Thursday, March 31, 2011

“Verbal Splinters”

A Wall

Under “Bores,” W. H. Auden cops a Chekhov line for A Certain World: A Commonplace Book: “The most intolerable people are provincial celebrities.” Which probably explains a lot about poets, their high dudgeons, their overweening publick traumas, their presumptuous caws and continual calls. (Lascano Tegui, in On Elegance While Sleeping, succeeding a fit rumbustious lyrical outburst, wrought up “like something trapped in an aquarium,” finds the just-writ page “inexplicable in the diary of my life”: “I’ve written it tenderly, as though I was once in love. It seems like sacrilege to include it as part of this intimate experiment, in which we’re testing the consolatory effects of speaking badly about others to ourselves.”) Ah, the small and grizzled world, its torts and torsions, its occasional marvels and wonders—is it feign’d religiosity or my heart tearing itself into “a bust’d fleshy contrivance be-sinew’d and raw” that I sense reading that? Lascano Tegui writes of crowds at nightfall “like herds of boars escaping the purest of women (Diana),” clerks “looking for refuge . . . unbuttoning their pants and pissing at random against the walls and trees”:
They wait for accomplices who never show up and who they suppose might be disguised as a worker heading home for the day, a bag over his shoulder; a wisp of a girl running errands; or a boy coming home late from school, wrapped in the narrow cape some cheap tailor made as skimpy as possible. The boy’s hands are purple from the cold, and the armies of the perverse see these swollen, miserable hands as exotic fruits. The first fruits of a midday harvest.
Later, in a “black landscape” smelling “of hay, of manure, brick ovens, and recently discharged chemicals,” a man approaches “leading two large white horses in worn halters.” Behind him, “hurrying to keep up”: a cross-eyed man carrying a zinc box. And:
In a pit, among the garbage heaps, a woman who was really still a girl was poking at the ground. She was burying a biscuit tin containing six playing cards with a pin stuck through them, a piece of lodestone, the hearts of two doves, and a cameo of her seducer.
She is, according to the Viscount, “a happy and religious creature.” Always that fit of substance (“the heart’s rags pull’d up about it”). Gottfried Benn, in a letter to Dieter Wellershoff (22 November 1950), regarding “writing that refers to nothing but itself”—“. . . language that neither wants to (nor can) do anything but phosphoresce, incandesce, overwhelm, stun. It celebrates itself, it drags what is human into its subtle but also powerful organism, it becomes monologue, indeed monomania.” (Roberto Calasso talks briefly about Benn in a chapter call’d “Enamel Scar” in The Forty-Nine Steps. Benn: “. . . a quick look, just leafing through sometimes produces a slight intoxication.” A disfiguring half-ass’d method, no doubt, though one that results in a constellatory prose, “a prose like the segments of an orange.” I think of how strenuously I prefer the half-finish’d “study,” the sketch, to the “done done”—an awkward phrase making homage to Pound’s “And I do do it.” It is, remittingly, akin to what I wave about here quasi-daily, my giant fennel stalk with its seed-splashing pinecone “head.” My thyrsus, my thisness.) Benn’s succinct dictum: “For one striving to give expression to one’s inner self, art is not something relevant to the social sciences but something physical like fingerprints.” (That bluff unchangeable heart.) What Benn is muddling: that merchant’s revery of a thing call’d “absolute prose” (“I have devoted various studies in my essays to this theme of absolute prose. I found the first signs of it in Pascal, who speaks of creating beauty through distance, rhythm, and intonation, ‘through the recurrence of vowels and consonants’—‘the oscillating number of beauty,’ he says once, and ‘perfection through the order of words.’”) Benn’s prose, the doctor Rönne at the end of Gehirne (“Brains”), a 1914 piece carrying the epigraph, “If words can be said to lie, it might be thought that they were doing so here.” Rönne, too, like Lascano Tegui, preoccupy’d with hands (“Often when he got back to his room from one of these rounds he would twist his hands this way and that and look at them. And once a nurse observed him smelling them or rather going over them as though testing their atmosphere, and she watched him putting his lightly cupped hands together, little finger to little finger, then pressing them open and shut, as though squeezing open the halves of a large, soft fruit or bending something in two . . .”), a prose of one man’s finger’s oily leavings, smudges with all the subtance of a whorl:
Look, I held them in these hands of mine, a hundred, maybe even a thousand of them; some soft, some hard, all read to dissolve; men, women, with crumbling flesh and full of blood. But now I am holding my own in my hands and I can’t stop probing into the limits of my possibilities. Supposing the forceps had pressed a little harder here when I was born? Supposing I had been struck on the head again and again on the same spot? What is it about brains? I always wanted to float free in the air like a bird soaring up out of a ravine; yet I am still apart, walled in by crystal. Please now, let me through, I am taking flight once more—I have been so weary—I am borne aloft by wings—with my sword of blue anemones—in the falling rays of the mid-day sun—in ruins of the south—crumbling cloudbanks—skulls turning to dust—foreheads collapsing at the temple.
Something autochthonous about that, the skitter into expressivist “verbal splinters” (Calasso), unvitiated by formal presumptuousness. “Ouch.”

Gottfried Benn, 1886-1956

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance While Sleeping


Reading the utterly odd and compelling Viscount Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance While Sleeping (Dalkey Archive, 2010), translated by Idra Novey. What to make of something like (three pages, uninterrupt’d):
                                                                                                October 4, 18—

      The Middle Ages. Still? Yes, everything in that era had an obscure, sinister justification to it. All observation was still interwoven with faith, and faith is nothing more than atavistic fear, the instinctive cowardliness of man. If this fear could conceive of God, it could find a reason for anything—and everything had an explanation in the Middle Ages. The need for effects gave birth to stupendous causes. Children today understand this instinctively; they can only admire those obsolete causes, seeing such beauty in their inscrutability. People have lost the rhythm of the supernatural. Montaigne said:
Myself passing by Vitry-le-Francois, saw a man the Bishop of Soissons had, in confirmation, called Germain, whom all the inhabitants of the place had known to be a girl till two-and-twenty years of age, called Mary. He was, at the time of my being there, very full of beard, old, and not married. He told us, that by straining himself in a leap his male organs came out; and the girls of that place have, to this day, a song, wherein they advise one another not to take too great strides, for fear of being turned into men, as Mary Germain was.

                                                                                                November 27, 18—

      Upon hearing Madame Roland had been executed, her husband, then in hiding on a farm, took off across the fields to commit suicide. A few peasants heard the shot. Another Girondist dead.
      They buried him along the roadside, so close to the topsoil that children broke off little tree branches and played at who would have the courage to poke the cadaver first.
      For a time, the corpse made the ground above it somewhat pliable. Until one sunny day it caved in. Over the next few months, this hole collected water, with the shepherds’ mastiffs came to lap up with pleasure.
The Montaigne out of the Charles Cotton-translated “Of the Force of Imagination” (It begins: “I am one of those who are most sensible of the power of imagination: every one is jostled by it, but some are overthrown by it. It has a very piercing impression upon me; and I make it my business to avoid, wanting force to resist it.” And, later, there’s the lovely coy impertinence of: “The indocile liberty of this member is very remarkable, so importunately unruly in its tumidity and impatience, when we do not require it, and so unseasonably disobedient, when we stand most in need of it: so imperiously contesting in authority with the will, and with so much haughty obstinacy denying all solicitation, both of hand and mind.”)

So who’s the Viscount Lascano Tegui? Born Emilio Lascanotegui in 1887 in Concepción del Uruguay, Argentina. (Across the Río de la Plata, in Uruguay in 1846, Isidore Ducasse—the self-styled Comte de Lautéamont—’d enter’d the precincts of folly and extravagance, only to perish in Paris, aged twenty-four . . .) Around 1908, hatchet’d the originally Basque surname (Lascanotegui) in two (Lascano Tegui) and append’d the pseudonymous “Viscount.” Travel’d by foot through Africa and Europe, published a book of poetry call’d La sombra de la empusa (1910) under an apocryphal imprint in Buenos Aires: Leopoldo Lugones, chief Argentine exponent of Modernismo, brand’d it “abracadabra.” Work’d as translator at the International Bureau of Posts (Buenos Aires), dentist, and painter in Paris during World War I (Lascano Tegui exhibit’d paintings in group shows with Maurice Utrillo, Raoul Dufy, Amedeo Modigliani, &c). Other jobs: journalist, diplomat, muralist (in Venezuela) mechanic, orator (known, according to some, “to make incendiary speeches in perfect rhymed verse”), teacher of the culinary arts. Friend of Apollinaire and Picasso. De la elegencia mientras se duerme originally publish’d in Paris in 1925. Two other “autobiographical novels”—Álbum de familia and El libro celeste in 1936.

Of Lascano Tegui’s “journal” (with its oddly insistent nineteenth-century dating), he writes: “This journal I write, almost without wanting to, as dusk falls, doesn’t always paint a true picture of what’s happened to me. Rather, these are evocations of events, the memory of which passes its pen across my brow.” Some odd note of the unstoppable floodiness of memory, anybody’s (in the Steinian sense of everybody’s) memory, a world-memory with its claws sunk into the brain-meat of the individual (Lascano Tegui’s macabre voice coming through—he is capable of writing about hands “cut off by the butcher and hanging from two hooks like giblets”—and worse)—surely there’s a word in German, something like Welterinnerungsspur, a mash-up of “world” and “memory-trace” . . . Pound’s dictum: “all ages are contemporaneous” annealing to a single person’s percept. Here’s how it begins (undatedly):
      The first time I entrusted my hands to a manicurist was the evening I was headed to the Moulin Rouge. The woman trimmed back my cuticles and polished my nails with an emery board. Then she filed them to points and finished up with some polish. My hands no longer looked like they belonged to me. I put them on my table, in front of my mirror, and changed their positions in the light. With the same sense of self-consciousness one feels when posing for a photographer, I picked up a pen and began to write.
      That’s how I started this book.
      At the Moulin Rouge that night I heard a woman standing nearby say in Spanish: “He cares for his hands like a man preparing for a murder.”
Obviously hinting at some incipient end (I know not)? I am pull’d (most) by the helplessness of the “I” inflict’d by writing hands (or murderous hands, même chose). Something of the brunt physicality of writing in that (Lascano Tegui says in an epigraph: “I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess. . . . I know all the literary strategies intimately and despise them. The naiveté of my contemporaries pains me . . .”) That volupté (part of the Baudelairean invitation to “luxe, calme et volupté”) of the child. Lascano Tegui endlessly extols childhood against the monstrousness of man: “Justice is a painted gendarme whose colors rub off in our hands. . . . The trademark of our moribund society, of a nation unhinged, of men who don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children, when man—that obese monster—happily slept.”

Viscount Lascano Tegui, 1887-1966

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Le Sexe des Mots (With Veering Off)

Some Books

The morning a morass: call it “taxing nonsense.” The kind of thing that throws down it precipitants. “Hydrochloric acid and chloride of sodium: ordinary precipitants of silver.” The moon just a sliver—“cut like a swallow wing”—though still a little pot-belly’d in the “perigee-syzygy” aftermath. Ashbery: “We feel we have more in common with a / Landscape, however shifty and ill-conceived, / Than with a still-life . . .” So H. D., writing to Norman Holmes Pearson in 1938 about early work: “I let my pencil run riot, in those early days of my apprenticeship, in an old-fashioned school copy-book written when I could get one. Then I would select from many pages of automatic or pseudo-automatic writing the few lines that satisfied me.” Or, H. D. out of the novel Paint It Today (quoted in Helen Carr’s The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists): “Poetry and the beat and the swallow wings. Large epic pictures bored her, though she struggled through them. She wanted the songs that cut like a swallow wing the high, untainted ether, not the tragic legions of set lines that fell like black armies with terrific force and mechanical set action, paralyzing, or broke like a black sea to baffle and crush.”

H. L. Mencken, reviewing Ezra Pound’s Provença in the Smart Set in 1910, trying to work up a barbaric yawp, saying Pound’s revolt is against “the puerile kittenishness” of the period: “Nine-tenths of our living makers and singers it would seem are women, and fully two-thirds of these women are ladies. The result is a boudoir tinkle in the tumult of the lyre.” Contra Pound’s own poems, full of “arresting and amazing vigor”: “The pale thing we commonly call beauty is seldom in them. They are rough, uncouth, hairy, barbarous, wild. But once the galloping swing of them is mastered a sort of stark, heathenish music emerges from the noise. One hears the thumping of a tom-tom. Dionysos and his rogues are at their profane prancing. It is once more the springtime of the world.”

Pound, in the 1911 “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris”: “As long as the poet says not what he, at the very crux of a clarified conception, means, but is content to say something ornate and approximate, just so long will serious people, intently alive, consider poetry as balderdash—a sort of embroidery for dilettantes and women.” And (Pound in i hate speech duds): “We must have a simplicity and directness of utterance, which is different from the simplicity and directness of daily speech, which is more “curial,” more dignified. This difference, this dignity, cannot be conferred by florid adjectives or elaborate hyperbole; it must be conveyed by art, and by the art of the verse structure . . . Colloquial poetry is to the real art as the barber’s wax dummy is to sculpture.” Somewhat later (in a 1915 letter to Harriet Monroe, the one beginning—in the D. D. Paige-edit’d bouquin—“Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. . . . There must be no interjections. No words flying off to nothing. Granted one can’t get perfection every shot, this must be one’s intention.”), Pound’s antic reject of bookishness, how it makes for “the shallow frothy excitement of writing”:
Objectivity and again objectivity, and expression: no hindside-beforeness, no straddled adjectives (as ‘addled mosses dank’), no Tennysonianness of speech; nothing—nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say. Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity. When one really feels and thinks, one stammers with simple speech; it is only in the flurry, the shallow frothy excitement of writing, or the inebriety of a metre, that one falls into the easy—oh, how easy!—speech of books and poems that one has read.
A turnabout, surely. It’s in “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris” that Pound, talking about the “luminous detail” (“the method of Luminous Detail, a method most vigorously hostile to the prevailing mode of to-day—that is, the method of multitudinous detail, and to the method of yesterday, the method of sentiment and generalization”), aims rather devastatingly, though a century or so avant la lettre at the “multitudinous detail” of something like Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, fill’d irrefragably up with detail “of equal import.” Pound: “The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment. . . . As scholarship has erred in presenting all detail as if of equal import, so also in literature, in a present school of writing we see a similar tendency.” There’s the mystery of whom exactly that 1911 “school” consists, and Pound avers without compunction: “But this is aside the mark.” And so it is.

Ezra Pound,1885-1972

Monday, March 28, 2011

Richard Howard’s Ashbery

A Wall

Suppose, one thinks, looking into the 1969 Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Richard Howard’d expend’d the last forty years or so writing criticism—in lieu of translating French? (Howard did expand the book in 1980. In 1974, in an interview in the Ohio Review, he says: “I think if you write such a book at all you should write it again every ten years. And as John Ashbery once suggested, the second edition should be called Alone Again, Naturally.”) Look how he decides (in an essay devoted to Ashbery call’d “You May Never Know How Much Is Pushed Back into the Night, Nor What May Return”)—with Jamesian, or Proustian, delectacyone—to “loiter a little” with the garde half of “avant-garde,” noting how “it is something of an effort to disengage the notion of opposition, of combat and conquest which is the activity we like to associate with the artist as the antagonist of the bourgeoisie, from the notion of protection, of scouting and reconnoitre which implies that the vanguard is in advance precisely in order to guard.” Howard points to Ashbery’s “custodial relation to his art” (in Some Trees Ashbery is “thoroughly aware” of the conventions, even “elated to have them at hand”: “‘Eclogue,’ ‘Canzone,’ ‘Sonnet,’ ‘Pantoum’ and three sestinas dramatize this poet’s fondness for the art’s most intricate forms, and his facility with them”), and how he’s got “none of the advance artist’s habitual hostility to his own medium, for all his dissociative techniques and fragmenting designs.” Howard:
In the saving, the conservative sense of the term, Ashbery is, sufficiently to compel our trust, an advance-guard poet. I hope to show how he has kept in touch with the tradition he outdistances, how he has remained ahead of something whose force and weight at his back he is fruitfully (if at times fearfully) aware of. That there are many occasions when, it seems to me, he has allowed his communication-lines with the regulars to be cut speaks neither for nor against him. It is a question of the terrain covered and of the engagements fought. The poet who wrote his master’s essay on the novels of Henry Green and who invoked, presenting an inédit by Raymond Roussel in the French magazine l’Arc, that bewildering author’s particularités qui ajoutent à sa beauté strictement littéraire *—the poet who is also a playful scholiast of the hyperbaton is evidently well prepared to leave us in whatever lurch he finds ineluctable.
Oddly enough, Howard, in pointing to Ashbery’s useful habit of providing—within a work—some tiny starting thread for its unraveling (what Howard calls “a clue in the form of an imaginative schema or construct which heightens the work’s inner resonance at the same time that it defines the poetics by which the contraption operates”), points to a “convex mirror.” First, in quoting André Gide’s noting of “the likelihood of such a device”:
I like discovering in a work of art . . . transposed to the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work. Nothing illuminates it better, nothing establishes more surely the proportion of the whole. Thus in certain paintings by Memling or Quentin Metsys, a tiny dark convex mirror reflects the interior of the room where the scene painted occurs. Similarly, in Velasquez’ Meninas (though in a different way). Finally, in Hamlet’s play within the play . . . None of these examples is entirely fair. What would be much more so, what would say what I want . . . is the comparison with that method in heraldry which consists of putting a second blazon in the center of the first, en abyme.
Is that the originary “source” of Ashbery’s 1974 “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”? With its lines “to protect / What it advertises”? Howard writes: “If Ashbery’s poems themselves are a blazon of making, which is after all what the word poem means, inside them we generally find that second blazon, the inclination to speak up without being mediated by the poem . . . ; the work criticizes its own text by accommodating in its texture an alternative patois.” So “The balloon pops, the attention / Turns dully away.” Too, Howard finds in Theseus’s speeches on the labyrinth (out of The Heroes) a way of reading, a stepping outside:
I took advantage of the fact that it was built like a maze. Whenever you do this, even if the problem is just one in algebra, everything becomes simple. Because then you can sit back and get a picture of yourself doing whatever it is. If you do not grant its own peculiar nature to the problem, do not grant its own peculiar nature to the problem, you can have no picture of yourself and consequently feel harassed and lonely. Without imagination nothing is easy.
And: “There are frequent large holes in the roof, so the visitor is free, if he wishes, to climb out on top and survey the ground plan of the whole edifice. In short, he is in the dubious position of a person who believes that dada is still alive.” Dubious about dada. Howard quotes some lines of a poem call’d “White” out of Ashbery’s Turandot and Other Poems, lines of which “we are baffled not only by the images but by the syntax and the tonality” and which “Ashbery has not chosen to carry over into the canon of his work”:
Where is the tempest buttered? The giants
In their yachts have privately forgotten
By which hand slipped under the door
Its screaming face. I rode into
The scared dead town, parked the Plymouth—
No one in the central dark bar—
“Perhaps Pat is dead” but it buckled,
Came on, all puce zones alight
And in the death of muck and horror
Knelt one on the quiet trapeze of the sky.
Reason to be dubious about dada. I like seeing Howard’s quoting of a piece—he calls it “the capital statement on poetics which Ashbery appended to his curriculum vitae after The Tennis Court Oath [1962] was published”—
What I like about music is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities. What remains is the structure, the architecture of the argument, scene or story. I would like to do this in poetry.
—that, too, appear’d in the Paris Leary / Robert Kelly anthology, A Controversy of Poets (1965), and is quoted widely, along with its far less certain, or quotable, continuation:
I would also like to reproduce the power dreams have of persuading you that a certain event has meaning not logically connected with it, or that there is a hidden relation among disparate objects. But actually this is only a part of what I want to do, and I am not even sure I want to do it. I often change my mind about my poetry. I would prefer not to think I have any special aims in mind . . .
As Ashbery puts it in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
And, later: “no / False disarray as proof of authenticity.”
* Rather strangely, later Howard dully mocks the Rousselian beauté strictement littéraire in a footnote: “If you write a poem by taking the last line from every third chapter of each green-bound book on your shelves, and rhyming the last word of each with the first word of each fourth line, adding the name of a soft drink, an Aristotelian category and an expletive from the comic strips to every other line, you will have cunningly constructed a poem whose beauties are strictement littéraire.

Richard Howard, c. 2008
(Photograph by Star Black)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Odds and Ends

A City Tree

Hardly a week goes by without its fiasco—
The too-earnest hoodlums raking the yard
With gunfire, or the mouthy rebuttals of rascal
Kids to the unemploy’d brutes hired to guard

Them, ex-dope fiends of the plug-
Ugly years that continue to convey indiscreet
Greetings out of the beyond. . . .

Nothing begins like that. End of the week, its grubby sunk particularity pertinacious and awry. The white half-moon bulging, pock’d and swoll’d up, out of the fierce morning blue: a plug of tobacco in its cheek. Too cold for late March. Eileen Myles (out of Inferno): “In a way, poetry really does require failure, because failure produces space. That nobody else wants.” Poking around in El Corno Emplumado #6, I find Thomas Merton’s “After Chuang Tzu,” about a tree call’d the “stinktree”: “The trunk is so swollen, / So knotted, / No one can get a straight plank / Out of it. / . . . / No carpenter will look at it.” Align’d with one’s “speech”: “Big and useless.” (Briefly recalling Thomas Johnson’s journal call’d Stinktree. Out of Memphis and Ithaca. Whence cometh its monicker? And, puttering, I note now how the stinktree is identical to Ailanthus, the tree of heaven, an exotica unloosed in the New World, the tree of the city, its terrains vagues, sprouting up out of any verge of dirt . . .) How continue? Jackson Mac Low reporting in an El Corno letter (18-19 May 1962): “. . . we live on $14 a week unemployment insurance plus government surplus foods. We’ve been living on some fine government curries; government meat, government rice and non-government spices can make some great dishes.” And Clayton Eshleman’s rather contradictory Kyoto note of 22 October 1962:
. . . A great deal of the need to criticize comes from one’s own lack of footing. As one feels the world unsteady, some of this fear can be gotten out by (so-called) alarming others. I think there is always that element in criticism no matter how vital & useful it can be. I don’t believe Walt Whitman ever criticized anyone, not at least the mythical Whitman of notes, prose & early poems (and here we go again . . . !), such was the well of health & love for others, enough in a sense, or too much. And if this weakens Whitman as a poet (he never scares me) it also builds us; the possibility of not needing anyone else, to not depend upon others (for is not this dependence a good deal of the need to attack) but to throw oneself out (as trash and as hero) to what is around, nature, man, which are never empty in themselves . . . your talk about magazines makes me think; perhaps it’s best to forget about reading other magazines & read only what strikes one as great poetry. For a while. There is so much crap in poetry magazines, so much blindness and sheer dishonesty that this pricks one (me, at least) into certain unkindnesses . . .
“To throw oneself out (as trash and as hero).” Or: “To throw oneself out there, to unboundedly entangle.” Puttering, hardly deft. I go looking for a piece by “pianist and poet” David Rattray in The Nation (16 November, 1957), call’d “Weekend with Ezra Pound” (H. D., in End to Torment says how, reading it, “it all came back”):
His hair is now white all over and he is getting bald. He was dressed in tan shorts too big or him, tennis shoes and a loose plaid shirt. His face looks weathered, like that of a man who has worked outdoors all his life. His heavy-wristed hands are coarse and calloused, but the fingernails neatly cut short and square. . . . There was no sign of that flabbiness that comes even to some of the strongest men in their forties and fifties. The Greeks spoke of “old age that unstrings men’s knees,” but as I watched Pound stride up and down, his knees strung taut, his calves bulging like a athlete’s, I thought of some lines from Ramon Guthrie’s poem, “E. P. in Paris and Elsewhere”:
“This is not walking.
This is stalking, pacing
as done by jaguar or ounce
in Zagreus’ days, tracing
the lay-out for the Labyrinth . . .”
Ramon Guthrie (1896-1973), who lived in Paris during the 1920’s after stints with the American Field Service and US Army Air Corps in WWI, end’d up teaching French and French literature at Dartmouth, and writing—to judge by “Ezra Pound in Paris and Elsewhere”—rather Poundian work:
Ezra Pound in Paris and Elsewhere

the loneliness of death came upon me
      (at 3 P.M., for an instant)

                  E. Pound: Canto LXXXII

They nudged “who’s that?”
whenever in the street he,
fur-collared and no hat,
passed like a duke of Moscovy
. . . in the old days . . .
head aetherial
on neck and shoulders verging burly
and profiled like a surly
a somewhat older Ariel
with a streak
of Viking in him
or pre-Attic Greek,

His striking
red-gold beard and mane
curried by gales.
Whiffing centaurs’ trails,
his gait seemed stamped with the device:
“This is not walking.
This is stalking, pacing
as done by jaguar or ounce
in Zagreus’ days, tracing
the lay-out for the Labyrinth . . .
        Cowflops”       (here
a flash too golden for a sneer)
“plotted Boston.”

The brow bull-willed
jutting as if embossed on
Assyrian plinth
where Tiglath killed.

Zagreus, they
are no maenads who gnaw thy bones to-day.
No pipes or cymbals whip a frenzy cold
as a dead snake’s eye.
Orpheus, make no mistake
        These cryptogamic bald
neuters are no bacchantes. When
these busy-body scarabs have sucked their glut,
no hell would take you in.
The frowsy slut
you would have breathed
—forsooth—a soul into
has got
her teeth snagged in your jugular.

What Furies it was your delight to hatch
are now superfluous.
What perversities you cultivated
could never match
those pitted now against you.

Against such gloating odds
as these,
there are no gods,
sere Herakles.

And yet . . .
                  and yet . . .
‘So few drink of my fountain’
(although the best did
and came away changed men)
his true Penelope was neither Hetty Green
nor even Old Nokomis . . . Howlers in
eleven languages . . . And yet . . .
                                                  and yet . . .

Ecbatan to Pisa and thereafter,
il miglior fabbro . . .
Nothing that he ever did
or any else has done
has change that . . .
        il miglior fabbro
del parlar materno.
Moving enough: that restrain’d rhyme, that plain heart.

Ezra Pound, c. 1918
(Photograph by E. O. Hoppé)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Grand Piano Notes

In a Garden

With the title, “The Meaning of This,” Steve Benson’s final essay makes (in The Grand Piano #10) the initial move toward summary (verging toward the memorial, if not fatuous, bowings out: “Knowing you, through shared and reciprocal attention and activities, created deepening, decisive means to know myself. Loving you has allowed me better, more fully, to love myself . . . I know you, and you, and you, my esteemed interlocutors, and I am convinced by the surprise of unexpected recognitions you incite in me”)—echoes of The Sound of Music’s “Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you” there, a kind of plimsoll’d demi-plié—a “meta”-step—and provides some history regarding the project’s origins:
      In 1999 at the Page Mothers Conference on innovative writing by American women at UC San Diego, in conversation with Jen Hofer and Lyn, Carla proposed that some kind of collective history of the Language school be written, to provide an alternative record based in recollections and analysis by the participants to counter some distorting accounts then circulating. Jen suggested a set of essays to incorporate into a special issue of Aerial devoted to Lyn’s work that she was editing (still forthcoming). But Carla made clear that contextualizing this project within a festschrift for a single author would contradict its intentions, and we further found that the Aerial issue wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, while we got increasingly interested in working together to see what we could do together. We speculated how best to proceed and began to insert drafts within a grid on a website that also fell apart as circumstances changed. By 2005 we had rallied to the plan for these ten volumes, agreed on a division of labor, and set the schedule we have struggled to maintain.
I love that “rallied”: forces suddenly assembled, or re-assembled out of some repulse or dispersal. What’s hid is the instability of that “we”: how is it that the “we” of Hejinian and Harryman (with Hofer prodding) becomes the “we” of the final ten (or eleven, counting Bernheimer) grandees? How, too, one thinks, conjoin the end—“to counter some distorting accounts”—with Benson’s talk of the project’s “preposterous dimensions and the opportunity to play with dear friends”?
If we were going to be setting the record straight it would have to be slant, diversely (if not divisively) so. We’ve come at this form from different angles, not knowing in advance how they would skew the consequences or just what others they might engage and how.
Probably helps explain why so little of “record” finally outs in the volumes. (Benson does supply a tiny history of other occasions of “expository, reflective, and narrative group work” amongst (some of) the participants preceding The Grand Piano: a “six-person introduction” to “a selection of Language writings to be translated in France for Change magazine, within the context of a larger issue focusing on “L’Espace amérique” (1981); the paper call’d “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry” in Social Text (1988)—“editors unexpectedly appended “A Manifesto” as subtitle”; and Leningrad (1991)—“in response to . . . participation in 1989 in the first international conference of avant-garde writers to be held in the Soviet Union.” Of it, Benson notes only the spuriously formal: “This work, intended as a composition both continuous and contrapuntal, identified each writer’s contribution only through a set of icons keyed to the contributor in material prefatory to the text.”)

Is there a kind of vacuum, a hollow at the core of Language writing? I’m somewhat perplex’d by Benson’s (rather principle-stating) insistence (in a footnote) that, in “our enterprise” (note the market lingo), “affinity and social integration trump all assertions of principle.” That under a page detailing how
Our poetry and projects were experimental in a social but not a scientific sense. I don’t remember any hypotheses anyone felt responsible to disprove. Our trials of literary problem solving intended social consequences from their reception.
Between the pat fuzzy-wuzziness of “affinity and social integration” and the puppet mastery (or need for attention-getting) of “intended social consequences”—considerable differences.

Reading Benson’s piece a day behind Harryman’s, I suffer’d a momentary twinge of thinking: is there a Language writing house style (or method)? Benson begins:
I remember a category of monuments, such as Ted Berrigan reading a blue book over my shoulder to Larry Eigner. You haven’t functionally grown up, you’re sullen at work, going months with a disaster I think the era of my existence. Playing ball, making plans. I know I will recall it myself, and I want it to move me, social discourse.
The first of several such verse-intrusions, here footnoted thus: “Unless otherwise indicated, indented portions are drawn from a writing exercise on November 1, 2009, listening to myself reading aloud on four tracks at once: on two of the tracks I was reading passages from all the Grand Piano authors in parts 1-9, and on the other two from my journal and published writings from 1980.” Ulp. If one reads oneself aloud, is that “social discourse”? Quoting a 1980 journal entry a few pages along, Benson writes: “Style = the play of the interdependency of limitations.” (He’s making a report while bus-riding: “Listen to different people, their statement, address, as carriers of what . . .” Carriers? Is that “social discourse”?) One thinks of Burroughs’s “Language is a virus . . .” Something complacent and oh, mildly parasitic / sycophantic about a method that so indefatigably feeds off itself (and others). And, well, subject to “limitations.” Harryman’s mash-up “duet” encore. In another of the “indented portions” one reads: “Appropriation’s lonely.”

“Our . . . projects were experimental in a social but not a scientific sense . . .”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Grand Piano Notes

In a Garden

Reading Carla Harryman’s final piece, “The Essay as Noise,” in The Grand Piano #10, I think of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678) with its homely allegorick’d figures Obstinate and Pliable (“Well, neighbour Obstinate, said Pliable, I begin to come to a point . . .”) who, along with Christian, and “being heedless,” fall into a bog (“The name of the slough was Despond.”) Harryman, though heeding nothing so pedestrian as a “point,” avoids despondency through something like self-congratulatory prestidigitation. She offers a story (“or folly,” she says) of (mostly) Memory and History (with Talent, Music and Method’s plus peremptory—meaning mysterious—joinings-in.) Perhaps Harryman’s cue is found in Lyn Hejinian’s earlier remark that “The allegorical is, precisely and ineluctably, nontotalizing. . . . Its logic confines it to wandering. Allegory is the narrative of being at a loss when even loss itself can’t be located.” Thus, “noise” in the signal. Memory, it turns out, is Kathy Acker, History is Lorenzo Thomas. Harryman’s “folly” seems design’d to put the two together—ever triangulating off “Carla,” who’s generally at a loss, dérive-struck (“inconclusive days, meandering companionship, and reprieve from consequential acts”), if not exactly star-struck. Palpable is “Carla”’s awe in regarding Memory, tougher, more commanding: they walk in San Francisco fog-bound “urban space” to “take pleasure in the distortions of street life.” “Carla” notes how “Memory’s black boots, thick soled and buckled on the side, appear a little heavy on her feet, though she does wear them handsomely.” (Later there’s mention of “the clump of Memory’s glamorous boots”: one idly pursues a footwear / Language writing thesis, recalling Tom Mandel’s cowboy boots. Or, more broadly, a “fashion” / Langpo connect—who’d ever forget Watten’s “ox-blood red shirt”? or Silliman’s decadent obsessing over “Project Runway”?) Asks: “Is it Memory who says words and deeds commonly don’t mean shit?” (“Or do they?” is the reply.) Parrots: “the faux simplicity of some of Memory’s sentences.” Reports: brash Memory’s declaring at a talk at 80 Langton Street (“art and public policy”) “art as guerilla warfare” a viable model (adding to Ron Silliman’s “two options, national subsidy or market capitalism.”) Late in Harryman’s story, a curious sort of reverse (“the transitional event of this prose”):
      Sometime in the early 1990s, Memory gave Carla the manuscript of My Mother Demonology for airplane reading on a trip to New York. She needed to know Carla’s thoughts on the book. In spite of the superior economic training Memory’s words had claimed for females, Carla would find herself stuck on the self-canceling anti-logics of certain of Memory’s sentences: “Only poetry is rebellion and Rimbaud had gone, rebelled against his inheritance in order to make himself into a businessmen.” Is not the key word here “inheritance” rather than “rebellion”? To what extent did Memory fashion herself as Rimbaud, as one who went against her inheritance and saw herself, rebelliously, as a businessperson? Or was poetry a business, which Memory satirized while seducing her reader into identifying with the author, the anti-poet, as a romantic rebel novelist—and wouldn’t this be “good business” in the post-Beat hipster punk market that produced her books? For Memory, financial and literary inheritance was what enabled her writing. She had forsaken neither her minor economic security nor the literature on her shelves, while her self-canceling satiric, playful, sly, outrageous text was a performance of rebellion.
And, later, post-“airplane reading,” Memory, “anxious about the potential collapse of cultural capital,” calls “Carla,” needing to know what she thinks:
“But don’t you see this is just an ordinary novel?” “These people, my agent, the editor are stupid, it tells a story. Can you see the story?” “They can’t see the story.” “They think it won’t sell.” “Did you like it?” “I don’t care if you like it. It tells a story, right?”
One deadly “yes,” no? Is there some kind of revenge, some comeuppance here. Memory reduced to needy, pleading infantilism? Harryman writes: “The urgency in Memory’s tone over the phone, its expression of a need for normality, paradoxically conveyed something that could not be transmitted as sense.” (Perhaps.) Nonsense therefore. “Nonsense tests patience but it also suspends narrative. It marks the material underpinnings of form showing the promise of rearrangement . . .” (Back to Hejinian’s “narrative of being at a loss.”)

Beyond Memory / Acker, there’s a parallel story of “Carla visiting an elsewhere” (ouch, allegorical pinprick), a place “where Lorenzo, or History, a poet who ‘didn’t go out looking to write poems’ since they ‘simply appeared when it was necessary to write down,’” is teaching. History says: “If we are writers, we need not fear symbols. We need to control them . . . by making them serve us.” (Something Lorenzo Thomas, here become a symbol himself in Harryman’s “folly,” offer’d up at 80 Langton Street in 1981.) The pairing of Memory / Acker and History / Thomas seems to descend out of Harryman’s attendance at “a reading by Memory and History at the Ear Inn on November 11, 1978, twenty years, eleven months and sixteen days before [Memory’s] death and twenty-seven years, four months and seven days before History’s.” Two dead too young. Reading report:
History read first from two translations of the Vietnamese poet Tran Te Xuong (1870-1907) as well as many excellent poems of his own, including “The Fine Clothes of Year Before Last.” Memory, who did not write original text, pilfered Propertius or her finale, a ghoulish dirgelike elegy marked with “Cynthia’s” fury.
And thirty-odd years down the road, “Carla” offers “an abbreviated duet,” a mash-up of the two:
Only fit now There are such things as ghosts
Death does not all things end
For the garden,
      the carwash,
The ritual of stinking for four days and pale
      yellow from vanquished even shades
Escape their graves
To solve a problem
That stinks to you to high heaven,
And just in general stinks
You see Jane was seen to lean over bed
Sweating and sleeping
though near the roar of just-buried Broadway
In these shabby clothes
Somewhere along a continuum between harmlessly inert and rather asinine. It is, one supposes, a miniature of the essay “to hand”—Harryman’s “The Essay as Noise”—an essay whose subheadings (““does not permit its domains to be prescribed,” “wants to blow open what cannot be absorbed in narrations,” “reflects a childlike freedom,” “forces the form to make unlimited efforts,” “is not translatable into already existing forms,” &c.) “are derived from Theodor Adorno’s “The Essay as Form” in Notes to Literature.” For, succeeding the “duet” Harryman writes: “Carla was thinking about the essay as form, about the compositional space in which things or friends were joined, where play took form, then, with a quick flare of mental action, devoured portions of a city or the last few decades.” The shrug of inconsequentiality. It’s precisely here the essay fails: how hit a balance between that “quick flare,” the “nontotalizing” dismissal of what’s “joined”—presumably a useful shapeliness, a form—and mere perseverant doodling, a thing whose “logic confines it to wandering”? Harryman (while admitting that “Sense might be a small pleasure one takes from an encounter with opacity”):
These sentences make sense in any order. . . . Do they make the same sense in any order, or just some kind of sense in any order?

“. . . the material underpinnings of form showing the promise of rearrangement . . .”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Margaret Randall’s El Corno Emplumado


The new batch of Lost & Found pamphlets (“primary documents . . . uncovered in archival research” of “extra-poetic work—correspondence, journals, critical prose, and transcript of talks—of New American Poets, their precursors and followers”) is out, deliver’d in a set of six impeccably design’d and print’d volumes (Series II) by the Poetics Document Initiative at the City University of New York. Ammiel Alcalay, General Editor. Likely a magnificent pedagogical tool (the research and textual editing is done by students in English, along with visiting scholars), undoubtedly a bonanza for readers and writers. The second series: the Margaret Randall-edit’d Selections from El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, 1962-1964; Diane Di Prima’s The Mysteries of Vision: Some Notes on H. D., edit’d by Ana Božičević; Diane Di Prima’s R. D.’s H. D., edit’d by Ammiel Alcalay; Muriel Rukeyser’s “Barcelona, 1936” & Selections from the Spanish Civil War Archive, edit’d by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein; the two-volume Jack Spicer’s Beowulf, edit’d by David Hadbawnik and Sean Reynolds; and Robert Duncan’s Charles Olson Memorial Lecture, edit’d by Ammiel Alcalay, Meira Levinson, Bradley Lubin, Megan Paslawski, Kyle Waugh and Rachael Wilson.

Margaret Randall’s put together a small retrospect of three years—twelve issues—of El Corno Emplumado, the internationalist quarterly she edit’d with Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón in Mexico City between 1962 and 1969. She writes: “The journal’s name combined the jazz horn of the north and the bright feathers of Mesoamerica’s Quetzalcoatl, signifying a mix of cultures from two hemispheres, although during its life El Corno—as it came to be known—also published work from Finland, India, Spain, and many other parts of the world.” And, aiming toward the ecumenical, the eclectic:
We prided ourselves in showcasing work by communist guerrillas, Catholic priests, indigenous poets, consecrated masters and those publishing for the first time, irrespective of whatever style or group was fashionable. Quality was our criteria. We adjusted the page to the requirements of the word rather than the other way around. We printed as much translation as possible, making such poets as Allen Ginsberg available for the first time in Spanish and Ernesto Cardenal in English. Each year’s final issue was a book by a single author, in completely bi-lingual facing-page format. We also featured important anthologies from a single country or, occasionally, a single poetic movement.
(Some notable issues: El Corno #14, with an Anselm Hollo-edit’d anthology of new Finnish poetry; El Corno #23, “a comprehensive anthology of new Cuban writing that, because of the U. S. blockage, had previously been unavailable to readers in other parts of the world”; and El Corno #10, including “what we then called primitive poetry—from the Comanche, Paiute, Tlingit, Arapaho, Easter Island, Ojibway, Eskimo, Bailas, Pigmy, Nahua, Sioux, Pima, Somali, Quechua, Cuna, Maya, Guarao, and Otomi traditions” and “an anthology of the new Concrete Poetry of Brazil.”) Randall and Mondragón included artwork, too, in El Corno Emplumado. Drawings by Leonora Carrington, Elaine de Kooning, Juan Soriano, Carlos Coffeen Serpas, and writing by Milton Resnick appear’d El Corno #1.

Randall’s retrospect begins with a piece by Philip Lamantia (she and Mondragón’d met in 1961 at Lamantia’s place in the Zona Rosa of Mexico City):
            . . . holding my breath for two minutes
deep obeisance—praying almost all the time in this halfmoon
    no / season night
going to get Higher
                    looking at ancient TV movies
digging this sensitive youth 66 days in Huntsville Prison
“hell on earth”     “git that cotton,
where you can be shot dead by trusty guards
    taking ten yrs off their life sentences
for every con they “git”
                        in now total recall of jails pools
            Indian ceremonials looking at long lost light of
Antique Greece
            Smelling out Coptic sounds— . . .
A chunk pull’d out, though likely a good index of two prevalent notes in El Corno: surrealism and social justice. Randall quotes some lines out of a Robert Kelly letter in #1 and says: “our Letters came to be one of the journal’s most eagerly awaited sections.” And proceeds—amongst poems by Creeley, Blackburn, Wakoski, Carol Bergé, Paz, Rothenberg, Montale, Neruda, Thomas Merton, Dorn, Eshleman’s Vallejo, &c.—to quote a couple of terrific excerpts. One, out of Kyoto, Gary Snyder, c. 1962, undeniably prescient:
America five hundred years ago was clouds of birds, miles of bison, endless forests and grass and clear water. Today it is the tired ground of the world’s dominant culture . . . Industrial-urban society is not “evil” but there is no progress either. As poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. A gas turbine or an electric motor is a finely-crafted flint knife in the hand. It is useful and full of wonder, but it is not our whole life (. . .)
And (continuing the plus ça change . . . medley), Theodore Enslin, writing in 1963, out of an (already) “longtime retreat in the Maine woods”:
One other thing that bugs me there [New York City] is this slavish admiration of experiment qua experiment, I have no objection to any of it and some of it is highly stimulating and rewarding. But it can’t end there, it’s a hangover from the teens and twenties when experiment was necessary, if anything more was to happen . . . We need some summations—good ones. But my real objection is to the almost religious mystique that attaches to anything that is ‘experimental.’ Cage is a prime offender, at least his cohorts make him that. And then this creeping over into other things—social consciousness and all that. Cid says, ‘Damned if all this non-art doesn’t get pretty arty,’ and I agree wholeheartedly (. . .)
And, something by the wholly strange Raquel Jodorowsky (“born in Chile of Russian parents but considers herself Peruvian”):
I was four thousand feet high . . . In the heart of stone of the Andes. The open mouth of the earth surprised me with its deep color. Like one of her fruits, the coffee bean. There all colors acquire qualities strange to their natures. Some fruits are a timid red, other a violent crimson. The reticent green, the bountiful green of certain trees; the robber’s blue, honorable blue, virtues and defects almost human, scale of values also applicable to the animals with whom these Andes men live without appreciable difference. A difficult earth, only a bit of earth stretched over the sleeping eye of a volcano . . .
Took, too, by an early rendering by Clayton Eshleman of one of César Vallejo’s ever-pertinent “Poemas Humanos”:

A man passes with a loaf of bread on his shoulder
So I’m going to write after that about my double?

Another seats himself, scratches, picks a louse out of his armpit, kills it
With man valor to speak of psychoanalysis?

Another has climbed into my chest with a stick in his hand
Speak then about Socrates to the doctor?

A cripple passes giving his arm to a child
Like I am going to read André Breton?

Another trembles with cold, coughs, spits blood
Will it ever be possible to evoke the profound I?

Another looks in the mud for bones, rinds
How can I write after that about the Infinite?

A bricklayer falls from a roof, dies and doesn’t eat his lunch
Innovate then the trope, the metaphor?

A storekeeper steals a gram in weight from a customer
Talk after that about the fourth dimension?

A banker falsifies his balance
With what expression to weep in the theatre?

An outcast sleeps with his feet to his back
Talk after that to anyone about Picasso?

Somebody walks sobbing to a burial
So I’m going to enter the Academy?

Somebody cleans a rifle in their kitchen
With what courage can I speak of the beyond?

Someone passes counting on his fingers.
How can I speak of the not-I without a cry?
And, out of Eshleman’s magisterial César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry (University of California Press, 2007), the same piece revised:
      A man walks by with a baguette on his shoulder
Am I going to write, after that, about my double?

      Another sits, scratches, extracts a louse from his armpit, kills it
How dare one speak about psychoanalysis?

      Another has entered my chest with a stick in hand
To talk then about Socrates with the doctor?

      A cripple passes by holding a child’s hand
After that I’m going to read André Breton?

      Another trembles from cold, coughs, spits blood
Will it ever be possible to allude to the deep Self?

      Another searches in the muck for bones, rinds
How to write, after that, about the infinite?

      A bricklayer falls from a roof, dies and no longer eats lunch
To innovate, then, the trope, the metaphor?

      A merchant cheats a customer out of a gram
To speak, after that, about the fourth dimension?

      A banker falsifies his balance sheet
With what face to cry in the theater?

      An outcast sleeps with his foot behind his back
To speak, after that, to anyone about Picasso?

      Someone goes to a burial sobbing
How then become a member of the Academy?

      Someone cleans a rifle in his kitchen
How dare one speak about the beyond?

      Someone passes by counting with his fingers
How speak of the non-self without screaming?
A relevancy pour tous et toutes.

El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn #1

Margaret Randall

Monday, March 21, 2011

“Source and Heist” (Literary History)

Tangle and Grid

The gritty sounds of a hail-studded cold rain, something to finish off a foul Sunday with. Dull chores, with intervening grimaces and fits of sleep. Troubled by the barbaric state’s continual feints, the imperium’s moronic plunge toward another war. Lawrence Durrell, in Corfu, where “the British fleet is in: two huge grey monsters,” writing to Henry Miller in Paris, circa 1938:
War is really a fine art, I feel, when you think of this flawlessness of ingenuity spent on steel to twist and rivet and smooth it. Guns like great pricks, sliding in and out and coiling on themselves. And little men like lice running about in groups by arithmetic. It’s wonderful. One side of us responds to the aggregates: when you see these flawless dummies you feel it. No responsibility. The idiots dream of an ant world where giant pricks slide in and out and vomit steel semen, and a regiment could be licked off the walls of this tower and leave not even a blob of pus behind.
Pus-less war, the hands-off barrage, the drone, the video “screen.” One continues, nevertheless (Pound to Amy Lowell: “Auw shucks! dearie, aint you the hell-roarer, aint you the kuss.”) With exactly that kind of faux-obligatory “push.” Continues reading Helen Carr’s terrific book, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists, wherein poor Pound’s made out to be something of a reluctant tagalong to F. S. Flint’s and T. E. Hulme’s push toward modernism. Carr quotes some lines out of Hulme’s translation of Henri Bergson’s 1903 piece, “An Introduction to Metaphysics”—
Now the image has at least this advantage, that it keeps us in the concrete. No image can replace the intuition of duration, but many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.
—whilst noting, too, that, according to Bergson, “Language . . . breaks up into crude segments the fluidity of experience, the stream of time: it is a pragmatic tool that makes human action possible, yet the intellectual knowledge it yields is always a distortion and simplification. Language and the intellect prevent one from making contact with the ceaseless flux of being, which we can only know through intuition.” Bergson pointedly requires a radical unlikeness:
By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, we shall prevent any one of them from usurping the place of the intuition it is intended to call up, since it would then be driven away at once by its rivals. By providing that, in spite of their differences of aspect, they all require from the mind the same kind of attention, and in some sort the same degree of tension, we shall gradually accustom consciousness to a particular and clearly-defined disposition—that precisely which it must adopt in order to appear to itself as it really is, without any veil. But, then, consciousness must at least consent to make the effort. For it will have been shown nothing: it will simply have been placed in the attitude it must take up in order to make the desired effort, and so come by itself to the intuition.
(Shades of Silliman’s “New Sentence”: “The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, the sentence level or below.”) Hulme’s version (out of the 1908 “Lecture on Modern Poetry”)—what Patrick McGuinness, in the Introduction to Hulme’s 1998 Selected Writings (Carcanet, 1998) calls “propelled intuition”:
Say the poet is moved by a certain landscape, he selects from that certain images which, put into juxta¬position in separate lines, serve to suggest and to evoke the state he feels. To this piling-up and juxtaposition of distinct images in different lines, one can find a fanciful analogy in music. A great revolution in music when, for the melody that is one-dimensional music, was sub¬stituted harmony which moves in two. Two visual images form what one may call a visual chord. They unite to suggest an image which is different to both.
Hulme points repeatedly to the energy released between images—“fire struck between stones” he calls it—a way of thwarting the mind’s habitual “gliding through an abstract process.” Silliman (“Tjanting”): “I want you to look at the hinges.” And, out of the introduction to In the American Tree:
It might have been more properly termed the new space, insofar as it is in that gap between sentences—a location in the field of writing for which we still lack a decent term—that the new sentence’s functionality appears. But as this device turns the reader’s attention to the immanence of the sentence at hand, whatever it might be, I settled on that broader category for my noun.
“The twenty-seventh letter.” Hardly new. Isn’t that “new space” found exactly at “the precise point” where Bergson intend’d to “direct consciousness”? There “where there is a certain intuition to be seized”? At the point that Pound absorbs Hulme’s Bergson (and Flint’s Paul-Louis Couchoud * among other things, including Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry), he’s able to put together the “ideogrammic method” that Silliman’s New Sentence work so draws off. One fly in the ointment: Pound’s remark in a letter home regarding “prose”: “Of course your ideas on prose are quite erroneous. . . . I should never think of prose as anything but a stop-gap, a means of procuring food exactly on the same plane with market-gardening. If anything is not sufficiently interesting to be put in poetry and sufficiently important to make the poetical worth while it is hardly worth saying at all.”
* According to Carr, Flint found a series of papers by Couchoud, a “doctor, poet and philosopher” in a French journal c. 1908. Couchoud’d “seen the delicate minimalism of Japanese poetry as the fulfilment of the ideas of l’orphisme mallarméen, the evocative, suggestive lyric style tha t Mallarmé thought hasd been lost to the wEst since Homer, and the he sought to recreate.” Carr quotes Flint (who’s writing a review in “The New Age”) quoting (initially) Couchoud:
‘to them in poetry as in painting, the half-said thing is dearest’—the suggestion not the complete picture (one thinks of Stéphane Mallarmé). A word will awaken in them, therefore, a whole warp and weft of associations. Take this haikai, typical of a common form of Japanese poetry:—
Alone in a room
A peony.
A fallen petal
Flies back to its branch:
Ah! a butterfly!
. . . To the poet who can catch and render, like these
Japanese, the brief fragments of his soul’s music, the future lies open. He must have the spiritual insight of the Maeterlinck of the Trésor des Humbles, and he must write, I think, like these Japanese, in snatches of song. The day of the lengthy poem is over—at least, for this troubled age . . .
(Carr elides some of that.) Couchoud’d written, in part:
Du poème japonais surtout le discursif, l’explicatif sont extirpés. La bizarre fleur se détache unique sur la neige. Le bouquet est interdit. La poème prend à sa source la sensation lyrique jaillissante, instantanée, avant que le mouvement de la pensée ou de la passion l’ait orientée et utilisée . . . Les mots sont l’obstacle. La chaîne des mots introduit un ordre élémentaire qui est déjà un artifice.
In Carr’s translation:
Above all, Japanese poetry avoids wordiness and explanation. A single flower lies by itself on the snow. Bouquets are forbidden. The poem springs from an instantaneous lyric impulse, that wells up before thinking or passion have directed or made use of it . . . Words are the obstacle. The chain of words introduces an elementary order that is already artificial.

T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pound’s Rimbaud

Tree and Fence

Helen Carr, in The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists, quoting Ezra Pound’s 1916 Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir:
In the ‘search for oneself,’ in the search for ‘sincere self-expresssion,’ one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says ‘I am’ this, that, or the other, and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.

I began this search for the real in a book called Personae, casting off, as it were, complete masks of the self in each poem.
And, out of Pound’s 1908 poem call’d “Histrion” (beginning, “No man hath dared to write this thing as yet, / And yet I know, how that the souls of all men great / At times pass through us . . .”), the lines:
’Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
Translucent, molten gold, that is the ‘I’
And into this some form projects itself . . .
Hoofing one off, clumsy in spats, to see what Pound’d ever writ about Rimbaud. Some possibly blotto concept forming in the brainbox of some boffo “essential masquerie” (oxymoronick’d) “in the air” circa the late dribbling-off of the nineteenth century. (See Pater’s note, opening the concluding pages of The Renaissance: “To regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions has more and more become the tendency of modern thought.” And: “This at least of flamelike our life has, that it is but the concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their ways.”) Pound writes of Rimbaud (“a difficult case”) in late 1913 in a series of pieces for The New Age call’d “The Approach to Paris.” After some unnecessarily complicated talk of “brevity” (a thing “French writers persistently refuse to acquire”—although they “may produce an occasional writer who does not write too much,” Rimbaud being both “the stock example” and “not really an exception”—“He simply quit writing”), Pound directs attention to a kind of haphazardry in Rimbaud’s work: “comparable to the beautiful forms made by chance in some process like the oxidisation of silver crystals than to figures carved by an artist.” Too, he points to “chance hints of things that are only reacquired with great labour.” Pound’s offhand dismissal of any innovatory formal tendency in Rimbaud: “As for prose-poetry, I suppose no one will deny that it is at least as old as Ossian.” (Carr somewhere notes another example—in 1915—of Pound’s referring to Ossian “without betraying any indication that he was aware the work was generally consider a fake,” being pastiche-work of the eighteenth century Scottish poet James Macpherson.) Rimbaud is, for Pound, both “bitten with the pox of rhetoric,” and unable “scarcely ever [to] let out a noun unchaperoned.”

Pound’s reprise of Rimbaud in The Little Review piece call’d “A Study of French Poets” (1918) makes an argument for a Rimbaud plus sérieux—and plus important (“The actual writing of poetry has advanced little or not at all since Rimbaud” *), and for poems with a kind of surety: “thick suave color, firm, even” and “such firmness of coloring and such certitude.” Admitting that “Comparisons across an art are always vague and inexact, and there are no real parallels,” Pound proceeds to make Rimbaud a word-wielding Cézanne: “Rimbaud does not endanger his intensity by a chuckle. He is serious as Cézanne is serious.” Pound, in 1920, responding to Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations:
Inclined to think it best you have done. Don’t know that it is more incoherent than Rimbaud’s Saison en Enfer; nor yet that it could be improved by being more intelligible. Still, am inclined to think it is probably most effective where most comprehensible.
And, a day later (12 September 1920), whilst admitting it of “No importance”—it “proves only that populous French are insular, like to think their country is noticed, etc.”:
But what the French real reader would say to your Improvisations is
      Voui, ç(h)a j(h)ai déjà (f)vu ç(h)a ç(h)a c’est de R(h)imb(h)aud!!
(In the slurry drawl of the weltschmerz’d up cosmopolite: “Yeah, that’s stuff I’ve seen before, that’s just Rimbaud!”)

All rather stranding high up against the drain’d lake bed of Pound’s contrary if one wonders about the approach of “Je est un autre” into the Poundian “strain.” Did Pater read Rimbaud? What’s the point de repère for that Rimbaud remark? (I mean beyond the 13 May 1871 letter to Georges Izambard.) Did Pound read the “lettre du voyant”? Who plucks it up and makes it the strident squeaky hinge of a change of percept? That “I” do not know.
* Repeat’d in a 1928 letter to René Taupin: “Que depuis Rimbaud, aucun poète en France n’a inventé rien de fondamental. Y avait des modifications intéressantes, des presque-inventions, des applications.” Too, Pound maintains that (roughly) “what Rimbaud attain’d by intuition (genius) in certain poems, erect’d in conscious aesthetic (?? maybe)—I don’t want to claim credit unjustly—but for all I know. I made of that a more or less systematic aesthetic—and I could quote some poems of R. as examples. (But, also, some poems of Catullus.)” [“Ce que Rimbaud atteint par intuition (génie) dans certains poèmes, érigé en esthétique conscient (?? peut-être)—je ne veux pas prendre une gloire injuste—mais pour tant que je sais. J’en ai fait une esthétique plus ou moins systématique—et j’ai pu citer certains poèmes de R. comme exemple. (Mais aussi certains poèmes de Catulle.)”]

Ezra Pound, 1885–1972

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Williams’s Jogleor

Red Barn

Mean sloop of morning, nothing in the cargo hold. Thinking, by roundabout means, of Benjamin Saltman’s Deck (Ithaca House, 1979), with its simplicity of form (“The deck was shuffled. The poems follow the sequence of the cards.”), its narrative hints like a crumb-trail—here’s “Four of Clubs”—
So ends part the first wherein Lady Isobel
practiced being ravished / not forced.

Something she could wait for handsomely and not miss
if it went past completely. Cultivating
held breath and lines slowly gathered like the stems
of her lips about her lips. Living with surprise
she could devote herself also to knowledge of soul
travel /
football/ transfiguration / rock / and the amelioration
of hairstyles. So when the future swung its hammer
down upon her anyway, she rushed to accept it
screaming “Oh, no!” Her cry fit well the day’s event.
—its affable epigraphy (“I’ve never torn up a deck of cards in my life, and I don’t believe in squeaking if you lose. —Amarillo Slim”). It’s whilst typesetting Deck that I initially encounter’d the thirteenth century love story of Aucassin and Nicolette (“‘But I think of little farms’ said Aucassin at last / ‘eroding, and corrupt colors distracting the unemployed / from their pleasure . . .’”) so that, reading, out of Helen Carr’s Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists, of Dr. Williams’s line (Autobiography), “Together with Hilda Doolittle (‘H. D.’) I discovered in those days, the wonders of Aucassin and Nicolette, the prose and the verse alternating,” combined with Carr’s remark that “What . . . seized Williams’ interest, significantly enough, was not the story’s romance but its experimental form, the way it blurred the categories of poetry and prose as he was to do so much himself,” I find myself with something of a full house. There’s poet Andrew Lang’s 1887 translation (Carr: “something of a cult book of the period, having been popularized by Pater’s enthusiastic endorsement in The Renaissance, where he praised the story as a folk version of Provençal love poetry, ‘reaching, by lightness of form and comparative homeliness of interest, an audience which the concentrated passion of those higher lyrics left untouched.’”) Lang says of the “peculiar” form of Aucassin and Nicolette:
We have nothing else from the twelfth or thirteenth century in the alternate prose and verse of the cante-fable . . . We have fabliaux in verse, and prose Arthurian romances. We have Chansons de Geste, heroic poems like “Roland,” unrhymed assonant laisses, but we have not the alternations of prose with laisses in seven-syllabled lines. It cannot be certainly known whether the form of “Aucassin and Nicolete” was a familiar form—used by many jogleors, or wandering minstrels and story-tellers such as Nicolete, in the tale, feigned herself to be,—or whether this is a solitary experiment by “the old captive” its author . . .
Pater points to the “roughness” (and newness) of the form:
The writer himself calls the piece a cantefable, a tale told in prose, but with its incidents and sentiment helped forward by songs, inserted at irregular intervals. In the junctions of the story itself there are signs of roughness and want of skill, which make one suspect that the prose was only put together to connect a series of songs—a series of songs so moving and attractive that people wished to heighten and dignify their effect by a regular framework or setting. Yet the songs themselves are of the simplest kind, not rhymed even, but only imperfectly assonant, stanzas of twenty or thirty lines apiece, all ending with a similar vowel sound. And here, as elsewhere in that early poetry, much of the interest lies in the spectacle of the formation of a new artistic sense. A new music is arising, the music of rhymed poetry, and in the songs of Aucassin and Nicolette, which seem always on the point of passing into true rhyme, but which halt somehow, and can never quite take flight, you see people just growing aware of the elements of a new music in their possession, and anticipating how pleasant such music might become.
Carr: “William may not have know what Pater said about its form, though H. D. and Pound undoubtedly did, but intriguingly in Pater’s interpretation Aucassin and Nicolette uncannily echoes the tentaibe move toward new possibilities inpoetry that the three young poes we making.” (Pound—he, too, attract’d by the form—’d writ in The Spirit of Romance (1910) that the story “owes its immortal youth purely to the grace of its telling,” putting it pointedly “in antithesis” to “the Tristan and Ysolt legend”—“which owes its beauty to its theme.”) One wonders, looking hard into Williams’s Spring and All (1923), with its welter of prose and poetry, reading lines like “the imagination, drunk with prohibitions, has destroyed and recreated everything afresh in the likeness of that which it was” and reference to “that process of miraculous verisimilitude, that great copying which evolution has followed, repeating move for move every move that it made in the past” (though Williams proclaims its “end”: “THE WORLD IS NEW”), if there isn’t a nod toward the thirteenth century jogleor (out of the Latin joculātor joker, equivalent to joculā () to joke + -tor), the viel caitif whose approach to the love of Aucassin and Nicolette is semi-serious, burlesque’d, mock’d a little. Like Williams’s own (“It has been always a search for ‘the beautiful illusion.’ Very well. I am not in search of ‘the beautiful illusion.’”) Or like Saltman’s (see the epigraph: “‘To think,’ said Mr. Oakhurst, as he rose from a ten minutes’ sitting with a gain of five thousand dollars,—‘to think there’s folks as believes that keerds is a waste of time.’ —Bret Harte”). (One odd find: Williams’s friend Charles Demuth’s 1921 painting call’d “Aucassin and Nicolette.”)

Charles Demuth, “Aucassin and Nicolette,” 1921

Charles Demuth, 1883-1935

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Walter Pater vs. Fukushima Daiichi

Snow and Debris

Shooting through town in the still hard-edged night, the bicycle light’s yellow beam cock-eyed and wavering, a sort of diminuendo of verve in line with the seemingly intractable ongoingness of catastrophes partout. One recalls Bogart’s quip in Casablanca: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Tempt’d to cease all movement, to mug and muff catatonic: to sit one out. A cultural moment of refusal and sobriety. Think of Yeats’s line in the sharply-word’d “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 regarding the “revolt against Victorianism”—“a revolt against irrelevant descriptions of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness of In Memoriam—‘When he should have been broken-hearted,’ said Verlaine, ‘he had many reminiscences’—the political eloquence of Swinburne, the psychological curiosity of Browning, and the poetical diction of everybody.” Adds: “Poets said to one another over their black coffee . . . ‘We must purify poetry of all that is not poetry.’” And:
Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten.
Point is, isn’t a mighty shift inevitable? Some continual accountancy of unleash’d verbiages here and there due its comeuppance? Stir’d by Mark Scroggins’s recent reminder to chase down a copy of Helen Carr’s formidable and lively book, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and the Imagists (Jonathan Cape, 2009). How read Walter Pater radically process-orient’d-in-the-flux nudge against the newspaper reports of doings at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant? Carr, talking of Pater’s “radical apostasy from Victorian values,” writes:
Pater’s is a post-Christian doctrine. In a world without a divine plan, without recompense in another existence, all we have is the brief span of human life; as one of his most famous passages puts it:
Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only are given to us of a variegated, dramatic life . . . While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion . . . we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, some, the wisest, . . . in art and song . . . For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
Or is it simply predictable and canny that Pater’s remarks—out of the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry—ought to gut-punch one with a kind of vacillatory relevance today? (Vacillatory: carpe diem’s just made for crises, isn’t it? That is, a crisis is what bumps one out of the habitual tilt. Pater: “. . . our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world . . .”) One chunk of what Carr’s quoting elides talks of death’s ever-salient taint and inevitable smiting:
One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows no more.
Unshakeable, though, is my sense that there’s a kind of undispell’d and fully requited leisure required for the approach. If, as Pater puts it, translating Novalis’s Philosophiren ist dephlegmatisiren vivificiren, “The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation,” one’d best not be beset by seemingly constant, and rampant, failures. Against that, one turns, not to the “hard, gem-like flame” of a moment’s noticing select’d out of the uproarious flux—but to bodily intervention, aid, and succor.

Walter Pater, 1839-1894

Monday, March 14, 2011

“Maudlin, yawning, uncertain . . .”


Fetch’d the bicycle out of the gritty drubbings of the snowbank, now gone, it’d lean’d against all winter, and rode it in, in the skunk-scent’d “morn.” Stuck in the big-shoulder’d city all weekend, back home for midnight’s sour reproach, a beer and a few maudlin Audenisms prised off the page. (Everywhere now one sees Audenesqueries ready for Ashbery’s plucking—who’d begin a sestina call’d “Have a Good Time” with “‘We have brought you,’ they said, ‘a map of the country; / Here is the line that runs to the vats, / This patch of green on the left is the wood, / We’ve pencilled an arrow to point out the bay . . .”?) So that—with the disorientating clock-change—one succumbs to pawing at finicky relativisms, forever detailing only how serendipity, that cataclysm, refuses to yield its runty nug “up” out of the oceanic reams of page-turning (Dickinson full leveling drone is apt here: “Like Trains of Cars on Tracks of Plush / I hear the level Bee . . .” or Faulkner’s line in “The Bear” about how “the engine’s exhaust was already slatting in mounting tempo against the unechoing wilderness, the crashing of draw-bars once more travelling backward along the train, the caboose picking up speed . . .”) Something there is that frets against mere conjurers today: the world too plat’d into its zones of misery and the seemingly temporally redeem’d. (Think of Stephen Spender, in 1935, quoting Yeats with approval: “We can no longer permit life to be shaped by a personified ideal, we must serve with all our faculties some actual thing.” And adding: “The ‘actual thing’ is the true moral or widely political subject that must be realized by contemporary literature, if that literature is itself to be moral and serious.”) Though, wary of any ideology, one unpits—recall that decorticate is defined not by the ripping out of the heart, but by the stripping off of a disguise—the lousy demagogue with Auden’s “I saw the brain-track perfected, laid for conveying / The fatal error, / Sending the body to islands or after its father, / Cold with a razor . . .” A leaner train, merciless with certainty. “Certain”: how it is liable to convey a select’d particular, a choice against a sense of the unerring, the sure, the restrict’d and fix’d (“Knowledge no need to us whose wrists enjoy the chafing leash”), that narrowing danger of the “moral and serious” strain. In Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World, he records Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s definition of a donkey as “A horse translated into Dutch.” Or, fittingly for today, two versions of the sonnet “Brussels in Winter.” One out of the 1945 Collected Poetry:
Wandering the cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains silent in the frost,
The city still escapes you; it has lost
The qualities that say “I am a Thing.”

Only the homeless and the really humbled
Seem to be sure exactly where they are,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like the Opera.

Ridges of rich apartments rise tonight
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn the stranger right
To warm the heartless city in his arms.
Versus the one out of Another Time (1940):
Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
Its formula escapes you; it has lost
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House.

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.
An industrious unslumbering man’d assess the various changes and “unpack” (is it here one finds the fons et origo of that term? the way it’s annoyingly become dud-workingman’s vocab for the roll’d-up sleeves variety of critic?) that drover’s van of meanings like a man, phrasal, certain, and adept, though I am not that man . . .

W. H. Auden, 1907-1973