the poem as participating in the ongoing human project of making the world

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

How is a poem like a coat? In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry develops Marx’s insight that the human body is an artefact that is constantly being remade by means of the artefacts which we produce, and by so doing we participate in the ongoing human project of making the world. Material objects hold and extend our sentience. She notes Marx’s description of cloth, for example, as memorialization of the body: “the woven cloth is a material memorialization of the embodied work of spinning, for it endures long after the physical activity has itself ceased” (p.247); the raw material is “soaked in labour” (p.247).

How do these material objects extend our sentience and rework it?  The telephone extends hearing, the telescope or microscope, sight; and so on; sentience is now “objectified in language and material objects and is thus fundamentally transformed to be communicable and endlessly sharable” (p.255):

“…human beings project their bodily powers and frailties into external objects such as telephones, chairs, gods, poems, medicine, institutions, and political forms, and then those objects in turn become the object of perceptions that are taken back into the interior of human consciousness where they now reside as part of the mind or soul, and this revised conception of oneself—as a creature relatively untroubled by the problem of weight (chair), as one able to hear voices coming from the other side of a continent (telephone)….is now actually ‘felt’ to be located inside the boundaries of one’s own skin where one is in immediate contact with an elaborate constellation of interior cultural fragments that seem to have displaced the dense molecules of physical matter” (p.256).

The object returns to us; sentience itself is reworked. Words also become external objects in which we invest our sentience: the words we speak and write are grounded in our bodies, and assume a physical form, whether through the voice which speaks words or the movements of our hands and fingers to produce writing. Words spoken involve breath and vibration. The writer holds the pen in her hand or types at the computer; fingers, tendons, muscles, wrapped around bone, enclosed in skin, produce letters, whether in digital form or as traces of ink. In this way a song or a poem, a stitched fabric of words, is also a material artefact which goes out into the world, and then returns.

Scarry’s discussion of the artefact as lever is carried out within her larger consideration of the ways in which torture and war “unmake” the world, attempt to destroy and take apart objects, institutions, language itself. The artefact plays an important role in the aftermath, in the making or remaking of this damaged world. In particular, she emphasizes the artefact as “lever,” with powers of projection and reciprocation.

Projecting human sentience into objects, an awareness, a knowledge of human needs, is only one part of the equation. Second, comes reciprocation: we can then think of the artefact as a lever or fulcrum, that moves this force of creation back again from itself, from the external or natural world, to human beings, recreating, remaking, extending our powers. This holds for a single poem, or an entire library; Scarry is wide-ranging in her embrace of all kinds of human artefacts, from common domestic objects such as the clothespin, the chair, the cloth, to the polis or nation-state and even the Judeo-Christian God (an act of collective human imagining). She observes that this reciprocation is almost always magnified. 

This is where the coat and its relation to the poem, comes into her argument.

She asks us to consider a coat made by a woman called Mildred Keats: she spends 2 weeks making the coat, but wears it for 20 years (here is the magnification effect of the artefact as lever). The 2 weeks of physical discomfort while she sews the coat are repaid many times by the warmth and mobility it provides her, thus freeing up her awareness of her body and its needs so that she can work on other aspects of world-making.

Similarly, John Keats writes a poem. He projects his own private thoughts and emotions into the poem (if inevitably imprinted by the discursive context in which he writes); it is printed, circulated, and now exists in the world of material objects for us to read. Perhaps it takes him 3 hours to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” It is still with us almost 200 years later. Each time it is read, “its power now moves back from the object realm to the human realm where sentience itself is remade” (p.307). We breath into his words, give them life; and they work on us too, reworking our consciousness.

This is a modest claim, then, for poems as artefact-levers, like coats, which are projected out into the world, and then return, magnified, modifying consciousness through time.

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