Friday, September 28, 2007

Books & Things

“In the American Marsh”

Little gashes in the fundament. Trying to think why, if Ron Silliman is going at a goodly dizaine or so books simultaneously, there’s so little evidence of it. Little relating, putting one jumpy inevitable under the tent of (or next to) another. My books constantly trash-talk one another, or, better, one’ll begin a sort of auto-boosterism campaign, like a magnet. End up aligning all the others to itself: rose in the dusty filings. And I think, Silliman’s strict compartmentalism is the culprit: fluidity’s rampant exchange (the wave-beach merger, that water-sand turbulent boundarylessness, to put it as messily as possible) is foreign to that project. (Fibonacci sequence or no, the smeary verb of “nature”—its rampancy, its coeval grabbing, its omnidirge—remains outside Silliman’s everyday ken.)

And I think, too, of Ange Mlinko’s recent expert observation regarding the paucity (out of distrust) of figurative language—metaphor—amongst the historical avant-garde and its epigones. (One could argue a whole new lineage / connective tissue in U.S. poetry based on direct “plain speech” versus ramp’d up baroqueries and figures. One that’d put, say, Mark Strand and Robert Creeley in the same boat.)

And I think of Jonathan Mayhew’s recent troubling of the term “deep image,” how it fled its Jungian origins with Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg, and ended up in the shaggy man-paws of Robert Bly and the Sixties cohort. Mayhew’s counting of the word “dark” in John Haines’s Winter News and Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields is misdirect’d: the emphasis is not on “dark” or “deep” (the confusion between the two is merely the result of Frost’s wholesale invasion of the body poetic), it’s on “image.” Everything circa 1968 or so—that is to say, in my own ripe and scuffling years, sopping it all up—swirl’d around the “image,” a word seemingly interchangeable with “metaphor.” Putting one thing into stunning—upsetting of one’s lassitude, adding to one’s knowing, mostly out of a kind of “genteel surreal,” though with power nonetheless—relation with another—that seem’d the thing, that provided the obligatory dangerous frisson. Surreal, though finally straight out of Pound’s ideogrammatic juxtaposing—faces in a crowd, petals on a bough. Bly begins a poem, “Accountants hover over the earth like helicopters, / Dropping bits of paper engraved with Hegel’s name.” (Out of 1967’s The Light Around the Body.) Those who insist on the ubiquity of the confessional mode in that “era” are reading barely, and not widely. Charles Simic’s immensely influential Dismantling the Silence (1971) proceeds (and instructs) invariably by image: “Thumb, loose tooth of a horse” or “Shoes, secret face of my inner life: / Two gaping toothless mouths, / Two partly decomposed animal skins / Smelling of mice-nests.” James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” says nothing about James Wright and everything about the ineffectuality of us all, stuck in a murderous country in a murderous century. (Obverse side of the coin of “if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” There, deludedly or not, everything is possible.)

I think all that and insist: metaphor is no mere décor, no spalling off of isolated (pure, “objectivist”) nominal (or verbal) energy—Dr. Williams didn’t say “No ideas but in one thing”—metaphor is precisely how one “carries” knowledge about, like paper money fold’d against itself, or a book stack’d up against another book: working the dross, the smear, the continuum for relations and sets of relations. Or, as Williams puts it in Paterson (echoing Pound’s “ply over ply,” quoted in Furlani’s Guy Davenport):
        a mass of detail
to interrelate on a new ground, difficultly;
an assonance, a homologue
                                      Triple piled
pulling the disparate together to clarify
and compress.

Tolstoy, in a slump, in a letter dated April 8, 1878 (providing Shklovsky’s title): “. . . Everything seems to be ready for the writing—for fulfilling my earthly duty, what’s missing is the urge to believe in myself, the belief in the importance of my task, I’m lacking the energy of delusion . . .” Which captures the helpless besottedness—and gruff duty—of the damn’d racket of writing anything of worth in this world to a T. For what? So “some day some enterprising grad student [can] comb through Ketjak and identify just how many sentences there were lifted directly from Quine”? (See Silliman’s unbelievably presumptuous self-identifying—a species of “heroic” (or foolish) self-canonizing—of Ketjak with “Ulysses, The Cantos or Finnegans Wake.”) Oh happy day.

Shklovsky: “How nothing in literature begins from a beginning. Rather it’s a collection of various inveterate situations that have a variety of their own epxositions and denouments.” (He talks of the wind, and a sail—a kind of metaphor for that “helpless besottedness” of wind, and writing, and reading too many books simultaneously):
When the sail bends against the wind, it seems that it’s lost.
It’s not. It’s catching the wind and redirecting it along its own path.
And later Shklovsky says: “I am trying to show that the immortality of art lies in correlations.”

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s “Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound,” 1914

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lu Chi’s Wen Fu


I lit out after Lu Chi’s Wen Fu after seeing reference to it in Andre Furlani’s Guy Davenport: a fourth century “Chinese poet’s verse-essay” that calls for a “precise art that impacts no less than radiates, that attends as closely to nature as to the words that would name it, and that weds erudite sense to passionate sensation” (that sere ineffable tension of poised contraries encore). Davenport wrote a reply to Lu Chi, an homage of sorts—an “undated original draft” records what is “simply a verse description of a wasp, combining entomology and etymology to celebrate the insect’s expert rapacity.” On the page Davenport list’d a column of “relevant cognates and derivatives”: “vespiary / vespid / vespa / wasp / waeps / waesp / vesper = Venus / western / Hesperos.” The piece, titled “Poem: For Lu Chi’s Wen Fu (302 A.D.),” begins:
Words, you’ve said, must bring the proper colors,
And there he is, the waeps, wespe, Old Hesper Bee,
Drinking upside down, the gutta with a core of fire . . .
Evidence of seeing wasp and “waeps” (the word itself) with equal diligence and accuracy. (In a letter to Jonathan Williams, December 30, 1966, Davenport—with typical modesty: “I never forget anything I see; it’s words that fade from my mind. I was never meant to have do with words.”)

Lit out and uncover’d Sam Hamill’s translation, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing (Breitenbush Books, 1987). In an Afterword, Hamill offers context, putting Lu Chi’s standing in the history of Chinese letters akin to that of Aristotle’s in the West, “with one paramount distinction: every Chinese poet since the beginning of the fourth century has scrupulously studied the Wen Fu, and most have memorized it.” Hamill:
Lu Chi’s fu, [a term for “rhyme-prose,” that is, lines “irregular in length & rhythm, & rhymed”] . . . is that of the p’ien wen or Double Harness style, so that the poem depends upon a kind of parallelism, often moving two ways at once through the use of deliberate ambiguity: ‘Things move into shadows and they vanish; things return in the shape of an echo.’ And the ‘wen’ of Lu’s Wen Fu is one of the oldest words in Chinese, going back at least three thousand years to the time of the oracle bones where it meant, even then, art—literary as well as plastic art. In it’s most generic sense, wen is simply ‘form or pattern’ wherein meaning & form are united in an inseparable unity. [It’s innumerable stray remarks like that that always led me to puzzlement regarding the hoo-hah Olson made about Creeley’s seemingly obvious version. What’s new about that?] Wen is also ‘writing’ or ‘literature’ in the contexts of its being the most natural mean of expressing the essential ‘heart / mind’ [hsin] of consciousness.
Hamill, too, quotes Stephen Owen’s Traditional Chinese Poetry & Poetics (1985) regarding wen: “In this formulation literature is not truly mimetic: rather it is the final stage in a process of manifestation; & the writer, instead of ‘re-presenting’ the outer world, is in fact only the medium for this last phase of the world’s coming-to-be.” The processual, the conduit, the contrariety of “moving two ways at once.”

What I mark’d off:
He gathers his words & images from those unused by previous generations; his music comes from melodies unplayed for a thousand years or more. [Recycling, archaicisms, under “Beginnings.”]

It is like following a branch to find the trembling leaves, like following a stream to find the spring. [Cf. Olson’s “whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle / / And the dirt / / Just to make clear / where they come from,” or Hans Hofmann’s push / pull, or Heraclitus’s “One fails to see how what is at variance is in agreement with itself: a back-turning structure (palintropos harmoniē) like that of the bow and the lyre,” under “Choosing Words.”

Pure reason is the tree-trunk; style makes beautiful foliage. [Under “Choosing Words.”]

In a single yard of silk, infinite space is found; language is a deluge from one small corner of the heart. [Under “The Satisfaction.”]

Caught between the unborn & the living, the writer struggles to maintain both depth and surface. [Under “Catalogue of Genres.”]

The lyric [shih] articulates the emotions.
Rhymed prose [fu] presents its objects clearly.
Inscriptions [pei] are written simply.
Elegies [lei] contain the tangled webs of grieving and should be kept mournful.
Admonitions [chen] cut against the grain and should be directly written. [Under “Catalogue of Genres.”]

Knowing order is like opening a dam in the river.
Not knowing is like grabbing the tail to direct the head of the dragon. [Under “On Harmony.”]

There are no new ideas, only those which rhyme with certain classics. [Under “On Originality.”]

When the rhythm is slack and has no tradition, the poem falters. [Hearing Pound in Hamill, hearing Pound in all post-Cathay translations, under “The Five Criteria: Music”]

Know when the work should be full, and when it should be compacted; know when to lift your eyes and when to look closely, to scrutinize. [Under “Finding Form”]
And, with midnight’s hour hand toppling into day, read Viktor Shklovsky (in Energy of Delusion) admitting that the way poetry “grows” is “by reconstituting its own origins.”


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Zoo, or Letters Not about Love


Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo’s a disappointment: slack, bellying out with idle observations, one finds no reason to think “Alya”—Elsa Triolet née Kagan, Russian / French writer later married to Louis Aragon—worth the (too scantily ironic) sighing. I do like the report that “Marina Tsvetaeva says that Pasternak resembles both an Arab and his horse.” And, too, the report “how disarmingly amenable to everything” Andrei Bely is. How—in writing—“method,” an incomprehensible thing, inevitably emerges, even if one begins writing “as a joke”: “A man writing something big is like the driver whose 300-horsepower car dashes him against a wall—as if of its own volition.”

The report detailing the stunts at the Scala Theater on Lutherstrasse (Berlin) amused me a little—the spinning trapeze artists who apparently “turned into green vases,” the “repulsive man” who sank “teeth into the back of three or four heavy chairs that had been strapped together and lifted them off the floor,” the bicyclists who rear’d up on hind wheels and rode about “in no particular hurry, blowing, all of them, on trumpets.” Shklovsky: “Such a big program cannot be crammed into one sentence.” And the discontinuity of the theatrics points Shklovsky toward a thesis of seeing art as “a world of independently existing things.” “Words,” he says, “and the relationships between words, thoughts and the irony of thoughts, their divergence—these are the content of art. Art, if it can be compared to a window at all, is only a sketched window.” In that “thoughts and the irony of thoughts” one longs to see something akin to the Blakean “Without contraries is no progression,” or the Heraclitan “cooperate through opposition, and make a harmony of separate forces. Wholeness arises from distinct particulars; distinct particulars occur in wholeness” (Guy Davenport’s translation). And—out that “sketched window”—the William Carlos Williams clarity:
To transcribe the real creates, by the same act, an unreality, something besides the real which is its transcription, since the writing is one thing, what it transcribes another, the writing a fiction, necessarily so.
I like Shklovsky’s idea of the “connective tissue”—what (historically) binds the “independently existing things” together—psychological motive, the hero, comic interludes. “When works of art are undergoing change, interest shifts to the connective tissue.” (What’s the connective tissue today? The impercipient smear of irony, the dumb’d-down repetitious little-girl-style talk (or little-boy), worn-out Marx-buzz, smarmy Debordist drifts of the inaccrochably leisured, archaickal mannerist hysteria? I don’t know—though I got my candidates. Likely something only retrospectedly identifiable.) What’s required (according to Shklovsky): no connective tissue, sheer weight of individual components. (Though he mentions a clown who “runs through all the acts, parodying and exposing them.” Eventual “baring the device” talk?)

The other Shklovsky-discern’d danger: becoming all connective tissue. The danger of art’s losing—pre-globally—“the local, the vital, the differentiated”: “art needs its own smell.”

Why the persistence of a supposed kinship between Shklovsky’s disdain for a long-nosed Hispano-Suiza automobile—“extremely dubious and forced”—and Guy Davenport’s insistence, by way of Heraclitus, on a plenum, a universe with no room for “connective tissue”? Shklovsky claims the Hispano-Suiza “uses its hood as a disguise: there is a space of almost two feet between the radiator and the engine . . . a lie made expressly for snobs; that two feet is a violation of good design.” He consigns the memory of “Alya” “to that void inside the Hispano-Suiza.” (“Tragic endings . . . are inevitable in an epistolary novel.”) Against which, tightly, one puts the stuff of Andre Furlani on Davenport: “Herakleitos intuits the universe as a plenum. This recommends the thinker to Davenport. ‘There is no nothing,’ he writes in a November 12, 2002 letter. ‘There couldn’t be.’” In the late story “The Owl of Minerva” one of Davenport’s precocious teenagers—mimicking a geologist uncle—asserts that science’ll finally make clear that “there’s no nothing, that the whole fucking clockworks is stuff, with the intervals between things a different kind of stuff that we poor ignoramuses call nothing.”

In the 1924 Preface to the Second Edition:
       So many words are forbidden.
       . . . all the good words are faint with exhaustion.
       Forbidden are flowers, the moon, eyes and whole rows of words telling how pleasant it is to see.
       . . . I would like to write as if literature had never existed—for example, “Lovely is the Dnieper in quiet weather.”
       I cannot; irony devours the words. It is needed, irony; it is the easiest way to overcome the difficulty of depicting things.
       To depict the world as absurd is easiest of all.
In the next sentence, Shklovsky notes “an enormous, almost authentic moon”—a thing suddenly made heartbreakingly inexpressible.

Viktor Shklovsky, 1893-1984

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Zaum, Zaum, Zaum


Out of Khlebnikov’s ornithological observations (compleat with collecting details):
       Gen. Erythropus Brehm. Sp. vesperlinus Linn. In the area of the Pavdinsk Preserve, the red-footed falcon is quite a common bird. It can be found only in those places where individual, preferably dead, trees tower in the air, be it a swamp, covered with grass or bushes, pasturage, mountain tops at the treeline, or dense woods, preferably larch, where large individual trees stick out. In the autumn the red-footed falcons’ departure was observed. On the day of departure, from early morning on, the trees at the pasture were scattered with their hunched, motionless figures (up to 11 birds on a single tree). Over the course of several hours the birds sat motionless, precisely as if something kept them there, and only a few of them took wing and made a few circles before coming to land again. At about twelve noon the red-footed falcons took off. We were able to watch those in the front landing on treetops, letting the widely spread-out flock fly by overhead and then catching up with it again.
       Killed one October 11 on a steep slope near the village of Melekhino; another October 25 at the top of Pavdinsk Rock.
Turns out Khlebnikov’s father, a prominent naturalist and ornithologist, encouraged the keeping of a notebook, recording observations of natural phenomena, drawing, classifying, collecting, all of that. Too, Khlebnikov noted bird calls during that 1905 excursion, here (rather anthropomorphically) a nutcracker:
The nutcracker often sits for a while with closed eyes after feeding, ruffling its feathers and evidently reveling in the sound of its voice, as if recounting something of its impressions of the day in its own strange language: “pee-oo, pee-oo, pee-oo,” it moans painfully and piteously; pee-ee, pee-ee, pee-ee,” it pipes in a delicate voice, like the cry of the hazel grouse; then insistently and intelligently “knya, knya, knya”; then switches to muttering, “kya, kya, kya”; then trembling with intensity, almost as if it were angry, and ruffling its feathers, it makes a rude hoarse hiss.
I love the easy reach between that kind of world sense-making and things like Khlebnikov’s later analysis of “the simple names of language,” cataloguing of sound’s relation to meaning. Here, on the letter M:
       With m begin names signifying the very smallest members of several sets of things.
       The plant world: mokh [moss] (a toy forest), murava [grass] (compared to a tree).
       The insect world: moshka [midge], mukha [fly], mol’ [clothes moth], muravei [ant] (cf. the size of beetles and birds), motylek [moth].
       The animal world: mys’ [squirrel], mysh’ [mouse] (in relation to elephants, elks). Among fishes there is the little fish called men’ [minnow].
       The world of grains: zerna maka [poppy seed].
       The world of fingers: the smallest, mizinets [the little finger].
       The world of time: mig [instant]—the smallest time division—and makh [in a trice].
       The world of words about words: molvit’ [to utter] (to say something once).
       In the set of abstract quantities: malyi [small], makhon’kii [wee], men’shii [least] (from the word men’), melochi [trivia], melkii [petty].
       In these 19 words that begin with m, we see the shifting play of one and the same concept—the quantitatively smallest member of a given category.
And elsewhere Khlebnikov’s sense of the fluidity, permeability of language, relating it to dolls, where one “may arrange a marriage between two rags figures indistinguishable one from the other except perhaps for their blunt flat heads.” He writes: “So we may come to an understanding of language as playing with dolls: in language scraps of sound are used to make dolls and replace all the things in the world. . . . And so a word is a sound doll, and a dictionary is a collection of toys. . . . And if we take a combination of these sounds in an unrestricted order, such as bo beh o bee, or dyr bul shchyl, or manch! manch! or chee breo zo!, then we obtain words that do not belong to any particular language but that do say something; something elusive but real nevertheless.” Putting one into zaum territory, smartly translated here* as “beyonsense.” My “sense” of zaum perceptibly shifting—is it not nearly akin to the radio receptor / Martian conduit of Spicer? That familiar trance-like state of writing (when one knows only subsequently that one wrote)? “Words” arrive unbid, merely claim’d. One “uses” words one’d no idea one “knew.” (They turn out to “go” perfectly into whatever emerges (think of the chemical developing tray in pre-digital photography), its context.) Khlebnikov’s claim for zaum depends partially on consonantal categories. Which is to say, music governing “all.” Khlebnikov’s two premises, that “beyonsense language enter the realm of sense”:
       1. The initial consonant of a simple word governs all the rest—it commands the remaining letters.
       2. Words that begin with an identical consonant share some identical meaning; it is as if they were drawn from various directions to a single point in the mind.
* Here means the first volume of the Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov: Letters and Theoretical Writings, translated by Paul Schmidt and edited by Charlotte Douglas (Harvard University Press, 1987).

Red-footed Falcon
(Photograph by Jan-Michael Breider)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Andre Furlani’s Guy Davenport

A Window

“We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates.” So Emerson, in “Quotation and Originality.”

“The problems are solved not through the contribution of new knowledge, rather through the arrangement of things long familiar.” Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations.

“I can claim the effort, at least, of making prose ideograms in emulation of Pound’s poetic ones. An ideogram gathers components into a molecular structure that has charm rather than demonstrable sense.” And: “My method of serial collage is not all that different from Homer’s inserting family histories, myths, and long lists of ships into descriptions of battles.” Out of the “Circumspectus” to Guy Davenport’s novella Wo es war, soll ich werden, print’d in a limited edition by the Finial Press. (A document—judging by these statements—one’d love to see made available outside the confines of the collector-milieu.)

All that out of Andre Furlani’s terrific Guy Davenport: Postmodernism and After (Northwestern University Press, 2007). A criticical mimic-structure, assembling those particular lines. Furlani deftly notes how that selecting and arranging is not automated, is not random higgledy-piggledy, not, to quote the Russian critic Belinsky on Gogol, some “inflated and sluttish hullaballoo of words and phrases,” saying of Davenport’s (fictive) prose ideograms that they
are not an overturned Poundian mailbag of bafflingly oblique association but an architecture of clearly defined masses in relation. Davenport’s discrete paragraphs are stanzas, and a stanza, he likes to remind us, is an Italian “room.” And the walls of a Davenport stanza are weight bearing, supporting a whole vaulting and entablature of demonstrable sense.
Recognizing that postmodernism’s become a nigh-useless catchall term for a variety of sometimes contradictory beliefs and practices, part of Furlani’s argument is to place Davenport in a “distinct phase of American postmodernism, the signal figures of which have been poets inspired by Pound and his circle, preeminently Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky.” (And of Davenport’s contemporaries, Jonathan Williams and Ronald Johnson.) Furlani: “While rejecting the universalist criteria and political ideologies of many modernists, these artists maintain continuity with them by seeking out large sustaining structures immanent in nature, apparent in history, and available to some degree to language. They retain a modernist interest in primitive cosmologies, nonrepresentational art, collage technique, and natural history.” Measured particulars, right proportions, just harmonies. Davenport in the 2004 document “Circumspectus” retains the classical gist: “The great good hope of a narrative is that it end in a harmony.” (Furlani, too, points to Davenport’s 1978 reading of Zukofsky, contra the “nominalism of the language poets”:
The Zukofsky admired as a precursor of language poetry Davenport would not recognize. “The precision of his mind demanded a heterogenous and improbable imagery,” he writes in a tribute published in Paideuma. Surmounting difficulties was his daimon. When enough people become familiar with ‘A’ so that it can be discussed, the first wonder will be to show how so many subjects got built into such unlikely patterns, and what a harmony they all make.”
(Reminding me of the purported finish’d Hugh Kenner manuscript about Zukofsky: a recent look through the Kenner archive list fail’d to uncover evidence of such a thing.)

Davenport’s insistence on exactitude. One of the first poems he publish’d (1948), with the terrific and modest title “Exact Observations of Several Phenomena.” Containing reference to “the obscene bluejay bird / Squalling mawsome, witless things.”

Furlani’s wonderful description of a paint’d Davenport portrait:
In the closest thing to a self-portrait he was willing to attempt (and characteristically abandoned), he painted himself in youthful middle age gazing directly in three-quarter profile within a polychrome meshwork of citations, staves, and ideograms, flanked by a horsehair-helmeted hoplite and an archaic athlete, and among homages to Leo Frobenius, Blaise Cendrars, and Sister Rosetta Tharp. Below the fragment of an Italian obituary for Francis Picabia are two complete phrases. The first is a Pythagorean saw that glosses the synthetic logic of the portrait, “I am also others.” The second is an ancient Egyptian maxim, in Boris de Rachewiltz’s Italian version: “Il paradiso per un uomo è la sua buona natura.” Davenport put the adage into English as he put it into his life and work: “A man’s paradise is his good nature.”
Range (curiosity) and precision and simplicity and modesty.

Elsewhere, reading, too, Viktor Shklovsky’s 1923 Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, translated by Richard Sheldon (1971). Part of a vague intent to examine Shklovsky’s writings. Though what took here is learning that Velimir Khlebnikov (whose “Menagerie” serves for epigraph) travel’d (in 1905) into the Central Urals as a “member of an ornithological expedition.” Hence, the inventions of bird-languages, god-languages. Out of “Menagerie” (1909):
Where the fat and glistening walrus undulates, like a languid beauty, its black, slippery, fan-shaped foot, then leaps into the water; and when it slides once more onto the ramp, upon its massive, greasy body appear the spiny bristles and smooth brow peculiar to the head of Nietzsche.
. . .
Where the gulls, with long beaks and cold, blue eyes that seem ringed by spectacles, resemble international financiers, confirmation of which we find in the adroit way they filch the food thrown to the seals.

Guy Davenport and Velimir Khlebnikov

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

Milkweed Pods

Kit Robinson. Big picture lingo. A kind of skimming along the surface of a decade or two. Poles and skews that one attempts to read as dialectic, not always successfully. Stasis versus virtuosity (two incomparables). Memoir made of catchwords (keywords): “Smithson built a low mound of words. Coolidge dented it.” Is there a big skew (“aporia”) between Robinson’s calling poetry “a way to assert autonomy through a drastic reduction in scale” (in a context where the “pace and scale of world events” is “terrifying and out of control”—Vietnam, obviously, though one’d note that every generation probably experiences the world similarly) and Robinson’s noting that the Language poetry’s “formalism was deeply grounded in an engagement with history as experience”? Isn’t one engagé or not? Is there a skew between Robinson’s pointing to the ways the era’s “questioning, even contentious environment helped focus attention, provoke writing activity” and Robinson’s claiming that “in an environment of shifting standards and contradiction a sense of esprit de corps became critical.” Romping through the contradictory, is that enough?

Robinson suggests that Vietnam “bequeathed to Silicon Valley a boatload of radical characteristics: the sense of continuous emergency, the sense of no higher authority, the dependence on improvisation, the endless hours of engagement, the exhaustion and fatigue, the intensely combative mentality, the sacrifice, the camaraderie.” “I wonder,” as Jonathan Williams likes to say, quoting Ronald Firbank. Isn’t that list simply “business as usual” in the land of commodity capitalism run amuck? Isn’t it the old “can do,” snafu, God’s on our side rigmarole one’s encounter’d all up and down even the most streamlined (for palatability) American myth? That ruddy makeshift American soul, manifesting its destiny. When what’s needed is a little refusal, a little sleeping-in hermitry, and lonely gearing down into the splendors of the earth.

“Steady-state poetics dictated an all-over approach.” Robinson calls Watten’s Progress “the consummate all-over poem, laying everything all out at once, like Pollack, presenting the deep structures entirely out on the surface.” One: (Steady state theory is also known as continuous creation theory—the density of matter in the universe is constant over space and time and, since the universe’s constant expanding is “required” (for other reasons), new “matter”—like poems—needs to be continuously produced. The whole thing’s doubtful, anyhow, discredited by the discovery of Big Bang’s resultant background radiation. Admittedly, I keep thinking “solid-state poetics” and picturing Robinson in stereo salesman get-up, rattling affably about “no vacuum tubes, no moving parts”—which, latter, is probably true in the case of Progress.) Two: didn’t Frank O’Hara already do that all-over Pollock thing, with “Second Avenue” (“intended consciously to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious”)?

Ron Silliman. Mercifully short. More of the trademark self-demography: poems publish’d in six different journals in 1975 (one in self-edit’d selection in the “proto-anthology” in Alcheringa, so, count five); in seven different journals in 1976. Beginnings of a “tendency.” Beginnings of magazines identify’d with that “tendency.” Geographical considerations (which, with the mobility of the era, is rather a slippery thing to pin anything to—wasn’t, say, Tod Kabza of Flora Danica in and out of both San Francisco and Boston in the mid-’seventies, and, too, about to leave Ann Arbor for Ithaca)? Magazines always maintain’d more regular addresses (say, chez one’s parents) than editors did. Silliman’s argument is—vaguely—first allegiance to the local (San Francisco), as opposed to various distant editors; the San Francisco local’s cohesion (“deeply & intuitively”), as opposed to the Eastern “more loosely federated” bloc. “We coaxed, challenged, prodded one another, by example as much anything else, but also by talking, not just at the talks, but all the time.” Goodness.

Part of Silliman’s 1976 statement in the Michael Lally-edited None of the Above: New Poets of the USA: “when Coolidge & then Grenier extended the definition of language beyond discourse, it seemed that a reinvestigation of the whole act of writing was not only possible, but necessary. Any other tendency now is mere decoration.” Part of Silliman’s poem, “Berkeley”:
           I play a little at it
         I’ve rung them three times
     I stood on my own two feet
I will see him there
       I begin to recognize where I am
                     I will tell you
       I protest my innocence of these things
                 I only heard by accident
             I tell you all women are dead
I could hardly believe my own eyes
                         I could find nothing to say
       I undertook to deliver the letters and the box
                   I would do the same
               I’m going back with you
                       I shall keep this spot in sight
         I can only speak for myself
                             I was impatient
                     I squeaked for joy . . .

Nabokov claims that “the worst plight that a writer can be in” is to’ve “lost the gift of imagining facts,” thinking rather “that facts may exist by themselves”:
The trouble is that bare facts do not exist in a state of nature, for they are never really quite bare: the white trace of a wrist watch, a curled piece of sticking plaster on a bruised heel, these cannot be discarded by the most ardent nudist. A mere string of figures will disclose the identity of the stringer as neatly as tame ciphers yielded their treasure to Poe. The crudest curriculum vitae crows and flaps its wings in a style peculiar to the undersigner.
So, “language beyond discourse.”

Kit Robinson Reading

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

Some Letters

Why the obfuscatory code of initials Barrett Watten deploys in pamphlet three, all that reference to C—, L—, H—, the “other C—,” and D—, as if one’d got struck in the head by a fat nineteenth-century Russian novel? What’s liberatory about withholding knowledge? (Okay, most of it’s a puny historical lather of congresses and couplings—and who cares about who had sex with whom, frankly the whole subject (with name of Watten append’d) is enough to set my teeth achattering, arctic airs nipping the taiga, its conifers . . .) Except: why, say, code-name “N—”? N— visits:
I do not remember the day N— visited the apartment Ron and I shared at 17th and Missouri in 1974. There was someone at the door. Who was that, I asked? Oh, some guy who came up from Santa Barbara because he was interested in my work. What do you think of him? I’m not sure. What could such a visitation have meant to either of us at the time?
A “visitation”? (Betray’d by language: sounds like N—’s either a godlet or an alien.) Later Watten meets N— in New York, in the company of Ted Greenwald and Tom Raworth (names spell’d out here). Watten: “We had a heated discussion over the question of originality, and whether his writing could be compared to mine. I argued for their difference; he insisted that there was something in common between us. I had not yet seen much of his work—and would not publish any of it until 1978 in This 9.” Whom, it is now permissible to inquire, wedging one’s monocle into the cave of ’s one good optic, did Watten first include in said issue? Alan Bernheimer, Charles Bernstein, Abigail Child, Christopher Dewdney, Michael Gottlieb, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian. Scratch the women, unless Watten’s being particularly devilish with what now seems less simple initial (no N’s in evidence in the magazine), and more spurious cover. On the heels of the “revelatory” This 9 comment, Watten writes: “That same year saw the beginning of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (but not the concept of language in poetry, as is now understood). We then walked halfway up Manhattan, talking nonstop all the way . . .” And, new paragraph, (wherein Watten scrutinizes the experience “like / you’re supposed to . . . if you can type”):
A moment of othering, in retrospect, for which I ought to have been more prepared. I often found myself in N—’s presence, talking nonstop. It was his refusal as well, which we both evidently enjoyed. There is a resistance of two languages that refuse to coincide—midway between enjoyment and denial. What is the relation of this moment to the concept of language?
So. One’d willingly put the one’s whole ratty collection of This offprints (and the second-wave feminist boot-heel tromp’d copy of The Maintains) up against anybody’s denial that the seeming alpha-male that is N— is Charles Bernstein. B-b-b-but: why the subterfuge? That business about the “resistance of two languages that refuse to coincide”? I think that’s call’d argument, or, pigheaded argument or, mutually pigheaded argument. It’s upshot is usually either a liberatory restless uncertainty (no ground), or adamant ideology-mongering (see stuck-in-the-mud-ism.)

Sidetrack’d by re-reading the Watten lines. (Admittedly, I’d only pick’d amongst the entrails previously—crow with squirrel.) Ted Pearson writes a fine appraisal of “the problem of other minds”—clarity of argument (“we can know other minds exist because, as social beings whose existence entails our interdependence, our concept of mindedness is socially constructed (in natural language, and among other minds) and, as Wittgenstein convincingly argues, words qua concept are defined through application in communally practiced language games”) interspliced with situating memoir-snippets. Two things jump out.

One: Pearson writes, after recalling the project’s origins / emergence / hatch in 1973 “in the park on Ile Rousseau” in Geneva: “Now completed, The Tune’s Image comprises eighteen books in a single serial work.” Terrific news. Latecomer to Pearson’s work that I am—I first read it in Songs Aside: 1992-2002 (Past Tents, 2003) and liked it enough to put it in my Attention Span list that year (and to scoop up—in a complicated exchange—several earlier books that Peter Riley had.) It’ll be a pleasure to see it whole.

Two: Pearson’s attempt’d rebuttal to the “closed shop” version of Language-writing history. He writes:
One sometimes hears that, in those days, the Language poets ran a closed shop—a perception of exclusionary practices that apparently persists in some quarters. And I want to take that up. [Faintly Bush-inflect’d querulous weary-whiney tone there?] In my experience, [Old hand talk.] such claims reflect the social or literary anxieties (if not anomie) [Terrific word: undistributed lawlessness, wrong usage, uncustomary doings, see nimble.] of their claimants, who then project these anxieties onto others who are presumed to have caused or to have failed to allay them.
Brilliant the way popular Freudianism gets used to slip off the hook of something that is already apparent in the mere phrase “the problem of other minds.” “Problem”? Witness Pearson’s own desire to put it “under erasure”: “Parsing Barrett’s question, I was drawn to the verb “address”—and then given pause by its object, “the problem of other minds.” My first thought was: put “the problem” under erasure and proceed to the question of address.” Or witness Rae Armantrout’s earlier admission of “wondering whether I was in or out of the new nexus.” If its “members” see fit to query standing so openly, isn’t it fair to assume some control leverage in the works, probably more obvious to an outsider? Pearson’s language is riddled with the language of control: I am partial to “claimant” with its quasi-legal dismissiveness. (Henceforth, I’ll begin my notes: “May I please approach the bench?”) I am partial, too, to “anomie,” and “social and literary anxieties,” an hilarious attempt to fob off consider’d (negative) criticism on some disorder’d individual, some misfit maladapt’d, some heinous social romantic, some “I don’t have any paper so shut up” kind of uncontrollable ape . . .

This 1, Edited by Barrett Watten and Robert Grenier

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Jean Echenoz’s Ravel

Three Windows

In Jean Echenoz’s recent novella Ravel (The New Press, 2007), he writes (translated by Linda Coverdale) of the eponymous hero:
Five feet three inches; ninety-nine pounds; thirty inches around the chest. Ravel had the build of a jockey and thus of William Faulkner who, at the time, is dividing his life between two cities (Oxford, Mississippi and New Orleans), two books (Mosquitoes and Sartoris) and two whiskeys (Jack Daniel’s and Jack Daniel’s).
Odd to think of Faulkner so tiny. It’s 1927 and the Gauloise-puffing Maurice Ravel is crossing the Atlantic towards the States aboard the paquebot France, reading Conrad’s The Rover in a newly-translated Jean-Aubry edition (Frère-de-la-côte). Odd to see a writer so expert with myriad historical details with so deft a hand—and so warm. Echenoz’s irony turns a wry and feeling eye at our human foibles and defeats, rarely adjudges. A reminder of Nabokov here (though Nabokov’s capable of a causticity Echenoz mostly avoids): “Deck chairs like these, soon to appear in gardens and on beaches, on terraces and balconies, are currently to be found only on the decks of transatlantic lines, which appellation they will keep, out of attachment, when they set foot ashore.” That animated furniture, nigh-cartoonish. That tiny glee in the inappropriateness of a portable language.

Ravel’s Boléro as machine art: “something based on the assembly line”:
He knows perfectly well what he has made: there’s no form, strictly speaking, no development or modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short it’s a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple welling of sound. Phrase run into the ground, thing without hope or promise: there, he says, is at least one piece Sunday orchestras won’t have the cheek to put on their programs.
Though: “it’s somewhat disconcerting but it works.” Zupped up by the irremediable gluttony for the new. (Hard, in retrospect, to decamp out of its familiarity to find its factory origin intact.) And: where’s the comparable poem, lacking “development or modulation”? All I think of is Ron Padgett’s “Nothing in That Drawer.” Think of Padgett performing its fourteen titular-mimic lines à la Boléro to a deafening snarly crescendo. (Entirely too literal a translation, music to poetry. Think harder.)

Story of how Wittgenstein’s brother Paul, a pianist, return’d, post-WWI, prisoner in Russia, deport’d to Siberia, missing a right arm and, undiscouraged, “logically devoted himself” to works written for the left hand alone. Commission’d a work by Ravel. And, in Vienna, at the premiere, attended by Ravel, Wittgenstein monkey’d with the score, “piling stuff on, adding arpeggios here, extra measures there, embroidering trills, rhythmic shimmies, and other performance embellishments that no one had asked him for, appoggiaturas and gruppetti, racing up the keyboard into the high notes at every opportunity to show how skilful he is, how clever he is, how supple he still is, and how he’s telling you all to go to hell.” Claiming: “performers must not be slaves.” Ravel: “Performers are slaves.”

Story of Ravel’s work for piano call’d Frontispice “which consists of no more than fifteen measures, lasts no longer than two minutes, but requires no less than five hands.”

Story of being invited (with other notables) by André Breton (a man “highly suspicious of music”—like all ideologues) to the office of the surrealist journal Minotaure to make lampblack’d hand prints for analysis by one Dr. Lotte Wolff. “Her commentary has been preserved: He’s a complete idiot.”

Stories of how Ravel’s language begins to flee him (“it’s as if his ideas, whatever they are, always remained trapped in his brain”). He spends eight days writing a letter, “forced . . . to look up all the words in the Larousse dictionary so that he could write them down.”

Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937

Jean Echenoz

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes


In the “Preface” to The Anathemata, David Jones writes:
Poetry is to be diagnosed as ‘dangerous’ because it evokes and recalls, is a kind of anamnesis of, i.e. is an effective recalling of, something loved. In that sense it is inevitably ‘propaganda,’ in that any real formal expression propagands the reality which caused those forms and their content to be. There are also to be considered the contingent and more remote associations which those forms and their content may evoke. There is a sense in which Barbara Allen is many times more ‘propagandist’ than Rule Britannia. The more real the thing, the more it will confound their politics.
What would call for a spouting of homegrown elegiac lyric, an intentional turning back, a slowing down, foot-dragging against the rabid boisterous machine, the suck of futurity commandeer’d by global capital. Luddite verse. Refusal of the “reality which caused those forms and their content to be” (Department of Defense). What is more confoundingly real—meaning inextinguishable, ungloss’d, plangent: a cabbage, a picture of a cabbage, a song about a man with a cabbage head? (Under my cloak, a song about a man with a cabbage head for the king.)

Why, thinking about the efficacy of poetry, would I keep recalling a few lines out of Barrett Watten’s log in the recent snatch of The Grand Piano? He’s retro-worrying about where he’d come up with $900 for a Saab, and, in an oddly presumptuous brief, writes:
Mechanics who dealt with me at the time hated to see me coming. I remember a series of love / hate relationships with mechanics. I must have conveyed an affect of raw vulnerability and unfocused aggression to them. An effect of the exposure I had been through—to nothing they could imagine.
A curious four sentences amidst what is mostly a series of recollectings of “the designated others,” and “dazzling” and “revelatory” sex (“The sincerity of sex is finding oneself at the extreme of desire, and locating another there.” Which sounds like a successful field trip, if nothing else.) The mechanics though, plunk’d into the middle of Watten’s ruminant regarding of “the problem of other minds”—a rather unwelcoming way to put it: whence the completely confident idea that they’d be incapable of conceiving the “exposure” Watten’d “been through”? The audacity! (as my English grandmother’d say). To so automatically and prooflessly put oneself beyond another human’s comprehension, raring up like a stallion . . .

Throughout the Watten piece is dribbled lines out of something he and Benson cook’d up in 1978 (“after a disastrous encounter with a person of the opposite sex”—odd way to talk). Titled “Non-Events”:
Pale submission arises in the climate
                of relative work. Death becomes
                a small building in a blinding wind.
Every trivial verity dislocates the perfect
tower of dreams. The private tension
                telescopes horizons into points.
Hysteria annihilates clear ideas to clash
of precursors bursting through technique.
Whatever. Singable (to the tune of “Barbara Allen”) by some “other mind,” (“but not mine,” as Patti Smith used to snarl.) Watten writes: “To accomplish my portion [odd way to talk] of the text, I sampled material from two sources: the opaque manifestoes of the Russian Constructivists and the personal / processual epic of Theodore Enslin, which I have said I disliked. Self met other in a capacious unfolding of obdurate language.” (Add easily-made stinging rejoinder here. “Stinging” “with” “humor.”)

One succumbs to notes. Is there an undue emphasis on “error and vulnerability” (“it is essential to overcome such defective aspects of one’s personality”)? In the fine labor of typesetting and correcting proofs, for christ’s sake? Odd references to armor and order and control permeating the clips: “A primitive continent in the head / cries out for armor.” “Muscular ABC’s correspond to / schematic interior stage-settings.” “Daily life arises from fear of reprisal.”

Zukofsky says the function of poetry is to “record & elate.” I’d settle for that. Against this study’d pile of hardware, resisting what exactly? Creeley, according to Watten, put it: “‘The problem with you guys is . . . you’re intellectuals. Too effete. Why don’t you get off it and talk to the people.’” (Which puts a whole different spin to Grenier’s shouting moment: “I HATE SPEECH.”)

“The more real the thing, the more it will confound their politics.”

David Jones, 1885-1974

David Jones, “Petra Gill, Capel-y-ffin,” c. 1920

Monday, September 17, 2007

Nabokov’s Gogol

Two Trucks

In Vladimir Nabokov’s terrific little book about Gogol, one’s inform’d that Gogol’s “big sharp nose was of such length and mobility that in the days of his youth he had been able (being something of an amateur contortionist), to bring its tip and his underlip in ghoulish contact.” And of the grotesque death of Gogol, “put to bed with half-a-dozen plump leeches affixed to his nose.”

Nabokov’s summary of an early Gogol story wherein a man, Ivan Shponka, “a meek, impotent Ukrainian squire” is being bully’d by a “formidable highhanded aunt” into “marrying a neighbor’s big blonde daughter”:
He dreamt that he was already married; and everything in his small house was so very unusual . . . instead of his bachelor’s bed a double one stood in his room; sitting on a chair was his wife. He felt all queer not knowing how to approach her . . . , or what to say, and presently he noticed that she had a goose-face. Happening to turn aside he saw a second wife . . . and she had a goose-face too. He glanced in another direction and lo, there was a third wife standing there; he looked back and saw yet a fourth wife. Dull panic seized him: he ran out into the garden; but it was hot outside and so he took off his hat—and saw a wife sitting in his hat . . . He felt the sweat on his face, groped for his handkerchief—and there was a wife in his pocket; he took the cotton wadding out of his ear—and there sat yet another wife.
After that nuptial onslaught, things unravel. He is skipping on one foot whilst (because) the aunt informs him that he must (“you are a married man”). He attempts a rejoinder and she turns into a belfry. He’s dragged up the belfry by a rope. He asks “Who is dragging me up” and hears “It is I, your wife, dragging you up, because you are a church-bell.” Then Ivan Shponka’s wife becomes a kind of woolen fabric: he is entering a shop where he is told “You had better take some wife, it is the most fashionable stuff, and very solid too—all the gentlemen are marking themselves coats of it nowadays,” only to be told by the tailor to whom he carries a bolt of the stuff that it’s no good, “nobody makes himself clothes of that stuff nowadays.”

Related at length in order to suggest that Gogol pushes beyond the regular scapegoat for that kind of thing: normal revery-itinerary (that dullness, somebody else’s dreams). Making me think the kind of things Daniil Kharms and the OBERIU writers didn’t emerge out of nowhere (though, in skimming around in the Kharms books I locate, I see no mention of Gogol). Kharms himself did though write a short piece titled “Pushkin and Gogol” (1934) wherein—
GOGOL falls out from the wings on to the stage and quietly lies there. PUSHKIN appears on stage, stumbles over GOGOL, and falls.

PUSHKIN: What the devil! Seems I’ve tripped over Gogol!

GOGOL: (Getting up) What a vile abomination! You can’t even have a rest. (Walks off, stumbles over PUSHKIN and falls) Seems I’ve stumbled over Pushkin!

PUSHKIN: (Getting up) Not a minute’s peace! (Walks off, stumbles over GOGOL and falls) What the devil! Seems I’ve tripped over Gogol again!
Et cetera, across the stage into wing opposite. Which surely must come out of Kharms as hydra-head’d mockery: of the two major precursors (stumbling against one another for advantage); of the notion of “belatedness” (something here in Kharms’s attitude is similar to Ginsberg’s Whitman eyeing the grocery boys—making of the “father” something befitting the son—there’s a paragraph, too, in Kharms’s “Anecdotes from the Life of Pushkin,” that goes “Pushkin had four sons and they were all idiots. One of them couldn’t even sit on his chair and kept falling off. Pushkin himself was not very good at sitting on his chair, either. It used to be quite hilarious; they would be sitting at the table; at one end Pushkin would keep falling off his chair, and at the other end—his son. What a pain these saints can be!”). Or “hooligans” (that load’d word of Soviet Russia—Kharms’s Pushkin achronologically accuses Gogol of “sheer hooliganism” after tripping over him . . .

Nabokov suggesting that, with Gogol (fill’d with secondary characters, histrionic asides, dead ends): “the charm of his allusions is exactly that nothing whatever comes of them.” (Gogol’s refusal of that horror of horrors, the well-made story. Nabokov: Gogol’s “knack of thoroughly planning his works after he ha written and published them.”)

Nabokov: “by poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words. True poetry of that kind provokes—not laughter and not tears—but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude—” (Or that peerless purr-less state of near choking, a guppy caught in one’s throat, one’s dainty cat teeth all chomping to stifle a thousand yawns of excitement . . .) One’s liable to experience that very thing when Nabokov—mid-paragraph—suddenly slides off into a “laughter is bury’d in slaughter”-style skid. About Gogol. post-Government Inspector (a big success):
What seems to have tormented him above all was the knowledge of being talked about by thousands of people and not being able to hear, let alone control, the talk. The buzz that reached him was ominous and monstrous because it was a buzz. The pats he received on his back seemed to him to imply ironic sneers directed at people whom he respected, so that these sneers were also directed at himself. The interest that perfect strangers showed in regard to him seemed alive with dark stratagems and incalculable dangers (beautiful word, stratagem—a treasure in a cave). I shall have occasion to speak in quite a different book of a lunatic who constantly felt that all the parts of the landscape and movements of inanimate objects were a complex code of allusion to his own being, so that the whole universe seemed to him to be conversing about him by means of signs.
What book is that? It hardly matters, the swerve into it executed so stunningly. (In any case, it’s not forthcoming.)

Daniil Kharms, 1905-1942

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Local

Local Wall

Milan Kundera writes, apropos a theme in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, that it is “as if a soul’s sorrow could find consolation only in the nonsentience of nature,” and immediately jumps up in defense: “For nonsentience is consoling; the world of nonsentience is the world outside human life; it is eternity; ‘it is the sea gone off with the sun’ (Rimbaud).” It is the way, lying in a field under a perfect blue vault of sky, one’s own verge sops into the surround, and begins, at rest, to sense the planet’s own easeful budge and tip. (Stall’d, one fidgets, improvises.)

One acts out a private version of la perruque, wigging it. (One is officially “writing for Isola”—one, in a kind of “thinking-abeyance,” stymied, block’d, amuses oneself by doing one’s “own” “work”—one is proud of one’s time-pilferage, a way to proceed without proceeding, without resorting to simple absenteeism. Complicity, stoppage, shrinkage: honorable word-scraps in the era of uncontrol’d capitalist mayhem I hoard for my “own” “use.”)

Or, a noctambulistic seizure, out to pace off the acreage. A lopsided line of local honkers flying low, going north. Tree frogs two-stroke rip-sawing in the lower oak-foliage. A solitary bat doing wing-skittery broad circles above the road, caught against the tanking light. Mutter of neighbors. Off closed curtains, cascades and washes of blue television light. The annealing air of autumn’s temporary, it’s unintend’d slide-back into summer.

Thinking about how Barrett Watten recently sneer’d at the “local.” In a “review-a-day” shindig writ, apparently, whilst off dawdling in “Upper Michigan” (one assumes he means the Upper Peninsula). In a piece about Merrill Gilfillan’s Selected Poems, 1965-2000 (Adventures in Poetry, 2005), Watten calls attention to the “datedness” of Gilfillan’s imagination:
There is an implicit sense that whatever is being transcribed of the present already exists in memory; this becomes a figure for the culture he writes in and of, and is objectified in a range of references from a nonexistent hotel on the Mississippi River at Burlington, to the sudden appearance of Edward Hopper painting out of the back of a truck, to the matted pompadours on a Crow reservation.
Is that “datedness”—surely a pejorative in the Watten lexicon (he later, and rather snottily, adds that he still sees “a place” in what he imagines as the “emptied out” “millions of acres of the Midwest” for “a new fact”: “Merrill, will you write a poem on some of the genetics issues surrounding hybrid crops, when you get a chance?”—is it “datedness” or simple elegy, Gilfillan’s prevalent tone, though temper’d precisely by what it is that Watten is unable to read: the accurate detail, the sheer wonder at the variety in the world, natural, geological, historical, scientific, lingual, aural. Watten: “The poetry is all about the pleasure of the local detail, a connoisseurship of the minor, a poetics of the immanent appearance.” Correctly put. Though: why is Watten’s sense of Gilfillan’s local “restricted”? Because, it seems, as Watten puts it at the end of an example of ’s own—I’m sure he’d call it “nature writing,” mostly improper for “a serious character” like himself—where he says: “all things may be redeemed in the aesthetic.” It is the leveling effect of aesthetic arrangement—putting particulars in relation in order to make new attendant structures—that Watten wants to resist. Because, to thieve a remark out of Watten’s own notes on Rob Fitterman’s Metropolis XXX (Edge, 2004): “It is only by immanent critique of the banal surfaces of reification that one can construct a poetics.” Aesthetic arrangements dwell in superficies, refuse the hierarchic. And for Watten, the hierarchic (“I wondered why there wasn’t more sex, but it seemed plowed into the local detail”) is all important. (“Plowed?”)

I see Watten in Wattenland’s now removed reference to my extensive remarks on The Grand Piano completely, adding the squib “I also see no need to link to comments that are personally hostile or repeatedly aggressive—who wants to deal with that?” (I’m not certain how to interpret that last phrase, though it’s hard to avoid the image of, say, Tom Mandel in roustabout clothes, stepping up with a gleeful grin, rubbing ’s hard-leather’d paws together, in a snicker: “Barry, I’d be happy to “deal” with that”) So much for the efficacy of cheerfully taunting negativity, oy!

Merrill Gilfillan

Thursday, September 13, 2007

“Some Noises”

Two Poles

Stall’d, one fidgets, improvises. Two possibilities: emptying the brainpan of its accumulated grease and burnt-out rasher ends, scrubbing out its foetidae and moeurs (one sees, in miniature, how quickly it is replenish’d); or, fossicking the notebooks, the scribblery of burnt-out days, where half-thoughts lodge in the loggia like shrapnel . . .) So, one is off. Who recalls historian Henry Bamford Parkes’s remarks in Fifth Floor Window 1 (1932), “Notes on Dadaism and Super-realism,” reeling in surrealism as a species of nominalism?
Regarding the external world as ultimately unintelligible, it considers our ideas and universals to be merely convenient ways of arranging phenomena, lacking objective validity. Theoretically, therefore, it might be possible to smash all the accepted categories and rearrange phenomena in wholly new combinations. No system would comprehend the whole of experience; by new categories might be at least as adequate as those which we have used hitherto and they would reveal phenomena and relationships of which at present we are ignorant.
(Quoted in Mike Weaver’s William Carlos Williams: The American Background (1971), a terrific piece of work—I look’d vainly for other Weaver writings after coming across it about a decade back, there’s a Mike Weaver who’s written a number of books about photographers—Julia Margaret Cameron, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, et alia . . .) Williams read the piece and proceeded to point it out to Zukofsky in a letter of 17 February 1932. Weaver writes that Parkes’s writing “coincided with the announcement of Objectivism.” That “announcement” itself unwittingly accord’d a sample by Zukofsky’s knack for rearranging “phenomena in wholly new combinations.” In the second paragraph of “An Objective,” after positing a “Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars, Zukofsky culls a few particulars (one, the “pulled-glass bottle,” decidedly Marainne Moore-ish) and puts them into relation:
It is understood that historic and contemporary particulars may mean a thing or things as well as an event or a chain of events: i.e. an Egyptian pulled-glass bottle in the shape of a fish or oak leaves, as well as the performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion in Leipzig, and the rise of metallurgical plants in Siberia.
That’s not what the objective lens of my eye focus’d, however, as I scanned that quotable. What focus’d: the sense of an “unintelligible” external world. I’d just skimmed some of David Foster Wallace’s introductory essay to The Best American Essays (2007) wherein he considers, in part, the difficulty of writing in the environment of “Total Noise” that is “the sound of our U.S. culture right now”:
a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.
Later Wallace refers to the “abyss” of Total Noise, “the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect and how, and why, etc.” and notes that “such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—” Several things. Isn’t it the case that every era is equally “unintelligible” to its citizenry? If “Total Noise” mounts, don’t the tools for its quelling (rearranging, recombining, see “smash all the accepted categories”) become available in directly correlate numbers and guises? Is the argument itself (info-glut) just another “out,” a ready acceptance of irresponsibility, part of the ever-prolong’d adolescence of the (paradoxically) senescent West? Is mere scavenging off the mounds of info-garbage a worthy task, worthy of a citizen-writer? (Whoever thinks he or she is imply’d here is likely imply’d, meaning “fold’d neatly for the purpose of putting away in a steamer trunk, some artifact of a previous century, of little use to our own.”) One recalls another line of Zukofsky’s definition in “An Objective,” the part disallowing any degradation of responsibility, the moral cough of the selector: “That which is aimed at.”

Louis Zukofsky, 1904-1978

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Smear and Pluck

Near the Porch

Jacket weather. Piloting in by pre-dawn’s tincture of blue. Dilatory ferment-scent of crabapple, mash’d. Single planet smear to the east. How the bicycle route maintains its markers, continual traverse and trigger of canned memory-events, tick’d off by mere landscape and routine. Here one thinks of X, here Y, here the lanky Russian swim coach. What the nimblest brainpan’s incapable of: capturing the infinitude of letters between X and Y, that nigh-unnoticeable register, its sleights and wavers. Stuck with whole letters, their impartialities.

Amidst the demands (various), inevitably I think to launch into something new. Invariably I come to my irrefragable senses—who’d refute a nose half-tumbled out of its book?—between first and second paragraph (insert fractal-unruly excursus regarding “the infinitude of paragraphs existing between paragraphs” here):
In a note or a preface (I forget which) by Mr. _______ to a poem, the Subject of which, as far as it is intelligible, is the _____________________________________________, the courteous Reader is desired to extend his usual courtesy so far as to suppose that the narrative is narrated by “the Captain of a Merchantman or small trading vessel, lately retired upon a small monthly annuity to some inland town, etc., etc.” I quote from memory, but conceive the above to be the sense, as far as there is Sense, of the note or preface to the aforesaid poem—as far as it was a poem.
That’s the kind of thing pleases me no end, applicable un peu partout. Something to focus one’s “terrible rudderlessness,” the sport of the cold morning rehash’d, the mind flailing against itself, trapped by the whelm of its offerings, assaulting like a stench. How irresolute the imagination is! Parking itself (curbing itself) here, only to pull out immediately again into the brute steady mafficking of traffic. Ma foi.

James Wood, pointing to Coleridge writing about Shakespeare’s “long, drifting, metaphorical soliloquies”:
. . . in defending Shakespeare’s conceits, writes Coleridge, we must allow for an effort of the mind, which is attempting to describe what it cannot describe, and this is the attempt “to reconcile opposites and qualify contradictions, leaving a middle state of mind more strictly appropriate to the imagination than any other, when it is, as it were, hovering between images. As soon as it is fixed on one image, it becomes understanding; but while it is unfixed and wavering, between them, attaching itself permanently to none, it is imagination.”
(Presumably pointing the way for Keats’s famous letter of 21 December 1817.)

And, to insert another jumble: what about Rousseau’s report concerning ’s own stupidity? (Avital Ronell remarks how Rousseau’s tendency to excess is connect’d—by Rousseau himself—“irretrievably to a state of stupidity.”) Though: Rousseau’s agitation and unfixity in moments of “stupidity” resound surely against Coleridge’s “definition” of imagination:
Ideas take shape in my head with the most incredible difficulty. They go round in dull circles and ferment, agitating me and overheating me till my heart palpitates. During this stir of emotion I can see nothing clearly, and cannot write a word; I have to wait. Insensibly all this tumult grows quiet, the chaos subsides, and everything falls into place, but slowly, and after long and confused perturbations.

Rousseau in Armenian Garb, Lord Byron in Albanian

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

An Indescribable Reel

A Yellow Leaf

Caught out (or up) skimming the Barrett Watten Aerial number: Creeley saying “poetry denies its end in any descriptive act. I mean any act which leaves the attention outside the poem.” And, a few lines down: “poems are not referential, at least not importantly so.” Ron Silliman’s doing the quoting, and the references point to “To Define” (1953) and “Poems are a complex” (1965). Both in A Quick Graph: Collected Notes & Essays. So I look it up. See how—correlating rather exactly with my intuit’d sense of Creeley circa 1953—he continues the first remark:
Our anger cannot exist usefully without its objects, but a description of them is also a perpetuation. There is that confusion—one wants the thing to act on, and yet hates it. Description does nothing, it includes the object—it neither hates nor loves.
Where Creeley—rather than pointing to the poem as some “autonomous zone” of its making, a self-sufficiency wherein “usage coheres value” (as he’s earlier claim’d, pointing—I think confusedly—to “Pound’s sense of the increment of association”—isn’t Pound talking about relation, putting things (objects) into juxtaposition for purposes of design?)—posits one exactly out there, flailing at the world and its inescapable objects with the meagre stick of a poem. (Though, in all honesty, of what I know of Creeley’s poems of the “era”—the world impinges little, probably a partial reason why I know little of those poems . . .)

What does it mean for poetry to deny its end? A refusal of terms? A refusal to admit that mere descripting—that mustering of the describable—’ll make a poem? Is it that the outer describable is permitted as means to pursue some other irreprehensible end, la poésie pure? Or is it that the describable turns one loose, out into the world’s objects, glorious or not, where, dropped, one is left with no anchor, no art, oneself toute seule amongst things without the means to “act on” the hateful thing (whatever it is) one acts on? Not meaning to make the sentences tangle untowardly. There is, though, an ornery contingency unresolved in Creeley’s original. (Or “resolved” by “Here here / here. Here.”) I am, frankly, rather inconsolable (“lost and wild”) at the prospect of a poetry so insular, so unalign’d with the outer world, and in the name of “autonomy.” I question the resultant inevitable lack of agency: how change the world with such an blunt tool, dull orb? Twelve years later Creeley is pointing again to Pound (“Nothing counts save the quality of the emotion”) and Olson (“That which exists through itself is what is called meaning”) to come up with (“In other words . . .”) the line about referentiality’s low importance. Here, though, the contextual upshot is mostly mystifying, the usual shrug against origin: “I have no very clear sense of where they may come from” and “I do feel poems to involve an occasion to which a man pays obedience, and which intentions alone never yield,” yielding little of use about the need for / avoidance of referentiality.

Thinking about Silliman’s referring to the Creeley lines: what’s odd is how probably a moiety (at least) of Silliman’s sentences could be catalogued as simple descriptions. “Across the too-lit lobby, / half roped off, of the / Burger King / from the sullen teenage / Vietnamese gang, / hobo-like old street person, / drool frothing over grey beard, / hugs the case of a big guitar.” “Scaffold broken down to piping, piled in the back of the truck.” “A boy hurls a balsawood glider / into the pale blue Virginia sky / where it loops once, skidding / onto the never-repaired asphalt / street of the planned community / where the road bulbs out / into a turnaround of a dead / end.” (Examples out of What.) The glider one follow’d by “All depiction’s false.” (If one allows that depict is depaint (down through depeinct and peinture, pingere), a painting of or off, certainly any depiction is imprecise, unalignable with its origin. Though: oughtn’t one—like Coleridge distinguish between the falsity of the depict’d real and that of the imaginary? Hunh?)

Whereas later (in Silliman) one reads “The purpose in particulars / is specificity’s claim to the real / like blackbirds in clover / on an untended lawn, ab- / stractions hidden, perceived as simple sight.” A sentence I seem incapable of untangling. Specificity (details) make description only appear more real? Is “blackbirds in clover” an example of specificity (it is rather inspecific—grackles, starlings, red-wings, baked in a pies, innumerable be the blackbirds)? What is hidden? Abstraction in the natural world seems something imposed by the human eye. Is Silliman suggesting an undepictable design behind the “simple sight”? More questions than answers.

I noted the sentence largely because I liked how it point’d to the title of a new book by Stephen Ratcliffe, REAL (Avenue B, 2007). Which, too, seems an exploratory of clipped (almost static, little verbwork here) description. Or a descriptive mode acting as baffle, padding, a launchpad—trying to get at something beyond itself, meaning the world and its varietal of relationships? According to cover copy, REAL (there’s an insistence on its majescules) is the second volume of a longer work, and “continues where 2002’s Portraits & Repetition left off, occupying the measure of a day in 474 “takes” or frames, each documenting the minutia of the subject’s extension into the world as the ocean’s low-end rumble frames the coast it erodes.” Each piece is framed, too—all begin with color, flower, bird, light, a sense of line; all include a middle drift of people; all tail off with reference back “out,” the ocean, the coast, the ridge. (That’s quickly limn’d.) Just as: all are composed of seventeen lines; all get made with four or five (rarely six) sentences, rather lengthy, a notable paucity of short sentences, or fragments; none of the lines exceeds a width of forty-eight characters. (Limn’d and probably quickly disprovable.) All carry titles marking month and day (no year). A sample, random, titled “10.12”:
Upper edge of light grey horizontal cloud

turning white where the sun first hits it,

irregular bodies of smaller clouds floating

below field of baby blue space. Man in light

grey jacket opposite profile of woman in blue

standing next to table, corner of map on wall.

Relation between his hands and green and blue

and red and black letters scrawled on a white

page, back of chair in the lower right corner.

The man in green sweatpants walking backwards

down a five-foot wide brick path holding lower

corner of a cardboard box, followed by the man

in a blue sweatshirt holding the opposite edge.

Length of three sharp cries arriving from crow

in dark green of cypress tree branch, answered

by three more from a higher branch in the same

There’s something classical about the restraint and the attentiveness to design here. (Next to these, Silliman’s conglomerations seem a little higgledy-piggledy.) Too, accompanying that restraint (the tradeoff) is a sameness of tone, of volume, the quotidian goes rather grey, the changes register’d begin to matter less and less, the people depict’d begin to go interchangeable (though here, above, I thought I noticed Robert Grenier in that man with the scrawls . . .) There begins to be a longing for the nearly completely effaced writer to yelp out something, some idea “for christ’s sake.”

Though I see how the grid of the form is working—I wonder about the efficacy of the design (by Michael Cross) of REAL. The book is print’d (except for front matter) in Courier or some similar “typewriter” font, something without proportional widths to the letters. Which makes for an exceedingly “airy” looking line. And, too, for one that is wider (the book is rather oversized) than what the eye traces comfortably. Typewritten words lose familiarity, that intrinsic (meaning-appending) shape of a word, that, cluttering the cutting room floor.

Stephen Ratcliffe

Monday, September 10, 2007

“Append’d for Clarity”

Two Palms

Inevitably, the weekend coughs up less phlegm than one’d intended. The intent of pensive labors, the long look, the consider’d considerables (opposed to the usual hellbent pell-mell offerings of the week with its constant dash-rhythmics and aleatory bubbles popped with airy immediacy . . .) Book rummaging begins with the autumnal re-entry (think of the fiery descent of Sputnik pieces, or rocket boosters—that’s how the season is). Dug out of a pile of commoner lights (everywhere one turn’d one noted a copy of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore (1987), indicative of some twenty-year shelf-life, or a presumptuous “fill” in the popular interest in Australia?): Bill Luoma’s Works & Days, Wyndham Lewis’s Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography, and Aerial 8, the Barrett Watten number. (The latter notable in a skim for a bibliography of all twelve issues of This: one sees that Watten’s own work appear’d in every issue.) And a collection of Mavis Gallant Paris pieces.

And continue’d reading Gogol’s Dead Souls. Wherein one finds a woman peeking out a window with a face “in a bonnet, narrow, long, like a cucumber; and a man’s round, broad, like those Moldavian gourds called crooknecks, from which balalaikas are made in Russia, light two-stringed balalaikas, the jewel and delight of a snappy twenty-year-old lad, a winker and a fop, winking and whistling at the white-bosomed, white-necked lasses who have gathered to listen to his soft-stringed strumming.” That mock-Homeric kind of metaphorical drubbing that drops one off, a little drunk, unimpeachably punchy some undaunt’d distance from where one start’d. As if the sentence had its own glee-bound intent, its own fiery will to pursue. Wherein, too, one finds a lady “holding her head erect, like a palm tree.” And wherein one sees Gogol working—after Pushkin—the nationalistic vein (see the scenarios in Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (2005) regarding the stages of any country’s literary embarquement), pointing to colloquial quickness and “native wit” for Russian literary sources:
Aptly uttered is as good as written, an axe cannot destroy it. And oh, how apt is everything that comes from deep Russia, where there are no German, or Finnish, or any other tribes, but all is native natural-born, lively and pert Russian wit, which does not fish for a word in its pockets, does not brood on it like a hen on her chicks, but pastes it on at once, like a passport, for eternal wear . . .
He’s talking about the way “a nickname will caw itself away at the top of its crow’s voice and tell clearly where the bird has flown from,” a way of aligning a language’s strength with its loud and robust (peasant) origin. Against which: “a nimble fop the short-lived word of the Frenchman flashes and scatters; whimsically does the German contrive his lean, intelligent word, not accessible to all,” the one insubstantial, the other abstruse.

Query: is the Vassily I. Zhukovsky (1783-1852), friend of Pushkin and Gogol, poet and translator of Homer’s Odyssey, a distant relative of “our” Zukofsky? Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

And jockey’d around in my “archives,” that is, try’d to figure out what pieces of a particular manuscript fell into what well of loneliness, or got strand’d somewhere with no dime to call home. A periodic thing. Consider’d the way that writing the Isola squibs sops up my excess (and more) and what to do about it? For a kine-collapsible season or two there (that’s cow-tipping for you coastal swanks) I thought of my “work” in Blogland (mostly at that damn’d Hotel whose rooms fill now with snow and snow-fleas pip about in the hollows of drifts) as “one big gussied up ongoing poem”—but the hat’s off that farmer, and he’s plenty mad. Now I long to “strike a balance” between the tender rhapsodies you—my noble readers—’ve grown accustom’d to here, and the belt’d-out songs that I used to cut loose with in the hell-privacy of my own singular commissary (of my intent): some you got to see and some went straight into my Swiss “bank account” wherein le futur convenes convenablement. Dopey as a cosmonaut I can be. When I’m talking about “my work.” It’s a way of keeping my hand in without sticking my neck out. A little trop of that in these ironic ’thousands: necks up there like palm trees. It’s too “patchy,” as Gogol says, hinting that some impolite noun ought to be append’d for clarity, though I, for one, know nothing about it, whatever it is he’s getting at. All’s I’m saying is I ought be getting “back” at it. Huh.

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes / Guy Davenport

A Thistle

I love the predictability of what’s quash’d, squelch’d, hid, denied. The Language écoliers (“schoolboys”—think short-pant’d and jersey’d towheads with a tendency toward criminal mischief, see Jean-Pierre Léaud in any early Truffaut) mount a self-glorifying “page.” And, though Barrett Watten noted the Isola di Rifiuti remarks here [subsequently removed completely, apparently intimidated by “comments that are personally hostile or repeatedly aggressive”], he neglects to do so here. Predictable attempt to control reception. (Which reception, frankly, for The Grand Piano, nearly one third of its way to completing its “run,” ranges somewhere between “lacklustre” and “abysmal,” a reassuring result for a groupuscule that’s mostly strong-arm’d its way “forth,” painting in the historical record to fit its own outfits.) For the record: my remarks appear’d (in chronological order) here: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15.

There’s a lovely thing in Andre Furlani’s Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After that I keep niggling. Furlani convincingly identifies Davenport’s “prevailing mode” as excursus. “The excursus is not only travelogue but digression, appendix, gloss. It implies deviation and infringement. Line and lane converge.” And, without, I think, even noting Davenport’s commitment to walking—and aversion to (contempt for) the automobile (he self-confessedly drove one only once, “out along the Saluda River with my highschool English teacher Frank Rainwater, and his wooden leg came off. Some species of pin fell out of it and we couldn’t find it”)—Furlani draws a fine sketch of Davenportian practice—writing and walking—and with a nudge of de Certeauvian authority, fits Davenport into a history of dissent:
The excursuses of Davenport fuse pedestrian processes and linguistic formations. His mode of bricolage treats writing as a complementary practice of errancy. In The Practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau claims the homology between verbal and peripatetic figuration constitutes a field of social resistance smack within the homogenizing domain of global commerce, technology, and mass culture. Walking for de Certeau is a space of enunciation. To an internalized sens des mots corresponds an externalized sens de la marche. Walking has its own, specifically asyndetic, rhetoric: as in writing so in walking the asyndeton “selects and fragments the space traversed; it skips over links and whole parts that it omits. From this point of view, every walk constantly leaps, or skips like a child, hopping on one foot. It practices the ellipsis of conjunctive loci.
Davenport’s excursionists elude both the egotistical sublime of the Romantic promeneur solitaire and the connoisseurship of the flâneur. They are neither self-tormenting prodigals nor persecuted exiles. Congenial, curious, and sanguine, they are lovers whose erotic anticipation fosters a broader receptivity to the sights along the way. Therapeutic models of secular pilgrimage are renounced nostrums. Walking is not an anodyne but a mode of engagement. It is a social act and, as de Certeau and Situationist Guy Debord propose, a possible mode of collective dissent.
I love that. The ideogrammatic intertwinings, the stone-cut concision. Even without being entirely convinced by the asyndeton / walk analogy. If anything walking allows one to insert oneself into a continuum, a measure, a stretch. Alert, one knows what lies between here and here. The traverse is count’d up, mark’d off, its details (moving, no nouns in nature) slow’d by one’s moving through (the smear of phenomena). Though: ambling, slowness, routine (associating walking with the quotidian, the “same” paths). Sidling along parallel to other refusals: the “current” (au courante, that runningness, that keeping up), the “news” (that perpetual rehash heighten’d by daily donned breathlessness), the careening careerism, the exertions of constant publishing . . .

Guy Davenport and Guy Debord