Tony Brinkley and Joseph Arsenault’s “‘This Is Where the Serpent Lives’: Wordsworthian Poetics and Contemporary American Poetry,” presents a complex application of Hegelian dialectic and Wordsworthian poetics onto the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Rosmarie Waldrop, Barbara Guest, and Alice Notley. Operating on destabilized terrain, Brinkley and Arsenault propose that deitic gestures found in Wordsworth are explored to interesting limits of potentiality, first in Stevens, and later in Waldrop, Guest, and Notley. A central question of their essay is: “Can we see a Wordsworthian poetics of this sort in contemporary American poetry?” Their answer:
The this is a universal, indifferent to its content, indifferently night or day, house or tree, [as] Hegel writes, but the deixis of the poems we are considering is hardly indifferent in its reference. The ‘body-bags’ in Waldrop’s poem turn recent history into deitic insistence – not insistence on the specific referent, but grammatical insistence, as a shifter. …Whatever the deictic gesture refers to is added to the referring, presencing gesture…so that when Waldrop writes “what can I do but tie ribbons to the idea of body and its wholeness,” we think of war mementos (a yellow ribbon among other possibilities, tied around a car antenna for example).
Tony Brinkley and Joe Arsenault have worked together for years, and the conversation that led to this article began as a thought experiment on Paul de Man, who wrote that literary criticism became literary theory when literary critics embraced linguistics. The linguistics de Man had in mind was Saussure’s and its engagement with arbitrary signs. As a point of departure, Brinkley and Arsenault wondered what might happen if they adopted de Man’s insight but instead substituted indexical for arbitrary signs. On the one hand, this seemed to them to be imperative as they were working with historical realities (at the time, the Shoah). On the other hand, an emphasis on arbitrary signification seemed to lead to hopeless misinterpretations of many of the poems they cared for most (de Man’s impossible reading of Shelley’s “Triumph of Life” for example). From this, an interest in the deictic gestures of Wordsworthian poetry developed, of how the poetry says “of what we see in the dark / That it is this or that it is that.” And so the essay followed…
Tony Brinkley teaches English at the University of Maine where Joseph Arsenault works as a program manager in Surface Engineering. Their other co-authored articles included “Toward an Indexical Criticism” (Postmodern Culture 5.3) and “Traumatized Words” (Sagetrieb 16.3).