On the Sidewalk: Towards an Ethopoetics of the Streets

By | 1 November 2016

In his prose poem ‘The Eyes of the Poor,’ Baudelaire stages a Parisian tableau that brings together the disenfranchised poor and the privileged bourgeoisie in an awkward moment of encounter. The lyric / narrative ‘I’ and his female companion were about to enter ‘a new café that formed the corner of a new boulevard, still strewn with debris and already gloriously displaying its unfinished splendors,’ when he noticed ‘on the sidewalk, a worthy man in his forties was standing, with a tired face, a greying beard, and holding with one hand a little boy and carrying on the other arm a little being too weak to walk.’ They were all ‘in rags’ and their ‘faces were extraordinarily serious, and the six eyes contemplated fixedly the new café with an equal admiration, but shaded differently according to their age’ (Paris Spleen 51). As the poet and his lover sat down at a table in the ‘sparkling’ café lavishly furnished with kitsch décor including ‘nymphs and goddesses … all of history and all of mythology at the service of gluttony,’ he became mesmerised by the eyes of the poor, which spoke vividly to his imagination:

The father’s eyes said: ‘How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! You’d think all the gold in this poor world was on its walls.’ — The eyes of the little boy: ‘How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! But it’s a house only people who aren’t like us can enter.’ (52)

The poem inscribes an urban encounter when the lyric self comes face to face with an Other that is economically, socially, culturally marginalised; the sight of poor family triggers feelings of empathy, reflected in the description of the eyes of the poor. However, the narrator’s compassion and guilt are negated by the hard mirror of his lover’s gaze, her ‘beautiful and so bizarrely gentle eyes’ utterly devoid of sympathy, and her demand that the head-waiter chase the father and children off. The poem ends with the poet remarking on the gulf that exists between people, about how ‘difficult is it to understand one another’ and how ‘incommunicable is thought, even between people in love’ (52).

The aporia at the close of Baudelaire’s poem reinforces the liminal note evoked by that the prose narration and lyric description. The moment of snapshot clarity and recognition, when the lyric ‘I’ finds itself reflected in the abject gaze of the Other, is effaced by the blank indifference of his partner’s eyes. The stark contrasts of inside / outside, rich / poor, observer / observed are unresolved, opening up an interstitial space in which the ethics of looking, writing, reading and indeed the ethos of the text comes under scrutiny. Doubtless, the poem skewers bourgeois attitudes towards the poor and is one of the many street poems in Baudelaire’s oeuvre that evince his sympathy with the poor and marginalised sections of Parisian society, but its textual irony and ethos forestalls any moral resolution. There is a discernible sentimentality too, but not sentimentality which is shallow, indulgent, maudlin or melodramatic, and which precludes any real ethical engagement by reducing complex situations to simple and hackneyed responses. Baudelaire’s reflexive irony ensures that sentimentality, as Robert Solomon states, ‘need not be an escape from reality or responsibility; quite to the contrary, it may provide the precondition for ethical engagement, not an obstacle to it’ (226). The sentimentality is part of the affective receptivity of the lyric ‘I,’ and its vulnerability and exposure to the presence of the Other. The poem becomes a site or poetic space where the lyric ‘I’ finds itself shaken in the unsettling gaze of the Other, its aesthetics and ethics questioned, and its subjectivity brought to the brink of dissolution or transformation in the liminal moment. In the contingent ebb and flow of the street, the poetic space maps an ethical field where what Emmanuel Levinas calls an ‘ethical event’ can take place, in which the self is awakened to the unique and irreducible alterity of the Other.

The liminal setting of the poem, comprising the Parisian sidewalk and the café window that frames the encounter, unsettles any complacent affirmation of the human values of pity or compassion. It also foregrounds the ambivalence and ambiguity of the ethical moment, when the lyric ‘I’ bumps against the reality of the Other and is nudged to threshold point of change and transformation. Spatially the liminality is also embodied and enhanced by the prose poem form, its fragmentary narrative and lyric cadences blurring the boundary between observation and participation, self and otherness. Thus Baudelaire’s ‘hypocritical reader’ is implicated as much as the observer-poet; the poem is an open field that draws the reader into a state of participation-observation, to borrow a term from ethnography. Both the liminality and the reflexivity of the prose poem gesture towards what Anna Fahraeus calls the ‘operational ethos of texts’ or how in texts ‘ethos is ‘invariably textual’ (8). Baudelaire’s poem, and indeed any street poem that turns its gaze on social issues of poverty, race and justice, embeds in its ontological ground and textual body the question of ethics.

The poetry of the streets operates not dissimilarly to street photography, and faces the same ethical challenge. The street photographer, wearing his cloak of invisibility, often captures his human subject in candid moments, without seeking prior consent; similarly, the street poet, in establishing his poetic subject, even if the result may not be readily identifiable visually, is potentially guilty of an ethical blind spot if he ignores the ethics of creative production. While there is no disputing that fact that the photographic works of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt and Robert Frank are informed by a social, ethical commitment to draw attention to issues of social, economic and racial inequalities, their objective, clear-eyed attention to the subject revealing profound empathy with the downtrodden and outcast, there is an a predatory, even exploitative aspect inherent in their art, even if the humanity of the subject is heightened in the process. Susan Sontag observes:

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’ (55)

There is an objectification at work, as the camera turns a human being into an aesthetic image. This dehumanisation process may explain the objection of some tribal people to being photographed – they feel they have been robbed of their souls. Sontag remarks:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time. (28)

Hence ethics is an inescapable part of the photographic act, and the ethos of the photographer and the photographic subject is constituted in the act of looking, in what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously dubs ‘the decisive moment.’ Like street photography, the street poem is not just a spatial mapping of an urban space; just as the photograph carries the imprint of the photographer’s eye, its subjectivity and ethos implied or constituted in the choice of subject and perspective, composition and framing, the poem establishes its ethos through imagery, rhythm, diction, voice and tone.

In William Carlos Williams’s ‘To a Poor Old Woman,’ the observer-poet develops his ethical relationship to his subject through the framing of its central image. Williams’s shorter poems are exemplary Imagist lyrics, their haiku-like brevity and snapshot-like clarity revealing an alert photographer’s eye. Indeed, Williams is called ‘the master of the glimpse’ by Kenneth Burke, who observes: ‘What Williams sees, he sees in a flash’ (197). The image of the old woman on the street is captured in a photographic instant, the vivid clarity of the observed moment revealing Williams’s attentiveness to the everyday, his photographic reflex quick to seize fleeting mundane objects and moments and make snapshot poems of them. What also makes it photographic in quality is also the elision of the lyric ‘I,’ an absence or erasure that gives the poet the advantage of invisibility, and an impression of his detachment and non-involvement:

To a Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her (91)

By running the title onto first line the poem underlines the instantaneity and contingent nature of the encounter; the casual voice and present participle ‘munching’ also create the effect of in medias res, as well as implicating the lyric ‘I’ in an event that is already unfolding. The use of the second-person pronoun further implicates the observer and reader in the street scene, makes them complicit voyeurs peeking into the private world of a poor old woman. However, the poem does not reduce the autonomous subjectivity of the woman in any expression of sympathy or compassion. The repetition of the sentence ‘They taste so good to her’ preserves her individuality; the emphasis on the woman’s taste inscribes her corporeality, gives her an impenetrable interiority and inviolable alterity. It is testament to Williams’s descriptive prowess that the corporeality of the woman is evoked not through any visual evocation of her body but of her gustatory action; the precise, emphatic and empathetic detail of the way she eats the plum is rendered in Cubist terms by the use of repetition, lineation and enjambment, foregrounding the physical gesture and corporeality of the figure. With its third repetition and end-positioning, ‘taste’ operates as a focal, pivotal point that not only makes the poet’s empathy abundantly clear, but also prepares for the shift in perspective in the next stanza, where the second-person pronoun firmly establishes the empathic and ethical ground. In the final stanza the old woman is seen in the social context of the street, of a world where, poor and oppressed, she seeks solace in a bag of plums. Here the ethical relationship is unequivocally realised in the words ‘Comforted’ and ‘solace,’ articulating a self-Other relationship of empathy.

In Williams’s poem, as in street photography that contains human subjects, the relationship of lyric or narrative ‘I’ and his subject is not only spatial but also interpersonal and intersubjective. Embedded in the lyric or photographic image is relationship between the perceiving self and the phenomenal world, or what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the phenomenology and primacy of perception. However, the dialectic is not merely epistemological and ontological; there is a deeper underlying ethical transaction or interaction involved, a positioning of the self vis-à-vis what the father of postmodern ethics Emmanuel Levinas calls ‘the ethical inviolability of the other’ (Totality and Infinity 195). In both the photographic act and poetic text, aesthetics and ethics are inextricably bound up. Where there is an awareness of the irreducibility of the Other, and of its own limitations and vulnerability, the aesthetic sensibility is inescapably ethical in its conduct and transactions.

This ethical element is integral to street poems that include a human Other as its subject. Street poems like Baudelaire’s and Williams’s are open to contingent and chance events, providing windows of opportunity for the self-Other encounter to take place, creating the space for an ethnopoetics that is also a kind of concomitant ethopoetics. The first term was coined by Jerome Rothenberg in Technicians of the Sacred to refer to the study of the range of poetries outside the Western tradition but was later adapted by Shirley Geok-lin Lim in her seminal article ‘Reconstructing Asian-American Poetry’ to denote the deployment of images and distinctive speech features that are identifiably ethnic in Asian American texts. More recently, Rothenberg has tinkered with the term to include ‘ethopoetics’: ‘Etopoética, no longer an accident. At one point I-I even found it to be a word in Plutarch. It means ‘the poetics of ethos’, that is, the making of ways-of-being. And ethos meaning there not just one way of being but a more healthier, open, developed, complex way of being … ’ (Rothenberg, ‘Heriberto Yépez: Ethopoetics, What Is It?’).

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