Piet Devos

writer and literary theorist


Tardy Presents: Embodied agency in the ‘documental’ poetry of Benjamin Péret and Antonio Porchia

Sunday 24 February 2019

(Article co-authored with Gys-Walt van Egdom, published in Literature as Document: Generic boundaries in 1930s Western literature. Eds. Sarah Bonciarelli et al. Leiden: Brill/Rodopi. Pp. 133-148)

In this paper, we examine an often overlooked literary tradition, which, in search of new footing, came to see the act of writing as a way of documenting subjectivity. This tradition does not include types of life writing that have been presented, throughout history, as unique, intentional products of subjective expression, such as autobiographies, diaries and letters. On the contrary, its rebellious proponents have attempted to purge literature of this expressive and intentional foundation.

One of its forerunners was Arthur Rimbaud, who dealt an important blow to traditional poetry by prioritizing the objectification of poetic forms. In his famous letter to Izambard, he scornfully dismissed the insipid sentimentalism of his mentor and urges poets to rely entirely on the evocative powers of language itself. Ultimately, these radical words resulted in the hallucinatory imagery of the Illuminations. It was believed that visionary trips revealed much more about the poet’s creative powers than any deliberate act of confession. A few decades later, the modernists and historical avant-gardes would take this Rimbaldian priority of objectifying form to its limits, thus bringing literature closer than ever before to documentary activity. By including pictures, newspaper clips or advertisements in their texts, these writers uncovered that subjectivity is sometimes reducible to being the mere effect of haphazardly juxtaposed “fragments of the real”.

Moving beyond the descriptions of such impersonal linguistic Potenzierungsmechanismen (or ‘mechanisms for potentiation’) and montages, this essay will focus on experimental forms of literature that continue to presuppose human experience, while at the same time eradicating traditional notions of subjectivism. Concretely, it seeks to analyse, formulate and compare the poetics of Benjamin Péret and Antonio Porchia with the aim of illustrating how and to what extent their respective crusades against traditional subjectivism have turned their poetry into poetic documents, testifying of nothing less than ‘raw’ or ‘pure’ embodied agency. Given the diverging attitudes of Péret, a surrealist, and Porchia, a literary lone wolf, toward the documentary practice of writing, both authors will first be discussed separately. In the end, this discussion hopes to prove fruitful for a more complex grasp of documental agency in literature.

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