Thursday, September 30, 2010

Uncollect’d Ashbery

Some Clouds

Ah sweet cormorancy (“A large dark bird perched in an upright position on some rock or buoy over the water can hardly be anything else.”) Peterson’s earlier field guides put the cormorant on a page with the boobies. (When not diving deep in search of fishy literary whatnot, cormorants like to stand about—wings half-extend’d—in mock poses of abject helplessness.) One pleasure of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987 (Library of America, 2008): the sixty-five uncollect’d pieces. Fugitive things like “Nouvelles Pièces Froides” (beginning: “Stan and Angela can’t—can’t stan’ / Angela. I can’t understand / Each other. The two of them / With everything to live for can’t / Stand it at the same old stand. / Why? It’s a pun—a play on words”) out of Kenward Elmslie’s ZZZ (1974) or “Morning in Helsinki” (beginning in high nonchalance: “Angels visit us / Fairly regularly / But they almost never comment / On our containment”). Without attending too closely to the round-up, one thinks, “At last, all the early—print’d (one gets breeze-carry’d reports of unpublish’d things deposit’d with various custodians)—Ashbery poetry in a single volume.” So: looking into the copies of Locus Solus I drug out of the stacks, I am mildly stunned to find two pieces uncollect’d “still.” (Though list’d in David Kermani’s early—1976—bibliography, along with, I see, another uncollect’d piece call’d “From a Comic Book” that LeRoi Jones print’d next to “Leaving the Atocha Station” in Yūgen 7 in 1961.) The six Ashbery poems of Locus Solus I (1961): “Idaho,” “Spring Twilight,” “Thoughts of a Young Girl,” “The Passive Preacher,” “Winter,” and “A White Paper.” Era of The Tennis Court Oath (1962). See Ashbery talking to John Tranter (in 1985) about that early work, doubt and experiment vying with one another:
. . . I also hadn’t reread most of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath—my second book, which everybody throws up their hands over—in about twenty-five years. And some of them are a lot better than I thought. A few of them I’d read aloud sometimes for my poetry readings (maybe ten in the book), but the others I hadn’t reread since the book came out. I was surprised at how really interesting they are, because I’d concluded that they probably weren’t very good. And I did write them during a period when I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when I began living in France and I was unused to the foreign environment and language and everything. They were really experiments which I didn’t think would ever be published—I didn’t think I’d ever have another book published after [. . .] the colossal unsuccess of the first one.
A story Ashbery’s repeat’d, too, elsewhere. One of the uncollect’d pieces:
Spring Twilight

What are they destroying there, greasy there
All gloated?       The fantail
Best and all females
With the beer
On the riding night
The fat and ice nearing to me
In poles       She is oinking at the bars
I think so       instead mad pulp
The poles borne closer nautical edge
She hips unlikely fail match
Contrasting life.

Line for the
Great forked wobbling over my shoulder
Sausage pinnacle storm windows
To stroke the drawing room iced nuts
Down the avenue on the box
She gleams my fat
It barks on the prompt avenue noiselessly
Afoul pieces in which her
Massive feet and ankles
The stone partridge expelled mud
Slanting floor of spring

“Actually lined the face with brow
I shall never marry the goose man
I shall never marry the goose man

Tell the avenue
And before he had a chance to they go
And before he chance to get back
Its second dog

The porridge after good-looking woman
Was employed in craze
The visits of fate
The visits of fate
The visits of fate
Twisting the usual of dummy

Downgraded reptile of beans
Tomorrow now the lightened tree
My country
Machines to do work
And match—light his pride
With crow       The facts is too important
It seems to me beaver pets
Wait in the barrel is nearer
Perfect bus white man’s
Violation of sleep the near thing
Which will remove
Can lice
To accept a little
Sickness, to my valentine in the bulb.

She ran out of the drawing room into the street
A glass girl and I       The factors
Of southern states
Would you distinguish for us.
Constantly thwart’d, indistinguishable. One thinks (briefly) of Eliot, a kind of mockery of the high solemnity of “Ash Wednesday” (“Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope . . .”) in that “And before he had a chance to they go / And before he chance to get back . . .” One thinks, too, of American song (“I shall never marry the goose man”) and story (“porridge,” “beans,” “A glass girl and I”). Is there a loose thread of animosity / indifference toward womankind here, never yank’d too hard? (“She is oinking at the bars,” “She hips unlikely fail match” “She gleams my fat,” &c.) Some of it sounds Clark Coolidge pre-Clark Coolidge (“Sausage pinnacle storm windows”) or “Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts” crewish (The Tennis Court Oath being one of Language writing’s own grande permission works). The other uncollect’d:

      There is a

            I like                           however

    He didn’t want to get that


    to worry about       made

new cars came out                       the           the day

        all we’ve got               don’t try to build

    walk her             kept saying,             No, we’re going

              keeps               I think you

      except               in               when I think you

                                                                  It was

moderately           are all right           is wonderful

                                                                  Has the

                                                                  gotten us?

                                    , of apathy

      A modern such a fundamental

          against the rocks.”       At the bottom of the

omen of the bad                             really gets

          gives you                                 a you are to complete

      threatens for the but I under

trap of shoulders longer written

            won’t he anybody

                            of the artist

(something without very little respect

              to these people but I

                                                                Please let

      with which they are

                    falling into her hands

      is a constant . . .       empty it . . .       I can’t stand

          with equal parts build over the


                      lunch at four                     and                     event

                                    against the white surface

An international                                 In the             Part of the

            early spring               by the bright               where

              deserted               weather               I had just almost

      with woven               that smell before               you to shut up

                            That’s where

                                                    have soaked in it

              You fall in love

Whore! Bitch                             maniac                       You don’t


      to be annoyance                               and hopelessness

                          crash                               after arriving

      in New York

          Complete                     marked sophomores               younger

sensational                     our house tonight!                     had heard

      whose                       is remarkably                       to catch in him

pitch, floating             That day were like those

              he jiggled hap-                       (he and

              and a clip                               “Marvelous!”

              Marvelous! Perfect!             to offend artists he is                                                                                                                 help-

in disapproval. But when the “betrayal” music

              And had set                         the color               all by himself

had quarrelled freely                               It was very painful for
                                                                                          both of us

          went out and persuaded him                       “Sir” has

            enabled him                                   went out of his mind

                                        paid his bills and

      supervisor of             as             sometimes borders

                                        Had he taken percentages

      band                     stinks.                     Are still close friends

It’s always a pleasure       Sunday morning             Not long

                                                                                        ago I asked

    him                 Ugh!                 All I ask, as I’ve                 and

      eventually set out             to put             on each

      Saturday by featuring

                                                                            on the telephone

            Does he take you to a fancy restau-
            Showing you the fash-
            pretty girls around town?

feet high up               Nobody knows               Nobody cares

            stayed lost               to what is               to set up your

      And the weirdest               the efforts               explorers

            he wrung             a good base             for it

      All good things


      of your parents

                                                                              men joined

                                                                        And the dozen others


                                          , but until

              And music schools                                               And

      What began             as

              Your ten-dollar

          —then the very fact jazz is

                It is the first age

                                                  As a result

          French horns

                                early forties

          relative obscurity

                              the early fifties

playing blues.

But listen a little closer too

                                        legs sleeps on her stomach

    fried chicken             and the free whiskey

          but it, like

                      adds mystery to             having them play

and at best
                                                            suspension, the sad

              then had begun, the mural

                        entire       cast
                                                                they’ll repeat all the

          the very effort to                       sandpipers

Through a wall of crystal                           who came here

          with good times.”       of the early morning, was

                                                                              coined here


                        of how, when and by whom

                                                  a pleasure

              too rapidly

into a new key

                                                                    that time excep-

who came to
moment was past                   much happens been told
                                  and written, with all incomprehen
afterward                                 not how it was
                                                As they themselves knew it

                for the lamp           in timeless

                                                        the room had


                                  riots, unemployment

      During the time it was happening

                                                    The painting,

Suspension of time. The more brilliant.     which it
                                                                world on the blast

          language and for those in whose lives

      at such long range, their imaginations

                                the dance steps

                                          by tuberculosis

                                  , “they’ll tell you in London’s

                                          who found them most

          old, deep bed               old moods

      a great

                                                        most their own.
What, in a later piece (“The New Spirit”) becomes “examples of leaving out”: “clean-washed sea / The flowers were.” With its admonitory shrug (or shrug within a shrug): “But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on / to divide all.” “Winter” is something of a purely tonal piece, the aerated fragments mounting narrative tones—anxiety, lassitude, joy, puzzlement—rather than narrative trajectory (note the self-referential commentary, “unresolved / of how, when and by whom / a pleasure”). Irresolution in lieu of “all incomprehen / afterward”—the result of so much “much happens been told / and written” doings. Sparse economies of nigh naught, array’d. Conjunctions without conjunct. Ashbery’s wry humor nonetheless evident: “band       stinks.       Are still close friends.”

John Ashbery, c. 1998
(Photograph by John Tranter)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ashbery and Surrealism

Some Clouds

Cold and clear. Unfocus’d by the sheer plenitude of light. Dodging through the streets: a flat tire (bicycle) yesterday. Empty bribes (sense of “snatches” or “morcels”) of unrev’d dreams and incoherencies, ardent and oblique. Somewhere (in Reported Sightings, a book I keep “dallying with” of late) Ashbery says (regarding an exhibit call’d “Space and Dream”): “Space is fine, but ‘dream’? There is something slightly icky about that word: we know we cannot stop dreaming, but we do not like to be thought of as people who dream. ‘Impractical’ is the adjective that usually characterizes ‘dreamer,’ and that has an unfortunate ring, though we don’t exactly want to be thought of as ‘practical’ either. Must we be one or the other?” (I’d pay good money for that “icky.”) What I love: Ashbery’s refusal of “being.” Sly refusals of any predispositions to narrowness. In a 1967 piece about Joseph Cornell, Ashbery quotes some lovely lines out of Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Engineer’s Son”:
. . . The painter lodged near the station in a modest apartment on the sixth floor; he lived there in two rooms which he had papered from floor to ceiling with very bizarre and disconcerting drawing which made certain highly esteemed critics repeat for the thousandth time the celebrated refrain: It’s literature. At the end of a discussion whose subject was a recent vernissage, these same critics had in fact laid down the law that painting must be painting and not literature, but he seemed to attach very little importance to all that, either because he understood nothing of it, or because he understood it all too well and therefore pretended not to understand.
(A stance, there at the end, Ashbery himself, in public discourse, usually regarding the incomprehensibility of Ashbery’s work, marvelously feigns. Recalling, too, how Ashbery’s noted de Chirico’s “love of words, words for their own sake,” calling words “the brush-strokes of writing.”) Out of a 1968 piece call’d “The Heritage of Dada and Surrealism”:
Liberté totale in Paris in the 1920s turned out to be something less than total, and if it was not total then it was something very much like the everyday liberty that pre-Surrealist generations had to cope with. In literature it meant automatic writing, but what is so free about that? Real freedom would be to use this method where it could be of service and to correct it with the conscious mind where indicated. And in fact the finest writing of the Surrealists is the product of the conscious and the unconscious working hand in hand, as they have been wont to do in all ages.
To say: moments of pure automatic writing, unreferee’d by the usual adherency (think of Emily Dickinson’s faux-naïve query to Higginson: “Could you tell me how to grow—or is it unconveyed—like Melody—or Witchcraft?” Think of Rothko’s line (according to John Taggart) “when red does appear, it is like a flame of self-immolation”) spring forth without beck or command, unwontedly, and always have—no programmatic means or mire’ll disallow (or allow) it, that “practice of outside” when mere writing becomes writing. Ashbery’s argument: that Surrealism “in the narrow interpretation of its theologians” is “unsatisfactory,” though in a broader sense—that “with which we intuit it”—it is undoubtedly “a renewing force.” It is la grande permission (Michaux again) to do exactly as one pleases: “In this sense we are all indebted to Surrealism; the significant art of our time could not have been produced without it.” So, one notes—even in a rather programmatic piece (for Ashbery) like the 1970 “One Hundred Multiple-Choice Questions” (originally print’d in Larry Fagin’s mimeo magazine Adventures in Poetry and, c. 2001, in a lovely pamphlet)—outbursts (flame-ups) convey’d by angels (Martians, &c.) following unannounced behind the ordinary:
38. Baseball was invented in
a) Philadelphia
b) Cooperstown, N.Y.
c) Havana, Cuba
d) Tokyo
e) Brooklyn, N.Y.
f) St. Louis, Mo.
39. Der glock haus im kunstverein schleeb mit eingang, doch zu
a) harens tageev z’hr
b) is bald
c) yell ball peal
d) engag
e) night restriction
f) fuck hof
40. No bruise save in winesap artikel purveyung less every
a) apron
b) bonnet
c) last instruction
d) head preacher
e) worry clinic
f) actual size
(Betraying my sense that unencumber’d automatism asymptotically approaches nonsense?) Note Ashbery’s glossalalia’d (or finger-tangle’d) numéro 64: “The phrase, ‘All happy families are obioud, py od pm; u yjr imj11 / 21 / 21 pmrd ejp str akule,’ has been attitued to / a) high cost of living / b) Typhoon . . .” done up (and finish’d with) back when Charles Bernstein (who’d go about using the same “technique”—like an infatuate—more than once) is still (nearly) just a pup. “Condemned to repeat it”-city. Or simple re-deployment, re-use: Dylan’s line in “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” about sewing “new dresses out of old cloth” (or things going by so quash-heart-rapid one ends up remaking the new out of the untest’d shabby new . . .)

John Ashbery, “Après un rêve,” c. 1977

John Ashbery, “L’Heure exquise,” 1977

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Koichi K. O’Hara?

Some Gulls (Millennium Park)

Rummaging through the initial issue of Art and Literature (1964), the magazine that John Ashbery edit’d (along with Anne Dunn, Rodrigo Moynihan, and, briefly, Sonia Orwell), work nearly overlapping with Locus Solus, whose final issue is seemingly undated, petering out (planned obsolescence) circa 1963-4 (Locus Solus edit’d by, too, Kenneth Koch, Harry Mathews and James Schuyler, each of the four doing a number, Koch doing the second, all collaborations, Ashbery a double issue—III-IV—call’d “New Poetry,” Schuyler editing numéro I—with Ebbe Borregaard pieces and Robin Blaser’s “Cups” amongst its contents, leaving number V—lacking apparatus—presumably to Mathews), I stumble again up against a story by one Richard Fields call’d “The Wind Sneezes Many a Lost Baboon,” a thing that’s long pique’d my curiosity. The opening (seemingly couch’d in the veriest heart of an implacable in medias res):
      The rest was easy and he sneezed. Dozing on the front stairs he listened to the wind whistling around the corner of the house. Not that he had ever been able to believe that it was whistling to him. But water was boiling somewhere . . . somewhere where tea kettles and locomotives lived a life of their own. Like the time the kettle turned on the gas under itself—aluminium it melted gracefully, just the wood handle caught on fire and stank.
      He preferred not to wake up this way, but it always happened so. I don’t know why I never seem to be able to do anything worth-while, he thought. I could have caught nightwalkers last night and gone fishing this morning.
      He caught the light coming through the trees in a funny way and asked the sun: “And what are you looking at?” The sun said: “Whatever made you think I was looking at you, or, for that matter, whatever made you think anybody is bothering to look through the trees in a funny way?”
      He knew the sun really hadn’t said anything . . .
Et cetera, aimlessly prevaricating, a lackadaisical surreal punctured by moments of lyricism, moments of violence. What I found curious: the contributor’s note:
RICHARD FIELDS is the pseudonym of two American writers, Richard Elliott and Walter Grutchfield. Elliott’s story “Nine Elaborations for 26 Characters” appeared in Locus Solus.
Why that “American” emphasis (with words like “aluminium” and “nightwalkers”—Briticisms, no?)—and why the gut punch that says Richard Elliott and Walter Grutchfield, in the absence of add’d info, they, too, “sound like” a couple of pseudonyms? What is that “talking to the sun” routine? So I look up Richard Fields’s “Nine Elaborations for 26 Characters” in Locus Solus. Of little use. Aimlessness under the sign of the alphabet, violence, the too easy surreal:
      Could it be by accident that I encountered B. again tonight? On the path of a circular park, in a bright orange gown, she poised on tiptoes. Savagely, by vigilant hysteria, she split herself in two, one half running round the right of the park, the other around the left . . .
No clue (another Briticism—“flats”—though the story’s rather elastic setting is mostly New York City environs: “a notorious café located in a suburb of New Jersey,” the Brooklyn Navy Yard, &c.), no contributor’s note. Back to other back issues of Art and Literature, scanning contents pages for Fields or Elliott or Grutchfield, or other unlikely sounding names (thinking: here’s a coterie rife with collaborating, pseudonyming, &c. not unlike “our” own . . .) I see something call’d “Serious Fish and Old Straw Hat” in Art and Literature 4 by one W. W. Winkworth—turns out it’s legit: William Wilberforce Winkworth, collector of Japanese art, writing about collecting (“Fish cannot be a serious subject for a picture or for any work of art.”) In numéro 8 (Spring 1966), though, an oddity. Two poems (“Phone to the Poets in Moscow” and “Isolation at 9 p.m.”) by one Koichi K. O’Hara. What ho! Momento, citoyens! Here:
Phone to the Poets in Moscow

My friends, Soviet Poets in Moscow, yet covering
Your flute of Muse, thought of soul, by the heavy deep snow,
Tell me,
When your flute of Muse will be coming to laugh
With gladly song escaping
From your gloomy dark song-winter-exile.
A book, yesterday afternoon,
Of world Poet-lame-cyclops young Mayakovsky,
Translated by young interesting Jewish girl,
In my office, at University Columbia, in New York,
My troubled thoughtful time in Moscow University,
From 1958 to 1961,
When I could touch to the soul of Russian Muse-simple-people,
Decided I, called on you from my office, from University, N.Y., U.S.A.

It’s a personal call, to Moscow from New York, U.N. 54000, x, 3291.
My name is K. K. O’Hara, Irish name but Japanese Poet.
What’s the matter? Moscow now asleep? Wake up! Individuals!
Chort-znaaet! O my goodness!
Wake up my generation’s Poets in Moscow!
Wake up my friends Poets, Tvardovsky-Chorkin-Bashimachikin,
Evtyshenko, caught by a fishing net, and his friends young Poets,
Also caught in network,
And wake up Poet Union in Moscow!

Hey! Hello!
Is this Moscow’s Poet Club?
Are you living good anyhow?
I’m a Poet in a cafeteria at New York, K. K. O’Hara, Remember me?
Yes, this is that O’Hara.
Don’t you want to come to Paris-painting-town in this summer?
I will take with me American Poet Kenneth Koch from here.
Let us open and invite to our Poet World Conference in Paris
French Poets-skillful also.
Let us talk, what we Poets must do, now!

When Moscow’s girl students already try to go to the moon,
Want to escape from Moscow’s bad room condition, with her boy friends,
When New York’s girl students already try to go to the cosmos,
Want to escape from New York’s dark small room-unsunlightful,
With her boy friends,
Why young Poets in the world, you and I and we, must sign gloomy song
About depressed black dark wintersky? And
About poor network of fisher-politicians-unskillful in the world?
Killing is killing as skinny is skinny.
But yet some politicians continue to think unskillfully,
That political machine is the technique,
How man kills man,
How to find and make enemy
Between men and women, mankind and womankind,
Between allkind and everykind,
From the time of Cain, filled enough by the man’s blood,
Already our small earth, shaking her body, becomes red.

Could I meet to that day,
When every politician put on its base of policy a law,
That nobody ever kills anybody on our earth?
Let us remember Aristotle’s words:
Every state is an association of persons,
Formed with a view to some good purpose . . . ,
Even though he recognized a war against animal-man.

Now, what we Poets must do?
Poet must stop a turning somersault-himself?!?
Poet-philosophy must be practical!?
Poets-we now must stand higher than Aristotle!?
I think, as a poet of the cafeteria,
As a King from muttering retreat
Of people,
Must ask and request of politicians,
With all our voice of powerful powerless Muse,
Could they?
Could they do it?
Repairing, changing, rebuilding already old machine-political?

May be?
How do you think?
Humankind always changed machine, old to new.
Why could you not now?
Why could you not change to new machine, from old one-political?
From old ideology, psychology, sociology, zoology,
From old animalology (i.e. Politicoanimalman-economicalology),
From old stomachology,
To new one?

Let us invite
To our World Conference of Young Generation’s Poets in Paris,
Ghosts and goats, dying and living, good and bad of politicians,
Including in it, all leaders of big and small, past’s and present’s
And ask them
With a smile as a Poet, as a King from muttering people-cafeteria,
Could they promise on our earth, no more, nobody kills anybody?

Laugh! Smile!
Kiss me! Kiss us-Poets!
Muses-my-young-girls of our cafeteria in N.Y. and in Moscow!
Kiss me! Kiss us-Poets!
Muses-our-girls-friends of Moscow’s and N.Y.’s simple people!
Say, that’s O-Kay!
This is the bill!
They promised, pledged!
Now politicians in the world become just technicians,
Only making, repairing, rebuilding, reconstructing earth to green!
Now we, Poets-firemen, punished-vagabonds, at last put out
All the politician’s head’s fires!
Forever and ever!

Do you agree?
It’s New York!
Something obviously fishy here. The contributor’s note for O’Hara reads: “KOICHI K. O’HARA is a Japanese poet and critic in the field of literature and Russian problems. He graduated from the University of Tokyo and later studied Russian literature at Moscow University. From 1964 to 1965 he was visiting scholar at the Russian Institute at Columbia University.” (“Isolation at 9 p.m.” continues with the somewhat tedious mock-pidgin jawing—“If you want to know, what is America, / Come to our cafeteria, on the Broadway, / At 96th St., at 9 p.m. / Our company waits for you / . . . I am an American, Becoming American is / Not from nature, but ideal . . .”) What be these things? Possibilities: a thinly-veil’d collaboratory mess by O’Hara and Koch. Doubtful: the tone is neither various nor disrupt’d, there’s no O’Hara finesse. A one-author piece by a scene hanger-on / admirer of Koch and O’Hara. Dubiety locks its jaws against the “black dark wintersky”: no sign of “other” voicings (sauf Eliot’s “muttering retreat”). My sense is that the piece’s full of Koch’s own parodic earmarks: the japonerie of the earlier “Ko, or A Season on Earth,” the butcher’d foreign English (see something like the “young Swedish nurse” Ingelil’s speeches in “The Merry Stones”—“Lay down and be slumbering” or “I am a laziness that comes from a nuttier country; I see to not understand your flailing indecrepitude”), the endless exclamatory outbursts, &c. The reference to the “world Poet-lame-cyclops young Mayakovsky” is possibly of note to compadres audibly wondering at the provenance of O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” Possibly not. For my part I intend to read all of The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch (Coffee House, 2005), looking—vainly, I suspect, seeing now a story call’d “At The Silver Rail” in New Directions 20 (1968) by Walter Grutchfield—for stylistic signs of the Richards—Fields and / or Elliott—or of Grutchfield himself. (The art of the possible: to turn one back to the work.) It’s a world full of lovely and mysterious signs.

Alex Katz, “Portrait of a Poet: Kenneth Koch,” 1970

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ashbery / Dylan

Some Clouds

Coldish, the blank sky cloud-scum’d, the season of insecurity and witlessness, talking to oneself (“He Do the Police in Different Voices,” just like Sloppy), any sign for a raffle or giveaway liable to stop one cold. Reading—desultory, amoeboid (Beckett: “The amoeba’s neck is not easily broken”)—Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America, an uneven thing. I like the report of Dylan composing lyrics “in bursts of wordplay, including little narratives and collage-like experiments.” Mention made of a sort of Ashberyesque “Litany”-piece (discard’d) including “a pair of couplets set off in alternating lines, one on the left about getting his monkey to do the dog atop a lumberjack log, the other on the right, about joining Ingmar Bergman in singing ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ written out as if each couplet was coming in from a different side of a set of earphones” (so I allow a couple of Dylan’s voices to sing a little Ashbery, the late ragged claw scuttling one doing “For someone like me / The simple things / Like having toast. . .” and the Nashville Skyline syrupy crooner one doing “So this must be a hole / Of cloud / Mandate or trap . . .”) I recall talking about some Dylan / Ashbery two-man horse a couple years back—“Popping Dylan into the box, thinking about how he, like Ashbery, pulls down the oddball American demotic off the airwaves: ‘If you don’t believe it you can follow your nose . . .’”—without any fervent hie-ing off in high pursuit of it, preferring—like today, a tuck’d-up fœtal lalling in lieu of grit-argument—think of Beckett in Hamburg (same letter, dated 14 November 1936 to Mary Manning Howe in Cambridge) saying that he dreams “with the help of black coffee, of a lap the size of the fifteen acres, with all appurtenances strictly to scale, all to myself in my present deformity. Beauty is a blank wall with Paste No Bills. I am tired of dashing my skull against it.” Think of that. Ashbery, too—toss that “New York School” monicker in the ditch—is both (like Dylan) wary of the posturing new (“made to substitute for genuine passion and inventiveness”) and liable to attempt a sloughing-off of whatever skin one wants to pickle him in. Ashbery, gently mocking the faddish new (in Reported Sightings) talks about “the prevalent notion, which has only recently begun to be disputed, that only one type of art can be exhibited and taken in during a given period.” Hence hybridity (when some slower bunch of partisans begins its migratory climb up the quickly erect’d bulwarks of new). Ashbery with some anti-innovatory sass (writing in 1974): “In 1966—remember?—Minimal Art had suddenly expanded to fill all the available gallery space and the space in people’s heads. Three years later everyone was having trenches dug in Utah.” (Too, in a lovely aside: “There was once a Mutt and Jeff strip in which Jeff went into business selling honey with a dead bee in each jar as proof of genuineness, and frantic brushwork is often the dead bee in Abstract Expressionist painting.” The way, for some, paratactical New Sentence-ry is a dead bee, or torque, or Google-sculpting or, in a twist, adipose leaking performativity itself.) (Marianne Moore’s 1921 “Poetry”: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.” Not the genuine itself, “a place” for it.) Increasingly I read Ashbery’s concern in “The Invisible Avant-Garde” (1968) as being that of the individual dodging invidious groupuscular tenets (and “acceptance”). After Ashbery’s talk about the avant-garde tradition (“it is safest to experiment”), the “danger of substituting one conformity for another” (“Is there nothing then between the extremes of Levittown and Haight-Ashbury, between an avant-garde which has become a tradition and a tradition which is no longer one? In other words, has tradition finally managed to absorb the individual talent?”), he suggests:
      Perhaps the answer is not to reject what one has done, nor to be forced into a retrograde position, but merely to take into account that if one’s work automatically finds acceptance, there may be a possibility that it could be improved. The Midas-like position into which our present acceptance-world forces the avant-garde is actually a disguised blessing which previous artists have not been able to enjoy, because it points the way out of the predicament it sets up—that, is, toward an attitude which neither accepts nor rejects acceptance but is independent of it. . . .
      Today the avant-garde has come full circle—the artist who wants to experiment is again faced with what seems like a dead end, except that instead of creating in a vacuum he is now at the center of a cheering mob. Neither climate is exactly ideal for discovery . . .
What effrontery, to make discovery prefer’d to acceptance. Amiable avoidance and indifference. None of that stealing into favor (Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well: “He will steale himselfe into a mans fauour, and for a weeke escape a great deale of discoueries, but when you finde him out, you haue him euer after.”) Or Joyce: “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning.” Doing the voices: witless and inert. Dylan: “There’s not even room enough to be anywhere / It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” Ashbery: “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.”

John Ashbery

Bob Dylan

Friday, September 24, 2010

Spicer / Davenport

Some Clouds

Balmy, somehow “shapely” breezes (the smooth’d and globular dimensions of their approach), the moon (just beginning to deflate) descending into the torn-off westerly edge of the planet, there where the black trees fork off into unremedy’d nothingness. Bedraggled finitude, honey-parch’d, to connect is to bump up against a dispersal, blue. Spicer: “We make up a different language for poetry / And for the heart—ungrammatical.” Blaser (“The Practice of Outside,” out of the 2006 The Fire: Collected Essays) calls that language “unsituated” / “primary.” Thinking about Spicer and “correspondences” (Baudelaire’s word). Blaser writes of Spicer’s love of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see”), that (or any) romp of “language always at the edge of a meaning” (that being—“naturally” enough—language’s “unsituated” or “primary” state.) Drawing it out: Spicer’s liking of “St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament as a ‘verbum visible’” (see, in one of the letters to Lorca, the desire “to make things visible rather than to make picture of them”—“Live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits. The poem is a collage of the real”), the way “Jack ‘no longer speaks of identity but of correspondence’” (Blaser’s faulty quoting / interpreting of lines out of After Lorca: “Things do not connect, they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time”), the lovely line out of Poe’s Marginalia that Spicer riffs off in “Improvisations on a Sentence by Poe”:
“Indefiniteness is an element of the true music.”
The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition. The seagull
Alone on the pier cawing its head off
Over no fish, no other seagull,
No ocean. As absolutely devoid of meaning
As a French horn.
It is not even an orchestra. Concord
Alone on a pier. The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition. No fish
No other seagull, no ocean—the true
Isn’t the “grand concord” akin to what Guy Davenport (in Every Force Evolves a Form) calls “a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible”—articulate = utter distinctly, array in a series—that is, “a work of art”? What if Spicer’d bother’d with Fourier? “La série distribue les harmonies. Les attractions sont proportionelles aux destinées.” Snip out a single item in Davenport’s “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier”—out of Da Vinci’s Bicycle and witness series within series, real lemons:
Wasps in an Ohio orchard, fat black bees in an English garden, butterflies at Fiesole. Wasps drunk on nectar grabble into a yellow umble licorice and lavender, bourrée and gigue. Ant tells the poppy when to bloom, and sleeping lions make mimosa spread.
Grabble, umble, bourrée and gigue: true musicking. (Consider, too, Coleridge’s remark in a 7 March 1815 letter to Joseph Cottle: “The common end of all narrative, nay, of all Poems is to convert a series into a whole.” Signs of a demeanor, a common measure, that of grabblers amongst yellow stalky umbels, honey-seekers, never diffident.) (Recall Spicer’s “love of Virgil’s 4th Georgic (Orpheus and bee-keeping) which he willfully confused [according to Blaser] with Ovid’s Art of Love, book I, on the basis of a single phrase, “et e medio flumine mella petat,” and let him seek honey in the middle of a river, turned by Jack in an early poem, which plays on the name of a young man, into “Mela, Mela peto / In medio flumine,” I seek honey in the middle of a river . . .”) Another of Davenport’s Mandelbrotian miniatures (series mimicking series) lifts its mead-color’d eyes:
Goldenest smile, earliest pubic hair, nautch in the innominata,
largest number of warts, longest period between the frumps, slickest kiss, keenest whistle, worst joke, roundest behind, highest pisser, brightest glow from a dandelion under the chin.
And (explicatory with series imbed’d):
The series distributes the harmonies. Linnaeus died when he was six, Buffon when he was sixteen, Cuvier was his contemporary. Swedenborg died the week before he was born. All searched out the harmonies, the affinities, the kinship of the orders of nature.

. . .

All of nature is series and pivot, like Pythagoras’ numbers, like the transmutations of light. Give me a sparrow, he said, a leaf, a fish, a wasp, an ox, and I will show you the harmony of its place in its chord, the phrase, the movement, the concerto, the all.
Davenport talking about Fourier in an interview in The Paris Review:
The whole world, he said, is a correspondence. And everything comes in a chord. The chord contains eight items. The center of the chord is the pivot. At one end of the chord is the avant-garde, and at the other end is the arrière-garde. In a fruit chord, let’s say, you have at one end the ripest golden pear, and at the other end is the quince, which never ripens. It remains as hard as a rock. And all of these corresponded with personalities (I’ve know plenty of quinces).
And, after remarking that “Fourier had a wonderful sense that the world was designed by some great poet, that it was full of rhymes, or affinities . . . I’ve always liked that,” the interviewer asks a “philosophical question”: “Does one create these rhymes, these affinities, or uncover them?” Davenport’s honey of a mordant (honest) reply: “I probably make them up.” And there’s Spicer at the end of “Graphemics”: “Love is not mocked whatever use you put to it. Words are also / not mocked.” Isn’t some jut-modicum of my sense of a Davenport / Spicer correspondence the unblunt’d solitariness of each? Spicer: “Wit is the only barrier between ourselves and them.” Spicer’s “collage of the real”—its way of ducking off into inconsequence. Its way of bumping up against a dispersal. “Fifteen False Propositions Against God”:
Beauty is so rare a th—
Sing a new song
A busted flush. A pain in the eyebrows. A
Visiting card.
A tiny series. What a card. (My way of ducking off—in medio flumine—into inconsequence . . .)

Jack Spicer, 1925-1965

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Michaux / Pound

Some Clouds

Pondering (in lieu of, in advance of, thieving) a line Zukofsky used (epigraph) out of Psalm 16: The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. Seemingly “about” land measures—surveying marks and boundaries—and not a literary “catch”—or cache—at all. So go the bounteous feints and leakages of one’s comprehension. The other Zukofsky line of note in yesterday’s perusal (of the 1956 Some Time): “a good sprag memory.” (A Shakespeare thievery, out of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare seemingly misspelling “sprack” a West Midlands dialect term meaning “smart, clever, alert.”) (Naturally—leakage, &c.—I initially record the line wrongly, “a good scrag memory,”—“scrag” = “lean”—“the scrag-end of my days,” soundings Eliotesque and invading.) Or I recall Merrill Gilfillan in an early piece—“In Memory of Albert Ayler” saying “The spirit opens / by complete surprise because it’s muscle”—and see, looking, how he proceeds to rout about in “any streetcorner quantum / and absinthe wherever it is” for something so undefined that its decree’d lack and monstrance looms up tangibly, like a Cadillac, or a yacht. Riffing around a sinecure, or a cicatrix, fleshy and bejowl’d.) Michaux, reportedly: “I write in order to reveal a person whose existence no one would ever have expected from looking at me.” (Ammons, dress’d in unremarkable professorial drab-clothes, loudening up against some fatuous-showy poet-garb: “I’m so fuckin’ crazy, I don’t need to costume myself.”) Michaux’s statement used in lieu of a photograph (Michaux’s refusal of being photograph’d): “A man and his face, it’s a little as if they were constantly devouring each other.” (William Matthew’s lines out of “In Memory of W. H. Auden”: “My friend said Auden died / because his face / invaded his body.” And how he—Matthews—veers off into Romantic pre-process’d pablum (in the duds of “myth”): “Under the joke is a myth— / we invent our faces: / the best suffer most and it shows.” A sere carmen perpetuum of connectings—the way the mind wholly unsuffering cans and dispenses its veriest niggling, that is companying. “She’d Pawn her Cloaths for a nigling Bout.” (Looking into Michaux’s A Barbarian in Asia, the original print’d by Gallimard in 1933, here translated by Sylvia Beach and print’d by New Directions in 1947, I idly wonder why its opening lines—“I know some twenty capitals. Bah! ¶ But then there is Calcutta. Calcutta, the most crowded city in the Universe”—so oddly echo the opening of Pound’s c. 1908 “Cino” with its rubric of “Italian Campagna 1309, the open road” “Bah! I have sung women in three cities, / But it is all the same; / And I will sing of the sun.”) Is that Pound-inflect’d by Beach, or is the evidence of Michaux’s attending to Pound? Pound’s Michaux. I see that Richard Sieburth’s report’d (in Signs in Action: Pound / Michaux and Of Language) one connect:
In his obituary memoir of Ezra Pound, Guy Davenport notes that during his final years in Venice il miglior fabbro, having abandoned his Cantos as a colossal botch, having edged further and further into silence, was nevertheless contemplating a translation of Henri Michaux’s Idéogrammes en Chine. Pound’s health was failing, as was his confidence in the word, and apparently after a few false starts the project was set aside. It was left to a younger American poet, Gustaf Sobin, to complete the task—with the result the Michaux’s Ideograms in China was finally made available to English-speaking readers in 1984, published, appropriately enough, under the Poundian imprint of New Directions as a latterday complement (so the blurb reads) to Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s classic study, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.
Michaux’s Pound? Untraced. Michaux’s references to Chinese language begin with a love of its spoken form:
      Compared with this language all others are pedantic, burdened with a thousand ridiculous things, laughable in their monotony—languages for soldiers. . . .
      Now the Chinese language was not made like the others, forced by a jostling and controlling syntax. The words in it were not constructed harshly, with authority, method, redundancy, in a conglomeration of resounding syllables, nor along etymological lines. No, just words of one syllable, and that syllable of uncertain resonance. The Chinese sentence resembles weak exclamations. A word rarely contains more than three letters. Often a drowning consonant (the n or the g) envelops it in the sound of a gong.
      Finally, in order to be still closer to nature, this language is sung. . . .
“Veers off into Romantic, &c.” Michaux continues with the “four singing tones”: “The singing is discreet. A kind of breeze, or birds’ language. A language so moderate and affectionate that one could hear it all one’s life without getting bored . . .” Of Chinese poetry Michaux writes that it “is so very delicate that it never meets an idea (in the European sense of the word)”:
A Chinese poem cannot be translated. Neither in painting, nor in poetry, nor in the drama, has the Chinese that warm, thick voluptuousness of the Europeans. In a poem, he indicates, and the points indicated are not even the most important ones, their evidence is not hallucinating, they are avoided, they are not even suggested, as it is often said, but rather the landscape and its atmosphere are deduced from them.
And he offers a few lines of Li Po, render’d, one thinks, in proof of the contention of its untranslatability—“Blue is the water and clear the moon of autumn. / We pluck in the lake the South some white lilies. / They seem to sigh with love / filling with melancholy the heart of the man in the boat.” And proceeds to point to something like Fenollosa’s “visible hieroglyphics,” what he calls a “verbal medium consisting largely of semi-pictorial appeals to the eye”:
      After all, what do these four lines of Li Po contain in French? A scene.
      But in Chinese, they contain thirty or so; it is a bazaar, it is a cinema, it is a great picture. Each word is a landscape, a group of signs, the elements of which, even in the briefest poem, combine with endless allusions. A Chinese poem is always too long, such is its superabundance, but it really excites one, it is bristling with comparisons.
Is that somewhat distant kin to Fenollosa’s “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them. . . .”? Wo bu zhi dao I say in bird language. Somewhere Michaux writes: “Madness is an endless hoax, in which the alienated subject is ceaselessly transcended.” And, in A Barbarian in Asia: “What the Chinaman knows best is the art of escaping.” (The lingual prestidigitatory slip—see “riffing around a sinecure”: “In the [character for] ‘blue,’ there is the sign of chopping wood and that of water, not to mention silk.”) Bah! Back to Zukofsky, for rooting:
So frail is judgment
It must light up, an overseer
With some truckling in hell,
A song that lovers heads
Ear to, and on ear foretell.

Henri Michaux, 1899-1984

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

“The New American Poetry and Us”

Some Clouds

Writing that begins “merely” as stubbornly donned otherness (why we all write throughout our prolong’d adolescences): “I understood, dimly, that the poems I was writing weren’t so much aesthetic accomplishments as declarations of dissidence—cognitive and cultural. They were my way of getting beyond adolescence without buying into the Darwinian mercantilism I was hemmed in by, and a perpetually renewed reminder that I needed to get the hell out of town.” That’s Brian Fawcett in a short piece call’d “Robin and Me”—out of Robin Blaser, (New Star Books, 2010), a book that includes, too, a essay / memoir by Stan Persky call’d “Reading Robin Blaser” and a terrific slew of photographs of Blaser. I mostly sought out the book to read Fawcett’s complaint “The New American Poetry and Us”—mostly, it turns out, about the dubious (in Fawcett’s eye) achievements of Charles Olson—after reading Don Share’s talk of it. Though he study’d with Blaser (he’s present at Blaser’s initial teaching job at Simon Fraser University in 1966, a job intend’d for Spicer—and he includes a rather moving list of what he learn’d off Blaser including both how “the pursuit of elegance . . . is always worth the trouble” and that “open curiosity is the civilizing instrument of all human enterprise . . . corrupted when harnessed to ideology or other forms of excessive certainty”), “The New American Poetry” turns out to mean, for Fawcett, “Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, John Wieners, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, in roughly that order of importance, with Olson’s influence notably larger than that of the others.” It is Olson mostly—or some imperial half of Olson—that Fawcett rejects (along with the writing of poetry). Fawcett: “When I stopped publishing verse in 1983 and stopped calling myself a poet and stopped thinking of myself as one, I did so with a sense of having been hustled by The New American Poetry, if not quite betrayed.” Perhaps Fawcett’s primary complaint: “Like Pound, Olson hadn’t bothered to note that imperialism and epic are often indistinguishable . . .” Against Olson’s initial (and primary) ground’d sense of place—Gloucester, the “local and particular”—Fawcett sees a diminuendo, energy increasingly spun up into the airy nothings of the rhetor: Olson become “part-maniac, part-angelic orator and demagogue.” What begins in a proposal (“Projective Verse”) for a poetry that rejects “the Aristotelian toolbox—logic and classification as the means of establishing ‘reality’” (elsewhere Fawcett calls it “a protest against the excesses and limitations of ratiocination” and, too, claims that Olson “was always more interested in the conditions of knowledge than in art: how we know things and if it can be communicated accurately and without toxic warping”), a poetry of “precise local knowledge”—ends up declaring itself “epical” (meaning here, one senses, heroic, empty, obsessive):
Even more than Pound before him, Olson possessed the temperament of a “village explainer.” The difference was that Olson had a real world village—Gloucester, Massachusetts—to talk to and about. Perhaps a more important and exact similarity was that like Pound, Olson was capable of grinding philosophy, anthropology and high-level linguistic theory into the heart of poetry as if to do so was no more complicated than making a haystack after scything the grass in a meadow. Like Pound, Olson delivered cosmology as if it was him-and-you-and-the-gods. But Olson’s delivery was the stronger one: he got in your face, he bullied you whether you were friend or foe, and he believed, with a manic locomotion unmatched by Pound or any of his own contemporaries, that his obsessions were everyone’s and so were his agonies and woes. Everything about Olson moved to or within the epical: his vast intellectual range, the rhapsodic delivery, the dactyl and spondee-loaded rhythms, and the man himself.
That lovely image of the haystack no doubt drawn out of the photographs of Olson haying in Keene, Virginia c. 1945. Recalling, too, the method of “heaping up” whatever sundry particulars be reap’d—à la Ron Silliman (“our” Olson, though less capable, I’d suggest, of intellectual “grinding”) in The Alphabet. I am entirely “took” by trying to think through the epic and empire connect. Is the endless onslaught (attempt to be everything) of The Alphabet imperialist? Setting aside Silliman’s originary tale of reading Anselm Hollo’s line in Corvus (“alphabet ends universe begins”), how do “we” respond to a monstrous-in-its-conceit poem call’d “Universe”?

Interestingly, Fawcett opposes Spicer (“a circus of contradiction: a theory-loving linguist immersed in, and comfortable with, working-class popular culture; a frequently out-of-control alcoholic who could be attentive to and charming with small children; a libidinous homosexual who was socially shy and quick to take offense”) to Olson, calling Spicer’s poetry “more accessible and ostensibly profane that that of virtually any poet in the New American Poetry”—ignoring O’Hara and Schuyler, for two. Fawcett claims Spicer opposes the “shouting” push (all that all caps nonsense, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION . . . MOVE, INSTANTER,” &c.) and “polemic by rhetoric” of “Projective Verse” (1950) in the imaginary letters to García Lorca in After Lorca (1957) wherein he “sought to reestablish the primacy of image in poetry, and sidestepped the dogmatics in Olson’s ‘epic’ concerns” by positing a more moderate notion that because human experience is serial and co-respondent rather than epical and dogmatic, the narrative structure of verse could and maybe should proceed by other strategies.” Regarding Spicer’s “poetic dictation,” the spooks, the Martians, the radio: Fawcett puts it, too, in service to a “rejiggling” of Olsonian focus:
Spicer’s quasi-mystical notion of dictation, which supposed, sometimes ironically and sometimes literally, that the sources of poetry derived from outside human personality—spooks or archetypes or cultural libido—was a less fraught compositional frame than Olson’s Pax Americana drive to epic. It was also a fairly profound rejiggling of his “composition by field” as a means of getting the self out as fuel for poetry.
“The New American Poetry and Us” provokes and troubles (Fawcett’s own stance shifts between denying and admitting unresolved Oedipal anger)—some of it’s hardly convincing (see reference, say, to the “slightly bizarre cornpone routine Pound likely invented to peckerspray the Brits he was living amidst and to insist on his masculine Americanness”). It does, though, undo the feint’d marvels and commonplaces of the category-makers, the partisans of the limit’d purview, any who’d routinely lump together a range of (competing) practices under a single monicker, pejorative or adulatory. “The New American Poetry”—forebear and rector to so many, though hardly a monolithic thing—seems ripe for untangling.

Charles Olson, 1910-1970

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ashbery / Michaux

Some Clouds

Ashbery quoting Henri Michaux (Reported Sightings):
      I began painting in the mid-1930s partly as a result of a Klee show I saw, partly because of my trip to the Orient. I once asked a prostitute for directions in Osaka and she did a lovely drawing to show me. Everybody draws in the Orient.
. . .
      I had always thought there would be another form of expression for me—but I never thought it would be painting. But then, I’m always wrong about myself. I always wanted to be a sailor when I was young, and I tried it for a while, but I simply didn’t have the physical strength necessary. I had always thought I didn’t want to write, either. C’est excellent, il faut se tromper un peu.
      Then the cuisine of painting annoyed me. Artists are such prima donnas—they take themselves so seriously, and they have all that cuisine—canvas, easel, tubes of paint. If I could, I would still prefer to be a composer. But you have to study. If there were only some way to enter directly into a keyboard. . . . Music hatches my dissatisfaction. My large ink drawings are already nothing but rhythm. Poetry doesn’t satisfy me as much as painting—but other forms are possible.
“Nothing but rhythm”—that sempiternal greeny itch. Isn’t that precisely what the quotidian itch of writing is? The prothonotary sun recording its cloud-penetrancy, its way of worming up piecemeal and sinuous through the murky impingements, a daily articulary jaunt unsayable, a need simply to move “comminglingly.” Michaux makes distinct poetry’s attempt “to express some non-logical truth” against painting’s curt refusal of any stoop (I need to say it: “down into any such jarring metaphysical stupors”): “Painting is different—there is no question of truth. I make rhythms in paintings just as I would dance. This is not a vérité.” So that the “problem”—if it is a problem (maybe it’s a fructifying mandate, or a solar injunct) is to allow oneself—la grande permission—the fervent idiocy of the day, its plangency and must. (Up early, I note Orion stretch’d and pinned like a pelt to the southerly sky. Wormings of word-turnings, unabidingly beginning: me sock-foot’d and all pre-prehensile gapery, rhythms of registry beginning . . .) Michaux: “You enjoy listening to peoples voices in the street, but they don’t solve your problem for you. When something is good it distracts you from your problem.” (See Ashbery’s own “managed chance” approach.) One of Michaux’s methods of distracting: mescaline. “Mescaline gives you more attention for everything—for details, for terribly rapid successions.” The resultant rhythmic gush preternatural akin to what writing (receptor mode) is like: uncanny, pitch’d, a ransacking. Michaux:
The speed was even greater. . . . A hand two hundred times more agile than the human hand would not have sufficed to follow the accelerated course of that unquenchable spectacle. And there was no question of anything but following. You cannot seize a thought, a term, a figure, to work them over, get inspiration from them, improvise on them. All power is lost on them. This is the price of their speed, their independence.
A detachable daily teeming. (See Ashbery, un peu partout.) Duty turn’d (repeatedly) to the “once” in “once upon a time . . .” See “Märchenbilder”:
Es war einmal . . . No, it’s too heavy
To be said. Besides, you aren’t paying attention any more.
How shall I put it?
“The rain thundered upon the uneven red flagstones.

The steadfast tin soldier gazed beyond the drops
Remembering the hat-shaped paper boat, that soon . . .”
That’s not it either.
Think about the long summer evenings of the past, the queen anne’s lace.

Sometimes a musical phrase would perfectly sum up
The mood of a moment. One of those lovelorn sonatas
For wind instruments was riding past on a solemn white horse.
Everybody wondered who the new arrival was.

Pomp of flowers, decorations
Junked next day. . . .
“Junked next day.” Rhythm of the ellipses. Who says that thing about the grit and minutiae of the past, how it’d overwhelm and bury the present if we’d let it? Daily structures made to be swept off, disengaged, cannibalized for parts. I think of Evan S. Connell’s outburst at the beginning of “Ancient Musick” (Lost in Uttar Pradesh):
Herodotus vowed to record all matters of interest on earth. Aye!
Wonders he admired. Two years he loitered in Egypt gazing at mummies,
crocodiles, and people who kneaded dough with their feet
and wrote their language from right to left,
but I have seen as much. O yea! Twenty times more.
I have encountered men eating the flesh of their god in biscuits
and watched Poseidon gather up clouds with one hand,
so I think there must be no end to marvels.

I have chased knowledge across five continents.
I know why the agitated spirit vomits tumultuous speech,
why that anchorite suffered palsy at sight of a woman,
why Albategnius perceived a ship descending upon his deathbed.
I understand how our world revolves, as Galileo demonstrates
with his Fourth Dialogue, why decrepit old men have hollow brains
commanding them to see and hear what is not. Why our forefathers
heard Cerberus bark. Why those that squint through red glass
think the universe red. Why that Greek yclept Pythagoras
deciphered messages on the moon. Why we believe what we want,
like Antipheron marveling at reflections of himself
wherever he looked. Truly, much of this world
I understand, but how men are corrupted
I would not presume to say. . . .
Transience and rot and the intervening “tumultuous speech.” The rhythmic soothe. (Forsooth.)

Henri Michaux, “Ink,” 1961

Henri Michaux, 1899-1984

Monday, September 20, 2010

Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties

A Tree

“The summer hung close and dull.” An entry out of Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties that clatters forth with the too early day. A weekend of travail in “obscure and meaty regions,” a trajectory belly’d up and out and haul’d back down. (The book rescue’d off the dollar shelf of some rapinous emporium in a mall: I love such seismic serendipity, f. Serendip, being a former name for Sri Lanka, the word serendipity being coin’d (1754) by Horace Walpole, after noting how the heroes of the fairy-tale “Three Princes of Serendip” “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of . . .”) Somewhere Wilson calls an ex-Follies girl “pretty as green paint.” The Twenties being largely notebook and diary squibs. Lovely story’d one-liners record’d, off the cuff: “—Anecdote about Henry Ford getting smuggled into his factory in a basket, so that he could spy on his employees.” Or:
Djuna Barnes. When Mary [Blair: Provincetown Players actress and Wilson’s wife] admired a nightgown she had bought in Paris: “Yes: I spent all summer looking for a night to go with that nightgown.”
And odd lists (industry lingo study sheets):
Cook’s Linoleum Rugs
Mill and Factory Supplies
National Pneumatic Co.
Gatto and Cogno
Cut herringbone gears
Hobbed Worm Wheels
International Automobile Body Corporation
American Metal Moulding Co.
American Platinum Works
Federal Steel Tubing—Light steel gauge tubing
Rhoad’s Tannate Belt
H. W. Schrimpf: structural and ornamental ironwork
The Crucible Steel Company of America
Derricks and Pile-Drivers
Bab and Bidelow
Smelting and refining
Calendar-embossing machinery
The Aeroplane Ultimate Typewriter Ribbon
The Goerke-Kirche Co.
The American Steel Barrel Corporation
Automotive Parts
Hyatt Roller Bearing Company
Oschwald Brick Works
Simmons Pipe-Bending Works
Encaustic Tiling Co.
Mucilage and Asbestos
Manufacturers of doll voices (and condoms)
Veering, curious, wanton. Or into the philologick grunt-work:
Eleventh-century text of Homer. Brown ink against yellow, traced over darker where someone had tried to restore the effacements; greasy, worm-eaten and soiled; its λ’s, κ’s, and ξ’s like wormholes and conveying no more than wormholes to the monks in whose hands it was found—a formidable forest tangled and bristling with loops and dots and barbs; written in three different hands, with great holes and stains on the pages (of vellum, membranaceus); a caricature, as of a human heavy-jowled dog with huge paw; scrawled with schoolboy drawings and scribbled letters; glossed here and there in the margins,; thick heavy brown cover.
Oddly enough, rather how I think of Wilson himself (in later years)—“human heavy-jowled dog” (though rather wanly, daintily “pawed”). Poignant literary gossip retail’d unerringly. Here, Jean Cocteau’s assessment of Dada (precise, unendingly precise for any groupuscule whose “humor” is hitch’d to a program): how Cocteau “scoffed at the idea that their nonsense was perpetrated in a genuine spirit of fun: ‘Ils sont tous des petits Nietzsches!’” (Or reporting Djuna Barnes’s injunct to Pound: “Be simple, Ezra, be simple!”) (Or Dos Passos’s asserting that “painting was in a very bad way . . . in painting there were certain fundamental difficulties that had to be overcome—whereas anybody could go in for literature—you didn’t even have to be able to write, because you could dictate” (or, nowadays, “sample,” “write-through,” and “construct”). Wilson’s vacillatory cumber: the lyric delicacy of “June. The Chinese white of daisies” up against the obvious thrall of the grinding American underbelly, its speech (Myrtle, a New Orleans whore with a “rebellious, mulish, scornful look” hassling a drunk who “couldn’t do anything” and so want’d a “refund”—“Charity-ass, eh?” and “Want your ass again?—When you jazz last?”) And, too, in The Twenties, raw literary gobbets of the graphomane (even “about” such “rudimentary habitual twitchings” of the notebook-fillers):
      The great writer’s notes, carefully preserved and published after his death (Baudelaire, Chekhov, Butler), though they may have been merely mechanical and meaningless jottings, the products of an instinct to write in its most rudimentary habitual twitchings, like the instinctive defensive or predatory gestures of the lowest forms of life.

      How books carry the stamp of the barbarous ages which produced them: the gallows and the flogging block in Pope and in Swift.
Or the mechanical drone and the force-meat excesses of conglomerate binging: stamp of our own barbarity.

Edmund Wilson, 1895-1972

Friday, September 17, 2010

High-tailing It

Some Clouds

End of the week. Nothing preoccupying me beyond the way that chipmunk high-tail’d it into the shrubbery. High-tail, colloq. (orig. U.S.): “‘High-tail’ comes straight out of the plains where a mustang, when startled, erects its tail in a sudden, quick gesture and runs like the wind . . .” Earliest O.E.D citing: 1925. The chipmunk’s: up stiff like a pencil. Charles Peirce, noting how perceiving is a (I’d say, with irony, an “imperceptible”) whole:
. . . perception is a two-sided consciousness in which the percept appears as forcibly acting upon us, so that in perception the consciousness of an active object and of a subject acted on are as indivisible as, in making a muscular effort, the sense of exertion is one with and inseparable from the sense of resistance.
(Peirce’s regimen of lifting weights.) That gaudy lime-green rebound Penguin Winstanley there: I am trying to sense its way of assaulting my optics, or is it resisting my noticing of it? (Either way, it’s a guilty dog yapping, is what Peirce’d say.) Joan Retellack, out of “N Plus Zero” (a thwart’d nod at one of Oulipo’s stratagems) in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / (Roof, 2010):
Why use procedures when one can simply note the succession of things that “naturally” come to mind? “Act so that there is no use in a centre,” said Gertrude Stein. Good advice, particularly if the center is “self” without the benefit of centrifugal artifice.

. . .

Strange concept, self; not strange enough. Hence, the “natural” fallacy. Procedural artifice is a form of authorial agency which nonetheless brings a tonic otherness to a composition: deflecting single point perspective, opening the field to dialogic alterity, alter-texts, if not egos, in equally disadvantaged conversation. Hence the necessity of humor.

The question is whether such devices are useful for our self-absorbed species, accumulating endless wants and highly evolved needs in what seems to be a geometric progression of consumption-targeted quests for increasingly improbable satisfaction whose most cherished image is found in the mirror. A literature of reciprocal alterity, if such a thing is possible, can’t fix this culture-wide entanglement with short-sighted narcissism but it may present significantly alternative sites for making meaning.
Straying. The Stein line occurs at the beginning of “Rooms” (Tender Buttons), preceding: “A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing.” Stein isn’t exactly saying “Act as if there is no use in a centre”: isn’t she arguing for a processual (lack of) stance, that is, a proceeding unfetter’d by preps (or props)? “A preparation is given to the ones preparing” reads like something out of Peter Elbow’s “freewriting” composition theory: keep moving. There’s a strange shift in Retallack’s patter here. There’s, one, a perceived need for a self’s “deflecting” its own limit’d pointedness by means of (pointlessly) “flying off”—no Poundian “unwobbling pivot” here—into the alter-textual gleanings of procedural artifice, thus bringing in, willy-nilly, the muscular other, “opening the field.” Two, there’s “our self-absorbed species, accumulating endless wants and highly evolved needs in what seems to be a geometric progression of consumption-targeted quests for increasingly improbable satisfaction”—a similar kind of willy-nilly “flying off” into the cumulus’d up and massy hinterlands of perceived “need.” Who’s to say the gleanings intend’d to deflecting “authorial agency” won’t become the gobblings of mere consumption? A heap’d up pile of “alter-texts, if not egos.” Stamps in a tourist’s passport. Part of me is thinking here of the smugness, insobriety and imperialist provocations of Lara Glenum’s statement call’d “A Note on American Poetic Excess,” wherein she troublingly writes:
Poetry in America is widely perceived to be utterly useless, even by the poets themselves. It’s barely commodifiable. Non-productive and degenerate. Not even a valid form of social protest. Bilge and dredge, poetry is the excrement of civic life.

These are perfectly fine circumstances.

Museums and publishing houses are an attempt to curate our various diseases. Diseases that can’t and won’t be managed. Teach us to shut up.
Wholly deplorable (and infantile, and snotty), that. Though I’d wager one origin of such glee-soak’d unmanageability (and “short-sighted narcissism”) is the “culture-wide entanglement”—at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Michel Foucault—of the self as “mere” effect of social relations and practices. I think of Violet Gibson (“the woman who shot Mussolini”), saying, “There is such a thing as a moral atmosphere.” I think of Lissa Wolsak saying, in Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005 (Station Hill, 2010): “I vehemently see no reason to dumb-down the sheer and useful beauty of language. . . . I know what to write because language lightens itself to reveal the pan-psychic shock / sleep of being alive, anatomies of collectivity / possibility, juste-milieu . . . the lucre of subjectivity.” At the end of the week I grip my own upright pencil, responsibly, stiffly.

Joan Retallack