Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Some Clouds


Olesha writing to Bulgakov: “Mishenka,
No abstract lyrical ditties for
Me, ain’t nobody needs that.
A poet’s got to write
Satirical poems, vicious and spare.
One’s lines ought to be
Practical for seven-ruble burger-
Flippers. Okay for you, Mishunchik,
You do humor like Mark
Twain. Me, I keep seeing
Clouds shaped like South America,
Itches in the air.” Dante,
Too, witness’d a moving bas-
Relief cut in a cliff,
An enormous tableau vivant of
Mercy. Olesha, who complain’d about
The “compilatory itch,” endless nodal
Combining ungoad’d. The everyday checks
Its mail, finds a new
Book: “In French, the word “sommeil” (sleep) comes from “petit somme”—in Latin somniculus—a word that falls apart in the mouth.” Liking sentences that demand a transference of authority—demoting the eye—and make one say a thing out loud. Liking, too, sentences that narrow seeing to a mysterious grammatical kernel (canny, uncrack’d): “My nut is vitiate.” I worry that the everyday slithers off into the monocotyledonous grasses like a skink, a snake, threading its way across the field in high report, notating the sowbug, the slug, the dun-color’d carapace shed, the nematodal rootlets, exposed to air, of a stray cornstalk sprung out of a previous year’s ear, without seeing the field itself, how the wind sweeps the timothy and alfalfa east just before dusk, as if the sun exhaled hotly in setting.
Lag and constitutional, the dog
Tugging along uncomb’d, or squatting
To pee. The longing is
To collapse into a book.
I try to capture what
Slips through the neural pus—
Spongiform, mapping, wires, guylines, a
Rapturous slew of possible nouns
Makes itself available; what I
Meant, though, occur’d prior to
That onslaught, in the fugue
Moments of all thinking stop’d.
(Stop’d meaning a continual play-
Back mode, a scratch making
The record skip: sponge, sponge, sponge, the wall the ratiocinatory hits is a common word.) Just so, the everyday founders in ordinary currency, that sluggish dependable that manages to bring the groceries home. Bean soup and sliced tomatoes and a can of beer. “Everything” bagel with peanut butter. A pernicious thin rain begins, comfort in the way the closest drops individuate into percussive sound against the slur’d constant backwash. Everyday punctuation, the story itself unrehearsed. There’s that desire to lull the neural firings down into sheer inactivity, the no pulse contra the frenzy of input bombardment, to allow a long billowing swell of recognition to alight in the form of one solitary neural gull, repeating is dulling, ongoingness is dulling, the everyday gull’d and schtupped by stupor: welcome.

The books pile up, the reader stands akimbo, violently thumping the parquet with one insolent foot thrust forward. Temporary condition of connubial bliss in reading in, not writing about. So off I go to read, and promptly fall asleep. Histoire de ma vie. I look at a picture (in Blue Thirst (Capra Press, 1975) of young Lawrence Durrell leaning up (in jacket and tie) against the omphalos at Delphi:
He’s leaning on the great omphalos, the great bellybutton of the world at Delphi. In those days, Delphi had no barbed wire around it and the omphalos was lying about in a field for anyone to sit on—I could have taken it home in the car if I could have lifted it. It’s the ancient Greek center of the world and of course, all the more dangerous for a poet to do that sort of thing, to take up that blood-curdling arrogant attitude because right next door is the shrine with the Pythea where the goddess of all poetic inspiration officiates, and she could really have driven him mad. If she had turned over in bed he would have been crushed like a bed bug.
And the terror “when I see myself innocently sitting astride the omphalos up there like an idiot fiddling with the safety-catch of the universe.” The calling of poetry. The mandatory and canny respect and tributes for its rituals, its gods and goddesses. The need to keep a nodding participatory obeisance to that posture so’s not to sully the art. Do I believe that? I don’t know. The room is filling with wings, beating wings.

Lawrence Durrell with George Whitman, Proprietor of Shakespeare and Co., Kilometer Zero, Paris

“Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man”

Monday, September 29, 2008




Against the heart-shorn clinical new, the programmatic registries of global static, one samples the cosmological indifference of the earth. Pale asters light up the field, and the asclepia pods undo to flail out the intricate dross of their regeneration. The light in the trees tilts up sharper, variegated by the pre-dehisce brown and curl ongoing in the all-green reaches. “The thousand natural clocks the earth is heir to.” A Cooper’s hawk barrels down off the telephone pole straight into the woods, cinematic and angling for a slot, a biplane’s stunt-vertical slice through a break in the cloudbank. Aural lag interrupt’d by the goldfinches “cheeping on the bounce” bounding off into the buckthorn cuts. Sun “burnisht in Glory thick” drops its bounty unbid into our paregoric sleeps, and we are minions: we call it “Man’s sobering Perplexitie when call’d to an Account.” We ape the tiniest black ant carrying a white moth wing like a banner up the mullein stalk. It marks a momentary surround, defers study of higher motive. Like a minuscule slab of schist toss’d out into the impingements of sun. Like the pale pointillist green sprawl of duckweed scumming up the pond. Like the way the water-strider dents the shiny surface, marks its malleability with a skitter, inscribing Allah’s name. Like the way one arranges the parts of oneself according to the butcher’s cuts, making comestibles of the whole cow. Like the jerky carriage of one mad, bellowing forth approximate scrannel’d rhymes.

Is it the way the weekend allows whole worlds to drift off (replaced by others—the yearling, a little gangly, lunging out behind the doe sidestepping the washboard potholes of East Delhi Road) into an unreachable vernacular—or is it the mere loss of routine: “The Everyday” plummets into confusion (apparently) in the changed rhythms of fin de la semaine torpidity. Which is just dandy: I think if I kept it too attuned to the vapidity of that other side of the Cyber Pass, it’d become a wholly desperate thing. (See Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”) Like John Taggart says in “Unveiling / Marianne Moore” in There Are Birds (Flood Editions, 2008): “another thing / other things must be / known paid attention to known and brought together hyphenated fused” and “Surroundings answer questions.” (I, too, ’d argue that one of the most deleterious “things” (habits) according a self-same frailty and “preciosity” to les poésies norteamericanas of the late imperial U.S. centuries: the muscling up in cities, the Dullsville of cottoning to a tepid popular culture (whatever comes down the pike), the rarity of unleash’d gut curiosity.)

Found myself ripping through the recently republish’d Lawrence Durrell novel, Panic Spring (ELS Editions, 2008). Publish’d in 1937 under the pseudonym “Charles Norden.” I like Durrell’s half-sentimental lushness and whack attraction to deviance, particularly religious. So I dug out my batter’d copies of The Alexandria Quartet, all in individual Faber and Faber editions bought (according to the inky purple stamp inside Justine) at the American Book and News Agency in Athens, 1974. Fifty-six drachmas, if I recall rightly, a little under two dollars. Setting off a train of hurry’d thinking. How the “Workpoints” that Durrell includes at the end of the book—notational jottings, character field marks (“character-squeezes” in Durrell’s lingo)—kin to the tiny sketches one finds in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, pertinent lines out of Cavafy, one- or two-line anecdotes—how all that temper’d my “poetics.” Impressionistic flurries (furies). I associate it with a love (particularly in painting) of the half-completed, the left off in the middle: Jacques-Louis David’s unfinish’d portrait of Napoleon, much of Cézanne, Cy Twombly. Durrell (a sample):
Landscape-tones: steep skylines, low cloud, pearl ground with shadows in oyster and violet. Accidie. On the lake gunmetal and lemon. Summer: sand lilac sky. Autumn: swollen bruise greys. Winter: freezing white sand, clear skies, magnificent starscapes.

*       *       *

Da Capo: ‘To bake in sensuality like an apple in its jacket.’

*       *       *

Pursewarden on the ‘n-dimensional novel’ trilogy: ‘The narrative momentum forward is counter-sprung by references backwards in time, giving the impression of a book which is not travelling from a to b but standing above time and turning slowly on its own axis to comprehend the whole pattern. Things do not all lead forward to other things: some lead backwards to things which have passed. A marriage of past and present with the flying multiplicity of the future racing towards one. Anyway, that was my idea.’ . . .

*       *       *

A basket of quail burst open in the bazaar. They did not try to escape but spread out slowly like spilt honey. Easily recaptured.
The other reminder: the only thing I ever read by Freud that made me think I ought to read Freud (serving as epigraph to Durrell’s Justine): “I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four person are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that.” (S. Freud: Letters)

The sense (reading Durrell) that words (some words) are a vestigial part of oneself. That palpable. “Gunmetal and lemon” in scaly lozenges shifting in the water. It’s precisely what I find Kafka, too, talking about—the notes merge interchangeably:
I have been reading about Dickens. Is it so difficult and can an outsider understand that you experience a story within yourself from its beginning, from the distant point up to the approaching locomotives of steel, coal and steam, and you don’t abandon it even now, but want to be pursued by it and have time for it therefore are pursued by it and of your own volition run before it wherever it may thrust and wherever you may lure it.

I can’t understand it and can’t believe it. I live only here and there in a small word in whose vowel (“thrust” above, for instance) I lose my useless head for a moment. The first and last letters are the beginning and end of my fishlike emotion.
So that (Durrell’s Justine ends with “So that” and a blank page, nodding—it strikes me—to the end of Pound’s “Canto I”): I mutter through the morning routine wholly caught up in Greece, the magnificent blue and yellow birds the size of mourning doves I saw walking aimlessly south along a rock-strewn road south of the Mykonos port, looking for a somewhat shelter’d place to sleep. (Not finding one, unroll’d my sleeping bag in the open—skimming a found copy of Crawdaddy (or Creem?) in the gloaming. A Greek man stopped by to say no fire (I think, in memory I see nothing around to burn, all scree and coarse tufts of weed). A day or so later finding the community in the caves around Paradise Beach (the other side of the island): the police boat coming around the bluff that shelter’d it, a policy of tolerance coupled with systematic harassment.

Lawrence Durrell, 1912-1990
(Photograph by Peter Keen)

Friday, September 26, 2008


“Wake Up”


Sharp green nut-rubble under
The hickory tree, seasonal work
Of squirrels methodically decimating it.
One chitters and sizzles, keeps
A tree between itself and
Me, scrabbling laterally if I
Approach. Leaves tinged with gold
Hint at a fire-lick’d
Plinth, upstart angels, draft plenipotentiary
Up to heaven, though nobody
Spouts that Ranter shit nowadays:
Upstart you mean startup, angel
You mean venture capitalist. One
Longs to cease belonging to
One’s foul century, where talk
Of nuts seems insupportable, the
Feckless denial of a genial
Nitwit “huff’d out of town”
By supercilious holders of deeds,
(Not words) howsoever worthless they
Be. Think of Keats who
Long’d to be “turn’d loose
To feed upon spiritual Mast”—
Denying the way the horrifics
Of the day demand something
Beyond scurrility and airy-plait’d
Nebulosities of the fancy, that
Total abandonment of one’s trajectory
To the boot’d regulators, for
Whom one is expendable, a
Rote human machine, and not
“A sort of ethereal Pig”—
Or Kafka admitting bluntly “Writing
Is a stench.”
                        Green the
Hickory nut remains escarping up
Under the tree, squirrels like
Migrant laborers methodically decimating it,
Stockpiling. One natters and ratchets,
Peeking out, the tree-trunk
It grips between itself and
Me, scrabbling laterally if I
Edge up. Gold-broider’d leaves
Point down to a fiery
Plinth, upstart angels riding the
Updrafts, plenipotentiaries carry’d “unto” heaven:
Nobody needs Ranter talk nowadays.
For upstart read startup, for
Angel read venture capitalist. One
Longs to cease belonging to
One’s befoul’d century, where mere
Nut-talk is supportable only
Through reckless denial of things
(Words) conducive to any nitwit
“Huff’d out of town” by
Ever-haughty deed-doers, holders
Of script’d orders for action, howsoever
Worthless it be. I think
Of John Keats who long’d
To be “turn’d loose to
Feed upon spiritual Mast”—a
Stance of nebulous fancy, air-
Plait’d buffoonery, that denies the
Daily demand for imperial horripilation,
The total abandonment of one’s
Dreaming to the boot’d regulators,
For whom one is expendable,
A hireling machine’d to task
Inhumanly, and not one
Of the “ethereal Pigs”—or
Franz Kafka scribbling down “Writers
Speak a stench.”
                                Spiky and
Broken, the hickory nuts scrawl
Out under the hickory, a
Kind of writing, a short
Unendurable history of how a
Small troop of squirrels, needy
Gleaners, methodically did the tree
fatting up against winter.
One scritches and mews, intently
Keeping the tree between itself
And any approach, dashing laterally,
One eye cock’d. Finger’d leaves
Tinged a terrible yellow point
To some monumental fiery slab
Whence cometh emergent angels, upstarts
Sailing up singing, plenipotentiaries for
A heaven on earth: levellers
Rising to bring down mountebanks:
No heed to Ranters nowadays.
Any upstart’s a startup, another
Market dot in a market
Dotted with dots (that’s not
Writing); any angel’s a venture
One longs to cease
Belonging to one’s “dotty” century,
Where talk about angelic leavings
(Nuts) is a sure sign
Of insupportable nitwittery, bird-brain’d
Denial of things any stalwart
Of the state’d be sure
To see “huff’d out of
Town” for relief, for what’s
Taxing to a “doer” is
The ill-deemery of rampant
Possibilities with no issue
Of orders, howsoever reckless they
Be. There’s Keats who want’d
To be “turn’d loose to
Feed upon spiritual Mast”—riddling
And weaving up a cloud
Of fancy, puff’d airy buffoonery,
That exceeds (freely) the daily
Demand of empire’s boot’d regulators,
Undepictable abandonment of one’s oneness
To one fit expendable, machine’d
To a common inhuman slot,
Never again to be one
Of the “ethereal Pigs”—and
There’s Kafka: “Writers talk stench.”

Finish’d the Rorem New York Diary. He complains about singers treating songs as “arias, meaning as events bigger than life.” And says: “A song is an intimate experience having less to do with mammoth scope than with miniature intensity. This last quality has become, at least in America, like a needle in a haystack.” I think of the lyric poem, the complaints about its epiphanic onslaught, swelling up the momentary to (too) gorgeous (weight’d) heights and bignesses: perfectly aria’d (in Rorem’s sense). Though the opposite tendency, objectivist restraint, the “merely notational”—oh, it registers with a shrug, so what, too drab, why bother.

Turn’d to Kafka’s diaries (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, edited by Max Brod, translated by Joseph Kresh), reading rather breathlessly, stunned by inexplicable moves sentences make, or metaphors that claw at the gut-ineluctable (“When despair shows itself so definitely, is so tied to its object, so pent up, as in a soldier who covers a retreat and thus lets himself be torn to pieces, then it is not true despair.”) Kafka, too, addresses the aria-tendency, responding to a mediocrity (a novelist): “A man who on a small scale produces something fairly good here blows up his talent to the size of a novel in so pitiful a manner that one becomes ill even if one does not forget to admire the energy with which he misuses his own talent.” (A suitable review-line for the plodding obsessional accumulative “heroics” of something like Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet? Oh, probably.) Kafka:
Almost every word I write jars against the next, I hear the consonants rub leadenly against each other and the vowels sing an accompaniment like Negroes in a minstrel show. My doubts stand in a circle around every word, I see them before I see the word, but what then! I do not see the word at all, I invent it. Of course, that wouldn’t be the greatest misfortune, only I ought to be able to invent words capable of blowing the odor of corpses in a direction other than straight into mine and the reader’s face. When I sit down at the desk I feel no better than someone who falls and breaks both legs in the middle of the traffic on the Place de l’Opéra. All the carriages, despite their noise, press silently from all directions in all directions, but that man’s pain keeps better order than the police, it closes his eyes and empties the Place and the streets without the carriages having to turn about. The great commotion hurts him, for he is really an obstruction to traffic, but the emptiness is no less sad, for it unshackles his real pain.
Incredible. Is it the simple velocity of the images, tugging in replacements and expanding? Is it nature of that image (“that man’s pain keeps better order than the police”)—as if Wallace Stevens’d placed not a jar, but a wound’d jarhead—I can’t help myself—in Tennessee? One sure thing: the spell. One trusts Kafka completely (wheresoever he, blind—“I do not see the word at all”—, travels), just as he trusts the writing completely. (The next day he writes (about writing): “It is really something effervescent that fills me completely with a light, pleasant quiver and that persuades me of the existence of abilities of whose nonexistence I can convince myself with complete certainty at any moment, even now.” (I think of Marianne Moore’s lines about how one “with controlled agitated glance” observes an insect “and all’s a-quiver with significance.”) Agitations of maintaining a state of receptivity, that portentous pinpoint stance, writing with breath stop’d (some look for it in alcohol, for there is a moment, there, too, of perfect drunkenness, unmaintainable). Kafka: “one should permit a self-perception to be established definitively in writing only when it can be done with the greatest completeness, with all the incidental consequences, as well as with entire truthfulness. For if this does not happen—and in any event I am not capable of it—then what is written down will, in accordance with its own purpose and with the superior power of the established, replace what has been felt only vaguely in such a way that the real feeling will disappear while the worthlessness of what has been noted down will be recognized too late.”

The “versions” contain’d within number 33 of “The Everyday” mimic the diary whose early pages (at least) served Kafka (partly) as book of drafts. Reading several variant beginnings of a piece—a kind of cubist writing—I thought to rattle the cages of the few lines I’d “penned” last night: und so weiter. Everyday repetitions, scales.

Franz Kafka, Aged Five

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Something Else

“In Progress”


Monstrous “orbs of Eccentrics,” bulging
Out here and skinnying down
There: isn’t the piecemeal regular
Going of it a little
Taxing? The light is sidling
Off early and the pre-
Cook’d sense of model emergency
Offers all kinds of shill
Beleaguerments of little consequence beyond
A kind of Everyman’s theater
Where each curtain uncovers another
Curtain and certainty lies expert
In the staging of contempt.
One roots for a gash
In the human fabric that’ll
Point to the sun-rot
Of its threading. One sees
A legitimating of corporate control
Of the state: mal occhio
Knockdown, “bundling” in the works.
Prop handling. Data munging. Sleights
Of long-finger’d hands. Golden
Parachutes, golden showers, ad hoc
Reprisals, there is nothing a
Man is not capable of.
The four o’clocks foist off
Final blooms, low-scrounging flowers.
The thousands of hawks sailing
Over Lake Erie keep sailing,
And the hawk counters count
And knot up slightly out
Of a more or less
Aimless dispersal if a shout
Cuts loose indicating something rare:
A golden eagle, or one
Of the accidentals the regulars
See. “Gluttony causeth cholerick diseases”—
One sees it in pinch’d
Lips of bankers, the clench’d
Jaws, fury riddling the battalions
Of tiny muscles, raking the
Stony superficies of a face:
All controls turn’d to contempt.
The afraid to mean anything
Crowd basks in its sluggish
Materiality, cottoning to the up-
Coming soldiery of venders of
Small winds and majestic unmendables.
I am ashamed for my
Cohort and myself, moving words
About without the mettle necessary
To seize a rung of
A plausible ascendant ladder and
Coax oneself up out of
The manic drift underived. A
Little heroics of belief, a
Sour viable commitment, the kind
Of static spark-throwing electricity
The present weather requires, all
That is lacking. A common
Treasury of earth, provender steward’d.

Catching a spell of craven blankhead’dness. Etymology obscure. Or is it simply result of dog fussing too early about the skunks rifling garbage. Is my conjecture. Thinking about Charles Olson’s “base premise picked up, somewhere: / life is preoccupation with itself.” A footing I’d rather not build “upon.” For God knows there’s plenty enough of that going around. (Result, partially, I admit, of reading the narcissist Mr. Rorem.) Kafka, in a diary entry (January 1922), talking about how the particular “Kafkaesque” way of life (think of another, terrifyingly brief, entry—“My prison cell—my fortress”) arrived:
The evolution was simple. When I was still happy, I wanted to be unhappy and drove myself, using all the means that my times and my tradition made available to me, into unhappiness, yet even so I always wanted to be able to go back. In short I was always unhappy, even with my happiness. The strange thing is that the whole act, if one performs it in a sufficiently systematic way, can become real. My spiritual decadence began with a childish game, however conscious I was of its childishness. For example, I would deliberately contract the muscles of my face, or I would walk down the Graben with my arms crossed behind my head. Annoyingly puerile games, but effective. (Something similar happened with the evolution of my writing, except that later the evolution of my writing came regrettably to a halt.) If unhappiness can be forcibly induced in this fashion, then one should be able to induce anything. However much subsequent developments seem to contradict me, and however much it conflicts in general with my nature to think this, I can’t by any means accept that the origins of my unhappiness were inwardly necessary, perhaps they had some necessity of their own, but not an inward one, they swarmed in me like flies and like flies could have easily been driven away.
Out of Roberto Calasso’s pleasantly ruminating K. Astonishing. What I read as a kind of parable of writing itself—its beginning as an “annoyingly puerile game”; as a swarm of flies that “could have easily been driven away.” Isn’t that the perception? One goofs off for years—on and off—and subsequently finds oneself “stuck” in an inexplicable habit, an “everyday.” (A story akin to the cautionary deterrent against permanent internal strabismus: “if you keep going cross-eyed like that, they’ll be stuck that way.”) One might’ve done something else entirely.

Franz Kafka, 1883-1924

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Everyday Throes

Lily, Agape


All the clouds assembled and push’d down into a pot to make a semblance (removable) of what the pot contains. “Narrative bickering.” All in the shape of containment, comedic for being borderless. One revs in the soup, trying to exceed the immediate, trying to tangle with a slippery array of verbs: all discourse’s cuings-up. Sound of a dog lapping “at” water. Incongruity marking the jut of the line’s failure to turn, its obverse tendency to trail off aimlessly into weed-stem’d fields roistering loud with the dry susurrus of insects. A voracious match. A voracious match point. “Avid for it.” The purse of lips signing a document with remedial focus. Initial encounter with “execrable” led to my aligning it with “crabbed.” Upcoming realignments in the housing sector. “Asset grab.” The collaborative logic of essence and the beating human heart. “On edge.” Syntactical gaffes allow that permutation to beaver its way “in the swim of things” up to a dry “spot” under that heap of branches that looks like a total loss. “Up for a ways.” The code is broken, meaning specific occasions of regular temporal disorder (which is speech) become markers for inspecific evasions of utterance (which is writing). “Clowns the issue.” Working against dispersal of meaning brings one suddenly around a bend: the audacity of completeness in a vista glimpsed. Noting, with a peremptory shrug, matter-of-factly, one signature bound in upside-down in The Orton Diaries. “Bravo the farrago.” Early in the day, the peristaltic contractions of the earth squeezing the sun up out of itself. “Kinnikinnic, of dogwood bark and sumac leaves.” Oblivious, the grammar throttles forth with a freight train’s sorry glory, unflagging. “The tyranny of the dignified.” Knowledge tether’d to proportion, manageable (rote) chunks of predigest’d slithery. “Daub. Daub. Daub.” What if, out of the slather of the present, a grammatical smudge were “access’d,” a cross-tissue cut, slicing arroyo and air and peccary droppings and the listless exoskeletal remains of the scorpion, a membrane of a moment’s continual undoing, what if one “had” a single word for that batch of particulars, a word that’d remorselessly morph exactly to the ravenous accompaniment of time, feeding meaningfulness into the system at a rate equal to its random (forsworn) changes and accumulations, hence allowing (demanding) the amassing of an unutterable vocabulary, so that tense itself would require the sayable “old words” (there is no language for the future)? “Embêtements sans poésie.” Tooling through the bled of the implausible with no peerless beast or serviceable courtier to guide. The sign of the workability of any language system (an aesthetic) is that its art be reproducible by any ordinary Tom Tinker up late rearranging the whiskey bottles and saleable on the street the next (insurrectionary bright) day, thus serving to placate impulses mercenary, mercantile and ecstatic. “Begging off the trope standard.”

Into Ned Rorem’s New York Diary now, publish’d in 1967, though concerning roughly the years 1955-1961, a period of fairly constant travel, Paris, Italy, the south of France, “around the Mediterranean,” New England, Buffalo. Months in New York go by unreport’d. Some gleanings:
To think—even to talk—about your life is, in a way, to stop living, so a diary becomes a breathing corpse which eats into the present. Possibly, writing music is also a kind of self-denial (as well as self-indulgence), but no one can assert that it’s autobiographical. Music and prose satisfy two distinct drives in me, though each involves anesthetizing life temporarily to bring order from chaos. But the music is sacred chaos while the prose is ordered profanity. Being today involved in the latter . . . I halt to pluck green memories and mount them in this scrapbook like drying fall leaves, leaves whose veins still flow with an inextricable poison that pervades and blurs the very system that formed them.
Or, thinking about the death of lyricist John Latouche (“symbol of immoderate freshness in a country where assembly-line resemblance seems the rule”—I see he wrote lyrics for a song call’d “Ballad for Uncle Sam,” a song play’d both at the 1939 Republican Convention and that of the American Communist Party. I knew of Latouche only out of O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them”: “First / Bunny died, then John Latouche, / then Jackson Pollock. But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?”), a taunt against death itself: “Où sont les nègres downtown? . . . Poetically speaking, growing up is mediocrity.”

And (obligatory anti-flarf citation): “Why does mediocrity have that nervous laugh? . . . Does this dumb unfelt giggle impose assurance onto insufficiency? Or is it a groping toward poetry (if you’ll pardon both terms)?” (Too: “Of all nervous diseases, hysteria . . . bores me the most.”)

And (obligatory anti-language writing citation, “some translating required”): “The concrete 12-toners think they are recovering primary sound, but they are only uncovering surface noise.”

John Latouche (seat’d) with composer Jerome Moross, collaborators for the musical “The Golden Apple”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nicholas Moore’s Spleen



A copy of Adrienne Monnier’s Rue de l’Odéon with its pages uncut beginning at the “Préface au catalogue de la bibliothèque de prêt.” A crankable green radio with built-in light. A capped bottle of one hundred acetominophen caplets, minus ten or twenty. A notebook containing the date 15 September 1999 and the word “haibun” written in pencil, and “The Green Edge of Yesterday.” A reddish rock (with faint lines of yellow) about the size of a darning egg. A canvas bag mark’d “Bookpeople 1971-1991.” A paperback copy of The Blue Devils of Nada. “Flat space and overlapping planes, the list as cubist.” An upright filing box assembled in Brooktondale, NY of six quarter-inch plywood scraps, containing “rough drafts” unsort’d for a dozen years. My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, by Maxwell Bodenheim. Walter Pater saying, “Experience itself is the end.” A calendar unturn’d since February, picturing Audubon’s “Great Northern Diver, or Loon.”
The “chancequarrièd, selfquainèd rocks” of
A listless moment offer’d up
To the twenty-first century
With its arriviste burn of
Consequence, its ravaging accelerants toss’d
Into the sere ongoing fury,
As if an uncontainable human
Rage for regular self-fuel’d
Annihilating ruses staked out implausible
Claims, and were heartily met.
So many lies now “lie
Tumbled-to” we’ll never get
An assessment that’s not flaw’d
By power, by power’s incendiary
Itch for power, the spur
Digging a ragged bloody hole
In the horse’s flank, horse
Pitching itself off a sky-
Scraper’s canter’d roof. I cannot
Keep a momentary journal, my
Burst spleen against the world-
Smotherers accepts naught of the
Dignity of measure, lashes out
Incommensurably numb. Me, I am
The fuckingest king of the
Rainy country, midge-rich and
Indecent, and if my pecker’s
Mistook for a zucchini, I
Bore myself with a dog
Or any other available beast.
Nobody’s happy hereabouts, not the
Gibbering factions, not the people
Diving off the balcony at
The buff end of idiotic
Ballets, keeping up a front
Whilst under assault by cruel
National maladies. There’s girls around
Who’d vote for any cute
Butt, and did, and now
Impudently collect toiletries to send
“The troops,” a squalid bunch,
Killers hired to extirpate “corrupt
Elements” out of a bloodbath.
Old Romans with oily stentorian
Voices commandeer the few youths
Who join’d for a chance
Out of hebetudinous ghetto cadaver’d
Jerkwater jobs, and back home
Flows the tarnish’d blood of
Lethe: memory gone incommensurably numb.

In Chicago a couple of days back I stumbled into a copy of Nicholas Moore’s Spleen (Menard, 1990). A reprinting of an earlier edition (1973), its complete title being Spleen (Le Roi Roi Bonhomme): Thirty-one versions of Baudelaire’s ‘Je suis comme le roi . . .’ The book is load’d with surrounding material: a preface by original publisher Anthony Rudolf, a foreword by Roy Fisher, a note call’d “On the Impossibility of Translation” by Moore himself, and a moving afterword by Peter Riley. The circumstance of Spleen’s coming into being is stunningly odd. Anthony Rudolf:
Spleen started life as an entry in the 1968 Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition judged by George Steiner. Steiner drew attention to an extraordinary multiple entry, thirty-one versions of the same Baudelaire poem, obviously by the same hand and under a large number of pseudonyms, typed in brown or green ink and sent from various addresses all over the country. It emerged that the author was Nicholas Moore, who in the 1940s had been as famous as Dylan Thomas but who later disappeared from view. His last full-length book of poems had appeared in 1950 . . .
Some of the pseudonyms: “Harrowsmith Blamesworthy, Phil Okes-Box-Wunnayay, Rosine MaCoolh, H. N. (Helga Nevvadotoomuch).” I recall mention of Moore somewhere by John Ashbery, one of the overlook’d odd ducks he’s prone (thankfully) to point out. What little I know: b. 1918, d. 1986. Son of G. E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher. (Here I recall with a shudder spilling blue ink into a James McConkey’s copy of a book by Moore, borrow’d for reasons of preparing a report on Moore in a relation to something wholly forgot.) Moore, in an “Autobiographical Note (1973)”: “From 1950 (approx.) to 1964 engaged unprofitably in various forms of horticulture (including writing a now out-of-date book on The Tall Bearded Iris). Became ill with a gangrened foot and was found to have diabetes.” Peter Riley reports Moore’s circumstances c. 1984:
I found a genial, brusque and quite proud man in his late sixties living in a wheelchair in a small ground-floor maisonette deep in suburban Kent, where he had been since 1948. Steely grey hair, glasses, brown jacket, wiry determined face, rather twangy “educated” voice with a slight London cadence, a small round body enthroned in the chair. The place seemed to be a total disaster, but acquaintance revealed this to be “organised squalor.” The living room was like a miniature mountain landscape. There was a valley-like route for the wheelchair, with turning-bays, from door to fireplace with a branch to the table and work-desk, through precipitous mounds of domestic substance—books, newspapers and magazines, records, papers, old chocolate and cigar boxes, seed packets, wine bottles, and general detritus, most of it with something split over it and the whole under a coat of brown dust from a continually smouldering coke-fire. An aroma as of decayed perfume. Somewhere under these heaps were the furniture of the premises and about three thousand poems typed onto sheets of thin quarto paper.
Out of the three thousand Riley’d edit a selected poems call’d Longings of the Acrobats (Carcanet, 1990). Moore loved jazz (Roy Fisher mentions how, after Moore’s disappearance in the early 1950s, “the only indication I had of his continuing existence was, over the last ten or fifteen years of his life, the frequent mention of his name on the BBC Radio Three weekly Jazz Record Request programme; he was probably its most persistent client”); the translations (and some of the pseudonyms) make much reference to it and its players. (There is, too, an palpable animosity toward the newer “pop” culture—The Beatles, &c.—recalling Jack Spicer’s similar bent.) What Riley makes evident (and the onslaught of Baudelaire versions of 1968 testifies to): Moore’s refusal to stop:
He could hardly see at all now, but he learned forward in the wheelchair till his nose was an inch from the typewriter keyboard and letter by letter, very slowly, hammered out the poem already completed in his head. . . . When the poem was typed it joined the heaps, but he could always find a poem when he wanted it, or a jazz record or a neglected cigar, as least those less than ten years old, by a kind of opencast mining. The secret was not to stop. He ordered more jazz records, more claret, more crocus blubs, conceived another poem, always looked forward to “getting better” and to being acknowledged for his work. A wodge of fluff half an inch in diameter adhered to the stylus. More music.
A couple of Moore’s versions, preceded by the original:
Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux,
Riche mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux,
Qui, de ses précepteurs méprisant les courbettes,
S’ennuie avec ses chiens comme avec d’autres bêtes.
Rien ne peut l’égayer, ni gibier, ni faucon,
Ni son peuple mourant en face du balcon.
Du bouffon favori la grotesque ballade
Ne distrait plus le front de ce cruel malade;
Son lit fleurdelisé se transforme en tombeau,
Et les dames d’atour, pour qui tout prince est beau,
Ne savent trouver d’impudique toilette
Pour tirer un souris de ce jeune squelette.
Le savant qui lui fait de l’or n’a jamais pu
De son être extirper l’élément corrompu,
Et dans ses bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent,
Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent,
Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé.


(“In the evening comes your harlot
And on Wednesday it’s your charlat-
an analyst;
He’s high up on your list.”
              —Ray Stevens: Mr Business-Man)

(for Nicholas Moore)

I am like the Father-Figure of a haar-damp island,
Wealthy, but impotent; still young, but dry, and
Unable to stand my psychiatrist’s bon-mots
And equally hung with dogs or chasing does.
None of it’s fun. You play, but you’re not winning.
Nor is your family’s death a cause for grinning.
Your favourite group’s way-out howling distracts you
Not one small wit from the illness that so wracks you.
Your bed, beflagged with iris, is a tomb.
Your whores—for whom each Business-Man’s a bomb—
Can’t find postures obscene enough to cull
The slightest smile from your womb-naked skull.
Your banker with his smoothest manner can’t
Gift you the kind of credits that you want.
Roman blood-baths; Picasso’s Guernica—
Both potent pills for the old pleasure-seeker—
Can’t warm your corpse, where, bloodless, seethe like Lethe
The green tides of an unborn lethargy.

Rosine MaCoolh
(“Ginny” Rose Lee of the Go-Karts
and Strip Arts Council)


(for Edward Kennedy Hellowell)

I’m like the kind of rain-douched Scorpios,
Quite rich enough and game to take a toss,
Hater of journalists and hoi polloi,
Not fond of dogs or animalculi.
I can’t get really pleased at sport or journals,
Nor at Greeks kept captive by the colonels.
Maria Callas’s dramatic yell
Finally didn’t serve to make me well.
My eiderdown, embossed with antique flowers,
Reminds me of those sad Egyptian towers
Where mummied princes lie beside their drabs
Unsmilingly with dead dogs and scarabs,
Where all the wealth of golden ornament
Can’t raise the proud Egyptian in his tent.
Though glories of our blood and state contrive
With bloodbath frequently to keep alive
Old roués, none can warm this skeleton
Whose green blood, Lethe-like, just pooters on.

Aldila Varese
c/o Dr Enid Starkie,
Department of Romance,
Oxford University
For all the mockery and tomfoolery, Moore’s inclination is, it seems, to make something serious (as Fisher says, regarding the jazz references in Spleen, the poems, for all the sass, are “affectionate and honorific; each is a talisman against the universal slither.”) Moore himself, though, claims the poems “grew not so much from a wish to enter the competition as from a disagreement with part of Dr Steiner’s thesis . . . namely that it was a good thing that so many modern poets were interested in translation.” Which is mostly preface in order to say both that translation cannot be done and that a poet ought be the last to proceed in it. Moore: “The ideal translator is someone who is sensitive to words and ideas and can put himself into the mind and place of the poet he is translating. But the poet is not that kind of person. He is more likely to be doing the opposite, to be putting the poems translated into his own mind and circumstances, and by implication at least, the author of it too.” Not Moore filling Baudelaire’s espadrilles, but Baudelaire becoming Moore. So that translation becomes a kind of license to mutate, to fit the material to the present. Which is Pound’s “frigidaire patent” in Sextus Propertius. Which is how the war in Iraq gets into my Baudelairean romp at the end of “The Everyday” excerpt above, that “national malady,” or the girl who admit’d she voted eight horrific years back for little Bush because of that “cute butt.”

Charles Baudelaire, c. 1855
(Photograph by Nadar)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Nothing (Everything) Particular

“Where’s the Art?”


Capaciousness is its own form
So long’s there be snags
For a “torpid mind to
Catch at” (Marianne Moore). So
The eddy of watery particulars
Needn’t avoid the piling that
Holds up the pier one,
Uh, peers down off of,
Looking for nothing in particular.
“Cleansed clean of lousy Byzantium”—there’s that sure brute efficacy of the American will, the one that demands NO MORE THAN MORE and damn the consequences, forgetting how la nature a besoin d’un long travail if it’s to avoid going belly up like the nineteenth century and its maîtres penseurs. Here it’s an alms-mimicking hand of peanuts and back to work, Jack. “Fiduciary Tribe Jones (I Got Them Old)” on the box. Somewhere between Reddy Kilowatt and the era of the ubiquitous “cell” (not talking Al-Qaeda) we mortgaged what we had for a sack of diminishing dough. Monday’s always a manhandler, just like the data-rich American moon. I sport my rowdy collar with rhetorical emphasis. I like to mimic the unstable scenarios of the day, just another filmic idiot in the systolic noise of the system clamping down on itself. Or, stretch’d out like a visor’d sepulchral knight, the dog sleeping at my feet, (I like to) stew in a grandiose funk, making sentences. Think of Flaubert in a “marinade” between bouts of bellowing out phrases impeccable and inutile. Think of Harry Partch recalling a public shaming he’d got as a kid for drawing a horse with a “long and portentous” sex, a piece of work “vigorously rubbed out” by a teacher, and Partch saying “Wherever you are, woman, long-deferred nuts to you!” I write down “Snatch light,” a kind of memo to work up a sentence about a man who’d the tiniest black tuft of a dog he call’d Snatch. The “light” is a mystery to me. Some days later (today) I recall it: a woman with an equally tiny dog with a bicycle light clipped to its collar. In the taller grasses it look’d as if she walk’d light on a leash.

Finish’d the Barthes. Finish’d Rorem’s Paris Diary. Did a lot of driving, reducing the day’s utility to a percentage of itself, the brainpan sprain’d by repeat and “mere” scenery. Rorem says: “My best works have burst from me like a lonely infection that finally splits the skin. Pieces I have slaved over have always been artificial failures.” (Something “everybody” says, or every Romantic expressivist. Though not quite so hygienically. Is it so? Or is its truth con-sensual, a conning of the senses? The acrid sweat of overwork clinging to the other kind of piece driving one off?)

Something skeptical in the air. I review the jotted Rorem anecdotes, the quotables and all, look a little pointless: a drunk in Trieste “who mistook his wife’s canary for a lemon and put it in the squeezer.” Or, of Rorem’s ancestry:
Rørhjem was our original name. In Norwegian it means “mixed home,” but was shortened, as they all were, by immigration authorities—oh, a hundred years ago. Rorem in Latin means “dew.” Et rorem misericordiae tuae perennem infundas (and shed upon them the dew of your mercy).
Rorem saying (like Ammons’s suggesting that a writer ought keep himself “a little stupid”): “To a creator, knowledge is unnecessary, sometimes even harmful.” (I know nothing about Rorem’s music. I read the diaries for the gossip (slight), and out of a fine mesmerism with Rorem’s bluntness: he is a character who fascinates, self-bundled. And, reluctantly, latterly, for the writing itself—is it, too, a “(cruel) manipulating”? It flies, though. Here’s Rorem against the phenomenon of Pierre Boulez (c. 1954, when the twelve-tone system is a-loose like a wild cat, seriality with its destruction of anything beyond the present moment de rigueur, sentiment and emotion suspect, and all that rather anathema to Rorem):
Boulez has hypnotized Europe à la Hitler: even those who’ve never met him fear his charm. The force of a dictator (as of a saint) lies in the absence of personal libido; not caring, he can focus equally on everyone. Such a one in power is rare. So if Boulez (like McCarthy) were assassinated, a vanishing chaos would result, fertilizing the road of a genius whose ideas might be in absolute reverse. I can only say what I know, compose what I feel. Like everyone born in the twenties I have just discovered that today is yesterday’s tomorrow and the velocity of living has quadrupled, hurling us—as invisible as cold cream—toward a death we thought would never come. Why keep a journal? It never records anything more stimulating than that in Venice one says: “Oh, but you should see the pissotières of Toulon,” and once in Toulon you wish you were back in Venice to die like Wagner and Diaghilev and George Sand and Thomas Mann and the wings of the dove.
Flying. The perfect brashery of “invisible as cold cream.” The way Boulez comes off a perfect replica of “the-artist-with-the-solution” (Alex Ross points to the animosity Boulez reserved for fellow composers who refused to follow him “on the high modern road.” Sounds like any number of self-convinced and -righteous contemporaries in the imaginary trenches of les poésies d’Amérique du nord, hein? The Stalinists of le détroit, meaning the narrows.)

Is Rorem’s diary “pertinent” to “The Everyday”? (Everything is pertinent to the everyday.) Rorem: “A diary has impact only through the accumulation of unlimited observations (of which many are obsessive and recurring), never through the development of themes (for then it would no longer be a diary). Works of art must have a plan; beginnings and ends. A diary necessarily has no form beyond the accidental one of improvisation; hence, though it cannot be a work of art (improvisation precludes this), perhaps it can be a masterpiece.” À bas l’art, vive les chefs-d’oeuvres. Which, considering the ninny pulchritudes of the masses with sweat-shop ideas of art, one’d emblazon to one’s niggardly brow, if he cared enough to do so, and so countenance displeasure.

“The Everyday” is not a diary, it is a texture of one’s dailiness. I keep considering the possibility of allowing other formal eruptions—the long-winded couplet, the poignant-weighted stepping down line of Williams—and the immediate consensus is always no, there’s limit’d (dual) rhythm to dailiness. Then again, devouring time is capable of gulps and nibbles and finer mastications—a gamut of gustatory style, or, Roman feast-like, recurrent refreshing vomitorium purges—Time relenting its grip—re-sequencing, rehashing. Surely the everyday ought mimic the sensory regimes Time instills (is capable of instilling). (Why is this note here, and not embedded with the soldiery of “The Everyday”?)

Ned Rorem, b. 1923
(Photograph by Christian Steiner)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

“Seeing Is Not Interesting”

Homage to Joe Brainard


Net change in unrealizable appreciation
Equal to cancelled disbursements minus
Applicable participant transactions: who’s in?
Fees incurred on overdrafts by
Unaffiliated borrowers equal to gravity
Of the requests: is that
A hand up there? Underivable
Pricing matrices cover defaults along
The axis of unforeseeable maturities:
There’s a stack of repurchase
Agreements on the table here.
The dog is delirious after
A day expend’d amorously guarding
The opossum’s “hole” she’s dug
Next to the shed. I
Suspect a thorough investigation’d determine
Only the skank’s left, the
Beast itself hied off opprobrious
Of that kind of unrelenting
Love. I knew a girl
Like that. So the dog
Flops down to bivouac next
To a pile of library
Books, a rotating cache, meat
Of my solitary researches into
Rustick airs and Flaubert’s own
Defiable Carthage. I read a
Few pages of Marianne Moore.
She isn’t afraid of adjectival
Bluster and pin, is characteristically
Accurate. If it’s summer it
Is permissible and proper to
Say summer. With the autumnal
Sting entering the air, I
Recall (soak’d in the briny
Nostalgia of a single tear—
Here it is, penny-sized)
My poke-salad days with
Lady Bracegirdle, the saga of
The errant avoirdupois, the circus
Of my legerdemain. Levity rode
Sidesaddle throughout: we’d glommed “onto”
One another at the headbanger’s
Ball, shining young aesthetes amongst
All the crockery, like Zelda
And F., a man with
The monicker of a cat.
Of the master-piece (she
Likes to expose its parts
That way) Gertrude Stein says,
“It may be unwelcome but
It is never dull.”

Ned Rorem says Stephen Spender says “German art constantly moves, comes toward you and passes like a train; but the whole French aesthetic is based on cooking in a series of additions (a pinch of garlic here, some tomato sauce there).” And Rorem adds, rather brilliantly demolishing the argument by means of noting its form, that “the curt preciousness” of Spender’s kind of expression is “basically French already,” and therefore the opinion “cannot, for the moment, mean anything.” Did I ever report how, monstrously drunk, I attempt’d a conversation with Spender (about what, aucune idée, he, too, apparently schnocker’d as a pup) and got royally distract’d by the way he, discreetly holding a tumbler of whiskey between pinky and thumb, kept clawing the ice-cubes out of it—they bounced around the carpet at ’s feet—all throughout a peroration? Rorem’s obsessions: death, particularly gruesome death, and alcohol. He’s a brilliant fabulist, too. In Morocco:
A few minutes ago, as I was sitting on the toilet reading Giraudoux, a big insect flew in the window. It looked like a wingèd scorpion with a Frankenstein head. It hovered hypnotized, stared at me, quivered a full minute, and then flew off again. But I could do nothing more.

Had to re-read Stein’s “What Are Master-Pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” with heighten’d attention after skimming it yesterday. It is, of course, largely an argument for imagination, the way it’ll shrill down out of nowhere and abscond off with one’s “self” entirely. Subsequent temporary loss of “identity”—that bland regular construct of memory and time—its replacement by “entity,” a kind of recording angel, a Martian, everybody’s got a name for it. I like how she puts the kibosh to mere description (“seeing is not interesting”)
The tradition has always been that you may more or less describe the things that happen you imagine them of course but you more or less describe the things that happen but nowadays everybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not really interesting, one knows it by radios cinemas newspapers biographies autobiographies until what is happening does not really thrill any one.
Seeing, being the body, is only the occasion of a firing, a “launching pad” into that entitative state (Stein: “any moment when you are you . . . without the memory of yourself”) that allows for the writing (of master-pieces). And, to worry the motor-mouth poetics crowd: “talking essentially has nothing to do with creation.” Though one’d argue with some chance of bringing down a quarry that “the dilatory preciousness” of Stein’s interminable yakking is “basically a sign of identity refusing to relinquish itself to entity already,” and therefore Stein’s opinion “cannot, for the moment, mean anything.” (One hedges one’s bets with lectures and “literary formalism.” As Stein admits of “I write for myself and strangers”: “that was merely a literary formalism for if I did write for myself and strangers if I did I would not really be writing because already then identity would take the place of entity.”)

A final scribbled thing: “the master-piece has nothing to do with human nature or with identity, it has to do with the human mind and entity that is with a thing in itself and not in relation.” The untether’d.

“Absent jusqu’à lundi. Soyez sages.”

Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Notes, A Few

“Beginning a New Serial”


“Coitus is always an inspecific histrionic act, accompany’d by hope and fear.” That’s W. H. Auden, isn’t it? That’s the kind of confusion one’s accustom’d to, stuck up here above the conduit, an unwholesome prevaricating kind of spot. Here’s how I explain my shit-colored hair: ‘the Material Cause of Hair, is as Physitians hold, a gross vapour, rising from the digestion performed by the Brain at the instant of its Nourishment.’ There’s no need to kowtow to it, I “got” my kudos eons ago. Lazing in the Virtuous Necessity Den of a propitious morning, fingering a stol’n flitch of bacon, odorous onslaughts of the rotting Javanese hibiscus in the air, I think how words tolerably writ ought cumber nothing, ought resemble a blank-paper impressed against the oily brain’s swells and valleys, wadded up and push’d down into the creeping holes of the Lotharios of the viniferous danks, registering the deft way the scoria’d lumpy aggregates get laid straight in a bituminous streak, gleaming, tumor-pock’d, bitted to the earth’s coriander-scent itself, its gape, its big-mouthing radical wash. A smear of translucency says it. Materiality nothing.
For such as this Member
Is such, is the colour
Of the Excrements, if there
Enter much Flegm in Brain-
Composition, the Hair’ll be fair;
If much Choler, yellow like
Saffron; if the two Humors
Be found equally mix’d, the
Brain-stays burst, the Hair
Red, and the Mind vacillant,
And participating of two Extreams.
I left out the luggage
For the taxi driver to
Load, and off we went,
Unluggaged. I come to you
Drenched in asses-milk, squandering
Myself in a million little
Boasts and apertures I mean
Aperçus, like the tiniest hole
In the “garment” that is
A substitute for the world.
Here is a nosegay of
Such “masterly” and incontinent “looks”
At things—a teen adjusts
A twist’d bra strap, running
A thumb up and down
Under it and letting it
Snap back. One makes a
Whole artificial reef out of
Such momentary shinings in the
Ongoing stutter and rev and
It adds up to naught,
A straphanger’s belief system, a
Wash of point by point
Particulars attempting to vet how
The train itself runs. Leaning
In to sniff the gag
Boutonnière, getting a squirt in
The eye for the effort.

Reading in sleepy gusts, Ned Rorem’s Paris Diary. “What is good music? The music that is good for you, that disturbs involuntarily like an erection.” (I put dibs on “disturbs involuntarily like an erection”; I plan to “lift” it for some project to come.) Applicable to la poésie? Here’s a note circa 1951:
Until yesterday music’s very nature was such that explanation was unimportant to appreciation (proof of the pudding was in the eating); today music’s very nature is such that explanation is all-important to appreciation (like certain political polemicism which theorizes beyond proportion to reality). I say appreciation advisedly: enjoyment is now a niggardly, if not an obscene, consideration. That composition should need such verbal spokesmen indicates that, for the first time ever, the very essence of the art has changed. There’s no more room for the petit maître, that “second-rater” (if you will) whose talent is to delight or, even sadly, to move his hearer to dance and sing. There is room for only masterpieces, for only masterpieces have the right to require the intellectual (as opposed to sensual) concentration and investigation needed for today’s “in” music. Masterpieces are made by the few geniuses born each century. Yet hundreds now compose in the genius style while denigrating those who compose what they hear.
Try substituting all musical refs with poetic ones and see if that don’t sound a familiar “chord.” (Or: compare with Gertrude Stein’s similar claim in the 1936 lecture, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?” Stein: “They are knowing that there is no identity and producing while identity is not.” Coming out of the observation that “one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything,” isn’t Stein distilling out an essentially Romantic component to the masterpiece, the “what they hear”?) Re: Rorem’s fine call for “niggardly” enjoyment: Whatever’s become of Uncle Buck in the parlor of a drizzly Sunday reciting “Bird-Witted” betwixt ferocious onslaughts of dominoes? Us kids flopped down on tummies around the zither-wielding Bess? (I mock with a lump in my throat.) Rorem again: “If I am a significant American composer it is because I’ve never tried to be New. To reiterate: it’s more pertinent to be Better than to be Different. American composers have the most dazzling techniques today; but they all have “masterpiece complexes’ and write only symphonies. I believe I shall be ever more tempted to write just songs (the forgotten art) with as few notes as possible.”

Ned Rorem, c. 1945
(Photograph by Louise Barker)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987

A Wall (“Due Ragazzi”)

John Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987, (The Library of America, 2008): Some Notes

The nature of—one of the definitions of—a strong voice is that it inflects (infects) not only what comes next, it forces a re-reading of what’s prior. Thus, if one, skimming, sees the opening lines of “Syringa” (out of Houseboat Days)—“Orpheus liked the glad personal quality / of the things beneath the sky”—and turns back to a number’d section of “Europe” (The Tennis Court Oath) to read “‘Beautiful morning for a flip miss,’ remarked the mechanic in brown overalls. ‘Are you going up alone’” (sentences nigh-assuredly lift’d out of William Le Queux’s Beryl of the Biplane, the 1917 British detective novel Ashbery legendarily found chez one of the Seine-hugging bouquinistes and “cut up” for content), one reads the stol’n verbiage as sheer impeccable Ashbery. (Though it is entirely possible other strong “noise” ’ll get into a formerly clear channel, too. Rereading “Two Scenes” (Some Trees) I begin to note a distinctly hip-hop texture to the second:
A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.
This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
Ashbery’s formal restlessness (I think of “Her tongue from previous ecstasy / Releases thoughts like little hats.”) In Some Trees: pantoum, sonnet and sonnet sequence, eclogue (with “shepherds” “Cuddie” and “Colin”), prose poem, canzone, sestina, the Audenesque (or Edward Lear) “The Thinnest Shadow” (“He is sherrier / A sherriest. / A tall thermometer / Reflects him best.”), the mock lecture of “The Instruction Manual,” the nth degree anaphoric catalogue of “He,” the terribly mock-Stevensesque “Le livre est sur la table” (“The young man places a bird-house / Against the blue sea. He walks away / And it remains. Now other // Men appear, but they live in boxes.”) If an examination of mid-’fifties poetry books’d verify little exceptional in that (though the “reach” for the pantoum’s out of the ordinary), the difference scuttles in with the saucy attitude of the epigone (see “It is late to be late,” in “Answering a Question in the Mountains”; see “Don’t ask me to go there again,” in “Chaos”; see “You want us to come back, but it is too late to come back, isn’t it? / It is too late to go to the places with the names (what were they, anyways? just names),” in “And You Know.”)

That canzone, a doubtful thing in English. One stanza: “The sprinkling can / Slumbered on the dock. Clay / Leaked from a can. / Normal heads can / Touch barbed-wire grass / If they can / Sing the old song of can / Waiting for a chill / In the chill / That without a can / Is painting less clay / Therapeutic colors of clay.” Completely reminiscent of O’Hara’s “At night Chinamen jump / On Asia with a thump”—and of Ashbery’s own splendid (and repeatable) assessment of what O’Hara’s up to: “trying on various pairs of brass knuckles until he finds the one which fits comfortably. It is not just that it is often aggressive in tone—it simply doesn’t care.” Even if Ashbery’s provocations come off with less aggression, he is, like O’Hara, “amusing himself, another highly suspect activity” of the age.

Isn’t Ashbery a “poet of ideas” in some sense? Think of “All beauty, resonance, integrity, / Exist by deprivation or logic / Of strange position,” that rather staid posed remark that opens “Le livre est sur la table. Pure intellectual argument regarding the limits of representation—how “truth” is always partial, existing only “by deprivation.” It is a problem Ashbery returns to often—the worrying of the something that is always “left unsaid.” In “The New Spirit” (Three Poems): “At last there is the sense of destiny, the one thing that never could have happened, but even as its word fills your mouth you realize the terrible things that are left unsaid: what happens after that.” And in “The Recital” (the final piece in Three Poems): “No longer is there any question of adjusting a better light on things, to show them ideally as they may never have existed, of taking them out from under the sun to place them in the clean light that meditation surrounds them with.”

That is, the question of formal means gets thoroughly diddled even so early “on” as Some Trees. Même temps, Ashbery troubles the veracity (possibility) of representation. See “Illustration”: “Much that is beautiful must be discarded / So that we may resemble a taller // Impression of ourselves.” Sturdy kin to Barthes (in The Pleasure of the Text): “That is what representation is: when nothing emerges, when nothing leaps out of the frame: of the picture, the book, the screen.” (In “Europe,” the problem is reduced to its wry core. One section reads in its entirety: “mirrors—insane”.) Is the clearest expression of the dilemma (that of the gap, the disjunct, the “leaping out,” the supplement—all stubborn versions of the refusal of the suborned) in “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers”?
Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. For as change is horror,
Virtue is really stubbornness

And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.
Demotic, goofy, “Popular Songs.” Ashbery’s high gumption for the “low.” “That summer / (“The worst ever”) she stayed in the car with the cur.” Or, “all the gaga flowers wondered.” Or, “The sun pissed on a rock.” Allowing a necessary porosity, soaking up all that “leaps out of the frame.” Better, being soak’d up by it: “Darkness falls like a wet sponge.” Or, “you and I / Are suddenly what the trees try / To tell us we are: / That their merely being there / Means something.”

Missing out of the Collected Poems 1956-1987—here’s what notes ought provide, original reception context matter—W. H. Auden’s original (somewhat begrudging) introduction to Some Trees, select’d by him for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. (Is it Auden’s singling out of “The Instruction Manual” that’s made that piece something of an anthology standard? Not, I’d argue, a typique Ashbery, though “easy” compared to some.) Isn’t it still a worthy admonition, Auden’s, to avoid the “manufacture” of “calculated oddities” (I’ll skip the broadside against Flarf ). Auden:
If in the eighteenth century, with its interest in the general and universal, the danger for poets was a neglect of the singular, the danger for a poet working with the subjective life is the reverse; i. e. realizing that, if he is to be true to nature in this world, he must accept strange juxtapositions of imagery, singular associations of ideas, he is tempted to manufacture calculated oddities as if the subjectively sacred were necessarily and on all occasions odd . . . It is not surprising, then, that many modern poems, among them Mr Ashbery’s entertaining sestina “The Painter,” are concerned with the nature of the creative process and with posing the question, “Is it now possible to write poetry?”


A personal note: market “savvy”
Adding up to a lunch
Hour lap dance, NASDAQ boy.
All night Big Cap out
Riding the range, looking, he
Warrant’d, for rustlers, or
Rattlers. History is the term
Gossip turns, you bloodless pronoun
You. One thinks it “deucedly
Sweet,” the yellow’d novel one
Is reading, the coolish air
Slipping in fluttering the gauzy
Curtains, night a perfect sequel
To a well-wrought day,
Earn’d, in a sense, though
Just now the expenditure seems
Without destiny. “We talked about
America and how nice we
Both were.” Loud autumnal fly
Roaming the room. The theatre
Of my volubility is looking
For a way of capturing
A kind of lyric leakage,
So button’d up of late
Like an admiral or a
Boulevardier. One pitches oneself into
The divagatory bustle only to
Achieve “a place where I
Would not have to bring
Myself,” where rumor and hearsay
Slough down canny and one
Is like a slave with
Its tongue cut out, sung
By the divest’d exuviae of talk.
Equity strategy denial is the
Only crucial benchmark lending rate
I rate that’ll stem the
Collateral I refuse, and to
Stave off what corpulent mismanaged
Beast waiting to be fed?
The winds shift rapidly now,
And the grifter works the
Larcenous street, buzzer in pocket.

John Ashbery

Monday, September 15, 2008

John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987

“The Lit Within”

John Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987, (The Library of America, 2008): Some Notes

It’s astonishing, considering the resistance, early and continuing, to John Ashbery’s work, that he should enter the American “Pléiade”—the (mostly) terrific collection that is the Library of America—so adroitly. He is one of the few living American (U.S.) writers to attain the monumental status the series is a marker for. Of poets, only Pound, Stevens, Longfellow, Frost, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Hart Crane’ve been so belaurel’d. (One notes, still under the Library of America imprimatur, the existence of a separate stall for the poet’s horse—the American Poets Project, consisting of tinier books of “Selected Poems.” Presumably, some few of these’ll one day warrant full volumes; for now, a kind of customary Balkanization endures.)

“Considering the resistance.” Not uncommon up to just a few years back to record remarks by poets to the gist of, oh, Ashbery’s a fake, Ashbery’s random verbiage, Ashbery makes no sense, who even reads that stuff? (A later version of the dismissal: “Yeah, he keeps putting out books. They’re all the same.”) Part and parcel of the dumbing down of American life: that a writer would dismiss out of hand a peer, or a whole swath of peers. Some of Ashbery’s defenders guilty of similarly curt and officious refusals to look.

I go first to what the literature calls the “more than sixty previously uncollected poems” clump’d up at the end. “Uncollected” meaning all previously publish’d, beginning with the two 1945 poems heist’d by a Deerfield Academy roommate and print’d in the November issue of Poetry under the name of Joel Michael Symington. The volume’d be more correctly label’d Collected Poems 1945-1987. (Mulling: rumors of hundreds of unpublished poems in Ashbery’s papers. Gluttony of the reader.)

I used to explain to doubters what I loved about Ashbery: voice. That wry melancholia, unmenaced by change, hints of the oracular in the murmur, desire come acropper and thwart’d with rue and a half-sardonic grin. A sinuous voice, though hardly insinuating. Bemused, not particularly excitable. Sotto voce of the hilarious aside. The voice that a goodly bunch of Ashbery’s more misguided followers derided and deny’d. Without it, that human burr of particularity (what Barthes call’d the “grain”), the mimick’d apparatuses (mere disjoint “new” sentence-ry) founder.

Did Ashbery’s voice spring full-blown into being? How completely identifiable even the earliest poems seem! In the 1947 “Song from a Play,” first publish’d in the Harvard Advocate (1948): “Somebody sent me an amorous / Skeleton clothed in geraniums / With a card signed “Compliments of Jerry”. // What could we reply, with the green / Ripeness falling across us, and lovers / In vicious pursuit . . .” It is as if no juvenilia exist’d. (The other of whom one’d say it: A. R. Ammons.)

Collected Poems 1956-1987 contains twelve previous Ashbery collections—Some Trees (1956), The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Rivers and Mountains (1966), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Three Poems (1972), The Vermont Notebook (1975), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), Houseboat Days (1977), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), A Wave (1984), and April Galleons (1987). Astounding how punctually the books come out. Not even Ashbery’s 1982 brush with mortality (“In the spring, a near-fatal spinal epidural abscess causes paralysis and requires neurosurgery, which results in impairment,” according to the “Chronology”) affect’d the pace.

The poems of the 1953 Turandot and Other Poems (Editions of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953)—and other (later) limit’d editions not included in subsequent trade editions—happily available here amongst the “uncollected.” Thus one finds Turandot announcing in the opening scene (of a masque, of sorts): “Laughs and perfect excisions / In which the matter biteth the manner / And vast dreams, unrolling horizons, / A little punk. / The passages from Alexander Hamilton / Fall in the angry light of arcades / So decrepit of vegetation.” And the Chorus replying (in part): “Six horsemen have sliced the day / Riding into the thumbs of disgrace.” Or, later: “Dogs follow the limping man. / The stone turd is hardest. / We eat to be jovial. / Tremendous pincers follow.” Kin to the combative surreal of O’Hara’s “Easter,” or the earlier “Oranges: 12 Pastorals.” Something static about the forcedness of the experimental guise.

Mark Ford edited the book. Meaning, presumably, supplying the Chronology and Notes. In a “Note on the Texts,” he writes: “Ashbery does not significantly revise his poems once they are published in book form. In a few instances, he has made small emendations (usually a word substitution or a change in punctuation) when his poems have been reprinted . . . Ashbery supervised the publication of the present volume; he specified which variant readings he prefers, approved the editor’s correction of a few unambiguous typographical errors, and advised about stanza breaks where it is not clear from the original printings where a page break is also a stanza break.” It is noted, too, that Ashbery himself selected “the 65 other poems that he has chosen to include”—the “uncollected” batch.

The “Chronology.” Is it oddly humorous to read, under “1933,” “Sees first film, The Three Little Pigs, with maternal grandmother (as later described in his poem “The Lonesdale Operator”), sparking lifelong interest in movies (which influences his writing and is cultivated particularly with classmate Bob Hunter at Harvard, Elliott Stein in Paris, Richard Roud in Europe and New York, and eventually with filmmaker Guy Maddin),” and then to turn to “The Lonesdale Operator” and read “The first movie I ever saw was the Walt Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs. My grandmother took me to it . . .”? Maybe. Is the spouting of moviegoers odd? Rather, though not so odd as the “1990” note: “Is appointed Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College; students will include David Gruber, Arlo Haskell, Khalil Huffman, and Stuart Krimko.” Hunh? One remarkable tidbit out of the “Chronology”: in 1961, whilst in Paris: “Is asked by John Hollander, an editor of the poetry list at Wesleyan University Press, if he has a second collection ready; sends off the manuscript of The Tennis Court Oath.” How scrawny and narrow the present seems in that light.

Happily, The Vermont Notebook is accompany’d by the Joe Brainard ink drawings of the original, though screen’d to a medium gray and sized down by a third or so. No doubt exigencies of the thin paper the Library of America volumes use.

The “Notes.” A glimpse and scan spells “workmanlike” and tending toward excess. Is “Civilization and Its Discontents] Title of book (1930) by Sigmund Freud” needed? Maybe. Though I do enjoy the Pascal pointer to Ashbery’s fine (and lengthy) sentence in “The System”—
Not an atom but did no feel obscurely compelled to set out in search of a mate; not a living creature, no insect or rodent, that didn’t feel the obscure twitching of dormant love, that didn’t ache to join in the universal turmoil and hullabaloo that fell over the earth, roiling the clear waters of the reflective intellect, getting it into all kinds of messes that could have been avoided if only, as Pascal says, we had the sense to stay in our room, but the individual will condemns this notion and sallies forth full of ardor and hubris, bent on self-discovery in the guise of an attractive partner who is the heaven-sent one, the convex one with whom he has had the urge to mate all these seasons without realizing it.
Where it is noted: “as Pascal says . . . room] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, II, 139: ‘All men’s miseries come from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’” (Though suddenly “the convex one” in Ashbery’s sentence provokes a more singular frisson of thinking.)


Ned Rorem says that John
Ashbery says that happiness in
Paris destroys one’s capacity for
Happiness anywhere in the world,
Even Paris. I am happy
It is raining, I like
The grave countenance it purveys,
The air all puffy like
A dirigible, the humidity slacking
Everything, clothesline droop’d and behung
With globular drops, the plummeting
Sharp ping into the oil
Catch-pan left out under
The neighbor’s car that drove
Off earlier and so exposed
It. I like the way
Boundaries, drench’d, unclench and hie
Off, aping the lingual stew
Of nation-making gone horribly
Awry. Ned Rorem (The Paris
) writes: “Now I must
Go down to lunch.” And
A few lines later: “Lunch
Is over and I am
No smarter.” An allegory for
The way the everyday fizzles
Into social cant, off kilter
And insincere, invariable redundancies of
Rain hitting the porch. A
Chipmunk’s customary nook (hickory nut
Leavings) gets flood’d, I see
The wee beast scoot along
The fence, tail straight up
Like a dipper handle. I
Like the raillery of rain,
How it squalls out of
Nowhere with curt impudent bombshell
Jostle and bounce, blonde and
Sequin’d, or trails off inconsolable,
Muttering at its skirts. It’s
A question of noises off,
The clarinetist with the split
Reed hawking up a screech
In a Chekhov play. And
If it stops, a lack
Fat like a cigar!
Rorem longing “To sink so
Low that only rising is
Conceivable—and then to sink
Lower!” Ordinary and predictable the
Reveries of the post-insaisissable
Young’un, out to paint
The town red. The (lengthier)
Modes of semantic ends subside
And depicting is the lot,
A way “at” the insatiable
Penetralia, though rarely “of” it.
Dim lands, &c. A bonus
Is the season, its dips
And spikes, variability itself authoring
A kind of brute industry
Of alarm, a makeshift response
System seemingly put into place
By forces larger than oneself,
To whom one can only
Say (repeatedly), Look at that!

John Ashbery
(Photograph by Lynn Davis)

Friday, September 12, 2008


Pitcher and Cloud


Friday. To name a thing:
Oranges tumbling into a wad
Of white towels. The drubbing
Of an impolitic yearning. Saturday
Out in the yard where
The fence is a specious
Integument. A loud black laundress
In back of the baths.
Sunday. The opossum corner’d against
The shed, mouth cutting a
Big roseate L out of
The night, double-point’d like
A lozenge. The dog finally
Pins it and grabs it
Up in its mouth and
Begins to shake it side
To side, slowly and methodically,
As if burthen’d by an
Even grief. I potter out
In briefs and slippers, with
An ineffectual leash. Monday. Nowhere
Is there an audience to
Slander. Tuesday. Archivists in sour
Disarray. Anarchists. Done in by
Post-fortifying muck, the sidelong
Intractable what of whatever one
Never gets done. The filmic
Anything in a systole of
Noise: echo and cramp, angel,
And romp. Wednesday is wearing
My shirt. Thursday. The boy
On the yellow bicycle sliding
Off the Mustang’s fender in
A Gordian knot of limbs
Is back up dickering with
The cockeyed handlebars when the
Fat man extracts himself whining
Platitudes. Use whatever blank attitude—
Covet’d or malign’d—you need,
Boy, or hit him one.
Friday.One stands bound into
Oneself in a green swirl
Of unfamiliarity, furred. Recall a
Cranny, a lanthorn, one’s fingering
Of damp underthings up into
A makeshift something for bucking.
Saturday. The foul hereafter of
Brood. Sunday. Here I am
Scribbling in the sleek propinquities
A gong’d quiddity worth knowing.
(See arrow.) Monday. Whenever anybody
Approaches the thing, it begins
Its preternatural shunning, its stutter,
An elliptic stuck rallying, a
Shout against that begins with
Its formal prod and foil. Tuesday.
Sun drills the night. Wednesday.
Laundry ambiance, suds and ashtrays.
A temporary enclosure I do
So love to palpate, agreeably.
Thursday. Plot flaw. Friday. A
Square-head’d flower, a schnauzer.
Rallying with a shout. Saturday.
Unenviable, the joy-inflect’d pout
Of the post-random romp,
Wintry utterances, the whole of
It saved to a disc.
Sunday. Rhythm diagnosis suggesting rodeo.
Monday. Brought a ferocious dexterity
To bear against the ongoing
Food shortages. Tuesday. A variety
Of terminals and books of
Energy. Unfinishable like a dictionary.
Wednesday. In the midst of
An impositional impasse, a neuro-
Chemical breakthrough raised up its
Doper’s head. Thursday. Bells of
Light in the village betoken’d
Mastery, the right word wrongly
Used. Friday, my contemporary!
My kith! In ambush we
Lie all umbilicus and manoeuvre
For the one unhampered thing!
Saturday. Point to the arch
Truth of the waggish, and
Comply “none, euensonge and complyn.”
Sunday you wear my feet.

Roland Barthes (in A Lover’s Discourse): “The scene is like the Sentence: structurally, there is no obligation for it to stop; no internal constraint exhausts it, because, as in the Sentence, once the core is given, (the fact, the decision), the expansions are infinitely renewable.” That’s not it exactly. There’s “knowing when to stop.” I love the forms that supply an ending; I love the forms that hint (proceed, insist) otherwise. “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?” I seem to dabble at reading, sleep-interrupt’d, of late. Rotating Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, the Barthes (which I keep trying to recall if I read before or not—this occurs with books I’ve heavily pick’d at for years), and George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. And approaching whatever self-appoint’d task “The Everyday” is with an alarming volatility—that is, some few hours of onerous pulling of words out of the cabinet, two words per hour, exhausting bright-eyed staring, follow’d by exhilarating pony-romps of JFK-styled “vim and vigah.” I always liked the Pound remark, spoke with a sheepish shrug: “I do do it.” I keep thinking about Clark Coolidge wanting to make a larger vocabulary available (to himself)—the argument of the painter who’s got all the colors right there on the palette. False, of course. The writer, too, with “all the colors”—A, B, C, &c.—all’s need’d is a monstrously large palette. Steiner mentions the German word Sprachfeld (I take it to mean “Speech-field,” a lovely thing), the whole range of definitions the word is capable of “fielding,” its plot’d (and unplot’d) “array.”

Clark Coolidge
(Photograph by Alan Bernheimer)