The Sad Cup of Coffee: a note on personification

I’ve had cold coffee and hot coffee, good coffee and lousy coffee, but I’ve never had a sad cup of coffee.
—Robert Rauschenberg

the spirit of truth must guide us in some sort, even in our enjoyment of fallacy.
—John Ruskin

Personification in poetry making is perhaps unavoidable, given the fact that we are human beings and poetry is an entirely human activity. It is tempting to broach the matter in philosophical terms, particularly that of phenomenology, noting its divergence with analytic philosophy. But I am not nearly equipped in necessary degree or kind to discuss it in these terms. Suffice to say I am biased on the phenomenological side of perception and it might be fair to describe Francis Ponge, the writer I look to as a master of the type of poetry I prefer, as a phenomenological poet. Let it stand as a signpost to a direction that one better equipped than myself might profitably go.

I will note in passing or preamble that a cup of coffee is itself an entirely human thing: a particular modification, manipulation or entirely human application of coffee beans. It is often used, in fact—the cup of coffee—in concert with the act of writing in any of its guises. I don’t doubt that it is taken for granted by those for whom it is so ready at hand what an extravagance this beverage is. The beans are harvested, roasted, delivered, packaged and stored and then, upon purchase by the consumer, they are ground and submitted via any number of techniques to nearly boiling water and, finally, often sweetened by any number of sweeteners and embellished with cream, both of which of course involve their own manufacturing and distribution processes. It takes a civilization to have a cup of coffee (and don’t, either, forget the cup, the techniques and tools for heating the water, the environment in which the preparation occurs, etc).

One might say, in a manner of speaking, that only those with access to a cup of coffee are in a position to engage in an act of poetry. If one is lucky, for example, to get a drink of clean water and a crust of bread or a few grains of rice it is hard to imagine poetry entering the list of concerns. Does this mean then that a cup of coffee is always a lucky cup of coffee, a fortunate one or even an extravagant one? Say “yes” and must one also say “yes” to the sad one or any kind at all other than “cold”, “hot”, “good”, “lousy”, etc?

Surely, considering the above, it is a sad state of affairs to sip a cup of coffee while sad. But we need not go so far as to suggest the cup of coffee itself is unfortunate or sad, even if its drinker is. Ruskin says as much.

But considering no cup of coffee exists outside a set of human concerns, it will not be possible to address it as a theme, subject or poetic object without at least implicitly acknowledging humanity. And that sounds kind of dumb, and certainly inadequate. After all, did we not just agree that any act of poetry, being an entirely human act, does not take place outside human concerns? More dumb-sounding statements, and compounded inadequacy. Here my lack of philosophical training shows grievously.

I said that personification in poetry making is perhaps unavoidable…. Let me now throw in a sprinkling of statements and claims (or aims) made by Francis Ponge:

The object is always more important, more interesting, more capable (full of rights): it has no duty whatsoever toward me, it is I who am obliged to it. (Banks of the Loire)

…. man will make marvelous strides if he returns to things…. and applies himself to studying them and expressing them…. in their essence as in their details. But at the same time he must remake them in the logos starting from the materials of the logos, which is to say speech. (Notes for a Bird)

The point is to describe the sky clearly, just as it appeared to me and impressed me so deeply.

From this description, or following from it, will rise in simple terms the explanation of my deep emotion.


If it’s possible to found a science whose matter would be aesthetic impressions, I want to be the man of that science (La Mounine)

La Mounine is the functional opposite of a pathetic fallacy. Rather than reducing a natural phenomenon to the emotion of a poet, Ponge went to the phenomenon first. But of course his writing is full of personification. Poetry is for people, after all. True, in the Nioque of Early-Spring he does express the desire to give a voice to things, in which it is a question of the “abhumanism” of the artist. For Ponge it was a matter of a new kind of artist, outside both classical and romantic models. Because he was forever working toward this new conception, one finds a high degree of stammering or scrupling in his journalistic works, in which he was forever working within the margin of the reality of the object and the language the subject is able to find for it. As a writer and thinker Ponge lived in that margin. It was hard work, of course, human work, finding the right words.

I knew a man once who taught me how to restore old houses; that is, he taught me the proper mental outlook to restore old houses. He told me, “An old house speaks. You have to listen to it.” The house “tells” you what it needs. Then you find the proper materials, most likely salvaged ones, to do the work. In the end a human has done the work, but because he has listened to the house it is the house that shines in a restatement of its original splendor. I think something similar is at work in Ponge’s writing in the way he approaches the object. You find the words the object needs to say itself. But this, again, is a manner of speaking, of writing.

Ponge’s work is about man’s relationship to the world through the medium of language. “I try,” he said in an interview, “in the verbal world to do something which has as much concrete existence as the objects that I describe.” [The Sun Placed in the Abyss, p96] That reminds me of another thing Rauschenberg said: “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t, I want it to look like something it is.” [Off the Wall, p87] But what of that sad cup of coffee that Rauschenberg claimed to encounter in Ginsberg’s Howl? Well, there are catatonic pianos and dreadful typewriters (also holy ones) in there, but I can’t find a sad cup of coffee anywhere.




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2 Responses to The Sad Cup of Coffee: a note on personification

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I flunked philosophy, and as it was a required course, I had to take it again (I managed to pass, but only just). So I am ill-equipped to comment–and yet here I go, the fool rushing in, you know–for I enjoyed thoroughly your disquisition on the sad cup of coffee. I don’t, as it happens drink coffee–at least not the caffeinated kind. When given it by mistake, my closest companion can attest as to what a disaster it is. HIHEHOHA I jump all over the place until the caffeine wears off. Which is just to say that, in my own experience, it’s hard to imagine a cup of coffee as sad, even if personification were allowed. Hyper, agitated, a whole host of things like that. But sad? No, I think not.

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