Place without Description, or, Thinking with Poems

to Russell Bennetts, in thanks

It is not a question of thinking “about” poems but with poems.[1]

—Judith Balso, Affirmation of Poetry

A great provocation to thought: what might it be to think “with” poems? No doubt there are many and illustrious examples of thinking “about” poems, in the variegated corpus of writing comprising the tradition of literary criticism, for one. But are there any examples, in the critical tradition or beyond, of thinking with them? After what fashion, in line with what criteria, might thinking be said to accord with poems? And what might thinking with poems afford thought?

Because it is indeed, as Balso has it, “a question”: How is one to orient thought? Might not what’s in question for thinking here reveal something essential to what it is to place in question—something essential, that is, to place in question?


§. Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions: In each case
the observable phenomenon—the text—is the inevitable betrayal, in both
senses of the term, of an invisible logic.[2]

—George Steiner, “On Difficulty”


Indeed much of our own trouble has already been taken before we are in
a position to know whether questions of this kind are present in the poems
at all.[3]

—Malcolm Bowie, Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult


In De Anima, in an inquiry into “the sensation of the senses themselves,” Aristotle writes “what is sometimes darkness and sometimes light is one in nature” and asks what, in the case of vision, permits darkness to be distinguished from light.[4] In other words he poses the question: What does one see when one sees darkness?



§. This void is, however, not a non-being; or at least this non-being is not
the being of the negative, but rather the positive being of the “problematic,”
the objective being of a problem and of a question.[5]

—Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands


The proposition shows its sense.[6]

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus


An exemplary poem begins, “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” The speaker contends, with the very next line, that this “is always / the case”: “Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”

The poem is titled, “Keeping Things Whole.” In keeping with the poem’s titular interest, what’s to be made of the division that delimits that “absence”: the division of speaker from field, of field from speaker? What would it be, instead—in accordance with what will “always” have been “the case,” but differently (and no less problematically—but differently)—to be wholly a part of that field, to be of a piece with it and nothing apart from it? How might one think it? How might one write it?


§. Consciousness ceases to be a light cast upon objects in order
to become a pure phosphorescence of things in themselves.[7]

—Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense


The idea of paper.[8]

—Nicholas Basbanes, On Paper


Que la blancheur défend, writes Mallarmé: which defends itself by its own whiteness.[9]


 §. It is not without reverence that we reduce.[10]

—Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read


By process of elimination, one is no longer anything more than
an abstract line, or a piece in a puzzle that is itself abstract.[11]

—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus


What’s required, Deleuze and Guattari write, is “much asceticism, much sobriety, much creative involution.”[12] They take as their example “the camouflage fish, the clandestine”: “this fish is crisscrossed by abstract lines that resemble nothing, that do not even follow its organic divisions; but thus disorganized, disarticulated, it worlds with the lines of a rock, sand, and plants, becoming imperceptible. The fish is like the Chinese poet: not imitative or structural, but cosmic. François Cheng shows that poets do not pursue resemblance, any more than they calculate ‘geometric proportions.’ They retain, extract only the essential lines and movements of nature; they proceed only by continued or superposed ‘traits,’ or strokes.[13]

In short, and in a “movement” nothing less than “cosmic,” “one reduces oneself to one or several abstract lines that will prolong itself in and conjugate with others, producing immediately, directly a world in which it is the world that becomes.”[14]


§. A world in shorthand.[15]



The sum of whose movements are known only in obscurity.[16]



In the commentary he appends to his Jin dynasty recension of the Zhuangzi, and in attempting to reconcile ostensibly discordant statements on the value of knowledge made in the course of its disparate chapters, Guo Xiang recommends an approach to knowing he places in contrast to cognition, a thought one scholar has rendered “vanishing into things.”[17] The character Guo employs here as a verb, ming (冥), could be said more colloquially to mean dark, obscure, or difficult to discern, so that as a transitive verb, in accordance with Guo’s use of it, it means “to darken,” “to darken” its object.[18]

What might it mean as an instigation to thought that the verb rendered “vanishing,” in the phrase “vanishing into things,” is indistinguishable by sight from one that means to “darken” them?


§. That writing necessitates the creation of a series of anti-
theses between the blank page and the ink that divides it up
is clear.[19]


More explicit than the experience of sun.[20]


A brilliant line from a late Byzantine lexicon reads, “Aristotle was the scribe of nature who dipped his pen in thought.”[21] No less luminous—nor less revealing, here—is Giorgio Agamben’s comment on it: Blank, incandescent, thought attains its articulation on vanishing into (as though an afterimage) “the ink of its own opacity.”[22]


§. Everything thus happens for us as though we reflected back to surfaces
the light which emanates from them, the light which, had it passed on unop-
posed, would never have been revealed.[23]


“Poetry no longer imposes itself,” in thinking with poems instead of about them, as Paul Celan writes, “it exposes itself.”[24]



[1] Judith Balso, Affirmation of Poetry, trans. Drew S. Burke (Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2014), 17.

[2] George Steiner, “On Difficulty,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36, no. 3 (Spring, 1978), 273: 276 [263-276].

[3] Malcolm Bowie, Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), x.

[4] Aristotle, quoted and translated in Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 180-1.

[5] Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 19531974, ed. David Lapoujade, trans. Melissa McMahon, Charles J. Stivale, Michael Taormina, et. al. (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 189-190.

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 17 (4.022).

[7] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 311.

[8] Nicholas Basbanes, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), xii.

[9] Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted and translated in Henry Weinfield, “Commentary: Poésies,” in Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Henry Weinfield (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 164 [147-241], right column.

[10] Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 414.

[11] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 280.

[12] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 279.

[13] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 280.

[14] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 280.

[15] Leibniz, quoted and translated in Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch: Archeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 193.

[16] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 86.

[17] Barry Allen, Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), 103-4. The translation is Brook Ziporyn’s.

[18] Allen, Vanishing into Things, 104.

[19] Richard E. Goodkin, The Symbolist Home and the Tragic Home: Mallarmé and Oedipus (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1984), 21.

[20] Wallace Stevens, “Description without Place,” in The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 276 [270-277].

[21] Suda, quoted and translated in Agamben, Potentialities, 214.

[22] Agamben, Potentialities, 215.

[23] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 36.

[24] Paul Celan, quoted and translated in Agamben, Potentialities, 115.

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Theory is like a Surging Sea (punctum books, 2015).

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