Fitting Surprise and the Critique of Recent Poetics

The following was my contribution to “Experimental Poetics,” a seminar held  on September 9, 2005, that was a part of the 2005 Association of Literary Scholars and Critics conference.

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Fitting Surprise and the Critique of Recent Poetics

The element of fitting surprise—a poem’s arrival at an ending both unpredictable and logical, an inevitable ending nothing prepares a reader for—is an idea that emerges in significant—though not always easily recognizable because various—forms in the history of poetics.  For example, fitting surprise is a key feature in discussions of two seemingly very different literary modes: the sublime, with all its associations with the grand and the serious, and the witty, associated with levity and humor.  The creation of the unexpected, of surprise, is a keystone in Longinus’s treatise on the sublime, which is concerned with allowing for “bold experiment in language” even while demanding that such experimentation be embedded in, that it fit, an occasion; Longinus recognizes that it is not just surprising speech which is important, but also that “place, manner, occasion, purpose, are all essential” (72).  Similarly, about wit, Barbara Herrnstein Smith notes, “A hyperdetermined conclusion will have maximal stability and finality; and when these qualities occur in conjunction with unexpected or unstable material…the result will be wit—which, as many have observed, occurs when expectations are simultaneously surprised and fulfilled” (206).  Fitting surprise names both a sublime effect in literature and the witty relationship a punch line has with its set-up.  Additionally, besides appearing as a key feature in discussions of other kinds of literary production, including drama and the short story, fitting surprise comes up in a number of other statements on poetry.1

 Understanding that fitting surprise is not a minor element in but rather a key concept of poetics provides a strong starting point from which to evaluate some recent poetics, including Charles Bernstein’s “State of the Art” and “Artifice of Absorption” and Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure,” poetics that, though they should be interested in fitting surprise as they deal with issues of poetic closure, completely ignore the notion of fitting surprise.  Chief among the many reasons for excluding consideration of fitting surprise in these poetics is that such omission allows for the creation of a simple either-or argument: either one completely reject poetic closure or else one is stuck with composing a travesty of a poem, something iron-clad and predictable.  In his essay, “State of the Art,” Charles Bernstein writes, “As if poetry were a craft that there is a right way and a wrong way to do: in which case, I prefer the wrong way—anything better than the epiphany of well-wrought measure—for at least the cracks and flaws and awkwardnesses show signs of life” (2).  Bernstein wants poetry that “edit[s] in,” that “include[s] multiple conflicting perspectives and types of languages and styles in the same poetic work” (4), and in the later “Artifice of Absorption,” Bernstein names this kind of poetry “anti-absorptive,” over and against the more-problematic, predictable “absorptive” poetry.  Lyn Hejinian’s either-or pits the closed against the open text: “We can say that a ‘closed text’ is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it.  Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity.  In the ‘open text,’ meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed… argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work” (42-3).

If fitting surprise, designating in poetry a quality of arrival and going beyond, of un-prefiguration and discovery, can be thought of as describing an achievement of a poem both open and closed, both absorbent and nonabsorbent, then such either-or arguments are too simple.  They are, and Bernstein and Hejinian recognize this; looked at carefully, their texts are riddled with caveats and concessions.  While Hejinian wants the open text’s ideas and things to “exceed…argument,” she qualifies this, stating, in fact, that the ideas and things of an open text should “exceed (without deserting) argument” (43).  In “Artifice of Absorption,” Bernstein quotes Ron Silliman’s critique of anti-absorptive poetry: “No, the reader does not have a participatory role in a work that is truly absorptive.  Yet a work that is thoroughly nonabsorptive (in the case of opaque to the point of repelling the reader) disempowers the reader in just the opposite direction” (70).  Though their caveats and concessions are significant, neither Bernstein nor Hejinian explores them. Hejinian never shows precisely how a poem exceeds without deserting argument.  Bernstein never shows how a poem is anti-absorbent to a proper extent.  Neither explores the kind of middle space between the open and closed, or the absorbent and nonabsorbent, these caveats and concessions seem to open onto.  And yet, such exploration is necessary as it is, as the caveats and concessions indicate, simply the case that most poetry exists in this middle space.  Additionally, such exploration is especially important now, when a new trend in poetics is to privilege poems simply by locating them in the middle space between anti-absorptive, open, avant-garde experimentalism and absorbent, closed, mainstream lyric tradition.2

While, because of its clear interest in joining extremes, fitting surprise generally may have some affinity for a middle space, it also—because it is not just theoretical but inherently critical, interested in the examination and assessment of specific poems—is a critique of any easy theory, including that of middle space.  Far from privileging work in the middle space, fitting surprise reminds that such work will not necessarily be good, will not necessarily achieve fitting surprise, that the middle space is more often a messy amalgamation of experiment and tradition than a successful or interesting apotheosis of those two modes.  Unlike the theoretical works by Bernstein, Hejinian, and the new theorists of the middle space, which are out to establish schools or movements, fitting surprise, because it concentrates on the particulars of a poem, establishes no school, movement, or even poet.3  Unlike the seemingly complex and difficult—though, as has been suggested, rather simple and problematic—theories which champion poems that, perhaps because too nonabsorbent or deserting argument, often can be easy and weak, fitting surprise employs a pretty easy theory4 to privilege specific poems that seem ingenious, inventive, and, therefore, clearly especially difficult to create.

Though, because fitting surprise advances an aesthetic, it may seem conservative, it actually is disruptive, shifting paradigms, making new connections, showing, for example, the divisions in an individual poet’s body of work and the surprising link between the sublime and wit.  It recognizes everything Charles Bernstein speaks of in this quotation from his essay “The Conspiracy of ‘Us’” even as it provides some guidance for the exploration ultimately suggested:

“—Simply, the walls must be stripped down & new ones built as replacements—or rather this is always happening whether we attend to it or not.  We see through these structures which we have made for ourselves & cannot do even for a moment without them, yet they are not fixed but provisional…that poetry gets shaped—informed and transformed—by the social relations of publications, readership, correspondence, readings, &c (or, historically seen the “tradition”) and, indeed, that the poetry of community(ies) are not a secondary phenomenon to writing but a primary one.  So it won’t just do to “think about the work.”  But it still needs to be explored what the relation between “normal” and “extraordinary” poetry is—” (345-6)


 1On drama, see Schopenhauer (164-5).  On the short story, see Atwood (1425) and  Nelson.  On poetry, see Frost, Dobyns, and Graham.

 2See Miller, Longenbach, Shepherd.  For criticism of this use of the middle space, see Theune (“Faux”) and Theune (“Resistance”).

 3No poet may be praised as being a poet of fitting surprise because fitting surprise is very rarely consistently captured by any one poet—let alone school—as it is so difficult to create.  For an example of how wit and surprise can constitute significant elements of a poet’s work categorically different from other elements of the same poet’s work, see Eliot.

 4Fitting surprise may suffer a bit from the fact that it always occurs only in very particular instances, and so the term “fitting surprise” can do nothing to suggest the wonder of the effect it designates.  In this way, the relation between the term “fitting surprise” and what it in fact names is very similar to the relation between the term “good book” and what it in fact names; according to Proust, “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation…would not enable him to discover” (707).


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret.  “Reading Blind.”  The Story and Its Writers: An Introduction to Short Fiction.  Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.  1422-6.

Bernstein, Charles.  A Poetics. Cambridge,MA: Harvard UP, 1992.

 ——.  “The Conspiracy of ‘Us.’”  Content’s Dream: Essays: 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986.  343-7.

 Dobyns, Stephen.  “Writing the Reader’s Life.”  Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry.  New York: St. Martin’s: 1996.  35-52.

Eliot, T.S.  “Andrew Marvell.”  Selected Essay: 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932.  251-63.

Frost, Robert.  “The Figure a Poem Makes.”  Collected Poems of Robert Frost.  Garden City, NY: Halcyon House, 1942.  (unpaginated).

Graham, Jorie.  “Something of Moment.”  Ploughshares  27.4 (Winter 2001-2): 7-9.

Hejinian, Lyn.  “The Rejection of Closure.”  The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.  40-58.

Longenbach, James.  The Resistance to Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Longinus.  “On the Sublime.”  Trans. A.O. Prickard.  Criticism: Major Statements.  3rd ed.  Ed. Charles Kaplan and William Anderson. New York:St. Martin’s, 1991.  54-93. 

Miller, Christanne.  “An Interview with Alice Fulton.”  Contemporary Literature  38.4 (Winter 1997).

Nelson, Antonya.  “‘Mom’s on the Roof’: The Usefulness of Jokes in Shaping Short Stories.” Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life.  Ed. Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. Ann Arbor: U ofMichigan P, 2001.  180-93.

Proust, Marcel.  Remembrance of Things Past.  Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence  Kilmartin New York: Vintage-Random House, 1982.

Schopenhauer, Arthur.  Essays and Aphorisms.  Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1970.

Shepherd, Reginald.  “Introduction.” The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.  Ed. Reginald Shepherd. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2004.  xiii-xvii.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein.  Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.

Theune, Michael.  “Faux, Flawed, Failed: Alice Fulton’s Fuzzy Poetry and Poetics.”  Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.  25.2 (2005): 89-104.

——.  “Resistance to The Resistance to Poetry.”  Pleiades.  25.1 (2005): 120-9.

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12 04 2012
Nicholas Royle’s Veering « Structure & Surprise

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