On the Sidewalk: Towards an Ethopoetics of the Streets

By | 1 November 2016

There is a point of recognition in the poem when the self sees its image embodied in the Other; the poet sees the street artist ‘face to face’ and realises that the latter is also ‘an aging man.’ Then the poem moves towards an ethical moment, ‘one long minute,’ when the two men share ‘the final poem of chalk/ while the great city raged around … ’ This moment of human encounter and communion is akin to that state of self-Other relationship envisioned by Martin Buber’s I-Thou paradigm, where the lyric ‘I’ enters into a living relationship with the human Other, one that respects the Other’s alterity and presence without objectifying it:

When I confront a human being as my ‘Thou’ and speak the basic word ‘I-Thou’ to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer ‘He’ or ‘She’, limited by other ‘Hes’ and ‘Shes’, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. (15)

Buber’s I-Thou concept respects the alterity of the Other as much as Levinas’s formulation of self-Other ethical encounter, but differs in its mystical or transcendental resonances. It is more apposite here, considering the epiphanous movement of Levine’s poem, as it arrives at a more abstract and spiritual plane. The materiality of the chalk and writing are transfigured, as

the words on the blackboard
abandon their grammar and sense
and then even their shapes so that
each letter points in every direction
at once and means nothing at all.

The final words are written ‘on the air’ and the poem comes to a rest where the history of writing begins – the origin of chalk at the bottom of the seabed. In an interview Levine defines his ideal poem as one in which ‘no words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of … the people, the place’ (qtd. in Perloff 43). This poem comes close to achieving that; the earthiness of the ethical moment and language is transubstantiated in lyric grace, becoming so powerfully lucid, so transparent that the self sees the Other entirely and becomes transformed by its alterity.

Street poetry affords what Jane Hirshfield calls a ‘window-moment,’ when poems ‘change their direction of gaze in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling’ (151). In a street poem this threshold moment occurs when the perambulatory lyric/narrative ‘I’ is drawn into an ethical event or situation in which the very ground of its being is called into question. Coming up against the unforeseen presence of the Other in a liminal setting catches the lyric ‘I’ in a moment of surprise, shakes it out of its enclosure into an open place of uncertainty and risk. In the shifting spaces of the city, the sidewalk is perhaps the most likely site where Baudelaire’s ‘solitary mortal’ or flâneur, ‘walking or quickening his pace,’ experience life as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ (Selected Writings on Art 402-3). It is a liminal place of exposure, uncertainty and change, where an unforeseen encounter or a photographic instant can breach the boundaries of the self and open a window or a door to the presence of the Other. Each contingent situation or encounter triggers a different ethopoetic response and engagement, summoning a unique textual ethos which establishes the ethical moment and tracks the surprise, change and transformation of the lyric subjectivity as it becomes exposed to the alterity of the Other. There is no transcendental ethos that the poems above appeal to; no infallible code of ethics is invoked. Instead, it is in the act of writing that an ethos is discovered or established, an intersubjective poetics of ethos that arises from the dramatic and lyric recreation of the self-Other encounter. In meeting the human face of the Other, the lyric ‘I’ discovers an ethos in which it realises its own humanity.

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