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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Literality: The Question of Contemporary Poetry

  • Author(s): Skrzypczynska, Anna
  • Advisor(s): Smock, Ann
  • Kaufman, Robert
  • et al.

The history of French poetry has been marked by crisis. Frequently a mode of critical thought, poetry has drawn attention to the specificity of its historical and literary contexts, seeking to address the question of itself as a mode of critical agency and autonomous thought rather than as an extension of a determining social or cultural order. Poetry’s continued engagement with the question of its autonomy and viable place in the world has been coupled with a history of breakdowns of poetic form, leading up to, in the 1970s, a poetry qualified by formal minimalism, a refusal of metaphor and image, and an apparent distancing with respect to traditional lyric. This poetry’s attentiveness to language as written (or “à la lettre”) defines its loyalty to the literal. Consequently, this poetry has frequently been misunderstood as self-absorbed, coldly formalist, and elitist in its apparent inaccessibility, as the poets Jean-Marie Gleize and Jacques Roubaud have remarked. Taking up their observations, I address the question of contemporary poetry’s difficulty and the pertinence of this question to this poetry’s contemporaneity by examining the work of three poets whose work belongs to those concerned with literality: the late Anne-Marie Albiach, Emmanuel Hocquard, and Claude Royet-Journoud. In doing so, I show what literality means for each of these poets. I suggest that despite criticisms against it, this poetry is the form taken by individuals’ lived attempts to situate themselves autonomously within the world and within their own moment while taking into consideration the necessity to listen to voices other than their own and granting integrity to the present. This work of conscious self-situation is also the work of constructing a relationship to the past that is not based on linear narrative, or a determining form. My analysis is framed by and draws on the work of Robert Kaufman, who articulates modernism in terms of a “reinvention of lyric-Romantic critical agency.”

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