Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cold Sun

Clarence John Laughlin, “The Mirror of Nothingness,” 1957

Oddly interrupted week, its tethers and commandments. The cold sun, custard-colored, drills its way into the room only to find it empty. (“Dear Professor James, I am sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” Gertrude Stein, naturally.) Or, in a demeanor of glut and “numerosity,” there’s the other James, out of The American Scene:
It is more than a comfort to him, truly, in all the conditions, this accepted vision of the too-defiant scale of numerosity and quantity—the effect of which is so to multiply the possibilities, so to open, by the million, contingent doors and windows: he rests in it at last as an absolute luxury, converting it even into a substitute, into the constant substitute, for many luxuries that are absent. He doesn’t know, he can’t say, before the facts, and he doesn’t even want to know or to say; the facts themselves loom, before the understanding, in too large a mass for a mere mouthful: it is as if the syllables were too numerous to make a legible word. The illegible word, accordingly, the great inscrutable answer to questions, hangs in the vast American sky, to his imagination, as something fantastic and abracadabrant, belonging to no known language, and it is under this convenient ensign that he travels and considers and contemplates; and to the best of his ability, enjoys. The interesting point, in the connection, is moreover that this particular effect of the scale of things is the only effect that, throughout the land, is not directly adverse to joy.

Clarence John Laughlin, “The Head in the Wall,” 1945
(“I feel convinced that whole new worlds lie about us, sheathed in what we call the ‘commonplaceness’ of reality.”)

Clarence John Laughlin, “The Masks Grow to Us,” 1947
(Jonathan Williams: “He is the Master of Ignored Ghastliness, of the Eldritch, the Psychopompous, the Metamorphic, the Mephitic, the Fearsome, and now and then of Trumpery and the Fulsome.”)

Monday, February 27, 2012


Henri Rousseau, “Rendezvous in the Forest,” 1889

You’d think, after a couple of days unharrowed (or un-discharged) by writing, a glut would out, some gleaming undulant pile of percepts and particulars, a cat-ejected tapeworm on the patio. No. Ardency cooled by remittance. Testimony tweaked by partiality. Some splendid bouts of reading, that sweat-equity, against an excess of hardy scriptural chores . . .

The indomitable Marianne Moore, in “The Ways Our Poets Have Taken in Fifteen Years Since the War,” a review of The New American Poetry: 1945-1960:
In his “Statement on Poetics,” Mr. Olson advocates open form or “composition by field,” projective or field composition being offered as an improvement on inherited or “non-projective” form. Inherited non-projective form can be projective, I would say, and projective form may be weedy and colorless like suckers from an un-sunned tuber. Kenneth Burke’s observation in Counter-Statement, it seems to me, applies both to the “field” and to the “library”: “a work may be said to have form in so far as one part leads a reader to anticipate another part and be gratified by the result.” Elsewhere, “Great artists feel as opportunity what others feel as a menace. This ability does not, I believe, derive from exceptional strength; it probably arises purely from professional interest the artist may take in his difficulties.” As a composer’s directions influence the performer’s interpretation, punctuation aids precision, and precision is the glory of the craftsman; syntax being equivalent to the staff in music, without which interpretation would sure overtax the performer. (Intentional ambiguity and inadvertent ambiguity, need it be said, are not the same, the perfect analogy for intentional ambiguity being Rousseau’s “Rendezvous in the Forest,” in which the illusion is the more precise by the fact that the adjoining horses—the dapple and the black—are so merged as to be almost indistinguishable.)
Precision and restraint against the seemingly resent-fueled huffing and puffing of Olson (see, in a letter to Creeley dated 5 May 1952, mid-complaint about “the lie in Stevens”—“however much the pleasure in his the play of words, is his language, that, it is without rhythm because it is without passion which is person (not personae, that further device against mass)”—how Olson veers off into helpless innuendo and taunt—
                   It gets so goddamned neat instead of a matter of insight by way of the sounds as well as the petit point
                                                                        (even this cult of M. Moore, this Brooklyn sappho they all sit on their hands over: that spinner, their last penelope, that the brightness is lighting a la La Fountain . . .
Creeley’s reply—unknowingly designed to illustrate Moore’s fastidiously derisive remark made later in the review regarding expletive as “earmark of incompetence”: “Slater once wrote me how this same Sappho of Brooklyn used to nag at Hart Cane, on all the things he sent to the Dial, etc., etc. Isn’t this word too strong, isn’t that adjective too strange, isn’t this line weak, isn’t that not what you mean, isn’t—fuck it. Fuck it UTTERLY.” Boys, boys . . .)

Randall Jarrell (in “Her Shield”), even whilst applauding Moore’s restraint, would seem to insert doubt in the very catalogue of what’s lacking:
Her restraint, her lack—her wonderful lack—of arbitrary intensity or violence, of sweep and overwhelmingness and size, of cant, of sociological significance, and so on, made her unattractive both to some of the conservative readers of our age and to some of the advanced ones. Miss Moore was for a longtime (in her own phrase about something else) “Like Henry James ‘damned by the public for decorum,’ / not decorum but restraint.”
That coming after Jarrell’s warm-up list of the poems’ “almost ostentatious lack of transitions and explanations, the absence of romance and rhetoric, of acceptedly Poetic airs and properties . . .”

Is it Moore’s canny projecting of Olson’s declaredly rumbustious and world-beating “composition by field” (Olson: “If the beginning and the end is breath, voice in its largest sense, then the material of verse shifts. It has to. It starts with the composer. The dimension of his line itself changes, not to speak of the change in his conceiving, of the matter he will turn to, of the scale in which he imagines that matter’s use”) back into, too, the “library” that recalls Virginia Woolf’s rather sassy remark in Orlando: “Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.” A provocatory not unlike Moore’s own. Or there’s Orlando, exploring his lineage (“he would take a skeleton hand in his and bend the joints this way and that”) going into paroxysms of potentiality, only to abandon “the cardinal labour” for reading:
“Whose hand was it?” he went on to ask. “The right or the left? The hand of man or woman, of age or youth? Had it urged the war horse, or plied the needle? Had it plucked the rose, or grasped cold steel? Had it―” but here either his invention failed him or, what is more likely, provided him with so many instances of what a hand can do that he shrank, as his wont was, from the cardinal labour of composition, which is excision, and he put it with the other bones, thinking how there was a writer called Thomas Browne, a Doctor of Norwich, whose writing upon such subjects took his fancy amazingly.

Friday, February 24, 2012

“Its relation to a dozen others . . .”

Robert Duncan, “Self-Portrait,” 1939

From the absolution by a black-stoled Benedictine with aspergillum and censer (te supplices exoramus pro anima famuli tut Ezra) four gondoliers in their Sunday best brought the coffin through the Palladian doors of San Giorgio Maggiore where it had lain before the altar in a solemnity of Gregorian chant and Monteverdi and set it with tricky skill among heaps of flowers in a black gondola from the stern of which thirty-five fat coral roses rode in high solitary splendor as it moved across the laguna, nodding and dipping their red into the Adriatic.
Guy Davenport at the funeral of Ezra Pound. The “tricky skill” of the humor-buttressed high solemn mode: sign of enduring love. Yesterday a long roundabout at the wheel of the Vibe, through some “weather.” The usual zig-zag of reverie made flat by the need to attend to the road itself. A short hard sleep. Up to some inches of wet snow pulling at all the earth’s ascendants. A striped skunk dolphining through it, arch and dive, arch and dive. Rousing up the degree of vigilance during the six a.m. dog outing, “nervous in the snow.” Duncan “After Reading Barely and Widely”:
Poetry, that must touch the string
for music’s service
is of violence and obedience a delicate balancing.
Sexual, that délicatesse: avid restraint aiming to cousin with stretched-taut abandonment. (Davenport talks of Pound keeping an eye on “the sources of energy, guiding us to the neglected ones, guarding them from contamination.” The “strain” of contraries.) I recall Duncan’s talk of Virginia Woolf in The H.D. Book:
Somewhere, working on Mrs. Dalloway or on The Waves, Virginia Woolf had the sensation of digging out a space in which her characters had their existence. “Whenever I make a mark,” she says of working on The Waves, “I have to think of its relation to a dozen others.” These are the rudiments of a projective-feeling in writing, of composition by field. August 30th, 1923, she writes of Mrs. Dalloway in progress: “The Hours and my discovery: how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight in the present moment.” Monday, October 15th: “It took me a year’s groping to discover what I call my tunneling process, by which I tell the past by installments, as I have need of it . . . One feels about in a state of misery—indeed, I made up my mind one night to abandon the book—and then one touches the hidden spring.”
Tunneling into daylight. Think of Woolf’s short story called “Kew Gardens” (1919)—Woolf’s snail a harbinger of the ant-centaur of Pound’s Canto LXXXI (“Learn of the green world what can be thy place / In scaled invention or true artistry”):
. . . the snail . . . now appeared to be moving very slightly in its shell, and next began to labour over the crumbs of loose earth which broke away and rolled down as it passed over them. It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it, differing in this respect from the singular high-stepping angular green insect who attempted to cross in front of it, and waited for a second with its antennae trembling as if in deliberation, and then stepped off as rapidly and strangely in the opposite direction. Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture—all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal. Before he had decided whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it there came past the bed the feet of other human beings.
The audacity of Woolf’s p.o.v. (Akin, isn’t it, to that of Albert York in the uncannily unmediated “Three Red Tulips in a Landscape with Horse and Rider”? Looking at York’s painting directly triggered my recall of the Woolf story.)

Albert York, “Three Red Tulips in a Landscape with Horse and Rider,” 1982

A concentratio that can only mock the “irregular and aimless movement” of the human passersby (“Pull down thy vanity”). In one letter (2 July 1959) to Robin Blaser, Duncan recalls “Pound’s hope that we might practice concentratio versus the dogmatic ravings.” (Isn’t dogma a purely human pitfall: “< ancient Greek δογματ- , δόγμα that which seems to someone, opinion, belief, doctrine, decree . . .”?) Truth is, I love the post-absence roiling vacuity slowly vivifying the zero-groundedness of the snowy reaches, that striped skunk bounding up out of the gutter, sheer impropriety arriving without notice to make itself at home. Duncan again in the balance, domestic and wild:
Today the spirit jumps up; there’s too much to do! We spent part of the morning cleaning house, and I spent a couple of hours sorting glass preparatory to the new window for James. With my mind still thronging with impulses to work there—hence perhaps the sharpening of the eye to be questioned by friend rose. I want a flowering without representing flowers. Newly opening and upthrusting artichoke plants ask a question of design too. There are studies growths, and then, an oriental poppy in bloom amidst scattered Californias, urges an almost careless, well—an abandond beauty.
(Letter to Robin Blaser, dated 6 August 1958.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Duncan’s Stevens

Robert Duncan, 1919–1988

Robert Duncan (The H.D. Book) quoting Williams quoting Stevens: “‘One has to keep looking for poetry as Renoir looked for colors,’ Stevens writes to Williams after Al Que Quiere in 1920, ‘in old walls, wood-work and so on. Your place is
                            —among children
Leaping around a dead dog.’”
Part of Duncan’s insistence that Stevens remains “within the rational imagination” (as opposed to the Poundian “generative imagination” Duncan credits H. D., Williams, and Pound himself with, those who “saw literature as a text of the soul in its search for fulfillment in life and took the imagination as a primary instinctual authority.”) Stevens’s original letter unfound, one turns to Williams’s lengthy excerpting of it in Kora In Hell: Improvisations. It follows a somewhat confused argument Williams makes for “the inventive imagination” (Williams veers between “The attention has been held too rigid on the one plane instead of following a more flexible, jagged resort. It is to loosen the attention, my attention since I occupy part of the field, that I write these improvisations” and “. . . the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose”). Regarding Stevens’s letter, Williams reports: “It begins with a postscript in the upper left hand corner: ‘I think, after all, I should rather send this than not, although it is quarrelsomely full of my own ideas of discipline.’” The letter is dated only “April 9”:
My dear Williams:
.     .     .     .     .     .     .
      What strikes me most about the poems themselves is their casual character. . . . Personally I have a distaste for miscellany. It is one of the reasons I do not bother about a book myself. . . .
      . . . My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme necessity to convey it one has to stick to it; . . . Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view; and the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.
      (This sounds like Sir Roger de Coverley)
                                                                                                                                        A single manner or mood thoroughly matured and exploited is that fresh thing . . . etc.
      One has to keep looking for poetry as Renoir looked for colors in old walls, wood-work and so on.
      Your place is
                                              —among children
                  Leaping around a dead dog.
A book of that would feed the hungry . . .
      Well a book of poems is a damned serious affair.
I am only objecting that a book that contains your particular quality should contain anything else and suggesting that if the quality were carried to a communicable extreme, in intensity and volume, etc. . . . I see it all over the book, in your landscapes and portraits, but dissipated and obscured. Bouquets for brides and Spencerian compliments for poets . . . There are a very few men who have anything native in them or for whose work I’d give a Bolshevik ruble. . . . But I think your tantrums not half mad enough.
Odd argument: who’s madder, one singularly besieged by some scourge of a focus unremitting, or one ever-fidgety and enamored by a series of flounces? (Madder music: is that the history of poesy? One thinks of currently obvious attempts to outdo all other odds by sheer freak-reaching and eccentricity . . .) Somewhere in The H. D. Book Duncan opposes Williams’s (and Pound’s) modes of “the bold-face emphatic, the rant, the caricature of voice, the contentious mode” to Stevens’s (and Eliot’s) refusals of “such disturbances of mode” (“They preserve throughout a melodious poetic respectability, eminently sane in their restriction of poetic meaning to the bounds of the literary, of symbol and metaphor, but at the cost of avoiding facts and ideas that might disturb.”) Isn’t Stevens capable of a blurts of unearthly music and radical silliness (I think offhandedly of a phrase like “Castratos of moon-mash” in “Men Made Out of Words”)? What of the mounting hysteria in something like “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”?
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house . . .

It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.
Stevens’s “the process of adjustment is a world in flux” recalls Duncan’s own early response to H.D.’s “Fruit cannot drop / through this thick air . . .”:
I felt I must be, the world must be, something more various and full, having more of flux and experience than the immediate terms of achievement around me disclosed. Let me not come into my fulfillment until the end of all things, so the soul secretly resolved.
Duncan’s sudden canny apprehending of how the poem “had something to do with keeping open and unfulfilled the urgencies of life.” (I think again of “Men Made Out of Words”: “The human // Revery is a solitude, in which / We compose these propositions, torn by dreams, // By the terrible incantations of defeats / And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one. // The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Robert Duncan’s Locomotive

R. B. Kitaj, “Robert Duncan,” c. 1978
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Reading, serendipitously, one of Williams’s fugitive pieces, an essay called “The Present Relationship of Prose to Verse” (out of 7 Arts [1953])—on the heels of a Hugh Kenner toss-off titled “1680 Words on Duncan’s Words” (out of the Duncan Ironwood [1983]), I am struck by the alignment of Williams’s final (rather unconvincing) paragraph (he is arguing against the ongoing prevalence of “the iambus”—and musters a series of ancient complaints against it, including that of “Gascoyne, in his ‘Certayne Notes of Instruction,’ [who, in 1575] writes of it; ‘Commonly now a days in english rimes we use none other order but a foot of two syllables, whereof the first is depressed or made short, and the second is elevated or made long . . .the iambus.’ ‘And surely I can lament’—he adds—‘that wee are fallen into such a playne and simple way of wryting, that there is none other foote to use’”)—Williams still niggling what Pound’d attempted to dismiss whole hog (“to break the pentameter, that was the first heave” in Canto LXXXI and “as for those who deform thought with iambics” in Canto XCVIII)—
      We are a new age, speaking a new (in sound) language but we have no clear way of dealing with it in an exact manner, except to think that when we want to represent the sound of a locomotive approaching on the track we have to imitate a locomotive approaching. We cannot break our old habits.
Which imitating, limited and egregiously dopey though it may be, is what Kenner’d claim Duncan did. Kenner (Is it here that the kernel of what becomes—in 1987—The Mechanic Muse—with its chatper called “Pound Typing”—is formed? Kenner is clearly thinking about machinery, and using it to count the 1680 words. In Kenner’s contributor’s note one reads how the “Duncan essay arrived in one piece: a ten foot scroll direct from the word processor”):
      “Give a poet a machine,” Duncan said in delight, “and he’ll use it.” Pound, his point was, had found a poetic use for every character on the typewriter keyboard, not excluding / and @, two symbols which also remind us of what typewriters were “meant” for: business letters. Men of letters of course use them too, but by habit never stray from the keys that spell words (one reason to say “men of letters”). So used, the typewriter is a mechanized quill, introducing no new possibility save perhaps the carbon copy. But Pound—it’s as if he’d recognized a keyboard instrument left lying around by inattention, and thought to find out what tunes it might be made to play.
And then what made me sit a little straighter when I subsequently read of Williams’s “sound of a locomotive approaching”:
      That’s a model for thinking about some of Duncan’s playfulness, as when he noticed the word “locomotive” lying around and started taking it to pieces:
loco-co co moto mo mo
locomomo cotivecomo


moco lomo motive lomo
co co co co co como co momo
lo mo como lo mo tomo

At Lake Como we saw mountains.
Though published among the “Imitations of Gertrude Stein,” that poem derives from her only the jaunty non-sequitur it uses to end with, Lake Como. For the rest, it’s intent on four queer syllables: not, in Stein’s way, undergoing their hypnosis, but in a tinkerer’s way, undoing screws, refastening. And out of bit and pieces of the word “locomotive” it contrives an acceptable imitation of how trains can sound, which is no more what the word was meant for than the Remington was meant for writing Cantos.
      We may even want to reconsider “non-sequitur.” The mountains, at any rate, follow form “co co co co co como co momo,” where the train is surely laboring up-hill.”
The sorrow and irony of it all: the “acceptable imitation” still falls largely into the abyss of the iambus.

Too, there’s Duncan writing (15 June 1957) rather confusedly regarding “Xs of Harmony and Disharmony”—“with its pastiche of Whitehead and Wallace Stevens”—to Robin Blaser:
In form I wanted to let go as far as I could bring myself of any thematic development . . . and to stress a serial composition. We got the complete Webern. In which have been revelling—and what an impeccable ear he has for possible inner structures in a passage of a poem being set. “Poetry is not an art” Robert Graves said at tea: “I told Pound that poetry is not an art.” I look up again the passage in Virginia Woolf’s Roger Fry “How far, he would ask, could literature be considerd an art? Writers lackd conscience; they lackd objectivity, they did not treat words as painters treat paint . . . . . ‘that everything must come out of the matière of his prose and not out of the ideas and emotions he describes.’ Writers were moralists; they were propagandists and ‘propaganda shuts off the contemplative penetration of life before it has found the finer shades of significance. It simplifies too much.’” Virginia Woolf comments: “He lookd at the carpet from the wrong side.” The aesthetician does in seeing it as a product look “from the wrong side” and give only a clew in what he sees as to the process. Yes, it’s sadly clear that poetry is not necessarily an Art, any more than man is necessarily a Man. “An idiosyncracy magnified to the highest degree” Freud calls the constitutional intolerance of an aesthetic; and proudly claims for himself such an intolerance.
As Woolf says of Fry, one could say of Duncan: “He enjoyed his irresponsibility. It left him free to indulge his speculative genius unfettered.” The passage Duncan’s quoting:
. . . So he would be perverse and he would be disparaging. How far, he would ask, could literature be considered an art? Writers lacked conscience; they lacked objectivity, they did not treat words as painters treat paint. “Gerald Brenan is almost the only writer who has the same sort of ideas about writing as we have about painting. I mean he believes that everything must come out of the matière of his prose and not out of the ideas and emotions he describes.” Most English novels he read very few were on a par with Frith’s “Derby Day.” Writers were moralists; they were propagandists and “propaganda . . . shuts off the contemplative penetration of life before it has found the finer shades of significance. It simplifies too much.” Defoe’s simplicity delighted him; Henry James’s complexity satisfied him. But in between, what a waste, what a confusion, what a jumble of mixed motives and impure desires!
      As a critic of literature, then, he was not what is called a safe guide. He looked at the carpet from the wrong side; but he made it for that very reason display unexpected patterns.
Making rather willful Duncan’s simply assigning Fry the “aesthetician” a mere bias for art as product. (Some research into Gerald Brenan—poet, novelist, Hispanist, Bloomsbury cohort, married to American poet Gamel Woolsey, lover of painter Dora Carrington—would seem to apply . . .) Duncan’s “Robert Graves said at tea” would appear to refer to Graves’s “November 5th Address” of circa 1928 wherein he claims:
Poetry is not an art. It does not even begin as words. What happens is that there is a sudden meeting in the poet’s mind of certain incognizable, unrelated and unpersonified forces; of which meeting comes a new creature—the still formless poem. The poet feels this happening at the back of his mind as an expectance, a concentration which will persist until it is removed. First, he objectifies it by writing it in such a way that it has a general, not merely personal, context; then removes it as far as possible by putting it into circulation.
Poem as contagion. Which sounds, once made a thing to which one is constitutionally intolerant, somewhat like Freud’s “idiosyncracy magnified to the highest degree.” Oddly enough, that phrase, as used by Freud, refers not to “an aesthetic,” but to war. See Freud’s 1932 letter to Einstein: “Now war is in the crassest opposition to the psychical attitude imposed on us by the process of civilization; and for that reason we are bound to rebel against it; we simply cannot any longer put up with it. This is not merely an intellectual and emotional repudiation; we pacifists have a constitutional intolerance of war, an idiosyncrasy magnified, as it were to the highest degree. It seems indeed, as though the lowering of aesthetic standards in war plays a scarcely smaller part in our rebellion than do its cruelties . . .” Ah, Duncan. “Give a poet a quote, and he’ll misuse it.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

“To sound wrong . . .”

Raymond Queneau, 1903-1976

Wallace Stevens, to Henry Church, editor and co-founder (with Jean Paulhan—other editors were Henri Michaux, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Bernard Groethuysen) of the French literary magazine Mesures* (1 June 1939):
      In DISILLUSION, perhaps the word ronds would be better than cercles. As I understand it, the use of pois, especially in connection with painting: a pois, means spots, dabs. But what I had in mind was something bizarre. Personally, I like words to sound wrong. Of course, I have not an ear for that sort of thing in French. If cercles is permissible, I should rather use it, because there is something tame about ronds. Perhaps it is not possible to transpose a feeling for words from one language to another. I think I can illustrate this in THE EMPEROR: In the third line, Des laits libidineux, if good French, carries over the feeling of concupiscent curds far better than Des crèmes délectables. Moreover, while gamines may be the better word, isn’t souillons a good deal more forcible?
      In the second verse of THE EMPEROR, the word fantails does not mean fans, but fantail pigeons, so that motifs en évantail should be motifs en pigeon-paon. Going back to the first verse, the true sense of Let be be the finale of seem is let being become the conclusion or denouement of appearing to be: in short, icecream is an absolute good. The poem is obviously not about icecream, but about being as distinguished from seeming to be.
      By the way, I had forgotten to speak of it, but pervenches is right for periwinkles.
(In a subsequent paragraph Stevens suggests the editors consider translating, too, “Fabliau of Florida”: “It is not the sense of a poem of that kind that counts, because it does not really have a great deal of sense; it is the feeling of the words and the reaction and images that the words create.” The translator of “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”**: Oulipo satrap and author of Exercices de style Raymond Queneau. One sees what Queneau made of Stevens’s notes:

Appelez celui qui roule de gros cigares,
Le musclé, et commandez-lui de fouetter
Des laits libidineux dans des bols de cuisine.
De tous les jours et que les garçons
Apportent des fleurs dans des journaux du mois dernier.
Que l’être succède au paraître.
Le seul empereur est l’empereur de l’ice-cream.

Dans le buffet de bois blanc auquel il manque
Trois boutons de verre, prenez ce drap
Sur lequel elle broda jadis des queues de pigeon-paon.
Etendez-le, qu’il couvre son visage.
Si ses pieds calleux dépassent, ils viennent
Montrer comme elle est froide, et muette.
Que la lampe appose son rayon de lumière,
Le seul empereur est l’empereur de l’ice-cream.


Les maisons sont hantées
Par des chemises de nuit blanches.
Aucune n’est verte,
Ni pourpre à cercles verts,
Ni verte à cercles jaunes,
Ni jaune à cercles bleues.
Aucune n’est étrange
Avec des chaussettes de dentelle
Et des ceintures de verroterie.
Les gens ne vont pas
Rêver de babouins ni de pervenches.
De temps à l’autre, seul, un vieux marin,
Ivre et dormant dans ses bottes,
Capture des tigres
Par temps rouge.
I love that Stevens-of-the-mild-rebuke (of the literary): “Personally, I like words to sound wrong.” Recalling the subsequent (c. 1942) lines out of “The Poems of Our Climate”: “The imperfect is our paradise. / Note that, in this bitterness, delight, / Since the imperfect is so hot in us, / Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.” I think, too, of Stevens’s famous remark regarding “The Emperor of Ice Cream”—that it “wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry”—one wonders if Stevens isn’t hijacking being’s “finale” with that note of something seeming “to contain . . . the essential.” Evidence of that odd dodge of Stevens: the perfectly mannered rip (“I dislike niggling, and like letting myself go”) that makes room for everything (and whatever opposes it). (In a 1947 “Homage to Henry Church” Stevens affably ticks off a page-and-a-half of just such contradictory dualities, clearly sympathizing (if not identifying) with him: “He was a simple man who had little interest in things that were not complex. He was a plain man who lived in a certain luxury which he ignored. He was most literate yet had only a few books on his table. He had read philosophy for forty years but it seemed to be, for him, pretty much a substitute for fiction.”)

One wonders what—if anything—Queneau “made” of Stevens. Is there a parallel between the Stevens of “Connoisseur of Chaos” (“A. A violent order is a disorder; and / B. A great disorder is an order. These / Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)”) and the Queneau who spent some years putting together a critical anthology of the writings of so-called “fous littéraires,” fossicking the recesses of the Bibliothèque Nationale for works (“inevitably published at their author’s expense”) by eccentrics, naïfs, madmen, and geniuses (only to find “little to be exhumed but paranoid reactionaries and long-winded old fools”)? The two do possess in common the seemingly contrary traits of both encyclopaedist and maximist. Singularity’s constant tug against the brute momentum of the ingathering factual crowd versus the stutter-y incohesions of mustered ineluctables and trailings-off. Summary versus undoing (its mountainous exemplary presence in particulars). Stevens (“A Note on Samuel French Morse”):
If we were all alike; if we were millions of people saying do, re, mi in unison, one poet would be enough and Hesiod himself would do very well. Everything he said would be in no need of expounding or would have been expounded long ago. But we are not all alike and everything needs expounding all the time because, as people live and die, each one perceiving life and death for himself, and mostly by and in himself, there develops a curiosity about the perceptions of others. This is what makes it possible to go on saying new things about old things. The fact is that the saying of new things in new ways is grateful to us. If a bootblack says that he was so tired that he lay down like a dog under a tree, he is saying a new thing about an old thing in a new way. His new way is not a literary novelty; it is an unaffected statement of his perception of the thing.
So we continue. Insufferably making our dopey monkey-shines and grimaces, oblivious of the gods, their misalliances elsewhere . . .
* The astounding “Lettres américaines” issue (V:3, dated 15 Juillet 1939) printed nearly four hundred pages of work by Whitman, Dickinson, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Henry Miller, Vachel Lindsay, Robinson Jeffers, Langston Hughes, Archibald MacLeish, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, among others. The busy Queneau translated, too, the Whitman, Williams, Moore, Crane, Lindsay and Miller selections, plus some pages out of Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), and a chapter of St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

** The originals:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Friday, February 17, 2012

“And yet . . .”

Wallace Stevens, 1879–1955

To love the plangent turbulences of half-sleep and fatigue, to seemingly mar the defiant status quo with the common recklessness of reverie. The audacity of that preternatural gust, wholly unbelabored, of endless changeables. Wallace Stevens’s “the intricate evasions of as.” See “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:
This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.
(Or, too, see the unyielding deferrals of the opening’s intrepid “and yet, and yet, and yet”—“The eye’s plain version is a thing apart, / The vulgate of experience. Of this, / A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet— / As part of the never-ending meditation . . .”) And yet: Stevens cautions against makings out of “nothingness”—oracular heavings into the brunt. In a letter to Leonard C. van Geyzal (16 May 1945), after admitting that “the words ‘concupiscent curds’ have no genealogy,” he insists: “If poetry is limited to the vaticinations of the imagination, it soon becomes worthless. The cognitive element involves the consciousness of reality.” For an inviolable sense of Stevens comme “goner for the actual”—note the lines out of a letter to Thomas McGreevy (25 August 1948): “Only recently I was reading of a public motor bus in Ireland and what mattered to me was the color of the paint on it, the fact that there was a good deal of nickel as there is here and that the conductor seemed to know everyone on the run just as conductor do here.” (I think of the possibly apocryphal story of Thomas Pynchon going to Philadelphia expressly to study the color of its brick, the Schuylkill-scooped clay lending a particular rose tint to it . . . *) Later in the McGreevy letter, Stevens provides precise geographical details for McGreevy (“the Schuylkill flows S.E. in Eastern Pennsylvania and empties into the Delaware, I believe at the head of Delaware Bay”). And:
The deep slightly sulphurous blue of its water has been succeeded by piles of coal dust (which are the source of its color) washed down from the coal regions in the Spring floods. The name is Dutch. The Swatara (the name is Indian) is a country steam that empties into the Susquehanna above Harrisburg. It looks a little like the innocent girl from the village who went to town
And alas and alack
When she came back
Her golden hair was hanging down her back.
Stevens’s easy precisions (factual) scuttled by an outburst of music (here, funnily enough, actual music, and appropriated—Stevens’s the chronic collector of notes “sur plusieurs beaux subjects,” superfluousness itself concomitant to making a life . . .) Pertinent to Stevens’s severe groundedness in the actual (and how routinely and recklessly Stevens dumps whatever ballast keeps him there)—in Stevens’s beaux-subjected commonplace book, he quotes lines out of a review of a Cézanne exhibit: “It is Cézanne’s peculiar determination to pin down his sensation, and the exactness and intensity of notation resulting from this, that make Cézanne preeminent . . .” A few sentences later: “With Cézanne integrity was the thing, and integrity never allowed him to become fixed at any one point in his development, but sent him onward toward new discoveries of technique, new realisations of the motive.” Integrity that cannot be, itself, pinned down. “Intricate evasions of as,” indeed.
* While I seem to recall a line in Pynchon about the color of Philadelphia brick houses, I cannot locate it. In Mason & Dixon (1997), I find (towards the beginning, c. 1786 “the War settl’d and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments”):
Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose further shores have so vanish’d behind curtains of ice-fog that the City today might be an Isle upon an Ocean. Ponds and Creeks are frozen over, and the Trees a-glare to the last slightest Twig,— Nerve-Lines of concentrated Light. Hammers and Saws have fallen still, bricks lie in snowcover’d Heaps, City-Sparrows, in speckl’d Outbursts, hop in and out of what Shelter there may be,— the nightward Sky, Clouds blown to Chalk-smears, stretches above the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Germantown, its early moon pale as the Snow-Drifts,— smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,— freshly infus’d Coffee flows ev’ryplace, borne about thro’ Rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel’d Association in these Parts, is deploy’d nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,— for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.
That for the sheer pleasure of its “All ages are contemporaneous” insolence, the “Nerve-Lines of concentrated Light” mimicking that ingathering of historical effluents . . .

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sans Commentaire

Marianne Moore, c. 1948
(Photograph by Carl Van Vechten)

Wallace Stevens writing to occasional correspondent, C. L. Daughtry, attorney at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company’s offices in Atlanta:
                                                                                                                    November 24, 1941
Dear Daughtry:
      Many thanks for the persimmons. These meant more to me than you can imagine. I have far more things to eat and far more things to drink than are good for me. I indulge in abstemious spells merely to keep my balance.
      Wild persimmons make one feel like a hungry man in the woods. As I ate them, I thought of opossums and birds, and the antique Japanese prints in black and white, in which monkeys are eating persimmons in bare trees. There is nothing more desolate than a persimmon tree, with the old ripe fruit hanging on it. As you see, there is such a thing as being a spiritual epicure.
                                                                                                                          Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams, who emphatically plugged one critical interpretation of it (Parker Tyler’s in a 1946 Briarcliff Quarterly piece)—that “the plums’ ‘death’ (or formal disappearance and disintegration) was symbolically anticipated in the icy charm of their living flesh”—calling it “just nonsense!”:
This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Williams’s statement (under the title “Why He Selected Some Flower Studies”) for the 1942 Whit Burnett-edited This Is My Best (a.k.a. the cumbersomely titled, America's 93 Greatest Living Authors Present This Is My Best: Over 150 Self-Chosen and Complete Masterpieces, Together With Their Reasons For Their Selections):
The thing has been with me to work the language in order to find what new may be done with it. Not merely does one chase after newness for the sake of sensation or abandon the old because it is stale. There is a necessity to reinvestigate our means of expression in every age. For in the forms of the arts many things get locked up, some of them permanent and invaluable and some of them stultifying if allowed to remain fixed. Unless every age claims the world for its own and makes it so by its own efforts in its own day and unless the mark of this effort and success is left upon all the forms of that age including those formal expressions which we call art, no one can be said to have lived in any age or at any time. These pieces show my own efforts to possess my world thought which, when successful, the life of my day has breathed whatever value they have into them.
Signed and dated “Rutherford, N. J. / June 14, 1942.” Is that “no one can be said to have lived in any age or at any time” Williams’s echo of Thoreau’s stunning and ever-admonitory “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”? Williams’s “Flower Studies”: “Daisy,” “Primrose,” and “Queen-Anne’s-Lace”—all dated c. 1919. Here’s “Primrose” with its reprise chorus of “yellow” (cleansed of “the stain of love” it’d carried in the earlier “Love Song (I lie here thinking of you)”):
Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow!
It is not a color.
It is summer!
It is the wind on a willow,
the lap of waves, the shadow
under a bush, a bird, a bluebird,
three herons, a dead hawk
rotting on a pole—
Clear yellow!
It is a piece of blue paper
in the grass or a threecluster of
green walnuts swaying, children
playing croquet or one boy
fishing, a man
swinging his pink fists
as he walks—
It is ladysthumb, forget-me-nots
in the ditch, moss under
the flange of the carrail, the
wavy lines in split rock, a
great oaktree—
It is a disinclination to be
five red petals or a rose, it is
a cluster of birdsbreast flowers
on a red stem six feet high,
four open yellow petals
above sepals curled
backward into reverse spikes—
Tufts of purple grass spot the
green meadows and clouds the sky.
About “Primrose” at some point in the late ’fifties Williams commented to John Thirlwall: “Close observation—trying to sum up what I saw. A true imagistic poem. Written at the shore in Connecticut.”

Adjacent to Williams in This Is My Best is Marianne Moore’s statement (“Why She Selected What Are Years?”):
      “What Are Years?” partly written in 1931 and finished in 1939, is elegiac.
      The desperation attendant on mortal fallibility is mitigated for me by admitting that the most willed and resolute vigilance may lapse, as with the Apostle Peter’s denial that he could be capable of denial; but that failure, disgrace, and even death have now and again been redeemed into inviolateness by a sufficiently transfigured courage.
Signed and dated “Brooklyn, N. Y. / March 22, 1942.” The audacity of Moore’s own clipped and inviolate clarity (and so rhythmically limned!)—what a sustaining thing against the era’s dull muttering.
What Are Years?

      What is our innocence,
what is our guilt ? All are
      naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt,—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
            encourages others
            and in its defeat, stirs

      the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
      accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
            in its surrendering
            finds its continuing.

      So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
      grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
            This is mortality,
            this is eternity.
To say “he who strongly feels, / behaves” is, likely, to reject any need for the “balance” gained by short “abstemious spells.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

“And for what?”

Wallace Stevens, 1879–1955

To dawdle unhampered at the task. To fob off propinquities, little mannerisms of the morning walk under the colossal vault of dun-rinsed sky. Morning’s usual outbursts mimicking the crows’ collapse into aimless harangue, and for what? Grit and continue. I liked (browsing, unencumbered, fretless) seeing—in a 26 November 1935 letter to Ronald Lane Latimer—Wallace Stevens’s glad ambush of premonitory freedom:
I suppose that the explanation for the bursts of freedom is nothing more than this: that when one is thinking one’s way the pattern becomes small and complex, but when one has reached a point and finds it possible to move emotionally one goes ahead rapidly. One of the most difficult things in writing poetry is to know what one’s subject is. Most people know what it is and do not write poetry, because they are so conscious of that one thing. One’s subject is always poetry, or should be. But sometimes it becomes a little more definite and fluid, and then the thing goes ahead rapidly.
The usual permit to sail without anchorage about the whole oceanic stint and continuum (blue sail, salmon-colored ocean), a privateer to indifference, a brigand untainted, untempered. Somewhere in Stevens’s The Necessary Angel he writes of the imagination, that “irrepressible revolutionist”: “nothing is more certain than that the imagination is agreeable to the imagination.” A sort of lofty obverse to the janitorial adage that “dirt breeds dirt.” The Newtonian ongoingness of such movement (“to move emotionally” being one definition of “to imagine”): “Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.” For Stevens, the “force impressed” is the real. Out of a letter to José Rodríguez Feo (20 June 1945):
Reality is the great fond, and it is because it is that the purely literary amounts to so little. Moreover, in the world of actuality . . . one is always living a little out of it. There is a precious sentence in Henry James, for whom everyday life was not much more than the mere business of living, but, all the same, he separated himself from it. The sentence is . . .
“To live in the world of creation—to get into it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intensely and fruitfully—to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation—this is the only thing.”
“Precious” or not, Stevens’s own next sentence rather drably reports how he is “going to Cambridge next week to read . . .” Isn’t it that Stevens’s compulsive vacillating between “what is real and what is not” allows for a making as apprehending? (I am thinking of lines in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”: “The enigmatical / Beauty of each beautiful enigma / Becomes amassed in a total double-thing. / We do not know what is real and what is not.”) And here again, in the fond-homage of perpetual return (meaning equally perpetual departure):

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind. We seek

The poem of pure reality, untouched
By trope or deviation, straight to the word,
Straight to the transfixing object, to the object

At the exactest point at which it is itself,
Transfixing by being purely what it is,
A view of New Haven, say, through the certain eye,

The eye made clear of uncertainty, with the sight
Of simple seeing, without reflection. We seek
Nothing beyond reality. Within it,

Everything, the spirit’s alchemicana
Included, the spirit that goes roundabout
And through included, not merely the visible,

The solid, but the movable, the moment,
The coming on of feasts and the habits of saints,
The pattern of the heavens and high, night air.
That veering off—out of “Nothing beyond” and up towards “Everything . . . movable” ending in “high, night air” (a place seemingly both pure and immensely populous) isn’t that precisely the work of “the spirit’s alchemicana” (read: “the imagination”—the job of alchemy being transmutatory, “to woo combinations.”)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

“Haply . . .”

Albert Einstein’s Desk at Princeton

A dense, granular inch or so of snow. Sleeplessness. Coleridge (out of a letter to Joseph Cottle, early April 1797): “I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten years to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician—I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend 10 years—the next 5 to the composition of the poem—and the last 5 to the correction of it. So would I write, haply not unhearing of that divine and rightly-whispering voice, which speaks to mighty mind of predestinated garlands, starry and unwithering.” (Odd how assuredly all the earnest preparatory diligence is junked at the moment of the writing, and how coyly—“haply not unhearing”—Coleridge welcomes that “divine . . . voice” with its “predestinated garlands.”) I think of the heroics of Gustave Flaubert writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. with its Flaubert’s quip of a supposed subtitle: “On the lack of method in the sciences.” He writes to Madame Roger des Genettes (24 January 1880): “Do you know how many volumes I’ve had to absorb for my two characters? More than fifteen hundred! My pile of notes is eight inches thick. This superabundance of documents has enabled me to be free of pedantry: of that I’m sure.” “A sort of “school thyself, pedant” approach—“that thy unflawed soul make soonest speak.” (Later in the letter Flaubert admits what may be—for him—the prime raison d’être for socking oneself away in an extended bout of study, “collecting materials”: “I’ve spent two and a half months absolutely alone, like a bear in its cave, and have come through perfectly well even though seeing no one: I’ve heard no stupid remarks. Inability to tolerate human stupidity has become a sickness with me, and that word is weak.”) I recall Tim Reynolds (mid-’eighties) pointedly conjecturing what Flaubert-with-a-computer would have achieved in Bouvard et Pécuchet. Likely a “pile of notes . . . eighty inches thick” is what I think. And with the same complaint: “riddled with doubts and utterly exhausted.” (Kenneth Goldsmith, in either case, would simply bind up the notes and smugly pronounce the book complete.) William Carlos Williams, in a letter to Kenneth Burke (25 February 1947), arguing the primacy of instinct (the secularist’s “divine”):
      I do not believe you think Virgil formulated any such preliminary plan as this before beginning composition in the Aeneid. He was an alert and intelligent citizen of his times and besides a gifted poet; he saw a need (he also saw words) and must have felt a tremendous pleasure of anticipation. In composing the poem he felt an undoubted pleasure—of various sorts: sensual, sociological, historical identification, and so forth. He may, at an outside guess have indulged in a bit of logical philandering—if he found the time for it in a dull moment! But that he set down a primary scheme and followed it I can’t for a moment believe.
Brilliant, that “logical philandering”—reducing logic to the object of casual off-hours flirting, hardly serious. Williams: “The nascent instincts are the feelers into new territory—even Einstein has recently acknowledged or stated that. Deductive reasoning is in the main useless to us today or if not useless at least secondary in value.” Out of Williams’s rather giddy 1921 “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils” (a poem considerably revised some fifteen years later):
April Einstein
through the blossomy waters
rebellious, laughing
under liberty’s dead arm
has come among the daffodils
that flowers and men
were created
relatively equal.
Oldfashioned knowledge is
dead under the blossoming peachtrees.
Einstein in Berlin, in 1929, replying to a query by one George Sylvester Viereck—poet, journalist, Nazi apologist, friend of Nikola Tesla, and father of U. S. poet and Conservative nobodaddy Peter Viereck—regarding the fons et origo of Einstein’s theories, Viereck asking “How do you account for your discoveries? Through intuition or inspiration?” Einstein:
Both. I sometimes feel I am right, but do not know it. When two expeditions of scientists went to test my theory I was convinced they would confirm my theory. I wasn’t surprised when the results confirmed my intuition, but I would have been surprised had I been wrong. I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
A bromide? Or a bromide only in any other setting? I think of Williams’s lines (Spring and All), that reverie of—
      A world detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him (as it most certainly is) with which he has bitter and delicious relations and from which he is independent—moving at will from one thing to another—as he pleases, unbound—complete

      and the unique proof of this is the work of the imagination not “like” anything but transfused with the same forces which transfuse the earth—at least one small part of them.
Forces assuredly akin to “that divine and rightly-whispering voice” offering up, detached, its “starry and unwithering” world.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Zero = Cipher (“Noteth a place, and no thing availith . . .”)

Franz Kafka, c. 1915

Two days go “by” and any sense of an emergent arc of intent: vamoosed. Back to zero, thumbing the memory-schmutz’d Baedeker of my own godless geniza, my too-dandled word-hoard, my trappings and impingements. (Gazing at the red and white spine of An Anthology of New York Poets (1970) I recall, not Ashbery’s Audenesque “On the secret map the assassins / Cloistered . . .” nor O’Hara’s Swank-published (in a Seymour Krim-edited colloquy called “The Swinging Modern Scene”) “Ave Maria” (“sheer gravy”), but lowly Ed Sanders’s immemorial “Elm Fuck Poem”:
      in to the oily crotch
                    place dick
Et, like the scholiasts say, cetera. Undoubtedly my acquiring and reading said livre at the age of sixteen tamped down that particular piece of wadding “in to” the brain’s unfired pan . . .) Is memory, too, like Kafka’s pen, “only a seismographic pencil for the heart”? (Out of Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka, newly re-released by New Directions.) Kafka (in Janouch’s hand) capable of comic book wars with God (or whatever one calls the primordial gist—“Heaven captured in a drop of water . . . distorted and blurred by our slightest movement”), that thing unnamable, apprehended only through being—a kind of perennially interrupted agon—itself. Kafka:
The fact, to which we give different names, and which we try to apprehend by various processes of thought, pervades our veins, our nerves, our senses. It is within us. For that reason perhaps it’s invisible. What we can really grasp is the darkness. God dwells in it. And this is a good thing, because without the protecting darkness we should try to overcome God. That is man’s nature. The Son dethrones the Father. So God must remain hidden in darkness. And because man cannot reach him, he attacks at least the darkness which surrounds the divine. He throws burning brands into the icy night. But the night is elastic like rubber. It throws them back. And by doing so it endures. The only darkness which passes away is that of the human spirit—the light and shadow of the drop of water.
I think of bug-eyed Tom Veitch, tongue thrust out in an adamantly “madcap” pose for the photographer (see Veitch’s biographical note in An Anthology of New York Poets: “Lately in San Francisco undergoing various love torments and the painful emergence of God in his flesh. Hi folks”)—art’s own skew ways of throwing “burning brands into the icy night.” I probably didn’t, aged sixteen, read Veitch’s tiny piece of (I assumed) faux-naïveté called “The Finest Thing”:
The finest thing in the world
Is God and his works
Oh how I marvel at them,
Oh how I cry when I
think of dying and going into
heaven and God and becoming
part of it all. Oh how
marvelous, how
nice, how lovely to be
part of all this.
Tonal fuzz in the crosshairs? Truth is, I find I do not know how to read that. And, as a result, I do not know how to read Janouch’s Kafka. Or, as a result of reading Kafka, I do not know how to read Veitch. Isn’t Kafka’s rubbery “night” sign of a temperament capable, like General Custer, of roaring with laughter, at one’s own imminent slaughter? (Making torturous the connectivum. Tom Veitch and Ron Padgett wrote a novel titled Antlers in the Treetops (1970) that begins:
Custer was the last man in his regiment to die. The story goes that, on his knees, wounded in a dozen places, his yellow curls flying in the wind, he roared with laughter. A small Indian boy bent over the dying hero, eyes wide with wonder. We watched from a distance as the boy’s steel knife flashed in the hot afternoon sun. Crimson, the flow from the scalp as it separates from the skull . . .

You must search for the loveliness of America; it is not obvious; it is scattered; but when you find it, it touches you and binds you and makes you take a great, silent oath . . .
On the back cover of Antlers in the Treetops, unsigned, presumably tongue-in-cheek: “Imagine an almost complete trace of meaning.” Read next to Kafka’s brand-deflecting night, isn’t that as good a definition of the divinity’s inexact whelming as any?) How would Kafka read something like the series of imperatives André Breton and Paul Éluard assemble under the title “The Original Judgment” in The Immaculate Conception (1930)?
      Don’t read. Look at the designs created by the spaces between the words of several lines in a book and draw inspiration from them.
      Give your hand to the others to keep.
      Don’t lie down on the ramparts.
      Take back the armor that you took off when you reached the age of discretion.
      Put order in is place, disturb the stones of the road.
. . .
      What you find belongs to you only as long as you hold out your hand.
      Lie as you bite the judges’ ermine.
      You are the pruner of your life.
. . .
      Learn to wait, with your feet in front of you. That’s the way you will soon go out, all covered up.
      Light up the perspectives of fatigue.
. . .
      When they ask to see the inside of you hand, show them the veiled planets in the sky.
. . .
      Adjust your gait to that of the storms.
      Never kill a night-bird.
      Look at the convolvulus blossom: it does not allow one to hear.
. . .
      Argue that your head, unlike a horse-chestnut, is absolutely weightless since it has not yet fallen.
      Gild with the spark the otherwise black pill of the anvil.
      Without wincing, imagine swallows.
      Write the imperishable in sand.
. . .
      Do you want to own the smallest and the most alarming book in the world? Have the stamps on your love letters bound and then weep—you have good reason to in spite of it all.
      Never wait for yourself.
      Look closely at those two houses: in one you are dead in the other you are dead.
(Translated by John Ashbery. Out of the Kenneth Koch-edited “Collaborations” issue of Locus Solus.) Sounds like Kafka. Perhaps Kafka’s pull is that of a magnet, aligning all other writing to it, invading the roundabout, leveling the field. (I think of Janouch’s reported glimpse of a Kafka drawing “covered with strange minute sketches, in which only the abstraction of movement was empathized, of tiny men running, fighting and crawling, and kneeling on the ground.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Against Arrangement (O’Hara)

Jackson Pollock, “Blue Poles [Number 11, 1952]”

“To arrange is to fail” is what Fairfield Porter says somewhere. I keep returning to O’Hara’s line in “[Notes on Second Avenue]” insisting that the “verbal elements . . . are intended to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious”—thinking it’s wrong somehow, that “high and dry” stills the fury and slurry of making and, howsoever imprecisely, arranges a macular and “consequential” thing. It seemingly contradicts O’Hara’s earlier remark that, “To put it very gently, I have a feeling that the philosophical reduction of reality to a dealable-with system so distorts life that one’s ‘reward’ for this endeavor (a minor one, at that) is illness both from the inside and outside.” Put “gently”—meaning a kind of Everyman’s paraphrase of the fiercer “Second Avenue” lines O’Hara quotes just preceding:
This thoroughness whose traditions have become so reflective,
your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea
tracing forever the fabulous alarms of the mute
so that in the limpid tosses of your violet dinginess
a pus appears and lingers like a groan from the collar
of a reproachful tree whose needles are tired of howling.
Subsequent line (unquoted): “One distinguishes merely the newspapers of a sediment . . .” Containing that phrase I never fail to read as “the sentiments of the newspapers”—O’Hara cocking a fist at how thoroughly trade in the “distinct” (“a dealable-with system”) misrepresents the whole watery (flux-churned) world (that quill attempting its “precise” writing under miles of water, is it mock-styled after Eliot’s “ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”?) (“Sentiment implied, but denied”—see O’Hara’s line regarding Pollack’s Blue Poles: “It contains everything within itself, begging no quarter: a world of sentiment implied, but denied; a map of sensual freedom, fenced; a careening licentiousness, guarded by eight totems native to its origins.” Akin to what O’Hara concludes in the “Notes”: “Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is the other (you have to use words), and I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.” A refusal of demarcation beyond that enforced (“fenced”) by the word itself . . .)

O’Hara’s great predecessor Williams (“only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies”) put it thus (“Against the Weather”): “Formal patterns of all sorts represent arrests of the truth in some particular phase of its mutations, and immediately thereafter, unless they change, become mutilations.” (New Sentence recidivists, nigh two score years down the road, probably ought to heed the good Doctor.) Elsewhere (“The Basis of Faith in Art”) Williams called poetry “a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas”—without seeing the need to specify, too, the tiresome self-replicating that gets fobbed off in these States, file under “career.” O’Hara sees clearly the danger of such complacency, how it betrays the very meaning of the work itself. Writing of Franz Kline:
He personally held at bay all possibilities of self-importance, pomposity, mysticism, and cant which might have otherwise interfered with the very direct and personal relation he had to his paintings and their content. He kept himself from being publicly engulfed by his own meaning and the meanings he so well intuited in the life around him. He did not tame his work, but he thus tamed the role which he suspected so correctly society would, if allowed, impose upon him as it had on the unsuspected Pollock. One of the lessons of our own society, often as opposed to that of Europe in the very recent past, is that for the artist to keep working after initial recognition he must adopt the cleverest devices of Dickens’s Artful Dodger. Kline worked publicly to retain his studio privacy. No matter how helplessly he and those around him dissolved in laughter at one of his fantastic anecdotes, underlying it was a nostalgia and longing which reminded one of the early “idealistic” anarchists, and a melancholy recognition of mutability, self-irony singling out the irony of the specific tale.
The Artful Dodger at work: to begin a poem: “Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours, / celebrate diced excesses and sardonic, mixing pleasures, / as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea . . .” That, and the “melancholy recognition of mutability” doused with self-irony:
You are lean, achieved, ravished, acute, light, tan,
waving, stolen, lissome in whispering, salivary in intent,
similar to the sole support of a love affair, so artful,
and loyal only to faults. I found myself equal to every . . .
Excess expenditure and squandering (opposing the vendable “astringency,” austerity being one way of “making distinct”). Williams again, niggling the fastidious Mr. Eliot with gusto and self-irony (“The Poem as a Field of Action”):
Stop a minute to emphasize our own position: It is not that of Mr. Eliot. We are making a modern bolus: That is our somewhat undistinguished burden; profusion, as, we must add in all fairness, against his distinction. His is a few poems beautifully phrased—in his longest effort thirty-five quotations in seven languages. We, let us say, are the Sermons of Launcelot Andrewes from which (in time) some selector will pick one phrase. Or say, the Upanishad that will contribute a single word!
Bolus a medicinal term, a dose, a “ball” injected to boost levels of some particular compound in the blood. Shooting up the body poetic—the bolus initially going unabsorbed, making a lump under the skin. Williams’s call for Rabelaisian profusion, unfinished—“as against a limited output”—“we Americans . . . need to build up a mass, a conglomerate maybe, containing few gems but bits of them—Brazilian brilliants—that shine of themselves, uncut as they are.” In O’Hara’s version (“Second Avenue”): “Accuracy has never envisaged itself as occurring; rather a / negligence, royal in retreating upwards of the characteristics of multitudes.”

Thursday, February 09, 2012

O’Hara Notes

Frank O’Hara, c. 1961
(Photograph by John Jonas Gruen)

Still fossicking the O’Hara bibliography. To Barbara Guest, poetry editor of Partisan Review, who’d recently accepted “Ode to Joy”—with its plaintive refrain “No more dying” and its extended argument for the sheer imaginary excess “that love may live”—
the imagination itself will stagger like a tired paramour of ivory
      under the sculptural necessities of lust that never falters
      like a six-mile runner from Sweden or Liberia covered with gold
as lava flows up and over the far-down somnolent city’s abdication
and the hermit always wanting to be lone is lone at last
and the weight of external heat crushes the heat-hating Puritan
      who’s self-defeating vice becomes a proper sepulchre at last
      that love may live
—for the upcoming issue, O’Hara’s writes (9 March 1958):
. . . I traded Mike Goldberg three poems for a painting-on-paper (“Ode to Joy,” “Ode on Lust,” and “Ode on Necrophilia”) with the agreement that he owned the originals just as I own the painting, and if one were printed it would be acknowledged, just as if I loaned the painting. Can we acknowledge this without seeming silly? . . . If the painting were borrowed by an institution similar to PR, say [the Museum of Modern Art], it would be “Lent by Frank O’Hara, NY, NY.” What could we use for the poem? “Courtesy of Michael Goldberg”? . . . It becomes quite laughable, doesn’t it? But I think it is a nice thing for us poets that someone recognize a poem’s tangibility in terms of value and would like to do it if we can. Perhaps we will some day see the chance to walk into Sidney Janis with a long poem and say, “Here you are Sidney, 550 lines and I’ll take Gorky’s The Calendars” . . . Anyhow, Larry [Rivers] (whose original idea it was) has also traded me a drawing for two poems, so we may as well get it set now. I’m quite a horse-trader, eh?
(Three years later Gorky’s The Calendars, owned by Nelson Rockefeller, is destroyed by fire in the Executive Mansion at Albany.)

Frank O’Hara, in “Helen Frankenthaler”:
One of her strengths is this very ability to risk everything on inspiration, but one feels that the work is judged afterward by a very keen and even erudite intelligence. Headlong as her moments of creation would appear to be, one also senses behind the apparent disregard for the “look” of anyone else’s painting a profound awareness of pertinent elements (to absorb or to avoid) . . .
And talk of “whether to ‘make the picture’ or ‘let it happen’”: “Each has its pitfall, the one dry formalism, the other a complete mess. I do not know that one area of risk is greater than another, and doubtless the strong temperament finds that no decision can be made . . .” Which sounds like O’Hara’s own headlong and stymied vacillatory frieze: “I am guarding it from mess and measure.” Turns out O’Hara’s writing the Frankenthaler piece with difficulty, puts it off and writes “Hôtel Transylvanie”—dated 12 December 1959, and, incredibly enough, included in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945–1960 (indicating the unsettled pitch and flux of that volume’s contents)—sending it, too, along to Frankenthaler in a letter dated 18 December 1959: “Here is a footnote to your catalog—I wrote it out of frustration at not being able to get on with the piece about you, while listening to Manon, too . . . Most of it comes from the gambling scene in the 4th act (and apparently a few other things on my mind too) . . .” Isn’t some of O’Hara’s thinking about Frankenthaler leaking into “Hôtel Transylvanie” itself?
          you will always live in a jealous society of accident
you will never know how beautiful you are or how beautiful
the other is, you will continue to refuse to die for yourself
and they will know as they listen with excessive pleasure that you’re dead
and they will not mind that they have let you entertain
at the expense of the only thing you want in the world/you are amusing
as a game is amusing when someone is forced to lose as in a game I must
Summarily diffident, “lyrical to a fault.” O’Hara in “the throes of certainty” (to attempt a figure oxymoronickal and sharp). See: “you know that I am not here to fool around, that I must win or die / I expect you to do everything because it is of no consequence . . .” Or the fierce jocularity of the ending:
                                                                  I will sell the hotel and commit
an uninteresting suicide in Louisiana where it will take them a long time
to know who I am / why I came there / what and why I am and made to happen
The odd double-barrelled zeugma of “what and why I am and made to happen”—being becoming fate by means of sheer syntax.

In a letter to Ashbery dated 13 October 1959 regarding “In Favor of One’s Time” (originally carrying the convict movie monicker “Outbreak in Favor of One’s Time”), O’Hara writes:
. . . suppose I drop the “Outbreak” in the title, which I found rather melodramatic and which tends to make the gentleness of the closing anticlimactic and call it “In Favor of One’s Own Time,” or should it be simply “In Favor of One’s Time”? I tend to like One’s for some reason, but am often wrong—as you remember, Kenneth [Koch] had to talk me out of Meditations on an Emergency and into Meditations in an Emergency. Then further: suppose I make the last line [“]and we live outside his garden in pure tempestuous rights[”] or and [same line, without “his garden.”] I like the latter less perhaps, because it is Marvell’s we are living outside and hence the poem is in favor of our own time rather than his, nicher? (as Hans Hofmann says). Or do you think the whole idea of keeping Marvell’s garden in that poem is too conceited even though it is what gave me the lines in question?
Repeating info retrievable out of the “Notes” in O’Hara’s Collected. Though, oddly, Allen quotes the Koch editorial line verbatim, identifying its source as “FOH to John Ashbery, February 1, 1961.” That O’Hara repeated the story: not impossible, not likely. (One recalls—deflatedly—how the piece originally carried the title “Meditations on Re-emergent Occasions.”) O’Hara’s “marvellous” poem:
In Favor of One’s Time

The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous
life suddenly glimmers and leaps into flame
it’s more difficult than you think to make charcoal
it’s also pretty hard to remember life’s marvellous
but there it is guttering choking then soaring
in the mirrored room of this consciousness
it’s practically a blaze of pure sensibility
and however exaggerated at least something’s going on
and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected
will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat

an angel flying slowly, curiously singes its wings
and you diminish for a moment out of respect
for beauty then flare up after all that’s the angel
that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict
as an athlete loves the tape, and we’re off into
an immortal contest of actuality and pride
which is love assuming the consciousness of itself
as sky over all, medium of finding and founding
not just resemblance but the magnetic otherness
that that that stands erect in the spirit’s glare
and waits for the joining of an opposite force’s breath

so come the winds into our lives and last
longer than despair’s sharp snake, crushed before it conquered
so marvellous is not just a poet’s greenish namesake
and we live outside his garden in our tempestuous rights
O’Hara’s undaunted “thrust”: “however exaggerated at least something’s going on.” Marvell’s “The Garden” begins: “How vainly men themselves amaze / To win the palm . . .” (O’Hara’s “athlete loves the tape”) and sees, too, how “The gods who mortal beauty chase, / Still in a tree did end their race.” O’Hara’s full tilt “tempestuous” refusal of the mind’s sere reductions (Marvell’s “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade”), every force conjoined / opposed by its windy counterforce.

Arshile Gorky, “The Calendars,” 1946-7

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

O’Hara’s Reverdy

Pierre Reverdy, 1889-1960

O’Hara and Reverdy. “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” And: “I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it.” Lines that likely pushed any number of O’Hara devotees off in search of the work of the poet who wrote “le poète est bien l’homme le plus englué de tous ceux qui peuvent être sur la terre, dans la pâte épaisse de la vie” (roughly: “the poet, of all earth’s beings, is the one most stuck in the thick slurry of life”). See O’Hara’s somewhat balder, and eventually squelched “Poetry is life to me.” After O’Hara’s death, a few rather diffident-acting translations (of works by René Char, Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Rilke—along with Reverdy) appeared here and there. I seem to recall some announcement of an eventual volume of O’Hara’s “translations and collaborations” (though where, or by whom, I do not know). It isn’t exactly clear what audience O’Hara himself sought for the works. In a letter to Poetry magazine editor Karl Shapiro (13 August 1954) he writes:
I wonder if these poems seem to have that “translation” quality you remarked to me about in the past? During the last year I’ve spent a lot of time translating in an attempt to clarify my ideas of specifically American diction so that I’d be sure that what I sound like would be what I think the English language is, but who knows? Maybe I just confused things further. —But I have some translations from Hölderlin, Pierre Reverdy, René Char and Jean Genet, if you’re interested in them.
Countering the offhand offer to Shapiro: in a letter to Mortimer Guiney (19 February 1962) O’Hara suggests—regarding the translations of Reverdy in particular—that he “only did them to get close to the poems rather than to put them into English.” In that letter, too, he points to Reverdy’s origin and pull:
John Ashbery drew my attention to Reverdy’s poetry about ten years ago—we were both very excited by his work and I, at least, very influenced by it . . . You will find, though, in a poem written later [“A Step Away from Them”] a reference to how important this was to me . . . It seems to me . . . that . . . I at least for a time was taken over by that lovely quality of walking-along-the-street-conscious-of-moment-by-moment, in some of Reverdy’s poems . . .
Here’s O’Hara’s rendering of Reverdy’s “Pour le moment”—out of the Bill Berkson-edited Best & Company (1969):
Just for Now

Life it’s simple it’s great
The clear sun rings a sweet noise
The song of the bells has died away
The morning passes the light all through
My head is a re-flooded shell
And the chamber I inhabit is finally cleared

A lone ray suffices
A single peal of laughter
My joy which shakes the house
Restrains those who wish to die
With the very notes of its song

I sing false
Ah but isn’t it droll
My mouth wide to all the winds
Launches everywhere its mad notes
Which depart I don’t know how
To fly towards the ears of others

Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the squandered sunshine
At the wall midst the vines the greens
And my arms are stretched towards you

It’s today that I love you
The original:
Pour le moment

La vie est simple et gaie
Le soleil clair tinte avec un bruit doux
Le son des cloches s’est calmé
Ce matin la lumière traverse tout
Ma tête est une rampe allumée
Et la chambre où j’habite est enfin éclairée

Un seul rayon suffit
Un seul éclat de rire
Ma joie qui secoue la maison
Retient ceux qui voudraient mourir
Par les notes de sa chanson

Je chante faux
Ah que c’est drôle
Ma bouche ouverte à tous les vents
Lance partout des notes folles
Qui sortent je ne sais comment
Pour voler vers d’autres oreilles
Entendez je ne suis pas fou
Je ris au bas de l’escalier
Devant la porte grande ouverte
Dans le soleil éparpillé
Au mur parmi la vigne verte
Et mes bras sont tendus vers vous

C’est aujourd’hui que je vous aime
Some odd choices (“a re-flooded shell” for “une rampe allumée” [literally, “a lit ramp”]) and some awkwardnesses (“I sing false” sings a little falsely—the French likely points to simple tunelessness—and “At the wall midst the vines the greens” sounds “off”—the archaic “midst” troubling the attempt at “specifically American diction”). Some felicities: “My mouth wide to all the winds / Launches everywhere its mad notes” is perfect, its momentary velocity mimicking Reverdy (who’s long seemed to me to scuttle and pause, pause and scoot, making difficult any rendering). And: “the squandered sunshine” for “le soleil éparpillé.” Literally, éparpillé points to dispersal, scattering, without the defeated moralism of squandering’s expenditure. I’d argue, here, for squandering’s rage toward restraint (“Retient ceux qui voudraient mourir”): that necessity for momentary joy, “just for now.” Another O’Hara Reverdy, out of the Chicago Review (XXVI / 1, 1974):

Mask that weeps between two tree branches
A carnival evening is quenching
tears that were streaming from its stony eyelids
tears from laughing and from bitterness and from regrets

it’s all retouched
A new day begins
A drunkard comes to
Tells his story to the doorways on the street
Sad story
With him a morning light

It’s raining and your eyelids glitter
The sneezing trees sprinkle the pavement
And by the caves of your nose I watch the moon pass over

The streak of clouds races on the faded sky
To all those who cling against lamp posts
The illusion will be sweet

And dear your austere face
Smiles thinking of the dismal morrow

Passing along the clacking pavement
Avoiding the street where shadows grow thick
High up a light gleams
It’s so tranquil
The lodging that draws you on and awaits you where it is
The night doesn’t care about anything
          But the sky
Perhaps it’s an empty apartment for you
In Reverdy’s “Bloc-Notes et Agenda” one finds the sentence: “Le mépris de la mort ne va pas sans quelque mépris de la vie” (roughly: “Contempt of death is not without some contempt for life”). Reverdy saying yes. Recall O’Hara’s “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” And its overlooked sequel ensuing: “It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass.”