Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

John Wilkinson reviews Didactic Poetries and The Groove of the Poem

Philippe Beck. Didactic Poetries. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2016. 150 pp.

Jacques Rancière. The Groove of the Poem: Reading Philippe Beck. Trans. Drew S. Burk. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2016. 150 pp.

Review by John Wilkinson

One place to begin thinking about didactic poetry is with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, which is also an essay in criticism, a poem on criticism, and a poem on poetry; and it is a poem and a critical work that goes over citations from classical poems and critical works, versing quite literally over its footnotes. This practice (without the footnotes) is central to Philippe Beck’s poetry, too, although his buphonia, a word describing verse making in the likeness of ploughing a field with oxen, returning at the field’s margin, might appear (on the face of it) more apt to Pope’s regular lines than Beck’s broken columns. But through going over prior text in jabs of verse, in movements more like a pond insect’s than like the traipse of oxen, Beck sets out to disrupt, to unfreeze the literary terrain and to animate poetry.

In the wake of Romanticism, didactic poetry has been depreciated as a cold territory. Friedrich von Schlegel held Pope’s poetry to exemplify the frigidity of the didactic mode, although this judgment appears colored by his view of English national character. Character is significant here, for in the sense of Bildung all serious poetry might be considered didactic—that is, if the Romantic aesthetics of Bildung make any sense at all to contemporary readers; development of character can sound like Victorian schoolmasterly cant, and the iconic figure of the concentration camp guard listening to Beethoven quartets comes to mind. But Bildung was essentially a literary project and even, after the linguistic turn, might be thought a project within literature—the self developed in and through literature and there only. Self, that is, as an achieved conduct, a consistent way of being in the world of literary thinking-through, as opposed to identity, conferred or adopted, or name or consciousness. In poetry then, character is to be found and strengthened. And in our troubled times beyond the linguistic turn, poetry returns along with the valuation of character, as opposed to correctness of position. Outside literature, and where character is tested, there can indeed be something chilly about the man or woman of character acting according to principle and not entirely responsive.

Yet the title Didactic Poetries should give pause. The plural implies there are several modes of didactic poetry; and it seems clear that Ezra Pound’s Cantos are as didactic as Pope’s Essay on Criticism but didactic in a quite different way. Rather than developing character and thinking, the Cantos aspire to immediacy, to spark recognition that this is world history, this is how things are. Even in the eighteenth century, John Dyer’s The Fleece offers a different didacticism from Pope’s, one intent on imparting practical information. Explaining his title on the cover of the French edition of Poésies didactiques Beck writes that he is responding in part to Friedrich Schiller’s statement that “We are still waiting for a didactic poem where thought itself would be and would remain poetic,” which implies (for we do not need to wait) that we might return to a moment where poetry, philosophy, and rhetoric were one—to the pre-Socratic philosopher poets frequently cited in Didactic Poetries, and to Lucretius. Here the recent exemplary texts would be Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger and J. H. Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats, both extended philosophical poems presided over by Parmenides; and Prynne’s writing as a single project might be regarded as Lucretian. Didacticism could lead to a vital frigidity in which “Stones leap’d to form, and Rocks began to live” (Essay on Criticism).

In writing about Beck’s Didactic Poetries, published in French in 2001, it is hard to avoid the appearance of attempting an essay on criticism. The physically elegant production and the nervously attentive translation by Nicola Marae Allain of this book by a French poet (born 1963) who writes only in books, introduces Beck to English language readers. The introduction is itself introduced by Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “Accelerated Sublime” and buttressed by the simultaneous publication of Jacques Rancière’s The Groove of the Poem: Reading Philippe Beck. This book includes essays by Rancière, a discussion involving not only Beck and Rancière but also Alain Badiou, Tiphaine Samoyault and Judith Balso and a dialogue between Rancière and Beck that refers substantially to Beck’s major work of poetics, Contre un Boileau: un art poétique (2015). Not so much in a winged chariot, Beck’s poetry arrives in America in an armored car. And as Beck is a professor of philosophy whose doctoral thesis was supervised by Derrida, and his interlocutors include some of France’s most celebrated philosophers, the relationship between poetry, philosophy, and rhetoric threads through all of these texts. Rhetoric, it should be clarified at the start, has a meaning close to community in Beck’s work—it identifies the linguistic shaping of future readers, while present writers and readers are repeatedly found wanting. All in all, the effect of such an introduction, of such a vehicle of introduction, is to insist on the textuality of Didactic Poetries.

Yet in an important sense the project of Beck’s “transcendental buphonia” is to untext, to unweave. The poems (to come to them at last) can slip down exceedingly rapidly, and although they look consecutive (like, for instance, the skinny and rapid poems of Tom Raworth) in fact they consist of short phrases divided by full stops and initial capitals. Prosodically, they scoot along in abrupt jerks like water boatmen, but the medium on which they dance and snatch is mainly textual, the texts being mainly classical and modern canonical, although they also flit about golden age Hollywood film. While the poems may be read rapidly and superficially—indeed they invite such reading since the eye can take in such brief lines through vertical movement alone—they also demand simultaneous reading as edge-tools, cutters of turf where previous tracks remain visible. Rancière identifies the distinguishing features: reawakening latent poetry in an earlier text, short phrases, subtraction of adjectives, the use of initials (poetry becomes p. for instance), “a scansion which tends to verticalize the horizontal of the tale” (where the text is, for example, a fairy tale) and an interpolation. The interpolation is less important, I think, than the effect of incessant interruption. Interruptions predominate not only as interpolations in the voice of the poet but also on account of both the very short lines and the brief phrases—prosody and syntax contrive a dance against silence, an animation of prior text whereby stones leap to form out of the broken marl. Verse here is a vector that touches points on a textual surface, constantly mobile but unmistakably constitutive of a voice, of a recognizable and developing self. But while the fleet-self dances against a silent, white scrim—this is poetry of a Mallarméan lineage, pitched towards a future community—the poetry of the buphonic self makes heavier going in impressing its marks. Fleet or furrowing, nothing could be further from the dominant diction of the contemporary American verse whose voicing emerges from social discourse, whether the urban coterie of Frank O’Hara or, more recently and controversially, the seminar room. Beck’s voice is engaged insistently in philosophical musing—and Terpsichore must submit to Urania, as this section argues:

The entertaining dancer,

is a slender and free

statue on the surface,

yet slave

to the gaze of the enchanted.

He has a disarranged

and disarrangeable body.

Entertainer, who makes and unmakes

his body into a hypocrite.

The body yields to the will

of the Gesturer

with indefinite flexibility

(the plasticity of a man

without a particular body,


that is a man without qualities).


The histrion is the boneless

and nerveless man,

for one must have a softness

to amuse. Not weakness.

To be deboned and on edge,

or change, adapt

to the audience,

due to the catching

tenderness, his supple


For he is subjected.

Broken from the beginning.

Educated to be broken.

Like a custom object.

He is uncontemplated.

We admire him fluid.

Modelling clay by mass gaze.

The voyeur dominates the entertainer.

(In Rome in any case.)

the histrion is the anonymous physical

slave even when he has

his own name.

The passage is cut from poem 60, “Amusement,” and it is hard to find a satisfactory place to start or stop the sixteen page poem’s musing on Cicero’s De Oratore, concerned with the relationship between rhetoric and dance. In French, histrion is a hack actor (as the relationship to histrionics suggests) and therefore its English usage might relate it to the pejorative use of rhetorical. The passage well illustrates Rancière’s Beckian tariff: it reawakens the latent poetry in Cicero’s prose; it uses short phrases; adjectives are scarce; and not only is the verse littered with full stops, but also italicization and bracketing create further interruptions. The verse also, to use Rancière’s term, “verticalizes” Cicero’s prose and interrupts it with exacter specification. But most strikingly this is a prosodic thinking about gesture where gesture is unresolved into self, no more than puppetry with the audience pulling the strings—the passage belongs to a repertoire of cautionary, indeed didactic episodes in Beck’s essay in criticism, identifying errors in literature. The prosody assails the fluidity and responsiveness of the histrion, while it also desires such fluidity, such influence—hence the twin speed prosody. Poetry, philosophy, and rhetoric are always on the way to embodiment in the self, the man of character, but can never successfully combine in the present—the community to which he belongs is in the future, and the present audience is merely enchanted, voyeuristic and incapable of thought (the histrion is “uncontemplated”). “To be deboned and on edge” is not enough; this dance is a share not hard-edged enough to recut the furrow and make the stones skip, and the dancer is modelled by his audience’s desires. The poem’s translator does excellent work with the “mass gaze”—what the masses want is amassed for them in the rhetorical body.

We might however think of this body in its plasticity as analogous to Beck’s voice, for his is poetical writing in a distinctive, consistent voice, and for all its echoing and retreading, other voices are not permitted to break into the vocal thread of his musing. An instructive comparison would be with Barbara Guest, a poet whose expository tone is often uncannily echoed in Beck’s tone, and also a philosophical poet devoted to visiting the sites of earlier verse, art, and philosophical writing—a poet who also loves the broken classical column and urn. But tone differs from voice in that Guest achieves a music out of dispersed visitations unconnected by vocalized musing; it might even be possible to think of Guest’s late work as postpoetry, poetry that diagrams between divots but has no didactic designs on a reader. Expository tone derives from the act of putting things out of place so as to examine them (this is what Guest means by surrealism); and both poets have a tendency to adduce parenthetical and slightly pedantic clarifications where they alight. Typically Guest fails to close her parentheses, and her interventions are themselves fragmentary in keeping with a radically fragmented syntax. Beck thinks (or muses) continuously where Guest disposes fragments and often connects them through their philological as well as sonic relations. Beck by contrast is uninterested in philology; he concocts new words having produced a space where meaning determines that a coinage is required, so that he might establish the root words for an imagined philological inquiry in the future. Words fill the pressing gaps; it is not as though there might be thinking precedent or external to literature, but where text unweaves, blankness calls for a word—what has been gone over can’t quite translate.

Endearingly, Beck teases himself for his ox character as he goes over things, and this amusement with himself mitigates what might otherwise feel too solemnly self-absorbed—when he claims for instance (in an online interview) that life is identical to the progression of thought. From poem 37, “Steer’s Sacrifice”:

He gives himself up in roaming

the life of an impossible tool

of the self.

Wanting to dig out verses

or unearth them.

But nothing is a verse

under the guise of eternity.

Reversal belongs to the history of

interpretations of the digging


Here then is the distinction from Guest, whose “reversals” are decidedly not to be ascribed to the “digging | body.” Beck is producing a self that requires he “gives himself up” so as to use the life of the self as a tool. Verse cannot remain verse unless it is reversed through “interpretations of the digging | body,” which means both the interpretations the body undertakes in its digging and interpretation of the digging body itself, through roaming it (“roaming” is good—OED’s etymology hasOrigin uncertain. Probably ultimately < the name of Rome”). When reversed, verse becomes a vector again (vers, Fr. = towards), not merely dug out but set in motion. Interpretation though may be an inadequate word here, for in English literary study it implies a rendering of accounts, the fixing of an extrapolated message in all its complexity. A key (coined) term for Beck’s poetics as developed in Contre un Boileau is la chercherie: to read a poem is to continue la chercherie. Reversal for both writer and reader is an act of chercherie where the writer searches through and down the prior text and in turn the reader follows this reversal. How best to follow, what to light upon, what to follow-through from?

Finally, how best to describe what these particular didactic verses are doing? What could be the role of didactic poetry when naïve poetry, in Schiller’s sense, is impossible, but where the rote disdain for nature as “only a cultural construct” is turning to lye in our mouths? Beck’s is a thoughtful but not a fully compelling response. The community his rhetoric might form cannot answer back, and his pauses and turns, his versing and dancing and digging, too often sound like a philosopher’s modus operandi, making a point, making a counter point, taking a different angle, but never externally challenged; and its dialectics do not even seek an opening to a world outside literature. Literature, Beck would say, is where thinking gets back into its fading groove and makes an impression that can last awhile, whereas philosophy is smoke; its moves are self-cancelling. Beck sounds wry about living in the library, but to be wry is to be too accepting of a self-cultivation that cannot pass the checkout. How can poetry teach the reader to live poetically and beyond that, serve in however small a way to reanimate the choking, floundering world? Not necessarily through a consciously “ecological” poetry, perhaps by way of negative dialectics, in a poetry that’s overstuffed or that resorts to deathly loveliness. A Lucretian poetry now would have to imagine the real into active presence even as the real gets scrubbed nanosecond by nanosecond and not at all philosophically. The task is to instaurate nature poetically and to find a possible, sustainable place in it.

That sounds too grand a prescription for any one poet to fulfill, and Beck’s buphonic transcendentalism may be a good start—not least in its frequent and fearless re-versing of banalities into truths. It arrives from a strange other place where poets and philosophers take each other seriously. The publishers and translators are much to be congratulated on making this thought-provoking, this chercherie-stimulating work available to English readers. A translation of Contre un Boileau would be a welcome further enterprise.