Poetry and the Public Sphere: Ellen Hinsey, a Poet of Our Time

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In 1996 Ellen Hinsey won the Yale Series Award for her first collection of poems Cities of Memory, which in part commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Since the “end of history,” as the end of communism was then called, she has quietly published three volumes of poetry, a book on the rise of illiberalism in Eastern Europe, a conversation-biography with the Lithuanian poet Thomas Venclova, along with translations of his poetry and other works into English. I say “quietly” because Hinsey’s verse responds to a history that decidedly did not end, in ways that have caught critics unawares. There has been little discussion of her turn from the first-person conventions of confessional poetry towards what she describes as the “more generous I” of “shared human experience” (“Doggerel” 143). Nor has there been adequate recognition that this turn has a purpose. Hinsey has moved away from confessional lyricism in an attempt to find a verse form congenial to the public sphere, which seemed to be expanding in the Europe of the 1990s but has since shown signs of strain, fragmenting into smaller collectivities, including identity-based groups vulnerable to manipulation by illiberal autocrats and populists (Mastering 14-15; Magnetic 383).

Hinsey’s poetics, like her politics, affirms the importance of the public sphere. She is concerned with who we are but also, and perhaps more crucially, how we interact. Her last three books of poetry trace a journey of lyrical form (which is not the same as a lyrical journey) away from identity, in both its personal and group varieties, towards more inclusive visions of community. That is to say, selfhood and community in Hinsey are not personal or tribal but pluralistic. The form Hinsey develops to give voice to pluralism is a poetic variation on the aphorism. It stands in crucial counterpoint to contemporary trends in lyrical poetry and to the mode of rhetoric that Michael Kazin calls “the populist persuasion”: “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage” (1). Typically, this “noble assemblage” is defined in terms of identity rather than citizenship, and the persuasiveness of populist rhetoric depends on establishing a bond of identity between populist leaders and the people they claim to represent (Müller 3; Kazin 14).

I invoke “populism” as a contrast to Hinsey’s poetry with some hesitation because it is a term she has moved away from in her own writing. Hinsey calls the present threat to the public sphere illiberalism, a form of hollowed-out democracy that first emerged in various parts of the former Soviet Union—Russia, Poland, Hungary—but is now widespread in the West, including in the United States (Mastering 15-16). Illiberalism erodes democracy from within in ways poignantly described by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: “There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place.  People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance” (6). The veneer of democracy hides what is really an attack on liberal principles (106-07). If democracy is understood to mean majority rule, then liberal democracy refers to the system of laws put in place to protect minorities—electoral, economic, and ethnic (Fawcett, Liberalism 14, 464). Illiberalism turns the rhetoric of the majority against the rights of minorities. It is important to remember that the rhetoric is just that—rhetoric. Once elected, illiberal elites try to stay in power whatever their populist pretensions (Mounk 35-36).

Hinsey’s scruples about the term populism have to do with her reluctance to play into the ruse of popularity. Illiberal elites claim to do be doing the people’s will when they dismantle legal protections. Our critical vocabulary should reject that claim. The point is well taken; it also reflects a particular geopolitical perspective. Hinsey has devoted much of her writing and activism to pro-democracy struggles in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. This has made her attentive to the continuities between the anti-liberalism of totalitarian systems of government and the illiberal threat today (Mastering 15).

Nevertheless, it is possible to analyze the rhetoric of populism without crediting its claims to popularity. Democracy may not have spread from West to East as the “winners” of the Cold War were quick to claim, but a democratic vocabulary did. This vocabulary is the basic ingredient of the populist rhetorical style. As Edmund Fawcett points out, the rhetoric is useful precisely because of its anti-elitist pretensions:

Populism, properly understood, is not a mass movement, an institutional arrangement, or a form of democracy but instead a style of political self-justification.  To use its own contentious language, populism is an elite phenomenon.  It involves not a contest between people and elites but a contest among elites in which one side, the populist side, claims to speak for the people. (Conservatism 355)

I follow Fawcett in defining populism as a style of political self-justification: populism is the way out-group elites in democracies—or nominal democracies—mobilize popular support in their struggle against in-group elites, or elites who used to be on the inside. Recognizing that elitists feel compelled to at least pay lip service to democracy is the first step towards devising a counter-poetics. Hinsey’s work is crucial here. It is because she is clear about the political threat posed by illiberalism that her poetry offers a viable alternative to populist rhetoric.

Hinsey understands her recent poetry as an attempt to shore up those legal protections that are central to liberal democracy. In an interview about The Illegal Age, her most recent book of poetry, she links her efforts to counter illiberalism to Hannah Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism:

But was it really possible to write poems about judicial destruction? The book opens with a quote from Hannah Arendt “The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man.” This doesn’t sound very poetic! But in fact, I believe that over the last decade—in many places where previously this had not been the case—people have intimately experienced the dismantling of rule of law. They found out that democracy wasn’t something “out there” but something as close as breathing—along with the anxiety, anger and grief that are provoked by attacks on constitutional safeguards. (Whelan)

Hinsey’s poetry describes what happens to people when juridical personhood comes under attack. It also experiments with speaking from the perspective of juridical personhood, which is not the same as an individual perspective or the supposed perspective of a group. This, I think, is the most innovative aspect of Hinsey’s poetry, and its alternative to populist rhetoric. Hinsey’s poetry challenges the central conceit of populism, namely that of speaking for the people, by speaking from the perspective of personhood.

Of course, the populist conceit of speaking for the people is not exactly a distinguishing political characteristic. Elected representatives from 1776 on have pretended to speak for at least some of the people some of the time. It is also not a distinguishing rhetorical characteristic. The mode that William Empson usefully defines as pastoral works to reconcile a speaker who stands apart from society with the “dogma of the equality of man”—a point he helpfully makes in relation to socialist realism as well as courtly forms (20). However, populist elites claim to speak for the people in a particular way. They claim to speak for the real people, employing what Jan-Werner Müller calls a pars pro toto logic to identify themselves with a particular group, and the group with the nation, though populists are rarely in the majority and never speak for everyone (3). Kazin traces the logic back to basic American creeds that have circulated globally since the end of the Cold War, encouraging citizens everywhere to “blame entrenched leaders while assuring ‘the people’ that they bear little or no responsibility for what has gone wrong” (xiii, 2).  Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin point out that those who vote for national populists seek to “reassert the will of the people over those of elitist liberal democrats who appear increasingly detached from the life experiences and outlooks of the average citizen” (xxxii). Fawcett argues that populists tap into the anger of the “real” people by appealing to them in terms of identity rather than citizenship: “The people were not the citizenry but a blend of cultural nation, which distinguished it from foreigners, and common folk, which distinguished it from elites” (357).  This double demarcation—the real people are neither foreign nor elite—reinforces the agonisms that populist leaders exploit in claiming the people’s indignation as their own. Populism links democratic ideals to a part of the population, rather than to a constitution or a set of institutions.

This rhetorical trick, tapping into very real resentments, can create political constellations that seem absurd from the outside. Anybody who lived through the Trump presidency must have been struck by the paradox of a New York real estate tycoon, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, claiming to speak for the real people. He clearly does not share the background or experiences of most of his supporters, or the economic precarity of many of them. Nevertheless, he was able to forge an emotional bond through rhetorical gestures that conflate his struggle for power with their struggles for security and recognition. The rhetoric works in ways clearly demonstrated through Robert Penn Warren’s fictional populist Willie Stark: “Let the hog [his political opponent] lie, and listen to me, you hicks.Yeah, you’re hicks, too, and they’ve fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool” (Warren 139). Replace “hick” with “basket of deplorables,” and “hog” with liar or “fake news,” and this could be Trump in 2016. The trick here is a very old one: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Hicks have to stick together to oppose the hogs; hicks are hicks because they oppose the hogs, just as the “deplorables” are willing to say anything to “own” the “libs.”

The rhetorical features of populism link voice to identity, identity to antagonism, and antagonism to resentment. This morphology provides a useful contrast to poetic form. Here it is tempting to invoke John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between poetry and rhetoric: rhetoric is heard; poetry overheard (Mill 12). Scholars typically invoked this distinction during the Cold War to explain the difference between art and propaganda: art was supposed to be personal; anything that promoted the party line was by definition inauthentic. Elsewhere, I have argued that this distinction undergirds the claim, common among confessional poets and philosophers of alienation, that personal suffering is a symptom of historical malaise (Gross, Pound Reaction, “Snodgrass”). Whatever its usefulness during the Cold War, the distinction between poetry and rhetoric does not help with populism because it ignores how the staging of personal identity so central to lyricism, can also feed into the political identity of a group.

How does the personal identity that is the subject of lyrical voice feed into the group identity that is central to populism? The connection is rhetorical or performative rather than substantive. Lyrical poetry is “overheard” only because the poet turns his or her back on the audience. This is as artificial as any dramatic monologue. Indeed, it is an artifice that authorizes the speaker to break with certain conventions of public speaking in adherence to other conventions of personal authenticity, or what Northrop Frye, in his elaboration of Mill, calls “subjectivized decorum” (273). Convention does not disqualify the lyric as a poem, nor does it distinguish poetry from rhetoric. Indeed, the lyricism that is the centerpiece of Mill’s definition of poetry is continuous with populism considered as a rhetorical mode. Lyricism stages authenticity as a break with convention in the name of keeping faith with oneself. Populists also break with conventions, legal and institutional, but they do so in the name of the people. If the lyric is an instance of subjectivized decorum, populism is public indecorum—breaking the rules on behalf of the people who are allegedly suffering under them.

The rule-breaking that, for the past century, has repeatedly established itself as a norm, slowly works its way into Hinsey’s poetic consciousness before finally becoming the subject of The Illegal Age. The poems in this volume are the culmination of Hinsey’s journey through lyrical reform, and they counter illegality by resisting the trope of lyrical transgression and the rhetoric of populist transgression both. By this I do not mean that Hinsey moves towards formal restraint. Certain midcentury poets argued that formalism could serve as a bulwark against political extremism, but their efforts were short-lived and rather disappointing (Gross, Pound Reaction). Rather, her verse works its way through various lyrical forms of identity and identification, towards a poetic exploration of the principles that make personhood possible in the first place. Hinsey is not a poet of identity; she is a poet of juridical personhood and the public sphere. The emotion she expresses moves away from personal experience, and away from the anger and resentment of “the people,” in order to embrace the civic respect and recognition that must animate the public sphere. The attempt to lend voice to abstractions like personhood or the public is of course paradoxical, and at a certain level perhaps doomed to fail.  Nevertheless, it is precisely this paradox that pushes Hinsey to experiment with form and voice in ways that distinguishes her poetry and makes it so effective as a counter to populist rhetoric. In what follows I will explore how the architecture of Hinsey’s books evokes the circulation of meanings and values in the shared space of the public. I will also touch on how her many prose poems, some of them mimicking official edicts and decrees, evince submerged rhythms and rhymes suggestive of deeper principles. What I want to focus on, however, is another innovation:  namely, her use of aphorism. Insofar as aphorism speaks for personhood or the public, it is as much an abstraction as the voice of identity. However, in Hinsey’s hands, aphorism becomes a poetic statement of liberal principles: not voice so much as free speech, not identity so much as rights.

Hinsey’s most recent poetry is not lyrical in a traditional sense. It does not showcase personal experiences, or attempt to make personal emotions representative of a larger group.  Rather, her poetry is interpersonal, by which I mean it elaborates the social and civic structures that protect selfhood as a legal category. Her guides here are Hannah Arendt, who emphasizes the interpersonal nature of recognition, and Simone Weil, who explores how various literary forms—including aphorism—can resist violence and dehumanization. In Hinsey, aphorism is to personhood what lyricism is to the personal; aphorism articulates the conditions that allow the “lyrical I” to speak.

In what follows, I will explore the genesis and the significance of Hinsey’s aphoristic style in The White Fire of Time (2002), Update on the Descent (2009), and The Illegal Age (2018).

1. The Insomniac Ego

In 1998 Hinsey published “The Rise of Modern Doggerel,” a critique of confessional-style lyricism, then in its fourth decade of popularity and still going strong. She argued that the self-absorption always evident in confessional verse was undermining the relevance of a younger generation of poets preoccupied with finding therapeutic means for coming to terms with personal suffering (141). While Hinsey has no qualms about treating poetry as therapy, she does see two problems with the confessional style: first, it is a style, and therefore not as personal as it seems; and second, it closes itself off to the outside world. She turns to Czesław Miłosz for support on both points, quoting his observation that certain poetic schools reflect an “automatism of opinions and beliefs” (140,143). Her philosophical authority at this stage is Martin Buber: any “I” that does not include a “thou” reduces itself and others to objects (142).  She also turns to Simone Weil, whose aphoristic style will ultimately prove as influential as her philosophical insights, to argue that affliction can be a “gift,” linking us to others in our shared human condition (143). Poetry is a form of communication that can bring people in contact with each other, even when they are in pain. Hinsey thus advocates turning from confessional self-absorption to the more “generous ‘I’” of “shared human experience” (143). The essay ends with Adrienne Rich’s call in “In Those Years” to look up from the “I” and pay attention to the “birds of history” (144).

History will be linked to flight and transcendence in Hinsey’s most optimistic poetry, though it becomes increasingly “reptant” in her subsequent books, slouching from catastrophe to catastrophe, until she remarks in the last line of The Illegal Age that “History, it has been reported, is tired” (112). In Hinsey’s idiosyncratic usage, history is less a record of events than an index of compassion, measuring the ability of her speakers to overcome personal concerns and place themselves in relation to a plurality of others. Heinz Ickstadt emphasizes the rapt, ecstatic aspect of this compassion and its sensuous materiality: “Hinsey tries to avoid the trap of subjective speech by creating a voice that, although personal, is trans-subjective, a meditative voice bent in rapt contemplation on things in their sensuous existence, on consciousness and texts—religious, philosophical and psychological—that deal with ultimate matters:  the body, the passions, language, mortality and time” (201). The later poetry, I will argue, moves away from rapt contemplation towards a more measured look at the public sphere. It is this measured look that confronts the real possibility of public collapse. The “tiredness” of history, lamented in Hinsey’s more recent work, marks a failure of the trans-subjective, a falling away from compassion into the traps of egotism, identity, tribalism, and populism.

In The White Fire of Time the central image of verticality (the opposite of tiredness) is the “Celestial Ladder” in the prose poem and the section bearing its name. The significance of “The Dream of the Celestial Ladder” is reaffirmed by its position at the center of the book, which is structured bilaterally, with poems in the second half reiterating the themes and forms of those in the first (see Hinsey’s final note to the volume [91]). The celestial ladder is anatomically the spine of a collection that stresses its materiality as a book. It is structured as a dialogue, which allows Hinsey to use a series of interrogative prompts to interject what is otherwise a rarity in her verse:  a lyrical “I” answering questions posed by an interlocutor. This “I” stands almost alone in a book otherwise notable for its rejection of first-person pronouns, but it stands alone in order to disappear. The answers show the speaker climbing the rungs of the celestial ladder away from egotism, beyond violent passion to compassion, observing from her elevation “tiny human forms preparing their revenge, defiling the house of their brothers with their bloodshed” (61). This journey from passion to compassion will be repeated in all three books of poetry, as the speaker tries to achieve a vantage from which to regard “the totality of history,” and “hear the weight of things and be a thing among them” (ibid.). Synesthesia—“hearing weight”—is a figure of sympathy in this poem. Though the speaker struggles to ascend beyond human conflict, she “speaks” through her material position in a sequence. Her voice is a chime that reverberates with the gravity of the things surrounding it. The emotion they reverberate is fear (62).

The presence of fear in heaven suggests that it is not a place of eternal peace. This in turn indicates that the celestial ladder does not play a strictly religious role in Hinsey’s verse (something she discusses in her exchange with Venclova about his use of “Jacob’s ladder” in Magnetic North [380]). In her notes to The White Fire of Time, Hinsey points to the “many written and graphic depictions of the ascent of the Celestial Ladder,” drawing particular attention “to the appearance of the ladder in the form of an inverted cross with numerous transecting beams, an ancient symbol of the soul’s pilgrimage from earthly existence towards paradise” (90). In the next book this symbol will suggest not the ascent to heaven but the “descent from the cross, a moment understood in the context of this book as one of doubt and moral eclipse, or what the German critic Heinz Ickstadt has called ‘the bottom of history’” (Descent 89). In the unorthodox use Hinsey makes of this mystical symbol, these directions are not at all contradictory; elevation affords an expanded awareness of the vulnerability that afflicts all people; transcendence reveals the immanence of fear and grief. Thus a poem about the patriarch Jacob, who dreamed his own dream of a celestial ladder, depicts his equally famous “Struggle with the Angel” as “the internal struggle of the self with consciousness,” as Hinsey puts it in her notes (White Fire 89-90). Jacob, presented as a kind of everyman, has to tear himself away from instrumental calculations like tallying grain to confront his personal anxieties (46). This existential rewriting of a religious story both secularizes spirituality and firmly locates selfhood in a welter of everyday, material concerns.

The materiality of this perspective launches Hinsey on a journey of lyrical form, moving away from the first-person preoccupation with consciousness and thought towards a recognition of the body and ultimately the plurality of bodies that constitute the public sphere. At first, the orientation is strictly corporeal: “thought, not body, is sin” (44). This pronouncement is from a poem “On the Story of Cain and Abel,” which depicts “the mind, spite-harborer” as the ancient source of strife—hence the anachronistic use of kenning. Brother killing brother, like Jacob wrestling himself, is described as a “Temptation—to indulge in difference” (44). Even “temptation” turns out to be too weak a word since a few lines later, thinking and fratricide are compared to a cell splitting in two. Division is natural, and fear an indelible part of our fallen state, except that Hinsey pushes violence back into the Garden, before original sin, into what the flesh knows through meiosis: the cellular form of mimesis. Knowing the difference between good and evil turns out to be an ancillary problem; the source of trouble is knowing (equating with no-ing or negating or splitting) anything at all. A poem about Adam naming the animals suggests that language, because it imposes differences between words and their objects, is intrinsically flawed; Adam turns his face from God’s in shame “for he knew his swift / Tongue flawed and approximative—it alone / Lacked the precise, assured syntax of flight” (35). Adam naming the animals is like Jacob counting grain; both are forms of negation that can ultimately lead to the killing of sons and brothers. Hinsey’s biblical figures fall back to the horizontal the moment they think or speak. There is a sense in which humans were always fallen, and history tired before it could properly get started.

Nevertheless, Hinsey imagines a way beyond division that is also a way beyond egotism.  The key, in her early poetry, is not to struggle with the self but to abandon it to erotic passion. In a programmatic “fragment” called “On the Origins of Consciousness,” the “I” that “was unable to retain even one full instant of being” turns to “love’s arbor” as the “only hope of fulfillment”:  “Simply that, the I argued—casting before it its long, thin shadow: the desire to lie down with You under its wild, forked lightening” (12). Another poem opposing body to thought, “On A Miniature from the Sacred Ark,” is an aubade in which Eve addresses Adam; she praises his body, their passion, and the mutual “wish for eternity,” which is the desire to “hide another/Night from knowledge” (37). Eternity here is not an infinite expanse of time; it only lasts until daybreak—the conventional problem in any aubade. Still, the ecstasy depicted in this, as in the other erotic poems of the collection, does transcend the limits of the self, establishing a bond of sympathy between cell and cell, I and you. “For that which the body loves, it wishes to make its own—and so between you, in the air, there rose bridges of sympathy, tying simple cell to cell and simple breath to breath” (74). Love thus provides a temporary solution to the violence of thought, revenge, and division. It also helps the poet escape “The prison of self-consciousness.  Insomnia of the ego” (27). This is the erotic expression of the rapture Ickstadt mentions in his account of Hinsey’s early poetry.

If White Fire culminated in love poems it would be a very different book. However, Hinsey is too wise to accept romantic love as a solution to isolation and division: “Wisdom is knowledge to which one has been forced to submit” (79). Her collection submits to the knowledge that love, to survive the moment of passion, must ascend the celestial ladder. In a poem entitled “From the Book on the Nature of Things,” which contains the line on “the prison of self-consciousness,” another entry entitled “Maturity of Sorts” enjoins readers to keep climbing: “To abandon simplicity and climb the tilted ladder of paradox” (29). Why is paradox tilted?  Transcendence is not “simply” a matter of elevated passion, but a coefficient that moves up as it travels along a lateral axis of corporeality and grief. Grief, as Hinsey learns from Weil, can open the self to others, and it interpolates a horizontal element of suffering into the heavenly aspirations of the more mystical and erotic poems. In “Commentary:  On the 13 Rungs of Sorrow,” the ascent or descent of the rungs (the direction is unclear) involves some unnamed crime and trial. This poem is important enough to contain the phrase that names the entire collection, and it poses a challenge to erotic passion in its description of what happens after nightfall: “Courage is lost in the wild dark hours when chaos swirls, and face to face with the abyss, you near the white fire of time” (79). “The white fire of time” lights up the dark night of the soul, involving a different kind of passion and demanding another kind of bodily response, one attributed to another you standing in for another personal I: “You learn that the body in grief is privileged, and called to enter, in its rags, the immaculate garden of compassion” (79). The “immaculate garden of compassion” is not Adam and Eve in the bower, nor is it the prize for wrestling with the angel. The verse is pointing somewhere else, and it seems to be coming from a different place as well. An unnamed tragedy lies behind much of Hinsey’s poetry, motivating its flight from passion to an awareness of common travail. Even the love lyrics contain elements of grief.

The similarly named “Thirteen Aphorisms on the Nature of Evil” addresses the transformation involved in moving from grief to compassion, here explored through a similar contrast between thought and action. The key metaphor is a material object that also helps explain the shift in poetic form—from lyric to aphorism—announced in the title: “The brave make a place at their table for Evil. For only first-hand knowledge of evil can transform meditation into action” (49). Why a table? In her notes Hinsey explains that White Fire is modeled on a concept proposed by Hannah Arendt’s notion of the Vita Contemplativa (91; see Human Condition 304). Arendt praises the life of the mind but subordinates private reflection to speaking and acting in the public sphere. One of her favorite metaphors of the public sphere is the table.  A table holds people together by keeping them apart; it is not only a thing but the materialization of a pattern of human interaction.1 By assigning evil a place setting, the poem moves from Vita Contemplativa to Vita Activa, contemplation to action, shifting its focus from personal reflection, or the lyrical relation of the self to herself, to the material relations that both constitute a community and make it vulnerable to evil. Hinsey’s other material metaphors, including the ladder, move in the same direction—away from abstraction and self-absorption, towards activities and concrete relations.

Her subsequent books will replace these concrete images with even more concrete historical case studies. However, the urge towards material representations of the public sphere is there from the beginning, manifesting itself, for instance, in the material organization of her books, which are difficult to describe or reproduce through citation because of the way they use the layout of the codex as a bound and spatially organized thing. The books are more than collections: the interplay of section titles, poem titles, and poetic forms draws attention to a tangibility that in turn evokes something tangible about the public domain. Sections bear titles like Commentary, Dialogue, Notebook, Correspondence, Chronicle, Annals, Internal Report, Investigation File, and Confidential Documents, which are classifications of how texts circulate, or are prevented from circulating, in public.2 These are pointedly not terms of art like sonnet or sestina that refer to established literary forms. Like the concrete images and the case studies, they reflect on the materiality of human interaction, including the materiality of evil, in order to turn Hinsey’s writing into a sounding board for public voice.

2. Descent—Into the Human Element

Evil is inhuman but not unhuman. Man is the wolf to man. Hinsey’s next book traces the origins of inhumanity through “Our everyday descent into the human element” (Descent 28). The poem “Preparation for the Descent” invokes a journey metaphor to take us along a “rugged incline that was once said to lead up to Paradise” (27-28). The path no longer goes up like a ladder, and this book has all but abandoned the transcendent notion of history. The reference is to The Divine Comedy, but Hinsey finds Dante’s pilgrimage to be immaterial to salvation: “But, you have read this before. From the start, you have known you can always just turn the page” (28). The book metaphor is both a reflection on Hinsey’s carefully organized collections and her rejection of the eschatological story arc. Neither ecstasy nor transcendence seem to offer salvation anymore.  What is left is the direct confrontation with the human aspects of evil (“The real journey is stranger”). By “descent” Hinsey does not mean to imply that she has abandoned the celestial ladder for negative theology: she does not represent life as unmitigated hell or attempt to approach the divine through its opposite. Rather, she questions the usefulness of the celestial aspect of the ladder for understanding moral categories. “Evil,” as she points out in an interview, “is an entirely human affair, and is an ethical rather than a theological category. If we, as human beings, choose to carry out atrocities, then these acts are a reflection of our own nature” (“Wheatley”).

What, then, is human nature in Update on the Descent? The title hints at Darwin and perhaps an instinctual source of violence; but Hinsey’s account of humanity has less to do with the theory of evolution than with the politics of how human beings make and unmake their world. Hinsey’s account of world-making seems Arendtian in its derivation. She provides a summary of how it works in an aphorism whose tone stands out in this largely pessimistic book: “Optimistic Postulate: Despite its homelessness, the Self can find sanctuary in the eternal Now—the ever-renewing instant of world and other” (47). If White Fire seeks rapturous solutions to the problem of suffering, Update on the Descent turns to politics, and more specifically to the basic political distinction between the public and the natural world, in its attempts to tilt the ladder to the horizontal—to turn it into a table. Arendt characterizes the natural world as cyclical, seasonal, repetitive, and governed by cause and effect (Human Condition 19). Humans liberate themselves from causality when they gather into groups, creating a space for activity that did not exist before (Human Condition 175-78). This space is the public, understood as a theatre of action, and it is what makes freedom possible as a mode of performance. People gather into publics in order to bear witness to memorable words and deeds (Human Condition 54-58; 176-78). Arendt’s formulation, like Hinsey’s aphorism, is classical in its emphasis on recognition. “For the confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people,” as Arendt movingly puts it in the summary chapter she added to later editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism (476).

Violence, like freedom, is also human, but it transforms spectators into props: people are no longer called upon to bear witness to memorable deeds—or to perform them—but are degraded into instruments for achieving someone else’s ends (Human Condition 151, 156, 199-207; “On Violence,” 141). Violence is instrumental, which means it is causal—but not in the way nature is causal—and it transforms the public sphere in ways that can require a great deal of criminal ingenuity. Hinsey follows the route of violence through the human collectivities it negates, insisting, all the time, that violence is human in its ability to destroy the free space of interaction:  “Instinct is as puzzled as the rest of us about the existence of secret military prisons and mass graves” (Update 26).3 Violence might try to justify itself by appealing to human nature, but this is mythology; it is really a goal-driven application of force that exploits human connections in order to turn people into things. In “An Intimate History of the Hand,” which builds on a remark about Evil’s predilection for the hand in “Thirteen Aphorisms” (White Fire 48), Hinsey looks to the uniquely human appendage as the metaphor—and means—of dehumanization. The first line subtly recalls Auden’s remark about suffering in the “Musee des Beaux Art”:

1. Condition

About the Hand, nothing has changed.  When its moment comes, it is deferential and compliant.

8. Comment

The Hand’s logic has always been fed by suspect mythologies.

9. Means

The Hand appreciates convenience:  a stone or club fits nicely.

10. Intention

But the Hand loves best the close, direct blow.  There it can witness the blood rise, and the eyes close.

The role of “suspect mythologies” in this etiology of the blow emphasizes the difference between violence and nature, red in tooth and claw. Violence can be motivated by stories and is itself a perverse mode of storytelling—a way of using people as raw material. Tribal violence follows the same symbolic “logic,” though there are limits to the stories that can be told using other people’s bodies: “The Tribe is ever surprised before the other’s broken body—by the eternal sameness of its blood” (45). Violence does not constitute a public but moves through publics; the story it tells transforms human relations into relations between things, I-thou to I-it in Buber’s terms.

In a poem entitled “Transcript,” which is paired with “Hand” through the structural organization of the book, an interlocutor relates this story through a catalogue of unmaking—destroyed houses, towns, fields, wells, and bodies—before asking, “Who said to shoot without mercy?  Because the hand remembers, knows it must face the soul” (35). The answer is a non-sequitur that indicates there is no “because”—no explanation for violence except the perverse desire not to explain. The next poem, called “Inventory,” measures the awful impact of mass murder through a catalogue of destroyed relations and roles: “Here, lined up head to head, and foot to foot, is life’s inventory. / This one was a husband. This one was a brother” (39). This book of poetry devotes some of its most detailed descriptions to cataloguing the evidence of historical Evil (here in phrasing borrowed from Eliot):  “you have seen them all already—/…/ Have seen the torturer’s notes, the scattered identity papers, / Have seen the shallow graves, by the roadside, so near to the / Churches, near to the mosques…” (60).

The central case study in Update on the Descent is the former Yugoslavia. The cover photograph depicts a grim scene of deportation, described in the credits as Kosovar Serbs descending from a train in the snow (a photo from Kosovo also adorns the cover of her next book). The documentary poem “Testimony on What Is Important,” as central to this book as “Celestial Ladder” was to the previous one, places readers in the gallery of a court hearing on war crimes committed in Kosovo. In her notes Hinsey describes the poem in this way: “Fragments of testimony presented in this poem, composed in coblas unissonans, come from a witness session at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, February 2001” (88). The unifying verse structure has an old lineage, but it shapes testimony that is shocking, contemporary, and sounds verbatim. The interlocutor is a prosecutor or judge who is more interested in entering evidence into the record than in acknowledging what the victim feels to be significant:

“The court questioned him, said, “We are only interested in the facts.”
He said, “But, I have something to add—”
Something important.”  He said he knew the torturer.  He knew the man.”

The witness repeats twice more that he knew the man who tortured him—knew him well enough to ask him, “Do you know what you are doing?” (49). This is what is important, he insists, more important than the gruesome details of the torture, which are so awful that the victim apologizes for the “obscenity” of having to describe them (48).

The apology is another way of acknowledging what is “important” in the poem—namely the fact of human relations. The victim does not want to inflict his pain on the listeners, nor does Hinsey want to exploit his suffering for emotional effect. There is thus a sense in which the apology is the poet’s own, which is why she repeats it, this time in Osip Mandelstam’s words, as one of the epigraphs to her next book: “Forgive me for what I’m telling you” (Illegal Age, n.p.).  In “Testimony on What Is Important,” the speaker establishes herself as a witness in the first line only to remove herself from the rest of the account: “I am only telling you what I have heard” (48). The poem bears witness to the witness, but the emphasis is not on the emotional impact of the survivor on the poet. Nor is it on the accuracy of the testimony or the admissibility of evidence. Rather, the poem works to integrate the testimony into several wider structures, beginning with the first-person, lyrical frame of the poem but extending through the coblas form to the wider architecture of the book. These structures establish a pattern of communication, which is also a pattern of human relations, that can survive the torture “voicelessly” inflected on the victim and meant to destroy his relations to other people (part of the torture is sexual in nature and involves another prisoner). The court, in the first instance, is meant to administer justice. Justice is blind and depends on impersonal rules of jurisprudence and evidence.  Forgiveness, however, depends on recognizing the particularity of the one asking for it. It is important to note that there is no talk of forgiving the torturers here. At stake is the humanity of the victim—a humanity that must be sustained in a wider network of human relations. The poem steps in where the evidentiary rules of the court necessarily fall short, establishing the personhood of the victim beyond the facts of the case. This is actually part of the jurisdictional problem faced by international tribunals generally, and one addressed by Arendt in her famous account of the Eichmann trial, which was forced to address the fact that “the international order, and mankind in its entirety, might have been grievously hurt and endangered” (Eichmann in Jerusalem 276). How to respond to the facts of damaged mankind and denied personhood? The rules of evidence are insufficient here, and necessarily so. Hinsey turns to poetry to recognize not only the suffering but the personhood of the victim.

Poetry is faced with the challenge of reactivating those human relations, catalogued in “Inventory,” rendered horribly obsolete by mass murder and torture. In Update on the Descent, Hinsey addresses this challenge by shifting her register of allusions from the biblical to the classical, abandoning images of transcendence, such as the celestial ladder or Dante’s journey, for concrete situations of conflict and revenge. Instructive here are two references to the Iliad that frame the book: the prose poem “A Natural History of Compassion” and a collection of aphorisms called “Interdiction.” Together, they offer a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Simone Weil. In her famous essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” Weil describes how violence “obliterates anybody who feels its touch” (Weil 17). Force transforms subjects into objects; it also takes on a momentum of its own: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, until violence leads to an interminable cycle of revenge. (In The Illegal Age, Hinsey demonstrates how so-called justice can miscarry by comparing a revenge-lynching to the dragging of Hector’s body around the walls of Troy [107]). Weil finds a moment of respite from this cycle when Priam visits Achilles to beg him, his son’s murderer, for his son’s corpse. Each man has allowed himself to become an instrument of violence in this war of retribution, but they most resemble each other in the grief they feel for their dead, and in their recognition that the dead son remains a son and therefore deserves funeral rites befitting his personhood. Hinsey emphasizes the “compassion” between the two men and their “commonality,” deliberately adopting an external point of view that mimics Weil’s own theoretical distance (12). The third-person prose rendition allows her writing to resist the undertow that eventually capsizes the epic: “under each [compassionate] word the ceaseless river of revenge flowed” (Descent 11, 87). Hinsey, like Weil, knows that language—even the language of justice—can become a medium of the violence it represents.  “Interdiction” states the problem succinctly: “We have become afraid of them, the old words, as if at last we / Could escape punishment if, for once and for all, they were forbidden / Utterance in the public squares” (76). However, as this poem makes clear, simply forbidding words is not an option. Like Priam, so the poet: “But here, under the blackened sun, there are things, in the trammeled,/The ruined, the old words, which must still be said” (77). The old words must be uttered because they can restore personhood (even post-mortem) and rebuild the public square, but they must be uttered in a particular way. To achieve this, the poetry must achieve I-thou recognition rather than I-we emotion or I-it violence. It must insist on a liberal form of intersubjectivity.

3. The Road to The Illegal Age

What must be uttered? The epigraphs to The Illegal Age (there are three in total) provide a hint in the way they link forgiveness to justice, carrying on some of the major themes of the previous volume, and pointing to Hinsey’s most important formal innovation: the aphoristic attempt to voice the interpersonal structures of the public sphere. I have already mentioned the epigraph from Mandelstam asking forgiveness for the evidence he has to present. Another is from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man” (Illegal Age, n.p.; Totalitarianism 447). This sentence occurs near the end of the book, where Arendt takes up the awful task of describing the death camps. Her argument is that the Nazis destroyed people in order to kill personhood. From a totalitarian perspective, “individuality, anything indeed that distinguishes one man from another, is intolerable” (457). Their approach was systematic. The Nazis began by revoking legal rights; then murdered “the moral person in man” by placing people in situations where there was no right way to act. After destroying juridical and moral personhood, the next step involved “the preparation of living corpses” through starvation and maltreatment. The step-by-step process—really an assembly-line approach to mass murder—was designed to make the actual death of individuals seem superfluous (452-55). Once individuality or personhood is killed, death is just a statistic. Arendt is clear about the aim and the consequences of this system, which she does not hesitate to call “radical evil”: “They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony” (451, 459).

Arendt’s grim prognosis is Hinsey’s starting point as she moves into the dark future of The Illegal Age. She sets herself the poetic task of helping dehumanized objects turn themselves back into subjects in an age that has unfortunately conformed to Arendt’s dire predictions: “The eternal prison is still in operation”; “Like those who will come after, we will now inhabit the windy, disinherited house of the present” (78). The disinherited house, a metaphor for the decayed public sphere, is a place where testimony does, indeed must take place. Hinsey’s uses this testimony to “explor[e] the continuity and variations of the autocratic experience,” as the notes to the volume put it, but also to recuperate the abstract personhood put at risk by the systematic attack on human community (119). It is here that she extends her observations of past atrocities into insights about the contemporary threat of illiberalism. The poems in this book expand the range but also fill in emotional details of witnesses who speak in historically compelling, but not verbatim language to describe atrocities committed in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and our historical present. Emblematic here is the “evidence” presented in “Carved Into Bark,” a poem commemorating those deported to the Gulag Archipelago in the early 1950s. Messages scratched on bark are not likely to survive. The poem is thus forced to invent evidence that no longer exists: “If you cannot fully remember, then you must invent:  until pure invention recalls the forbidden truths” (52). The evidence comes in the form of aphorisms rather than first-hand accounts: “Virtue too can be muddied like a fist; but even in imperfection, it brings a scrap of forgiveness to the table” (53).

To understand how aphorism is linked to forgiveness, and how forgiveness is linked to the I-thou relations at the table that serves as a metaphor for the public sphere, it is essential to note a change that has occurred in Hinsey’s attitude towards history. At the turn of the millennium she still hoped for historical transcendence and rapture, but personal grief, which led to an increased sensitivity to the pain of others, forced her to recognize how history rolls over victims on its way to questionable ends (see also “On the Progress of History,” p. 111). The eponymous poem sets out to pinpoint where “decency stumbled” in order to “erect / There a monument:  to the advent of the Illegal Age” (15). Decency has stumbled so often that Hinsey needs an entire book to map out the missteps. The Illegal Age provides this map, but it also choreographs the fall, mobilizing a variety of formal devices to demonstrate that in decency’s fall, we sinned all. This particular poem shows Hinsey pushing her syntax over the cliff-edges of the line endings, creating awkward breaks between “erect/There” and more suggestive ones like “just/Mercy” (13). This has the effect of leading us step by step through the numbing process of learning “To not suffer the pain of others,” while isolating words that have a special meaning in Hinsey’s lexicon, such as “tables” (ibid.).

In “The Illegal Age (Reprise),” a tandem poem near the end of the book, the speaker assumes that though we cannot mark exactly when or where the illegal age began, we are in it: “A way forward has been made for the hour without mercy” (103). After what we have read, after what we have seen, we are all implicated in illegality: “Don’t think your compliance is not being observed” (104). The poem urges its readers to salvage something from the destruction that has already occurred, here referencing the way prisoners were singled out for execution during the French Terror:

But by then, all the doors will have been marked in/ yellow chalk.
Still, let us not pass each other this final time, without/ recognition, without looking each other in the eye.
Remember:  in the ink-light of testimony, a record may/still be kept. (104)

The line endings, which I have here marked with a slash, are probably not intended as line-breaks in this poem. Hinsey deconstructs her prosody at strategic moments, as in this effort to find words for that “for which we have no name” (103). Still, the final lines, quoted above, are neither completely prosaic nor completely hopeless. The speaker turns to traditional devices like apostrophe to insist on the importance of recognition and record keeping. Indeed, the “ink-light of testimony” brings recognition and record-keeping together in a catachresis that inscribes what is spoken in the space where it is said. Ink becomes a metaphor for the way records bleed into relations as the poem takes us across the text-space threshold, into the public sphere.

The effect could hardly be farther from that of confessional poetry, and it prepares the way for Hinsey’s idiosyncratic use of the aphorism as the voice of the public sphere. Elsewhere I have explored the tendency of confessional poets to identify with the victims and even perpetrators of atrocity (Pound Reaction; “Snodgrass”). The most widely recognized example is Sylvia Plath, who identifies with Jewish victims of the Holocaust and calls her father a Nazi in “Daddy,” a poem that projects family drama onto the world historical stage. This technique can easily lead to accusations of misappropriation. Hinsey avoids this trap by gauging the public impacts of illegality before making her way back to the private. She insists on both forgiveness and justice by separating testimony from the “lyrical I,” and by depersonalizing her poetry after acknowledging her perspective as a poet, as in “Testimony on What Is Important.” Aphorism is crucial here, but many devices work towards this end, including apostrophe and personification.  “A Concise Biography of Tyranny,” for instance, provides a synopsis of political oppression in its account of how capital-T Tyranny starts small and dreams big. Personification lives and dies through a poet’s ability to breathe life into an abstraction. Hinsey manages this in an understated way, providing comic relief in the depiction of Tyranny’s “awkward adolescence,” and mordant irony in the observation that Tyranny’s grave is never bereft of flowers (56). The portrait of Power in The Illegal Age works similarly: “Power hopes that the People will eventually come to love it, or if not, cease to exist” (65).

There is a sense in which personified abstraction is a correlative of aphorism. The one is impersonality as a figure, the other impersonality in voice. Neither escapes abstraction, which may present more of a problem for poetic voice than it does for legal categories such as personhood. Nevertheless, if confessional poetry moves from the personal to the historical, Hinsey moves in the opposite direction, from the public back to the private. Her verse conveys a great deal of personal suffering, but it strives to bring something else to the table, namely the table, itself, i.e. the public sphere. Another way to put this is that Hinsey returns to the person through personhood, which is constituted through a series of relations that exceed the psychological, spatial, and temporal boundaries of the self: “To praise the virtues of the private life:  beside the bedside lamp quietly cultivate a private relationship with the Facts” (99). The fact here, once again, is social in addition to being evidentiary. Personhood has a place setting in the public sphere, and that provides a legal basis for poetic project of articulating personal experience as voice.

The basic fact that Hinsey recalls, even in her most private moments, is the fact of our communal existence. Lyrical poetry, modeled on the soliloquy and described as “speech overheard,” tends to obscure this in its public demonstration of privacy. Aphorism strives to put words in everyone’s mouth. If lyrical poetry is the “first-hand knowledge” that has a seat at the table, aphorism is the table as sounding board. Hinsey’s poetry strives to find a language adequate not only to our experiences, but to the forms of togetherness that make those experiences legally and poetically relevant. She describes how man hands down cruelty to man, but also how certain guarantees of civic respect and judicial personhood, liberal guarantees, establish a forum where poetry matters because it is public. This, ultimately, is the liberal component of her post-lyricism, and the formal innovation that offers a useful contrast to populism. Hinsey does not seek to identify with the suffering of victims, or to mobilize their anger, righteous as it may be, against political opponents. Rather, she writes to draw attention to the structure of communication, which is the structure of the public sphere, in ways that allow for mutual respect. With some luck, she might help change the way we talk about ourselves and talk to each other. That is what is important.



1 “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.  The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak” (Human Condition 52).
2 Michael Warner, building on Arendt and other theorists of the public sphere, argues that “the social imaginary of publics” tends to take the form of “a relation among strangers projected from private readings of circulating texts” (Publics 116).
3 Another poem does link violence to the “animal [that] prowls in our veins,” but it also stresses the way violence isolates victims from other people in order to make them “more lowly” (20-21).

Works Cited

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Gross, Andrew.  The Pound Reaction:  Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature.  Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015.

—.  “W.D. Snodgrass’ The Fuehrer Bunker:  Confession, Memory, and the Personification of History” in Entangled Memories, eds. Julia Lange and Marius Henderson.  Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2017.  69-96.

Hinsey, Ellen.  The Illegal Age.  Todmorden, UK:  Arc Publications, 2018.

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Ickstadt, Heinz.  “Verbal Abstraction and the Democratic Promise of Natural Speech.”  Aesthetic Innovation and the Democratic Principle.  Eds. Susanne Rohr, Peter Schneck, Sabine Sielke.  Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016.  179-204.

Kazin, Michael.  The Populist Persuasion:  An American History.  Revised ed.  Ithaca:  Cornell UP, 2017.

Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt.  How Democracies Die.  New York:  Broadway Books, 2019.

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Warner, Michael.   Publics and Counterpublics.  New York:  Zone Books, 2002.

Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men. Penguin Classics, 2007.

Weil, Simone.  “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.  Chicago Review 18:2 (1965):  5-30.

Wheatley, Susan.  “An Interview with Ellen Hinsey.”

Whelan, Mariah.  “Interview #5:  Ellen Hinsey.  Facing the Illegal Age:  Poetry and Truth-Telling.”  bath magg:  a magazine of new poetry.  Issue 5.