Finding Holes in the Whole

Finding Holes in the Whole

The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole
Brian McHale
Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004.

Jacob Edmond reviews Brian McHale’s The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole.

Perloff reviews another theorist of a different kind of ‘difficult whole,’ Franco Moretti and his Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez, in ebr 1998.


Conte, who like McHale has published books on both novelistic and poetic genres, is reviewed by Joseph Tabbi in ebr 2004.


The generative aesthetic in fiction and poetry, and at least one example of generative writing by Paul Braffort, can be found in the ebr 1999/2000 special on Writing Under Constraint.


In the 1980s, Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction put forward an influential theory with which he sought to encompass the heterogeneous world of postmodernist fiction which, he argued, was characterized by the shift from an “epistemological” to an “ontological dominant.” Concluding his latest book, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, McHale notes the lack of “any decisive shift of dominant” in the postmodernist long poem that would provide a similar key to its “difficult whole” (250). Is this failure to cohere within a single theoretical framework a reflection of a generic difference between poetry and fiction, or does it reflect, as McHale implies, what he now understands as postmodernism’s characteristic resistance to all essential qualities and normative positions? This question remains tantalizingly open in his brilliant study of a series of diverse and often difficult poems written over the last half century.

McHale chooses to focus on the long poem, rather than the lyric or serial poem, because part of his argument, which is drawn from Marjorie Perloff’s essay “From Image to Action,” is that the shift from modernism to postmodernism in the long poem is marked by the “replenishment of narrative” (258). This shift is arguably applicable to the work of writers who are otherwise operating within very different poetic traditions. Thus the long poem provides a particularly fertile ground on which to argue for seeing apparently very different poetries as part of a single “difficult whole.”

Though not explicitly stated, Obligation can be seen as engaging with two important studies of the postmodernist long poem from the 1990s. On the one hand, like Joseph Conte in Unending Design, McHale argues for a formal distinction between modernist and postmodernist long poems. On the other hand, like Lynn Keller in Forms of Expansion, McHale emphasizes diversity within the postmodernist long poem form. The combination of these two approaches presents McHale with another “difficult whole”: the clear formal typology of postmodernist poetry found in Conte joined with Keller’s acknowledgement of contemporary poetry’s continuous expansion beyond such analytic frameworks.

McHale’s book examines a broad spectrum of postmodernist long poems. Three chapters are devoted to single works: James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, John Ashbery’s “The Skaters,” and Susan Howe’s The Europe of Trusts. Three further chapters focus on two apparently contrasting long poems: Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery and Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger; Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets; and Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend and Bruce Andrews’s “Confidence Trick.” This selection of poems enables McHale to compare poetic practices that are not normally discussed together. Poets such as Bruce Andrews and James Merrill, for example, occupy very different positions within the fractious world of contemporary American poetry, and their very different poetic styles are often presented as mutually opposed. One of the great successes of The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole is the way in which it demonstrates the applicability of a toolkit of analytic strategies from postmodernist theories, employing in particular “the model of the postmodernist novel” and “that of postmodern architecture,” to a strikingly wide range of poets (3). True, McHale’s approach sometimes serves only to illustrate the divide between poems operating according to different aesthetic assumptions, as in his chapter on Tolson and Dorn, or on Hill and Schwerner; here he is forced to conclude that “Nothing could contrast more markedly with Geoffrey Hill’s self-consciously pedantic, faintly self-mocking notes to Mercian Hymns (modelled on Eliot’s and David Jones’s) than the open-ended, improvisatory, unsettled character of Schwerner’s ‘Journals/Divagations’ ” (118). Nevertheless, McHale’s strategy plays to his strength - his ability to produce clear readings of postmodernist works, grounded in semiotic and structuralist analysis - and yields great rewards, often revealing surprising points of similarity between seemingly contrasting texts.

The six central chapters of The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole can be seen as providing two different approaches to reading postmodernist long poems. First, the three chapters focusing on single authors could all be viewed as attempting to show how postmodernist poetry is characterized by strategies that allow the poem to get outside any critical frame chosen to subsume it. McHale thus, ironically, frames postmodernist long poems in such a way that he points to their characteristic move of exceeding any frame of reference. This strategy could be seen as doubly risky because, on the one hand, it suggests the impossibility of the project of characterizing the postmodernist long poem and because, on the other hand, the exceeding of critical frames is also characteristic of poetries of other periods, such as the work of Gertrude Stein or Emily Dickinson. Read sympathetically, however, the unboundedness of McHale’s approach could be seen as a performative response to the unboundedness of the works at hand. The possibility of reading McHale’s work as a performance of such boundary crossing is supported by the contrasting approaches of the three chapters that address two divergent works. Although these chapters identify fault lines within postmodernist poetry already pointed to by others such as Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, their novelty lies in the way they attempt to go beyond seemingly unbridgeable aesthetic divides by suggesting points of comparison between so-called avant-garde and mainstream poetries.

McHale is at his best in the three chapters that focus on single authors. In these chapters, he deftly supplies frameworks for analyzing postmodernist long poems that themselves reveal a collapse in critical frames of reference. In the chapter on Merrill, McHale applies his own theory of postmodernist fiction to The Changing Light at Sandover, describing the poem’s creation of multiple worlds and employment of “ontological collapse” which occurs when “a projected reality folds up, like cyberspace, at the end of a session; or when the metaphorical bases of the projected world are exposed” (49). By choosing this frame of reference, McHale deliberately accentuates postmodernist features of the poem that otherwise might be obscured by its use of conventional form and a style that appears straightforwardly discursive in comparison with some of the more disjunctive poems that he goes on to discuss.

McHale also analyzes The Changing Light at Sandover using another term commonly applied to more disjunctive works than Merrill’s. He argues that the Ouija board, which plays such an important role in the poem, can be seen as a text-generating machine, or “prosthesis” for writing. According to McHale, “Merrill’s use of the Ouija board takes its place among the range of procedural writing that has been practiced in our time,” including the procedural poetry of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low (47). This comparison seems somewhat flawed, given that Merrill’s Ouija-board-generated text displays all the formal and narrative control of the poet as author and has none of the predetermined, machine-generated feel of Cage and Mac Low’s work. This difference reflects the contrast between a method of divination based on the notion of contacting an outside power - who is functionally not unlike the controlling presence of the author - and procedures that are meant not to relinquish authorial control to another but rather to eliminate it altogether, or at least to shift that control to the level of the concept or procedure. Nevertheless, this is the first of a number of McHale’s deliberately provocative comparisons that do make us look again at the way in which we divide up the map of postmodernist poetry.

McHale’s chapter on John Ashbery, whose position in American poetry has perhaps been more hotly disputed than that of any other contemporary poet, is a brilliant analysis of the dangers of the various frames through which Ashbery’s work has been viewed. Employing Benjamin Harshav’s notion of the “three-dimensional semiotic object,” McHale convincingly demonstrates “how Ashbery’s text anticipates and preempts interpretative moves” (140). In so doing, McHale’s chapter takes the risky critical position of employing an analytic framework in order to demonstrate the failure of all critical frames imposed on Ashbery’s work, an ironic position that is perhaps not acknowledged as explicitly as it could have been. Nevertheless, he convincingly shows how Ashbery’s work encourages critics to take certain parts of his poems as “keys” to the work as a whole while simultaneously undermining the idea that anything is “central” in his work. Ironically again, if anything is “key” to McHale’s approach to postmodernist poetry, it is this chapter. “How (Not) to Read a Postmodernist Long Poem” provides the justification for McHale’s non-totalizing approach to all the poems in this collection by warning against the critical temptation to offer an easy “solution” to the difficult whole.

Finally, McHale’s chapter on Susan Howe evinces a similar sensitivity to the way in which postmodernist poems exceed their own frames as well as the critical frameworks which readers employ to understand them. McHale shows how the multiple layers of quotation and historical reference in Howe’s work always avoid a totalizing coherence, while the lack of an authorial presence further enlarges possible frames of reference, just as the title of her poetic collection or long poem (as McHale points out, the frame of the single poem is also left radically in doubt in Howe’s work) Frame Structures suggests.

The three chapters which focus on long poems by two contrasting authors are perhaps less successful than those devoted to single poems, but they are also arguably even more thought provoking because they bring together counter-intuitive pairs of writers. Whereas in the elegantly written chapter on Howe, McHale’s approach does not depart notably from other nuanced accounts of her work, such as Lisa Joyce’s, the comparative chapters, like the conception of the books as whole, are more innovative. These comparative chapters bring McHale’s interest in arguing for reading postmodernist poetry as a “difficult whole” through the stylistic juxtaposition, already apparent in his individual chapters on writers as different as Merrill and Howe, into sharper contrast.

The chapter on Tolson’s Harlem Gallery and Dorn’s Gunslinger addresses the use of ontological shifts, or “pop-up” effects, and carnivalesque features in both poems. As Brian Reed has pointed out in another review of McHale’s book, the attempt to assert the similarities between the two works if anything underscores the dissimilarities between Tolson’s modernist and Dorn’s postmodernist aesthetic. As in the following chapter on Geoffrey Hill and Armand Schwerner, however, this emphasis on the dissimilarities could be seen as a positive feature of McHale’s work. By comparing contemporaneous works which exhibit similar features (stylistic shifts in the case of Tolson and Dorn, and archeological poetics in the case of Hill and Schwerner), McHale is able to delineate the continuities and changes between modernist and postmodernist aesthetics while also pointing to the way in which these aesthetics continue to coexist in contemporary poetry. Rather than viewing the accentuation of difference as a weakness, as Reed does, I see the contrasts that McHale sets up as allowing one to see important fault lines within contemporary poetic practice, as well as setting those practices within a continuum of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics. Of course, others, such as the aforementioned Perloff and Bernstein, have been pointing to the contrast between “experimental” or “innovative” poetries and “Official Verse Culture” (to which Merrill certainly belongs) for many years. But what is significant and new about McHale’s approach is that it demonstrates a critical approach flexible and broad enough to accommodate both sides of the divide. This approach allows him to undertake detailed, revealing readings across such a divide without pretending that differences do not exist.

Perhaps the most provocative example of this use of comparison and contrast is in the other chapter that Reed singles out for criticism. This chapter discusses politics and postmodern poetry in relation to McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend and Andrews’s “Confidence Trick.” Here again, the less “postmodern” McGrath acts as a foil for an extended discussion of Andrews and what McHale calls the poetics of “sampling.” McHale contrasts the tendentious political positioning of McGrath with Andrews’s strategy in which “samples” of language are presented in a cut-up-like stream of text. As McHale points out, Andrews’s strategy raises questions about the political position of the text and author vis-à-vis the quotations. Is, McHale asks, such a text a “symptom” of the postmodernist condition, as Fredric Jameson argued in his classic essay on postmodernism, or is it a “diagnosis” of that condition? The chapter persuasively shows how Andrews plays on the irresolvable nature of this question so that who is tricking whom in “Confidence Trick” remains in doubt. Concluding the chapter, McHale increases the uncertainty surrounding this question by noting that Charles Altieri’s criticism of the lack of a political position inherent in Language poems, such as “Confidence Trick,” carries the New Criticism-derived assumption that “political poetry […] should carry, its interpretative context around with it” (202).

In reading Andrews, McHale employs the same semiotic distinction between “mention” and “use” that is so important to his reading of Ashbery. This distinction and Harshav’s aforementioned “three-dimensional semiotic object” are just two of a number of forms of semiotic analysis that McHale brings to bear on his material. Rather than using these techniques to present a totalizing frame for a given work, however, he employs them to show once more the ways in which postmodernist poems exceed any singular frame of reference or critical move.

Given the success of this strategy and its execution, one might have expected McHale to make more of this process of framing and de-framing in the theoretical statements that he makes about postmodernist poetry. Rather than presenting a theoretical conclusion on this process, however, McHale’s final chapter is entitled “Coda,” implying that he sees the essays in this book as a series of “movements” concluded by a recapitulation of the major themes. In keeping with the title, McHale presents in place of a conclusion what he calls a “repertoire of features” that creates the “ ‘weak’ unity” which for him characterizes postmodernist poetry (251).

In the end, postmodernist long poems do not cohere in the way that postmodernist fiction did for McHale in the 1980s as much because of his change in attitude toward the concept of postmodernism as because of a difference between the two genres. Whereas in the 1980s McHale saw postmodernism as a stylistic approach adopted only by certain contemporary novelists, so that others could still be said to write in a “modernist” style, in the 2000s McHale’s “postmodernism” is a “period poetics,” marked less by a singular stylistic or philosophical approach than by a common temporal location in the second half of the twentieth century (250).

The move to the weaker theoretical unity of a “period poetics” is more than justified by McHale’s illustration of how postmodernist long poems exceed singular critical frameworks. Still, if I had one criticism of this book it would be that McHale does not confront the difficult question of how the two terms in his phrase “period poetics” might relate to one another. McHale’s book certainly presents an exemplary analysis of some stylistic features of postmodernist poetry (“poetics” in McHale’s usage here refers primarily to a repertoire of stylistic or formal features of poetic texts), but how these features might relate to the period is left unaddressed. Let me be clear, I did not expect a simplistic relation between poetics and the historical changes of the period. Rather, I would have liked to see the numerous intersections between poetics and period discussed throughout the book brought together in the concluding chapter. Instead, McHale’s indisputable brilliance in the analysis of poetics seems to overshadow the “period” part of his term. While political, social, and cultural changes are discussed at length in several chapters, he presents no framework or taxonomy of these contextual features analogous to his stylistic repertoire.

At various places in the book, McHale himself associates shifts in style with other developments. For example, technological developments that have led to the increased use of sampling are related to Andrews’s poetics, and innovations in the visual arts are said to be tracked by changes in Ashbery’s style, which “seem to parallel, when they do not actually anticipate, shifts in postmodernism across a range of cultural practices” (135). Similarly, in relation to Tolson and Dorn, McHale discusses the “carnivalesque” postmodernism of the 1960s as relating to a certain phase in the development of what Jameson calls “late capitalism”: the “moment of transition, the space of interregnum that opens up as capitalism reorganizes itself into the transnational forms with which we have since become all too familiar” (56). Yet these references to period are never even discussed in relation to one another, so that Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize” is ultimately ignored, and so that at the end of the book it remains unclear how McHale views the relationship between period and poetics in postmodernist long poems as a whole.

Another problem with McHale’s eschewal of an overarching theory of postmodernism arises in what appear to be contradictory understandings of postmodernism coexisting in his work. On the one hand, McHale’s inclusion of a diverse range of contemporary long poems suggests that he views “postmodern poetry” as a wide ranging “period poetics.” On the other hand, McHale at various points contrasts other forms of contemporary poetry with “postmodern poetry,” writing of the difference between the “ubiquitous ‘workshop poem’ ” which continues modernism’s “interdiction of continuous narrative,” and “postmodernist poetry” which “seeks to replenish the resources of narrative in poetry” (258). Thus the subject or boundaries of McHale’s “postmodernist poetry” are not always clear. If “the construction and dispersal of subjectivity are all but universal in postmodernist poetry of all genres” (257), this formulation seems to exclude the kind of lyric poetry that assumes an unproblematic subjectivity and which has so dominated mainstream poetry in the English-speaking world since the Second World War. In other words, the reader is left uncertain about whether McHale’s notion of “postmodern poetry” is supposed to cover the full range of poetic practices since World War Two, or whether it really only covers experimental writers (such as Howe, Ashbery, and Andrews, and some others who more or less continue a high modernist aesthetic, such as Hill, Merrill, and Tolson - although how these latter are distinguished from the modernist aesthetic of the workshop poem is never explained).

McHale’s eclecticism and his rejection of an all-encompassing theory are both the strength and the weakness of his study; this combination saves him from unjustified generalizations and allows him to conduct brilliant in-depth analyses without making his readings subservient to a restrictively narrow theory; however, such a heuristic also leads him to leave tantalizing pieces of the mosaic of postmodernist long poetry unconnected. Yet maybe these gaps contribute to the point McHale wishes to make. The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole indeed fills many critical gaps in our understanding of the postmodernist long poem. But perhaps its greatest contribution lies in its illustration that because of the nature of the poetic strategies employed by writers such as Ashbery, Andrews, and Howe, there are necessarily always holes in any account of the difficult whole that is postmodernist poetry.

Works Cited

Aliteri, Charles. “Without Consequences Is No Politics: A Response to Jerome McGann.” Politics and Poetic Value. Ed. Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. 301-7.

Bernstein, Charles. “The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA.” Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Evanston, IL: Northwestern, 2001. 244-51.

Conte, Joseph. Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1990. 1-54.

—. “Periodizing the Sixties.” The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Vol. 2. The Syntax of History. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 178-208.

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1997.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Perloff, Marjorie. “From Image to Action: The Return of Story in Postmodern Poetry.” The Dance of Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 155-71.

Reed, Brian. “When All the Pieces Fail to Fit: The Puzzle of the Postmodern Long Poem.” Rev. of The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, by Brian McHale. Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005): 340-5.