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Formalist Theory of the Poem and Agamben’s “La fine del poema”

The self-reflexive essence of poetry is manifest formally by its being broken into verses. The fact of breaking up the line, irrespective of its sense, in creating verse form calls attention to language and its intrinsic sensual properties as rhythm and sound. The breaking of a line of language that makes it a verse of poetry doubles language back upon itself, interrupting its continuous flow toward referential content in the world outside and beyond it. It becomes a self-reflective artifact in which language itself, even before what it describes or refers to, stands forth and becomes conspicuous as such.

Formalist linguistic theory, specifically the theory of the poetic function of language as consisting in self-reference—in language’s turning attention back upon itself—bears in this way on Agamben’s thinking of the philosophical significance of verse form. In the previously mentioned linguistic and aesthetic definitions of poetry developed by Jakobson and Paul Valéry respectively, the interplay between sound and sense is what particularly distinguishes poetry. Notably rhyme, as a primary mechanism of versification, effects a disjunction between a semiotic event, on the one hand, and a semantic event on the other, and this bifurcation results in an at least subliminal expectation of an analogy in meaning that will correspond to the homophony of the verse.

In “La fine del poema,” Agamben defines poetry by the possibility of enjambment that results from the opposition between the syntactical unit of the sentence and the metrical unit of the line. Poetry is accordingly based on the possibility of a non-coincidence of sound and sense— or of a disparity between semiotics and semantics—since inserting line breaks in verse creates a form of language that operates independently of the completion of the sense of the full sentence. Units without complete sense in themselves are isolated as forms of language—verses—that are contemplated in their own right. Technically, to the extent that its sense does not necessarily end with the line, any line of verse qua verse


Agamben, “La fine della poesia,” Categorie italiane. Studi di poetica (Venice: Marsilio, 1996), trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen as The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

Formalist Theory of the Poem 241 ends in enjambment. Prose runs continuously to the end of the space available in each line on the page. Poetry (or at least verse), in contrast, breaks discourse into lines in a manner not in obedience to this arbitrary and external limit but rather in accordance with a design of its own choosing. Poetry thereby forges its own internal pattern of sound folding back on itself and foregrounds the form of language (also visually).

Understood this way, verse consists in a certain schism between sound and sense: it introduces line limits such that sonorous and semantic units no longer coincide. Karlheinz Stierle treats this phenomenon of prosody as a “transsyntactical semantics” that opens a new dimension of language. Sound is made to stand out as noticeable and meaningful in and for itself rather than merely serving as a vehicle for conveying sense.

The space of the poem is opened and assured only by its refraining from a lasting accord between sound and sense. Agamben likens the poem in this respect to the Pauline figure of the katechon evoked in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 as restraining “the lawless one” who will precipitate apocalypse. By preventing the Antichrist from being fully manifest, this figure retards the advent of the Messiah and creates the space of “the time that remains” before the eschaton. Similarly, it is this space of time before the end in which alone poetry can transpire. This is what enables the meaning of a sound to remain open to being reinterpreted by another, further sound rather than being resolved—as by the final meaning of the Messiah. This makes poetry the most philosophical form of discourse because thought arises and is necessarily provoked where sound and sense, failing to coincide, fall into a void of silence without end—at the end of the poem.

Indeed, at the end (“la fine”) of the poem there can be no enjambment, no opposition between metrical and semantic series. When and where the poem ends, there can be no prosodic break independently of the syntax of the sentence. Paradoxically, the last verse of a poem is not a verse in Agamben’s technical sense based on enjambment because sound and sense necessarily end together: nothing further comes that can create a tension of non-coincidence between them—and the verse qua verse depends on just such a discrepancy. There is no poetry anymore, according to Agamben, without this divergence between the syntax of the sentence and the sounds of the poem seeming to suggest a meaning of their own by their very form as sound. Consequently, verse enters into an identity crisis. Poetry turns into prose at the end of the poem. The poem is a poem only by relating itself in the end to non-poetry. The end brings about a poetic state of emergency (to put it in terms dear to Agamben)— an identity crisis for its very being as poetry.

The poem qua poem, the poem in principle, should never end. This would, in fact, seem to be the design also of Dante’s terza rima, which can


Karlheinz Stierle, “Dantes Reimkunst,” in Das grope Meer des Sinns: Hermeneutische Erkundungen in Dantes “Commedia" (Munich: Fink, 2007), 213.

be brought to an end only by a forced suspension of its generating principle. Otherwise, the middle line introduces always a new rhyme word that requires a new terzina to take it up so as to complete the rhyme. When the inevitable interruption of this pattern occurs at the poem’s end, the statute of the poem is broken and its status as poem is exceeded. Does this, then, open the poem into mystic nuptials in which sound and sense are finally perfectly one? Or does it not, rather, open the poem into silence and an empty space of Nothing?

Rather than engendering ultimate comprehension, the two intensities (sound and sense) which animate language “fall into silence”—or open into a chasm without end. Agamben echoes Dante in De vulgari eloquentia II.xiii.8: si cum rithimo in silentium cadant-.

The double intensity that animates language does not resolve itself in an ultimate comprehension but rather plunges bottomless, so to speak, into the silence of a falling without end. In this manner, the poem unveils the aim of its proud strategy: that language manage in the end to communicate itself, without remaining unsaid in that which it says.

(Agamben, Categoric italiane, 143-44)

A kind of limit case of such artificially produced divergence between sound and sense, the sestina repeats its six terminal words in a rotating order in each of six stanzas or “strophes. ” This procedure dislocates rhyme from the strophe to the meta-strophic level and makes it undecidably sound or sense. The final words of the lines occur as imposed necessarily by this formal scheme, whether they make sense or not. Sense is remade as identical with the sounds in question. Linguistic sense or meaning is thereby rendered concrete as sensation or sensory experience. By such means, the sestina conspicuously incorporates sound into the lap of sense, and poetry becomes an incarnate form of communication. Again, however, this tautological self-identity in self-reflection opens into an abyss of Nothing because all finite form and determination of meaning are transcended. We are precipitated into an infinite All or Nothing. Poetry cleaves open a relation to the formless and opens us essentially to the infinite. We need, nonetheless, to be able to express this infinite relatedness in finite forms, and self-reflection alone enables that to take place.

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