Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ronald Johnson’s “Six, Alas!”

Edith Sitwell, 1887-1964

Lately alerted to Ronald Johnson’s “Six, Alas!”—a circa 1990 Chicago Review-published “toast to six women writers, hardly unknown but alike disregarded at present by fashion”—with its deftly considered applaudissements. For Edith Sitwell (“in England I was prepared for many an incomprehension, but the blank wall set up against Edith I always wanted to leap over and set up a ruckus of quotation”), Edna St. Vincent Millay (“No other poet I recall has been so acclaimed then so eclipsed. Within a decade Eliot had made her old hat”), Louise Bogan (Johnson quotes Bogan’s clipped and pertinent verdict regarding “the practice of lyric poetry”: “The chances of getting away with pure fakery within it are very small. One cannot fib—it shows, one cannot manipulate—it spoils. One cannot apply decoration from the outside; or pretend that non-feeling is feeling; or indulge in any of the lower-grade emotions, such as self-pity”), Stevie Smith (“As to technique, she was as unselfconscious as Blake about jarring sense into song. For those who never heard her, the poems can seem ungainly on the page, though when she read aloud they could stick in the ear like Tin Pan Alley”), and Lorine Niedecker (“We admired each other’s poems, though we never met. Shy, she liked it that way, for most attention, other than letters, made her too self-conscious and awkward, she was so unused to it. She’s likened by her readers to Emily Dickinson, not only for this, but for her plain wry dignity with every word.”) The sixth “alas”—Johnson’s opening is a remarkable paean to the way we lose things, alas—some unjustly, others not so—and the need for looking, and selecting:
We all like to believe, as readers, the sands of time might part to show landmark authors, shining a new horizon. It is part of our myth that straw for the bricks of Modernism might be threshed from things like Pound’s exasperation with Sordello, his fascination with Provençal poets’ reiteration of sounds, from Eliot refurbishing Donne for the pantheon, and the unwrapping of fragments of pure Sappho, forgotten, from minor Egyptian mummies. Though every time has its winds—in truth there is not an Ozimandias under every dune.
The sixth “alas” is Elizabeth Bowen, allowing Johnson both to quote the terrific opening to Death of the Heart (“That morning's ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam”—Johnson’s remark: “Indelible, that “down which swans in slow indignation swam”—a frieze with all the swans’ neck s’s held in rhythm’s sway”—critical sentence-ry mimicking what it addresses) and to defend the capacity of prose, too, to “make the stone stoney” (Shklovsky). Johnson:
Our first read-through of Shakespeare makes any defined border between poetry and prose a quicksand. Later, we might make the distinction that whereas poetry is always visible, like stepping stones on a page, prose is more like water you swim through. First from Flaubert and Joyce, then Henry James, I began to see prose might be also word by word, and phrase after phrase, actually physically enjoyable as poetry, something to read and re-read for itself. And that this might include many before and in between Sir Thomas Browne and Elizabeth Bowen.
One begins to comprehend how Johnson’s own work ranges so effortlessly along genres, visual poetry’s distinct markers to “watery” prose poems. And, noting the humble incisings of Johnson’s criticism, the deft grace of its modesty—oughtn’t “the age” have demanded more of it?

Johnson’s “Six, Alas!” sends me off to the derided (F. R. Leavis apparently opined: “the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity, rather than of poetry”—a remark probably more apt for some of “our” own current Twittering marketeers) Sitwell’s “Some Notes on My Own Poetry”—Johnson calls it “a text to shove alongside Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and Louis Zukofsky’s anthology A Test of Poetry.” A sample:
      At the time I began to write, a change in the direction, imagery and rhythms in poetry had become necessary, owing to the rhythmical flaccidity, the verbal deadness, the dead and expected patterns, of some of the poetry immediately preceding us.
      Rhythm is one of the principal translators between dream and reality. Rhythm might be described as, to the world of sound, what light is to the world of sight. It shapes and gives new meaning. Rhythm was described by Schopenhauer as melody deprived of its pitch.
      The great architect, Monsieur Le Corbusier, said that, as the result of the Machine Age, 'new organs awake in us, another diapason, a new vision.’ He said of persons listening to the sound of certain machinery that ‘the noise was so round that one believed a change in the acoustic functions was taking place.’ It was therefore necessary to find rhythmical expressions for the heightened speed of our time. . . .
      There was a great deal of opposition to the revivification of rhythmic patterns. But even the greatest of all rhythmic patterns, those not made by the hand of Man, have been misapprehended. The otherwise great mind of Bishop Burnet, who died in 1715, was so seriously disturbed by the unsymmetrical arrangement of the stars that he rebuked the Creator for His lack of technique. ‘What a beautiful hemisphere they would have made,’ he exclaimed, ‘if they had been placed in rank and order; if they had all been disposed in regular figures . . . all finished and made up into one fair piece, or great composition, according to the rules of art and symmetry.’
      We must not complain, therefore, if the patterns in the humble works of Man are not perceived immediately by the unobservant.
      Therefore, to rebukes and protests, I returned the answer, ‘God comfort thy capacity,’ and went on my way.
(“A ruckus of quotation.”) Devilishly sly stuff.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Omnidirectional Unpreparedness

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, 1783-1840

Two days of conducting myself out and back across the snowy reaches like a projectile in the night, sucking down the long skittish and cock-eyed slants of my own lights, their coldly inebriant draughts making reverie itself word-bound and prevaricatory (Williams: “Though the eye / turns inward, the mind / has spread its embrace—in / a wind that / roughs the stiff petals—”). Meaning: unpreparedness, no penny in the slot. So I am stuck here about to deliver myself up to another unconsidered round of what Kenneth Burke somewhere calls “versificationally primping”—that nowhere junket. (Horace Walpole, in a letter dated 28 June 1760, writes to cousin Henry Seymour Conway: “Now you have a whole summer to yourself, and you are as junkettaceous as my lady Northumberland. Pray, what horse-race do you go to next?”) Horse-race after horse-race. One thinks of the rabid and omnidirectional energies of the nineteenth c. naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. I love the candle-bearing beetle episode reported by John James Audubon. The violin-destroying collecting method. Out of the Ornithological Biography):
      It was summer, and the heat was so great that the windows were all open. The light of the candles attracted many insects, among which was observed a large species of Scarabæus. I caught one, and, aware of his inclination to believe only what he should himself see, I shewed him the insect, and assured him it was so strong that it would crawl on the table with the candlestick on its back. “I should like to see the experiment made, Mr. Audubon,” he replied. It was accordingly made, and the insect moved about, dragging its burden so as to make the candlestick change its position as if by magic, until coming upon the edge of the table, it dropped on the floor, took to wing, and made its escape.
      When it waxed late, I shewed him to the apartment intended for him during his stay, and endeavoured to render him comfortable, leaving him writing materials in abundance. I was indeed heartily glad to have a naturalist under my roof. We had all retired to rest. Every person I imagined was in deep slumber save myself, when of a sudden I heard a great uproar in the naturalist’s room. I got up, reached the place in a few moments, and opened the door, when, to my astonishment, I saw my guest running about the room naked, holding the handle of my favourite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces against the walls in attempting to kill the bats which had entered by the open window, probably attracted by the insects flying around his candle. I stood amazed, but he continued jumping and running round and round, until he was fairly exhausted, when he begged me to procure one of the animals for him, as he felt convinced they belonged to “a new species.” Although I was convinced of the contrary, I took up the bow of my demolished Cremona, and administering a smart tap to each of the bats as it came up, soon got specimens enough . . .
By my lights, offertory enough to saddle up (or wing out), and make my escape.

Friday, January 27, 2012

“In pulses, in strokes . . .”

George Santayana, 1863-1952

Doodling. Somewhere William Gass says “and” is a “sunderer”: any conjunct a wedge keeping distinct the objects it attempts to join. “And then went down to the ship”: Pound beginning the Cantos with a temporal rip. Pulling the long adhesive strip of the poem down off the expanses of confusio, that ongoing continuum of aimless voicings. (Some found within.) “Þerfor was clepid þe name of it Babel, for þer was confoundid þe lypp of all erþ.” Out of the Wycliffe Bible. “The lip of all earth.” Lip meaning “language”—recall the idiom of the sass police: “don’t give me any of your lip!”Williams’s Babel being the Great Falls of the Passaic: “The noise of the Falls seemed to me to be a language which we were and are seeking and my search, as I looked about, became to struggle to interpret and use this language. This is the substance of the poem.” And:
(What common language to unravel?
.     .     combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock’s
                                              I must
find my meaning and lay it, white,
beside the sliding water: myself—
comb out the language—or succumb . . .
Hardly doodling. There’s a reply (dated “Grand Hotel, Rome, 4, I, 1941”) by George Santayana to a letter by Ezra Pound (reproduced in Machine Art and Other Writings) that may be apt. Santayana, after dismissing Pound’s doodle-covered verbiage (“vide diagram”) with a rebuke gently put for being, I suspect, merely honest (“I can’t reply to your suggestions and diagrams because I don’t understand them”) writes:
Existence comes in pulses, in strokes. I see no reason for not stopping, or for stopping, anywhere in that flux. Existence has as many centres as it happens to have, as many moments[,] feelings, assumptions, questions—all in the air and with no power over one another. But if we have time and patience to study a natural world, posited as the source and common continuum in all this existence, we assume that it has dynamic unity: otherwise from one point in it we could never justly infer or posit any other point in it. This is my argument for materialism.
One recalls, in Paterson, the “tabular account of the specimens” found in the “Artesian well at the Passaic Rolling Mill, Paterson” that Williams places directly en face excerpts of a hectoring and condescending letter sent by Pound (“Enny how there must be / one hundred books (not / that one) that you need to / read fer yr/ mind’s sake. . . . & nif you want a readin / list ask papa—but don’t / go rushin to read a book / just cause it is mentioned / eng passang—is fraugs.”) Williams’s counter list. In manuscript, Williams specified that the excerpts “occupy a full page, as it stands—facing the page following,” that lovely “description of materials”—“Fine quicksand, reddish . . . Pyrites . . . Sandy rock, under quicksand . . . Dark red sandstone,” &c.—confronted at various depths by those doing the boring of the substratum for the well. “Existence comes in pulses, in strokes.” And Williams (adducing energies beyond the mantric usual “No ideas but in things”):
                        I see things,             .             .

—the water at this stage no lullaby but a piston,
cohabitous, scouring the stones           .
And Gass: “‘And’ is produced initially with an open mouth, the breath flowing out, but then that breath is driven up against the roof, toward the nose, even invading it before the sound is stoppered by the tongue against the teeth.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Williams’s Stray Essays, &c.

Williams Carlos Williams, c. 1951
(Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

In the Williams number of Perspective (1953) is notice of “two new books by William Carlos Williams in 1954”:
      Mr. Williams has just signed a contract with Random House to print a 50-page book of his latest poems. This book is scheduled for early next year.
      Next summer a volume of his collected prose will be published. Its probable title: “Essays, Addresses, Criticism, Reviews—The Shorter Prose Pieces of W.C.W.”
Intent evidently narrowed (or notice inflated): Random House releases Williams’s Selected Essays in 1954, hardly a “collected prose.” In 1985, New Directions prints the James E.B. Breslin-edited Something to Say: William Carlos Williams on Younger Poets, labeling it the initial volume in the “William Carlos Williams archive series.” Even a casual leaf-through of Emily Mitchell Wallace’s 1968 Bibliography of William Carlos Williams uncovers a goodly number of uncollected prose pieces, some nigh-entirely fugitive (see the 1937 essay called “The So-Called So-Called” in The Patroon, a magazine out of Teaneck, N.J., accompanying a “demonstration” poem titled “The Girl (With Big Breasts)”), some traceable with little difficulty (see Williams’s Villon note in the Anthony Bonner-translated Bantam paperback edition of The Complete Works of François Villon—“Published February, 1960, at 50¢; 80,000 copies printed.”) Isn’t a complete “collected prose” of Williams long overdue? Here’s one item—not scarce, but somewhat overlooked, Williams continuing the attempt to define “objective”—out of the William Rose Benét and Norman Holmes Pearson-edited Oxford Anthology of American Literature (1938):
A Note on Poetry

      The American writer, insofar as he is child of the Anglo Saxon tradition, uses a language which stems largely from Elizabethan England but which has been modified by time and the accidents of place to acquire a character differing greatly from that of present day english. For the appreciation of American poetry it is necessary that the English reader accept this language difference from the beginning.
      Its effects are discernible in many ways. Pace is one of the most important of its manifestations. This is particularly significant in versification since it is the direct forerunner of poetic form. It is by paying attention to the character of the spoken language that form is detected in its beginnings and later refined for exact use.
      By listening to the language of his locality the poet begins to learn his craft. It is his function to lift, by use of his imagination and the language he hears, the material conditions and appearances of his environment to the sphere of the intelligence where they will have new currency. Thus anything that the poet can effectively lift from its dull bed by force of the imagination becomes his material. Anything. The commonplace, the tawdry, the sordid all have their poetic uses if the imagination can lighten them. This broadening of the choice in the materials of poetry has great modern significance; there is an older parallel to it in painting, where by dwelling upon light itself the artist has often drawn many otherwise unsightly objects into his works.
      Emotion clusters about common things, the pathetic often stimulates the imagination to new patterns—but the job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language which is to him authentic. In my own work it has always sufficed that the object of my attention be presented without further comment. This in general might be termed the objective method. But all art is sensual and poetry particularly so. It is directly, that is, of the senses, and since the senses do not exist without an object for their employment all art is necessarily objective. It doesn’t declaim or explain; it presents.
      But an image is not a poem, for that would leave the language and the form of the poem at loose ends. A poem is a whole, an object in itself, a ‘word’ with a particular meaning old or new. The whole poem, image and form, that is, constitutes a single meaning. This is the full meaning of the term ‘objective’ as I employ it.
      Times change and forms and their meanings alter. Thus new poems are necessary. Their forms must be discovered in the spoken, the living language of their day, or old forms, embodying exploded concepts, will tyrannize over the imagination, depriving us of its greatest benefits. In the forms of new poems will lie embedded the essences of future enlightenment.
Accompanied by the poems “Peace on Earth,” “The Bull,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “The Sea-Elephant,” “Rain,” “The Botticellian Trees,” “Nantucket,” “The Red Lily,” “This Is Just to Say,” “The Yachts,” and “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Heraclitus of Ephesus, c. 535-c. 475 BCE
(Painting by Johannes Moreelse, c. 1603-1634)

“Dogs, too, bark at what they do not know.” That according to Heraclitus (according to Plutarch). Crows blacking up the tree’s reaches, iniquitous flowers of the damned, refusing to bloom. Tourniquets in the limbs. Cawing foolishly. Making dog noises. (Plutarch assigned to Heraclitus, too, a remark about “the Sibyl with raving mouth” who “utters things mirthless and unadorned and unperfumed,” and whose “voice carries through a thousand years because of the god [who speaks through her].” One commentary reads in part: “just as the Sibyl’s power comes not from herself but from the god, so Heraclitus’ authority is derived not from his own person or opinions but from the cosmic logos in whose name he speaks: “listen not to me but to the logos.” Jack Spicer city. The breakdown: “The point is that words are not something which in themselves are anything but Lowghosts, instead of the Logos. Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head, just as memories are, various other pieces of furniture in this room that this Martian has to put the clues in . . .”

Kenneth Burke, writing to William Carlos Williams in a letter dated 14 February 1947 (opening, “Dawlink, be my valentine”): “Some years ago, I suffered from a most damnable symptom. When I read certain words, I would ‘hear’ totally different words. I recognized the word as it was, but at the same time I ‘heard’ this other one. And apparently this outlaw word would always be the same. (Though I know I had something here, I was really too frightened to encourage the dislocation by taking notes on it. Rather ‘waste’ it, I thought, and try to kill it, than ‘cultivate’ it, perhaps to my permanent confusion. But I do, in spite of my resolve, remember one such outlawry, such dissociate association: every time, in the newspaper, I read ‘industry,’ along with this word, I heard ‘insanity,’ just as clearly as though it had symptoms of the same sort: I would wake up in the night, for instance with the suddenness of a shot; some word had been spoken, and this word awoke me. And then something would occur which I can best suggest by calling it a zigzag flash of lightning. For of a sudden, spontaneously, I would remember a whole series of ‘connected’ things (things that I had never before thought of as connected, or often things I had not remembered at all, but that seemed ‘connected’ from the standpoint of this ‘key’ word that had awakened me). The zigzag might connect, for instance, something that had happened yesterday, something I had written in a review, something I had said in an argument or as a wisecrack, some hitherto unexplained response to another person, something out of my novel, something out of my childhood, etc. On these, too, I started to take notes; and then I quit because the symptom was increasing—so for months I resolutely refused to take a single note that thus occurred to me spontaneously . . .”

Out of Spicer’s “A Textbook of Poetry” (“It was the first appearance of the Logos that said, ‘The public be damned,’ by which he did not mean that they did not matter or he wanted to be crucified by them, but that really he did not have a word to say to them . . .”):

      The poet thinks continually of strategies, of how he can win out against the poem.

      Seeking experience for specific instances, drawing upon the pulp of the brain and the legs and the arms and the motion of the poet, making him see things that can be conveyed though their words.

      Or disbelief too. Seeking experience for specific instances. And in the gradual lack of the beautiful, the lock of the door before him, a new Eurydice, stepping up to him, punning her way through his hell.

      They won’t come through. Nothing comes through. The death

      Of every poem in every line

      The argument con-
Stupendous gaffe of the Martian commandant: “. . . things that can be conveyed though their words.” Triggering the oscillatory ruse: “conveyed through their words” and “conveyed though they’re words” in alternant survey and exam. “Define ghosts as an India-rubber eraser created to erase their own past . . .”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Incessant Flux

Great Falls, Paterson, New Jersey
(Photograph by Mark Hillringhouse)

Tired of scratching at the midden-
heap to pull out some ready
bit of usable debris or delectable
chunk of supposed commonality, I chop
green cilantro ‘coarsely’ and throw it
into a pot of canned cannellini
beans and cumin-smeared chicken, ‘expert
in home-cosmography.’ I am surrounded
by books, relics of the incessant
flux of novelty into the world,
useless imperturbables of the sweet constant
juddering . . .
The beginnings of something. Maybe. Riding along a wave of sluggardly dilatoriness and deferral, doing anything but. Reading Paterson
                                    in which a falls unseen
tumbles and rights itself
and refalls—and does not cease, falling
and refalling with a roar, a reverberation
not of the falls but of its rumor
—“rumor / unabated” being precisely what is found in books, hearsay crudely limned, snatches and forays “at” the world, little anticipatory nothings, din subsumed by itself. (I think of Roman Jakobson’s line in “On Realism and Art” (1921): “verisimilitude in a verbal expression or in a literary description obviously makes no sense whatever.”) Recent tendency to long to shove words—unfixed, petulant words; foot-dragging adherents to “meaning”—its obstinacy and inflexibility; suborned words; loosely clumped and vasty words—aimlessly about against the dull torrent of sense. Paterson:
      Texts mount and complicate them-
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations. So be it.
Until the words break loose or—sadly
hold, unshaken. Unshaken! So be it. For
the made-arch holds, the water piles up debris
against it but it is unshaken.
A line out of Langland’s Piers Plowman: “The erthe quook and quashte • as hit quyke were . . .” The seemingness and pretence of making a word “break loose”—shucking off its verisimilous “quyke”—not unlike the juddering of the “erthe.” Paterson:

“The 7th December, this year, (1737) at night, was a large shock of an earthquake, accompanied with a remarkable rumbling noise; people waked in their beds, the doors flew open, bricks fell from the chimneys; the consternation was serious, but happily no great damage ensued.”

Or (out of the Marcia Nardi letter): “living (unsafe living, I mean) isn’t something one just sits back and decides about. It happens to one, in a small way, like measles; or in a big way, like a leaking boat or an earthquake . . .” Williams’s sense of the earth: source and rumor-monger, immovable movable ongoing, ceaseless (futile?) chatterer against the “din”:
And standing, shrouded there, in that din,
Earth, the chatterer, father of all
speech     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
That at the end of Book One, succeeded only by the late-added note (out of John Addington Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets) concerning the “deformed and mutilated verses . . . called Χωλίμβοι or ἴαμβοι σχάζοντεσ (lame or limping iambics)”: “Deformed verse . . . suited to deformed morality.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

“Speech is the fountain . . .”

Hugh Kenner, 1923-2003
(“I am the last man alive to have heard Ezra Pound’s impersonation of Henry James.”)

Shreds of fog low to the ground. The weekend’s snow in messy retreat. A distinct sense of “nothing to say.” Or “nothing left to say.” The overweening high timbrel of the thinking helmet busted off. (Gavin Douglas’s Aeneid: “The portratour of armes was mysknaw, / All war bot Grekis tymbrallis at thai saw.”) Took by Kay Boyle’s remark c. 1932 concerning form, its lack. Reported by Williams in a letter to Boyle:
You say: “Some kind of poetic form has to be found or I’ll go crazy. I can’t go on taking what you (and others) make possible and beautiful. I think I’ve got lots to say in poetry and no, no, no form. Lousy—loose—no punch—no shape—no agony of line like the back-side or a lovely thigh or whatnot.”
Williams’s initial reply: “Precisely.” With, somewhat predictably, renewed call for a turn toward speech: “there can no longer be serious work in poetry written in ‘poetic’ diction. It is a contortion of speech to conform to a rigidity of line. It is in the newness of a live speech that the new line exists undiscovered. To go back is to deny the first opportunity for invention which exists. Speech is the fountain of the line into which the pollutions of a poetic manner and inverted phrasing should never again be permitted to drain.”

Stasis and fallowness eighty years down the road. (Or, say, forty years along, measuring off the exceedingly contra-Williams oomph of Robert Grenier’s 1971 “I HATE SPEECH” declaration, breach-mark of what adherents love to call “the turn to language”—mannerist sclerosis in the making . . .) My sense of form in the current period: oddly, a thing hardly considered, viewed as inapplicable, hardly a cumbrance or a concern, simply a non-issue. The available mish-mash—organic form’s slovenly offspring stepping out with the gauds and baubles of worn-out New Sentence accessories—that’ll do. (That’ll have to do.) Lack of formal investigatory means or desires. Form second fiddling to content: replaced by evacuatory gush dependent on mere excess, replete with a newly codified abject. Isn’t there every sign of a mostly form-vacuous neo-confessionalism at work un peu partout? See, say, Ariana Reines’s tawdry narcissisms.

Williams, out of The Great American Novel (1923), that irascible and undainty spoof, earnest in its spoofing:
Bah. Words are words. Fog of words. The car runs through it. The words take up the smell of the car. Petrol. Face powder, arm pits, food-grease in the hair, foul breath, clean musk. Words. Words cannot progress. There cannot be a novel. Break the words. Words are indivisible crystals. One cannot break them—Awu tsst grang splith gra pragh og bm—Yes, one can break them. One can make words. Progress? If I make a word I make myself into a word. Such is progress. I shall make myself into a word. One big word. One big union. Such is progress. It is a novel. I begin small and make myself into a big splurging word: I take life and make it into one big blurb. I begin at my childhood. I begin at the beginning and make one big–Bah.
Geoffrey Grigson, in a 1952 review in Poetry, called Williams’s work “poetry of the incessant ticker-tape.” (One wonders if Philip Whalen’s formulation of the poem as a “picture or graph of the mind moving” or as “A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines” owes anything to Grigson’s offhand metaphor?) Williams himself, writing to Kenneth Burke (in a letter marked “Rome, March 26, 1924”), admits (and protests): “Yes, my Gr. Amer. Novel never found a beginning. It was that I must have wanted to say. And that’s how you get me, one of the ones with that in him that I am after. It’s got to be said to be read. I am trying to speak. To tell it in the only way possible, but I do want to say what there is. It is not for me merely to arrange things prettily. Oh purple anemones! (you get what I mean? I mean ‘Shit.’ But I’m through with that now. No more “shits.” It is dead, that kind of slang.)”

Williams’s enormous doubt, and doubt’s vacillatory burdensomeness. Hugh Kenner—in 1953, in “A Note on ‘The Great American Novel’”—notes how “the American language, or the part of it that interests Williams, is distinguished by a sort of amnesia:
Though their colloquial vocabularies are restricted, their syntax simple, and their speech-rhythms the reverse of Ciceronian, Americans don’t utter a gelatinous Basic English. They have rhythmic and idiomatic means of concentrating meaning in these counters, shifting the burden of the sentence with a certain laconic grace from word to word, which falsifies the unthinking novelist’s assumption that the way to extract the unuttered meanings of American experience is to assist these pidgin gropings with the fuller cadences of European prose. European prose, when it attempts to grapple with American material, yields nothing but suave cliché.
Kenner quotes the “European voice” at the beginning of Chapter XI:
      Eh bien mon vieux coco, this stuff that you have been writing today, do you mean that you are attempting to set down the American background? You will go mad. Why? Because you are trying to do nothing at all. The American background? It is Europe. It can be nothing else . . .
Kenner’s argument: “This mind”—the European one—“thinks in phrases, not in words: the upward lilt between its punctuation marks is the signature of a habit of apprehension shaped by Latin prose. A European would have imparted a more elegant rhythm to the answering sentence, which comes with Williams’ own unmistakable flatness: As far as I have gone it is accurate.”

Small fogs in retreat. “Pretense to integrity an empty shell.” Bah. A cur’s defiant intent (“nothing to say”) to avoid, at least, inaccuracy.

Friday, January 20, 2012


“It was Twenty Foot square, placed in the Middle of the Room.”
(Out of Jonathan Swift’s
Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships . . ., London, 1726)

One degree morning. Thinking machine’s lubricant nigh-solidified. One obvious point de repère. Williams, The Wedge (1944):
To make two bald statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.
      Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a 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.
There’s Williams, too, “An Approach to the Poem” (1947), refining the note: “. . . it is a small (or large) mechanism or engine, as Saintsbury said, composed of words to do a certain job.” And adding, “as a forewarning”:
. . . it is an engine that needs continual redesigning in each period of the world so as to increase its capacity in order to refresh the world (if possible) in each period by conceiving the world anew . . .
(Hard to figure exactly what particular, if any, Saintsbury reference Williams is recalling. In a 20 June 1947 letter to Kenneth Burke, prior to attending a writers’ conference in Salt Lake City, Williams reported “reading Saintsbury’s Manual of English Prosody in preparation for bouts with [Allan] Tate who will be also at Utah—so’s not to be caught with my pants too far down on technical matters.” Saintsbury’s usage of “engine” seems mostly to mean “device”: “certainly that powerful and dangerous engine, the pause, comes into play here,” “Pope’s other engine for attaining his effect was phraseology,” &c.)

Machined. That ongoing reverie of some “Contrivance” by means of which “the most ignorant Person . . . with a little bodily Labour, might write Books in Philosophy, Poetry . . . without the least Assistance from Genius or Study . . .” Donc, Jonathan Swift’s writing machine in Gulliver’s Travels:
It was Twenty Foot square, placed in the Middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several Bits of Wood, about the Bigness of a Dye, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These Bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language, in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order.
Operated: “Pupils . . . took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were Forty fixed round the Edges of the Frame; and giving them a sudden Turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed . . . Six and Thirty of the Lads . . . read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make Part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes . . .”

Pound, out of “Machine Art” (1927-1930):
The Form

      The necessity is to keep one’s different ideas from barging into each other.
      In looking at any machine one must sort out the essential parts from the parts that merely happen to be there and which keep an assemblage of machines in more or less fortuitous relation to each other. . . .

Objections to Machines

      Objection to machines has probably disappeared from all, save a few belated crania. No machine ever interfered with a man’s personality or damaged his liberty. Machines were made to eliminate work and produce leisure. Overcrowding, bad placing, bad ventilation of work rooms, all these results of greed and ineradicable human stupidity may have done harm, but can not be blamed on the machine. Machine products have been ugly but even the parochial aesthetic knows by now that this is due to human stupidity and not to machines; the same result has occurred in handwork, painting, music, whenever the worker or artist has gone in for flummydiddle instead of proportion.

Beckett, out of Molloy (French, 1951 / English, 1955):
. . . I take a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it, stop sucking it, put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty (of stones). I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it, put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket of my greatcoat is empty (apart from its usual and casual contents) and the six stones I have just sucked, one after the other, are all in the left pocket of my greatcoat. Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of stones, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the right way, that is to say with other stones than those I have just sucked. These other stones I then begin to suck, one after the other, and to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat, being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this kind, that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but others. And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty (of stones), and the five I have just sucked are all without exception in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I proceed to the same redistribution as a moment before, or a similar redistribution, that is to say I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, now again available, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on? . . . It was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck the stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with method, was also I think a bodily need. Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen . . .

Gunk in the gearing. Williams (“An Approach to the Poem”):
When the form has been completed, when it has at last flowered, it begins at once to become sclerotic and has to be broken down once more to the elements—elements, as when English first differed from Latin and Greek, as when Italian grew from Latin and Dante adopted it . . . The elements were new—opening new realms of feeling unknown to the earlier languages.
      Everything has to be broken down, not cynically, not without a deep sense of its old dignity, to get at the essential: the formal unit in its purity (that has been tied into now partially meaningless configurations by old languages) . . .

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Alan Halsey’s Even if only out of

Alan Halsey, c. 2006
(Photograph by Peter Griffiths)

The initial piece—untitled, suddenly there—in Alan Halsey’s Even if only out of (Veer Books, 2011) reads:
      white persimmon
                white persimmon
            without permission
                white persimmon
    without permission
                without permission
Pure relishing of plosives and sibilants severally arrayed. Lip stretches and ear exercises for the goofy heck of it. Somewhere out beyond Gertrude Stein territory, aimless tonguing of a virelangue “without permission.” I think of Ashbery’s remark about O’Hara’s poem called “Poem” that begins “At night Chinamen jump / On Asia with a thump”—how O’Hara, “in the academic atmosphere of the late 1940s” is “amusing himself, another highly suspect activity”—and concede that the current “atmosphere”—caught among the aggressive fatuousness and terminal ironies of flarf’s knowing “humor,” a hybridity all self-consciously a-bristle with the worn-out marks of “experimentalist” doxology, and the determined excesses of Cambridge-sycophancy gibberish (to point to only three areas of earnest) may, it too, warrant the “activity.” Anything for a—O’Hara again—“sign that people do not totally regret life.” Here, in Halsey’s work, a ludic sensibility is combined with a nuanced sense of literary history, an easy-in-its-skin bookishness without idolatry, what Halsey himself calls the work of a “logoclast”—to break the too-serious word, to twit the dogmatic:
A Logoclast’s Lost Weekend

A live ideal dead
vade mecum or linger,
singer: disappointment’s
only one of the reasons

to feel discouraged.
‘He wrote against’
that is
he opposed both manner

and matter and expressed
as much in the margin.
Another showed
‘adequate charisma’

but it was after all
October. Just as
limousines to
limestone are but

vacuums to a beach
the wide sum denoting
misprinted wisdom
is less roused

than Rousseau’d.
Just as also and
without less love
his dearest said

‘Your prodigious
knowledge of
books is
Adherence to the trappings of the bibliographic—or faux-bibliographic. See the wonderful “Mercurialis the Younger: Fragments translated from the ‘Fortunatus’ Codex with an Exegesis” with its scholarly apparatus intact: one sequence of fragments reads:

[                               ] anticipates—
[                               ] antiquates—


stinks of Black Sea herbs—chants
from a Thessalian hymnbook—
spends all day at the gym
watching that wrestler with the moustache—
cheeks the colour of pistachio—
the same Sibylla I [                  ]


‘the One which inclines toward the One
is the One without before or after’—
Posthumus’ new treatise
comes free with a bottle of Avernus water—
The corresponding exegetical notes:
IV. The most corrupt fragment in this codex. Does it suggest that knowledge of the future would give the present the status of the distant past? M was rarely so philosophic and would have been no admirer of the Four Quartets.
V. The last words have been knifed from the MS. Would anybody censor a phrase such as ‘once loved’? An obscenity seems the likelier provocation. The ‘Black Sea herbs’ and ‘Thessalian hymnbook’ imply that Sibylla hoped to win her wrestler by spells. Perhaps these also required ‘pistachio’ make-up but there is an ambiguity: the complexion is possibly the wrestler’s.
VI. A fragment so obscure it must speak for itself. There are references in the Annales Anticyrae to Posthumus’ Lectures on Plotinus but no text survives.
Against the (presumably) invented works of Mercurialis the Younger, see Halsey’s reworkings of Martial in “Some Versions of Martial.” Gists and piths. Here’s one:

Go, little book.
To read your dirty bits
in Bohn’s edition
London 1860
if they don’t know Latin
the English will teach
themselves Italian.
That expertly parsing what Walter C. A. Ker renders thus:
Would you rather dwell in the shops of the Potters’ Field although, small volume, my bookcase stands empty for you? You don’t know, alas, you don’t know the superciliousness of Mistress Rome; believe me, the crowd of Mars is too clever for you. Nowhere are heard louder sneers; young men and old, even boys, have noses tilted like a rhinoceros. When you have heard a deep “Bravo,” when you are throwing kisses, up you will go, shot heavenward from a jerked blanket. But you, to avoid your master’s constant erasures, and the scoring of your playfulness by his critical pen, are eager, wanton one, to flit through the airs of heaven. Go! fly! yet you might have been safer at home.
Or see how Halsey reduces nine lines of Martial [4.89]—cringingly rendered by Ker—“Ho, there! Ho, there! . . . enough, my little book. We have now come to the very end: you still want to go on further and continue . . . &c.”—to:
Stuff it, little book. Self-love
won’t prolong your shelf-life.
Succeeding in shelving the “literary” (along with its “Ho, there!” littérateurs) right up there next to the grocery’s can of corn. (See, too, Halsey’s deft limning of the seventieth epigram of Martial’s Book X: “I’ll tell you why I’ve written so little / this year, Potitus: I spent a whole / day at a literature festival.”) A final Martial, without commentary, too tempting to relent:

Even Bohn translates this one
but in pussyfooting prose. I didn’t say
the gent had his ‘desires aroused’
I said he had his hand in his fly.
The girl was certainly ‘not without emotion’:
her knickers were wet. But Lucretia
did hide my book when Brutus came in
and picked it up again when Brutus went out.
Included, too, amongst much, in Halsey’s Even if only out of: ten additional pieces for the terrific Lives of the Poets. St Robert Southwell, John Aubrey, Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset, Laetitia Pilkington, Charles Lamb, Thomas Hood, George Meredith (“I may take strange leaps and eyeing the English public / be a Dd. Dd. Dd. difficult Box Hill donkey”), Christina Rossetti, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde. Here’s the one for memoirist Laetitia Pilkington (c. 1709-1750), erstwhile wife of the Church of Ireland priest and poet Matthew Pilkington (Jonathan Swift’s report: “a little young poetical parson, who has a littler young poetical wife”):
Laetitia Pilkington

pretty pert Highness of Lillyput always a-breeding
She was taken in the fact by her own Husband
Dear Worry I could pluck the holy Furr from off his Back
I had every Day some new Story invented of me
in Poetical Stock-jobbing a distrest Noun Substantive
frolicksome Farce of no Fortune but my pen
barebit and gnawn Madam Pill-Kill-Tongue
under all the Rubbish of her Misfortune
would as soon write against as for herself
Pertinent lines out of Pilkington’s Memoirs:
      These Facts are so publickly known, that for the Evidence of them I could produce even a Cloud of Witnesses, were it necessary.
      And yet, who that beheld this Man, clad in holy Vesture at the
Altar, appearing like white-robed Innocence, with Eyes up-turned to Heaven, could believe him capable of all Manner of Crimes;
Perjury, Perjury in the highest Degree!
Cruelty, Cruelty in the sternest Degree.
He may, indeed, like Richard III prove himself by these to be a Man; who, when his Mother upbraids him with his manifold Acts of savage Tyranny, she says,
No Beast so fierce, but knows some Touch of Pity.
Rich. But I know none, and therefore am no Beast.
And, indeed Mr. Pilkington may again say with him, that he has nothing
But the plain Devil, and dissembling Looks
To back his Cause.

Oh that
Ithuriel’s heav’nly temper’d Spear
Would make the Fiend in his own Shape appear,
Or pluck the holy Furr from off his Back, and let the World, for once see what the Inside of a wicked Priest is made of.
Extraordinary concocting of disparates there, nigh akin to Halsey’s own. Pound’s adage regarding “direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective” keeps imposing itself in my thinking about Halsey’s work, its carefully appointed assemblings and alignings. Done with humility and empathy for the grand range of human foibles (even those of the overly-ambitious, the earnest, the corrupt) So that another Pound extract comes to importune my reading of Halsey, aptly asserting its “forméd trace”: “nothing matters but the quality / of the affection— / in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind” (Canto LXXVI). Palpable in Even if only out of.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Neologisms in America (Stray Notes)

John Ashbery, c. 2010
(Photograph by David Shankbone)

All my thinking about neologisms seems invariably to return to John Ashbery matter-of-factly reporting (in a poem titled “Qualm”) that “Warren G. Harding invented the word ‘normalcy,’ / And the lesser known ‘bloviate,’ meaning, one imagines, / To spout, to spew aimless verbiage.” Claims devilishly (humorously) inflated into likelihood, but apparently untrue. According to the OED, citing a Norwalk, Ohio newspaper, one Peter P. Low, Esq., planned to bloviate “with open throat” regarding farm taxes, that in 1845, roughly twenty years prior to poor Warren’s earthly arrival. (Though Harding did, in 1920, pluck the term “normalcy” out of mathematics—or, more likely, butcher the customary mot “normality” in announcing America’s “present need”: “not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.” Spewing, that is, “aimless verbiage” like any politico.)

I suspect that such baldly self-assured “spewing” is likely how any number of new words arrive, honking forth unanticipated, up out of the edges of sense, or of use. (When Thomas Pynchon in Against the Day makes one of the Chums of Chance say: “Think, bloviators, think!”—I like to think he’s not only regaling the lavish miasma of the American lingo in all its sempiternal “chaunge and mutabilitye,” but that he’s nodding, too, in Ashbery’s direction, if not Harding’s.)

Ashbery, with a particular ear for slang, demotic root of the new, says, too, of Harding: “He wasn’t a bad egg.” Ashbery’s 1975 poem “Mixed Feelings” is listed in the OED as a source for the lovely resurrected ’thirties slang word “nerts”: “Aw nerts, / One of them might say, this guy’s too much for me.” And sure enough, in a wholly annoyed 1935 letter to Ezra Pound—who’s beginning to spout the insupportable verbiage that’ll put him in detention in St. Elizabeths—William Carlos Williams writes: “Nerts to you.”

Is it Benjamin Franklin who offers a model for American writers regarding neologisms? In a letter to David Hume (dated 27 September 1760), he seems to vacillate between nodding agreeably to some dubious Old World standard of clarity (and class) and defending a feisty New World demand for new forms:
I thank you for your friendly Admonition relating to some unusual Words in the Pamphlet. It will be of Service to me. The perjorate, and the colonize, since they are not in common use here, I give up as bad; for certainly in Writings intended for Persuasion and for general Information, one cannot be too clear, and every Expression in the least obscure is a Fault. The unshakeable too, tho’ clear, I give up as rather low. The introducing new Words where we are already possss’d of old ones sufficiently expressive, I confess must be generally wrong, as it tends to change the Language; yet at the same time I cannot but wish the Usage of our Tongue permitted making new Words when we want them, by Composition of old ones whose Meanings are already well understood.
Franklin points to German and Latin precedents for compounding, and offers a terrific example: “For instance, the word inaccessible, tho’ long in use among us, is not yet, I dare say, so universally understood by our People as the Word uncomeatable would immediately be, which we are not allow’d to write.” Sign of the slipperiness of the emergent neologism: Franklin’s uncomeatable (out of William Congreve’s 1694 comedy The Double-Dealer: “My Honour is infallible and uncomatible.”) is unlisted in both Dr. Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary and the considerably revised 1773 edition, though somewhere Johnson opines that it is “a low, corrupt word.” One begins to think new words, like new styles of dress, begin with the lowly, the homely, the disjecta, and ascend. (I was once instructed to observe the odd dress and accessory quirks of the commoner prostitutes along the rue St. Denis in Paris if I deigned predict what the haute couture houses would offer the next season . . .)

Henry David Thoreau, inventor of the sound-mimicking honk (an amateur ornithologist, he added to the written record, too, the bird names veery—“A North American thrush . . . also called tawny and Wilson’s thrush” reads the OED, though every Peterson’s field guide uses Thoreau’s term—and flicker—a species of North American woodpecker)—Thoreau, too, insists on the homely origin of words in a Journal entry dated 16 October 1859. Beginning with the claim “the roots of letters are things” (predicting Williams’s later formula of “No ideas but in things”) Thoreau writes:
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.” It is the old error, which the church, the state, the school ever commit, choosing darkness rather than light, holding fast to the old and to tradition. A more intimate knowledge, a deeper experience, will surely originate a word. When I really know that our river pursues a serpentine course to the Merrimack, shall I continue to describe it by referring to some other river no older than itself which is like it, and call it a meander? It is no more meandering than the Meander is musketaquidding. As well sing of the nightingale here as the Meander. What if there were a tariff on words, on language, for the encouragement of home manufacturers? Have we not the genius to coin our own?
Thoreau’s tongue is only half in cheek. The Musketaquid being the indigenous name of the Concord, the “grass-grown” river, whence Thoreau descended toward the Merrimack and heard—and named, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)—the bloviate-loud flicker: “The wildest scenes have an air of domesticity and homeliness even to the citizen, and when the flicker’s cackle is heard in the clearing, he is reminded that civilization has wrought little change here.”

How timid Thoreau’s call for “home manufacturers” seems, put next to William Carlos Williams’s later (1936) brash sense of America’s unstoppable lingual destiny. Reviewing a late edition of Mencken’s The American Language, he notes “the unrelenting warfare between England and the United States over a language which had burst the bounds of a narrow world and was spreading helter-skelter over a vast new continent.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paterson Notes 2

William Carlos Williams on Garret Mountain, Paterson, New Jersey, 1957
(Photograph by Eve Arnold)

Guy Davenport, quoting Thomas Kyd’s The Housholders Philosophie in a piece titled “The Nuclear Venus: Dr. Williams’ Attack upon Usura”:
So that offending Nature we immediately offende God, and he that offendeth arte offendeth God touching the hurt or annoyaunce of Nature; but the Vsurer offendeth Nature, for it is not naturall that money should beget or bring forth money without corruption, since Nature willeth that the corruption of one bee the generation of another; and it offendeth God because it doth not exercise the arte according as God commaunded the first man, when he saide, in the sweate of thy face thou shalt eate thy bread; and it is not artificiall that money shoulde bring forth money, as the Vsurers wold have it, which putteth the vse in the thing.
(And I think immediately of the usury of the current conceptualist charlatans, most aptly Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, who “putteth” no “vse in the thing”: it is not “artificiall” that text unworked should bring forth text . . .) I am thinking, though, of Williams’s Pound-boxing in Paterson. The lines early in the poem (Book I, 3) wherein Williams makes retort against a Poundian slight (or sally):
P. Your interest is in the bloody loam but what
I’m after is the finished product.

I. Leadership passes into empire; empire begets in-
solence; insolence brings ruin.
Editor Christopher MacGowan noting: “In a notebook in which he began the notes for his Autobiography WCW records: “Pound’s story of my being interested in the loam whereas he wanted the finished product.” Williams turns Poundian certainty against itself, points to the hazards inherent in “finish”: orthodoxy, arrogance, recklessness, contempt. Rehashing in two lines one reading of Pound’s own trajectory. I read Williams’s “I” as making argument, too, against the eventual “produce” of any literary movement, no matter what idealism accompanied its beginning. (One thinks of Jefferson’s letter of 13 November 1789 to William Stephens Smith wherein he cautions, “God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion.” And, earlier, warns against the unfettered insolence of imperial control: “Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves.”)

In Paterson (Book Two) Williams turns Pound’s certainty in the “finished product” against itself by rehashing Pound’s litany against usury (Canto LXV) in terms of invention, rather awkwardly mimicking its rhythms:
Without invention nothing is well spaced,
unless the mind change, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, the
line will not change, the necessity
will not matriculate: unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness: without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazel
bush, the alder does not grow from among
the hummocks margining the all
but spent channel of the old swale,
the small foot-prints
of the mice under the overhanging
tufts of the bunch-grass will not
appear: without invention the line
will never again take on its ancient
divisions when the word, a supple word,
lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.
The “all / but spent” soil where “the alder does not grow” recalling the “bloody loam” of Pound’s taunt. (Williams’s talk of a “new line” making one read Pound’s “with usura the line grows thick / with usura is no clear demarcation” somewhat differently—beyond mere plasticity.) Williams’s rewrite of Pound’s “With Usura” in terms of inventio registers no quarrel with Pound’s damning of usurious practices—see Williams’s interjected excerpts in Paterson of various Social Credit materials:

      The Federal Reserve System is a private enterprise . . . a private monopoly . . . (with power) . . . given to it by a spineless Congress . . . to issue and regulate all our money.

      They create money from nothing and lend it to private business (the same money over and over again at a high rate of interest), and also to the Government whenever it needs money in war and peace; for which we, the people, representing the Government (in this instance at any rate) must pay interest to the banks in the form of high taxes.


      In other words, the Federal Reserve Banks constitute a Legalized National Usury System, whose Customer No. 1 is our Government, the richest country in the world. Every one of us is paying tribute to the money racketeers on every dollar we earn through hard work.

It’s hard not to see Williams’s quarrel with Pound’s glib brusqueries and traveled unerringnesses continued in the subsequent lyric plaint (at the end of Book II, 2):
Why should I move from this place
where I was born? knowing
how futile would be the search
for you in the multiplicity
of your debacle. The world spreads
for me like a flower opening—and
will close for me as might a rose—

wither and fall to the ground
and rot and be drawn up
into a flower again. But you
never wither—but blossom
all about me . . .
Or, in the live portrait of Williams working of a Sunday—
        all of a piece, alone
        in a wind that does not move the others—
        in that way: a way to spend
        a Sunday afternoon while the green bush shakes.

.         .       a mass of detail
to interrelate on a new ground, difficultly;
an assonance, a homologue
                                                triple piled
pulling the disparate together to clarify
and compress
That’s Poundian lingo (“clarify / and compress”), unbegrudged, took, and of use to Williams, there indefatigably working the loam, there to “exercise the arte” honestly.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Paterson Notes 1

Plate 8, out of George Frederick Kunz’s Gems and Precious Stones of North America. (1890).
A     Pearl from common clam [Venus Mercenaria], Long Island Sound, [twice natural size].
B     “Queen Pearl,” natural size, found in 1857, near Paterson, New Jersey.
C     Right valve of mother-of-pearl shell enclosing parasitic fish [oligocottus], Coast of Western Mexico.
D     Curious pearl from Unio from Cumberland River, Tennessee.
E     Pearl showing concentric rings [magnified four diameters], from Little Miami River, Ohio.

William Carlos Williams, early in Paterson:
            Pearls at her ankles, her monstrous hair
            spangled with apple-blossoms is scattered about into
            the back country, waking their dreams—where the deer run
            and the wood-duck nests protecting his gallant plumage.

      In February 1857, David Hower, a poor shoemaker with a large family, out of work and money, collected a lot of mussels from Notch Brook near the City of Paterson. He found in eating them many hard substances. At first he threw them away but at last submitted some of them to a jeweler who gave him twenty-five to thirty dollars for the lot. Later he found others. One pearl of fine lustre was sold to Tiffany for $900 and later to the Empress Eugenie for $2,000 to be known thenceforth as the “Queen Pearl,” the finest of its sort in the world today.
      News of this sale created such excitement that search for the pearls was started throughout the country. The Unios (mussels) at Notch Brook and elsewhere were gathered by the millions and destroyed often with little or no result. A large round pearl, weighing 400 grains which would have been the finest pearl of modern times, was ruined by boiling open the shell.

Editor Christopher MacGowan, in notes to the 1992 revised edition, writes of the prose:
No source found. To judge by an article in the Bulletin of the Passaic County Historical Society of November 1956, pp. 38-39, 44, this prose conflates two stories. Jacob and John Quackenbush found and sold to Tiffany what became known as the “Queen Pearl.” The article cites The Paterson Guardian of May 1, 1857. The article goes on to tell the story of “a South Paterson citizen . . . One account names him as a poor shoemaker . . . one David Hower. Another source names him as Daniel Howell, carpenter.” Hower / Howell brought home mussels for dinner, found them tough and fried them, and while subsequently eating them bit into the 400-grain pearl—which had been ruined by “too much cooking. . . . it was, by far, the largest pearl ever found in fresh water mussels.”
Scouting about for sources, one uncovers an essentially verbatim version of Williams’s second paragraph in George Frederick Kunz’s 1890 Gems and Precious Stones of North America. Kunz:
Large and valuable Unio pearls have been obtained in New Jersey. In 1857 a pearl of fine lustre, weighing 93 grains, was found at Notch Brook, near Paterson. It became known as the “Queen Pearl,” and was sold by Tiffany & Co. to the Empress Eugenie of France for $2,500; it is to-day worth four times that amount. (See Colored Plate No. 8.) The news of this sale created such an excitement that search for pearls was started throughout the country. The Unios at Notch Brook and elsewhere were gathered by the millions and destroyed, often with little or no result. A large round pearl, weighing 400 grains, which would doubtless have been the finest pearl of modern times, was ruined by boiling open the shell.
Kunz’s book makes no mention of Hower / Howard. Kunz apparently presented some material out of the chapter (“Pearls”) at the 1893 meeting of the American Fisheries Society in a paper titled “On the Occurrence of Pearls in the United States, and Shall We Legislate to Preserve the Fisheries.” (The lines quoted out of Gems and Precious Stones appear in the annual Transactions of the American Fisheries Society with the added note that the “Queen Pearl” is “finer than any pearl shown at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition.”

Sleuthing in a rush. Everything in a rush. Williams (out of the “Preface”):
                              In ignorance
a certain knowledge and knowledge,
undispersed, its own undoing.

                                          (The multiple seed,
packed tight with detail, soured,
is lost in the flux and the mind,
distracted, floats off in the same

Rolling up, rolling up heavy with

                              It is the ignorant sun
rising in the slot of
hollow suns risen, so that never in this
world will a man live well in his body
save dying—and not know himself
dying; yet that is
the design. Renews himself
thereby, in addition and subtraction,
walking up and down.
Sun up out of its usual slot. MacGowan quotes, too, cut (in the galleys) lines out of Dahlberg letter that ends the second part of Book I:

I have always abhorred busy people, being too busy to talk, to be able to sit down a few minutes the way the Brahma or the Sacred Cow sits, to put together a letter, which is a way of arranging the pieces of one’s spirit, it is just a hoax, and you ought to know that, and if you don’t you ought to spend some time finding it out, even, if you have to damn me for pointing it out to you.
      Frankly, I don’t know what you are saying when you put the past into a frozen theorem, separate and apart from the present. I know of no such past or present; I only know of Nero, of Abraham sitting underneath the terebinth, or Modigliani painting glandular physiognomies, or Socrates prattling in the Symposium, or Sherwood Anderson walking through one of those blighted and noisesome downtown sections, and answering me, as I said to him, ‘Consider with what malice this city must have been conceived.’ ‘Oh, it just happened,’ as of one kind of human continuum. Time to me is an infant’s conception, which Heraclitus so detested. Time is something you mention when you have sick nerves and cannot stand still or sit in quiet either to paint, or smile or talk or listen to somebody else. It’s an occidental fraud, in the main, and there are no people in the world so concerned as the American, who positively has no time, with the clock. It always appeared to me that it was no accident that the glum little Swiss were clock-makers, and that the inhabitants of Königsberg set their watches soon as they saw the apriori Immanuel Kant. The hatred, by the way, of the past, all human lore and poetry, is best illustrated by the modern state which always commemorates and canonizes its own murder-uses by starting a year one for the people. But enough.

A sobering tincture, like so much of Dahlberg. MacGowan reports, too, how, though Dahlberg admired WCW’s In the American Grain, he was no fan of Paterson, writing to Robert McAlmon in 1953: ‘I think his Paterson. . . is a fraud. The man is very spongy, and imagines by repeating the word rock about a hundred and thirty-five times that he can become hard or give the effect of having ophidian intellect.’” A hard judgment to expel, at points, in reading it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dérive, Bookish

Gustave Doré, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” 1855

Skiff of snow, barely enough to shovel. Acceding to the earth’s usual demands. “I deryve, or bringe one thynge out of another, as water is brought whan it is brought from the spring, je deriue. Out of Lesclarcissement de la langue Francoyse (1530). How little I write “To my Contemporaries” of late. Sign of incipient laziness, pitfall of the long avid. (See Marianne Moore: “Advertising is . . . arduous, and whereas derogation has the attraction of not being extorted, devising testimonials is not so simple.”) Sign of disgruntlement thwarted by my newly burdensome politesse. (There’s rarely much to cheer in the whipping thickets of ambition. One notes only the careering ambition itself.)

Moore again: “I seem to myself an observer, an interested hack rather than an author, but am an extremist with regard to exact statement; am quoted as having said, “I write exercises in composition”; perhaps said, “I look on my verse as exercises in composition.” Too, Moore routinely quoted Pound’s Confucian ethics (out of The Great Digest): “If there be a knife of resentment in the heart or enduring rancor, the mind will not attain precision; under suspicion and fear it will not form sound judgment, nor will it, dazzled by love’s delight, nor in sorrow and anxiety, come to precisions.” Which just about covers the whole contemporary “field of cultural production,” the way mutual alliances and denials bend it into whatever shape it assumes (“precisions” thus the result of social gum . . .) Just the kind of thing that makes me haul down my Hopkins, to amble rather aimlessly through the letters to Robert Bridges:
                                                                                                            Roehampton, 10 June 1882

Dearest Bridges,—It was a needless and tedious frenzy (no, the phrase is not like Flatman’s ‘serene and rapturous joys’ to which poor Purcell had to drudge the music):* another train came up on that train’s tail, and indeed it was a dull duncery that overhung us both not to see that its being Ascot day ensured countless more trains and not fewer. There was a lovely and passionate scene (for about the space of the last trump) between me and a tallish gentleman (I daresay he was a cardsharper) in your carriage who was by way of being you; I smiled, I murmured with my lips at him, I waved farewells, but he would not give in, till with burning shame (though the whole thing was, as I say, like the duels of archangels) I saw suddenly what I was doing . . .
One soaks in the affability of taunt (“no, the phrase is not like Flatman’s”); in the way Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another”—
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line—
Then it is safe to go on reading . . .
(is that, too, “about” the “field of cultural production”?) is called forth in some silly and pertinent way by “another train came up on that train’s tail”; one admires the thud irrevocability of faux-doom—dunned out by that succession of dull short u’s—in “drudge the music” and “a dull duncery . . . overhung us”—Hopkins’s friend is departing; one notes the mock erotics of the mute exertions between Hopkins and the unresponding “cardsharper,” mimicking Bridges; one applauds the shame-assuaging lightheartedness of “the duels of archangels” (another metaphor for the “field”?), Hopkins’s recovery effected by intangible alliances . . . So, the dérive, chance, bookish, avoiding, out of the contours of the now, with its untoward lolling** and insapient matchlessnesses.
* In 1684 Purcell composed an ode or song of welcome entitled On the King’s return to White-hall after his Summer’s Progress. The words are by Thomas Flatman:
From these serene and rapturous joys
A country life alone can give,
Exempt from tumult and from noise,
Where Kings forget the trouble of their reigns,
And are almost as happy as their humble swains,
        By feeling that they live . . .
** Lolling: meaning both “resting at one’s ease, lounging” and “thrusting out (the tongue).” It’s conceivable I mean lalling (“baby-speech”) . . .

Thursday, January 12, 2012

“Furiously laboring at random . . .”

Marianne Moore, 1887-1972
(Photograph by Esther Bubley)

Prevaricatory in the slant fuzzy way of the sleep-boondoggled. Hours expended in the examining of sentence-ry. Marianne Moore, in a nudge against the overtly recherché (“It is true that ‘peculiar style must precede peculiar expression’ and that literary fastidiousness is for the most part, implicit in precise, brilliant thinking”): “Suggesting conversation and strengthened by etymology there is a kind of effortless compactness which precludes ornateness, a ‘fearful felicity,’ in which like the pig in the churn, imagination seems to provide its own propulsiveness.” And, in order to precisely roister the intricacy of such a stance, Moore turns to Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici wherein is promoted a kind of ineffable admirableness of restraint (“There are no Grotesques in Nature”) in the design of “Bees, Ants, and Spiders”: “Ruder heads stand amazed at those prodigious pieces of Nature, Whales, Elephants, Dromidaries and Camels; these, I confess, are the Colossus and majestick pieces of her hand: but in these narrow Engines there is more curious Mathematicks; and the civility of these little Citizens more neatly sets forth Wisdom of their Maker.” Moore’s note recalling William Carlos Williams’s remark (out of the “Introduction” to The Complete Works of Francois Villon) that “if there were the faintest feeling that Villon ever wrote to be effective, it would have destroyed the validity of what he had to say.” Williams:
Le mot juste is the ready word—it has no other significance. This is fundamental. In literature there can be no seeking for words. For a writer to so indulge himself is to tread dangerous ground.
Pertinent in a period of increasing decorousness, “daring” larks of mere vocabulary contrivance. (Making distinct: the unforeseen floody wash or exorbitant pummeling of words beyond ken versus the collector’s ostentatory ruse and hustle. I think of Bill Berkson—among others—copping precisely to such anomalous onslaughts of the unknown word:
Sometimes a word shows up in my critical prose and sometimes in poetry too: a big word that somehow shows up in the writing. I may look askance at it, unsure of what it means but certain that I’ve never used the word before, in either speech or writing. I look it up in the dictionary and, damn!, it’s just right, le mot juste. Now how did that happen? There must be an inner vocabulary monitor that knew it; I didn’t know it, except by osmosis.
One inclines toward the willing receipt part of the Keatsian bargain: not the “irritable reaching” of those seeking to pony up against possible loss, but the due welcoming of any “fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium.”) Moore: “These ‘things that are stated without being said’ are the most valuable . . . A poem is not a poem, surely, unless there is a margin of undidactic implication,—an area which the reader can make his own.” And, in reply to received huzzahs for Ezra Pound’s “intuitive mind” (“a mind that moves back and forth like sea-weed”): “We confessed to admiring instinctiveness, concentration, and tentativeness; to realizing that gusto is not incompatible with learning, and to favoring opulence in asceticism.”

Bah. I am likely beginning to offend my own clutter-y with my excess clutter. Think of Pound writing Moore, 23 November 1931: “The idea of civilization includes an occasional exchange of knowledge . . . I dont quite see you as the girl gunman holding up N. Y. licherary iniquity / but I believe you cd. be of distinctly more use . . .” I do too. I do too. Though isn’t every artist—as Williams cheekily proposes (“The Basis of Faith in Art”)—just another “rudderless nonentity furiously laboring at random whims, from among whose works, with time, a public takes the initiative to select its equally haphazard choices?”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Walking, &c.

A. R. Ammons, 1926-2001

A morning (dog walked under a sketchy Orion, bicycle slicing through the fraudulent blue-blacking of dawn) of juggling several distended anomalies. One is Coleridge’s noticing (in the Biographia) how poetry “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment, ever awake, and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement . . .” A. R. Ammons repeats the initial line in the 1967 talk “A Poem Is a Walk.” And, a couple paragraphs prior to quoting it, in the midst of a Cagean opening gambit (“I don’t know whether I can sustain myself for thirty minutes of saying I know nothing—or that I need to try, since I might prove no more than you already suspect, or, even worse, persuade you of the fact . . .”), writes:
Nothingness contains no images to focus and brighten the mind, no contrarieties to build up muscular tension: it has no place for argumentation and persuasion, comparison and contrast, classification, analysis. As nothingness is more perfectly realized, there is increasingly less (if that isn’t contradictory) to realize, less to say, less need to say. Only silence perfects silence. Only nothingness contributes to nothingness.
That “contrarieties . . . build up muscular tension” points to Blake’s proverb out of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790): “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” Dialectical tension, focus and blur, accretion and wince. A whole rhythm of balances measurably unbalanced. Like walking, its regular consequent fall and catch. (Ammons: “I’m not, of course, interested in walks as such but in clarification or intensification by distraction, seeing one thing better by looking at something else.”) Focus through its lack, the spray off the wave’s curling (disintegrating, foamy) top slapped down into its trough.

William Carlos Williams, in a piece called “Speech Rhythm” (found “uncatalogued among the Viola Baxter Jordan papers” by Mike Weaver and quoted by him in the 1971 William Carlos Williams: The American Background) talks of such: “Each piece of work, rhythmic in whole, is . . . in essence an assembly of tides, waves, ripples—in short, of greater and lesser rhythmic particles regularly repeated or destroyed . . .” And: “The one thing essential to rhythm is not sound but motion, of the two kinds: forward and up and down, rapidity of motion and quality of motion.” A poem is a walk. Weaver points to the rhythmically repeated word “Walking     —” toward the end of the “Sunday in the Park” sequence in Book Two of Paterson:
Walking     —

                Thickets gather about groups of squat sand-pine,
                all but from bare rock         .         .

                —a scattering of man-high cedars (sharp cones),
                antlered sumac         .

                —roots, for the most part, writhing
                upon the surface
                                              (so close are we to ruin every
                          searching the punk-dry rot

Walking     —

      The body is tilted slightly forward from the basic standing
      position and the weight thrown on the ball of the foot,
      while the other thigh is lifted and the leg and opposite
      arm are swung forward (fig. 6B). Various muscles, aided     .
Weaver locates the lines “The body is tilted . . .” in an article by one Beckett Howorth called “Dynamic Posture” in the 24 August 1946 number of the Journal of the American Medical Association. He quotes pertinent lines therein: “Alternating contraction and relaxation with balanced timing produce rhythm in movement and increase the capacity for sustained action . . .” And: “Correct walking is done with a smooth rhythm, the muscles contracting gently with a brief wavelike action and relaxing in the interval.” And: “The good walker should be able to change pace, stop, start, turn, step up or down, twist or stoop, easily and quickly, without losing balance or rhythm . . .” That recurrent “Walking     —”: six fermata’d notes, sign of a pulse, hold and proceed.

I think, too—thinking of the walk, and writing, and silence—of Kandinsky’s remarks in the 1925 Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (Point and Line to Plane): “The geometric line is an invisible thing. It is the track made by the moving point; that is, its product. It is created by movement—specifically through the destruction of the intense self-contained repose of the point. Here, the leap out of the static to the dynamic occurs.” Walking out of “the intense self-contained repose of the point.” Out of the settled, the assumed, the writ. Ammons (working off Creeley’s “Form is never more than an extension of content”?): “Each poem in becoming generates the laws by which it is generated: extensions of the laws to other poems never completely take.” Somewhere in Paterson (Book Three) Williams writes:

We walk into a dream, from certainty to the unascertained, in time to see           .           from the roseate past           .           a ribbed tail deploying

                  Tra la la la la la la la la
                  La tra tra tra tra tra tra
Movement into origin, lalling, a beginning. Ammons again: “A work of art creates a world of both and many, a world of definition and indefinition. Why should we be surprised that the work of art, which over-reaches and reconciles logical paradox, is inaccessible to the methods of logical exposition? A world comes into being about which any statement, however revelatory, is a lessening.”