“Poetic Form and the Phenomenologies of Sympathy”

Kimberly Johnson, Brigham Young University

Save the word
empathy, sweetheart,
for your freshman essays.

These lines by Thom Gunn, from Boss Cupid (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001), suggest that the idea of empathy has come to be aligned in practice with the genres of exposition—critique, as the volume edited by Butler, Gambetti, and Sabsay suggests, stands as one productive response to the vulnerability of others.  Such certainty tends to find expression in prose genres, which relies upon the hypotactic organization of argumentative logic to engage the reader if not to incite the reader to action.  Gunn’s association of empathy with the rational structures of prose indicates how entrenched is the disciplinary model that privileges analysis and semantic meaning in response to crisis even as it offers its own extrarational critique of that model.

My paper explores the ways in which the communicate valences of poetry offer an alternative model of engagement with crisis that resists privileging exposition, argumentation, and the rational, relying instead upon to the nonsemantically communicative elements of form, sound, and lineation to create vectors of identification between persons.  Rather than talking about crisis, the poetic text produces moments of crisis, repeating in the hermeneutic event the very dissociations and resistances of crisis.

In advancing this claim I do not intend to resurrect the Romantic notion of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth 744), in which the poem offers a kind of personal narrative with line breaks, a transparent if artful account of the inner life of a speaker—as in John Stuart Mill’s famous description of lyric as not heard but “overheard,” as “feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind” (95).  Such an approach implicitly defines the kinds of trauma or crisis engaged by poetry as originating in autobiography, a historical event to which the event of the poem’s composition is ancillary or contingent.

My argument is twofold:  first, I assert that poetry constitutes an object of crisis, as language is divided into two systems of signification:  the semantic and the structural.  The hermeneutic event is one of registering that communicative trauma as a residue of division, separation, irreconcilability.

Second, I claim that it is precisely this quality of poetry—the incommensurability of its content and form—that allows for a shift away from the expository hierarchies of prose and toward a less rational apprehension of experience.  By promoting the body as a primary site of textual engagement, poetry replicates the fissures and violences of embodied experience, supplanting the logical argumentation of “freshman essays” with a visceral invitation to occupy, to participate in the material as an encounter between persons.  By circumventing the regimes of meaning, poetry offers the potential of transformed perspective through a shared materiality.