Towards an Ethics of Poetry in Thom Gunn’s ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’
  • Patrick West

This article argues that ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ (1958) by Thom Gunn (1929-2004) contains a transformation of architectural knowledge into poetic knowledge that produces an ethics of poetry. The influential architectural notion of ‘form follows function’ is the bridge between architectural knowledge and the poetic knowledge of Gunn’s poem. The relationship between form and subject matter — in architectural translation: form and function — is a vivid theme of Gunn’s poetry, which expresses itself through concepts of doubleness, antinomy and paradox. The paradoxical manner in which ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ explores how form follows function supports comparison with the treatment of these notions within two architectural paradigms: that of the modernist period, and that of the scholastic or medieval period. Furthermore, each paradigm plays a role in the elaboration of the ethics of poetry of ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ Significant architectural discourses prioritise the vital importance of the form-function relationship to all living beings. An ethics of architecture infuses Theodore W Adorno’s statement that ‘Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are,’ the mechanism of which is grounded in the relationship of form and function. ‘Architecture would thus attain a higher standard the more intensely it reciprocally mediated the two extremes — formal construction and function.’ Neil Leach hails Adorno’s advocacy for ‘an architecture of generosity’. An architectural ethics of the betterment of people, Adorno suggests, is tied to generous environments of superabundant form and function. This article argues that an Adornian ethical intensity of form and function is present in ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ However, reference to the scholastic architectural tradition reveals that this ethics of poetry is not driven by generosity alone. Erwin Panofsky’s thesis that, in medieval architecture, form follows function in a gratuitous mode, is paralleled in Gunn’s poem, which further intensifies the operations of form and function corralled within ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ Generosity and the gratuitous — concepts borrowed from separate architectural paradigms — inhabit Gunn’s poem and jointly produce its ethical power. Adorno’s uplifting ethics, linked to ‘a higher standard’ of architecture, results from the intensive interplay of form and function. Gunn’s poem is ethical because it is the intersection of relationships of form and function remarkably different in their architectural lineage but identical in how they create a superabundance of form and function. Technology, whether architectural or poetic, betters human beings by drawing out what Adorno calls their ‘productive energies’.

Keywords: architecture; Erwin Panofsky; ethics; form and function; modernist; poetry; scholasticism; Theodore W Adorno; Thom Gunn

 

Introduction: The Axiomatic Embrace of Form and Subject Matter

Thom Gunn is a key figure in 20th century Anglo-American poetry. Born in Gravesend, Kent in 1929, Gunn moved to California in 1954, where he remained until his death in 2004. A shift in his poetic practice from formal to free verse accompanied the shift across the Atlantic. August Kleinzahler has recently written that ‘The scale of [Gunn’s] achievement, and its uniqueness — a masterful Elizabethan lyric poet writing in the second half of the twentieth century — is just now becoming properly appreciated’ (2018: front flap).

Gunn’s poetry and poetic persona problematise doubleness, antinomy and paradox; much of the critical response to his work explores the extent to which his poems resolve, or leave unresolved, oppositional concepts. Merle Brown argues that ‘what makes the sequence [of the four poems of “The Geysers” (1976)] unique and great poetry is the doubleness between the poetic language and the experiences’ (1979: 136). Discussing ‘Thomas Bewick’ (Gunn 1976: 38-39), Brown also observes that ‘The only way Thom Gunn can get experience and poetry into a poem is by separating them’ (1979: 139). Brown concludes that ‘authentic duplicity’ is ‘what can come out of the dead center of Gunn as man and poet’ (1979: 144).

Jay Parini treads a similar path, suggesting that ‘These potentially counterdestructive principles [of Rule and Energy] exist everywhere in his work, not sapping the poems of their strength but creating a tense climate of balanced opposition’ (1982: 134). Another species of doubleness is referenced in Parini’s observation that the ‘two parts’ of the collection My Sad Captains (Gunn 1961) ‘neatly separate the early style (formal poetry…) and the later, freer style’ (1982: 139). Parini also notes that ‘The old problem of Rule and Energy became all the more acute’ (1982: 145) as a result of Gunn’s LSD experiences, in which, in Gunn’s own words on doubleness and paradox, ‘“The only way I could give myself control over the presentation of these experiences, and so could be true to them, was by trying to render the infinite through the finite, the unstructured through the structured”’ (1982: 145-46).

Vidyan Ravinthiran provides another example of the critical investment in doubleness, antinomy and paradox in Gunn’s poetry. Honing in on form, he underscores the poet’s penchant for ‘oscillating stringently between… “open-ended” and “closed” forms’ (2018: n.p). Meanwhile, in the essay ‘My Life up to Now,’ alluding to his own work, Gunn identifies a poetic doubleness of form and subject matter: ‘Rhythmic form and subject-matter are locked in a permanent embrace: that should be an axiom nowadays’ (1985: 189).

Indeed, the form-subject matter relationship has axiomatic relevance in Gunn, and is well worth re-visiting here. Additionally, the project of engaging with this apparent dualism is simultaneously an opportunity to conduct a deep dive into a further (apparent) dualism: the relationship of poetic knowledge to architectural knowledge. This is how I am responding to the Call For Papers for this special issue of Axon, which asked, ‘how does poetry make use of, interact with or transform existing bodies of knowledge?’, prompting engagement with poetry’s ‘intersection with knowledge from other intellectual domains’ (2019: n.p).

Interrogating the apparent dualism of poetic knowledge and architectural knowledge does not reveal a one-to-one correspondence of domains. It does, however, reveal an ethical opportunity in the overlap of their treatment of the form-subject matter relationship. Engaging Gunn’s poetry via architecture gives access to an ethics of poetry founded in the principle, borrowed from modernist architectural thought, that the more intensive the circulation of form and function through each other, the greater the human betterment. Poetic knowledge and architectural knowledge are, in this view, knowledges of ethics.

As I will draw attention to in what follows, significant architectural discourses prioritise the vital importance of the form-function relationship to all living beings. The ethical heft of my focus poem, ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ (1958: 4), is contained in the superabundant energies of function and form it conveys to the human beings it poetically affects. My article also makes brief reference to ‘On the Move’ (1957: n.p.) and ‘Duncan’ (2000: n.p.). None of these poems are explicitly architectural. (In fact, there are numerous works by Gunn that more obviously manifest an interest in architecture, including the entire collection Jack Straw’s Castle and Other Poems (1976), to the extent that the collection’s architectural title embraces its contents, and ‘Waking in a Newly-Built House, Oakland’ (1957)). My point is that I am not interested, here, in Gunn’s explicitly architectural poetry. Instead, I want to explore how his poetry reflects a more conceptual engagement with two intellectual paradigms in architecture: the modernist tradition, and the scholastic or medieval tradition. More specifically, I will argue for a connection — across knowledges — between Gunn’s form-subject matter relationship and a central though highly contentious ‘mandate’ (A Krista Sykes’ term) of architectural thinking and practice: ‘form follows function’ (Sykes 2007: 25).

 

Adorno, Ethics and the Modernist Architecture of Generosity

Before we can begin to think about Gunn’s poetry architecturally, there is an issue of terminology to deal with. The word ‘form’ is common to the vocabularies of poetry and architecture; clearly, the word ‘function’ is not. It is grating to the ear, not to mention to critical sensibility, to double down on the notion of function within poetry. However, to refer again to Sykes’ word, ‘mandate’, it is eminently feasible to ‘un-mandate’ the very term ‘function’, through reference to its original appearance in architectural discourse (Sykes 2007: 25). Louis Sullivan introduces the phrase ‘form follows function’ in his 1896 piece ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ (2007: 92). Even as it uses the language of ‘the law’ — which perhaps traces an underground connection to Gunn’s law-like reference to ‘an axiom’ (1985: 189) — this philosophical and theoretical article is itself highly poetic:

It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. (Sykes 2007: 92)

Sullivan, for one, underscores how vital the form-function relationship is to all living beings. The term ‘function’ is thus not to be reduced to mere technical or building-related function in architectural knowledge. This opens a portal connecting architectural function with poetic function. Actually, Sullivan makes function synonymous with the term ‘life’, and we might posit that Gunn’s term ‘subject-matter’ is in a one-to-one correspondence with life (Gunn 1985: 189). After all, what more fundamental subject matter for poetry than life itself?

Adolf Loos’s 1908 essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ brings Sullivan’s concern with form and function into the 20th century even as Loos (for whom ornament means form) dramatically critiques Sullivan’s thesis:

As there is no longer any organic connection between ornament and our culture, ornament is no longer an expression of our culture. The ornament being created now bears no relationship to us, nor to any human being, or to the system governing the world today. It has no potential for development… (2007: 105)

Ornament can no longer be produced by someone living on the cultural level of today… (107)

When men followed the herd they had to differentiate themselves through color, modern man uses his dress as a disguise. His sense of his own individuality is so immensely strong it can no longer be expressed in dress. Lack of ornamentation is a sign of intellectual strength… (109)

Sullivan and Loos establish the terms for the debate over form and function that is taken up again — within the context of mid-twentieth century (late) modernism — in Theodor W Adorno’s highly influential 1965 essay ‘Functionalism Today’ (1997). (Erwin Panofsky’s analysis of the scholastic engagement with form and function, which I will come to later on, is made through the vehicle of a book on medieval architecture published in 1951. Adorno and Panofsky are writing at about the same time but about different historical eras.)

Adorno’s argument against Loos’s critique of form as ornamentation is complex and nuanced. Typically, long paragraphs of dense thought and writing crest, at their conclusion, in elliptical if not sententious summations. Little wonder that Geoff Boucher identifies ‘the aphoristic Adorno’ — a phrase pulling Adorno the philosopher closer to poetry (2013: 7).

Adorno’s initial major move in his dialogue with Loo’s thesis — working against historical reductionism — is to undo the binary opposition of form and function, though he grants that this move is one Loos himself ‘would probably not have rejected’ (1997: 7):

The purpose-free (zweckfrei) and the purposeful (zweckgebunden) arts do not form the radical opposition which he [Loos] imputed. The difference between the necessary and the superfluous is inherent in a work, and is not defined by the work’s relationship — or the lack of it — to something outside itself. (ibid)

Adorno subsequently argues that, ‘In any given product, freedom from purpose and purposefulness can never be absolutely separated from one another. The two notions are historically interconnected’ (8). From this it follows, famously, that ‘the absolute rejection of style becomes style’ (10). In other words, ‘one must accept that there is a factor of expression in every object. Any special relegation of this factor to art alone would be an oversimplification. It cannot be separated from objects of use’ (ibid).

The philosophical motor of Adorno’s proposition that ‘the absolute rejection of style becomes style’ derives from his appropriation of Hegel’s dialectical thinking; in particular, from his deployment of the so-called fourth element of the Hegelian dialectic: negativity (ibid). Distinguishing negativity from negation, John Lechte argues that ‘Rejection makes negativity a positive force or an expenditure (cf Bataille). Negativity is thus not pure nothingness, the other side of a symmetrical, logical opposition. It is a semioticized expenditure’ (1990: 137) which is linked to ‘an alternation between excitation and discharge [that] opens the way to a difference in energy charges’ (138). Adorno’s text incorporates Lechte’s portrayal of negativity as ‘semioticized expenditure’:

Clearly there exists, perhaps imperceptible in the materials and forms which the artist acquires and develops something more than material and forms. Imagination means to innervate [supply with nerves] this something…. For the forms, even the materials, are by no means merely given by nature, as an unreflective artist might easily presume. History has accumulated in them, and spirit permeates them. What they contain is not a positive law; and yet, their content emerges as a sharply outlined figure of the problem. Artistic imagination awakens these accumulated elements by becoming aware of the innate problematic of the material. The minimal progress of imagination responds to the wordless question posed to it by the materials and forms in their quiet and elemental language. (1997: 14)

In summary, there is a ‘something more’ of form that — as negativity — survives its ‘absolute rejection’ (ibid: 10), making it available for imagination to ‘innervate’ (14), and thus clinching the truth of Adorno’s proposition that ‘the absolute rejection of style becomes style’ (10). To re-quote Lechte: ‘Rejection makes negativity a positive force or an expenditure’ (1990: 137). Such an energising of style converges in the production of objects in which the binary opposition of the ‘purpose-free’ and the ‘purposeful’ is dissolved (Adorno 1997: 7). Concurrent with this production, Adorno’s aesthetic theory holds that (imaginative) art retains the privileged role of drawing out from ‘materials and forms’ (14) that particular species of more-than-formal ‘beauty’ that ‘resolves contradictions’ (19). These contradictions include the contradictions within Adolf Loos’s work that Adorno is critiquing in ‘Functionalism Today’ as part of his attack on what Neil Leach, in introducing Adorno’s essay, terms ‘the meanness of postwar German reconstruction’ (1997: 5). Principle amongst these contradictions is Loo’s thesis that style or form may be rejected full stop.

Leach argues that, as a counter measure, Adorno ‘calls for an architecture of generosity’ (ibid). This manifests in Adorno’s statement that ‘Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are’ (1997: 15). Adorno grants the truth of Sullivan’s assertion ‘that form ever follows function’ (2007: 92). As much as form follows function, however, function follows generosity — architecture ‘[thinking] better of men than they actually are’ (Adorno 1997: 15). This is how ‘The absolute rejection of style becomes style’ (10). Function, as rejection and production, sustains generosity under the aegis of negativity.

Adorno’s ethics of architecture depends upon a superabundance of form and function; it is this, he suggests, that leads to the betterment of people. Producing style (form) even in the wake of the rejection of style (form) is a premium display of such superabundance, which depends upon the architectural generosity supplied by (generous) Hegelian negativity.

 

Panofsky, Impactful Form and the Scholastic Architecture of the Gratuitous

In scholastic architecture, in a certain sense, form also follows function, but this relationship contains a very different set of energies and movements to the modernist relationship. As I will show, scholastic form gratuitously re-attaches itself to function — after the fact, as it were — by contrast with the modernist relationship in which function reiterates and regurgitates form through architectural generosity. Clearly, the word ‘follows’ means quite different things in the two historical contexts, and the movement or direction of the relationship of form and function is likewise different. In modernism, form is generated by function as causation; in scholasticism, form only follows function sequentially. In scholasticism, form follows function too, but form also (and initially) follows the gratuitous.

Erwin Panofsky finds what Denis Hollier calls ‘a structural homology… between the construction principles of Gothic cathedrals and the structure of the Summae that were the required rhetorical form for works in which… the Church took stock of its wisdom’ (Hollier 1989: 40). Hollier is referring to Panofsky’s 1951 study, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism: An Inquiry into the Analogy of the Arts, Philosophy, and Religion in the Middle Ages. My article’s architecture-poetry knowledge transformation methodologically repeats Panofsky’s cathedral-to-Summae approach.

Panofsky’s subject — scholastic architecture — obviously pre-dates the modernist maxim: ‘form follows function’. That said, Panofsky’s text works with ideas of form and function in ways that enable a comparison with Adorno’s work. Panofsky writes: ‘the Scholastic mind demanded a maximum of explicitness. It accepted and insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of function through form just as it accepted and insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of thought through language’ (1976: 59-60). Elsewhere, Panofsky refers to ‘the POSTULATE OF CLARIFICATION FOR CLARIFICATION’S SAKE’, noting that

Within Scholasticism itself this principle resulted not only in the explicit unfolding of what, though necessary, might have been allowed to remain implicit, but also, occasionally, in the introduction of what was not necessary at all, or in the neglect of a natural order of presentation in favor of an artificial symmetry. (ibid: 35; my italics)

The italicised section of this quotation recalls Gunn’s habit of, in Vidyan Ravinthiran’s words, ‘oscillating stringently’ between free and formal verse (2018: n.p). Gunn’s poetry holds a vibration of Panofsky’s critique of gratuitous scholastic architecture to the extent that the tension between ‘artificial symmetry’ (formal verse) and free verse — their stringent oscillation — threatens to cast into neglect a more ‘natural order of presentation.’ In Ravinthiran’s term ‘oscillating stringently’ I sense an element of compulsive form or style.

More generally, the previous passage from Panofsky clarifies how form works in relationship to function within scholastic architecture and thinking. Form follows function only to the extent that form comes after function, being produced — in point of fact — by the scholastics’ gratuitous ‘“mental habit”’ (1976: 36). Panofsky underscores

the much derided schematism or formalism of Scholastic writing which reached its climax in the classic Summa with its three requirements of (1) totality (sufficient enumeration), (2) arrangement according to a system of homologous parts and parts of parts (sufficient articulation), and (3) distinctness and deductive cogency (sufficient interrelation). (ibid: 31)

‘Much derided’, I suggest, is the key phrase here. Panofsky’s 1951 text was published less than fifteen years before the appearance of Adorno’s 1965 essay, ‘Functionalism Today’. In Panofsky’s identification in the scholastics of ‘a gratuitous clarification of function through form’ (1976: 59-60) resonates an echo of the article by Adolf Loos quoted above: ‘the artistic superfluity of previous ages’ (2007: 107). Little wonder that Panofsky speaks of ‘much derided schematism or formalism’ (1976: 31). The impactful notion of form Panofsky has in mind is very different from Adorno’s resurrection of form — within functionalism — through Adorno’s engagement with Loos’s anti-formalism. Still, what unites Panofsky and Adorno is the intensification of form: rejected style as style in Adorno’s case; the gratuitous imposition of form in Panofsky’s case. Given the form-subject matter ‘permanent embrace’ (Gunn’s term), the intensification of form, by whatever means, adds to the account of the superabundance of form and function that founds Adorno’s, and Gunn’s, ethics (Gunn 1985: 189).

 

‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ and the Ethical Superabundance of Form and Function

The ethics of ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ emerges when it is brought into dialogue with modernist and scholastic thought around architectural function and form:

Nothing remained: Nothing, the wanton name
That nightly I rehearsed till led away
To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream.

In this a huge contagious absence lay,
More space than space, over the cloud and slime,
Defined but by the encroachments of its sway.

Stripped to indifference at the turns of time,
Whose end I knew, I woke without desire,
And welcomed zero as a paradigm.

But now it breaks—images burst with fire
Into the quiet sphere where I have bided,
Showing the landscape holding yet entire:

The power that I envisaged, that presided
Ultimate in its abstract devastations,
Is merely change, the atoms it divided

Complete, in ignorance, new combinations.
Only an infinite finitude I see
In those peculiar lovely variations.

It is despair that nothing cannot be
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Of dread.
                 Look upward. Neither firm nor free,

Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.

(1958: 4)

Indicative of the critical response to ‘The Annihilation of Nothing,’ BJC Hinton argues that it ‘is based on an existentialist problem and adopts its terminology’ (1975: 131). Further, ‘The poem is based on the paradox that nothingness, itself often a subject of terror, is seen first as comforting and then as illusory. This fusing of philosophical inquiry and genuine passion is typical of Gunn at his best, and gives the poem great force’ (143-44). Hinton’s identification of the (existentialist) paradoxical element of Gunn’s poem marks it as distinctively modernist, in an Adornian sense. Paradox permeates the poem in phrases like ‘infinite finitude’ and ‘more space than space’. Moreover, the title itself is a paradox: how to annihilate nothing when nothing itself is always already annihilated?

Nothing is perhaps the ultimate paradox: is it something or is it nothing? If it is something how can it be nothing? If it is nothing how can it be something? I suggest that this paradox effectively opens up an exploration of the Adornian paradox of (modernist) form and function — the rejection of style as style — and that this brings Gunn’s poetic ethics into view.

The first three stanzas of the poem conceptualise the paradox that is nothing. The notion of a ‘huge contagious absence’ captures the idea of nothing as a paradoxical equivocation at the borderline of something. Nothing is poeticised as the latent contagion through which something might be enflamed into being. By the start of the fourth stanza, however — under the pressure of the ultimately untenable absolute nothing suggested in the line ‘And welcomed zero as a paradigm’ — something (or nothing) shifts in this conceptualisation:

But now it breaks ...

The power that I envisaged, that presided
Ultimate in its abstract devastations,
Is merely change, the atoms it divided

Nothing as subject matter (function) is, at a single stroke, presented as form, and as form at the most fundamental of levels: ‘merely change’, the division of atoms, ‘new combinations’ on the atomic scale. The poem is ruthless. Subject matter is reduced, not just to the level of the very building blocks of (subject) matter, but further, past the matter of matter, to the level of the division of matter: ‘the atoms it divided’. At this pre-material level, all is form. The paradox of nothing as something has shifted everything (‘But now it breaks—’) fully to the account of form. All that is left of nothing (of nothing as something) are ‘peculiar lovely variations’, mere ‘change’.

Requisite to this, the poem requires us to break the habit of thinking of a binary opposition of nothing and something. Only the paradoxical status of nothing (as something or nothing in unending equivocation) enables the poem’s statement regarding the relationship of function and form at the sub-atomic or indivisible level. There is little value in attempting to determine what change of state takes place at the start of the fourth stanza (nothing to something? something to nothing?). Paradox undermines all this. All we can determine is that some sort of ‘power… / Ultimate in its abstract devastations’ has been transformed. Abstract and devastating to being, paradox produces absolute form. The poem’s subject matter (function), is atomised into subject-less ‘new combinations’. Form opportunistically inhabits the space opened up in being through the paradox that is nothing.

‘Nothing cannot be’, writes Gunn, and form duly rushes into the vacuum of being left behind by the philosophical vainglory of ‘something-nothing’. Given the logic of paradox, the same outcome is produced if ‘nothing’ is replaced with ‘something’ in our reading of ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’. Something, or subject matter, or function, cannot not be. Therefore, calling nothing this particular something (which cannot not be) means its bursting into existence amounts, once more, not to the absolute rejection of style, but to the becoming of style as pure form. Either way, whether ‘nothing’ or ‘something’ takes precedence in our reading of Gunn’s poem, form rushes into the vacuum of being left behind by the philosophical paradox of ‘something-nothing’. Form follows function, be it the function of nothing or the function of something. ‘The power that I envisaged, that presided’, was all along ‘merely change, the atoms it divided’. Furthermore, how form follows function in Gunn’s poem mirrors Adorno’s modernist architectural movement, whereby function — driven by generosity, as allied to Hegelian negativity — sustains the paradoxical persistence of form: ‘the absolute rejection of style becomes style’ (1997: 10). Adorno’s negativity and paradox, coupled with Gunn’s stringent poetic paradox, creates a powerful accretion of architectural and poetic forces operating through function and form.

However, in yet another paradox, the poem’s subject matter, or something, or function, is represented as being totally exclusive of form in the final two lines of ‘The Annihilation of Nothing:’ ‘Neither firm nor free, / Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.’ We might pick up in the first of these lines a Gunn-like reference to free verse and firm verse (that is, metred verse). To be neither of those, it would appear, is to be outside of form entirely. However, perhaps not entirely, or at least not entirely for all time, because ‘purposeless matter’ — in a poem such as this one, which is so concerned with doubleness, antinomy and paradox — is plausibly suggestive of a reversal of the purposeless as the purposeful. Another extract from Adorno’s ‘Functionalism Today’ adds an uncanny resonance here:

In the productive sense of space, purpose takes over to a large extent the role of content, as opposed to the formal constituents which the architect creates out of space. The tension between form and content which makes all artistic creation possible communicates itself through purpose especially in the purpose-oriented arts. (1997: 15)

At this juncture, Adorno’s essay almost reads like a companion piece to the poem Gunn published less than a decade before. I am not suggesting any direct influence of Gunn’s poetry on Adorno, or for that matter of Adorno’s essay on the poems Gunn would write after 1965. What I am suggesting is that, in another index of the crossover of poetic and architectural knowledges, ‘purpose’ in ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ is doing precisely what Adorno argues it does in architecture: that is, taking over the role of content. The ‘something-nothing’ of the final lines returns us to the beginning of the cycle at the start of the poem: that is, to the engagement with nothing that becomes, or better, always already is, an oscillating engagement with something. This circularity in Gunn’s poem may be related to the generosity of poetry (borrowed, in my view, from architectural discourse). By this token, ‘purposeless matter’ implies ‘purposeful matter’ (equally: content, or subject matter, or function), which motivates — through generosity, through (paradoxical) Hegelian negativity — the (re-)emergence of form from the fourth stanza onwards.

Therefore, underpinning the dynamic relationship of form and function in this poem is the driving force of generosity, linked to the Hegelian negativity that Adorno appropriates, by and through which form follows function (is brought about by function). As Adorno writes:

Functional architecture… calls upon a human potential which is grasped in principle by our advanced consciousness, but which is suffocated in most men, who have been kept spiritually impotent. Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are. It views them in the way they could be according to the status of their own productive energies as embodied in technology. (1997: 15)

If we allow that function can mean, for our reading of Gunn, subject matter, or even merely ‘something’, then ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ stands as an example of poetry that works, within its own artform space, with Adorno’s idea that ‘Architecture would thus attain a higher standard the more intensely it reciprocally mediated the two extremes — formal construction and function’ (ibid). ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ works with the powers of paradox and circularity to incessantly drive form through function and function through form. This drive takes shape as an oscillation or, to borrow Adorno’s language, as a reciprocal mediation of two extremes. The penultimate and final stanzas are the formal highpoint of the poem, in their disruption of the three-line pattern or terza rima, precisely at the moment where the poem’s function (or content) is least purposeful. By contrast, where function is at its most purposeful, at the start of the poem, the poem is formally quiet, almost mundane — with the use of a colon two words in, for example. I am suggesting that, adding to the intensity of the poem produced through its dramatisation of form following function (incessantly), is the intensity produced whereby, at different stages in the poem, alternately, form and function take turns taking up all the space of the poem. To return to the final sentences of the indented passage from Adorno quoted above, one might say that the ‘technology’ of poetry anticipates the betterment of ‘human beings’ to the extent that Gunn’s poem re-generates the vital form-function relationship (ibid). Against Adolf Loos’ thesis that ornament (or form) is ‘un-healthy’ (2007: 107), Adorno and Gunn assert the ethical force of a superabundance of form and function for human betterment.

In summary, the generosity of modernist architecture indexes a homologous generosity that intensifies the relationship of form and function in ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ This poem, through the paradoxical tenor of its title, and through its suggestion that form (style) and function (subject matter) take turns in being annihilated and in annihilating, responds well to a reading framed through the paradoxical modernism of Adorno’s statement that ‘the absolute rejection of style becomes style’ (ibid: 10). Gunn is a modernist poet in the paradoxical vein of Adorno’s modernism, not least as expressed in Vidyan Ravinthiran’s comment about ‘a paradox to unpack — Gunn’s style of unique impersonality’ (2018: n.p).

At the same time, ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ can be read from the perspective of scholastic architecture, with its emphasis on ‘a gratuitous clarification of function through form’ (Panofsky 1976: 59-60). Form offsets, contrasts with or clarifies function, as the gratuitous. For example, once nothing ‘breaks,’ the immediately constituted world of form is not just ‘entire’, but even more than entire: an ‘infinite finitude’—that is to say, gratuitous (1958: 4). The thematization of the gratuitous is also evident in the line ‘More space than space’. Likewise, the very notion of ‘the wanton name’ of ‘nothing’ implies the gratuitous. The wanton, by definition, is the gratuitous. Again, at a still more general level, one could read ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ as an imposition — gratuitous — of form onto the subject matter or function of nothing. It would be better, to preserve the nothingness of nothing, not to write poetry about nothing-as-something at all.

Again, form follows function, but whereas modernist form is exuded through the generosity of (poetic or architectural) function, scholastic form arrives from another place, is gratuitously imposed — as if out of nothing. This element of scholastic architecture provides a further intensification of form and function — paraphrasing Adorno, an intense, reciprocal mediation — by interweaving the gratuitous with the generous with respect to Gunn’s poem. Generosity and the gratuitous are merely different versions of excessiveness; in combination, they bring about an ethics of the superabundance of form and function.

 

The Gratuitous in ‘On the Move’ and ‘Duncan’

Two other poems demonstrate even better the presence of form as the gratuitous in Gunn’s poetry: ‘On the Move’ (1957) and ‘Duncan’ (2000). Paul Dean notes that ‘For him [Gunn], the much-admired early poem “On the Move” exhibited an excessive formality and abstraction, as well as a kind of posing, from which he later sought to break free’ (2004: 78). The last line of the poem is ‘One is always nearer by not keeping still’ (1957: n.p). Gunn would comment, years after the poem’s composition, in Thom Gunn in Conversation with James Campbell, that he was ‘not sure that the last line means anything’ (Campbell 2000: 29). In this case, form is gratuitous to the extent, not so much that it reiterates function, but that it clarifies function (or subject matter) by presenting as extraneous to function (taken as the poem’s meaning).

This bears comparison with how I read Gunn’s observations on the composition of ‘Duncan’. Like ‘The Annihilation of Nothing,’ ‘Duncan’ is a poem in which Gunn, effectively if not consciously, takes an aspect of poetry as a direct theme:

I didn’t plan things in this way but it seems to be one of the things that I specialize in. Filtering some kind of subject matter through a form associated with its opposite. It’s as though I’m taking street noises and turning them into a string quartet. I figure that, in that way, one finds out more about the potentiality of the string quartet also. One finds out more about the rough and unformed and also about the elegant as well. (in Wilmer 1994: 5)

Unlike ‘The Annihilation of Nothing,’ in ‘Duncan’ it would appear that form is not generated through and in accompaniment with the generosity of poetry; rather, it is imposed on subject matter from the outside (as the gratuitous). In doing so, one finds out more about function and also about form: that is, ‘about the rough and unformed and also about the elegant [the string quartet] as well’ (ibid).

 

Conclusion: Towards an Ethics of Poetry as Superabundant Form and Function

This article has suggested that the relationship of function and form in ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ involves a double movement of function motivating form (within a modernist paradigm) and form doubling back on function, or appending to it from an external position (within a scholastic paradigm). Such a reading provides a productive explanation for the much-observed intensity of Gunn’s poetry more generally. The traversal of two architectural traditions within Gunn’s poetry results in a superabundance of form and function generated out of the overlap of two (architectural) energies of excessiveness: (modernist) generosity and the (scholastic) gratuitous. In turn, this leads towards an ethics of poetry. As Adorno writes, ‘Architecture would thus attain a higher standard the more intensely it reciprocally mediated the two extremes — formal construction and function’ (1997: 15). This higher standard, grounded in superabundant form and function either poetic or architectural, consists in the ethical injunction to make human beings better than they currently are. To this extent, while it is left to Adorno to make his point about intensity, Panofsky’s version of form-function intensity buttresses Adorno’s idea that such intensity generates an ethics. Following Sullivan, when the expression of life (form) intensely reflects life as it is lived (function), an ethics emerges — via flourishing displays of form — as lush opportunities of life.

The architectural knowledge that sits within Gunn’s poetic knowledge is relatively obscure. Its value lies in how it helps create an ethics of Gunn’s poetry, which would not have been evident if not for the notions of generosity and the gratuitous supplied by architecture. By blurring into poetic knowledge, architectural knowledge creates a knowledge of ethics. Poetry settles within Adorno’s statement that ‘Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are. It views them in the way they could be according to the status of their own productive energies as embodied in technology’ (ibid). For poetry, as for architecture, such technology is superabundant (intensified and over-laid) function and form. Merle Brown’s point, as mentioned at the start of this article, that ‘authentic duplicity’ is ‘what can come out of the dead center of Gunn as man and poet’ seems to capture just such an unusual alignment of ethics with a technology of duplicity (1979: 144). Here we come full circle: the longstanding interest by critics in Gunn’s doubleness, antinomy and paradox resolves into an ethical concentration. Geoff Boucher observes that there is an ‘aphoristic Adorno, the Adorno of rhetorical exaggeration, whose method of presentation is to frame questions within opposed extremes and then compress these into a lapidary paradox’ (2013: 7). If this is so, we might end with the suggestion that Gunn’s poetry is the ‘lapidary paradox’ where ‘opposed extremes’ of architectural tradition — modernist and medieval — are compressed into a cross-knowledge intensity.

 

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