Friday, July 29, 2011

Reading Notes (The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955)

Grace Hartigan, “The Persian Jacket,” 1952

Drenching rain: scooting through it in my yellow “gear” (with the clownish ineffectual trousers). Wet saddle. Wet handlebars. Wet wheels. Reading The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955. Stuck briefly pursuing the word “liana” (or “lianas”) around the O’Hara opus (I see John Bernard Myers using it—“The paintings . . . are like lianas, reaching with fresh tentacles to form tangles of density”—in the catalog for “George” Hartigan’s 1951 exhibit). (Myers claims, too, rather incoherently: “Hartigan asserts the electric, New York optimism and rejects the undertow of the néant,” and hints that the work holds “a portent of escape from the labyrinth of the contemporary malaise.”) My hunch that Myers’s “liana” is O’Hara’s “liana” (in the 1954 “Kitville”—“and garish her lips / as they parted! a piano / of grassy incidents / twined with the liana // of her wet arms! / behind the bath house / sweet as a wash basin, / her smilings, her pathos”—and in the 1959 “Rhapsody”—“portal / stopped realities and eternal licentiousness / or at least the jungle of impossible eagerness / your marble is bronze and your lianas elevator cables / swinging from the myth of ascending”) dashed by research (forgetting, too, the era’s Tarzan appetites, nearly as voracious as its cravings for French existentialism). Some of Hartigan’s mots, mostly undated, though proceeding chronologically (and wherein I bracket to interject):
Out of all colors but earths, reds, white and black. A little cobalt. It will be interesting to see if I can work with these limitations.

[Consider a writing limited by one’s being unable to afford the purchase of, say, verbs. Limited by necessity, not by the fashion-dictates of “constraint.”]

It seems that I must first make complete chaos on a canvas before I can find any order.

“One must have chaos within one to give birth to a dancing star.”

[Quoting Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra): “I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say to you: you still have chaos in you. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.”]

Oct 29 [1951]
I know for me the “all-over” picture is finished. It had become a formula . . . It isn’t only a joke to say my “lyrical period” has ended . . .

Oct 30
The all over picture has died.

Nov 6
These new things are still too knowing. I must reach somehow into the complete unknown for my search . . .

The only way to discover oneself is to paint from the areas of blind, inspired feeling. How to reach into there is the problem. These new pictures are what I should have been doing months ago, now I must find what I should be doing now.

I must not paint pictures which are comforting to my eyes.

To shock the bourgeois is easy—to shock the “avant-garde,” that’s the thing. To shock oneself is the most important of all.

I am nauseated with the expressionistic, the baroque, the active surface, the rhythmic. We must be massive and ugly to find something new.

[Vouchsafe of Hartigan’s seriousness, “authenticity,” that continuous refusal of the “current means,” naysaying the platitudes of the new. N’oubliez jamais Barthes: “a Doxa (a popular opinion) is posited, intolerable; to free myself of it, I postulate a paradox; then this paradox turns bad, becomes a new concretion, itself becomes a new Doxa, and I must seek further for a new paradox . . .” Inevitably, the “avant-garde”—and its camp following— newly arrived, adores complacency.]

Nov 21
“Pumpkin’s World” now “The Horseman”

I find the things of mine which interest me most now are those dealing in some sense with the “subject” or “object.” A very difficult thing to pursue after the painting of the last 25 years.

“Pure” painting à la New York School just doesn’t excite me these days, and in a way I feel alone in my direction . . . What in hell I’m driving at I don’t know.

I really loathe expressionist painting down to the last splashy brush stroke. There is something about Matisse—In the end though all these ideas mean nothing—you have to paint your way through it. No rules, I must be free to paint anything I feel.

[Recalling Hartigan’s reporting Clement Greenberg’s complaint that de Kooning’s “trying to talk himself into a position that he can only paint himself in . . .”]

Strange how old hat the extreme can look when the basis isn’t firm enough . . . All that Bauhaus business is so dead. It’s a mistake to try to be new, “up-to-date.”

April 18 [1952]
Tuesday I begin work at a drafting job for about two months. It means giving up painting entirely for that period, but I hope to save enough money to paint without interruption thru the whole summer. One thing it will do which is good at this time—cut off daily phone conversations with John [Bernard Myers], hence all gossip and petty arguments, involvements in politics of the stinking art world. I’ll see a few people in the evening from time to time and generally try to mull over what I feel about my working direction. Feel a need to cut myself off from everything.

I do need a prop in some way, perhaps it will be “nature.”

I don’t know what I’m after but whatever it is, if I must look conservative—reactionary—timid—or even (horrors) feminine—in the process then it must be. I think I know how really strong I am, and if a great painter like Matisse could paint weakly and timidly to clear his eyes for what was to come then I can too. I don’t fear painting a bad picture or a weak one now. Oh, the mystery of the image. Nature, you monster you. I was on the edge of succumbing to the need of looking “modern” –abstract—contemporary.

All of which is fashion, not painting, and is most dangerous.

Saw the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” again at the Mod. Museum and something clicked, who knows what.

[Isn’t, I think, Hartigan’s “Grand Street Brides” a perfect amalgamation of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”? Hartigan says (of working with O’Hara on Oranges: “Inspired by Frank’s combination of ‘high’ art and popular culture, I began painting images from my Lower East Side neighborhood. Grand Street Brides was based on Goya’s Royal Family and used gowns from a bridal shop on Grand Street.”]

Another thing I found through a talk with de Kooning is that what I’m looking for in my painting is my “world,” my content. It’s a very serious thing and I must have time to be quiet with myself in order to find it.

I don’t mean by this that I’m interested in “lofty” themes, but that when I try to paint a specific person, incident or place I feel too restricted, too bound to it (the idea) and not to the painting. This is all very well but now where to begin?

[Uncanny how close Hartigan’s remark is to O’Hara’s note about the “lofty” in “Personism”: “I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.”]

Aug. 15
“After all, the nature of truth is this—one’s life work might end up called ‘A Trip to the Zoo.’”—James Schuyler
Apply to present conditions where needed.

Grace Hartigan, “The Persian Jacket,” 1953
after the 1952 oil painting for the premier number of Daisy Aldan’s Folder, out of the terrific digital exhibit “Imagine! Painters and Poets of the New York School” mounted by the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Library.)

Grace Hartigan, “Grand Street Brides,” 1954

Grace Hartigan, 1922-2008

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Marianne Moore / Gary Lutz

Frank O’Hara, talking about a 1953 Joan Mitchell painting: “It is strikingly vital and sad, urging black and white lights from the ambiguous and sustained neutral surface, reminding one of Marianne Moore’s remark on obscurity: ‘One must be only as clear as one’s natural reticence permits,’ and making its point through deliberate avoidance of specific forms.” Moore’s remark occurring in “Feeling and Precision,” in a restrained palaver regarding “sentence structure” (“One of New York’s more painstaking magazines asked me . . . to analyze my sentence structure, and my instinctive reply might have seemed dictatorial: you don’t devise a rhythm, the rhythm is the person, and the sentence but a radiograph of personality”) and some “aids to composition” three:
. . . if a long sentence with dependent clauses seems obscure, one can break it into shorter units by imagining what phrases it would fall into as conversation; in the second place, expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion’s leap—an awkwardness which is surely brought home to one in conversation; and in the third place, we must be as clear as our natural reticence allows us to be.
My instinct is to proceed with my instinct, so: it occurs to me that the inheritor of Marianne (“we must have the courage of our peculiarities”) Moore’s lovely rhythmic sense—she speaks somewhere, too, of “a naturalness so studied as to annihilate itself” and of “superlatives, and certainties so sanguine as somehow to seem like uncertainties”—is Gary Lutz. The Lutz who says:
I try to be faithful to the way my nervous system handles the world. I can take in only one little thing at a time, and then only haltingly. There’s not much ongoingness, not much of a big picture, in my processing of inner and outer experience; there’s just a stutter of encapsulations, one after another. Maybe that explains why in my fiction the sentence and not the paragraph seems to be the unit and why there rarely seems to be a plot.
And adds: “I like definitions and compressive statements; I like things that sound definitive and compacted and quietingly final. I prefer the concentrated versions of anything.” “Quietingly final” sounds Moore-tinted to me. Or, think of the scrupulous complexity of Moore’s clarity (interviewed by Donald Hall for The Paris Review, she says: “I think the most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication in it to suit myself. That’s a problem. And I don’t approve of my ‘enigmas,’ or as somebody said, ‘the not ungreen grass’”)—there’s a palpable delight there in the precise engineering of the tumblers of meaning, their apposite timing and release. Lutz:
I can spend large blocks of time within the enclosure of a single sentence, so by the time I get finished with a sentence, there might be a lot of emotional stress on the words. I think there can be a kind of micro-narrative unfolding within a single sentence, and I think that emotions can surge in the tiniest sectors of a sentence; the story, to me, needs to be in the syntax itself . . .
With uttermost randomness, one examines the beginning of Moore’s 1934 “The Frigate Pelican”:
Rapidly cruising or lying on the air there is a bird
      that realizes Rasselas’s friend’s project
      of wings uniting levity with strength. This
            hell-diver, frigate-bird, hurricane-
bird, unless swift is the proper word
            for him, the storm omen when
      he flies close to the waves, should be seen
            fishing, when he cares to fish,
      although he seems to wish

to take, on the wing, from industrious cruder-winged species,
      the food they have caught, and is seldom successless.
Is it that “successless” that so abruptly, humorously, points to the sentence’s daffy constructedness that makes one think of Lutz? Random Lutz plunk-down (out of the story, “Esprit de l’Elevator,” in the 1996 Stories in the Worst Way):
One morning the supervisor stuck his head into my doorway and, taking in the undeserved spaciousness of the office, asked whether I thought I could maintain my level of performance if an additional employee were assigned to the room. Having always been sympathetic toward whoever has hired me when he discovers by galling degrees the set of fixations I bring to bear on even the most perfunctory of tasks, I said yes. A second desk was presently steered into the office. A man was brought in to sit at the desk with his back toward me. By the end of the first hour, my every movement had become an exact but involuntary belittlement of his swivelings, his head-tossings and hair-sweeps, the flights of his arms. I felt thrown off my body. The accuracy went out of my work.
Isn’t the full-blanch bravado of “the accuracy went out” akin to Moore’s “successless”? (I love how the reader’s allowed to (or must) run through the “by galling degrees” that particular sentence’s own “set of fixations” in order to arrive at the reply, “yes.”) Or, page-turning, Lutz’s Moore-like aside “(Littlenesses, piled high, do not suddenly amount to anything immense.”) Savvy in its obviousness (and good-humoredly oblivious to its savvy), the kind of remark that—oddly, implausibly—repels irony’s constant essay at purchase, and betrays a remarkably just savoir-vivre. See Moore’s own “We call climax a device, but is it not the natural result of strong feeling?”

Gary Lutz

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


And outtakes of outtakes, the weather’s futile iterancy. Insomniac thrashings and the (hence) dubbed day. Deutschlandfunk. Something accidentally called to my attention (Durs Grünbein, in The Vocation of Poetry): Auden’s lines in “Rimbaud” (1938).
Verse was a special illness of the ear;
Integrity was not enough; that seemed
The hell of childhood: he must try again.
Music, no? (Earlier Auden’s posited it: “in that child the rhetorician’s lie / Burst like a pipe.”) Out and out blotto music to dun the constant will of lingual “sense,” the way the saying lies down in the path of its own saying (and refuses to budge). Music that exists to combat “integrity,” the “lie” of rhetoric. Ah, the happy Traum of out-doing rhetoric, how any move to dodge or break through its regulatory flourish and flush is—like the avant-garde—nimbly and with rout immediacy—“always already”—recuperated: language absorbing (ravished by) its ravaging . . .

Which is not what I found myself thinking in the chamois-colored light of 4 a.m., between trepidatious bouts of my anxiety (that “hoofed geomancer”) climbing the walls. There (meaning then) something festered “within” about the cordon sanitaire of my singleminded-ness, how “settling in” with a book gears the night down to a crawl. Funk oder Äther? The irrelevancy of any ordinary monocular gaze at “Landscape plotted and pieced.” How the trajectory of focus is liable to become no trajectory at all: a regime, a pool’s “pooling” by means of a single re-circulatory pump. So, today, in the dubbed-in light of morning, a v. o. story. Nod off if you know it. Out of Louis Agassiz as a Teacher: Illustrative Extracts on His Method of Instruction, with introductory note by Lane Cooper (1917), an excerpt out of The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1907):
      When I sat me down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it, but should on no account talk to any one concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes, until I had his permission so to do. To my inquiry, ‘What shall I do?’ he said in effect: ‘Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think that you have done the work I will question you.’ In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed that fish; it was rather an unsavory object, giving forth the stench of old alcohol, then loathsome to me, though in time I came to like it. Many of the scales were loosened so that they fell off. It appeared to me to be a case for a summary report, which I was anxious to make and get on to the next stage of the business. But Agassiz, though always within call, concerned himself no further with me that day, nor the next, nor for a week. At first, this neglect was distressing; but I saw that it was a game, for he was, as I discerned rather than saw, covertly watching me. So I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of a hundred hours or so thought I had done much—a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start. I got interested in finding out how the scales went in series, their shape, the form and placement of the teeth, etc. Finally, I felt full of the subject, and probably expressed it in my bearing; as for words about it then, there were none from my master except his cheery ‘Good morning.’ At length, on the seventh day, came the question, ‘Well?’ and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour’s telling, he swung off and away, saying: ‘That is not right.’ Here I began to think that, after all, perhaps the rules for scanning Latin verse were not the worst infliction in the world. Moreover, it was clear that he was playing a game with me to find if I were capable of doing hard, continuous work without the support of a teacher, and this stimulated me to labor. I went at the task anew, discarded my first notes, and in another week of ten hours a day labor I had results which astonished myself and satisfied him. Still there was no trace of praise in words or manner. He signified that it would do by placing before me about a half a peck of bones, telling me to see what I could make of them, with no further directions to guide me. I soon found that they were the skeletons of half a dozen fishes of different species; the jaws told me so much at a first inspection. The task evidently was to fit the separate bones together in their proper order. Two months or more went to this task with no other help than an occasional looking over my grouping with the stereotyped remark: ‘That is not right.’ Finally, the task was done, and I was again set upon alcoholic specimens—this time a remarkable lot of specimens representing, perhaps, twenty species of the side-swimmers or Pleuronectidae.
      I shall never forget the sense of power in dealing with things which I felt in beginning the more extended work on a group of animals. I had learned the art of comparing objects, which is the basis of the naturalist’s work. At this stage I was allowed to read, and to discuss my work with others about me. I did both eagerly, and acquired a considerable knowledge of the literature of ichthyology, becoming especially interested in the system of classification, then most imperfect. I tried to follow Agassiz’s scheme of division into the order of ctenoids and ganoids, with the result that I found one of my species of side-swimmers had cycloid scales on one side and ctenoid on the other. This not only shocked my sense of the value of classification in a way that permitted of no full recovery of my original respect for the process, but for a time shook my confidence in my master’s knowledge. At the same time I had a malicious pleasure in exhibiting my ‘find’ to him, expecting to repay in part the humiliation which he had evidently tried to inflict on my conceit. To my question as to how the nondescript should be classified he said: ‘My boy, there are now two of us who know that.’
Helen Macdonald quotes the opening lines of Shaler’s excerpt as epigraph in Shaler’s Fish (Etruscan Books, 2001). Source, Shaler is, one presumes, for Pound’s opening gambit in ABC of Reading? Pound:
      The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another.
      No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:
      A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.
      Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’
      Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’
      After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.
      Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.
      The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.
Notable in Pound’s version: slight contempt for the precision of the binomial (Pound’s crass “Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge”) and wholesale avoidance of the anecdote’s tacit argument for systems of difference and classificatory practices determining meaning, as opposed to mere “looking.” (Thus, say, Guy Davenport: “The meaning of the world, said Wittgenstein, is outside the world. Events and values are distinguishable only in relation to others. A totality of events and values, the world itself, requires another.”) As Helen Macdonald puts it in the lovely opening piece of Shaler’s Fish: “which script goes is unrecognised by this one, is pulled by the ear . . .”:

Wren. Full song. No subsong. Call of alarm, spreketh & ought
damage the eyes with its form, small body, tail pricked up & beak like a hair

trailed through briars & at a distance scored with lime scent in the nose
like scrapings from a goldsmith’s cuttle, rock alum & fair butter well-temped

which script goes is unrecognised by this one, is pulled by the ear
in anger the line at fault is under and inwardly drear as a bridge in winter

reared up inotherwise to seal the eyes through darkness, the bridge speaks
it does not speak, the starlings speak that steal the speech of men, uc antea

a spark that meets the idea of itself, apparently fearless.
Ah cruelty. And I had not stopped to think upon it

& I had not extended it into the world for love for naught.

Helen Macdonald with Gyrfalcon

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reading Notes (Joan Mitchell, Gilles Deleuze)

Joan Mitchell, “After April, Bernie,” 1987

Joan Mitchell, in conversation with Yves Michaud, c. 1986, partially quoted in Patricia Albers’s Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter (Knopf, 2011):
When I am working, I am only aware of the canvas and what it tells me to do. I am certainly not aware of myself. Painting is a way of forgetting oneself. Sometimes I am totally involved. It’s like riding a bicycle with no hands. I call that state ‘no hands.’ I am in it. I am not there any more. It is a state of non-self-consciousness. It does not happen often. I am always hoping it might happen again. It is lovely.
Gilles Deleuze (in Dialogues):
Speed is to be caught in a becoming—which is not a development or an evolution. One must be like a taxi, queue [ligne d’attente], line of flight, traffic jam, bottleneck, green and red lights, slightly paranoid, brushes with the police. To be an abstract broken line, a zigzag which glides in ‘between’ . . . The speed of music, even the most slow. Is it by chance that music only knows lines and not points? It is not possible to produce a point in music. It’s nothing but becomings without future or past. Music is an anti-memory. It is full of becomings . . .
Odd how “tall, jolly, topaz-eyed Edward St. John Gorey,” known for “a jaunty individualism that took the form of odd stunts like painting his toenails green, then strolling barefoot down Michigan Avenue” (Albers), subsequently to room with Frank O’Hara at Harvard, attended school in Chicago with Joan Mitchell (at the progressive Francis W. Parker School), studying, too, with Malcolm Hackett (who encouraged Gorey in spite of the “fact”—in Gorey’s words—“that I couldn’t paint for beans”). According to one witness: “Ted was intrigued by Joan” while thinking “her paintings were absolute garbage.” (Albers drily notes: “Gorey is on record as labeling everybody after Cézanne “a lot of hogwash.”)

Odd, too, how Barney Rosset—only offspring of “Barnet L. Rosset Senior, the wealthy and powerful head of Chicago’s Metropolitan Trust . . . and big-league investor”—the eventual Grove Press publisher, who was briefly married to Joan Mitchell, he, too, attended the Francis W. Parker School, where he pal’d with eventual cinematographer Haskell Wexler (son of Allied Radio’s founder Simon “Sy” Wexler”) of Medium Cool fame.

Mitchell’s synesthesia and involuntarily colored letters, what Nabokov, too, experienced, and wrote of so wonderfully in Speak, Memory (“Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hard mirror of o take care of the whites.”) Albers sketches Mitchell’s “chart” beginning with “the unvarying brilliant young-fern green of the letter A, the only intense color in her otherwise dull name”:
J, in contrast, resembled tarnished silver. Pale metallic O was like the mouth of a ghostly cannon, and N had the dirty, brown gold prickliness of late-autumn underbrush. In other letters, certain blues . . . took center stage. There was blue black velvet I; billowing, deep-space X; soft blue B; and D, tinny and cerulean. Endowed with red amber translucence, S was the most likeable of the warm hues. Zapproximated a grape juice stain. Joan’s yellows—C, E, M—were mostly subdued (E as pale and loose as runny scrambled eggs), but Y leapt to the eye with the splendor of a wheat field in August. R was a furry pellucid black, while H limped along like a slow windshield wiper on an overcast Monday. All of Joan’s letters had a stained-glass quality, but some held firm while others ran together, almost in puddles. Some dominated the words in which they appeared. “S is always red and sea has red but also a bit of green at the end, and that changes the entire word,” she once tried to explain.
My scattery, my inchoate, my plaints. Why is it that Deleuze’s remarks (out of “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”) seem so wildly relevant to Mitchell’s painting?
The minimum real unit is not the word, the idea, the concept or the signifier, but the assemblage. It is always an assemblage that produces utterances. Utterances do not have at their cause a subject, which would act as a subject of enunciation, any more than they are related to subjects as subjects of utterances. The utterance is a product of an assemblage—which is always collective, which brings into play within us and outside us populations, multiplicities, territories, becomings, affects, events. The proper name does not designate a subject, but something which happens, at least between two terms which are not subjects, but agents, elements. Proper names are not names of persons, but of peoples and tribes, flora and fauna, military operations or typhoons, collectives, limited companies and production studios. The author is a subject of enunciation but the writer—who is not an author—is not. The writer invents assemblages starting from assemblages which have invented him, he makes one multiplicity pass into another.

Joan Mitchell, “Blue Territory,” 1972

Joan Mitchell, “Barge Péniche,” 1975

Joan Mitchell, “Merci,” 1992

Joan Mitchell, 1925-1992

Monday, July 25, 2011

Poetry’s Wealth

Reading Patricia Albers’s Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter (Knopf, 2011), largely—I admit it—for any gleanings O’Haraesque (who’d forget the mock Apollinaire’s “Zone” sigh of “At last you are tired of being single . . .” in “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s” with its post-fatidic outburst of “It’s so / original, hydrogenic, anthropomorphic, fiscal, post-anti-esthetic, bland, unpicturesque and WilliamCarlosWilliamsian!”) Astounded I am to learn (why am I routinely shocked by wealth—yea, deplorable, inconceivable wealth—underpinning the lives of innumerable American artists and poets; why, in my gosh-darn’d Poindexter of an imaginary, do I persist in thinking “we” all go complaisantly unbuttress’d up through the scant economic clouds, or, plus souvent, down into the poor dirt unregimented . . . didn’t I, just a week or so back, see a certain Drummond “Drum” Busch Hadley, b. 1938, hanging off one of the lower limbs of the Anheuser Busch tree, and didn’t I shout out like a caballero, “Goddamn and eureka, too, isn’t that Ron Silliman’s own prefer’d Zen Cowboy? Is the unsung origin and dodgy prereq for such an inane mash-up simply monstrous wealth?” I did.) Astounded, then, comme on disait, to find out that Joan Mitchell’s appendage to both a (rather upstanding) lieutenant of Andrew Carnegie, one Charles Louis Strobel, inventor of the Z-bar—“a structural steel beam whose cross-section forms a right-angled Z”—and constructor of Chicago bridges, and one Henrietta Baxter (daughter of a man, “Rye” Baxter, who—prior to the Great Fire of 1871—’d “reaped a $100,000 fortune” through playing the grain futures markets and “outflanking” all rivals in rye): the details, tawdry or not, less to the point than the way wealth itself allows for continual exhortatory (if not exploratory) expenditures with no hint of sucked up gut or containment required. A kind of catch pan (under a steamroller). It used to be called “slumming.”

Turns out Joan Mitchell’s mother (poet Marion Strobel, who’d had to coach James Herbert Mitchell, fourteen years senior, in the writing of love letters—“Please, please, please consult what Edna Ferber is ‘pleased to call’ your heart . . . and if it has a syncopated diastole, put it on paper in what I would consider extravagant language. (I know you won’t do this, you careful old person whom I love entirely too much)”) “took the unpaid position of associate editor” of Poetry under Harriet Monroe in April 1920, following the departure of Alice Corbin Henderson. (Albers, aptly: “By then Poetry had achieved national and international stature, although the critical consensus is that it had already left its early brilliance behind, due in part to Monroe’s espousal of too much easy-listening rhyme from the Corn Belt.” Wider recognition of which would undoubtedly ’ve saved “us” the current spectacle of the doddering institution trying continually to re-make itself—mostly by brute expenditure—into pertinence.) So be it. There’s a lovely line in Albers suggesting that “‘Aunt Harriet’s’ wobbly false teeth always made young Joan nervous.” Albers reports, too, how Marion Strobel, during an April 1919 visit to Chicago by William Carlos Williams (who gave a talk at the Press Club that began: “The poet goes up and down continually empty-handed. To tear down, to destroy life’s lies, to keep the senses bare, to attack; to attack for the nakedness he achieves, the sense of an eternal beginning and end—that is his job, in lieu of getting into the game on a fair footing”—printed under the title “Notes from a Talk on Poetry”* in the July 1919 Poetry)—how the two, Strobel and Williams, “plunged into an affair.” One result: Williams’s poem: “A Goodnight” (Albers suggests it “batters the ear with the tonic vitality of Lake Michigan” and “Lake Michigan spills through Williams’s line with a vigor and variousness that parallel those of a Mitchell painting”—perhaps apt, though rather a-chronological):
Go to sleep—though of course you will not—
to tideless waves thundering slantwise against
strong embankments, rattle and swish of spray
dashed thirty feet high, caught by the lake wind,
scattered and strewn broadcast in over the steady
car rails! Sleep, sleep! Gulls’ cries in a wind-gust
broken by the wind ; calculating wings set above
the field of waves breaking.
Go to sleep to the lunge between foam-crests,
refuse churned in the recoil. Food! Food!
Offal! Offal! that holds them in the air, wave-white
for the one purpose, feather upon feather, the wild
chill in their eyes, the hoarseness in their voices—
sleep, sleep . . .
Out of Williams’s liaison with Strobel, too, comes Williams’s “Spirit of ’76”—somewhat oddly reprinted in the Collected Poems still cupped in its context (in the June 1920 Poetry it is printed under “Correspondence”):
      Dear Miss Monroe: Provided you will allow me to use small letters at the beginning of my lines, I submit the following excellent American poem to you for publication in your paying magazine:

Her father
built a bridge
the Chicago River
but she
built a bridge
over the moon.
      This, as you will at once recognize, is an excellent poem and very American. I sincerely hope that no prehistoric prosodic rules will bar it from publication. Yours,
                                                                                                                              W. C. Williams
The bridge makers Strobels both. Turns out Joan Mitchell’s connection to Poetry through Marion Strobel resulted, too, in “a modest place in the magazine’s annals as the second-youngest writer ever published” (one idly wonders, the way one might wonder, say, at the size of clown Emmett Kelly’s shoes, who the “first-youngest” is). Mitchell’s “Autumn”—
The rusty leaves crunch and crackle,
Blue haze hangs from the dimmed sky,
The fields are matted with sun-tanned stalks—
Wind rushes by.

The last red berries hang from the thorn-tree
The last red leaves fall to the ground.
Bleakness, through the trees and bushes,
Comes without sound.
—was published in the December 1935 Poetry, prompted by Strobel’s jaunty note to Harriet Monroe (“My infant Joan (aged ten) wrote this last night and I—with five year’s experience as associate editor of THE magazine of verse—thought it good, in fact I still do! WHAT the hell—it IS good—and if you don’t think so, Lady, lady, I’ll be ready to cut you into small quarters and feed you to the Bandy-Bandy.”) Ah, the presumptuous rich. Of Strobel, Albers notes that as “a major player in the magazine’s byzantine politics, she sought funding so zealously that she may deserve credit for saving Poetry when, its chances of survival approximately nil during the Depression, Charles Louis Strobel’s former employer, the Carnegie Corporation, materialized as fairy godmother, bestowing three major grants.” She notes, too, how Strobel’s “contributions to this originally proto-feminist adventure went underrecognized, including in the Modern Poetry Association’s official history, which fails to mention how, when the magazine’s chief, George Dillon, was drafted in World War II, Strobel stepped in as coeditor, a literary Rosie the Riveter.” Albers’s “official history” is the Joseph Parisi-penned Poetry: “An American Institution,” Founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (Modern Poetry Association, 1980).
* “Notes from a Talk on Poetry,” seemingly reprinted nowhere. Salient: “Any man who does not take his technique—which means saying what he means and not saying what he does not mean—with bitter seriousness, is a jackass. The sign of a poet’s unforgiving seriousness is his rebellious laughter, which he guards with immaculate craft. A dimming technique ensnares the senses; one must continually break down what oneself has accomplished. One must come out clean.” And: “Poets have no quarrel with anyone. Especially not with the ‘regular fellow.’ In tired moments we must envy him—the sport, the game guy. I see him laugh at life; I’ve seen him fling it aside for a glass of beer. I love these fellows—perhaps I wish I could be like them.” And: “Talk is servile that is set to inform . . . It is talk with the patina of whim upon it that makes action a bootlicker. The world of the senses lies unintelligible on all sides.” And: “What has Professor Doolittle, who during a lifetime studied the oscillations of the earth on its axis—Doolittle, the father of H. D.—what has he achieved, sitting till morning with his beard actually frozen to the eye-piece of his telescope in Upper Darby? He has achieved nothing save brotherhood with Villon, whose ink was frozen in the pot when he finished writing his Petit Testament. He has achieved an emotion! It is the search of that alone that kept him there. Without it nothing could have made him look into his lenses, no matter if they had chained his head to the eye-piece.” Etc.

“Editor of Poetry, Marion Strobel, sharing a laugh with others at Pegasus party, January 1, 1947”
(Photograph by Wallace Kirkland)

Friday, July 22, 2011

McGrath’s Objectivists

Skeptical of the promissory note prosit (that exiguous saluti deemed the undeniably accoutrement of arrangement) of mere form. Is (plus ou moins) what I think reading Thomas McGrath recalling Pound’s imagist heave (“I remember ‘a new rhythm is a new idea’ (which I don’t believe, but it was a shocker to hear that), and the idea that the poems could be made out of looking at a thing and saying what was there”). (McGrath’s misremembering there Amy Lowell’s “In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea,” out of the Preface to the 1915 Some Imagist Poets.) (I love that line in Abhorrences, in Dorn’s “Handle me lustily . . . ere the blood-rush cease,” where he’s examining a copy of The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, just out (“it’s got California / stiff-as-a-board sensibility all over it. / The dark, threatening, diamond studded / baton of the neo cortex leeches out into the Nowhere. / It smells like eucalyptus instead of cod”), and gently snookers the formal import of the thing with:
But I’m concerned, everybody around here’s concerned.
Therefore we pass it around the table
and for some time thereafter
we throw words all over the page.
Form’s deal’s to make too big a deal of itself.) McGrath (how the “decorative” is inevitably heir to the “new”—a thing plain to see today in the American Hybrid-style works partout . . .):
. . . one of the things Pound . . . taught, and it caught on, was the idea of looking at something and seeing it. The Imagists looked at pretty things or beautiful things—conventionally beautiful—and it got to be like decorative painting, I think, and a little too beautiful, probably. Then, the next group were, first of all, Objectivism—which I think is one of the basic things in poetry. It’s not that I’m mad about the Objectivist poets, because I think they were too tied to whatever their subject was, to whatever they were looking at. But they moved away from the decorative, the beautiful and so on, and out into the street, and looked at what was happening there—like Reznikoff with the lanterns around the manhole, or Oppen, or Rakosi. That was a powerful step, too.
(McGrath seems to elide Reznikoff’s “About an excavation / a flock of bright red lanterns / has settled”—numéro 25 in the 1934 Objectivist Press-printed Jerusalem the Golden—with lines out of one of Zukofsky’s “There are different techniques” sonnets in “A”-7—the stoop-examined sawhorses with their “red lamps”:
Horses: who will do it? out of manes? Words
Will do it, out of manes, out of airs, but
They have no manes, so there are no airs, birds
Of words, from me to them no singing gut.
For they have no eyes, for their legs are wood,
For their stomachs are logs with print on them,
Blood-red, red lamps hang from necks or where could
Be necks, two legs stand A, four together M.
“Street Closed” is what print says on their stomachs;
That cuts out everybody but the diggers;
You’re cut out, and she’s cut out, and the jiggers
Are cut out, No! we can’t have such nor bucks
      As won’t, tho they’re not here pass thru a hoop
      Strayed on a manhole—me? Am on a stoop.
Under the somewhat limited regime of “works with manholes”—hunh?—there’s, too, one by Karl Shapiro (“Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable, / . . . notched and whelked and pocked and smashed / With the great company names / (Gentle Bethlehem, smiling United States) . . .”) The hazard of goopy sentiment apply’d to the State is . . .) McGrath continues (in a 1987 interview, out of the Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres-edited Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem):
      I think what it [Objectivism] left out was that objects exist in a fluid world. They have to exist with people; people put them there. There are reasons for putting something here or there or the other place. And so what they didn’t see was social movement; or probably they did, God knows Oppen knew everything about that. But he had learned a way of working in poetry, and I don’t think he ever came back to the social (he was an old revolutionary, a Communist Party organizer for years before he went to live in Mexico). I think the best of those people are some of the really fine poets of these times. But, by and large, I think what Objectivism did was—like the worst part of what I see in William Carlos Williams—they began to be tied to the object, and became a kind of commodity fetishism in poetry.
      That’s not true, naturally, of the late Williams, where, after The Desert Music, then the poems begin to sing, and they’re not so tied to objects. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a terrible poem, in my opinion. Items in it are fine—but the first line doesn’t tell you a goddamn thing! It’s a terrible presumption, you know: “so much.” How much? What?—“depends upon” this? A better, a far better poem, is a poem about the same time called “Nantucket.” At the end of that poem he puts a key there, and that, in the whole poem, just opens like an enormous flower of possibility. What happens when you use the key in this place that seems nature morte?
(Williams’s 1934 “Nantucket”:
Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—

Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying—And the
immaculate white bed
One thinks of how McGrath’d likely cotton to something like J. H. Prynne’s reading in Field Notes of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” with its insistence on a whole unsung compendia of political and economic (human) contexts omitted therein, akin to what McGrath sees missing in Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or barely hinted by that “key” in “Nantucket.”) Plenty kudos to McGrath’s demand that the social be in service and witness to something more than mere self-appraisal and group-formation . . .

Odd to find a piece by McGrath—one of the “New Poems” in the 1964 New and Selected Poems—seemingly in reply to William Stafford’s 1962 “Traveling through the Dark”:
The Deer in the Ditch

We saw him there in the dry season among the burning
Daisies. Knocked off the road by a car, neck broke, his haunch
Open like a book of flesh.
                                                Slack center of the day’s eye,
He flashed still for the flies to gloss him into the dark.

Many were the losses on the roads that year my brother was dying,
Chair-broken, geared to his death, wheeling toward night while
The C.I.A. killed Cubans.
                                                Dead Reds. Dear brothers. Deer
In the ditch.
                        Tokens . . .
                                            so much steel and so little breath.

These passings like fictions have nothing to do with each other.
Going back there in the fast sun of the new-summer fact,
I read the right of way, seeking a sign in the ditch, convention
Of wild flowers maybe (where the bone went home) enriched by mild flesh.

But there are no evidences of such deaths.
If Bob Perelman and others (some years later in a “talk” brouhaha printed in Hills 6/7 [1980]) found in Stafford’s piece all the faults of the “voice” poem (Perelman says “the I is in a privileged position, unaffected by the words” and labels it “a typical neo-academic dirge for nature”—in The Marginalization of Poetry, Perelman suggests Stafford “writes an easily consumable pathos, invoking a community of isolate drivers—‘us all’—none of whom can ‘swerve’ for the way things are ‘vaguely realizing westward’”—Perelman there jimmying the Robert Frost clause gratuitously in like an outright gift), McGrath makes it clear that—“the book of flesh” notwithstanding—there’s no reading the natural world to explain away the savage incomprehensibilities of man. Cubans murdered by the Central Intelligence Agency, brothers, “Deer / In the ditch”: “These passings like fictions have nothing to do with each other.” Though—“naturally”—they do, too: the continual evidentiary lack, the way “we,” like flies, only succeed in glossing all “such deaths”—any—“into the dark.”

Thomas McGrath, 1916-1990

Thursday, July 21, 2011

“Raft overrun by monkeys . . .”


Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques):
. . . luck, chance, and talent are of no avail, and the man who wishes to wrest something from Destiny must venture into that perilous margin-country where the norms of Society count for nothing and the demands and guarantees of the group are no longer valid. He must travel to where the police have no sway, to the limits of physical resistance and the far point of physical and moral suffering. Once in this unpredictable borderland a man may vanish, never to return; or he may acquire for himself, from among the immense repertory of unexploited forces which surrounds any well-regulated society, some personal provision of power; and when this happens an otherwise inflexible social order may be cancelled in favour of the man who has risked everything . . . Society as a whole teaches its members that their only hope of salvation, within the established social order, lies in an absurd, and despairing attempt to get free of that order.
Used for epigraph at the beginning of Part Two of Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend. (Another quotes Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’”—“Don’t give your right name! No, no, no!” The solidarity and defiance of Waller’s line, one suspects, is nowhere less present than in its purely narcissistic echo in Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”: “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no.”) Why McGrath? In my bully’d-by-an-emphatic-restlessness-and-colossal-loss-of-focus storming of the books yesterday, I found myself reading around in a kind of biography of Alan Swallow (The Imprint of Alan Swallow). Who knew McGrath’d been one of the early students of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at the point the Agrarian stalwarts were putting together Understanding Poetry? Swallow, a populist of the political left out of the Wyoming scrub, there in Baton Rouge, too, published McGrath’s first work, First Manifesto (1940). “The Manifesto was the first of a series of Swallow Pamphlets and was priced at twenty-five cents in deference to ‘the notion, gained from reading the Haldeman-Julius materials, that good literature ought to be put out at a very inexpensive price.” (Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, b. 1889 in Philadelphia, son of a bookbinder, published, in Girard, Kansas—he’d purchased a socialist weekly newspaper called the Appeal to Reason there, along with its presses and subscriber lists—among other things, the Little Blue Books, a series of small (roughly the size of a workingman’s shirt pocket), cheaply printed, staple-bound books, priced (in 1923) at five cents apiece. Titles running a gamut: classics of Western literature to political tracts to “the Rational Sex Series.” Apparently, in the post-WWII years J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI put Haldeman-Julius on its enemies list, largely because of the inclusion of Little Blue Book titles about socialism, atheism, and sexuality.) Story of Alan Swallow and wife Mae driving down to Baton Rouge (a sort of runner-up nod by Robert Penn Warren to Swallow’s poems—“decisively ahead of the field”—entered in a College Verse competition, led to Swallow’s enrollment in the recently-Governor Huey Long pumped-up LSU) and stopping in Girard to see the Haldeman-Julius plant and purchase cut-rate a whole box of Little Blue Book titles: “As they drove on toward Louisiana, Mae took each one out of the box and read the title. If Alan did not have it, they kept it. If he did, they ‘threw it out the window for some farmer to pick up and read.’” (Reading a book like The Imprint of Alan Swallow a thing unconcerned with the usual lineages and feints and “slant histories” of the self-appointed, one encounters odd writers apparently unnoisily consumed. Here’s one Carol Ely Harper, editor of Experiment Press and poetry journal in Seattle, with opening lines out of “Car Hits Dog”:
Here is the digging grace frozen clods up
O God great Universes Existences
Take care of him he is just like Mickey Poor child Poor child Poor child
Screaming Bah cars splatter blood points starred
Over pavement side to side arrow red sawdust . . .
A cursory look around suggests nobody much noted Carol Ely Harper (I’d wager that tired old argument that the U.S. poetry world in the aftermath of WWII fit in a couple of busses driving down a plank road and keeping at hollering distance, is largely bunk, the count plunges precipitously is all . . .), though Robert Creeley (in the June 1961 Poetry) manages to fault her editing (of the Experiment Theatre Anthology #1) for both “purpose” (“Purpose itself, of course, may well be ridiculous, implying relationships where none may exist—so that no tunnels to China succeed. The Experiment Theatre Anthology fails partly in this sense”) and “complacency.” A mean feat, though one that is likely just: the purposed complacency of the lines out of “Car Hits Dog” recalls precisely that of “our” Flarfists, all elbow-nudge-in-the-ribs hilarity, as if one could be earnest about one’s mania. I somehow ended my reading (laughing crazily mid-river, the raft overrun by monkeys) bemoaning McGrath’s loss (is McGrath lost?) Why Dorn and not McGrath? (Is Dorn lost?) Here, out of an interview conducted by Reginald Gibbons, questions of “program” (purpose) and its lack:
McGrath: As to how come the little poems come along, or poems that don’t seem to have any program insofar as I have a program for the total poetry of Thomas McGrath, or anything of that sort—I guess I have to say it metaphorically: there must be backwaters and eddies and whatever in the imagination. Things that I haven’t been aware of, but they’ve been going around in my imagination, in my head—you know there isn’t a decent terminology for this, as far as that goes, “imagination” is a pretty old word, now, and whatever is going on there, there’s a lot of little side pockets and thickets and this, that and the other.

Gibbons: What “strategic” value do those poems have?

McGrath: It doesn’t matter to me if they don’t have any! [Laughs.] No! I’ve not got a program in which I say, “this is tactical, I’ll plug that in here; this is strategic.” No! Shit, I want to take everything that comes! I’m very greedy in that way. This is “Welcome,” which I wrote for Etheridge Knight:
One and one are two,
Two and two are four,
Pipsissewa and sassafras
Grow at my front door.
      Now that’s not especially tactical or strategic or whatever, but I like it. Because I like pipsissewa and sassafras and all the other things that grow. And it seems to me that one of the things that anybody should do—it seems to me so obvious—is that we ought to honor ourselves and the natural world and our fellows in every goddamn way we can! Roethke said something, programmatically, once, which I agree with. Hugh MacDiarmid said it also, in a somewhat different way I can’t remember. Maybe I’m mixing it up a little bit, but in effect Roethke said, “Poems—or poetry—ought to show forth the whole man.” What he meant, I think, was—and I believe this absolutely—I think you could write a good poem about taking a shit! Why not? Or any other thing. And that’s why I like to write about food and flowers and all these odds and ends.

Gibbons: That means you don’t entirely accept the Brechtian dictum about the raindrops being an unsuitable subject.

McGrath: No, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. Even when writing a poem about a flower seems almost treason or almost a crime. Well, I’ll tell you, given certain situations and times, I would believe that. And of course Brecht was coming out of a fascist state, and I understand that perfectly. And I honor him for it. But maybe what I’m feeling is different—and I’m sure there are people who would tell me, good honest revolutionaries, a little stupid maybe, in my opinion [laughs], but nevertheless, good ones, who would say, “You don’t really have that right.”
      But I think if I take that right away from me, from myself, I’ll take away a lot of other things. In a way, my imagination is like a meadow. If you don’t let the meadow go its own way, you know, if you start plowing up bits and pieces of it, or restricting yourself to the use of only a part of it, the other part will suffer too, I think. Not enough room for pollination, or whatever. So, while I have this theory about revolutionary poetry, the revolution—except at the place where you’re at the barricades, and it’s a matter of total life and death, and maybe only right at your death—cannot assume everything, take everything. Because at times other than that, no matter how much of a revolutionary, you’re also a human being!
Out of the Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres-edited Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem. Interview conducted in 1987.

Thomas McGrath, 1916-1990

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Carburetor Tuning

A Tree

Spat east by the carburetor’d longbow . . . Writ that way—in lieu of “I sped east in the aging black Vibe”—out of what? Some sense of language’s undeniable paucity of means (such a clownish furbelow necessarily wallops a secondary punch, too, of some kind of minor contempt for the medium itself . . .)? Some colossal indifference to all “plain speech” with its refusal to brook the consequence of its own “materiality”? Suspect self-amusement and -abuse? (Is there, I wonder off-handedly, anything distinct between the—routinely eschewed—“literary” and hankered after “materiality”? Isn’t the “literary” merely the circumstance of materiality ossified? Tennyson’s “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees” thrusts forth avant tout the maw of its mattered wordedness: isn’t that what the “literary” is?)

Spat east by the carburetor’d longbow . . . Ending up “at” Mayville, looking down the length of Chautauqua Lake. A lather of musicality ensued. Writ that way, too, to avoid the brightly-lit personal, that particular American fever, its tawdry narcissism. Tanizaki (In Praise of Shadows): “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.” Bumptious materiality provides a screen, its shrieking allows place “behind” for a quiet dwelling, nuanced, vicissitudinous, ever-fleeting. No nailed down particular or pre-packaged end. (Try nailing lather up against any implacably sturdy mur.)

Spat east by the carburetor’d longbow . . . Beginning of an epic. Is there some residue of the opening (“To Athena then . . .”) of Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me some lingual rattler there a-twitch in the greasy coils of the brain’s meat, recalling Fariña’s voyaging (“home to the glacier-gnawed gorges”) the “asphalt seas of the great wasted land”? (Every spiel behind the gasoline-slurping wheel makes one “loud with lies, big boots stomping, . . . awash with schemes.”) Is it frankly immodest to examine one’s own phrase with such doughty-handedness, no parasol sprung to shield against the impertinent sun of one’s looking?

Spat east by the carburetor’d longbow . . . And something I noted whilst reading (rather beleagueredly) “there,” gulled by the sagacity of the accidental (busy lining up the gulls), remarks by Horace Walpole (in a letter to the lovely-named Lady Craven) concerning the French language:
German, I am told . . . is a fine language; and I can easily believe that any tongue (not excepting our old barbarous Saxon, which . . . I abhor,) is more harmonious than French. It was a curious absurdity, therefore, to adopt Europe’s most unpoetic language, the most barren and the most clogged with difficulties. I have heard Russian and Polish sung, and both sounded musical—but to abandon one’s own tongue and not adopt Italian, which is even sweeter and softer and more copious than Latin, was a want of taste that I should think could not be applauded even by a Frenchman born in Provence. But what a language is French, which measures verses by feet never pronounced, as is the case wherever the mute e is found! What poverty of various sounds for rhyme, when, lest similar cadences should too often occur, their mechanic bards are obliged to marry masculine and feminine terminations that alternate as regularly as the black and white squares on a chessboard! Nay, will you believe me, Madam? Yes, you will; for you may convince your own eyes that a scene of Zaïre begins with three of the most nasal adverbs that ever snorted together in a breath? Enfin, donc, désormais, are the culprits in question.
Quoted in Marc Fumaroli’s When the World Spoke French (NYRB, 2011), translated by Richard Howard. How serendipitous to find, too, that Horace Walpole himself coined (out of the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”—“Serendip” being the Persian name for Sri Lanka) the word “serendipity” in a letter to Horace Mann (28 January 1754). Donc, with the usual maladjustments evident in the whine of the high idle, le fin.

Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, c. 1759
(Portrait by Allan Ramsay)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Moveable Knots

Sailor’s Knot, or Bowline

Haphazardry and clatter. The pert clumsy disjecta membra of aimless forcedness, the ding’d tenon, the split mortise. A kind of failed reverse of supple-jointed flash and capaciousness. (“Capax, qui multum capit, intellegens, andgetul, gripul, numul.” A see a kind of totemry in that “andgetul, gripul, numul” and recall the Army second lieutenant Charles Wright in Italy in 1959 reading Pound’s “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” whilst sitting under a Lake Garda-watered olive tree . . . an originary moment. Or that other Poundian fragment “Papyrus” with its perfectly plaintive human yelp of “Spring . . . / Too long . . . / Gongula . . .”—a yelp cut off, Gongula being Gongyla of Colophon, Sappho’s toady and lickspittle, known for adding the summit, the ‘finishing touch’ to Sappho’s work . . .)

Flash. Sontag (“Notes on ‘Camp’”): “To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.”

Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations):
      318.   Suppose we think while we talk or write—I mean, as we normally do—we shall not in general say that we think quicker than we talk; the thought seems not to be separate from the expression. On the other hand, however, one does speak of the speed of thought; of how a thought goes through one’s head like lightning; how problems become clear to us in a flash, and so on. So it is natural to ask if the same thing happens in lightning-like thought—only extremely accelerated—as when we talk and ‘think while we talk.’ So that in the first case the clockwork runs down all at once, but in the second bit by bit, braked by the words.

      319.   I can see or understand a whole thought in a flash in exactly the sense in which I can make a note of it in a few words or a few pencilled dashes.
      What makes this note into an epitome of this thought?
“Braked by words.” Opposed to “accelerated by words” (their unsuspected velocities, their careenings toward unforeseen ditches, &c.) What of a thinking that’s rhizomaic? (Though how could it be, how could it proceed without markers? Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus): “The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. . . . It is comprised not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills.” And:
A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. A rhizome is made of plateaus. Gregory Bateson uses the word “plateau” to designate something very special: a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.
Is a word a “continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities”? I can think of no better way of thinking of it. Vibrations only “slowed” by social conventions of use. Which is why, looking wondrously into the shine and umber of, say, “tenulla” or “gripul,” one might, there in Catullus’s Sirmione stomping grounds, one might undergo the ineffable kind of “deterritorialization” that results in a yen to begin endlessly scribbling. (Au moins, as Hemingway’d put it: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”)

Two remaining tenons to hammer into mortises not readily apparent in the preceding: Paul Klee (Notebooks): “The dot takes time to become a line.” And Marcel Duchamp (“A l’Infinitif”): “Buy a book about ‘knots.’ (Sailor’s knot and others.)” Or, too (relating to the “continuous . . . region of intensities”): “Construct one and several musical precision instruments which produce mechanically the continuous passage of one tone to another in order to be able to record without hearing them sculptured sound forms (against “virtuosism” and the physical division of sound which reminds one of the uselessness of the physical color theories).” How make the lingo itself behave thus, without knotting up (a word is a knotting up), how make a lingo that mimics the whole smeary phenomenon of being’s continuum. Some kind of word circus: overlapping inscrutables visibly morphing, graphemes en train de becoming others in a constant “row” of destabilization. Write that. (“Pretty to think so,” &c.)

Victor Obsatz, “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” 1953

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Merciless Scribblings

Thus, Ezra Pound, in a letter to Willis Hawley, 4 June 1952.

Not sure how (or if) that “fits” the likely careering jack of today’s “entry.” Vaguely about the “scribble”—seemingly utterly opposed to a gun poked up against a printer, that sense of certainty, of the mighty justice of one’s saying (something), if of nothing beyond that. H. D. (in what Robert Duncan calls “a self-mocking voice” that “anticipates the reproof of the utilitarian realist” and skips to copy “the mercantile skeptic voice”) touting / lamenting how:
. . . jottings on a margin,
indecipherable palimpsest scribbled over

with too many contradictory emotions,
search for finite definition

of the infinite, stumbling toward
vague cosmic expression,

obvious sentiment,
folder round a spiritual bank-account,

with credit-loss too starkly indicated,
a riot of unpruned imagination,

jottings of psychic numerical equations,
runes, superstitions, evasions,

invasion of the over-soul into a cup
too brittle, a jar too circumscribed,

a little too porous to contain the out-flowing
of water-about-to-be-changed-to-wine

at the wedding . . .
Out of The Walls Do Not Fall. A lovely run, slurry with Latinates (oughtn’t “one” attempt a thorough assessment of—there’s that “mercantile” yawp intruding—that lingo against the implacably “Greek” H. D.?)

I keep going back to the novelist Robert Steiner’s Toward a Grammar of Abstraction: Modernity, Wittgenstein, and the Paintings of Jackson Pollock. Whence the “scribble” and digress, its way of “stumbling toward / vague cosmic expression.” Joyce (Finnegans Wake) talks of “chalking up drizzle in drizzle out on the four bare mats” (a Pollockesquerie, surely), and asks: “How you would be thinking in thoughts how deepings did it all begin and how you would be scrimmaging through your scruples to collar a hold of an imperfection being committled.” Steiner’s line:
The scene of the line in painting originates in a primitive idea of the line’s function, that is, as a line of communication, something joining one thing to another either in simple geometry or in terms of cause and effect as it travels in one direction only, as it progresses . . . As to the line as via negativa, which might characterize at one register the line in abstraction (thought or painting, or even the literal definition of cliché as photographic negative), we learn to understand the line that is not reasonable by seeking others like it with which we are familiar. How, in short, do we conceive the meaning of a line that cannot be attached to anything we know, even to itself to form a circle? That is not a line, it is a scribble (Lacan), squiggle (Wittgenstein), “sexophonolinguistic schizophrenesis” (Joyce)—because it does not behave as a conjunction or as a distinction except with regard to what it is not. The via negativa of the scribble retains the trace of the rational function of the line, of the line as rational sign, embodying at most the skepticism of the pyrrhic philosopher and thereby pointing toward the border between the known and the unknown, for example, conscious and unconscious, linear and spatial, presence and lack . . . The scribble is at first the tool in a modified state to the extent that it only non-sensically relates to things other than itself. At another register its name indicates now its otherness to the line, its inutility as a line. If I say the scribble is merely another kind of line, I am accounting for (limiting it to) its “digressive” character. We can draw a straight line thinly or thickly without its function being altered, just as singing a note loudly or softly will not affect the note. The scribble, on the other hand, is similar to asserting something but beginning with “I believe.”
Is the kind of chalk-lingo-in-a-drizzle register seen in something like Frank O’Hara’s “Mock Poem” insert into “The Hell With It” (“One pentative device, and then rebeat / To knead the balm, prepucible depense, / Be undezithered pouncenance . . .,” &c.) a way of scribbling? Is Lacan’s illusory muttering in “What Is a Picture?” a way in (nonsense as trompe-l’œil, refusing appearance whilst giving the appearance of. . .)? Lacan:
What is it that attracts and satisfies us in trompe-l’œil? When is it that it captures our attention and delights us? At the moment when, by a mere shift of our gaze, we are able to realize that the representation does not move with the gaze and that is merely a trompe-l’œil. For it appears at that moment as something other than it seemed, or rather it now seems to be that something else. The picture does not compete with appearance, it competes with what Plato designates for us beyond appearance as being the Idea. It is because the picture is the appearance that says it is that which gives the appearance that Plato attacks painting, as if it were an activity competing with his own.
Nonsense as “the appearance that says it is that which gives the appearance”—a way of asserting (something) “but beginning with ‘I believe.’” (Wittgenstein: “Every sign by itself seems dead.”) And there’s Ezra Pound quoting Kung in Canto XIII with a pertinence “not impossible . . . but, of course, . . . not likely”:
“And even I can remember
“A day when the historians left blanks in their writings,
“I mean, for things they didn’t know,
“But that time seems to be passing. . . .”

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-1767

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading Notes (Bohumil Hrabal)

Mull predicament, a collapsing index of sorts, indeterminacy of excess. The plaintive spells tossed out by sheer venal input. Hrabal (Vita Nuova, that “text I wrote in one long inhalation and exhalation” with its “crosswise probe into my subconscious and beyond” likened to “the unexpected discoveries made by Mr. Barrande when he built the Prague railroad . . . trilobites in the diagonal layers of rock”: core samples out of the endlessly working maw the world’s millions, of speech masticating speech . . .): “. . . in one of the rooms I saw dozens of flagpoles streaming with peasant rights written on strips of parchment and those strips were like the fluttering ribbons of a folk costume like the long hair of horse’s tail With every movement and every quiver they commingled to form millions of sentence combinations millions of word variations based on nothing more than an alphabet of a few dozen letters . . .”

Hrabal (quoted in Radko Pytlík’s The Sad King of Czech Literature): “As a rule, I have to wake up for writing unprepared, in a state of weakness, even in a sort of aphasia. Slowly and mechanically, I shave; unshaven I would never write a single line; I even scent myself with birch water and oil, and then, brooding, I sit down for a coffee; I like to drink coffee in the morning and I never eat. If I eat, that’s it for writing and thinking. So I drink coffee and I smoke and I sip Nescafé and that’s how I get myself into that ‘null’ situation, that zero state which the Greeks designated as the beginning of mystical thinking.”

Recalling the days in Libeň on the street called Na hrázi (meaning “on the dyke”) with the painter Vladimír Boudník (who’s quoted in Vita Nuova shouting out “And over there in Paris I even spy Mr. Seufaur who wrote that abstract lyrical graphics are my invention my active graphics my explosionalism! [. . .] Greetings Mr. Pollock all the way from Prague . . . In all the world only two number ones remain you Mr. Pollock and I two focal points of the one ellipse . . .”) and others (out of Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp):
. . . our favourite reading matter was Lao Tzu—just one sentence, a different one every time, and that kept us going all evening. Because the sun could never shine into the flat, I would haul a chair and a little table all round the yard, and I would even seek the sun on the shed roof, which caught its warmth at setting. There I had a divan and a chair with the legs cut down to compensate for the slope of the roof; I even had two chairs because I used one to write on; I wrote on a Perkeo typewriter, a superb machine, a German portable dating back to the Sezession, which had no Czech accents. Because one time my brother left his St Bernard with me, I had the yard full of local boys, and the St Bernard loved kids and they loved him. It was summertime and we would dress him in swimming trunks and the boys would take him across the main road, across the bridge, down to the river, where we went swimming. I even wrote about it, that the street was really on the dyke of eternity, also for the reason that whoever lived in that little house with a yard, in the front part, which had an upper storey, everyone was called Mr Fiala. Because the house had belonged to a Mr Fiala—paints and dyes—so everyone was called Mr Fiala; I too was Mr Fiala, Vladimír Boudník was Mr Fiala, everyone . . .
(Thinking just now of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s terrific song “912 Greens” . . .)

Out of Vita Nuova: “. . . At first there’s astonishment but then you begin to analyze which in turn leads to a remoteness a certain passivity but not to worry that’s nothing but humility a speak of anticipation a moment prior to the holy announcement when your eyes are wide open and your soul is wide open and suddenly the passivity is turned on its head and it’s not just the you want to take it all down you must take it all down and a writer is one who transcribes what he has seen what has been revealed and the whole thing is a huge kick in the pants knowing there’s something out there other than yourself . . . So my husband blathered on . . .”

Vladimír Boudník, “Explosionalismus,” 1959

Vladimír Boudník, “Active Graphic,” 1959

Vladimír Boudník, c. 1960

Vladimír Boudník, c. 1959

Vladimír Boudník, out of the cycle “Unconventional Calibers”

Vladimír Boudník, 1924-1968

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Barthes’s Sollers

Humidity’s bulge (its “indiscriminate bolus”) is lodged in the hereabouts, vicinity become modality. Desultory reading, the restlessness of the glut, books pitched here and there, spine down in the damp. Thinking of Barthes talking (in the 1979 Sollers écrivain) about Philippe Sollers’s vacillatory pronouns in Drame:
The very rhetoric involved in this project reveals its arbitrary character (rhetoric aims at overcoming the difficulty of speaking sincerely) . . . The classical tendency is for the author—‘I’—to decide to talk either about himself or about somebody else—‘he.’ Here, on the contrary, we have an impersonal voice. It sends out, like an arrow which is shot from the bow only to be constantly taken back, an ‘I’ whose only person, whose only individuality lies in the hand of flesh and blood which is doing the writing.
A sort of slant way of defining Barthes’s own term “writerly” (scriptible): that impersonal hand makes its own ‘I’ plausibly deniable, a drama “not recounted (reported) in the book, but constituted . . . by the very act of the story.” (One thinks of Escher’s 1948 lithograph “Drawing Hands”: the real quashed by artifice of its only reliable emergence.) Or see Sollers’s own note to the reader in Drame, quoted by Barthes: “If there is a story, it tells basically how a language (a syntax) goes in quest of itself, invents itself, makes itself at one and the same time into a machine for emitting and receiving signals.” Williams’d add: “small (or large).”* Barthes:
Every time, ‘He’ is the person who is going to write ‘I’; every time, ‘I’ is the person who, beginning to write, nevertheless goes back into the pre-creature which gave him birth. This instability works like a quivering brought under control, entrusted with the creation of a person who deprives the story of itself.

M. C. Escher, “Drawing Hands,” 1948

One thinks of Ashbery’s chaos of “slithery” pronouns. Too, one thinks of Eliot’s self-surrendering “continual extinction of personality,” that “depersonalization” and catalysis in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919): “It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.” (Exceedingly coy remark, and odd choice, that “finely filiated platinum” for a metaphorical catalyst, with filiated’s sense of high lineage hovering thereabout, ascribing a kind of paternity nevertheless to self-extinct proceedings? Boswell says in The Life of Johnson: “The filiation of a literary performance is difficult of proof; seldom is there any witness present at its birth.”) What Barthes / Sollers push at (for) is a kind of “impersonal” body wholly (impossibly) untainted by the literary doxa (as opposed to Eliot’s sense of the writer as medium / vessel for a channeling of some new synthesis of that doxa, called “tradition”). Barthes:
The total body is impersonal. Identity is like a bird of prey hovering far, far above the sleep in which we peacefully go about leading our real life, living our true story. When we wake up, the bird plunges down upon us, and it is during its descent, before it has touched us, that we must move faster that it does and speak.
(O’Hara’s “Poetry”: “The only way to be quiet / is to be quick, so I scare / you clumsily or surprise / you with a stab.”) One almost imagines Barthes is addressing Eliot in “Drama, Poem, Novel” (though I suspect the “pure psychic automatism” of Breton and Co. is morely likely). Regarding Sollers’s “genuine spontaneity, which precedes every attitude and every choice”—a language “not linked to a disorder of the words but, on the contrary, to a protocol without interstices: ‘There would take place such an overloading of intentions, such a practical complexity, that far from being impoverished or made tiresome the feeling of being alive would be multiplied at its source’”—Barthes writes:
The ‘spontaneity’ which people normally talk to us about is the height of convention. It is that reified language which we find ready-made within ourselves, immediately at our disposal, when we do in fact want to speak ‘spontaneously.’ The spontaneity which Sollers is trying to achieve here is an infinitely more difficult concept. It is a fundamental criticism of signs, an almost utopian . . . quest for an a-language, a fully corporeal one, fully alive, a prelapsarian space from which stereotypes, those constituent elements of all psychology and all ‘spontaneity,’ have been expelled. . . . This practice does not consist in paying no attention to language (an excellent way of ensuring that it comes galloping back, in its most outworn forms), but in catching it unawares—or . . . in listening to its precarious suspension.
That imperturbable drive “at” the liminal markers of non-sens as at an originary non-lieu, (I think of Pound, presumably writing to Harriet Monroe, saying: “The continuation can be called Poetry, Second Series, or new series, if that hackneyed term is still big heap mumbo on the lake shore”—and wonder about my own “big heap mumbo” here, and my semi-Tourette’s need and desire to spout incafardables . . .) Sollers: “. . . to brush against the limit inside oneself; the gesture, the word that nobody would now be able to understand; that he would not understand either, but of which he would at least be the insoluble origin.” It’s a long way to the social shindig at the corral along the road.
*Too, Williams’s lines in The Wedge (1944)—“Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises. Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own form.” Irrespective of that sense of “movement . . . intrinsic,” Williams’s rootedness in the particulars of speech and the local runs counter to one thrust of the “era”—that of syntactical breakage, the assaying of sense-limits, &c. Though I say that with feigned conviction (a way of catching a thing unaware): “If anything of moment results—so much the better.”

Roland Barthes, 1915–1980