Poetry and Happenstance at Cambridge

Notes and thoughts from “Poetry and Happenstance”, a day-long symposium at Cambridge University, which took place last Friday, 4th April. There were eight papers in all:

Anne Stillman – “What appears to be yours”
In the opening talk, Stillman expressed some unease about what was really meant by the symposium’s key title word, happenstance. This turned out to be a theme for the day. The paper touched on Beckett, Wittgenstein, Lyotard, and Dickinson’s envelope scrawlings, before tightening in on Frank O’Hara. The example of the envelopes (though presented by the by here) strikes me as a possible exception to the idea of contingency I was going to develop in my talk. It seems to me a good site of reflection over what is and isn’t art, or artistry, and what to do about that as critics.

Ruth Abbott – “Wordsworth’s Speculations”
This focused very closely on Wordsworth’s “The Excursion” and the various kinds of learning and knowledge it invokes (and to what purpose). It seemed to Abbott that there is a haphazardness about the sources of knowledge adduced in the poem, but that these all led inevitably to the same conclusion. True happenstance, then? Or preordination? This was puzzling.
A question on this paper led to an interesting case study for how critical practice should or shouldn’t take account of historical contingencies, which I will elaborate in my next post.

Rod Mengham – “Writing Conflict 1934-7”
This paper looked at political poems by John Cornford, John Barker, and W. H. Auden. Echoes here of the first two talks, as attention focused on moments in the poems where one or another possibility–thematic, imagistic, and prosodic–appeared just as likely as another.

David-Antoine Williams – “As thing are: Poetry, arbitrariness, and contingency”.
My talk took a naive approach to working out the various relations and distinctions among key terms in the call for papers: accident, arbitrariness, contingency, happenstance, serendipity, and so on. My argument was that contingency in poetry (if it can be said to exist at all) involves integrating particular unpredictabilities within a broader matrix of predictability, but that this in itself is already paradigmatic of what poetry does anyway. I tried to integrate some unpredictabilities within my (perhaps predictable) exposition.

Erica McAlpine – “Browning’s Bad Habit”
The talk focused on what to do about the amusing use of “twat” in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes. Browing thought this was a word referring to part of a nun’s costume, having come across it in the following context: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat | They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat”. In questions, Simon Jarvis said he found it hard to believe that Browning actually didn’t know the meaning of the word. Other questioners suggested that shouldn’t matter so much whether he did or he didn’t. On the point of fact and that of principle, I incline towards McAlpine.

Dan Brown – “Humean Happenstance and Lucretian Atomglance”
Brown discussed Hopkins’s ipseity and Lear’s globular (and circular) limericks in the context of the 19thC’s renewed interest in the atomic theories of Lucretius, especially the clinamen, that habit of swerving in which one rogue atom changes course ever so slightly, causing unpredictable things to happen in the world (and therefore creating the possibility of decision, change and free will). For me Hopkins’s poems are a radical exemplar of an ontological poetics pre-Saussure. That is, the intense acoustics on the one hand begin to approach an onomatopoeic or mimetic language. But on the other, these effects can seem to be self-generating, the words chosen mainly because they imitate the phonetic properties of other words, rather than the thing being described. Inscape and instress can be seen to reconcile these two aspects. But without such thingy-wordiness?

Peter Middleton –  “Random Authorship: Jackson MacLow’s love poetry”
This paper was about the mechanical poems of Jackson MacLow, which proceed according to patterns determined by other texts (for instance, acrostically, by drawing the initials for each word in the poem from that other text). I managed to like one or two of the poems, despite warnings that this would be hard. Others I couldn’t quite see the point of. The discussion overall reminded me a bit about Botpoet, in terms of the questions it raised for criticism (i.e. “what to do with this, if anything?”).

Ewan Jones – “Wilding Happentance in Hejinian and Ammons”
In a kind of coda to the first talk, the last talk pointed out that since the word happenstance is fairly new, it should hardly be surprising that critics haven’t paid much attention to it (in contrast with accident, arbitrariness, contingency, all of which have well-developed philosophical traditions). Jones’s subjects were Hejinian’s “My Life” poems and Ammons’s “Tape for the Turn of the Year”, which was (supposedly) written on a roll of receipt paper a couple of inches wide and forty feet long. The poem includes digressions on its own composition and material limitations (horizontal) and demands (verticle). But are these different in principle from the limitations of more established forms? Or in detail only?

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