Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Carousel Not for Carousing

Horse, Merry-Go-Round

I don’t know. I “eschew”
knowing, knowing that it’d inevitably
be the end of something.

At “loose” ends. The disrupt of travel, hauling nine hours “back” through glorious high sun, and muddling down into sleep, late. Reading a few pages of Ted Mooney’s 1981 Easy Travel to Other Planets with its opening of love-making between woman and dolphin. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques provides the succulent epigraph:
It was more or less in the area where we were now sailing that Columbus encountered mermaids. “The three mermaids,” he relates, “raised their bodies above the surface of the water and, although they were not as beautiful as they appear in pictures, their round faces were definitely human.” The manatees have round heads and their breasts are at the front; since the females hold their young close with their paws as they suckle them, it is not surprising that they should have been taken for mermaids, especially at this period when people went as far as to describe (and even draw) the cotton plant as a sheep tree, that is a tree bearing not fruit but whole sheep hanging by their backs with wool ready to be shorn.
The electrifying thing about Mooney’s writing: sudden cinematic shots “off.” Interpellatory reachings elsewhere. Mid-conversation one scoots to a thing spliced-in: “A sea turtle caught sight of a plastic freezer bag floating on the surface of the deep waters just beyond the cove and, mistaking it for a jellyfish, attacked it.” Or: “At the airport an Irishman with a bottle of Jameson’s in his back pocket had climbed out on one of the hundred flagpoles overlooking the main lobby and was trying to pull down the South African flag.” Evidence of the radical complacency of the routine skittishness of what Henry James call’d “our barbarous hearts”: simultaneity’s neural overhaul complete. We nod and continue. We scoot laterally—or backwards, like a crayfish—several hundred miles and return unbaffled, casually unbroken.

Read, too, Michael Palmer’s oldish (1986) remarks in Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New Directions, 2008) call’d “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice.” Jennifer Moxley refers to it in the Joshua Marie Wilkinson-edit’d Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook (University of Iowa Press, 2010)—unabashed proof (if any were needed) of the now ineluctable glomming together of poetry and the Academy into some banal and unexamined exchange, superfluous and mere—“a liege for mutual ayde on bothe sydes”—fill’d with brandishable two-or-so-page hortatory loud havockings signifying its exploratory nothings, its dead-end at the schoolhouse door. To wit: there’s an entirely telling few lines in Palmer’s talk—deliver’d at the tail end of the bonkers “This Year’s Model”-ism decade when uptown money made for a junky’s extravaganza downtown in the East Village art world (and its innumerable epigoni, that “multytude of Reteynours”). Palmer talks of the trappings replacing the work, one’s doings becoming “referential to ‘the literary’” as opposed to “the actual exigencies and demands of the poetic.” He writes:
      Take, for example, the fashion world of American Art at present, specifically the East Village (it’s fun if you think of it as rock-n-roll, very boring if you think of it as anything more than that), where every two weeks you have a new graffiti artist or a new somebody or other who enters into all the great collections, an instant millionaire, who has paid his or her dues by working in a loft for three weeks. The reference is so entirely to the world of art and to style rather than to the demands of figuration, let’s say, or representation (all of those real problems) that the entire gesture is utterly diminished. We get this all across the board in what we think of as the throwaway world of poetry, which is referential to minor accomplishments of style, and to telling little experiences that we’ve all had together, and to reflecting, in that respect, to engendering that little shiver of recognition and then passing out of one’s memory.
And twenty-five years down the road, isn’t that precisely where one finds oneself? What is vaunt’d “hybridity” beyond the pack’s scribblings gone compleatly “referential to minor accomplishments of style”? If Palmer’s language betrays one era’s foibles (“little experiences that we’ve all had together” and the epiphanic “shiver of recognition”), it’s nevertheless worth noting just how “throwaway” any era’s literary trappings be.

Michael Palmer, c. 1988
(Photograph by Thomas Victor)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fragments in the Ostensorium


Low pressure bulge with a stingy rain and thunder growling through the night, making the dog uneasy. Quit by morning, or the muscular glowering that serves for morning. Endless clouds of Honfleur. Bicycling I spy a jilt’d hollow core door, paint’d white, and long to prop it between two sawhorses, two filing cabinets—a sought lazy expanse, a spaciousness. Cramp’d, surround’d by books stack’d up to my knees: my pinch’d-off lines, my niggardly feints. I am here for a day. Off tomorrow, points east. Gracq (out of Reading Writing): “What we want is literature that moves, seized at the very moment it still seems to be moving, just as we prefer a sketch by Corot or Delacroix to their finished paintings. What we no longer want is literature-as-monument, everything that felt the need to acquire and abide by the building permits of its age.” (Thinking of the pleasures of the mess, the half-ass’d, the smeary, the unfinish’d, the abandon’d. The neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David trying, in 1798, to paint the fidgety and impatient Napoleon. Opposing: Paul Valéry’s ostentatious remark: “If you knew what I threw out, you would admire what I keep.” That claptrap of the heroic—nigh saintly—insistence that one’s trials and errors afflict no ordinary man.) The attempt’d sketch, oddly enough, betrays the inaccuracy of the necessary gigantism of the dogged whole. Gracq:
In cartography, the unsolvable problem of projections arises from the impossibility of depicting a curved surface on a map without distorting it. On any fairly extensive map, a distortion will appear in relation to reality, either in the proportions between surfaces, or in the drawing of the contours. There is no remedy for this, but there is a palliative; provided the depicted surface is very small, just this side of a certain threshold of largeness, the distortion will be considered negligible.
Think how the will to the compleat mars the project of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. Silliman’s recourse—to make the enormous text of The Alphabet something partial (“of” the Universe)—betrays only the rigor of a dogmatist. Heaps of fragments, a pointillism of details: the analysis of any single particular of which serves to pinpoint the resultant extraneousness of the (merely) stubbornly assembled whole. (About what Gracq calls the “salubrious scouring agent” of “viciousness”—a misnomer—in the literary arena—the sharp jab, the retort: “literature . . . only endures and consolidates when beaten relentless by bitter humor, just as piers harden in salty water.”)

Gracq à la mode de Barthes:
Of all punctuation signs, one is not exactly like the others: the colon. Neither wholly punctuation nor wholly conjunction, it has long posed a problem for me in writing. All the other signs, more or less, mark breaks in the rhythm or inflections in tone of voice; there is no sign except the colon that reading aloud cannot render acceptably. But in the colon another function lies in wait, an active function of elimination; it marks the place of a mini-breakdown in speech, a breakdown where a superfluous conjunction has disappeared life and limb in order to assure the two members of the sentence that it connected a more dynamic, seemingly electric contact: in the use of the colon there is always the trace of a small short-circuit. It also marks the beginning, within the connected discourses, of the transgression of the telegraphic style; a statistical study would no doubt reveal the scant use ancient writers made of it (how far back does it go, anyway?) as well as its growing frequency in modern texts. Any impatient style preoccupied with swiftness, any style that tends to explode intermediary links, is especially attached to it, as to a carburetor, peremptory and expeditious.
Burning off excess. The release of fiery phlogiston. Ardour’s fulmineous perseverance. The open road like a capacious and unladen table.

Back in a week or so.

Jacques-Louis David, “Napoleon,” c. 1798

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tenacity and Murk


Stumbling block of a Friday. Tête de bois. (I just like saying that.) Ineffably, the perennial (nigh quotidian) stirrings of resistance. Dropping one tin-horn’d scratchy blaat after another into the gum-works of the console. What’s the use? The conglutinatory muck of words inescapable. A slurry of fragments yanking at the galoshes. Out of the Brenda Iijima-edit’d )((eco (lang)(uage(reader)) (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs / Nightboat Books, 2010), Jed Rasula interview’d by Evelyn Reilly:
I have a certain phobia about generic experience as such, probably stemming from the expression “watching TV” which spooked me as a kid, when I realized that for most people it really was watching television, rather than watching something specific, making a choice (“watching TV” meant no choice, submitting to whatever was on). I continue to feel wary in the same way about, say, reading poetry, as if it were all the same. In the ecology of elected habitats, it may be beneficial to write poetry, or read it, but I disapprove of the urge to be a poet, which for many is the driving force. This is a posture almost indistinguishable from “watching TV”—as in, first I’ll be a poet, then I’ll find out what kind of poetry I’ll write (or, again, read). As a defender of psychological diversity, I’d like to expunge the word “poet” from our vocabulary. Wouldn’t be wonderful to commend a piece of writing without the special pleading of genre marching alongside like the change of guards at Buckingham Palace?
        This is why I’ve found it so expedient to draw on the literary theory of the German Romantics (the Jena group, especially Friedrich Schlegel), in which every venture in writing inaugurates its own species—the poem is at once an instance of poetry and “the poetry of poetry”: that is, the act that includes reflections on its nature as act—amounting to a kind of evolutionary continuum in which the possibilities for change are accommodated to the medium without necessarily being the raison d’être. From that prospect, there’s no need for “experimental “poetry because poetry is the name of an inevitable experiment in living.
And, bunch’d up (with cursory discourse intervening—sweet accident of reading’s trajectory) against—lines out of Julien Gracq’s “Writing” (out of Reading and Writing) A mash-up unpedigree’d (Schlegel’s “combinatorial quality of thinking”):
        Why refuse to admit that writing is rarely attached to a fully autonomous impulse? You write first because others before you wrote, then, because you have already started writing: the question should really be asked of the first person to dare begin such a practice: which basically amounts to saying that it has no meaning. In this business, spontaneous imitation counts for a lot: no writers without insertion into an uninterrupted chain of writers. After school, which places the apprentice-writer in this chain and already makes him glide with authority over the rail of redaction, it is the fact of ceasing to write that actually merits contemplation.
        The dramatization of the act of writing which has become spontaneous, like second nature to us, is a legacy of the nineteenth century. Neither the seventeenth nor, much less, the eighteenth have known it; a drama like Chatterton would have been incomprehensible then; no one ever woke up one fine morning saying: “I will be a writer,” as one might say, “I will be a priest.” The gradual and natural need for communication, as well as the intoxicating apprenticeship of language’s resistances, has in every one preceded and eclipsed the cult worship of the sign of election, the prerequisite of which specifically marks the advent of romanticism. Before that, no one ever used this strange, intransitive future tense that alone truly, and mistakenly, erects the writer’s work as an enigma: I will write.
Chain of Schlegel’s Athenæum fragment number’d 24: “Many works of the Ancients have become fragments. Many works of the Moderns are fragments the moment they are made.” And—checking the wording of numéro 24, one is accidentally suck’d into the brackish slough of numéro 23—a dandy place to urp up one’s bitters:
Much is printed that would have been better left simply said, and at times something is said that it would have been more appropriate to print. If the best ideas are those that are spoken and written spontaneously, then it might well be worth one’s while to check occasionally what parts of one’s talk could be written down and what part of one’s writing printed. Of course it’s presumptuous to have ideas during one’s lifetime, or to make them known. To write an entire work is much more humble, because such a work can only be put together out of other works, and because, if worst comes to worst, the idea can always take refuge, hide itself submissively in a corner, and let the subject matter itself take over. But ideas, individual ideas, are forced to have value in themselves and must lay claim to being original and having been thought out. The only thing that is to some extent consoling about this is that nothing can be more presumptuous than the mere fact of existence, or, even more, of existence in a particular, independent way. From this original basic presumption can deduce all the others, no matter how you look at it.

Friedrich Schlegel, 1772-1829

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harry Mathews’s The New Tourism

Front End Loader

Sheer impetus versus the dalliant heft of stasis: bulk glum. There’s a moment, commencing, when what one cottons to is out there in the flux—Harry Mathews’s The New Tourism vying with Julien Gracq’s bête noire Valéry—and the recent memory of crows aimlessly sailing through the sfumato’d aerie of morning, its smutch-work clouds, sapping all oomph. One slips undamp’d against a tensile dent—razor blade caught by mere watery surface—waiting a sexual wait. (Gracq: “A writer’s almost carnal weakness for words . . . their corpulence or stature, the weight of round fruits falling one by one from the tree . . . When I started writing, what I wanted first and foremost was the vibratory quiver, the violin bow over the imagination. Later, much later, I often preferred the succulence of compact words, rich in dentals and fricatives, that the ear could snatch one by one, like a dog catching pieces of raw meat . . .”) The lolling caress versus the rut abrupt. Harry Mathews:
Eight quarter-pound sticks of sweet butter are pressed
into a two-quart double boiler or bain-marie
that is brought to a boil and kept simmering
while the butter softens slowly into a muddled yellowish soup
that gradually separates on three levels: floating at the top,
a layer of foamy casein; a residuum of casein settling
on the bottom; and between them a depth
of clear oil of butter. When these strata are stable,
the flame is extinguished and the upper pot
removed slowly and surely to a counter where it rests
until the casein layers have steadied. The froth
is then skimmed off with a spoon or tea strainer,
and with surpassing gentleness the butter oil is poured
into a jar. The operation may need to be performed
more than once to keep the underlying casein
from slithering over the rim of the pot while one salvages
every possible drop of oil, which afterwards—except
for what is of immediate use—is sealed in its container
and refrigerated. This perfect cooking butter
will not turn rancid and, heated to high temperatures,
never brown or burn: it is the word “blessing” clarified.
Being the sixth and final part of “Butter and Eggs: A Didactic Poem”—out of The New Tourism (Sand Paper Press, 2010). There’s a lovely unfinicky sense of heeding one’s materials here: the piece exceeding its origin in cookbook-ery and culinary particulars. Think, per contra, of something like Tom Clark’s “Sonnet” that begins “The orgasm completely . . .” with its sunder’d rapport between the hint’d at romantic poesy of the title and the sheer biological mechanics of its “text” (“The muscles of the pelvis contract / And discharge a plug of mucus from the cervix / While the muscular sucking motions of the cervix / Facilitate the incoming of the semen”). Mathews’s recipe effortlessly manages to meet the requirements of Horace’s offhand remark that one ought mingle the wholesome with the sweet, the utile with the soothing, “to delight and instruct the reader” (Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci, / lectorem delectando pariterque monendo). (One’d do well, naturally, to cook Mathews’s butter and eggs (“Broken into a bowl and salted, two eggs are sprinkled with coarsely chopped parsley and chives, / then beaten roundly with a small fork until they twirl in a ring”) in lieu of critiquing the piece’s word’d (and clarifying) blessings.

There’s something of a sense of the terrific freedoms that accrue to a novelist writing poetry here. An “it ain’t my regular honest job, so I can do what I please” zone of invention. (It works two ways: see Valéry’s remark—“I am too swift—too precise, to tell stories. I operate in exactly the opposite fashion, sweeping the narrative aside. The glittering outcome weighs down on me. I am not good at lingering” And then think how wonderful Valéry’s “novel” Monsieur Teste is.) What “certify’d” American poet’d write a thing like Mathews’s “In Praise of Heinrich Heine”:
In longing, the underage seaman veered from the drift;
Elsewhere, out of the wind, scuppered his stone desire.
Unluck cleaving to him made him no schadenfreudiger—
What was plus or minus? He loved the least cat.

Starbursts should light up this moment, the child
Be jealous of nighttime and its laughing yellow listener!
The red doe of the prince of studies sunders,
Shedding her likeness, and her undimmed luster fits him.
I find that completely mysterious and and dumbfoundingly thrilling. Moments out of some primal story, a saga, a conte de fée. One trusts every move viscerally (suspects each move got made viscerally). Here’s another, jumping off of Mallarmé’s coinage:

Send all our sleds across the ice
Six miles north to Elysium
Where cedar clouds break on the stone
And the sun it raineth every day.

Erotic strife was never so pure
As to leave no cranny where love might creep
And curl itself up until next night;
For the sun it raineth every day.
And redoing a line (“And the rain it raineth every day”) of a song sung by the jester Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Against rain, sun. Against Mallarmé’s “nul ptyx”—defined in the succeeding line’s “Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore” with its noise of glossalaliac lalling, a blab school sound, a plenitude (in a sun-drench’d cranny).

A goodly half of The New Tourism is fill’d with a piece call’d “Haikus Before Sleep”—self-explanatory title, haikus conventionally 5-7-5’d (a requirement gently mock’d: “Haikus are diffic. / Haikus are very diffic. / One haiku is diff.”), ranging liberally about, insouciant of demands “poetic.” A select’d few:
No bizarre tulips
Can link distant parallels
In needed madness.

. . .

Oysters would have helped.
Neither they nor golden bream
Were for sale today.

Works done with pleasure?
Levers of melancholy
Skew my peopled streets.

. . .

After country, crowd.
Country rain smells of rotting.
City rain of stone.

. . .

“2:30 a.m.”
I must be Frank O’Hara.
Or a disciple.

. . .

At the end of day
Unparalleled perspective:
The marble-lost clouds.

. . .

My nails are warping,
my knees have no cartilage—
sunset: mauve, orange.

. . .

Niki’s works re-hung.
Facts from the Hundred Years War.
Beech leaves turning “gold.”

. . .

with four English syllables
(in Welsh, Y Fenni)

deserves two haikus
for making me so happy
with its mists and musts.

. . .

The day half-ruined
by one moment of neglect.
But what was that bird?

. . .

Where are my glasses?
Right here, under my buttock.
Moths fleeing the rain.

. . .

Struggling to preserve—
What? This . . . this . . . this piece of shit?
Utterly worth it.
In a piece call’d “In Pursuit of Henry Vaughan” Mathews writes: “Perhaps later, in my last moments, I can choose to relent / and, however briefly, recover that undoubting ignorance / . . . that I so cleverly abandoned.” “Undoubting ignorance”: rather like Nicholas of Cusa’s docta ignorantia (“doctor’d up ignorance,” I like to say). (Ashbery’s “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” is pertinent, too: “You can’t say it that way any more. / Bothered about beauty you have to / Come out into the open, into a clearing, / And rest.”) I see Mathews, in The New Tourism (and particularly in “Haikus Before Sleep”) scrapping most of poetry’s own paltry demands in favor of a kind of speculatio, will’d doodling, going at it slant, and accepting it all. “Utterly worth it” sounds it right.

Harry Mathews
(Photograph by Fred R. Conrad)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The “Arrant Bubble” of Quietude

Some Flowers

Ron Silliman (c. 2007): “A word about naming. Naming really matters.”

And (c. 2002): “Edgar Allan Poe was involved in the great disputes of the 1840s between the Young Americans and the Boston ‘school of quietude,’ a chasm that remains largely uncrossed to this day.”

And (c. 2004): “The phrase itself was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s to note the inherent caution that dominates the conservative institutional traditions in American writing.”

And (c. 2007): “The phrase I’ve chosen, School of Quietude, is a term that has its roots in the correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe, who had to deal with the direct ancestors of this very same cabal of poets back in the 1840s & didn’t much appreciate the experience either.”

Select’d Silliman refs to the naming of the nefarious “cabal.” Albeit, if one examines Poe’s Essays and Reviews (Library of America, 1984), one uncovers five items of “quietude,” none exactly fitting the claim:

1ly. Graham’s Magazine, October 1842. A Rufus Dawes poem call’d “Geraldine” (“a most servile imitation of the ‘Don Juan’ of Lord Byron” and “a mere mass of irrelevancy . . . where the continuous lapse from impertinence to impertinence is seldom justified by any shadow of appositeness or even of the commonest relation”). Second stanza:
Around that hermit home of quietude
      The elm trees whispered with the summer air,
And nothing ever ventured to intrude
      But happy birds that caroled wildly there,
Or honey-laden harvesters that flew
Humming away to drink the morning dew.
Quoting several stanzas, Poe concludes: “Here is an air of quietude in good keeping with the theme” and the poem’s “queer tone of philosophical rhapsody.”

2ly. Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1847. Regarding the “very marked idiosyncrasy” of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Poe delivers a short argument that aligns “commendable originality” (with an imply’d warning against the singular routine shtick of the johnny-one-note—Faites attention, vous les flarfistes et faiseurs des tripes conceptualistes!) with the popular, and criticism’s “hackneys” with the try’d:
In one sense, and in great measure, to be peculiar is to be original, and than the true originality there is no higher literary virtue. This true or commendable originality, however, implies not the uniform, but the continuous peculiarity—a peculiarity springing from ever-active vigor of fancy—better still if from ever-present force of imagination, giving its own hue, its own character to everything it touches, and, especially, self-impelled to touch everything.
        It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity—that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. “Too peculiar,” should be the phrase, “too idiosyncratic.” It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original. The criticism of the conservatives, of the hackneys, of the cultivated old clergymen of the “North American Review,” is precisely the criticism which condemns and alone condemns it. “It becometh not a divine,” saith Lord Coke, “to be of a fiery and salamandrine spirit.” Their conscience allowing them to move nothing themselves, these dignitaries have a holy horror of being moved. “Give us quietude,” they say. Opening their mouths with proper caution, they sigh forth the word “Repose.
(Echoes of “Nevermore” in that sighing “Repose.”) One pictures with no untoward stretch Silliman’s plucking that cautionary “quietude” out of the clergy’s murmurings, a thing to wield against its own. Per contra, though, is the “post-avant” in the Manichean schema, then, he who courts with success “the excitable, undisciplined and child-like”? Ah, yes, the “fiery and salamandrine” Silliman!

3ly. Graham’s Magazine, February 1842. Poe reviewing Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. Charles Dickens, a Brit. Mr. Silliman trucks none with Brits. An impossibility, comme origine. For us compleatists though, here’s the stub: “The idea of persecution by being tracked, as by bloodhounds, from one spot of quietude to another is a favorite one with Mr. Dickens. Its effect cannot be denied.”

4ly. Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1845. One of Poe’s “Marginal Notes”:
        Scott, in his “Presbyterian Eloquence,” speaks of “that ancient fable, not much known,” in which a trial of skill in singing being agreed upon between the cuckoo and the nightingale, the ass was chosen umpire. When each bird had done his best, the umpire declared that the nightingale sang extremely well, but that “for a good plain song give him the cuckoo.”
        The judge with the long ears, in this case, is a fine type of the tribe of critics who insist upon what they call “quietude” as the supreme literary excellence—gentlemen who rail at Tennyson and elevate Addison into apotheosis. By the way, the following passage from Sterne’s “Letter from France,” should be adopted at once as a motto by the “Down-East Review”: “As we rode along the valley, we saw a herd of asses on the top of one of the mountains. How they viewed and reviewed us.”
A possible source of Silliman’s “quietude”? Only if one assumes a “tribe of critics” exists, or is the source of anything . . .

5ly. Southern Literary Messenger, January 1837. Quoting a William Cullen Bryant piece (one of its “passages of purest ideality”):
                                                                    The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietude between—
The venerable woods—
“The original conception is of the very loftiest order of true Poesy.”

And “school”? (“Naming really matters.”) Whence, pray tell, descendeth Silliman’s “school” (or “cabal”)? Poe’s rather point’d and opprobrious regarding the term. See a squib of marginalia out of the Southern Literary Messenger for May 1849. He’s talking about Shelley, “author of ‘The Sensitive Plant’”—he who “really disdained that Rule which is an emanation from Law, because his own soul was Law in itself”—and Shelley’s innumerable apes:
From his ruins, there sprang into existence, affronting the Heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angels, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the original—faults which cannot be considered such in view of his purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard his works as addressed to mankind. A “school” arose—if that absurd term must still be employed—a school—a system of rules—upon the basis of the Shelley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered by the bizarrerie of the lightning that flickered through the clouds of “Alastor,” had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were forced to be content with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire.
Or there’s Poe’s mockery of schools in a review of William Ellery Channing (Graham’s Magazine, August 1843):
Mr. Channing has conceived the idea of setting up for himself as a poet of unusual depth, and very remarkable powers of mind. His airs and graces, in consequence, have a highly picturesque effect, and the Boston critics, who have a notion that poets are porpoises, (for they are always talking about their running in “schools,”) cannot make up their minds as to what particular school he must belong. We say the Bobby Button school, by all means. He clearly belongs to that. And should nobody ever have heard of the Bobby Button school, that is a point of no material importance. We will answer for it, as it is one of our own. Bobby Button is a gentleman with whom, for a long time, we have had the honor of an intimate acquaintance. His personal appearance is striking. He has quite a big head. His eyes protrude and have all the air of saucers. His chin retreats. His mouth is depressed at the corners. He wears a perpetual frown of contemplation. His words are slow, emphatic, few, and oracular. His “thes,” “ands,” and “buts” have more meaning than other men’s polysyllables. . . . His whole aspect, indeed, conveys the idea of a gentleman modest to a fault, and painfully overburthened with intellect. We insist, however, upon calling Mr. Channing’s school of poetry the Bobby Button school, rather because Mr. Channing’s poetry is strongly suggestive of Bobby Button, than because Mr. Button himself ever dallied, to any very great extent, with the Muses. With the exception, indeed, of a very fine “Sonnet to a Pig”—or rather the fragment of a sonnet, for he proceeded no farther than the words “O piggy wiggy,” with the O italicized for emphasis—with the exception of this, we say, we are not aware of his having produced anything worthy of that stupendous genius which is certainly in him, and only wants, like the starling of Sterne, “to get out.”
Nobody’d, I suspect, put Ron Silliman (like an ass) under the onus of one “painfully overburthened with intellect”—though, yes, he—he, too—may suffer the “notion” that “poets are porpoises” for all the fallacious naming games to which—to employ a favor’d “Sillimanism” (sobriquet for a pedantry—“Naming really matters”)—he’s resort’d.

There is reference—in a 1969 piece by Claude Richard call’d “Arrant Bubbles: Poe’s ‘The Angel of the Odd’” (originally print’d in the Poe Newsletter) to the “school of quietude.” Richard points therein to an exchange between Poe and Henry T. Tuckerman, the Boston editor who reject’d “The Tell-Tale Heart” with the remark: “If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent.” Poe’s reply: “If Mr. Tuckerman persists in his quietude, he will put a quietus on the magazine of which Messrs. Bradbury and Soden have been so stupid as to give him control.” (Tuckerman eventually shows up in Poe’s tiny taunt of a sonnet call’d “An Enigma”: “The general tuckermanities are arrant / Bubbles—ephemeral and so transparent— / But this is, now,—you may depend upon it— / Stable, opaque, immortal—all by dint / Of the dear names that lie concealed within ’t.”) Richard (after rather confusingly registering the day’s literary wars: “the ‘Young Americans,’ a democratic set whose main literary foes were the Boston poets of the school of quietude and the ‘raving, ranting’ Bostonians”—one wonders if the wars result’d out of simple geography—and geography’s class-fraught underbelly—and not style at all . . .) recounts how “Poe took an active part in the squabble between the ‘Young Americans,’ who were the proponents of a muscular and popular literature, and the Boston poets, who were attached to a more genteel, more traditional, more quiet conception of literature.” That appears to be where Silliman cherry-pick’d a term—and a lineage—out of the inexpugnable welter of history. If “naming really matters”—it matters most to those (the keepers and purveyors of governmental lingo provide innumerable examples) who use it to simplify and so distort.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Up Against It

A Wall

the air thrills with the hum of insects

that’s all it goes out like a lamp blown out
Beckett. How It Is. Recall getting collar’d by the house dick and the back office grilling by one Detective Fish, a genial black man. My paltry defense, anti-capitalist. Bust’d for thieving Beckett. How It Is.
another story leave it dark no the same story not two stories leave it dark all the same like the rest a little darker a few words all the same a few old words like for the rest stop panting let it stop
The way sleep serves to jimmy open one’s waking. With its adamant barnacle’d coruscations of what’s gone deliver’d up again. Beckett (The Lost Ones): “A languishing happily unperceived because of the slowness and the resurgences that make up for it in part and the inattention of those concerned dazed by the passion preying on them still or by the state of languor in which imperceptibly they are already fallen.” Coterminous states unperceiving: buck’d up by lust and /or slipping away in deference to mortality’s gin-sop rictus grin. (Think of Oscar Wilde’s report of meeting Walter Pater, who ask’d, smiling: “Why do you always write poetry? Why do you not write prose? Prose is so much more difficult.” And Wilde’s admitting how he’d long consider’d prose the result of mere brigandly enthusiasm, not art.) Think of Richard Howard calling Stendhal’s writing “grasshopper prose”: “there is no pleasure to be taken in it if it is not attended to by presence of mind”:
He engages our complicity, and for that you must be all attention. He is not to be read aloud, he is to be followed on the page, in the sentence, across the synapses of his astonishing clauses, and the sense, the wit, the literature occurs in the gaps between the statements, very abruptly juxtaposed . . .
(“Afterword” to the 1988 translation of Stendhal’s unfinish’d novel Le rose et le vert: “In French . . . one hears the prose and the verse . . . almost concomitantly with the colors.”) Odd to see how Howard’s reading of Stendhal mimicks Ron Silliman’s c. 1977 “New Sentence”-ry. Silliman’s remark’d (interview’d by Carl Boon in 2002) how the New Sentence “might have been more properly termed the new space, insofar as it is in that gap between sentences—a location in the field of writing for which we still lack a decent term—that the new sentence’s functionality appears.” Adding that: “as this device turns the reader’s attention to the immanence of the sentence at hand . . . I settled on that broader category for my noun.” Nothing new under the sun. Just so, there’s, too, Whitman’s “Suggestiveness” (out of the 1888 “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”): “I round and finish little, if anything, and could not, consistently with my scheme. The reader will have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state or display any theme of thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought—there to pursue your own flight.” (How picayune / anticlimatick the rife recrudescences of such a commonplace become nearly one hundred years later. See something like Charles Bernstein’s sincere ditty (out of “Writing and Method,” in Content’s Dream, 1975-1984):
Rather than work which is the product of the “author’s” projection / memory / associative process, it is work for the reader’s (viewer’s) projection / construction. The text calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning, the reader becoming a neutral observer neither to a described exteriority nor to an enacted interiority. The text formally involves the process of response / interpretation and in so doing makes the reader aware of herself or himself as producer as well as consumer of meaning. It calls the reader to action . . .
Yadda yadda. Julien Gracq (out of “Proust Considered as an End Point,” in the 1980 En lisant en écrivant [Reading Writing]):
The central mass of the book [À la recherche du temps perdu] imperiously comes down and plasters everything against itself that tends to protrude beyond it, through an all-powerful force of gravity, including the imaginative production of the reader who, deprived of air and movement by the stifling, compact jungle of an overfed prose, never manages to spring beyond it, to play off it freely: how many times has the reader of Proust, when his stimulated mind set off and started to imagine for his own sake, had the feeling that two lines or ten lines down the author was already lying in wait on his path to nip this nascent independence in the bud, that he had rushed ahead to mark every possible path in the literary rally with his own colors. In every novel, a balance is established, different each time, between what is said, and the élan that allows the reader to complete things on his own, freestyle: in Proust the compact proliferation of the explicit reduces the implicit left to the reader to the smallest share.
So I look hard at some lines out of Silliman’s The Alphabet [“Under”], trying to determine if, here, too, “the compact proliferation of the explicit reduces the implicit left to the reader to the smallest share”:
Even in a green, spiked metal mask, like an Africanized hockey goalie, his singing voice is clear as the small boy in his lap holds first one book of poems, then another, then an old paperback novel, as he sings from each, simultaneously playing the small piano in a bluesy, neutral accompaniment, although it’s unclear how many of the people in the little crowd around this softball backstop in a small park had anticipated such a performance.

After the rain, crickets, and above them, the cicadas. I’m crossing the lawn on the estate of the late Andrew Jackson, past the mansion, away from the circus tent under which a bar band sings, “Hang on, Sloopy, Sloopy, hang on.” While she waits for them to place their order, the waitress shifts her weight from one foot to the next. After the lights are out, I lay awake, waiting for my body to settle, the mind to drift, no stars but the random squares of light from offices in the next highrise tower.

CNN pumped into the hotel lobby as though it were background music, too low to focus on, but a familiar, almost comforting prosody. When I talk into a large event, such as a vendor party, my eyes go into tracking mode, seeking out people to speak with, preparing to work the room. The display lifts the roof off Elvis’ gold Cadillac, revealing not only the gold records mounted in the ceiling, but also the little black-and-white TV and the 45 rpm record player. T for tech support, T for Tennessee. Sheet lightning configures the night sky.
Still that stuff’d feeling (Gracq says of Proust—“food more than aperitif”), a compositional heap. The “gap” between sentences is the gap between people in a crowd: “my eyes go into tracking mode, seeking out people to speak with, preparing to work the room.” No freestyle-inducing élan here: the voracious ardor for compleatness is too conspicuous.

Marcel Proust

Ron Silliman

Monday, November 15, 2010

Experiment’s Heart

Picture of a Picture

Scuff’d (bloody) knuckle (raked against a scrim) and morning leaping forth, mouth full of ash and resignation. John Cage: “What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.” Which covers a lot of territory. If Tom Clark writes—out of “The Book of Love,” in John’s Heart (Goliard/Grossman, 1972)—
      He approaches her chamber.
      Bearing a fly-whisk and a box of betelnuts, he leads her to the bed.
—he’s “experimenting with” (object-mockery under-slinging one’s position in a sequential “toss” by its brief nod of assent) the whole history of courtship in the West. Flaubert, too, is “in” that “box of betelnuts”—such is the referent’s prestidigitatory gump—as Gertrude Stein puts it (Blood on the Dining Room Floor): “That is the way to see a thing, see it from the outside. That makes it clear that nobody is dead yet.” And if “The Book of Love” begins with pure brash bad-ass potential (“There is a new arrogance in the dip of her back and the proud curves of her projective buttocks”), is such recursivity (“dip,” “curve”) a means of eddying off under denial’s reiterating score, refresh’d by jive’s adequacy? (I’m hot-dogging here, trying to bump up a little peculant glee.) There’s a lovely quoting of “Clark Coolidge” in Clark’s “We All Come from the Stars” (“For year I’ve been asking Clark Coolidge to explain his poems to me”):
“My structures are reductive . . . Syntax—the systems of articulation, connection and relation between words that give linear discourse its quality of extended meaning—is simply removed. The semantic content of the words themselves remains as a negative impression—in the absence of discursive context, our attention is open to the ways in which words are instruments of a visual order and an order of sound that is not meaningless, but abstract. What is happening is a reversal of the normal reading experience. When the cumulative process of linear understanding is frustrated, the mind turns back toward the unitary experience of words as structure. The prescribed orders of exposition and expression contain only partial instances of the possibility of language—language as communication, words symbolizing ideas. We are accustomed to regard words in only this one way—as a vehicle. My experiments invite you to regard words as an object—or more exactly, as an organism, with patterns of existing that are specific to itself, inexplicable and marvelous.”
“Which covers a lot of territory.” And with one deft jab of the “jokily literate,” Clark punctures a lot of the subsequent groupuscular balloonings of the too-earnest epigoni of Coolidge thereabouts. (One thinks, of the subsequent tortuous and self-administer’d hortatory in the “language” “field,” of Stendhal’s remark regarding the Count de Ségur, how he had “delicate and charming turns of phrase, but they had to make sure not to rise above the Lilliputian littleness of his ideas.”) Tom Clark’s John’s Heart is a fooling around book, full, too, of cartoons, collages, collaborations, Xerox’d one-offs, conceptual deadpan thievery—or its imitant ruse: “To read this page of print you are / scanning it, line by line, your eyes / moving so as to bring the words in / sequence into the center of the field . . .”—it runs the gamut—nonchalantly, making no particular self-satisfy’d ruckus (it follows Dr. Williams’s exemplary Spring and All in that)—of the “modes” of the subsequent forty years (see something like “Six Structure Tongues” with its splay of phrases: “pony try             baffle             feeder / spose to             melt-field / trak wader             meson lice             fabricky . . .”). Here’s a distill’d lyric, some momentary upshot:

After the leaves have fallen, we return
to the plain sense of things. If is as if
required, as a necessity is required.
Too, there’s the blithe mannerist silliness out of Ron Padgett’s Memoirs adorning the cover. Recalling Clark at the Paris Review office:
Tom could do amazing things with his diminutive fingers. He would often catch a jar full of flies, then make dozens of tiny paper airplanes, onto each of which he would glue a fly, feet down. Occasionally visitors entering our room would, much to their amazement, see a whole fleet of paper airplanes flying overhead, often with a word on each airplane.
Is it the goofy and gladsome sense of sheer play in evidence here (so sorely lacking today)? “The outcome of which is not foreseen” (and likely matters not a jot). Ash and resignation. Hence the present period, all timidity and busyness and “advancement.” Nearly every citizen (de la République de la Poésie Américaine) writing “like a mayor from the countryside . . .” (Stendhal)

Jim Dine, “Meadow Heart #1,” 1971

Jim Dine, “Untitled (Heart),” 1982

Friday, November 12, 2010

Update: Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark (Reprise)

“Lord of the Rep” (in the Trappings of “Rep of the Lord”)

A Further and Instructive Development Concerning A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara

On November 11th I sent the following email to David Lehman, David Shapiro, and Jordan Davis:
To: David Lehman, Jordan Davis, David Shapiro

Dear David, Jordan, and David,

Don’t know if you’ll know the answer to this, or if you’ll care to respond, but thought I would try you with this question, an affirmative answer to which would be strong “forensic” evidence of O’Hara’s authorship of “A True Account.”

David, you mention in The Last Avant-Garde that O’Hara typed “The Day Lady Died” at his MoMA office. Do you know if the typescript of that poem (or any others that O’Hara typed on his office machine) shows a clear match to the typescript of “A True Account”? Or, indeed, is there *any* other typescript in the O’Hara archives that shows a match to that of “A True Account”?


Towle argues at the link above that O’Hara would have had the typescripts of “A True Account” and early version of “Ode: Salute” with him already on return from the trip of previous week. But not sure that is the case, myself . . . He could have gone up to his office right away to type the poems on return, then gone back to his Royal to type the letter to Fondren . . .

Conversely (I guess I am asking two questions!), do any of you know if the typescript at link above matches any typescript by Koch, i.e., suggests the same machine? I’ve been wanting to look at Koch’s papers, but just haven’t had the opportunity to come to NYC. I’ve queried three or four O’Hara scholars on this, but no one has been able to provide answer. I also called to speak to Bill Berkson with intent of asking about this when he was with Dale Smith in Austin, but Berkson did not wish to talk.

Thank you if you can answer. I’m asking these questions in good faith. A Question Mark above the Sun, which is also offered in good faith, is now available, if you’d like to take a look.

all the best,

To date, I have only heard back from Jordan Davis, who responded within minutes. A most instructive back and forth ensued. Since this is the first real exchange I have had with any of the people involved in the threats leveled against Punch Press and my book, allow me to give a recap of it, before making some more general remarks concerning the larger issues in play.

Davis began by requesting (copying his reply to Lehman and Shapiro) that I send him a copy of my recent book, A Question Mark above the Sun, and that in exchange, because “no good deed should go unpunished,” he would send me “printed materials” that I “would find interesting.” In context, the clear allusion was to “materials” relating to the authorship of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”

I replied that the first edition of the book was sold out, but that I would, in return for just a synopsis of these intriguing-sounding “materials” send him a PDF version of the volume. He replied (with no copy to Lehman and Shapiro this time) that he did not, alas, have these purported materials on hand and would have to retrieve and review them before getting back to me. I replied (adding copy to Lehman and Shapiro, thinking his omission of them was an innocent oversight, given that everything was going to everyone!) by asking him the following:
Can you tell me what you mean by “printed materials”? Are these manuscript materials or published materials? If the latter, are these recently published? Curious. Again, I’d like to have a description of some kind, which seems a reasonable thing to ask.

As my introduction says, the scales *are*, despite the strange circumstances, still tipped in favor of O’Hara, so I will not at all be surprised if proof emerges for his authorship of the poem! And I’ll be perfectly happy about it . . .
Davis then answered that he had sent the last email to me privately and that I was clearly being “tricksy” [sic] in copying to Lehman and Shapiro his last missive along with my reply. He said that for this reason he had no desire to “correspond further.” I replied:
My initial letter was to the three of you. When you wrote me back the first time about the “materials,” you CC’d everyone. So I assumed you had accidentally left them off your second reply? That’s why I then went and CC’d David L, and David S! I wasn’t trying to be “tricksy.”

Frankly, this is silly, and seems to indicate, precisely, a lack of good faith here on your part. All I’ve asked for in return for the full PDF of the book is a synopsis, some description of these materials you mention. Is that so unreasonable to ask? The person making the request, after all, is a person whom you’ve contributed to making the object of some threat, and over a book you have never seen.

I’ve been willing to talk about this all along. I’m still willing.
To this, Davis offered a curt, snide reply. I remarked that there was no basis for such intemperate behavior on his part and that such rapid change of attitude made his prior openness to sharing information seem disingenuous. He then replied with an insulting remark about my person.

If Davis should feel that I have misrepresented our exchange, I would ask him to provide permission to John Latta that it be published in full. Readers could make an unmediated judgment.

But here is the central point: From the start, my hypothesis concerning Kenneth Koch’s possible authorship of “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” has been put forward openly and in the spirit of inviting discussion and exchange. But since my deconstruction of Tony Towle’s latest intervention on the case at Isola di Rifiuti [here, his letter is contained in full inside my response], there has been only silence, accusation, and threat from a group of poets in NYC, who apparently feel such an idea constitutes a slander against Koch and an assault on O’Hara’s memory. They have taken this position without even having seen the book, where the hypothesis is fully presented. I have tried to explain why their stance amounts to a complete misunderstanding of the book’s spirit and offered on various occasions to discuss the matter in good-faith dialogue, privately or publicly. I have even said (and this is a point I clearly make in the book) that I am welcoming and even expectant of textual proof emerging any time in favor of O’Hara’s authorship of the poem. My point has been, and it seems a reasonable one to present, that until such time, the extraordinarily strange circumstances surrounding the poem are worthy of consideration, for they make for a case of reasonable doubt concerning its provenance.

I would ask people to review my initial letter to Lehman, Shapiro, and Davis. The questions asked there are sincere ones. They are awaiting answer, and I, for one, would welcome any information anyone might have.

—Kent Johnson

Jordan Davis in Kenneth Koch's Jacket
(Photograph by Anna Malmude)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Merrill Gilfillan’s The Bark of the Dog


The ungainly chop of the “informal continuum.” Olson says: “Flow . . . is not continuous ‘length,’ it is leaped atomism—quanta, jumping like nerves in fatigue— . . . rightly sought & used as a habit.”* One with all the amass’d and itch-trigger’d quality of a “physical memory.” Wave / particle: the atomism of flow. The way, scouting through Merrill Gilfillan’s The Bark of the Dog (Flood Editions, 2010), I hit “Damsels”—“demoiselles resting / in an utter stillness / on every other cranny / or twig, every tree / copper-carmine, blanched lapis / tails hiked in the cool air”—and think how it’s a damselfly, wings angled back and clasp’d upright, not the flat-wing’d aeroplane of a dragonfly I’m thinking of (yesterday) saying “green darner.” Thinking’s primary wayward fealty—and excitement—is to its sputtery aggregates of rhythm (see Joyce’s “irregular musketry of applause”) and memory (“jumping like nerves in fatigue”—the two register identically—rounds, bulletins, jump ’n’ jive). Here’s Gilfillan’s “Stone’s Throw”:
Morning: walking new streets:
Marseilles, canaries singing gaily
from sunny cages in tenement windows
high above.

And noon: a horse
dead in Manhattan, a big dun dressed
to the nines just struck by a taxi,
Central Park West, the bright yellow cab
tossed up under a linden tree—

both just in
from thirty years ago:

Extend the tongue and take
the conjugation.

The wolf whistle blown backwards means
“Hey, over here!”

And sundown
the elegy-in-advance: for Lewis,
Jerry Lee: Men without pianos
hurry through the stations.
And typing that, thinking, “Is it the color yellow (canary, taxi) that aligns (conjugates) the two? Is it the sound-conjunct of cityscape “linden” and “tenement”?” Thinking: “How close memory lies! That one’s history’d assemble itself so judiciously into the classical lines (and intimacy) of a day.” Thinking: “How adroitly that phrase “Men without pianos” deposits the piano’d “Lewis, Jerry Lee” up amongst the gods!” There’s a fine mix of the jocular off-handed (“a big dun dressed / to the nines”) and the nigh-sacramental (“Extend the tongue”) in Gilfillan’s “stance”—and mimick’d by the lingo. (Recalls, a mite, Charles Wright, though Wright’s work’s apt to collapse into slightly finical God-talk.) There’s an easygoing sense of ritual—ancient impulse—in Gilfillan’s work:
Sage in September

Sprigs for sunrise,
sprigs for Taos, and soldiers
on the steep blue sea.

The slopes of Taos,
true south, building, firing
to the aspen smoulder-golden—
sage for the cello in its breeze.

Sprigs for small things
rousted, on the run, Septembered.
Flocks of longspurs slipping down
the continent by night. Sage for them,
moving though the mesh
of the dangerous starlight.
Isn’t that Father Hopkins who’s summon’d by the “aspen smoulder-golden”? (Or, too, in “Sprigs for small things / rousted, on the run . . .” Lovely echoes of “Pied Beauty”: “Glory be to God for dappled things . . .”) Gilfillan, certes, turns against Hopkins’s father’d-forth end-assuredness: in lieu of a Maker (“Praise him” the poem ends) “whose beauty is past change,” one’s left with pure movement, slippage, unseen—the migratory longspurs “moving though the mesh / of the dangerous starlight.” The sempiternal tenuousness (“What does not change / is the will to change”) of the natural world and us, too, “on the run.” One pleasure in Gilfillan’s work: an audacious precision that half-mocks itself (see, in “Falling Folds,” a report of trying “to catch the pitch of osier”—a red-bark’d native dogwood—with “the Mongol vermilion overset / with Prismacolor plum”; see, in “For Lute and Trombone,” “Darwin’s deep-set monkey eyes / sad as sand”; see, in “Tulip Trees,” “Flocks / of starlings loafing in treetops / . . . like, somehow, / (something about that slack / expectant aggregate), a pack / of baboons around a savannah pond.”) Profuse and tangible particulars, human frailty and dignity—that “somehow,” the “personal” (that ineradicable and pervasive sense of a self: of a cheese, it says—“I like its indestructibility / as much as its taste, which is nil. It travels / well”), opposed to the sort of lately prevalent mystificatory hash, Gilfillan himself delineates thus (“Summer Letter”): “You know / the old schoolboy prank / of staring fixedly into the sky / to get passersby to do the same— / X’s poems often seem to work / like that.”

In the center of Gilfillan’s The Bark of the Dog: a series of five longish letter-poems, respondents undivulg’d, work I consider the strongest in the book. The letter-poem must skirt the danger O’Hara (in “A Letter to Bunny”) hazards: “When anyone reads this but you it begins / to be lost.” In exchange, it occasions a wholly malleable “field” tack’d down by sheer intimacy of voice. The absent addressee, the present voice, the fickle interrupts of a history presumably shared: pylons supporting “flow” along the poem’s “not continuous ‘length.’” Here’s one, uncomment’d (though note the “vague scape . . . intelligently used”—that measure of care of one’s materials central to Gilfillan’s work), to end with:
Letter to Farouk

You are in Croatia,
Croazia, reasons
                We have the stink
of ailanthus on the air, at least
in this corner of town.

I had a dream last week
so classical in its lines
it was an honest pleasure just
to lean back on the Jungian green
and watch it all go by:

Wandering in a lush, vague scape
(rural, but intelligently used,
vineyards and rolling tillage
here and there, forest
on the slopes above), reason
unclear. Then I spy
a pair of bulls emerging
in the middle distance—
they’ve seen me, start my way—
bulls of fierce degree:
wildly colored, striped,
with enormous horns: mandrills
of bulls for a cloud-forest zoo.

On they came, picking up speed,
seemed bent on real trouble. Then,
in the flash of an eye,
the End, I stand and stroke
their noses, reaching across
the fence I nimbly
jumped. Everyone calm
and cozy.

                  Have you been dreaming
in Croatia?
                      Once or twice
I saw an abstract New York City
as consummate Tuscan hill town
perched contentedly at the top
of a long spiral path with pleasing
neo-ploughboy Hudson views,

and once not long ago a flicker
of my Uncle Dudley walking
from a house in stolid concentration
to snip a single yellow rose,
then hurry back inside.

But who needs dreams? Catalpas
are in blossom (from the Creek,
not the Greek: “head with wings”).
The other day
I stood behind a woman
with a snood, we were waiting
to cross the street, and when
she turned she had a perfect
Easter Island face—I mean
the moai stones—that broke
in good Jungian style
into a lovely Easter Island smile.

Now that
will change the contents
of your hat.

Audubon, also
in mid-reverie, from one
of his Delineations:
“Reader, I am very happy.”

And when do you get back?

Will you be
wearing, even bearing,
wild cravats?
(“Cravat”: out of the French cravate, applying the national name Cravate [Croat, Croatian] to the neck scarf. “In vogue in France in the 17th c. in imitation of the linen scarf worn round the neck by Croatian mercenaries.” Gilfillan’s care of materials extending unvaryingly, pointedly, to the etymological.)

* Out of the Joshua Hoeynck-edit’d booklet of Olson’s writings extending “Projective Verse,” The Principle of Measure in Composition by Field: Projective Verse II (Chax, 2010), containing the title essay along with a piece call’d “Notes on Poetics (toward Projective Verse II).” Hoeynck’s excellent notes point out how Olson’s next sentence—“A poem must do equal justice to atomism, to continuity, to causation, to memory, to perception, to quantitative as well as qualitative forms, and to extension (measurable existence in field)”—comes directly out of one of Alfred North Whitehead’s 1927 lectures collect’d in Process and Reality: “Olson only changes the word ‘cosmology’ to ‘a poem’ . . .”

Merrill Gilfillan

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Sumptuous Pop

A Tree

Mist and listlessness. “Empty verbalism.” A sentence obliquely jabbing—remnant of some other life: “The taiga blows its green breath through all the cracks in the city, like an animal’s snout under a door.” (Julien Gracq). My Russian summers, Lake Baikal with a pup tent, the constant whine of distant chainsaws. Practice allowing the sentence-ry to lash out like a whip and—with a sumptuous pop— gingerly pluck off some flower of its liking. Combine Edgar Degas’s odd Antaeus-like command, “to train oneself to a trellis” (se mettre en espalier“Pour produire de bons fruits, il faut se mettre en espalier”), that root’d earthly insistence (recall that the indefatigable Antaeus, lift’d off the earth, lost all strength) with a Protean breeziness, snatch and go. Scent of black muck and sweet fern, a green darner still’d mid-flight. What one loves is precisely that “mangled, smutted semi-world hacked out / Of dirt” (Stevens)—what renegade unsummon’d memory makes (making a boreal forest in Russia out of the jackpines and birches of northern Michigan). Pound:
There is fatigue deep as the grave.
The Kakemono grows in flat land out of mist
        sun rises lop-sided over the mountain
              so that I recalled the noise in the chimney
as it were the wind in the chimney
              but was in reality Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great Peeeeacock
        in the proide ov his oiye
        had made a great peeeeeeecock in the . . .
made a great peacock
              in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee
as indeed he had, and perdurable

a great peacock aere perennius
Pound’s childlike glee in simple mimicry (Yeats composing at Stone Cottage, c. 1913). Revivifying memory’s scroll unroll’d—“Kakemono” (hanging scroll). “Wind in the chimney” like “an animal’s snout under a door.” The way voice unlatch’d, its repeatable itinerary, becomes (makes comely, befits) graceless memory, that tough alloy unallay’d by calamity, “perdurable” (a word consider’d obsolete by Samuel Johnson). The “aere perennius” (out of Horace, Exegi monumentum aere perennius = “I erect’d a monument more lasting than bronze”) Barthes (Writing Degree Zero, “Is There Any Poetic Writing”), arguing against “duration” in “classical thought” (“in classical art, a ready-made thought generates an utterance which ‘expresses’ or ‘translates’ it”):
In modern poetics, on the contrary, words produce a kind of formal continuum from which there gradually emanates an intellectual or emotional density which would have been impossible without them; speech is then the solidified time of a more spiritual gestation, during which the “thought” is prepared, installed little by little by the contingency of words. This verbal luck, which will bring down the ripe fruit of a meaning, presupposes therefore a poetic time which is no longer that of a “fabrication” but that of a possible adventure, the meeting point of a sign and intention.
Sounds like Pound’s definition (out of the 1918 piece, “A Few Don’ts”) of an “image” ’s being “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Ah, the fruit-obsess’d French. The globular whole grasp’d. Here’s the sun cutting its blind eye through the crouch of clouds. Pound:
              Out of dark thou, Father Helios, leadest,
but the mind as Ixion, unstill, ever turning.

Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective


Ah, the enigmatic and impenetrable Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), indict’d for anarchism in the infamous Trial of the Thirty, tall, thin, with a goat’s beard and the look of ‘an American Mephistopheles’ (according to Remy de Gourmont), comrade of the lobster-walking Alfred Jarry (who label’d him—in the 1898 Petit Almanach—“Impetuous Keeper of the Peace”), a man whose writings Mallarmé himself call’d “detonators”: how perfect that a spunky bunch of provocateurs, cross with the compleatly innocuous and superficial detritus la poesía norteamericana (et britannique)’s become under the post-equals sign “turn to careerism”—like so much sodden potting vermiculite in the rich lingual compost, like so much damp excelsior surrounding the green jade bibelot—’d lay so brilliantly ahold of the man who remark’d—regarding a proposal for a collect’d works: “I aspire only to silence.” Fénéon of the faits-divers—minuscule police blotter column fillers translated by Luc Sante in Novels in Three Lines (NYRB, 2007)—and of the lesser known belles-lettres:
      laforgue (Jules). A plump and beardless youth. Sings to the moon: insidious amoral laments, incantatory litanies. This Selenite is reader to the Empress Augusta. Oh, the agonies of that good lady, if he should read her his poems!
      taine (Hippolyte). Applies to literary history the techniques of scientific farming. For any given country, studies soil chemistry, topography, and climate, then treats a generation of artists as a crop of mushrooms, beets, and Brussels sprouts.*
So the Fénéon Collective, a splinter’d sub rosa group whose documents (and members) seem to come and go like the mediaeval humours. Initial evidence of the Collective’s emergence out of the (usual, humdrum) precincts of the spurious: the damnably apt “founding manifesto” (dated October 2008). Sadly, only a single sentence survives: “The abolition and the realization of poetry are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of poetry.”** That captured by a Fénéoniste going by the nom de plume / guerre of “Anonyme” in the curio of a book “printed in simple type on old brown paper / feminine marvelous and tough”—Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective (Skanky / Effing, 2010).***

“Anonyme” provides a (possibly slant’d, undoubtedly vainglorious) introduction: see the lines about how “the group’s four original members . . . communicated to me that they . . . admired my work . . . After some correspondence, they extended an invitation that I join their secret cell. Impressed by their smarts and willingness to grate against the well-varnished grain, I agreed.”) Several pages of infighting tussles (between “Authentic Tendency” and “Unified Body”) ensue, with little in the way of evidence (apparent food poisoning of an “Authentic Tendency” member in the UK by “gesture of reconciliation”-offer’d “box of dried apricots” doth not a shred of evidence make) as to who exactly is behind the devilish writings. For, particularly, and bravely, what “Anonyme” offers is 232 collect’d faits divers focus’d on “the accidents, murders, suicides, labor disputes, and banal contretemps” of early 21st century poetry communities, American and British, items “fanciful, loquacious, and didactically satirical.”**** Satire, most malign’d and most difficult of the arts. There is (I sense) a dull roaring rhubarb brewing now “in the field”—the gather’d throngs of poets shouting “Allez-y, alors” and “To the texts!” (meaning, sans doute, “Did you see any mention of my name?”) It’s as if—good petit-bourgeois style—one measures one’s arrival only by the contempt and mockery one’s elicit’d in the public square. Truth is, there’s a whiff of the museum to the Works and Days (it’s part of its extraordinary brilliance): how fleetly the news item dates! Who recalls the street-fighting commandoes of Flarf today, beyond the inveterate (dogged) surveyor of footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes? Who recalls Gaza burning? The Collective:
¶ Well, Guernica’s come and go . . . As Gaza burned, Mlle Dark, the self-appointed U S. poetry medium of Badiou, devoted her blog to a personal “Top 40 Countdown” of pop music hits in 2008.

¶ Yes, and as Gaza burned, the avant with 2,000,000 hits, former editor of the Socialist Review, devoted his blog today to an anecdotal homage for the ’70s sitcom hit, Starsky and Hutch.
The poets, Works and Days’d suggest, spend undignify’d amounts of energy assuming (various, “poetic”) positions. One result: constant collidings, poets observed inexplicably charging—like jousting knights—full tilt one against the other:
¶ Poets have a hard time sitting still! M. Bonney ran at full speed towards Mme Bergvall, who ran in same manner towards the other. Bobbies, with tall rounded hats, are investigating the odd rash of seizure-like collisions within the poetic field.
Another: the essential infantilism of the academic world, with its endless rounds of self-promoting and entirely insular conferences:
¶ Wearing felt party antlers, made by kids in Pakistan, one hundred and fifty-seven poets and critics hopped forward in the Potato Sack Race, marking the close of the “Poetry of the ’70s” conference, in Orono. The winner: Mme Howe, by a hair.
¶ A nervous graduate student addressed the Professor: “How is Language poetry really radical, etc. when it’s now the most academically-dependent formation since the New Criticism?” Down rushed M. Perelman from the dais, biting off the little rat’s ear.
Along with institutional mockery (see a sweepstakes-winner like “¶ The avant-garde has come so far. Signed by M. Filreis, the invitation to the Penn Writers House AWP soiree (held at a mansion on Lake Shore Drive, Chicago) promises “hors d’œuvres, cocktails, and literary conversation in the manner of a Salon”), untoward individual hubris—and the dogged defenders of personal lineage (see a report of M. Sutherland jumping into “the filthy Thames” only to be “rescued by the heroic M. Prynne, an engineer”)—gets its due comeuppance, too. There’s the lucky hustler in a prize-infest’d landscape bestrewn with lucky hustlers—
¶ Some things do get rather loud: Nineteen times running, an experimental poet’s bio has announced to readers that “He is author of the book Novel Pictorial Noise (selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series).”
—and there’s the wholly ersatz “genius” of little means—
¶ “Ouch!” cried the cunning oyster-eater, M. Goldsmith. “A pearl!” Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 10 centimes at the dime store.
There are, too, some acts of homage—quaint and unbelittling—for a few the Fénéon Collective deigns to honor.***** Here’s one:
¶ From La Paz, to Sarajevo, Xian, Montevideo, Tripoli, Berlin, Ljubljana, Santiago, and Cuernavaca, the poet-geologist M. Gander has trekked. Here he is, now, in the Mojave, nigh a cactus, with a sack of rocks on his back. Snakebite.
One’d happily quote the whole book. If there’s a seizable point to the faits divers—beyond the widely-applicable “zero de conduite” grade earn’d by the whole “field”—or an (unfashionable, didactic) lesson to be learn’d out of Works and Days, maybe it’s here, in one of the few clues to the Fénéon Collective’s untroubledly anonymous and sub sigillo make-up:
¶ “To you we proclaim,” cried Mlle E. of the “fénéon collective” to the Court, “Poets have hitherto only interpreted the poetic in various ways; the point is to transcend the very idea of the Poet!” Twenty years exile; prohibition of works from post-avant curricula . . .
Lifting the “banal (and humorous) contretemps”—of vain gracelessness and lost integrity, of xenophobia and turf-for-careerists schemes, of networking hubs and the pseudo-transgressive itch publicly scratch’d (“These days, poets will do anything for attention”)—up to examine the nature of the beast. All of us beasts.

* Translated by Edward Morris. Found in the Evergreen Review’s 1960 “What Is ’Pataphysics?” issue, edit’d by Roger Shattuck. According to the succinct Père Ubu: “’Pataphysics is a brand of science we have invented and for which a crying need is generally experienced.”

** Too, there is, at the now abandon’d scene, so to say, of the original massacre of soi-disant innocents and running dogs alike, “Faits Divers de la Poésie Américaine et Britannique,” one other remarkably prescient rhetorical caw out of that founding document: “Satirical impulse the thesis: analytical desire the anti-thesis: the ironic fire of our faits divers the syntheses . . . Let the field of poetic production tremble!” How poignant that small band of “followers” left behind . . . like a swarm of gnats trying to pursue a shooting star!

*** To order a copy of Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective, contact Dale Smith, at possumego@gmail.com.

**** Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective is, in the words of “Anonyme,” “decidedly ‘unauthorized’” and is publish’d “under threat of legal action.” Ah, the courts, refuge of the mediocre, the proprietary, the lost. Two skew lines, the legal and the poetic, incontravenable each to each.

***** Full, comme on dit (attempting to quash one’s vanity, or cache it with what is, finally, only an “accentuating” thong), disclosure: there is a rather sweet mention of one “M. Latta” in Works and Days:
¶ The poet M. Latta has departed today, on the boat from Le Havre to New York. Many knew he was leaving, though most feigned, carefully, to not observe. The horn blew thrice. Tall, gaunt, and dark, he stood serenely, like a figurehead, at the bow.
Perfect, except for the hump’d back.

Paul Signac, “Portrait of Félix Fénéon,” 1890-91

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Yes-Gentry’s Baggage

Leaf and Twig

A mawkish, dilatory morning. Looming miasma of uncertainty. I see, lamely scouting about, that Ron Silliman’s lately worrying about “winning & recognition”—reason enough to recall Melville’s lusty commendatory barrage for Hawthorne:
He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unincumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and, damn them! they will never get through the Custom House.
Of naysaying’s undeniable sublimity. (Some hour or so of thorough recklessness consumed in trying to figure out what exactly Melville means by the one-half of a postscriptum reading: “If you pass Hepzibah’s cent-shop, buy me a Jim Crow (fresh) and send it to me by Ned Higgins.” What is, in that sentence, a “Jim Crow (fresh)”?) I am—it is apparent—merely jigging, doing a half-step with a quarter-turn in lieu of a fully-turn’d out onslaught / shindig. Peremptory shenanigans. Clockable willies. In the bum-category of “things Enrique Vila-Matas’s report’d”: that structuralist-era Roland Barthes says (in the 1970 “Par où commencer?”)—“among other pleasantries”—that “There is an operational malaise, a simple difficulty which corresponds to all rudiments: where to begin? In its practical guise with its gestural charm, we might say that this difficulty is the same which founded modern linguistics: suffocated initially by the heteroclite nature of human language, Saussure, to put an end to that oppression, which is in short that of the impossible beginning, decided to take a thread, a pertinence (that of meaning), and wind it. Thus a system of language was constructed.” (Recalling, the way a tumult will, the lines out of Bill Bathurst’s terrific “How to Continue”: “remember legal tender only affords temporal control of material goods & treat it like dogshit you scrape off your shoe”—meaning is only an urge (a will) to meaning, and thwart’d by the temporal. A word, a kind of “legal tender.”) Out of a jumble of impertinent (song’d, or arranged by low sunny syzygiacks, or sort’d by vowellish howls, a tumulus) irregulars, meaning itself declares itself a structure. (“All changed, changed utterly. . .”) One thinks of the opposing stricture of compleat and insalubrious release: lingual skittishness, its gadzooks histrionica, its gnat-swarm ploy—Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos abandoning all literary doings:
Everything came to pieces, the pieces broke into more pieces, and nothing could be encompassed by one idea. Isolated words swam about me; they turned into eyes that stared at me and into which I had to stare back, dizzying whirlpools which spun around and around and led into the void.
That, the vortex of void-delirium, le néant put up against a rumbustious plenitude that shucks off any wordy impingement like a yellow slicker “does” the rain. The heartbreaking momentary clarity of things. Lord Chandos: “A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse—any of these can become the vessel of my revelation. Any of these things and the thousand similar ones past which the eye ordinarily glides with natural indifference can at any moment—which I am completely unable to elicit—suddenly take on for me a sublime and moving aura which words seem too weak to describe. Even an absent object, clearly imagined, can inexplicably be chosen to be filled to the brim with this smoothly but steeply rising tide of heavenly feeling.” Second thing (“Enrique Vila-Matas’s report’d”): that Schopenhauer (“Who’s afraid of Schopenhauer?”) says somewhere that “most people, instead of reading the best to have come out to different periods, limit themselves to reading the latest novelities, writers limit themselves to the current narrow circle of ideas, and the public sink ever deeper into their own mire.” And Valéry’s Monsieur Teste: “The more one writes, the less one thinks.” Bah. “The ugly beast doesn’t want to eat anymore . . .” See Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist: “Have you ever seen, gentle reader, a silkworm that has eaten enough mulberry leaf? The comparison isn’t very dignified, but it is so apposite! The ugly beast doesn’t want to eat anymore, it needs to climb up and spin its silk prison. ¶ Such is the animal known as a ‘writer’.” And Bathurst: “risk drowning in the undertow of your own rhetoric . . .”

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 1874-1929

Thursday, November 04, 2010

“Charlatanism Indispensable”

Some Leaves

Dogging it lately, riding the mephitic vapours of mere self-
presence, yoohooing
up a routine commodity, ready-shuck’d
et faussement chaleureux.

It’s enough to put one off
the regular feed of rue-
skirting tenacity and humdrum bric-a-brac: that formulaic line
heedlessly recording the new constancy of upheaval’s only smell.

The kind of thing it “behooves” me to utter of a washy evening, the undeplored and regular sunset “occurring.” Periodic loss of temper (meaning “the particular degree of hardness and resiliency tender’d up into a steel blade”—though, recall, too, Cowper’s raffishly harden’d “heart’s temper in the forge / Of lust”—a line rather unrecumbently “feroce and belluine” up to the point where Cowper adds: “and on the anvil of despair.”) Usual cause: some plethora, or abundancy, the concomitant dawdle of excess. The way books fork algorithmick, each demanding a rash of others.

Pound, in 1956, to a BBC interviewer: “You cannot have literature without curiosity, and when a writer’s curiosity dies out he is finished—he can do all the tricks you like, but without curiosity you get no literature with any life in it.” (Pound’s next remark—mandatory reading for the insistently egregious purveyors of dopey labels: “Confusion is caused by package words. You call a man a Manichaean or a Bolshevik, or something or other, and never find out what he is driving at. The technique of infamy is to start two lies at once and get people arguing which is the truth.” Two lies like “School of Quietude” and “post-avant” . . .) So one rabbits along, nitpicking in the clutter, conning the plenitudes. Baudelaire: “Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all those revisions and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?” Now here’s a curious thing. I found that quotation in Enrique Vila-Matas’s lovely Bartleby & Co. (New Directions, 2004). He says it’s out of a “note for an unwritten preface for The Flowers of Evil”—a thing I’d like to see. So, dashing the word-package “charlatanism indispensable” up against the pie-eye’d goog of the machine, I find that Roger Shattuck’d quoted the Baudelaire in the 1999 Candor and Perversion, in a stretch about hoaxes, blagues, charlatanry, and the like. Thus:
But we have learned to respect the trickster, the Till Eulenspiegels of our civilized condition. In his notes for an unwritten preface for The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire advised the artist not to reveal his innermost secrets—and thus revealed his own.
Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all those revisions and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?
      In such a passage, charlatanism comes very close to becoming a synonym of imagination. The two great novels of charlatanism that portray a confidence man, Melville’s 1857 work of that title and Thomas Mann’s unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1955), convey a latent admiration for the human being who can metamorphose himself into multiple identities. The stranger on Melville’s riverboat performs a wonderfully Duchampian prank on himself, on the other passengers, and on the reader by posting
a placard nigh the captain’s office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given.
No one ever catches up with Melville’s strange impostor—or with Duchamp. . . .
We have learnt to respect tricksters. In his note for an unwritten preface for The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire advised the artist not to reveal his innermost secrets—and thus revealed his own: “Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all those revisions and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?”
      In such a passage, charlatanism comes very close to becoming a synonym of “imagination.” The best novel that has been written about charlatanism and that portrays a con man—The Confidence-Man, 1857—is by Herman Melville, the great inspiration, ever since he created Bartleby, behind the intricate labyrinth of the No.
      In The Confidence-Man, Melville conveys a latent admiration for the human being who can metamorphose himself into multiple identities. The stranger on Melville’s riverboat performs a wonderfully Duchampian prank on himself (Duchamp was a prankster and loved pure verbal fantasy, among other reasons because he did not really believe very much in words, he was full of adoration for Jarry, the founder of pataphysics, and for the great Raymond Roussel), a prank on the other passengers, and on the reader by posting “a placard nigh the captain’s office, offering a reward for the capture of a mysterious impostor, supposed to have recently arrived from the East; quite an original genius in his vocation, as would appear, though wherein his originality consisted was not clearly given.”
      No-one ever catches up with Melville’s strange impostor, just as nobody ever caught up with Duchamp, the man who did not trust in words: “As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”
Shattuck’s piece (call’d “Confidence Man: Marcel Duchamp”) ends:
I can hear Duchamp still laughing among the celestial plumbing fixtures not only at our gullibility but also at inferior con men who seek their reward not in laughter but in money or sex or power—or in conventional fame. When Duchamp climbed up onstage at the end of his life to take his bows, he did not have to look down at the steps. From long and careful calculation, he knew exactly where they were. He had planned it all like a master.
And Vila-Matas’s ending (of number’d footnote 21—Bartleby & Co. consists of 86 “footnotes commenting on a text that is invisible, which does not mean it does not exist, since this phantom text could very well end up held in suspension in the literature of the next millennuium”):
He laughed at all those inferior con men we’ve become so accustomed to recently, at all those small-time con men who seek their reward not in laughter and the game of the No, but in money, sex, power or conventional fame.
      This laughter accompanied Duchamp as he climbed up on stage at the end of his life to take his bow before an audience who admired his extraordinary ability to fool the art world with the minimum of effort. He climbed up on stage and the author of Nude Descending a Staircase did not even have to look down at the steps. From long and careful calculation, the great con man knew exactly where they were. He had planned it all, like the great master of the No he was.
(Vila-Matas’s ref to Nude Descending a Staircase undeniably apt, a replacement, one thinks, for Shattuck’s R. Mutt in heaven “laughing among the celestial plumbing fixtures.”) The translator, Jonathan Dunne, in a “Note”: “English quotations in the text have been restored to their original state (interesting here that the work of translation should have become the search for the original, which in many ways I think is what it is).” And: “The curious reader will find a wealth of reading material—and one or two titles missing from library catalogues, ‘held in suspension in the history of the art of the No.’” The epigraph is by Jean de La Bruyère: “The glory or the merit of certain men consists in writing well; that of others consists in not writing.” And Roger Shattuck himself in Bartleby & Co.:
      I imagine you are perfectly aware who Duchamp was, but let me remind you of his activities as a writer; let me relate how Duchamp helped Katherine Dreier form her own personal museum of modern art called the Société Anonyme, Inc., advising her what art works to collect. When plans were made to donate the collection to Yale University in the forties, Duchamp wrote thirty-three one-page biographical and critical notices on artists from Archipenko to Jacques Villon.
      Roger Shattuck has written in the New York Review of Books that had Marcel Duchamp decided, not uncharacteristically, to include a notice on himself as one of Dreier’s artists, he would probably have produced an astute blend of truth and fable, like the others he wrote. Roger Shattuck suggests that he might have written something along these lines:
      “A tournament chess player and intermittent artist, Marcel Duchamp was born in France in 1887 and died a United States citizen in 1968. He was at home in both countries and divided his time between them. At the New York Armory Show of 1913, his Nude Descending a Staircase delighted and offended the press, provoked a scandal that made him famous in absentia at the age of twenty-six, and drew him to the United States in 1915. After four exciting years in New York City, he departed and devoted most of his time to chess until about 1954. A number of young artists and curators in several countries then rediscovered Duchamp and his work. He had returned to New York in 1942 and during his last decade there, between 1958 and 1968, he once again became famous and influential.”
Plain sight. The initial paragraph of Shattuck’s Duchamp piece reads in part: “For fifty years after he had avowedly ceased painting, Marcel Duchamp spent much of his time advising friends what art works to collect. He helped Katherine Dreier form the one-woman museum of modern art called the Société Anonyme, Inc. When plans were made to donate the collection to Yale University in the forties, Duchamp wrote thirty-three one-page biographical and critical notices on artists from Archipenko to Jacques Villon.” Julien Gracq (Reading Writing): “The novel is an addendum to creation, an addendum that neither illuminates it nor reveals it in any way . . .” (See, too, certes, Williams: “poetry has to do with . . . the perfection of new forms as additions to nature.”)

Roger Shattuck and Enrique Vila-Matas