Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jefferson and / or Williams

William Carlos Williams, c. 1943

All the makings of sloth and lethargy hereabouts. The snow, the crows, the routine trudge . . . Or the morning’s stray fossickings unearth two counter-notes. Jefferson’s preposterous (and prevalent) sense that writing means clothing, sumptuary and vain (out of a letter to Nathaniel Burwell, 14 March 1818):
A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality. . . .For a like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste.
Versus Wallace Stevens’s sense of writing as a stripping off, with no remedy except itself (out of the William Carlos Williams issue of the Norman Macleod-edited Briarcliff Quarterly, printed in 1946):
      If a man writes a little every day, as Williams does, or used to do, it may be that he is merely practicing in order to make perfect. On the other hand he may be practicing in order to get at his subject. If his subject is, say, a sense, a mood, an integration, and if his representation is faint or obscure, and if he practices in order to overcome his faintness or obscurity, what he really does is to bring, or try to bring, his subject into that degree of focus at which he sees it, for a moment, as it is and at which he is able to represent it in exact definition.
      A man does not spend his life doing this sort of thing unless doing it is something he needs to do. One of the sanctions of the writer is that he is doing something that he needs to do. The need is not the desire to accomplish through writing something not incidental to the writing itself. Thus a political or religious writer writes for political or religious reasons. Williams writes, I think, in order to write. He needs to write.
      What is the nature of this need? What does a man do when he delineates the images of reality? Obviously, the need is a general need and the activity a general activity. It is of our nature that we proceed from the chromatic to the clear, from the unknown to the known. Accordingly the writer who practices in order to make perfect is really practicing to get at his subject and, in that exercise, is participating in a universal activity. He is obeying his nature. Imagism (as one of Williams’ many involvements, however long ago) is not something superficial. It obeys an instinct. Moreover, imagism is an ancient phase of poetry. It is something permanent. Williams is a writer to whom writing is the grinding of a glass, the polishing of a lens by means of which he hopes to be able to see clearly. His delineations are trials. They are rubbings of reality.
(Oddly enough, Marianne Moore, in a tiny approbatory squib in the issue, seems to mimic Stevens’s image of the focusing lens: “I can only say that for me, lacklustreness and aesthetic mildew vanish under the burning-glass of real poetry, and William Carlos Williams is the real thing.”) Stevens—nearly, I suppose, slipping back into talk of the “rig” (meaning some high-toned dress-up and deportment defining the work)—later calls Williams’s itch “an intellectual tenue.” That quotidian tonus holding, against holding out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

“Expelled in all vicissity . . .”

Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

A good thing, some days, to come at it unprepared. (Gertrude Stein: “Nothing I like more than when a dog barks in his sleep . . . How much does he know that he is barking.”) That longing to write in one’s sleep, words expelled in all vicissity without the retardant viscosity (or urbane velleity) of reason (or reasonableness)—expelled in a brash “nativity of everness.” To feed off the soup of unsorted vocables that sloshes full, daily, in the tureen of being, that unforesought and unforesold aliment. Words—paragraphs—pulled up out of the reliably uttering ticker tape. Or, stuck in a reverie of murth’rous discordance, all song quashed, all “dingy twaddle” stymied by something like a Pleistocene white-out, some untongued glacial push across the word-teeming savannahs: the nada look, in tenebre e in oscurità—what Beckett translated by “bored to extinction.” See, too, Thoreau’s pertinent Journal-note (26 January 1858):
Some men have a peculiar taste for bad words, mouthing and licking them into lumpish shapes like the bear her cubs,—words like “tribal” and “ornamentation,” which drag a dead tail after them. They will pick you out of a thousand the still-born words, the falsettos, the wing-clipped and lame words, as if only the false notes caught their ears. They cry encore to all the discords.
Twaddle, the discordant, the flub, the shill, the blank: all the intrusory mitigants against the superfluidity of the ongoing occasion, the unruddered endless drift and impetus of pure saying. Surely William James, who claimed man defined himself against the beasts in the “exuberant excess of his subjective propensities”—“Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. . . . Prune down his extravagance, sober him and you undo him”—surely James might agree that all writing is slipshod, piecemeal, saltatory, wrought and incomplete. Still, the unvented fundament compels it, and the hortatory go.

Add an obligatory “bah” to the preceding. Off for a week or so. “That’ll be a relief.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Samuel Beckett / Bram van Velde

Samuel Beckett, c. 1964
(Photograph by Steve Schapiro)

A nigh simultaneity. Poking around in a book of Dorothea Lange photographs, I read Lange’s unabashedly pragmatic formula: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” And consider, briefly, how that “seeing” is apt and liable to become a captious bludgeon of seeing, how one begins to see only what some prior camera’s selected for seeing. Doxa of the lens. And, later in the day, the shiny black night’s radiant aimlessnesses convened, the distraught road assuaged (I like to think) by my newly Hanook’d wheels, home, the tenably live succors of a book writhing in hand, I read in Charles Juliet’s Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde (Dalkey Archive, 2009), Bram van Velde saying: “Painting is an aid to vision. It turns life, the complexity of life, into something visible. It reveals things that we don’t know how to see.”

I recall what Beckett (in a 1937 letter to Thomas McGreevy) reported of reading Schopenhauer (“like suddenly a window opened on a fug”). Here, according to Beckett: “a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the a priori forms of verification.” How attain that wild unravaged “indifference to the a priori”? Without it, one merely writes what one reads (Juliet writes of Beckett: “When he started writing, he stopped reading, believing that the two activities were incompatible.” Beckett: “I had to reject all the poisons . . .” And, admitting, glee-repressedly: “Yes, there was a kind of indecency—ontological indecency.” And: “Up until 1946 I tried to learn as much as possible in order to try and have some degree of power over things. Then I realized I was following the wrong path. But perhaps all paths are wrong.” And: “I have never studied anything in depth.”) Par contra, there’s Beckett’s hollow-voiced remark, ruining the idyll of the naïf: “Listening to yourself, it is not literature that you hear.” (Or, one succumbs to add, listening to—recording—the insipid hubbub of the cyber-screech. Not literature.)

No reading. No eavesdropping the interior / exterior voices. Whence, then, the materiel? Bram van Velde (whom Juliet quotes as saying: “I am a watered-down being”): “You can’t control anything. What you have to do is let yourself be taken over. . . . All the paintings I have made, I was compelled to make.” (One recalls a ravenous period of reading through countless sheaves of the current poetry-detritus, repeatedly noting how none of it showed any sign of writerly compulsion beyond that of “expected productivity.”) Beckett talks of “submitting to the unintelligible.” One thinks of the “via negativa.” And, apropos Beckett’s rejected reading, notes a reply to Juliet’s asking if he rereads the mystics—“Saint John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroeck.” Beckett answers, apparently haltingly: “Yes . . . I like . . . I like their . . . their illogicality . . . their burning illogicality—the flame . . . the flame . . . which consumes all our filthy logic . . .”

One bout of activity (Juliet’s entry dated 11 November 1977). Beckett animatedly pushing aside drinking glasses, light, metal box of small cigars, &c. at the café table in order to detail a one minute play, invention of the previous night’s insomnia:
      “One human being, standing silent, motionless, Slightly to the rear, almost offstage.” He points to a place on the table which stands for the stage. “Everything takes place in twilight. Someone else enters. He steps forward. Slowly. He notices the character standing motionless. He stops in wonder.
      “‘Are you waiting for someone?’
      “The other one shakes his head no.
      “‘For something?’
      “Same answer.
      “After a few seconds he continues on his way.
      “As he does, the other one asks:
      “‘Where are you going?’
      “‘I don’t know.’”
Beckett: “Everything in this damned world calls for indignation . . . But as far as work goes . . . What can be said? Nothing is sayable.” A certain lethargy and greed of lethargy. Today locates itself between the Beckett at the end of the second of the “Three Dialogues” with Georges Duthuit—who, to Duthuit’s plaintive “Are we really to deplore the painting that is a rallying, among the things of time that pass and hurry us away, towards a time that endures and gives increase?” make the non-reply of “(Exit weeping.)”—and the “mal armé” Beckett at the beginning of the third dialogue who sings out: “Frenchman, fire first.”

Friday, November 18, 2011

“Of the wash . . .”

Bram van Velde, 1895-1981
(Photograph by Marc Trivier)

Ferociously cold and furiously pedaling, the eyes tearing up. Sundry beatitudes of the wash. A man in a yellow rectangle reaching up into a T-shirt’s floppy recalcitrance. A cut-out row of crows topping a sycamore, each to its seat. Awaiting the unpleating, the expansion of that series of low clouds, clotted up along the easterly horizon. What gluey sempiternal mathematics keeps the bicycle upright, and me, gangly, astride? Virtue and fault, frustration and completion (I’m thinking of the lines in Spring and All: “The virtue of the improvisations is their placement in a world of new values— / their fault is their dislocation of sense, often complete.”) In a late 1928 letter to Louis Zukofsky, Williams, dickering with some intractable piece of writing (“Anyhow I grew bored. I almost got into a nervous fit over not having time to play with the points and arrange them . . .”) says, finally: “I slammed my random shots together and—so it always seems to go. More mania.” Justifying the method (in an earlier letter dated 18 October 1928): “I find invariably . . . that when the instinct has clicked the mind will come lumbering after.” Williams everywhere insists that writing be unthrottled, unwashed, unrefined, that it refuse to serve as mere collateral for thinking. (Out of The Embodiment of Knowledge: “The only real in writing is writing itself.” And: “It is pure writing that can’t get away from itself to be thought.”) Is Williams kin to Beckett? Thumbing Charles Juliet’s Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde (Dalkey Archive, 2009), seeing a Beckett “disjecta” (“La peinture des van Velde or le monde et le pantalon”) reduced to two lines:
Impossible to apply reason to what is unique. [...]
Impossible to create order in what is elemental.
Or I note Juliet’s reporting of “not signs of rewriting” in the manuscript of Waiting for Godot, and how, of it, Beckett admits: “It all happened between my hand and the page.” (Bram van Velde’s utterances agree: “You are in an area where knowledge fails. Where you have to advance in ignorance, not even knowing where you are going.” And: “Painting lives only through the slide towards the unknown in oneself.” And: “Mondrian? . . . The Constructivists? . . . They had certainties. They wanted a stable basis to work on, but I’m afraid that that was enormous arrogance on their part, Nothing is stable and no certainties are possible.”) A remark pertinent to the current “age,” its mechanically self-imposed “projects,” its sopping wet certainties found in constraint. (Williams to Ezra Pound (11January 1950): “Everyone is writing ‘poetry.’ My suggestion is that they start writing a few poems.”) Implying confrontment with the exigencies of unencumbered disorder, the sere terms of the irreparable blank, arrangements of self made selflessly out of words, words shared between us all, “words which have been used time without end by other men for the same purpose, words worn smooth, greasy with the thumbing and fingering of others” (The Embodiment of Knowledge). Sweet buttery light of morning made by the socius ejectus, with borrowed goods. One loses the unleashing, the cut scabs over under a blaze of suns, sundering the breach itself (and its apparent coherence). Is it sheer impertinence against the foibles of chronic reason, its hardy thinking, that points Pound toward the quasi-insufferable Uncle Remus gimcrackery? (See un peu partout in Pound’s letters, though I am partial to these lines to Williams (“[December 1954]”), replying to Williams’s query regarding an earlier use of “criks”:
2 be more eggsPlicit.

      criks is the buzzards what yakyaks about awt an’ le’rs without bein’ abl to purrJuice any (vulgarly spelled with 7 le’rs)
So we “purrJuice” away, instinctual and hugely accommodating . . .

Bram van Velde, Lithograph for Sans fin l’affamé, 1976

Bram van Velde, Lithograph for Sans fin l’affamé, 1976

Bram van Velde, “L’attrait,” 1978

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Croatoan Poetic Cell Interview

Discovery of the word “CROATOAN” found carved into a tree, Roanoke Island, c. 1590

Raúl Zurita, in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera (October 4, 2011) on the actions of the Croatoan Poetic Cell at Zurita’s reading at the Poetry Foundation (September 27, 2011): “Sentí una profunda ternura al ver a estos chicos, porque supe que era el signo de una lucha mucho más profunda, de la poesía contra los poderes de un orden avergonzante.” (“I felt a profound tenderness on witnessing these young people, because I knew it was sign of a much deeper struggle, that of poetry against the powers of a shameful order.”)

William Carlos Williams, out of “A New Line Is a New Measure” (c. 1947) writing of Louis Zukofsky’s Anew:
      It may be inconceivable that in a single poem the world can be set right, but it is the truth. Nothing does happen, except in the minds of a few; but it is drastic, what sometimes happens in the minds of a few.
      Good taste, that’s the thing; and not by exclusion, in the vulgar way, but by an inclusion that puts its grace upon common objects, that raises the common to grace. That’s what a poem is . . .
What follows is an agglomerated interview with the stalwart members of Croatoan Poetic Cell, authors of two (and counting) actions at the pristine (some would say obscene) corporate home (some would say bastion) the Poetry Foundation recently constructed for itself at an expenditure of $21.5 million. Sign of the rote vapidity of the moneyed in its usual form: corporate vanity. Monumental institutional preening at its worst. The interview is pieced together out of raw footage collected by Jeremy Axelrod, author of the recent Salon piece (“It’s Time to Occupy Poetry”) about the Croatoan actions, with some added material. Needless to say, the Poetry Foundation’s fleet squad of newshounds, those omnivorous gatherers of all things “poetic” at Harriet sedulously “overlooked” the Salon piece. Maybe nobody submitted a pre-formatted and properly subject-lined “Harriet news tip!”

Interviewer: This Montevidayo post is said to be a “report” from you. Is that true?

Croatoan: Yeah, I wrote the Montevidayo post. Though, the leaflet which appears there was composed by the group over a bottle of whiskey the night before the Zurita action. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding or misinterpretation about whom these things are to be attributed to. I want to make clear that there is no singular person at the reins with this. Our aim is to move away from modes of authorship which are tied to specific personages and, in fact, we prefer anonymity. That being said, since Steph’s [Stephanie Dunn, arrested at the initial spontaneous action at the Poetry Foundation (September 7) on a “public disturbance” charge] name and mine are out there, here are the names of the rest of the people involved the night of the Zurita reading: Neda Mouzayanni, Raymond Zibits, Jordan Walsh, Ben Stephens. Use any of these names interchangeably or refer to us as Croatoan, CPC, whatever.

Interviewer: According to that post, a “half dozen” or so of your colleagues handed out a statement at the Zurita reading on September 27? I see the text of the statement on the website. Did you write this statement? If so, what is “the spectacle and its myriad illusory modes of reification”?

Croatoan: The quote you refer to ought to be interpreted through its Situationist connotations, I guess. [Cultural] institutions are an integral part of the Spectacle. They are the conduits through which images, objects, and language “transform” into high art or, precisely, that which is separated, somehow, from the rest of our daily life. One usually enters and interacts with these spaces as a sort of tabernacle, as sacred space wherein the desire is to be wowed or whatever by the art that a given cultural institution has deemed worthy of praise. Our feeling (which certainly isn’t a new idea or anything) is that this attitude is often overrated and problematic. Behind this edifice, it’s pretty clear that most museums and cultural institutions are in the business of storing wealth and getting tax breaks for wealthy patrons. The language that John Barr uses in talking about the Poetry Foundation, for example, is eerily reminiscent of the corporate language of marketing and branding. The PF and similar institutions are wholly integrated into the fabric of neo-liberalism; from the architecture of their buildings to their rules of decorum and ways of dealing with (i.e. silencing) “undesirables,” to the sort of art / poetry that they usually champion. Disrupting or queering the normally passive experience that folks have with a museum or an institution is a pretty effective tactic for fleshing some of these issues out.

Interviewer: Your flier objects to Stephanie Dunn’s arrest on the grounds that a poetry organization shouldn’t seek the arrest of someone who commits “what is essentially a poetic act” at one of its events. One question here is when (if at all) it’s reasonable to arrest someone for a non-violent public disturbance. But the question I’d like to ask is: Where would you draw the line between the freedom to perform poetic acts and the freedom to disrupt an organization’s events? The question applies, I think, to both Stephanie Dunn’s acts and those on September 27 at the Zurita reading. (As I understand it, Mr. Zurita was not in the least bothered by the surprise, but it’s arguable that his approval is not the only consideration, as the reading was planned and housed by a foundation that invited him as its guest.)

Croatoan: It is never “reasonable” to arrest someone for a non-violent public disturbance . . . though I suppose that from the perspective of an organization like the police, whose prime directive is to serve the wealthy and to protect the sanctity of private property, this sort of arrest is perfectly reasonable. . . . We understand that oftentimes civil disobedience results in arrest and we all accept this as a possibility when we undertake actions. We also understand that an arrest can be used as a tool to highlight the injustices behind it.

Interviewer: The Chicago Reader claims that the police report related to Stephanie Dunn’s arrest indicates that she took a bottle of wine from the Foundation and refused to return it. Do you think it was within her rights to take this from the Foundation (though it’s certainly a negligible loss) on the grounds that she disagrees with its use of money and objects to the attitude with which its employees responded to her when she threw a cup of wine to the floor?

Croatoan: Look, we are thieves . . . and ones with a pretty strict code of ethics; namely, that we don’t steal from people and that whatever is stolen is shared joyously and without discrimination. Stealing from corporate entities, or banks, or the gods, or whatever has a long and venerable tradition. It’s how we got fire, how Hermes became a god, how so much great myth, art, & literature has been conceived—acts of thievery and transgression, which restore a certain sort of balance; tiqqun. In any case, it was a fucking bottle of wine which, as you say, is pretty negligible in all actuality. Especially considering the Poetry Foundation made $2,189,154 from interest and securities in 2010. See the Foundation’s tax returns here.

Interviewer: It sounds like around six of your colleagues have organized their demonstrations together and united under the name “Croatoan Poetic Cell.” If so, why this name? And do you have a particular connotation in mind with the word “cell”?

Croatoan: While six of us participated in the Zurita action, there are more than six of us. I can assure you. “Cell” has both biological and political connotations. In essence, the global struggle lies in combating biopolitical power which governs (read: coerces) and defines individuals and what they can do with their bodies, minds and voices. We feel like we are a small ripple in this much greater context of what’s happening globally, which the occupations are a big component of. The hope with this project is to create dialogue which might embolden others to autonomously practice their own forms of intervention, institutional critique, and direct action, rather than to make some kind of definitive statement with our actions. You could also call us a rhizome or a tong (see Hakim Bey’s excellent essay “The Tong” here).

Interviewer: What demonstrations have you or your colleagues planned besides those at the September 27 Zurita reading and the impromptu protest with Stephanie Dunn in late August? Have you been picketing or demonstrating at any other times? Do you plan to continue disrupting events, as your statement seems to indicate?

Croatoan: The night Steph and I met, she tagged the wall of a bougie art gallery (which was displaying photographs by Ginsberg and paintings by Burroughs). I ended up taking the fall for that one. A few of us in the CPC (before the official conception of the group) also planned and organized a midnight march this past May Day. Funnily enough, a group of about forty of us were on our way to occupy the Federal Reserve when Steph was arrested for sitting atop the Haymarket statue and playing a banjo. Some of us in the group have been participating in the occupation here in Chicago—in fact, we met one member of our group the first day that Occupy Chicago began. However, many of us are frustrated with the cloying & overly compliant attitude towards the police that the leadership of the Chicago manifestation has been pushing.

Interviewer: Do your complaints about the Poetry Foundation relate to the experience you or your father Kent Johnson have had with submitting work to Poetry?

Croatoan: I’ve never submitted to Poetry—not sure whether my old man has or not. At any rate, my old man has NOTHING to do with the CPC except as a cheerleader from the sidelines. Besides, his Old Left politics are not exactly in line with the anarchist sources of the CPC. I really like the Jack Spicer serial piece “6 Poems for Poetry Chicago.” I don’t think they published those, though.

Interviewer: To what extent were you or other Croatoans (if I may refer to your group collectively) inspired by Occupy Wall Street, or by the general anti-Big Money sentiments that have gained such widespread expression in protests this past year?

Croatoan: While we all hold varying opinions about strategies and tactics involved in the movement, we are certainly deeply inspired by the idea. It feels like this is only the beginning. Through these various occupations, we are finding each other and making the sort of deep connections that are so necessary in the continuing struggle.

Interviewer: Do you have any thoughts on the recent “Occupy Museums” protest at MoMA?

Croatoan: Another recent example of détournement / institutional critique (which can be found here and in the forthcoming issue of Sous les Pavés): Edmond Caldwell disguised an excerpt from his novel into counterfeit covers of the yuppie-paradigm-skewed choice for Boston’s “one city one book” program. Hilarity ensues. To be honest, none of us had heard about the Occupy Museums movement. I’m really glad to know about this group. It’s deeply encouraging to see others taking up the mantle of institutional critique. That they have situated their grievances within the context of the labor movement is really important. Some of us are members of the IWW and believe that a general strike is still probably the only tactic which stands a chance of enacting the sort of transformation that so many are talking about. The CPC stands in solidarity. Hopefully the feeling is mutual.

Interviewer: The fliers you handed out state that “the home of poetry . . . certainly doesn’t look like an Apple store.” What is the “home of poetry,” exactly, and why should its aesthetic be different from that of an Apple store?

Croatoan: The home of poetry (if it isn’t a mendicant wanderer) is a commons. The existence of the Po Foundation HQ is really a strange thing because it attempts to spatialize poetry in this way that doesn’t usually happen (at least not so overtly). The architectural language seen at the Po Foundation is not just that of an Apple store. There is a Starbuck’s not too far from there that also looks eerily similar. The building is completely typical of current corporate aesthetics. We feel that these sorts of spaces are psychically hostile towards the sort of imagination and freedom which is necessary in the establishment of a commons.

Interviewer: In short, why do you object to the Poetry Foundation? Why is “the true spirit of poetry precisely about disturbing the peace”? (I realize you’ve made statements about this already. I’d simply like to hear an abbreviated version, if possible.)

Croatoan: We received a message from J. H. Prynne, of all people, who articulated our feelings better than we have been able to. I can’t tell you how much it meant to hear from him. Here’s an excerpt from his letter:
      Poets and artists have an honourable share in resistance to imposed control, especially since language is a major instrument of social oppression by power-hungry institutions. So it’s more than right that concentrations of power and control in the art world should be challenged, by spontaneous incoherence and flights of free invention. The Poetry Foundation building in Chicago deserves to be a prime target, because it’s a capitalistic formation based on undemocratically accumulated wealth: the place looks like the corporate headquarters of a banking conglomerate, and that’s indeed how it functions. It seems like anarchism to say these things, but actually it’s liberational dissidence, to reclaim and occupy the free space of the mind and imagination, and to open these august portals of institutional repression.
      Indeed it is a kind of trespass, to stream into controlled spaces and just overflow them, not by reasoned argument but simply by shared presence: demography! Thus the legal formats of punitive exclusion are also challenged, not by violence but simply by spillage of peoples in large numbers and by acts of individual self-positioning.
Interviewer: One last question: does your group meet in a warehouse? As a kind of headquarters. No need to tell me where, but it’d certainly be fun to describe your “hideout,” if there’s something like that around.

Croatoan: This “hideout” you mention . . . I don’t know if I’d describe it as such but some might, I suppose. Our aim is to make this place into a functioning community center. At the previous punk house some of us lived in (Dr. Who’s Wherehouse of Ideas), there was a free school which, unfortunately, has gone relatively dormant though there are still a few classes and we plan to begin again in earnest as soon as the major building projects are finished. We have a lending library here, someone is always playing music. We all sleep in the same room (the library) in a pile of unwashed blankets, couches, arms, legs. Sometimes it becomes difficult to figure out where you end and someone else begins. If you’ve ever seen The Abyss, you might get the idea. It’s a really strange, constantly morphing space filled with dust, oceans of random objects and non-Euclidean geometry; unitary urbanism, so to speak. We have been living in a construction zone for the past three months. Currently, we are in the midst of building rooms, installing heat and electricity, and getting the place ready for winter. We want to actuate an autonomous zone here on the West Side, to use it as a place for education, creation, and subversion.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Williams / Zukofsky

William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, c. 1960
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

William Carlos Williams, in a letter to Louis Zukofsky (25 July 1928): “Perhaps by my picayune imagistic mannerisms I hold together superficially what should by all means fall apart.” Out of the Barry Ahearn-edited Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky (Wesleyan, 2003). That tremendous doubt at the heart of the juxtaposed, its lightning rod, what pulls the heavens—flying asunder (isn’t that the definition of the heavens, colossal, sundry, electric?) down into it. Doubt that animates the aligning of any rapturous (ruptured) dissilients: “Two ymages huge, of disparayl fourme.” Doubt that vivifies the mash-up. There’s that, the teetering skepticism of one’s own “violent torsions.” A note in the Correspondence points to four Zukofsky poems printed in a 1928 issue of The Dial (LXXXV: 12), with the comment that only two reappear in Zukofsky’s Collected Shorter Poems. (Williams, responding to the news of Zukofsky’s Dial acceptance, praises editor Marianne Moore—“willing but . . . suffers from the terrific weight of indifference under which all labor in these here United States just as we do”—and advises Zukofsky: “All the good that comes from such a success is . . . the cash you will pocket. The Dial to me is about as dead as a last years birds nest. One must believe in spiders—”) So, I looked the poems up. The two retained in the Collected Shorter Poems: “tam cari capitis” (lacking, in The Dial, its second part) and “Song Theme (to the last movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor).” The discarded, two untitled sonnets:

Someone said, ‘earth, bowed with her death, we mourn
Ourselves, our own earth selves,’—yet for me crept
Rattling a small wind bitter, and I wept
But your own little form that might be torn.
And suddenly I could see your face borne
Like the moon on my sight, it had not slept
But looked, as once, at rest though waking, stepped
To the grave peace of death and not yet worn.

‘Look at the moon,’ you said: ‘Those are no tears
Falling, unclasped through space, for what appears
Dead crater sheds no tears.’ And your face form
Where it came vanished, so I was too soon
Oblivious among the wind, the moon
Clouding then, her high dissolution come.


The silence of the good that you were wrought of,
Do I find it transformed by some strange leaven
From you to earth only my earth knows aught of,
And know it silent mound outlined on heaven,
Till all the life of you in our still room
Returns to me—your presence past the wall
Of death, the confines of your dark? So fall
Death’s guerdon to me neither sun nor gloom;

But quiet—your silence, when you would stir
With me—its being, what you are and were.
It cannot change though it must change the mode—
Not with you living, but with you dead to darkle—
Yet is no less obliged thus to corrode
In earth with you—earth, shadow of your sparkle.
Williams, pertinently: “Eyes have always stood first in the poet’s equipment. If you are mostly ear—a new rhythm must come in more strongly than has been the case so far.” (Oddly prescient of Zukofsky’s later Bottom-formulation that “speaks and sings of a proportion: love is to reason as the eyes are to the mind; or, says it so that means equal extremes: when reason judges with eyes, love and mind are one.”) If I mostly drowse unplucked by the discards, I do admire the paradox of the moon’s sudden clarity at the very moment of its clothing: “the moon / Clouding then, her high dissolution come”—the long i of “high” tossing the mind’s eyes skyward, up out of the tender earth’s rubble and occlusion. Too, the rhythmic awkwardnesses of foundering speech in “The silence of the good that you were wrought of” begins a jaunty and complex delivery finally unmade. (Reading the discards, one is tempted to quote Zukofsky’s own line out of “An Objective” (1930, 1931): “The disadvantage of strained metaphor is not that it is necessarily sentimental (the sentimental may at times have its positive personal qualities) but that it carries the mind to a diffuse everywhere and leaves it nowhere.”) One notes that Zukofsky’s wife Celia Thaew reported that Zukofsky’d “said he’d written and discarded 500 poems”:
A manuscript at Texas under the name of Dunn Wyth is Louie’s work. He called the poems “juvenilia” and he wanted never to be reminded of it. He wanted to throw it out. But I said that would be foolish and he ought to send it on to Texas since another name was on it. Nobody would find out who Dunn Wyth was. It would make a nice little problem for scholars.
Or allow it its unburdening reprieve: “enter it not into your Audit, nor account that amongst your Supers, which is your Onus.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Uncollected Williams: Addenda

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Tracked down the issue of Antaeus (Nos. 30 / 31, called “Poetry & Poetics”) in order to ascertain the provenance of the Williams “improvisations” therein collected, expecting some explanatory squib. Zilch. Only the title (“Eight Improvisations”) and imprecise date (“ca. 1924”). And (under “Poetics”) a stray letter to Frances Steloff, proprietress of the Gotham Book Mart, dated 15 March 1939. Williams is replying to a query regarding a definition of poetry he’d recently provided “at the Munson studio.” Williams protests: “I can’t remember my precise words” while insisting that such a thing’s “remained reasonably stable for a number of years.” And thus proposes:
Impassioned language takes on, by physical law, a rhythmic flow. The poet’s task, in any age, is to listen to the language of his time, when it is impassioned and wherever it occurs, and to discover in it, from it, the essentials of his form, his form, as of his own day. From these essentials he makes up his patterns—embodying the characteristics of what he finds alive in his day. This is the task of the major poet in any time.

The secondary task which a poet assumes is to jam the tide of his day into the forms of the past. This is what is usually understood by “poet.” It is safe, it is respectable, it is easy to understand and—it stinks.

Now. The term “objectivism” (useful only as a screw driver is useful to a carpenter or a mechanic and not for label purposes) helped some of us for a year or two to associate the subject and the form of a poem into a whole. The poem being made of words the form itself becomes a “word.” An 8th century form, that is, means in some measure the whole conceptual world of the 8th century which invented it and to which it is fitted . . .

Poetry should be the synthesis of its time in passionately communicable form. The braying jackasses say it isn’t possible to write poetry today, that its form is insignificant. But the jackasses have always brayed . . .
Too, I stumbled into Barry Ahearn’s piece—called “Editing the ‘Working Copy’ of The Wedge”—Appendix C of the Ahearn-edited Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky (Wesleyan, 2003). Containing a short history of the fate of the “improvisations” in the manuscript of The Wedge. Apparently Williams originally (“in March 1943”) sent Zukofsky “a hefty 115-page typescript entitled, ‘The (lang) WEDGE’: a diffuse pot-pourri of 83 titles, including poems going back to 1905 (‘Acrostic for H.D.’)”—that out of Neil Baldwin’s report (“Zukofsky, Williams, and The Wedge: Toward a Dynamic Convergence”). Williams:
Just as soon as I am able I’ll send you the tome of my new book of poems by express—the damned book has assumed the proportions of a tome—and ask you to slash it unmercifully. Not that I intend to take your advice holus bolus, I don’t but I’d like you to indicate for me just how much could be cut from the script without hurting it, in fact I want you to help me get rid of the downright bad scribbles and the worst of the repetitious ones. Don’t hesitate, go to town, cut the whole damned book out if you feel like it.
And (27 March 1943): “I am sending the conglomorate of scripts of which I have spoken to you. It is obviously not a book. I don’t want to burden you nor am I asking you to make a book of it for me. . . . Naturally, if you want to tell me how the book should be constructed (now only slung together assways) that’s up to you. I’ll probably follow my own advices in the end anyway so don’t waste your time.” Odd diffidence and plea. Zukofsky, suggesting it be called The Language, cut it to 86 pages, 69 titles arranged in four sections. (Of the bilingually punning title, complete with Williams’s title page epigraph—
The (lang) WEDGE
With the tip of my tongue
I wedge you open
My tongue!
the wedge of my tongue
between those lips parted
to inflame you . . .
—Zukofsky wrote “The first three lines are enough,” and bracketed out the remaining three in pencil. The whole “lick” is eventually abandoned by Williams.) Later (letter of 11 May 1943 to Zukofsky), Williams reluctantly makes “a final determination to cut out the prose bits entirely” (calling it “the sort of thing I wanted to avoid but . . . couldn’t escape. If it doesn’t involve heart searching and hard work nothing evolves satisfactorily”) thus reducing (Baldwin reports, without naming the specific prose pieces) the total by seven. Still later Williams cut seventeen additional poems, and added five, making for a total of fifty. Ahearn:
The “working copy” of The Wedge” shows that Williams tended to jettison poems even when Zukofsky merely expressed doubt about their form. The manuscript Zukofsky examined contained numerous lengthy prose poems (Williams called them “improvisations”). Zukofsky did not suggest taking them out, but he did find their form as prose problematic. Of one of these, “Thatpoemjayjay,” Zukofsky observed, “OK, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t fit it in better, in a volume of poems, written out as lines rather than one prose stream. It’s solid enough, & doesn’t really need to call attention to JayJay’s (James Joyces’) device.” He offered much the same advice for another prose poem, “Wellroundedthighs”: “This means less to me than Thatpoemjayjay—but in any case, this too might gain in clearness written out as a poem in the line lengths indicating the sense.” Zukofsky sounded the same note with the prose poem “THEESSENTIALROAR”: “OK, I’d break this up into line lengths, too.” Even when Zukofsky sounded a bit encouraging, as he did when commenting on the prose poem “The Runner” (“This can be chiseled down & written out as verse”), Williams evidently saw little point in recasting the prose poems as poetry. Perhaps he was discouraged by Zukofsky’s comment about still another prose poem, “THICKCAKE”: “Writing this out in verse lines would make it clear and show you where it ought to be cut, if —.”
I find no Williams piece, prose or poetry, called “The Runner” anywhere. Is there a need to sleuth through Williams’s papers in an act of homage and retrieval? Here’s another of the “improvisations” (out of transition No. 13, 1928):
The Dead Grow

      The most striking anachronism in N. Y. is of course the Metropolitan Museum of art with a slab by clever Paul to able John at the right of the entrance, badly worded, where Stonebridge of Hartford put a weight in the balance when he was sick of the ton of stuff he had lifted and the worst is that it spills over on the tall buildings but it doesn’t do it enough, like the rotten Stock Exchange like a dirty face without Pallas Athenas in it and the Telephone building and that crappy stuff—but the bronze tablets by Manny aren’t so bad but nobody ever sees them thank goodness it would clip one ball if they did and that’s what I mean, there isn’t a more potent anachronism in the city than the museum—it is right because it’s deadly, the detail of the ornaments and plates and vases even one or two pictures, the Burmese jewelry, they’re the essence of the quietness, it’s that that forks the noise out of its hole but if it weren’t for the roar there wouldn’t be any museum because the price of exchange depends not so much on the spiritual values but on the fat which has jus this to do with art that it collects everything that is cast off by the dead and puts it on like the peschecani, you know, Thenewrich, the fellow who just has written a novel, without knowing that Leonardo invented the toilet-seat—you see the poet’s daughter all nice and ripe, as Ken says, is noisy around the knees, that’s what gives her the pull, Kiki in spite of her noise is made of quietness but the roar is full of pulp into which nerves and sinews grow a this and that anti-roar, is, valuable as it is to something or other like the history of Ireland or Ulysses, a compendium, very dangerous to growth. It is quite stark in its gentleness, it wants to—needs to have a kind of starvation on which to thrive and so make the kind of flabby shank devotees and condoms that John enjoyed when he was tired—it is a monument to John’s fatigue when he felt a lead loose in his pencil, as Pop used to say, so it’s dangerous and that’s why we have prohibition, we don’t need alcohol, WE DON’T NEED ALCOHOL, we have all the noise we want but even poverty can make noise enough to be heard in those places I’d like to see anyone he heard because he was poor here—here we are NOT ALONE, we’re enclosed TOGETHER.
      We don’t know there is nothing because the essential noise won’t let us hear it whispered so we don’t need to play chess but there where the oil is burnt out the emptiness is being felt by the muscle—so we grow and they atrophy: they tried to make a noise with the war but it was a very silly deception, all we had to do was to know they couldn’t make a noise and there it was.
Oddly “recalling” the intrepid dash and incautious speed of O’Hara, and O’Hara’s nonchalance with the monikers. (Williams’s “clever Paul” and “able John” likely referring to sculptor Paul Manship and John Pierpont Morgan. “Ken” to Kenneth Burke, “Kiki” to Kiki of Montparnasse, Man Ray’s mistress.) Odd to ascertain (impossibly) echo of O’Hara’s “My quietness has a man in it” in Williams’s “her noise is made of quietness,” or of O’Hara’s “we don't like terrible diseases” in Williams’s “we don’t need alcohol,” or even of O’Hara’s “Twin spheres full of fur and noise” in Williams’s “the roar is full of pulp into which nerves and sinews grow a this and that . . .” Or vice-versa, O’Hara echoing Williams (equally impossible).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Williams / Thoreau

William Carlos Williams, c. 1955
(Photograph by Paul Bishop)

“When the world takes over for us / and the storm in the trees / replaces our brittle consciences / . . . when the few last yellow leaves / stand out like flags on tossed ships at anchor—our minds are rested . . .” (Williams, “Lear”) Piercing yellows, sparse and endless in their arrangements, poplar to poplar. Hurtling across the deer-slaughtered demesnes, the common highways smeared with doe-blood, the remains haunch-hacked, lacking a hind-quarter, or strewn, impossibly flung out along the meridian: a half-mile of pure blood-rubbish. Eyes averting up aslant to a sailing red-tail, guerdon of the raffish sensibility. The drive (Ann Arbor / Chicago / Ann Arbor) snarls up intent, stoppers the prothonotary release, allows a certain gold-throated “region November” (Stevens), whereat the jugular vein glugs out its own thingly freight of vocables regarding “the treetops, as they sway”:
They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge.
Is that Stevens’s reply to Williams’s “No ideas but in things”? (Odd to see, in Jacqueline Saunier-Ollier’s enormous 1979 book William Carlos Williams (1883-1963): L’Homme et l’œuvre poétique, the long reach back to Thoreau: «No ideas but in things» ne résonne-t-il pas comme un écho de la belle formule de Thoreau: «The roots of letters are things»? The line is out of the Journal, in an entry dated 16 October 1859, and likely unknown to Williams:
Talk about learning our letters and being literate! Why, the roots of letters are things. Natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings, and yet American scholars, having little or no root in the soil, commonly strive with all their might to confine themselves to the imported symbols alone. All the true growth and experience, the living speech, they would fain reject as “Americanisms.”
Later Thoreau asks: “What if there were a tariff on words, on language, for the encouragement of home manufacturers?” A line I probably find particularly pertinent, result of reading through the Hugh Witemeyer-edited Pound / Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (New Directions, 1996). To read therein Williams quoting John Dewey’s “Vital and thorough attachments are bred only in an intimacy of intercourse which is of necessity restricted in range.” Or to read Pound’s endorsement of the local, with crudely-limned ideogram-provided: “King Wan worked from where he was at.” (Referring to what he calls, in translating Confucius’s Analects,chih . . . the hitching post, position, place one is in, and works from.”) Or to read Pound’s rather funnily reprimanding line in a letter to Williams—who formerly edited a magazine called Contact—of 10 May 1940: “I do NOT get MY views from the nooz wypers. I get ’em first hand or at worst from private letters which show direct contact.” The prevalent strain of American letters: the homemade, the stay-at-home. See Thoreau’s letter to H. G. O. Blake (1 January 1859), asking “What mountain are you camping on nowadays?”:
You must first have made an infinite demand, and not unreasonably, but after a corresponding outlay, have an all-absorbing purpose, and at the same time that your feet bear you hither and thither, travel much more in imagination.
      To let the mountains slide,—live at home like a traveler . . . What a fool he must be who thinks that his El Dorado is anywhere but where he lives!
And in praise of the “ravine” of the body itself (“in which the ‘soul’ is encamped”)—“eagles always have chosen such places for their eyries”—the local accommodating low source and high outlook both:
It is a capital advantage withal, living so high, the excellent drainage of that city of God. Routine is but a shallow and insignificant sort of ravine, such as the ruts are, the conduits of puddles. But these ravines are the source of mighty streams, precipitous, icy, savage, as they are, haunted by bears and loup-cerviers; there are born not only Sacos and Amazons, but prophets who will redeem the world. The at last smooth and fertilizing water at which nations drink and navies supply themselves begins with melted glaciers, and burst thunder-spouts. Let us pray that, if we are not flowing through some Mississippi valley which we fertilize,—and it is not likely we are,—we may know ourselves shut in between grim and mighty mountain walls amid the clouds, falling a thousand feet in a mile, through dwarfed fir and spruce, over the rocky insteps of slides, being exercised in our minds, and so developed.
Align that against something like Frank O’Hara’s lines out of “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” (though O’Hara’s incipient “purple roar” is probably not the sound of the “soul” decamping . . .):
With the past falling away as an acceleration of nerves thundering and shaking
aims its aggregating force like the Métro towards a realm of encircled travel
rending the sound of adventure and becoming ultimately local and intimate
repeating the phrases of an old romance which is constantly renewed by the
endless originality of human loss the air the stumbling quiet of breathing
newly the heavens’ stars all out we are all for the captured time of our being
Another way “the world takes over for us . . .”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Uncollected Williams

William Carlos Williams, c. 1949
(Photograph by Musya Sheeler)

A minor flurry of sleuthing for mislaid William Carlos Williams pieces yesterday—mostly what WCW bibliographer Emily Mitchell Wallace labels “improvisations”—prose outbursts uncollected in the two-volume Collected Poems. Turns out Antaeus printed eight of the pieces in 1978, including two (“Pubic” and “Thickcake”) unlisted by Wallace. One of the eight:

      It is the pad that protects the adolescence, insulating it against the injury of knowledge and so permitting the strength for knowledge to grow, rather than the quite bare wire on which the colored swallows sat, the very small egg buried in the thick roaring womb that rides the elephant and turns three somersaults as if Jockey Joe Sloan did an snappy jig act between what’s his name, the fellow that took Nijinsky’s place, did that elbow trick SALADE and the scraped off evening in the Bois piece. Poor Nijinsky with a wife and Diagileff, one driving him to rehearsals and the other dragging him home and both in love and noendtoit with the drill drill drill. He tried to manage himself but the English ass didn’t get him his boots on time so he had to go insane diametrically opposite as it the Edinborough Review should say something uncertain it’s the thunder that holds the lightning as much as to say: when the machine scrapes and screams carrying the advertisements of ladies hose around the curve, there is a machine implied that accidentally carries the train and its occupants along. Without the roar to insulate the petty pimple of their comprehension there would not be a ground in which the MASS could accumulate, THUS conversely the Essentiality of the blatant and perfectly stupid excrescence like the New York Journal is mechanically sound and morally effective—and the whole mass is knit, generating the game of football—with its organized cheers. Baseball is something else the ball being harder, smaller, different in color and you hit it with a stick, that is although Babe Ruth may shine for a season there will always be a strong party opposed to him as a factor detrimental to the spirit of the game which is silent, saturnine, close to the principles of physics and lyric poetry.
Speed of the conjunct. That out of Eugene Jolas’s transition (No. 13, 1928). (Compare Williams’s 1923 “crowd at the ball game” “moved uniformly // by a spirit of uselessness / which delights them— // all the exciting detail / of the chase // and the escape, the error / the flash of genius.”)

Two uncollected pieces. Both out of the The Little Review. In 1918:
The Ideal Quarrel

      Anger spitting through a mush of lumpy stuff—mouldy words, lie-clots—transforms it into that which lets a world beyond come through, before that, blocked out. But that is only the beginning. By anger I mean outraged justice of position wrathfully demanding its wavering complement—on the brink of a new alignment: righteous wrath.
      This implies one in the right: counter: one manifestly and frankly in the wrong: bold lies. This implies a dissolving union. This means a further dissolution ending in complete separation, involving a rebeginning or it means a reunion between the severing parts.
      The nature of this reunion is the end toward which I attack. It is, as I take it, something as virginal, as completely pristine as any fresh choice, any new alignment can be. More new! The only new!
      For to break and begin a new alignment is recapitulation but to recement an old and dissolving union is without precedent, a totally new thing. The old union in this case is a part of the new and being directly a part needs no counterpart, the recemented union being ready at birth to go forward. Every part of a changed alignment is a counterpart of the dead old.
      This is hard but important.
      A dawdling complement struck full-face is split—a shell of words scaled off. The face comes from behind its mask. The mask is smooth coin:—slimed their water, fish dung, a stinking, soupy liquid, endearing terms, bare hands on —, in bed at night, the children, dirt under the piano, systematic, get up earlier, the dishes, smell of cooking, sweetheart, darling, dearest, pimples on your back, your breath smells, your thighs are not —, you are cold, I am tired tonight, I feel lively tonight, your kind of man, what a fool I was, our whole married life, I thought I was marrying a —, Undank ist der Weltlohn, coward, self, the selfish get the best in this world (of course) I am not young now— Flash!
      Anger will recreate a world. The white bayonette of anger is: I demand. But lies and deeper lies are the spawn of action. Filth breeds. The white flash of justice is eggs split by an edged flame. Justice lives on lies: a buck-pike that eats its own spawn.
      The birth is in a nest of dead words slimed over: soft down to the mother’s breast.
      Action brings good. Action upon an old act brings a splitting from the end backward to the beginning so that the cleanliness resultant is a thing opposite to nature, an inversion of whiteness— Back to the beginning.
      “I thought I had married a God” to, “I demand a God” is a stroke from the end back to the beginning—but a new beginning, yet resting with its feet on the neck of the old, crushing the old under its feet—unearthly—this is the actual heaven—temples fanned by a wind moving in the wind.
      But ac-shun! ac-shun! ac-shun! ac-shun! It is a steam-engine getting under way: the result is a lily opening upon a crowbar stem. Out of it the cleanliness of spring air! It is the roots of roots we desire! the flower of a flower! the man of a man! the white of white— From the beginning, again! Fourth dimension—well? It is my old life. I hold it off. I have rebegun. Nothing of the old remains or will remain—after. Halleluiah!
      I hate you! Flame will be tied to the heels of love in no other way.
      The hard backbite of anger recurring in the ebb flow is sturdiness holding its own.
Williams’s homely (ungainly, homegrown) anger. In an essay called “Belly Music” (“I insist that it is I, I, I who PUTS the music into the throats of those in whom I HEAR my music. I’ll sing when the veins below my belly are clotted solid”)—in the final issue of the Williams-edited Others (1919), Williams faults what he calls “the futility of this American habit of hanging upon the lips of loveliness.” And writes:
      Perhaps I am a sullen suburbanite, cowardly and alone. Perhaps it is true that I have not seen the cocottes of Montmartre or the Lady Diana. Perhaps it is a preposterous longing for the wealth of the world. I sit a blinded fool, with withered hands stretched out into the nothingness around me. Perhaps this is a sickness. Perhaps what I call my singing is a stench born out of these sores. I deny that that makes any difference. AT LEAST I AM THAT. Or if the answer is that no one will listen to my singing or even call it singing I say that they cannot help listening and that—it doesn’t matter one way or the other.
How bracing the ferocious defiance of the unjustly neglected . . .

The other uncollected “improvisation” is printed, too, in The Little Review (XII. 1, 1926). A piece of ventriloquism. The prose block preceding it (called “Poem” and beginning “Daniel Boone, the father of Kentucky”) is included in the Collected Poems. Something dubious and indistinct in the choice, or measure. Alors:
Stolen Letter

Dear Aunt N.:—
      Wow! “a good for nothing—drink and bad women—no honor—go west” Some charges, must say something, West Carruth sinking, I stay below as engineer, the others lacking courage. West Nohno 4 long trips to West Africa with a sick and physically dead chief engineer. I break my leg—he dies—all hands drunk and criminally neglectful—I take charge with a useless leg and body filled with fever and bring her home with credit. Now holding ship for me, also offered post engineer and dock master’s job at Nigeria—unable however to take either account this broken leg.
      Drink is something that does not bother me—a drink or two and finish—that is my absolute rule—there have only been some three times during my life time when I have gone under. One at Doc. B’s after coming back from a big party and celebration in Newark, poison home made stuff and then at B’s a glass of absinth on top. I’ve felt more sorry than I can say for that. Once in France when because I would never carouse with the gang they doped a bacardi on me, then left me to stagger on by myself. But though it took near all night I got safely back to my ship alone. The other time I can’t remember except in a foggy uncertain way, I’m certain however that there was another. That is the extent of drink. I’ve got a bottle of Johnny Walker, black label, right here in my room—for me it will last six months or a year. I like however to bring it back to my friends—think perhaps they might appreciate it.
      Now for women—yes—I don’t hate them too much—but not just any woman and never a bad one. Comparing myself with a lot of men I know I would certainly draw down the grand halo for purity etc. etc. etc. No joke.
      Now what’s next? Go west. Well we’ll see. I had hopes of taking a run out there this time being as I simply can’t do any work anyhow. As to staying out there—I can’t see it—that is to staying in Chicago. As to running vessels on the Mississippi—well—
      Now please write some more and let’s get at the base trouble of your wonderful attitude. One thing is sure, I never loaf—with health and able body I couldn’t—not only on my own part—but the shipping men who know me wouldn’t let me alone. I’m wanted. How now for your good for noting—drunkard—women master and man of no honor. Pray that I may get a good leg that I may go some more.
                                                                            Love and kindest wishes B.O.S.
Speech and its abrupt rhythmic locales: “poison home made stuff and then at B’s a glass of absinth on top.” In Williams’s “A Tentative Statement” (The Little Review, 1929)—lashings out at the “academy” coupled with an insistence on “place” as being that which “creates the new, by necessity, and frees it from thralldom to ‘beauty’ which is a kind of death and an origin of philosophic despair”:
      The difficulty with the secular “academy” is that while it tends to increase erudition, it detaches it from place. Therefore, instinctively, artists with sense fly from it, to their cost, but by necessity to save themselves. It fails to connect knowledge with a source. . . .
      Paraphrasing the young Jefferson: All literatures are created free and equal—each in its place. The later differences are modifications of the original character by erudition which increases the surface, involuting it, twisting, fanning it out, caving it in but never changing the unique plasm, never superceding the original character and vigor or the lack of it.
      It is true, I believe, that no great literature has come from an insignificant place but has been stamped always with the local power that has generated it.
Recall that Williams’s 1921 piece for Contact (No. 2) called “Comment” (in Selected Essays) originally ended with two quotes. One by John Dewey—“We are discovering that the locality is the only universal.” One by Maurice de Vlaminck—“Intelligence is international, stupidity is national, art is local.”

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Life Mask of Ezra Pound by Nancy Cox McCormack, c. 1922
(Remnant of a Poundian hoax. “Calling it a death mask, he had photographs of it sent on Good Friday to
The Little Review.” Editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap were not fooled. Pound to Williams (21 May 1922): “If you hear a report of my death don’t fer Xt’s sake deny it. Say you expected as much. Suggest Xifiction or assifiction or any other— / & express perlite regret.”)

Rain sloshing down. Marianne Moore, out of the “Foreword” to Predilections (1955):
Silence is more eloquent than speech—a truism; but sometimes something that someone has written excites one’s admiration and one is tempted to write about it; if it is in a language other than one’s own, perhaps to translate it—or try to; one feels that what holds one’s attention might hold the attention of others. That is to say, there is a language of sensibility of which words can be the portrait—a magnetism, an ardor, a refusal to be false . . .
And T. S Eliot, out of the 1923 essay “The Function of Criticism”:
When I say criticism, I mean of course in this place the commentation and exposition of works of art by means of written words . . . No exponent of criticism (in this limited sense) has, I presume, ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity. I do not deny that art may be affirmed to serve ends beyond itself; but art is not required to be aware of these ends, and indeed performs its function, whatever that may be, according to various theories of value, much better by indifference to them. Criticism, on the other hand, must always profess an end in view, which, roughly speaking, appears to be the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.
Ezra Pound, out of “Prefatio Aut Cimicum Tumulus” (literally, “Preface, or Heap of Lice”), in the Pound-edited Active Anthology (1933):
      Mr Eliot’s flattering obeisance to ‘exponents of criticism’, wherein he says that he supposes they have not assumed that criticism is an ‘autotelic activity’, seems to me so much apple-sauce. In so far as the bureaucracy of letters has considered their writing as anything more than a short cut to the feeding trough or a means of puffing up their personal importances, they have done little else for the past thirty years than boost the production of writing about writing, not only as autotelic, but as something which ought to receive more attention from the reading victim than the great books themselves.
      Granted that nobody ought to be such a presumptuous imbecile as to hold up the autotelic false horizon, Mr Eliot describes a terrestrial paradise and not the de facto world, in which more immediate locus we observe a perpetual exchange of civilities between pulex, cimex, vermiformis [flea, bedbug, maggot], etc., each holding up his candle before the shrines of his similars.
      A process having no conceivable final limit and illustratable by my present activity: I mean on this very page, engaging your attention while I talk about Mr Eliot’s essay about other essayists’ essays . . .
Out of John Cage’s A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (1967):
      When I got a letter from Jack Arends asking me to lecture at the Teachers College, I wrote back and said I’d be glad to, that all he had to do was let me know the date. He did. I then said to David Tudor, “The lecture is so soon that I don’t think I’ll be able to get all ninety stories written, in which case, now and then, I’ll just keep my trap shut.” He said, “That’ll be a relief.”
One added louse plucked out of Pound’s pile: “Willingness to experiment is not enough, but unwillingness to experiment is mere death.” Drench of rain redounding. Pure exhibitry, no yatter.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

“A raucous circus . . .”

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Colder days bring a raucous circus of crows into town, all disjoint mummery and fuss, flummery and muss, moveable clots in the treetops. Inadvertent mischief and disintegrating integument. An affray and row in the welter itself. The roof coming un-thatched. “Gesticulating, in the rotted light” (William Fuller). Such promissory mishaps. There’s no way to say it, any of it. The lowliest functions of the heart circumscribed by the ethereal candor of those come undone, by the prerogatives of most regal feculence, that city. “Thank God that’s about finished” (William Carlos Williams). A measure of Williams’s grit and humor: how, corresponding, he repeatedly addressed Pound Liebes Ezrachen, Dear Little Ezra. Measure of how he (Williams) saw through the “piecemeal excellence” of “undesire”—the settled-for loss of banality construed by writing “a smooth page no matter what the incoherence of the day, no matter what erasures must be sacrificed to improve a lying appearance to keep ordered the disorder of the pageless actual” (A Novelette). Williams, who writes (In the American Grain) of entering the citadel (Paris) and meeting its ferociously insouciant citizenry, inhabitant by inhabitant, gutter by gutter—“Picasso (turning to look back, with a smile), Braque (brown cotton), Gertrude Stein (opening the doors of a cabinet of MSS.), Tzara (grinning), André Germain (blocking the door), Van der Pyl (speaking of St. Cloud), Bob Chandler (prodding Marcel), Marcel (shouting), Salmon (in a corner) . . .”:
I was, during that time, with antennae fully extended, but nothing came of it save an awakened realization within myself of that resistant core of nature upon which I had so long been driven for support. I felt myself with ardors not released but beaten back, in this center of old-world culture where everyone was tearing his own meat, warily conscious of a newcomer, but wholly without inquisitiveness—No wish to know; they were served. I saw exhibitions and sat at a few tables, here and there.
Williams, who writes of Williams by writing of Poe’s own impetuous vacillatory glee:
Sometimes he used words so playfully his sentences seem to fly away from sense, the destructive! with the conserving abandon, foreshadowed, of a Gertrude Stein. The particles of language must be clear as sand. (See Diddling.*)
      This was an impossible conception for the gluey imagination of his day. Constantly he labored to detach SOMETHING from the inchoate mass—That’s it:
      His concern, the apex of his immaculate attack, was to detach a “method” from the smear of common usage . . . He struck to lay low the “niaiseries” of form and content with which his world abounded. It was a machine-gun fire; even in the slaughter of banality he rises to a merciless distinction . . . He sought by stress upon construction to hold the loose-strung mass off even at the cost of a icy coldness of appearance; it was the first need of his time, an escape from the formless mass he hated.
“To get from sentiment to form,” Williams writes (a tiny after-echo says—“that was the first heave”), “a backstroke from the swarming ‘population.’” (In a 11 August 1928 letter to Pound, Williams—talking of Henry Adams—notes how “much of what he said is—after all—pure style: never to be understood.”) And see, too, in A Novelette:
The rush that simplifies life, complicates it. There is no time to stop the car to write when only the writing that comes of an intense simplification would be actual. January. January. Now actually the sun returns. Ezra Pound is already looking backward. And we, as if unborn, stare at the impossible cluttered with the temporary, the circumscribed. The composed. The inadequate. While the real, by leaves, by a table, on which lies a ten cent bottle of Aspirin tablets stands sufficiently. Under the cheap crochet table cover—the table is of stained wood, square is a yellow cloth that shows through the open-work. An electric lamp, lit, is in the center, a cloth covered cord running from it to the floor. —This is banality.
A pure (enough) rendering of “the destructive! with . . . conserving abandon . . .” That is to say: sloppy moving into “detailed,” disjunct with lyric moaning (“January. January . . .”), contaminated by the everyday occlusions (and taunts), writing as thigmokinesis (“. . . in which the stimulus is absence of touch or body contact”). Oh dear.
* Out of Poe’s “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” (1850):
Your diddler is minute. His operations are upon a small scale. His business is retail, for cash, or approved paper at sight. Should he ever be tempted into magnificent speculation, he then, at once, loses his distinctive features, and becomes what we term “financier.” This latter word conveys the diddling idea in every respect except that of magnitude. A diddler may thus be regarded as a banker in petto; a “financial operation,” as a diddle at Brobdingnag. The one is to the other, as Homer to “Flaccus,” as a Mastodon to a mouse, as the tail of a comet to that of a pig.
. . .
Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done—when his allotted labors are accomplished—at night in his own closet, and altogether for his own private entertainment.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The 1% (News Sorely Lacking)

At the Poetry Foundation’s seemingly pig in a poke “news & community” aggregator Harriet, a “joint” known to trawl up any old wire service rehash whatsoever (see, say, “Cindy Crawford Reads Kenny Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing”), why no nod to current Poet Laureate Philip Levine’s exchange with Andrew Goldman in the latest New York Times Magazine (“Philip Levine Still Knows How to Make Trouble”)? Two possibilities, each an impertinence in its way to the Foundation and its bevy of apologists:
You’ve written that as a kid, you had such hostility for the upper class that you fantasized about firing a gun at every Cadillac you saw. Still hate the rich?

I don’t, because I’ve met them now under silly circumstances, and they seem like hopeless jerks to me, for the most part. There’s a kind of Protestant ethic that believes that if you’re really a good person, God will reward you with a full table and a garage full of automobiles and a beautiful husband or wife—that we should be judged by what the world has delivered to us. I think if we started making radical changes in the way wealth is distributed in this country, it would be a hell of a lot better.

. . .

I wonder if you agree with John Barr, the president of the Poetry Foundation, who, with the help of a $200 million endowment, has been trying to popularize poetry by encouraging poets to write more upbeat poems.

Hell, no. I can’t believe this guy Barr is a poet, because I don’t think a real poet would think in that way. When a poem comes to you, you’re not going to say, “Oh, no, this goddamned poem is just too mean-spirited.” You’re going to run with it.
Noted, too, today, serendipitously—Charles Bernstein’s upcoming reading at the Foundation on Superior Street is, ahem, sold out. Just another ham-handed story of ordinary outsider become consummate insider . . . call it The Sell Out’s Sell Out . . .

Context N° 23

Roland Topor, “La Grosse tête,” 1970

A new number (N° 23) of Context, a sort of “house organ” of the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press—standard bearer against know-nothingism and literary provinciality in these States—is out. Included, among interviews with Slovenian writer Boris Pahor (Necropolis) and the Swiss-Italian Giovanni Orelli (Walaschek’s Dream) is a piece called “How I Write” by Viktor Shklovsky, translated by Adam Siegel:
. . . Creation in general and the creation of a new literary style in particular often arise when a chance mutation takes hold. More or less like what happens with the development of a new breed of cattle.
. . .
I write beginning with facts. I try not to modify facts. I try to link disparate facts. I may have gotten this from Lomonosov—the juxtaposition of disparate ideas—or it may come from Anatole France, banging the heads of epithets together.
. . .
I begin a work by reading. I read without trying to strain myself. Rather, I try not to commit things to memory. The strain, the attentiveness—they simply get in the way. One should read serenely, just looking at the book . . .
Too, “100 Good Reasons to Kill Myself Right Now,” by Roland Topor, translated by Edward Gauvin (with reason N° 1: “Best way to make sure I’m not dead already”). Too, there’s an excerpt (translated by Aaron Kerner) called “On Noise and Racket” by Arthur Schopenhauer (out of “the great post-Kantian pessimist’s 1851 collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena”) lamenting “the pain occasioned by noise” (Schopenhauer’s particular bête noire appears to be the “abrupt, piercing, brain-shredding, thought-murdering cracks” of the whips of hack-drivers):
For my part, I construe the matter thus: as the value of an enormous diamond smashed to pieces is reduced to that of so many slivers; or as an army, if it scatters—that is to say, dissolves into tiny bands—is rendered impotent; so a great mind is likewise reduced to the commonplace as soon as it has been interrupted, violated, scattered, diverted; for its superiority is conditional on all of its strength—like a convex mirror all its beams—being focused on a single point and object, and precisely in this is it thwarted by clamorous interruption.
And a Craig Dworkin-assembled “catalog of works of silent music”—titled “Unheard Music” and beginning with fictioneer (“best known for pioneering fiction structured on holorhymes”) Alphonse Allais’s 1897 Marche funèbre pour les funérailles d’un grand homme sourd (“Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf VIP”), precursor to John Cage’s 4’33”. (Of the latter, Dworkin writes: “Not to be confused with either the showier 0’00” (1962), “to be performed in any way by anyone” “in a situation provided with maximum amplification” or the watered-down Tacet (1960), which “may be performed by (any) instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time.”) A piece of Emmanuel Hocquard’s called “Ma Vie Privée” (out of Hocquard’s 2001 collection Ma haie: Un privé à Tanger 2 (P.O.L), a thing I keep desultorily rendering, gets a partial airing, too:
14. Literature is a machine to produce Literature, not thinking, not critique. In order to study, or to critique, I have no need of Literature. No more than I do philosophy. To tell the truth, for thinking, nobody needs it. I have no need of Literature for critical thinking, but I need to think critically about Literature seeing as how I’ve so imprudently fallen into it. To think critically about Literature is not a way to make it; it’s a way to remove it, to rub it out, to undo it. And, by doing so, remove it in me, undo it in me, rub a hole in the paper of my faults. I’m in the camp of the chicken and the cow, but I think about what the little girl reads. About how there’s something a little suspect in what she reads.

15. Nevertheless, you’ll say, you write. And you publish the things you write. I write. I write out of a need to think. That’s how I’m made. I need to think by writing. For myself. I myself am the one who’s addressed, not my reader. Olivier said it—and he was right—, “the reader’s the one who sinks a book.” Who makes of it something more, in place of something less. I try to write books of less. Because, for me, to think by writing is an attempt to focus.

16. The private is employed so as to focus or shine a light into obscure regions, not so as to make them more numerous.

17. Regarding literature though, that obscure region—it’s no more than a drop of water compared to the Pacific Ocean of unadulterated obscurities that makes up my life. And, talking about my life—it, too, is terribly murky. I sense somehow that there’s something suspect in saying my life. I keep the word life under extremely high surveillance, as a doubtful concept. My sixth sense warns me that it’s a big word. One of those big words on which one constructs the kind of dam that bursts on the river K. What makes me say that my life seems suspect to me? The fact that my in my life means something different than my in, for example, my shoe. It’s got a different tone. If I write, I lost my shoe, the shoe’s the object I lost. If I write, I lost my life, I can’t simply think of my life as an object. Who’s ever bequeathed his life to anybody by will and testament?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Williams’s Joyce

William Carlos Williams, c. 1962
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Williams Carlos Williams—“Just finished Ulysses . . .”—writes to Ezra Pound (15 August 1922) with “one comment”: “It encourages me to champion my own particular form of stupidity.” Likely he’s talking of The Great American Novel (1923):
      It is Joyce with a difference. The difference being greater opacity, less erudition, reduced power of perception—Si la sol fa mi re do. Aside from that simple, rather stupid derivation, forced to a ridiculous extreme. No excuse for this sort of thing. Amounts to a total occlusion of intelligence. Substitution of something else. What? Well, nonsense. Since you drive me to it.
That “you” being Pound himself. Who’s carped / harrumphed some years earlier about Williams’s “opacity” (10 November 1917: “The thing that saves your work is opacity, and don’t you forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality. Fizz, swish, gabble and verbiage, these are echt Amerikanish . . .”) and who’s (12 September 1920) spluttered out against Williams’s Kora in Hell: “what the French real reader wd. say to your ‘Improvisations’ is / Voui, c(h)a j(h)ai deja (f)vu c(h)a c(h)a c’est de R(h)imb(h)aud,” the finicky typing required to capture that wholly indiscernible accent effectively thwarting whatever oomph Pound intended by the remark. (Williams worries the slight, though, and repeats it in The Great American Novel: “Take the improvisations: What the French reader would say is: Oui, ça; j’ai déjà vu ça; ça c’est de Rimbaud.” Adding trenchantly enough: “Representative American verse will be that which will appear new to the French . . . . prose the same.”) For Williams, Joyce’s “real, if hidden, service” is—interminable struggle against the ever-shifting doxology of “literature”—in seeing that the art “consists of words”: “He has in some measure liberated words, freed them for their proper uses. He has to be a great measure destroyed what is known as ‘literature.’”* Thus Williams’s exchange:
      That’s all very fine about le mot juste but first the word must be free. —But is there not some other way? It must come about gradually. Why go down into hell when— Because words are not men, they have no adjustments that need to be made. They are words. They can not be anything but free or bound. . . .
      The word is the thing. If it is smeared with colors from right and left what can it amount to?
The purely material word. Emphatically put in Williams’s piece called “Marianne Moore” (1925) wherein he talks of Moore’s “wiping soiled words or cutting them clean out, removing the aureoles that have been pasted about them or taking them bodily from greasy contexts”:
With Miss Moore a word is a word most when it is separated out by science, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried and placed right side up on a clean surface.
Making of the word a curiously empty vessel—rather like an impertinently fillable form, like the Williams-detested sonnet. Williams says such an acid-washed word “may be used to smear it again with thinking (the attachments of thought) but in such a way that it will remain scrupulously itself, clean perfect, unnicked beside other words . . .” All somewhat mystical—extremity ever is—a way of making a clearing, a zero point against the stylishly “literary” (Williams calls the era’s “usual ‘poem’” a “commonplace opaque board covered with vain curlicues”—a definition fit for exhuming, apt for some of “our” own gewgaws . . .)
* Note, too, the lines—“But Joyce. He is misjudged, misunderstood. His vaunted invention is a fragile fog. His method escapes him. He has not the slightest notion what he is about. He is a priest, a roysterer of the spirit. He is an epicurean of romance. His true genius flickers and fails.” Is Williams out to “do the police in different voices” here, or is that to be read as sincerely “against method,” all art “advancing” by unremittent brave goofing off?