Thursday, February 18, 2010

Patrick Swift

A Fence

Dublin-born painter Patrick Swift, in a piece titled “The Artist Speaks” in Envoy, 1951—reprint’d in the Veronica Jane O’Mara-edit’d PS . . . of course: Patrick Swift, 1927-1983 (Gandon Books, 1993):
. . . the idea of technical progress has caused great confusion, especially among the young who imagine that they should take up where Picasso left off:
The several manners I have used in my work
must not be taken as an evolution or a step
towards an unknown ideal of painting
The fallacious idea that a painter ‘experiments’ is harmful to the simple-minded, who conceive painting to be a game in which one casts about in all directions in an effort to hit the jackpot. The only indication of an individual vision is an individual style:
What I seek above all in a picture is a man
and not a picture
It is also a mistake to imagine that such a thing as the stupid genius exists, or did at any time. Good painting is not produced by any unintelligent following of inspiration or temperament. Every genius is a great intelligence:
Of inspiration, spontaneity,
temperament, I know
You may know a good painter by his habit of work: a good painter works constantly.
      . . . everything written about art is profoundly unimportant; most of it, unfortunately, is also boring, except for the statements of a genius about his art, which always have interest because of his work. For this reason I may, I think, be excused the quotations. A last word from Degas: ‘Art is deceit’; and Van Gogh: ‘to be simply honest.’
And, writing under the pseudonym of James Mahon in the London quarterly X—edit’d by Swift and poet David Wright:
To-day it is not uncommon to hear art experts predict the next step in the history of painting. . . .
      A common recent claim of this kind, for instance, has been that America has ‘taken the lead’ from Paris, or Europe simply, and that certain American painters are making the sort of pictures which shall determine the next direction the art of painting will take (though it must be noticed that it is a plain fact such pictures are also being made in Japan, Bulgaria, Chile, etc.) These claims nearly always deal in large numbers of painters at once under the cover of ‘movements’. Any one with a small knowledge of history must realise how far the number of great painters involved in these movements exceeds that of the richest period ever recorded.
      A situation has occurred wherein a premium is put on any work qualifying for the term ‘progressive’.
      . . . The whole machinery of organised culture—museums , institutes, councils, societies for the spread of culture, etc., all compete to produce and to patronize ‘modern and progressive’ art.
      In fact we have now a new official art to the furtherance and protection of which the whole Establishment is committed. It is the new academicism and it is open to doubt whether in the end it is more amusing or desirable that the old.
      It has traditionally been the position of the modern artist that he has found outside the world of official encouragement. His art was unconventional, disturbing, etc., and he was driven to work out his salvation alone and apart.
Those painters who to-day work under the banner or label of the Modern, the Progressive, can hardly accuse the public of not taking notice. They are the spoiled children (Baudelaire’s phrase in 1859 for the established) of a vast culture-loving audience. What they inherit is the enthusiasm which these people would have showered on the neglected masters had they but known, etc. Above all they inherit the developed taste for certain qualities in the art of painting. Particularly the appreciation of what everybody knows to be the sensual quality of paint. The phrase, alas, has not any obscene connotations, and the whole idea is thoroughly healthy, eminently acceptable in the suburbs.
      The suburbs are also thoroughly familiar with the postulates of the New Art.
That’s 1959. Apply in dollops to the current “era” in la poesía norteamericana. (For “sensual quality of paint” read “materiality of the signifier”; for “New Art” read “post-avant” or “hybrid”; for “spoiled children” read “spoiled children.” Etc.) Regarding the kind of hand-wringing and nervousness regarding some supposed “succession” one sees in Ron Silliman’s recent fool’s romp through generational “meanings”: “If there were such a thing as a direct and simple progression from the work of one generation to the next the historical difficulty of the Progressive Artist could not exist.” Swift:
For to be contemporary is not necessarily to be part of any movement, to be included in the official representations of national and international art. History shows that it may well be the opposite. It may be that it is the odd, the personal, the curious, the simply honest, that at this moment, when everyone looks to the extreme and flamboyant, constitutes the most interesting manifestation of the spirit of art.
Shortly thereafter—in 1962—Swift settled in a small fishing village, Carvoeiro, in Portugal’s Algarve, where he remain’d painting (a single solo exhibit in Lisbon in 1974), dying in 1983.

Off out of the beloved hinterlands, and into some varying coastal ranges. Spit in the ocean, back in a week.

Patrick Swift, “Woodcock on Chair,” c. 1950

Patrick Swift, “Interior,” c. 1951

Patrick Swift, “Positano (Through a Window),” c. 1954

Patrick Swift, “Patrick Kavanagh,” 1960

Patrick Swift, “Olive Tree,” c. 1963

Patrick Swift, “Algarve Landscape,” c. 1970s

Patrick Swift, “Fig Tree with Figure,” c. 1970s

Patrick Swift, c. 1978
(Photograph by Tim Motion)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Clark Coolidge’s Mine: The One That Enters the Stories


Clark Coolidge, out of Mine: The One That Enters the Stories (The Figures, 1982 & 2004):
      I must tell you that in its entirety I cannot fill in the landscape of my own background. Great gulfs exist that I can plumb exactly with resonant pendula but cannot describe. Even the letters comprising my name seem to me divided by such gaps, each one at variance with the rest in its extent. Too, each letter is sounded differently, as if by different instruments, making up a klangfarbenmelodie. Each one of my works attempts to reproduce this nominal effect, but seen in such a glaring light they all must be taken as failures. Perhaps at the last I myself will more perfectly come to resemble my name.
Tilting, I am, a burnt rasher at that stew of incorruptibles, the stack of books. Coolidge, here—and, particularly, in lines out of the succeeding paragraph (“What shines more brilliantly than dogged failure in the annals of coincidence? To smoke a cigar in the darkened hallway, to be shot by a nervous cook”)—recalls Beckett (“A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness”—he’s talking about the paintings of Jack Butler Yeats or Jean Antoine Watteau, or both (“JBY gets Watteauer & Watteauer” is what he tells Thomas McGreevy): “The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between.” The gaps and impenetrables, Coolidge’s haunting: “Left to me it is all done excepting me. I must now go forth unerringly to the still point.” Or: “Get a tight shot of the man’s hand just as it is about to gasp the knob. Approach the wall with a neutral intensity of focus, as if all the world were a periphery.” (That hand returns in a later section: “His mind was not on, but his hand was on the throttle.”) A pervasive sense of “witlessness,” automatism, hubbub: “Music had not yet been invented. Speech was felt to be the final solution.”

So I begin at the beginning and find—two sentences into the trees: “Lots of what you read seems to go to make up one big anonymous voice, it’s not really that you just can’t remember exactly who said anything. Something in writing makes me want to get up, avoid, and walk around to no purpose. Perhaps this will be a big book of very little definition.” And, soonest: “as Beckett says”—imploring my intuit. Though, in a wash of explicits, there’s Joyce evoked, too: “The time it takes for things set together to adhere.” And Kerouac (Coolidge still troubling the “site”—comme on dit—of the writing): “Did he keep stopping, and then did he pace? Or did he run it all off quick spontaneous as Kerouac says in a sluice. The muffin jars . . . I have to remember to listen slowly to my lines or pay the price of thinking them wrong.” What begins to accrue: how different Coolidge’s mayhem compared to the plod-predetermined eyeballing (more Ishmael Reed’s “reckless eyeballing,” say, than Emerson’s “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing”) of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, that sense of a sensory apparatus collecting debris to fill in the blanks:
Rising after a long sleep, the terrible weight of the body causes the roughly 50 bones of each foot to settle, snapping and popping as they shift into place. Any single story house is more expensive to build, requiring as it does a maximum of foundation per square foot of living space. Ranch style flows white over the pale leaves of old lettuce. Traffic lights blinking signal a malfunction.

. . .

Optical dimultiplexer divides data packets via nonlinear loop mirror: minimize connotations per word. To ride a giant seahorse is to render the physical world by desire.

Incorporate your weekend home as a nonprofit. Catfood for catfish (they swarm to the surface, competing for each bite). Small, red berry clusters of Jack-in-the-pulpit line the walk.

Somewhere—on television—one sees daylight. A full night of holding these quilts aloft over my body, a night of sheer effort. FedEx it. Modem moans when you shut it off.

Curb appeal. I stand under the awning, arms akimbo, in the rain but not of it. The blue route. Geese against the gray sky. Fed exit.
That, randomly, out of “You.” How direct—beyond the methodical scattershot (to thwart syllogistics, if one attends to “The New Sentence” rhetoric)—Silliman’s array of (fairly pedestrian) observations appears when posed against the writerly fling (all “tools” at one’s disposal) of Coolidge (I think, too, of Williams’s A Novelette admonishing: “It takes writing such as unrelated passing on the street to rescue us for a design that alone affords conversation”—the block’d out in advance: ¡No pasarán!):
The light’s avenue must be meltless, or risk rouge damage definition in the bargain. Subheading: Spalls. Between the gates of writing it grows hard to see. That’s when we start the joke of the two-handed pens. And crane to see the brains begin. And loft the yellow anklet over the tarn, lots past to see. The imagination is brought, now I view. Enough tattered and I won’t swoon, over anything pictured cabbages huge on officialdom tar fire wall of recence in persiflage. The guy has got his door open and now he whistles rarely. Radio thoughtless provide backup of bebop harmonica. But why not then the clarinet? The meat marvels are cloistering buckle by vernal buckle.
There’s a cubist sense of constant re-adjustment—no static point of delivery (no eyeball: “The imagination is brought, now I view”), no adherence to pat “limiting of syllogistic movement” or any other kind of rulebook formalisms, “in the compositional throes, anything goes.” Cubist: think how constrictedly (energetically) one’s “stance” must re-adjust (“A sentence producing pronounced uneasiness”—Coolidge, later) in a sentence like, “The light’s avenue must be meltless, or risk rouge damage definition in the bargain.” “Light’s avenue”—a sun-shaft, streetlight down through leaves; “must”—a warning; “meltless”—unmelting, constant, fierce light of morning, or evening; “risk rouge”—redness of the dying day interrupting the “light’s avenue,” obliterating it; “rouge damage”—is the light glinting off a woman’s shiny face?; “rouge damage definition”—some spalling off of the defined—the sentence itself enacting it “in the bargain.” A sentence as a series of incompatible stands. (Coolidge, early: “Where was I? Standing here sitting.”)

Against (combined with) the cubist: the epic. Coolidge:
The term “epic length” is a formation of noncommunicating closets. Reverberations change the scale. Proportions are storable And the mind go on to the ends of the world? Reading is a drag because you want to have finished it yourself. I once said I wanted to write a novel that would be here today. Amend that to read, written already three thousand years. No, I’d rather write it than read it. Or at least get to the point of not knowing whether I was writing or reading.
The epic existing in the cubist the way the whole exists in the gaps and patches (Coolidge: “I think it all back to when in the middle I didn’t know a novel could be done. I thought it lasted and I was right but in patches. The top of the mountain mirrored in the snow of its neighbor. And everything comes pilfering, allaying, exacerbating down.”) Which sends one back—the way “not knowing whether I was writing or reading” does—to Beckett (“Words and Music”):
words: [disregarding, cold] Seen from above at such close quarters in that radiance so cold and faint with eyes so dimmed by . . . what bad passed, its quite . . . piercing beauty is a little . . .


. . .


. . . blunted. Some moments later however, such are the powers of recuperation at this age, the head is drawn back to a distance of two or three feet, the eyes widen to a stare and begin to feast again. [Pause.] What then is seen would have been better seen in the light of day, that is incontestable. But bow often has it not, in recent months, bow often, at all hours, under all angles, in cloud and shine, been seen, I mean. And there is, is there not, in that clarity of silver ... that clarity of silver ... is there not ... my Lord ... [Pause.] Now and then the rye, swayed by a light wind, casts and withdraws its shadow.
A pause and croak is heard to groan.

Sit a spell and consider how lovingly Marianne Moore thieved Hardy’s “Attack is more piquant than concord,” and insert’d it into the brilliantly syllabic “To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity” whose “mere” pacing—“I can but put my weapon up, and / Bow you out”—offers up a postpositive galore of thrills:
“Attack is more piquant than concord,” but when
      You tell me frankly that you would like to feel
            My flesh beneath your feet,
                  I’m all abroad; I can but put my weapon up, and
                        Bow you out.
Gesticulation—it is half the language.
      Let unsheathed gesticulation be the steel
            Your courtesy must meet,
                  Since in your hearing words are mute, which to my senses
                        Are a shout.
Completely disarming. Williams (Spring and All): “The incomprehension of her poems is witness to at what cost (she cleaves herself away) as it is also to the distance which the most are from a comprehension of the purpose of composition.”

Clark Coolidge
(Photograph by Kevin Killian)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“Swell Couches”

A Door

William Carlos Williams, writing to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeths in the summer of 1946, quoting John Dewey: “Vital and thorough attachments are bred only in an intimacy of intercourse which is of necessity restricted in range.” Coterie soup. Meaning, what fly’d up so pretty in Berkeley just may not fly in Charleston, W. Va, where the Kanawha sluices down out of Gauley Bridge to run unpucker’d and placid under the monstrously gold dome of the State Capital. Same letter, Williams tired of Pound’s years of divagatory guff and no-nothing taunts (“PULLL ep yer SOX, Pop Williams. Or I shall have to treat yew azza deeVided pussunalitty”), in an account of reading “poems wherever I see them . . . anything that comes my way”:
In general I don’t find much (as I get little from you) that seems alert to the main problems of the making of verse today. They’re all shot (as you are) through too much attention to their “great intellectual sorrows” like Werther. I’d like to find a poet who knows what it means to sing again, to sing “Anew” as Louis [Zukofsky] says. Nobody can sing much today—yours truly included. They have lost the drift. Rather they have been nutted (you included) by irrelevant ideas.
      So, naturally, you conclude: “Poor Bill he ain’t interested in ideas.” ’S all right with me.
That spring, all through April and May (he’s writing a review of it—“A New Line Is a New Measure”*), Williams is completely “took” by Anew. To Zukofsky, 26 March 1946: “Wonderful! Metrically I can see at once that it is the only adult verse being written today. It carries on the best of Pound’s discoveries . . . as he has not been able to carry them on. It carrys out the things that kick in my mind as I have not been able to carry them out. . . . a line! A line that is variable and that flows with feeling, musically and yet retains the measured qualities (and quantities) of a line. I do not find it (aside from the early Pound) anywhere else than in you, at your best. And this new work appears on first glance to be you at your best.” Later (31 March, according to Zukofsky’s note): “It is truly a dawn or the beginning of a dawn for me. & the most vicious hatred of others. I can’t express my furious detestation of almost everyone writing today. Not all—but the most.” Most affably contradictory of men, Williams is willing a few years along (15 April 1949, to Pound) to exhibit a rare magnanimity, seeing himself a worker for common cause:
Perhaps I have written a few poems, I don’t know. I’m happy that you have found a few items in the “Selected” that appeal to you. I am never certain that they have body enough, a sound enough structural initiative to stand by themselves. It really doesn’t matter much as far as I’m concerned, I’m fatalist enough for that. For if I haven’t written anything such as I’d be happy to acknowledge if I could be sure I know at least WHAT should be written and I’m equally sure that someone will write it, I’d be happy to be a signpost should I turn out to be nothing more.
The Pound / Williams letters—I am doing a mopping-up op here—lapse into (for me) a tenor of sadness, that “vital and thorough attachment” resign’d to age-foibles, &c. Williams, post-stroke (7 September, 1951), stuck after years of independence with a “contract”:
I’m still alive but not as alert as ’d like to be. I can’t relax enough to write. All tied up inside. All I do is stare out of the window. The contract I have with Random House to do a novel irks me, I don’t seem to want to get down to work. I can’t work that way, I need to be released to slop around as my mind dictates.
If there’s one merciless sign of aging, it may be found in the dregs of a conversation regarding Elvis Presley. E. E. Cummings apparently begins it with a postcard to Pound (18 October 1956) asking, “one (serious) question—who or what is or means a pourainsidire [so to speak] social phenomenon yclept Elvis (the Pelvis).” Pound to Williams (23 October), feeling the inevitably hot breath of youth:
      If you are goin to stay serious and DEETatch yrself from the appallingly low level of the rest of yr/ contempteraries etc.
      And / or edderkate a younger generation caPAbl of distinguishin wot you have done etc/
      BEFORE the centre of light shifts to Melbourne and leaves this effete kuntynunk to Mr. Pressley
      (I got nothing gainst the Pelvis, but cummings is enquiring . . .
      I shd/ think El. Pr was probably a sign of life (but he hasn’t been here.)
      BUT not a compleat PAIdeuma????
      if yu got any views on THAT send ’em to kumminkz, who may be takin a plebiscite.
No reply by Williams record’d. (Beginnings of the era of the “if I can’t be a rock ’n’ roll star, I’ll be a poet” phenomenon. Of late seemingly replaced by the patch-and-retread phenom of the poet who aims to write pop music criticism, some inestimably “advanced” degree—I suppose—of separation.)

* In these days of the fatty surreal (moppings of that old greasy plate), the unsong’d disjunct, and the scattershot array minime et pitoyable, to say nothing of the soundly perspicacious (“What’s he doing? What’s she doing?”) careerist “hybridity” (that mule design’d to carry a load purely marketable), it’s somehow encouraging to read Williams’s lines out of that review—reprint’d in the James E. B. Breslin-edit’d Something to Say:
      Nowadays almost all that passes for poetry is not the result of a fruition but a stasis. A lovely stasis, a pleasant stasis. But a stasis. The wall is there. We may ignore the wall and cast about for supernatural alternatives, but as long as we live we shall not get past the wall in dreams. Poems are the effects of engineering skills in poets. It takes more than thinking backward or thinking at all to write a poem. It’s got to be written precisely in one particular manner at any one particular moment in the world’s experience to be a poem in that day.
      Everything else is a wadding, beautiful wadding. Wadding is swell couches where lovely creatures recline, male and female, for their own reasons. But it isn’t writing.
And: “Without invention nothing can go on.” Regarding the “the necessity for a new form before a new poetry of any sort can be written,” Williams points to “the necessity first to destroy the old. When I say destroy I cannot naturally refer to what exists but only to that which does not exist, the imitation.” Hence the endless struggle even against one’s own meretricious present. In a pertinent note (to Pound, c. 1950), Williams says: “Everyone is writing ‘poetry.’ My suggestion is that they start writing a few poems.”

William Carlos Williams, c. 1955
(Photograph by Hans Namuth)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Central Piling

A Windmill

The usual post-weekend minimal twitches. As if one’d got to ramp up again, out of some sloth-pendancy deep in the skull-recesses. Hugh Kenner, in the late collection of radio addresses call’d The Elsewhere Community, recounts seeing Ezra Pound become Henry James—“eyes fixed on a point in space some yards past a ghostly auditor”— is it that re-becoming that occurs in the tidal wash half-sleep of Monday morning? (Today, a morning reverie of swimming a cloister’d space—there were sizeable rooms of air in the water, wholly gain’d without interference of air-locks or doors or any manifest point of exchange—one simply prep’d up with air-intake prior to moving out of an air-room into a water-room. I took it for an allegory of a seamless language: as if prose, by a simple turn and a gulp’d suddenly
come unsutur’d, a suitably
unfastidious point of entry
for a wall of
poetry, intemperate, obligatory and unobliging.) What Pound did: “James piling up a long sentence in elaborate phrase after phrase, like a man slowly cranking up a pile driver, with many pauses, labouring, diversions, and much mopping of the brow, until suddenly a huge weight fell with a splat. And Kenner, being exemplary, ’s got a pertinent Jamesian sample at the ready:
Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honor, are not times of development—are times, possibly even, a little of dullness.
“A little of dullness” how that modifying “little” makes the dullness duller, its unprevaricating splat all the bigger. It is, I suspect, about there—under the splat—that “we” find ourselves today: with the recent mergers mania, the consolidating of the powers various and sundry—power feeding power with all ideology hiding out under the name of Jack Squat (who’d of thunk of a world where Kenneth Goldsmith is asking Poetry’s own Père Ubu Christian Wiman for a list of select’d preferences (“Featured Resources”) for Ubuweb; or of a world where control of the ecumenical marvel Jacket is turn’d over lock, stock, and barrel-organ to the clearly partisan (and censorious) monkeys at the University of Pennsylvania; or of a world where Charles Bernstein’s sycophantic minions quash any blog-listing that’d offer “comparison of standpoints” under the rubric of “Constant and Critical” at the EPC?) Such centralization of resources results in deadening, sterility, sameness. (Think of how numbers of species flourish in interzonal habitats, how working the borders ups the count.) See, too, Brooks Adams’s The Law of Civilization and Decay:
In the high stages of centralization, where unrestricted economic competition prevails, this loss of energy is manifested by a gradual dissipation of capital, which, at last, ends in disintegration. The evidence seems to point to the conclusion, that, when a highly centralized society disintegrates under the pressure of economic competition, it is because the energy of the community has been exhausted. Consequently, the survivors of such a community lack the power for renewed concentration, and must probably remain inert, until supplied with fresh energetic material by the infusion of barbarian blood.
(Henry, Adams’s brother—after reading the manuscript—warn’d Brooks against printing it: “The gold-bugs will never forgive you . . . You are monkeying with a dynamo.”) To (sort of) paraphrase Randolph Bourne: “Significant and unconceal’d disagreement is the health of the state of poetry”—these placid “trusts,” this “catch-all” institutional giantism—it snookers the art. What’s need’d is not ever bigger fiefdoms, but more individuals with necks stuck boldly forth damning the corrupt’d cozy: individuals unstymied, independent, and loud.

An addendum to my apparently-unnecessarily-mysterious-as-to-provenance remarks regarding Philip Whalen’s Notebooks (1957-1966). Larry Fagin—of Adventures in Poetry, and of Green Zone—who put the collection together—writes: “Nijinsky Suicide Health Club was Allen Ginsberg’s name for his fantasy dance company. (The dancer David Woodberry used it for a one-time solo performance in the late ’70s.)” And, regarding the imprint: “It’s a little spin-off project with a Beat emphasis. So far we’ve done Kyger, McClure, di Prima, PW, with Allen G (’50s Mexican diaries) in the works, then maybe Meltzer. . . . PW notebooks came out of a week of research at Bancroft. Much of it is, as much is with P, a litany of complaints . . . I tweezed out what I thought would be of interest to poets, plus my personal interest in certain characters and events.” Independent community work, “of use,” and largely unsung.

Larry Fagin
(Drawing by George Schneeman)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Philip Whalen’s Notebooks (1957-1966)

Weeds, Snow

Received the somewhat mysterious Notebooks (1957-1966) of Philip Whalen (Nijinsky Suicide Health Club, 2009). Append’d “Notes” declare (beginning “Thus” with a precise air of disappointment and completely in medias res):
Thus no mention of: 1) big going away (to Japan) party for PW, inc. Dylan, Baez, poets, Hell’s Angels at (whose?) house in the Mission; 2) Berkeley Poetry Conference; 3) Kennedy assassination.

These are excerpts. Elision marks and anything between [   ] brackets are the editor’s.
C’est tout. Sauf obligatory thanks to the Whalen archives (Berkeley), Norman Fischer (“permission”), and Clark Coolidge (“technical help”). And a pertinent editorial nudge to the “community”:
LSD Notebook = Box 1:9 “Includes notebook fragments from 1966 Sep 4; 1967 Oct. 1; 1969 AUG 30—describing various drug induced trips. 30 pp and 4 Japanese flyers”—PW [This would make a nice holograph pamphlet.]
Impossible to guess, exactly, what percentage of the whole the twenty or so pages assembled here represent: it is, though, a terrific snapshot, guerilla Polaroid. Some pieces—here, out of the initial entry dated (with that impeccable completeness that suggests a new page) “Sunday 4 August 1957 / Gray’s Meadows Camp / Inyo Nat’l Forest / near Independence, California”:
      Here, like the summers I worked on the Skagit, I am conscious of little more than the absolute present. I feel free of the past & from myself. There is a continuous roar of water & a slight breeze, & I breathe & digest food noisily but “I” has temporarily stopped his usual noisy clamor, feelings of irritation, frustration, ambition, remorse, &c. The view of mountains, the immediate trees & water, & at night the stars—all can be looked at for any length of time & enjoyed as themselves. They require nothing—& I feel that I require nothing either. . . .
      The question is, who’s writing this now, having these feelings, notions? Naturally, the same collection of habits & History that exists wherever this person happens to be.
Habits and history: what one senses, permeating the pieces: getting-by-with-handouts-and-rage poverty (“6/VII:65   In rage & panic, hungry, I sold half a dozen books for $2. I’m eaten almost all of it: The Iliad, a contemporary verse translation with Wedgwood illustrations, THE DESERT MUSIC, JOURNEY TO LOVE, THE 100,000 SONGS (xlations from Milarepa), and a Dante illustrated by George Grosz . . .”), nigh constant tumults of moving (“June 12, 1959—at a picnic table in Laurel Dell camp . . . I can’t stay here. I’m due to return this evening to the Zendo—where L. & I don’t have permission to stay, & where there must be some sort of explanation scene with Sandy, a pure drag, & will result in our going to gaol or worse, no doubt. Where will I be this time tomorrow?”), dogged by inability to write (peut-être, though, that’s precisely when one dashes to the notebook). (Against the writer’s block, one reads, too: “4:V:64   Yesterday & today I burned about four reams of paper—journals, short stories, uncompleted novels—junk that I’ve been carting about with me for 20 years.”) The Notebooks a miniature portrait of the writer’s perennial lot in these States, the first compromised irreconcilable of “How To Live, What To Do.” One answer: the “turn to prose” (by even the notational, the unfit). Whalen:
. . . I write this in bed at 3:40 A.M. after a day of reading, almost continuous reading—(re-reading Tristram Shandy)—during which I kept promising myself “I will stop at the end of this chapter & try to begin writing again.” I didn’t actually stop until a few minutes ago.
      I got into this pickle by starting a couple weeks ago with the notion that I must mend my prose style by perusing again the sedate pages of Johnson, the ironic epithets of Smollett, & the lively grace of Sterne. All that has resulted is an echoing of their sounds in my empty skull & bent reflections of their kinds of phraseology in current letters to my friends & in this place—a dismal conclusion to my original plan. In addition (or in diminution, rather) I feel a great lapse of my inventive & authorial powers. Although I have managed a page or two of prose (incredibly bad stuff) I have made no poem for several weeks. There were a few days during which I was able for hours at a time without any reading—a program of deliberate avoidance—& wrote some of the feeblest prose since the time I was writing college essays. I flattered myself that as expository writing—passages of utilitarian description—they would serve as a part of the latest “novel” project—but those pages, & the “project” itself are far from what it is I yet must begin & finally complete. The idea of a long book in the manner of the Prose Take I’m printing in Chicago Review is nauseating to contemplate. A page or two of it makes a sort of prose poem—but even that is annoying, tiring to read. And it was written under a drug & drugs are impossible to come by, & I wouldn’t risk my health by using a drug for long enough time to write a complete book in that same style. I prefer, I suppose, THIS—which is equally nervous & nowhere.
The Kerouackian “Prose Take 1:VI:57” appears in the Autumn 1958 issue of Chicago Review. Begins:
until all I can hear is birdsound in the greypurple a.m. nowhere. Saturday morning goodbye green dictionary blue & white striped tobacco-can Nirvana hello. This is the report of the committee against whatever and so forth screaming white laundry over the side fence behind the kitty wants in window geranium all night feather-trill MORNING. Pointless pipes birdfeet around the black wires (beware the imprisoned pound von Ezra parked singing in Saint Elizabeth Dogpatch Loonybin Washington quarter to ten). More of us will perish, M—, poor grass widow of the millionaire selling dresses from artificial hoked-up Parises in Tashkent afternoon brightlights, voluptuous M— turned vendeuse with sidewound hair while her exhusband exhausted (millionaire) peddles Earthworm Tractors to the lost black arab farmers in Angola. (He never learned Portuguese but sends handmade Vedanta Christmas-cards to all his friends.)
      The pressure on or in my skull, the roar of the gas (the room is full of carbon dioxide . . . breathing kills us) it is the end of a long romance between what and whom i.e. me, which I like to claim is sick and tired of nothing at all and so. . . . SOMETHING, namely this:
Etc. There’s more’n a modicum of truth to Whalen’s sleek assessment of: “annoying, tiring to read.”

Historical notes: names and factoids mostly skin by with little or no analysis, leading to odd conjuncts: “11:XI:60 . . . Tibetan section in Museum of Natural History! & met Larry Rivers & Brendan Behan & John Hollander & saw Ashley Montagu at Grove press offices. Blah.” Though some tiny glimpses into literary politics—here suggesting The New American Poetry probably shouldn’t be consider’d in the revisionist “one big happy” tent of outlaws way it seems to be by some of its partisans. Whalen:
30:VIII:64 . . . Duerden was here all evening to discuss the literary scene, putting me down for contributing to the Don Allen / Robert Creeley anthology—I told Duerden that I knew Creeley & D. Allen think of me as 2nd rate, lightweight, &c. Duerden says I should write novels . . . drunk or sober he enjoys railing at Creeley / Olson, 1/2 admiringly against Duncan & Co., 1/2 pro-Spicer, etc.—he seems to believe that all these plus Donald Allen really DO “control American literature” * What if Duerden is correct? If he is, why does he bother to write—why should I bother, &c &c &c? * Brautigan came back from Pt. Richmond: we all talked about poverty & how to raise money & what weird kind of books we might write in order to sell. But we are penniless & we are worried in spite of our hilarity.
(Too, a few lines about the Vancouver Poetry Conference: “26:VII:63 . . . an excitement & a warring & a love-feast . . . I fell as if I’d alienated all the other poets—Olson already 1/2 mad at me—Creeley newly angered?—Duncan pretending I don’t exist, along with Denise Levertov & Margaret Avison, who are of the same persuasion . . . AG alternately attacking & praising me.”)

Strong sense of Whalen’s happier kinship with the natural world, the “nervous & nowhere” slaked by observing and naming, a manifest welcome need to be solitary: “Friday 17:VII:64 . . . at Mist Falls on the Kings river in Paradise Valley . . .The butterfly, California Sister (Limenitis Bredowii) also loiters hereabouts. In the meadows below: white mariposa, red columbine, lupine, pussy paws, cow parsnip, elderberry, paintbrush, monkey flower, gilia, various yellow daisy-like flowers, white daisies, a delicate large pale blue bell-trumpet flower (tall), turk’s cap lilies & many more. Here at the pine tree foot is a complicated set of large mosses. . . . The tall pale blue trumpets are Harvest Brodiaea (B. Coronaria).” Lovely, too, the report of flying with Michael McClure, San Francisco to New York, with stops: Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago. In Omaha: “Dinky terminal redbrick & takeoff delayed for a brake repair—& next, Chicago. As it grew lighter across Nebraska, land changed from Mondrian to expensive marble floor to flagstone-like texture. Flatness a sense of tragedy &c.” Back to the poems.

Cover of Philip Whalen’s Notebooks (1957-1966)
(Drawing out of Whalen’s 1966 The Invention of the Letter: A Beastly Morality)

Philip Whalen, 1923-2002

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Allison Cobb in Peaches and Bats

A Sign

Out of the fifth issue* of Sam Lohmann’s excellent twice-yearly magazine, Peaches and Bats, something of Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood:

Green-Wood sprays herbicide throughout the five hundred acres fall and spring to keep weeds from sprouting. New York City has banned from public property two of the chemicals—pendimethalin and 2,4-D. Pendimethalin poisons fish and frogs. 2,4-D was a major component of Agent Orange, which the United States used to destroy the crops and jungles of Vietnam.

According to Cornell University, rats fed 2,4-D gave birth to babies with wavy ribs, a function of general toxicity.

                            poison arrow (a bird)

                                                                                flight ignites

                        to impregnate all waters         the world

Ladies’ botanies became best sellers during the nineteenth century, thanks to advances in the science of plants and the popularity of gardening among the middle class. Botany was seen as an appropriate pursuit for a young woman, who feels all that delight in [flowers] which seems so naturally to belong to her age and sex.

                                                                                        (a form of being lost)

One scholar calls ladies’ botanies transgenred. They combined science with poetry, quotations from scripture, and flower fables, in which plants personified as women deliver moral lessons. According to the historian Vera Norwood, this was a way of disguising the science so that it would appeal to female readers. But it also kept women among the ranks of the amateurs. Such heteroglossic books were not serious.

The New York State pesticide registry contains more than thirteen thousand products. Their names march in order:




Black Flag

Blast Off


Breathe Easy


Les Fleurs Animées contains fifty-two hand-colored engravings of women- flowers by the French caricaturist J. J. Grandville. This makes it valuable: It sells online for more than a thousand dollars.

The New York Public Library owns four editions of the book in its George Arents Collection on Tobacco. Arents, from Virginia, grew rich off the business and became obsessed. He collected thousands of items of “tobacciana.”

His collection includes the original handwritten manuscript of The Importance of Being Earnest because the plot involves a cigarette case. The Flowers Personified is there because it contains a fable about the tobacco plant. Arents himself never smoked.

In the low-lit, wood-paneled room, I present my I.D. and ask to view this book. A librarian is summoned and disappears again. I have read that the collection is contained in a Georgian-style sitting room donated by Arents, but I am not invited into this sanctum. The librarian comes back with the object cradled on green foam wedges. She sets it in front of me and, smiling, hands me a weighted rope—“the snake”—to hold open the pages.

At first I am afraid to touch the brittle book. I sit looking at the blue cloth cover embossed with gold flowers. The less friendly librarian, a man, taps the green-shaded lamp above me in case I want to turn it on. I don’t turn it on. I do. I read 823 .mR stpircsunaM dna skooB eraR rof mooR gnidaeR rotsA llessuR ekoorB ehT on the glass transom. From a newspaper folded on the table beside me shines the face of the brain-erased woman whom George Bush will this night order back to life.

                                                                lit, a live

                                                                look I think

                                                                fire that through

                                                                the blind

                                                                stem drives

                                                                the breath     grief

                                                                a kind

                                                                of self     a skin

                                                                to war in



Butcher’s Bath

Butcher’s Blue Skies


Can’t Bite Me

The study of botany could be dangerous for ladies. Linnaeus created a system for classifying plants based on sex organs, which he referred to in Greek as the “husband” (andria) and “wife” (gynia). Most flowers, however, aren’t monogamous. This aspect of the science had to be kept from young women, or sexual anarchy could result. The 1798 poem “Unsex’d Females” expresses this anxiety:

For puberty in signing florets pant,
Or point the prostitution of a plant;
Dissect its organ of unhallow’d lust,
And fondly gaze the titillating dust.

Opening any field of science to women threatened the social order. The Ladies’ Botany section of Les Fleurs Animées makes the danger explicit with a warning: Stop here fair readers—Go no further. Put down the book . . . they wish to make you scientific.

The author of the Ladies’ Botany skirts the Linnaean controversy: We shall avoid here the use of scientific terms which . . . have no other effect than to distort pretty mouths into ugly grimaces.

To “ping” (short for Packet Internet Groper) means to send a signal out over cyberspace seeking an answer to ensure messages are getting through. It also is called echo request.

In a hysterosalpingogram, a doctor sends liquid dye through the fallopian tubes during an x-ray to get a picture of their shape. The pain may be acute, depending of the force with which the doctor injects the liquid.

hysteria: not simply “womb”
but rather the womb as an animal
on the move within the body

That humiliating cry. It did not come from me.

That sizeable chunk here render’d in some attempt to seize the fearlessness of its inclusions, the way it braids in—like the transgenred “ladies’ botanies” it speaks of—hanks and wisps of fiercely diverse material: personal, historical, scientific, political, etymological, &c. Green-Wood, according to the accompanying “Author’s note,” is “named for a 500-acre Victorian cemetery . . . in Brooklyn, NY . . . opened in 1838 as only the second ‘rural’ cemetery in America, after Mt. Auburn in Boston.” One learns, too, of the cemetery’s first historian, one Nehemiah Cleaveland, and that—“During the period of his cemetery obsession, [he] produced his only literary text, a translation of Les Fleurs Animées.” (Green-Wood, the compleat’d book itself, is apparently just recently out, one of the fifth volume of Heretical Texts publish’d by Factory School.)

Reading Cobb’s work in Peaches and Bats deliver’d me up to thinking about the form of the thing, with its lyric interludes, its documentary hotch-potch, its interpenetrating stew-juices making of the whole something bigger’n its parts. Is the poetic “sole precedent”—“and that one far-fetched”—for Green-Wood’s documentary aspect, Williams’s Paterson? (I doubt it, though I did think of the historical prose lumps in Doctor Williams’s gallimaufry, the Marcia Nardi letters, the story of Sam Patch, the Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow reminiscence, &c. “The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position.” What Williams (and seemingly Allison Cobb, too) desires—not unlike Ashbery’s percipient claim for O’Hara’s “Easter” (“a bag into which anything is dumped and ends up belonging there”)—is, of course, what he calls (in a 1943 letter to James Laughlin) a “debaleing,” a loosening up, a busting of the “ordering” containments of form. Williams (regarding Paterson):
      If Stevens speaks of “Parts of a World’ this is definitely “Parts of a Greater World”—a looser, wider world where “order” is a servant not a master. Order is what is discovered after the fact not a little piss pot for us all to urinate into—and call ourselves satisfied. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
(The other “precedent” to a documentary poetry, likely summon’d largely by the Fleurs Animées-anthropomorphisms of its author who portray’d stamen and pistil as bride and groom: Erasmus Darwin in The Botanic Garden)

* The issue’s other contributors: Eric Baus, Robert Dewhurst, Michael Farrell, Emily Kendal Frey, Anne Gorrick, Alina Gregorian, Matthew Hattie Hein, Derek Henderson, Robert Kelly, Sheila E. Murphy, and James Yeary.

Allison Cobb in Green-Wood Cemetery
(Photograph by Ben Friedlander)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Graham Foust’s A Mouth in California

A Barn

Graham Foust’s A Mouth in California (Flood Editions, 2009) is epigraph’d with a rather Beckettesque exchange—
grass     . . . What an interesting thing a horse is, when you think of it.
budge     Who was the first person who decided to get on top of one?
grass     Exactly.
budge     Scary.
grass     Right.
—out of Don DeLillo’s The Day Room, that, too, includes the lines: “My voice isn’t part of my body. It’s what comes out of my body when I speak. It’s the air which by some miracle we are able to shape into the sounds we wish to make.” One bounce, epigraph to first piece in the book, and more Beckettesquerie (here invading Hemingway):
The Sun Also Fizzles

What’s this place, between
geography and evening? The sun
also bludgeons; a car has three wheels;
and what’s the wrong way to break
that brick of truth back into music?

Money belongs together. I’m right
where I wanted to leave me. Rain
belongs together. At mirror,
I’ve neither me believed.

I’ve come covered in arena dust,
my mouth a sleeve’s end,
meatless. I’ve come somewhat up,
and I’m here to lick
the static from the ground.

Twice, I’ve been evidence of,
if anything, my breathing.
Not particular, I’ve pissed against
a cage, pretending wind.

Swallowed whole, a songbird might
could claw back through the hawk—
or so I’ve thought.
The choosing of a word
might be its use, the only poem.
One refrain in Beckett’s series of short prose “Fizzles”—fiascos of sequence, and likely a trigger to the DeLillo—goes, “it’s impossible I should have a voice.” (“Fizzle 4” begins: “I gave up before birth, it is not possible otherwise, but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside, that’s how I see it, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light, it’s impossible I should have a voice, impossible I should have thoughts . . .”) So that: what one perceives, in the series of seeming category mistakes—“between geography and evening”—is a disembody’d Beckett voice. “Geography” and “evening” finding a category in, say, “They give birth astride a grave.” “The Sun Also Fizzles” proceeds (and succeeds, I’d wager) by its jagged adamant refusal to twig to a “right” way “to break / that brick of truth back into music.” That is, it acknowledges (enacts) the infissiparous truth of music (and “Money,” and “Rain”—other sorts of indivisibles) itself: that songbird “swallowed whole.” (If I’d quarrel with the piece: I’d out with my jackknife to scratch at the surface of the lines “I’m right / where I wanted to leave me” and “At mirror, / I’ve neither me believed,” both, for signs of preciosity. I might, too, try to quit reading the final sentence as “The choosing of a word / might be its only use . . .”—though, frankly, such a mishap strikes me as somewhat less falutin’ and closer down to earth than any mention of “the only poem.” There is, too, a poem call’d “The Only Poem.”)

Titular poems ride hard throughout—“Poem with Manifest Destiny,” “Poem Beside Itself,” “Poem with Concussion,” “Poem with Grownup,” &c. Danger of a shtick, is what I think. Danger, too, of a shtick, a manner’d thing, in a Foust’s way of breaking up some of the usual sentences and offering up badly-repair’d replacements. Sort of a Pun City breakdown, though not exactly: a category shift drives some (in “On Form for Haggard,” Foust Williamsizes: “your ‘Long Black / Limousine’ // depends so much / upon // mistakes / a missed turn // “the curve nobody / seen”—perhaps it’s a “forcedness” to the “mistakes” I’m conscious of): “To trip the forced majestic.” “Lyric Poetry After V-E Day.” “I see a thick flash of paint, a stiff / light and I’m blind as a bell.” “A mouth on every bird.” “I cross the clear / alarm, the nonsense of not / being stared at . . .” (It’s entirely possible that I am hyper-attuned to Foust’s veerings. He’s on record—in a somewhat dated interview I recently cotton’d to—as saying, mostly regarding “little conglomerates of language and tune” out of popular song:
I hear something and I say, right then and there, “I want to use that in a poem” or “I want to use that in a poem, but it has to be slightly different in some way” or “I want to use that in a poem, but it has to be slightly different in this particular way.” A lot of times I’ll hear something incorrectly and then like it better than the “correct” version and then decide to use it in a poem. I’d wager that a huge number of lines in my work were happened upon or “written” in that way, though I’d also wager that I couldn’t go back and label which ones with any certainty.
I’m all for poking at the necessary strangeness of the lingual thrum and perturbancy—I retreat though at the gesture of anything’s becoming doxy.

The pieces in A Mouth in California: mostly longer, meatier, of a complexity rarely encounter’d in Foust’s earlier work. One deleterious effect: making some of the shorter pieces seem skip-worthy. Here’s “Poem with Feelings”:
Thoughts of them, thought
or not,
are mostly that.

There’s always
been a pointlessness.
Kudos for the oi charge detonating within “pointlessness” and “rejoice,” making the connect. And to the fix’d similarity between “thought” and “that”—thought is only that, is what the clipped-off t’s say: feelings—par contre—splay out slovenly (unthunk) pointlessly as joy. A sufficiency in fifteen words. Foust works up a villanelle (a kind of mocking villanelle à la Bishop’s “One Art”) call’d “After Taxes” (ending: “And there was never not a fiscal year. / We’re timeless in the red, beyond ugly. / There are things less important than money.”) He calls forth Robert Creeley both in “Poem for Robert Creeley” (with its powerful ending: “And life, no matter / whose or how real—and matter: / expensive, relative, irrelevant—all of it suffices precisely, / slightly. All of this / undoes just what you’re not.”) and in the more-truculent-at-divulging-itself “The Call,” with its echoes of “Here here / here. Here.”:
Windows. Where
do you not want
to go today.

You. You.
You. you.
Regret’s not letting up.

Reason wants
a lift from where
you left it.
(Other writers summon’d: Spicer, Reverdy, Pound, Stevens, Margaret Atwood. A couple—probably healthy—signs of writerly loathing: how “To the Writer” (“your dumb touch, your clunky / fuss”) begins: “Another cloud spun to nothing, one / of nature’s more manageable kills. / Another borderline-meaningless morning save / for everything . . .” And “The Only Poem” ends: “Even in danger / you’re a writer, liar.”) A final piece, a fine lyric retrospect—likely not the most ambitious piece in A Mouth in California—one tires of contemporary ambitiousness with its conundrum’d heaps, its fizz-little syntactical agons. The poem:
Their Early Twenties

Full of noise and lust, they fled
the city for the shore. It was four
in the upcoming morning. Everyone
slobbered; somebody drove.
Another thirst begun, they had their beer
in cans in bags; their hands, their feet
in frigid sand; their eardrums—make that
their headaches—sewn with ocean.
They’d never seen a moon so willful,
so scissory, never heard the dark water
rearranged so clumsily. Crowded future,
dingy beach. They scratched the air;
they burned and buried things.
They were the fruit they couldn’t reach.

Graham Foust

Brian Calvin, “Killer,” 2006
(Design by Jeff Clark)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Thomas A. Clark’s The Hundred Thousand Places

A Door

Regarding the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark’s The Hundred Thousand Places (Carcanet, 2009)—note the profound echo in the title of the Taoist sense of all the perceivable objects in the world, “the named”—“the ten thousand things.” Here: a leisurely accounting of place manifesting itself, ingrain’d, half-human. Or man (a man) becoming half-landscape in easy (and easing) merger. Clark:
you are not sure

there where you hover
over yourself
stay there

A book of stripped down pieces, unmark’d, untitled. In (possibly) four sections: sequences demarcated solely by an intervening blank page. One result: uncertainty regarding the unit (and limits) of the “field of composition”—line, stanza, page, section, book. How encompass (ring or girdle) a landscape? Like language, its stream, it is impossible to delineate the boundaries of place: unmoor’d, changeable, abrupt. Clark:
as if you were implicated
the lifting of the mist
from the water

the grey wake of a boat
unmoored at dawn
as you go forward
you are drawn

green forms
rise up
in front of you

pouring into the visible
as if from some
invisible source

The loafing (Whitman is sight’d, too: “taking your ease / against the slope”) and spare-countenanced diminuendo to purely perceivable essences, a paring down of the clap-trap of ego and industry: process of a life. The difficulty of an impartial simplicity. (Partial simplicity is rampant: its leavings-out, the way it’s ripped out of the continuum make it appear manner’d, a world throttled into reticence.) Clark:
it has taken half a lifetime
to learn to sit in the sun
among primroses and violets
beside a dried adder skin
your back to a broken wall
Rhythmically echoing Dr. Williams. And:
the blue butterfly’s
moment on the purple
thistle flower
is indolent

idly its hoarded
blue is unfolded
onto difference
then folded again

How Clark’s sonic riffs make bigger unfoldings, glimpses of unstoppable associational :
stretching inland
blackland and moorland
grassland and acid heath
a dark country
of heather and moor grass
of deer grass and moss

around the ruined
sheep folds and shielings
green islands
of sweet vernal grass
bent grass and fescue
rescue wilderness
Shieling, a roughly-construct’d hut at a place of pasturage: “In scheilling, tyit fast in tedderis.” A world pursued (captur’d) by sounding connects. (How different is, say, Coleridge’s looking, its veering off. Out of the Notebooks, randomly, “A Light Breeze upon the smooth of the River & the Shadows of the Tree turn into two-edged Cherubs’ Swords.”) Clark’s skint metaphoricking:
a breeze
of small birds
moving through
birch leaves
An impeccably-stack’d Russian doll of noises: breeze / leaves, bird / birch, moving / through.


Some pieces simply cataloging flora (“the lovely particulars / brighter than their names”) or (more rarely) fauna (heard but not seen / the corncrake in the grasses . . . seeking the shelter / of complexity and fragrance”):
a hanging valley
of ash, wych elm, hazel
willow, birch, oak

dense cover of beech
light shade of ash

wintergreen, ramsoms
sweet woodruff
guelder rose

hair moss, bracken
fork moss, oak fern
reindeer moss
Even there: sonic braiding, pinch and release: “fork moss, oak fern.” Ransoms a style of wild garlic. Is wych elm related to the American hop hornbeam?


In answer:
a common idiom
carries through
complex articulations
call it a place

it was not your
intention to bring
all your resources
here but you do
To paraphrase (the American) Tom Clark’s unforgettable little poem “I was born with this body / So I use it” (insert “language” for “body”)—or is it Ammons’s titular “If Anything Will Level with You Water Will”—“If anything’ll knock you down, language will.”


Two perfectly Scottish (undaunting stoniness) notes regarding color:
the first

the gorse flower
nourished on rock
in a salt wind
And (color’s soundings, how a kind of impeding causes melody / colour’s squeezing out):
the rock in the water
breaking the full
weight of the flow
produces melody

the rock by the water
broken by bracken
tormentil and heather
releases colour
Next page: “from rock / heather / from astringency / colour.”

Thomas A. Clark

Laurie Clark, Detail of “One Thousand Blue Places”

Monday, February 08, 2010

Williams’s “Here”

A Tree

Williams in A Voyage to Pagany (1928), the novel written after travels to Europe (beginning, contentedly, in a hotel in Paris, with its “small familiar violonshaped bidet”): “It’s a distinction to be nobody and to do as you please.” (A stance so unmitigatedly foreign to the madly careerist “scene” today as to compel nigh-compleat rancor and disbelief.) The baldly autobiographical Williams character—a doctor call’d Evans—a sputterer, a sparrow fighting mites with a dust-bath, a ferociously deft bantamweight taunting the bigger birds (or the poindexterous rabid know-nothings), thinking how he’s:
. . . American—and this and that and careless—and amused and lazy and more than a little critical and no drunkard at any time and—hard to crack, a sparrow in short. He wanted to write—that was all, and not to have written, but to be writing. He got his whisky that way, he got all he ever got from that. To be feeling it in his mind and his fingers as it flowed out . . . there in secret he lived.
And, some pages further:
He wrote because he loved it and he wrote eagerly, to be doing well something which he had a taste for and for this only did her write. As far as wishing to advance his acquaintanceship by his writing, or to advance himself, it never entered his mind. If they liked it he was entranced, if not, he didn’t blame them.
(Recall the prime inheritor of Williams’s feisty nonchalance, Frank O’Hara: “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings.”) That “to have written”—that focus on all the finish’d off trappings of the live flow itself—spit-out empty shells, post-firing debris. Williams, entraining to Paris, worrying the “stretching mood” of the perennial now: “Or is it alive? It is. My stretching mood is all I am thinking of. America. Here is. Here is. Here is.” (What Robert Creeley, in Words, plausibly translates into “ONE THING / done, the / rest follows. // Not from not / but in in. // Here here / here. Here.”) It is that trajectory, the endless impartial beingness of “in in”—that Williams opposes to the “form beautiful” of the done-with art object, what he calls “the dead stops of life, everything made static—stopped that is—made into a form beautiful.—It gave him a chill, that word.” (Williams is constantly dogged by the way “beauty” requires a stasis akin to death: “The whole world is built to keep it from being said.”)

There’s a marvelous sequence in A Voyage to Pagany where Williams’s “Evans”—after a desultory walk through the streets of Paris with “Jack” (apparently a character model’d after Robert McAlmon, marry’d to Bryher—Annie Winifred Ellerman, daughter of the financier and shipping magnate John Ellerman—“at death, in 1933, the richest Englishman who’d ever lived”)—recalls playing hare and hounds as a kid. Implying, évidemment, that the current conditions differ little. Williams, caught between various abandonments—one being “Europe,” its thrall of inconsequence, another being “self” (in a letter of 1935 to “Old Sock” Ezra Pound, Williams says: “if my cocky ancestors had been driven by penury to Tasmania I’d be sticking up for that spot in the sun also—perhaps. I know it looks attractive to say I stay where I am out of fear—which is more or less true. But there are all kinds of fears. Sometimes we fear to lose what we hold precious more than we fear to lose ourselves. I have never had any illusions about places. They mean nothing to me. I know that I will be the same in any of them”):
Just go. Why? He couldn’t let himself do that. Why not just kill yourself. It’s more sensible. And yet, he dreamed to go, madly, as he remembered at twelve he had sometimes done, madly, with no end in view; that day the kids couldn’t catch him at hare and hounds, that phenomenally successful day when he had kept them baffled all the afternoon in a certain neighborhood, running, hiding, showing himself, doubling on his tracks, escaping, running again, showing himself and so on, hour after hour, running on. So, desperately scattered, he had remained still; whereas they, Jack and the rest, being always collected, could go loose. But if he should go loose, he would die, of this he was convinced, since to go loose to him was to go totally ungoverned, drunken, syphilitic, starved, jailed, murderous: Finis. The rest were pikers really—careful schemers, really. This had been his excuse. Not an excuse. It was the wall over which he could not climb, short of annihilation. This kept him enslaved. He could see himself running, hitting against the bushes madly; bruised charging against Moresco the giant back; going against insuperable odds.—Yet that is the only thing worth going against. He was willing but he couldn’t—that was all. It they wanted to be damned fools, all right. Yet, that was what he wanted to be—really; abandoned.
Monstrous (and endless) ambivalences of the solitary in the polis.

William Carlos Williams, c. 1948
(Photograph by Constantin Joffe)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Williams’s Seeing

“Los Mariachis”

Ah, Friday. Dizzy with unpreparedness, the spiel beckons, like reticence beckons. Williams (out of A Novelette):
      Where is there any serious conversation in a novel?—except descriptions or nonsense that is not read—known for that comparable to a discussion with an intelligent parent over the inevitably of “a mastoid” in an only son, where the Streptococcus capsulatus has been found in the ear in pure culture.
      Since in a novel conversation is not actual (as you are) and never can be—but a pale reflection—never can be real, as conversation or design.
      But conversation in a novel can be pure design.
      Yes, if it doesn’t have to tell a story. That would be difficult: a novel that is pure design—like the paintings of Juan Gris.
The Williams who, young, paint’d—and bagged it for its encumbrance (in the “Preface” to the Selected Essays he says: “Had it not been that it was easier to transport a manuscript than a wet canvas, the balance might have been tilted the other way.”) So that: all’s visual in Williams: “The sparkles of red and yellow light in the wet ink of his script as he made notes rapidly delighted him.” And: “Eliot’s Tivoli Underwear, he read on a tag sticking up over the edge of the boy’s trousers.” (In the veering attempt at “pure design” of A Novelette.) (Is that “Eliot” connect with the faux-exotic of “Tivoli”—see the 19th-century Tivoli Gardens amusement park in Copenhagen—a jab at the former’s “Europe” and the inherent Anglophilia of American letters? See, (in the Autobiography): “What should be new is intent upon one thing, the metaphor—the metaphor is the poem. There is for them only one metaphor: Europe—the past. All metaphor for them, inevitably so, is the past: that is the poem. That is what they think the poem is: metaphor.”)

Looking and seeing, the painterly chore. Williams, replying to a questionnaire by the editors of The Little Review, under “What do you consider your strongest characteristics?”: “I like most my ability to be drunk with the sudden realization of value in things others never notice.” Or, Williams talking about French painting in The Embodiment of Knowledge:
Well, what does one see? to paint? Why the tree, of course, is the facile answer. Not at all. The tree as a tree does not exist literally, figuratively or any way you please—for the appraising of the artist—or any man—the tree does not exist. What does exist, and in heightened intensity for the artist, is the impression created by the shape and color of an object before him in his sensual being—his whole body (not his eyes) his body, him mind, his memory, his place: himself—that is what he sees.
Seeing is what triggers the visceral marvelous everything. Williams, nearing fifty, eyes beginning to fail, tells Marianne Moore: “I don’t like not being able to see dust flecks quite so distinctly as formerly—and the grains of pollen in the flowers.” (Counter-ballast—or blast—how seeing itself is liable to become a stumbling block—“Prologue” to Kora in Hell: “. . . the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn.”)

Hence (hence?): the global zupping materiality of the writerly means: what Williams—rejecting the aimiably usual “stark dignity” of seeing itself, says—frolicking the “new world naked”—(The Great American Novel): “To progress from word to word is to suck a nipple.” And: “But can you not see, can you not taste, can you not smell, can you not hear, can you not touch—words? It is words that must progress. Words, white goldenrod, it is words you are made out of . . .” The imaginative qualities of actual things. The upshot of foregoing the painter’s encumber’d stride: literal embodiment of knowledge, dance (Kora in Hell):
      In the mind there is a continual play of obscure images which coming between the eyes and their prey seem pictures on the screen at the movies. Somewhere there appears to be a mal-adjustment. The wish would be to see not floating visions of unknown purport but the imaginative qualities of the actual things being perceived accompany their gross vision in a slow dance, interpreting as they go. But inasmuch as this will not always be the case one must dance nevertheless as he can.
Largely spur’d by Dickran Tashjian’s bounteous William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940 (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978).

William Carlos Williams, “Self-Portrait,” 1914

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Life of Crime (II)

Tank and Shack

Perturbings and inconsequences. Yak, yak, yak. (One begins in immediacy—“et ses enviorons.”) Back to the Poltroon Press Life of Crime (the words of one of the editors, likely Pat Nolan at “Bohemian Grove,” talking about the “icy stare and cold shoulder” dealt out by “a couple of bozos from the post-Realist clique”—an early instance of the power-silence ploy, one assumes):
Inadvertently, we find ourselves beyond avant-garde, in that lonely realm of fearless commitment. We may appear distasteful (yech!), cruel (to be kind), and insensitive to some, hard-working, underappreciated poets; in actuality, what we are doing is holding up a mirror to the whole imbecilic side of the American poetry scene where cruelty and insensitivity (motivated by the sickest of all motives: ambition) are quite common. There are two types of writing to be found in Life of Crime: the wry, sometimes whimsical (dorky) satire written largely by the editors and a few faithful compatriots (who can take a joke!) The other is the petty axe-to-grind whining we have received by peevish snivelers whose personalities have long been mired in the egomaniacal muck of their own creation. Consequently, the careers of the editors have been placed in jeopardy—at least, that’s the word we can strain through the veil of hearsay. As we pointed out in the first Life of Crime: one should always be on the verge of literary suicide. We’re poised, as it were, on the edge of the ledge ready to take a flying leap into the pit of oblivion. The only legitimate question at this point is “did they jump or was they pushed?”
Pertinent, then—is it?—to quote a poem by Darrell Gray (who had, he says, a “Euell Gibbons-type childhood” (in Walnut, Kansas), and work’d, he says, as “Consultant for the National Prune Advisory Board.”) Apropos the much-vaunt’d-by-the-social-text-clubbers Actualist “movement,” Gray says: “To be Actual is not to possess Actuality—it is to be possessed by it . . . I want to emphasize that Actualism is not an aesthetic “movement” in the usual sense of the word. It owes nothing to literary history that is could not find elsewhere, least of all aesthetic theory or literary criticism. Actualism begins when the Automorph in man’s being decides to wake him up.” Which is no more (nor less) than O’Hara’s “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep’” cut to ape the burgeoning joylessness of the newcomers of the “post-Realist clique.” In Life of Crime there is talk of various “Actualist Conventions” (replete with the “The Actualist Boogie Band”). The conventions (report’d in letters by Gray) occur in such precipitous sequence as to draw a pertinent (skeptical) conclusion (shout’d in unison by members of the Black Bart Poetry Society): “Many of our members (including me) who were in the area in 1980, very closely affiliated with the Actualists, are unable to recall any convention in 1980 . . . presumably, the 10th , like the 8th, is just another deceitful manipulation of truth to further the imperialist efforts of a band of aristocratic vermin, determined to control the contemporary literary community.” Ah, the costs of single-mindedness (and humor): you’ll be paying freight charges on it (to the humorless) forever: there appear (still) to be those who believe a thing call’d Actualism seriously exist’d. One might just as meaningfully call for An Anthology of Personism. Here’s that Darrell Gray poem—out of The Actualist Anthology, edited by Morty Sklar & Darrell Gray (The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1977)—Sklar and Gray: “Calling this volume the actualist anthology came mainly out of a need for a title. “Fourteen Iowa City Poets” wouldn’t have been accurate . . .”:
An Old Southern Critic Takes a Look at My Poems

grasshoppers, wheelchairs, rosebuds!
all those variably cloudy images

bundled up & flung at the reader as if
communication depended on an alien plug, a verbal

fire-sale, syntax slashed to the bone
& what’s more we haven’t the slightest

buried symbol or submerged meaning
to hold on to—total mayhem—“with this kind

of aesthetic how does he tie
his shoelaces is what I want to know”

not to mention all those dim & unemphasized
figments that flash across the page

all those parking lot preposterous similes
“the stars like tiny lawnchairs in the sky”

where did the soul go
to drag these fugitive embers from its fire

and was there a first fire, a fire fashioned
after no other, a fire of the final mind

from which we emerge like schoolboys in a dream
to bone white rivers & the fear of owls . . .

Say something deep, like the fear of rivers, something
pure & lean we can teach our kids

the lyric is a flexible form, I know:
birds, beasts and animals

in season sing their blunt reciprocal praises.
Mimeo machines murmur. Though that might be a

variable measure, all variance decrees
a cosmic tedium—“dialectic” we call it: nude idiom

of the thing reborn. The gentle researcher
tilts to the modular pinkness of the snow—

an erudite boy, addicted to spiral notebooks,
yoga, and the oblique “come-on” of dark girls

. . . These old eyes grow older with each word,
& Ambiguity, like a pregnant queen, rules

the landscape where I sit. Ripe berries hang in tangles
over Samuel Johnson’s grave—“like ornaments of indecisions,”

you might say. . . . And yet, there is an occasional
brilliant twist. I quote one poem, baffling turns, in toto:

Asleep at 60 mph. No doubt the poet here has in mind
how much eludes him. Or, as Allen Tate succinctly said:

“For where Time rears its muted head and all appalls
We know not where we stand nor where we fall.”

Darrell Gray, 1945-1986
(Photograph by David Highsmith)