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Towards “Autopoetics” (retour sur e-Rea 5.2 2007)

Hélène AJI

Résumés

Ce bref essai commence là où s’était arrêté le numéro d’e-Rea de 2007 consacré à « la poésie et l’autobiographie ». Il recontextualise le débat sur le genre littéraire de l’autobiographie tel qu’il s’est articulé à la suite du Pacte autobiographique de Philippe Lejeune. Le rejet explicite de la poésie comme espace de l’autobiographie est ainsi revisité par une réhistoricisation des expérimentations formelles qui ont permis à la forme poétique de mettre en question la linéarité narrative et la cohérence du récit autobiographique en prose. L’idée d’une « autopoétique » émerge alors de l’éventualité selon laquelle le poétique pourrait être un mode dont les discontinuités s’adaptent à la représentation des identités disloquées et intempestives d’aujourd’hui.

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1These are the last sentences of the introduction I wrote for the 2007 issue of e-Rea that was devoted to “Poetry and Autobiography”:

This reflection emerged from the reading of Hejinian’s My Life and from Barrett Watten’s Bad History, a prose poem about and around the First Gulf War. To Lyn and Barrett, I am especially thankful: their works are incitations to think, and in this respect expand the field of poetics to include ethics. The authors in this issue have accepted to make their own contributions to the expansion of the field to include different times, from the Middle Ages to nowadays, and places, from Britain to Canada, the Caribbeans, and the United States. They turn the Poetry and Autobiography project into a truly collective work, our own “grand piano” to echo the Grand Piano of these San Francisco poets’ ‘collective autobiography.’ (Aji § 10)

2Two lines of reflection emerged from this short text, some of them echoed in the ensuing contributions, some stemming from what these contributions had inspired me: writing about one’s life in the poem aligns with the elegiac mode in an attempt to come to terms with one’s mortality and anticipate one’s own mourning (“autothanatography”); and in an era of intense questioning of the poetic self as autocratic and narcisissistic, what would it mean to engage in “collective autobiography”?

3However, there were other possibilities to consider based on the articles in this issue of the journal: the background consisted in a wider debate over the very existence of autobiographies that take on the forms of poetry. The question was indeed whether, as Philippe Lejeune had asserted it forcefully albeit a bit peremptorily in Le Pacte autobiographique, autobiographies were to be exclusively prose texts. Was it allowed to hypothesize that poetic autobiographies were not so much about the life of the poet as about the life of the poetic, its emergence in the poem, its development, its exhibition of the hopes and desires of poets as their text is gifted to the world so much so that poems could be, maybe even were always autobiographical?

Not a Long Novel

4This hypothesis runs counter to many of the analyses that are developed by the authors of a volume entitled L’Irressemblance: poésie et autobiographie, the 24th in the series “Modernités” published the same year (2007) as e-Rea 5.1 by Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux and edited by Michel Braud and Valéry Hugotte. Interestingly enough, Braud and Hugotte chose the same Magritte painting as me for the cover of their book: Le Portrait d’Edward James (La reproduction interdite) of 1937 (Huile sur Toile 75cm x 65cm. 1937. Boymans-van Beuningen Museum Rotterdam) which, against common sense and factuality, presents the reflection of its subject in a mirror as the exact replication of the back of his head, subtracting the face—along with the proof of his capability for human interaction—from the viewer’s experience. The emphasis is also laid, in this painting, on the dead-end of verisimilitude and total disclosure in self-portraiture, since it cancels the very method of self-portraiture whereby the painter gazes at his own reflection in a mirror: whereas one would expect to find in the mirror image the revelation of the subject’s face, one only sees the imperfect duplication of the back that one could already see, obliterating the very motivation of portraiture and undercutting its heuristic potential. This self-portrait negatively comments on its own practice as it iterates the play of surfaces and appearances one could access to begin with, without providing any of the expected surplus information on its object.

5Yet this is not the crux of the argument in a number of the chapters in L’Irressemblance, where the generic assignment of the autobiographical to the novel (to the exclusion of the poem) is explicitly asserted, mostly on the premise that prose is the only medium to ensure detailed, documented, self-revelatory narration. Thus, Dominique Rabaté deems the ample frame of the novel to be the only place vast enough to contain and explain the complexities of the autobiographical project: to know oneself, in the line of the Socratic injunction and Paul Ricœur’s reflections in L’ordre philosophique, requires to have ample room to detail the minutiae of the investigation:

Je dirai donc, pour ma part, que l’autobiographie est une narration longue (sans développement immense, pas d’autobiographie véritable, il y faut lucidement au moins deux ans d’écriture !) ; une narration longue sur le mode du « se connaître soi-même » mais de nature très différente de celui que prônait Socrate. Car il faut d’abord se raconter, à soi comme à un autre, pour savoir qui on a été, quel caractère va finalement apparaître comme un personnage romanesque. (Rabaté § 12)

6To a large extent, this assertion is in keeping with Lejeune’s reformulation of the definition of autobiography in the first pages of “Le Pacte autobiographique,” a development of his own previous normative attempts reproduced here with commentaries by Carole Allamand in 2018:

DÉFINITION: Récit rétrospectif en prose qu’une personne réelle fait de sa propre existence, lorsqu’elle met l’accent sur sa vie individuelle, en particulier sur l’histoire de sa personnalité. (Allamand 19)

A condition of reading?

7As a matter of fact, what follows in “Le Pacte autobiographique” underscores the cracks in this definition, even though it is introduced as a revised version aiming for a less dogmatic statement. It culminates into a conclusion that shifts the focus from the author and their relation to their autobiographical characters to the reader and the conditions of the work’s reception, since the definition would stem from a “contract” passed between author and reader, at some point in the text, be it only very prominently as in its title, or locally as in a slip of the tongue that reveals the tie between character and author:

Lhistoire de l’autobiographie, ce serait donc avant tout, celle de son mode de lecture: histoire comparative où l’on pourrait faire dialoguer les contrats de lecture proposés par les différents textes (car rien ne servirait d’étudier l’autobiographie toute seule, puisque les contrats, comme les signes, n’ont de sens que par des jeux d’opposition), et les différents types de lectures pratiquées réellement sur ces textes. Si donc l’autobiographie se définit par quelque chose d’extérieur au texte, ce n’est pas en deçà, par une invérifiable ressemblance avec une personne réelle, mais au-delà, par le type de lecture qu’elle engendre, la créance qu’elle sécrète, et qui se donne à lire dans le texte critique. (Allamand 70)

8In her commentary upon Lejeune’s “Pacte,” Carole Allamand consequently reconsiders the definition of autobiography with the help of P.J. Eakin’s study of the autobiographical process, allowing into the debate the conceptual and generic flexibility that would permit to examine poems as autobiographies—not only would the autobiography “include the work” but any work would include an “autobiography”:

Réfléchissant à la composition du récit autobiographique, P.J. Eakin a raison de se demander quelle y est la part de ce que l’auteur a vécu et quelle est celle de ce qu’il ou elle sait dire (Eakin 4) La complexité de la référentialité propre à l’autobiographie est telle en effet qu’elle défie toute causalité de type événementiel. La lecture transversale d’un écrivain, opérant dans cet “espace autobiographique” que Ph. Lejeune a très bien cerné mais très peu exploré, révèle que loin d’être un appendice annexé à l’œuvre en vertu d’une signature, l’autobiographie comporte en quelque sorte l’œuvre. (Allamand 168)

9Pursuing this line of thought about the works of Marguerite Yourcenar, Jean Rouaud, or Annie Ernaux, Allamand ends up seeing autobiography as the text that unveils the matrix of the work and is akin to an ars poetica:

La référence autobiographique apparaît ici d’ordre métatextuel. Ainsi conçue, l’autobiographie s’apparente au genre de l’art poétique, ce texte particulier où le créateur laisse entrevoir les arcanes de sa création. Ainsi lue, elle cesse d’être l’Autre du roman pour devenir le Roman du roman. (Lallamand 169)

10Dominique Rabaté’s text none the less remains reluctant to perform the autobiographical turn which Allamand outlines. Such a turn, which is definitely taken in the articles from e-Rea 5.1, is key to a better understanding of the dynamics of autobiography and poetry insofar as it breaks away from the autotelic claim made for classical autobiography, what Rabaté calls the construction of a “caractère”:

Le poète a-t-il, lui, un caractère ? C’est-à-dire : cherche-t-il à construire, dans la temporalisation différente de la poésie, ce qui serait assignable à une personne, ou à un personnage ? Construit-il quelque chose qui pourrait être identifié à un ethos singulier, au sens où la nature du propos choisi se rapporte par convenance à la figure et aux dispositions que l’on suppose à son locuteur ? Le poète est-il, au même titre que l’autobiographe, dans cet effort de construction de soi ? (Rabaté § 17)

11Rabaté is determined to see this delimitation of autobiography as a discourse about the construction of the individual self as exclusive of poetic form. In Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools, he acknowledges the autobiographical intention but will not recognize the cycle of poems as an autobiography because it fails to produce a monolithic, linear, “enduring” character:

« Zone », en ouverture du livre, présente de la même façon une sorte de multiplication des instantanés de la vie de Guillaume Apollinaire, égrenant les « Maintenant tu marches…, Maintenant tu es… Te voici… Te voici » comme autant de présentations à soi de celui qui se parle à la deuxième personne du singulier. Ce que vise ainsi le sujet poétique me paraît être moins l’endurance d’une disposition à reconnaître, qu’un pouvoir germinatif de la dispersion. Une énergie de la dissipation élocutoire.
Ce que produit alors le poème est une sorte de kaléidoscope de soi où tout se tient en même temps. On voit combien nous nous sommes éloignés de la temporalisation progressive de l’autobiographie. Mais qui dit kaléidoscope, dit aussitôt morcellement ou émiettement. Si quelque chose comme un tout émerge (mais un tout non séparé du monde, un tout qui n’est pas le caractère d’un sujet individué, au sens étymologique de ce dernier terme), c’est grâce au mouvement général du rythme poétique comme force d’unification, avec ses sautes et ses heurts. Rabaté § 21-22)

Kaleidoscopic projections

12And yet… all the traits of this “kaleidoscopic” projection of self could help argue that poetry may be the genre for autobiography because it is polymorphous, alternately centripetal and centrifugal, adaptive to the malleability and mutability of human existence. Rabaté assigns a process of continuous alienation to the lyrical voice of the poem that would preclude the autobiographical project:

Entre poésie et autobiographie (et selon une distribution qui n’interdit évidemment pas qu’un même écrivain soit l’un et l’autre), le poème constituerait une singularité – qui se trouvera moins dans l’adéquation d’un soi à une histoire qu’il faut donc se raconter, que dans l’impossible projection par la langue de ce qui jette toujours le sujet lyrique hors de soi. (Rabaté § 33)

13But why would this not be precisely the voice of autobiography for our times? After all, this is what radiates from Jacques Roubaud’s 1977 Autobiographie, chapitre dix where, since “the life I have led     is not the life      I wanted” (186), everything gives in to the “disquiet” of an endless war that consistently undoes the provisional forms of the text, seeks reshaping and provisional modes of adequacy to existential elusiveness. Two pages that produce a reflexive variation on “l’inquiétude” convey this possibility for the autobiographical to inscribe itself in ever changing forms, composing the discontinuous representation of a self that seeks unity at the same time as it accepts the “restlessness” of an existence that fails to cohere in prose:

14By inscribing itself in the diversity of poetic forms, autobiography turns from a “major” or master “genre” into a pervasive minor “mode” that takes into account Roubaud’s statement that “life is unique, but the words of before memory make what one can say about it” (Back Cover): to some extent, the autobiographer has an ethical duty to deploy the whole range of textual potentialities to accomplish, albeit partially and imperfectly, his task of self-description.

15Similarly, Natacha Allet and Laurent Jenny, in their 2005 course about “L’autobiographie,” wish to unhinge autobiography as a master discourse, starting from a very factual opening evaluation that is the springboard for a pragmatic, empirical discussion of the genre:

Lautobiographie représente de nos jours un genre littéraire dominant. Si lon consulte les catalogues déditeurs ou si lon parcourt les rayons de librairies, on saperçoit en effet quelle occupe, comme la littérature intime dune manière générale (journaux, mémoires, témoignages, etc.), une place absolument centrale. Indépendamment même des écrivains qui ont produit des autobiographies proprement littéraires, et dont le nombre sest prodigieusement accru au cours du 20ème siècle, que lon pense à Sartre, à Sarraute, à Leiris ou à Michon, pour ne mentionner queux, il nest aujourdhui aucune personnalité médiatiquement connue qui ne se sente tenue à nous faire part de son enfance et des événements qui ont marqué sa carrière, en publiant le récit de sa vie. (Allet and Jenny n.p.)

16The very didactic examination of the history of autobiography leads them however to envision autobiography as overflowing the conventions of self-narration by far and much. In a last episode in their saga, indeed, autobiography will not let itself be subsumed by a form that would be prose, nor by a genre that would be the novel, and will surface in a countless variety of forms that are not just the forms of literature, but very much the forms of life:

En tâchant de mieux cerner lautobiographie, on a été amené à explorer ses entours. À travers ces variations de genres, il est apparu que des notions aussi rassurantes apparemment que le passé, lidentité ou le contenu de lexistence sont susceptibles dêtre saisies et définies de façon extrêmement différente. Bien loin dêtre des données de nature, elles sont sans cesse forgées et déplacées dans de nouvelles constructions de signes ; elles sélaborent et saffinent dans les gestes décriture qui sappliquent à les saisir. Ce que la littérature réinvente constamment, en somme, ce nest pas seulement les formes littéraires, ce sont aussi les formes mêmes de notre existence. Cest en ce sens (et non pas au nom dun réalisme naïf) quon peut dire que la littérature, cest la vie... (Allet and Jenny n.p.)

“so many useless platitudes”

  • 1 I want to acknowledge my debt here to Barrett Watten for the conversation that led to his handing o (...)

17This is not without relevance to a re-reading of Lyn Henjinian’s My Life, that figured prominently in my introduction to e-Rea 5.1: what the writing of one’s life does is register the countless reconfigurations of that narration that the mere fact of living on entails. Very recently, in her chapter entitled “The Sad Note in a Poetics of Consciousness,”1 Lyn Hejinian has produced a close reading of, and a meditation upon, Barrett Watten’s poem “Mode Z” that converges with these preoccupations:

Could we have those trees cleared out of the way?
and the houses, volcanoes, empires? The natural
panorama is false, the shadows it casts are so many
useless platitudes. Everything is suspect. Even
clouds of the same sky are the same. Close the door
is voluntary death. There is one color, not any.

Prove to me now that you have finally undermined
your heroes. In fits of distraction the walls cover
themselves with portraits. Types are not men. Admit
that your studies are over. Limit yourself to your
memoirs. Identity is only natural. Now become
the person in your life. Start writing autobiography. (Watten in Hejinian 2023 224)

18Hejinian’s analysis is complex, in many ways an instance of the “whirligig” that the poem’s logic performs for her, and its overall scope is to embrace Watten’s overall poetic action and see in it what David Antin would call “the radical coherency.” Yet it makes at least one stable statement that remind the reader of the risks of subsuming the autobiographical under the massive monument of a unifying narrative mode. “Mode Z” advocates a mode that is relentlessly modal, “a response to forces of totalization and to the monuments by which those forces attempt to remove their ‘accomplishments’ from history” (239). In her reading of T.S. Eliot’s most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” she shows his reframing of the poem as monument:

By the end of his essay, Eliot has reframed the poem (the ideal poem––and it is a deeply idealist concept) in such a way as to eternalize or naturalize it in relation to the past (the Anglo-European tradition with which he’s determined to align himself) and provide it with a non-contextualized status. Eliot’s poem is to have its own total emotional grounds––it is to have its emotion autonomously, asocially, according to its own logic. […] By giving ontological autonomy to a cultural product (and positing it as bearing orderliness akin to that of the natural), Eliot denies its embeddedness in social structures, its complicity with reigning ideology––something a Marxist would never do. (Hejinian 240-241)

19To “start writing autobiography” (Watten) would not then incite the autobiographer to work within the monumentalized frame of the Western narrative to encapsulate the autonomous compound of a “character.” Conversely and somewhat perversely, it would push them to discover that there is “no point and no center from which refraction begins. It begins in medias res and proceeds by way of fragments” (Hejinian 241). If a starting point could be identified, it would be “the site of an organizing (and disorganizing) subjectivity, the auto of the exhorted autobiography” (Hejinian 241), or rather the auto in a constructing (and deconstructing) autopoetics.

20So our issue of e-Rea, modestly entitled “Poetry and Autobiography” was in many ways a contrapuntal statement to counter the monumentalization of autobiography, and see that it does not compose a “natural/panorama” (Watten in Hejinian 224). As in the 2018 poems by Bernard Desportes in Brève histoire de la poésie par temps de barbarie (Tentative d’autobiographie), it is a polymorphic discursive mode, chronicling the endless forms of drifting and dispersal brought about by the discontinuous “consciousness” of history (Hejinian), an uncertain but necessary migrancy along with each and everyone of Desportes’s infernal migrants, that may be “fatherless, homeless, and nameless” (Desportes 78, my translation) but not without context:

ils vont
masse informe errante agglutinée haletante bubonique pestilentielle
sans lieu
remontent le cours de l’histoire le cours du temps le cours des saisons mystérieuses (Desportes 78)

21Autopoetics, then, would explore diffracted modes of existence in a diffracting history, “tentative[ly]” constructing heterogeneous “histor[ies] of poetry in barbaric times” (my translation from Desportes’s title, Brève histoire de la poésie par temps de barbarie (Tentative d’autobiographie)).

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Bibliographie

Aji, Hélène. “From Poetry & Autobiography to Poetry & ‘Autothanatography’,” E-rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007. Web 29 Nov. 2023. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/erea/172.

Allamand, Carole. Le “Pacte” de Philippe Lejeune ou l’autobiographie en théorie. Éd. Critique et commentaire. Honoré Champion. 2018. Print.

Allet, Natacha and Laurent Jenny. Méthodes et Problèmes: L’autobiographie. Département de français moderne, Université de Genève. 2005. Web. 25 Nov. 2023. Print.

Antin, David. radical coherency, selected essays on art and literature 1966 to 2005. University of Chicago. 2011. Print.

Desportes, Bernard. Brève histoire de la poésie par temps de barbarie (Tentative d’autobiographie). La Lettre Volée. 2018. Print.

Eakin, P.J. How Our Lives Become Stories. Cornell University Press. 1999. Print.

Hejinian, Lyn. Allegorical Moments: Call to the Everyday. Wesleyan University Press. 2023. Print.

Hejinian, Lyn. My Life. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002. Print.

Rabaté, Dominique. “Poésie et autobiographie: d’un autre caractère ?.” Baud, Michel et Valéry Hugotte, eds. L’Irressemblance: Poésie et Autobiographie. Coll. Modernités 24. Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007. 36-47. Open Edition Books. Web. 27 Nov. 2023.

Ricœur, Paul. L’ordre philosophique. Seuil. 1990. Print.

Roubaud, Jacques. Autobiographie, chapitre dix (poèmes avec des moments de repos en prose). Gallimard NRF. 1977. Print.

Watten, Barrett. Bad History. Berkeley: Atelos, 1998. Print.

Watten, Barrett, et al. The Grand Piano, An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. 10 vols. MODE A. 2006-2010. Print.

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Notes

1 I want to acknowledge my debt here to Barrett Watten for the conversation that led to his handing out a copy of this chapter to me at the corner of Rue Pavée and rue de Rivoli in Paris on November 24, 2023, thus giving me the decisive push to bring the writing of this short article to some kind of coda.

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Référence électronique

Hélène AJI, « Towards “Autopoetics” (retour sur e-Rea 5.2 2007) »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/erea/17263 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/erea.17263

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Auteur

Hélène AJI

Professeur de littérature américaine
École normale supérieure PSL
UAR 3608 République des savoirs
Hélène Aji is Chair Professor of American literature at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, a member of UAR 3608 “République des savoirs,” and vice-president of the Institut des Amériques. She was Visiting Professor at the University of Texas at Austin in 2017 and has been a regular Guest Professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. In addition to articles on 20th- and 21st-century North-American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams: Pour une poétique américaine (L’Harmattan, 2001), William Carlos Williams: Un plan d’action (Belin, 2004) and a book-length essay on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Armand Colin, 2005). She co-edited several journal issues and volumes among which a collection of essays on the poetry of John Ashbery (Ashbery Hors Cadre, Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2021).

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