Friday, October 29, 2010

Williams / Dylan


Williams (The Descent of Winter) talking about Shakespeare’s “mean ability to fuse himself with everyone which nobodies have, to be anything at any time, fluid, a nameless fellow whom nobody noticed—much.” That “mean ability” one with “the meanness / of love // its organ in a tarpaulin . . .” Coldish morning, raucous crows, sleepy. Dylan at Hill Auditorium last night singing “Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?” And Williams with a Dylanesquerie like “A cop whizzes by on a sidecar cycle, the bank to the river is cinders where dry leaves drift.” That devilish insistent re-making of the old songs. “Because he was nobody and was fluid and accessible. He took the print and reversed the film, as it went in so it came out. Certainly he never repeated himself since he did nothing but repeat what he heard and nobody ever hears the same words twice the same.” (Williams commingling Shakespeare and Charles Sheeler whom Henry Ford ask’d “to go to Detroit and photograph everything.”) The stage patter-less obstinacy of Dylan, a kind of anonymity. (Williams, troubling Shakespeare again—a sly way of talking about William Carlos William: “By writing he escaped from the world into the natural world of his mind. The unemployable world of his fine head was unnaturally useless in the gross exterior of his day—or any day. By writing he made this active. He melted himself into that grossness . . .”) (Compare that to Stevens’s rather pious and entirely fussy remark that “modernity is so Chicagoan, so plain, so unmeditative” and that “One must make concessions to others; but there is never a necessity of smutching inner purity.”) (Dylan singing out of some doubt, another kind of “meanness / of love”: “The door has closed forevermore / If indeed there ever was a door . . .”) The crows off into the woodlots and cornfields, out the window a man is drilling eight inch core samples out of the cement apron. To install the black steel invert’d U’s of bicycle racks. Constant shrilling damp’d by a slurry of hose water. And Williams’s American lingo (“hard to get rid of”) and American everyday surreal (“a spotted dog goes up a gutter”), veering and ordinary:
—Wore my bathing suit
four hours after sundown.
That’s how. Yea?

Easy to get
hard to get rid of.

Then unexpectedly
a small house with a soaring oak
leafless above it

Someone should summarize these things
in the interest of local
government or how
a spotted dog goes up a gutter—

and in chalk crudely
upon the railroad bridge support
a woman rampant
brandishing two rolling pins . . .
I keep returning to Dylan’s “High Water (for Charlie Patton)”—that phenomenal blitzkrieg smear of high-grit Americana (with its “tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk”): “Coffins droppin’ in the street / Like balloons made out of lead / Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin’ to do / ‘Don’t reach out for me,’ she said / ‘Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?’ / It’s rough out there / High water everywhere . . .” Tempt’d to put Dylan amongst Ashbery’s “put it all down” squad, though a version of “Just Like a Woman” last night, with soaring and lavishly exfoliant guitar and organ work and bit off and gulp’d down minimal lyric vocables—to the point that the audience’s compel’d to sing the chorus out old-style: that’s a form of “leaving all out.”

Charles Sheeler, “Ford Plant, Blast Furnace and Dust Catcher,” 1927

Charles Sheeler, “Ford Plant, River Rouge, Stamping Press,” 1927

Charles Sheeler, “Ford Plant, River Rouge, Criss-Crossed Conveyors,” 1927

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Picture of a Picture

Isn’t it a kind of idiot’s work, the daily piecemeal arranging of texts? One breathes shallowly, mouth agape, neurons barely firing. Here’s something. And here. And the painstaking obliviousness begins. Tweezing grains of pollen out of one flower into another. On the way to making a purely white marigold. Enrique Vila-Matas (Bartleby & Co.), a “tracker of Bartlebys”:
      In his day, on the occasion of Rimbaud’s centenary, Julien Gracq protested about the pages and pages given over to mythologising the poet’s silence. Gracq pointed out that previously the vow of silence was tolerated or ignored; he pointed out that it was quite common for the courtier, the man of faith or the artist to abandon the century in order to die silently in a monastery or country home.
      . . . I am the first to demythologise the misguided saintliness so often attributed to Rimbaud. I cannot forget that he who wrote “above all to smoke, to drink strong liquor like molten metal” (a very beautiful poetic stance) was the same mean creature who wrote from Ethiopia: “I only drink water, fifteen francs a month, everything is very expensive. I never smoke.”
The wilder the child the stuffier the grown-up. The perennially overlook’d Gracq pins a rather different sort of myth—that of the helplessly monstrous—to Céline, “a man who started marching behind his own bugle”:
I get the sense that his exceptional gifts as a vociferator, which he was unable to resist, led him inflexibly toward themes with a high-risk content, the panicky, besieged, frenetic themes, among which anti-Semitism, specifically, made to draw him in. The drama that the demands of an instrument received as a gift can bring out in an artist—demands that are at times half monstrous and above all fully used—must have come into play here in all its scope. If someone, to his misfortune, has received the rat catcher’s flute as a gift, it will be hard to prevent him from taking children to the river.
(Out of Gracq’s splendid Reading Writing.) Oddly enough, the reverse touts some mean credence, too: isn’t it the “the panicky, besieged, frenetic themes” that call out so ‘plosive and Syreneall’ to the beastly many, the unsong’d and unable? The jack-happy dilettantes, the “dedicated followers” of Dickinson’s plaintive taunt—to T. W. Higginson—“I thought that being a Poem one’s self precluded the writing of Poems,” never to “perceive the Mistake.” Gracq is talking about O’Hara’s “divine trap” (“A Young Poet”), that “beautiful style, / the meaning of which draws him further down / into passion / and up in the staring regard of his intuitions”: “the insight which comes as a kiss / and follows as a curse.”

Period of rummaging in the spellbinding abyss of the new Ralph Maud-edit’d Muthologos: Lectures and Interviews (Talonbooks, 2010). Out of a conversation with Herb Kenny, newspaperman (Boston Globe) and author of Cape Ann: Cape America:
olson: Like Eliot did say in that beautiful poem called “Cape Ann”: “Leave it to the gulls.”* [laughs]

kenny: “Leave it to the gulls.”

olson: I think that really we’re too irregular for Mr Eliot. He had to flee back to England and to royalism, ecclesiasticism, and literature.

kenny: This magnetic field of force which you see running from London back and forth to Cape Ann . . . ?

olson: I wouldn’t call it magnetic. I mean, let’s call it “turbinic.” [laughs] Conturbat me. Turbine in that sense.

kenny: What part would that play in bringing Eliot from Cape Ann back to London?

olson: I think it’s just like a piece of flotsam; he drifted back to the old centers of power because he couldn’t stand the vulgarity of this new strength, strength of society. I think, like William Burroughs, these St Louis men are the decampment of the Middle West. And I think they just—I mean, like, it used to be—and, if I may, then I’m certainly anti-Yankee by now but then, after all, I’ve also known and loved many Yankees. I mean, we have rather a scorn for these Middle West fugitives who approach Boston with candles in their hands. Even us Irish from South Boston feel that this is ours, not St Louis’s.

kenny: Eliot’s Cape Ann to London has nothing to do with John Winthrop’s London to Cape Ann?

olson: Utterly not; as a matter of fact, does not. Mr Winthrop can record experiences of the freshness of the air, or even Reverend Higginson can record the, if it’s not the strawberries, the taste of fresh fruit, fresh air and fresh fruit, as they came to these shores. It’s like the rediscovery of Eden; and Mr Eliot, unfortunately, had ashes in his mouth wherever he went. I say this recognizing of course that, as Mr Burroughs said when Mr Trocchi and Mr Burroughs and I were sitting in Trocchi’s shoot-up room one night in London three years ago, and so, because in some stupid—I was so surprised at Trocchi (he’s a Scot, of Italian descent) making himself a confession or something to me: “What do you think of Eliot?” And I said, “Well, look, Trocchi, that’s like asking me do you like string beans as well as peas?” And Burroughs said, “In other words, you are saying he’s a poet?” I said, “For sure,” you know, sort of like, I mean, he really was, he was a poet, there’s no question about it. But then we fight, don’t we? ’cos we have to.

kenny: But you don’t acknowledge that that experience . . . ?

olson: No, on the contrary, I do think, I do think I’m coming, I come of the same turf. I mean, my uncle (Dr Williams is who I’m thinking is my uncle)—I mean, there is that great factum of choice between whether you stay on this shore where the migration came to or whether you backtrack. We really have a lot of scorn for those who can’t take it here. I mean, god knows, none of us who stayed here (and it gets increasingly worse) think that it’s anything but unbearable. But then, mind, we certainly come on, and we stayed here.

kenny: Got to stay here—fight it out.

olson: Well, it isn’t even that: it’s ours.
Recording stops: “[gap].” And resumes. August 1969. “Mr Eliot” (and Old World moribundity)—oddly enough—still the colossus and butt of hostility WCW’d made of him. Olson taking up the cudgel (the way, say, Ron Silliman continues to do today). Forty years along, with the criminal extent of the wholesale bungling of that “freshness” noticeable partout, talk of the strengths of “vulgarity” seem waggish, arch, if not slightly addle-pate. Vila-Matas: “I have been fortunate, I have dealt with hardly a single writer in person. I know that they are vain, mean, scheming, egocentric, impossible. . . . I am only interested in writers who hide away . . .” “Leave it to the gulls.” Gulls: “Men that would haue all in their owne handes . . . Cormerauntes, gredye gulles; yea, men that would eate vp menne, women, and chyldren . . .” Too, a credulous dupe, a simpleton: “anie such slowe yce-braind beefe-witted gull.”
*Out of “Landscapes” (1933-34):
Cape Ann

O quick quick quick, quick hear the song sparrow,
Swamp sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper sparrow
At dawn and dusk. Follow the dance
Of goldenfinch at noon. Leave to chance
The Blackburnian warbler, the shy one. Hail
With shrill whistle the note of the quail, the bob-white
Dodging the bay-bush. Follow the feet
Of the walker, the water-thrush. Follow the flight
Of the dancing arrow, the purple martin. Greet
In silence the bullbat. All are delectable. Sweet sweet sweet
But resign this land at the end, resign it
To its true owner, the tough one, the sea gull.
The palaver is finished.
Lovely enough in a bookish (field guide) sort of way, though ornithologically suspect.

Charles Olson, 1910-1970
(Photograph by Charles Stein)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Three Rhymes

Red Ryder

Up out of sleep-sock’d reverie of an Odyssean retour, the semi-slummy precincts of North Plain Street in Ithaca (where Ithaca House perch’d behind the sign of a bicycle-riding frog): the wan yellow Italianate structure now standing tout seul in a blast’d urban mess and tangle, dishevel’d, half-de-timber’d, falling. All the surrounding houses demolish’d, ailanthus and other weed trees partout. (Rhyming with a place—sole upright in a destroy’d zone—I inhabit’d in the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris, home to what we call’d the anarchist’s restaurant, a joint run by a surly Corsican who made one plat and served it to all comers freely, pay what—if—you can.)

Read a little in Davenport’s Pound book, Cities on Hills, and discard’d the remaining hour to Tom McCarthy’s C, that, swerving into coke-snorting spiritualist ya-ya, suddenly seem’d something to get through. Davenport continually wows me with the tangibility—the tang and pungency—of explicatory readings. “Cutting through the muck with clarity”: what Pound himself claim’d to be doing in The Cantos. Davenport, defying supposed obscurity with gentle scrutiny (and little upbraiding, even where a typo’s concern’d):
The New York Times for 18 April 1958, writing about Pound’s career at the time of his release from St Elizabeths hospital in Washington, printed these lines from The Cantos, noting that they are mystifying.
And Awoi’s hennia
plays hob
k-lakk . . . . . . thuuuuuuu
      making rain
      2, 7, hoooo
      der im Baluba
      The critic anxious to defend might point out that the passage is misquoted (“plays hob in the tent flaps” is the second line), misarranged typographically, and unfairly removed from its context, as if one were to take Tom o’ Bedlam’s lines from Lear and offer them as evidence of Shakespearean obscurity. Mere literacy tells us that something called Awoi’s hennia is playing hob with tent flaps, something very like a storm wind, and that the verse is imitating this disturbance. But, without further information we must agree with the Times. In context, however, the reader at this point knows the “2, 7” is a count of birds on telegraph wires, and that they are being watched by the poet from a tent in the U. S. Army Disciplinary Training Center outside Pisa, and that the poet sees the birds as notes on a page of music and amuses himself with the tunes they make as they shift on the wires. Already the passage begins to take on an engaging legibility. Birds making their own and visual music is certainly a fresh conceit; one can imagine Campion or Lawes charming an Elizabethan audience with music suggested by birds on a rule of wires. In context the reader has also met “der im Baluba” in its full form—here it is a motif repeating, and a catchphrase only is needed; it is a story about the German anthropologist Frobenius, who among the Baluba people of Africa learned to execute on the tom-tom a ritual beat for making rain. He was allowed to perform this sacred business on a real occasion, and the heavens broke, pouring, A bespectacled German professor, from Frankfurt, beard, pith helmet and all! Now we have a storm, a tent, music written by birds across the sky, and a memory of other rain in a place that seems, by situation, less strange than a detention camp. And Awoi’s hennia is a Japanese ghost, from a Nōh play; so it is a real wind that goes thuuuuuuu but a ghost that says hoooo. The most that can be said for the farfetchedness, as it seems, of Awoi’s hennia is that a sympathetic and interested reader is likely to know Pound’s translation of the play from which it comes, or will enjoy reading it if he looks it up, and that a specific, exotic ghost is more interesting than the unadorned concept of ghosts, and that a spooky rainstorm is more entertaining if you have to sit through one, than unrelieved tedium. Of such curious things are The Cantos made, in quick and close detail.
“Quick and close detail”: that of The Cantos and Davenport’s own (with bravura and dash). “Mere literacy”: what can no longer be assumed. (Earlier in the book, Davenport reproduces part of a letter, John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, wherein Adams is deploring how one Dr. Priestly (in, apparently, a gathering of Greek translations) disregarded the Stoic successory to Zeno, Cleanthes of Assos—“ridiculed by his brother philosophers, and called ‘an ass.’ He owned he was the ass of Zeno, and ‘the only one whose back and shoulders were stout enough to carry his burdens.’” Adams notes how Cleanthes compared “philosophers to instruments of music, which made a noise without understanding it of themselves.” Former Presidents Adams and Jefferson.)

To rhyme with one example of Davenport’s dash (and to implicitly argue for the artistry of reading itself): out of “The Critic as Artist”:
      The most notoriously unreadable book in all English literature is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Here is a sentence from it:
The horseshow magnete draws the field and don’t the fillyings fly?
      Whatever this is, it began life as Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Like most of the sentences in Finnegans Wake (including the title) it can be sung to a tune from the great fund of childrens’ songs, folksong, or opera which Joyce could count on our knowing. This appeal to common culture is crucial to understanding Joyce. Paradise Lost assumes precisely such a common culture, as do, let us admit, all works of art.
      The horseshow magnete is a horseshoe magnet, and we begin to see a poetic joke: a racetrack is shaped like two horseshoes tine to tine (but if you do this with magnets, they repel each other—this is a theme all to itself, not to be pursued here). Having seen the magnet in our sentence, we see that Joyce has in mind the classroom demonstration of magnetic fields (we say “a field of horses” in a race)—iron filings poured onto a sheet of paper will arrange themselves in a pattern that makes the magnetic field visible if we hold the magnet beneath the paper.
      Joyce knew that Ezra Pound, his friend and patron, had used this image—“the rose in the steel dust” Pound calls it—to claim that if Dante had known it, he would have found a way, as surely as John Donne, to use it as a valid image in poetry.
      Horseshow Magnate is another meaning: a rich buyer of racehorses. And magneto. And the fillyings are fillies, and girls, and they are also feuilles, leaves, for the image of autumn and falling leaves is never far from Joyce’s imagery.
      Without its context, which is one of children staging a play for their parents in a nursery, we cannot pursue the full resonances of this sentence. The preceding sentence is “And vamp, vamp, vamp, the girls are merchand.” So the girls who are fleeing the horseshow magnate are camp followers; the setting is our Civil War specifically, and all wars generally, and the battles are full of echoes of Abel and Cain, whose contention has amplified down through history into “the baffle of Whatalose when Adam Leftus and the devil took our hindmost.”

Frank O’Hara and Joe Brainard, “Red Rydler and Dog,” c. 1964

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guy Davenport / Tom McCarthy

A Sign

“A congeries of essences must find a form, and the form must be coherent and harmonious.” Guy Davenport, in the “Postscript” to Twelve Stories, collecting “the ones,” he writes, “I choose to salvage . . . outworks to the long and densely collaged novelle . . .” With the novelle subsequently named. And a sentence or two (“The Gingham Dress I heard with my own ears”) apropos les origines of each of the “outworks”: “‘The Bowmen of Shu’ begins with a letter from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, written from the trenches in 1915, that John Cournos showed me one evening in Haverford, taking it from its envelope, while remembering introducing Gaudier to Pound fifty years before.” Beginning:
27 December 1914

Here we are picking the first fern shoots and saying when shall we get back to our country, away from das Trommelfeurer, the gunners spent like winded dogs, white smoke and drizzle of sparks blowing across barbed wire in coils, the stink of cordite. 27 December 1914. Avalanches of shrapnel from field guns firing point-blank with fuses set at zero spray down in gusts, an iron windy rain. Here we are because we have the huns for our foemen. It’s with pleasure, dear Cournos, that I’ve received news from you. We have no comfort because of these Mongols. You must have heard of my whereabouts from Ezra to whom I wrote some time ago. Since then nothing new except that the weather has had a change for the better. We grub the soft fern shoots, the rain has stopped for several days and with it keeping the watch in a foot deep of liquid mud, the crazy duckwalks, hack and spit of point guns.
Pound’s “Song of the Bowmen of Shu”—with the tag “By Bunno, reputedly 1100 B.C.”—begins (in Personae): “Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots / And saying: When shall we get back to our country? / Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen, / We have no comfort because of these Mongols. / We grub the soft fern-shoots . . .” Pound disastrously rework’d the piece for the 1954 Classic Anthology: “Pick a fern, pick a fern, ferns are high, / ‘Home,’ I’ll say: home, the year’s gone by, / no house, no roof, these huns on the hoof. / Work, work, work, that’s how it runs, / We are here because of these huns. . . .” In Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound quotes the sculptor (out of a letter of 18 December 1914): “The poems depict our situation in a wonderful way. We do not yet eat the young nor old fern shoots, but we cannot be over victualled where we stand . . .” Later: “When we took to the trenches after the march it was a sight worthy of Dante, there was at the bottom a foot deep of liquid mud in which we had to stand two days and two nights . . .” And out of a later letter (11 April 1915) “to Mrs. Shakespear”: “E . . . has sent me the Chinese poems. I like them very much. I keep the book in my pocket, indeed I use them to put courage in my fellows. I speak now of the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘North Gate’ which are so appropriate to our case.”

Tom McCarthy, in C (Jonathan Cape, 2010), two-man aeroplanes (pilot and observer) flying back and forth above the trenches in order to provide target coordinates to ground batteries in a series of finely limn’d trajectories: “Each time they shuttle to and fro, they pass through residues of tracer, Archie smoke and their own exhaust fumes hanging in the air. The shapes made when trails intersect, lines cutting across other lines at odd angles or bisecting puffballs’ circles to form strange figures . . .” Figures like “phonetic characters,” a code, a language. A howitzer shell noses up out of the smoke to accompany the flyers (“surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show its underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent”), oddly companionable and aesthetick’d up (the doings become “pure geometry”: “the shell’s a pencil drawing a perfect arc across a sheet of graph paper; he’s the clamp that holds the pencil to the compass, moving as one with the lead; he is the lead smearing across the paper’s surface to become geometry himself . . .”) Compare Davenport’s Gaudier-Brzeska in “The Bowmen of Shu”:
Les Fallacieux Détours du Labyrinthe

The rifles, crack! thuck! whip at the bob of helmets of the boches in the trenches across the desolation of an orchard. If they stir too busily at a point our mitrailleuses rattle at them, their tracers bright as bees in a garden even in this dead light. With my knife I have carved the stock of a German rifle into a woman with her arms as interlocked rounded triangles over her head, her breasts are triangles, her sex, her thighs. Like the Africans I am constrained by the volume of my material, the figure to be found wholly within a section of trunk . . .
Is it the human scale of World War I that allows its aestheticizing? (Davenport, in essays, too, participates: see the florid report of the bombardment of Reims Cathedral in “The Pound Vortex,” a review of Kenner’s The Pound Era: “In the charge Corporal Gaudier was cut to pieces by machine-gun fire. He was twenty-three years old. He was descended from sculptors who had worked on Chartres. The preceding November he had lain in mud and watched a cathedral burn, the lead of its molten roof dropping in great white globs through Gothic tracery.”) Davenport: “The smell of the dead out on the wire is all of barbarity in one essence.” McCarthy: “They’re all dead. They slump against the trunks like over-ripened fruit that’s lost its shape, begun to rot. Their faces all wear grimaces, as though frozen in a grotesque laughter bordering on the insane. . . . some of the jaws are dislocated and hang loose; two of them have been ripped open by shrapnel wounds extending from the chest, or neck, or cheek; one has been blown off entirely, leaving a hole through which broken shards of jawbone poke.” No concluding. When one of the batteries unleashes it shells in C, and hits its corresponding mark: “A larger, darker bloom erupts from the copse . . . billowing out and upward like a dense, black chrysanthemum . . .”

Leafing through the exchange of letters between Jonathan Williams and Davenport collect’d in A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968 (Green Shade, 2004), looking vaguely for a possible reference to John Cournos (who, apparently, had a rather famously disappointing affair with Dorothy L. Sayers), I uncover’d the following, too impertinent to resist. Davenport to Williams, dated “[March 24] 1967”: “Food is one thing (alcohol’s another) that makes me truly blush. Most of the human failings I can regard with an eye of ice (excepting meanness), but I shall go to my grave unconvinced that eating is wholly natural. God is wonderfully accomplished, and I suppose he knew best when he made us have to introduce foreign matter into our system at intervals. Hence my admiration for the Arabs: who eat but once every three days, and that a compost of grasshopper and camel curds, making do, sensibly, with the galloon and the coffee cup.” Akin to Frank O’Hara’s blurt, in “Music”:
Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
I have in my hands only 35¢, it’s so meaningless to eat!
and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you
to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world,
      I must tighten my belt.
It’s like a locomotive on the march, the season
      of distress and clarity . . .

Reims Cathedral, 1914
A postcard sent by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska to Ezra Pound in December 1914 reading:
incendiée par les Allemands le 18 septembre 1914.
Un symbole.—Au-dessus des quartiers incendiés, le coq gaulois est toujours debout.
A symbol.—Over the fired streets, the french cock is always standing.”

Monday, October 25, 2010


A Wall

A dullard’s morning. Fustian and bombazine. Weekend of the usual heedless wheeling of the Vibe here and there with too little sleep. Dull’d by sheer unconstraint. Read “at”—and enjoyably—Tom McCarthy’s C. I keep thinking of Pynchon, that seemingly hallucinogenic clarity of historical particulars (here, partially, the doings of aviator-observers flying above the trenches of WWI France). “Rubbed out and rebegun.” The weekly metamorphic. Guy Davenport: “Man’s awareness of nature’s flux has been discovered again and again, always with fresh surprise (Pythagoras found a seashell on a mountain, Leonardo da Vinci found a seashell on a mountain, Alexander von Humboldt found a seashell on a mountain): it is an idea which the mind hides with protective complacency. Our century, within which an English white moth has become as black as the soot of the industrial towns it inhabits, assumes that the subject was worked up most imaginatively by Ovid’s study of man changing to animal and most scientifically by Darwin’s study of animal changing to man . . .”

Guy Davenport, in the “Foreword” to Cities on Hills: A Study of I-XXX of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1983), a revision of Davenport’s Harvard doctoral dissertation (1961) “written some thirty years ago and left unpublished in the hope that it might be extended to a full commentary on the complete poem” (one wonders if any substantial notes, &c. exist in Davenport’s papers towards that commentary):
When Pound died in 1972 he had not finished The Cantos. In one sense of finish, they remain “a draft,” and in another they lack the conclusion the poet wanted. Pound once showed visitors to St Elizabeths the final canto, all in Chinese, a kind of Confucian ode to personal and civic virtue. When I asked him once if the poem would have a title other than the provisional one of The Cantos, he said yes, but did not say what it was to be. The question got him to talking about the definitive edition of the work. It was to have on the title page, beneath the undisclosed title “a Läufer from Frobenius”; that is, a striding hunter, bow in hand, from the prehistoric rock paintings of the Sahara Atlas.
Davenport’s later report to James Laughlin (in a letter dated 2 March 1986) of the conversation differs somewhat in the particular of the final canto (out of Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters):
I’ve just sent you a Laufer. If it won’t do, I’ll try another. This one is from Tassili in the Sahara, where LF was one of the first to erleben. (I have no German of a useful sort, but assume that Erlebte Erdteile means a continent observed.) The conversation in which the Laufer came up (St Liz) involved three things desired—a title for the poem, a “Läufer from Frobenius” under said title, and a map of China. I’ve gone through the Kultur Geschichte Afrikas (gift from Ez), the Erlebte, several prehistoric books, and decided that the Läufer must laufen + carry a bow (like Odysseus). A symbol, I guess, of Zweck, the beginning of civilization, the Hunter.
Zweck = purpose, intent, aim. Laufen, to run, walk. Davenport notes, too, that, “Frobenius knew more about bowstrings than any man ever. Note detail of how the string is doubly tied to the bow in this rock painting.” The archaic figure of the Läufer, according to Davenport, “was to have been a symbol for all the beginnings of civilization which the poem charts.” Report, too, of how Pound (presumably again at St Elizabeths) “said that he should have used the word greed rather than usury. (Davenport’s memorial piece “Ezra Pound, 1885-1972” reports thus: “‘Usury,’ I heard him say one afternoon at St. Elizabeths, ‘I wish I’d never heard the damned word.’”) And Davenport’s succinct clarity regarding the latter—what, he says, he thinks Pound “meant all along”:
In largest context, Pound was perceiving that the modern state is a function of usury, and was brought into being to accommodate it. Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II demonstrates how banks insidiously grew from speculation on wheat futures to businesses whose commodity was not wheat but money.
      And not money but imaginary money, or credit. Once banks with their invisible funds became the center of trade, they then became the financers of all enterprises requiring loans. The state came into being as a tax collector for the interest on loans involving the capitalist and the state (an armaments manufacturer, for instance). The business of the state became that of taxes, and the business of the capitalist was to see that the state consumed more than it could ever pay for. The banker then became a permanent parasite on the people, producing nothing, promoting nothing, sucking blood. It seemed to Pound that this economic arrangement was a cancer spread through the whole fiber of the state.
Pound’s “moral indignation,” says Davenport, “is thoroughly Old Testament.” (Again I think: “rubbed out and rebegun.”) A finely Pound-nuanced picture of Davenport at work (recall how he report’d, approvingly, in “The Pound Vortex”—reviewing The Pound Era—that Pound’d once said of that era that “began in Philadelphia, in classroom of philology . . . in the now gone and impossible idealism of students at the turn of the century”: “we studied until we dropped”):
I am sitting here at my typewriter on a hot July day in Kentucky, writing a foreword to a book. By United States Law I should already have reported what I’m doing to the Internal Revenue Service, with an estimate of what money I will make from this enterprise, and have paid them the income tax on that money. I haven’t, because I’m hoping they will understand that these pages were meant in the estimated advance income tax which I’ve already paid. There is no tyrant in history, before the IRS, which has dared to tax his citizens on money which they have not yet earned. This is plausible economic bureaucracy, however, no worse that the taxes on every exchange of money in the Republic. Pound’s point would be that the IRS does not care what discouragement their exactions cause. Whether they stop a splendid building at the blueprint stage, or starve a painter in the making of a masterpiece, or halt the hand giving charity, or blight a philosopher’s thought, is no concern of theirs.
See Canto XXXVII’s “‘Nowhere so well deposited as in the pants of the people, / Wealth ain’t,’ said President Jackson.”

Ezra Pound, 1885-1972

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ashbery’s Courbet, &c.


Cold, the moon a hole drill’d in the sky’s western rampart. Crows clump’d up in town trees. Vacancy in the bilge compartment, the pump bust’d. (As George Chambers’d say: “Oh so lo mio, oh do re mi fa so la.”) Ashbery, in a 1966 piece call’d “French Painting, 1820-1870” (Reported Sightings)—how the works of Gustave Courbet (whose influence Ashbery sees in “modern artists as diverse as de Chirico, Balthus and Larry Rivers”) disclose a kind of impatience with realism, desire for “a reexamination and reworking of physical reality”:
In the beautiful “Roe-Deer in Snow” it is as though he continued to paint after he had obtained a satisfactorily realistic image. This “something else” not essential to the picture—whose signs are the crumbly, unrealistic surface of the snow, the clumsy arrangements of boulders and the insistence on the banal fork shape of the central tree—is in fact of great importance, it intrigues and excites us because we cannot tell why it seems right . . .

Gustave Courbet, “Roe-Deer in Snow,” 1868

Gustave Courbet, “Deer in the Snow,” 1865-7

Gustave Courbet, “The Deer,” c. 1865

Ashbery calls such add’d manoeuvres “nonfunctional essentials” and points, too, to “Delacroix’s extinguished colors, Daumier’s impasto and the enigmatic relation Millet’s figures have to space and to each other”: “In these details, the artists seem to be reaching toward something beyond the limits of the visual.” Pre-echoes of Derrida’s “supplement,” that trace of a signifier. Ashbery traces the “strain”—partially—back to the “intellectual” (as opposed to “sensual”) exertions of John Constable:
What are the most sublime productions of the pencil but selections of some of the forms of nature, and copies of a few of her evanescent effects; and this is the result, not of inspiration, but of long and patient study, under the direction of much good sense. . . . Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not the landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?
Suck of a splendidly recurrent and ferocious riptide (crosscurrent), that of excess (its primal necessity in systems). Think of Joan Retallack (in The Poethical Wager) quoting the William James of “The Will to Believe” out of Benoit Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature:
The great field for new discoveries . . . is always the unclassified residuum. Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to. The ideal of every science is that of a closed and completed system of truth. . . . Phenomena unclassifiable within the system are paradoxical absurdities, and must be held untrue . . . —one neglects or denies them with the best of scientific consciences. . . . Any one will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena. And when the science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exception in them than of what were supposed to be the rules.
“Nonfunctional essentials” un peu partout. Retallack, naturally enough, is talking about Stein. She quotes, too, lines out of Stein’s “Why I Like Detective Stories” (kin to Constable’s “inquiry into the laws of nature”): “I like detecting there are so many things to detect.” And out of Stein’s “An Elucidation”: “I explain wording and painting and sealing and closing. I explain opening and reasoning and rolling, I was just rolling.” Rolling in excess, what Retallack elsewhere calls “the logical excess that is curiosity” (pointing out, too, that curiositas long remain’d a Churchly sin.) I am thinking, too, of the lines of John Ashbery (out of “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” he’s talking about Jackson Pollock—and how, in 1950, when there’s “no sure proof of the existence of the avant-garde,” it “must have often occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn’t an artist at all, that he had spent his life ‘toiling up the wrong road to art’ as Flaubert said of Zola.”) And Ashbery says, famously:
But this very real possibility is paradoxically just what makes the tremendous excitement in his work. It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew he existed, but would this be much fun?
What Ashbery calls the “doubt element” (in Pollock): kin to the inessential “something else” and Stein’s “just rolling”? Is there a split when that excess is trap’d out in irony’s banal garments? (Retallack says: “Irony is always a simultaneous use and disavowal.” Escape hatch to the gamble. She points to Flaubert’s irony in Madame Bovary, how it allows him “to eschew excesses of rhetorical moisture” (lovely, and load’d, phrase) whilst unleashing floods of “romantic fatalism”—the number of less elegant structures copping “today” to similar devices: legion. No stakes risk’d in ironic excess.) The crows flown off, the hard white moon’s slid into the tree-selvaged earth, the capacious earth, to no choir singing, and so one goeth, slipping continually through the zeroes like a mink in the snow: “equal to any, good as any, brave as any, being inextricable from, anonymous with all of them: the beautiful, the splendid and the brave, right up on to the very top itself among the shining phantoms and dream which are the milestone of the long human recording—Helen and the bishop, the kings and the unhomed angels, the scornful and graceless seraphim.”

John Ashbery

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Laurie Duggan’s The Epigrams of Martial

Picture of a Picture

Out of Laurie Duggan’s The Epigrams of Martial (Pressed Wafer, 2010):
i | xxxvii

You drink from crystal
                and you piss in brass;
it’s the vessel between
                that lacks class.
v | lxiv

‘Make it a double, Johnny
. . . on the rocks . . .’
My fedora tilts.
                    Ray Charles
sings on the jukebox ‘I can’t
stop loving you.’
                    ‘The same again?’
‘Same again.’
The Great Dead look benign
on whisky labels,
but I’d rather look through a bottle
than be stuck on the outside.
The epigram’s a clock clean’d in a hurry, a deft punch (mostly for the sheer glee of punching). And knowingly target’d. In a short preface Duggan relates how he originally start’d translating Martial (working through Walter C. A. Ker’s prose cribs in the two-volume Loeb Classical Library edition) at the instigation of Scripsi-editor (and Latinist) Michael Heyward:
. . . but something else happened along the way. I recognized in the Edwardian prose versions a tone that I could identify with, realising at the same time that if the poems were to be effectively re-worked in English this tone was the most important thing to retain. I realised that ‘faithful’ translations of satire, while possibly of use to historians, tended to lose the satirical element altogether. For satire to bite as it ought to its objects should be at least generically recognizable and as so much of Martial’s work is ad hominem a good dose of the particular was essential. In localising the poems I ran the risk of creating my own obscurities . . . Satire has to live with the possibility of its eventual obscurity.
Too, Duggan points to identifying (as an Australian) with “the intensity those on the ‘outer’ bring to any tradition (modernism included)”: “Martial was himself from ‘the provinces’ (Bilbilis, in northern Spain) and had brought to Rome the kind of wit (crudity included) that sometimes only ‘provincials’ are capable of.” I love to toss out a slew of versions, something ineffably heart-buoyant in multiplicity. Here’s Ker’s version of I : LXXIII:
      There was no one in the whole town willing to touch your wife, Caecilanus, gratis, while he was allowed; but, now you have set your guards, there is a huge crowd of gallants. You are an ingenious person!
Dudley Fitts, no slouch, provides out of the 1967 Sixty Poems of Martial the original (note the “ingens” / “ingenious” repetition)—
I : 73

Nullus in urbe fuit tota qui tangere uellet
      uxorem gratis, Caeciliane, tuam,
dum licuit; sed nunc positis custodibus ingens
      turba fututorum est: ingenious homo es.
—and delivers some rather overly jazz’d up (“ten-foot pole” and “bugging and all” and, cringe, “pad”) lines, unnecessarily titled:
Negative Capability

There wasn’t a man in town—believe me, Cecil,—
who’d have touched that wife of yours with a ten-foot pole
when she could be had for free;
                        but now, Cecil,
what with the private eyes and the bugging and all,
your pad’s awash with would-be co-respondents.

Cecil, man, you’re immense!
(I rather like “Cecil, man, you’re immense!”—just odd enough to avoid immediate dating—and the way it rhymes with “co-respondents.”) Duggan keeps it simple and illicit (and removes the guards / private eyes, a way of updating):
i | lxxiii

Those who wouldn’t phone your wife
            when you were overseas
now stroke her thighs
            under the dinner table.
Here’s another Fitts:
Aphrodite Katadyomene

Dear Francine, when I praise your knees,
      your face, your hands, your breast,
you blush and say, ‘If you like these,
      you ought to see the rest!’

Yet at the Baths, when I swim near,
      you shun me utterly.
Fran, are you shy? or do you fear
      you’d have to blush for me?
Martial’s Latin:
III : 51

Cum faciem laudo, cum miror crura manusque,
      dicere, Galla, soles ‘Nuda placebo magis’,
et semper uitas communia balnea nobis.
      Numquid, Galla, times ne tibi non placeam?
I find Fitts’s “do you fear / you’d have to blush for me?” rather confusing—the nature of that blush being embarrassment at what exactly? (I find the Francine / Fran out of Galla rather coy / clever.) Ker’s prose rendering: “When I compliment your face, when I admire your legs and hands, you are accustomed to say, Galla: ‘Naked I shall please you more,’ and yet you continually avoid taking a bath with me. Surely you are not afraid, Galla, that I shall not please you?” Duggan bravely keeps the smarm and the initial compliment, and tosses the remainder. The result is like a swift jab in the gut, wind knock’d out:
iii | li

                  He says:
‘I like the way you wear your clothes.’
                  He means:
‘I’d like to get into your pants.’
                  She says:
‘Your tie’s crooked.’
                  She means
to settle on a bar stool.
All done by means of lineating the repeat’d “means.” Here’s a Rolfe Humphries Martial (out of the 1963 Selected Epigrams):
III. xxv

Sabinus, our distinguished rhetorician,
Has such a subantarctic disposition
That when he jumps in the hot baths of Nero.
The temperature goes promptly down to zero.
Sounds rather like a lyric by the Victorian W. S. (for William Schwenck) Gilbert of Sullivan song: all romp, no cut. Ker: “If you wish, Faustinus, that a bath, so hot that even Julianus could scarcely get into it, should be cooled, ask the rhetorician Sabineius to bathe in it. He makes icy the warm baths of Nero.” Duggan works up Ker’s prose (by stripping it of everything extraneous) and delivers a bee-sting:
iii | xxv

To cool a scalding bath
get Doctor T to step into it,
he’s lukewarm enough.
Who “Doctor T” is (if anybody), I do not know. Other “local” references in Duggan’s Martial include Hunter Valley red, O’Connor (a poet), Alan Wearne (“Let Alan Wearne chant / of Blackburn”), Dransfield (a poet), John Forbes, the Tranters, along with the “generically recognizable” (“Arts Functionaries, piss off! / I write for the citizens of Wit” one piece begins.) A final two:
ii | vii

You’ll tackle anything
        O products of writing schools:
you read well, you’re socially conscious,
you compose sestinas, sonnets,
        villanelles, epics, epigrams,
you’ve set work to music,
        written several librettos . . .
So what’s wrong with you?
It’s your competence.
vi | xxiii

I can’t guarantee you a stiff prick
but I’m always prepared to give you the finger.

Laurie Duggan

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

C. D. Wright’s A Farm Boy

Picture of a Picture

C. D. Wright’s A Farm Boy (The Song Cave, 2010) begins in a floody morass of Faulknerian particulars, the way history is, mounting up unstoppably, overwhelming the individual:

Who could have told
that the forebears of ernie edward wright would have rumbled
and rutted their way over the mountains of north carolina
and tennessee to plop themselves down in arkansas
in clay county around piggott then haul their modest belongings on up
to the snake-threaded hilly tangle of rock that is the ozarks
to clear enough land to raise a log house
that would by and by burn and then raise another
log and box lumber house this one with two rooms and long level porch
to bring up the five boys of james robert and lu vindie who foresaw
that robert and vindie who had six grades of schooling each
which in those days meant about eighteen months total
would leave the farm in 1926 to try their inexperienced hand
at cotton picking in spiro oklahoma where vindie who was a williams
had some kin that had dribbled over the state line from the ozarks
only to discover they were better at growing and harvesting
big boy tomatoes and loading them onto a wagon to haul
to ciscos cannery to sell for eight dollars a ton
and that robert the father would hate the water in oklahoma
and hate the cotton and hate the brown land it was planted on
and come down with chills and sore joints
and determine to press on to joplin
birthplace of langston hughes
though that didnt mean beans to the wrights and the williams
for robert to work his way through another leg of his poverty
that so resembled the poverty of others
and get himself a job at a plumbing supply outfit and send for
his family to come to joplin by train where my father
ernie edward would attend his first town school
. . .

Sweeping voluble relentlessness somewhat unanchor’d up to the point of “my father”: there, a subtle focusing arrays the surround about a self. Somehow that “snake-threaded hilly tangle of rock” runs throughout, tugs at the individuals even at “town school”: it’s there that Faulkner’s sense of place pulls up, recalling the Yoknapatawphan “thirty or forty or fifty acres of dirt that wouldn’t nobody but our kind work because you’re all our kind have.” Wright’s epigraph (the poem’s “written for the occasion of Ernie E. Wright’s 90th birthday”) is by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Wright notes, too, that the piece “is based on a taped interview” with Ernie Wright’s son Warren. Thus, a brash and marvelous return (with a vengeance) to speech, done up with no apology, with a slapdash fervor to seize and mimic local rhythms. (So much for the presumed advances of the i hate speech grammatologues.) What one loves: “to work one’s through a leg of poverty” (as if it were a feast of sorts). Whole lives distill’d, tangible in a phrase or two (one reads of “the neighbor boy / raymond fletchers lifetime collection of junk / . . . / christforsaken acres and acres of human junk” and how Wright’s father Ernie, visiting Raymond in order “to scribble a holographic will” ’d have to sit on the tailgate of Raymond’s truck to do it “because the junk inside his trailer rendered it / humanly un-enter-able and impassable and un-sit-down-able-in / and the same goes for the cab of the truck.” Or there’s “old claude fuller who / had a stranglehold on politics in carroll county”—“worth watching” by the young lawyer Ernie “because he made up for want of / a real legal grip with an uncanny sense of tactics.” (What is lacking in so much of “our” poesía norteamericana: (up)rootedness, the human burden.) Central to A Farm Boy: the story of Ernie Wright’s brother Audie who “got through two years of law school / before he was enlisted in the air force / until his plane was shot down over italy / the fine calf leather boot of italy / which took his fine blond body out of the sky.” Wright includes a portion of a letter written by Audie (“march 11 1943”) in North Africa, relating two worlds remarkably resemblant (and pertinent today):

By this time farming should be in a big way and religion getting lax while yelling gee and haw on
the hillsides; so it is with the Arabs in this section. The principal crop in these parts seems to be
wheat and other small grain and believe you me it is getting beautiful now with the rolling plains
getting green with wheat and winter oats. The
Arabs use donkeys and I mean little ones. The jennies back home look like monstrosities
compared to these. They too have camels that they use primarily for freighting purposes. It is
most difficult for me to explain in detail about their customs for as yet I have been unable to
master their language; thus it is hard to learn very much by observation . . .

A Farm Boy is a rouse and laud of sorts for a particular kind of curiosity and determination (Ernie’s said to have “a mind that clicked and sparked with an avidity / to put all the available learning / in his path to work”). In a terrific phrase: “tendon and gristle . . .”

Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal’s The Song Cave (and quarterly journal, Sea Ranch) is doing remarkable work: “a series of singular things.” Impeccably design’d, consistently of worth. Out of Charles North’s Ode to Asparagus, Peonies and Manet
One gorgeous, almost self-contained still-life occupies the lower right in the mostly black-and-white, stiffly posed Portrait of Théodore Duret (1868): a seemingly gratuitous wood stool at about knee height with a tray on top of it and a book on the floor underneath. The tray holds a glass carafe, a drinking glass with a lemon oddly on top of it, and two utensils whose handles protrude just past the tray’s front edge. The dog-eared book, soft-covered, is a pale minty green sliced diagonally by a shadow; it rests against the front-most leg of the stool. Art history has it that Duret, friend that he was, had given Manet a less than rave review, which led to charged allusions in the painting: the pose referring to a cowardly military man in a Goya painting both Duret and Manet knew, as well as the whole lemon, a traditional symbol of an unfaithful friend (rather than, say, an object whose peel and flesh are there for virtuoso rendering, as in one by Claesz). Myself, I’m grateful the review produced this wonderful, not especially pretty, lemon on its awkward perch. In fact, I love everything about the “embedded” still-life (which was a late addition): the beautifully brushed wine-colored cushion on top of the stool, the barely indicated highlights on the wood, the book flopped on the floor, the light in and on glass, the pitted and pocked lemon which nevertheless irradiates the whole picture. (Manet has a wonderful tiny painting done in 1880 of a single, equally unpretty lemon on a plate, the lemon front and almost center, big enough to be a yellow watermelon or a show pig.)
Other recent titles out of The Song Cave include Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Hesiod, Jared Stanley’s How the Desert Did Me In, and Macgregor Card’s The Archers.

Édouard Manet, “Portrait of Théodore Duret,” 1868

Édouard Manet, “The Lemon,” 1880

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ted Berrigan’s Prose

Picture of a Picture

      All unfolded, caved inward. I too died a death of a sort, in that. I’d been asleep.
      He begins which is the subject of his book goes like this: 9:20 from Pat’s and said a Portuguese on the phone, her mother has three houses for me. Big church wedding, but Pat is discreet. When I lived in the sea she got married. I felt horrible when I was nearly nine. For Patsy.
      On the subway Eddie talked about money and talked about talk of dad tho lusted after Judy when he first came to our school. He was in the picture and in one day more he moved in. I saw him riding a Duchamp glass as I walked by on the other side of the dust.
      “Mit gon vit drere feerie ker schoble?” “To get another book of great curses!” Paper blasphemy is everything! Oh. Good arm in a sling sleepy gesture he resembles in this get-up a sort of suggestion of tenderness (tenseness), an imitation in heavy-lidded burning bright eyes. Sand in his sleep and Dick was wan. Sunlight on the floor lent us a face and we settled down to curse (cure) the dust in shiny games tawdry in the merciless dress of morning. Picked up the gun and yet only her eyes moved her mouth, then she pulled the small pages, they echoed and a long quiet result. Her bloody handwriting that was now hair speckled the hand, ceiling and walls were bigger and more wild; not the floor; it was 5:15 a.m. Reading this from the floor out of a limp hand.
      A couple of years, study Catullus, after John, more tomes and getting drunk down at Eddie’s house one day and he moan. He and I aren’t going together any more. But he is still at his numerical writing anyway. Eddie called (crawled) over to the ashcan can neither be comprehended nor devout but I do (indeed I do) remember chainhoppers at the Western movie at the Palace at 4 a.m. Blue indecision drift through she and I and as always, Eddie. We walked up through the new and we (he) was almost on time for the article titled “Suck.” They used to fill graves with that (it), didn’t say good things about it. I think I was thinking uh (she) said she would put my little kid’s thing on with scotch tape for me if I wanted any but suddenly Eddie said: “She’s my girl friend.”
      It made me feel bad. (Good). Get a job for a few weeks to sense the underlying book. Joe and I (we) keep going into one another and she saw a few more games of cribbage and with him or near him. Then I up and go downtown. John sold out. She wouldn’t know him even if and she feared he come up tonight and write “Development,” a movement the nature and function of which is the making real of other.
. . .
      Also my desk. I cleaned out my desk altogether home from school into books about her. I used to carry her books sometimes and we’d hang around them Japanese prints, kick leaves, or just fool around. Dave was going to school so he asked about her and uh I got a birthday card, that’s cool, but I answered that I had already had her yesterday in toto.
      In the heavens that exist we think there is significance, some significance, a correspondence with the revealing of, but because I don’t remember I have also seen the writings. Eyes to go with them, eyes to go with now. Because I go down in order in a series then or later, sometimes shortly after, and I have been known as “Junior.”
      Heaven is (almost) a word.
. . .
      Tic of early morning in my testicles. The sun streamed lightly: admired Chris’s room out in the yard her father they contemplate the broken veins casual stance trees with their leathery grace, into my room, sat at my desk, a strangeness and nobility in the yard.
      Drank a pepsi took a pill ground out a prisoner’s plot added a dart. Read this and that and then rode the day on out. Inside the room curl of smoke black notebook. . . .
Ted Berrigan, pieces of “Looking for Chris,” out of Art and Literature 11 (1967). That final paragraph with its signature Pepsi and pill combo a near-failsafe identifying “field mark” (see, too, the “5:15 a.m.”) In the “Chronology” of Berrigan’s Collected Poems, (1962: “Began writing The Sonnets.”) under 1964: “In 1964 Ashbery gave an electrifying reading of his long poem “The Skaters,” an occasion which Ted referred to throughout his life. Around this time worked on long unpublished prose work, Looking for Chris, not all of which survives.” (One thinks how Ashbery’s opening—“These decibels / Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart”—lofts up a kind of improprietary challenge—syntax unskirt’d by mere breezy fervency—like Berrigan writing “Exhilaration had prompted him 30 percent and doesn’t care if he has been done so for pretending has lasted some time now.”) In the introduction to Berrigan’s Collected, Alice Notley writes of The Sonnets: “there was a point, early in 1963, when he suddenly knew what he was doing: with Dadaist cut-up and Cageian chance methods, transforming not-so-good poems into an astonishing and original structure.” And, of Berrigan’s prose work:
      Great Stories of the Chair reveals a new influence on Ted’s writing, that of the prose of William Burroughs, whom Ted did not read until after the composition of The Sonnets. . . . The cut-up methods of Burroughs and Brion Gysin do not seem essentially different from Dadaist procedures. However, applied to prose structures which coaxed plot out of words themselves, Burroughsian cut-up resulted in novels that are full-blown visions generated as much verbally as through the senses. Poetry originating from within words (not from within the poet per se) was already Ted’s practice. He always asserted that he thought in words, that he was usually either reading, writing, talking, thinking about / in words, or sleeping. Words were literally his mind in process. And to cut up his own poems, for example, was not to do anything other than to think and feel. Great Stories of the Chair is blocks of thought and emotion—what else?
Re: reading Burroughs “after the composition of The Sonnets” though, see Berrigan’s letter to Sandy Alper of March 20, 1962 (in Dear Sandy, Hello): “I don’t know William Burroughs personally, but I have read some of his cut-up poems in Locus Solus II, and also a work of his called Naked Lunch, which was very exciting.” Looking at “Mother Cabrini,” one of the pieces of Great Stories of the Chair one sees a work riddled with (Berrigan’s own) familiars:
Baby sighs prepositions put the books back nights. As usual I go back to the white again light on up had fallen down on a vivid little scene last year. Wrote this because of him (does) arrival and Ron telling me that he knew and saying he was glad to see it was very shocking close the fire wine and only “I’m going to bed” outside, and stood running on about his father borders on the absurd ah would you remember the name of whomever hit it, thinking that a little about Dad tho lusted, sex have some son we’re in the church wedding but Ron, as we rolled over the baby in the Western movie at the Palace Death of the one could get conventional things, we did, yellow oozing brain & blood a sacrosanct creation bit bite toothpick? a Portuguese on the phone . . .
Und so weiter. Reference to Catullus forthcoming. And ending “Turned from walking Tessie half-naked cloth pony from a fight the importance of the situation I can’t stop. . .” One sees such repeat’d graphemes as “dad tho lusted” and “a Portuguese on the phone” and “Western movie at the Palace” and “church wedding” and wonders at fine-chop fervor and industry of it all. A kind of confetti made by hand. (One begins to comprehend Berrigan’s punctuating remarks—in “Looking for Chris”—of “I’m bored,” or “I was growing tired of the point” or “Everything bores”—remarks that, ironically, serve only to induce a previously non-existent boredom in the reader . . . “(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored . . .” &c.) How to interpret the short review Aram Saroyan wrote of the in-progress “Looking for Chris” (out of Door to the River)?
Ted Berrigan’s novel-in-progress Looking for Chris—excerpts from which have appeared or are about to appear in C, Mother, and Art and Literature—is serious. The sections I’ve seen are short-paragraphed, interesting, boring, interesting boring, mostly incomprehensible, and not funny. And he keeps on writing.
Precise (and funny) as such. A sort of approving nod to something like the stance of O’Hara’s “it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering if you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it . . .” Remaining (out of thinking about Berrigan’s prose): a still-thwart’d attempt to determine why (how?) such seam-displaying constructs (sentences) as, say, “In the heavens that exist we think there is significance, some significance, a correspondence with the revealing of, but because I don’t remember I have also seen the writings. Eyes to go with them, eyes to go with now. . .” bring a jittery clarity (unspeakable) to the prose. Hand-made prose.

Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983

Monday, October 18, 2010

“Figure of Report”

Picture of a Picture

In the usual autumnal Sunday lurch, out of the “habit” of language. Sauf the unpublick’d constant sub-cranial one, its solace of chittering indecipherables. Renewal proceeds by “feeling back along the ancient lines of advance” (Fenollosa). (Michaux’s reverie of shedding the “handcuffs of words,” the lingual imperium forsook, preferring a cruder, gestural signifying presence, “a language without pretense, for those whose knowledge is without pretense.” Speech diminish’d to the indicative this. Julia Kristeva (in Semiotikē, quoted by Richard Sieburth):
Before and behind voice and writing there is anaphora: the gesture that indicates, that institutes relations and eliminates entities. The semiotic system of the Dogon, which in the end seems to be more a scriptural semantic system than a verbal one, is thus based on indication: for them, to learn to speak is to learn to indicate by tracing.
For anaphora (what Puttenham call’d “the Figure of Report,” bang, bang, bang, that regular musketry), see Christopher Smart: “For innumerable ciphers will amount to something. / For the mind of man cannot bear a tedious accumulation of nothings without effect. / For infinite upon infinite they make a chain.” (Guy Davenport: “Poetic knowledge is polythetic: it needs only a representative example to make its case.”) Lost in the way the morning is lost: it is exactly thus that one finds oneself grabbing at a word with something of a wild dog tenacity. See Wallace Stevens in 1934 noting, in Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, the commonplace book he kept sparsely and diligently for roughly twenty years, out of a review in the London Mercury: “Mr Eliot, a critic of Manzanilla siccity of bouquet . . .” In 1943, Stevens writes to Allen Tate (referring to the 1923 “Discourse in a Cantina at Havana”—later, with a certain mean sécheresse, call’d “Academic Discourse at Havana”—translated for a Cuban literary journal): “My rather pulpy poem doesn’t take on a ‘Manzanillan siccity’ merely because it has been translated into Spanish.” And, in 1947, to Paule Vidal, Stevens writes regarding the paintings of Georges Braque: “There is a siccity and an ascetic quality about his color that is very much to my liking. Some of his greens and browns are almost disciplinary. . . . After all, one can be as much ravished by severity as by indulgence.” One refuses to see the drab haeccity in Stevens, opting for the high fescue’d and ydropisical moments—Marianne Moore, with her usual precision, calls it “bravura” (although, with her own usual bravura, Moore next declares how against Stevens’s “general marine volume of statement is set a parachute-spinnaker of verbiage which looms out like half a cantaloupe and gives the body of the theme the air of a fabled argosy advancing”)—when moonlight fubs the girandoles, Scaramouche gets a black barouche, all the continual excess of the sorriest verity kind of thing. There is, too, the Stevens of “Dry Loaf”:
. . . The pines along the river and the dry men blown
Brown as the bread, thinking of birds
Flying from burning countries and brown sand shores,

Birds that came like dirty water in waves . . .
The ungainly unfoppish line. Reading, in dribbles, through (rather against the habitual poking amongst) Stevens’s letters. That he attend’d Stephen Crane’s funeral:
This morning I went to the funeral of Stephen Crane at the Central Metropolitan Temple on Seventh Avenue near Fourteenth Street. The church is a small one and was about [a] third full. Most of the people were of the lower classes and had dropped in apparently to pass away the time. There was a sprinkling of men and women who looked literary, but they were a wretched, rag, tag, and bob-tail. I recognized John Kendrick Bangs. The whole thing was frightful. The prayers were perfunctory, the choir worse than perfunctory with the exception of its hymn “Nearer My God To Thee” which is the only appropriate hymn for funerals I ever heard. The address was absurd. The man kept me tittering from the time he began till the time he ended. He spoke of Gladstone + Goethe. Then—on the line of premature death—he dragged in Shelley . . .
Odd to think of the twenty-one year old Stevens seeing off Crane, twenty-eight. Is the Stevens of “drab haeccity” partially out of Crane? See, say, Stevens’s “Valley Candle,” isn’t its allegorical heft akin to that of Crane’s pieces out of The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895)::
My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
The beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.
Or see the conversant manner of each. Stevens’s “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand” beginning “The soul, he said, is composed / Of the external world. // There are men of the East, he said / Who are the East . . .” Compared with Crane’s lines (out of XXVIII in Black Riders):
“Truth,” said a traveller,
“Is a rock, a mighty fortress;
Often have I been to it,
Even to its highest tower,
From whence the world looks black.”

“Truth,” said a traveller,
“Is a breath, a wind,
A shadow, a phantom;
Long have I pursued it,
But never have I touched
The hem of its garment.”
And I believed the second traveller;
For truth was to me
A breath, a wind,
A shadow, a phantom,
And never had I touched
The hem of its garment.
A line that moves hence toward A. R. Ammons’s conversant foibles: “So I said I am Ezra / and the wind whipped my throat / gaming for the sounds of my voice / I listened to the wind / go over my head and up into the night / Turning to the sea I said / I am Ezra . . .” &c.

Stephen Crane, c. 1899

Thursday, October 14, 2010

“The Big Tool”

Picture of a Picture

One is indubitably waylaid by the immediate. (One “counsels” such immediacy, would “have” it no other way.) What morning brings it brings like a dog, and dumps it with a slack-jaw’d dog-smile “at” one’s feet. Hugh Kenner’s “omnivorous perspicacity” (Marianne Moore glean’d it out of a quarterly and put it to use). The day sitting right there, undeniably demanding its exchange. Thomas Eakins (who, Whitman insist’d, had “no parlour gallantries,” meaning he got right to it without rhetorick’d effuse, its concomitant shilly-shally): “The big artist does not sit down monkey-like and copy a coal scuttle . . . like some Dutch painters have done . . . but he keeps a sharp eye on Nature and steals her tools. He learns what she does with light, the big tool, and then color, then form. . . . The big artists . . . had the greatest confidence in nature, and when they made a unnatural thing they made it as nature would have made it, and thus they are really closer to nature than the coal-scuttle painters ever suspect. In a big picture you can see what o’clock it is, whether morning or afternoon, if it is hot or cold, winter or summer and what kind of people are there and what they are doing and why . . . If a man makes a hot day he makes it like a hot day he once saw or is seeing . . . he combines, never creates, but at the very first combination no man, and least of all himself could ever disentangle the feelings that animated him just then, and refer each one to its right place.” That, to trouble the categories. Isn’t Ashbery (who agreeably notes Eakins’s “combines, never creates” in talk of Fairfield Porter, suggesting one “lesson” of Porter’s painting is that most difficult one: “there are no rules for anything, no ideas in art, just objects and materials that combine, like people, in somewhat mysterious ways . . . that we are left with our spontaneity and that life itself is a series of improvisations during the course of which it is possible to improve on oneself but never to the point where one doesn’t have to improvise”—I love that mock-interchangeability in the vacillating “improve” and “improvise”) dogging that same question of the coal scuttle in something like “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”? (“But your eyes proclaim / That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there.”) And:
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.
The way nature itself is “pure / Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.” So, Williams, in Spring and All the imagination making it (“anything”) “as nature would have made it” (“big artist” confidence abounding): “Yes, the imagination, drunk with prohibitions, has destroyed and recreated everything afresh in the likeness of that which it was. Now indeed men look about in amazement at each other with a full realization of the meaning of ‘art.’” And:
      Now at last that process of miraculous verisimilitude, that great copying which evolution has followed, repeating move for move every move that it made in the past—is approaching the end.
      Suddenly it is at an end. the world is new.
The dog fetches up a thing piecemeal out of recent detritus: “Ashbery’s calling—somewhere in The Tennis Court Oath—a wrecking ball a ‘construction ball’”; “O’Hara’s ‘Picasso made me tough and quick, and the world; / just as in a minute plane trees are knocked down / outside my window by a crew of creators’”; Williams (everywhere in Williams is the destroying / concocting force of the imagination: “Clean is he alone / after whom stream / the broken pieces of the city— / flying apart at his approaches”—or the ferociously lovely: “Black winds from the north / enter black hearts. Barred from / seclusion in lilies they strike / to destroy—”) Warning embrasures. And Whitman saying: “Eakins is not a painter, he is a force.”

Late corrigendum (result of skittery memory’s combo with untoward speed): the Schuyler poem beginning “Polly Red Top Thermos is with us” is in Schuyler’s Collected Poems (and in Freely Espousing) under the title “With Frank and George at Lexington.” Too: I capitalized “Char” in the piece thinking it refer’d to René Char, and recalling O’Hara’s tiny sex-sass-fill’d translation (though he sent it to Porter, not Schuyler) of the French poet’s “L’Amour”: “Etre / Le premier venu.” = “To be / The first comer.” Non capisco the “read / in char” of the Collected’s version. Regarding the poem O’Hara wrote up where the “out-crop” stood. Undoubtedly “On a Mountain,” dated 11 April, 1956, subsequently print’d in Poetry (May 1957):
On a Mountain

Rocks with lichen on,
rattling leaves and rotting snow

I shall live to finish this cigarette
and the turnpike roars up a lesser hill,
gleams the nether pond and the wire towers
        on the horizon.

A foot away in the dead sun
a handkerchief lies dirty as the snow.
It’s the one Molly Bloom pulled off her
        boyfriend into.

I’m smoking a Picayune
“the worst cigarette,” press lips upon
        the handkerchief
        and it is warm.

If you were with me
a sweet and winning word might be heard
        out of me,

the bare trees under and the visible jet planes
the enormous telegraph paths and grassy snow
the pale photographic sky, the tangled air
crackling above heaving marshes into the day

        would all be leaves
around the depth of your voice
owning me yours, not naturally so, beyond the barrier.

        Here is where I
        have come, so high
to find this true and all the sounds
of lovers, and the pleasant cold.

Thomas Eakins, “Walt Whitman,” 1887

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Uncollect’d Schuyler

Picture of a Picture

Wallace Stevens (to Elsie Viola Kachel, January 7, 1909): “Quotations have a special interest, since one is not apt to quote what is not one’s own words, whoever may have written them. The ‘whoever’ is the quoter in another guise, in another age, under other circumstances.”

George Chapman, in the dedicatory note to Ovid’s Banquet of Sence (1595): “The prophane multitude I hate, and onlie consecrate my strange Poems to these serching spirits, whom learning hath made noble, and nobilitie sacred. . . . But that Poesie should be as peruiall as Oratorie, and plainnes her speciall ornament, were the plaine way to barbarisme: and to make the Asse runne proude of his eares; to take away strength from Lyons, and giue Cammels hornes. . . . Enargia, or clearness of representation, required in absolute Poems, is not the perspicuous deliuery of a lowe inuention; but high and hasty inuention exprest in most significant and unaffected phrase; it serves not a skilfull Painter’s turne, to draw the figure of a face onely to make knowne who it represents, but hee must lymn, giue luster, shaddow, and heightening; which though ignorants will esteeme spic’d, and too curious, yet such as haue the judiciall perspectiue, will see it hath motion, spirit and life.”

Alors, what’d begun like that in a fit of scratchy throat’d morosity and bedevilment (with the intent to merely plow back under some retrieved and compostable roughage, some mulch), got dash’d (O’Hara: “First you took Arthur’s porcelain / pony from the mantel and! dashed / it against the radiator!” I love that exclamatory hiccough, so perfectly placed.) Since (I continue) I am thinking (of late) about Fairfield Porter, I’d the intent to include a Porter mot. (James Schuyler, reporting a Jane Freilicher mot: “Here, she was quite delighted to find there is a brand of cigarettes called Picayune. ‘Picayune,’ she said, helping herself to one, ‘The Worst Cigarette.’”) Upshot: ducking around among the Fairfield Porter Papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, I uncover’d some James Schuyler pieces. Not check’d against the Collected, so seemingly “uncollect’d” (my memory is full of slots). A piece dated August 15, 1971 (two identical copies of it exist in the folder). Letters of the period (a handwritten one to Porter of the nineteenth and a typed—different typewriter—one of the twentieth) appear to be written out of one of Schuyler’s temporary hospital confinements. The piece, sans titre:
a cock crows
and a mooly
goes moo
by radio: thus
this sunless
(sinless? not
quite) light
morning of—as
Old Sol (what
a name, eternal
youth, external
flame) mist
moving chilly
among and under
(arbor not
vitae) over
you know—
grow on the
nor let us not
forget young
seedlings, tree
and other at,
and in, masonry
an impartial
groundsman will,
rightly, seeing
rightly, eradicate
in his good
time: “can’t
have trees
growin’ in the
cellah” thus
thus this
morning a
small town
it is country
life in
this great place
renews, be
gins, goes
on again—
Found in a postscript to another letter (beginning “I’m going tomorrow morning to Rome, then I’m going to try to find a place near there where I can stay for two months,” dated only “Sat Oct 16”), a letter wherein Schuyler says both “I did write Frank in a rather 18th century way about mountains, or rather, the Alps” (echoes of Auden) and that the letter seems to be “all complaints and querulousness,” an untitled piece—“The object is a wood fish talisman I found and Arthur bought in an antique shop in Kitzbuhl”:
How nicely the whittle marks
suit the shape of the fish.
How nice that it’s not painted silver,
but blue, like a river,
and gleams just a little,
like a fish seen at night.
It frowns on one side of its face
and smiles on the other.
How bright the air is in the morning.,
how smoky and strange in the evening,
in the mountains where it was made.
And, out of a letter dated only “Wednesday,” beginning “It’s so nice here with Frank, and I like Cambridge so much, I’m just staying vaguely on and on.” (Too: “Frank and I both have sun-wind-burns, because we went out in the country with George Montgomery this afternoon, who was photographing . . . We went to the top of a rock out-crop in some woods, which we both said simultaneously was like Maine, and we both wrote poems. Such as it is, I enclose mine.”):
Polly Red Top Thermos is with us
and my 75 pound Flip-it pen
no lighter than our heads
on the rocks
among the shrinking snow.

Is this lichen, this stuff here?
And these leaves,
are they oak leaves,
and what can I read
in Char, such as: black branch,
were you a dogwood tree?
I feel it was, though.

The snow has footsteps in it
like wet cement; a cowlick
is in a tuft of last year’s grass;
cars fly by like bees; and so on.
A big quill hat bends an evergreen
introspectively down.

It feels good here.
Thus, my “perspicuous deliuery”—a morning’s results—of “a lowe inuention,” digging injudiciously in plain sight. Back to general dishevelment and incipient angst. Question: what poem did O’Hara write that day on the out-crop?

James Schuyler by Fairfield Porter
(Detail of “Jimmy and John,” 1957-58)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ashbery’s Fairfield Porter

Some Bottles

One regret: how the day so indefatigably utters its sentences. (How one is compel’d to jot the sentences down. Somewhere Wallace Stevens complains about always needing to sit with a book, unable to simply sit.) John Ashbery says Fairfield Porter turn’d, in a letter, to a line “quoted out of memory” by Wittgenstein, a sentence central to Porter’s aesthetics: “Every sentence is in order as it is.” Explication de texte (Porter): “Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system. The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don’t try for it. When you arrange, you fail.” And, out of the same letter: “I can’t be distracted from paying the closest possible attention to what I am doing by evaluating it ahead of time. . . . What one pays attention to is what is real (I mean reality calls for one’s attention) and reality is everything. It is not only the best part. It is not an essence. Everything includes the pigment as much as the canvas as much as the subject.” The whole kit and caboodle found unsought for. Kin, surely, to the “naturalness” of “the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial” (O’Hara, note the way he slips the halter of essence with that “circumstantial”). O’Hara’s seemingly nonchalant remark (out of “[Statement for The New American Poetry]”—“What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else; they are just there in whatever form I can find them.” So that: O’Hara joins what Ashbery refers to (speaking of Porter) as “a series of brilliant know-nothings who at intervals have embodied the American genius, from Emerson and Thoreau to Whitman and Dickinson down to Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.” Porter dismisses, precisely, “art as sociology”—the artist who “treats art as though it were raw material for a factory that produces a commodity called understanding.” (Or, heaven forfend, career—that hobgoblin of attention-seeking artificers everywhere . . .) Porter: “You can only buck generalities by attention to fact. . . . So aesthetics is what connects one to matters of fact. It is anti-ideal, it is materialist. It implies no approval, but respect for things as they are.” Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus):
5.63 I am my world. (The microcosm.)
5.631 There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas. If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts where subordinate to my will, and which were not, etc., this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book.—
5.632 The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world.
5.633 Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found? You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye.
5.6331 For the form of the visual field is surely not like this.
O’Hara’s “in whatever form I can find them” and Wittgenstein’s “book called The World As I Found It,” and Porter’s “attention to fact . . . respect for things as they are.” (As Marianne Moore says: “Expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion’s leap.”) (Fairfield Porter call’d O’Hara’s work “an outpouring in the first person: a prophecy set adrift.” And noted how “O’Hara’s Whitman-like width of awareness dominates a dishevelled wealth of realistic details all somewhat altered by the stamp of the author’s personality.”) Enough jotting.

Fairfield Porter, “Iced Coffee,” 1966
(Ashbery: “The show does reveal occasional awkwardnesses, particularly in large figure paintings like “Iced Coffee,” in which the apparent lack of interrelation among the figures gives the whole a somewhat creepy air. But Porter devotees seem to prize these flaws, if such they are, and they have Porter’s authority to do so. What he once wrote of the painter Jane Freilicher is also true of him: ‘When she has to choose between the life of the painting and the rules of construction, she decides to let the rules go.’ Certain irregularities are essential to a picture’s ‘life’: Porter once indignantly refused to remove a chance drip of pigment that bothered the purchaser of a picture, saying that to do so would be tantamount to ‘removing a mole from a beloved’s face.’”)

Fairfield Porter, “Interior with a Dress Pattern,” 1969
(Ashbery: “‘Interior with a Dress Pattern” is a technical tour de force that has few parallels in his
oeuvre. Here Porter seems to be looking over his shoulder at the pyrotechnics of Velázquez’s “Meninas” and the complex spaces of de Hooch’s Dutch interiors. Yet life goes on as usual in the big living room of the house on Great Spruce Head—one daughter is emerging from the kitchen while another tends the fire in the fireplace; assorted chairs join in games of perspective that no one would ever have noticed if the painter hadn’t been there. The dress pattern of the title is the last thing you see, spread out on a table, a fragile, fluttering reminder of work to be done.”)

Fairfield Porter, “Persian Rose Bush,” 1975

Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975