Mark Irwin: Extracts from: Hyle: The fundamental question of poetry by Alain Borer

Mark Irwin: Extracts from: Hyle: The fundamental question of poetry by Alain Borer
May 12, 2013 Plume

By way of introduction to this month’s “Featured Selection,” first some thoughts from Mark Irwin, followed by the work itself, and some biographical material.


Introduction by Mark Irwin:

The Poetic Thought of Alain Borer


Perhaps the best introduction to Alain Borer’s view on poetry might be gleaned from a quote by Victor Hugo: “the true poet is not one involved with form and convention, but instead with “poetic matter” –or the hyle.” Aristotle referred to “hyle” as “matter” and it is from this notion that Borer develops an argument how “poetic matter” is related to form (morphos), but how it must always rise above form, for as Goethe says, “rules can be transmitted but not genius.”

It’s also worth remembering that “poetic matter” at its highest level often echoes one of Kant’s criteria for the sublime: it is “to be found in a formless object,” or “by occasion of its boundlessness” which paradoxically makes its “totality more present to thought” (Kant 135). I’m also reminded of what Aristotle demanded from poetry of the highest order: “the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary” (Aristotle 234). It is the imaginative and divine aspect of poetic matter with which Borer is fascinated, and certainly one finds evidence of this in his masterful works on the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Borer says of his own critical work:

“Essential” since Plato, the concept of “poetry” has exploded nowadays — including the retroactive doubt to have existed … For a long time it was possible to unify this concept, in spite of its different definitions, by the formal rules (prosody): now, after successive abruptions, the areas of definitions that had allowed unification have widened excessively, in more and more vast concentric circles, from prosody to prose (Baudelaire, in 1856), including all the language, then from language to real objects (Duchamp, in 1913), then from real to virtual (1991). The concept now remains in a gaseous state. Whoever gives his definition adds a blow of spray.”

Borer (a well-known specialist of Rimbaud, poet, novelist, and playwright) describes various tropes of thought in order to release the generic trope of “poetry”: poetry is not a literary genre, but a form of thought whose trope is the noème.

The noème, or what we call noema in English (from the Greek nous “mind”), is the content of thought, but it also applies to perception in thought. Somewhere I remember that Merleau-Ponty defined the notion of the noème as viewing a tree from six different angles!

According to Borer, “Good news: ‘poetry’ does exist, it is the noème as a form of thought that clarifies Aristotle’s concept of hyle, and it has been in use for two thousand years and in every culture.”

Alain Borer’s complete essay on this topic will appear in the Bibliothèque des Idées, along with works by Adorno, Aron, Benjamin, Bonnefoy, Debray, Friedrich, Kojève, Massignon, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Spengler, Starobinski, Wittgenstein, and others.

Mark Irwin, 9 March 2013
Denver, Colorado

Aristotle, Poetics, Ingram Bywater trans. New York: Random House, 1954.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. J.C. Meredith, trans. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.


Extracts from: Hyle: The fundamental question of poetry
by Alain Borer

Hylé plutôt que morphos (Hyle rather than form)
“I want to make verse that is not constrained”
Theophile de Viau

From the beginning there was a problem with Aristotle’s cabinet, this huge piece of furniture that contains everything and continues to serve long after it’s obsolete. Although it contains many valuable pieces, it would break sooner or later along with much of its contents. This is why it’s important to consider what’s at stake in this fundamental idea and also to understand that Aristotle could only think within the framework of lexis—the notions of mimesis and mythos.

To see things clearly one must leave Aristotle (whose Poetics is no longer as useful, except for this idea) and keep what he called in another context “hyle” or “matter.” Let’s freely call hyle the poetic matter always in question, somewhat confusing in its history as opposed to the more accepted notion of “form” (morphos). Here hyle, the unknown, is not necessarily opposed to morphos, as in the dichotomy that distinguishes content (Gehalt) and form (Gestalt) as proposed by Walzel’s principle: their relationship is variable, depending on the various ideas of language and “poetry,” the latter whose design depends on the unknown. This issue, which receives various responses (how hyle informs or does not inform morphos), doesn’t call for opposing views but a new description concerning the levels of language, or the typology of discourse[…]

Always a head of his time, Fontenelle dealt extensively with poetry and said, “versification is not necessary for tragedy,” suggesting that versification is not necessary for any work of poetry!

Montaigne, a great lover of poetry, placed “the good, the excessive, and the divine” […] above rules and reason” which would become in essence the sustaining idea in Goethe: rules can be transmitted but not genius. We find a similar notion from Victor Hugo [5]: “the true poet is not one involved with form and convention, but instead with “poetic matter” –or the hyle.”

“Who would speak the wrongs of rhyme?” Verlaine asked in metered verse [6]. Who? But everyone spoke of this. Verlaine continues from Chenier: “Art is only verse, the heart alone is the poet.” Chenier himself was influenced by Jean Baptiste Dubos’ Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting, published in 1719. Often reprinted it had marked a turning point in aesthetics, “poetic language makes the poet, not measure and rhyme.”  One remembers Horace:

“Don’t play with fruitless verse which consume you
Or take love of rhyme for genius.”

(Corneille’s quarrel in the sonnet “Voiture”

To put it another way, hyle designates the “poetic content” in question and “morphos” the formal rules; the more stable condition would appear as the hylomorphic, that is to say it is characterized by heterogeneous content in a homogenous form.

One can say that Rimbaud creates a hyletic quarrel with Banville. “What the poet says about flowers…”

« Ne veux-tu pas, ne peux-tu pas
Connaître un peu ta botanique ? »

“Don’t you want to, can’t you not
Know a little about your botany?”

The area or era of stability seems to contain a bug: part of the definition is clear: morphos as form, but hyle as content is not and is in question with the agreement on morphos, which is why there is a history of “poetry.” Therefore a debate forms around “What is “poetic material”? What unifies (the consensual form) is more accepted by all parties, but the hyletic debate continues in the same way but is more frayed.

Hyle and the hieroglyph

« Tu vates eris »
“You will become a seer”

Rimbaud[7], 1869

Why did Aristotle think that eloquence does not belong to poetry? Even in verse, eloquence is not sacred. This is undoubtedly a special consideration to remember beyond any treatise on poetry, for the formal device that guaranteed “it” aims to cause a kind of achievement and form of completion. That is to say that the agreed form was constantly and everywhere associated with “noble content,” which can, it is believed, express, seize, or understand only what is imagined and specially formed:

poetry always held there its sacred character (this is the meaning of the hieroglyph): one finds in all cultures something of this order, for example the Latin word vates referred to a seer, or diviner, which applied to the poet makes him a direct interpreter of a god (what distinguished the priest) or the savant–his words–, which according to Jean Paulhan, reflect the very name of Hain-Tenys-Malagasy [8];

in the same way there was Orpheus’ mystical path[9]. The Orphic poems “inspired by the gods” were sacred, and their commentaries also formed a part of the Orphic ritual (spondees, dactyls, and incense smoke). Poetry at the time was untouchable and sacrosanct because related to the sublime, while prose was always considered demotic, related to current affaires, in terms of content and formal point of view, and was viewed in a negative way, not related to the sacred.

Nature is a temple (La Nature est un temple) and so is the poem that the poet creates, reproducing the sacred rules, and like the temple (templum is derived from temmein “to cut”), which cuts a rectangle in the sky, in the region of the divine, poem with fixed form or as Flaubert writes, “the alignment of words, black on white, this dark fold of lace that holds the infinite,” cutting on the blank page this ritual: “in this sacred zone the poet attempts a breathtaking marriage with the void […] and the metaphor of this experiment will produce the poem’s theme”10; it’s not only the formal rule but its preliminary framework, visual, and typographical, which was part of a sacred space where the state of the thing might be said to be stable.

You can recognize this pattern from Antiquity to Modernity and through the long corridor of the Middle Ages in which the two categories do little but change in name; what was then called ménestrandie, poetry and music mixed, distinct from the rhetoric of antiquity belongs to that side of the hieroglyph, of the sacred, while rhetoric belongs to the demotic and profane. Does poetry belong to the realm of teleology, which Nietzsche said lies within the human realm of possibility and not the natural realm of necessity? In essence therefore and not only in its history, but also as a condition of its possible existence, poetry finds its meaning through the notion of the elusive and infinitely contradictory hyle that we seek to characterize in the noème, or the essential content of thought.


Translated from the French
by Mark Irwin

[1] Poèmes à chanter des Yuan : 1260-1367 ; des Yuan : 1260-1367 ; des Ts’ing : 1644-1911…

[2] Le poète René Daillie réunit en son échoppe ces deux formes de « poésie » éloignées l’une de l’autre : les Hayn-Tenys et le pantoum malais ; les Hayns Tenys, dans La Nouvelle Revue Française, n°373, avril 1984 ; Quarante pantouns malais, La Nouvelle Revue Française, n°392, septembre 1985.

[3] Fontenelle : Discours sur l’Églogue…, Discours sur la Fable…, Discours sur la Poésie en général et sur l’Ode en particulier…, Discours préliminaire sur la Tragédie…, sans compter quelques discours à l’occasion de ses diverses tragédies…

[4] Paul Valéry, préface à l’Anthologie des poètes de la NRF, 1935.

[5] Victor Hugo, Les Rayons et les ombres (1840), Préface.

[6] Verlaine, « Art poétique », treizième pièce de Jadis et naguère, mais composée dix ans plus tôt, dès 1874.

[7] Arthur Rimbaud, L’Œuvre-vie, édition du centenaire, Arléa, 1991, p. référence

[8] Jean Paulhan, Les Hain-Tenys, Gallimard, 1938, p.12.

[9] Claude Calame, « The Authority of Orpheus, Poet and Bard : Between Oral Tradition and Written Practice », in Ph. Mitsis & Ch. Tsagalis (edd.), Allusion, Authority, and Truth. Critical Perspectives on Greek Poetic and Rhetorical Praxis, Berlin (De Gruyter) 2010 : 13-35.

[10] Laurent Fourcaut développe ce thème du temple dans Lecture de la poésie française moderne et contemporaine, Nathan, 1997, p.17.

[11] André Mary, La Fleur de la poésie française depuis les origines jusqu’à la fin du XV° siècle, Garnier, 1966, p.11.

[12] Baudelaire, Sur Victor Hugo : cf Jacques Charpier et Pierre Seghers, L’art poétique, Seghers, 1956, p.322.

[13] Peter Horn, « L’animal poétique », Europe, L’ardeur du poème, réflexions de poètes sur la poésie, mars 2002, p.23.

[14] Marina Tsvetaeva, « Ma réponse à Ossip Mandelstam », traduit du russe et annoté par Evelyne Amoursky, Po&sie, n°135, Belin, 1° trimestre 2011, p.53.

[15] Serge Doubrovsky écrivait de la critique : «… elle sait où elle va » (Pourquoi la Nouvelle critique, Denoël-Gonthier, 1966, p.256).


Alain Borer (France, 1949) is an internationally known specialist on the work of Arthur Rimbaud (Rimbaud in Abyssinia, W. Morrow, N.Y., 1991). The author of several collections of poetry, he is also a novelist (Koba, Seuil, Kessel Price 2002), an art critic (Beuys, The MIT Press, 1997), a playwright (Icare & I don’t, Seuil, Prix Apollinaire  2008), and a mixed genre writer (Le Ciel & la carte, Seuil, Mac Orlan Prize, 2010, and Prix de l’Académie française 2011). More information is available here.

Mark Irwin’s seventh collection of poetry, Large White House Speaking, just appeared from New Issues in spring of 2013. His last three books are Tall If (New Issues, 2008), Bright Hunger (BOA, 2004), and White City (BOA, 2000). Recognition for his work includes four Pushcart Prizes, two Colorado Book Awards, The Nation/Discovery Award, and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, NEA, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California. Visit his website here.