance—or imperative of the absent “object of desire,” even before reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). In her tenacious dissection of her term, “cruel optimism,” which she defines and illustrates by way of several expressions, for example, an attachment to a “cluster of promises” for an “impossible” identity, outcome, potentiality, ‘sheer fantasy,’ or ‘toxic’ situation, (Berlant, 2011) and examples as shown with poetry, e.g. John Ashbery’s poem, “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse,” (“We were warned about spiders, and the / occasional famine.” […] “He came up to me.”) in which the poetics of attachment play out before and after the critical action in the line, “He came up to me.” (For the full poem by John Ashbery, visit the Language Hat blog post here.)

Anyone hooked on the twenty-first century trend of “mindfulness” and “living in the moment” must read Berlant’s work on “cruel optimism,” as Berlant interrogates the notions of the “present” as found in lyric poetry; when we study lyric poetry, we take for granted that the present holds weight and meaning. Berlant challenges the present as it operates on other levels in the poetics of attachment: 1) She writes, “one must embark on an analysis of rhetorical indirection as a way of thinking about the strange temporalities of projection into an enabling object that is also disabling.” (Berlant, 2011) To this, I reflect on early modern poets including Queen Elizabeth I herself, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose lyric poems projected happiness onto the object of their desire whether it was a physical person, such as “Stella” in “Astrophil & Stella” or the queen’s youth in her sonnet, “When I was fair and young.”

Studying Sir Philip Sidney’s epic lyric poem, Astrophil and Stella, and envisioning them in my art journal

Secondly, Berlant asserts 2) that the poetics of attachment by way of “cruel optimism” create “a fake present moment of intersubjectivity” (Berlant, 2011) in which the object of desire, such as an ex-lover, a lost cause, a ghost—is absolutely absent. Thus, the “cruel optimism” is of a “potential occupation of the same psychic space” to allow an imaginary scenario to exist for the poet/writer. (Berlant, 2011) Thirdly, this functions as a projection onto 3) an “impossible identity,” open-ended meanings, “boundary-dissolving,” (Berlant, 2011) a myriad of poetic osmosis happening between the speaker and the addressee, whose identity may even be imaginary and unrecognizable to the real person or muse who inspired the poem.

  Holding the magnifying lens to Berlant’s work, we find an inverted focus on the “other” as this imaginary, affected attachment, nearly artifice. And we find the speaker, the “I” and the “self.” In Judith Butler’s work, “Giving an Account of Oneself,” (2001) the poetic accountability of these two bookend identities, or interpersonal perspectives, come into focus. The “self” and “the other” are constructions of the poem; these could be anything (as in Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century dialogue poems, in which she imagines a conversation between a man and a tree, for instance, or her own “self” interrogating her “barren” fertility problems and casting these as the “other”), not necessarily two individual human beings as subjects. Recognizing the ‘other’ is “subjected to that norm and agency of its use,” as Butler explains. (Butler, 2001) She writes, “I am compelled and comported outside myself,” and “the subject of recognition is one for whom a vacilliation between loss and ecstasy,” as it is the “possibility of the ‘I’ and the knowing of the ‘I.’” (Butler, 2001.)

In my work with the Gothic (or the EcoGothic, and Romantic-Gothic) women writers of the 1790s and early 19th century, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley, I search for this very phenomenon: where does the writer recognize her own “I” and situate herself apart from the “other” or conversely, portray herself as the other? This is, as I understand Butler’s work, a kind of poetic accountability (or accountability of poetics). The functionality of the “I” (for example, the female Gothic “I” or the lyrical “I” in contemporary poetry, or in Millay’s sonnets, her “I”) transgresses the boundaries of the “I” and confronts the liminal space around the “other.” At times, when we are hunting for the “other,” we find a convergence of the “I” with the “other” in this liminal space, a dissolving of boundaries, much the way Lauren Berlant talks of attachment poetics. When the poet or speaker, (or poetics scholar) is held accountable, these confrontations and central questions around self and otherness act as a frame of reference to position the other in relation to the self (or vice versa).

Exploring the “female Gothic ‘I'” from Romantic-Gothic literature
(my “Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, on the Eve of her Wedding”) LCS Mixed Media watercolor in my art journal

Interiority, or interior subjects, then become dependent on this relationship, and in some cases, the self (as “I”) is relying on the conventional norms of the other (as “you”) so that the poem has some basis in a hypothetical singularity. “The notion of singularity is often bound up in existential romanticism and a claim of authenticity.” (Butler, 2001) What strikes me about Butler’s work is a call to authenticate the “self,” in relation to other living beings (mostly human), in a way that seems reminiscent of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other Romantics, especially women writers in Romanticism (and even dark Romanticism, e.g. Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley). I find myself making connections between the 18th century philosophical writings of literary critics and writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and J.J. Rousseau, and the literary critics and sociologists like Berlant and Butler—specifically on the subject of the “self” and the “other,” and the problem of attachment, a favorite subject of both J.J. Rousseau and M. Wollstonecraft! So, it would seem we are still troubled by attachment poetics, and still perplexed by the recognition of the “self” and the “other” two hundred years later.

            In short, as a poet, I am guilty of crafting poems on the fragile, filamented, fragmented scaffolding of “cruel optimism.” (See my poem, “Capes and Daggers,” Fish Anthology 2019) In fact, I confess it’s a favorite tactic. Berlant’s interrogation of “cruel optimism” further disrobes the idea of the “affective attachment,” and positions the poet (or speaker) as the ‘wearer’ of the thing, effectively “wearing of the subject” and being “worn.” I love this idea of wearing the attachment like a garment but also wearing it down, the way a spirit must wait until the affected speaker is weary, vulnerable, and ready to be possessed—by desire, by this cruel optimism to a “proximate location” to, as Berlant alludes, the “good life.” (Berlant, 2011) Possession, both as a state of being, and as affective attachment, and possessiveness, as a trait, or quality, seem like a fitting mode that suspend “the cruelty of the now,” (Berlant, 2011) by building a fantasy scaffolding on the promise of an imminent happiness (reconciliation, reunion, resolution, miracles, once was lost but now found, etc.) I would love the opportunity to examine specific poems and apply Berlant’s model of “cruel optimism” to analyze how poems given an imaginary voice to the voiceless (ie. an absent actor). What about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets (those she’s written as a widow grieving her husband’s death)? Or, as a parallel example, it would be useful to create case-studies on several poets from different periods.

Cruel optimism seems to champion a kind of identity theft and reclamation at the same time. Poetics of attachment don’t work to retain or retrieve that identity all at once, but incrementally, in fragments, almost like a reversed Petrarchan blazoning. The speaker, by analogy, throws pieces of that impossible identity at a moving target, like a blindfolded knife-thrower releases daggers at a costumed assistant, spinning around on the wheel of death/transformation. No one ever really knows much about the knife-thrower’s assistant; in Berlant’s work, this is the “faceless universal subject of self-referentiality” (Berlant, 2011) as the action of the poem is not necessarily real; it may be illusion, the illusion of attachment, ultimately, an illusion of the ‘American dream.’  

This coming Sunday, February 21st, the Farnsworth Museum in Maine is hosting a special event to honor Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s free and open to the public.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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