Friday, November 30, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

“Cache-cache, ou, Les formes variées d’histoire”

Somewhere— irrecoverable it is, oh my leaky brainbox—and recently, I read that Barrett Watten’s “folder” for The Grand Piano now contains upwards to five thousand “items.” I think of it whilst reading Tom Mandel’s entry in le numéro 4, wherein he reproduces a number of paragraphs he’d apparently written (presumably for the Piano listserv) “April 12, 2003—long before we decided on the shape of this project.” Paragraphs “about the disastrous event devoted to Zukofsky” that Mandel’d put together circa 1979 at the Poetry Center. Now, presumably, a number of other Pianists were present on the occasion—Watten, certainly, he’s on stage putting pages of “A” upside-down into an “opaque projector, being “slow to build momentum” and being hound’d by Robert Duncan who’s up next with, likely, some theosophical mumbo-jumbo about Zukofsky’s “Zinnia,” out of 80 Flowers. It’s likely that a majority of the eight other authors of the “Experiment in Collective Autobiography” were, too, present. Why not get all the scuttlebutt and scribbles about the occasion out—together—for examination? (Watten follows Mandel in number 4—a quick skim fails to uncover any “take” by him on the event, not here, not now.) It’s as if one’s being handed about a tenth of the pieces of a puzzle, the peaky iceberg part, arranged—I don’t know—by similar shape rather than color. There’s an untoward artifice to it—why not put whatever arguments against (or agreements with) Mandel’s version out there (as they surely must’ve occurred—in contradictory overlap and tangle on that listserv in April four years back)? There’s a sense of control, of pacing, of withholding, in the Grand Piano presentation. Rather than the “raw,” the exceedingly “cooked.” Rather than the “déluge,” the “moi.” As such, it hardly benefits by its collectivity at all.

Mandel—then-director of the Center—makes of the “infamous evening of discussion devoted to” Zukofsky a turning point: “So began the ‘language wars.’ Poetry as agon not conversation.” He charges Duncan: “he helped roust me out of the Poetry Center some months later.” And:
They say Robert had driven Robin Blaser out of town a decade earlier, and Denise Levertov too. His feud with Jack Spicer is well documented. I wonder what one wins in these poetry wars? Daily life with acolytes? If that’s utopia, give me la dérive.
Et c’est bien fini, tout court. No need for consensus or talk: Duncan start’d it. (Or, Clark start’d it. Or, Dorn start’d it. Or . . .) It’s a curious moment in the “autobiography,” there’s a terrible irony to the sweet bravado in the call for a daily life more various than that “with acolytes.” The irony of brushing criticism aside, of repeat’d and continuing failure to engage. “Life with acolytes” is exactly what academic life is for the writer, a sort of spit and image factory.

The rest of Mandel’s section is name-dropping and French credentials. Samuel Beckett refuses to read, Mandel reads Bataille in François Maspero’s La Joie de Lire bookshop, Kathleen Fraser and Saul Bellow (unlikely couple) make recommendations for Mandel, Don Siegel (who he?) talks about Delphine Seyrig to a cowboy-boot’d Mandel who turns down Siegel’s job-offer (“dialogue director”), Harry Mathews, hearing the story later (“recently”), explodes. Occasionally Mandel drops a line of poetry into the money slot of the (one-arm’d) bandit prose:
whir in all waz anc
Which one’d interpret as “Where in hell was I?” if only Mandel-the-narrator didn’t seem so sure-fired certain of where he was at all times, and how perfectly it suit’d him.

Out under the spit-up
Dive-shine of night, its
Starry orchestral thump & heave,
I stump, with a beef

Against all the crowd-caterers,
The ferrymen of the effluvial
Junks that ply the run-
Off ditches, guy’d by fun.

Laughter pulls a toothy weight,
Ropes a cumber’d sun down,
Hauls it like a Gulliver,
A problem for Mrs. Miniver,

Like finding an enemy combatant
In one’s garden, or making
A Venn diagram of two
Circles overlap’d, things to eschew.

Milo Winter, Gulliver (“I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground”), c. 1912

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

“Everyday Life”

I like Kit Robinson’s modesty, and clarity, and common sense, and unfussy “direct presentation of the thing.” He retrieves the casual indirection of being young (white, educated, and middle-class) in the ’seventies through a brief series of snapshots, stilling the constant movement: “Walking along J Church tracks,” “Climbing up 20th Street steps to Douglass, girl crazy,” “walking up 18th Street in the fog, leather jacket zipped up tight.” As for theoreticks, the extent of it goes: “I don’t remember thinking about “la dérive,” but that was what a lot of us were doing.” He reads a piece of juvenilia—written during a short period in New York—as “the expression of a critical state of irresolution . . . expressed in a painful if jubilant frenzy,” though the journey itself seems equally casual to that turn along the J Church tracks. If what Robinson relates—stints of night shift post office work and Poets in the Schools hustles interrupting vague and ill-consider’d returns to “school”—is not exactly the “succession of stupid jobs” that Philip Levine used to routinely (and, seeing the sheer persistence of the saying, Romantically) identify in back matter biographical notes, there’s an undeniable kinship there: the “street cred” anti-careerist motto of “just so long’s I keep writing” seem’d operable, aid’d precisely by government-support’d things writers tapped into (CETA, PITS, &c.) and an economy that allow’d one (single, scorning any trappings beyond the needs of “everyday life”) to get by indefinitely on improvisatory income routines—temping, making a little money and quitting, &c. (What pushes like-minded young’uns today into MFA programs and similar alarmingly-precocious careerist paths is probably less ardor or some aggressive writerly imperative than a state of reduced economic freedom—one’s hard put to meet everyday needs now even with a forty-hour-a-week shitty job.)

It’s difficult to avoid thinking about class while reading Robinson’s entry. Two telling moments. Robinson lists a number of “poets I’d otherwise not have known,” met whilst working in Poets in the Schools (in a dozen list’d, I recognize the names of maybe four—John Oliver Simon, Jack Grapes, perhaps Bob Flanagan, and Bill Mohr—and ponder briefly what exactly to conclude, PITS low “standards” or my own inattention? or is it possible that there were 10,000 poets in the U.S. even then, as Ron Silliman likes to claim’s the case now . . .), and suggests that he “was considered the odd duck . . . for my avant-garde affiliations and formalist teaching methods.” Robinson mentions one fellow PITS-er, Duane Big Eagle, and writes:
        . . . Some years later at his cabin in Fort Bragg, Duane told me he wanted to write poems his father would understand.
        For me it was not that simple. My father was an English professor and a scholar of modern poetry. With Walter Rideout and Gay Wilson Allen, he had co-edited the anthology American Poetry, published by Harper & Row. Poets and critics Donald Hall, Donald Davie, David Daiches, Dennis Donoghue, and others were guests at our house . . .
With more tidbits academickal following. Where I see class difference entering in is here: “. . . on some level, I had set a course to write poems my father would not understand, ones that stood outside the critical categories he employed.” The remark—which’d perhaps be read Oedipally elsewhere (though it comes immediately after Robinson’s noting how ’s father “kept a bibliography of my work in little magazines in the 70s”)—seems to arrive out of Duane Big Eagle’s memorable remark. (Imponderables: am I misreading? Where’s the assumption come out of that Big Eagle’s class is any different? Is it simply result of what seems a generational solidarity between Big Eagle and ’s father? Later, reading Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, I note the following: “. . . they read how the colonized lived under the mark of the plural, drowned in an anonymous collectivity that takes over their ability to talk about themselves as anything other than they.”)

The other “telling” moment. Robinson begins a routine of daily writing at the Oakland Bulk Mail Center:
Each day I’d sneak away from my station to a spot near a window with a view of the parking lot, rail yards, docking cranes, Port of Oakland, Bridge, City, and sky. I wrote quickly in a pocket notebook, thirteen-line stanzas annotating the interior landscape of the work floor and the view from the window.
Writing influenced by Larry Eigner’s “phenomenal landscape poems.” Pieces subsequently alter’d by “a programmatic twist,” a rather mechanical rearrangement. Robinson reproduces one of the results—here’s the final stanza:
early customs down ups
winds talk temporal business dust
metal floor fist hard to shore
effortlessly mortal throat
long ass now
open scale on right results
And says, immediately thereafter: “I showed the pocket notebook to a fellow clerk casual. ‘You better think about what you’re doing there’. . .” is the brilliant (and funny) response.

Tags, the bandying about of,
Puts me into a psittacine
Inquietude, a squawkery of doubt:
There goes my mannerist rectitude,

To the dogs. I am
Only parroting my coevals when
I say it’s impossible to
Hold parley on common ground

Any longer here in ‘the
Slow-breathing unconscious Kosmos with
Its dread abysses and unknown
Tides.’ So saith William James,

Who, rich, knew the freedom
Of the rich, like that
Of a bird ‘with a
String tied to its leg.’

Kit Robinson
(Photograph by Ericka McConnell)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

“Everyday Life”

Carla Harryman is lead-off batter for The Grand Piano 4, the apparently obligatory Lefebvre / de Certeau / Debord “everyday life” number. As if there’d be anything but. Donc, loyal to the processual must-posture of writerly acting out, there’s a lot of “drifting” and dérive in the prose, and (what’s identify’d as) “play”—“connected to some feminine impossibility ludi-city impermanence immensity extending sentences ludicrously lengthily” à la Cixous. One concern: Harryman rather blithely follows that “lengthily” with “If we slide from the space of labor to a poly-ground of activity, then we let seriousness come in when she feels like it without taking over the game.” That “when she feels like it” ’s got a terribly lyrical sheen to it, as if “seriousness” were not the daily beast it is that noses into the social text unannounced (after all, it is wartime, y’all, then and now), but something one’d “pick out” (out of a slew—or slough—of possibles).

Harryman: “An overview. Would be a contradiction to writing everyday life.” (Which seems about right—though I’d argue an overview is not writing, though it may fob itself off for such in corporate headquarters and faculty lounges “daily.”) One is remind’d of William James’s making distinct the “rational” and the “empirical” in “A World of Pure Experience”:
I give the name of ‘radical empiricism’ to my weltanschauung. Empiricism is known as the opposite of rationalism. Rationalism tends to emphasize universals and to make wholes prior to parts in order of logic as well as in that of being. Empiricism, on the contrary, lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the universal as an abstraction. My description of things, accordingly, starts with the parts and makes of the whole a being of the second order. It is essentially a mosaic philosophy, a philosophy of plural facts . . .
Regarding the epithet “radical,” James adds that “To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its construction any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experience must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.” The experiential sensory apparatus as divining rod, tuning fork, and sorting tray toute à la fois.

Harryman’s “nonsequential excesses” (I’d call it “jamming”) hint at intriguing stories less satisfying for being so crudely limn’d—the rabbit roast’d and consumed (“post-’68”) with “cabinet-theft rebels . . . in the sixth-floor dining room of an abandoned building in the Marais”; the ancestral “bony lap on a cricket-screeching fireflying night in ’55” in Keyes, Oklahoma; the dress yank’d up outside the York Theater in San Francisco in 1978. Details of the years’ “poly-ground”—not, apparently, “formative,” and not obviously “everyday,” why these and not others? Is it telling that a memory of getting dunk’d (and told to swim—father, deep water, “the bay”) is juxtaposed with one of “huffing and puffing with arms flailing . . . to bring blankets and canned goods to the striking grape harvesters”? Apparently, and its secret name is “kicks.” Harryman: “Between the bottom of the sea being cruel and a fledgling capacity for social action was exhilaration, a sensation that dismantled blandness, torpor, clock time, stupid boys, and petty feelings.” That is, what one fled is precisely “everyday life.”

Is there a split in Harryman’s language / sensibility? I find it vaguely alarming that one’s able to write (or say) in reply to someone who’s “commented that Jim [Gustafson] had used me up,” that she is “not a girlfriend . . . but someone who has enjoyed a certain kind of team-play spontaneity crashing up against the bewilderment of a self that has an uncertain relationship to survival.” Somehow I connect that lingo to another split, the one between saying Scotch “was used in composing many of the works in Under the Bridge” (still my preferred Harryman book, maybe due to having approach’d it “raw,” with no preconceptions), and saying that “The tactics in ‘For She’ [one of the pieces in Under the Bridge] and those of this writing [The Grand Piano] . . . share in common sites of somatic experience as engaged by a concept-motivated mentality.” (The cowboy in me says, “Ah, hell, just blame the Scotch!”) (The Jamesian in me says, that “concept-motivated mentality” seems rather rationalist, in danger of putting the cart of concept before the wild-ass stallion of experience. (Then again, theory-dérive ’s never capable of approaching anything like sheer childlike aimlessness poking finger in nose, in rose; it’s always (already) got its “top-down” snooty-instruct strictures. The bottle of Scotch is the better method if it’s a bouleversement against such one’s seeking.) As Robert Hass puts it early in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” a poem Harryman both (seemingly) willfully misreads and posits as linchpin to a (rerun master) narrative of Language poet outsiderhood (Hass reading the poem, with its “hypothetical version of Language poetry,” at the Poetry Center in 1979)—“United against the despised other, the full-house audience, as if at a political rally, roared its approval.” Rather “Triumph of the Will” talk, that.): “each particular erases / the luminous clarity of the general idea.” Which is exactly what writing everyday life is about. “No overview.”

The collect’d Grand Piano Notes: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20.

That apple, burnish’d by sun,
Its stem a neck whence
High lineage invariably springs, is
Nothing I deign pick, chary

To maintain a fastid abstemiousness.
You go, girl. It is
Isthmus & lineament to whatever
Tree it attaches, spotty with

Thrips, though apparently thriving. Not
Sure am I how its
Bondage subjects me to such
Prevaricating recklessness, cudgel’d by my

Nerves, as if caught out
Fuming in a burnoose, or
Up in a tree, radical
As a photograph, & feigning.

Carla Harryman

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


“The flowers were.”

Achieved an ample clarity just
By lining out anything theoretical,
Keeping to the neighborhood of
Green when green undid its

Jacket, or stretch’d out its
Arm to display a bodacious
Wristwatch, anachronistic as all hell.
Achieved a green unruly as

Melancholy, its low mass &
Nuzzling up intractable against the
City-grid’s staunch rubble, I-
Beams awry and barely identifiable.

Achieved a vacant delivery of
Green kneeling at the heel
Of an interim spit, caught
Between two bodies of blue.

Symptoms of my unsettledness, my uneasy. Read around in circles mal-apportioned yesterday, various. Thinking again about made-up epigraphs (see my earlier fuss). In the fourth fascicle of The Grand Piano, Carla Harryman, talking about her chapbook Percentage, quotes lines by “Stendahl” (“a pseudonym for language and play”):
A cornstalk thins under skeleton hands. The lady liar pauper fidgets by a brick wall and howls at the young man who stares at a huge fake flower bulging out of a man holding his pet’s tongue against the cityscape in order to hoax an unsuspecting woman protecting her spoons.
Harryman: “They were fabricated by my own hand, including the ascription.” Notable: the number of “keys” to the fakery: “liar,” “fake,” “hoax,” “unsuspecting.” Idly pondering the original of such attributables, bicycling in under crow-heavy trees, scooting through splat’d ammoniac under-reaches. It’s a manoeuvre akin to begging the approbation of the muses, affixing a credential, borrowing against a legacy. Unlike the whole-hog hoaxes—Chatterton’s faux-mediaevaleries, Macpherson’s Scottish-Gaelic Ossian discoveries—here the intent is something lodged between gaining lineage / permission and mockery. Measured by how suspect one’s quotable seems. (Harryman’s seem’d immediately suspect—at least when encounter’d in the environs of The Grand Piano—I never read the original chap.)

Henry Wallis, “The Death of Chatterton,” 1856
(Paint’d in Gray’s Inn, with George Meredith for model.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Zoland Poetry Notes

Two Archers

Time ‘off’ is a funny
Thing, like a tidal wave
Lifting up an oil derrick
Only to pound it into

Scrap iron, irrecoverable screw fittings
And planks churn’d in watery
Vortices, inverse empty tornadoes of
Time, sucking off all desire

In a series of ‘sweeps,’
Not unlike the ones that
Determine if one is attending
To a particular program or

Merely allowing the TV its
Own ‘head,’ running off at
The mouth just to fill
Up what little time remains.

Come around to Sunday, the night with its noirish robe still a little awry, hiked up here and there off to the west, soonest adjust’d, and one finds four days slipped off niggardly and adroit, offering up no bounty to the ambivalent soul who’s tugged the days around in expectation and then ungallantly push’d them away acceding, sleeping late and clumsily, churlish in a sack, O. Body ache says some leafs I raked. Sign of aging is surely how interpenetrations of sorry time slack and slovenly duly capsize the strict individuum, the hearty master-schedule of thrust and retrieval . . .

The premier volume of Zoland Poetry, subtitled An Annual of Poems, Translations & Interviews is out (apparently as of last March—I just bump’d into it browsing, my slack-avid for new books?), edited by Roland Pease, who’s team’d with the Steerforth Press in Hanover, N.H., in what looks a good fit. I know Steerforth mostly through its range of Italian novels in translation, I know the late lament’d Zoland Books mostly for Ange Mlinko’s Matinées and Kevin Young’s Jean-Michel Basquiat-inspired To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor. Pease is resolute and clear in a short introduction pointing to “one main goal” for the annual: “Present poems from many countries and aesthetics, having as large a range of excellence as possible.” (Too, he notes how “Emile Zola’s name flowed into my first name”—source of the monicker—and, presumably like Zola, “I see a political side in everything.”) One model for the Zoland volume is probably James Laughlin’s New Directions annuals begun in 1936; another’d be the Sumac “Active Anthology” of the early ’seventies.

My immediate read (out of several possible)—the twenty-five or so pages of excerpts out of a mutual interview collaboration between Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian, a long-term piece (one thinks, ongoing) composed and exchanged through the U.S. mail “so as to preserve the unhurried pace of the more traditional contemplative epistolary space” (a phrase and manner perfectly fitting the resolutely “print” medium of the Annual). The only thing tantamount to the Collom / Hejinian exchange I know is likely the Hejinian-publish’d Bill Berkson / Bernadette Mayer letters in What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? The difference is in the velocity of the turnaround. Where Berkson’ll answer a whole slew (say a page or two) of questions by return letter, appending to it another slew for Mayer, Hejinian and Collom appear to reply to a single query (and’re subsequently allow’d to ask one). What’s ask’d is mostly “slant” to the matter; rarely do either of the two ask the other the same question “back.”
JC: What’s your earliest memory?

LH: “A moment yellow.” That’s the opening phrase of my book My Life and as far as I know the opening phrase of my conscious life. If it is a memory at all and not some strange brain-buzzed shimmer that stands in for memory, then it records my coming upon a dandelion or buttercup on a tiny patch of grass behind the house on Filbert Street in San Francisco that my paternal grandfather had bought for my parents. I must have been lying on my stomach, legs kicking, head up, nose to nose with the flower. My father may have been in uniform. Or perhaps he wasn’t—is it possible that this memory is (as I feel it is) so early that I’m not yet 7 months old (as I was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor)? In any case, the memory is vivid with particular color—nothing like the night (of murky absolutism) “when all cows look black.” Will you tell me about you own military service?

JC: USAF 4 years. Polished shoes and blanket tight, AF 16 422 508 reporting for duty SIR. Enlisted in Chicago (to avoid Korean War draft), Basic Training outside San Francisco, where I got my now 52-year-old tattoo. Loved marching, became squad leader. Then they made me a Remington Ranger (clerk-typist). Stateside Greenville, South Carolina, where I was jailed overnight for staggering drunkenly down the sidewalk, lost a stripe; Altus, Oklahoma; ASAP overseas. Tripoli, Libya. Typed Morning Reports all day with 2 fingers, read Moby Dick in a Quonset hut. Wandered endlessly, on pass, among white buildings, Hadrian’s Arch, stopping for beers in Italian bars (falling through the roof of one, where I’d clambered, from read Faust, to watch the foot traffic on Sharia Istaklal). TDY in Athens & Rome, Troop-Carrier Wing Detachments. Reassigned Neubiberg, near Munich, where, in the Havana Bar, I met a hefty Bavarian woman who laughed when I pulled a peanut butter sandwich from my pocket. Whom I later married. 4 years up, released from AD, NYC (cold magnet where I lived, surveyed, attended operas, before returning to Munich).
Which quotables probably mislead one into a too autobiographical rut. Though there is that (blowing up sudden and unforeseen—“naturally”—like a thundershower, or its light, without the nervous-aggressive posings of, say, The Grand Piano’s charged pianists), it is somehow secondary to something else, subsumed inadequately under electric probing curiosity fine-tuned by skepticism. See things like Hejinian’s “Words seem destined to oscillate perpetually among the various forms of sentence. It has been said that there is an inevitable conflict between the aspirations of men (sic) of letters and the chatty public—but the public when in public (which is the only time the public is the public) says hardly anything at all.” Or see Collom’s “Lately it seems I could, given the energy, prophetably change every damn thing I’ve ever written. The degree to which I haven’t focused hard enough, over mottled time, plunges sometimes clear up into a very puerile satisfaction with some instant gallop of the hand (about like this sentence).” My favorite question: “If you were a taxonomist, would you be a “lumper” or a “splitter”?

Jack Collom

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Novel Pictorial Noise

The System

Energy lag, toe & harness—
A shill mop of brow
With awkward wooden fingers just
When the tractor lurches into

A slide-out, squeegees off
The run-off fed clayey
Substrate and socks itself into
A rut. What to do.

Plug the coordinate air with
A bung-job of stumpy
Vowel’d grunts and try getting
Out of it. No luck.

Cease resisting, ease off &
Back up, idle in reverse
And eye the choppy kestrel’s
Way of hanging, oscillate hoverer.

That hang and appendage, that’s me. Scoop’d up the Ashbery-imprimatur’d (select’d by J.A. in the 2006 National Poetry Series competition) Noah Eli Gordon book, Novel Pictorial Noise (Harper Perennial, 2007) something I rather “want’d” to like, having enjoy’d The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003)—and. Is it fault of my own self’s being too poised for a pounce, unhappy with what I see as an increasingly slack prevalent (period) style, antithesis of oomph and agency, and that precisely corresponding to a moment in the imperium when empty forms ought perish? Yes, partly.

The book begins with two epigraphs, one by Elizabeth Willis out of the Erasmus Darwin-inspired prose poems of Meteoric Flowers (“The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun.”), one tiny clip out of something by Barbara Guest (“so silence is pictorial / when silence is real”). What follows is a kind of Willis / Guest conversation: prose poem alternating with little notational clumps, mostly no longer than a couple of lines. No titles to anything. Here’s one of the prose pieces:
The essence of pictorial fact aspires to describe itself as a panorama, an impossible cultivation of pictorial elements. I hold that thinking is an image of art. Therefore, in proposing the helicopter as the only subject retaining any seriousness, one is concurrently giving rise to the fundamental ineptness of abstraction. For example, suppose I see an aesthetic accident rather than the intension expounded in the translator’s preface. Might we then say that the architecture of the gallery space is an analogy for the plasticity of the figurative? The neutrality of such a proof is no more erroneous than the landing pad one might position on one’s roof.
On the facing (prior) page: “of their Pictures a present view.” On the verso:
lost acting for measure for expression for
I suppose one could argue that the helicopter is “the only subject retaining any seriousness” (made emphatic by the “proof” on the “roof”—that landing pad). I suppose one could admire that, a kind of tiny flag stuck into a cloud-cover’d map, bringing about a sense of form. (Each of the prose poems manages a ragged arrhythmic rhyme at the end—“the real task at hand, turning smallness into something grand” is how the next one concludes. Often the strongest—precise, tangible—language occurs there.) My sinking feeling about the piece, I think, is due to the encumbrances of something like Latinate slurry, a kind of quicksand of intangibles, abstractions, a vaguely art-textbooky wash when I just want to get (at least) to the reproduction of the painting itself. To say nothing about the world. To put it in “anodyne for the new consciousness” speech: To say nothing about what we continue to say nothing about.

Again (a second reading). Stuck in the brainbox: some conjunction between Dr. Johnson’s observation that an age of ignorance is an age of ceremony, and Gordon’s remark—“That it is no longer necessary to know much of anything is the noisy irony of the information age.” Poetry relegated to a merely ceremonial art, wholly without agency, outside the polis. Perhaps it’s always dwelt there.

Noting (rereading) how the short fragmentary (verso’d) essentially go invisible—I neglect to read them, the book becoming not unlike a facing pages bilingual edition, a half-book to a monoglot. Neither adding nor distracting, those snippets. Noting something between a revel in and shrugging acceptance of vaguery, that why-bother heave-acceptance of language’s ineffectuality that afflicts the age: “Unimportant that my arrows point anywhere,” “any expression is merely detour,” “limitation that throws one satisfyingly out of joint,” mere ceremonies of saying. (Though “sickness” in a sentence such as “The first symptom of motion picture sickness: being content to stare at whatever’s there” may hint at recognition of the problems implicit in such defeatist laissez-faire-ism.) Noting slivers of Ashbery un peu partout with proactive disclaimer, “Make of my work an acrimonious analogy to an instruction manual if you must . . .” (Though, one’d argue, too, that any work without a smutch of J.A. to it’d likely seem somewhat out of kilter with its century, its countray. Impossible not, as Gordon says in another nod, “to run a trademarked frame of reference up the flagpole,” the Ashbery trademark’s everywhere one turns.)

Noting that I likely come at Novel Pictorial Noise with such severity perhaps less for itself than as stand-in for all our failures. Gordon: “The way I see it, we’re all partially tainted.” After all, there’re terrific things here, and done up with wry humor (“Orbiting parataxis metropolis, just about the most fun a neo-flaneur can hope for.” “Several ants beelining back to headquarters.”) It (the book) becomes the brunt-end of a conflict play’d out increasingly here: what’s one do with what one knows? Oscillate, hovering . . .

countless “collaterals” go slaughter’d by

Noah Eli Gordon

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Melville Log

Fire Escape

Low pressure bulge, ample humidity, haze and a push of warm air out of the southeast, that’s what one thinks, noting a tiny scratch in the larynx-surround. Reading Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log (1951): “This book was begun as a birthday present for my teacher, Sergei Eisenstein.” There’s something momentous here—Eisenstein’s montage (“the nerve of cinema”) apply’d to the materials of a life. Leyda: “In the making of this book I have tried to hold to one main aim: to give each reader the opportunity to be his own biographer of Herman Melville, by providing him with the largest possible quantity of materials to build his own approach . . .” In a phrase notable for its Steinian bell-chime, Leyda says he aims to place the reader “traveling alongside Melville . . . in a constant present, accumulating past experiences, but without knowing a future.” Compared to Eisenstein’s definition of montage as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots”: “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other.” Leyda traces a short history of the idea (for biography):
To find what such a life as Melville’s may signify with reference to new concepts of time, it may be well first to place it accurately within older, simpler concepts—or we shall be attempting to float him on a fourth-dimensional sea without giving him the three dimensions which make a fourth significant. Thus, when a friend abroad [presumably Eisenstein] first asked me for information on Herman Melville, it occurred to me that none escape from the bog of Melville interpretation (with its thick growth of wild guesses) would be to send whatever contemporary evidence that could be relied upon, arranged in a simple chronology of events recorded as well as dates of writing with no attempt to hide the gaps or to smooth contradictions. [Here idly thinking of Hugh Kenner’s 1951 book, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, with its terrific talk of just such sheer’d off imagist juxtapositions; Leyda’s translating and editing of Eisenstein’s The Film Sense is dated 1942. Leyda speaks too of the way “the relation between two documents, among a cluster of documents,” makes visible relationships unguessed at “by examining them singly.”] This sort of factual reconstruction had been employed by Russian scholars for the study of several of their writers and composers, and I had found such a documentary chronology of Musorgsky’s life of great value (and pleasure) in working on a book about a mind and career quite as obscure as Melville’s. [Here he’s presumably talking about The Musorgsky Reader: a Life of Modeste Petrovich Musorgsky in Letters and Documents, a book he edited and translated with Sergei Bertensson, and publish’d in 1947.]
In the early ’seventies, rummaging in the Ann Arbor Public Library where I work’d as a shelver, I found a book call’d The Life of Mayakovsky that proceed’d precisely by way of such “documentary chronology.” I see now it’s author’s one Wiktor Worosylski, the book a 1970 translation (Orion Press) of the 1965 Życie Majakowskiego. I found it terrific—a formal spike to hang “biography” off. I never found anybody else who’d read it. [Exceedingly odd, one considers now, that it’d managed to find a translator and U.S. publisher—measure of the publisher shrinkage / shirkage before anything writ in a foreign language now.]

Leyda, following a wrenching recital of how huge numbers of Melville papers were burn’d—one fire after another of letters—or lost, how slim and riddled the record is: “I did not consider it a part of my job to throw bridges across such gaps. Complications, contradictions, which the conscientious biographer would feel obliged to reason out or explain, have been left for the reader to worry about. No, for once the roughnesses were not to be ironed out.” And he quotes someone citing “one of the first principles of scientific measurement”: “Never remove a discrepancy.”

The business of selling French
Frippery & doodads to New
Yorkers fell off in ‘proverbially
Dull’ late ague-struck summer,

What Herman Melville’s father call’d
‘Cucumber season.’ A man of
Formal diligence who long’d for
Mere competency. To a brother

In jail for debt he
Sent a pound of snuff.
He call’d ‘beloved Son Herman’
Docile & amiable, backward in

Speech & somewhat slow in
Comprehension. Tempus lustrare meaning nothing
That is not love is
Not to the sacral bent.

Sergei Eisenstein, 1898-1948

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ed Dorn Notes

A House, Approaching Napoleon

I keep returning to Olson’s instruct, that “saturation job”—in a sense differing nought ofd something like Theodore Roszak’s noting of what’d become a “society of experts” (I spent some little period of my youth reading things like The Making of a Counterculture, that is, sociological studies of my own “gang”). My “gist” being that Olson is battling ’s own flighty demon. So it’s affirming to read Ed Dorn’s (in the new and necessary Ed Dorn Live) assessment:
Olson was not very methodical. He used the word a lot—that method—but he was scattered all over the place and he was really quite a bebop intellect. That’s fun, but not necessarily all that useful.
Which (all of which) puts one into the spot: what’s call’d for, breadth or depth? And where is one today? If I recall Roszak rightly, the complaint direct’d itself at the profligate narrowness of the system, the drawing down of each, blinder’d like a horse, into a realm without purview or range. Podiatrists who cannot read novels, art historians who cannot identify a nuthatch. Today is what? Worse—the poet / critic who outright dismisses unread a large half of all the U. S. poetry publish’d, the chiropodist who, &c. Or better—the swirling Technicolor-suck of Internet-bounty, fingerable info-tease, an immediacy of breadth. It’s never been so easy to appear widely-wrought and bounteous.

Dorn, in notes out of last lectures titled “Poetry Is a Difficult Labor,” after pointing to other (scientific) fields and the refusal of practitioners “to educate themselves in the wider aesthetic senses”: “What’s crept into people’s lives now is a kind of vulgar, lazy sense of what you can get by with, to get the most out of, with the least output. Poetry is in trouble, but it’s not in as much trouble as a lot of fields are.” One answer: the “documentary” poem. Dorn:
I’m not embarrassed to say “documentary” because I do think our lives are documentable. The word documentary is something I concocted to try to legitimize a way of writing which frankly and openly and blatantly and unashamedly and unabashedly wants observations and experiences. All writing does anyway, but it doesn’t necessarily admit it.
Alors, one way out of what Dorn elsewhere calls “the overriding solipsism that afflicts modern poetry.” (As early as 1977, at Naropa, in a transcript of a teaching lecture that is the first piece in the book, Dorn is calling for a poem written out of “the completely external.” And, again: rejecting (“goes against the grain”) “the notion of the twentieth century, the hint that the interior was far greater than the exterior.”) Refusal of the pervasive unanchor’d drifty fragments, airy little nothings; refusal of new water’d down (dumb’d down) baby-talk surrealisms; refusal of the subject-ego sweet umpteen-zillionth discovery lyric outburst; refusal of the zeitgeist static-patter without context or analysis; refusal of empty formalisms of the left and of the right. Which leaves history. “Knowledge of the past is the only thing that can reduce anxiety about the future.” History, and humor, “a rhetoric of defiance and ridicule and a poetry of derision . . . a concerted attack on the centrality of authority.” Or, out of Dorn somewhere: “Scrumptious meals, it says, / prepared completely from scratch. / But who wants to eat scratch?”

Pervasive is Dorn’s contempt of that “centrality of authority,” Protestant versus “Catholic.” On the differences between himself and Olson, and the fine barking dogs of Midwest distrust and cynicism, caught between two overwhelmingly provincial coastal pufferies: “He was a Catholic, I am a Protestant. I am from the Midwest, which means I’m cynical, deeply cynical. He was not. He was deep down a Catholic, so his respect for authority is much greater than mine.” And, later, Dorn’s kinship with E. M. Cioran:
My natural affinity with cynicism in the philosophical sense is also with the belief that the only way to deal with an impossible problem is to laugh it away. I mean only laughter can turn it to rags. I think that’s at the heart of the cynic system actually. It’s the ultimate desperation.
Dorn’s late (troubled) identification with the heretic (“I think heretics are the only responsible citizens and heresy is the only responsible position” versus noting that heretics are “people who simply get out of order.” And see “Languedoc Variorum.”) A lovely piece of causticity in Dorn’s considering why “such an obscure target as myself should have been attacked by the Buffalo Gau [a terrific strategic word in the instance, a medieval German region term not unlike shire, or province revived by the Nazi’s as an administrative (read “control”) subdivision]:
I assumed I was attacked because I presumed the right to dismiss their attention to “language” as a rhetorical vacuity, along with its proponents whose sole aim was simply a job-hunting sycophancy. The obscurantist opportunism these sloths hid behind still leaves an offensive residue on the skin of writing which will take a long time to evaporate. The damage done would be laughable if it didn’t convey so much tonnage of ignorance dumped onto the whole lingual edifice.
Which one’s got to applaud for its punch and clarity and humor, even if one namby-pambies regarding its “position.” What Dorn recognizes: “Humor is aggressive and humor is an attack, of course. You can’t attach anything with sadness. And increasingly you can’t attack anything with seriousness . . . if anything now seems even vaguely emotional, it’s gone.”

Look, caballero, the remote cling
Of official heavenly make accommodates
My airy venom too—a
Bucket used for hauling things

Up & emptying it out,
Counterweight to the gaseous slutch
Of commodity stasis, the usual
Unhinged perps stuck in a

Phat mirey of goods, breezed
A is for emphasis, hombre,
The way a skittish bellyache
Of a documentary’ll re-

Entrench the yea-sayers, fix
Dishonorable intransigence in the sorry
Earthly stocks. Look out, I’m
On my way up too.

Ed Dorn c. 1975
(Photograph by Rob Rusk)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ed Dorn Notes


‘And so back to Halicarnassus—
Bust’d-up port of brine-
Sprung breezes.’ So Herodotus, one
Thinks. To compile the savage

Notes, to lop off digress
And lurch-step, stories sprung
Of ‘daintie-mouthde dronkardes,’ never
The ablest informants. To taut

Up the fact-patterns, &
Erect a kind of warren-
Slot’d deep municipality, something to
Gull and delude the masses,

That man-rabbitry, epically superfoetant
With stories—some furred, some
Naked and roseate and barely
Form’d, some inconceivable, or ‘modern.’

Bah. Fifteen days into the writing gig and the unconvincing ‘push’ is glaring, the torture and redoubt. Staring down the long thin nose of the page. Gracility meaning not “slender and dexterous,” but “skimpy.” Plowing around the Olson letters somewhere a remark the big O. makes about whether or not Herodotus ever return’d to Halicarnassus, hometown, or did so periodically or what? Sniffing out evidence of a man. A fine wonderment, and exactly what Olson’s good at. So that, with a (here, unsung) “theory” in the brainbox about Herodotus as a kind of Kerouac, the travels, minimal and hurry’d, making for greater travels in the kitchen, fuel’d by retsina (how I used—mad drinking clown—to love Henry Miller’s line about being “stinko on retsina”) and raki, inventing all that stuff about camels with four-thigh’d and four-knee’d hind legs, and genitals that “point backwards towards its tail.” And invisibly mix’d in, or something I want’d to ask (and did not) by way of uncertainty, by way of probing the current “era,” Carl Rakosi (in 1968) pointing out how “disastrous” Pound is (was) “as a model, totally disastrous to younger writers”:
People today are not heroic, and modern human nature is not epic. It’s just human, and anything else is just playing games.
Epic end’d? I lean to minimal change in human nature (pax, Virginia W.—is that how it goeth? Joyce: “There’s a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo.”), though one supposes it possible that la poésie is no longer that thing to provide the epic fix.

Late, I lash’d myself to the new Ed Dorn Live: Lectures, Interviews, and Outtakes (University of Michigan Press, 2007), or it lash’d itself to me, Dorn’s ripping authenticity, even when you know he’s yanking at one’s dearest presuppositions a little, or a lot. Baraka notes accurately: “There was no Pollyanna in him at all.” I like the kind of perceptual experiments—ad hoc lecture pronouncement (Naropa, 1977), hooking around the need to be wary of “authority” (book-learning, mostly):
Writing, in general of course, is the chord emanating from the source which measures the length of how far the word has strayed from its origin. So in that sense there is no such thing as the misuse of a word. That’s actually an organic impossibility. The only thing that happens is the length of this chord, which is not the same thing as a mistake.
Completely malleable musickings. Connectable to something Dorn says later regarding “the greater precision of the vernacular” (speech’s plasticity and romp being more liable to “misuse”), how power is unleash’d by exactly that chordal progression: “The quicker, harder, more inexorable precison of the vernacular, which at the same times seems very, very loose and offhand.” (Inexorable, quick, offhand—against the earnest, belabor’d, the “project.”)

Completely admirable in Dorn, the restless point’d curiosity, the pragmatic refusal of “system,” the makeshift, improvisatory intelligence, never stymied by grandiosity. He says: “What Black Mountain did was to teach that a system was ideal—intellectually ideal, but improbable. So you were supposed to do the best you could. It results in one’s being enamored of learning in the end, which is fine. I’d as soon love learning as anything else.” Somehow, in the accident (real) nexus of reading, Dorn’s stance reminds me of that of Slavoj Žižek in the recent piece titled “Resistance Is Surrender”:
The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.
Which is probably less “accommodationist,” less “mere reformism,” than humanly-scaled and tactical—“you were supposed to do the best you could.”

Slavoj Žižek and Ed Dorn

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Machinery and Fence

The semantic beadle of anecdote:
How little muster or command
Is required for story. Think
Of Hopkins’s salvable journal entries,

Enviable one-word days, a
Vocabulary of nothing beyond weather.
‘Dull.’ ‘Fine.’ ‘Dull chiefly.’ ‘Cold.’
Long sequacious notes of story,

Communicant and bailiff to system, bin
And receptacle to desire, its
Pitiless want and impenetrable codes.
Story varlet and tinker to

The available rinse, to scarf-
Ends snapping in skatery chase,
To the gauzy clouds nictitating
Membranous across the yellow moon.

Cold morning, coagulants in the brain-box. Crude oil and tarry sepulchre. Days one “wonders” about the “point” of one’s own undispellable compulsion to adjoin word to word, to gird up & fill grid after grid with a dispelling of nouns, a gnat-swarm of nouns. Some fly, or several, that enter in, & enter’d in, proceed to sortie & arrange, to constellate a frugal finery. I find two paragraphs in a piece call’d “Invol” in Andrew Joron’s The Cry at Zero, nigh perfect, alarmingly so:
Just as Chaos keeps its hidden orders—assuming that Beauty is beyond scale—if, & only if, its iteration is driven to Fury—So you have crosst my Tongue with the oldest knife.

Skepticism must ban the sight of Utopia: a straight line is the deepest labyrinth. Natural language has no author. The reddening of the landscape coincides with the movements of a clock.
A koyaanisqatsi kind of thing, or that Lawrence Durrell line about the universe poking one back, with a “nudge.” Think of “ecstasy in stasis,” that standing flywheel about to come undone, a cohort in a garden (hortatory, horticultural), clump’d up and blossoming (blowing itself to pieces), any of those terrible balancing acts, “grace under pressure.” Isn’t that what art is, and why one troubles it so? Or it troubles one so?

Locusts Swarming (Nouakchott, Mauritania, 1993)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Olson’s Letters

A Door

Rage trimmed of its earnest
Is panache, a mud-daub’d
Cock in a quiver, feather’d.
Is a joke uninhibit’d, attainable,

A potlatch-pole surround’d by
Offal and guttings, property-heaps.
I am the Cloud Burrower,
One of the Puny Ones

Who work hard and knock
Off finials, preen-figures, hats.
To the platitudinous spigot-noise
Of the pencil-boys whose

Beast-empire thrashes out oil-
Shiny blood-bubbles, I say
‘Wa, I am a Kwakiutl.
Wa, out of my way.’

Olson, in a letter (1952) to common-law wife Constance Wilcock writes of “ONE OF MY SEVERAL FLYPAPERS!—where I learn so much by continuing to permit my bewilderment to exist.” And there it is. For all of Olson’s wild thrashings in historical-textual wildernesses, for all the stutter-stop incoherences of the prose, syntactical mayhem result of, I suspect, some complex of “too long in the Pound-Gemeinschaft”—that is, an “image” problem (and sophomoric), and the “lazy thinking” all form-workers fall prey to (herein inexcludable—I get my fun where Olson got it)—for all that, Olson’s genius is exactly in that “bewilderment,” that insatiable gust-hunger for “facts.” And it’s that that is so rare today—the “replacement model” a kind of petulant know-nothingism. Whilst the beast in its oil-covetousness attempts to crush everything to itself. Olson’s one paragraph opening to a letter to “LeRoi Jones”:
Use a world so large.

On the Pound hand-me-downs and “coherence.” Writing to Paul Blackburn in 1953, who seems to’ve pegged Olson an offspring of WCW, Olson’s hackle-anxiety is up. Retorts:
                          In other words, the virtue of the fathers are the vices
of the sons. Or something. Nuts: if the pa’s were as good as these (I
must have grabbed my paternity out of the air
                                                                                        (((the same air)))
The hazard, anyhow.
And drops it. (Olson’s habit of beginning a new paragraph: “Ok.” Sign of the sudden lack of tensile strength—liable to snap off—of whatever previous wire the big man’s danced out along, testily, testingly . . .) And, too, to Blackburn, regarding difficulty:
                                                      to prevent the reader is crucially the
means of the beauty of such a practice—to reach the response i take it
is called for
                        That is,
                                         there is never any purposeful prevention. Au
contraire. The preventions are—it wld be my experience—exactly the
way reality does interrupt herself, cross-cut, go below anything explicit,
even of the other sense than the verbal
                                                                             (exactly the way a poem does
write itself:

when you talk of digestion first, i hear exactly the aesthetic seems to me
to have exposed itself
                                        not, for god’s sake, that i thing i have proved, or
can, that one can take language (which is itself an extrication) and make it
a rail on which anyone else will ride . . .
A flurry of thinking here: does “reality” “interrupt herself”? or is one’s ratty receiver the fault (and one looks to re-transmit that, honorably enough). Why am I suddenly remind’d of Jorie Graham’s interminable hemmings and hawings: or any claims to mimic-transcribe (dashes and stutter-steps the usual futile rigmarole) such bad reception of the “out” coming in? And how I want to posit against all that the Mallarméan / WCW dictum how a poem is “made of words” (not staticky blockages and feints). Eyeuh.

Charles Olson

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Olson’s Letters


An indiscrete series, mat of
Humus or pot of ash
The rainwater percolates down into,
Or up, leaching out lies:

Making the language preparatory &
Recipient to what, ‘order’d by
A seizure,’ arrives inescapably lyric.
So the rain gauge &

Barrel overflowing, so the tarp
Bellying out behind the leaf-
Raker, so the binnacle box,
Keeping the tool’d kerfs &

Gravings of the compass dry,
That the ship may not
Founder unencompassedly, nor the consequent
Writing go ‘unbegotten & imperishable.’

Errands &c. So that a lag is made, and a draft. What I write invisible today, post’d tomorrow. Whatevs, comme on dit. Read for a couple of hours asquat in the school hallway, camaraderie of janitors, barks and nods. Olson writing to Rainer Gerhardt how he (and Williams, & Creeley) see themselves “absolutely committed . . . to the premise that a poem is the man who writes it, that that origin is the single life.” And, later, insisting that “the essential understanding”—he’s talking about the “form is never more than an extension of content” principle—is “that, a poem IS integral, and is only a coming and going from the man who makes it.” And, as if one need’d more emphasis on the beast himself, how that principle “is seen to be a law emerging from the organism of the poet not from outside things.” Which essentialism—self as source and judge—seems antithetical to Olson’s “post-Modern” project. (Though the “coming and going” in the second statement throws a kind of churn and vortex—allowing the outside in—into that man-source, it’s hardly enough to counter Olson’s thrust.)

Olson’s attempt (1951) to convince the Fulbright Committee to get him to Mesopotamia (with a curious premonitory use of “on the ground”): “My desire is to go to IRAQ to steep myself, on the ground, in all aspects of SUMERIAN civilization.” He proposes “(1), to lock up translations from the clay tablets, conspicuously the poems and myths (these translations and transpositions have been in progress for four years); and (2), to fasten—by the live sense that only the actual ground gives—the text of a book, one half of which is SUMER.” The other half being of the Maya, result of Olson’s investigations in Lerma, in the Yucatan. The juxtaposition of the two cultures is “to try to make clear . . . the nature of the force of ORIGINS” (Olson’s “premise” being that such means may result in “a redefinition of man,” “a crucial necessity, that it is necessary if we are to arrive at a fresh ground for a concept of ‘humanism.’”) I love how the rhetoric (“lock up”) is of a job nigh-complete, though Olson’s mostly shooting blind. I love thinking of Sumerian Letters, and, later, SUMER and / or MAYA or such. Of course, had Olson got “on the ground” in Iraq, he’d undoubtedly’ve end’d up in the C.I.A. (Recall that he did, in 1942, query the Office of Strategic Services, looking for a post. Maud writes, amusingly: “it is generally considered that he would not have made a good spy.”) Olson’s own report to Creeley regarding the Fulbright: “I doubted State wld take a risk on me at such outposts of the empire as Istanbul or Tehran, simply, that, in such places, they can’t afford more than pink-cheeked servants.”

Charles Olson

Monday, November 12, 2007

Olson’s Letters

Red Oak

Out with the dog, dusk.
Rake of headlights against hedges,
End of day noises, a
Hammer’s final ritardando big, &

Clang of being flung into
Toolbox. ‘Traceries sufficient to other’s
Need’ is how Olson put
It, a kind of domestic

Engineering, a pebble, finger-rubbed.
Beyond the tidy neighborhood: a
Sergeant, thirty-one, brought up
Out of Iraq in a

Bag. The home address, ‘American
Samoa,’ stack’d jerry cans, WWII-
Era airstrip. Empire makes its
Own refuse, and eats it.

A deadpan day. Required composure:
Solitary habitual rictus, tooth’d against
The sheer folly of admitting
How death one day will

Post an inky letter, one
In a tub, pre-sort’d,
Of bulk mail, spat out
Beyond the tumble and clack

Of addressograph plates, as impersonal
As light. As if summoning
One to a banquet, or
A bank, for proceedings gastronomical

Or fiduciary, Respondez in advance.
What is it keeps one
Regimentally calm, day going poker-
Facedly down into night’s compost?

Forgot how long it is possible for a man to look into the mirey depths of a word, seeing something not-word in its vulviform layering turn and spoke, seeing letter become smudge and smudge become village romp, thready desire, aperies of time’s palimpsest on space—it’s all rather heavenly and speck-of-the-universe-making à la fois, Frank O’Hara had it perfectly exact, “all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement / I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing.” Is it “good” to make writing a staring contest (other, pre-“quota” days, I’d walk away, go sprawl across the lumpy mattress with a book, cluck up the dog, pout)? O’Hara, too, says “it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering whether you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it.” Which is presumably how it “ought” to be, unless one is tempt’d to de-beeve the “contemporary masters” and try to become, rather sillyly, a nonce word unto oneself, or, ugh, a wholly impermanent legend.

Reading the Ralph Maud-edited Selected Letters of Charles Olson. A chronological spray, emphasis “variety.” With Maud’s inter-epistolary jottings, it outlines a brief biography. Maud: “If one reads in sequence one will slowly become accustomed to the poet’s so-called difficult style as it develops. A trust will be generated to carry one forward, a trust that Olson may be idiosyncratic, but not uncreatively perverse.” Maud notes, too, re: Olson’s style: “advances into a new syntax of experience”—skipping the obvious, Olson’s belabour’d indebtedness to Pound’s own rather sophomoric misspellings and phrasings. Which is most (and earliest) evident in the Creeley exchanges. (A period in the late ’sixties or so when one’d identify one’s advanced “poetic” merely by the presence of “yrs” “&” “tho” “/” “cd” “shd” &c. in the verse-carcass.)

Olson’s range—one senses a man omnivorous, of a wild and true curiosity, and hardly misanthropic, he walks (the docks, the railroad yards—somewhere he reports: “Ears wide open. . . . listening to wharves & men”) to meet people, to talk, not for brooding, or thinking, or solitary brain-box-plunders. Making the “saturation job” remark something in the way of a note to oneself. Olson’s terrific push into history. A 1946 letter to Ruth Benedict (of Patterns of Culture): “I continuously find myself reaching back and down in order to make sense out of now and to lead ahead”—that rare maturity, one not wholly immersed by ’s own paltry epoch (all epochs being paltry). Writing to Benedict about Call Me Ishmael, its “method of narrative,” Olson writes how it opens with “a FIRST FACT, a telling of what happened to the 21 men of the crew of the “Essex” sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1819.” And later, the refusal of the critical stance: “No interpretation within the story, no position. In New History the act of the observer, if his personality is of count, is before, in the selection of the material. This is where we will cut the knot. There has been, is too much of everything, including knowledge, because it has not been winnowed . . . I think if you burn the facts long and hard enough in yourself as crucible you’ll come to the few facts that matter. And then fact can be fable again.”

Elsewhere (to the Guggenheim Foundation): “The record of fact is, in my method, the root. . . . that method ends in narrative and image.” (Recalling the period, early ’eighties, when one’s “theory” got uppity about “metaphor” and try’d to replace such textures with “the factual,” and commenced all higgledy-piggledy to “collect facts” (which mostly “went” into poems “in the form of letters”). Which “project” went swell except for the “fact” that one spent most upright hours in an inebriated stupor, a poor condition for “fact-collecting.”)

Olson, who always struck me as one of “those who rush ahead” par excellence, see the sheer volume of letters, reporting how X “made a remark after his first months here which gave me a clue: ‘In America you have to spend so much of your time reacting you don’t have the time or energy to act.’ I think any of us halters know that, but it was a palliative to my slow soul to hear it. I distrust those who rush ahead. They come to me always thin.”

Funny sight of a man
Gone apoplectic with the obvious
(To him), that primitive impotence
Of stomp & gloat. Wrong,

We be so smally-contain’d
Between Brackish Netherford & Pus,
Out in the unhinder’d devilish
Reaches, reaching for our ass

That’s being most fork’d by
The tiny tyrant of our-
Self, that proud clot unemunct’d.
Hence: global bloody massacres continue,

In Pennsylvania a twenty-point
Buck’s bagged, three antler’d, an
Adversary’s bust’d off in rut,
Stuck into its runny eye.

Ruth Benedict, 1887-1948

Friday, November 09, 2007



Sun-shafts drill the ailanthus,
Weed tree of the spoil’d
Polis, gangly in municipal lots.
I like its pushy indifference—

Bomb thing to say about
A tree—and the sky’s
‘Pert & comely innuendo blue.’
There. Writing in open contempt

Of the physical world. Curtly
Pummeling the unpresentable beyond, its
Trashy nineteenth-century duds &
Encumbrances. Nothing here beyond disfigurement,

Jack, and writing. Pinnate leaf,
Greenish buds, a stench of
Exhaust and that chassis, stripped
And torch’d. Bunch a words.

Thinking about what I saw in the negligible slice of the “Kenny” Goldsmith “clip” I plugged into at Ubu, the kind of thing I rarely do. The thing cut out without ending, thankfully enough. What I recall is the complete assurance of Goldsmith—and of talking head Bruce Andrews. Nothing exploratory here, total blithe unencumber’d certainty à la Dick Cheney against the supposedly disastrous quaint imbecility of anybody who’d attempt to, say, capture with some degree of accuracy anything human. If Goldsmith’s deadpan smarm regarding a self-appoint’d role as agent provocateur for a lack of creativity aims to rile—perhaps forgivable in some honorary history of avant-garde “moves,” Andrews’s self-satisfy’d chorus peeps just seem that: he lays down a barrage of meaningless code-words—“epiphany,” “therapeutic,” “crappy ideologies,” “verisimilitude,” “lyric”—without either detailing the complaint, or providing example. “Hacks.” To see some of the Language boys retailing tired arguments of thirty years back—arguments that even in 1977 had only a tenuous connect to life then “on the ground” (as we didn’t say), is perturbing. Call it Alexander Haigismus, that predilection to repeat lies again and again to the point that one comes to think them truths. Worse, others do. Or others believe that Andrews’s little firecracker strings of vulgar pop-off sexist claptrap’d serve as a model for a resistance writing, something that’ll engage a pixelated and Paxil’d-up populace indifferent to the imperium’s daily slaughter. Or there’s Goldsmith’s recycled “text,” “material”: at last count the U. S. government’d recycled 3,859 U. S. soldiers in Iraq. “What, me worry?” says a-g mascot Goldsmith (“maddeningly”). There’s probably enough text around to commemorate the 3,859 soldiers: no need to expend another ounce of energy for ongoing, criminal war dead, not in the light of the trappings of what? Goldsmith’s tired old iconoclasm, affectless, smug, incurious, formal? It’s decidedly not “hot,” and not “’sixties.”

(Stein’s “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is” drubs around in the background of my thinking. Isn’t a certain emotional content necessary to move a populace, to engage a citizenry? Isn’t the failure of the New Sentence precisely in its refusal to “paragraph,” to build affect sentence by conjoin’d sentence? How “nineteenth century!” How “hokey!”)

Nineteenth-century man Melville: “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes lie; and all men who say no,—why they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travelers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and damn them, they will never get through the Custom House.”

Kenneth Goldsmith

Thursday, November 08, 2007


A Wall

Like a lexicographer I pull
Slips out of slots, arrange
Words by usage, for use.
Clouds clod the arable sky

Warning one off, smudge-work
Against the anodized blue. Whole
Democracies of misspent dub longings:
That’s how youth got itself

Going, speed-rocketing around what,
Used up, succumb’d to nothing.
A wiggle or two and
What Olson clear-headedly call’d

A ‘sash-weight’ hanging there,
Evidence of the Pithecanthropic infarct
Quash’d. Pendant, and richly undefined.
At least the window’s open.

The way the words shower down out of some aerial “region” unbetray’d, Martian-voices colonizing the consciousness: that is rare, rare potato. Funnier to write in a spate of interrupts, “baulked,” as Emerson says, “by all manner of paltry impediments,” dragging one’s unlikely consciousness around between meal-making, homework, a billion bombardments of daily life, all that cherish’d fruitlessness of continuing. “And still attempt something with a smutch of ‘unity’ to it, a ‘shapely’ thing, a thing whose ‘voice’—I don’t know how else to say it—emerges without the muffled indistincts of mere noise.” No singular ‘voice’—there’s a chattery in my brainbox—still, the chorus oughtn’t just batter at one another. (Recall some nonsensical concert in Paris: an orchestra of forty or so led by some pony-tailed maestro, clearly slipping of sanity’s horse, who athletically contort’d himself on the podium whilst the players raucous’d wildly, blew, saw’d, pound’d. Except for some minuscule changes in volume, nothing tangible emerged.)

Emerson: “Men quarrel with your rhetoric. Society chokes with a trope, like a child with the croup. They much prefer Mr Prose. & Mr Hoarse-as-Crows, to the dangerous conversation of Gabriel and the archangel Michael perverting all rules, & bounding continually from earth to heaven.”

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Stephen Collis’s Susan Howe

Storage and Dump

Eke, I do, back into books I dropped momentarily in the caterwaul of the temporal—firstly, Stephen Collis’s Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism. “In a chiastic universe only relations exist”—quoting Howe’s Midnight. That ideogrammatic insistence, the solace of it. Meaning’s emergence / convergence out of just positionings of difference. The isolato in a state of pre-kinesis, a wavering, a wobble of potentiality, pre-meaning, pre-commons. (I’m jamming.) Collis pointing to Howe’s figures of enclosure (isolato’d, hid): bed hangings, veils, curtains, books (and the leaves of books), archives. Liminal spots, border countries. Collis, one of the “Politics of the Veil”:
It’s good to be hidden when you choose to be hid—bad when someone or something else hides you (to make you invisible and thus deprive you of power, or else to reserve you for their own private use.)
Or, Howe’s Midnight version: “It is fun to be hidden but horrible not to be found—the question is how to be isolated without being insulated.” A sort of signal / noise problem: any person / thing joining the smear of company / phenomena means loss and diminishment, noise-sate and uproar, though without such joining, acceding to (entering into) the commons, no “meaning” is possible, no relation. (I’m jamming. Honorable and solitary, one way to determine if the receiver’s working, or if the transmitter’s jammed.) Olson (whom Collis gets to through a terrific exchange of letters between Howe—circa 1980, in the midst of writing My Emily Dickinson—and George F. Butterick (A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson). Collis notes “. . . the pragmatic ‘Logic of Relations’—that no thing or sign is in true isolation—everything is contiguous (here is another place where Olson and Howe meet)—everything in poetry is in ‘touch.’” Or I fuddle about in Maximus, keep returning to lines in “Stiffening, in the Master Founders’ Wills”: “When things / are knots where instance / hides order, and a man / does not run as sheep . . .” That, and the Olson-jam at piece’s end:
            We pick

a private way
among debris
of common
fact as sure

as dimensions stay
personal. And one desire,
that the soul
be naked
at the end

of time (the screech
of the tunnel
it better be, or
what’s all this

Again that negotiation (“pick”), meaning-skirting versus meaning-making. Disdaining versus aligning. The public and the hid. (The “things / are knots” line possibly a Poundian echo, ply against ply, the folding-in, that cache-cache effect that any knot exhibits, outside only visible—is the unknotting of all (“screech”), that un-doing, what makes everything again available, yea, new? Sway’d by Butterick’s confession to Howe about the need to confront, what—ego, space, “thunder and sprawl and rambunctiousness”?—“‘There is no frigate like a book’ is simply not the same as the spermaceti blood-streaked, slimy workingman decks of the Pequod” and so, Olson and the need “to confront the Ahab of [oneself]”:
It is the only way to announce yourself—not by a fiery darting eye or tongue, but by putting your fist through the table. Cleave the world anew!
No concluding. Howe, in “Melville’s Marginalia”: “I thought one way to write about a loved author would be to follow what trail he followed through words of others.” Eliding itinerancy (Howe: “I cling to you with all my divided attention. Itinerantly.”) and name dispersal (Collis: “If identity is fixed order can be imposed. Resistance to singleness is a resistance to the enclosure of capital and empire.”) Collis’s terrific phrase: “scattering identity to the four corners of the page”:
We are traveling as relations through words of others to the lost origins of our other selves.
Straying, “roving”: I, here, merely skimming the clots off the churn barrel, a domestic chore, surely, though not, finally, “inclosed.” The clots (lumpings-together, relations, ideograms) in Collis’s Through Words of Others do what one goes to reading for, to find, “along a book’s margin an easement, a commonable space.” Easement in all its accommodatingly contradictory sense—ease and right of way and borderland. A way in and out.

Two notes. Mention of Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”—another work among the “instigations and examples.” Mention of a Butterick-edited Olson volume in the “Man and Poet” series of the National Poetry Foundation—with Howe agreeing to write something for it—“never appeared.” [The Howe essay, though, print’d in Writing 19 (1987), “Where Should The Commander Be.”]

Half-color’d air, a rinse
Of cadaverous light, sign of
Snow, or some variant of.
A gold-tooth’d man stops

By with a nineteen-year-
Old parrot, ‘she’s illegal now—
They ain’t no wild-caught
Ones to avail yourself of,

Not no more—’ and says
He replaced the oak flooring
In my main room some
Number of years back. ‘Man

Plugged the wife right there
And I gots to clean
It up.’ Parrot says ‘Goddamn.’
Parrot, say it again. ‘Goddamn.’

Susan Howe

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Alice B. Toklas Notes

Two or Three Trees

Led astray (the way reading is) into Alice B. Toklas’s What Is Remembered (out of Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives). What is striking is how closely it mimics Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, making one scratch one’s shaggy dog and ask: “Who’s the ventriloquist here?” Is Stein so magnificently capturing Toklas’s upcoming (the book’s print’d in 1963) prose style? Or is Toklas the unsung genius of the two, catching up the very rhythms Stein invent’d for her? She handles wit with devastating aplomb. She’s fully capable of the kind of crushing “there there” remark that Stein allow’d herself to make literature of: “When Mr. Chaplin arrived I said to him, The only films we have seen are yours, which flattered him but which was not exactly exact.” Or is it simply the facile hauteurs of wealth talking? The toss-offs of those for whom the monstrous quotidian itches get scratch’d by others, subservient, paid.

Lately, maybe noticeably, one’s begun a devilish pursuit here. The rule is: eighty words a day in a five by sixteen block of four five by fours, or twenties. Chiaro? That’s the rule. A way to dissipate (disperse) the energy that goeth so risibly down the Isola-hole. A tapping.

To keep oneself in poise,
And spry, balancing whiddershins over
The tenterhooks of all possibility,
In a nutty omnidirectional kink

Like an overhand knot. That’s
One possibility. Another is to
Posit keeping as a constant
And mitigate the whuttering along

The flywheel with a set
Of sturdy washers, finding rudiments
In rut. The morning with
Its granular pelt (a precipitant)

Coming fierce after my sleepless
(Insoluable) night, thinking of Ed
Dorn talking about a California
‘before bowling-pin-setting machines.’

Why reading is a way of straying. Yesterday why I put something in a few lines about an ichthyologist is because I got hammer’d by the story of A. E. Housman’s asking Toklas about David Starr Jordan, author of the four volume Fishes of North and Middle America (1896-1900), one of a number of renaissance-sized characters (another’d be Liberty Hyde Bailey), the story eliding two (or three) so seemingly different “kens” that I’s troubled to make any of it coalesce. One response: I need to read Housman? I admit: I’ve untroubledly confused Housman with Swinburne for years, blithely consigning both to a small irreputable heap of someday, maybe nevers who course the distance, harmless, errant, no thanks. How such consignees “get” there: aucune idée. I do admit though a particular thrill in finding one made suddenly “available.” (If only temporarily, for, often, tucker’d out after the chase, having grimp’d one’s way into “reading position” vis-à-vis, say, Swinburne, one finds out that one’s right after all, and back the negligible Algernon goes, spatted and dismal.)

(You see how one of the pitfalls of my new rule is that, the “eighty” completed, I figure myself perfectly free to spout the most ineffectual royal nonsense.)

I did finish the Toklas. Noted, too (the other source of readerly misadventure), how she raved up Richard Coates’s The Eater of Darkness. Another “straying” category: the effusions of the century’s gloaming (or whatever—I did done my work today). Too, George John. One of the many U. S. soldiers who arrived chez Stein with a “sheaf” (why “sheaf”? corn, arrows, wheat, poems?) of poems to read to her. (Toklas reports another fellow who visit’d and left a manuscript for Stein made up of stol’n John Donne poems: “the young man was never welcome again.”) The “genuine poet” George John whom Henry Rago publish’d (1947) in Poetry. (Microfiche’d, dagnabbit.)

I (experimentally, dipping in one toe) open’d The Making of Americans:
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
Which remind’d me of the Gabriel García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gertrude Stein of the Boum?

Alice B. Toklas, 1877-1967
(Photograph by Carl Van Vechten)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Opulist and Appropriatrix (Stein Notes)

Post’d, Torn

The bane of the word-
Filthy opulist: there is none.
Ode out of nothing is
The caul and mortar, brute

Affiance, of what one makes.
It is deliver’d up out
Of interstitial madnesses, matrimonial escroqueries
Stretch’d out limbic thin. A

Boundary, it cleaves to itself
Noisily indifferent to whatever sound-
Jostling’s necessary to remain stuck
To a place not so

Much occupy’d as mark’d: pre-
Messiaenic bird-twitterings overlying a
Post-retro floral craze ‘look.’
Things get a little meta.

A piecemeal story. ‘Fugue-tongue
In crotch-din. Thigh-light.’
Some days all language is
Just a muster of palliatives

Against the violence of truth,
The way a man in
A laundromat topples a mountainous
Load into the dryer and

Spells it out for everybody:
A perfect story. Big aperçu
In run-off. The water-

Cuts ducks make in pond-
Scum etch out a faint
Diminuendo and swerve, hieroglyphic. A
Scrupulous vocabulary of leaving out.

Breezed through Janet Malcolm’s peculiar little book Two Lives about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in WWII, and somehow, too, about the vicissitudes of biography. Malcolm’s unable to decide if she likes or dislikes Stein and Toklas; she engages in something similar to what she accuses Stein herself of doing in her (Stein’s) early years in Paris (“a period of the most relentless despair, surrender of ambition and psychological disorientation,” she says, quoting legendary Stein scholar Leon Katz’s unpublish’d dissertation—the book’s also about him—before Stein (in her word’s) “was knowing that I was a genius.”). Malcolm (after claiming that Stein “lived in a kind of ghetto of American relatives and friends, whose French acquaintance was limited almost exclusively to servants, tradesmen, and concierges”—the use of “ghetto” here a marker of Stein’s (and possibly Malcolm’s?) ambivalence about being Jewish) writes that “much of Stein’s time was spent with relatives and girlfriend’s sitting around the house analyzing each other according to strange systems of disapproval.” (Good practice, one’d wager, for entry into any literary “scene.”)

Malcolm on the (belch) “flaccid narrativity” of biography:
The minor characters of biography, like their counterparts in fiction are less tenderly treated than major characters. The writer uses them to advance his narrative and carelessly drops them when they have performed their function. . . . the biographer is writing a life not lives, and to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.
No prisoners. Why my sudden need to make an equation?

bracing = flaccid
storylessness narrativity

bracing = storylessness
flaccid narrativity
Cross-multiplying, one’d derive storylessness as equal to a bracing narrative flaccidly divided. Stop it.

Stein’s crime of never seeming unhappy: “If you write about yourself or anybody it sound as if you were very unhappy and very bitter but generally speaking everybody living has a fairly cheerful time in living. . . . Any life you look at seems unhappy but any life lived is fairly cheerful, and whatever happens it goes on being so.” That Pollyannaish trace—some call it optimism—in American letters, result of “American letters” historically writ by wealth, les rentiers.

Maurice Denis in 1890: “Remember, a picture, before being a battle horse or a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Poised (rather stretchingly) against Stein’s remark that “it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver,” as if the materiality of the paper itself match’d a Steinian predisposition to materiality (“modernist”) that included words. (In fact, she is doubting—in The Making of Americans—whether she’ll ever gain a readership: “will there be for me ever any such a creature.”)

Stein’s “small and monotonous” (Malcolm) vocabulary. (“When she uses a new word it is like the entrance of a new character.”) Stein:
Every word I am ever using in writing has for me very existing being. Using a word I have not yet been using in my writing is to me very difficult and a peculiar feeling. . . . there are only a few words and with these mostly always I am writing that have for me completely entirely existing being, in talking I use many more of them of words I am not living but talking is another thing, in talking one can be saying mostly anything, often then I am using many words I never could be using in writing.
To the subsequent argument that Stein is “transcribing rather than transforming thought as she writes”: hogwash. Malcolm: “The alacrity with which she catches her thoughts before they turn into stale standard expressions may be the most singular of her accomplishments.” As if thinking occur’d naked, or half-clothedly, without the self-contain’d boosterism of language, or as if thinking’s initial (primal) costume’d be something other than “standard.”

For Mark Scroggins, who recently admitted to loving “twaddle” (the word): Henry James’s phrase “the twaddle of graciousness.” (Alice B. Toklas’s letters and thank-you notes, &c. exhibited just that.)

Wit’s appropriatrix of aughts: ‘We
Went down to Milan by
Train in intense heat . . . The
Next morning we continued toward

Florence. Because of the heat
I took off my cerise
Ribbon girdle in the dressing
Room of the train, ditching

It out the window. When
I returned Harriet said, What
An odd coincidence, I just
Saw your cherry-colored corset

Go by the window.’ That
And the story of A.
E. Housman’s demanding to know
Everything about a famous ichthyologist.

“When I Wasn’t Abject”