Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes

Stone and Leaf

The Zukofsky biography. See if an assemblage (out of my execrably scrawl’d pencil notes) is possible. How, Mark Scroggins alerts one, the flowers strewn through all the stanzas of the second half of “A”-9 may be “intended as a submerged pun on a couple of passages” out of Spinoza’s Ethics: “The more any image has reference to many things, the more frequent it is, the more often it flourishes, and the more it occupies the mind” and “The more an image is associated with many other things, the more often it flourishes.” (The radical relationship betwixt flourish and flower did, heretofore, keep itself out the sheepish reach of my soil-caked etymological paw.) So: loading the rifts with ore, dragging the roots and rootlets (that severe hid exfoliating, the way a tree’s visible part is duplicate to its radices, its stock, supplier and occupier) of the word along into the poem: aim and practice of the topnotch (Shakespeare), by brash raw intuitings, or by precise mathematical incisings. So: apropos a tiny reverie-piece in Anew
I walked out, before
“Break of day”
And saw
Four cabins in the hay.

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves—four—
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

The waters
At the ramp
Running away.
—Zukofsky insists that the word “bay” conveys “something of all the meanings of the word ‘bay’: red brown, the laurel wreath, a bay horse, a deep bark or cry, a window-bay, a large space in a barn for storage as of hay or fodder, the state of being kept at a standstill, but more specifically two meanings that seemed to include all the others, they are, an arm of the sea and a recess of low land between hills.” Undercurrent of duration, tiny slapping wavelets of “superficial” time. Or—where’s it writ?—the imperative, “Music, itch according to its wont—” Or, bringing together “all the meanings”—“This imagined music / Traces the particular line / Of lines meeting / by chance or design.” Bass boom underthrob and high iterant recitativos. Where I go astray—likely the fault of my wily innocence of Spinoza (I did peek into the Ethics, and fled): how figure that clasp-the-daisy-root flourishing against Spinoza’s claim (Zukofsky-quoted in Bottom) that “unhealthy states of mind owe their origin for the most part to excessive love for a thing that is liable to many variations, and of which we may never seize the mastery”? Which’d seem to cut against the grain of Zukofsky’s mode of rangy variation and recurrence. Scroggins, toujours deft with the apt, quotes five lines out of “A”-12 that seem a marvel:
                              Each writer writes
one long work whose beat he cannot
entirely be aware of. Recurrences
follow him, crib and drink from a
well that’s his cadence . . .
“Crib” is the center-pole there: a purely musical (echoing off the near-mirror of “drink”) move whose semantic rags (harlequinesque, surely, in the whelm of motley—crib meaning, amongst other things, “to feed at a crib; to confine, hamper; to pilfer, appropriate, thieve; to complain, grumble”) get overlook’d at the formal—indeed, cause the others to go a little sporty (“that’s”).

Craft and precision versus onslaught and chance (“crib”-music). Scroggins’s remarking how
while Zukofsky liked to stress slow and painful composition—“Emphasize detail 130 times over—or there will be no poetic object,” or “Six nights on one page, / No complaint. / Only in the end to write it / Exactly as sketched / in the first draft”—when he was in the midst of a piece, he actually tended to write rather rapidly.
I think of Oscar Wilde’s resoundingly-fatuous-in-face-of-the-earnest “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” Or of (what I wager’s an echo of Wilde—) Charles Wright’s note that “caught / Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute”:
My job is yard work—
I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.
Zukofsky’s back-to-first-draft skepticism somehow making the nigh-inextricable braid of sources in the late “A”-sections what? less forbidding? That, betimes, he’s just goofing like the rest of us?

Odd factoids out of The Poem of a Life (a tiny list incompleat): That WCW first call’d that book (that Zukofsky edited), THE (lang) WEDGE, or, alternatively, The Language. That when Michael Palmer invited Zukofsky to read at Harvard (1963) he went by the (given) name of George Michael Palmer. (How differently I would read a Notes for Echo Lake by George Palmer!) (I do love Palmer’s later recollection of Zukofsky: “he took up only a small part of the chair.”) That Zukofsky got asked (and sent) a manuscript to Donald M. Allen for The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (reject’d, perhaps for reasons of age—Olson six years younger). That T. S. Eliot used the phrase “spike the guns” regarding the notes he provided to “The Waste Land”—guns of the critics who’d accuse him of hotch-potch-ismo or worse. “To render (a gun) unserviceable by driving a spike into the touch-hole; also, to block or fill up (the touch-hole) with a spike.” Lovely.

Because I get caught in the rabble of thinking (with and against) Zukofsky—and in the wind-turbulence of trying to put it to the page (wings sheering off left and right), I neglect to note things like just how excellently Scroggins reads. Here’s one tiny example, examining the smallest of “A”’s “units”—the four word “A”-16:
Given the spareness of “A”-16, the transition from “A”-15 to “A”-17 is likely to detain the casual reader only a moment; but the elegance of Zukofsky’s joinery here, how the poet has engineered the movements to fit one into the next, is masterful. “An / inequality / wind flower,” “A”-16 reads. “An / inequality” precisely repeats the first sounds of “A”-15, “An hinny” (the “an” forces one to elide the aspirate—“an ’inny”). “Inequality” brings to mind the inequalities that Zukofsky has pondered in “A”-14 and “A”-15: between first world and third word, between black and white within the United States, where all are supposedly created equal; “wind flower,” suspended delicately towards the bottom of the page, picks up on the short i of “inequality,” and ends the movement on a dying fall. But it also picks up on the floral scene at the very end of “A”-15, and leads into the “Coronal”—a crown or garland of flowers—of “A”-17. Windflower is the Greek anemone: the “an”-word beginning “A”-17 is “Anemones.” Such patterns of phonetic, thematic, and literal recurrence give “A” its unity: The harder one stares at the poem, the more one discerns such patterns.
Surely a moment of explicatory succor, and savoury!

Mark Scroggins