Friday, March 29, 2013

Notebook (Marianne Moore, E. McKnight Kauffer, &c.)

E. McKnight Kauffer, c. 1934
(Photograph by Carl Van Vechten)

End of a frayed week in an adamant season of bellicosity and restraint: “Those who sit in the stye of contentment, meaning / Death.” Extempore shinnyings up a tangle of limbs to put a nail into the sky: “tattooing my simplicity on the pitiable.” Forte agitatio slingings of “the Arrow That Flieth by Day,” materiel wrought of humility and grimace. Aucune idée, moi. “Before turning in I put out my wet boots to dry and in the morning I found that a thick blue forest had grown on them.” (Nabokov, rejecting the usual novelists’ fenced-goods India of “tiger hunts, fakirs, betel nuts” in lieu of what Shakespeare might call “A hit, a most palpable hit.”) And thereat, renouncing my froward harrumph and pall, my palsy of indistinguishables, my capricious renegado quixotism: a lesson, scrupulous, deft, with “strange uncompromisedness.”

Marianne Moore, c. 1949, out of “the American British Art Gallery’s Drawings for the Ballet and the Original Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe by E. McKnight Kauffer”:
      E. McKnight Kauffer is a very great artist.* Instinctiveness, imagination, and “the sense of artistic difficulty” with him, have interacted till we have an objectified logic of sensibility as inescapable as the colors refracted from a prism. Mr. Kauffer’s posters, book-jackets, and illustrations, partake of one attitude which is affirmative in all directions, so that here if nowhere else in the world, “street art” is art. Shadows are as arresting as objects; numerals and letters are so rare in themselves that opposing angles, contrasting sizes, and basic parallels, are of consummate elegance—the only kind of eloquence not intrusive. This language of blacks and grays is color in the sense that Chinese brush masterpieces are color. Literal color, moreover, rivals the acetylene blues of the cotinga and the tones in the beak of a toucan. We have here a poetry of synonyms like “the immediate meaning and possible meaning” of poetry, as where a Mexican hat has the form of a plane, the heroism of helplessness is symbolized by a Greek child, and “the medieval tower is half castle and half castle in the air.”
      E. McKnight Kauffer is a parable of uncompromise—a master of illusion, focusing scrutiny upon the crease and curl of a Stetson, or on the firm solidity of a winter apple, verifying Democritus’s axiom, “Compression is the first grace of style.”
      “What is to be feared more than death?” the man asked; the sage replied “Disillusion.” Here, actually, we have a product in which unfalsified impulse safeguards illusion.
Copied here in order to record “the acetylene blues of the cotinga.” That, and to ponder how “unfalsified impulse safeguards illusion”—a sort of “first thought, best thought,” instinctual spontaneity underlying that curiously wrought “objectified logic of sensibility,” things joined by opulent hazardry, and hardly the commonplace bailiwick of Moore.
In a squib for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review in 1951, Moore offers a decidedly particular list of “a few real artists . . . alive today”: “Casals, Soledad, E. McKnight Kauffer, Hans Mardersteig, Alec Guinness, the Lippizan horsemen.” Pablo Casals, cellist. Soledad (see, in the c. 1956 piece “Style”: “Entranced, were you not, by Soledad? / black-clad solitude that is not sad; / like a letter from / Casals; or perhaps say literal alphabet / S soundholes in a ’cello / set contradictorily . . .” And: “As if bisecting / a viper, she can dart down three / times and recover / without a disaster, having / been a bull-fighter . . .” In Moore’s “Notes”—
A willingness to satisfy contradictory objections to one’s manner of writing might turn one’s work into a donkey that finally finds itself being carried by its masters, since some readers suggest that quotation marks are disruptive of pleasant progress; others, that notes to what should be complete are a pedantry or evidence of an insufficiently realized task. But since in anything I have written there have been lines in which the chief interest is borrowed, and I have not yet been able to outgrow this hybrid method of composition, acknowledgements seem only honest. Perhaps those who are annoyed by provisos, detainments, and postscripts could be persuaded to take probity on faith and disregard the notes.
—one reads: “Soledad. Danced in America, 1950-1951.”) Mardersteig (Giovanni Mardersteig, 1892-1977), type designer, printer, historian, operated the Officina Bodoni, a private press.

E. McKnight Kauffer, “The Early Bird: Soaring to Success” [detail], 1919

E. McKnight Kauffer, “The Enemy Wants to Know What You Know . . .
Keep It Under Your Stetson,” c. 1943

E. McKnight Kauffer, “Edgar Allan Poe” c. 1946

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Notebook (Howard Nemerov, Jack Kerouac, &c.)

Howard Nemerov, 1920-1991

Marianne Moore, in a citational tangle:
      “Strangeness is a quality,” Howard Nemerov says, “belonging inseparably to language and vision” and—quoting Conrad, “‘It is above all, in the first place, to make you see,’ said Joseph Conrad, of the object of art; and he said again, more formally, that the writer’s object is ‘to render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.’ Seeing, and saying;—language is a special extension of the power of seeing, inasmuch as it can make visible not only the already visible world; but through it the invisible world of relations and affinities.”
A quote-knot, a semiotic thicket. Nemerov quotes Conrad in a 1959 lecture called “The Swaying Form”—the remainder is untraceable. The titular “swaying form” is out of John Florio’s 1603 rendering of Montaigne’s “Of Repenting,” wherein Montaigne makes language a natural thing, one of “theſe original qualities . . . not grubd out” (“by force expreſſing it ſelfe”) and oddly akin to “ſound fits and natural luſts”:
The Latine tongue is to me in a manner naturall; I vnderſtand it better then French; but it is now fortie yeares, I have not made vſe of it to ſpeake, nor much to write: yet in ſome extreame emotions and ſuddaine paſſions, wherein I haue twice or thrice falen, ſince my yeares of diſcretion; and namely one, when my father, being in perfect health, fell all along vpon me in a ſwoune, I haue euer, euen from my very hart vttered my firſt words in latine: Nature ruſhing and by force expreſſing it ſelfe, againſt ſo long a cuſtome; the like example is aleaged of diuers others. Thoſe which in my time, haue attempted to correct the faſhions of the world by new opinions, reforme the vices of aparance; thoſe of eſſence they leaue vntouched, if they encreaſe them not. And their encreaſe is much to be feared. We willinglie protract all other well-doing, vpon theſe externall reformations, of leſſe coſt, and of greater merit; whereby we ſatiſfie good-cheape, other natural, conſubſtantiall and inteſtine vices. Looke a little into the courſe of our experience. There is no man (if he liſten to himſelfe) that doth not diſcouer in himſelfe a peculiar forme of his, a ſwaieng forme, which wreſtleth against the inſtitution, and againſt the tempeſts of paſſions, which are contrarie vnto him. As for me, I feele not my ſelfe much agitated by a ſhock; I commonly finde my ſelfe in mine owne place, as are ſluggiſh and lumpiſh bodies. If I am not cloſe and neare vnto my ſelfe, I am never farre-off: My debauches or exceſſes tranſport me not much. There is nothing extreame and ſtrange: yet have I sound fits and vigorous luſts.
Nemerov, who quotes only the sentence containing the reference to “a ſwaieng forme,” says of “Florio’s somewhat dreamlike English” that it “duplicates nicely the possibilities of Montaigne’s phrase, ‘une forme maistresse’”:
The form, that is, is simultaneously ruling and very variable, or fickle; shifting and protean as the form of water in a stream, where it is difficult or impossible to divide what remains from what runs away. The passage, read in this way, speaks of something in us which is double in nature, on both sides of things at once or by turns. And I would identify this “forme” with the impulse to art, the energy or libido which makes works of art. It is no paradox to say that the artistic impulse fights against “the art,” for anyone who persists in this business knows that a part of his struggle is precisely against “the art,” that is, against the accepted and settled standards of art in his time.
Is it merely the “period” that makes me think of Kerouac’s famous lines to John Clellon Holmes (out of a letter of 5 June 1952)?
What I’m beginning to discover now is something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revelated prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles around the core of my last writing, very last writing, when I am an old man or ready to die, will be calm like the center of whirlpools and Beethoven’s quartets—I love the world, and especially do I love the external eye and the shining heart of pure heart-to-heart mornings in a sane eternity, with love and security, but at this time in my life I’m making myself sick to find the wild form that can grow with my wild heart.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Notebook (Anne Carson, Vladimir Nabokov, &c.)

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

Slept through “all Klaxons and Alarums.” (Klaxon: a word I associate with Conrad Aiken: “Newcomers, joining the slowly moving mass, honked, hooted, skirled their Klaxons, yipped and snarled . . .” Dipping said word out of a friend’s copy of Aiken’s Collected Novels one summer morning in Ocracoke, North Carolina. Klaxon: what the Oxford calls “a warning hooter.” Is it derived out of the Greek klazō, a word used to register the calls of wild swans? One longs for the verity of such lovely conjuncts, and opens a book of Dickinson’s letters to see a postscript reading: “The bobolinks have gone.”) Up, disheveled, to an enormous ivory-colored moon impaled by the branches of the oak. The sky heart-piercingly blue . . . (And Anne Carson, out of the “out of nowhere” period—forgivably, mysteriously coy, not, as now, rotely so—in “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide” (Glass, Irony and God): “A stranger is poor, voracious and turbulent. / He comes // from nowhere in particular // and pushes prices up. / His method of knowing something / is to eat it.”)

Jamming (to no end). A way of making explicit a waywardness, dumping okra into the gumbo, some viscous collateral, some scrupulous reagent. (Dickinson’s hint: “interrogate the daisies.”) Puzzling of late—in my biblical illiteracy, lines out of The Gospel According to St. John: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Isn’t some echo of that in Frank O’Hara’s mock-epical “Oedipus Rex” squib, the fragment—“He falls; but even in falling he is higher than those who fly into the ordinary sun”—found in the notebook O’Hara carried the night he got hit by a vehicle on the Fire Island beach? (And Dickinson, out of a letter, falling inescapably into the common measure: “Life is death we’re lengthy at, death the hinge of life.”) To no end.

The palpable hinge. Its material way of participating in a two-ness. Rapport with obliquity. Up late, the day’s matins rung, night elbowed out of the way. Nabokov (Ada):
. . . I wish to examine the essence of Time, not its lapse, for I do not believe that its essence can be reduced to its lapse. I wish to caress Time.
      One can be a lover of Space and its possibilities: take, for example, speed, the smoothness and sword-swish of speed; the aquiline glory of ruling velocity; the joy cry of the curve; and one can be an amateur of Time, an epicure of duration. I delight sensually in Time, in its stuff and spread, in the fall of its folds, in the very impalpability of its grayish gauze, in the coolness of its continuum . . . I am also aware that Time is a fluid medium for the culture of metaphors.
. . . Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of Time is rhythm; not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval. The regular throb itself merely brings back the miserable idea of measurement, but in between, something like true Time lurks.
An influx of simultaneities: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past . . .” throttling down The Great Gatsby and Walter Benjamin’s famous lines out of “On the Concept of History”:
There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned towards the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. That which we call progress is this storm.
Capture to no end.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Notebook (Edmund de Waal, Marcel Proust, &c.)

Edouard Manet, “Bunch of Asparagus,” 1880

Mal à la gorge. Douleurs générales. Slept irregularly for two days. Odd delirium of the somnifery, its reveries book-pierced and wholly adequate. Out of Edmund de Waal’s memoir of the Ephrussi clan, The Hare with Amber Eyes:
Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lifes, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles, thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: ‘This seems to have slipped from the bundle.’

Edouard Manet, “Bunch of Asparagus,” 1880

Charles Ephrussi (b. 1849 Odessa d. 1905 Paris) being one of the models for Proust’s Charles Swann. De Waal:
Proust, who knew Charles’s paintings well from visits to his apartment, retells the story to his credit. In his novels there is an Impressionist painter, Elstir, modelled partly on Whistler and partly on Renoir. The Duke de Guermantes fumes that ‘There was nothing else in the picture. A bundle of asparagus exactly like what you’re eating now. But I must say I declined to swallow Monsieur Elstir’s asparagus. He asked three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus. A Louis, that’s as much as they’re worth, even if they are out of season. I thought it a bit stiff.’
De Waal, quoting Charles Ephrussi’s writing about the Impressionists, whose intent and reach he delineates precisely:
. . . to make the figures indivisible from their background, as though they were the product of it, so that to appreciate the picture the eye must take it in as a whole, looking at it from the correct distance—such are the ideals of the new school. It has not learnt its optical catechism, it disdains pictorial rules and regulations, it renders what it sees as it sees it, spontaneously, well or badly, uncompromisingly, without comment, without verbiage. In its horror of platitude it seeks for fresh themes, it haunts the corridors of theatres, cafés, cabarets, even low music-halls; the glare of cheap dance-halls does not alarm its members; and they go boating on the Seine in the Paris suburbs.
Lines uncluttered, nigh capable of returning Impressionism to its unruly purity of seeing. De Waal:
      This was to be the setting of Renoir’s bravura Le Déjeuner des canotiers, the Luncheon of the Boating Party. It shows a pleasingly louche afternoon at the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant by the Seine at one of the newly popular places that Parisian day-trippers could reach by train. Pleasure boats and a skiff can be seen through the silvery-grey willows. A red-and-white striped awning protects the party from the glare of the sun. It is after lunch in Renoir’s new world of painters, patrons and actresses, and everyone is a friend. Models smoke, drink and talk amongst the detritus of the empty bottles and the meal left on the tables. There are no rules or regulations here.
      The actress Ellen Andrée, in a hat with a flower pinned to it, raises her glass to her lips. Baron Raoul Barbier, a former mayor of colonial Saigon, his brown bowler hat pushed back, talks to the young daughter of the proprietor. Her brother, straw-hatted like a professional oarsman, stands in the foreground surveying the lunch. [Gustave] Caillebotte, relaxed and fit in a white singlet and boater, sits astride his chair looking at the young seamstress Aline Charigot, Renoir’s lover and future wife. The artist Paul Lhote sits with a proprietorial arm around the actress Jeanne Samary. It is a matrix of smiling conversation and flirtation.
      And Charles is there. He is the man at the very back, in the top hat and black suit, turning slightly away, seen glancingly. You can just see his red-brown beard. He is talking with a pleasantly open-faced, poorly shaved [Jules] Laforgue, dressed as a proper poet in a working man’s cap and what could even be a corduroy jacket.
      I doubt that Charles really wore his benedictine clothes, heavy and dark, to a boating party in the summer sunshine, a top hat instead of a boater. This is an in-joke about his Mécène uniform between friends, Renoir suggesting that patrons and critics are needed, somewhere in the background, on the edge, even on the sunniest and most liberated of days.
      Proust writes of this picture, noting a ‘gentleman . . . wearing a top hat at a boating party where he was clearly out of place, which proved that for Elstir he was not only a regular sitter, but a friend, perhaps a patron’.
Capable of expunging my disdain (“horror of platitude”) for the ineffably rosy Renoir? I don’t know. I like to look at the rather gaminesque Jules Laforgue in what, to me, looks like a bicycle delivery boy’s cap, the only one in the picture who’s outside looking—with indifference—in.

Auguste Renoir, “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” 1880-1

Friday, March 22, 2013

Notebook (Robert Lax, Basil Bunting, &c.)

Robert Lax, 1915-2000

Odd constringency in the throat, and the unyielding cold, saturnine and impinging. Slept up to the alarm, and plunged out unready. “Lice in its seams despise the jacket shrunk to the world’s core . . .” Bunting. That quotidian push to avoid the obvious, and to render the burgeoning in a fraught denial, a cornucopiack’d naught. “A plethora of empties, a satiety of nix.” Or there’s Bunting’s economy of feigned indifference: “Vaults stored with slugs to relish, / my quilt a litter of husks, I prosper / lying low, little concerned . . .” Leaving: the question of how to proceed in the foliageous wilderness except endlessly: leaf by imperturbably green leaf. Robert Lax, who found a rebuttal in hermitry, out of “Tractatus I-IV”:
      he was determined this time not to write about anything, to keep as far away from any possible subject as he could and just to keep going, to include or to exclude whatever came to mind, not necessarily to lead it in, not necessarily to leave it out: to let things rise to his consciousness, to be examined briefly, and let fall again or invited to enter. he knew these places well, these ups and downs, these ins and outs, he saw them as he’d see a building, an old and quite familiar building. he ran around it through the day, and all through the night, in dreams, he was mounting and descending its well-worn stairs. as a watcher, he would watch things rise, or as an actor, he himself would climb, and fall. (one memory jarred with another: one would collide with another.) no, he would not approach a single subject: not one of the many that played through his mind through the day. (there was a process of knitting going on: the form of the stitches was more important than the color of the yarn.) to keep going: to turn one wheel after another: a large one after a small one, a small one after a large one, until all wheels were spinning, innumerable wheels spinning, and spinning, perhaps, within the circumference of a single, very large wheel; a single globe.
      he would not stop now to describe the globe: describe a globe: all globes except for their sizes were much alike. he would not attempt to describe a moment of something moving, of something regretted, desired, lost. the moments were clear in his memory, but he had not a word for one of them.
      even as the rains fell, the times fell, the moments fell. the moments dropped as from a moving cloud. they intensified as they neared a particular point, and then, again, they diminished. even as the rains spoke, the times spoke: articulations just beyond the realm of consciousness. there were accumulations and releases; releases and re-accumulation. whatever was scattered, was gathered; whatever was gathered, was scattered. no time stood for long; no moment endured forever. each moment proclaimed the business of the moment. in every moment, hidden or manifest, there was a possible fulfillment. each moment made its demand, and each its offer. each was a sphere; each held to its sphericity a moment.
      the realm he lived in was not a realm of earth: could hardly even be called a realm of sky: the realm of mind was neither here nor there: it knew its own true north, its own true west. its storms were not land storms, were not sky storms, were not like storms at sea. its rains fell in their season, not earth’s seasons. the realm of mind: united and divided: united within itself; divided against itself; united within themselves; divided against themselves . . .
Compelled, too, to record some lines out of Lax’s “Journal D” (quoted in Peter France’s 1996 Hermits: The Insights of Solitude):
28 February 1973

i have listened to all the desires of my heart. i have not bounded off on every suggestion. (i have bounded off on some; perhaps on too many.) but i have listened to all my heart has had to say; have allowed it to speak its own language.

when it speaks again, i will listen . . .

i have given my mind a long romp, too. it has said whatever thing came to mind, often. i have written down the form of these echoes in the mind . . .

to watch and to listen; hardly to watch or to listen; not to act unless called upon; a passive way of life. but one that leads often to great and real activity. what is given up is vain action, and what remains is true activity. participation in eternal life, which has been defined as
pure act. (he who does not act at all, but does not sleep, approaches this state of true activity.) the best activities of mind, soul & body are those that proceed from this pure state. (they are empty acts, goal-less acts, acts that can proceed without calculation or conscious effort.) like respiration or digestion they are acts that take place usually without being noticed, and yet they advance the life of the whole.
How proceed to a writing like that—a thing of “pure act”—a writing that is defiantly not a mere assembling of “sorts,” that Cagean drawing of lots, the aleatory dodge. (That defiance a sign of the writing’s impurity.) Bumping up against the crux (“the jacket shrunk to the world’s core”): how to evade the preternatural impingements of the present, the ordinary particulars of its posture and strut, its gear and gumption so impeccably tailored (and fitting) in advance. Lax (replying to the query: “How did you come to settle in Greece?”):
I had been living in New York quite a bit, and spending a lot of time with New Yorkers, and wherever I was I was hearing the same—the New York—answers to every question, and I realised that both the questions and answers that I was hearing were New York-based. And I realised that neither the questions nor the answers were the ones I was asking myself but I was surrounded by this language that had the questions and the answers knitted into it. And the only way out was to leave the city.
In the language of the inserted errata slip: “For ‘New York’ and ‘New Yorkers’ read [and here a term is required to delineate the amassed and watery congeries of current unrelenting poetry “activity”—a word whose origin is aptly found in the 15th c. Cloud of Unknowing] . . .” The cold “constringency” of habitus and doxa . . . oy.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Notebook (Mary Ruefle, Basil Bunting, &c.)

Bidú Sayão, 1902-1999

Morning tohu-bohu. All thumbs and ratiocinatory cockamamie. (Cockamamie: “Likely a corrupting of the French décalcomanie, a mania for transferring pictures, tracings, &c. See décalage, out of décaler, to displace.”) Out of Mary Ruefle’s notational romp “On Secrets: Eight Beginnings, Two Ends” (in Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures):
I was twenty-four years old and someone took a phonograph needle and played for me the Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, an international opera star in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. She found a lifelong friend in the composer Villa-Lobos, who once rose in the morning, took a piece of paper, and sketched the hills on the horizon. The outline or contour of those hills he then set onto a musical graph, and where the notes fell, he played them. After I believed this, a musician told me not a word of it was true, but I like it so much I continue to believe it. Whatever the case, I think Villa-Lobos understood the voice of things. In the aria of Bachianas brasileiras no. 5, Bidú Sayão persuaded Villa-Lobos to transcribe for her voice what had originally been a violin solo; an impromptu, experimental take was made in New York in 1945, “just to hear how it would sound.” It was never recut. Everyone in the studio knew, immediately, there was no need. The recording lasted seven minutes. First you hear Bidú Sayão sing the part of the violin, then you hear the violin, then you hear Bidú Sayão re-sing the melody, this time with her mouth completely closed —she is humming—and the last note you hear her sing, an octave’s leap, was achieved with a completely closed mouth.

Bidú Sayão, “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (Heitor Villa-Lobos),” c. 1938-45

Serendipity (how regularly it arrives to retrieve the wayward, to rescue the confused—or confuse the rescued) offers up a sketch Basil Bunting drew, diagramming “Briggflatts” (out of the Vancouver newspaper Georgia Straight’s “Writing 6” insert, c. 1970), and looking, too, like “hills on the horizon.” Bunting, talking with Warren Tallman and Peter Quartermain:
Basil Bunting:   Briggflatts appeared first as a nice diagram. I can still draw you the diagram.
Warren Tallman:   Did . . . You mean you drew it before you wrote it?
Peter Quartermain:   Here’s a piece of paper, Basil, and draw the diagram . . .
WT:   Here’s a pencil.
BB:   Right . . . Certainly work for you.
PQ:   Here we go.
BB:   Oh, a pencil, yes. (slight pause) Here we are. (long pause, drawing) Well, that’s the diagram.
Basil Bunting’s sketch of “Briggflatts,” c. 1970
(Georgia Straight “Writing 6”)
WT:   Let’s see. That’s it? That is Briggflatts?
PQ:   Now these are what, musical movements?
WT:   A mountain range in Switzerland.
BB:   The notion of the diagram is this, roughly. Mountain range in Switzerland, yes. You have a poem. You’re going to have five parts because it’s got to be an uneven number. So that the central one should be the one apex, there. But what is new, the only new thing that I knew of in, in doing it, was that instead of having one climax in the other parts you have two. In the others the first climax is the greater and it trails off . . .
BB:   Once I had got the thing clear in my head as a diagram, I simply set to work and wrote it, writing when I could, three lines in the train on the way to work, three lines on the way home from work, Saturday mornings when there was not much to do, because there’s no stock exchange on Saturday morning, I’d get perhaps ten or fifteen lines written—and always the cutting out and the buggering about and the rewriting and so on.
      One little notebook, two little notebooks, completely full both sides of each page, with the cuttings out and so forth, And I reckon roughly twenty thousand words, twenty thousand lines I mean, to get my seven hundred . . .
The renowned bull of the opening lines (“Brag, sweet tenor bull, descant on Rawthey’s madrigal . . .”) arriving late:
BB:   . . . the bull I noticed one day in a farm near Throckley where I was living at the moment; and, you know, it struck me, at once, nobody had noticed the bull has a tenor voice. You hear of the bull bellowing and this, that, and the other. But in fact he bellows in the most melodious tenor, a beautiful tenor voice, quite different from the rather raucous contralto of the cow. And, in the spring, the bull does in fact, if he’s with the cows, dance, on the tips of his toes, and part of the business of showing off, showing that he is protecting them, you see. He’s not really doing anything, but he sees somebody walking by the hedge and he begins to dance at once, just to demonstrate what an indispensable creature he is. It is delightful, and it bears such a, a strong resemblance to the behaviour of young men in general and . . . well . . . all creatures. That came . . . it was there in my notebooks, but it had nothing to do with Briggflatts until a fairly late stage of the construction of the poem, when I actually began to write things down . . .

“The outline or contour of those hills he then set onto a musical graph, and where the notes fell, he played them.” Seeing music, reading signs, however ungainly, in the salvageable fields of the physical world. Recalling: Ezra Pound’s seeing, at the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, the birds perched on the stave of running fence wires as arrays of musical notes.

Richard Sieburth, after quoting Olson’s 1950 “Projective Verse” (“It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had . . .”), puts it thus (The Pisan Cantos):
And so it is in the opening movement of the Pisans, for having briefly reached the summit of Mount Purgatory by the end of Canto 74, Pound’s poem leaves the domain of verbal signs altogether to move into pure musical notation: Canto 75 simply prints the score of Janequin’s Renaissance motet, “The Song of the Birds”—their paradisal jazz fully visible to the eye in the alighting of notes on the stave. Perched on the fence wires of the DTC, these songbirds return in various permutations throughout the Pisans, carefully calibrated by the typewriter.
Sieburth points to some examples. Out of Canto 79:
                                                  with 8 birds on a wire
                or rather on 3 wires
                                                      what matters is
to get it across e poi basta
                  5 of ’em now on 2;
                  on 3; 7 on 4
                                thus what’s his name
             and the change in writing the song books
                  5 on 3     aulentissima rosa fresca
Out of Canto 82:
                      8th day of September
                          f       f
                                                    write the birds in their treble scale . . .

Ezra Pound’s Canto 75, with Clément Janequin’s Le chant des oiseaux

The Hilliard Ensemble, “Le chant des oiseaux (Clément Janequin, c. 1485–1558)”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Notebook (Mary Ruefle, Vladimir Nabokov, &c.)

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

My reading of late: dilatory, aimless, perfunctory, sparse. Sleep-invaded, doubt-racked, finicky. Disorderly. Mary Ruefle, out of “Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World” (Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures):
Once this thought crossed my mind: every time an author dies, out of respect a word should also pass out of being. A word the author loved and used repeatedly in writing—that word should be his and die with him. Nabokov: quiddity. But who should decide? The one who passes or the one who is left bereft? And who is the real widow? It is language herself, and her decision is clear: she does not want one of her children to throw herself into the grave pit of an old man. Quiddity: the essence of a thing; also, a trifling point, a trivial, inessential thing.

Vladimir Nabokov, out of commentary to Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (under the word “romanticism”—in Pushkin’s lines “Thus did he write, ‘obscurely / and limply’ (what we call romanticism— / though no romanticism at all / do I see here . . .)”):
      As happens in zoological nomenclature when a string of obsolete, synonymous, or misapplied names keeps following the correct designation of a creature throughout the years, and not only cannot be shaken off, or ignored, or obliterated within brackets, but actually grows on with time, so in literary history the vague terms “classicism,” “sentimentalism,” “romanticism,” “realism,” and the like straggle on and on, from textbook to textbook. There are teachers and students with square minds who are by nature meant to undergo the fascination of categories. For them, “schools” and “movements” are everything; by painting a group symbol on the brow of mediocrity, they condone their own incomprehension of true genius.
      I cannot think of any masterpiece the appreciation of which would be enhanced in any degree or manner by the knowledge that it belonged to this or that school; and conversely, I could name any number of third-rate works that are kept artificially alive for centuries through their being assigned by the schoolman to this or that “movement” in the past.
      These concepts are harmful chiefly because they distract the student from direct contact with, and direct delight in, the quiddity of individual artistic achievement (which, after all, alone matters and alone survives); but, moreover, each of them is subject to such a variety of interpretation as to become meaningless in its own field, that of the classification of knowledge. Since, however, these terms exist and keep banging against every cobble over which their tagged victims keep trying to escape the gross identification, we are forced to reckon with them.

In a spooky sun-shaft of sudden memory: talking with K. (circa 1985) about Nabokov’s use of the word “quiddity.” Reading aloud to each other in the Wyckoff cellar, surrounded by disjecta—homemade chutney jars, Go stones, stray volumes of Johnson’s Encyclopedia, empty fuse boxes:
      Biarritz still retained its quiddity in those days. Dusty blackberry bushes and weedy terrains à vendre bordered the road that led to our villa. The Carlton was still being built. Some thirty-six years had to elapse before Brigadier General Samuel McCroskey would occupy the royal suite of the Hôtel du Palais, which stands on the site of a former palace, where in the sixties, that incredibly agile medium, Daniel Home, is said to have been caught stroking with his bare foot (in imitation of a ghost hand) the kind, trustful face of Empress Eugénie. On the promenade near the Casino, an elderly flower girl, with carbon eyebrows and a painted smile, nimbly slipped the plump torus of a carnation into the buttonhole of an intercepted stroller whose left jowl accentuated its royal fold as he glanced down sideways at the coy insertion of the flower . . .

Reading is hazardous . . .

Hazardous even to the initiated: Recently I was reading the notebooks of the Greek poet George Seferis (1900-1971). I was also reading, for the first and last time in my life, my own private journals, which I began writing when I was sixteen and ceased to write when I was forty. As is my habit, I was copying selected passages from the Seferis into a notebook. Later that evening I began reading a journal I kept twenty years ago. In it, I was reading the notebooks of the poet George Seferis (1900-1971) and had copied into the journal by hand my favorite passage, which was identical with the passage I had copied earlier in the day, believing completely that I had never encountered it before: But to say what you want to say you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, and with what you will never find again.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Harriet in Costume†

Harriet Monroe dressed in costume for the Streets of Paris performance at the Coliseum, c. 1906

Gael Turnbull, an anecdote, circa 1990, out of “What Is Poetry ‘About’?”—a previously unpublished piece found in More Words—Gael Turnbull on Poets & Poetry (Shearsman / Mariscat, 2012):
I was approached by a well established but not large-circulation magazine, asking for a contribution within specified limits on ‘The State of Poetry’. Quotations were appended from various poets, mostly contemporary and by no means all published by Faber & Faber.
      After some thought and inability to generalize on the extraordinary volume and variety of poems being currently written and published and even read, I decided to take the words at their other primary meaning as “The State”, through its various powerful agencies: the Educational System, the Universities, the various Arts Councils, the British Council, even in its now perhaps diminishing role, the BBC.
      I wrote on the theme of “who pays the piper plays the tune” and questioned whether the State had ever before so powerfully subsidized and controlled the production and publications of poetry, and wondered “to what end?”
      Perhaps needless to say, my contribution was not printed. In fact, I did not even get it returned or the courtesy of a note to explain why. Was it that it was not sufficiently well written? That judgment I could accept. That it was not relevant? That might be argued, but was fair opinion. Or did they exclude it simply because they disagreed?

“Various powerful agencies.” Last week, under the (pre-provided, no haphazardry or measurelessness here) rubric of “I have a Harriet news tip!” (I love the exclamatory breathlessness of that canned subject line, drumming up a manufactory of fervor: think of being on the receiving end of such a battery of the inauthentic . . .), I wrote* to the Poetry Foundation, purveyors, through “Harriet,” of what (rather sardonically, perhaps) is labeled “News & Community.” I put it simply:
In the new Chicago Review, Kent Johnson reviews Marjorie Perloff’s “Avant-Garde Poetics” entry in the new fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
Provided a pointer. (See Kenneth Goldsmith: “The new creativity is pointing, not making.”) Upshot? Nothing. The curious community-divesting ploy of feigned deafness propping up witless denial. “Or did they exclude it simply because they disagreed?” One rule of “The State of Poetry” is simply to maintain itself (somewhere in the unassailable “beyond”). “Not . . . the courtesy of a note . . .”

A measure of how accustomed “we” now are to kowtowing to “The State of Poetry” (its plenipotentiaries now likely to adhere to vaguely oppositional positions, belaureled in the moribundia). Out of Andrew Peart’s excellent review of the 2011 Dworkin / Goldsmith asset grab Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing:
      The paradox of conceptual writing is that its radical break with supposedly retrograde literary institutions needs authorization—not antagonism—from those institutions before it can become visible as literary practice in the first place. Against Expression contains evidence everywhere of its roots in the academy. It is no secret that Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein have played a significant role in nurturing the reception of conceptual writing within the academy. Even so, the size of their presence in and around Against Expression is remarkable. Perloff is one of the volume’s dedicatees, and one of the general editors of the series in which the book appears, Northwestern University’s Avant-Garde and Modernism Collection. Meanwhile, Bernstein is one of only three core Language poets who appear in the anthology (Steve McCaffery and Ron Silliman are the other two); at twenty-five pages, his work ties Goldsmith’s for the largest portfolio in the volume. Bernstein’s name also opens the book jacket copy. Conceptual writing has come to name an insider’s game among writers officially sanctioned by—and marketed by—prominent poetry critics . . .

Pointing, then, where the Harriet lackeys refuse to point, pretending a frankness and eclecticism they do not inhabitv (in spite of the parti-colored motley of their billowing “garb”). Out of the Johnson review:
      As the saying goes, “poetry is fifty years behind art,” and in terms of a presently near-complete recuperation into sanctioned activity, it did take approximately that long for American poetry’s vanguard elements to catch up.** Indeed, one can safely say that not since the era of the New Criticism has a poetic constellation—ex-Language writing, its “post-avant” offshoots, and hybrid satellites—found itself so solidly and successfully ensconced within the upper echelons of Academia. Its Ivy League-led coalition (Penn our new Kenyon) has “arrived” to the station of a loyal reform wing in the Official Verse Parliament, still trumpeting, if much more faintly now, its oppositional genealogy. Even the White House approves. We’ve traveled a long way and with great velocity from the proud, insurgent days of the New American Poetry, and it’s time to simply say it: the “avant-garde” is now utterly at College—poetry’s Museum—and with all the perks.
* Scuttlebutt’s got it that there were others who, too, wrote with news, pointing out both the pertinence and the verve of the Johnson piece.

** Johnson’s footnote:
In the case of the Conceptual Poetry formation (which Perloff industriously champions), the desire to be legitimated by dominant institutions is bluntly up front. The desire has been amply and variously requited. In January of this year, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC named Kenneth Goldsmith its first ever “Poet Laureate.” Goldsmith quickly announced a series of “guerrilla readings” at the museum, in which writers such as Charles Bernstein and Rick Moody are signed up as apparently subversive participants. Goldsmith’s appointment is scheduled to be officially launched on March 20 with a keynote address by him titled: “My Career in Poetry, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution.”

† An hour or so after my post, Harriet, apparently noticing the inadequacy of garb, covered up. See here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Notebook (Guy Davenport, Ronald Johnson, &c.)

William Styron and William Blackburn, c. 1952

A couple of stray notes, somewhat aimlessly arrived at, (and impeccably wrought). In an 18 October 1947 letter to Duke professor William Blackburn, William Styron writes of Guy Davenport’s* never printed “first novel” Effie Garner:
      Before I left Whittlesey House** I asked Diarmuid Russell to let me be the first to read Guy Davenport’s novel. The other day it came in and Dorothy Parker,*** one of the editors and a friend of mine, let me have it to read. I stayed up for seven hours last night reading it, and I think it’s an overwhelming, sorrowful, beautiful job of writing and I frankly went to bed at 5:00 in the morning disturbed, shaken, and humble in the light of its unmistakable signs of true, burgeoning genius. It is certainly not a great novel—there is much about it that is immature—but I am so convinced of its youthful truth and passion and genuine loveliness that I can only look upon Guy Davenport with the greatest awe and respect. If Guy doesn’t become, within the next decade or so, one of America’s best writers, then my faith in whatever grim and fickle god who so capriciously guides the destines of sad, golden men—men like Guy Davenport—I will be shattered forever. Such poetry, such beauty!
With added effusions re: Effie Garner ending with: “The astute publisher and editor . . . would accept it per se—with all of its faults—just to get their hands on such a promising talent.” (Later, Styron writes of another editor’s opinion of the book: “in effect, that he had never seen so promising a talent wasted in such a dubious, avant-garde style.” Curious if the manuscript of Effie Garner still exists. No sense, in Davenport’s statements,**** of fiction composed prior to what appears in Tatlin! (1974).
* Styron and Davenport (and No Time for Sergeants-author Mac Hyman) were writing students together under Blackburn. Of Blackburn Davenport wrote (reviewing Hyman’s letters): “His classes made one hungry to learn and his patient, unfoolable and (just beneath the genial and avuncular jollying on) stern guiding of young writers into an art form more difficult than most of them suspected gave the world . . .” (Davenport thence proceeding to list Styron and several others).

** Whittlesey House, where Styron worked (“I am what is euphemistically known as an editor”) was an imprint of McGraw-Hill.

*** Not the Dorothy Parker of the “Constant Reader” column in The New Yorker (“And it is that word ‘hummy’, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”) Dorothy “Didi” Parker, later Dorothy Parker Maloff, a colleague at Whittlesey House.

**** See, in the 1996 Fifty Drawings:
It was my intention, when I began writing fiction several years ago, to construct texts that were both written and drawn . . . In my first work of fiction, Tatlin (1974) I drew careful replicas of works by Vladimir Tatlin that exist only as poor reproductions. These were meant to be as much a part of the story as my narrative and required more time to do than the writing. No critic has commented on them, as seeing and reading are now alienated.

Out of a document called “Edinburgh, May 1963” collected in the Jill Turnbull and Hamish Whyte-edited More Words: Gael Turnbull on Poets and Poetry (Shearsman / Mariscat, 2012)—Turnbull recalling a visit to Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jessie McGuffie in Edinburgh (“24 Fettes Row. Last house in a row of Victorian buildings. Up two flights of broad stone staris, well worn. Dark, damp, like a mine shaft. A little slip of paper on the door. Wild Hawthorn Press. Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.”)—a lovely glimpse of Ronald Johnson and Jonathan Williams:
Earlier, Jessie* had asked about “wee Ronald” who had visited them. “I was fair taken with him. He gave us some super poems.” This was Ronald Johnson, at that time Jonathan Williams’s companion, and she occasionally mentioned him later, always “wee Ronald.” It must have been his quietness and gentleness. I tell her how much, in fact, he hadn’t liked Britain generally, and was glad to get back to America. She wonders if this was all the walking. “Aye, Jonathan does like to walk so. We got postcards from him, from the Lakes.”
      Then I confess how wrong I had been, on my earlier visit, about Coronado, when I had corrected something in one of Ronald’s’ poems , that Coronado had reached as far north as Kansas.** Ian and Jessie laugh in glee. “Aye, you were that!” Because I had been so “superior” when I had corrected it . . .
* Jessie McGuffie:
In a silk almost sheath dress, a little unfashionably short, showing boyish knees. Her hair over her forehead and down her cheeks so that she almost seems to hide behind it. A gentle face, looks barely 15 at times, a few freckles. Is almost deaf in one ear so that walking down the street she’d have to change sides, in an apologetic animal sort of way, in order to hear. Says things are “super” (the ultimate adjective) and “posh” (anything expensive or fancy). Ian also. Both use Scots words all the time. Ian “I was fair scunner’t.” And Jessie asking me if I’d like a “peece” so that it took me a moment to remember, my grandmother, “a jeely-piece” (a slice of bread and butter with jam on)> Their ultimate disparagement of anyone: “a twit.”
Scunner: intr. “To feel reluctance (to do something), to hesitate, to feel disgust or revulsion or discouragement.”

** See lines of Johnson’s “Quivera” (out of the 1964 A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees), of Coronado turning south “the Smoky Hills . . . visible north across a stream”:
A tornado against the sky
like buffalo

who were bearded as

with the hump of a camel, the mane
of a lion

& who carried
their tails erect as they ran,

like any European

O Coronado, all country
is round to

those who lose sight of the

          Canceas, Cansez, Kansies, Konza: the Indian word

          meaning smoky,

                                        from an atmospheric condition

          in the fall of the year, called

Indian Summer:

smoke in the air,

in Quivira.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Notebook (Ad Reinhardt, Robert Lax, &c.)

Ad Reinhardt, 1913-1967

Dithering in the inchoates, the usual Friday tenor. Akin to relief (tempered by laziness, bucked up by incipience). One thinks a fierce solitary spell is in the offing, pure thinking. (Never the case.) Read Susan Howe’s early essay “The End of Art” (1974)—Ad Reinhardt, Robert Lax, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Longings for classical purity. Quotes, with a few tiny inaccuracies, lines out of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s 1963 letter to French poet Pierre Garnier:
I should say—however hard I would find it to justify this in theory—that ‘concrete’ by its very limitations offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity; it is very far from the now-fashionable poetry of anguish and doubt. . . . It is a model, of order, even if set in a space which is full of doubt.
To proceed contra man’s onerous capability of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”: that’s one way to read that. Earlier in the letter, Finlay writes:
I approve of Malevich’s statement, ‘Man distinguished himself as a thinking being and removed himself from the perfection of God’s creation. Having left the non-thinking state, he strives by means of his perfected objects, to be again embodied in the perfection of absolute, non-thinking life . . .’ That is, this seems to me, to describe, approximately, my own need to make poems . . . though I don’t know what is meant by ‘God.’
To reach a perfect dumb adequacy, a God-placid stasis: that’s one way to read that. Ad Reinhardt, out of “Art-as-Art,” a 1962 statement reprinted (it, too, with variants, here corrected) in the initial issue of Thomas Merton’s Monks Pond:
      The one work for a fine artist, the one painting, is the painting of the one-size canvas—the single scheme, one formal device, one color-monochrome, one linear division in each direction, one symmetry, one texture, one free-hand-brushing, one rhythm, one working everything into one dissolution and one indivisibility, each painting into one overall uniformity and non-irregularity. No lines or imaginings, no shapes or composings or representings, no visions or sensations or impulses, no symbols or signs or impastos, no decoratings or colorings or picturings, no pleasures or pains, no accidents or ready-mades, no things, no ideas, no relations, no attributes, no qualities—nothing that is not of the essence. Everything into irreducibility, unreproducibility, imperceptibility. Nothing “usable,” “manipulatable,” “salable,” “dealable,” “collectible,” “graspable.” No art as a commodity or a jobbery. Art is not the spiritual side of business.
Thus an untitled 1967 work by Robert Lax, in homage to Ad Reinhardt, Lax’s (and Merton’s) longstanding friend:



Eschewing, somewhat, Reinhardt’s insistent monochromy. Howe quotes Lax out of a 1975 letter, formally mimicking its own content:
i like white space &
i like to see a verticle
column centered
sometimes verticality helps in
another way

image follows image
as frame follows frame
on a film

verticality helps the
poet withold his
image until
(through earlier
images) the
mind is prepared
for it.
Some of Lax’s work pre-dates Reinhardt’s “single scheme, one formal device” pronunciamiento. See the 1961 (printed in 1964):



Out of a 1963 letter (one of countless Merton and Lax exchanged—most full of Joycean Finnegansesqueries—collected in When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax). Merton is referring to the printing of Lax’s book, possibly Black & White (a long poem that appeared in 1966 in the Lugano Review). Merton:
Like they can’t take two picas of black white black white and leave the rest. Its got to be all or nothing and by all I mean the whole book, the whole book is one poem, and I think it is to modern poetry as is Ad Reinhardt the Sufi to modern painting. It is just like Ad Reinhardt and Ad Reinhardt is just like it, and the book is so good that the typewriter ribbon gets darker with enthusiasm. You are right about small black poems and not resigning from the race (who has to? who bothers to resign?)*
      Let us for the moment set the reader of your book who will not play all or nothing and will not attend to every bit of black white etc. For him there is no nothing, there is nothing there, set him aside, resign from his race, stop the train and let him off. And keep on with the black white, every pica is necessary. It is good sometimes that the bird wants to fly over the valley, but the constant black white that is like Reinhardt, and underneath this book is the real poem which is not to be spoken, the guys who do not go all the way to the real poem better stop the train and get off, and they already have, they were never on the train in the first place.
      If anybody comes up to you and say what does it mean what is it for black white stop the train and drop him off or remind him he is not on the train. These poems are the only ones really easy to understand that have ever been written, and other poems that seem easy are a big fraud, taking away the customer’s money for an illusion, whereas your poems are very easy to understand they mean exactly what they say, black white, blackblackblack, etc, what is simpler than that, what the idiots want anyway, you should draw them a damn blueprint of blackblackblack? Already you see the mystifications involved in such a program my dear Buster. You are the only poet today who is not imposing in the public a very great hoax. However the great question of the public that pays only for a good hoax and nothing else, this I leave to other considerations at another time and by somebody other than myself.
(Merton’s percipience—“the public that pays only for a good hoax and nothing else”—still too obviously pertinent today.) Howe quotes a “note in Ad Reinhardt’s daybook”: “How needful it is to enter into the darkness and to admit the coincidence of opposites, to seek the truth where impossibility meets us.” Nicholas of Cusa, sounding rather Keatsian. Endless wobble between clarity (the longing of Reinhardt’s black paintings) and the endless penetralium, its itchy languor, its irrevocable summons.
* Lax had written (2 November 1963):
. . . i am delighted with the following news: that you are in favor of small black poems, small black calligraphies, small black musical compositions and immobile small black dances.
      i, too, am in favor of all of these, and have of recent months become so generally small & black myself that it is useless for me to apply for abrogation from the whites. how come you want to get out of the race (they would snigger) you was never in it. you was never in it. you’re not so white yourself (is all i could ever reply) you’re not so white yourself, you red baboons.
Formal purity in monochromy thus sundered: to repeat “black / black / black / black” in 1963 in the United States hardly a means to reach “imperceptibility.”

Ad Reinhardt, “Abstract Painting No. 5,” 1962

Thursday, March 14, 2013


William Merritt Chase, “Brooklyn Navy Yard,” 1887

                                                            Three-fourths of the houses in this city are on narrow stilts, finer than a girl’s wrists: it is largely a question of keeping one’s feet dry, and of privacy. In the morning you forget what the punishment was. Probably it was something like eating a pretzel or going into the back yard. Still, you can’t tell.

        —John Ashbery, out of “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox”
        (The Double Dream of Spring, 1970)

How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit The Divine
and the day is bright gray turning green
feminine marvelous and tough
watching the sun come up over the Navy Yard
to write scotch-tape body in a notebook
had 17 and 1/2 milligrams
Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.

        —Ted Berrigan, out of “II” (The Sonnets, 1964)

The sun boomed calmly
in the wind around
the monument. Texans
and Australians climbed
to the top to look
at Beacon Hill and
the Common. Later we
walked round the base
of the hill to the Navy
Yard, and the black
and white twigs stuck
in the sky above the old
hull . . .

        —Frank O’Hara, out of “A Walk on Sunday Afternoon”
        (The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, 1971)

                                    The turning of the globe is not so real to us
As the seasons turning and the days that rise out of early gray
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down
The slopes of our lives where the emotions and needs sprout. “I
Need you,” tree, that dominates this yard, thick-waisted, tall
And crook branched. Its bark scales off like that which we forget:
Pain, an introduction at a party, what precisely happened umpteen
Years or days or hours ago. And that same blue jay returns, or perhaps
It is another . . .

        —James Schuyler, out of “Hymn to Life” (Hymn to Life, 1974)

to build a temple there
without floor, roof candle bed
mind into window

spit image, means to some end
in echelon ion
where ladder = knuckle

why knot thus: so as
upon a time once phoenix in fact
halcyon elude hatchet

“in this yard
—you could break your neck
looking at a star”

        —Ronald Johnson, out of “ARK 70, Arches IV” (ARK, 1996)

                        I was painting the
                        Whooping Crane, the
                        when the news came

Air Minister
Sir Bird-White

yard-long stride

and out

. . .

        —Lorine Niedecker, out of “Churchill’s Death” (Collected Works, 2002)

One of my (Landowska’s) compatriots
Raposki of Cracow . .
Brought from the Low Countries
(Breughel’s spaces)
On a wagon drawn by eight mules
A counter-bass more than
Eight yards tall . . to reach its neck
Fitted . . a ladder . . (on a platform)
Many arms drew the huge bow.

        —Louis Zukofsky, out of “A”-23 (“A” 13-21, 1969)

Solitary at midnight in my back yard, my thoughts gone from me a long while,
Walking the old hills of Judea, with the beautiful gentle god by my side,
Speeding through space . . . . speeding through heaven and the stars,
Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring and the diameter of eighty
      thousand miles,
Speeding with tailed meteors . . . . throwing fire-balls like the rest . . .

        —Walt Whitman, out of “Song of Myself” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Some of these star fires must surely be ash by now.
I dawdle outside in my back yard,
Humming old songs that no one cares about anymore.
The hat of darkness tilts the night sky
Inch by inch, foot by black foot,
                                                            over the Blue Ridge.
How bright the fire of the world was, I think to myself,
Before white hair and the ash of days.
I gaze at the constellations,
                                                    forgetting whatever it was I had to say.

        —Charles Wright, out of “North American Bear”
        (Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, 2000)

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent—
To wrap its shining Yards—
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear—
Without the sound of Boards
Or Rip of Nail Or Carpenter—
But just the miles of Stare—
That signalize a Show’s Retreat—
In North America—

        —Emily Dickinson, out of “#243” (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1960)

A sheet of shale chips
loose on my porch stoop
and its three hundred

million years, disrupted,
rise like plain ice-air
around me, thinning

the present time:
I spin the sheet
sheer in a long arc

to the yard’s shrub bank:
the grain splinters and,

sinks toward the foundation
of its next three
hundred million years.

        —A. R. Ammons, “Loft” (Sumerian Vistas, 1987)

Our hands turn to molluscs, we swap boxes of unopened hunger for hooks and a common play in football. Number 48 ties a fly on the 9 yard line, saving the game, the big game, “a safari and gin, thanks.” Somewhere a rhino is panhandling through Nebraska.

        —John Latta, out of “Fragging” (Rubbing Torsos, 1979)

All this with many mulctings of the man,
Effective colonizer sharply stopped
In the door-yard by his own capacious bloom.
But that this bloom grown riper, showing nibs
Of its eventual roundness, puerile tints
Of spiced and weathery rouges, should complex
The stopper to indulgent fatalist
Was unforeseen.

        —Wallace Stevens, out of “The Comedian as the Letter C”
       (The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)

Father came in wearing his Dick Tracy necktie: “How about a drink everyone?”
I said, “Let’s go outside a while.” Then we went onto the porch and sat on the Abraham
      Lincoln swing.
You sat on the eyes, mouth, and beard part, and I sat on the knees.
In the yard across the street we saw a snowman holding a garbage can lid smashed into
      a likeness of the mad English king, George the Third.

        —Kenneth Koch, out of “You Were Wearing” (Thank You and Other Poems, 1962)

The trouble with you is
That sitting on a bench in the back yard
You see an old plank in the fence become
A jeweled honeycomb of golden wires
Discoursing music, etc.

        —Philip Whalen, out of “Denunciation, or, Unfrock’d Again”
        (The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, 2007)

Many shapes of wings
on the sky and the table;
and large men carefully at dusk
lengthened by lights     watering their lawns

turn, paterfamilias

      and the sweet hay as I go
      from one leg to the other
more so than I might
mingled with barber’s tonic
from the morning’s shops
      of papers and bright rag
                  as if we could
                  take time out for life

and the afternoon’s seas,     like yards

        —Larry Eigner, “Environ s” (Waters / Places / A Time, 1983)

      No one knows so well what widening means. It means that yards are yards and so many of them are perfect. By that I mean I know.
      This is not so.
      I am not telling the story I am repeating what I have been reading.

        —Gertrude Stein, out of “If You Had Three Husbands” (Geography and Plays, 1922)

But the mole knoweth what is there, & the worm shall tell it thee.
Does not the worm erect a pillar in the mouldering church yard?
And a palace of eternity in the jaws of the hungry grave
Over his porch these words are written. Take thy bliss, O Man!

        —William Blake, out of “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”
        (The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 1982)

In 1860—long after Poe’s burial in an unmarked grave—Judge Neilson Poe ordered a marble slab, properly inscribed. “It was lying in the yard with other monuments ready for delivery when a train of the Northern Central Railroad accidentally jumped the track and, of all slabs, shattered Poe’s beyond repair.”

        —Paul Metcalf, out of Both (1982)

I bathe me anonymous.
I am unknown.
And in a rail-
road yard at dawn.

Biting a stick wondering
what it’s all about under
the orange tree gloom bridge.
Let’s count and
amount to everything we’re
not supposed to.

        —Joseph Ceravolo, out of “Pain Songs” (The Green Lake Is Awake, 1994)

Dew, sweat, grass-prickle, tantrums,

lemonade. One minute summer is all balm
and the next it’s boredom and fury,

the library closed, the back yard blandly

familiar. The horizonless summer
recedes with a whoosh on all sides

like air being sucked out of a house

by a tornado . . .

        —William Matthews, out of “Bad” (A Happy Childhood, 1984)

Monday: I heard Henry Miller lived in Santa Monica—information that later proved false—and that he frequented the park mornings despite failing strength necessitating a walker. It’s a busy park, long and narrow and subdued by the faint chatter of mockingbirds in shrubbery and droning planes as vague as the mountains in the distance. Many convalescents take the sun there, playing shuffleboard or gazing out to sea. I watched a bus slowly, surely tear off a WALK / DON’T WALK sign as it squeezed around a tight corner. No Henry, but as might be expected more than one man resembling his younger self from afar—his kind of hat, glasses. . . .

Tuesday: Arabic graffiti, predominant in the park, is a pleasant change for the eye, as are the remnant frame bungalows around LA, providing curious soft spots among the stucco. Their dry “Little Rascals” yards. The slight adrenalin rush at every glint of a distant wheelchair nearly made me give up my search. But it is honorable, a magpie told me, and after an hour strolling the length of the park I discreetly swept the crowded porch of a retirement hotel across Ocean Boulevard with my binoculars.

        —Merrill Gilfillan, out of “Red-Haired Boy” (River Through Rivertown, 1982)

Everything is fragmentary, even the life of vastest views. Huge nude bodies lie over the landscape in one version of all of this. Only I will have them do. Greased in their rolling they often eye me, their absent inventor. I would like to see them, I often tell myself, but never have it that I be them. Such a self-distance makes the space of fragments? Great scrolls of fucking notation lie around the yard. And why do I tell you to see the death in them there?

        —Clark Coolidge, out of The Book of During (1984)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Notebook (Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Merton, &c.)

Thomas Merton, 1915-1968
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

A morning’s inch or so of snow, abruptly accumulating. Recalling Philippe Soupault’s “Neige, neige reste en Norvège / Jusqu’à ce que j’apprenne le solfège.” (A couplet I routinely attempt to re-render, and routinely fail to do so . . .) Flaubert, out of the Francis Steegmuller-translated Intimate Notebook, 1840-1841:
      There is a rather stupid axiom which says that the word renders the thought—it would be more truthful to say that it distorts it. Do you ever utter a sentence just as you think it? Will you write a novel as you have conceived it?
      If sentences really rendered thoughts! —What effect would be produced on you by pictures if you saw them as a sequence of brush strokes? I could sing you vague, delightful tunes that I have in my head and make you feel the passions that I think of; I could tell you all my reveries and you will know nothing about them because there are no words to express them. Art is nothing but this strange translation of thought by form.

Out of Thomas Merton’s Journals, a note regarding Guy Davenport’s 17 January 1967 visit:
      Jonathan Williams, Guy Davenport and Gene Meatyard were here yesterday. Williams impressive but seemingly a little aloof, though friendly. All were friendly. Williams said all the poets sooner or later get into a fight with Cid Corman and he would be prepared to publish an anthology of “My last letter from Cid Corman” contributed by various—or all the—poets. Williams gets around and knows everybody and has marvelous books full of drawings and writings of all these people—and some excellent pictures in them. Guy Davenport—a recluse, vulnerable, pleasant and kind, touched no beer. The one who made the greatest impression on me as artist was Gene Meatyard, the photographer—does marvelous arresting visionary things, most haunting and suggestive, mythical, photography I ever saw. I felt that here was someone really going somewhere.
      For the rest Williams and Davenport were tired of young poets in Lexington and I read them bits of “Edifying Cables” which got nowhere—in the end we went and looked at the lake and they got cheese and went home. But I hope Gene Meatyard—and Guy—will come back.
Nothing about the “jiggers of bourbon.” In an 18 January 1967 letter to James Laughlin, Merton writes:
Jonathan was here yesterday and we had a good visit. With Guy Davenport, a poet, and with that fabulous photographer Gene Meatyard. I would like very much to try some of Gene’s picture as possibilities for covers of the paperbacks of mine you are doing. I am sure he’d have perfect things for both the books of this year—the Selected and the Desert Fathers (or whenever they are coming out).*

“Edifying Cables” eventually becomes the 1968 volume Cables to the Ace, or, Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding. Marked “for Robert Lax” and with a pertinent epigraph by Alain Robbe-Grillet: “La mise en question du monde dans lequel nous sommes ne peut se faire que par la forme et non par une anecdote vaguement sociale ou politique.” (Roughly, clumsily: “The putting into question of the world can only be done by means of form and not by vaguely social or political anecdotage.”) Merton’s “Prologue” therein reads:
You, Reader, need no prologue. Do you think these Horatian Odes are all about you? Far from the new wine to need a bundle. You are no bundle. Go advertise yourself.

Why not more pictures? Why not more rhythms, melody, etc.? All suitable questions to be answered some other time. The realm of spirit is two doors down the hall. There you can obtain more soul than you are ready to cope with, Buster.

The poet has not announced these mosaics on purpose. Furthermore he has changed his address and his poetics are on vacation.

He is not roaring in the old tunnel.

Go shake hands with the comics if you demand a preface.

My attitudes are common and my ironies are no less usual than the bright pages of your favorite magazine. The soaps, the smells, the liquors, the insurance, the third, dull, gin-soaked cheer: what more do you want, Rabble?

Go write your own prologue.

I am the incarnation of everybody and the zones of reassurance.

I am the obstetrician of good fortune. I live in the social cages of joy.

It is morning, afternoon or evening. Begin.

I too have slept here in my stolen Cadillac.

I too have understudied the Paradise swan.
Some of the quasi-vituperatory sass of William Carlos Williams? Early in the book, another formal prod and acknowledgment: “Since language has become a medium in which we are totally immersed, there is no longer any need to say anything. The saying says itself all around us. No one need attend. Listening is obsolete. So is silence. Each one travels alone in a small blue capsule of indignation. (Some of the better informed have declared war on language.)” (Writing to Jacques Maritain, 29 October 1966, Merton reports: “The ‘Edifying Cables’ are finished and constitute a solemn anti-language which people will not know what to do with, but it does not matter.” To Cid Corman (5 September 1966): “Maybe you will feel it does not communicate: it is imprecise, noisy, crude, full of vulgarity and parody, making faces, criticizing and so on . . .” And to Robert Lax (4 November 1966), with doubt and good humor:
      The edifying cables are sheer exhausted. I have no further opinions except that I added million cables each more edifying than the next. It is now so many cables I make the Verazzano bridge look like a merry go round. And after all that is what it is: nothing but a mere suspension, a question mark, a hanging in mid air between true and false, between the Island of Staten and the Island of Coney, an everlasting pons asinorum for the Brooklyns and the Newarks. So too are the edifying cables, the pons asinorum of my Thomas Mann epoch, which is finish. I dunno about them cables, but I guess it is enough for a bad book. You are right about the sulphur. I am the sulphur mechanic of the alchemy club . . .
Some pointers in the barrage of the “cables”:
The perfect act is empty. Who can see it? He who forgets form. Out of the formed, the unformed, the empty act proceeds with its own form. Perfect form is momentary. Its perfection vanishes at once. Perfection and emptiness work together, for they are the same: the coincidence of momentary form and eternal nothingness. Form: the flash of nothingness. Forget form, and it suddenly appears, ringed and reverberating with its own light, which is nothing. Well, then: stop seeking. Let it all happen. Let it come and go. What? Everything: i.e., nothing.
And a line of Meister Eckhart: “No man can see God except he be blind, nor know him except through ignorance, nor understand him except through folly.” A kind of via negativa. (Recalling, imprecisely, A. R. Ammons’s “. . . you don’t want the poem to amount to no more than what you already knew when you began to write. Whatever kind of instrument it may be, it must be one capable of churning up what you didn’t already know.” Or maybe it’s Jack Spicer’s “An unvert chooses to have no place to turn.” That unfettered concept of the poet refusing to reconnoitre the primal surge, its dumb welling up.)
* Out of the 1997 Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters. The editor, in a footnote, errs in identifying “Jonathan”—pointing to Gnomon Press editor (and Monks Pond contributor) Jonathan Greene in lieu of Williams.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Guy Davenport’s Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Guy Davenport,” c. 1960-69

Cold’s regained its foothold. Little reading. Failed to commit myself to Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva (New Directions, 2012), its unconvincing manic strain attempting to pierce the very integuments of thinking (“a prose Jorie Graham”), its eventual stutter into complacency, the usual bromides. Thus:
In writing I can’t manufacture something as in painting, when I use my craft to mix a color. But I’m trying to write to you with my whole body, loosing an arrow that will sink into the tender and neuralgic centre of the word. My secret body tells you: dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs, meaning nothing but their sound, though this doesn’t dry them out like straw but moistens them instead. I don’t paint ideas, I paint the unattainable “forever.” Or “for never,” it amounts to the same. More than anything else, I paint painting. And more than anything else, I write you hard writing. I want to grab the word in my hand. Is the word an object? And from the instants I extract the juice of their fruits. I must deprive myself to reach the core and seed of life. The instant is living seed.

The secret harmony of disharmony: I don’t want something already made but something still being tortuously made. My unbalanced words are the wealth of my silence. I write in acrobatics and pirouettes in the air—I write because I so deeply want to speak. Though writing only gives me the full measure of silence.
No patience for repetitious feints at the unutterable. Turned to Guy Davenport’s memoir (titled “Tom and Gene,” out of 1996 book of essays, The Hunter Gracchus) of visiting—in the company of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (“a lapsed Methodist”) and Jonathan Williams (“a very lapsed Episcopalian”)—Thomas Merton, “at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky” (“He made drawings for us by dipping weeds in ink and slapping them onto a sheet of typing paper. He drew a horse, very Zen in its strokes . . . [He] served us goat cheese made at the abbey, packets of salted peanuts, and jiggers of bourbon.”) Of Meatyard’s photography:
Gene had no studio, never directed his subjects, and usually looked away as if uninterested before he triggered the shutter. I have spent several days being photographed by Gene and never knew when he was photographing. We kept a conversation going, usually an exchange of anecdotes. I knew, however, where Gene’s eyes were: they were on light, on shadows. A Meatyard photograph is always primarily an intricate symmetry of light and shadow. He liked deep shadows of considerable weight, and he liked light that was decisive and clean.
      He liked resistant structures. Many of Gene’s photographs are of buildings, especially interiors, in the process of demolition, or of buildings holding up under time. Time itself may have been his ultimate subject—what it does to people and the world . . .
And, out of Davenport’s earlier essay “Ralph Eugene Meatyard” (The Geography of the Imagination):
I remember thinking that here was a photographer who might illustrate the ghost stories of Henry James, a photographer who got many of his best effects by introducing exactly the right touch of the unusual into an authentically banal American usualness. So much of Gene’s work requires the deeper attention which shows you that in a quite handsome picture of lawns and trees there are bricks floating in the air (they have been tied to branches to make them grow level; you cannot see the wires).
      Light as it falls from the sun onto our random world defines everything perceptible to the eye by constant accident, relentlessly changing. A splendid spot of light on a fence is gone in a matter of seconds. A tone of light is frailer in essence than a whiff of roses. I have watched Gene all of a day wandering around in the ruined Whitehall photographing as diligently as if he were a newsreel cameraman in a battle. The old house was as quiet and still as eternity itself; to Gene it was as ephemeral in its shift of light and shade as a fitful moth.
      He developed his film only once a year; he didn’t want to be tyrannized by impatience . . .
He liked to say he photographed essence, not fact. Gene read Zukofsky before he photographed him; Zukofsky’s layered text turns up as double exposures in the portraits, as oblique tilts of the head, as blurred outlines. The “innocent eye” of Monet and Wallace Stevens was not for Gene: he needed to know all he could about his subjects . . .
Essence (unachieved): Meatyard intended to make photographs to illustrate Williams’s Paterson—“I’ll do the photographs here, in Lexington”—homage and commentary by means of “parallel creation.”

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “[Guy Davenport and Unidentified Woman in Darkened Room, Looking Through Doorway],” 1966

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “[Guy Davenport and Unidentified Woman in Doorway with Stretched Animal Carcass on Wall],” 1966

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Louis Zukofsky,” c. 1960

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Jonathan Williams (With Poet’s Thyrsus Carved by Skip Taylor),” c. 1966

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “[Thomas Merton Playing Bongos],” 1968

Jonathan Williams, “Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” 1964
(Davenport: “Gene hated television and the movies, color photography (‘just some chemicals in the emulsion, nothing to do with photography’), and especially color slides of paintings.”)