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How to Do Things with Poetry Criticism, or Scholarship and Justice, Part II

Some writing changes worlds, for better and for worse. The second executive order signed by President Trump, for example, speeds up environmental reviews “For High Priority Infrastructure Projects” such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The effects of this order on the natural universe and on human culture may be profound.

Another world-changing document was created in 1836, when my university sold fifty-five people to the slave-trader Samuel Garland. That bill of sale transformed human beings into money, and then, when republished on the digital timeline “African Americans at Washington and Lee,” helped a community begin to understand a terrible history. Its consequences reverberate still.

Writing doesn’t have to be legal to work change, either. Prayers, apologies, and promises can transform us. As J. L. Austin influentially claimed in How to Do Things with Words, “performative utterances” have power, although not without the backing of social agreement. In the literary world, awarding a prize can change a career, or issuing an acceptance letter. I find it harder to imagine what work a more ordinary piece of poetry criticism can do, but when, as now, I’m facing down a block of summer research time, the question becomes urgent. As always, I find myself returning to poetry I love for answers.

I feel more confident about assigning world-changing force to novels, poems, memoirs, and plays than to scholarship. While Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be an outlier in its large-scale influence, literature definitely alters people, usually in small, personal ways. Some creative writers are working openly towards political change, as recent Writers Resist demonstrate. Other processes are less direct. I’m watching poems resembling spells and curses proliferate in literary journals (and writing a few myself). Poets have long borrowed from extra-literary forms, but in the current crisis, they may be reaching for the most transformative modes available.

I know scholars are doing the same, although the outcomes are slower. As I wrote in January, there are many good answers to my doubts about the real-world stakes of literary criticism: it helps teachers do better work, for instance, and cultivates habits of careful deliberation when we need it most. Still, some days a scholar can’t help but consider refocusing her writing effort on postcards to Congress or academic genres, like the reference letter, that directly help others.

This crisis of confidence afflicted me well before November. I’ve spent several years conceiving projects with possible two-for-one payoffs: political poems, hybrid essays, and reviews of living writers who can still benefit from attention. Some experiments sputtered. Yet, productively, these concerns led me to read about reading, particularly the experience of getting “lost in a book,” a state of focused attention referred to by cognitive scientists as “literary transportation.” I wanted a better grasp of literature’s measurable effects, in part to understand my own experience of needing to read to stay sane, and in part to see what strategies I could borrow for academic as well as literary writing.

By Nebelwiese (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Sullivan (Wikimedia Commons).

A poem by Robert Sullivan, “Ahi Kā—The House of Ngā Puhi,” became a touchstone. It’s rooted in ongoing disagreements about land rights in Aotearoa New Zealand, where I spent several months in 2011. Sullivan’s work explores the implications of his mixed ancestry—“Ngā Puhi, Kāi Tahu, and Irish,” according to Voice Carried My Family, the 2005 collection in which “Ahi Kā” appears. Ngā Puhi refers to a Māori iwi (variously translated as people, nation, or tribe) located in New Zealand’s Northland region. It played a historic role at a defining moment in Aotearoan history. In 1840, Ngā Puhi chiefs signed one of New Zealand’s foundational documents, but what the Treaty of Waitangi means remains contested, particularly its implications for sovereignty. Words won’t transform discord into peace if the people involved don’t agree on their import.

Sullivan’s poetry emphasizes the living presence of history and the continuity of an indigenous world view. “I wrote this poem overseas,” he noted in Best New Zealand Poems 2005, “– it is my way of keeping my heart close to home.” Sullivan was teaching at the University of Hawai’i, apparently in exile from native land. Yet Oceania, the biogeographic region uniting Aotearoa, Hawai’i, and many other countries and cultures, is defined by connections across water rather than confined by the populations of specific islands. As Alice Te Punga Somerville writes, Sullivan is also “retracing migration routes . . . return[ing] to an originary home.”


Treaty of Waitangi (Wikimedia Commons)

Sullivan’s poetic assertion of “ahi kā” is both religious and legal, a prayer and the fulfillment of a contract, because those ideas are not separable. Māori communal land-rights accrue from occupation signified by the kindling and maintenance of home-fires—ahi kā—as well as by building sacred structures, singing karakia, and learning about its plants and birds. Such behaviors confer mana whenua, power or right of guardianship over the land.

“I believe,” Sullivan declares, nourishing that fire the only way he can, from a distance of four and a half thousand miles. The question I bring to this poem is a version of Austin’s: does Sullivan’s performance of his claim to place make it so? What meaningful differences exist among, for example, a treaty, a poem, and a ceremony? The sentence “I claim this land”—one way of paraphrasing “Ahi Kā”—may, under certain circumstances, possess contractual force. This declaration may also exert incomplete force, or no force at all, unless accepted conventions govern its utterance and all persons involved participate deliberately in a ritual social exchange, intending to follow through on the contract’s implications. It makes a difference whether one reads these words silently or hears Sullivan recite them, as well as when, where, why, and to whom.

Whatever the real-world circumstances, according to Austin, a speech-act such as “I claim this land” can never be taken seriously in an inherently fictive situation: “[A] performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on stage, or if introduced in a poem. . . . Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use . . . ”

If poems are parasitic, poetry criticism surely calls for extermination.

Yet poems, and possibly even literary scholarship, can constitute meaningful action without satisfying Austin’s criteria. Prayer, like poetry, can be practiced in formal public rituals or emotionally-charged privacy, but in either case there’s little hope of a clear or direct answer. The circuit of communication may not be complete. Yet if religious invocation fails to change the weather or the course of a disease, it has social and individual effects. It affirms the existence of a community. Prayers and poems may also transform the practitioner from within, creating memories, changing heart-rates, strengthening commitments. Metaphor—the rhetorical device by which some theorists define poetry—ignites a verbal metamorphosis that ripples outward. Mountains become the pillars of a house. A poem becomes a fire.

Further, the worldedness of a poem, its ability to transport a reader into an absorbing virtual universe, is paradoxically bolstered by proximity to nonliterary genres such as prayer or legal contract. In Poetry and Its Others, Jahan Ramazani calls this “intergeneric dialogue” or “a dialogic poetics,” noting how poets highlight the vitality of their own genre by assimilating and transforming other kinds of discourse. It’s by peering over the edge that you understand where you live.

Alluding to legal customs, song, religious chant, and other traditions that structure our relationship to one another, Sullivan reminds us that poetry constitutes instrumental communication as well as a more private zone of linguistic play for its own sake. Poetry is potentially saying and doing. By invoking a world and acting out rituals there, one might even nurture right relations among human beings in their everyday lives, and between people and a living earth. I don’t know if criticism can do the same, but striving for those consequences seems worthwhile.

“Ahi Kā” may or may not satisfy the ancestors. As legal documents from the U.S. slave trade demonstrate, writing can do enormous harm. In a more ordinary way, writing may not help people, even after enormous good-faith effort on the author’s part. Some poetry fails in its myriad purposes; some criticism fails in what seems to me its most basic work, to unite writers and readers in temporary communities of interest.

Nevertheless, Sullivan’s poem transforms the speaker from a displaced person into a keeper of old laws—it works a kind of magic. It inspires me to wonder what kinds of transformations scholarship can initiate in its own right, and what infusions from other genres might increase its power.

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