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